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A Little Bush Maid by Mary Grant Bruce

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again!" Jim wrinkled his brown handsome face into a frown.

"You needn't talk!" said Norah gloomily. "Fancy me on Monday--not a soul
to speak to."

"Poor old Norah--yes, it's rough on you," said Jim. "Wish you were
coming too. Why can't you get Dad to let you go to school in Melbourne?"

"Thanks," said Norah hastily, "I'd rather not. I think I can bear this
better. School! What on earth would I do with myself, shut up all day?"

"Oh, all right; I thought you might like it. You get used to it, you
know."

"I couldn't get used to doing without Dad," returned Norah.

"Or Dad to doing without you, I reckon," said Jim. "Oh, I suppose it's
better as it is--only you'll have to get taught some day, old chap, I
suppose."

"Oh, never mind that now," Norah said impatiently. "I suppose I'll have
a governess some day, and she won't let me ride astride, or go after the
cattle, or climb trees, or do anything worth doing, and everything will
be perfectly hateful. It's simply beastly to be getting old!"

"Cheer up, old party," Jim laughed. "She might be quite a decent sort
for all you know. As for riding astride, Dad'll never let you ride any
other way, so you can keep your mind easy about that. Well, never mind
governesses, anyhow; you haven't got one yet, and sufficient unto the
day is the governess thereof. What are we going to do to-morrow?"

"Can't do very much," said Norah, still showing traces of gloom. "It's
Sunday; besides, the horses want a spell, and you boys will have to
pack--you leave pretty early on Monday, you know."

"Oh, botheration!" said Wally, jumping up so suddenly that he upset his
chair. "For goodness' sake, don't talk of going back until we actually
get there; it's bad enough then. Let's go and explore somewhere
to-morrow."

"We can do that all right," said Jim, glad of any turn being given to
the melancholy conversation. "We've never taken you chaps to the falls,
two miles up the creek, and they're worth seeing."

"It's a nice walk, too," added Norah, putting sorrow to flight by deftly
landing a pellet of bread on Harry's nose. "Think you can struggle so
far, Harry?"

"Yes, and carry you back when you knock up," said that gentleman,
returning the missile, without success, Norah having retreated behind a
vase of roses. "I think it would be a jolly good plan."

"Right oh!" said Jim. "That's settled. We'll pack up in the morning, get
Brownie to give us dinner early, and start in good time. It doesn't
really take long to walk there, you know, only we want to be able to
loaf on the way, and when we get to the falls."

"Rather," said Harry. "I never see any fun in a walk when you tear
somewhere, get there, and tear back again. Life's too short. Come on,
Norah, and play to us."

So they trooped into the drawing-room, and for an hour the boys lay
about on sofas and easy chairs, while Norah played softly. Finally she
found that her entire audience was sound asleep, a state of things she
very naturally resented by gently pouring water from a vase on their
peaceful faces. Peace fled at that, and so did Norah.

CHAPTER X

THE LAST DAY

"Now then, Harry, are you ready?"

"Coming," said Harry's cheerful voice. He appeared on the verandah,
endeavouring to cram a gigantic apple into his pocket.

"Norah's," he said, in response to Jim's lifted eyebrows. "Don't know if
she means to eat it in sections or not--it certainly doesn't mean to go
into my pocket as it is." He desisted from his efforts. "Try it in the
crown of your hat, old man."

"Thanks--my hat's got all it knows to hold my brains," retorted Jim.
"You can't take that thing. Here, Norah," as that damsel appeared on the
step, "how do you imagine Harry's going to cart this apple?"

"Quite simple," said Norah airily. "Cut it in four, and we'll each take
a bit."

"That's the judgment of Solomon," said Wally, who was lying full length
on the lawn--recovering, as Jim unkindly suggested, from dinner.

"Well, come along," Jim said impatiently--"you're an awfully hard crowd
to get started. We want to reach the falls in fair time, to see the
sunlight on them--it's awfully pretty. After about three or four o'clock
the trees shade the water, and it's quite ordinary."

"Just plain, wet water," murmured Wally. Jim rolled him over and over
down the sloping lawn, and then fled, pursued by Wally with dishevelled
attire and much grass in his mouth. The others followed more steadily,
and all four struck across the paddock to the creek.

It was a rather hot afternoon, and they were glad to reach the shade of
the bank and to follow the cattle track that led close to the water.
Great fat bullocks lay about under the huge gum trees, scarcely raising
their eyes to glance at the children as they passed; none were eating,
all were chewing the cud in lazy contentment. They passed through a
smaller paddock where superb sheep dotted the grass--real aristocrats
these, accustomed to be handled and petted, and to live on the fat of
the land--poor grass or rough country food they had never known. Jim and
Norah visited some special favourites, and patted them. Harry and Wally
admired at a distance.

"Those some of the sheep you saved from the fire?" queried Harry.

Norah flushed.

"Never did," she said shortly, and untruthfully. "Don't know why you
can't talk sense, Jim!"--at which that maligned youth laughed
excessively, until first the other boys, and then Norah, joined in,
perforce.

After again climbing over the sheep-proof fence of the smaller paddock
they came out upon a wide plain, almost treeless, save for the timber
along the creek, where their cattle track still led them. Far as they
could see no fence broke the line of yellow grass. There were groups of
cattle out on the plain. These were store bullocks, Jim explained, a
draft recently arrived from Queensland, and hardly yet acclimatised.

"It takes a good while for them to settle down," Norah said, "and then
lots of 'em get sick--pleuro and things; and we inoculate them, and
their tails drop off, and sometimes the sick ones get bad-tempered, and
it's quite exciting work mustering."

"Dangerous?" asked Wally.

"Not with a pony that knows things like Bobs," said Bobs' mistress. "He
always keeps his weather eye open for danger."

"Not a bad thing, as you certainly don't," laughed Jim.

"Well--do you?"

"Certainly I do," said Jim firmly, whereat Norah laughed very heartily.

"When I leave school, Dad says I can go on the roads with the cattle for
one trip," said Jim. "Be no end of fun--takes ever so long to bring them
down from Queensland, and the men have a real good time--travel with a
cook, and a covered buggy and pair to bring the tucker and tents along."

"What'll you be?" asked Wally--"cook?"

"No, slushy," said Harry.

"No, I'll take you two chaps along in those billets," grinned Jim.

"I don't know who'd be cook," said Norah solemnly; "but I don't think
the men would be in very good condition at the end of the trip,
whichever of you it was!"

With such pleasantries they beguiled the way, until, on rounding a bend
in the track, a dull roar came plainly to their ears.

"What's that?" asked Wally, stopping to listen.

"That's the falls, my boy," replied Jim. "They're really quite
respectable falls--almost Niagarous! Come along, we'll see them in a
couple of minutes."

The sound of falling water became plainer and plainer as they pushed on.
At this point the track was less defined and the scrub thicker--Jim
explained that the cattle did not come here much, as there was no
drinking-place for them for a good distance below the falls. They might
almost have imagined themselves back in the bush near the Hermit's camp,
Harry said, as they pushed their way through scrub and undergrowth, many
raspberry vines adding variety, if not charm, to the scramble. The last
part of the walk was up bill, and at length they came out upon a clearer
patch of ground.

For some time the noise of the falls had deepened, until now it was a
loud roar; but the sound had hardly prepared the boys for the sight that
met their gaze. High up were rocky cliffs, sparsely clothed with
vegetation, and through these the creek had cut its way, falling in one
sheer mass, fifty feet or more, into the bed below, hollowed out by it
during countless ages. The water curved over the top of the fall in one
exquisite wave, smooth as polished marble, but half-way down a point of
rock jutted suddenly out, and on this the waters dashed and split,
flying off from it in a cloud of spray. At the foot the cataract roared
and bubbled and seethed in one boiling mass of rapids.

But the glory of it all was the sunlight. It fell right on the mass of
descending water; and in the rays the fall glittered and flashed with
all the colours of the rainbow, and the flying spray was like powdered
jewels. It caught the drops hanging on the ferns that fringed the water,
and turned them into twinkling diamonds. The whole fall seemed to be
alive in the sunbeams' dancing light.

"Oh-h, I say," whispered Harry. "Fancy never showing us this before!" He
cast himself on the ground and lay, chin in hands, gazing at the wonder
before him.

"We kept it to the last," said Norah softly. She sat down by him and the
others followed their example.

"Just think," said Harry, "that old creek's been doing that ever since
time began--every day the sun comes to take his share at lighting it up,
long before we were born, and ages after we shall die! Doesn't it make
you feel small!"

Norah nodded understandingly. "I saw it once by moonlight," she said.
"Dad and I rode here one night--full moon. Oh, it was lovely! Not like
this, of course, because there wasn't any colour--but a beautiful white,
clean light, and the fall was like a sheet of silver."

"Did you ever throw anything over?" asked Wally. His wonderment was
subsiding and the boy in him woke up again.

"No good," said Jim. "You never see it again. I've thrown a stick in up
above, and it simply whisks over and gets sucked underneath the curtain
of water at once, and disappears altogether until it reaches the smooth
water, ever so far down."

"Say you went over yourself?"

"Wouldn't be much left of you," Jim answered, with a laugh. "The bed of
the creek's simply full of rocks--you can see a spike sticking up here
and there in the rapids. We've seen sheep come down in flood-time--they
get battered to bits. I don't think I'll try any experiments, thank you,
young Wally."

"You always were a disobliging critter," Wally grinned.

"Another time a canoe came over," Jim said. "It belonged to two chaps
farther up--they'd just built it, and were out for the first time, and
got down too near the falls. They didn't know much about managing their
craft, and when the suck of the water began to take them along they
couldn't get out of the current. They went faster and faster, struggling
to paddle against the stream, instead of getting out at an angle and
making for the bank--which they might have done. At last they could hear
the roar of the falls quite plainly."

"What happened to them?" asked Wally. "Did they go over?"

"Well, they reckoned it wasn't healthy to remain in the canoe," said
Jim. "It was simply spinning along in the current, and the falls were
almost in sight. So they dived in, on opposite sides--the blessed canoe
nearly tipped over when they stood up, and only the shock of the cross
drive kept her right. Of course the creek's not so very wide, even
farther up beyond the falls, and the force of their spring sent them
nearly out of the current. They could both swim well, and after a
struggle they got to the banks, just in time to see the canoe whisk over
the waterfall!"

