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A Little Bush Maid by Mary Grant Bruce

Part 2 out of 4

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"The wind had been pretty high all the time, and it got up suddenly to a
regular gale. It caught this old tree and fairly whisked its burning
limbs off. They flew ever so far. We thought we had them all out, when
suddenly Dad gave a yell.

"There was a little, deep gully running at right angles to the creek,
and right through the paddocks up to the house. In winter it was a
creek, but now it was dry as a bone, and rank with dead grass at the
bottom. As we looked we saw smoke rise from this gully, far away, in the
home paddock.

"'My Shropshires!' said Dad, and he made a run for Bosun.

"How we did tear! I never thought old Dad could run so hard! It seemed
miles to the corner where the horses were, and ages before we got on
them and were racing for the home paddock. And all the time the smoke
was creeping along that beastly gully, and we knew well enough that,
tear as we might, we couldn't be in time.

"You see, the valuable sheep were in a paddock, where this gully ended.
It wasn't very near the house, and no one might see the fire before
every sheep was roasted. We had only just got them. Dad had imported
some from England and some from Tasmania, and I don't know how much they
hadn't cost."

"Weren't you afraid for the house as well?" asked Harry.

"No. There was a big ploughed paddock near the house; it would have
taken a tremendous fire to get over that and the orchard and garden. We
only worried about the Shropshires.

"I got the lead away, but Dad caught me up pretty soon. Between us and
the sheep paddock there were only wire fences, which he wouldn't take
Bosun over, so he couldn't race away from the rest of us this time.

"We might as well take it easy,' he said, 'for all the good we can do.
The sheep nearly live in that gully.'

"All the same, we raced. The wind had gone down by now, so the fire
couldn't travel as fast as it had done in the open ground. There was a
long slope leading down to the gully, and as we got to this we could see
the whole of the little paddock, and there wasn't a sheep in sight.
Every blessed one was in the gully, and the fire was three-parts of the
way along it!

"Roast mutton!' I heard Dad say under his breath.

"Then we saw Norah. She came racing on Bobs to the fence of the paddock
near the head of the gully--much nearer the fire than we were. We saw
her look at the fire and into the gully, and I reckon we all knew she
was fighting with her promise to Dad about not tackling the fire. But
she saw the sheep before we could. They had run from the smoke along the
gully till they came to the head of it, where it ended with pretty steep
banks all round. By that time they were thoroughly dazed, and there they
would have stayed until they were roasted. Sheep are stupid brutes at
any time, but in smoke they're just idiots!

"Norah gave only one look. Then she slipped off Bobs and left him to
look after himself, and she tore down into the gully."

"Oh, Jim, go on!" said Wally.

"I'm going," said Jim affably.

"Dad gave one shout as Norah disappeared into the gully. 'Go back, my
darling!' he yelled, forgetting that he was so far off that he might as
well have shouted to the moon. Then he gave a groan, and dug his spurs
into Bosun. I had mine as far as they'd go in Sirdar already!

"The smoke rolled on up the gully and in a minute it had covered it all
up. I thought it was all up with Norah, too, and old Burrows behind me
was sobbing for all he was worth. We raced and tore and yelled!

"Then we saw a sheep coming up out of the smoke at the end of the gully.
Another followed, and another, and then more, until every blessed one of
the twenty was there (though we didn't stop to count 'em then, I can
tell you!) Last of all--it just seemed years--came Norah!

"We could hear her shouting at the sheep before we saw her. They were
terribly hard to move. She banged them with sticks, and the last old ram
she fairly kicked up the hill. They were just out of the gully when the
fire roared up it, and a minute or so after that we got to her.

"Poor little kid; she was just black, and nearly blind with the smoke.
It was making her cry like fun," said Jim, quite unconscious of his
inappropriate simile. "I don't know if it was smoke in his case, but so
was Dad. We put the fire out quick enough; it was easy work to keep it
in the gully. Indeed, Dad never looked at the fire, or the sheep either.
He just jumped off Bosun, and picked Norah up and held her as if she was
a baby, and she hugged and hugged him. They're awfully fond of each
other, Dad and Norah."

"And were the sheep all right?" Harry asked.

"Right as rain; not one of the black-faced beauties singed. It was a
pretty close thing, you know," Jim said reminiscently. "The fire was
just up to Norah as she got the last sheep up the hill; there was a hole
burnt in the leg of her riding skirt. She told me afterwards she made up
her mind she was going to die down in that beastly hole."

"My word, you must have been jolly proud of her!" Wally exclaimed. "Such
a kid, too!"

"I guess we were pretty proud," Jim said quietly. "All the people about
made no end of a fuss about her, but Norah never seemed to think a
pennyworth about it. Fact is, her only thought at first was that Dad
would think she had broken her promise to him. She looked up at him in
the first few minutes, with her poor, swollen old eyes. 'I didn't forget
my promise, Dad, dear,' she said. 'I never touched the fire--only chased
your silly old sheep!'"

"Was that the end of the fire?" Harry asked.

"Well, nearly. Of course we had to watch the burning logs and stumps for
a few days, until all danger of more fires was over, and if there'd been
a high wind in that time we might have had trouble. Luckily there wasn't
any wind at all, and three days after there came a heavy fall of rain,
which made everything safe. We lost about two hundred and fifty acres of
grass, but in no time the paddock was green again, and the fire only did
it good in the long run. We reckoned ourselves uncommonly lucky over the
whole thing, though if Norah hadn't saved the Shropshires we'd have had
to sing a different tune. Dad said he'd never shut up so much money in
one small paddock again!"

Jim bobbed his float up and down despairingly.

"This is the most fishless creek!" he said. "Well, the only thing left
to tell you is where the swagman came in."

"Oh, by Jove," Harry said, "I forgot the swaggie."

"Was it his fault the fire started?" inquired Wally.

"Rather! He camped under a bridge on the road that forms our boundary
the night Dad cleared him off the place, and the next morning, very
early, he deliberately lit our grass in three places, and then made off.
He'd have got away, too, and nobody would have known anything about it,
if it hadn't been for Len Morrison. You chaps haven't met Len, have you?
He's a jolly nice fellow, older than me, I guess he's about sixteen
now--perhaps seventeen.

"Len had a favourite cow, a great pet of his. He'd petted her as a calf
and she'd follow him about like a dog. This cow was sick--they found her
down in the paddock and couldn't move her, so they doctored her where
she was. Len was awfully worried about her, and used to go to her late
at night and first thing in the morning.

"He went out to the cow on this particular morning about daylight. She
was dead and so he didn't stay; and he was riding back when he saw the
swag-man lighting our grass. It was most deliberately done. Len didn't
go after him then. He galloped up to his own place and gave the alarm,
and then he and one of their men cleared out after the brute."

"Did they catch him?" Wally's eyes were dancing, and his sinker waved
unconsciously in the air.

"They couldn't see a sign of him," Jim said. "The road was a plain,
straight one--you chaps know it--the one we drove home on from the
train. No cover anywhere that would hide so much as a goat--not even
you, Wal! They followed it up for a couple of miles, and then saw that
he must have gone across country somewhere. There was mighty little
cover there, either. The only possible hiding-place was along the creek.

"He was pretty cunning--my word, he was! He'd started up the road--Len
had seen him--and then he cut over the paddock at an angle, back to the
creek. That was why they couldn't find any tracks when they started up
the creek from the road, and they made sure he had given them the slip
altogether.

"Len and the other fellow, a chap called Sam Baker, pegged away up the
creek as hard as they could go, but feeling pretty blue about catching
the swaggie. Len was particularly wild, because he'd made so certain he
could lay his hands on the fellow, and if he hadn't been sure, of course
he'd have stayed to help at the fire, and he didn't like being done out
of everything! They could understand not finding any tracks.

"'Of course it's possible he's walked in the water,' Baker said.

"'We'd have caught him by now if he had,' Len said--'he couldn't get
along quickly in the water. Anyhow, if I don't see anything of him
before we get to the next bend, I'm going back to the fire.'

"They were nearly up to the bend, and Len was feeling desperate, when he
saw a boot-mark half-way down the bank on the other side. He was over
like a shot--the creek was very shallow--and there were tracks as plain
as possible, leading down to the water!

"You can bet they went on then!

"They caught him a bit farther up. He heard them coming, and left his
swag, so's he could get on quicker. They caught that first, and then
they caught him. He had 'planted' in a clump of scrub, and they nearly
passed him, but Len caught sight of him, and they had him in a minute."

"Did he come easily?" asked Wally.

"Rather not! He sent old Len flying--gave him an awful black eye. Len
was, up again and at him like a shot, and I reckon it was jolly plucky
of a chap of Len's age, and I dare say he'd have had an awful hiding if
Sam hadn't arrived on the scene. Sam is a big, silent chap, and he can
fight anybody in this district. He landed the swaggie first with one
fist and then with the other, and the swaggie reckoned he'd been struck
by a thunderbolt when they fished him out of the creek, where he had
rolled! You see, Sam's very fond of Len, and it annoyed him to see his
eye.

"The swaggie did not do any more resisting. He was like a half-dead,
drowned rat. Len and Sam brought him up to the men at the fire just
after we'd left to try to save Dad's Shropshires, and they and Mr.
Morrison could hardly keep the men off him. He hid behind Sam, and cried
and begged them to protect him. They said it was beastly."

"Rather!" said Harry. "Where's he now?"

"Melbourne Gaol. He got three years," said Jim. "I guess he's reflecting
on the foolishness of using matches too freely!"

"By George!" said Wally, drawing a deep breath. "That was exciting,
Jimmy!"

"Well, fishing isn't," responded Jim pulling up his hook in disgust, an
example followed by the other boys. "What'll we do?"

"I move," said Wally, standing on one leg on the log, "that this meeting
do adjourn from this dead tree. And I move a hearty vote of thanks to
Mr. Jim Linton for spinning a good yarn. Thanks to be paid immediately.
There's mine, Jimmy!"

A resounding pat on the back startled Jim considerably, followed as it
was by a second from Harry. The assaulted one fled along the log, and
hurled mud furiously from the bank. The enemy followed closely, and
shortly the painful spectacle might have been seen of a host lying flat
on his face on the grass, while his guests, sitting on his back, bumped
up and down to his extreme discomfort and the tune of "For He's a Jolly
Good Fellow!"

