The Moving Finger (Mary Gaunt)/Trotting Cob
"Hi—hey—hold up there, mare, will you? What did you say, mister? A light? Yes. That 's Trotting Cob, that is. The missus 'll give us a cup of tea, but that's about all. Devil fly away with the mare. What is it? Something white in the road? Water by ——. Thank the Lord, they Ve had plenty of rain this year. But they do say there's a ghost hereabouts—a Trotting Cob, with a man in white on him? Lord, no, that's an old woman's tale. But the girl—she walks—she walks they say, and mighty good reason—too—if all tales be true. Hosses always shy here if they Ve at all skittish. Got that letter, Jack, and the tobacco? That's right! Rum, isn't it, to get all your news of the world at dead of night? Reg'ler as clockwork we pass—a little after one, and the coach from Deniliquin she passes an hour or so earlier.
"Anybody else? Well, no, not as a rule. It's the stock route? you see, between Hay and Deniliquin, so there's bound to be stock on the way; but sheep, bless you! they travel six miles a day, and cattle they ain't so much faster, so we brings 'em all the news. The Company has stables here, and feed, and we change horses. The old man and old woman keep it, with a boy or two. Mighty dull for the old woman, I should think, with on'y the ghost to keep her company. She was her cousin or her aunt or somethin', the ghost was, and, Lord, women is fools an' no mistake." It was July, and the winter rains had just fallen, so that the plains, contrary to custom, were a regular sea of mud.
The wheels sank axle deep in it. The horses floundered through it in the darkness, and every now and then the lamps were reflected in a big pool of shallow water. The wind blew keen and cold, but the coach was full inside and out, and so, though it was pitch dark, I kept my seat by the driver.
A light gleamed up out of the darkness.
"Trotting Cob!" said he, and discoursed upon it till he pulled up his horses on their haunches exactly opposite a wide-open door, where the lamplight displayed a rudely-laid table and a bright fire, which seemed hospitably to beckon us in. The whole place was as wide awake as if it were noon instead of midnight.
Ten minutes' stay, and we were off again into the darkness, and then I prevailed upon the driver to tell me the tale of Trotting Cob. He told it in his own way. He interlarded his speech with strange oaths. He stopped often to swear at the road, to correct the horses, and he was emphatic in his opinions on the foolishness of women, so I must e'en do as he did, and tell the tale of Trotting Cob in my own way.
A flat world—possibly to English eyes an uninteresting, desolate, dreary world; but to those who knew and loved them, they had a weird charm, all their own, those dull, gray plains that stretched away mile after mile till it seemed the horizon, unbroken by hill or tree, must be the end of the world. Trotting Cob was Murwidgee then, Murwidgee Waterhole, where all the stock stopped and watered; but from the slab hut, which was the only dwelling for miles, no waterhole was visible; the creek was simply a huge crack in the earth, and at the bottom, twenty feet below the level of the plain, was the water-hole. One waterhole in summer, and in winter a whole chain of them, but the creek seldom if ever flowed, except in a very wet season. It was a permanent waterhole—Murwidgee, fed by springs, and the white cockatoos and screaming corellas came there and bathed in its waters, and the black swans, and the wild duck, and teal rested there on their way south, when summer had laid his iron hand on the northern plains.
The reeds and rushes made a pleasant green patch in the creek bed, and once there had been several tall white gums; but old Durham had cut them down years ago, when first he settled there, and so from the hut door, though almost close upon the creek, it was not visible, and there was presented to the eye an unbroken expanse of salt bush. It was unbroken but for the mirage that quivered in the dry, hot air. The lake of shining water, with the ferns and trees reflected in it, was but a phantasy, and the girl who leaned idly against the door-post of the hut knew it. Still she looked at it wistfully—it had been so hot, so cruelly hot, this burning January day, and in all the wide plain that stretched away for miles on every side there was not a particle of shade; even the creek ran north and south, so that the hot sun sought out every nook and corner, and the bark-roofed hut, with its few tumble-down outbuildings, was uncompromisingly hot, desolate, and ugly.
