WESTERN AUSTRALIA is a vast and unknown country, almost mysterious in its solitude and unlikeness to any other part of the earth. It is the greatest of the Australias in extent, and in many features the richest and loveliest.
But the sister colonies of Victoria, New South Wales, and Queensland are famous for their treasure of gold. Men from all lands have flocked thither to gather riches. They care not for the slow labour of the farmer or grazier. Let the weak and the old, the coward and the dreamer, prune the vine and dry the figs, and wait for the wheat to ripen. Strong men must go to the trialmust set muscle against muscle, and brain against brain, in the mine and the market.
Men's lives are short; and unless they gather gold in the mass, how shall they wipe out the primal curse of poverty before the hand loses its skill and the heart its strong desire?
Western Australia is the Cinderella of the South. She has no gold like her sisters. To her was given the servile and unhappy portion. The dregs of British society were poured upon her soil. The robber and the manslayer were sent thither. Her territory was marked off with a Red Line. She has no markets for honest men, and no ports for honest ships. Her laws are not the laws of other countries, but the terrible
rules of the menagerie. Her citizens have no rights: they toil their lives out at heavy tasks, but earn no wages, nor own a vestige of right in the soil they till. It is a land of slaves and bondmenthe great penal colony of Great Britain.
"There is no gold in the western colony," said the miners contemptuously; "let the convicts keep the landbut let them observe our red line."
So the convicts took the defamed country, and lived and died there, and others were transported there from England to replace those who died, and every year the seething ships gave up their addition to the terrible population.
In time, the western colony came to be regarded as a plague-spot, where no man thought of going and no man did go unless sent in irons.
If the miners from Victoria and New South Wales, however, had visited the penal land some years after its establishment, they would have heard whispers of strange importrumours and questions of a great golden secret possessed by the western colony. No one could tell where the rumour began or on what it was based, except perhaps the certainty that gold was not uncommon among the natives of the colony, who had little or no intercourse with the aborigines of the gold-yielding countries of the south and east.
The belief seemed to hover in the air; and it settled with dazzling conviction on the crude and abnormal minds of the criminal population. At their daily toil in the quarries or on the road parties, no rock was blasted nor tree uprooted that eager eyes did not hungrily scan the upturned earth. At night, when the tired wretches gathered round the camp-fire outside their prison hut, the dense mahogany forest closing weirdly round the white-clad group, still the undiscovered gold was the topic earnestly discussed. And even the government officers and the few free settlers became after a time filled with the prevailing expectancy and disquiet.
But years passed, and not an ounce of gold was discovered in the colony. The Government had offered reward to settlers or ticket-of-leave men who would find the first nugget or gold-bearing rock; but no claimant came forward.
Still, there remained the tantalizing factfor, in the course of years, fact it had grown to bethat gold was to be found in the colony, and in abundance. The native bushmen were
p.3masters of the secret, but neither bribe nor torture could wring it from them. Terrible stories were whispered among the convicts of attempts that had been made to force the natives to give up the precious secret. Gold was common amongst these bushmen. Armlets and anklets had been seen on men and women; and some of their chief men, it was said, wore breast-plates and enormous chains of hammered gold.
At last the feeling in the west grew to fever heat; and, in 1848, the Governor of the penal colony issued a proclamation, copies of which were sent by native runners to every settler and ticket-of-leave man, and were even surreptitiously distributed amongst the miners on the other side of the red line.
This proclamation intensified the excitement. It seemed to bring the mine nearer to every man in the colony. It was a formal admission that there really was a mine; it dispelled the vague uncertainty, and left an immediate hunger or greed in the minds of the population.
The proclamation read as follows:
The above Reward will be paid for the discovery of the Mine from which the Natives of the Vasse obtain their Gold.
A Free Pardon will be granted to the Discoverer, should he be of the Bond Class.
No Reward will be given nor terms made with Absconders from the Prisons or Road Parties.
F. R. HAMPTON,
Perth, 28th June, 1848.
But nothing came of it. Not an ounce of gold was ever taken from the earth. At last men began to avoid the subject. They could not bear to be tantalized nor tortured by the splendid delusion. Some said there was no mine in the Vasse, and others that, if there were a mine, it was known only to a few of the native chiefs, who dealt out the raw gold to their people.
For eight years this magnificent reward had remained unclaimed, and now its terms were only recalled at the fires, of the road-making convicts, or in the lonely slab huts of the mahogany sawyers, who were all ticket-of-leave men.
IT was a scorching day in midsummera few days before Christmas.
Had there been any moisture in the bush it would have steamed in the heavy heat. During the midday hours not a bird stirred among the mahogany and gum trees. On the flat tops of the low banksia the round heads of the white cockatoos could be seen in thousands, motionless as the trees themselves. Not a parrot had the vim to scream. The chirping insects were silent. Not a snake had courage to rustle his hard skin against the hot and dead bush-grass. The bright-eyed iguanas wee in their holes. The mahogany sawyers had left their logs and were sleeping in the cool sand of their pits. Even the travelling ants had halted on their wonderful roads, and sought the shade of a bramble.
All free things were at rest; but the penetrating click of the axe, heard far through the bush, and now and again a harsh word of command, told that it was a land of bondmen.
From daylight to dark, through the hot noon as steadily as in the cool evening, the convicts were at work on the roadsthe weary work that has no wages, no promotion, no incitement, no variation for good or bad, except stripes for the laggard.
Along the verge of the Koagulup Swampone of the greatest and dismallest of the wooded lakes of the country, its
p.5black water deep enough to float a man-of-wara party of convicts were making a government road. They were cutting their patient way into a forest only traversed before by the aborigine and the absconder.
Before them in the bush, as in their lives, all was dark and unknown-tangled underbrush, gloomy shadows, and noxious things. Behind them, clear and open, lay the straight road they had madeleading to and from the prison.
Their camp, composed of rough slab huts, was some two hundred miles from the main prison of the colony, on the Swan River, at Fremantle, from which radiate all the roads made by the bondmen.
The primitive history of the colony is written for ever in its roads. There is, in this penal labour, a secret of value to be utilized more fully by a wiser civilization. England sends her criminals to take the brunt of the new land's hardship and danger-to prepare the way for honest life and labour. In every community there is either dangerous or degrading work to be done: and who so fit to do it as those who have forfeited their liberty by breaking the law?
The convicts were dressed in white trousers, blue woollen shirt, and white hat; every article stamped with England's private markthe broad arrow. They were young men, healthy and strong, their faces and bare arms burnt to the colour of mahogany. Burglars, murderers, garotters, thievesdouble-dyed law-breakers every one; but, for all that, kind hearted and manly fellows enough were among them.
"I tell you, mates," said one, resting on his spade, "this is going to be the end of Moondyne Joe. That firing in the swamp last night was his last fight."
"I don't think it was Moondyne," said another; "he's at work in the chain-gang at Fremantle; and there's no chance of escape there"
"Sh-h!" interrupted the first speaker, a powerful, low-browed fellow, named Dave Terrell, who acted as a sort of foreman to the gang. The warder in charge of the party was slowly walking past. When he was out of hearing, Dave continued, in a low but deeply earnest voice: "I know it was Moondyne, mates. I saw him last night when I went to get the turtle's eggs. I met him face to face in the moonlight, beside the swamp.
Every man held his hand and breath with intense interest in the story. Some looked incredulousheads were shaken in doubt.
"Did you speak to him?" asked one.
"Ay," said Terrell, turning on him; "why shouldn't I? Moondyne knew he had nothing to fear from me, and I had nothing to fear from him."
"What did you say to him?" asked another.
"Say? I stood and looked at him for a minute, for his face had a white look in the moonlight, and then I walked up close to him, and I saysBe you Moondyne Joe, or his ghost?
"Ay?" said the gang with one breath.
"Ay, I said that, never fearing, for Moondyne Joe, dead or alive, would never harm a prisoner."
"But what did he answer?" asked the eager crowd.
"He never said a word; but he laid his finger on his lips, like this, and waved his hand as if he warned me to go back to the camp. I turned to go; then I looked back once, and he was standing just as I left him, but he was looking up at the sky, as if there was some'at in the moon that pleased him."
