|Newspaper Title||The Queenslander (Brisbane, Qld. : 1866 - 1939)|
|Trove Title||On the Plains|
On the Plains.
By ERNEST FAVENC.
HE summer sun of tropi-<*> cal one Queensland had done its best or rather its worst. On the
great, boundless west ern plain stood a horse in all the agonies of a coming death from thirst. The staring, projecting eyes, pinch-
Ed flanks, and quick panting breath told that it would not be leng before death came to release it from its pain. It still kept its legs, and owing to thai iact ti.e occupants of a buckboard buggy on the road about a mile or so distant caught sight of the dying animal, magnified by the decep tive heat mirage to about the dimensions of au elephant. An elderly but tall and tough-looking man and a young girl were in the buggy ; the girl was driving a pair of smart-looking nuggety little norses. She pulled up when they caught sight of the horse, and the man stood up. " A knocked-up horse left out there," he said; " either knocked-up or lame, or v wouldn't stop out there on the plain in ttao sun at this time of day." " Let's drive over, dad," said the girl ; " perhaps we can get the poor brute on to the water." Her father nodded assent, and she turned the horses off the road, and they weie sooii with the unfortunate animal. The girl, with a cry of pity, impetuously Jumped out of the buggy, and was hastening to the back of the vehicle, where a substantial-sized water-bag was swinging, when the end came. The horse staggered to its knees, rolled over on one side, and, after a struggle, and beat ing its head once or twice on the ground, lay still—dead. ? " Too late, Bertie," said the man, " all the water in North Queensland would be no good now ; but we have other work before us." i A saddle and saddle-cloth were lying on the ground, and on the front of the saddle was strapped a valise. " Somebody's got bushed," he continued ; " we must go after him." " Not more than a mile from the road, and within five miles of water !" remarked the girl. " A new chum evidently," he replied, pointing to the cruel marks of spurs on the dead horse's ribs. "No busbman would have punished a dying horse like that." " But so close to the road !" repeated the girl. . '? "You don't know what these plains are like to a greenhorn, particularly now, in the middle of the day, with the sun straight overhead," answered her father. " But we must track him up; he can't have gone far. Put the saddle in the back of the buggy, and then drive siowly after me." And Graham —or Long Graham as he was more popularly called —strode off on the foot tracks leading from the dead horse. His daughter Bertha put the saddle, bridle, and valise in the buggy and drove slowly after him. After a while Graham stopped, and when the buggy reached him got into it. " I can follow them easily now," he said, tak ing the reins ; " he's not far off by the look of the tracks." He was not far off ; In about ten minutes Bertha, who was standing up, holding on by the back of the seat, called out that there was something like a man. lying on the ground ahead. Oraham^JHsed the horses up. and they werejMflHHpe pros trate form. The man jMM^K^ he was terribly flush«sVjsP^fg36iiß<i he groaned heavily r «& j^^MSlLtt exertions «c, Vk* ; tw '-ffS^s^Sß^B^ of yfrtMt' to Ms feff*>' i3^s^s^s^i» tiSSTbvt b*Vi •* .dHP' ifflll -' "W« mut MfcjiMi^-^^PKDuggy ?°me bow. B«rt»." ttHgpifan. " but he's not a light weight to BRr* Between them they maasKsd t6,4tspose of the helpless body teross the front of the buggy. " You'll to* to 'perch up behind Bertie/ said her father. " I'll drive and hold him in. We'll have to camp at the Lily Lagoon to night Instead of going home. Fortunate.y we have got the tent and some rations The strange-looking caravan proceeded slowly over the plain for about an hour, when a clump of Umber became visible above the horlton, and presently the buggy pulled up at a broad lagoon fringed with the beautiful pink lilies that stand up high out of the water. Round the banks grew some crooked coollbah trees and some shady bauhlnias. The road ran past the place, and it was evidently a standing camplng- P Getting their patient out of the buggy, they made him comfortable under the shade of one of the bauhinia trees, and then Graham and his daughter turned the buggy horses out, and fixed their camp. It was after dark before the stranger showed signs of returning consciousness, and after a while he was able to drink some tea, and eat some bread waked in It. Somewhat revived be was presently able to sit up and He was a man about seven or eight and twenty, well made, and good-looking, but evidently new both to Australia and the bush as shown by his clothes. He inform ed them that he was a doctor, and was pro ceeding to the district township of Brook ford, where he intended to start practice. His " traps" had gone on by a carrier, and he himself had ridden round by the different stations. " How did you come to get bushed ?" ask ed Graham.
