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Blake let it be known among the clans that he was going to fight the case for Peggy, and that there was going to be a lawsuit such as the most veteran campaigner of them all had never even dimly imagined–a lawsuit with the happiness of a beautiful woman and the disposal of a vast fortune at stake. Word was carried from selection to selection, across trackless mountain-passes, and over dangerous river crossings, until even Larry, the outermost Donohoe, heard the news in his rocky fastness, miscalled a grazing lease, away in the gullies under the shadows of Black Andrew mountain. By some mysterious means it even reached Briney Doyle, who was camped out near the foothills of Kosciusko, running wild horses into trap-yards. This occupation had taken such hold on him that he had become as wild as the horses he pursued, and it was popularly supposed that the other Doyles had to go out with horses to run him in whenever they wanted him.

Peggy brought in the copy of her marriage certificate, an old and faded piece of paper which ran–“This is to certify that I, Thomas Nettleship, duly ordained clergyman of the Church of England, have this day solemnized a marriage between William Grant, Bachelor, and Margaret Donohoe, Spinster.”

The name of Pike’s Hotel and the date were nearly illegible, but there the document was; and though it was not the original certificate, it was pretty clear that Peggy could never have invented it. Its production made a great impression. It certainly went far to convince Blake.

He had cross-examined all the witnesses, had checked their accounts by each other, had followed William Grant’s career at that time, had got on to the history of the bush missionary; and everything fitted in. Martin Doyle–Black Martin’s son Martin–was letter-perfect in his part. Peggy could give the details of the ceremony with unfaltering accuracy fifty times a day if need be, and never contradict herself. So at last he gave up trying to find holes in the case, and determined to go in and win.

On the other side there was trouble in the camp–no witnesses could be found, except Martin Doyle, and he was ready to swear to the wedding. At last it became evident that the only chance of overthrowing Peggy’s case was to find Considine; but the earth seemed to have swallowed him up.

The influence of the Chief of Police was brought to bear, and many a weary mile did the troopers of the Outer Back ride in search of the missing man. One of them followed a Considine about two hundred miles across country, and embodied the story of his wanderings in a villainously written report; brief and uncouth as the narrative was, it was in itself an outline picture of bush life. From shearers’ hut to artesian borers’ camp, from artesian well to the opal-fields, from the opal-fields to a gold-rush, from the gold-rush to a mail-coach stable, he pursued this Considine, only to find that, in the words of the report, “the individual was not the same.”

Things looked hopeless for Mary Grant, when help came from an unexpected quarter. A letter written in a rugged, forcible fist, arrived for Charlie Gordon from a young fellow named Redshaw, once a station-hand on Kuryong, who had gone out to the back-country and was rather a celebrity in his way. His father was a pensioner at the old station, and Redshaw junior, who was known as Flash Jack, evidently kept in touch with things at Kuryong. He wrote

Dear Sir,

I hear from Gannon the trooper that you want to find Keogh. When he left the coach that time, he went back to the station and got his horses, and cleared out, and he is now hiding in Reeves’s buffalo camp at the back of Port Faraway. If I hear any more will let you know.

J. REDSHAW, alas ‘Flash Jack.’

“What’s all this?” said Pinnock, when Charlie and Carew brought him the letter. “Who is J. Redshaw, and why does he sign “alas Flash Jack?”

“He means Alias, don’t you see? Alias Flash Jack. He is a man we used to have on the station, and his father used to work for us–I expect he wants to do us a good turn.”

“It will be a good turn in earnest, if he puts you in the way of finding Considine,” said the lawyer. “You will have to send Hugh up. The old man knows you and Carew, and if he saw you coming he would take to the woods, as the Yankees say. Even when you do get him the case isn’t over, because the jury will side with Peggy. They’ll sympathise with her efforts to prove herself an honest woman. It isn’t marrying too much that will get her into trouble–it’s the other thing. But we have the date and place of her alleged marriage with William Grant; and if this old Considine can prove, by documents, mind you, not by his own simple word–because it’s a hundred to one the jury wouldn’t believe him–I say, if he can prove that she married him on that very day and at that very place, then she’s beaten. No one on earth could swallow the story of her marrying two different people on the same day.”

“Hugh can go,” said Charlie. “He’ll have to do his best this time. It all depends on getting hold of this Considine, eh? Well, Hugh ‘ll have to get him. If he fails he needn’t show his face amongst us any more.”

Mary Grant was called in and told the great news, and then Pinnock started out to find Hugh. But before the lawyer could see him, Mary met him in the garden.

Hugh did not see that he could be of any use in the case, and wanted to be quit of Kuryong for good. Seeing Mary day after day, he had become more and more miserable as the days went by. He determined at last to go away altogether, and, when once he had made up his mind, only waited for a chance to tell her that he was going. The chance came as she left the office after consulting with Pinnock.

“Miss Grant,” he said, “if you don’t mind, I think I will resign my management of this station. I will make a start for myself or get a job somewhere else. You will easily get someone to take my place.”

She looked at him keenly for a while.

“I didn’t expect this of you,” she said, bitterly. “The rats leave the sinking ship. Is that it?”

His face flushed a dull red. “You know better than that,” he said. “I would stop if I could be of any use, but what is there I can do?”

“Why do you want to leave?”

“I want to get away from here–I want to get out of the hills for awhile.”

Mary knew, as well as if he had told her, that what he wanted was to go where he could forget her and see whether absence would break the chain; and triumph lit up her eyes, for it was pleasant even in the midst of her troubles to know that he still cared. Then she came to a swift decision.

“Will you do something for me away from the hills, then?” she said.

“Where?”

“Up North. I want some one to find that man Considine that your brother and Mr. Carew met. You know how important it is to me. Will you do it for me?”

Hugh would have jumped at the chance to risk his life for her lightest wish.

“I will go anywhere and do my best to find anyone you want,” he said; “When do you want me to start?”

“See Mr. Pinnock and your brother about that. They will tell you all about it; and if you do manage to find this man, why, you can talk about leaving after that if you want to. Will you go for me?”

“Yes. I will go, Miss Grant; and I will never come back till I find this man–if he is alive.”

She laid her hand on his arm.

“I know you will do all you can,” she said, “but in any case, whether you find him or not–come back again!”

CHAPTER XXIV.

THE SECOND SEARCH FOR CONSIDINE.

Before leaving Hugh was fully instructed what to do if he compassed the second finding of Considine. He was to travel under another name, for fear that his own would get about, and cause the fugitive to make another hurried disappearance.

He took a subpoena to serve on the old man as a last resource.

Charlie was emphatic. “Go up and get hold of the old vagrant, and find out all about it. Don’t make a mess of it, whatever you do. Remember the old lady, and Miss Grant, and the youngsters, and all of us depend on you in this business. Don’t come back beaten. Don’t let anything stop you. Get him drunk or get him sober–friendly or fighting–but get the truth, and get the proofs of it. Choke it out of the old hound somehow.”

Hugh said that he would, and departed, weighed down by responsibility, to execute his difficult mission. He had to go into an untravelled country to get the truth out of a man who did not want to tell it; and the time allowed was short, as the case could not be postponed much longer.

He travelled by sea to Port Faraway, a tropical sweltering township by the Northern seas of Australia, and when he reached it felt like one of the heroes in Tennyson’s Lotus Eaters–he had come “into a land wherein it seemed always afternoon.”

Reeves, the buffalo shooter, was a well-known man, but to find his camp was another matter. No one seemed to have energy enough to take much interest in the quest.

Hugh interviewed a leading citizen at the hotel, and got very little satisfaction. He said, “I want to get out to Reeves’s camp. Do you know where it is, and how one gets there?”

“Well,” said the leading citizen, putting his feet up on the arms of his long chair and gasping for air, “Le’s see! Reeves’s camp–ah! Where is he camped now?”

“I don’t know,” said Hugh. “I wish I did. That’s what I want to find out.”

“Hopkins’d know. Hopkins, the storekeeper. He sends out the supplies. Did you ask him?”

“No,” said Hugh. “I didn’t. I’ll go and ask him now.”

“Too hot to bustle round now,” said the leading citizen, lighting his pipe. “What’ll you have to drink? Have some square; it’s the best drink here.”

Hugh thought it well to fall in with the customs of the inhabitants, so he had a stiff gin-and-water at nine in the morning, a thing he had never done, or even seen done, in his life before. Then he went over in the blazing sunlight to the storekeeper, and asked whether he knew where Reeves’ camp was.

“That I don’t,” said the storekeeper. “I send out what they want by a Malay who sails a one-masted craft round the coast, and goes up the river to their camp, and brings the hides back. They send a blackfellow to let me know when they want any stuff, and where to send it.”

“Perhaps I could go out with the next lot of stuff,” said Hugh. “When will they want it, do you think?”

“Well, they mightn’t want any more. They might go on now till the wet season, and then they’ll come in.”

“When is the wet season, then?”

“Oh, a couple of months, likely. Perhaps three months. Perhaps there won’t be none at all to speak of. What’ll you have?”