The convicts worked silently, each thinking on what he had heard.
He mightn't ha' been afraid, though," said low-browed Dave; "I'd let them cut my tongue out before I'd sell the Moondyne."
"That's true," said several of the gang, and many kind looks were given to Terrell. A strong bond of sympathy, it was evident, existed between these men and the person of whom they spoke.
A sound from the thick bush interrupted the conversation. The convicts looked up from their work, and beheld a strange procession approaching from, the direction of the swamp. It consisted of about a dozen or fifteen persons, most of whom were savages. In front rode two officers of the Convict Service, a sergeant, and a private trooper, side by side, with drawn swords; and between their horses, manacled by the wrists to their stirrup-irons, walked a white man.
"Here they come," hissed Terrell, with a bitter malediction, his low brow wholly disappearing into a terrible ridge above his eyes. "They haven't killed him, after all. O, mates, what a pity it is to see a man, like Moondyne in that plight."
"He's done for two or three of 'em," muttered another, in a tone of grim gratification. "Look at the loads behind. I knew he wouldn't be taken this time like a cornered cur."
Following the prisoner came a troop of "natives," as the aboriginal bushmen are called, bearing three spearwood litters with the bodies of wounded men. A villainous-looking savage, mounted on a troop-horse, brought up the rear. His dress was like that of his pedestrian fellows, upon whom, however, he looked in disdaina short boka, or cloak of kangaroo skin, and a belt of twisted fur cords round his, naked body. In addition, he had a police-trooper's old cap, and a heavy "regulation" revolver stuck in his belt.
This was the tracker, the human bloodhound, used by the troopers to follow the trail of absconding prisoners.
When the troopers neared the convict party, the sergeant, a man whose natural expression, whatever it might have been, was wholly obliterated by a frightful sear across his face, asked for water. The natives halted, and squatted silently in a group. The wounded men moaned as the litters were lowered.
Dave Terrell brought the water. He handed a pannikin to the sergeant, and another to the private trooper, and filled a third.
"Who's that for?" harshly demanded the sergeant.
"For Moondyne," said the convict, approaching the chained man, whose neck was stretched toward the brimming cup.
"Stand back, curse you!" said the sergeant, bringing his sword flat on the convict's back. "That scoundrel needs no water. He drinks blood."
There was a taunt in the tone, even beneath the brutality of the words.
"Carry your pail to those litters," growled the sinister looking sergeant, "and keep your mouth closed, if you value your hide. There!" he said in a suppressed voice, flinging the few drops he had left in the face of the manacled man, "that's water enough for you, till you reach Bunbury prison tomorrow."
The face of the prisoner hardly changed. He gave one straight look into the sergeant's eyes, then turned away, and seemed to look far away through the bush. He was a remarkable being, as he stood there. In strength and proportion of body, the man was magnificenta model for a gladiator. He was
p.8of middle height, young, but so stem and massively featured, and so browned and beaten by exposure, it was hard to determine his age. His clothing was only a few torn and bloody rags; but he looked as if his natural garb were utter nakedness or the bushman's cloak, so loosely and carelessly hung the shreds of cloth on his bronzed body. A large, finely-shaped head, with crisp, black hair and beard, a broad, square forehead, and an air of power and self-commandthis was the prisoner, this was Moondyne Joe.
Who or what was the man? An escaped convict. What had he been? Perhaps a robber or a mutineeror, maybe, he ad killed a man in the white heat of passion. No one knewno one cared to know.
That question is never asked in the penal colony. No caste there. They have found bottom, where all stand equal. No envy there, no rivalry, no greed nor ambition, and no escape from companionship. They constitute the purest democracy on earth. The only distinction to be wonthat of being trustworthy, or selfish and false. The good man is he who is kind and true; the bad man is he who is capable of betraying a confederate.
It may be the absence of the competitive elements of social life that accounts for the number of manly characters to be met among these outcasts.
It is by no means in the superior strata of society that abound the strong, true natures, the men that may be depended upon, the primitive rocks of humanity. The complexities of social life beget cunning and artificiality. Among penal convicts there is no ground for envy, ambition, or emulation; nothing to be gained by falsehood in any shape.
But all this time the prisoner stands looking away into the bush, with the drops of insult trickling from his strong face. His self-command evidently irritated the brutal officer, who, perhaps, expected to hear him whine for better treatment.
The sergeant dismounted to examine the handcuffs, and, while doing so, looked into the man's face with a leer of cruel exultation. He drew no expression from the steady eyes of the prisoner.
There was an old score to be settled between those men, and it was plain that each knew the metal of the other.
"I'll break that look," said the sergeant between his teeth,
p.9but loud enough for the prisoner's ear. "Curse you, I'll break it before we reach Fremantle." Soon after he turned away, to look to the wounded men.
While so engaged, the private trooper made a furtive sign to the convict with the pail; and he, keeping in shade of the horses, crept up and gave Moondyne a deep drink of the precious water.
The stern lines withdrew from the prisoner's mouth and forehead; and as he gave the kindly trooper a glance of gratitude, there was something strangely gentle and winning in the face.
The sergeant returned and mounted. The litters were raised by the natives, and the party resumed their march, striking in on the new road that led to the prison.
"May the lightning split him," hissed black-browed Dave, after the sergeant. "There's not an officer in the colony will strike a prisoner without cause, except that coward, and he was a convict himself."
"May the Lord help Moondyne Joe this day," said another, for he's chained to the stirrup of the only man living that hates him."
The sympathizing gang looked after the party till they were hidden by a bend of the road; but they were silent under the eye of their warder.
SOME years before, the prisoner, now called Moondyne Joe, had arrived in the colony. He was a youthlittle more than a boy in years. From the first day of his imprisonment he had followed one course: he was quiet, silent, patient, obedient. He broke no rules of the prison. He asked no favours. He performed all his own work, and often helped another who grumbled at his heavy task.
He was simply known to his fellow-convicts as Joe; his other name was unknown or forgotten. When the prison roll was called, he answered to No. 406.
In the first few years he had made many friends in the
p.10colonybut he had also made one enemy, and a deadly one. In the gang to which he belonged was a man named Isaac Bowman, one of those natures seemingly all evil, envious, and cruel; detested by the basest, yet self-contained, full of jibe and derision, satisfied with his own depravity, and convinced that everyone was secretly just as vile as he.
From the first, this fellow had disliked and sneered at Joe; and Joe, having long observed the man's cur-like character, had at last adopted a system of conduct toward him that saved himself annoyance, but secretly intensified the malevolence of the other. He did not avoid the fellow; but he never looked at him, saw him, spoke to himnot even answering him when he spoke, as if he had not heard him.
This treatment was observed and enjoyed by the other prisoners, and sometimes even adopted by themselves toward Bowman. At last its effect on, the evil nature was too powerful to be concealed. With the others he could return oath for oath, or jibe for jibe, and always came off pleased with himself but Joe's silent contumely stung him like a scorpion.
The convicts at length saw that Bowman, who was a man capable of any crime, held a deep hatred for Joe, and they warned him to beware. But he smiled, and went on just as before.
One morning a poor settler rode into the camp with a cry for justice and vengeance. His hut was only a few miles distant, and in his absence last night a deed of rapine and robbery had been perpetrated thereand the robber was a convict.
A search was made in the prisoner's hut, and in one of the hammocks was found some of the stolen property. The man who owned the hammock was seized and ironed, protesting his innocence. Further evidence was found against himhe had been seen returning to the camp that morningIsaac Bowman had seen him.
Swift and summary is the dread punishment of the penal code. As the helpless wretch was dragged away, a word of mock pity followed him from Bowman. During the scene, Joe had stood in silence; but at the brutal jibe he started as if struck by a whip. He sprang on Isaac Bowman suddenly, dashed him to the ground, and, holding him there like a worm, shook from his clothing all the stolen property, except what
p.11the caitiff had concealed in his fellow's bed to insure his conviction.