"I left Valdock yesterday morning ; they told me that if I kept due south 1 should strike the road leading paßt Haughton Downß, a station belonging to Long Graham " I am Long Graham," said the owner of the name quietly. " I beg your pardon." " Not at all ; I don't object to the name, as I am over six feet two." " I kept on until I thought I must have passed the road without noticing, so I turn ed back, and then back again, and at last got completely confused. I was riding beßt part of the night, and at about 12 o'clock to-day my confounded horse knocked up." "I should think he did when, you had been riding him continuously night and day without water. But you should not abuse the poor brute, for if he had lied ten minutes sooner we should not have seen him from the road, and you would by now have learned the great secret. You rode your horse to death, man, and the sooner you drop wearing such spurs as those you've got on the better." The man glanced uneasily at the long necked " rakers" that decorated his heels, and then said Bomewhat shamefacedly : " Was I so close to the road, then ?" " About a mile from it," said Bertha. The young doctor looked at her rather earnestly, then said that he was tired and would try to go to sleep. CHAPTER 11. "Dad," said Bertha the next evening, when her father and she were alone, " it's my opinion Dr. Vernon is a humbug." " Rather a hasty opinion to form. I think he's a bit of a muff myself, but that will waar off as he gets experience." " Oh, it's not his innocence of the bush that I am alluding to, but hi« character apart from that. You see if I'm not right. He is not what we call up here a ' white man.' " " Well, Bertie, have it your own way. As soon a» he is well enough to go on to brookford we shall not see much more of him." " Unless in your character at J.P. you have to commit him to take his trial be fore our friend Judge Fortescue." " Come, come, Bertie, you're going too far ; you're forgetting yourself." Bertha shook a preternaturally wise head, but held her tongue, and Graham changed the subject. The western climate had dealt kindly with Bertha Graham. It had not shrivelled her up into a sallow, parchment-faced mum my, but had given her cheeks a healthy touch of brown that was rather an im provement to her piquante style of beauty. Her figure was perfection, and, like a sen sible girl, she had taken good care of her hands. Vernon noted this, and, being a rather susceptible sort of man where female charms were concerned, and moreover with a past reputation as a ladyklller, had con* sldered the feasibility of getting up some sentimental passages. The fact that it was evident that the girl regarded him with a kind of pitying contempt as a poor creature who could not be trusted alone off a main road did not at all deter him. In fact he reckoned on' his rescue from death as a groundwork of interest to start upon. Graham had hospitably asked him to spell a week on the station, when he would him self drive him over to Brookford and help him to make- the acquaintance of the local magnates. So for a week Vernon ogled and sighed without any response. If at times Bertha felt Inclined to amuse herself with his openlyexpressed admiration, the natural antipathy she felt for the man stopped her at once. Brookford was not celebrated for a large population ; but, being the centre of. a thriving pastoral district, it was a busy place. The general verdict on Dr. Vernon after a few weeks was that he did not drink hard enough to be a clever man. A doctor who did not require shepherding to keep sober when he had a case on hand was nowhere in the estimation of the Brook lorditans. Still It seemed probable that Vernon would make up a good enough prac tice to compensate him for what he con sidered his exile in the back blocks. Haughton Downs was only fifteen miles from Brookford, so Vernon often found op portunities to ride over and strive to win a smile from the unresponsive lips of Bertha Graham. " Look here, old man," said an acquaint ance to him one day with all the frank familiarity of the West, " it's no good you're hanging your hat up at Long Gra ham's place ; don't' you know the girl's en gaged?" "No, I did not," said Vernon. " Yes, and to one of the smartest fellows out here, who'd think nothing of twisting your neck if he caught you trying to poach on &is preserve." Tie doctor sniffed derisively at the idea. "I tell you," Bald the candid friend, rather nettled, " Charley Hawkshaw is ex pected back every day. He's been away west of the Georgina. Take my advice and drop it. You're not Miss Graham's style. Better get up a spoon with the new. ba/mald, Flossie." And with this dis interested advice his affectionate friend left him. But he had sown evil seed In a good soil to bring forth a crop. Vernon was a man who had already ruined himself in England by giving way to his passions, and he seemed likely to repeat the process in Aus tralia. Certainly he haa persuaded himself that he was madly in love with Bertha Graham, and was resolved to win her de spite all rivals. He was in this moody state when he heard that Hawkshaw bad re turned seriously 111 with malarial fever. Vernon chuckled at the idea of being called in to treat his rival. Yes, the man who had started out strong and healthy, fit to tackle the whole of the continent, had come back worn and wasted, racked by fever, and scarcely able to sit on his horse. Sick or well, Bertha wel comed her lover back with joy. She got her father to try to persuade him to come to Haughton Downs to be nursed, but with the obstinacy of an invalid he insisted on remaining on his own place, saying there were lots of Lhings wanted doing that lie