"What hard luck!"

"It was rather. They started off down-stream to find it, but for a long
way they couldn't see a trace. Then, right in the calm water, ever so
far down, they found it--bit by bit. It was broken into so much
matchwood!"

"What did they do?" asked Wally.

"Stood and stared at it from opposite sides, like two wet images," said
Jim, laughing. "It's lowdown to grin, I suppose, but they must have
looked funny. Then one of them swam across and they made their way to
our place, and we fixed them up with dry things and drove them home. I
don't think they've gone in for canoeing since!" finished Jim
reflectively.

"Well, I guess it would discourage them a bit," Wally agreed. "Getting
shipwrecked's no fun."

"Ever tried it?"

"Once--in Albert Park Lagoon," Wally admitted bashfully. "Some of us
went out for a sail one Saturday afternoon. We didn't know much about
it, and I really don't know what it was that tipped the old boat over. I
was the smallest, so naturally I wasn't having any say in managing her."

"That accounts for it," said Jim dryly.

"Didn't mean that--goat!" said Wally. "Anyhow, I was very much
astonished to find myself suddenly kicking in the mud. Ever been in that
lake? It isn't nice. It isn't deep enough to drown you, but the mud is a
caution. I got it all over me--face and all!"

"You must have looked your best!" said Jim.

"I did. I managed to stand up, very much amazed to find I wasn't
drowned. Two of the others walked out! I was too small to do more than
just manage to keep upright. The water was round my chest. I couldn't
have walked a yard."

"How did you manage?"

"A boat came along and picked up the survivors," grinned Wally. "They
wouldn't take us in. We were just caked with mud, so I don't blame
'em--but we hung on to the stern, and they towed us to the shore. We
were quite close to land. Then they went back and brought our boat to
us. They were jolly kind chaps--didn't seem to mind any trouble."

"You don't seem to have minded it, either," said Norah.

"We were too busy laughing," Wally said. "You have to expect these
things when you go in for a life on the ocean wave. The worst part of it
came afterwards, when we went home. That was really unpleasant. I was
staying at my aunt's in Toorak."

"Did you get into a row?"

"It was unpleasant," Wally repeated. "Aunts haven't much sympathy, you
know. They don't like mess, and I was no end messy. We won't talk about
it, I think, thank you." Wally rolled over on his back, produced an
apple and bit into it solemnly.

"Let us respect his silence," said Jim.

"You had aunts too?" queried Wally, with his mouth full.

"Not exactly aunts," Jim said. "But we had an old Tartar of a
housekeeper once, when we were small kids. She ruled us with a rod of
iron for about six months, and Norah and I could hardly call our souls
our own. Father used to be a good deal away and Mrs. Lister could do
pretty well as she liked."

"I did abominate that woman," said Norah reflectively.

"I don't wonder," replied Jim. "You certainly were a downtrodden little
nipper as ever was. D'you remember the time we went canoeing in the
flood on your old p'rambulator?"

"Not likely to forget it."

"What was it?" Wally asked. "Tell us, Jim."

"Norah had a pram--like most kids," Jim began.

"Well, I like that," said Norah, in great indignation. "It was yours
first!"

"Never said it wasn't," said Jim somewhat abashed by the laughter that
ensued. "But that was ages ago. It was yours at this time, anyhow. But
only the lower storey was left--just the floor of the pram on three
wheels. Norah used to sit on this thing and push herself along with two
sticks, like rowing on dry land."

"It was no end of fun," said Norah. "You _could_ go!"

"You could," grinned Jim. "I'll never forget the day I saw you start
from the top of the hill near the house. The pram got a rate on of a
mile a minute, and the sticks weren't needed. About half-way down it
struck a root, and turned three double somersaults in the air. I don't
know how many Norah turned--but when Dad and I got to the spot she was
sitting on a thick mat of grass, laughing like one o'clock, and the pram
was about half a mile away on the flat with its wheels in the air! We
quite reckoned you were killed."

"Yes, and Dad made me promise not to go down that hill again," said
Norah ruefully. "It was a horrid nuisance!"

"Well, there was a flood," said Jim. "Not very much of a one. We'd had a
good bit of rain, and the water-hole in the home paddock overflowed and
covered all the flat about two feet deep. At first it was a bit too deep
for Norah and her wheeled boat, but when it went down a bit she set off
voyaging. She did look a rum little figure, out in the middle of the
water, pushing herself along with her two sticks! Mrs. Lister didn't
approve of it, but as Dad had given her leave, the housekeeper couldn't
stop her."

At this point Norah was heard to murmur "Cat!"

"Just so!" said Jim. "Well, you know, I used to poke fun at Norah and
this thing. But one day I had gone down to the water's edge, and she
came up on it, poling herself through the water at a great rate, and it
occurred to me it didn't look half bad fun. So I suggested a turn
myself."

"You said, 'Here, kid, let's have that thing for a bit,'" said Norah
firmly.

"Did I?" said Jim, with meekness.

"Yes, you did. So I kindly got off."

"Then?" asked Harry.

"He got on. I said, 'Jim, dear, pray be careful about the holes, and let
me tell you where they are!'"

"I'm sure you did!" grinned Wally.

"And he said, 'If a kid like you can keep out of holes, I guess I can!'"

"I'm sure he did!" said Wally.

"Yes. So he set off. Now I had been over that flat so often in dry
weather that I knew every bit of it. But Jim didn't. He went off as hard
as he could, and got on very well for a little bit--"

"Am I telling this yarn, or are you?" inquired Jim, laughing.

"This is the part that is best for me to tell," said Norah solemnly.
"Then he turned suddenly, so suddenly I hadn't time to do more than yell
a warning, which he didn't hear--and the next minute the side wheels of
the pram went over the edge of a hole, and the thing turned upside down
upon poor old Jimmy!"

"How lovely!" said Wally, kicking with delight. "Well, and what
happened?"

"Oh, Jim can tell you now," laughed Norah. "I wasn't under the water!"

"I was!" said Jim. "The blessed old pram turned clean over and cast me
bodily into a hole. That was all I knew--until I tried to get out, and
found the pram had come, too, and was right on top of me--and do you
think I could move that blessed thing?"

"Well?"

"In came Norah," said Jim. "(I'll take it out of you now, my girl!) She
realised at once what had happened and waded in from the bank and pulled
the old pram off her poor little brother! I came up, spluttering, to see
Norah, looking very white, just preparing to dive in after me!"

"You never saw such a drowned rat!" said Norah, taking up the tale.
"Soaked--and muddy--and very cross! And the first thing he did was to
abuse my poor old wheely-boat!"

"Well--wouldn't you?" Jim laughed. "Had to abuse something! Anyhow, we
righted her and Norah waded farther in after the sticks, which had
floated peacefully away, and we pulled the wheely-boat ashore. Then we
roared laughing at each other. I certainly was a drowned rat, but Norah
wasn't much better, as she'd slipped nearly into the hole herself, in
pulling the pram off me. But when we'd laughed, the first thought
was--'How are we going to dodge Mrs. Lister!' It was a nasty problem!"

"What did you do?"

"Well, after consultation we got up near the house, planting the pram in
some trees. We dodged through the shrubbery until we reached that old
summer-house, and there I left Norah and scooted over to the stables,
and borrowed an overcoat belonging to a boy we had working and a pair of
his boots. Dad was away, or I might have gone straight to him. I put on
the borrowed things over my wet togs (and very nice I looked!) and
trotted off to the side of the house. No one seemed about, so I slipped
into my room through the window and then into Norah's, and got a bundle
of clothes, and back I scooted to the summer-house, left Norah's things
there, and found a dressing-room for myself among some shrubs close by.

"Well, do you know, that old cat, Mrs. Lister, had seen us all the time?
She'd actually spotted us coming up the paddock, dripping, and had
deliberately planted herself to see what we'd do. She knew all about my
expedition after clothes; then she followed us to the shrubbery, and
descended upon us like an avalanche, just as we got half-dressed!"

"'May I ask what you naughty little children are doing?' she said.

"Well, you know, that put my back up a bit--'cause I was nearly twelve,
and Dad didn't make a little kid of me. However, I tried to keep civil,
and tell her what had happened; but she told me to hold my tongue. She
grabbed Norah by the shoulder, and called her all the names under the
sun, and shook her. Then she said, 'You'll come to bed at once, miss!'
and caught hold of her wrist to drag her in.

"Now Norah had sprained her wrist not long before, and she had to be a
bit careful of it. We all knew that. She didn't cry out when Mrs. Lister
jerked her wrist, but I saw her turn white, and knew it was the bad
one."

"So he chucked himself on top of old Mrs. Lister, and pounded her as
hard as he could," put in Norah, "and she was so astonished she let me
go. She turned her attention to Jim then, and gave him a terrible whack
over the head that sent him flying. And just then we heard a voice that
was so angry we hardly recognised it for Dad's, saying--

"'What is this all about?'"

"My word, we were glad to see Dad!" said Jim. "He came over and put his
arm round Norah--poor little kid. Mrs. Lister had screwed her wrist till
it was worse than ever it had been, and she was as white as a sheet. Dad
helped her on with her clothes. All the time Mrs. Lister was pouring out
a flood of eloquence against us, and was nearly black in the face with
rage. Dad took no notice until Norah was dressed. Then he said, 'Come to
me in the study in twenty minutes,' and he picked Norah up and carried
her inside, where he dosed her, and fixed up her wrist. I put on my
clothes and followed them.

"Norah and I never said anything until Mrs. Lister had told her story,
which was a fine production, little truth, and three parts awful crams.
Then Dad asked for our side, and we just told him. He knew we never told
lies, and he believed us, and we told him some other things Mrs. Lister
used to do to us in the way of bullying and spite. I don't know that Dad
needed them, because Norah's wrist spoke louder than fifty tales, and he
didn't need any more evidence, though after all, she might have grabbed
the bad wrist by mistake, and she had done far worse things on purpose.
But the end of it was, Mrs. Lister departed that night, and Norah and I
danced a polka in the hall when we heard the buggy drive off."

"That being the case," said Norah gravely, "we'll all have an apple."

The apples were produced and discussed, and then it was time to think of
home, for the sun had long since left the glistening surface of the
falls. So they gathered themselves up, and reluctantly enough left the
beautiful scene behind them, with many a backward look.