CHAPTER VII

WHAT NORAH FOUND

Norah, meanwhile, had been feeling somewhat "out of things." It was
really more than human nature could be expected to bear that she should
remain on the log with the three boys, while Jim told amazing yarns
about her. Still it was decidedly lonesome in the jutting root of the
old tree, looking fixedly at the water, in which placidly lay a float
that had apparently forgotten that the first duty of a float is to bob.

Jim's voice, murmuring along in his lengthy recital, came to her softly,
and she could see from her perch the interested faces of the two others.
It mingled drowsily with the dull drone of bees in the ti-tree behind
her, and presently Norah, to her disgust, found that she was growing
drowsy too.

"This won't do!" she reflected, shaking herself. "If I go to sleep and
tumble off this old root I'll startle away all the fish in the creek."
She looked doubtfully at the still water, now and then rippled by the
splash of a leaping fish. "No good when they jump like that," said Norah
to herself. "I guess I'll go and explore."

She wound up her line quickly, and flung her bait to the lazy
inhabitants of the creek as a parting gift. Then, unnoticed by the boys,
she scrambled out of the tree and climbed up the bank, getting her blue
riding-skirt decidedly muddy--not that Norah's free and independent soul
had ever learned to tremble at the sight of muddy garments. She hid her
fishing tackle in a stump, and made her way along the bank.

A little farther up she came across black Billy--a very cheerful
aboriginal, seeing that he had managed to induce no less than nine
blackfish to leave their watery bed.

"Oh, I say!" said Norah, round-eyed and envious. "How do you manage it,
Billy? We can't catch one."

Billy grinned. He was a youth of few words.

"Plenty bob-um float," he explained lucidly. "Easy 'nuff. You try."

"No, thanks," said Norah, though she hesitated for a moment. "I'm sick
of trying--and I've no luck. Going to cook 'em for dinner, Billy?"

"Plenty!" assented Billy vigorously. It was his favourite word, and
meant almost anything, and he rarely used another when he could make it
suffice.

"That's a good boy," said Norah, approvingly, and black eighteen grinned
from ear to ear with pleasure at the praise of twelve-year-old white.
"I'm going for a walk, Billy. Tell Master Jim to coo-ee when lunch is
ready."

"Plenty," said Billy intelligently.

Norah turned from the creek and entered the scrub. She loved the bush,
and was never happier than when exploring its recesses. A born bushmaid,
she had never any difficulty about finding her way in the scrub, or of
retracing her steps. The faculty of bushmanship must be born in you; if
you have it not naturally, training very rarely gives it.

She rambled on aimlessly, noting, though scarcely conscious that she did
so, the bush sights and scenes on either hand--clinging creepers and
twining plants, dainty ferns, nestling in hollow trees, clusters of
maidenhair under logs; pheasants that hopped noiselessly in the shade,
and a wallaby track in some moist, soft earth. Once she saw a carpet
snake lying coiled in a tussock and, springing for a stick, she ran at
it, but the snake was too quick for her and she was only in time to hit
at its tail as it whisked down a hole. Norah wandered on, feeling
disgusted with herself.

Suddenly she stopped in amazement.

She was on the edge of a small clear space, at the farther side of which
was a huge blue-gum tree. Tall trees ringed it round, and the whole
space was in deep shade. Norah stood rooted to the ground in surprise.

For at the foot of the big blue-gum was a strange sight, in that lonely
place. It was nothing more or less than a small tent.

The flap of the tent was down, and there were no inhabitants to be seen;
but all about were signs of occupation. A well-blackened billy hung from
the ridge-pole. Close to the tent was a heap of dry sticks, and a little
farther away the ashes of a fire still smouldered, and over them a
blackened bough, supported by two forked sticks, showed that the billy
had many times been boiled there. The little camp was all very neat and
tidy. "It looks quite home-like," said Norah to herself.

As she watched, the flap of the tent was raised, and a very old man came
out. He was so tall that he had to bend almost double in stooping under
the canvas of the low tent. A queer old man, Norah thought him, as she
drew back instinctively into the shadow of the trees. When he
straightened himself he was wonderfully tall--taller even than Dad, who
was over six feet. He wore no hat, and his hair and beard were very
long, and as white as snow. Under bushy white eyebrows, a pair of bright
blue eyes twinkled. Norah decided that they were nice eyes.

But he certainly was queer. His clothes would hardly have passed muster
in Collins Street, and would even have attracted attention in Cunjee. He
was dressed entirely in skins--wallaby skins, Norah guessed, though
there was an occasional section that looked like 'possum. They didn't
look bad, either, she thought--a kind of sleeved waistcoat, and loose
trousers, that were met at the knee by roughly-tanned gaiters, or
leggings. Still, the whole effect was startling.

The old man walked across to his fire and, kneeling down, carefully
raked away the ashes. Then he drew out a damper--Norah had never seen
one before, but she knew immediately that it was a damper. It looked
good, too--nicely risen, and brown, and it sent forth a fragrance that
was decidedly appetizing. The old man looked pleased "Not half bad!" he
said aloud, in a wonderfully deep voice, which sounded so amazing in the
bush silence that Norah fairly jumped.

The old man raked the ashes together again, and placed some sticks on
them, after which he brought over the billy, and hung it above the fire
to boil. The fire quickly broke into a blaze, and he picked up the
damper again, and walked slowly back to the tent, where he paused to
blow the dust from the result of his cookery.

At this moment Norah became oppressed with a wild desire to sneeze. She
fought against it frantically, nearly choking in her efforts to remain
silent, while she wildly explored in her pockets for a nonexistent
handkerchief.

As the water bursts from the dam the more violently because of its
imprisonment, so Norah's sneeze gained intensity and uproar from her
efforts to repress it. It came--

"A--tish--oo--oo!"

The old man started violently. He dropped his damper and gazed round.

"What on earth's that?" he said. "Who's there?" For a moment Norah
hesitated. Should she run for her life? But a second's thought showed
her no real reason why she should run. She was not in the least
frightened, for it never occurred to Norah that anyone could wish to
hurt her; and she had done nothing to make him angry. So she modestly
emerged from behind a friendly tree and said meekly, "It's me."

"'Me', is it?" said the old man, in great astonishment. He stared hard
at the little figure in the blue blouse and serge riding-skirt--at the
merry face and the dark curls crowned by the shady Panama hat. "'Me ',"
he repeated. "'Me' looks rather nice, I think. But what's she doing
here?"

"I was looking at you," Norah exclaimed.

"I won't be unpolite enough to mention that a cat may look at a king,"
said the old man. "But don't you know that no one comes here? No young
ladies in blue dresses and brown curls--only wombats and wallabies, and
ring-tailed 'possums--and me. Not you--me, but me--me! How do you
account for being here?"

Norah laughed. She decided that she liked this very peculiar old man,
whose eyes twinkled so brightly as he spoke.

"But I don't think you know," she said. "Quite a lot of other people
come here--this is Anglers' Bend. At least, Anglers' Bend's quite close
to your camp. Why, only, to-day there's Jim and the boys, and black
Billy, and me! We're not wallabies!"

"Jim--and the boys--and black Billy--and me!" echoed the old man
faintly. "Angels and ministers of grace, defend us! And I thought I had
found the back of beyond, where I would never see anyone more civilized
than a bunyip! But--I've been here for three months, little lady, and
have never come across anyone. Are you sure you're quite serious?"

"Quite," Norah answered. "Perhaps it was that no one came across you,
you know, because people really do come here to fish. Dad and I camp
here sometimes, but we haven't been for more than three months."

"Well, I must move, that's all," said the old man. "I do like
quiet--it's annoying enough to have to dress up and go into a township
now and then for stores. How do you like my clothes, by the way? I may
as well have a feminine opinion while I have the chance."

"Did you make them yourself?" asked Norah.

"Behold how she fences!" said the old man. "I did indeed!"

"Then they do you proud!" said Norah solemnly.

The old man laughed.

"I shall prize your expression of opinion," he said. "May I ask the name
of my visitor?"

"I'm Norah. Please who are you?"

"That's a different matter," said the other, looking nonplussed. "I
certainly had a name once, but I've quite forgotten it. I have an
excellent memory for forgetting. Would you think I was a bunyip? I'd be
delighted if you could!"

"I couldn't." Norah shook her head. "But I'll tell you what I think you
are."

"Do."

"A hermit!"

The old man's face cleared.

"My dear Miss Norah," he said, "you've made a profound discovery. I
am--I am--a hermit! Thank you very much. Being a hermit my resources are
scanty, but may I hope that you will have lunch with me?

"I can't, I'm afraid," said Norah, looking affectionately at the damper.
"The boys will be looking for me, if I don't go back. Listen--there's
Jim coo-eeing now!"

"And who may Jim be?" queried the Hermit, a trifle uneasily.

"Jim's my brother," Norah said. "He's fifteen, and he's just splendid.
Harry and Wally are his two chums."

"Coo-ee! Coo-ee!"

Norah answered the call quickly and turned to the Hermit, feeling a
little apologetic.

"I had to call," she explained--"Jim would be anxious. They want me for
lunch." She hesitated. "Won't you come too?" she asked timidly.

"I haven't eaten with my fellow-men for more time than I'd care to
reckon," said the Hermit. "I don't know--will they let me alone
afterwards? Are they ordinary abominable boys?"

"Indeed, they're not!" said Norah indignantly. "They won't come near you
at all, if you don't want them--but I know they'd be pleased if you
came. Do!"

"Coo-ee!"

"Jim's getting impatient, isn't he?" said the Hermit. "Well, Miss Norah,
if you'll excuse my attire I'll come. Shall I bring my damper?"

"Oh, please!" Norah cried. "We've never tasted damper."

"I wish _I_ hadn't," said the Hermit grimly. He picked up the fallen
cake. "Let us away!" he said. "The banquet waits!"

During their walk through the scrub it occurred to Norah once or twice
to wonder if her companion were really a little mad. He said such
extraordinary things, all in the most matter-of-fact tone--but when she
looked up at him his blue eyes twinkled so kindly and merrily that she
knew at once he was all right, and she was quite certain that she liked
him very much.