“Oh, I have just had a drink, thanks. Fact is, I’m a bit anxious to get out to this camp. It’s a bit important. You don’t know where they are for certain?”

“Lord knows! Anywhere! Might be on one river, might be on another. They’ll come in in the wet season. Better have a drink, anyhow. You must have something. What’ll it be–square? Beer? Can’t stand beer in this climate, myself.”

“Oh, well,” said Hugh desperately, “I’ll have another square. Make it a light one. Do you think I can get anyone who knows where they are camped to go out with me?”

“Tommy Prince’d know, I expect. He was out in that country before. But he’s gone with a bullock-team, drawing quartz to the new battery at the Oriental. At least I saw him start out three weeks ago. Said he was in a hurry, too, as the battery couldn’t start until he got the quartz hauled.”

“Perhaps he didn’t start,” said Hugh; “perhaps he put it off till after the wet season?”

“Well,” said the storekeeper, meditatively, “he might, but I don’t think he would. There’s no one else, that I know of, can find them for you. Lord knows where they are. They camp in one place till the buffalo are all shot, and then they shift to new ground. Perhaps ten miles, perhaps thirty. Have another drink? What’ll you have?”

“No, not any more, thanks. About this Tommy Prince, now; if I can find him he might tell me where to go. Where can I find him?”

“Down at the Margaret is where he camps, but I think he’s gone to the Oriental by this time–sure to be. That’s about forty miles down past the Margaret. There was a fellow came in from the Margaret for supplies, and he’ll be going back to-morrow–if he can find his pack-horses.”

“And supposing he can’t?”

“Well, then, he’ll go out next week, I expect, unless he gets on the drink. He’s a terrible chap to drink.”

“And if he starts to drink, when will he go?”

“Lord knows. They’ll have to send in after him. His mates’ll be pretty near starved by now, anyhow. He’s been in town, foolin’ round that girl at the Royal this three weeks. He’ll give you a lift out to the Margaret–that’s forty miles.”

“What is there out at the Margaret when I get there? Is it a town, or a station, or a mine? What is it?”

“Oh, it’s not so bad. There’s a store there, and a few mines scattered about. Mostly Chinese mines. The storekeeper there’s a great soaker, nearly always on the drink. Name’s Sampson. He’ll tell you where to find Tommy Prince. Prince and his mates have a claim twelve miles out from there, and if Tommy ain’t gone to the Oriental, he might go down with you.”

“Supposing Tommy’s at his claim, twelve miles out,” said Hugh, “how can I get out?”

“I dunno,” said the storekeeper, who was getting tired of talking so long without a drink. “I dunno how you’ll get out there. Better have a drink–what’ll you have?”

Hugh walked out of the store in despair. He found himself engaged in what appeared to be an endless chase after a phantom Considine, and the difficulties in his way semed insuperable. Yet how could he go back and tell them all at home that he had failed? What would they think of him? The thought made him miserable; and he determined, if he failed, never to go back to the old station at all.

So he returned to his hotel, packed his valise, and set out to look for the pack-horse man. He found him fairly sober; soon bargained to be allowed to ride one of the horses, and in due course was deposited at the Margaret–a city consisting of one galvanised-iron building, apparently unoccupied. His friend dismounted and had a drink with him out of his flask. They kicked at the door unavailingly; then his mate went on into the indefinite, leaving him face to face with general desolation.

The Margaret store was the only feature in the landscape–a small building with a heap of empty bottles in the immediate foreground, and all round it the grim bush, a vista of weird twisted trees and dull grey earth with scanty grass. At the back were a well, a windlass, and a trough for water, round which about a hundred goats were encamped. Hugh sat and smoked, and looked at the prospect. By-and-by out of the bush came two men, a Chinaman and a white man. The Chinaman was like all Chinamen; the white man was a fiery, red-faced, red-bearded, red-nosed little fellow. The Chinee was dragging a goat along by the horns, the goat hanging back and protesting loudly in semi-human screams; every now and again a black mongrel dog would make sudden fiendish dashes at the captive, and fasten its teeth in its neck. This made it bellow louder; but the Chinaman, with the impassibility of his race, dragged goat, dog, and all along, without the slightest show of interest.

The white man trudged ahead, staring fixedly in front; when they reached the store he stared at Hugh as if he were the Bunyip, but said no word. Then he unlocked the door, went in, and came out with a large knife, with which he proceeded to murder the goat scientifically. The Chinee meanwhile bailed up the rest of the animals, and caught and milked a couple of “nannies,” while a patriarchal old “billy” walked fragrantly round the yard, uttering hoarse “buukhs” of defiance.

It was a truly pastoral scene, but Hugh took little interest in it. He was engrossed with the task of getting out to the buffalo camp, finding Considine, and making him come forward and save the family. He approached the white, or rather red man, who cocked a suspicious eye at him, and went on tearing the hide off the goat. Hugh noticed that his hand trembled a good deal, and that a sort of foam gathered on his lips as he worked.

“Good day,” said Hugh.

The man glared at him, but said nothing.

“My name is Lambton,” said Hugh. “I want to go out to the buffalo camp. I want to find Tommy Prince, to see if he can go out with me. Do you know where he is?”

The man put the blade of the butcher’s knife between his teeth, and stared again at Hugh, apparently having some difficulty in focussing him. Then his lips moved, and he was evidently trying to frame speech. He said, “Boo, Boo, Boo,” for a few seconds; then he pulled himself together, and said,

“Wha’ you want?”

“I want to get to the buffalo camp,” said Hugh. “You know Reeves’s camp.”

Here a twig fell to the ground just behind the man; he gave one blood-curdling yell, dropped the knife, and rushed past Hugh, screaming out, “Save me! Save me! They’re after me! Look at ’em; look at ’em!” His hair stood perfectly erect with fright, and, as he ran, he glanced over his shoulder with frightened eyes. He didn’t get far. In his panic he ran straight towards the well, banged his head against the windlass, and went thundering down the twenty or thirty feet of shaft souse into the water at the bottom, where he splashed and shrieked like a fiend, the noise reverberating up the long shaft.

Hugh and the Chinaman ran to the well-top, Hugh cursing under his breath. Every possible obstacle that could arise had arisen to block his journey; every man that could have helped him was away, or dead, or otherwise missing; and now, to crown all, after getting thus far, he had apparently struck a prize lunatic, and would have to stay in that awful desolation, perhaps for a week, with him and a Chinaman. Perhaps he would have to give evidence on the lunatic’s dead body, and even be accused of causing his death. All these thoughts flashed through his mind as he ran to the well-head. From the noise he made the man was evidently not dead yet, and, looking down, he saw his eyes glaring up as he splashed in the water.

“What’s up with him?” roared Hugh to the Chinaman.

“Him, dlink, dlink–all-a-time dlink, him catchee hollows.”

They had started to lower the bucket, when suddenly the yells ceased, a loud bubbling was heard, and looking down they saw only a dim, round object above the water. Without an instant’s delay Hugh put his foot in the bucket and signed to the Chinee to lower him. Swiftly and silently he descended the well, jumped out of the bucket, and grabbed the floating body of the drunkard with one hand, holding on to the rope with the other. The man had collapsed, and was as limp as a rag. Hugh made the rope fast under his armpits, and gave the old mining cry, “On top there, haul away.”

Heavily the windlass creaked. Mightily the Chinee strained. The unconscious figure was drawn out of the water and up the shaft, inch by inch. The weight of a man in wet clothes is considerably more than that of a bucket of water, and it seemed a certainty that either the old windlass would break or the Chinaman’s arms give out. Slowly, slowly, the limp wet figure ascended the shaft, while Hugh supported himself in the water, by gripping the logs at the side of the well, praying that the tackle would hold. The creaking of the windlass ceased, and the ascending body stopped–evidently the Chinee was pausing to get his breath.

“Go on!” screamed Hugh. “Keep at it, John! Don’t let it beat you! Wind away!”

Faintly came the gasped reply, “No can! No more can do!”

He lowered himself in the water as far as he could, to deaden the blow in case of the fellow falling back on him, and screamed encouragement, threats, and promises up the well. Suddenly from above came a new voice altogether, a white man’s voice.

“Right oh, boss! We’ve got him.”

The windlass recommenced its creaking, and the figure at the end of the rope continued its slow, upward journey. Hugh saw the body hauled slowly to the top and grabbed by a strong hand; then it disappeared, and the sunlight once more streamed, uninterrupted, down the shaft. The bucket came down again, and Hugh clutched it and yelled out, “Haul away!” He could hear the men grunting above as they turned the handle.

When he had been hauled about fifteen feet there was a crack; the old windlass had collapsed, and he went souse, feet first, into the water. He sank till he touched the bottom, then rose gasping to the surface. A head appeared, framed in the circle of the well, and a slow, drawling colonial voice said:

“Gord! boss, are you hurt? The windlass is broke.”

