THOSE adventurous wayfarers only who have traced the sources of the Snowy River, which in its southward course pierces the fertile district of Gippsland, are familiar with the strange wild region which lies between it and the northern watershed, where the Ovens, the Mitta Mitta, and the King rivers swell with their hurrying waters the Mississippi of Australia. The scenery is of a weird and wondrous majesty. Far as eye can reach, a verdurous plain extends a mountain park, in truth, it may be called, differing from almost any other such formation in Australia. Three thousand feet above the sea, a sheet of snow in the mid-winter, it is a prairie waving with giant grasses when remorseless suns are scorching the heart of the continent into barrenness. Standing on the northern edge of the Dargo plateau, what a landscape bursts upon the view! Mount Feathertop, divided by a ravine two thousand feet in depth from Mount Bogong, with Kosciusko, king of Austral Alps, like twin Titans, rise snow-crowned in awful majesty amid the mist and cloud rack of the illimitable mountain world. Storm-swept and desolate is this region in winter. The strayed traveller wanders beneath an endless succession of wooded peaks, descends abysmal glens, and seems doomed to traverse eternally the unbroken solitudes of the primeval forest.
Here first arose the hamlet, later on the mining township, of Omeo, taking its name from the lonely lake so named by the wild tribes who had hunted on its borders and fished in its depths from immemorial ages. Who shall count the years from the launching of the first frail bark canoe on its lonely waters? Situated in closest proximity to the region of snows, which, if not eternal, commence to crown the mountain summits in the early autumn, it is separated from the more civilised portions of New South Wales and Victoria by roads which border precipices, by mountain tracks, known only to the cattle-drover and the horse-stealer, which, overhanging rivers thickly strewn with granite crags, offer suicide on easy terms to the careless or the despondent.
Rivers, full-fed from a thousand springs which have their sources in these mountains, rush from unexplored heights in the spring-time, or murmur musically the long green summer through, when the great levels of Australian deserts are sunbaked as the plains of Hindostan.
Here dwell in scattered families or sparsely settled hamlets the various classes of Australian highlanders. Hardy, active, fearless are they as their Scottish prototypes; originally recruited from the wandering stock-rider, or in later years the lonely gold-seeker prospecting the basaltic dykes and quartzfilled fissures of the foot-hills of the Australian Alps. Herds of half-tamed or wholly wild cattle and horses roam the profuse pastures, richly verdant during the short summer, though snow-covered and deathlike during the winter months. Here, late lingering and entrapped, they often perish, a company of skeletons within a circle formed by unavailing trampling of the surrounding snow only remaining in the spring to show the operation of nature’s stern, irrevocable laws.
Lonely and chiefly silent this mountain land—dividing the watersheds of three colonies—pierced by precipitous defiles—barred of access by rugged ranges, the only means of crossing the savage region being by dangerous tracks skirting terrific precipices, sometimes, as is the well-known King River pass, narrow, elevated, almost in mid air, with abysmal deeps on either side.
The first dwellers in these dread solitudes were men inured to every peril of the Australian bush, to whom the faint trail of the wilderness was familiar as the field-path to the village rustic. Strayed cattle and ownerless horses accumulated in the virgin mountain pastures. These were at first driven to the nearest market by tracks only known to the outlaws of the waste, or their confederates the stock-riders in charge of rarely visited cattle-stations. Suddenly the trade developed, owing to the higher prices ruling since the gold eruption. An organised system of horse and cattle stealing arose. Outlying lots of fat cattle were ‘cut out’ or separated from the border herds of Monaro or Gippsland, and crossed into opposite colonies. Detection in such cases was well-nigh impossible. Much of the illegal work was done at night. If pursued, the tracks were purposely blinded by station cattle driven across the trail, while, from the rugged character of the country, strangers were at a special disadvantage. Horses averaging from fifty to a hundred pounds each, if capable of drawing a wash-dirt cart or transporting a digger’s movables from one mining district to another, were profitable plunder.