Old Durham called himself a squatter, and gave out that his wife, with the help of her granddaughter Nellie, kept an accommodation-house. Forty years ago the times were wild, and what did it matter. Convict and thief the squatters round called him, and his grandsons, in their opinion, were the most accomplished cattle-duffers in all the country round, and as for the accommodation-house—well, if the old woman did go in for sly grog-selling, the police were a long way off, and it was no business of anybody's. And Nellie Durham was a pretty girl, a little simple perhaps, but still sweetly pretty, with those wistful blue eyes, fringed with dark lashes, that looked out at you so earnestly, and the wealth of fair hair. So dainty and so pretty—the coarse cotton gown was quite forgotten, and in those times, when women of any sort were scarce, many a man turned out of his way just to speak a word or two to Mother Durham's granddaughter.
She sat down on the door-step now, and resting her elbows on her knees, and her chin in her hands, looked out across the plain. The sun was just setting—a fiery, glowing sun, that sent long, level beams right across the plains, till they reached her hair, and turned it to living gold, and went on and penetrated the gloom of the hut beyond.
It was very bare, the hut, just as bare as it could possibly be; but three men bent eagerly over the rough-hewn table, while an old woman, worn and wrinkled and haggard, and yet in whose face might still be traced a ghastly resemblance to the pretty girl outside, laid out on the table a much-thumbed, dirty pack of cards.
"Cut them, Bill. Drat you! what 'd you do that for, George? You know you ain't never lucky—you oughter let Bill do it. No—no—no luck. Two, three, nine o' spades, 'tis ill luck all through."
"Well, let Bill do it, Gran," said George with an oath, as he flung down the cards, and they were picked up and shuffled, and cut again and again; the old woman shook her head solemnly.
"'Tis bad luck the night," she said, "bad, bad luck. Don't you touch Macartney's mob, or you 'll rue it. There's death some-wheres, but it doesn't point to none o' you."
"Macartney probably," said another man, who was leaning against the slab wall, and intently watching the girl in the doorway. "Come, Gran, don't be croaking; if the cards ain't lucky, put 'em away till they are."
He looked cleaner and smarter than the other three—Nellie's brothers, who were young fellows, little over twenty. They were good-looking, strapping fellows, but the sweet simplicity in her face was in theirs loutish stupidity, and their companion stood out beside them, though probably he was nearly twice their age, as cast in a very different mould. He was dressed as they were, in riding-breeches and shirt, but the shirt was clean, his black hair and beard were neatly trimmed, the sash round his waist was new and neatly folded, and the pistols therein were bright and well kept. Gentleman Jim, the Durhams called him; as Gentleman Jim he was known to the police throughout all the length and breadth of New South Wales. What he had been once no man knew, though evidently he was a man of some little culture and education; what he was now was patent to every man—escaped convict, bushranger, cattle-duffer—even a murder now and again, it was whispered, came not amiss to Gentleman Jim. It was an evil face, with the handsome dark eyes set too closely together, and when there is evil in a man's face at forty, there is surely little hope for him; but bad as it was, to Nellie Durham it was the one face in the world. Cattle-duffing—it hardly seemed a sin to her. Ever since she could remember, her grandfather, and her father, and when he died, her brothers, had driven off a few head of cattle from the mobs that passed, and she in her simplicity hardly realized the heinousness of the offence; and for the rest, she simply believed nothing against her hero. He had been cruelly ill-treated, cruelly ill-used, but she understood him—she loved him, she believed in him, in the blind unreasoning way a woman, be she old or young, rich or poor, wise or foolish, gentle or simple, does believe in the man she loves. And the old grandmother saw, and shook her head. She did not mind cattle-duffing—it was but levying a fair toll on the rich squatter as he passed. Sly grog-selling was hardly a crime; so few people passed it would have been waste of money to take out a licence, more especially since there was no one to ask whether they had one or not. But Gentleman Jim, whom the boys had taken to bringing home with them of late, was another matter altogether, and she looked on anxiously when she saw the impression he had made on her son's pretty daughter.
"I dunno," she said, anxiously to her husband, "whether the gal's all there; sometimes I think she ain't, but anyhow, she's sweet and pretty an' loving, an' he's an out-an'-out scamp, drat him!"
But the old man would not interfere. He was a little afraid of Gentleman Jim; besides he was useful to him—he was getting old, and the grandsons were not much help; they took after their mother, and privately old Durham thought his son's wife had been more than half a fool, so he encouraged Gentleman Jim; and now came information that Macartney would be camping here to-morrow with a mob ready for the southern market, and here was the man again. The cards too prophesied disaster, shuffle them as she would.
