“Well, Mr Hugh, which is it today—the Doyles or the Donohoes? Have they been stealing sheep or breaking gates?”
“Oh, it’s all very well for you to laugh,” he said; “you don’t understand. Some of that gang up the river went into the stud paddock yesterday to cut down a tree for a bee’s nest, and left the tree burning; might have set the whole run—forty thousand acres of dry grass—in a blaze. Then they drove their dray against the gate, knocking it sideways, and a lot of the stud sheep got out into the other paddock, and I’ll have to be off at daybreak tomorrow to get ’em back.”
“Why don’t you summon the wretches, and have them put in gaol, or go and break their gates, and cut down their trees?” she said, with a cheerful ignorance of details.
“I daren’t—simply daren’t. If I summoned one of them, I’d never have dry grass but there’d be fires. I’d never have fat sheep but there’d be dogs among ’em. They ride all over the run; but if a bird belonging to the station flew over one of their selections they’d summon me for trespass. There’s no end to the injury a spiteful neighbour can do you in this sort of country. And your father would blame me.”
“Oh, it’s part of the management of a station to get on with your neighbours. Never quarrel if you can help it. But since shearing troubles started we have no friends at all.”
“Well,” she said, “I should like to have a look at those desperate neighbours I hear so much about. Red Mick Donohoe rode past the other day on such a beautiful horse, and he opened the gate for us, and asked if he might come down to hear me sing. Think of that, now.”
“Very well,” he said. “We’ll go for a ride up that way tomorrow afternoon. We might find Red Mick killing some of our sheep, and you can go into the box as the lady detective. If you’ll only sing him into gaol, the station will pay you at the same rate at Patti gets!”
Next afternoon they cantered away up the river towards the mountains. Poss and Binjie had long ago laid their dearest possessions at her feet, begging her to ride them—horses so precious that it had hitherto been deemed sacrilege to put a side-saddle on them. She had the divine gift of “hands”, and all manner of excitable, pulling horses went quietly and smoothly under her management. Her English training had taught her to ride over jumps, and she was very anxious to have a try at post-and-rail fences.
After much pressing, Hugh had this day allowed her to try Obadiah, Binjie’s celebrated show jumper, an animal that could be trusted to jump anything he could see over; so during their ride to the habitat of the Donohoes they left the regular track, and followed one of the fences for a mile or two, looking for a suitable place to try the horse. No good place offered itself, as the timber was thick, and the country so rugged that she would have had to ride at a post-and-rail either up or down a steep slope. Loitering along, far off the track, they crossed a little ridge where stringybark trees, with an undergrowth of bushes and saplings, formed a regular thicket.
Suddenly Hugh gave a whistle of surprise, and jumped from his horse.
“Hold this horse a minute, please,” he said. “There has been a mob of sheep driven here.”
“Whereabouts?” said she, staring round her.
“All about here,” he said, pointing to the ground. “Don’t you see the tracks? Hundreds of ’em. But I can’t see what they were up to. There’s no place they could get ’em out without cutting the wires, and the fence is sound enough. Good heavens, see it now! Well, that’s smart,” he continued, leaning against a post and giving it a shake.
“What have they done? I don’t understand. How have they got the sheep through without breaking the fence?”
“They’ve dug up four or five posts,” he said, kicking over some red earth with his foot, “laid that piece of fence flat on the ground, driven the sheep over it, and then put the fence up again. No wonder we are missing sheep! Two or three hundred have gone out here! Here’s a chance at last—the chance I’ve been waiting for all these years! What a lucky thing we came here! And now, Miss Grant,” he said, remounting, “we won’t have any jumping today. I’ll have to follow these tracks till I come on the sheep somewhere, if it’s in Red Mick Donohoe’s own yard. Do you think you can find your way back to the homestead?”
“To tell them to send Poss and Binjie after me. I don’t expect they’ve gone home yet. I want a witness with me when I catch Red Mick with these sheep, or else fifty of his clan will swear that he has been in bed for six weeks, or something like that.”
“Then,” she said firmly, gathering up the reins in her daintily gloved hands as she spoke, “I’m going with you. I’m just as good a witness as Poss or Binjie.”
“No, no, no,” said Hugh, “that won’t do. There may be a row. It’s a rough sort of place, and a rough lot of people. Now look here, Miss Grant, oblige me and go home. The horse will take you straight back.”
Her eyes glowed with excitement. “Please let me come,” she said. “You don’t know how much I want to come. I’ll do whatever you tell me!”
He argued and expostulated and entreated. He knew well enough there was a good deal of risk in the matter, and he tried hard to make her go back. But she was determined to go with him, and the argument ended in the only possible manner—she went. She promised to do exactly what she was told, to keep out of the way if so ordered, and, above all, not to speak except when spoken to.