“No, I’m not hurt. Can’t you fix that windlass?” roared Hugh.

“No!” came the answer sepulchrally down the well. “She’s cooked.”

“Well, hold on,” said Hugh. “I believe I can get up.” He braced his feet against one side of the well, and his shoulders against the other, and so, working them alternately, he raised himself inch by inch. It is a feat that requires a good man to perform, and the strain was very great. Grimly he kept at it, and drew nearer and nearer to the top. Then, at last, a hand seized him; half-sick with over-exertion, he struggled out and fell gasping to the ground. For a minute or two the universe was turning round with him. The Chinee and the strange white man moved in a kind of flicker, unreal as the figures in a cinematograph. Then all was blank for a while.

When he came to, he was lying by the well with a bag under his head, and the strange white man was trying to pour some spirits down his throat.

“I’m–all right–thanks!” gasped Hugh.

“By Gord, Mister, it’s lucky I happened to come along,” said the stranger. “You an’ Sampson’d ha’ both been drownded. That Chow couldn’t haul him up. Dead beat the Chow was when I came. I jis’ come ridin’ up, thinkin’ to get a few pound of onions to take out to the camp, and I see the Chow a-haulin’ and a-haulin’ at that windlass like as if he was tryin’ to pull the bottom out of the well. I rides up and sings out “What ho! Chaney, what yer got?” And he says, “Ketch hold,” he says, and that was all he could say; he was fair beat. And then I heard you singing out, and I says to meself, “Is the whole popperlation of the Northern Territory down this here well? How many more is there, Chancy?” I says. And then bung goes the old windlass, and lucky it ketched in the top of the well; if it had fell down on the top of you, it’d ha’ stiffened you all right. And how you got up that well beats me. By Cripes, it does.”

“How’s the–man that–was down with me?” said Hugh slowly.

“What, Sampson? ‘E’s all right. Couldn’t kill’m with a meat-axe. He must ha’ swallowed very near all the water in that well. Me an’ the Chow emptied very near two buckets out of him. He’s dead to the world jes’ now. How do you feel, boss?”

“I’ll be all right in a minute,” said Hugh. “What’s your name?”

“I’m Tommy Prince,” said the stranger. “I jist kem in from my camp to-day for them onions.”

Hugh drew a long breath. The luck had turned at last.

CHAPTER XXV.

IN THE BUFFALO CAMP.

“You’re just the man I was looking for,” said Hugh, taking in the stranger with his eyes. “I want to get out to Reeves’s buffalo camp, and I hear you’re the only man who knows that country at all. Can you get time to come down with me? I’ll make it worth your while.”

He waited for the reply with a beating heart. If this man failed him he saw nothing for it but to go back. The stranger lit his pipe with the leisurely movements of a man who had never been in a real hurry in his life.

Then he spoke slowly.

“Well, it’s this way, boss, you see. I’m just startin’ off in no end of a hurry to go and take a team of bullocks to the Oriental to draw quartz.”

“Can’t you put it off for a while?” said Hugh. “It’s getting near the wet season.”

“Well, I’d like to go with you, boss, but I couldn’t chuck ’em over–not rightly I couldn’t.” He stroked his beard and relapsed into thought.

“Let’s go in and get a drink,” said Hugh. “I suppose there is some square-face inside.”

The square-face settled it. They had one drink, and the stranger began to think less of the needs of the Oriental. They had another, and he said he didn’t suppose it’d matter much if the Oriental had to wait a bit for their stone, and the bullocks were all over the bush and very poor, and by the time he got them together the wet season would be on. They had a third, and he said that the Oriental had been hanging on for six months, and it wouldn’t hurt it to hang on for seven, and he wouldn’t see a man like Hugh stuck.

So the shareholders in that valuable concern, the Oriental Mine, were kept in pleasing suspense for some months longer, while the mine-manager (whose salary was going on all the time) did nothing but smoke, and write reports to the effect that “a very valuable body of stone was at grass, awaiting cartage to the battery, when a splendid crushing was a certainty.” Meanwhile Tommy Prince was gaily journeying with Hugh down to the buffalo camp.

Prince, a typical moleskin-trousered, cotton-shirted, cabbage-tree-hatted bushman, soon fixed up all details. He annexed the horses belonging to the store, sagely remarking that, as Hugh had saved their owner’s life, he could afford to let him have a few horses. He also helped himself to pack-saddles, camping gear, supplies, and all sorts of odds and ends–not forgetting a couple of gallons of rum, mosquito-nets made of cheese cloth, blankets, and a rifle and cartridges. They fitted out the expedition in fine style, while unconscious Sampson slept the sleep of the half-drowned. The placid Chinese cook fried great lumps of goat for them to eat, heedless of all things except his opium-pipe, to which he had recourse in the evening, the curious dreamy odour of the opium blending strangely with the aromatic scent of the bush.

At daylight they started, and for three days rode through the wilderness, camping out at night, while the horses with bells and hobbles grazed round the camp. Tommy Prince steered a course by instinct, guided as unerringly as the Israelites by their pillar of fire.

By miles of trackless, worthless wilderness, by rolling open plains, by rocky ranges and stony passes, they pushed out and ever further out, till at last, one day, Tommy said, “They ought to be hereabouts, some place.” So saying, he dropped a lighted match into a big patch of grass, and in a few seconds a line of fire half a mile wide was roaring across the plain; above it rose smoke as of a burning city.

“They’ll see that,” said Tommy, “without the buff’loes have got ’em.” So they camped for the day under a huge banyan-fig tree and awaited developments. About evening, away on the horizon, there arose an answering cloud of smoke, connecting earth and sky, like a waterspout.

“That’s them,” said Tommy. They climbed once more into their saddles, and set out. Just as the sun was setting, they saw a singular procession coming towards them. In front rode two small, wiry, hard-featured, inexpressibly dirty men on big well-formed horses. They wore dungaree trousers, which had once been blue, but were now begrimed and bloodstained to a dull neutral colour. Their shirts–once coloured, but now nearly black–were worn outside the trousers, like a countryman’s smock frock, and were drawn in at the waist by broad leathern belts full of cartridges. Their faces were half-hidden by stubbly beards, and their bright alert eyes looked out from under the brims of two as dilapidated felt hats as ever graced head of man. Each carried a carbine between thigh and saddle. These were the buffalo shooters.

Behind them rode an elderly, grizzled man, whom Hugh had no difficulty in recognising as Keogh, or Considine. Following him were some seven or eight packhorses, all heavily laden with hides. And behind the packhorses rode three or four naked blacks and a Chinaman.

Hugh’s guide at once made himself welcome in his happy-go-lucky style. He introduced Hugh as Mr. Lambton, from New South Wales. The buffalo shooters made him welcome after the fashion of their kind; but Considine was obviously uneasy, and avoided him, riding with Tommy Prince for a while, and evidently trying to find out what Hugh had come for.

That night, when they got to the buffalo shooters’ camp, Hugh opened fire on Considine. The veteran was in a cheerful mood after his meal, and Hugh wanted to start diplomatically, thinking he might persuade him. If that failed he would give him the summons; but he would start with the suaviter in modo. When it came to the point, however, he forgot his diplomacy, and plunged straight into trouble.

“I’ll tell you what I’ve come up here for, Considine,” he said. “My name’s Hugh Gordon, and I want to find out something about your marriage with Peggy Donohoe.”

“Well, if that’s what you come for, Mister,” said the veteran, pulling a firestick out of the fire, and slowly lighting his pipe, “if that’s what you come for”–puff, puff, puff–“you’ve come on a wild goose chase. I never knew no Peggy Donohoe in my life. My wife”–puff–“was a small, dark woman, named Smith.”

“I thought you told my brother that you married Peggy Donohoe.”

“So I might have told him,” assented the veteran. “Quite likely I did, but I must ha’ made a mistake. A man might easy make a mistake over a thing like that. What odds is it to you who I married, anyhow?”

“What odds? Why look here, Considine, it means that my old mother will be turned out of her home. That’s some odds to me, isn’t it?”

“Yairs, that’s right enough, Mister,” said the courteous Considine; “it’s lots of odds to you, but what I ask you is–what odds is it to me? Why should I go and saddle myself with a she-devil just when I’m coming into a bit of money? I’d walk miles to do her a bad turn.”

“Well, if you want to do her a bad turn, come down and block her getting Mr. Grant’s estate.”

“Yes, an’ put her on to meself What next? I tell you, Mister, straight, I wouldn’t have that woman tied to me for all the money in China. That English bloke said there was a big fortune for me in England. Well, if I have to take Peggy Donohoe with it, it can stay. I’ll live here with the blacks and the buffalo shooters, and I’ll get my livin’ for meself, same as I got it all my life; but take on Peggy again I will not. Now, that’s Domino–that’s the dead finish. I won’t go with you, and I won’t give you no information. And I’m sorry too, ’cause you seem a good sort of a young feller–but I won’t do anything that’ll mix me up with Peggy any more.”