Gentleman Jim swore at the cards and at the old woman in no measured terms, and then he laughed, and gathered them up in his hands.
"Here, Nell, Nell!—the cards are clean against us, your Gran says—come and cut, like a good girl."
Nellie rose willingly enough, but the old woman said scornfully, "Nell, Nell, she ain't got no luck at all. Three times I tried her fortune, and three times it came, 'tears, tears, tears'—never naught else for Nell but tears."
"Never mind, mother, better luck this time, eh, Nell?" and the girl took the cards, and smiled trustingly up into his face.
She cut the nine of spades, and the old woman groaned. "Disaster, sure as fate; let Macartney's mob alone, I tell you."
"Cut again, Nell."
She shuffled them carefully, the other four watching her with eager, anxious eyes, while the man at her side looked on with tolerant scorn. And then she cut—the ace of spades. Her grandmother threw up her hands. "Death, I tell you—death—death—death—an' no less."
Gentleman Jim struck the cards out of her hand roughly, and they went flying to all corners of the hut.
"Come outside, Nell—come down to the waterhole, it's cool there, and better fun than listening to an old woman's twaddle. The sun's down now. Come on."
She looked at her grandmother first, partly from habit, but the old woman was still wringing her hands over the danger foretold by the cards, and was blind for the moment to that right under her eyes. So Nellie followed him gladly, only too gladly, down the steep bank to the waterhole. He pushed her down somewhat roughly under the shadow of the western bank, and then flung himself down on the ground beside her, and put his head in her lap. With her little work-hardened hand, she smoothed back his black hair, and he looked up into her face.
"So you love me, Nellie?" he said, somewhat abruptly. "You be sure you love me?"
It was hardly a question, he was too certain of it, and no man should be certain of a woman's love.
She made no answer in words, but the pretty blue eyes smiled down at him so confidingly, that for a moment the man was smitten with remorse. What good would this love ever do her?
"You poor child!" he said. "You poor little girl. I believe you do. Don't do it, Nellie—don't be such a fool."
"Why?" she asked simply.
"Why? Because I shall do you no good."
"But I love you," she whimpered, "an' you won't harm me."
"No, by —— I won't." And for the moment perhaps he meant to keep his oath, for he half rose, as if there and then he would have left her. Perhaps it was too much to expect—all his companions feared him, the outside world hunted him, only this woman believed in him and loved him; and if it is a great thing to be loved, it is a still greater thing to be believed in and trusted. And so when she put her arms around him and drew him back he yielded.
"It is your own fault, Nell, your own fault—don't blame me."
"No," she said, satisfied because he had stayed. "I won't—never." Then she ran her fingers through his hair again.
"I saw a gray hair in the sunshine," she said.
"A gray hair—a dozen—a hundred. My life is calculated to raise a few gray hairs."
"Why? Why—once on the downward path you can't stop, my dear. However the path has led me to your arms, so common politeness should make me commend the road by which I came."
"You are always good."
"Good! great Heavens! No—only a silly girl would think that. Was I ever good? I'm sure I don't know. If I was a woman soon knocked it out of me."
"A woman! Did you love her?"
"Love her—of course I loved her."
"More 'n you do me?"
"More than I do you!—You're only a little girl—and she—she was a woman of thirty, and she just wound me round her fingers,—her!"
The tears gathered in the girl's eyes—only one thing her simple soul hungered after—she wanted this man's love—she wanted to be allowed to love him in return.
"She didn't love you like me," she said.
"She didn't love me at all, it was I loved her, the young fool. That's the way of the world. Come, Nell, don't cry—that s the bitterness of it. Where's the good of crying? Where's the good of loving me? I wasted all the love I had to give on a woman, who made a plaything of me—oh, about the time you were born I suppose. That's the way of the world, my dear; oh, you 'll learn as you grow older."
"Ben Fisher," said Nellie slowly—"Ben Fisher, Gran says, loves me, an' 'ud marry me. An' he's Macartney's boss man."
The man sprang to his feet and caught her roughly in his arms. He hurt her, but she did not mind; such fierce wooing was better than the indifference which had seemed to mark his manner before. His hot breath was on her face, and in his eyes was an angry gleam, but she read love there too, and was content.