Then and there the sentence was given. The villain was hauled to the triangles and flogged with embittered violence. He uttered no cry; but, as the hissing lashes swept his back, he settled a look of ghastly and mortal hatred on Joe, who stood by and counted the stripes.
But this was years ago; and Bowman had long been a free man and a settler, having served out his sentence.
At that time the laws of the Penal Colony were exceedingly cruel and unjust to the bondmen. There was in the colony a number of "free settlers" and ex-convicts who had obtained land, and these, as a class, were men who lived half by farming and half by rascality. They sold brandy to the convicts and ticket-of-leave men, and robbed them when the drugged liquor had done its work. They feared no law, for the word of a prisoner was dead in the courts.
The crying evil of the code was the power it gave these settlers to take from the prisons as many men as they chose, and work them as slaves on their clearings. While so employed, the very lives of these convicts were at the mercy of their taskmasters, who possessed over them all the power of prison officers.
A report made by an employer against a convict insured a flogging, or a number of years in the terrible chain-gang at Fremantle. The system reeked with cruelty and the blood of men. It would startle our commonplace serenity to see the record of the lives that were sacrificed to have it repealed.
Under this law, it came to Joe's turn to be sent out on probation. Application had been made for him by a farmer, whose "range" was in a remote district. Joe was a strong and willing worker, and he was glad of the change; but when he was taken to the lonely place, he could not help a shudder when he came face to facewith his new employer and masterIsaac Bowman.
There was no doubting the purpose of the villain who had now complete possession of him. He meant to drive him into rebellionto torture him till his hate was gratified, and then to have him flogged and sent to the chain-gang; and from the first minute of his control he began to carry out his purpose.
For two years the strong man toiled like a brute at the word of his driver, returning neither scoff nor scourge.
Joe had years to serve; and he had made up his mind to serve them, and be free. He knew there was no escapethat one report from Bowman would wipe out all record of previous good conduct. He knew, too, that Bowman meant to destroy him, and he resolved to bear toil and abuse as long as he was able.
He was able longer than most men; but the cup was filled at last. The clay came when the worm turnedwhen the quiet, patient man blazed into dreadful passion, and, tearing the goad from the tyrant's hand, he dashed him, maimed and senseless, to the earth.
The blow given, Joe's passion calmed, and the ruin of the deed stared him in the face. There was no court of justice in which he might plead. He had neither word nor oath nor witnesses. The man might be dead; and even if he recovered, the punishment was the lash and the chain-gang, or the gallows.
Then and there, Joe struck into the bush with a resolute face, and next day the infuriate and baffled rascal, rendered ten-fold more malignant by a dreadful disfigurement, reported him to the prison as an absconder, a robber, and an attempted murderer.
THREE years passed. It was believed that Joe had perished in the bush. Bowman had entered the convict service as a trooper, but even his vigilance brought no discovery. Absconders are generally found after a few months, prowling around the settlements for food, and are glad to be retaken.
But Joe was no common criminal nor common man. When he set his face toward the bush, he meant to take no half measures. The bush was to be his home. He knew of nothing to draw him back, and he cared not if he never saw the face of a white man again. He was sick of injustice and hardship sick of all the ways of the men he had known.
Prison life had developed a strong nature in Joe. Naturally powerful in mind, body, and passions, he had turned the Power in on himself, and had obtained a rare mastery over his being. He was a thoughtful man, a peacemaker, and a lover of justice. He had obtained an extraordinary hold on the affection of the convicts. They all knew him. He was true as steel to everything he undertook; and they knew that, too; He was enormously strong. One day he was working in the quarries of Fremantle with twenty others in a deep and narrow, ledge. Sixteen men were at work below, and four were preparing a blast at the head of the ledge, which ran down at an eagle of fifty degrees, like a channel cut in the solid rock. The men below were at the bottom of the channel. A pebble dropped by the four men above would have dashed into their Midst.
Suddenly there was a cry above, sharp, short, terrible
"Look out down there!"
One of the half-filled charges had exploded with a sullen, mischievous puff, and the rocks at the head of the ledge were lifted and loosened. One immense block barred the tumbling mass from the men below. But the increasing weight above grew irresistiblethe great stone was yieldingit had moved several inches, pressed on from behind. The men who had been working at the place fled for their lives, only sending out the terrible cry to their fellows below
"Look out down there!"
But those below could only look outthey could not get out. There was no way out but by the rising channel of the ledge. And down that channel would thunder in a quarter of a minute the murderous rocks that were pushing the saving stone before them.
Three of the men above escaped in time. They dared not look behindas they dung to the quarry-side, out of danger, they closed their eyes, waiting for the horrible crash.
But it did not come. They waited ten seconds, then looked around. A man stood at the head of the ledge, right before the moving massa convictMoondyne Joe. He had a massive crowbar in his hands, and was strongly working to get a purchase on the great stone that blocked the way, but which actually swayed on the verge of the steep decline. At last the bar caughtthe purchase was good the stone moved
p.14another inch, and the body of the man bent like a strong tree under the awful strain. But he held back the stone.
He did not say a wordhe did not look belowhe knew they would see the precious moment and escape. They saw it, and, with chilled hearts at the terrible danger, they fled up the ledge and darted past the man who had risked his own life to save theirs.
Another instant and the roar went down the ledge, as if the hungry rocks knew they had been baffled.
Moondyne Joe escapedthe bar saved him. When the crash came, the bar was driven across an angle in the ledge, and held there, and he was within the angle. He was mangled and bruisedbut life and limb were safe.
This was one of several instances that proved his character, and made him trusted and loved of his fellow-convicts.
Whatever was his offence against the law, he had received its bitter lesson. The worst of the convicts grew better when associated with him. Common sense, truth, and kindness were Joe's principles. He was a strong man, and he pitied and helped those weaker than himself. He was a bold man, and he understood the timid. He was a brave man, and he grieved for a coward or a liar. He never preached; but his healthy, straightforward life did more good to his fellows than all the hired bible-readers in the colony.
No wonder the natives to whom he fled soon began to look upon him with a strange feeling. Far into the mountains of the Vasse he had journeyed before he fell in with them.
They were distrustful of all white men, but they soon trusted him. There was something in the simple savage mind not far removed from that of the men in prison, who had grown to respect, even to reverence, his character. The natives saw him stronger and braver than anyone they had ever known. He was more silent than their oldest chief; and so wise, he settled disputes so that both sides were satisfied. They looked on him with distrust at first; then with wonder; then with respect and confidence; and before two years were over, with something like awe and veneration, as for a superior being.
They gave him the name Of "MOONDYNE," which had some meaning more than either manhood or kingship.
His fame and name spread through the native tribes all over
p.15the country. When they came to the white settlements, the expression oftenest heard was "Moondyne." The convicts and settlers constantly heard the word, but dreamt not then of its significance. Afterwards, when they knew to whom the name had been given, it became a current word throughout the colony.
Towards the end of the third year of his freedom, when Moondyne and a party of natives were far from the mountains, they were surprised by a Government surveying party, who made him prisoner, knowing, of course, that he must be an absconder. He was taken to the main prison at Fremantle, and sentenced to the chain-gang for life; but before he had reached the Swan River every native in the colony knew that "The Moondyne" was a prisoner.
The chain-gang of Fremantle is the depth of penal degradation. The convicts wear from thirty to fifty pounds of iron, according to their offence. It is riveted on their bodies in the prison forge, and when they have served their time the great rings have to be chiselled off their calloused limbs.
The chain-gang works outside the prison walls of Fremantle, in the granite quarries. The neighbourhood, being thickly settled with pardoned men and ticket-of-leave men, had I been deserted by the aborigines; but from the day of Moondyne's sentence the bushmen began to build their myers and hold their corroborees near the quarries. For two years the chain-gang toiled among the stones, and the black men sat on the great unhewn rocks, and never seemed to tire of the scene.
The warders took no notice of their silent presence. The natives never spoke to a prisoner, but sat there in dumb interest, every day in the year, from sunrise to evening.
One day they disappeared from the quarries, and an officer who passed through their village of myers, found them deserted. It was quite a subject of interesting conversation among the warders. Where had they gone to? Why had they departed in the night?