The boys were getting impatient. Lunch was ready, and when lunch has
been prepared by Mrs. Brown, and supplemented by fresh blackfish, fried
over a camp fire by black Billy, it is not a meal to be kept waiting.
They were grouped round the table-cloth, in attitudes more suggestive of
ease than elegance, when Norah and her escort appeared, and for once
their manners deserted them. They gaped in silent amazement.

"Boys, this is The Hermit," said Norah, rather nervously. "I--I found
him. He has a camp. He's come to lunch."

"I must apologize for my intrusion, I'm afraid," the Hermit said. "Miss
Norah was good enough to ask me to come. I--I've brought my damper!"

He exhibited the article half shyly, and the boys recovered themselves
and laughed uncontrollably. Jim sprang to his feet. The Hermit's first
words had told him that this was no common swagman that Norah had picked
up.

"I'm very glad to see you, sir," he said, holding out his hand.

"Thank you," said the Hermit gravely. "You're Jim, aren't you? And I
conclude that this gentleman is Harry, and this Wally? Ah, I thought so.
Yes, I haven't seen so many people for ages. And black Billy! How are
you Billy?"

Billy retreated in great embarrassment.

"Plenty!" he murmured.

Everybody laughed again.

"Well," Jim said, "we're hungry, Norah. I hope you and--er--this
gentleman are." Jim was concealing his bewilderment like a hero. "Won't
you sit down and sample Billy's blackfish? He caught 'em all--we
couldn't raise a bite between us--barring Wally's boot!"

"Did you catch a boot?" queried the Hermit of the blushing Wally. "Mine,
I think--I can't congratulate you on your luck! If you like, after
lunch, I'll show you a place where you could catch fish, if you only
held the end of your finger in the water!"

"Good enough!" said Jim. "Thanks, awfully--we'll be jolly glad. Come on,
Billy--trot out your frying-pan!"

Lunch began rather silently.

In their secret hearts the boys were rather annoyed with Norah.

"Why on earth," Jim reflected, "couldn't she have left the old chap
alone? The party was all right without him--we didn't want any one
else--least of all an odd oddity like this." And though the other boys
were loyal to Norah, she certainly suffered a fall in their estimation,
and was classed for the moment with the usual run of "girls who do rummy
things."

However, the Hermit was a man of penetration and soon realized the state
of the social barometer. His hosts, who did not look at all like quiet
boys, were eating their blackfish in perfect silence, save for polite
requests for bread or pepper, or the occasional courteous remark, "Chuck
us the salt!"

Accordingly the Hermit exerted himself to please, and it would really
have taken more than three crabby boys to resist him. He told the
drollest stories, which sent everyone into fits of laughter, although he
never laughed himself at all; and he talked about the bush, and told
them of the queer animals he saw--having, as he said, unusually good
opportunities for watching the bush inhabitants unseen. He knew where
the lyrebirds danced, and had often crept silently through the scrub
until he could command a view of the mound where these strange birds
strutted and danced, and mimicked the other birds with life-like
fidelity. He loved the birds very much, and never killed any of them,
even when a pair of thievish magpies attacked his larder and pecked a
damper into little bits when he was away fishing. Many of the birds were
tame with him now, he said; they would hop about the camp and let him
feed them; and he had a carpet snake that was quite a pet, which he
offered to show them--an offer that broke down the last tottering
barriers of the boys' reserve. Then there were his different methods of
trapping animals, some of which were strange even to Jim, who was a
trapper of much renown.

"Don't you get lonely sometimes?" Norah asked him.

The Hermit looked at her gravely.

"Sometimes," he said. "Now and then one feels that one would give
something to hear a human voice again, and to feel a friend's hand-grip.
Oh, there are times, Miss Norah, when I talk to myself--which is bad--or
yarn to old Turpentine, my snake, just to hear the sound of words again.
However, when these bad fits come upon me I know it's a sign that I must
get the axe and go and chop down sufficient trees to make me tired. Then
I go to sleep, and wake up quite a cheerful being once more!"

He hesitated.

"And there's one thing," he said slowly--"though it may be lonely here,
there is no one to trouble you; no one to treat you badly, to be
ungrateful or malicious; no bitter enemies, and no false friends, who
are so much worse than enemies. The birds come and hop about me, and I
know that it is because I like them and have never frightened them; old
Turpentine slides his ugly head over my knees, and I know he doesn't
care a button whether I have any money in my pocket, or whether I have
to go out into the scrub to find my next meal! And that's far, far more
than you can say of most human beings!"

He looked round on their grave faces, and smiled for the first time.

"This is uncommonly bad behaviour in a guest," he said cheerily. "To
come to lunch, and regale one's host and hostess with a sermon! It's too
bad. I ask your forgiveness, young people, and please forget all I said
immediately. No, Miss Norah, I won't have any damper, thank you--after a
three months' course of damper one looks with joy once more on bread. If
Wally will favour me--I think the correct phrase is will you 'chuck me
the butter?'"--whereat Wally "chucked" as desired, and the meal
proceeded merrily.

CHAPTER VIII

ON A LOG

Lunch over, everyone seemed disinclined for action. The boys lay about
on the grass, sleepily happy. Norah climbed into a tree, where the
gnarled boughs made a natural arm-chair, and the Hermit propped his
back against a rock and smoked a short black pipe with an air of
perfect enjoyment. It was just hot enough to make one drowsy. Bees
droned lazily, and from some shady gully the shrill note of a cricket
came faintly to the ear. Only Billy had stolen down to the creek, to
tempt the fish once more. They heard the dull "plunk" of his sinker as
he flung it into a deep, still pool.

"Would you like to hear how I lost my boot?" queried the Hermit
suddenly.

"Oh, please," said Norah.

The boys rolled over--that is to say Jim and Wally rolled over. Harry
was fast asleep.

"Don't wake him," said the Hermit. But Wally's hat, skilfully thrown,
had already caught the slumberer on the side of the head.

Harry woke up with surprising promptness, and returned the offending
head-gear with force and directness. Wally caught it deftly and rammed
it over his eyes. He smiled underneath it at the Hermit like a happy
cherub.

"Now we're ready, sir," he said. "Hold your row, Harry, the--this
gentleman's going to spin us a yarn. Keep awake if you can spare the
time!"

"I'll spare the time to kick you!" growled the indignant Harry.

"I don't know that you'll think it's much of a yarn," the Hermit said
hurriedly, entering the breach to endeavour to allay further
discussion--somewhat to Jim's disappointment. "It's only the story of a
pretty narrow escape.

"I had gone out fishing one afternoon about a month ago. It was a grand
day for fishing--dull and cloudy. The sun was about somewhere, but you
couldn't see anything of him, although you could feel his warmth. I'd
been off colour for a few days, and had not been out foraging at all,
and as a result, except for damper, my larder was quite empty.

"I went about a mile upstream. There's a splendid place for fishing
there. The creek widens, and there's a still, deep pool, something like
the pool at the place you call Anglers' Bend, only I think mine is
deeper and stiller, and fishier! At all events, I have never failed to
get fish there.

"I fished from the bank for a while, with not very good luck. At all
events, it occurred to me that I could better it if I went out upon a
big log that lay right across the creek--a tremendous tree it must have
been, judging by the size of the trunk. You could almost ride across it,
it's so wide--if you had a circus pony, that is," added the Hermit with
a twinkle.

"So I gathered up my tackle, hung the fish I'd caught across a bough in
the shade, and went out on the log, and here I had good luck at once.
The fish bit just as soon as I put the bait into the water, and though a
good many of them were small there were some very decent-sized ones
amongst them. I threw the little chaps back, on the principle that--

Baby fish you throw away
Will make good sport another day,

and at last began to think I had caught nearly enough, even though I
intended to salt some. However, just as I thought it was time to strike
for camp, I had a tremendous bite. It nearly jerked the rod out of my
hands!

"'Hallo!' I said to myself, 'here's a whale!' I played him for a bit,
for he was the strongest fish I ever had on a line in this country, and
at last he began to tire, and I reeled the line in. It seemed quite a
long time before I caught a glimpse of his lordship--a tremendous perch.
I tell you I felt quite proud as his head came up out of the water.

"He was nearly up to the log, when be made a sudden, last leap in the
air, and the quickness of it and his weight half threw me off my
balance. I made a hurried step on the log, and my right foot slipped
into a huge, gaping crack. It was only after I had made two or three
ineffectual struggles to release it that I found I was stuck.

"Well I didn't realize the seriousness of the position for a few
minutes," the Hermit went on. "I could understand that I was wedged, but
I certainly never dreamed that I could not, by dint of manoeuvring,
wriggle my foot out of the crack. So I turned my attention to my big
fish, and--standing in a most uncomfortable position--managed to land
him; and a beauty he was, handsome as paint, with queer markings on his
sides. I put him down carefully, and then tried to free myself.

"And I tried--and tried--and tried--until I was tired out, and stiff and
hopeless. By that time it was nearly dark. After I had endeavoured
unsuccessfully to get the boot clear, I unlaced it, and tried to get my
foot out of it--but I was in a trifle too far for that, and try as I
would I could not get it free. The crack was rather on the side of the
log. I could not get a straight pull. Hurt? Yes, of course it hurt--not
more from the pinching of the log, which you may try any time by
screwing your foot up in a vice, than from my own wild efforts to get
clear. My foot and ankle were stiff and sore from my exertions long
before I knocked off in despair. I might have tried to cut the wood
away, had I not left my knife on the bank, where I was fishing first. I
don't know that it would have done much good, anyhow.

"Well, I looked at the situation--in fact, I had been looking at it all
the time. It wasn't a very cheering prospect, either. The more I
pondered over it, the less chance I saw of getting free. I had done all
I could towards that end; now it only remained to wait for something to
'turn up.' And I was quite aware that nothing was in the least likely to
turn up, and also that in all probability I would wear out some time
before the log did.

"Night came on, and I was as hungry as a hunter--being a hunter, I knew
just how hungry that is. I hadn't anything to eat except raw fish, and I
wasn't quite equal to that yet. I had only one pipe of tobacco too, and
you may be sure I made the most of that, I smoked it very, very slowly,
and I wouldn't like to say how long it lasted.