"You, Nellie—you—do you want Ben Fisher? If you go to him—if you have any truck with him—I 'll kill you, Nell."
She closed her eyes and drooped her head on to his shoulder.
"Jes' so," she said, "you can."
"Nell, Nell," called her grandmother's voice from above. "Nell, you come up this minute. Drat the girl, where's she got to? You come along, miss, and help to get supper. There's the bread to set, for Macartney's mob 'll be here early to-morrow."
James Newton held the girl for a moment with a merciless hand.
"Nell, I 'll kill you."
She smiled at him through her tears, then stooped and kissed the hand that held her, and as he loosened his grasp, flew up the embankment and joined her grandmother.
Next day the Durham lads and Gentleman Jim had disappeared. It seemed a wonder in that flat open plain where they could disappear to, but the creek had many windings, and its bed was so wide and so far beneath the surface of the plain, there was ample room for men and horses to hide there.
About three in the afternoon, a lowing of cattle and cracking of stockwhips announced the arrival of Macartney's mob, and the beasts, wild with thirst, for the way had been long and hot, and the waters were dried up for miles back, rushed tumultously down into the waterhole, trampling one another in their eagerness to get to the water. The men could no nothing but look on helplessly, and finally Fisher, a tall young fellow with that sad look on his bearded face, which sometimes comes of much living alone, left the mob to his men, and flinging his reins on his horse's neck went towards the hut.
Nellie stood in the doorway, but when she saw who it was, mindful of her lover's fierce warning of the night before, she drew back into the hut, and the sadness on the man's face deepened, for Nellie Durham, the cattle-duffer's granddaughter, was the desire of his heart, and the light of his eyes, and Murwidgee Waterhole, when he had charge of the cattle, was on the main road to everywhere.
He dismounted and entered, and Mrs. Durham bustled up to him—eager to make amends for Nellie's want of cordiality.
"It's pleased I am to see ye, pleased, pleased," she said, "for 'tis lonesome hereabouts, now the boys is away down Port Philip way."
"Are the boys away?" he asked, watching Nellie, as in obedience to an imperious command from her grandmother, she began to set out a rough meal.
"Oh, ay—there 's on'y Nell an' grandfather, an' me, an' we're gettin' old. Oh, 't is lonesome for the girl whiles."
If it were, she did not seem to feel it, and she steadfastly refused all Fisher's timid advances. Farther away than ever he felt her to-day, and yet she had never looked so fair in his eyes.
He ate his meal slowly, answering the old woman in monosyllables, when she questioned him as to his camp for the night and his movements on the following day. Possibly he may have thought it unwise to take old Durham's wife into his confidence, but if so the men under him were not so reticent, and when they came in a few moments later, chatted freely on their preparations for the night, and half in jest roughly warned the old woman that the cattle must be let alone.
"None o' your larks now, old girl," said Fisher's principal aid. "We mounts guard turn an' turn about, an' the first livin' critter as comes anigh them beasts—the watch he shoots on sight."
"What's comin' anigh 'em?" asked the old woman scornfully. "There's me an' th' old man an' the girl here, an' nary a livin' thing else for miles. They do say," she added, dropping her voice, "the place is haunted. Jackson of Noogabbin was along here a month back, and he told me how the cattle broke camp all along o' the ghost. He seed 'un wi' his own eyes, a great white thing on a trottin' cob it was. Clean through the camp it rode moanin', moanin', an' the cattle just broke like mad."
"Oh, yes—I dessay," said the man, "and when them cattle were mustered, there was a matter o' fifty head missin', I 'll bet. Now if that ghost comes along my way I shall just put a bullet in him sure as my name's Ned Kirton. So there, old lady, put that in your pipe and smoke it. Come along, Nell, my girl—don't be so stingy with that liquor, the old woman 'll make us pay for it, you bet. Why, Nell, I ain't seen such a pretty pair o' eyes this many a long day. Give us just one—"
He had caught her roughly by the shoulder, and bent down to kiss her, but the girl drew back with a low cry that brought Fisher to her aid.
"Let her alone, Ned," he said with a muttered oath.
"Right you are, boss," laughed the other. "There 's a darned sight too much milk and water there for my taste; I like 'em with a spice o' the devil in 'em, I do. But if that 's your taste—well, fair's fair an' hands off, says I."