So off they went through the scrub on the track of the sheep, plain as print to the young bushman, although invisible to his companion. They rode at a walk for the most part, for fear of being heard. Now and again, when they could see for a good distance ahead, they let the horses canter; Hugh riding in front, she, like a damosel of old, in assumed submission a few lengths behind, and thoroughly enjoying the adventure.
Of course she could not keep silence long, and after a while she drew alongside, and whispered, “Do you think we shall catch them?”
“I hope so. But it’s a very curious thing; there has been a dog after these sheep—see, there’s his track,” pointing to footprints plainly marked in wet sand—“but no track of man or horse to be seen. By Jove, look there!”
They had come to the crest of a small hill, and were looking down a long valley. To right and left of them towered the blue, rugged peaks; straight in front the valley opened out, and they got a fairly clear view for a mile or more. About half a mile ahead, travelling in a compact mass down the valley, was a mob of some two or three hundred sheep. At their heels trotted two sheepdogs of the small wiry breed common in the mountains. Hugh looked about to see who was in charge of them; but no one was visible. The dogs were taking the sheep along without word or sign from anyone, hurrying them at a good sharp pace, each keeping on his own flank of the mob, or occasionally dropping behind to hurry up the laggards.
It was a marvellous exhibition of sagacity. They came to a place where it was necessary to turn sharply to the right to cross a small creek; one of the dogs shot forward, and sent the leading sheep scurrying down the bank, while the other fell back a few yards and prevented the mob turning back. After a moment’s hesitation the sheep plunged into the shallow water, splashed across the creek, and set off again in their compact march down the valley, urged and directed by their silent custodians—who paused to lap a few mouthfuls of water, and then hurried on with an air of importance.
“Look at that,” said Hugh, in open admiration. “Isn’t that wonderful? Those are Red Mick’s dogs. I knew they were good dogs, but this is simply marvellous, isn’t it? What are we to do now? If Itake the sheep from them they’ll run home, and I can’t prosecute Red Mick because they picked up a mob of sheep.”
“Oh, but he must be near them somewhere,” said Mary, to whom the whole affair appeared uncanny. “They wouldn’t drive sheep by themselves, surely?”
“Oh, of course, he started them. Once he got the sheep out of the paddock, he started the dogs for home, and rode off. You see his plan. If anyone finds the dogs with them, of course he had nothing to do with it. Sheepdogs will often go into a paddock, and bring a mob of sheep up to the yard on their own account. It’s an instinct with them. Look at those two now, forcing the sheep over that bad crossing. Isn’t it wonderful?”
“Well,” she said, triumphantly, “what about the fence? They couldn’t dig up that.”
“Oh, Red Mick did; but who’s to prove it? He’ll swear he never was near the fence, and that his dogs picked up these sheep and brought them home on their own account. The jury would find that I dug up my own fence, and they’d acquit Red Mick, and give him a testimonial. No, I’ll tell you what we’ll do. We’ll cut across the range, and sneak up as near Red Mick’s as we can. Then we’ll hide and watch his house; and when the dogs come up, if he takes the sheep from them, or starts to drive them anywhere, we’ve got him. Once he takes charge of those sheep he’s done. Of course there may be a bit of trouble when we spring up and accuse him. Are you afraid?”
“No,” she replied. “I’m not afraid—with you. I like it. Come on.”
No sooner said than done. They set their horses in motion, and went at a steady trot for a mile or so, crossing the valley at right angles, over a sharp rise and down a small hill, till Hugh again pulled up.
“There’s Red Mick’s homestead,” he said, pointing to a speck far away down a gully. “The sheep will come up the creek, because it is the smoothest track. Now, we must tie our horses up here, sneak down the creek bed, and get as near the house as we can.”
They tied their horses up in a clump of trees, and made the rest of the journey on foot, hurrying silently for half a mile down the bed of the creek, hidden by its steep banks. Here and there, to escape observation, they had to walk in the water, and Hugh, looking round, saw his companion wading after him, with face firm-set and eyes ablaze. It was a man-hunt, the most exciting of all hunting.
He laughed silently at the girl’s flushed and excited face. As he reached out to help her over some fallen timber, she took his hand with a firm grip that set his nerves tingling. They pushed on until almost abreast of Red Mick’s dwelling; then Hugh, standing on a projecting stump, peered over the high bank to see how the land lay, while his companion sat down and watched his movements with wide open eyes.