"From time to time I made fresh attempts to release my foot--all
unavailing, and all the more maddening because I could feel that my foot
wasn't much caught--only just enough to hold it. But enough is as good
as a feast! I felt that if I could get a straight pull at it I might get
it out, and several times I nearly went head first into the water,
overbalancing myself in the effort to get that straight pull. That
wasn't a pleasant sensation--not so bad, indeed, if one had got as far
as the water. But I pictured myself hanging from the log with a
dislocated ankle, and the prospect was not inviting.

"So the night crept on. I grew deadly sleepy, but of course I did not
care to let myself go to sleep; but worse than that was the stiffness,
and the cramp that tortured the imprisoned leg. You know how you want to
jump when you've got cramp? Well, I wanted to jump at intervals of about
a minute all through that night, and instead, I was more securely
hobbled than any old horse I ever saw. The mosquitoes worried me too.
Altogether it was not the sort of entertainment you would select from
choice!

"And then, just as day began to dawn, the sleepiness got the better of
me. I fought it unavailingly; but at last I knew I could keep awake no
longer, and I shut my eyes.

"I don't know how long I slept--it couldn't have been for any time, for
it was not broad daylight when I opened my eyes again. Besides, the
circumstances weren't the kind to induce calm and peaceful slumber.

"I woke up with a start, and in my dreams I seemed to hear myself crying
out with pain--for a spasm of cramp had seized me, and it was like a
red-hot iron thrust up my leg. I was only half awake--not realizing my
position a bit. I made a sudden spring, and the next moment off I went,
headlong!

"I don't suppose," said the Hermit reflectively, poking a stem of grass
down his pipe, "that I'll ever lose the memory of the sudden, abject
terror of that moment. They say 'as easy as falling off a log,' and it
certainly doesn't take an able-bodied man long to fall off one, as a
rule; but it seemed to me that I was hours and years waiting for the
jerk to come on my imprisoned foot. I'm sure I lived through half a
lifetime before it really came.

"Then it came--and I hardly felt it! There was just a sudden
pull--scarcely enough to hurt very much, and the old boot yielded. Sole
from upper, it came clean away, and the pressure on my foot alone wasn't
enough to hold me. It was so unexpected that I didn't realize I was free
until I struck the water, and went down right into the mud at the bottom
of the creek.

"That woke me up, I can assure you. I came up choking and spluttering,
and blinded with the mud--I wouldn't like to tell you for a moment that
it was pleasant, but I can truthfully say I never was more relieved in
my life. I struck out for the bank, and got out of the water, and then
sat down on the grass and wondered why on earth I hadn't made up my mind
to jump off that log before.

"I hadn't any boot left--the remainder had been kicked off as I swam
ashore. I made my way along the log that had held me so fast all night,
and there, wedged as tight as ever in the crack, was my old sole! It's
there still--unless the mosquitoes have eaten it. I limped home with my
fish, cleaned them, had a meal and went to bed--and I didn't get up
until next day, either!

"And so, Mr. Wally, I venture to think that it was my boot that you
landed this morning," the Hermit said gravely. "I don't grudge it to
you; I can't say I ever wish to see it again. You"--magnanimously--"may
have it for your very own!"

"But I chucked it back again!" blurted out Wally, amidst a roar of
laughter from Jim and Harry at his dismayed face.

"I forgive you!" said the Hermit, joining in the laugh. "I admit it was
a relic which didn't advertise its own fame."

"I guess you'd never want to see it again," Jim said. "That was a pretty
narrow escape--if your foot had been in just a bit farther you might
have been hanging from that old log now!"

"That was my own idea all that night," observed the Hermit; "and then
Wally wouldn't have caught any more than the rest of you this morning!
And that reminds me, I promised to show you a good fishing-place. Don't
you think, if you've had enough of my prosy yarning, that we'd better
make a start?"

The party gathered itself up with alacrity from the grass. Lines were
hurriedly examined, and the bait tin, when investigated, proved to
contain an ample supply of succulent grubs and other dainties calculated
to tempt the most fastidious of fish.

"All ready?" said the Hermit.

"Hold on a minute," Jim said. "I'll let Billy know where we're going."

Billy was found fishing stolidly from a log. Three blackfish testified
to his skill with the rod, at which Wally whistled disgustedly and Norah
laughed.

"No good to be jealous of Billy's luck," she said. "He can always get
fish, when nobody else can find even a nibble. Mrs. Brown says he's got
the light hand like hers for pastry."

The Hermit laughed.

"I like Mrs. Brown's simile," he said. "If that was her pastry in those
turnovers at lunch, Miss Norah, I certainly agree that she has 'the
light hand.'"

"Mrs. Brown's like the cook in _The Ingoldsby Legends_, Dad says," Norah
remarked.

"What," said the Hermit--

"For soups and stews, and French regouts, Nell Cook is famous still--?"
finished Norah delightedly. "However did you know, Mr. Hermit?"

The Hermit laughed, but a shade crossed his brow. "I used to read the
_Legends_ with a dear old friend many years before you were born, Miss
Norah," he said gravely. "I often wonder whether he still reads them."

"Ready?" Jim interrupted, springing up the bank. "Billy understands
about feeding the ponies. Don't forget, mind, Billy."

"Plenty!" quoth Billy, and the party went on its way. The Hermit led
them rapidly over logs and fallen trees, up and down gullies, and
through tangles of thickly growing scrub. Once or twice it occurred to
Jim that they were trusting very confidingly to this man, of whom they
knew absolutely nothing; and a faint shade of uneasiness crossed his
mind. He felt responsible, as the eldest of the youngsters, knowing that
his father had placed him in charge, and that he was expected to
exercise a certain amount of caution. Still it was hard to fancy
anything wrong, looking at the Hermit's serene face, and the trusting
way in which Norah's brown little hand was placed in his strong grasp.
The other boys were quite unconscious of any uncomfortable ideas, and
Jim finally dismissed his fears as uncalled for.

"I thought," said the Hermit, suddenly turning, "of taking you to see my
camp as we went, but on second thoughts I decided that it would be
better to get straight to work, as you young people want some fish, I
suppose, to take home. Perhaps we can look in at my camp as we come
back. It's not far from here."

"Which way do you generally go to the river?" Norah asked.

"Why, anyway," the Hermit answered. "Generally in this direction. Why do
you ask, Miss Norah?"

"I was wondering," Norah said. "We haven't crossed or met a single
track."

The Hermit laughed.

"No," he said, "I take very good care not to leave tracks if I can avoid
it. You see, I'm a solitary fellow, Miss Norah, and prefer, as a rule,
to keep to myself. Apart from that, I often leave camp for the greater
part of the day when I'm fishing or hunting, and I've no wish to point
out the way to my domain to any wanderers. Not that I've much to lose,
still there are some things. Picture my harrowed feelings were I to
return some evening and find my beloved frying-pan gone!"

Norah laughed.

"It would be awful," she said.

"So I planned my camp very cunningly," continued the Hermit, "and I can
tell you it took some planning to contrive it so that it shouldn't be
too easily visible."

"Well, it isn't from the side I came on it," Norah put in; "I never
dreamed of anything being there until I was right on the camp. It did
surprise me!"

"And me," said the Hermit drily. "Well that is how I tried to arrange
camp, and you could be within a dozen yards of it on any side without
imagining that any was near."

"But surely you must have made some sort of a track leading away from
it," said Jim, "unless you fly out!"

The Hermit laughed.

"I'll show you later how I manage that," he said.

The bush grew denser as the little party, led by the Hermit, pushed
along, and Jim was somewhat surprised at the easy certainty with which
their guide led the way, since there was no sign of a track. Being a
silent youth, he held his tongue on the matter; but Wally was not so
reserved.

"However d'you find your way along here?" he asked. "I don't even know
whether we're near the creek or not."

"If we kept still a moment you'd know," the Hermit said. "Listen!" He
held up his hand and they all stood still. There came faintly to their
ears a musical splash of water.

"There's a little waterfall just in there," the Hermit said, "nothing
much, unless the creek is very low, and then there is a greater drop for
the water. So you see we haven't got far from the creek. How do I know
the way? Why, I feel it mostly, and if I couldn't feel it, there are
plenty of landmarks. Every big tree is as good as a signpost once you
know the way a bit, and I've been along here pretty often, so there's
nothing in it, you see, Wally."

"Do you like the bush, Mr. Hermit?" Norah asked.

The Hermit hesitated.

"Sometimes I hate it, I think, Miss Norah," he said, "when the
loneliness of it comes over me, and all the queer sounds of it bother me
and keep me awake. Then I realise that I'm really a good way from
anywhere, and I get what are familiarly called the blues. However,
that's not at all times, and indeed mostly I love it very much, its
great quietness and its beauty; and then it's so companionable, though
perhaps you're a bit young to understand that. Anyhow, I have my mates,
not only old Turpentine, my snake, but others--wallabies that have come
to recognise me as harmless, for I never hunt anywhere near home, the
laughing jackasses, two of them, that come and guffaw to me every
morning, the pheasants that I watch capering and strutting on the logs
hidden in the scrub. Even the plants become friends; there are creepers
near my camp that I've watched from babyhood, and more than one big tree
with which I've at least a nodding acquaintance!"

He broke off suddenly.

"Look, there's a friend of mine!" he said gently. They were crossing a
little gully, and a few yards on their right a big wallaby sat staring
at them, gravely inquisitive. It certainly would not have been human
nature if Jim had not longed for a gun; but the wallaby was evidently
quite ignorant of such a thing, and took them all in with his cool
stare. At length Wally sneezed violently, whereat the wallaby started,
regarded the disturber of his peace with an alarmed air, and finally
bounded off into the scrub.

"There you go!" said the Hermit good-humouredly, "scaring my poor
beastie out of his wits."

"Couldn't help it," mumbled Wally.

"No, a sneeze will out, like truth, won't it?" the Hermit laughed.
"That's how Miss Norah announced herself to me to-day. I might never
have known she was there if she hadn't obligingly sneezed! I hope.
you're not getting colds, children!" the Hermit added, with mock
concern.

"Not much!" said Wally and Norah in a breath.

"Just after I came here," said the Hermit, "I was pretty short of
tucker, and it wasn't a good time for fishing, so I was dependent on my
gun for most of my provisions. So one day, feeling much annoyed after a
breakfast of damper and jam, I took the gun and went off to stock up the
larder.