"It ain't much good, boss," said another man. "She's Gentleman Jim's gal, she is, and I shouldn't sleep easy if I so much as looked at her."
"Gentleman Jim," he repeated, and the bitterness in his heart none of his comrades guessed. "Gentleman Jim I heard of yesterday, somewhere about the head waters of the Murray—no danger from him."
Bill, being a cattle man, cleared his throat and his brain by a good string of oaths—resonant oaths worthy of a man from the back blocks—and then gave it as his opinion that Gentleman Jim's being seen among the ranges yesterday, was no guarantee that he would not be lifting cattle far on the plains to-day.
"Not our cattle," said Fisher grimly. "We set a watch, and the first thing—man or beast, or ghost—that comes down among the cattle, we shoot on sight. D'ye hear that, mother?" and he turned to the old woman, who merely shook her head and groaned.
"It's old I am—old—old—old. It isn't the likes o' us as 'll touch yer beasts."
And Nellie slipped outside the door, and looked wistfully and anxiously across the plain, at the cattle now peacefully grazing on the salt-bush, and at the mocking mirage in the far distance. Never before, it seemed to her, had so much fuss been made about the cattle. The ghost trick had stood them in good stead for some time, and now apparently these men saw through it.
Two ideas she had firmly grasped. Ben Fisher was a man of his word, and Ben Fisher was a good shot.
Her brothers and her lover were down in the creek bed. One of the four would ride through the sleeping cattle to-night and that man would pay for his temerity with his life. The casual mention of her own name with that of the outlaw had sealed his fate. She was as sure of that as she was sure that the sun would set to-night in the west and would rise again to-morrow in the east. It did not occur to her simple soul to inquire the reason why; only she felt that it was so, and her heart was full of one passionate prayer, that the man who rode forth on that perilous errand should not be her lover. Her brothers were dear to her naturally, but her nearest and her dearest were as nothing when weighed in the scale with the love she bore this stranger. He must be saved at any cost—he must, he must. She walked slowly along with down-bent head, till she stood on the top of the bank overlooking the waterhole, and then, hearing footsteps behind her, looked up quickly to see Ben Fisher standing beside her.
"Nellie," he said awkwardly, "Nellie, I—I—mean did that brute hurt you?"
"What? Oh, Ned Kirton. Oh, it's no matter."
"It's dull here for you, Nell, out on the plains, isn't it?" he asked still more awkwardly.
If her heart was full of another man, his was full of a strong man's longing for her.
He saw her position, he knew her helplessness, he felt how much she stood in need of care and guardianship. If she would only give him the right to care for her. His very eagerness made him stupid and awkward, and she, looking up at him in the hot afternoon sunlight, read none of his thoughts, and only saw in him the man who held her lover's life in his hands and would mercilessly take it.
She answered his question sullenly with a shrug of her shoulders.
"But Nellie—oh, Nellie, Nellie—poor little girl, don't you see that—that—"
"What?" she asked, for even she, indifferent as she was, could not fail to see that the man was shaken by strong emotion. "I 'm all right."
"All right, with a devil like that after you, a brute who—Nellie, Nellie, for God's sake give me the right to take care of you."
She looked at him stupidly and then a light dawned on her.
"Do you mean Jim?" she said. "Why, Jim—" and for a moment a tender smile broke about her lips, and a light was in her eyes such as would never be there for the man beside her.
"Oh, Nellie," he groaned, "am I too late after all? I only want to take care of you, Nellie—only to take care of you."
He stepped forward and caught her hands, holding them fiercely as Jim Newton himself might have done.
"Nellie, if you won't let me do anything else, let me help you; for your own sake let me help you."
Clearly outlined they stood against the summer sky; if there should be anybody in the creek-bed, lurking among the rushes and scrub round the waterhole, they would be plainly visible to him. Their attitudes were significant, and their speech was inaudible. If Jim should be there, thought Nellie, and then dismissed the thought. Rash as he was, he would never be so foolhardy as that. And yet she might have noticed a slight movement among the reeds—might have remembered that Gentleman Jim found no companionship in her brothers, and would be pretty sure to find his way to the water-hole at any risk, if it were only to vary the monotony and to see how the land lay. And so after one vain effort to free her hands, she stood still and listened, while Fisher poured into her unwilling, uncomprehending ears the story of his love for her, and then, since that made no impression, he warned her again and again against Gentleman Jim. Foolishly warned her—for was ever woman yet warned against the man she loved. An angry gleam flashed into Nellie's eyes, and she stamped her feet and strove to draw away her hands again.