The way home was rather silent. The shadow of the boys' departure was
over them all, and Norah especially felt the weight of approaching
loneliness. With Dad at home it would have been easier to let the boys
go, but the prospect of several days by herself, with only the servants
for company, was not a very comforting one. Norah wished dismally that
she had been born a boy, with the prospect of a journey, and mates, and
school, and "no end of larks." Then she thought of Dad, and though still
dismal, unwished the wish, and was content to remain a girl.

There was a little excitement on the homeward trip over a snake, which
tried to slip away unseen through the grass, and when it found itself
surrounded by enemies, coiled itself round Harry's leg, a proceeding
very painful to that youth, who nevertheless stood like a statue while
Jim dodged about for a chance to strike at the wildly waving head. He
got it at last, and while the reptile writhed in very natural annoyance,
Harry managed to get free, and soon put a respectful distance between
himself and his too-affectionate acquaintance. Jim finished up the
snake, and they resumed the track, keeping a careful look-out, and
imagining another in every rustle.

"Well done, old Harry!" said Wally. "Stood like a statue, you did!"

"Thanks!" said Harry. "Jim's the chap to say 'Well done' to, I think."

"Not me," said Jim. "Easy enough to try to kill the brute. I'd rather do
that than feel him round my leg, where I couldn't get at him."

"Well, I think I would, too," Harry said, laughing. "I never felt such a
desire to stampede in my life."

"It was beastly," affirmed Norah. She was a little pale. "It seemed
about an hour before he poked his horrid head out and let Jim get a
whack at it. But you didn't lose much time, then, Jimmy!"

"Could he have bitten through the leg of your pants?" queried Wally,
with interest.

"He couldn't have sent all the venom through, I think," Jim replied.
"But enough would have gone to make a very sick little Harry."

"It'd be an interesting experiment, no doubt," said Harry. "But, if you
don't mind, I'll leave it for someone else to try. I'd recommend a
wooden-legged man as the experimenter. He'd feel much more at his ease
while the snake was trying how much venom he could get through a pant
leg!"

CHAPTER XI

GOOD-BYE

"I was just a-goin' to ring the big bell," said Mrs. Brown.

She was standing on the front verandah as the children came up the lawn.

"Why, we're not late, Brownie, are we?" asked Norah.

"Not very." The old housekeeper smiled at her. "Only when your Pa's away
I allers feels a bit nervis about you--sech thoughtless young people,
an' all them animals and snakes about!"

"Gammon!" said Jim laughing. "D'you mean to say I can't look after them,
Brownie?"

"I'd rather not say anythink rash, Master Jim," rejoined Mrs. Brown with
a twinkle.

"I guess Mrs. Brown's got the measure of your foot, old man," grinned
Harry.

"Oh, well," said Jim resignedly, "a chap never gets his due in this
world. I forgive you, Brownie, though you don't deserve it. Got a nice
tea for us?"

"Sech as it is, Master Jim, it's waitin' on you," said Mrs. Brown, with
point.

"That's what you might call a broad hint," cried Jim. "Come on,
chaps--race you for a wash-up!"

They scattered, Mrs. Brown laying violent hands on the indignant Norah,
and insisting on arraying her in a clean frock, which the victim
resisted, as totally unnecessary. Mrs. Brown carried her point, however,
and a trim little maiden joined the boys in the dining-room five minutes
later.

Mrs. Brown's cooking was notable, and she had excelled herself over the
boys' farewell tea. A big cold turkey sat side by side with a ham of
majestic dimensions, while the cool green of a salad was tempting after
the hot walk. There were jellies, and a big bowl of fruit salad, while
the centre of the table was occupied by a tall cake, raising aloft
glittering white tiers. There were scones and tarts and wee cakes, and
dishes of fresh fruit, and altogether the boys whistled long and softly,
and declared that "Brownie was no end of a brick!"

Whereat Mrs. Brown, hovering about to see that her charges wanted
nothing, smiled and blushed, and said, "Get on, now, do!"

Jim carved, and Jim's carving was something to marvel at. No method came
amiss to him. When he could cut straight he did; at other times he
sawed; and, when it seemed necessary, he dug. After he had finished
helping every one, Wally said that the turkey looked as if a dog had
been at it, and the ham was worse, which remarks Jim meekly accepted as
his due. Nor did the inartistic appearance of the turkey prevent the
critic from coming back for more!

Everyone was hungry, and did full justice to "Brownie's" forethought;
while Norah, behind the tall teapot, declared that it was a job for two
men and a boy to pour out for such a thirsty trio. Harry helped the
fruit salad, and Harry's helpings were based on his own hunger, and
would have suited Goliath. Finally, Norah cut the cake with great
ceremony, and Wally's proposal that everyone should retire to the lawn
with a "chunk" was carried unanimously.

Out on the grass they lay and chattered, while the dusk came down, and
slowly a pale moon climbed up into the sky. Norah alone was silent.
After a while Harry and Wally declared they must go and pack, and Jim
and his sister were left alone.

Wally and Harry scurried down the hail. The sound of their merry voices
died away, and there was silence on the lawn.

Jim rolled nearer to Norah.

"Blue, old girl?"

"'M," said a muffled voice.

Jim felt for her hand in the darkness--and found it. The small, brown
fingers closed tightly round his rough paw.

"I know," he said comprehendingly. "I'm awfully sorry, old woman. I do
wish we hadn't to go."

There was no answer. Jim knew why--and also knowing perfectly well that
tears would mean the deepest shame, he talked on without requiring any
response.

"Beastly hard luck," he said. "We don't want to go a bit--fancy school
after this! Ugh! But there are three of us, so it isn't so bad. It
wouldn't matter if Dad was at home, for you. But I must say it's lowdown
to be leaving you all by your lonely little self."

Norah struggled hard with that abominable lump in her throat, despising
herself heartily.

"Brownie'll be awfully good to you," went on Jim. "You'll have to buck
up, you know, old girl, and not let yourself get dull. You practise like
one o'clock; or make jam, or something; or get Brownie to let you do
some cooking. Anything to keep you 'from broodin' on bein' a dorg,' as
old David Harum says. There's all the pets to look after, you
know--you've got to keep young black Billy up to the mark, or he'll
never feed 'em properly, and if you let him alone he changes the water
in the dishes when the last lot's dry. And, by George, Norah"--Jim had a
bright idea--"Dad told me last night he meant to shift those new
bullocks into the Long Plain. Ten to one he forgot all about it, going
away so suddenly. You'll have to see to it."

"I'd like that," said Norah, feeling doubtfully for her voice.

"Rather--best thing you can do," Jim said eagerly. "Take Billy with you,
of course, and a dog. They're not wild, and I don't think you'll have
any trouble--only be very careful to get 'em all--examine all the scrub
in the paddock. Billy knows how many there ought to be. I did know, but,
of course, I've forgotten. Of course Dad may have left directions with
one of the men about it already."

"Well, I could go too, couldn't I?" queried Norah.

"Rather. They'd be glad to have you."

"Well, I'll be glad of something to do. I wasn't looking forward to
to-morrow."

"No," said Jim, "I know you weren't. Never mind, you keep busy. You
might drive into Cunjee with Brownie on Tuesday--probably you'd get a
letter from Dad a day earlier, and hear when he's coming home--and if he
says he's coming home on Thursday, Wednesday won't seem a bit long.
You'll be as right as ninepence if you buck up."

"I will, old chap. Only I wish you weren't going."

"So do I," said Jim, "and so do the other chaps. They want to come again
some holidays."

"Well, I hope you'll bring them."

"My word! I will. Do you know, Norah, they think you're no end of a
brick?"

"Do they?" said Norah, much pleased. "Did they tell you?"

"They're always telling me. Now, you go to bed, old girl."

He rose and pulled her to her feet.

Norah put her arms round his neck--a very rare caress.

"Good night," she said. "I--I do love you, Jimmy!"

Jim hugged her.

"Same here, old chap," he said.

There was such scurrying in the early morning. Daylight revealed many
things that had been overlooked in the packing overnight, and they had
to be crammed in, somehow. Other things were remembered which had not
been packed, and which must be found, and diligent hunt had to be made
for them.

Norah was everybody's mate, running on several errands at once, finding
Jim's school cap near Harry's overcoat while she was looking for Wally's
cherished snake-skin. Her strong brown hands pulled tight the straps of
bulging bags on which their perspiring owners knelt, puffing. After the
said bags were closed and carried out to the buggy, she found the three
toothbrushes, and crammed each, twisted in newspaper, into its owner's
pocket. She had no time to think she was dull.

Mrs. Brown, who had been up since dawn, had packed a huge hamper, and
superintended its placing in the buggy. It was addressed to "Master
James, Master Harry, and Master Wallie," and later Jim reported that its
contents were such as to make the chaps at school speechless--a
compliment which filled Mrs. Brown with dismay, and a wish that she had
put in less pastry and perhaps a little castor oil. At present she felt
mildly safe about it and watched it loaded with a sigh of relief.

"Boom-m-m!" went the big gong, and the boys rushed to the dining-room,
where Norah was ready to pour out tea.

"You have some, Norah," said Harry, retaining his position close to the
teapot, whence Wally had vainly striven to dislodge him.

"Yes, old girl, you eat some breakfast," commanded Jim.

Norah flashed a smile at him over the cosy.

"Lots of time afterwards," she said, a little sadly.

"No time like the present." Wally took a huge bite out of a scone, and
surveyed the relic with interest. Someone put a smoking plateful before
him, and his further utterances were lost in eggs and bacon.

Mrs. Brown flitted about like a stout guardian angel, keeping an
especially watchful eye on Jim. If the supply on his plate lessened
perceptibly, it was replenished with more, like manna from above. To his
laughing protests she merely murmured, "Poor dear lamb!" whereat Wally
and Harry laughed consumedly, and Jim blushed.

"Well, you've beaten me at last, Brownie," Jim declared finally. He
waved away a chop which was about to descend upon his plate. "No truly,
Brownie dear; there are limits! Tea? No thanks, Norah, I've had about a
dozen cups already, I believe! You fellows ready?"

They were, and the table was briskly deserted.

There was a final survey of the boys' room, which resembled a rubbish
heap, owing to vigorous packing.