The day following an answer came to these queries. When the chain-gang was formed, to return to the prison, one link was goneMoondyne was missing.
His irons were found, filed through, behind the rock at which he worked; and from that day the black face of a bushman was never seen in Fremantle.
WE arrive now at the opening scene of this story. Eight days after his escape from Fremantle, Moondyne was seen by the convict Dave Terrell, on the shores of the Koagulup Swamp. In those eight days he had travelled two hundred miles, suffering that which is only known to the hunted convict. When he met the prisoner in the moonlight and made the motion to silence, Dave Terrell saw the long barrel of a pistol in his belt. He meant to sell his life this time, for there was no hope if retaken.
His intention was to hide in the swamp till he found an opportunity of striking into the Vasse Mountains, a spur of which was not more than sixty miles distant.
But the way of the absconder is perilous; and swift as had been Moondyne's flight, the shadow of the pursuer was close behind. No tardy step was that of him who led the pursuit of a man with a terribly maimed facea new officer of the penal system, but whose motive in the pursuit was deadlier and dearer than the love of public duty.
On the very day that Moondyne Joe reached the great swamp, the mounted pursuit tracked the fugitive to the water's edge. A few hours later, while he lay exhausted on an island in the densely-wooded morass, the long sedge was cautiously divided a few yards from his face, and the glittering eyes of a native tracker met his for an instant. Before he could spring to his feet the supple savage was upon him, sending out his bush cry as he sprang! A short struggle, with the black hands on the white throat; then the great white arms closed around the black body, and with a gasping sob it lost its nerve and lay still, while Moondyne half rose to listen.
From every point he heard the trackers closing on him. He sank back with a moan of despair; but the next instant the blood rushed from his heart with a new vigour for every muscle.
It was the last breath of his freedom, and he would fight for it as for his life. He sprang to his feet and met his first
p.17brutal assailant, a native doghalf-wolf, half-greyhoundwhich sprang at his throat, but sank its fangs in his shoulder.
A bullet through the animal's brain left him free again, with steadied nerves. Even in the excitement of the moment a thrill of gratitude that it was not a man that lay there passed through him; He flung his pistol into the swamp, and dashed towards the log on which he had gained the island. Beside it stood two men, armed. Barehanded, the fugitive flung himself upon them, and closed in desperate struggle. It was vain, however; others came and struck him down and overpowered him.
He was put in irons, and found himself in charge of the most brutal officer in the penal servicehis old fellow-convict and employer, Isaac Bowman.
WHEN the party had travelled a dozen miles from the convict camp, the evening closed, and the sergeant called a halt. A chain was passed round a tree; and locked; and to this the manacles of the prisoner were made fast, leaving him barely the power of lying down. With a common prisoner this would have been security enough; but the sergeant meant to leave no loophole open. He and the private trooper would keep guard all night; and according to this order, after supper, the trooper entered on the first four hours' watch.
The natives and wounded men took their meal and were stretched on the soft sand beside another fire, about a hundred paces from the guard and prisoner.
The tired men soon slept, all but the sentry and the captive. The sergeant lay within arm's length of the prisoner; and even from deep sleep awoke at the least movement of the chain.
Towards midnight, the chained man turned his face toward the sentry, and motioned him to draw near. The rough, but kind-hearted, fellow thought he asked for water and softly brought him a pannikin, which he held to his lips. At the slight motion, the light motion, the sergeant awoke, and harshly reprimanded
p.18the trooper, posting him at a distance from the fire, with orders not to move till his watch had expired. The sergeant returned to his sleep, and again all was still.
After a time the face of the prisoner was once more raised, and with silent lip, but earnest expression, he begged the sentry to come to him. But the man would not move. He grew angry at the persistence of the prisoner, who ceased not to look towards him, and who at last even ventured to speak in a low voice. At this the fearful trooper grew alarmed, and sternly ordered him to rest. The sergeant awoke at the word, and shortly after relieved the trooper, seating himself beside the fire to watch the remainder of the night.
When the prisoner saw this, with a look of utter weariness, though not of resignation, he at last closed his eyes and sank to rest. Once having yielded to the fatigue which his strong will had hitherto mastered, he was unconscious. A deep and dreamless sleep fell on him. The sand was soft round his tired limbs, and for two or three hours the bitterness of his captivity was forgotten.
He awoke suddenly, and, as if he had not slept, felt the iron on his wrists, and knew that he was chained to a tree like a wild beast.
The sleep had given him new strength. He raised his head, and met the eyes of the sergeant watching him. The look between them was long and steady.
"Come here," said the prisoner, in a low tone; "I want to speak to you."
Had the gaunt dog beside him spoken, the sergeant could not have been more amazed.
"Come here," repeated Moondyne. "I have something important to say to you."
The sergeant drew his revolver, examined the caps, and then moved towards his prisoner.
"I heard you say you had spent twenty-five years in this colony," said Moondyne, "and that you might as well have remained a convict. Would you go away to another country, and live the rest of your life in wealth and power?"
The sergeant stared at him as if he thought he had gone mad. The prisoner understood the look.
"Listen," he said impressively; "I am not mad. You
p.19know there is a reward offered for the discovery of the Vasse Gold Mine. "I can lead you to the spot!"
There was that in his voice and look that thrilled the sergeant to the marrow. He glanced at the sleeping trooper, and drew closer to the chained man.
"I know where that gold mine lies," said Moondyne, reading the greedy face, "where tons and shiploads of solid gold are waiting to be carried away. If you help me to be free, I will lead you to the mine."
The sergeant looked at him in silence. He arose and walked stealthily towards the natives, who were soundly sleeping. To and fro in the firelight, for nearly an hour, he paced, revolving the startling proposition. At last he approached the chained man.
"I have treated you badly, and you hate me," he said. "How can I trust you? How can you prove to me that this is true?"
Moondyne met the suspicious eye steadily. "I have no proof," he said; "you must take my word. I tell you the truth. If I do not lead you straight to the mine, I will go back to Fremantle as your prisoner."
Still the sergeant pondered and paced. He was in doubt, and the consequences might be terrible.
"Have you ever known me to lie?" said Moondyne.
The sergeant looked at him, but did not answer.
At length he abruptly asked: "Is it far away?" He was advancing towards a decision.
"We can reach the place in two days, if you give me a horse," said Moondyne.
"You might escape," said the sergeant.
"I will not; but if you doubt me, keep the chain on my wrist till I show you the gold."
"And then?" said the sergeant.
"Then we shall be equals. I will lead you to the mine. You must return and escape from the country as best you can. Do you agree?"
The sergeant's face was white, as he glanced at the sleeping trooper and then at the prisoner.
"I agree," he said; "lie down and pretend to sleep."
The sergeant had thought out his plan. He would insure his own safety, no matter how the affair turned. Helping a
p.20convict to escape was punished with death by the penal law; but he would put another look on the matter. He cautiously waked the private trooper.
"Take those natives," he said, "all but the mounted tracker, and go on to Bunbury before me. The wounded men must be doctored at once."
Without a word the disciplined trooper shook the drowsiness from him, saddled his horse, and mounted. In half an hour they were gone. Moondyne Joe and the sergeant listened till the last sound died away. The tracker was curled up again beside the fire.
Sergeant Bowman then unlocked the chain, and the powerful prisoner rose to his feet. In a whisper the sergeant told him he must secure the native before he attempted to take the horse.
Moondyne went softly to the side of the sleeping savage. There was a smile on his face as he knelt down and laid one strong hand on the man's throat, and another on his pistol.
In a few moments it was over. The bushman never even writhed when he saw the stem face above him, and felt that his weapon was gone. Moondyne left him tied hand and foot, and returned to the sergeant, who had the horses ready.
When the convict stood beside the trooper he raised his hand suddenly, and held something toward himthe tracker's pistol, loaded and capped! He had played and won. His enemy stood defenceless before himand the terror of death, as he saw the position, was in the blanched face of the sergeant.
"Take this pistol," said Moondyne, quietly. "You may give it to me, if you will, when I have kept my word."
The sergeant took the weapon with a trembling hand, and his evil face had an awed look as he mounted.