"I hate you—I hate you. He is good, I tell you—good—good—good! He loves me an'"—oh, the unanswerable argument all the world over—"I love him."
Fisher dropped her hands.
"Oh Nell! Nell! My God! it is too hard."
She looked at him wonderingly, and a dawning pity softened her face. It had never occurred to her that this man could feel any pain. She read it in his haggard face now, and because she was pitiful of all things she put her hand on his arm and said gently, "Poor Ben, I 'm sorry."
It was too much—Fisher had stood her coldness, had heeded not her anger—but the pretty, wistful face looking up so pitifully into his was too much for him. He could resist temptation no longer, he caught her in his arms and smothered her with kisses. Clearly it was marked against the sky, clearly the man crouching among the reeds saw it, and put his own interpretation upon it, and that one passionate embrace sealed Nellie Durham's fate. Well might the cards prophesy disaster and death, for as he slunk away back to his ambush a mile further down, with raging hate at his heart, he swore revenge against the girl who was trifling with him, swore it and meant to keep his oath.
Nellie with an inarticulate cry freed herself and ran towards the hut, and Fisher flung himself face downwards on the crisp dry salt-bush. He had lost everything now he realised, she would not even accord him pity.
And Nellie up at the hut was trying to make her grandmother understand that all chance of the ghost trick being played again with success was out of the question. Not only would it be a failure, but the man who rode through the cattle rode at the risk of his life. But the old woman could not or would not see it.
"Let 'un alone, Nell, let 'un alone—a parcel of women ain't wanted meddlin' wi' the men-folks' business."
"But, Gran—" the girl was wild with anxiety, and trembling with excitement, and the old woman shut her up sharply. She did not choose to hear any more about it, and turned a deaf ear on purpose. Like Nellie she too was of opinion that Gentleman Jim would play the ghost, and if—through no fault of hers—he came to grief, she felt she would not grieve unduly. Nellie's infatuation for him was undeniable, and with a good decent man like Ben Fisher ready to take her it was unpardonable. Nellie had always been soft and yielding to her, once this man were out of the way she would be so again, and the old woman had seen enough of the seamy side of life to desire better things for the helpless girl. So she turned a deaf ear to her anxious warnings; not by word or sign would she interfere. Let be, let be, it should be fate—it should be no doing of hers. Nellie gave up the struggle at last and taking up her favourite position on the doorstep, with her chin in her hands and her elbows on her knees, stared out moodily across the plains, seeking in her brain some way to help. It was not possible to go near them by daylight, the risk of detection was too great, she must wait till it was dark. Fisher crossed her path once, and for a moment a wild thought crossed her brain—to confide her trouble to him—to ask him to have mercy, but she dismissed it as soon as it was born. Betray her lover and then ask his rival to spare him! It was out of the question; she must find some other way. She thought and thought, till for very weariness she closed her eyes, and slept with her head against the door-post. The long level beams of the setting sun made a golden glory of her hair and seemed to be striving to smooth out the look of care and pain, which was already marked on the fair young face. Ben Fisher passed and paused.
"Pretty, ain't she?" said the old woman; "a dainty mossel for any man."
"Ay," said Fisher quietly, "ay," and passed on, wondering to himself, as many another man has done before him—why this girl was so priceless in his eyes—and why, seeing that she was so, he might not have her rather than this reckless outlaw, who would make her the toy of his idle hours, and when she became a burden to him throw her aside, like a worn-out horse or a dog he had no further use for.
He bit his lip and clenched his hands, and the men when he gave the orders for the night, muttered to one another that the boss meant business an' no mistake. "Ghost or no ghost. 'T wouldn't be much good anybody meddlin' wi' the cattle now. He was mighty struck on the gal, he was—but it didn't seem to be interfering wi' business nohow."
He was mighty struck on the girl, and his thoughts were so full of her that sleep seemed out of the question, so he took the first watch with Ned Kirton for his mate.