Everybody ran wildly about looking for something.

Wally was found searching frantically for his cap, which Norah
discovered--on his head. There was a hurried journey to the kitchen, to
bid the servants "Good-bye."

The buggy wheels scrunched the gravel before the hall door. The overseer
coo-ee'd softly.

"All aboard!"

"All right, Evans!" Jim appeared in the doorway, staggering under a big
Gladstone bag. Billy, similarly laden, followed. His black face was
unusually solemn.

"Chuck 'em in, Billy. Come on, you chaps!"

The chaps appeared.

"Good-bye, Norah. It's been grand!" Harry pumped her hand vigorously.

"Wish you were coming!" said Wally dismally. "Good-bye. Write to us,
won't you, Norah?"

"Now then, Master Jim!" Evans glanced at his watch.

"Right oh!" said Jim. He put his arm round the little girl's shoulders
and looked keenly into her face. There was no hint of breaking down.
Norah met his gaze steadily and smiled at him. But the boy knew.

"Good-bye, little chap," he said, and kissed her. "You'll keep your
pecker up?"

She nodded. "Good-bye, Jimmy, old boy."

Jim sprang into the buggy.

"All right, Evans."

They whirled down the drive. Looking back, waving their caps, the boys
carried away a memory of a brave little figure, erect, smiling and
lonely on the doorstep.

CHAPTER XII

THE WINFIELD MURDER

The next few days went by slowly enough.

Norah followed faithfully all Jim's plans for her amusement. She
practised, did some cooking, and helped Mrs. Brown preserve apricots;
then there were the pets to look to and, best of all, the bullocks to
move from one paddock to another. It was an easy job, and Evans was
quite willing to leave it to Norah, Billy and a dog. The trio made a
great business of it, and managed almost to forget loneliness in the
work of hunting through the scrub and chasing the big, sleepy half-fat
beasts out upon the clear plain. There were supposed to be forty-four in
the paddock, but Norah and Billy mustered forty-five, and were
exceedingly proud of themselves in consequence.

Next day Norah persuaded Mrs. Brown to allow herself to be driven into
Cunjee. There was nothing particular to go for, except that, as Norah
said, they would get the mail a day earlier; but Mrs. Brown was not
likely to refuse anything that would chase the look of loneliness from
her charge's face. Accordingly they set off after an early lunch, Norah
driving the pair of brown ponies in a light single buggy that barely
held her and her by no means fairy-like companion.

The road was good and they made the distance in excellent time, arriving
in Cunjee to see the daily train puff its way out of the station. Then
they separated, as Norah had no opinion whatever of Mrs. Brown's
shopping--principally in drapers' establishments, which this bush maiden
hated cordially. So Mrs. Brown, unhampered, plunged into mysteries of
flannel and sheeting, while Norah strolled up the principal street and
exchanged greetings with those she knew.

She paused by the door of a blacksmith's shop, for the smith and she
were old friends, and Norah regarded Blake as quite the principal person
of Cunjee. Generally there were horses to be looked at, but just now the
shop was empty, and Blake came forward to talk to the girl.

"Seen the p'lice out your way?" he asked presently, after the weather,
the crops, and the dullness of business had been exhausted as topics.

"Police?" queried Norah. "No. Why?"

"There was two mounted men rode out in your direction yesterday," Blake
answered. "They're on the track of that Winfield murderer, they
believe."

"What was that?" asked Norah blankly. "I never heard of it."

"Not heard of the Winfield murder! Why, you can't read the papers,
missy, surely?"

"No; of course I don't," Norah said. "Daddy doesn't like me to read
everyday ones."

Blake nodded.

"No, I s'pose not," he said. "You're too young to worry your little head
about murders and suchlike. But everybody was talkin' about the Winfield
affair, so I sorter took it for granted that you'd know about it."

"Well, I don't," said Norah. "What is it all about?"

"There's not very much I can tell you about it, missy," Blake said,
scratching his head and looking down at the grave lace. "Nobody knows
much about it.

"Winfield's a little bit of a place about twenty miles from 'ere, you
know--right in the bush and away from any rail or coach line. On'y a
couple o' stores, an' a hotel, an' a few houses. Don't suppose many
people out o' this district ever heard of it, it's that quiet an'
asleep.

"Well, there was two ol' men livin' together in a little hut a mile or
so from the Winfield township. Prospectors, they said they were--an'
there was an idea that they'd done pretty well at the game, an' had a
bit of gold hidden somewhere about their camp. They kept very much to
themselves, an' never mixed with anyone--when one o' them came into the
township for stores he'd get his business done an' clear out as quick as
possible.

"Well, about a month ago two fellows called Bowen was riding along a
bush track between Winfield an' their camp when they came across one o'
the ol' mates peggin' along the track for all he was worth. They was
surprised to see that he was carryin' a big swag, an' was apparently on
a move.

"'Hullo, Harris!' they says--'leavin' the district?' He was a civil
spoken ol' chap as a rule, so they was rather surprised when he on'y
give a sort o' grunt, an' hurried on.

"They was after cattle, and pretty late the same day they found
themselves near the hut where the two ol' chaps lived, an' as they was
hungry an' thirsty, they reckoned they'd call in an' see if they could
get a feed. So they rode up and tied their horses to a tree and walked
up to the hut. No one answered their knock, so they opened the door, an'
walked in. There, lyin' on his bunk, was ol' Waters. They spoke to him,
but he didn't answer. You see, missy, he couldn't, bein' dead."

"Dead!" said Norah, her eyes dilating.

Blake nodded.

"Stone dead," he said. "They thought at first he'd just died natural, as
there was no mark o' violence on 'im, but when they got a doctor to
examine 'im he soon found out very different. The poor ol' feller 'ad
been poisoned, missy; the doctor said 'e must a' bin dead twelve hours
when the Bowens found 'im. Everything of value was gone from the hut
along with his mate, old Harris--the black-hearted villain he must be!"

"Why, do they think he killed the other man?" Norah asked.

"Seems pretty certain, missy," Blake replied. "In fact, there don't seem
the shadder of a doubt. He was comin' straight from the hut when the
Bowens met 'im--an' he'd cleared out the whole place, gold an' all. Oh,
there ain't any doubt about Mr. Harris bein' the guilty party. The only
thing doubtful is Mr. Harris's whereabouts."

"Have the police been looking for him?" asked Norah.

"Huntin' high an' low--without any luck. He seems to have vanished off
the earth. They've bin follerin' up first one clue and then another
without any result. Now the last is that he's been seen somewhere the
other side of your place, an' two troopers have gone out to-day to see
if there's any truth in the rumour."

"I think it's awfully exciting," Norah said, "but I'm terribly sorry for
the poor man who was killed. What a wicked old wretch the other must
be!--his own mate, too! I wonder what he was like. Did you know him?"

"Well, I've seen old Harris a few times--not often," Blake replied.
"Still, he wasn't the sort of old man you'd forget. Not a bad-looking
old chap, he was. Very tall and well set up, with piercin' blue eyes,
long white hair an' beard, an' a pretty uppish way of talkin'. I don't
fancy anyone about here knew him very well--he had a way of keepin' to
himself. One thing, there's plenty lookin' out for him now."

"I suppose so," Norah said. "I wonder will he really get away?"

"Mighty small chance," said Blake. "Still, it's wonderful how he's
managed to keep out of sight for so long. Of course, once in the bush it
might be hard to find him--but sooner or later he must come out to some
township for tucker, an' then everyone will be lookin' out for him. They
may have got him up your way by now, missy. Is your Pa at home?"

"He's coming home in a day or two," Norah said; "perhaps to-morrow. I
hope they won't find Harris and bring him to our place."

"Well, it all depends on where they find him if they do get him," Blake
replied. "Possibly they might find the station a handy place to stop at.
However, missy, don't you worry your head about it--nothing for you to
be frightened about."

"Why, I'm not frightened," Norah said. "It hasn't got anything to do
with me. Only I don't want to see a man who could kill his mate, that's
all."

"He's much like any other man," said Blake philosophically. "Say, here's
someone comin' after you, missy, I think."

"I thought I'd find you here," exclaimed Mrs. Brown's fat, comfortable
voice, as its owner puffed her way up the slope leading to the
blacksmith's. "Good afternoon, Mr. Blake. I've finished all my shopping,
Miss Norah, my dear, and the mail's in, and here's a letter for you, as
you won't be sorry to see."

"From Dad? How lovely!" and Norah, snatching at the grey envelope with
its big, black writing, tore it open hastily. At the first few words,
she uttered a cry of delight.

"Oh, he's coming home to-morrow, Brownie--only another day! He says he
thinks it's time he was home, with murderers roaming about the
district!" and Norah executed a few steps of a Highland fling, greatly
to the edification of the blacksmith.

"Dear sakes alive!" said Mrs. Brown, truculently. "I think there are
enough of us at the station to look after you, murderer or no
murderer--not as 'ow but that 'Arris must be a nasty creature! Still I'm
very glad your Pa's coming, Miss Norah, because nothing do seem right
when he's away--an' it's dull for you, all alone."

"Master Jim gone back, I s'pose?" queried Blake.

"Yesterday," Norah added.

"Then you must be lonely," the old blacksmith said, taking Norah's small
brown hand, and holding it for a moment in his horny fist very much as
if he feared it were an eggshell, and not to be dropped. "Master Jim's
growing a big fellow, too--goin' to be as big a man as his father, I
believe. Well, good-bye, missy, and don't forget to come in next time
you're in the township."

There was nothing further to detain them in Cunjee, and very soon the
ponies were fetched from the stables, and they were bowling out along
the smooth metal road that wound its way across the plain, and Norah was
mingling excited little outbursts of delight over her father's return
with frequent searches into a big bag of sweets which Mrs. Brown had
thoughtfully placed on the seat of the buggy.

"I don't know why Blake wanted to go telling you about that nasty
murderer," Mrs. Brown said. They were ten miles from Cunjee, and the
metal road had given place to a bush track, in very fair order.

"Why not?" asked Norah, with the carelessness of twelve years.

"Well, tales of murders aren't the things for young ladies' ears," Mrs.
Brown said primly. "Your Pa never tells you such things. The paper's
been full of this murder, but I would 'a' scorned to talk to you about
it."