Chief among these caterans of the southern highlands—raiders, however, of a lower grade than their Scottish prototypes—was the well-known and deeply distrusted Caleb Coke—an ex-convict who had ‘served his time,’—that is, completed the term of penal servitude to which he had been originally sentenced. He had graduated in a school of lawless license tacitly permitted by the customs of the country. Commencing as a stock-rider on Monaro Plains, then a wild unsettled region, he and his convict companions reigned unchecked amid the aboriginal tribes. Reports of capricious cruelty or savage vengeance against the blacks were more than whispered. Wild tales were told of lawless deeds—of inoffensive natives wantonly shot down in satisfaction for stock killed or missing—of reckless indulgence in all the baser passions by these modern buccaneers. The lack of police supervision enabled them to revel in every species of lawlessness unchecked and unchallenged, and as surely as any deed involving exceptional craft or cruelty came to light the name of Caleb Coke was rarely absent from the recital.
Rudely reared and wholly uneducated, this man represented the type of Englishman that in earlier days helped to found the reputation of British sailors and soldiers. Smugglers, mutineers, or buccaneers they might become, but, whatever their faults, they possessed the cardinal quality of courage in a degree unequalled by any other nation.
Scarcely above the middle height, and possessing no remarkable muscular development, Coke had proved himself the possessor of a measure of endurance and sinewy strength which rendered him totally indifferent to the hardships of a life in the wilderness. Heat or cold, night or day, on foot or on horseback, all seemed alike to Caleb Coke. Like many of the early stock-riders, though born in English hamlets and grown to manhood before expatriation, the erstwhile poachers, smugglers, or deer-stealers took kindly to the wild life of the interior of Australia. Long used to watch the habits and follow the haunts of fur and feather, the tracking of the half-tamed herds of cattle and horses came natural to the quick eyes, from childhood studious of the waste. Those among these exiled shepherds and stock-riders whom favourable conditions of life tended to soften saved their money, acquired property, and founded families not undistinguished in the future. On the other hand, all whom misfortune had soured or crime indurated, found in their newly acquired quasi-freedom the means of safely engaging in practices more secret but not less nefarious than of old, or criminal operations on a scale hitherto unprecedented.
With the formation of a rich goldfield at Omeo, the centre of a proverbially lawless region and a roving population, the results may be imagined. Cash became plentiful, and was habitually carried in large sums on the persons of gold-buyers and other speculators. Crime for a while seemed about to overshadow the land. Fierce of aspect, ruthless in beak and talon, ‘the eagles were gathered together.’ Had there been an Asmodeus of the mountain, how plainly would he have descried, almost without the aid of le diable boiteux, the Alsatia from which, as surely as the levin-bolt from the thunder-cloud, wrong and rapine were destined to result.
With his habitual want of caution, Lance Trevanion made the acquaintance of Caleb Coke soon after he reached Omeo. That worthy, wily and unscrupulous, found means to ingratiate himself with the stranger, apparently flush of money, and no novice in mining. He made a point of providing horses when there was a newly-discovered ‘rush’ to inspect. In certain ventures, as so often happens, when the broad road is to be traversed, all his ‘tips’ proved correct. His advice, quoad hoc, seemed uniformly trustworthy. Coke, however, had an advantage on his side of which Trevanion little dreamed. Before long he was fully posted in Lance’s history; whereas, of Mr. Coke’s eventful career, beyond the careless chatter of goldfields, Lance knew nothing. Still less did he suspect aught of the sinister influence behind Coke. Not many days had elapsed after Lance had resolved to take up his abode at Omeo before he received a letter from Tessie Lawless, to whom he had sent a few lines by his returning guide. It was addressed to Mr. Harry Johnson, miner, to the care of the chief storekeeper, a man of multifarious trusts and responsibilities, keeping the post-office among other duties, and being entrusted with all deposits, from a parcel of gold to a quartz-crushing machine—from a ‘last will and testament’ to a baby ‘to be left till called for.’