could still look after. So he remained there, and Dr. Vernon was called In to attend him. Hawkshaw had been ill nearly a fortnight, and there waß no perceptible change for the better in hU state, and both Bertha and her father were urging him to go down South, while he bad yet sufficient strength, when Dr. Vernon called at Haughton Downs on his way to Hawkshaw's place, which was only five miles further. Bertha was alone, and it was the doctor's opportunity, and he seized it. To Bertha's cold inquiry, after his impassioned declaration, as to whether he was not well acquainted with the fact of her engagement to Hawkshaw he re plied that he was, but that only urged him on to attempt to win her for his wife. Just as Bertha was going to give him his dis missal, and forbid him in her father's name from entering the house again, he said : " Tour engagement is only a farce. Hawk shaw Is a dying man ; nothing on earth can save him. The fever is in his system ;if you marry him you marry a husband you will have to bury in a week or two." He left the room without another word leaving Bertha speechless between anger and grief. She heard his horse's steps die away, and then ages seem to have passed before she heard her father's voice speaking to some one. She roused herself, and went out. " Bertha, don't you remember our old friend Twisden ?" uid her father. "Of course; but you have been away near ly four years," she said as she greeted their one-time neighbour. " Where are you from " From a little village Just a trifle larger than Bro6Kford—London. I've been there for the last year." Twisden was an inveterate gossip, and as such a welcome break to the monotony of the bufch. At dinner he remarked :" I seem to have got on the track of a man you had best take care of. I believe he has settled at Brookford under the name of Dr. Ver non." " Isn't he a doctor ?" asked Graham not noticing the sudden pallor of Bertha. " Oh, he's a doctor right enough. His real name is Doctor Vernon Rushley, and he only escaped being tried for his life by the skin of his teeth." " The deuce ! Why, Bertha and I picked him up on the point of death and brought him back to life again ! Seems a pity we did it." " There was no moral doubt about his guilt, but it could not be proved. Anyhow, he was professionally ruined, and had to leave England. Why, Miss Graham, how white you are !" " I'm not very well, and I think I'll get you to excuse me, Mr. Twisden," said Bertha, rising. Twisden rose also and opened the door, and spoke a few words of sympathy aa she went out. . • " I say, Graham," he said as he returned to the table, " I hope I didn't put my clumsy foot in It. Miss Bertha's not got a liking for the doctor, has she?" Oraham burst out laughing. " Quite the reverse; she took an in stinctive dislike to him from the first. What were the particulars of the case ?" " Patient was the husband of a pretty woman, between whom and Rushley tender passages had long been suspected. Rush ley was accused of helping him to a better world, where there are no marriages, and consequently no unfaithful wives. But there were no grounds for a committal/ Bertha had halted just outside the door. She had suspected that Twisden would say more after she' left the room, and stopped and heard every word. CHAPTER 111. Bertha felt there was need of action. She had lost her mother when young, and had grown up since then »• her father's sole companion, and, having had a boy's education grafted on to a girl*, she was thoroughly self-dependent. If she spoke to her father he would put it off until the morning, and she felt that action was im perative; she would go herself. Every minute that passed her lover's life was in danger. She hastily put oh her habit, strapped on her pretty revolver—a birthday present, a toy to look at, but anything but a toy in reality—and before long was can tering along the short five-mile road that divided the two stations. J Taking the precaution of dismounting tome distance from the house, she tied her horse up and advanced cautiously. -Reach ing the veranda, she took the extra precau tion of taking her boot* off, and then stole silently to the French light of the room where she knew Hawkshaw was lying, and looked through the glass. Vernon, or Rushley, rode on to see after his patient with murder ripening in? hi* heart. No thought of his narrow escape in ~ the pist troubled him, for the man wlfcfe ha* successfully evaded the punishment Off his crime once thinks he will be always im mune. Hawkshaw was no better; Vernon had taken care of that, but the means Le. was employing were not quick enough for his purpose, and this night there was golQg. to be a change of medicine. Arrived at th» station, he dismissed the woman who "was. acting as nurse, saying that a crisis was im pending, and he would remain all night-r then, when bis patient had fallen lnto>* restless kind of stupor, he sat down ajjtt commenced to brood, a miserable - ImaQT Strange to say, his