"I don't think Blake meant any harm," said Norah. "He didn't say so very
much. I don't suppose he'd have mentioned it, only that Mr. Harris is
supposed to have come our way, and even that doesn't seem certain."

"'Arris 'as baffled the police," said Mrs. Brown, with the solemn pride
felt by so many at the worsting of the guardians of the law. "They don't
reely know anythink about his movements, that's my belief. Why, it's
weeks since he was seen. This yarn about his comin' this way is on'y got
up to 'ide the fact that they don't know a thing about it. I don't
b'lieve he's anywhere within coo-ee of our place. Might be out of the
country now, for all anyone's sure of."

"Blake seemed to think he'd really come this way;" Norah said.

"Blake's an iggerant man," said Mrs. Brown loftily.

"Well, I'll keep a look-out for him, at any rate," laughed Norah. "He
ought to be easy enough to find--tall and good-looking and well set
up--whatever that may mean--and long white beard and hair. He must be a
pretty striking-looking sort of old man. I--" And then recollection
swept over Norah like a flood, and her words faltered on her lips.

Her hand gripped the reins tighter, and she drove on unconsciously.
Blake's words were beating in her ears. "Not a bad-looking old
chap--very tall and well set up--piercing blue eyes and a pretty uppish
way of talking." The description had meant nothing to her until someone
whom it fitted all too aptly had drifted across her mental vision.

The Hermit! Even while she felt and told herself that it could not be,
the fatal accuracy of the likeness made her shudder. It was perfect--the
tall, white-haired old man--"not the sort of old man you'd forget"--with
his distinguished look; the piercing blue eyes--but Norah knew what
kindliness lay in their depths--the gentle refined voice, so different
from most of the rough country voices. It would answer to Blake's
"pretty uppish way of talking." Anyone who had read the description
would, on meeting the Hermit, immediately identify him as the man for
whom the police were searching. Norah's common sense told her that.

A wave of horror swept over the little girl, and the hands gripping the
reins trembled. Common sense might tell one tale, but every instinct of
her heart told a very different one. That gentle-faced old man, with a
world of kindness in his tired eyes--he the man who killed his sleeping
mate for a handful of gold! Norah set her square little chin. She would
not--could not--believe it.

"Why, you're very quiet, dearie." Mrs. Brown glanced inquiringly at her
companion. "A minute ago you was chatterin', and now you've gone down
flat, like old soda-water. Is anything wrong?"

"No, I'm all right, Brownie. I was only thinking," said Norah, forcing a
smile.

"Too many sweeties, I expect," said Mrs. Brown, laying a heavy hand on
the bag and impounding it for future reference. "Mustn't have you get
indigestion, an' your Pa comin' home to-morrow."

Norah laughed.

"Now, did you ever know me to have indigestion in my life?" she queried.

"Well, perhaps not," Mrs. Brown admitted. "Still, you never can tell; it
don' do to pride oneself on anything. If it ain't indigestion, you've
been thinking too much of this narsty murder."

Norah flicked the off pony deliberately with her whip.

"Darkie is getting disgracefully lazy," she said. "He's not doing a bit
of the work. Nigger's worth two of him." The injured Darkie shot forward
with a bound, and Mrs. Brown grabbed the side of the buggy hastily, and
in her fears at the pace for the ensuing five minutes forgot her too
inconvenient cross-examination.

Norah settled back into silence, her forehead puckered with a frown. She
had never in her careless little life been confronted by such a problem
as the one that now held her thoughts. That the startling similarity
between her new-made friend and the description of the murderer should
fasten upon her mind, was unavoidable. She struggled against the idea as
disloyal, but finally decided to think it out calmly.

The descriptions tallied. So much was certain. The verbal likeness of
one man was an exact word painting of the other, so far as it went,
"though," as poor Norah reflected, "you can't always tell a person just
by hearing what he's like." Then there was no denying that the conduct
of the Hermit would excite suspicion. He was camping alone in the
deepest recesses of a lonely tract of scrub; he had been there some
weeks, and she had had plenty of proof that he was taken aback at being
discovered and wished earnestly that no future prowlers might find their
way to his retreat. She recalled his shrinking from the boys, and his
hasty refusal to go to the homestead. He had said in so many words that
he desired nothing so much as to be left alone--any one would have
gathered that he feared discovery. They had all been conscious of the
mystery about him. Her thoughts flew back to the half-laughing
conversation between Harry and Wally, when they had actually speculated
as to why he was hiding. Putting the case fairly and squarely, Norah had
to admit that it looked black against the Hermit.

Against it, what had she? No proof; only a remembrance of two honest
eyes looking sadly at her; of a face that had irresistibly drawn her
confidence and friendship; of a voice whose tones had seemed to echo
sincerity and kindness. It was absolutely beyond Norah's power to
believe that the hand that had held hers so gently could have been the
one to strike to death an unsuspecting mate. Her whole nature revolted
against the thought that her friend could be so base.

"He was in trouble," Norah said, over and over again, in her uneasy
mind; "he was unhappy. But I know he wasn't wicked. Why, Bobs made
friends with him!"

The thought put fresh confidence in her mind; Bobs always knew "a good
sort."

"I won't say anything," she decided at last, as they wheeled round the
corner of the homestead. "If they knew there was a tall old man there,
they'd go and hunt him out, and annoy him horribly. I know he's all
right. I'll hold my tongue about him altogether--even to Dad."

The coach dropped Mr. Linton next day at the Cross Roads, where a little
figure, clad in white linen, sat in the buggy, holding the brown ponies,
while the dusky Billy was an attendant sprite on his piebald mare.

"Well, my little girl, it's good to see you again," Mr. Linton said,
putting his Gladstone bag into the buggy and receiving undismayed a
small avalanche of little daughter upon his neck. "Steady, dear--mind
the ponies." He jumped in, and put his arm round her. "Everything well?"

"Yes, all right, Daddy. I'm so glad to have you back!"

"Not gladder than I am to get back, my little lass," said her father.
"Good-day, Billy. Let 'em go, Norah."

"Did you see Jim?" asked Norah, as the ponies bounded forward.

"No--missed him. I had only an hour in town, and went out to the school,
to find Master Jim had gone down the river--rowing practice. I was sorry
to miss him; but it wasn't worth waiting another day in town."

"Jim would be sorry," said Norah thoughtfully. She herself was rather
glad: had Jim seen his father, most probably he would have mentioned the
Hermit. Now she had only his letters to fear, and as Jim's letters were
of the briefest nature and very far apart, it was not an acute danger.

"Yes, I suppose he would," Mr. Linton replied. "I regretted not having
sent a telegram to say I was going to the school--it slipped my memory.
I had rather a rush, you know. I suppose you've been pretty dull, my
girlie?"

"Oh it was horrid after the boys went," Norah said. "I didn't know what
to do with myself, and the house was terribly quiet. It was hard luck
that you had to go away too."

"Yes, I was very sorry it happened so," her father said; "had we been
alone together I'd have taken you with me, but we'll have the trip some
other time. Did you have a good day's fishing on Saturday?"

"Yes," said Norah, flushing a little guiltily--the natural impulse to
tell all about their friend the Hermit was so strong. "We had a lovely
day, and caught ever so many fish--didn't get home till ever so late.
The only bad part was finding you away when we got back."

"Well, I'm glad you had good luck, at any rate," Mr. Linton said. "So
Anglers' Bend is keeping up its reputation, eh? We'll have to go out
there, I think, Norah; what do you say about it? Would you and Billy
like a three days' jaunt on fishing bent?"

"Oh, it would be glorious, Daddy! Camping out?"

"Well, of course--since we'd be away three days. In this weather it
would be a very good thing to do, I think."

"You are a blessed Daddy," declared his daughter rubbing her cheek
against his shoulder. "I never knew anyone with such beautiful ideas."
She jigged on her seat with delight. "Oh, and, Daddy, I'll be able to
put you on to such a splendid new hole for fishing!"

"Will you, indeed?" said Mr. Linton, smiling at the flushed face.
"That's good, dear. But how did you discover it?"

Norah's face fell suddenly. She hesitated and looked uncomfortable.

"Oh," she said slowly; "I--we--found it out last trip."

"Well, we'll go, Norah--as soon as I can fix it up," said her father.
"And now, have you heard anything about the Winfield murderer?"

"Not a thing, Daddy. Brownie thinks it's just a yarn that he was seen
about here."

"Oh, I don't think so at all," Mr. Linton said. "A good many people have
the idea, at any rate--of course they may be wrong. I'm afraid Brownie
is rather too ready to form wild opinions on some matters. To tell the
truth, I was rather worried at the reports--I don't fancy the notion of
escaped gentry of that kind wandering round in the vicinity of my small
daughter."

"Well, I don't think you need have worried," said Norah, laughing up at
him; "but all the same, I'm not a bit sorry you did, if it brought you
home a day earlier, Dad!"

"Well, it certainly did," said Mr. Linton, pulling her ear; "but I'm not
sorry either. I can't stand more than a day or two in town. As for the
murderer, I'm not going to waste any thought on him now that I am here.
There's the gate, and here comes Billy like a whirlwind to open it."

They bowled through the gate and up the long drive, under the arching
boughs of the big gum trees, that formed a natural avenue on each side.
At the garden gate Mrs. Brown stood waiting, with a broad smile of
welcome, and a chorus of barks testified to the arrival of sundry dogs.
"It's a real home-coming," Mr. Linton said as he walked up the path, his
hand on Norah's shoulder--and the little girl's answering smile needed
no words. They turned the corner by the big rose bush, and came within
view of the house, and suddenly Norah's smile faded. A trooper in dusty
uniform stood on the doorstep.

"Why, that's a pleasant object to greet a man," Mr. Linton said, as the
policeman turned and came to meet him with a civil salute. He nodded as
the man came up. "Did you want me?"

"It's only about this 'ere murderer, sir," said the trooper. "Some of us
is on a sort of a scent, but we haven't got fairly on to his tracks yet.
I've ridden from Mulgoa to-day, and I came to ask if your people had
seen anything of such a chap passing--as a swaggie or anything?"

"Not that I know of," said Mr. Linton. "What is he like?"

"Big fellow--old--plenty of white hair and beard, though, of course,
they're probably cut off by this time. Very decent-looking old chap,"
said the trooper reflectively--"an' a good way of speakin'."