Tessie Lawless’s missive—the outflow from a heart as true and faithful as ever beat in a woman’s bosom—ran as follows—
‘When you receive this you will be safe—safe from persecutors, and once more—oh! that I should have to write such words—a free man again. What misery and degradation you have suffered! my poor dear unjustly punished ——. I dare not even write your name for fear of—of consequences. But I shall be proud and happy all my life through that I was able to contrive to set you free—free! I have seen Mr. Wheeler since, and I could not help laughing, anxious and miserable as I have been, and am, at the way in which the affair was managed.
‘You will see by the heading of my letter where I live. I am not a patient, but I was so restless and anxious until I heard of your safety that I took a situation as nurse in the Melbourne Hospital. There has been a good deal of sickness—fever, rheumatism, and so on—since the gold, and we are all kept hard at work night and day. I was always fond of helping sick people, and the work suits me exactly. So now you know where to find me. Address—“Nurse Hester Lawless, Fever Ward.”
‘I know, of course, that though Omeo is an out-of-the-way place, you stand a chance of being arrested at any time. So, for my sake, if you value my feelings, be as careful as you can. Don’t make friends unless you are certain about them. You have paid dearly for that, haven’t you? My cousin Kate married Trevenna soon after the trial. They are somewhere about Monaro, and not likely to come across you, thank goodness. He doesn’t treat her well, they say, so I can fancy what their life is. It serves her right! You mustn’t think me cruel, but I never shall forgive her as long as I live. I heard that Ned had got out of gaol, but am not sure whether it is true. Poor Ned! he was not all bad. I hope he may clear out to another colony, and keep straight for the future.
‘I have been rambling on, but must now say good-bye. Good-bye, too, in earnest. I shall not write again unless I hear anything, and want to send you warning. You know my heart—I need not say that if you only tell me to “come’ I will follow you to the end of the world. I do not advise you to do—it the other way, indeed—but L—— T—— must judge for himself; though he might easily win a grander wife, but he will never never find a more loving and devoted mate than poor
‘A truer woman never breathed!’ Lance ejaculated, as he read this letter in the lonely hut ‘But for her I should still be in those beastly hulks—perhaps chucked overboard some morning, with a round shot for a steadier! What in the world shall I do? What can I write to her? If she comes up here it will be sure to make people talk. They always try to find out more about a digger that’s married than single, and if they find out too much, that infernal Dayrell, or some other ambitious trooper, will have the office given him, and both of us made miserable for life. No! she’s the dearest little girl in the world, and I may as well make up my mind to tour California or South Sea Islands with her for a wife, as she says. England must be for me a foreign land henceforth, and Estelle—poor Estelle—a beautiful dream! England’s no country for a man with a stain on his honour.’
‘“My native land, good-bye!” as Byron says. He never saw it again, for that matter. Heigho! I wonder if I shall? Something tells me his fate will be mine. An early death, though there is no Greece to fight—for no such luck in store for Lance Trevanion as a patriot’s grave—a hero’s tomb. I used to think of such things once, strange to say. How queer it seems that a soldier’s death in the open, and so many many other things are henceforth for me impossible.
‘I see nothing for it but to hang on here, putting the crowd off the scent by working, talking, dressing like any other digger, till I get my share of Number Six by degrees from Charlie Stirling,—trump that he is,—then clear for Callao or ’Frisco without beat of drum, taking Tessie Lawless with me.’
Both before and since the conviction of Ned Lawless, who was one of the originators of the Omeo cattle-stealing gang, Lawrence Trevenna had been a partner in crime, a sharer in ill-gotten profits. He it was at Eumeralla whom the miners, the police, and indeed Tessie Lawless herself, had seen from time to time, and had mistaken for Lance Trevanion. They might well be excused. With some allowance for discrepancies in speech and manner, only observable when the two men stood side by side, few people could have told the difference.