"I went a good way without any luck. There didn't seem anything to shoot
in all the bush, though you may be sure I kept my eyes about me. I was
beginning to grow disheartened. At length I made my way down to the
creek. Just as I got near it, I heard a whirr-r-r over my head, and
looking up, I saw a flock of wild duck. They seemed to pause a moment,
and then dropped downwards. I couldn't see where they alighted, but of
course I knew it must be in the creek.

"Well, I didn't pause," said the Hermit. "I just made my way down to the
creek as quickly as ever I could, remaining noiseless at the same time.
Ducks are easily scared, and I knew my hopes of dinner were poor if
these chaps saw me too soon.

"So I sneaked down. Pretty soon I got a glimpse of the creek, which was
very wide at that point, and fringed with weeds. The ducks were calmly
swimming on its broad surface, a splendid lot of them, and I can assure
you a very tempting sight to a hungry man.

"However, I didn't waste time in admiration. I couldn't very well risk a
shot from where I was, it was a bit too far, and the old gun I had
wasn't very brilliant. So I crept along, crawled down a bank, and found
myself on a flat that ran to the water's edge, where reeds, growing
thickly, screened me from the ducks' sight.

"That was simple enough. I crawled across this flat, taking no chances,
careless of mud, and wet, and sword grass, which isn't the nicest thing
to crawl among at any time, as you can imagine; it's absolutely
merciless to face and hands."

"And jolly awkward to stalk ducks in," Jim commented, "the rustle would
give you away in no time."

The Hermit nodded.

"Yes," he said, "that's its worst drawback, or was, on this occasion. It
certainly did rustle; however, I crept very slowly, and the ducks were
kind enough to think I was the wind stirring in the reeds. At any rate,
they went on swimming, and feeding quite peacefully. I got a good look
at them through the fringe of reeds, and then, like a duffer, although I
had a good enough position, I must try and get a better one.

"So I crawled a little farther down the bank, trying to reach a knoll
which would give me a fine sight of the game, and at the same time form
a convenient rest for my gun. I had almost reached it when the sad thing
happened. A tall, spear-like reed, bending over, gently and intrusively
tickled my nose, and without the slightest warning, and very greatly to
my own amazement, I sneezed violently.

"If I was amazed, what were the ducks! The sneeze was so unmistakably
human, so unspeakably violent. There was one wild whirr of wings, and my
ducks scrambled off the placid surface of the water like things
possessed. I threw up my gun and fired wildly; there was no time for
deliberate taking of aim, with the birds already half over the ti-tree
at the other side."

"Did you get any?" Jim asked.

"One duck," said the Hermit sadly. "And even for him I had to swim; he
obligingly chose a watery grave just to spite me, I believe. He wasn't
much of a duck either. After I had stripped and swum for him, dressed
again, prepared the duck, cooked him, and finally sat down to dinner,
there was so little of him that he only amounted to half a meal, and was
tough at that!"

"So was your luck," observed Wally.

"Uncommonly tough," agreed the Hermit. "However, these things are the
fortunes of war, and one has to put up with them, grin, and play the
game. It's surprising how much tougher things look if you once begin to
grumble. I've had so much bad luck in the bush that I've really got
quite used to it."

"How's that?" asked Harry.

"Why," said the Hermit, "if it wasn't one thing, it was mostly another.
I beg your pardon, Miss Norah, let me help you over this log. I've had
my tucker stolen again and again, several times by birds, twice by
swaggies, and once by a couple of black fellows pilgrimaging through the
bush I don't know whither. They happened on my camp, and helped
themselves; I reckoned myself very lucky that they only took food,
though I've no doubt they would have taken more if I hadn't arrived on
the scene in the nick of time and scared them almost out of their wits."

"How did you do that?" asked Norah; "tell us about it, Mr. Hermit!"

The Hermit smiled down at Norah's eager face.

"Oh, that's hardly a yarn, Miss Norah," he said, his eyes twinkling in a
way that made them look astonishingly young, despite his white hair and
his wrinkles. "That was only a small happening, though it capped a day
of bad luck. I had been busy in camp all the morning cooking, and had
laid in quite a supply of tucker, for me. I'd cooked some wild duck, and
roasted a hare, boiled a most splendid plum-duff and finally baked a big
damper, and I can tell you I was patting myself on the back because I
need not do any more cooking for nearly a week, unless it were fish--I'm
not a cook by nature, and pretty often go hungry rather than prepare a
meal.

"After dinner I thought I'd go down to the creek and try my luck--it was
a perfect day for fishing, still and grey. So I dug some worms--and
broke my spade in doing so--and started off.

"The promise of the day held good. I went to my favourite spot, and the
fish just rushed me--the worms must have been very tempting, or else the
fish larder was scantily supplied. At any rate, they bit splendidly, and
soon I grew fastidious, and was picking out and throwing back any that
weren't quite large enough. I fished from the old log over the creek,
and soon had a pile of fish, and grew tired of the sport. I was sleepy,
too, through hanging over the fire all the morning. I kept on fishing
mechanically, but it was little more than holding my bait in the water,
and I began nodding and dozing, leaning back on the broad old log.

"I didn't think I had really gone to sleep, though I suppose I must have
done so, because I dreamed a kind of half-waking dream. In it I saw a
snake that crept and crept nearer and nearer to me until I could see its
wicked eyes gleaming, and though I tried to get away, I could not. It
came on and on until it was quite near, and I was feeling highly
uncomfortable in my dream. At last I made a great effort, flung out my
hand towards a stick, and, with a yell, woke up, to realise that I had
struck something cold, and clammy, and wet. What it was I couldn't be
certain for an instant, until I heard a dull splash, and then I knew. I
had swept my whole string of fish into the water below!

"Oh, yes, I said things--who wouldn't? I was too disgusted to fish any
more, and the nightmare having thoroughly roused me, I gathered up my
tackle and made tracks for home, feeling considerably annoyed with
myself.

"You must know I've a private entrance into my camp. It's a track no one
would suspect of being a track, and by its aid I can approach
noiselessly. I've got into a habit of always sneaking back to camp--just
in case anyone should be there. This afternoon I came along quietly,
more from force of habit than from any real idea of looking out for
intruders. But half-way along it a sound pulled me up suddenly. It was
the sound of a voice.

"When you haven't heard anyone speak for a good many months, the human
voice has quite a startling effect upon you--or even the human sneeze,
Miss Norah!" added the Hermit, with a twinkle. "I stopped short and
listened with all my might. Presently the voice came again, low and
guttural, and I knew it for a native's.

"The conviction didn't fill me with joy, as you may imagine. I stole
forward, until by peeping through the bushes I gained a view of the
camp--and was rewarded with the spectacle of two blacks--ill-favoured
brutes they were, too--quite at home, one in the act of stuffing my
cherished roast hare into a dirty bag, the other just taking a huge bite
out of my damper!

"The sight, as you may imagine, didn't fill me with joy. From the bulges
in my black visitors' bag I gathered that the ducks had preceded the
hare; and even as I looked, the gentleman with the damper relaxed his
well-meant efforts, and thrust it, too, into the bag. Then they put down
the bag and dived into the tent, and I heard rustlings and low-toned
remarks that breathed satisfaction. I reckoned it was time to step in.

"Luckily, my gun was outside the tent--indeed I never leave it inside,
but have a special hiding-place for it under a handy log, for fear of
stray marauders overhauling my possessions. A gun is a pretty tempting
thing to most men, and since my duck-shooting failure I had treated
myself to a new double-barrel--a beauty.

"I crept to the log, drew out both guns, and then retired to the
bushes--a little uncertain, to tell the truth, what to do, for I hadn't
any particular wish to murder my dusky callers; and at the same time,
had to remember that they were two to one, and would be unhampered by
any feeling of chivalry, if we did come to blows. I made up my mind to
try to scare them--and suddenly I raised the most horrible, terrifying,
unearthly yell I could think of, and at the same time fired both barrels
of one gun quickly in the air!

"The effect was instantaneous. There was one howl of horror, and the
black fellows darted out of the tent! They almost cannoned into me--and
you know I must look a rum chap in these furry clothes and cap, with my
grandfatherly white beard! At all events, they seemed to think me so,
for at sight of me they both yelled in terror, and bolted away as fast
as their legs could carry them. I cheered the parting guests by howling
still more heartily, and firing my two remaining barrels over their
heads as they ran. They went as swiftly as a motor-car disappears from
view--I believe they reckoned they'd seen the bunyip. I haven't seen a
trace of them since.

"They'd had a fine time inside the tent. Everything I possessed had been
investigated, and one or two books badly torn--the wretches!" said the
Hermit ruefully. "My clothes (I've a few garments beside these beauties,
Miss Norah) had been pulled about, my few papers scattered wildly, and
even my bunk stripped of blankets, which lay rolled up ready to be
carried away. There wasn't a single one of my poor possessions that had
escaped notice, except, of course, my watch and money, which I keep
carefully buried. The tent was a remarkable spectacle, and so close and
reminiscent of black fellow that my first act was to undo the sides and
let the fresh air play through. I counted myself very lucky to get off
as lightly as I did--had I returned an hour later none of my goods and
chattels would have been left."

"What about the tucker?" Harry asked; "did they get away with the bag
they'd stowed it in?"

"Not they!" said the Hermit; "they were far too scared to think of bags
or tucker. They almost fell over it in their efforts to escape, but
neither of them thought of picking it up. It was hard luck for them,
after they'd packed it so carefully."

"Is that how you looked at it?" Jim asked, laughing.

"Well--I tried to," said the Hermit, laughing in his turn. "Sometimes it
was pretty hard work--and I'll admit that for the first few days my own
misfortunes were uppermost."

"But you didn't lose your tucker after all, you said?" queried Wally. "I
thought they left the bag?"

"They did," the Hermit admitted. "But have you ever explored the
interior of a black fellow's bag, Master Wally? No? Well, if you had,
you would understand that I felt no further hankerings over those
masterpieces of the cook's art. I'm not extra particular, I believe, but
I couldn't tackle them--no thanks! I threw them into the scrub--and then
washed my hands!"

"Poor you!" said Norah.