Out on the plains here, had they been quite certain of the honesty of the Durhams, one man would have been quite sufficient to mount guard, his duties being simply to ride round the cattle, and should any seem restless or inclined to roam to head them back again. Even as it was, two seemed an almost unnecessary waste of energy, more especially as the other men were camped close by, ready to spring to their feet at a moment's call.
It was a still, hot night; the moon, though not near full, still shed a sufficient light to distinguish everything quite plainly; the men's camp, the sleeping cattle, the hut and outbuildings a little to the left, so calm and peaceful.
Fisher, as he sat on his motionless horse, began to think one guard was more than enough, and to speculate as to whether he should not tell Kirton to go to sleep and leave the cattle to him. Sleep was not likely to come to him, he thought, with that haunting girl's face ever before his eyes. He turned his horse so that he should not see the hut, and then found himself riding round the camp, in order to bring it into view again.
"It's all right, boss," said Kirton, as he passed. "Things is as quiet as quiet. Ghosts ain't expected to walk before twelve though, are they?"
Fisher laughed. "No," he said, "but somehow I don't believe the ghost intends to trouble us after all. They 're scared at our preparations. I think one man 'll do after midnight."
He rode on a little way, when suddenly something induced him to turn his head, and he saw distinctly, in the moonlight, a white figure come out of the hut and make its way quickly in the direction of the creek. It was a woman's figure, with a kerchief across the head, but whether it was Nell or her grandmother he could not at that distance or in that light say.
He rode up to his mate quickly.
"There's some mischief brewing, Ned," he said, looking towards the figure, which had apparently changed its mind, and was now walking in a direction which would bring it to the banks of the creek, a little beyond the cattle camp. "You waken the boys quietly, and tell 'em to be on the look out, and I 'll follow the old woman and see if I can't circumvent her little tricks."
"It ain't the old woman," said Kirton, "it's the gal."
"You be hanged," said Fisher, who preferred Mrs. Durham should get the credit for any midnight escapades. "It's the old harridan herself, and I 'll keep my eye on her."
He slipped to the ground, tied his reins to the stirrup, and the old stock horse, understanding the situation, stood quietly, while his master quickly and quietly followed in the footsteps of the girl, for it was Nellie; he was sure of that when she came abreast of the camp. She was evidently terribly hurried, and hardly seemed to notice the men and cattle as she passed. In truth Nellie did not, for her grandmother had kept so careful an eye on her, she had been unable to leave the hut until she was asleep, and now it was so late, she dared not take the longer and safer way round by the windings of the creek, lest her lover should have already started on his perilous ride. Whether she thought the men would not notice her or whether she hardly cared if they did, Fisher never knew. She held a cloth closely over her head and never turned to the right or left, though he thought his footsteps must be clearly audible as he tramped in his long riding boots over the crisp dry salt-bush.
Truth to tell, Nellie heard nothing save the beating of her own heart. It was such a desperate venture, she was afraid of her grandmother, she was afraid of Ben Fisher, she was afraid even of the man she was trying to save, but most of all she was afraid of being too late, and so the poor child went on, her heart full of one passionate, unspoken prayer, that she might be in time to save him. It was little wonder then that she never turned her head, never heard the footsteps so close behind her. She reached the brink of the creek at length and peered into its depths, then turned and skirted along the top of the bank, Fisher following closely in her track.
They had gone but a little way when he saw, greatly to his astonishment, that the bank, instead of being a steep drop of about twenty feet, gently sloped like it did near the hut, and a track, half hidden by thick scrub, ran down the slope. Down this track the girl went swiftly, her skirts raising a little whirl of dust behind her. The man paused a moment, and by the light of the moon examined his pistols to see they were loaded, for he judged he was doing an unwise thing. Should there be men there, as he more than half suspected, there was no knowing what might happen; but still he never thought of turning back, that Nellie was there was more than sufficient reason he should follow. When he looked again he was startled to find she had vanished, and the measured sound of a horse's hoof-beats broke on his ear. At the same moment he saw the path took a turn in the scrub, and drawing out a pistol, ran down it. As he turned the corner, he came full on Nellie standing motionless in the moon-light; the covering had fallen from her head, and she was stretching out her arms to a mounted figure which was draped, horse and all, in a long white cloth which fell almost to the ground.
It flashed across the overseer that this was the "Trotting Cob," this was the ghost he had been warned against, and a very substantial, life-like ghost it was too. He wondered as he stood there that any man could be deceived.