Hugh ground his teeth with mortification. Then he played his next card.

“There’s a man they call Flash Jack–do you know him?”

“Perhaps I do, and perhaps I don’t,” said the sage in a surly tone.

“Well, he told me to ask you to help us. He said to tell you that he particularly wanted you to give evidence if you can.”

“Want’ll be his master, then,” snarled the old man.

“He said he would put the police on to a job about some cattle at Cross-roads,” said Hugh.

The rage fairly flashed out of Considine’s eyes.

“He said that, did he?” he yelled. “The rotten informer! Well, you tell Flash Jack from me that where he can put me away for one thing I can put him away for half-a-dozen; and if I go into gaol for a five-stretch he goes in for ten. I ain’t afraid of Flash Jack, nor you either. See that, now!”

Hugh felt that his mission had failed. He pulled out the summons as a last resource, and passed it to the old man.

“What’s this?” he said.

“Summons to give evidence,” said Hugh.

“Victoria by the Grace of God,” read the old man, by the flickering firelight. “Victoria by the Grace of God, eh? Well, see here,” he continued, solemnly putting the summons in the fire and watching it blaze, “if Victoria by the Grace of God wants me, she can send for me–send a coach and six for Patrick Henry Considine, late Patrick Henry Keogh! And then I mightn’t go! There’ll be only one thing make me go where I don’t want to go, and that’s a policeman at each elbow and another shovin’ behind. I’d sooner do a five-stretch than take Peggy back again. And that’s the beginning and the end and the middle of it. And now I’ll wish you good night.”

CHAPTER XXVI.

THE SAVING OF CONSIDINE.

At grey dawn all the camp was astir. Hugh looked from under his mosquito-net, and saw old Considine over the fire, earnestly frying a large hunk of buffalo meat. He was without a trouble in the world as he turned the hissing steak in the pan. Two black gins in brief garments–a loin cloth and a villainously dirty pyjama-jacket each–were sitting near him, languidly killing the mosquitoes which settled on their bare legs. These were Maggie and Lucy, but they had degenerated with their surroundings. Tommy Prince was oiling a carbine, and one of the shooters was washing his face at a basin formed by scratching a small hole in the ground and pressing a square of canvas into the depression.

The Chinese skinner was sitting on a log, rubbing a huge butcher’s knife on a sharpening stone. Away up the plain the horses, about thirty or forty in number, were slowly trooping into camp, hunted by a couple of blackfellows, naked except for little grass armlets worn above the elbow, and sticks stuck through their noses. When the horses reached the camp they formed a squadron under the shade of some trees, and pushed and shoved and circled about, trying to keep the flies off themselves and each other.

Hugh walked over to Tommy Prince at his rifle-oiling, and watched him for a while. That worthy, who was evidently a true sportsman at heart, was liberally baptising with Rangoon oil an old and much rusted Martini carbine, whose ejector refused to work. Every now and then, when he thought he had got it ship-shape, Tommy would put in a fresh cartridge, hold the carbine tightly to his shoulder, shut his eyes, and fire it into space. The rusty old weapon kicked frightfully, after each discharge the ejector jammed, and Tommy ruefully poked the exploded cartridge out with a rod and poured on more oil.

“Blast the carbine!” said Tommy. “It kicks upwards like; it’s kicking my nose all skewwhiff.”

“Don’t put it to your shoulder, you fool,” said one of the shooters; “it’ll kick your head off. Hold it out in one hand.”

“Then it’ll kick my arm off,” said Tommy.

“No, it won’t; you won t feel it at all,” said the shooter. “Your arm will give to the recoil. Blaze away!”

“What are you up to with the carbine?” said Hugh.

“I’m going to have a blaze at some of these ‘ere buff’loes,” said Tommy gaily. “Bill’s lent me a horse. They’s got a rifle for you, and one for the old man. “We’ll give them buff’loes hell to-day. Five rifles–they’ll think the French is after them.” “Well, but I want to get back,” said Hugh. “We mustn’t waste any time. What about the store-keeper’s horses?”

“Ho! it’d never do to take them straight back again,” said Tommy. “Never do. They must have a spell. Besides, what’s the hurry?”

And Hugh, recognising that for all the good he could do he might just as well not hurry back again, resigned himself to the inevitable, picked up his bridle, went into the shuffling herd of horses, and caught the one pointed out to him. It was a big, raw-boned, ragged-hipped bay, a horse that would have been a gentleman under any other conditions, but from long buffalo-hunting had become a careless-going, loose-jointed ruffian, taking his life in his hands every day. He bit savagely at Hugh as he saddled him, and altogether proclaimed himself devoid of self-respect and the finer instincts.

Breakfast was despatched almost in silence. The shooters knew vaguely that Hugh’s visit was in some way connected with Considine, and that Considine had refused to do what Hugh wanted. But the hospitality of the buffalo camp is as the hospitality of the Arabs of old–the stranger is made welcome whatever his business, and may come and go unquestioned.

Hugh had little desire to talk on the subject of his visit, and Considine maintained a dogged silence. Tommy Prince alone chatted away affably between large mouthfuls of buffalo beef, damper, and tea, airing his views on all subjects, but principally on the fair sex. Meanwhile the blacks were catching the pack-horses, and sharpening their skinning knives. The two horses used by the shooters were brought over to the camp fire and given a small feed each of much-prized maize and oats and bran, that had been brought round in the lugger from Port Faraway with the camp supplies, landed on the river-bank twelve miles off, and fetched in on pack-horses.

“A little more beef, Mister? No? Well, all aboard for the Buffalo Brigade! That’s your rifle by the tree. Put this cartridge-belt on and buckle it real tight; if you leave it loose, when you start to gallop it will shake up and down, and shake the soul out of you. Come, Paddy, what are you riding?”

“I’m going to ride the boco.”

[Footnote: One-eyed horse.]

“I wouldn’t if I was you. He’s all right to race up to a buffalo, but that blind eye of his’ll fetch him to grief some day. Ride the old grey.”

“No fear,” said the old man obstinately, “the boco’s one eye’s worth any horse’s two. Me an’ the boco will be near the lead when the whips are crackin’, take it from me.”

“Come along, then!”

Hugh clambered on to his raw-boned steed, known as “Close Up,” because he would go so close to the buffaloes, and the procession started. The five white men rode ahead, all smoking with great enjoyment. Hugh was beside one of the shooters, and opened conference with him.

“I’ve heard a lot about this business,” said Hugh, “but never hoped to see it. What are these Australian buffaloes? I thought they were just humped cattle like those little Brahmin cattle.”

“People reckon they’re the Indian buffalo,” said the bushman. “They were fetched here about fifty years ago from Java–just a few pair, and they were let go and went wild, and now they’re all over the face of the earth about here. We’ve shot six hundred of ’em–just the two rifles–in six months. It’s not play, I tell you, to shoot and skin six hundred and cure their hides in that time. We’ll get a thousand this season.”

“Good Lord,” said Hugh. “Won’t they be shot out?”

“Not they. There’s about eight thousand of ’em shot every year for their hides, and it’s just like the ordinary increase of a big cattle station. They’re all over these plains, and for miles and miles away down the coast, and in the jungles there’s thousands of ’em. There’s jungles here that are a hundred miles round, and no animal but a buffalo will go into ’em. The blacks say that inside them there’s big patches of clear plain, with grass and water, where there’s buffaloes as thick as bees; but you can’t get at ’em.”

“How do you shoot ’em?” said Hugh.

“Race right up alongside ’em, and put the carbine out with one hand, and shoot downwards into the loin. That’s the only way to drop ’em. You can shoot bullets into ’em by the hatful everywhere else, and they just turn and charge; and while you are dodging round, first you huntin’ the buffalo, and then the buffalo huntin’ you, the rest of the mob are out of sight. You must go right up alongside, close enough to touch ’em with the barrel, and fire down–so.” He illustrated with the carbine as he spoke. “And whatever you do, don’t pull your horse about; he knows the game, if you don’t. Never stop your horse near a wounded buffalo, either. They make a rush as sudden as lightnin’. They look clumsy and big; but, my oath, a wounded one can hop along something wonderful! They’ll surprise you for pace any time; but most of all when they’re wounded.”

“Do they always come at you when they’re wounded?” said Hugh.

“Always,” said the shooter, “and very often when they’re not wounded they’ll turn and charge if you’ve run ’em a long way. You want to look out, I tell you. They’ll wheel very sudden, and if they ketch your horse they’ll grind him into pulp. Ben, my mate here, had a horse killed under him last week–horse we gave five and twenty quid for, and that’s a long shot for a buffalo horse. I believe in Injia they shoot ’em off elephants, but that’s ’cause they won’t come out in the open like they do here. There’s hundreds of toffs in England and Injia’d give their ears for a day after these, you know. Hello! Look! See there!”