"Oh, I wasn't so badly off," said the Hermit. "They'd left me the
plum-duff, which was hanging in its billy from a bough. Lots of duff--I
had it morning, noon and night, until I found something fresh to
cook--and I haven't made duff since. And here we are at the creek!"

CHAPTER IX

FISHING

The party had for some time been walking near the creek, so close to it
that it was within sound, although they seldom got a glimpse of water,
save where the ti-tree scrub on the bank grew thinner or the light wind
stirred an opening in its branches. Now, however, the Hermit suddenly
turned, and although the others failed to perceive any track or
landmark, he led them quickly through the scrub belt to the bank of the
creek beyond.

It was indeed an ideal place for fishing. A deep, quiet pool, partly
shaded by big trees, lay placid and motionless, except for an occasional
ripple, stirred by a light puff of wind. An old wattle tree grew on the
bank, its limbs jutting out conveniently, and here Jim and Wally
ensconced themselves immediately, and turned their united attention to
business. For a time no sound was heard save the dull "plunk" of sinkers
as the lines, one by one, were flung into the water.

The Hermit did not fish. He had plenty at his camp, he said, and fishing
for fun had lost its excitement, since he fished for a living most days
of the week. So he contented himself with advising the others where to
throw in, and finally sat down on the grass near Norah.

A few minutes passed. Then Jim jerked his line hurriedly and began to
pull in with a feverish expression. It lasted until a big black fish
made its appearance, dangling from the hook, and then it was suddenly
succeeded by a look of intense disgust, as a final wriggle released the
prisoner, which fell back with a splash into the water.

"Well, I'm blessed!" said Jim wrathfully.

"Hard luck!" said Harry.

"Try again, Jimmy, and stick to him this time," counselled Wally, in a
fatherly tone.

"Oh, you shut up," Jim answered, re-baiting his hook. "I didn't catch an
old boot, anyhow!"--which pertinent reflection had the effect of
silencing Wally, amidst mild mirth on the part of the other members of
the expedition.

Scarcely a minute more, and Norah pulled sharply at her line and began
to haul in rapidly.

"Got a whale?" inquired Jim.

"Something like it!" Norah pulled wildly.

"Hang on!"

"Stick to him!"

"Mind your eye!"

"Don't get your line tangled!"

"Want any help, Miss Norah?"

"No thanks." Norah was almost breathless. A red spot flamed in each
cheek.

Slowly the line came in. Presently it gave a sudden jerk, and was tugged
back quickly, as the fish made another run for liberty. Norah uttered an
exclamation, quickly suppressed, and caught it sharply, pulling
strongly.

Ah--he was out! A big, handsome perch, struggling and dancing in the air
at the end of the line. Shouts broke from the boys as Norah landed her
prize safely on the bank.

"Well done, Miss Norah," said the Hermit warmly.

"That's a beauty--as fine a perch as I've seen in this creek."

"Oh, isn't he a splendid fellow!" Norah cried, surveying the prey with
dancing eyes. "I'll have him for Dad, anyhow, even if I don't catch
another."

"Yes, Dad's breakfast's all right," laughed the Hermit. "But don't
worry, you'll catch more yet. See, there goes Harry."

There was a shout as Harry, with a scientific flourish of his rod,
hauled a small blackfish from its watery bed.

"Not bad for a beginning!" he said, grinning. "But not a patch on yours,
Norah!"

"Oh, I had luck," Norah said. "He really is a beauty, isn't he? I think
he must be the grandfather of all the perches."

"If that's so," said Jim, beginning to pull in, with an expression of
"do or die" earnestness, "I reckon I've got the grandmother on now!"

A storm of advice hurtled about Jim as he tugged at his line.

"Hurry up, Jim!"

"Go slow!"

"There--he's getting off again!"

"So are you!" said the ungrateful recipient of the counsel, puffing
hard.

"Only a boot, Jim--don't worry!"

"Gammon!--it's a shark!--look at his worried expression!"

"I'll 'shark' you, young Harry!" grunted Jim. "Mind your eye--there he
comes!" And expressions of admiration broke from the scoffers as a
second splendid perch dangled in the air and was landed high and dry--or
comparatively so--in the branches of the wattle tree.

"Is he as big as yours, Norah?" queried Jim a minute later, tossing his
fish down on the grass close to his sister and the Hermit.

Norah laid the two fishes alongside.

"Not quite," she announced; "mine's about an inch longer, and a bit
fatter."

"Well, that's all right," Jim said. "I said it was the grandmother I
had--yours is certainly the grandfather! I'm glad you got the biggest,
old girl." They exchanged a friendly smile.

A yell from Wally intimated that he had something on his hook, and with
immense pride he flourished in the air a diminutive blackfish--so small
that the Hermit proposed to use it for bait, a suggestion promptly
declined by the captor, who hid his catch securely in the fork of two
branches, before re-baiting his hook. Then Harry pulled out a fine
perch, and immediately afterwards Norah caught a blackfish; and after
that the fun waxed fast and furious, the fish biting splendidly, and all
hands being kept busy. An hour later Harry shook the last worm out of
the bait tin and dropped it into the water on his hook, where it
immediately was seized by a perch of very tender years.

"Get back and grow till next year," advised Harry, detaching the little
prisoner carefully, the hook having caught lightly in the side of its
mouth. "I'll come for you next holidays!" and he tossed the tiny fellow
back into the water. "That's our last scrap of bait, you chaps," he
said, beginning to wind up his line.

"I've been fishing with an empty hook for I don't know how long," said
Jim, hauling up also. "These beggars have nibbled my bait off and
carefully dodged the hook."

"Well, we've plenty, haven't we?" Norah said. "Just look what a splendid
pile of fish!"

"They take a bit of beating, don't they?" said Jim. "That's right, Wal,
pull him up!" as Wally hauled in another fine fish. "We couldn't carry
more if we had 'em."

"Then it's a good thing my bait's gone, too!" laughed Norah, winding up.
"Haven't we had a most lovely time!"

Jim produced a roll of canvas which turned out to be two sugar bags, and
in these carefully bestowed the fish, sousing the whole thoroughly in
the water. The boys gathered up the lines and tackle and "planted" the
rods conveniently behind a log, "to be ready for next time," they said.

"Well, we've had splendid sport, thanks to you, sir," Jim said, turning
to the Hermit, who stood looking on at the preparations, a benevolent
person, "something between Father Christmas and Robinson Crusoe," as
Norah whispered to Harry. "We certainly wouldn't have got on half as
well if we'd stayed where we were."

"Oh, I don't know," the Hermit answered. "Yours is a good place--I've
often caught plenty of fish there--only not to be relied on as this pool
is. I've really never known this particular spot fail--the fish seem to
live in it all the year round. However, I'm glad you've had decent
luck--it's not a bit jolly to go home empty-handed, I know. And now,
what's the next thing to be done? The afternoon's getting on--don't you
think it's time you came to pay me a visit at the camp?"

"Oh, yes, please!" Norah cried.

Jim hesitated.

"We'd like awfully to see your camp, if--if it's not any bother to you,"
he said.

"Not the least in the world," the Hermit said. "Only I can't offer you
any refreshment. I've nothing but cold 'possum and tea, and the
'possum's an acquired taste, I'm afraid. I've no milk for the tea, and
no damper, either!"

"By George!" said Jim remorsefully. "Why, we ate all your damper at
lunch!"

"I can easily manufacture another," the Hermit said, laughing. "I'm
used to the process. Only I don't suppose I could get it done soon
enough for afternoon tea."

"We've loads of tucker," Jim said. "Far more than we're likely to eat.
Milk, too. We meant to boil the billy again before we start for home."

"I'll tell you what," Norah said, struck by a brilliant idea. "Let's
coo-ee for Billy, and when he comes send him back for our things. Then
if--if Mr. Hermit likes, we could have tea at his camp."

"Why, that's a splendid notion," the Hermit cried. "I'm delighted that
you thought of it, Miss Norah, although I'm sorry my guests have to
supply their own meal! It doesn't seem quite the thing--but in the bush,
polite customs have to fall into disuse. I only keep up my own good
manners by practising on old Turpentine, my snake! However, if you're so
kind as to overlook my deficiencies, and make them up yourselves, by all
means let us come along and coo-ee for sweet William!"

He shouldered one of the bags of fish as he spoke, disregarding a
protest from the boys. Jim took the second, and they set out for the
camp.

Their way led for some time along the track by which they had come, if
"track" it might be called. Certainly, the Hermit trod it confidently
enough, but the others could only follow in his wake, and wonder by what
process he found his way so quickly through the thick bush.

About half a mile along the creek the Hermit suddenly turned off almost
at right angles, and struck into the scrub. The children followed him
closely, keeping as nearly at his heels as the nature of the path would
permit.

Norah found it not very pleasant. The Hermit went at a good rate,
swinging over the rough ground with the sure-footed case of one
accustomed to the scrub and familiar with the path. The boys unhampered
by skirts and long hair, found no great difficulty in keeping up with
him, but the small maiden of the party, handicapped by her clothes, to
say nothing of being youngest of them all, plodded along in the rear,
catching on sarsaparilla vines and raspberry tangles, plunging head
first through masses of dogwood, and getting decidedly the worst of the
journey.

Harry was the first to notice that Norah was falling "into the
distance," as he put it, and he ran back to her immediately.

"Poor old kid!" he said shamefacedly. "I'd no idea you were having such
a beast of a time. Sorry, Norah!" His polite regrets were cut short by
Norah's catching her foot in a creeper and falling bodily upon him.

"Thank you," said Harry, catching her deftly. "Delighted, I'm sure,
ma'am! It's a privilege to catch any one like you. Come on, old girl,
and I'll clear the track for you."

A little farther on the Hermit had halted, looking a trifle guilty.

"I'm really sorry, Miss Norah," he said, as Norah and Harry made their
way up to the waiting group. "I didn't realise I was going at such a
pace. We'll make haste more slowly."

He led the way, pausing now and again to make it easier for the little
girl, holding the bushes aside and lifting her bodily over several big
logs and sharp watercourses. Finally he stopped.

"I think if you give Billy a call now, Jim," he said, "he won't have
much difficulty in finding us."