"Call the dogs," said Moondyne; "we shall need them tomorrow." In answer to a low whistle the wolf-like things bounded through the bush. The men struck off at a gallop, in the direction of the convicts' camp, the sergeant a little behind, with his pistol ready in the holster.
MOONDYNE took a straight line from the Koagulup Swamp, which they "struck" after a couple hours' ride. They dismounted near the scene of the capture, and Moondyne pulled from some bushes near the edge of a short raft of logs bound together with withes of bark. The sergeant hesitated, and looked on suspiciously.
"You must trust me," said Moondyne quietly; "unless we break the track we shall have the sleuth-dog tracker after us when he gets loose."
The sergeant got on the raft, holding the bridles of the horses. Moondyne, with a pole, pushed from the bank, and entered the gloomy arches of the wooded swamp.
It was a weird scene. At noonday the flood was black as ink, and the arches were filled with gloomy shadows. Overhead the foliage of trees and creepers was matted into a dense roof, now pierced by a few thin pencils of moonlight.
Straight toward the centre Moondyne steered from several hundred yards, the horses swimming behind. Then he turned at right angles, and pushed along from tree to tree in a line with the shore they had left. After a while the horses found bottom, and waded.
"No more trouble now," said Moondyne. "They're on the sand. We must keep along till morning, and then strike toward the hills."
They went ahead rapidly, thanks to Moondyne's amazing strength; and by daylight were a long distance from the point at which they entered. A wide but shallow river with a bright sand bottom emptied into the swamp before them, and into this Moondyne poled the raft and tied it securely to a fallen tree, hidden in sedge grass.
They mounted their horses, and rode up the bed of the river, which they did not leave till near noontime. At last, when
Moondyne deemed the track thoroughly broken, he turned toward the higher bank, and struck into the bush, the land beginning to rise toward the mountains when they had travelled a few miles.
It was late in the afternoon when they halted for the day's first meal. Moondyne climbed a mahogany tree, which he had selected from certain fresh marks on its bark, and from a hole in the trunk pulled out two silver-tailed 'possums, as large as rabbits. The sergeant lighted a fire on the loose sand, and piled it high with dry wood. When the 'possums were ready for cooking, the sand beneath the fire was heated a foot deep, and making a hole in this, the game was buried, and the flies continued above. After a time the embers were thrown off and the meat dug out. It looked burnt and black; but when the crust was broken the flesh within was tender and juicy. This, with clear water from the iron-stone hills, made a rare meal for hungry men; after which they continued their travel.
Before nightfall they had entered the first circle of hills at the foot of the mountains. With a springing hope in his heart, Moondyne led the way into the tortuous passes of the hills; and in a valley as silent as the grave, and as lonely, they made their camp for the night.
They were in the saddle before sunrise, and travelling in a strange and wild country, which no white man, except Moondyne, had ever before entered. The scene was amazing to the sergeant, who was used to the endless sameness of the gum forests on the plains of the convict settlement. Here, masses of dark metallic stone were heaped in savage confusion, and around these, like great pale serpents or cables, were twisted the white roots of tuad trees. So wild was the scene with rock and torrent, underbrush and forest, that the sergeant, old bushman as he was, began to feel that it would be dangerous for a man who had not studied the lay of the land, to travel here without a guide. However, he had a deep game to play, for a great stake. He said nothing, but watched Moondyne closely, and observed everything around that might assist his memory by-and-by.
In the afternoon they rode through winding passes in the hills, and towards sunset came on the border of a lake in the basin of the mountains.
"Now," said Moondyne, dismounting by the lake-side, and turning loose his horse to crop the rich grass, "now we may rest. We are inside the guard of the hills."
The sergeant's manner had strangely altered during the long ride. He was trembling on the verge of a great discovery;
p.23but he was, to a certain extent, in the power of Moondyne. He could not help feeling that the man was acting truly to his word; but his own purpose was so dark and deceitful, it was impossible for him to trust another.
The punishment of falsehood is to suspect all truth. The mean of soul cannot conceive nobility. The vicious cannot believe in virtue. The artificial dignity imparted by the sergeant's office had disappeared, in spite of himself; and in its place returned the caitiff aspect that had marked him when he was a convict and a settler. Standing on an equality with Moondyne, their places had changed, and the prisoner was the master.
On the sandy shore of the beautiful lake they found turtles' eggs, and these, with baked bandicoot, made supper and breakfast.
On resuming their ride, next morning, Moondyne said: "To-night we shall reach the gold mine."
The way was no longer broken; they rode in the beds of grassy valleys, walled by precipitous mountains. Palms, bearing large scarlet nuts, brilliant flowers and birds, and trees and shrubs of unnamed species-all these, with delicious streams from the mountains, made a scene of wonderful beauty. The face of Moondyne was lighted up with appreciation; and even the sergeant, coarse, cunning, and brutish, felt its purifying influence.
It was a long day's ride, broken only by a brief halt at noon, when they ate a hearty meal beside a deep river that wound its mysterious way among the hills. Hour after hour passed, and the jaded horses lagged on the way; but still the valleys opened before the riders, and Moondyne advanced as confidently as if the road were familiar.
Towards sunset he rode slowly, and with an air of expectancy. The sun had gone down behind the mountains, and the narrow valley was deep in shadow. Before them, standing in the centre of the valley, rose a tall white tuad tree, within fifty paces of the underwood of the mountain on either side.
When Moondyne, who led the way, had come within a horse's length of the tree, a spear whirred from the dark wood on the right, across his path, and struck deep into the tuad tree. There was not a sound in the bush to indicate the
p.24presence of an enemy. The gloom of evening had silenced even the insect life and the silence of the valley was profound. Yet there was startling evidence of life and hostility in the whirr of the spear that had sunk into the tree before their eyes with such terrific force that it quivered like a living thing as it stood out from the tuad.
Moondyne sprang from his horse, and, running to the tree, laid his hand on the shivered spear, and shouted a few words in the language of the aborigines. A cry from the bush answered, and the next moment a tall savage sprang from the cover and threw himself with joyful acclamations at the feet of Moondyne.
Tall, lithe, and powerful was the young bushman. He arose and leant on his handful of slender spears, speaking rapidly to Moondyne. Once he glanced at the sergeant, and, smiling, pointed to the still quivering spear in the tuad. Then he turned and led them up the valley, which soon narrowed to the dimensions of a ravine, like the bed of a torrent, running its perplexed way between overhanging walls of iron-stone.
The sun had gone down, and the gloom of the passage became dark as midnight. The horses advanced slowly over the rugged way. A dozen determined men could hold such a pass against an army. Above their heads the travellers saw a narrow slit of sky, sprinkled with stars. The air was damp and chill between the precipitous walls. The dismal pass was many miles in length; but at last the glare of a fire lit up the rocks ahead.
The young bushman went forward alone, returning in a few minutes. Then Moondyne and the sergeant, proceeding with him to the end of the pass, found themselves in the opening of a small valley or basin, over which the sky, like a splendid domed roof, was clearly rounded by the tops of the mountains.
A few paces from the entrance stood a group of natives, who had started from their rest at the approach of the party.
BESIDE the bright fire of mahogany wood, and slowly advancing to meet the strangers, was a venerable man-an aborigine, tall, white-haired, and of great dignity. It was Te-mana-roa (the long-lived), the King of the Vasse.
Graver than the sedateness of civilization was the dignified bearing of this powerful and famous barbarian. His erect stature was touched by his great age, which outran, it was said, all the generations then living. His fame as a ruler was known throughout the whole Western country; and among the aborigines even of the far Eastern slope, two thousand miles away, his existence was vaguely rumoured, as in former times the European people heard reports of a mysterious oriental potentate called Prester John.
Behind the aged king, in the full light of the fire, stood two young girls, dark and skin-clad like their elder, but of surpassing symmetry of body and beauty of feature. They were Koro and Tapairu, the grandchildren of Te-mana-roa. Startled, timid, wondering, they stood together in the intense light, their soft fur-bokas thrown back, showing to rare effect their rounded limbs and exquisitely curved bodies.