He saw the cottage drowsing in the bright afternoon sunlight. It was a picturesque little building, made of heavy red-gum slabs, with a bark roof; the windows were merely square holes cut in the slabs, fitted with heavy wooden covers that now hung open, giving a view of the interior. In one room could be seen a rough dresser covered with plates and dishes, and a saddle hung from a tie-beam; in the other there was a rough plank bed with blue blankets. The door was shut, and there was no sign of life about the place. There was no garden in front of the house, merely the bare earth and a dust-heap where ashes were thrown out, on which a few hens were enjoying the afternoon sun and fluffing the dust over themselves.
At the back was a fair-sized garden, with fine, healthy-looking trees; and about a quarter of a mile away was the straggling collection of bark-roofed sheds and corkscrew-looking fences that served Red Mick as shearing-sheds for his sheep, and drafting and branding yards for his cattle and horses. After a hurried survey Hugh dropped lightly down into shelter, and whispered, “There’s no one moving at all. There’s a newly fallen tree about a hundred yards down the creek; we’ll get among its branches and watch.”
They crept along the creek until opposite the fallen tree; there Hugh scaled the bank and pulled Mary up after him. Silent as shadows, they stole through a little patch of young timber, and ensconced themselves among the fragrant branches. The grass was long where the tree had fallen, and this, with the green boughs, made a splendid couch and hiding-place.
They settled close together and peered out like squirrels, first up at the house, then down the valley for the arrival of the sheep. Both were shaking with excitement—she at the unwonted sensation of attacking a criminal in his lair, and he with anxiety lest some unlucky chance should bring his plan to nought, and make him a failure in the eyes of the woman he loved.
“There is no one about,” he whispered. “I expect Red Mick has told the family to keep indoors, so that they can swear they saw nothing. You aren’t afraid, are you?”
She pressed his arm in answer, gave a low laugh, and pointed down the flat. There, far away among the trees, they saw the white phalanx of the approaching sheep, and the little lean dogs hunting them straight towards the house.
Still no sign from Red Mick. No one stirred about the place; the fowls still fluttered in the dust, and a dissipated-looking pet cockatoo, perched on the wood-heap repeated several times in a drowsy tone, “Goodbye, Cockie! Goodbye Cockie!” Then the door opened, and Red Mick stepped out.
He was the acknowledged leader of the Doyle-Donohoe faction in all matters of cunning, and in all raids on other folks’ stock; and not only did he plan the raids, but took a leading part in executing them. He was the finest and most fearless bush rider in the district, and could track like a blackfellow. If he left a strange camp at sundown, and rode about the bush all night, he could at any time go back straight across country to his starting point, or to any place he had visited during his wanderings. Such bushmanship is a gift, and not to be learnt. If once he saw a horse, he would know it again for the rest of his life—fat or lean, sick or well. Which is also a gift.
In appearance he was a tall, lanky, large-handed, slab-sided cornstalk, about thirty-five years of age, with a huge red beard that nearly covered his face, and a brick-dust complexion variegated with large freckles. His legs were long and straight; he wore tight-fitting white moleskin trousers, a coloured Crimean shirt, and a battered felt hat.
Miss Grant felt almost sorry for this big, simple-looking bushman, who came strolling past their hiding-place, his eyes fixed on the sheep, and his hands mechanically occupied in cutting up tobacco. Behind him gambolled a half-grown collie pup, evidently a relative of the dogs in charge of the sheep.
They brought the sheep up to a little corner of land formed by a sharp bend of the creek, then stopped, squatting on their haunches as sentinels, and the sheep, fatigued with their long, fast run, settled in under the trees to get out of the sun. Behind the sheep, Hugh caught a glimpse of two horsemen coming slowly up the road towards the house.
“Look! Here’s Mick’s nephews,” he whispered, “come to take the sheep away. By George, we’ll bag the whole lot! Sit quiet: don’t make a sound.”
The crisis approached. Miss Grant, with strained attention, saw Red Mick strike a match, and light his pipe. Strolling on towards the sheep, he passed about thirty yards from where they lay hidden. Already she was thinking how exciting it would be when they rose out of the bushes, and faced him in quite the best “We are Hawkshaw, the detective” style.
But they had to reckon with one thing they had overlooked, and that was the collie pup. That budding genius, blundering along after his master, suddenly stopped, turned towards the fallen tree, and sniffed the air. Then he ran a few steps towards them, and stopped, his ears pricked and his eyes fixed on the tree; barked sharply, drew back a pace or two, bristled up the hair on his neck, and growled.
Red Mick turned around. “’Ello, pup,” he drawled, “what’s up?”
The puppy came forward again, quite close to the tree this time, and barked sharply. “Good pup,” said Mick, “fitch him out, pup!—What is it—native cat? Goo for ’im!”
Thus encouraged, the puppy darted forward barking, and Red Mick stopped leisurely, picked up a large stone, and sent it crashing among the branches. It passed between Hugh and Miss Grant, and came near enough to stunning one or other of them. They jumped to their feet hurriedly, and without dignity climbed out of the branches, and advanced on Red Mick, while the puppy ran yelping behind his master.