To the children it seemed an utter impossibility that Billy should ever
find them, though they said nothing, and Jim obediently lifted up his
voice and coo-ee'd in answer to the Hermit's words. For himself, Jim was
free to confess he had quite lost his bearings, and the other boys were
as much at sea as if they had suddenly been dropped down at the North
Pole. Norah alone had an idea that they were not far from their original
camping-place; an idea which was confirmed when a long "Ai-i-i!" came in
response to Jim's shout, sounding startlingly near at hand.

"Master Billy has been making his way along the creek," commented the
Hermit. "He's no distance off. Give him another call."

"Here!" Jim shouted. Billy answered again, and after a few more
exchanges, the bushes parted and revealed the sable retainer, somewhat
out of breath.

"Scoot back to camp, Billy," Jim ordered. "Take these fish and soak 'em
in the creek, and bring back all our tucker--milk and all. Bring
it--Where'll he bring it, sir?" to the Hermit.

"See that tall tree, broken with the bough dangling?" the Hermit asked,
pointing some distance ahead. Billy nodded. "Come back to that and
cooee, and we'll answer you."

"Plenty!" said Billy, shouldering the bags of fish, and departing at a
run. Billy had learnt early the futility of wasting words.

"Come along," said the Hermit, laughing.

He turned off into the scrub, and led the way again, taking, it seemed
to Norah, rather a roundabout path. At length he stopped short, near a
dense clump of dogwood.

"My back door," he said politely.

They stared about them. There was no sign of any door at all, nor even
of any footprints or marks of traffic. The scrub was all about them;
everything was very still and quiet in the afternoon hush.

"Well, you've got us beaten and no mistake!" Jim laughed, after they had
peered fruitlessly about. "Unless you camp in the air, I don't see--"

"Look here," said the Hermit.

He drew aside a clump of dogwood, and revealed the end of an old log--a
huge tree-trunk that had long ago been a forest monarch, but having
fallen, now stretched its mighty length more than a hundred feet along
the ground. It was very broad and the uppermost side was flat, and here
and there bore traces of caked, dry mud that showed where a boot had
rested. The dogwood walled it closely on each side.

"That's my track home," the Hermit said. "Let me help you up, Miss
Norah."

He sprang up on the log as he spoke, and extended a hand to Norah, who
followed him lightly. Then the Hermit led the way along the log, which
was quite broad enough to admit of a wheelbarrow being drawn down its
length. He stopped where the butt of the old tree, rising above the
level of the trunk, barred the view, and pulling aside the dogwood,
showed rough steps, cut in the side of the log.

"Down here, Miss Norah."

In a moment they were all on the ground beside him--Wally, disdaining
the steps, having sprung down, and unexpectedly measured his length on
the earth, to the accompaniment of much chaff. He picked himself up,
laughing more than any of them, just as Norah popped her head through
the scrub that surrounded them, and exclaimed delightedly--.

"Why, here's the camp."

"I say," Jim said, following the Hermit into the little clearing,
"you're well planted here!"

The space was not very large--a roughly circular piece of ground, ringed
round with scrub, in which big gum trees reared their lofty heads. A
wattle tree stood in the centre, from its boughs dangling a rough
hammock, made of sacking, while a water bag hung from another convenient
branch. The Hermit's little tent was pitched at one side; across the
clearing was the rude fireplace that Norah had seen in the morning.
Everything, though tough enough, was very clean and tidy, with a certain
attempt at comfort.

The Hermit laughed.

"Yes, I'm pretty well concealed," he agreed. "You might be quite close
to the camp and never dream that it existed. Only bold explorers like
Miss Norah would have hit upon it from the side where she appeared to me
this morning, and my big log saves me the necessity of having a beaten
track home. I try, by getting on it at different points, to avoid a
track to the log, although, should a footmark lead anyone to it, the
intruder would never take the trouble to walk down an old bushhung
tree-trunk, apparently for no reason. So that I feel fairly secure about
my home and my belongings when I plan a fishing expedition or an
excursion that takes me any distance away."

"Well, it's a great idea," Jim said. "Of course, a beaten track to your
camp would be nothing more or less than an invitation to any swaggie or
black fellow to follow it up."

"That's what I thought," the Hermit said; "and very awkward it would
have been for me, seeing that one can't very well put a padlock on a
tent, and that all my belongings are portable. Not that there's anything
of great value. I have a few papers I wouldn't care to lose, a watch and
a little money--but they're all safely buried in a cashbox with a good
lock. The rest I have to chance, and, as I told you, I've so far been
pretty lucky in repelling invaders. There's not much traffic round here,
you know!"

Jim and Norah laughed. "Not much," they said, nodding.

"My tent's not large," the Hermit said, leading the way to that
erection, which was securely and snugly pitched with its back door (had
there been one) against the trunk of a huge dead tree. It was a
comparatively new tent, with a good fly, and was watertight, its owner
explained, in all weathers. The flap was elaborately secured by many
strings, tied with wonderful and fearful knots.

"It must take you a long time to untie those chaps every day," said
Wally.

"It would," said the Hermit, "if I did untie them. They're only part of
my poor little scheme for discouraging intruders, Master Wally." He
slipped his fingers inside the flap and undid a hidden fastening, which
opened the tent without disarranging the array of intricate knots.

"A fellow without a knife might spend quite a while in untying all
those," said the Hermit. "He'd be rather disgusted, on completing the
job, to find they had no bearing on the real fastening of the tent. And
perhaps by that time I might be home!"

The interior of the tent was scrupulously tidy and very plain. A hastily
put up bunk was covered with blue blankets, and boasted a sacking
pillow. From the ridge-pole hung a candlestick, roughly fashioned from a
knot of wood, and the furniture was completed by a rustic table and
chair, made from branches, and showing considerable ingenuity in their
fashioning. Wallaby skins thrown over the chair and upon the floor lent
a look of comfort to the tiny dwelling; and a further touch of
homeliness was given by many pictures cut from illustrated papers and
fastened to the canvas walls. The fly of the tent projected some
distance in front, and formed a kind of verandah, beneath which a second
rustic seat stood, as well as a block of wood that bore a tin dish, and
evidently did duty as a washstand. Several blackened billies hung about
the camp, with a frying-pan that bore marks of long and honourable use.

The children surveyed this unusual home with much curiosity and
interest, and the boys were loud in their praises of the chairs and
tables. The Hermit listened to their outspoken comments with a
benevolent look, evidently pleased with their approval, and soon Jim and
he were deep in a discussion of bush carpentry--Jim, as Wally said,
reckoning himself something of an artist in that line, and being eager
for hints. Meanwhile the other boys and Norah wandered about the camp,
wondering at the completeness that had been arrived at with so little
material, and at its utter loneliness and isolation.

"A man might die here half a dozen times, and no one be any the wiser,"
Wally said. "I wouldn't like it myself."

"Once would be enough for most chaps." Harry grinned.

"Oh, get out! you know what I mean," retorted Wally. "You chaps are
never satisfied unless you're pulling my leg--it's a wonder I don't
limp! But seriously, what a jolly rum life for a man to choose."

"He's an educated chap, too," Harry said--"talks like a book when he
likes. I wonder what on earth he's doing it for?"

They had dropped their voices instinctively, and had moved away from the
tent.

"He's certainly not the ordinary swaggie," Norah said slowly.

"Not by a good bit," Wally agreed. "Why, he can talk like our English
master at school! Perhaps he's hiding."

"Might be," Harry said. "You never can tell--he's certainly keen enough
on getting away from people."

"He's chosen a good place, then."

"Couldn't be better. I wonder if there's anything in it--if he really
has done anything and doesn't want to be found?"

"I never heard such bosh!" said Norah indignantly. "One would think he
really looked wicked, instead of being such a kind old chap. D'you think
he's gone and committed a murder, or robbed a bank, or something like
that? I wonder you're not afraid to be in his camp!"

The boys stared in amazement.

"Whew-w-w!" whistled Wally.

Harry flushed a little.

"Oh steady, Norah!" he protested--"we really didn't mean to hurt your
feelings. It was only an idea. I'll admit be doesn't look a hardened
sinner."

"Well, you shouldn't have such ideas," Norah said stoutly; "he's a great
deal too nice, and look how kind he's been to us! If he chooses to plant
himself in the bush, it's no one's business but his own."

"I suppose not," Harry began. He pulled up shortly as the Hermit,
followed by Jim, emerged from the tent.

The Hermit had a queer smile in his eyes, but Jim looked desperately
uncomfortable.

Jim favoured the others with a heavy scowl as he came out of the tent,
slipping behind the Hermit in order that he might deliver it unobserved.
It was plain enough to fill them with considerable discomfort. They
exchanged glances of bewilderment.

"I wonder what's up now?" Wally whispered.

Jim strolled over to them as the Hermit, without saying anything,
crossed to his fireplace, and began to put some sticks together.

"You're bright objects!" he whispered wrathfully. "Why can't you speak
softly if you must go gabbling about other people?"

"You don't mean to say he heard us?" Harry said, colouring.

"I do, then! We could hear every word you said, and it was jolly awkward
for me. I didn't know which way to look."

"Was he wild?" whispered Wally.

"Blessed if I know. He just laughed in a queer way, until Norah stuck up
for him, and then he looked grave. 'I'm lucky to have one friend,' he
said, and walked out of the tent. You're a set of goats!" finished Jim
comprehensively.

"Well, I'm not ashamed of what I said, anyhow!" Norah answered
indignantly. She elevated her tip-tilted nose, and walked away to where
the Hermit was gathering sticks, into which occupation she promptly
entered. The boys looked at each other.

"Well, I am--rather," Harry said. He disappeared into the scrub,
returning presently with a log of wood as heavy as he could drag. Wally,
seeing his idea, speedily followed suit, and Jim, after a stare, copied
their example. They worked so hard that by the time the Hermit and Norah
had the fire alight, quite a respectable stack of wood greeted the eye
of the master of the camp. He looked genuinely pleased.

"Well, you are kind chaps," he said. "That will save me wood-carting for
many a day, and it is a job that bothers my old back."

"We're very glad to get it for you, sir," Jim blurted, a trifle
shamefacedly. A twinkle came into the Hermit's eyes as he looked at him.

"That's all square, Jim," he said quietly, and without any more being
said the boys felt relieved. Evidently this Hermit was not a man to bear
malice, even if he did overhear talk that wasn't meant for him.