His nature, inheriting the strongest proclivities to lawlessness of every shade and scope, needed but the occurrence of suitable conditions to develop into the commission of the darkest deeds. The comparatively easy profession of stock-lifting had, after his first chance wayfaring to the Monaro district within a few months after he quitted the ship, commended itself to him as an exciting and lucrative line of life. Athletic, bold, and attractive after a fashion, he had singled out Kate Lawless as the object of his admiration before the migration of the family to Ballarat. Becoming aware of the reckless girl’s flirtation with his rival and antagonist of the voyage, he had sworn to take a deadly revenge. With the aid of the Sergeant, and acting upon the girl’s jealous mood, he had been enabled to gratify his hatred to the full; and now he heard through Caleb Coke, whose information from various sources was rarely inaccurate, that his enemy had escaped from prison and was actually living in Omeo.
Trevenna’s practice in connection with the ‘duffing racket,’ as Coke would have expressed it, was to travel through from Monaro with drafts of stolen animals and to await the arrival of others of the gang at Dargo, a place about fifty miles from Omeo. The men who met him were not suspected in their own neighbourhood, and as the stock were unknown locally, were enabled to drive them down the Snowy River into Gippsland or into Melbourne market by devious ways, known but to themselves, without arousing suspicion. Thus the mining and general population of Omeo had rarely seen and never noticed Trevenna. His beat lay on and around the Monaro district. Occasionally, when conference with Coke was necessary, he met him at the hut at Mount Gibbo, a lonely and rarely visited spot. As far as the Omeo people were concerned, Trevenna was, to all intents and purposes, an unknown man. It was, in a sense, against his interest to meet with Lance Trevanion at present. He therefore took general precautions against such an event, keeping himself, however, well posted up, through Coke, as to his rival’s movements.
The destined meeting took place, however, after a fashion wholly unexpected by either, Fate proving, as of old, too strong for the machinations of mortals.
Trevanion had appointed a day to go with Coke to one of the newly opened reefs which bade fair to make Omeo the premier goldfield of Australia. It was at no great distance from the old man’s hut. Lance had borrowed a horse and ridden to the point indicated by Coke, and after an hour’s ride found the reef which they had come to inspect. It was in truth wonderfully rich,—the stones ‘strung together with gold,’ as the prospectors expressed it. Lance secured a share which could hardly fall short of an astounding profit as the claim developed; and when Coke suggested riding to his hut for a meal he readily assented.
The day was fine, the mountain air clear and bracing. The view, as they gradually ascended one of the foot-hills of the main Alpine range, was far-stretching and majestic. At the distance of a few miles, but apparently almost overhanging the lonely hut,—a substantial building, very solidly constructed,—arose the sullen shape of Mount Gibbo, snowcapped, and ever bearing on its granite ribs the marks of the Alpine winter.
A couple of savage-looking kangaroo dogs and a collie of suspicious aspect walked forward from the massive hut-door, which Lance noticed was carefully secured by a padlock. A narrow bridge of logs led across a sedgy runlet, which, like many mountain streams, was unfordable, except in occasional spots. From the hut could be seen any man or beast approaching at a considerable distance. The idea crossed Lance’s mind that in the middle ages it would have been a most suitable site for the castle of a robber baron. He smiled as he thought that perhaps his friend Mr. Coke was only a later survival of those picturesque tax-gatherers.
Dismounting at the door, Coke hung his bridle-rein over a wooden peg driven into a stump close by, and, motioning to his companion to do likewise, unlocked the door.
‘Hold on!’ he said, as he pushed back the heavy door cautiously, and, leaning foward, pulled out by the collar a brindled bull-dog of such ferocious aspect that Lance drew back involuntarily.
‘You seem to believe in dogs, Coke,’ said he, as he noted the savage brute’s red eye and grim jaw half approvingly. ‘He would be rather a surprise to any one that called upon you when you were not at home.’
‘He’s not easy stopped when he goes for the throat,’ said the old man, dragging the brute along by the collar and fastening him to a chain stapled into a section of a hollow log, which served as a kennel. ‘He’s a queer customer, is Lang. He dashed near settled a cove as got into the hut once by the winder when I was away. I was just back in time not to have to bury him, but it was a near thing.’
‘One would think you had something valuable in your hut that you have to guard it so well,’ said Lance, looking at the dog, now lying down licking his paws and showing his formidable teeth from time to time.