The old chief welcomed Moondyne with few words, but with many signs of pleasure and deep respect; but he looked with severe displeasure at his companion.
A long and earnest conversation followed; while the cunning eyes of the sergeant, and the inquiring ones of the young bushman and his sisters, followed every expression of the old chief and Moondyne.
It was evident that Moondyne was telling the reason of the stranger's presencetelling the story just as it had happenedthat there was no other hope for lifeand he had promised to show this man the gold mine.
Te-mana-roa heard the story with a troubled brow, and when it had come to an end, he bowed his white head in deep thought. After some moments, he raised his face and looked long and severely at the sergeant, who grew restless under the piercing scrutiny.
Still keeping his eyes on the trooper's face, he said in his own tongue, half in soliloquy and half in query
"This man cannot be trusted."
Every eye in the group was now centred on the sergeant's face.
After a pause, Moondyne simply repeated the words of the chief
"He cannot be trusted."
"Had he come blindfolded from the Koagulup," continued the chief, "we might lead him through the passes in the night, and set him free. He has seen the hills and noted the sun and stars as he came: he must not leave this valley."
The old chief uttered the last sentence as one giving judgment.
"Ngaru," he said, still gazing intently on the trooper's face. The young bushman arose from the fire.
"He must not leave the pass, Ngaru."
Without a word the young and powerful bushman took his spears and womerah, and disappeared in the mouth of the gloomy pass.
Te-mana-roa then arose slowly, and, lighting a resinous torch, motioned the sergeant to follow him toward a dark entrance in the iron-stone cliff that loomed above them. The sergeant obeyed, followed by Moondyne. The men stooped to enter the face of the cliff, but once inside, the roof rose high, and the way grew spacious.
The walls were black as coal, and dripping with dampness. Not cut by the hands of man, but worn perhaps in ages past by a stream that worked its way, as patient as Fate, through the weaker parts of the rock. The roof soon rose so high that the torchlight was lost in the overhanging gloom. The passage grew wide and wider, until it seemed as if the whole interior of the mountain were hollow. There were no visible walls; but at intervals there came from the darkness above a ghostly white stalactite pillar of vast dimensions, down which in utter silence streamed water that glistened in the torchlight.
A terror crept through the sergeant's heart, that was only strong with evil intent. He glanced suspiciously at Moondyne. But he could not read the faces of the two men beside him. They symbolized something unknown to such as he. On them at that moment lay the great but acceptable burden of manhood
p.27the overmastering but sweet allegiance that a true man owes to the truth.
It does not need culture and fine association to develop in some men this highest quality. Those who live by externals, though steeped in their parrot learning, are not men, but shells of men. When one turns within his own heart, and finds there the motive and the master, he approaches nobility. There is nothing of a man but the word, that is kept or brokensacred as life, or unstable as water. By this we judge each other, in philosophy and practice; and by this test shall be ruled the ultimate judgment.
Moondyne had solemnly promised to lead to the mine a man he knew to be a villain. The old chief examined the bond of his friend, and acknowledged its force.
The word of the Moondyne must be kept to-night. Tomorrow the fate of the stranger would be decided.
They proceeded far into the interior of the mountain, until they seemed to stand in the midst of a great plain, with open sky overhead, though in truth above them rose a mountain. The light was reflected from myriad points of spar or crystal, that shone above like stars in the blackness. The air of the place was tremulous with a deep, rushing sound, like the sweep of a river; but the flood was invisible.
At last the old chief who led the way, stood beside a stone trough or basin, filled with long pieces of wood standing on end. To these he applied the torch, and a flame of resinous brightness swept instantly over the pile and licked at the darkness above in long, fiery tongues.
The gloom seemed to struggle with the light, like opposing spirits, and a minute passed before the eye took in the surrounding objects.
"Now," said Moondyne to the sergeant, raising his hand sweeping it around"now, you are within the GOLD MINE OF THE VASSE."
The stupendous dimensions of the vault or chamber in which they stood oppressed and terrified the sergeant. Hundreds of feet above his head spread the shadow of the tremendous roof. Hundreds of feet from where he stood loomed the awful blackness of the cyclopean walls. From these he scarce could turn his eyes. Their immensity fascinated and stupefied him. Nor was it strange that such a scene should inspire awe. The
p.28vastest work of humanity dwindled into insignificance beside the immeasurable dimensions of this mysterious cavern.
It was long before consciousness of his purpose returned to the sergeant; but at length, withdrawing his eyes from the gloomy sketch of gloomy stretch of iron-stone that roofed the mine his glance fell upon the wide floor, and there, on every side, from wall to wall, were heaps and masses of yellow metalof dust and bars, and solid rocks of gold.
THE old chief led the way from the gold mine; and the strangely assorted group of five persons sat by the fire while meat was cooked for the travellers.
The youth who had escorted the white men from the outer valley was the grandson of the chief, and brother of the beautiful girls. Savages they were, elder and girls, in the eyes of the sergeant; but there was a thoughtfulness in Te-mana-roa, bred by the trust of treasure and the supreme confidence of his race, that elevated him to an exalted plane of manhood; and the young people had much of the same quiet and dignified bearing.
The revelations of the day had been too powerful for the small brain of the cunning trooper. The came before his memory piecemeal. He longed for an opportunity to think them over, to get them into grasp, and to plan his course of action.
The splendid secret must be his own, and he must overreach all who would to-morrow put conditions on his escape. While meditating this, the lovely form of one of the girls, observed by his evil eye as she bent over the fire, suggested a scheme, and before the meal was finished, the sergeant had worked far on the road of success.
The chief and Moondyne talked long in the native language. The sisters, wrapped in soft furs, sat and listened, their large eyes fixed on the face of the Moondyne, their keen senses enjoying a novel pleasure as they heard their familiar words strangely sounded on his lips.
To their simple minds the strongly marked white face must have appeared almost superhuman, known as it had long been to them by hearsay and the unqualified affection of their people.
Their girlhood was on the verge of something fuller; they felt a new and delicious joy in listening to the deep, musical tones of the Moondyne. They had long heard how strong and brave he was; they saw that he was gentle when he spoke to them and the old chief. When he addressed them, it seemed that the same thrill of pleasure touched the hearts and lighted the faces of both sisters.
"One outside, and two here," was the dread burden of the sergeant's thought. "Two days' ridebut, can I be sure of the way?
Again and again his furtive eyes turned on the ardent faces of the girls.
"Ay, that will do," he thought; "these can be used to help me out."
The sisters retired to a tent of skins, and, lighting a fire at the opening to drive off the evil spirit, lay down to rest. Sleep came slowly to every member of the party.
The old chief pondered on the presence of the stranger, who now held the primal secret of the native race.
The sergeant revolved his plans, going carefully over every detail of the next day's work, foreseeing and providing for every difficulty with devilish ingenuity.
The sisters lay in dreamy wakefulness, hearing again the deep musical voice, and seeing in the darkness the strange white face of the Moondyne.
Before sleeping, Moondyne walked into the valley, and lifting his face to heaven, in simple and manful directness, thanked God for his deliverance; then, stretching himself beside the fire, he fell into a profound sleep.
In the morning, Moondyne spoke to Koro and Tapairu in their own tongue, which was not guttural on their lips. They told him, with much earnest gesture and flashing of eyes, about the emu's nest in the valley beyond the lake, and other such things as made up their daily life. Their steps were light about the camp that morning.
At an early hour the old man entered the gold mine, and did not return. To look after the horses, Moondyne, with the
p.30girls, crossed the valley, and then went up the mountain towards the emu's nest.
The sergeant, with bloodshot eyes from a sleepless night, had hung around the camp all the morning, feeling that, though his presence seemed unheeded, he was in the deepest thought of all.
Whatever his purpose, it was settled now. There was dark meaning in the look that followed Moondyne and the girls till they disappeared on the wooded mountain. When at last they were out of sight and hearing, he arose suddenly and moved towards the mouth of the mine. At that moment, the young bushman from the outpost emerged from the pass, and walked rapidly to the fire, looking around inquiringly for Moondyne and the girls.
