WE rode along together, and reached the spot where the boys were unpacking, in silence. Then, as the sun went down, a white calico tent pitched to a sapling, to which the prisoner was to be chained over night, was flying on the ridge: and all around saddles, bridles, packs, blankets, and baggage were strewn. A great fire blazed a few yards off, and the sweat-marked horses clanked their hobblechains and waded knee-deep into the long bluegrass.
It had been a long, hot day, and when tea was over we lay in the cool and smoked, listening in silence to the dismal hoots of the night birds. The prisoner sat on his haunches, the reflection of the fire shedding a pallid, hunted look over his drawn features, thinking and thinking. From a log, a short distance off, the two black boys chanted weird dirges in their native tongue. In the middle of their song Norman suddenly stopped, and yelling to the other to “Lookit out—death adder!”—bounded up and peered cautiously down beside the log. Sure enough a death adder was there. Charlie stunned the reptile with a short stick, then, yabbering excitedly, conveyed it to the light for inspection.
“Chuck it on the fire,” the Inspector cried. The tracker threw it on the fire, where, for a moment or two, it wriggled in its agony. But Burke never shifted his eyes; he hardly seemed to notice the incident.
There was a rustle in the long grass, and the forms of several shy sons of a neighbouring selector cautiously appeared in the light. They nervously murmured “Good-night,” and for some time stood surveying the camp with wonder in their eyes. Finding their presence not resented, they gained courage, and seating themselves beside each other on the grass, settled down to enjoy the grotesque duets of the gorgeously-uniformed trackers. Occasionally they would steal sly glances at the prisoner, then shift their gaze to the constables lounging around.
Constable Edmunds, with a sense of humour, rose suddenly.
“You are the very coves we want,” he said, striding towards them. The next moment they had vanished like a vision into the night, and the sharp sound of dead sticks breaking under their bare feet as they skedaddled down the ridge, was all that proclaimed their whereabouts. The other constables chuckled amusedly, and Norman with a loud, cheerful laugh, said, “By cripes, you been frightenit dem coves that time.”
Edmunds, lifting an empty bucket that stood near the fire, said: “Here! go down the gully and fill this for the night.” The cheerful expression on Norman’s face changed instantly. His white eyes rolled in their sockets like a pair of billiard balls, and with a look of alarm he murmured:
“Oh, I not been go down dere when it dark.”
“What the deuce you frightened of?” the constable growled. “Charley, he go with you.”
It was Charlie’s turn then to feel alarmed. With a sulky look in his eyes, he shook his head firmly in the negative.
The Inspector’s voice rang out: “Go on, you pair of fools, and bring the water; and a darned good job if some devil devil does get hold of you!”
The rest of the force chuckled again.
“Well, we not go without plenty fire stick,” Norman muttered, and the two of them, arming themselves with most of the fire, trudged off reluctantly, swinging the flaring torches round their heads as they went.
An idea struck Constable Edmunds.
“I’ll give them both a devil of a fright,” he said, and, hurrying into the darkness, made a detour, and arrived on the opposite bank of the waterhole before the superstitious ones reached the spot; then, crouching down, waited for them.
They approached the hole cautiously, swinging their fire sticks with increased energy.
“You dippit up water,” Norman whispered timidly to his dusky companion.
“Oh, no, you been do dat,” Charlie answered. “You takit bucket; I been wavit fire stick.”
After some more yabbering in undertones, Norman took the bucket, and, as he stealthily hung down over the bank of the hole, which was a couple of feet high, to fill the vessel, bang! went the constable’s revolver, Norman with a yell and a heavy splash fell into the water: Charlie abandoned the fire stick and ran like an emu for the camp. With a shout he bounded over the fire, and, landing breathless among the members of the force, vociferated excitedly:
“Murderer been camp alonga water and shootit Norman! Lookit out! Lookit out!” (peering wildly into the darkness). “Getit rifle quick; he been come dis way pretty soon!”
The words had hardly left his lips when Norman, breathing like a colt choking, and wet from head to foot, rushed into the light and threw himself into the arms of the Inspector.
“Get out!” Black shouted indignantly, and jumped to his feet to escape a bath. “What the devil have you been doing?”
Norman had only wind enough left to roll his eyes about, and gesticulate, and point in the direction of the waterhole.
The constables rolled over and over on the grass and held their sides, and kicked the earth hard with delight.
After a while Constable Edmunds returned into camp from an opposite quarter.
“Did you bring the water?” he asked in an unconcerned sort of tone of the excited blacks.
The two trackers looked at each other, and Charlie rose and said wildly:
“Norman, he been reachit down” (suiting the action to the word), “and big pfella rifle fire, and him f allit in water.”
“And did you leave the bucket in the hole?” the constable yelled at Norman. Norman, his eyes still bursting from his head, nodded in the affirmative.
“Well, back you go and get it, the two of you,” Edmunds commanded. “No one fired a rifle at you; that’s only a yarn. You were too frightened to go near the hole.”
The thought of having to return to that waterhole was too much for Charlie, and, seizing a long stick, he waved it defiantly at the constable, and yelled, “I been go there no more; you been go your plurry self!”
Then for the first time since tea Burke spoke.
“Good man, Charlie,” he said, turning his head; “ I’m glad to see you’ve got some courage, anyway.”
“Oh, well,” Edmunds chuckled, “I’m not afraid to go,” and went off to fish the bucket out of the hole.
When he had gone, Charlie said apprehensively to the Inspector:
“You waitit a while, Mr. Black: he come back here pretty quick.”
Then the form of the constable, bending to the weight of the water, appeared, and the simple trackers stared at him in amazement.
“You no been see no one?” Charlie asked, wonderingly.
“Oh, yes,” Edmunds growled. “I saw a cove down there—big, wild-looking cove with long whiskers.”
“Yair” ( excitedly ) . “What he been do? “
“Oh, he been runnit like the devil, all the same as you.”
Charlie looked at Norman, and in an analytical sort of way, murmured, “He been habit only one cartridge that cove, Norman, by cripes! I been trackit him, though, alonga daybreak.”
When we had finished smoking and it was time to turn in, we spread our blankets on the ground and lay with our heads in the saddles. Burke was placed in the tent between two constables, his feet chained to the sapling, and one of his wrists handcuffed to the senior-constable’s. Word had been previously passed round to all hands not to sleep too soundly, in case of emergency. The warning, however, was scarcely necessary, for to sleep at all the first night out on the hard, uneven ground, with two blackfellows snoring at your ears like a thousand bears, was a difficult proposition.
The Inspector himself slept least of any; whether the responsibility of the charge weighed too heavily upon his mind or whether he apprehended an effort might be made during the night to rescue the prisoner, I do not know; but the least sound or the slightest movement would bring him to a sitting position with his eye fixed on the slumbering form of Burke and his hand on a revolver. Nothing extraordinary happened, however, and at daybreak the horses were rounded up and breakfast got ready.
“Where the devil is Charlie?” the Inspector asked, missing the tracker. No one seemed to know.
“Fooling round somewhere,” Constable Taay answered, rising and looking round the ridge to locate him.
In a while the missing one appeared. He came over the back of the ridge with a large grin on his face, and approaching Edmunds, who was seated on the grass, lifted his foot and examined his boot.
“You been him,” he said. “You been shootit Norman last night; I been trackit you all a down a this way” (pointing over the back of the ridge).
The camp smiled.
“I thoughtit been him,” Norman said in tones of forgiveness. Norman was a transparent sort of liar.
Then the camp laughed at his expense, and gathering the baggage together, prepared to make a fresh start.