‘Maybe I have, maybe I haven’t,’ said the old man sourly. ‘Anyhow, I don’t like people coming about my place when I’m away. I’ve always kept a dorg or two as wasn’t safe at close quarters. They know it now, black fellows and white both, and lets us alone, eh, Lang, old man?’
The dog gave a low growl as he spoke, while at the same moment the collie and the kangaroo hounds raised their heads, and turning towards the road, which wound along a rocky incline from the eastward, gave a joint whimper, and seemed on the point of breaking out into a chorus of barking. Lance, looking instinctively in the same direction, saw a horseman emerging from a patch of timber, nearly a mile distant, and apparently riding at speed towards the hut. The dogs, however, appeared to have come to a conclusion in their own minds favourable to the approaching stranger, inasmuch as they lay down and awaited events.
‘D—n him,’ growled the old man, as, shading his eyes mechanically with his hands, he gazed searchingly at the horseman. ‘What the devil brings him here now?’
‘You know him then?’ queried Lance.
‘Know him? Well, yes,’ answered Coke, with the tone of a man disgusted with things in general. ‘Maybe you do too, and if you’ll take a fool’s advice, you’ll neither make nor meddle with him. He’s pretty hot property, is Larry Trevenna.’
‘My God!’ groaned out Lance, as his face flushed high, and then grew pale to the lips. ‘This is more than I could have hoped for. Now look here, Coke,’ and he turned upon the old man with a subdued wrath in every look and tone that, fearless as he was, awed the ruffianly elder. ‘This Trevenna did me the worst wrong that one man can do another. Through his villainy I have been chained, starved, gaoled, treated like a dog—falsely accused, too, if ever man was. If I shoot the infernal hound as he pulls up his horse, I should be doing a good deed. If I don’t, it is only that he may feel that, man to man, I am his master, and the punishment I intend to give him will not be so soon over. But if you interfere, by word or deed, by God! I’ll shoot the pair of you like dogs.’
He touched his pistol as the last words came from his lips in low concentrated tones. His chest heaved, his hands were clenched until the muscles in his bare arms stood out like cordage, and the lurid fire in his deep-set eyes glowed as though ready to leap forth with volcanic flame. The resistless force of long-repressed passion asserted itself at this supreme moment.
The crafty veteran recognised the necessity of neutrality, and assumed his position with promptitude. ‘Larry must take his chance. It’s dashed little I care which way it goes. I’ll see fair play, anyhow.’
There was little time to say more. The horseman had crossed the creek and, riding at a hand-gallop, pulled up at the door, throwing his bridle-reins, stock-rider fashion, on the ground, and leaving the hard-ridden hackney, a grand three-parts bred animal, to recover his wind and graze on the green tussock grass till he should need him.
Without apparently taking notice of the stranger who, in ordinary miner’s garb, stood by the old man, most probably taking him for a wandering prospector or hard-up ‘hatter,’ he called out, advancing the while
‘I say, old King of the Duffers, do you know there’s half-adozen chaps from Monaro waiting for you at Dobbs’ Hole? They’ve a stunning lot of nags with them, so you’d better scratch all you know and get there before dark. Who’s this cove? Perhaps he’ll give us a hand? I must have a pot of tea first, though.’
He moved towards the hut door, near which Lance and the old man were standing. Lance stepped forward.
‘So we meet again, Lawrence Trevenna?’
Trevenna was no coward. Still the sudden apparition of a deadly enemy—as if he had arisen from the earth—would disturb the equilibrium of most men. He started back. But a life filled with risk and imminent peril had schooled his nerves. He smiled, as if in apparent good-fellowship.
‘By Jove! So it’s you, Trevanion? Who’d have thoughl of seeing you here? Well, you’ve slipped the clinks, it seems. I was always dashed sorry you got into that scrape so deep. You’d better go shares with Coke and the rest of us in this lay. There’s money in it—pots and pots of it.’
‘D—n you and your money too, you scoundrel!’ shouted Lance, advancing upon him with hate burning in his eyes and vengeance written on every line of his countenance. ‘You!—You propose to me to share in your villainies? Have not you and your accomplices worked me ruin enough already? Put up your hands!’