Far away out on the plain Hugh saw fifteen or twenty bluish-grey mounds in a line rising above the grass; it was a herd of buffalo feeding. The animals never lifted their heads, and were curiously like a lot of railway trucks covered with grey tarpaulin. It was impossible to tell which was head and which was tail. A short halt was made while girths were tightened, cartridges slipped into place, and hats jammed on; they all mounted and rode slowly towards the herd, which was at least half a mile off, and still feeding steadily. Everyone kept his horse in hand, ready for a dash the moment the mob lifted their heads.

“How fast will they go?” whispered Hugh to the nearest shooter.

“Fast as blazes. You’ve no idea how fast they are. They’re the biggest take-in there is. When they lift their heads they’ll stare for half a minute, and then they’ll run. The moment they start, off you go. Watch ’em! There’s one sees us! Keep steady yet–don’t rush till they start.”

One of the blue mounds lifted a huge black-muzzled head, decorated with an enormous pair of sickle-shaped horns that stretched right back to the shoulders. He stared with great sullen eyes and trotted a few paces towards them; one after another, the rest lifted their heads and stared too. Closer drew the horsemen at their steady, silent jog, the horses pricking their ears and getting on their toes as race-horses do at the start of a race.

“Be ready,” said the shooter. “Now!”

The mob, with one impulse, wheeled, and set off at a heavy lumbering gallop, and the horses dashed in full gallop after them. It was a ride worth a year of a man’s life. Every man sat down to his work like a jockey finishing a race, and the big stock horses went through the long grass like hawks swooping down on a flock of pigeons. The men carried their carbines loaded, holding them straight up over the shoulder so as to lessen the jerking of the wrist caused by the gallop.

The surface of the plain was level enough, but frightfully bad going; the sun had baked the black soil till great gaping cracks, a couple of feet wide and ten feet deep, were opened in the ground. The buffaloes had wallowed in the wet season and made round well-like holes that were now hard, dry pitfalls. Here and there a treacherous, slimy watercourse wound its slinking way along, making a bog in which a horse would sink to his shoulders; and over all these traps and pitfalls the long waving jungle-grass drew a veil. Every now and then belts of small bamboo were crossed, into which the horses dashed blindly, forcing their way through by their weight. When they started the buffaloes had a lead of a quarter of a mile, and judging by their slogging, laboured gallop, it looked as though the horses would run into them in half a mile; but on that ground the buffaloes could go nearly as fast as the horses, and it was only after a mile and a quarter of hard riding that they closed in on the mob, which at once split into several detachments. A magnificent old bull, whose horns measured ten feet from tip to tip, dashed away to the right with six or seven cows lumbering after him. Hugh and one of the shooters followed this lot. Another mob went away to the left, pursued by the other shooter and Considine; while one old cow, having had enough running, suddenly wheeled in her tracks, and charged straight at Tommy Prince, whose horse at once whipped round and carried his rider, with the old cow at his tail, into a clump of bamboos. Hugh followed his mate as hard as he could, both horses feeling the pace, and pecking and blundering every now and again in the broken ground. Once Hugh saw a buffalo-wallow suddenly appear right under his horse’s nose, and half-flinched, expecting a certain fall; but old “Close Up” strode over it, apparently having a leg to spare for emergencies of the sort.

Just ahead of him the shooter, sitting down in his saddle, lifted his horse with a drive of the spurs, and came right alongside the hindmost animal, a fat blue cow, which at once swerved at right angles; but the horse followed her every movement, and drew up till horse and buffalo were racing side by side. Then without fuss or hurry, up went the elbow of the rider and bang! the buffalo fell as if paralysed, shot through the lions. The horse swung away from the falling animal as it crashed to the ground; and the shooter, still going at full gallop, methodically ejected the used cartridge and put in another without losing his place at the tail of the flying mob. The noise of the carbine made the mob divide, and Hugh found himself going full speed after three that came his way. Wild with excitement, he drove Close Up after the nearest, and made ready to fire at the right moment. The long gallop had winded him; his arm was almost numbed with the strain of carrying the carbine, which now seemed to weigh a ton.

Close Up, true to his name, made a dash at the nearest buffalo, and got close enough in all conscience; but what with the jerking to and fro of the gallop, and the rolling gait and sudden swerves of the buffalo, and the occasional blunderings of the horse in broken ground, Hugh never seemed to have the carbine pointed right. Close Up, finding it did not go off when he expected, began to slacken pace and gallop in an undecided way. It sounds easy enough to gallop up to an animal which you can beat for pace, but anyone who has ever tried to lay a whip on the back of a bullock knows it is not so easy as it looks to get more than one or two clips home. Hugh found the buffalo holding its own for pace, and every time he drew up it dodged before he could make sure of hitting the loin. Cover seemed to be getting very near. At last he leaned out as far as he could, held the rifle in one hand, and took a “speculator” at the flying buffalo. He hit it somewhere, but hadn’t time to see where; for, with a snort like a grampus, the beast wheeled in its tracks and charged so suddenly that old Close Up only just dodged it by a yard or two. It rushed him for a couple of hundred yards, and then stopped. Hugh managed to eject the cartridge and load, and then cantered after the animal, which had started again at a sullen trot, with the blood pouring from its flank. As he galloped up to administer the “coup de grace,” meaning to make no mistake about hitting the loin this time, the buffalo suddenly wheeled and charged him again, and Close Up executed another hurried retreat. For a while they took it up and down–first buffalo hunting man, then man hunting buffalo–while Hugh fired whenever he had the chance, without seeming to discompose the brute at all. At last a lucky shot struck some vital spot inside; the beast stopped, staggered, and fell dead without a sound. Hugh looked round. He was alone; his mate was just visible far away over the plain, still following at full speed a blue mound that struggled doggedly on towards the timber. The grey horse drew up to his quarry, the man leant forward, there was a sudden spurt of white smoke, and the animal fell as if struck by lightning. It was very pretty to watch, and looked as simple as shelling peas. The shooter rode over to Hugh, and congratulated him on his first kill.

“I got all that mob that came our way,” he said, “seven of ’em. Yours makes eight. There’s Ben after some still, and there’s Tommy Prince back at the bamboos firing at something. Firing this way, too, damn him! Look at Ben!”

Far away on the plain, like puppets in the distance, went the swiftly gliding figures of man and horse. In front of them dimly-seen objects tore through the grass; every now and again out went an arm, there was a spurt of smoke, and another buffalo fell. The blacks and the Chinaman were away behind, gathered in a cluster, skinning the first beast killed, while the pack-horses cropped the grass and bit at the flies. Considine was nowhere to be seen.

“Let’s go back and see what Tommy is up to,” said the shooter. “He’s a hard case, is Tommy. If there’s any trouble about he’ll get into it, or get somebody else into it. He’ll wing one of us in a minute, the way he’s blazing. What’s he firing at?”

Suddenly the festive Tommy was seen to dash hurriedly out of the patch of bamboo, with the old original buffalo cow so close to his horse’s tail that, if the horse stumbled, the cow had him at her mercy.

“She’ll have ‘im!” yelled the shooter. “Good cow! Can’t she steam? Come on, and let’s see the fun!”

For a while it looked any odds on the cow; then she slackened pace, wheeled round, and bolted back to the bamboos. They found Tommy very excited. He had used about eighteen cartridges, and had nothing to show for it.

“That’s the most underhand cow ever I seen!” said Tommy. “She runs into them there bamboos and pretends she’s going to run right clean through to Queensland, and when I go in after her, she wheels round and hunts me for my life. Near had me twice, she did. Every time I fire the old carbine, it jams, and I have to get the rod to it. Gimme your rifle, Walter, and I’ll go in and finish her.”

“She must have a lead mine in her already,” said the shooter. “Mind she don’t ketch you, Tommy.”

Tommy went in, but couldn’t find a sign of the cow. While they were talking she had slipped along the belt of bamboos, and was then, no doubt, waiting for a chance to rush somebody. As no one cared to chance riding on to her in that jungle, she escaped with the honours of war. The other shooter came up, having shot nine, and reported that Considine had had a fall; his horse, not being used to the country, had plunged up to his shoulders in a concealed buffalo-wallow, and turned right over on him. Luckily, the buffalo he was after was well ahead, and did not turn to charge him, but he was very much shaken; when he came up, however, he insisted on going on. They set to work to find the rest of the dead buffaloes–no easy matter in that long grass–and all hands commenced skinning. This job kept them till noonday, when they camped under some trees for their midday meal, hobbling the horses. Then they rested for an hour or two, packed the hides on the pack-horses (and heavily loaded they were, each hide weighing about a hundredweight), and went back to the hunt, scanning the plain carefully.

They were all riding together through a belt of timber, the blacks and the Chinaman being well up with the pack-horses, when suddenly the blacks burst out with great excitement.

“Buff’lo! Buff’lo!”