It is only reasonable to suppose that Mick was somewhat astonished at the apparition. He could scarcely have expected his shot to disturb two such fine birds from such an extraordinary nest; but before they had extricated themselves from the branches his face had assumed the stolid, cow-like, unintelligent look which had so often baffled judges and Crown Prosecutors. He was bland and child-like as Bret Harte’s Chinee.
He spoke as if he were quite accustomed to unearthing young couples out of trees. His voice had a sort of “I quite understand how it is,” tone, and he spoke cheerfully.
“Good day, Misther Hugh! Where’s your horses? Have you had a fall?”
“Fall! No!” snapped Hugh, whose temper was gradually rising as the absurdity of the situation dawned on him. “We haven’t had a fall. We ran the tracks of a lot of our sheep from the big paddock, and here they are now. I’d like to know what this means?”
“Is thim your sheep?” said the bland Mick, surprised. “I wuz wondherin’ whose sheep they wuz, comin’ up the flat. I knew they wuzn’t travellin’ sheep, ’cause of gettin’ no notice, an me bein’ laid up in the house this two days——”
“Oh, that’s all very fine, Mick Donohoe?” said the young man angrily. “Your own dogs have brought them here.”
Red Mick laughed gaily. “Ah, thim dogs is always yardin’ up things. They never see a mob of sheep, but they’ll start to dhrive ’em some place. When I was travellin’ down the Darlin’, goin’ through Dunloe station, in one paddock I missed th’ old slut, and when I see her again, she had gethered fifteen thousand sheep, and was bringin’ ’em after me. But, Lord bless your heart, Mr Hugh,” he added with a comforting smile, “she wouldn’t hurt a hair of a sheep’s head, nor the young dog ayther. Them sheep’ll be all right. Sorra sheep ever she bit in her life. I wonder where they gethered them?”
“I’ll tell you where they gathered them,” said Hugh. “The fence of our paddock was dug up, and the sheep were run out, and then the fence was put up again. That’s how they gathered them.”
“The fence wuz dug up! Ah, look at that now. Terrible, ain’t it. An’ who done it, do ye think? Some of them carriers, I expect, puttin’ their horses in unbeknownst to you. I’ll bet ’twas them done it. Or, perhaps,” he added, with an evident desire to assist in solving the difficulty, “perhaps the wind blew it down.”
“What!” said Hugh scornfully. “Wind blow down a fence! What next!”
“Well it does blow terrible hard sometimes in these parts,” said Red Mick, shaking his head dolefully; “look at me crop of onions I planted—the wind blew ’em out of the ground, and hung ’em on the fence. But wait now, till we have a look at these sheep.”
“No, we won’t wait,” said Hugh angrily. “We will be off home now, and send a man for them. And I advise you to be very careful, Mick Donohoe, for I have my own idea who dug up that fence.”
“Well, you don’t suppose that I done it, do you?” said Red Mick. “I’ve been in the house this three days. Besides, I wouldn’t steal my brother-in-law’s sheep, anyhow. Won’t ye come up, and have a dhrink of tea now, you and the lady? It’s terrible hot.”
“No, thank you,” said Hugh stiffly. “Come along, Miss Grant.” And they marched off towards the horses.
“It beats all who could have took them posts down, doesn’t it?” said Mick. “I’d offer a reward, if I was you. Them fellows about here would steal the eyes out of your head. Good day to ye, Mr Hugh.”
And the cockatoo added, “Goodbye, Cockie,” in a sepulchral voice, as they trudged off, smitten hip and thigh.
Hugh was suffering intensely at his defeat, and when Mary Grant said, “I suppose you will have him put in gaol at once?” he muttered that he would have to think it over. “It wouldn’t do to prosecute him and fail, and we have no proof that he dug up the fence.”
“But why did he say that the sheep belonged to his brother-in-law?” Hugh started. “Did he say that? Well, he—he must have wanted to make out that he did not know whose sheep they were”: but he thought to himself, “Is Red Mick going to bring up that old scandal?”
Mick, as he watched them go, winked twice to himself, and then stooped and patted the head of the collie pup. The other dogs, in answer to a silent wave of his hand, had slunk off quietly. The riders had disappeared. It had been a narrow escape, and Red Mick knew it; and even as things had turned out, there was still ample chance of a conviction.
On the way back to the homestead Hugh began to talk of the chance of a conviction, and the delight it would be to give Mick seven years, but his ideas were disturbed by thoughts of Mick’s face as he said, “Why should I steal my brother-in-law’s sheep?” He looked at the girl alongside him, and prayed that the old story might never be resurrected.