He waited for the reply with a beating heart. If this man failed him he saw nothing for it but to go back. The stranger lit his pipe with the leisurely movements of a man who had never been in a real hurry in his life.
Then he spoke slowly.
“Well, it’s this way, boss, you see. I’m just startin’ off in no end of a hurry to go and take a team of bullocks to the Oriental to draw quartz.”
“Can’t you put it off for a while?” said Hugh. “It’s getting near the wet season.”
“Well, I’d like to go with you, boss, but I couldn’t chuck ’em over—not rightly I couldn’t.” He stroked his beard and relapsed into thought.
“Let’s go in and get a drink,” said Hugh. “I suppose there is some square-face inside.”
The square-face settled it. They had one drink, and the stranger began to think less of the needs of the Oriental. They had another, and he said he didn’t suppose it’d matter much if the Oriental had to wait a bit for their stone, and the bullocks were all over the bush and very poor, and by the time he got them together the wet season would be on. They had a third, and he said that the Oriental had been hanging on for six months, and it wouldn’t hurt it to hang on for seven, and he wouldn’t see a man like Hugh stuck.
So the shareholders in that valuable concern, the Oriental Mine, were kept in pleasing suspense for some months longer, while the mine-manager (whose salary was going on all the time) did nothing but smoke, and write reports to the effect that “A very valuable body of stone was at grass, awaiting cartage to the battery, when a splendid crushing was a certainty.” Meanwhile Tommy Prince was gaily journeying down with Hugh to the buffalo camp.
Prince, a typical moleskin-trousered, cotton-shirted, cabbage-tree-hatted bushman, soon fixed up all details. He annexed the horses belonging to the store, sagely remarking that, as Hugh had saved their owner’s life, he could afford to let him have a few horses. He also helped himself to pack-saddles, camping gear, supplies, and all sorts of odds and ends—not forgetting a couple of gallons of rum, mosquito-nets made of cheese cloth, blankets, and a rifle and cartridges. They fitted out the expedition in fine style, while unconscious Sampson slept the sleep of the half-drowned. The placid Chinese cook fried great lumps of goat for them to eat, heedless of all things except his opium-pipe, to which he had recourse in the evening, the curious dreamy odour of the opium blending strangely with the aromatic scent of the bush.
At daylight they started, and for three days rode through the wilderness, camping out at night, while the horses with bells and hobbles grazed round the camp. Tommy Prince steered a course by instinct, guided as unerringly as the Israelites by their pillar of fire.
By miles of trackless, worthless wilderness, by rolling open plains, by rocky ranges and stony passes, they pushed out and ever further out, till at last, one day, Tommy said, “They ought to be hereabouts, some place.” So saying, he dropped a lighted match into a big patch of grass, and in a few seconds a line of fire half a mile wide was roaring across the plain; above it rose smoke as of a burning city.
“They’ll see that,” said Tommy, “without the buff’loes have got ’em.” So they camped for the day under a huge banyan-fig tree and awaited developments. About evening, away on the horizon, there arose an answering cloud of smoke, connecting earth and sky, like a waterspout.
“That’s them,” said Tommy. They climbed once more into their saddles, and set out. Just as the sun was setting, they saw a singular procession coming towards them. In front rode two small, wiry, hard-featured, inexpressibly dirty men on big well-formed horses. They wore dungaree trousers, which had once been blue, but were now begrimed and bloodstained to a dull neutral colour. Their shirts—once coloured, but now nearly black—were worn outside the trousers, like a countryman’s smock frock, and were drawn in at the waist by broad leathern belts full of cartridges. Their faces were half-hidden by stubbly beards, and their bright alert eyes looked out from under the brims of two as dilapidated felt hats as ever graced head of man. Each carried a carbine between thigh and saddle. These were the buffalo shooters.
Behind them rode an elderly, grizzled man, whom Hugh had no difficulty in recognising as Keogh, or Considine. Following him were some seven or eight packhorses, all heavily laden with hides. And behind the packhorses rode three or four naked blacks and a Chinaman.