Trevenna smiled and took his ground. Among the younger members of the lawless gang with which he had allied himself he had seen many a similar encounter, half or wholly in earnest. And in the pugilistic practice so popular among Australian youths of all classes, Larry Trevenna, to which cognomen he had been, for greater convenience, reduced, was held to be, if not the very cleverest of that wild band, so near the top of the class that there were few—very few—that cared to arouse his anger.
He had, as he supposed, advanced considerably in the science of the prize ring, and fondly trusted that the fast and vigil inseparable from a bushman’s life would render him more than a match for any infernal swell (as he would have phrased it), especially one who had so lately ‘done time,’ and been therefore precluded from the enjoyment of fresh air and exercise.
Old Caleb Coke’s rugged features writhed themselves into a saturnine grin as he watched the savage onset with an inherited instinctive interest.
‘Dashed if I ever seen a better-matched pair,’ he growled out, half unconsciously. ‘I’d a walked twenty mile when I was a youngster to see a battle like it. It’s even betting—Larry’s a quick hitter and pretty fit, but I doubt he’s met his match. Well, it’s d d little to me who wins. First blood to Larry, by ——!’
By this time the two men were hard at it. The heavy blows on face and body, which in such a contest fall fast and furious, sounded strangely clear in the rarified mountain atmosphere—the old stock-rider and the dogs the sole spectators. These last comrades—of mankind under such ever-changing conditions—looked on with manifest interest. The bull-dog, indeed, until warned by a kick from his master, being minded to smash his chain and make a third in the encounter. The blow from Trevenna to which Coke had alluded had split the flesh above the cheek, showing the white bone underneath, as if gashed by a knife. Its effect was due less to want of skill on Lance’s part than to his desperate determination to get to close quarters with his foe. And, indeed, all unheeding of the punishment, which would have staggered another man less iron-sinewed and agile, he forced his opponent before him with a succession of blows, delivered with such terrific power and rapidity that Trevenna’s guard was completely broken in, eventually sending him to the earth, half stunned and motionless.
Lawrence Trevenna had underrated his foe in more than one respect. During the few weeks which he had spent in Omeo Lance Trevanion had worked harder than he had ever done in his life before. Partly to dull the memories of the past, as well as to quiet the haunting fear of apprehension, he had toiled incessantly. The keen air, the healthy appetite, the free intercourse with his fellow-men, had restored him to fullest strength and activity. Never in his life, as he stepped forward to meet his foe, had he felt more fully conscious of muscular strength and deer-like elasticity—those glorious physical gifts with which only early manhood is endowed.
As they fronted each other for the second time, face to face and eye to eye, as is the wont of men of British race in such a contest, Coke could not fail to be impressed with their extraordinary likeness to each other, and the similarity of their general cast of feature. The colour of the hair was identical, and but for a slight deviation in the direction of coarseness on the one hand, and that indescribable something which belongs to the man of birth on the other, they could hardly have been distinguished from each other by a casual spectator. In their eyes, so remarkable in both, burned in that hour the deadliest fire of hate, the difference alone being that while it glowed furnace-bright in the orbs of Lance Trevanion, Trevenna’s glare, in demoniacal malice, resembled the rage of a wild beast.
‘By ——,’ said the old man, as once more he marked the blood-stained faces of the desperate combatants, who again went at each other with silent fury, ‘I could fancy as they was brothers. They ought to shake hands and travel the country. What a circus they’d be able to run. Ha! Larry’s down agen. The Ballarat cove’s too good for him.’
It was even so. For a short time only it appeared as if the issue was doubtful. There was but little thought of evasion or parrying of blows on either side. The terrific rally with which the second round ended would have brought to a close more than one world-famous fight. But Lance Trevanion fought as though each arm—like the Familiar of the enchanter—wielded an iron flail. And when Lawrence Trevenna went down, beaten dead and senseless from the last tremendous ‘upper cut,’ it was evident that he would not come to time.