As the sergeant explained in dumb show that they had gone up the mountain yonder, there rose a gleam of hideous satisfaction in his eyes. The danger he had dreaded most had come to his hand to be destroyed. All through the night he had heard the whirr of a spear from an unseen hand, and he shuddered at the danger of riding through the pass to escape. But there was no other course open. Were he to cross the mountains, he knew that without a guide he never could reach the penal colony.
Had the sage Te-mana-roa been present, he would at once have sent the bushman back to his duty. But the youth had drawn his spear from the tuad tree at the outpost, and he proceeded to harden again its injured point in the embers of the fire.
The sergeant, who had carelessly sauntered around the fire till he stood behind the bushman, now took a stride towards him, then suddenly stopped.
Had the native looked around at the moment, he would have sent his spear through the stranger's heart as swiftly as he drove it into the tuad yesterday. There was murder in the sergeant's face as he took the silent stride, and paused, his hand on his pistol.
"Not with this," he muttered; "no noise with him. But this will do."
He stooped for a heavy club, and with a few quick and stealthy paces stood over the bushman. Another instant, and the club descended with crushing violence. Without a sound
p.31but the deadly blow, the quivering body fell backward on the assassin's feet.
Rapidly he moved in his terrible work. He crept to the entrance of the mine, and far within saw the old man moving before the flame. Pistol in hand he entered the cavern, from which, before many minutes had passed, he came forth white faced. As he stepped from the cave, he turned a backward glance of fearful import. He saw that he had left the light burning behind him.
Warily scanning the mountain side, he dragged the body of the youth inside the mouth of the cavern; then, seating himself by the fire, he examined his pistols, and awaited the return of Moondyne and the girls.
In the sweet peace of the valley, the livid and anxious wretch seemed the impersonation of crime. He had meditated the whole night on his purpose. All he feared was partial failure. But he had provided for every chance; he had more than half succeeded already. Another hour, and he would be sole master of the treasureand, with the sisters in his power, there was no fear of failure.
It was a terrible hour to wait; but at last he saw them coming, the lithe figures of the girls winding among the trees as they crossed the valley.
But they were alone: Moondyne was not with them!
They came with bent faces, as if thinking of pleasant things; but they started with affright, and drew close together, when they saw the stranger, alone, rise from the fire and come towards them.
With signs, he asked for Moondyne, and they answered that he had gone across the mountain, and would return when the sun had gone down. This was an ominous disappointment; but the sergeant knew that his life would not be worth one day's purchase with such an enemy behind him. He must wait.
He returned to the fire, the girls keeping distrustfully distant. He feared they might enter the mine, and too soon discover the dreadful secret; so, getting between them and the rock, he lay down at the entrance.
Like startled deer, they looked around, instinctively feeling that danger was near. The evil eyes of the sergeant never left them. He had not foreseen this chance and for the moment knew not how to proceed.
The sisters stood near the fire, alarmed, alert, the left hand of one in the right of the other. At length their quick eyes fell upon blood on the sand, and followed the track till they met again the terrible face at the mouth of the mine.
And, as they looked, a sight beyond the prostrate man, coming from the dark entrance, froze their hearts with terror.
The face of the aged chief, his white hair discoloured with blood, appeared above the dreadful watcher, and looked out towards the girls. The old man, who had dragged his wounded body from the cave, rose to his feet when he saw the sisters, tottered forward with a cry of warning, and fell across the murderer.
Paralyzed with horror, the sergeant could not move for some moments. But soon feeling that he was not attacked, he pushed aside the senseless body, and sprang to his feet with a terrible malediction. In that moment of his blind terror the girls had disappeared.
He ran hither and thither searching for them, but found no trace of their hiding place or path of escape. At length he gave up the search, a shivering dread growing upon him every instant, and hastened to catch the horses. He began to realize that his well-laid plan was a failure.
There was now only one course open. He must take his chance alone, and ride for his life, neither resting nor sleeping. The girls would run straight to Moondyne; and he must act speedily to get beyond his reach.
In a few minutes the horses were ready, standing at the entrance of the mine. The sergeant entered, and, passing the flaming basin, loaded himself with bars and plates of gold. Again and again he returned, till the horses were laden with treasure. Then, mounting, he called the dogs; but they had gone with Moondyne.
Once more the chill of fear struck like an icicle through his heart at his utter loneliness. Leading the spare horse by the bridle, he rode headlong into the ravine and disappeared.
IT was evening and the twilight was grey in the little valley, when Moondyne reached the camp. He was surprised to find the place deserted. He had expected a welcomehad been thinking, perhaps, of the glad faces that would greet him as he approached the fire. But the fire was black, the embers were cold. He looked and saw that there was no light in the gold mine.
A dreadful presentiment grew upon him. A glance for the saddles, and another across the valley, and he knew that the horses were gone. Following the strange action of the dogs, he strode towards the cave, and there, at the entrance, read the terrible story.
The sight struck this strange convict like a physical blow. His limbs failed him, and his body sank till he knelt on the sand at the mouth of the mine. He felt no wrath, but only crushing self-accusation.
"God forgive me!" was the intense cry of heart and brain: "God forgive me for this crime!"
The consequence of his fatal selfishness crushed him; and the outstretched arms of the old chief, whose unconsciousnessfor he was not deadwas fearfully like death, seemed to call down curses on the destroyer of his people.
The years of his life went miserably down before Moondyne till he grovelled in the desolation of his dismal abasement. A ban had followed him, and blighted all he had touched.
Years were pressed into minutes as he crouched beside the maimed bodies of his friends. The living man lay as motionless as the dead. The strong mind brought up the whole scene for judgment. His inward eye saw the fleeing murderer; but he felt more of pity for the wretch than of vengeance. The entire sensibility of Moondyne was concentrated in the line of his own conscience. Himself accused himselfand should the criminal condemn another?
When at last he raised his face, with a new thought of duty, the trace of the unutterable hour was graven upon him in deep lines.
Where were the sisters? Had they been sacrificed too? By the moonlight he searched the valley; he entered the cave, and called through all its passages. It was past midnight when he gave up the search and stood alone in the desolate place. In the loose sand of the valley he scooped a grave, to which he carried the body of the young bushman, and buried it. When this was done he proceeded to perform a like office for Te-mana-roa, but looking toward the cave he was startled at the sight of the sisters, one of whom, Koro, stood as if watching him, while the other, aided by an extremely old woman, was tending on the almost dying chief, whose consciousness was slowly returning.
Benumbed and silent, Moondyne approached the cave. The girl who had watched him shrank back to the others. Tapairu, the younger sister, rose and faced the white man with a threatening aspect. She pointed her finger towards the pass.
"Go!" she said, sternly, in her own tongue.
Moondyne paused and looked at her.
"Begone!" she cried, still pointing; and once again came the words, "begone, accursed!"
Remorse had strangled grief in Moondyne's breast, or the agony of the girl, uttered in this terrible reproach, would have almost killed him. Accursed she said, and he knew that the word was true.
He turned from the place, not towards the pass, but towards the mountains, and walked from the valley with an aimless purpose, and a heart filled with ashes.
For hours he held steadily on, heedless of direction. He marked no placeshad no thoughtsonly the one gnawing and consuming presence of the ruin he had wrought.
The dogs followed him, tired and spiritless. The moon sank, and the sun rose, and still the lonely man held his straight and aimless roadacross mountains and through ravines, until at last his consciousness was recalled as he recognized the valley in which he stood as one he had travelled two days before, on the way to the gold mine.
Stretching his exhausted body on a sheltered bank beside stream, he fell into a deep sleep that lasted many hours.
He awoke with a start, as if a voice had called him. In an instant his brow was set and his mind determined. He glanced at the sun to settle his direction, and then walked slowly across
the valley, intently observing the ground. Before he'd had taken a hundred paces he stopped suddenly, turned at right angles down the valley, and strode on with a purpose, that though rapidly, almost instantaneously formed, had evidently taken full possession of his will.
Sometimes persons of keen sensibility lie down to sleep with a trouble on the mind, and an unsettled purpose, and wake in the night to find the brain clear and the problem solved. From this process of unconscious cerebration Moondyne awoke with a complete and settled resolution.