Sure enough, a huge blue bull–a regular old patriarch, that had evidently been hunted out of a herd, and was camping by himself in the timber–made a rush out of some thick trees, and set off towards a dense jungle, that could be seen half a mile or so away. Hugh and Considine were nearest him, each with his rifle ready, and started after him together, full gallop through the timber. The old man was evidently anxious to make up for his morning’s failure, and to take Hugh down a peg, for he set a fearful pace through the trees, grazing one and gliding under the boughs of another as only a trained bush-rider can. Hugh, coming from the mountains, was no duffer in timbered country either, and the two of them went at a merry pace for a while. The bull was puzzled by having two pursuers, and often in swerving from one or the other would hit a tree with his huge horns, and fairly bounce off it. He never attempted to turn, but kept straight on, and they drew on to him in silence, almost side by side, riding jealously for the first shot. Considine was on the wrong side, and had to use the carbine on the near side of his horse; but he was undeniably a good rider, and laughed grimly as he got first alongside, and, leaning over, prepared to fire. Then a strange thing happened. Before he could fire, the buffalo bull tripped on a stump and fell on his knees, causing Considine’s horse to shoot almost past him. As the bull rose again, he sprang savagely sideways, bringing his huge head up from beneath, and fairly impaled the horse on his horn. It gave a terrible scream, and reared over.

The old man never lost his nerve. Almost as he fell he fired down into the buffalo’s shoulder, but the bullet had no effect. Man and horse were fetched smashing to the ground, the man pinned under the horse’s body. The bull hesitated a second before hurling himself upon the two; and in that second Hugh jumped from his horse, ran up, stood over the fallen man, holding out the rifle like a pistol with the muzzle an inch off the bull’s head, and fired. A buffalo’s skull is an inch and a half thick, solid bone, as hard as granite; but a Martini carbine, sighted for a thousand yards, will pierce it like paper at short range. The smoke had not cleared away when the huge beast fell to the ground within two feet of his intended victims. Hugh pulled Considine from under the horse. The unfortunate beast struggled to his feet, with blood gushing from a terrible wound in the belly, ran fifty yards, and fell dead.

The old man looked round him in silence. “Serve me damn well right,” he said at last. “I ought to have got the other side of the buffalo!”

Not another word did he say, as he transferred his saddle to one of the blacks’ horses. But in the camp, that night, the old man came over to Hugh holding a paper in his hand.

“I’ve got something for you,” he said. “Here’s the certificate of my weddin’ with Peggy Donohoe. The parson gev us each one. That ought to do you, oughtn’t it? I’ll come down with you, as soon as you like, and give all the evidence you want. I’ll chance how I get on with Peg. I’ll divorce her, or poison her, or get shut of her somehow. But after what you done to-day I’m on Grant’s side, I am.”

And off he stalked to bed, while Hugh talked long with Tommy Prince and the buffalo-shooters of the best way to get down to the wire and send the news of his success. He went to bed the happiest man south of the line; and next day, saying good-bye to his hospitable friends, he started off with Considine and Tommy on the road to the telegraph, and thence to civilisation.

CHAPTER XXVII.

THE REAL CERTIFICATE.

As the day of the great case approached Blake got more and more restless and irritable. He had heard of Hugh’s going away to look for a witness; but Peggy and Red Mick, in their ignorance, had thought it best to keep all knowledge of the Considine flaw from their lawyer–a mistake that wiser people than they sometimes make. Blake suspected nothing. He had more than once seen Mary Grant and Ellen Harriott in Tarrong, but he was again an outcast, relegated to the society of such as Isaacstein.

Well, he would see it out, and would yet make these people glad to crawl to him. Ellen Harriott he never spoke to. However the case went and whoever won, she could be of no use to him, so he decided to include her among his enemies; and though she went deathly white when she saw him she made no sign of recognition. There was one thing, however, which he had to do before taking the case into Court, and that was to secure a fair share of the spoil for himself. He had no intention of slaving at the case, perhaps for years, for what he would get as costs. So, a week or two before the case was due to come on, he sent for Peggy and Red Mick.

It was a hot summer day when Peggy came in. Out of doors there was a blinding glare, and the heat had drawn the scent out of the unseasoned pine with which Tarrong was mostly built, till the air was filled with a sort of incense. Peggy came in hot and short-tempered. The strain was beginning to tell on her nerves, and, from a remark or two she let fall, Blake saw that she might be inclined to give trouble if not promptly brought into subjection.

“I’ve sent for you,” he said.

“Yis, and the fust thing–“

He interrupted her sharply.

“The first thing is, how much am I going to get out of this case if I win it That is the first thing. You don’t suppose I am going to spend time and money and fight this case through all the Courts in the land, and get nothing out of it, do you? How much am I to get? We’ll settle that before we go any further.”

“Well, I’ll ask Mick.”

“You’ll ask nobody. Mick isn’t Grant’s widow, and you are of age, goodness knows. How much?”

“How much d’ye want?”

“I want one-third of what you get. That’ll leave you nearly a million of money. There will be well over a million to divide. There will be a big lawsuit, and lots of appeals, and if I am to see it through it will cost a great lot of money; so if I win I mean to make it pay me. That’s my figure. One-third. Take it or leave it.”

Peggy wriggled about, but knew that she would have to give in. It was a reasonable proposal, as things stood; but she did not like the way in which she had been bullied. She looked at Blake queerly.

“If we have to give ye a third, ye may as well know all about it. Ye’ll be a partner like.”

Blake stared at her. He could not guess what she was driving at. Peggy slowly drew out of a handbag a faded piece of paper and handed it to him without a word. It was the original marriage certificate, the same that Ellen Harriott had seen at Red Mick’s. He unfolded it and spread it out on the table.

“What’s this?”

“Read it.”

“I certify that I, Thomas Nettleship,” he mumbled through the formula, then, sharply “What’s this name doing here? Who is Patrick Henry Keogh? Is there such a person?”

“Yis,” said Peggy, boiling up. “A long slab-sided useless feller. He’s gone to live wid the blacks. He’ll never come back no more. Most like he’s dead by this time, speared or the like of that!”

For a few seconds Blake, the cool, audacious gambler, was dazed, in spite of his natural self-confidence. He saw how he had been duped. Peggy had married this other man, whoever he was, and had used the facts of the real marriage to give her the details for her imaginary one, while in copying the certificate she had, with considerable foresight, filled in Grant’s name instead of that of Keogh.

All Blake’s castles in the air, his schemes for revenge, his hopes of wealth, had vanished at one fell swoop. “Patrick Henry Keogh” seemed to grin up at him out of the paper. His case had crumbled about his ears; his defeat would be known all over the district, and nothing could much longer stave off the inevitable exposure of his misappropriations. But he was a fighter all over, and he still saw a chance to pull things through.

He wasted no words on Peggy. “Go and get Mick to come here,” he said, and Mick, still somewhat lopsided about the face from his accident, was soon in the room.

“Mick,” said Blake, “your sister has told me something very important that ought to have been told me before. It’s no good crying over spilt milk. There’s still a chance. If Peggy and Martin tell the same story they told me at first, they will win the case. This Keogh must be dead, or too frightened to show up. If you stick to your story you will win. It’s a million of money. Will you chance it?”

“What about the sertiffykit?” said Mick.

“Leave that to me,” said Blake. “I’ll see to that. I suppose no one knows the rights of this but you and Peggy!”

“Never a soul.”

“Well, it’s a million of money. Will you chance it?”

Mick and his sister rose. “We’ll go on wid the case,” said Mick. “But supposin’ Keogh turns up–“

“You’ve got to take chances in this life,” said Blake, “if you’re after a million that doesn’t belong to you. Will you chance it? Share and share alike?”

“A million,” said Mick. “Of course we’ll go on wid the case. I daresay William Grant took the name of Keogh that day he was married,” and with this ingenious suggestion Mick took his sister home, leaving Blake alone in the office.

After his clients were gone Blake looked at the certificate for a long time, asking himself, “Shall I take the risk or not?” He was about to do a criminal act, and though it was not his first, he flinched every time he crossed the border-line. He lifted his hand, and hesitated; then he remembered his dismissal from Kuryong, and caught sight of a dunning letter lying on his table. That decided him. The risk was worth taking. The danger was great, but the stake was worth it. He took an eraser, made a few swift light strokes on the paper over the almost illegible writing, and “Patrick Henry Keogh” disappeared; on the space that it had occupied he wrote “William Grant,” in faint strokes of a pencil. He had crossed the border-line of crime once more.

CHAPTER XXVIII.

A LEGAL BATTLE.

And now, after hauling the reader pretty well all over Australia–from mountain-station to out-back holding, from cattle-camp to buffalo run–we must ask him to take a seat in the Supreme Court at Sydney, to hear the trial of the “great Grant Will Case.”

Gavan Blake had made no effort towards compromise. He knew the risk he was running, but he had determined to see it through. The love, the ambition, the hope that had once possessed him had turned to a grim desperate hatred, and he would risk everything rather than withdraw the case. He kept Red Mick and Peggy up to the mark with assurances that she was certain to win. Neither he nor they knew that Considine had been found. Even the most respectable solicitors sometimes display acuteness, and the old man’s return had been kept secret by Pinnock, so that public opinion anticipated Peggy’s victory.