anger was mainly direct ed against the girl who, with her father* had helped to save his life. Why could she not have had the sense to return his love without driving him to the. necessity of put ting this fellow out of the way ? Hand somer women than she had been glad to have him as a lover. Who was this bush bred girl to flout and despise him ? So the thoughts of his warped brain ran on for an hour or more, when, glancing at the clock, he saw it was past 8 o'clock and time to act. He arose and looked at the sleeper ; he was quieter now, and his lips wore a smile. " He's dreaming of her," mused the watch er with a look of hate. " Well, dream on, old man, while you can." He opened his medical case and took out a bottle, rinsed a glass out, and, holding It up, began to drop some of the fluid from the bottle into the glass. He counted twen ty, put the glass down, and recorked the
bottle. As he did bo a draught of air smote his cheek. Looking round to see if the door had blown open, a dark figure suddenly anatched the bottle from his hand, and stood between him and the bed. Aghast he started back and gazed at the apparition in terror —Bertha Qraham, with all the fury of a woman protecting a helpless loved one blazing in her eyes. " Dr. Rushley," she said in a low voice, " I will give you a chance for your life. I know all about your' past, and how near you escaped the penalty of the crime you we're about to repeat. Your horse Is in the stable, mount, and go back to Brookford, and leave it at once. After twenty-four hours from now I will put the polloc on the track if you are not gone." " What hysterical nonsense is this ?" said Rushley, recovering himself a little. "Give me back that bottle, girl, at once," and be took a step towards her. " Stop, if you're wise," she said, raising the .revolver. " What this bottle contains I do not know, but I feel certain It will convict you of attempted murder. Now, go while you have the chance. One cry from me would bring men here who would tie you up with a greenhide rope till the police came for you." "Then you will not give me back that bottle?" " I will not. It Is well said that it you save a man's life he will do you some in jury, and my father and I saved the life of a murderer. Go quickly, or some of the men will be .over directly. By to-morrow afternoon you must be gone from Brook ford." Rushley turned to leave. " It would only have expedited matters, he Mid with a vindictive sneer ; " he will die whether or no." He passed out of the door and out of Bertha's life. Dr. Vernon had been suddenly called away. Rumour said that a wealthy relation had died and left him a large fortune and a title. Anyhow, h« had packed up his traps to come on by carrier, and had started for the terminus on horseback early in the morning. * He reached the Pink Lilly Lagoon, when* he had been brought back to life, Just as the sun set; he. hobbled his horse out, brought out some food and a bottle of spirits, and tried to eat. Always a tempe rate man, the unaccustomed use of alcohol soon mounted to his brain, and he spent half the night in wandering up and down the bank of the lagoon uttering Impotent threats of vengeance against Bertha and her lover. What galled him most was the knowledge that his parting gibe was an empty threat, and that left to Nature and his own strong constitution H*wkshaw would soon recover. Towards midnight he thought he would start on again, and,, after listening for some time, he imagined he heard the clink of the hobble chain in a certain direction, and, taking hU bridle, started in that direction, first filling the half-emptied bottle of whisky with water, and taking it with him. On he went, the clinking hobble ohain of his excited fancy always ahead of him. Every time he stopped to listen the souud always seemed the same distance off. He cursed the horse at last, and determined to sit down and wait for daylight. He took a long drink from the bottle, and was soon asleep on the spongy soil of the downs. The sun blazing in his face awoke him. He sat up and tried to get his scattered wits together. Then he arose and looked around him. He was alone on a wide tree less expanse of country. The timber sur rounding the lagoon was no longer visible, nor was there any sign of his horse. He was once more lost, hopelessly lost, and he recognised the fact with terror. He sat down again and tried to reason things out and arrive at the direction he bught to go, and, having at last made up his mind, he arose and started. There was still some thing left in the bottle, and he took a long drink, and then threw it away. Hotter grew the day, but no welcome timber ap peared in sight, so he concluded he had made a mistake, and tried another direction. And so throughout the day—aimless wanderings in every direction, till night closed on a tired-out, despairing man on the brink of madness. And through it all there was ever before htm the picture of Bertha nursing her lover back to health. Night, peopled with phantoms of the past, who through the long hours came and talked with him, brought no solace. In the morn ing he was delirious, and staggered on, rav ing and talking incoherently. When the sun' smote him down for good he fell near the dried skin and skeleton of a horse that had lain rotting there since he abandoned it months before.