‘That last left-hander knocked him out,’ said the old man, with a grin of qualified approval, while a strange expression lurked in his evil eyes. ‘It ain’t no use follerin’ it up, as I see. Dip that pannikin in the bucket while I sluish his neck a bit. You ain’t settled him this time, Harry, but it’s a d—d close shave.’
‘He deserves death at my hands a dozen times over,’ said Lance, gazing down upon the fallen man, as Coke raised his bleeding face, and, after an interval, succeeded in restoring animation, while the dogs stood around licking their lips, as if the savour of blood had aroused their ferocious instincts. ‘But I have done with him for the present. Let him cross my path again at his peril.’
Thus speaking, he turned to where his horse had been secured and made preparations for departure, waiting, however, in order to satisfy himself as to the condition of his late antagonist. That personage, after a few minutes, was sufficiently recovered to raise himself to a sitting posture, and eventually to his feet, when he supported himself by leaning against a tree.
But though temporarily worsted in the conflict, Trevenna had no whit abated of the ferocity with which he had commenced the encounter.
Declining, with a wave of the hand, the proffer of bush hospitality by the old man, Lance Trevanion made as though to mount his horse, when Trevenna shook his hand, and, with a voice hoarse and almost inarticulate, arrested his departure.
‘Stop!’ he said. ‘I want a word with Trevanion before he goes. You’ve had the best of it now. I didn’t think you were so good, blast you! But I’ll see you at my feet yet I’ve got the girl you were so sweet on, and you may thank her for being what you are—a runaway convict; d’ye hear that, Lance Trevanion? Kate Lawless is my wife now, and d—d well broke to come to heel when I crack the whip, you take your oath. I’ve got square with you so far, and by ——!’ and here the ruffian swore a blasphemous oath, ‘I’ll be more than even with you yet.’
He paused, apparently more from exhaustion than from other reasons, for his disfigured face, all blood-stained though it was, grew ghastly pale as he swayed forward as though he would have fallen.
Lance rode towards him, and for an instant raised his hand; then gazing at him with deepest contempt, made answer——
‘No doubt you have treated your unfortunate wife as only brutes like yourself are given to do. You are repaid in some slight degree for any cruelty to her, little as she deserves it at my hands. As for you, you scoundrel, I will shoot you like a dog if you come across me again. So I give you fair warning.’
Then Lance Trevanion mounted his horse, unheeding of food or shelter. For, as if the elemental powers had awaited the issue of the conflict, the sky was suddenly overcast, the wind arose and wailed stormily. The ranges were blotted out by driving mists, and without warning one of the sudden storms of a mountain region broke wrathfully over the plain. Another man might have sought protection. At any other time such a thought might have crossed his mind. But the fierce spirit of Lance Trevanion in that hour of overwrought feeling joyed in the elemental turmoil. Facing the tempest, he sent the spurs into his horse and drove recklessly into the very teeth of the storm; the drenching rain, the blinding lightning, the thunder rolling above him and echoing along the mountain crags, only serving as distractions to the yet fiercer tumult raging within. Two hours’ desperate riding over flooded creeks, through forest and flat, rocky ridge and sedgy morass, brought him to Omeo. The storm-swept streets were deserted, the stores and hotels filled. Pulling up at the door of his hut, he unsaddled his horse, whose heaving flanks sufficiently attested the pace at which he had covered the distance, and turned him loose, with all reasonable expectation that he would discover his owner’s abode, after the manner of ‘mountain’ horses, accustomed from colt-hood to find their way to particular localities, wholly irrespective of times and seasons.
This duty performed, he unlocked the door, carrying the saddle and bridle inside with him. His steed trotted off briskly, after a preliminary shake, and apparently made a straight course for his home. Nor was the act of turning him loose on that wild winter evening amid the still driving rain and bitter wind in any sense cruel and unfeeling. The stockrider to whom he belonged would remark in such a case that the rain would wash his coat clean from mud or sweat stain. He had never been shod in his life, never known a rug or a stable, and was as impervious to disease of the throat or lungs as his ancient comrades, the wild cattle of the snowfields.