At last came the day of trial. Every seat in the Court was filled, and a mass of the unwashed hung over the gallery rail, gazing at the show provided for their entertainment. Mary Grant and Mrs. Gordon went into Court at the suggestion of their leading Counsel, Bouncer, Q.C., who was nothing if not theatrical. He wanted them there to see the overthrow of the enemy, and to lend point to his invective against the intruders who were trying to take away their birthright. A small army of Doyles and Donohoes, who had come down for the case, were hanging about dressed in outlandish garments, trying to look as if they would not tell a lie for untold gold. The managing clerks were in and out like little dogs at a fair, hunting up witnesses, scanning the jury list, arranging papers for production, and keeping a wary eye on the enemy. Punctually as the clock struck ten, the Judge strutted into Court with as much pomp as a man-of-war sailing into a small port; depositing himself on the Bench, he glared round for a few seconds, and said to the associate, “Call the first case,” in a matter-of-fact tone, just as if he did not know what the first case was going to be. A little rustle went round the Court as people settled themselves down for the battle.

The case for Peggy was set forth by the great Jewish barrister, Manasseh, Q.C. He was famous for his skill in enlisting the sympathies of the jury from the outset. He drew a moving picture of the sorrows of Peggy, disowned by her husband’s relatives and the case proceeded so far that he had put the marriage certificate in evidence when Blake, who had been away for a few minutes rushed into Court and touched Manasseh on the shoulder, bringing him to an abrupt stop.

Manasseh asked the Judge to excuse him for a moment while he conferred with his juniors and Blake. After a short but excited conference he rose again and–but first we must hear what had happened outside.

While all concerned were in Court listening to Manasseh, Considine had been smuggled into the witnesses’ room and, being bored and worried, had strayed into the verandah of the Court buildings. He had been hauled into consultations with barristers, and examined and badgered and worried to death. The hard Sydney pavements had made his feet sore. The city ways were not his ways, and the mere mental effort of catching trains and omnibuses, and keeping appointments, and having fixed meal-times, was inexpressibly wearing to a man who had never been tied to time in his life.

And what a dismal prospect he had before him! To go over to England and take up a position for which he was wholly unfitted, without a friend who would understand his ideas, and in whom he could confide. Then his thoughts turned to Peggy–Peggy, square-built, determined, masterful, capable; just the very person to grapple with difficulties; a woman whose nerve a regiment of duchesses would fail to shake. He thought of her many abilities, and admitted to himself that after all was said and done, if he had only been able to gratify her wishes (and they did not seem so extravagant now) she would have been a perfect helpmate for him. His mind went back to the weird honeymoon at Pike’s pub., to the little earthen-floored dining-room, with walls of sacking and a slab table, over which Peggy presided with such force of character. He thought of the two bushmen whom Peggy had nursed through the fever with rough tenderness; and then, turning suddenly, he found Peggy standing at his elbow.

For a second neither spoke. Then Considine said, with an air of forced jauntiness, “Well, Peggy, you won’t be comin’ to England with me, then?”

“Haven’t been asked,” said Peggy.

“I heard you was goin’ to settle at Kiley’s Crossin’, lending money to the cockatoos.”

Peggy looked at him with a meaning glance.

“Ye should know me better nor that, Paddy,” she said.

This cleared the way tremendously. The gaunt bushman hitched himself a little nearer, and spoke in an insinuating way. “I’m pretty tired of this case meself, I dunno how you feel about it.”

“Tired!” said Peggy. “I’m wore out. Fair wore out,” and she heaved a sigh like an elephant.

That sigh did for old Considine. Hurriedly he unburdened his mind.

“Well, look’ee here, Peggy–I’ve got whips of stuff now, and I’ve got to go to England for it. You come along o’ me again, and we’ll knock all this business on the head. Let the Gordons alone–they’re decent young fellows, the both of ’em–and come along o’ me to England. That young English feller reckons we’d be as good as the Prince of Wales, very near. Will you come, Peggy?”

It is the characteristic of great minds to think quickly, and act promptly. Peggy did both.

“Mick!” she said, calling to her brother in a sharp, authoritative voice: “Mick! I’ve been talking to Paddy here, and we’ve reckoned we’ve had enough of this fooling, and we’re off to England. You go in and tell old Fuzzy-Head” (she meant the Judge) “that I’m tired of this case, and I ain’t goin’ on wid it. Come on, Paddy, will we go and get some tea?”

“Yes, and there’s some tremenjus fine opals in a shop down this way I’ll buy you!” said Considine, as they started to walk away from the Court.

At that moment Blake came out of Court, saw them, and stepped in front of Peggy.

“Who is this man?” he said.

Peggy had never quite forgiven his domineering at Tarrong, and turned on him with a snap.

“This is my ‘usband,” she said, “Mr. Patrick Henery Considine. Him whose name is put down as Keogh on the marriage stiffykit I give you.”

Then Blake knew that he had played and lost–lost hopelessly, irretrievably. But there was yet something to do to secure his own safety. He rushed back into Court, and whispered a few words to Manasseh; and Manasseh, after the short conference we mentioned some pages back, rose and informed the Court that his client withdrew her claim. Now, while Blake was out of Court, Mr. Bouncer, Mary’s counsel, had got from the Judge’s Associate the certificate that had been put in evidence. Ellen Harriott, sitting with Mary and Mrs. Gordon behind him, gave a little cry of surprise when she saw the paper. She touched Mr. Bouncer on the shoulder, and for a few seconds they held an excited dialogue in whispers.

So Mr. Bouncer rose as Manasseh sat down, with a smile of satisfaction on his face.

“I must object to any withdrawal, your Honor,” he said. “My client’s vast interests are still liable to be assailed by any claimant. I wish your Honor to insist that the case be heard. A claim has been made here of a most dastardly nature, and I submit that your Honor will not allow the claimants to withdraw without some investigation. I will ask your Honor to put Gavan Blake in the box.”

Mr. Manasseh objected. He said that there was no longer any case before the Court; and Gavan Blake, white to the lips, waited for the Judge’s decision. As he waited, he looked round and caught the eye of Ellen Harriott. Cool, untroubled, the heavy-lidded eyes met his, and he saw no hope there. She had neither forgiven nor forgotten.

Now, it so happened that the Judge felt rather baulked at the sudden collapse of the big case, in which he had intended to play a star part.

“Why do you want to put plaintiff’s attorney in the box, Mr. Bouncer?” he said.

“I want to examine him as to how and when the name of William Grant got on that certificate. I have evidence to prove that the name on it, only a few months ago, was that of Patrick Keogh.”

“Ha, hum!” said the little Judge. “I don’t see–eh–um–that I can decide anything–ah–whatever. Case is withdrawn. Ha, hum. But in the interests of justice, and seeing–seeing, I say,” he went on, warming to his work as the question laid itself open before him, “that there is serious suspicion of fraud and forgery, it would be wrong on my part to allow the case to close without some investigation in the interests of justice. As to Mr. Manasseh’s objection, that the Court is functus officio so far as this case is concerned, I uphold that contention; but, in exercise of the power that the Court holds over its officers, I consider that I have the power–and that I should exercise the power–of putting the solicitor in the box to explain how this document came into its present state. Let Mr. Blake go into the box.”

But while the little Judge was delivering his well-rounded sentences, Blake had slipped out of Court and made off to his lodgings. He had failed in everything. He might perhaps keep out of gaol; but the blow to his reputation was fatal. He had played for a big stake and lost, and he saw before him only drudgery and lifelong shame.

He had reached his lodgings, half-turned at the door, and saw behind him the Court tipstaff, who had been sent after him.

“The Judge wants you back at the Court, Mr. Blake,” said the tipstaff.

“All right. Wait till I run up to my room for some papers. I’ll be down in a minute,” and he ran upstairs.

The tipstaff waited cheerfully enough, until he heard the crack of a revolver-shot echo through the passages of the big boarding-house. Then he rushed upstairs–to find that Gavan Blake had gone before another Court than the one that was waiting for him so anxiously.

CHAPTER XXIX.

RACES AND A WIN.

After the great case was over life at Kuryong went on its old round. Mary Grant, now undisputed owner, took up the reins of government, and Hugh was kept there always on one pretext or another.

Considine and his wife stayed a while in the district before starting for England, and were on the best of terms with the folk at the homestead, Peggy’s daring attempt to seize the estate having been forgiven for her husband’s sake.

Mary seemed to take a delicious pleasure in making Hugh come to her for orders and consultations. She signed without question anything that Charlie put before her, but Hugh was constantly called in to explain all sorts of things. The position was difficult in the extreme, although Peggy tried to give Hugh good advice.

“Sure, the girl’s fond of you, Mr. Hugh!” she said, “Why don’t you ask her to marry you? See what a good thing it’d be? She’s only waitin’ to be asked.”