"Well, I've seen no such man," said Mr. Linton decidedly--"of course,
though, I don't see all the 'travellers' who call. Perhaps Mrs. Brown
can help you."

"Not me sir," said Mrs. Brown, with firmness. "There ain't been no such
a person--and you may be sure there ain't none I don't see! Fact is,
when I saw as 'ow the murderer was supposed to be in this districk, I
made inquiries amongst the men--the white hands, that is--and none of
them had seen any such man as the papers described. I reckon 'e may just
as well be in any other districk as this--I s'pose the poor p'lice must
say 'e's somewheres!"

She glared defiantly at the downcast trooper.

"Wish you had the job of findin' him, mum," said that individual. "Well,
sir, there's no one else I could make inquiries of, is there?"

"Mrs. Brown seems to have gone the rounds," Mr. Linton said. "I really
don't think there's any one else--unless my small daughter here can help
you," he added laughingly.

But Norah had slipped away, foreseeing possible questioning.

The trooper smiled.

"Don't think I need worry such a small witness," he said. "No, I'll just
move on, Mr. Linton. I'm beginning to think I'm on a wild-goose chase."

CHAPTER XIII

THE CIRCUS

The days went by, but no further word of the Winfield murderer came to
the anxious ears of the little girl at Billabong homestead. Norah never
read the papers, and could not therefore satisfy her mind by their
reports; but all her inquiries were met by the same reply, "Nothing
fresh." The police were still in the district--so much she knew, for
she had caught glimpses of them when out riding with her father. The
stern-looking men in dusty uniforms were unusual figures in those quiet
parts. But Norah could not manage to discover if they had searched the
scrub that hid the Hermit's simple camp; and the mystery of the
Winfield murder seemed as far from being cleared up as ever.

Meanwhile there was plenty to distract her mind from such disquieting
matters. The station work happened to be particularly engrossing just
then, and day after day saw Norah in the saddle, close to her father's
big black mare, riding over hills and plains, bringing up the slow sheep
or galloping gloriously after cattle that declined to be mustered. There
were visits of inspection to be made to the farthest portions of the
run, and busy days in the yards, when the men worked at drafting the
stock, and Norah sat perched on the high "cap" of a fence and, watching
with all her eager little soul in her eyes, wished heartily that she had
been born a boy. Then there were a couple of trips with Mr. Linton to
outlying townships, and on one of these occasions Norah had a piece of
marvellous luck, for there was actually a circus in Cunjee--a real,
magnificent circus, with lions and tigers and hyaenas, and a camel, and
other beautiful animals, and, best of all, a splendid elephant of meek
and mild demeanour. It was the elephant that broke up Norah's calmness.

"Oh, Daddy!" she said. "Daddy! Oh, can't we stay?"

Mr. Linton laughed.

"I was expecting that," he said. "Stay? And what would Brownie be
thinking?"

Norah's face fell.

"Oh," she said. "I'd forgotten Brownie. I s'pose it wouldn't do. But
isn't it a glorious elephant, Daddy?"

"It is, indeed," said Mr. Linton, laughing. "I think it's too glorious
to leave, girlie. Fact is, I had an inkling the circus was to be here,
so I told Brownie not to expect us until she saw us. She put a basket in
the buggy, with your tooth-brush, I think."

The face of his small daughter was sufficient reward.

"Daddy!" she said. "Oh, but you are the MOST Daddy!" Words failed her at
that point.

Norah said that it was a most wonderful "spree." They had dinner at the
hotel, where the waiter called her "Miss Linton," and in all ways
behaved precisely as if she were grown up, and after dinner she and her
father sat on the balcony while Mr. Linton smoked and Norah watched the
population arriving to attend the circus. They came from all
quarters--comfortable old farm wagons, containing whole families; a few
smart buggies; but the majority came on horseback, old as well as young.
The girls rode in their dresses, or else had slipped on habit skirts
over their gayer attire, with great indifference as to whether it
happened to be crushed, and they had huge hats, trimmed with all the
colours of the rainbow. Norah did not know much about dress, but it
seemed to her theirs was queer. But one and all looked so happy and
excited that dress was the last thing that mattered.

It seemed to Norah a long while before Mr. Linton shook the ashes from
his pipe deliberately and pulled out his watch. She was inwardly dancing
with impatience.

"Half-past seven," remarked her father, shutting up his watch with a
click. "Well, I suppose we'd better go, Norah. All ready, dear?"

"Yes, Daddy. Must I wear gloves?"

"Why, not that I know of," said her father, looking puzzled. "Hardly
necessary, I think. I don't wear 'em. Do you want to?"

"Goodness--no!" said his daughter hastily.

"Well, that's all right," said Mr. Linton. "Stow them in my pocket and
come along."

Out in the street there were unusual signs of bustle. People were
hurrying along the footpath. The blare of brass instruments came from
the big circus tent, round which was lingering every small boy of Cunjee
who could not gain admission. Horses were tied to adjoining fences,
considerably disquieted by the brazen strains of the band. It was very
cheerful and inspiring, and Norah capered gently as she trotted along by
her father.

Mr. Linton gave up his tickets at the first tent, and they passed in to
view the menagerie--a queer collection, but wonderful enough in the eyes
of Cunjee. The big elephant held pride of place, as he stood in his
corner and sleepily waved his trunk at the aggravating flies. Norah
loved him from the first, and in a moment was stroking his trunk,
somewhat to her father's anxiety.

"I hope he's safe?" he asked an attendant.

"Bless you, yes, sir," said that worthy, resplendent in dingy scarlet
uniform. "He alwuz knows if people ain't afraid of him. Try him with
this, missy." "This" was an apple, and Jumbo deigned to accept it at
Norah's hands, and crunched it serenely.

"He's just dear," said Norah, parting reluctantly from the huge swaying
brute and giving him a final pat as she went.

"Better than Bobs?" asked her father.

"Pooh!" said Norah loftily. "What's this rum thing?"

"A wildebeest," read her father. "He doesn't look like it."

"Pretty tame beast, I think," Norah observed, surveying the
stolid-looking animal before her. "Show me something really wild,
Daddy."

"How about this chap?" asked Mr. Linton.

They were before the tiger's cage, and the big yellow brute was walking
up and down with long stealthy strides, his great eyes roving over the
curious faces in front of him. Some one poked a stick at him--an
attention which met an instant roar and spring on the tiger's part, and
a quick, and stinging rebuke from an attendant, before which the poker
of the stick fled precipitately. The crowd, which had jumped back as one
man, pressed nearer to the cage, and the tiger resumed his quick, silent
prowl. But his eyes no longer roved over the faces. They remained fixed
upon the man who had provoked him.

"How do you like him?" Mr. Linton asked his daughter.

Norah hesitated.

"He's not nice, of course," she said. "But I'm so awfully sorry for him,
aren't you, Daddy? It does seem horrible--a great, splendid thing like
that shut up for always in that little box of a cage. You feel he really
ought to have a great stretch of jungle to roam in."

"And eat men in? I think he's better where he is."

"Well, you'd think the world was big enough for him to have a place
apart from men altogether," said Norah, holding to her point sturdily.
"Somewhere that isn't much wanted--a sandy desert, or a spare Alp! This
doesn't seem right, somehow. I think I've seen enough animals, Daddy,
and it's smelly here. Let's go into the circus."

The circus tent was fairly crowded as Norah and her father made their
way in and took the seats reserved for them, under the direction of
another official in dingy scarlet. Round the ring the tiers of seats
rose abruptly, each tier a mass of eager, interested faces. A lame
seller of fruit and drinks hobbled about crying his wares; at intervals
came the "pop" of a lemonade bottle, and there was a steady crunching of
peanut shells. The scent of orange peel rose over the circus smell--that
weird compound of animal and sawdust and acetylene lamps. In the midst
of all was the ring, with its surface banked up towards the outer edge.

They had hardly taken their seats when the band suddenly struck up in
its perch near the entrance, and the company entered to the inspiring
strains. First came the elephant, very lazy and stately--gorgeously
caparisoned now, with a gaily attired "mahout" upon his neck. Behind him
came the camel; and the cages with the other occupants of the menagerie,
looking either bored or fierce. They circled round the ring and then
filed out.

The band struck up a fresh strain and in cantered a lovely lady on a
chestnut horse. She wore a scarlet hat and habit, and looked to Norah
very like a Christmas card. Round the ring she dashed gaily, and behind
her came another lady equally beautiful in a green habit, on a black
horse; and a third, wearing a habit of pale blue plush who managed a
piebald horse. Then came some girls in bright frocks, on beautiful
ponies; and some boys, in tights, on other ponies; and then men, also in
tights of every colour in the rainbow, who rode round with bored
expressions, as if it were really too slow a thing merely to sit on a
horse's back, instead of pirouetting there upon one foot. They flashed
round once or twice and were gone, and Norah sat back and gasped,
feeling that she had had a glimpse into another world--as indeed she
had.

A little figure whirled into the ring--a tiny girl on a jet-black pony.
She was sitting sideways at first, but as the pony settled into its
stride round the ring she suddenly leaped to her feet and, standing
poised, kissed her hands gaily to the audience. Then she capered first
on one foot, then on another; she sat down, facing the tail, and lay
flat along the pony's back; she assumed every position except the
natural one. She leapt to the ground (to Norah's intense horror, who
imagined she didn't mean to), and, running fiercely at the pony, sprang
on his back again, while he galloped the harder. Lastly, she dropped a
handkerchief, which she easily recovered by the simple expedient of
hanging head downwards, suspended by one foot, and then galloped out of
the ring, amid the frantic applause of Cunjee.

"Could you do that, Norah?" laughed Mr. Linton.

"Me?" said Norah amazedly; "me? Oh, fancy me ever thinking I could ride
a bit!"

One of the lovely ladies, in a glistening suit of black, covered with
spangles, next entered. She also preferred to ride standing, but was by
no means idle. A gentleman in the ring obligingly handed her up many
necessaries--plates and saucers and knives--and she threw these about
the air, as she galloped with great apparent carelessness, yet never
failed to catch each just as it seemed certain to fall. Tiring of this
pursuit, she flung them all back at the gentleman with deadly aim, while
he, resenting nothing, caught them cleverly, and disposed of them to a
clown who stood by, open-mouthed. Then the gentleman hung bright ribbons
across the ring, apparently with the unpleasant intention of sweeping
the lady from her horse--an intention which she frustrated by lightly
leaping over each in turn, while her horse galloped beneath it. Finally,
the gentleman--whose ideas really seemed most unfriendly--suddenly
confronted her with a great paper-covered hoop, the very sight of which
would have made an ordinary horse shy wildly--but even at this obstacle
the lady did not lose courage. Instead, she leaped straight through the
hoop, paper and all, and was carried out by her faithful steed, amidst
yells of applause.