There could be no doubt of the determination in his mind. He had struck the trail of the murderer.
There was no more indirection or hesitation in his manner. He settled down to the pursuit with a grim and terrible earnestness. His purpose was clear before himto stop the devil he had let looseto prevent the escape of the assassinto save the people who had trusted and saved him.
He would not turn from this intent though the track led him to the prison gate of Fremantle; and even there, in the face of the guards, he would slay the wretch before he had betrayed the secret. Death is on the trail of every man; but we have grown used to him, and heed him not. Crime and Sin are following uswill surely find us out, and some day will open the cowl and show us the death's-head. But more terrible than these Fates, because more physically real, is the knowledge, ever present, that a relentless human enemy is on our track.
Through the silent passes of the hills, his heart a storm of fears and hopes, the sergeant fled toward security. Every mile added to the light ahead. He rode wildly and without restrode all day and into the night, and would still have hurried on, but the horses failed and must have rest.
He fed and watered them, watching with feverish eyes the renewal of their strength; and as he watched them eat, the wretched man fell into a sleep, from which he started in terror, fearful that the pursuer was upon him.
Through the day and night, depending on his great strength, Moondyne followed. While the fugitive rested, he strode on; and he knew by instinct and observation that he was gaining in the race.
Every hour the tracks were fresher. On the morning of the
p.36second day, he had found the sand still moist where the horses had drank from a stream. On the evening of that day he passed the burning embers of a fire. The murderer was gaining confidence, and taking longer rest.
The third day came with a revelation to Moondyne. The sergeant had lost the wayhad turned from the valley that led towards the settlement, and had sealed his doom by choosing one that reached towards the immeasurable deserts of the interior.
The pursuer was not stayed by the discovery. To the prison or the wilderness, should the track lead, he would follow.
At first the new direction was pleasant. Dim woods on either side of a stream, the banks fringed with verdure and pranked with bright flowers. But like the pleasant ways of life, the tempting valley led to the desolate plains; before night had closed, pursuer and pursued were far from the hills and streams, in the midst of a treeless sea of sand.
Nothing but fear of death could drive the sergeant forward. He was bushman enough to know the danger of being lost on the plains. But he dare not return to meet him whom he knew wag hunting him down.
There was but one chance before him, and this was to tire out the pursuerif, as his heart suggested, there was only one in pursuitto lead him farther and farther into the desert, till he fell on the barren track and died.
It was sore travelling for horse and man under the blazing sun, with no food or water save what he pressed from the pith of the palms, and even these were growing scarce. The only life on the plains was the hard and dusty scrub. Every hour brought a more hopeless and grislier desolation.
How was it with Moondyne? The strong will still upheld him. He knew he had gained till they took to the plains; but he also knew that here the mounted man had the advantage. Every day the track was less distinct, and he suffered more and more from thirst. The palms he passed had been opened by the sergeant; and he had to leave the trail to find one untouched. The sun flamed in the bare sky, and the sand was so hot that the air hung above it in a tremulous haze. In the woods the dogs had brought him food; but no living thing was to be hunted on the plains. He had lived two days on the pith of the palms.
On the third day Moondyne with difficulty found the sand trail, which had been blown over by the night breeze. He had slept on the shelterless desert and had dreamt of sweet wells of water as the light dew fell on his parched body.
This day he was quite alone. The dogs, suffering from thirst, had deserted him in the night.
He began the day with a firm heart but an unsteady step. There was not a palm in sight. It was hot noon before he found a small scrub to moisten his throat and lips.
But to-day, he thought, he must come face to face with the villain, and would kill him like a wild beast on the desert; and the thought upheld him.
His head was bare and his body nearly naked. Another man would have fallen senseless under the cruel sun; but Moondyne did not even restas the day passed he did not seem to need rest.
It was strange how pleasant, how like a dream, part of that day appeared. Sometimes he seemed to be awake, and to know that he was moving over the sand, and with a dread purpose; but at these times he knew that the trail had disappearedthat he was blindly going forward, lost on the wilderness. Toward evening the cool breeze creeping over the sand dispelled the dreams and made him mercilessly conscious.
The large red sun was standing on the horizon of sand, and an awful shadow seemed waiting to fall upon the desert.
When the sun had gone down, and the wanderer looked at the stars, there came to him a new Thought, like a friend, with a grave but not unkind facea vast and solemn Thought, that held him for a long time with upraised face and hands, as if it had been whispered from the deep quiet sky. Slowly he walked with his new communion, and when he saw before him in the moonlight two palms, he did not rush to cut them open, but stood beside them smiling. Opening one, at length, he took the morsel of pith, and ate, and slept.
How sweet it was to wake up and see the wide sky studded with golden starsto feel that there were no bonds any more, nor hopes, nor heart-burnings.
The Divine Thought that had come to him the day before was with him stillgrave and kindly, and now they two were so utterly alone, it seemed almost to smile. He raised
p.38his body and knelt upon the sand, looking upward, and all things seemed closing quietly in upon him, as if coming to a great rest, and he would have lain down on the sand at peace; but a cry, a human-like cry, startled him into wakefulnesssurely it was a cry!
It was clear, and near, and full of suffering. Surely he had heardhe had not dreamt of such a cry. AgainGod! how near and how keen it wasfrom the darknessa cry of mortal agony!
With a tottering step Moondyne ran towards the woeful sound. He saw by the moonlight a dark object on the sand. The long, weak cry hurried him on, till he stood beside the poor throat whence it came, and was smote with pity at the dismal sight.
On the sand lay two horses chained at the neckone dead, the other dying in an agony of thirst and imprisonment. Beside the dead horse almost buried in the sand, as he had fallen from the saddle, lay a man, seemingly dead, but whose glazing eyes turned with hideous suffering as Moondyne approached. The wretched being was powerless to free himself from the fallen horse; and upon his body, and all around him, were scattered heavy bars and plates of gold.
Moondyne loosed the chain from the suffering horse, that struggled to its feet, ran forward a few yards, and fell dead on the sand.
The men's eyes met, and the blistered lips of the sergeant for it was hemoved in piteous appeal. Moondyne paused one stern moment, then turned and ran from the placeran towards the palm near which he bad slept. With hasty hand he tore it open and cut out the pith, and sped back to the sufferer. He knelt down, and squeezed the precious moisture into the mouth of the dying manthe man whom he had followed into the desert to kill like a wild beast.
Till the last drop was gone he pressed the young wood. Then the guilty wretch raised his eyes and looked at Moondynethe glazed eyes grew bright, and brighter, till a tear rose within them, and rolled down the stained and sinlined face. The baked lips moved, and the weak hands were raised imploringly. The sergeant back dead.
Moondyne knew that his last breath was contrition, and his last dumb cry, "Pardon."
Then, too, the strength went from the limbs and the light from the eyes of Moondyneand as he sank to the earth, the great Thought that had come to him filled his heart with peaceand he lay unconscious beside the dead.
The sun rose on the desert, but the sleeper did not move. Before the day was an hour old, other forms rapidly crossed the plainnot wanderers, but fierce, skin-clad men, in search of vengeance.
They flung themselves from their horses when they reached the scene; and one, throwing himself upon the body of the sergeant, sprang back with a guttural cry of wrath and disappointment, which was echoed by the savage party.
Next moment, one of the natives, stooping to lay his hand on the heart of the Moondyne, uttered an excited call. The spearmen crowded around, and one poured water from a skin on the face and body of the senseless man.
They raised him to the arms of a strong rider, while another took the reins, and the wild party struck off at a fall gallop towards the mountains.
When Moondyne returned to consciousness, many days after his rescue, he was free from pursuit, he had cut for ever the bond of the Penal Colony; above him bent the deep eyes and kind faces of the old chief and the sisters, Koro and Tapairu, and around him were the hills that shut in the Valley of the Vasse Gold Mine.
He closed his eyes again and seemed to sleep for a little while. Then he looked up and met the face of Te-mana-roa kindly watching him.
"I am free!" he only said. Then turning to the sisters: "I am not accursed;" and Koro and Tapairu. answered with kind smiles.