The girl stood right in its path, right between the two men, and to move, the horseman must either ride over her or turn into the scrub.
He seemed inclined to do neither, but with an angry oath flung back the covering from his face.
"You, girl!" he said.
Then she burst out, half-sobbing, "Oh, Jim, Jim! I was afraid I 'd be too late. Oh, Jim, Gran wouldn't let—"
"Too late!" said the man; he spoke apparently with an effort, but in such grave, cultured tones that Fisher, who was a man of but little education, himself stood silent with wonder. "Too early, I think. I told you how it would be, Nell. I believed in you, Nell, so help me God, I did, but I saw you this afternoon with that man, and now you have betrayed me. You will have it then," and before Fisher could stop him or shield her, he had drawn a pistol from his belt and shot her in the breast. So close she was there was not a chance of missing, and she fell backwards and lay there in the dusty track, the pale moonlight lighting up her fair hair, and the dark stain widening, widening, on the bosom of her dress.
Fisher's first thought was for vengeance, but his hand shook and his shot flew wide, and the other man, apparently giving no heed to him, flung himself from his saddle on to the ground beside the girl.
"Oh, Nell, Nell, little girl, and I trusted you."
She put her little bloodstained hand on his arm, and smiled up into his face with such a world of love in the dying eyes, that Fisher looking on dared not for very pity mar her last moments by word or sigh.
Time enough when she was gone, for the two men to settle accounts.
"Jes' so," she gasped, her one idea strong in death; "I was—near, too late—don'—go—nigh the camp. Ben Fisher—will—shoot the ghost—on—sight."
Pity for the girl, dying misjudged by the hand she loved, impelled Fisher to speak.
How great had been his share in the tragedy he hardly as yet realized; that would come later.
"It wasn't her fault this afternoon," he said roughly; "it was mine, and this evening she never knew I followed her."
"Oh, my God—my little girl, my poor little girl."
He lifted her up in his arms and made a half effort to staunch the wound, but she was evidently dying fast—past all human aid.
"Nellie, Nellie, don't die, my darling—don't leave me; don't let me have this on my conscience. I love you, Nellie—you are all there is to live for. I love you."
"Better 'n her?" she gasped.
He looked down at her in wonder, then covered the white face with kisses.
"Better a thousand times—better than any woman that ever lived. Forgive me, Nell, forgive me."
She was going fast, but she understood him, and the man looking on saw peace and happiness on her face.
"I love you, Jim."
"There never was a daughter of Eve, but once ere the tale of her years be done,
Shall know the scent of the Eden rose—but once beneath the sun! Though the years may bring her joy or pain, fame, sorrow, or sacrifice,
The hour that brought her the scent of the Rose—she lived it in Paradise!"
The horse's hoof-beats kept time to the rhythm of the song. "The hour that brought her the scent of the Rose—she lived it in Paradise!"
"An' I guess," said the driver's voice—breaking in on my reverie—"that's about all there is to tell. Them's the lights of Wongonilla over there. The rest of the story—Lord bless you, it all 'us ended where the gal died. The men I guess did'nt feel much inclined for fighting after that. Anyhow I b'lieve Ben Fisher came back dazed like to camp an' told 'em what 'd happened. But though they scoured the country, Gentleman Jim got clean away. Fisher? Oh, he weren't no account after it, I b'lieve—gave him a sort a' shock, same as if he 'd killed her hisself. He was speared by the blacks on the Lachlan three years later, they say. He never took up with another gal. The other? Lord, yes—he did—Woa, mare, will you? She's a bit tired, you see—we 've come the pace. Yes, it was all along o' a woman Jim Newton was taken—wanted for a bushranging job, over on the Queensland border—that was fifteen years after. I 've heard my father tell the story. He was one of the troopers that took him, and it was a gal that sold him. Mighty set on her he was. She? Oh, she was gone on another man. A woman's only gone like that once in a way, ye see, an' then, Lord! she is a fool—same as Nellie Durham, an' she was a mighty fool all through, for Fisher was a decent sort of a chap—while the other fellow was an' out-an'-out blaggard. But ye see, if there's a ghost at all, it 's the gal that walks, though they call the place Trotting Cob, and Trotting Cob it'll be till the end of the chapter."