Norah gasped.

"Oh, isn't it perfectly lovely, Daddy!" she said.

Perhaps you boys and girls who live in cities, or near townships where
travelling companies pay yearly visits, can have no idea of what this
first circus meant to this little bush maid, who had lived all her
twelve years without seeing anything half so wonderful. Perhaps, too,
you are lucky to have so many chances of seeing things--but it is
something to possess nowadays, even at twelve, the unspoiled, fresh mind
that Norah brought to her first circus.

Everything was absolutely real to her. The clown was a being almost too
good for this world, seeing that his whole time was spent in making
people laugh uproariously, and that he was so wonderfully unselfish in
the way he allowed himself to be kicked and knocked about--always
landing in positions so excruciatingly droll that you quite forgot to
ask if he were hurt. All the ladies who galloped round the ring, and
did such marvellous things, treating a mettled steed as though he were
as motionless as a kitchen table, seemed to Norah models of beauty and
grace. There was one who set her heart beating by her daring, for she
not only leaped through a paper-covered hoop, but through three, one
after the other, and then--marvel of marvels--through one on which the
paper was alight and blazing fiercely! Norah held her breath, expecting
to see her scorched and smouldering at the very least; but the heroic
rider galloped on, without seeming so much as singed. Almost as
wonderful was the total indifference of the horses to the strange
sights around them.

"Bobs would be off his head!" said Norah.

She was especially enchanted with a small boy and girl who rode in on
the same brown pony, and had all sorts of capers, as much off the pony's
back as upon it. Not that it troubled them to be off, because they
simply ran, together, at the pony, and landed simultaneously, standing
on his back, while the gallant steed galloped the more furiously. They
hung head downwards while the pony jumped over hurdles, to their great
apparent danger; they even wrestled, standing, and the girl pitched the
boy off to the accompaniment of loud strains from the band and wild
cheers from Cunjee. Not that the boy minded--he picked himself up and
raced the pony desperately round the ring--the girl standing and
shrieking encouragement, the pony racing, the boy scudding in front,
until he suddenly turned and bolted out of the ring, the pony following
at his heels, but never quite catching him--so that the boy really won,
after all, which Norah thought was quite as it should be.

Then there were the acrobats--accomplished men in tight clothes--who cut
the most amazing somersaults, and seemed to regard no object as too
great to be leaped over. They brought in the horses, and stood ever so
many of them together, backed up by the elephant, and the leading
acrobat jumped over them all without any apparent effort. After which
all the horses galloped off of their own accord, and "put themselves
away" without giving anyone any trouble. Then the acrobats were hauled
up into the top of the tent, where they swung themselves from rope to
rope, and somersaulted through space; and one man hung head downwards,
and caught by the hands another who came flying through the air as if he
belonged there. Once he missed the outstretched hands, and Norah gasped
expecting to see him terribly hurt--instead of which he fell harmlessly
into a big net thoughtfully spread for his reception, and rebounded like
a tennis ball, kissing his hand gracefully to the audience, after which
he again whirled through the air, and this time landed safely in the
hands of the hanging man, who had all this while seemed just as
comfortable head downwards as any other way. There was even a little boy
who swung himself about the tent as fearlessly as the grown men, and cut
capers almost as dangerous as theirs. Norah couldn't help breathing more
freely when the acrobats bowed their final farewell.

Mr. Linton consulted his programme.

"They're bringing in the lion next," he said.

The band struck up the liveliest of tunes. All the ring was cleared now,
except for the clown, who suddenly assumed an appearance of great
solemnity. He marched to the edge of the ring and struck an attitude
indicative of profound respect.

In came the elephant, lightly harnessed, and drawing a huge cage on
wheels. On other sides marched attendants in special uniforms, and on
the elephant's back stood the lion tamer, all glorious in scarlet and
gold, so that he was almost hurtful to the eye. In the cage three lions
paced ceaselessly up and down. The band blared. The people clapped. The
clown bowed his forehead into the dust and said feelingly, "Wow!"

Beside the ring was another, more like a huge iron safe than a ring, as
it was completely walled and roofed with iron bars. The cage was drawn
up close beside this, and the doors slid back. The lions needed no
further invitation. They gave smothered growls as they leaped from their
close quarters into this larger breathing space. Then another door was
opened stealthily, and the lion tamer slipped in, armed with no weapon
more deadly than a heavy whip.

Norah did not like it. It seemed to her, to put it mildly, a risky
proceeding. Generally speaking, Norah was by no means a careful soul,
and had no opinion of people who thought over much about looking after
their skins; but this business of lions was not exactly what she had
been used to. They appeared to her so hungry, and so remarkably ill
tempered; and the man was as one to three, and had, apparently, no
advantage in the matter of teeth and claws.

"Don't like this game," said the bush maiden, frowning. "Is he safe,
Daddy?"

"Oh, he's all right," her father answered, smiling. "These chaps know
how to take care of themselves; and the lions know he's master. Watch
them Norah."

Norah was already doing that. The lions prowling round the ring, keeping
wary eyes on their tamer, were called to duty by a sharp crack of the
whip. Growling, they took their respective stations--two on the seats of
chairs, the third standing between them, poised on the two chair backs.
Then they were put through a quick succession of tricks. They jumped
over chairs and ropes and each other; they raced round the ring, taking
hurdles at intervals; they balanced on big wooden balls, and pushed them
along by quick changes of position. Then they leaped through hoops,
ornamented with fluttering strips of paper, and clearly did not care for
the exercise. And all the while their stealthy eyes never left those of
the tamer.

"How do you like it?" asked Mr. Linton.

"It's beastly!" said Norah, with surprising suddenness. "I hate it,
Daddy. Such big, beautiful things, and to make them do silly tricks like
these; just as you'd train a kitten!"

"Well, they're nothing more than big cats," laughed her father.

"I don't care. It's--it's mean, I think. I don't wonder they're cross.
And you can see they are, Daddy. If I was a lion I know I'd want to bite
somebody!"

The lions certainly did seem cross. They growled constantly, and were
slow to obey orders. The whip was always cracking, and once or twice a
big lioness, who was especially sulky, received a sharp cut. The outside
attendants kept close to the cage, armed with long iron bars. Norah
thought, watching them, that they were somewhat uneasy. For herself, she
knew she would be very glad when the lion "turn" was over.

The smaller tricks were finished, and the tamer made ready for the grand
"chariot act." He dragged forward an iron chariot and to it harnessed
the smaller lions with stout straps, coupling the reins to a hook on the
front of the little vehicle. Then he signalled to the lioness to take
her place as driver.

The lioness did not move. She crouched down, watching him with hungry,
savage eyes. The trainer took a step forward, raising his whip.

"You--Queen!" he said sharply.

She growled, not stirring. A sudden movement of the lions behind him
made the trainer glance round quickly.

There was a roar, and a yellow streak cleft the air. A child's voice
screamed. The tamer's spring aside was too late, He went down on his
face, the lioness upon him.

Norah's cry rang out over the circus, just as the lioness sprang--too
late for the trainer, however. The girl was on her feet, clutching her
father.

"Oh, Daddy--Daddy!" she said.

All was wildest confusion. Men were shouting, women screaming--two girls
fainted, slipping down, motionless, unnoticed heaps, from their seats.
Circus men yelled contradictory orders. Within the ring the lioness
crouched over the fallen man, her angry eyes roving about the disordered
tent.

The two lions in the chariot were making furious attempts to break away.
Luckily their harness was strong, and they were so close to the edge of
the ring that the attendants were able, with their iron bars, to keep
them in check. After a few blows they settled down, growling, but
subdued.

But to rescue the trainer was not so easy a matter. He lay in the very
centre of the ring, beyond the reach of any weapons; and not a man would
venture within the great cage. The attendants shouted at the lioness,
brandished irons, cracked whips. She heard them unmoved. Once she
shifted her position slightly and a moan came from the man underneath.

"This is awful," Mr. Linton said. He left his seat in the front row and
went across the ring to the group of white-faced men. "Can't you shoot
the brute?" he asked.

"We'd do it in a minute," the proprietor answered. "But who'd shoot and
take the chance of hitting Joe? Look at the way they are--it's ten to
one he'd get hit." He shook his head. "Well, I guess it's up to me to go
in and tackle her--I'd get a better shot inside the ring." He moved
forward.

A white-faced woman flung herself upon him and clung to him desperately.
Norah hardly recognised her as the gay lady who had so merrily jumped
through the burning hoops a little while ago. "You shan't go, Dave!" she
cried, sobbing. "You mustn't! Think of the kiddies! Joe hasn't got a
wife and little uns."

The circus proprietor tried to loosen her hold. "I've got to, my girl,"
he said gently. "I can't leave a man o' mine to that brute. It's my
fault--I orter known better than to let him take her from them cubs
to-night. Let go, dear." He tried to unclinch her hands from his coat.

"Has she--the lioness--got little cubs?"

It was Norah's voice, and Mr. Linton started to find her at his side.
Norah, very pale and shaky, with wide eyes, glowing with a great idea.

The circus man nodded. "Two."

"Wouldn't she--" Norah's voice was trembling almost beyond the power of
speech--"wouldn't she go to them if you showed them to her--put them in
the small cage? My--old cat would!"

"By the powers!" said the proprietor. "Fetch 'em, Dick--run." The clown
ran, his grotesque draperies contrasting oddly enough with his errand.

In an instant he was back, two fluffy yellow heaps in his arms. One
whined as they drew near the cage, and the lioness looked up sharply
with a growl. The clown held the cubs in her view, and she growled
again, evidently uneasy. Beneath her the man was quiet now.

"The cage--quick?"

The big lion cage, its open door communicating with the ring, stood
ready. The clown opened another door and slipped in the protesting cubs.
They made for the further door, but were checked by the stout cords
fastened to their collars. He held them in leash, in full view of the
lioness. She growled and moved, but did not leave her prey.