"Well," said the Hermit, breaking a somewhat awkward silence, "it's
about time we heard the dusky Billy, isn't it?"

"Quite time, I reckon," Jim replied. "Lazy young beggar!"

"Well, the billy's not boiling yet, although it's not far off it."

"There he is," Norah said quickly, as a long shout sounded near at hand.
The Hermit quickly went off in its direction, and presently returned,
followed by Billy, whose eyes were round as he glanced about the strange
place in which he found himself, although otherwise no sign of surprise
appeared on his sable countenance. He carried the bags containing the
picnic expedition's supply of food, which Norah promptly fell to
unpacking. An ample supply remained from lunch, and when displayed to
advantage on the short grass of the clearing the meal looked very
tempting. The Hermit's eyes glistened as Norah unpacked a bag of apples
and oranges as a finishing touch.

"Fruit!" he said. "Oh, you lucky people! I wish there were fruit shops
in the scrub. I can dispense with all the others, but one does miss
fruit."

"Well, I'm glad we brought such a bagful, because I'm sure we don't want
it," Norah said. "You must let us leave it with you, Mr. Hermit."

"Water's plenty boilin'," said Billy

Tea was quickly brewed, and presently they were seated on the ground and
making a hearty meal, as if the lunch of a few hours ago had never been.

"If a fellow can't get hungry in the bush," said Wally, holding out his
hand for his fifth scone, "then he doesn't deserve ever to get hungry at
all!" To which Jim replied, "Don't worry, old man--that's a fate that's
never likely to overtake you!" Wally, whose hunger was of a generally
prevailing kind, which usually afflicted him most in school hours,
subsided meekly into his tea-cup.

They did not hurry over the meal, for everyone was a little lazy after
the long day, and there was plenty of time to get home--the long summer
evening was before them, and it would merge into the beauty of a
moonlit night. So they "loafed" and chatted aimlessly, and drank huge
quantities of the billy-tea, that is quite the nicest tea in the world,
especially when it is stirred with a stick. And when they were really
ashamed to eat any more they lay about on the grass, yarning, telling
bush tales many and strange, and listening while the Hermit spun them
old-world stories that made the time slip away wonderfully. It was with
a sigh that Jim roused himself at last.

"Well," he said, "it's awfully nice being here, and I'm not in a bit of
a hurry to go--are you, chaps?"

The chaps chorused "No."

"All the same, it's getting late," Jim went on, pulling out his
watch--"later than I thought, my word! Come on--we'll have to hurry.
Billy, you slip along and saddle up the ponies one-time quick!"

Billy departed noiselessly.

"He never said 'Plenty!'" said Wally disappointedly, gathering himself
up from the grass.

"It was an oversight," Jim laughed. "Now then, Norah, come along. What
about the miserable remains?"

"The remains aren't so miserable," said Norah, who was on her knees
gathering up the fragments of the feast. "See, there's a lot of bread
yet, ever so many scones, heaps of cake, and the fruit, to say nothing
of butter and jam." She looked up shyly at the Hermit. "Would you--would
you mind having them?"

The Hermit laughed.

"Not a bit!" he said. "I'm not proud, and it is really a treat to see
civilized food again. I'll willingly act as your scavenger, Miss Norah."

Together they packed up the remnants, and the Hermit deposited them
inside his tent. He rummaged for a minute in a bag near his bed, and
presently came out with something in his hand.

"I amuse myself in my many odd moments by this sort of thing," he said.
"Will you have it, Miss Norah?"

He put a photograph frame into her hand--a dainty thing, made from the
native woods, cunningly jointed together and beautifully carved. Norah
accepted it with pleasure.

"It's not anything," the Hermit disclaimed--"very rough, I'm afraid. But
you can't do very good work when your pocket-knife is your only tool. I
hope you'll forgive its shortcomings, Miss Norah, and keep it to
remember the old Hermit."

"I think it's lovely," Norah said, looking up with shining eyes, "and
I'm ever so much obliged. I'll always keep it."

"Don't forget," the Hermit said, looking down at the flushed face. "And
some day, perhaps, you'll all come again."

"We must hurry," Jim said.

They were all back at the lunching-place, and the sight of the sun,
sinking far across the plain, recalled Jim to a sense of half-forgotten
responsibility.

"It's every man for his own steed," he said. "Can you manage your old
crock, Norah?"

"Don't you wish yours was half as good?" queried Norah, as she took the
halter off Bobs and slipped the bit into his mouth.

Jim grinned.

"Knew I'd got her on a soft spot!" he murmured, wrestling with a
refractory crupper.

Harry and Wally were already at their ponies. Billy, having fixed the
load to his satisfaction on the pack mare, was standing on one foot on a
log jutting over the creek, drawing the fish from their cool
resting-place in the water. The bag came up, heavy and dripping--so
heavy, indeed, that it proved the last straw for Billy's balance, and,
after a wild struggle to remain on the log, he was forced to step off
with great decision into the water, a movement accompanied with a
decisive "Bust!" amidst wild mirth on the part of the boys. Luckily, the
water was not knee deep, and the black retainer regained the log, not
much the worse, except in temper.

"Damp in there, Billy?" queried Wally, with a grave face.

"Plenty!" growled Billy, marching off the log with offended dignity and
a dripping leg.

The Hermit had taken Norah's saddle and placed it on Bobs, girthing it
up with the quick movements of a practised hand. Norah watched him
keenly, and satisfaction crept into her eyes, as, the job done, the old
man stroked the pony's glossy neck, and Bobs, scenting a friend, put his
nose into his hand.

"He likes you," Norah said; "he doesn't do that to everyone. Do you like
horses?"

"Better than men," said the Hermit. "You've a good pony, Miss Norah."

"Yes, he's a beauty," the little girl said. "I've had him since he was a
foal."

"He'll carry you home well. Fifteen miles, is it?"

"About that, I think."

"And we'll find Dad hanging over the home paddock gate, wondering where
we are," said Jim, coming up, leading his pony. "We'll have to say
good-night, sir."

"Good-night, and good-bye," said the Hermit, holding out his hand. "I'm
sorry you've all got to go. Perhaps some other holidays--?"

"We'll come out," nodded Jim. He shook hands warmly. "And if ever you
find your way in as far as our place--"

"I'm afraid not," said the Hermit hastily. "As I was explaining to Miss
Norah, I'm a solitary animal. But I hope to see you all again."

The boys said "good-bye" and mounted. The Hermit held Bobs while Norah
swung herself up--the pony was impatient to be gone.

"Good-bye," he said.

Norah looked at him pitifully.

"I won't say good-bye," she said. "I'm coming back--some day. So
it's--'so long!'"

"So long," the old man echoed, rather drearily, holding her hand. Then
something queer came into his eyes, for suddenly Norah bent from the
saddle and kissed his cheek.

He stood long, watching the ponies and the little young figures
scurrying across the plain. When they vanished he turned wearily and,
with slow steps, went back into the scrub.

* * * * *

They forded the creek carefully, for the water was high, and it was dark
in the shadows of the trees on the banks. Jim knew the way well, and so
did Norah, and they led, followed by the other boys. When they had
crossed, it was necessary to go steadily in the dim light. The track was
only wide enough for them to ride in Indian file, which is not a method
of locomotion which assists conversation, and they rode almost in
silence.

It was queer, down there in the bush, with only cries of far-off birds
to break the quiet. Owls and mopokes hooted dismally, and once a great
flapping thing flew into Harry's face, and he uttered a startled yell
before he realised that it was only one of the night birds--whereat
mirth ensued at the expense of Harry. Then to scare away the hooters
they put silence to flight with choruses, and the old bush echoed to
"Way Down Upon the Swanee River" and more modern songs, which aren't
half so sweet as the old Christy Minstrel ditties. After they had
exhausted all the choruses they knew, Harry "obliged" with one of
Gordon's poems, recited with such boyish simplicity combined with vigour
that it quite brought down the audience, who applauded so loudly that
the orator was thankful for the darkness to conceal his blushes.

"Old Harry's our champion elocutioner at school, you know," Wally said.
"You should have heard him last Speech Day! He got more clapping than
all the rest put together."

"Shut up, young Wally!" growled Harry in tones of affected wrath.

"Same to you," said Wally cheerfully. "Why, you had all the mammas
howling into their hankies in your encore piece!"

After which nothing would satisfy Norah but another recitation, and
another after that; and then the timber ended, and there was only the
level plain be tween them and home, with the moon just high enough to
make it sufficiently light for a gallop. They tore wildly homeward, and
landed in a slightly dishevelled bunch at the gate of the paddock.

No one was about the stables.

"Men all gone off somewhere," said Jim laconically, proceeding to let
his pony go. His example was followed by each of the others, the steeds
dismissed with a rub and a pat, and the saddles placed on the stands.

"Well, I don't know about you chaps," said Jim, "but I'm as hungry as a
hunter!"

"Same here," chorused the chaps.

"Come along and see what good old Brownie's put by for us," said Norah,
disappearing towards the house like a small comet.

The boys raced after her. In the kitchen doorway Mrs. Brown stood, her
broad face resplendent with smiles.

"I was just beginning to wonder if any of you had fallen into the
creek," she said. "You must be hungry, poor dears. Supper's ready."

"Where's Dad?" asked Norah.

"Your Pa's gone to Sydney."

"Sydney!"

"Yes, my dears. A tallygrum came for him--something about some valuable
cattle to be sold, as he wants."

"Oh," said Jim, "those shorthorns he was talking about?"

"Very like, Master Jim. Very sorry, your Pa were, he said, to go so
suddint, and not to see you again, and the other young gentlemen
likewise, seein' you go away on Monday. He left his love to Miss Norah,
and a letter for you; and Miss Norah, you was to try not to be dull, and
he would be back by Thursday, so he 'oped."

"Oh," said Norah, blankly. "It's hardly a homecoming without Dad."

Supper was over at last, and it had been a monumental meal. To behold
the onslaughts made by the four upon Mrs. Brown's extensive preparations
one might have supposed that they had previously been starving for time
uncounted.

"Heigho!" said Jim. "Our last day to-morrow."

Groans followed from Harry and Wally.

"What do you want to remind a fellow for?"

"Couldn't help it--slipped out. What a jolly sell not to see old Dad

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