“I’ll manage my own affairs, thank you,” said Hugh. “It isn’t likely I’m going to ask her now, when I haven’t got a penny.” He was as miserable as a man could well be, and was on the point of leaving the station and going back to the buffalo camp in search of solitude, when an unexpected incident suddenly brought matters to a climax. A year had slipped by since William Grant’s death, and the glorious Spring came round again; the river was bank-high with the melting of the mountain-snows, the English fruit-trees were all blossoming, and the willows a-bud. One day the mailman left a large handbill, anouncing the Spring race-meeting at Kiley’s, a festival sacred, as a rule, to the Doyles and the Donohoes, at which no outsider had any earthly chance of winning a race.

In William Grant’s time the handbill would have soon reached the fire-place; he did not countenance running station horses at the local meetings. Under the new owner things were different. Charlie Gordon was spoiling for a chance to run Revoke, a back-block purchase, against the locals, and suggested it in an off-hand sort of way while reading the circular. Hugh opposed the notion altogether. His opposition apparently made Miss Grant determined to go on with the scheme, and she gave Charlie carte blanche in the matter.

When race-day arrived, there was quite a merry party at the homestead. Carew was making himself very attentive to Ellen Harriott, Mary was flirting very openly with Charlie Gordon, to Hugh’s intense misery; and it was whispered about the station that the younger brother would be deposed in favour of the elder.

Hugh did not want to go to the races, but Mary asked him so directly that he had no option.

It was a typical Australian Spring day. The sky was blue, the air was fresh, the breeze made great, long, rippling waves in the grass, and every soul in the place–Mary in particular–seemed determined to enjoy it to the utmost.

Revoke, the station champion, came in first in his race, and was promptly disqualified for short weight, but Mary didn’t care.

“What is the use of worrying over it?” she said. “It doesn’t really matter.”

“I have been done,” said the bushman. “Red Mick lent me the lead-cloth, and helped me saddle up, and I believe he took some lead out while we were saddling. It never dropped out. That I’m sure of.”

“Oh, never mind, Mr. Gordon! Forget it! There’s your brother, Hugh, thinks we ought not to have come, and now you are turning sulky. Why do all you Australian people amuse yourselves so sadly?”

“I don’t know what you mean by sadly,” said Charlie, huffed. “I think you ladies had better go home soon. Things are likely to be a bit lively later on. They have got a door off its hinges and laid on the ground, and a fiddler playing jigs, and the men and women are dancing each other down; it won’t be long till there’ll be a fight, and somebody will get stretched out.”

Sure enough, they could see an excited crowd of people gathered round a fiddler, who was playing away for dear life, and the yells and whoops told them that partisanship was running high. All the young “bloods” of the ranges were there in their very best finery–cabbage-tree hat (well-tilted back, and secured by a string under the nose), gaudy cotton shirt, and tweed trousers of loud pattern, secured round the waist by flaring red or green sashes. In this garb such as fancied themselves as dancers were taking their turns on the door. They began by ambling with a sort of strutting walk once or twice round the circumscribed platform; then, with head well back and eyes closed, dashed into the steps of the dance, each introducing varied steps and innovations of his own, which, if intricate and neatly executed, were greeted with great applause. So it happened that after Jerry the Swell, the recognised champion of the Doyles, had gone off with an extremely self-satisfied air, some adherents of young Red Mick, the opposition champion, took occasion to criticise Jerry’s performance. “Darnce!” they said. “Jerry the Swell, darnce! Why, we’ve got an old poley cow would darnce him blind! Haven’t we, Mick?”

“Yairs,” said young Mick, with withering emphasis. “Darnce! He can’t darnce. I’ll run, darnce, jump, or fight any man in the district for two quid.”

Before the challenge could be accepted there was an unexpected interruption. Hugh had put the big trotting mare in the light trap for Miss Harriott and Mary to drive home. “Gentle Annie” was used to racing, and Hugh warned the girls to be careful in starting her, as she would probably be excited by the crowd, and then turned back to pack up the racing gear and start the four-in-hand with the children. As they were putting the racing saddle, bridles, and other gear into the vehicle, Charlie, who had been fuming ever since his defeat, caught sight of the missing lead-bag. He picked it up without a word, and with a fierce gleam in his eye, started over to the group of dancers, followed hurriedly by Carew. Just as young Mick was repeating his challenge to run, jump, dance, or fight anybody in the district, Gordon threw the lead-bag, weighing about six pounds, full in Red Mick’s face.

“There’s your lead, you thief!” he said. “Dance on that!”

Red Mick staggered back a pace or two, picked up an empty bottle from the ground, and made a dash at Gordon. The latter let out a vicious drive with his left that caught Mick under the ear and sent him down like a bullock. In a second the whole crowd surged together in one confused melée, everybody hitting at everybody amid a Babel of shouts and curses. The combat swayed out on to the race-course, where half a dozen men fell over the ropes and pulled as many more down with them, and those that were down fought on the ground, while the others walked on them and fought over their heads. Carew, who was quite in his element, hit every head he saw, and knocked his knuckles to pieces on Black Andy Kelly’s teeth. The fight he put up, and the terrific force of his hitting, are traditions among the mountain men to this day. Charlie Gordon was simply mad with the lust of fighting, and was locked in a death-grip with Red Mick; they swayed and struggled on the ground, while the crowd punched at them indiscriminately. In the middle of all this business, the two ladies and Alick, the eldest of the children, had started Gentle Annie for home, straight down the centre of the course. The big mare, hearing the yelling, and recognising that she was once more on a race-track, suddenly caught hold of the bit, and came sweeping up the straight full-stretch, her great legs flying to and fro like pistons. Alick, who was sitting bodkin between the ladies, simply remarked, “Let her head go!” as she went thundering into the crowd, hurling Doyles and Donohoes into the air, trampling Kellys under foot–and so out the other side, and away at a 2.30 gait for at least half a mile before the terrified girls could pull her up, and come back to see what damage had been done.

That ended the fight. The course was covered with wounded and disabled men. Some had been struck by the mare’s hoofs; others had been run over by the wheels; and a great demand for whisky set in, under cover of which Gordon and Carew retired to the four-in-hand.

No one was seriously hurt, except “Omadhaun” Doyle, who had been struck on the head by the big mare’s hoof. He lay very still, breathing stertorously, and Jerry the Swell took the trouble to come over to the four-in-hand, and inform them that he thought “Omadhaun” had got percussion of the brain, and that things looked very “omnibus” for him. However, as soon as he could swallow whisky he was pronounced out of danger, and the Kuryong party was allowed to depart in peace for home, glad enough to get away. But the two girls were afraid to drive the big mare, as she was thoroughly roused after her dash in among the Doyles and Donohoes, and was inclined to show a lot of temper. A hurried consultation was held, with the result that Ellen Harriott and Alick were received into the four-in-hand, while Hugh was entrusted with the task of driving his employer home in the sulky.

Now, a sulky is a vehicle built to accommodate two people only, and those two people have to sit fairly close together. For a few miles they spun along in silence, Hugh being well occupied with steadying the mare. From time to time he looked out of the corner of his eye at his companion; she looked steadily, almost stolidly, in front of her. Then she began to tap on the floor of the sulky with her foot. At last she turned on him.

“Well, we didn’t win,” she said. “I suppose you are glad.”

“Why should I be glad, Miss Grant?”

“Oh! you said we oughn’t to go and race among those people. And you were right. It served them just right that the mare ran over them. I hope that none of them are going to die.”

“They wouldn’t be much missed,” said Hugh wearily. “They have started stealing the sheep again.”

“Can’t you catch them?” she said, with pretended asperity. “If you went out and hid in a fallen tree, don’t you think you could catch them?”

Hugh looked at her to see if she were in earnest, but she looked straight in front again and said nothing, still keeping up the slight tapping of her foot. He flushed a little, and spoke very quietly.

“I think I’ll have to resign from your employment, Miss Grant. I don’t care about stopping any longer; and I will go out back and take up one of those twenty-thousand-acre leases in Queensland. You might put Poss or Binjie on in my place. They would be glad of a billet, and they might catch Red Mick for you.”

“Do you really want to go?” she said, looking straight at him for the first time. “Why do you want to go?”

“Why?” he burst out. “Because I can’t bear being with you and near you all day long, when I care for you, and you don’t care for me. I can’t eat, or sleep, or rest here now, and it’s time I was away. You might give me a good character as a station-manager,” he went on grimly, “even though I can’t catch Red Mick for you. I’ll get you to make out my cheque, and then I’ll be off up North.”

She was looking down now. The sun had gone, and the stars were peeping out, and in the dusk he could catch no glimpse of her face. There was silence for a few moments, then he went on talking, half to himself. “It’s best for me, anyhow. It’s time I made a start for myself. I couldn’t stay on here as manager all my life.”

Then she spoke, very low and quietly.

“You wouldn’t care to stay on–for anything else, then?”

“How do you mean for anything else, Miss Grant? You don’t want me for anything except as manager, do you?”

“Well,” she said, “you haven’t asked me yet whether I do or not!”