"Make 'em sing out!" the woman said sharply. Someone handed the clown an
iron rod sharpened at one end. He passed it through the bars, and
prodded a cub on the foot. It whined angrily, and a quick growl came
from the ring.

"Harder, Dick!"

The clown obeyed. There was a sharp, amazed yelp of pain from the cub,
and an answering roar from the mother. Another protesting cry--and then
again that yellow streak as the lioness left her prey and sprang to her
baby, with a deafening roar. The clown tugged the cubs sharply back into
the recesses of the cage as the mother hurled herself through the narrow
opening. Behind her the bars rattled into place and she was restored to
captivity.

It was the work of only a moment to rush into the ring, where the tamer
lay huddled and motionless. Kind hands lifted him and carried him away
beyond the performance tent, with its eager spectators. The attendants
quickly unharnessed the two tame lions, and they were removed in another
cage, brought in by the elephant for their benefit.

Norah slipped a hot, trembling hand into her father's.

"Let's go, Daddy--I've had enough."

"More than enough, I think," said Mr. Linton. "Come on, little girl."

They slipped out in the wake of the anxious procession that carried the
tamer. As they went, a performing goat and monkey passed them on their
way to the ring, and the clown capered behind them. They heard his
cheerful shout, "Here we are again!" and the laughter of the crowd as
the show was resumed.

"Plucky chap, that clown," Mr. Linton said.

In the fresh air the men had laid the tamer down gently, and a doctor
was bending over him examining him by the flickering light of torches
held by hands that found it hard to be steady.

"Not so much damaged as he might be," the doctor announced, rising.
"That shoulder will take a bit of healing, but he looks healthy. His
padded uniform has saved his life. Let's get him to the private hospital
up the street. Everything necessary is there, and I'd like to have his
shoulder dressed before he regains consciousness."

The men lifted the improvised stretcher again, and passed on with it.
Norah and her father were following, when a voice called them. The wife
of the circus proprietor ran after them--a strange figure enough, in her
scarlet riding dress, the paint on her face streaked with tear marks.

"I'd like to know who you are," she said, catching Norah's hand. "But
for you my man 'ud 'a been in the ring with that brute. None of us had
the sense to think o' bringin' in the cubs. Tell me your name, dearie."

Norah told her unwillingly. "Nothing to make a fuss over," she added, in
great confusion.

"I guess you saved Joe's life, an' perhaps my Dave's as well," the woman
said. "We won't forget you. Good night, sir, an' thank you both."

Norah had no wish to be thanked, being of opinion that she had done less
than nothing at all. She was feeling rather sick, and--amazing feeling
for Norah--inclined to cry. She was very glad to get into bed at the
hotel, and eagerly welcomed her father's suggestion that he should sit
for a while in her room. Norah did not know that it was dawn before Mr.
Linton left his watch by the restless sleeper, quiet now, and sought his
own couch.

She woke late, from a dream of lions and elephants, and men who moaned
softly. Her father was by her bedside.

"Breakfast, lazy bones," he said.

"How's the tamer?" queried Norah, sitting up.

"Getting on all right. He wants to see you."

"Me!" said Norah. "Whatever for?"

"We've got to find that out," said her father, withdrawing.

They found out after breakfast, when a grateful, white-faced man,
swathed in bandages, stammered broken thanks.

"For it was you callin' out that saved me first," he said. "I'd never 'a
thought to jump, but I heard you sing out to me, an' if I hadn't she'd a
broke my neck, sure. An' then it was you thought o' bringing in the
cubs. Well, missy, I won't forget you long's I live."

The nurse, at his nod, brought out the skin of a young tiger,
beautifully marked and made into a rug.

"If you wouldn't mind takin' that from me," explained the tamer. "I'd
like to feel you had it, an' I'd like to shake hands with you, missy."

Outside the room Norah turned a flushed face to her father.

"Do let's go home, Daddy," she begged. "Cunjee's too embarrassing for me!"

CHAPTER XIV

CAMPING OUT

"About that fishing excursion, Norah?"

"Yes, Daddy." A small brown paw slid itself into Mr. Linton's hand.

They were sitting on the verandah in the stillness of an autumn evening,
watching the shadows on the lawn become vague and indistinct, and
finally merge into one haze of dusk. Mr. Linton had been silent for a
long time. Norah always knew when her father wanted to talk. This
evening she was content to be silent, too, leaning against his knee in
her own friendly fashion as she curled up at his feet.

"Oh, you hadn't forgotten, then?"

"Well--not much! Only I didn't know if you really wanted to go, Daddy."

"Why, yes," said her father. "I think it would be rather a good idea, my
girlie. There's not much doing on the place just now. I could easily be
spared. And we don't want to leave our trip until the days grow shorter.
The moon will be right, too. It will be full in four or five days--I
forget the exact date. So, altogether, Norah, I think we'd better
consult Brownie about the commissariat department, and make our
arrangements to go immediately."

"It'll be simply lovely," said his daughter, breathing a long sigh of
delight. "Such a long time since we had a camping out--just you and me,
Daddy."

"Yes, it's a good while. Well, we've got to make up for lost time by
catching plenty of fish," said Mr. Linton. "I hope you haven't
forgotten the whereabouts of that fine new hole of yours? You'll have
to take me to it if Anglers' Bend doesn't come up to expectations."

A deep flush came into Norah's face. For a little while she had almost
forgotten the Hermit--or, rather, he had ceased to occupy a prominent
position in her mind, since the talk of the Winfield murder had begun to
die away. The troopers, unsuccessful in their quest, had gone back to
headquarters, and Norah had breathed more freely, knowing that her
friend had escaped--this time. Still, she never felt comfortable in her
mind about him. Never before had she kept any secret from her father,
and the fact of this concealment was apt to come home closely to her at
times and cloud the perfect friendship between them.

"Master Billy will be delighted, I expect," went on Mr. Linton, not
noticing the little girl's silence. "Anything out of the ordinary groove
of civilisation is a joy to that primitive young man. I don't fancy it
would take much to make a cheerful savage of Billy."

"Can't you fancy him!" said Norah, making an effort to break away from
her own thoughts; "roaming the bush with a boomerang and a waddy, and
dressed in strips of white paint."

"Striped indeed!" said her father, laughing. "I've no doubt he'd enjoy
it. I hope his ancient instincts won't revive--he's the best hand with
horses we ever had on the station. Now, Norah, come and talk to
Brownie."

Mrs. Brown, on being consulted, saw no difficulties in the way. A day,
she declared, was all she wanted to prepare sufficient food for the
party for a week--let alone for only three days.

"Not as I'll stint you to three days," remarked the prudent Brownie.
"Last time it was to be three days--an' 'twas more like six when we saw
you again. Once you two gets away--" and she wagged a stern forefinger
at her employer. "And there's that black himp--he eats enough for five!"

"You forget the fish we're going to live on," laughed Mr. Linton.

"'M," said Brownie solemnly. "First catch your fish!"

"Why, of course, we mean to, you horrid old thing!" cried Norah,
laughing; "and bring you home loads, too--not that you deserve it for
doubting us!"

"I have seen many fishing parties go out, Miss Norah, my dear," said
Mrs. Brown impassively, "and on the 'ole more came 'ome hempty 'anded
than bringing loads--fish bein' curious things, an' very unreliable on
the bite. Still, we'll 'ope for the best--an' meanwhile to prepare for
the worst. I'll just cook a few extry little things--another tongue,
now, an' a nice piece of corned beef, an' per'aps a 'am. An' do you
think you could manage a pie or two, Miss Norah?"

"Try her!" said Mr. Linton, laughing.

"Let's tell Billy!"--and off went Norah at a gallop.

She returned a few minutes later, slightly crestfallen.

"Billy must be asleep," she said. "I couldn't get an answer. Lazy young
nigger--and it's still twilight!"

"Billy has no use for the day after the sun goes down, unless he's going
'possuming," her father said. "Never mind--the news will keep until the
morning."

"Oh, I know," said Norah, smiling. "But I wanted to tell him to-night."

"I sympathise with you," said her father, "and, meanwhile, to console
yourself, suppose you bend your mighty mind to the problem of getting
away. Do you see any objection to our leaving for parts unknown the day
after to-morrow?"

"Depends on Brownie and the tucker," said Norah practically.

"That part's all right; Brownie guarantees to have everything ready
to-morrow night if you help her."

"Why, of course I will, Daddy."

"And you have to get your own preparations made."

"That won't take long," said Norah, with a grin. "Brush, comb,
tooth-brush, pyjamas; that's all, Dad!"

"Such minor things as soap and towels don't appear to enter into your
calculations," said her father. "Well I can bear it!"

"Oh, you silly old Dad! Of course I know about those. Only Brownie
always packs the ordinary, uninteresting things."

"I foresee a busy day for you and Brownie tomorrow," Mr. Linton said.
"I'll have a laborious time myself, fixing up fishing tackle--if Jim and
his merry men left me with any. As for Billy, he will spend the day
grubbing for bait. Wherefore, everything being settled, come and play me
'The Last Rose of Summer,' and then say good-night."

Norah was up early, and the day passed swiftly in a whirl of
preparations. Everything was ready by evening, including a hamper of
monumental proportions, the consumption of which, Mr. Linton said, would
certainly render the party unfit for active exertion in the way of
fishing. Billy's delight had made itself manifest in the broad grin
which he wore all day while he dug for worms, and chased crickets and
grass-hoppers. The horses were brought in and stabled overnight, so that
an early start might be made.

It was quite an exciting day, and Norah was positive that she could not
go to sleep when her father sent her off to bed at an unusually early
hour, meeting her remonstrances with the reminder that she had to be up
with, or before, the lark. However, she was really tired, and was soon
asleep. It seemed to her that she had only been in this blissful
condition for three minutes when a hand was laid on her shoulder and she
started up to find daylight had come. Mr. Linton stood laughing at her
sleepy face.

"D'you mean to say it's morning?" said Norah.

"I've been led to believe so," her father rejoined. "Shall I pull you
out, or would you prefer to rise without assistance?"

"I'd much prefer to go to sleep again--but I'll tumble out, thank you,"
said his daughter, suiting the action to the word. "Had your bath,
Daddy?'

"Just going to it."

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