Hugh’s guide at once made himself welcome in his happy-go-lucky style. He introduced Hugh as Mr Lambton, from New South Wales. The buffalo shooters made him welcome after the fashion of their kind; but Considine was obviously uneasy, and avoided him, riding with Tommy Prince for a while, and evidently trying to find out what Hugh had come for.
That night, when they got to the buffalo shooters’ camp, Hugh opened fire on Considine. The veteran was in a cheerful mood after his meal, and Hugh wanted to start diplomatically, thinking he might persuade him. If that failed he would give him the summons; but he would start suaviter in modo. When it came to the point, however, he forgot his diplomacy, and plunged straight into trouble.
“I’ll tell you what I’ve come up here for, Considine,” he said. “My name’s Hugh Gordon, and I want to find out something about your marriage with Peggy Donohoe.”
“Well, if that’s what you come for, Mister,” said the veteran, pulling a firestick out of the fire, and slowly lighting his pipe, “if that’s what you come for”—puff, puff, puff—“you’ve come on a wild goose chase. I never knew no Peggy Donohoe in my life. My wife”—puff—“was a small, dark woman, named Smith.”
“I thought you told my brother that you married Peggy Donohoe.”
“So I might have told him,” assented the veteran. “Quite likely I did, but I must ha’ made a mistake. A man might easy make a mistake over a thing like that. What odds is it to you who I married, anyhow?”
“What odds? Why look here, Considine, it means that my old mother will be turned out of her home. That’s some odds to me, isn’t it?”
“Yairs, that’s right enough, Mister,” said the courteous Considine; “it’s lots of odds to you, but what I ask you is—what odds is it to me? Why should I go and saddle myself with a she-devil just when I’m coming into a bit of money? I’d walk miles to do her a bad turn.”
“Well, if you want to do her a bad turn, come down and block her getting Mr Grant’s estate.”
“Yes, an’ put her on to meself! What next? I tell you, Mister, straight, I wouldn’t have that woman tied to me for all the money in China. That English bloke said there was a big fortune for me in England. Well, if I have to take Peggy Donohoe with it, it can stay. I’ll live here with the blacks and the buffalo shooters, and I’ll get my livin’ for meself, same as I got it all my life; but take on Peggy again I will not. Now, that’s Domino—that’s the dead finish. I won’t go with you, and I won’t give you no information. And I’m sorry too, ’cause you seem a good sort of a young feller—but I won’t do anything that’ll mix me up with Peggy any more.”
Hugh ground his teeth with mortification. Then he played his next card.
“There’s a man they call Flash Jack—do you know him?”
“Perhaps I do, and perhaps I don’t,” said the sage in a surly tone.
“Well, he told me to ask you to help us. He said to tell you that he particularly wanted you to give evidence if you can.”
“Want’ll be his master, then,” snarled the old man.
“He said he would put the police on to a job about some cattle at Cross-roads,” said Hugh.
The rage fairly flashed out of Considine’s eyes.
“He said that, did he?” he yelled. “The rotten informer! Well, you tell Flash Jack from me that where he can put me away for one thing I can put him away for half-a-dozen; and if I go into gaol for a five-stretch he goes in for ten. I ain’t afraid of Flash Jack, nor you either. See that, now!”
Hugh felt that his mission had failed. He pulled out the summons as a last resource, and passed it to the old man.
“What’s this?” he said.
“Summons to give evidence,” said Hugh.
“Victoria by the Grace of God,” read the old man, by the flickering firelight. “Victoria by the Grace of God, eh? Well, see here,” he continued, solemnly putting the summons in the fire and watching it blaze, “if Victoria by the Grace of God wants me, she can send for me—send a coach and six for Patrick Henry Considine, late Patrick Henry Keogh! And then I mightn’t go! There’ll be only one thing make me go where I don’t want to go, and that’s a policemen at each elbow and another shovin’ behind. I’d sooner do a five-stretch than take Peggy back again. And that’s the beginning and the end and the middle of it. And now I’ll wish you goodnight.”