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PRIZE NOVELETTE.

(BY ALFRED ODGERS.)

THE SQUATTER'S STORY

AN ADVENTURE IN THE NARRACOORTE CAVES.

PREFACE.

This story is dedicated to the pioneers and first settlers of Australia, who so nobly and heroically, in the face of almost insurmountable difficulties, stood their ground, and thus largely helped to make our fair land what it is to-day—a prosperous State.

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CHAPTER I.

It was in the year 1848, a few years before the Victorian gold-diggings era, that, in company with two young fellows about my own age, under an engagement with a Victorian squatter, I travelled towards the south-east of South Australia for the purpose of selecting suitable land for a sheep-station. We had his confidence (besides which, he was a distant relative of mine); he therefore agreed to thoroughly equip our party, and to give us each a share in the venture, and, as money was a scarce commodity, we were to be allowed a certain percentage of the increase of the flock in lieu of wages—a common custom then.

One of my companions was a young Englishman of aristocratic birth, whose friends were glad to be rid of, because of his fast and indolent habits; though I must say, that whilst with me he did not exhibit these failings, and a more honorable, faithful, hard-working young fellow than Cecil Maitland I never knew. He was daring and generous, a thorough scholar, and a pleasant companion. The o ler was a thrifty young Scotchman, who a few months before had run away from a vessel. He, too, was thoroughly reliable, of pleasant temperament and splendid physique. "Mac." as we called him, was the life of our party. In his early days, in the "Land o' Cakes," he had gained useful experience amongst sheep and cattle; we therefore found him of very great service. Of myself little shall be said, except that I was the son of a well-known Anglican bishop, had received a good education, but, disliking the monotony of a profession, took to bush life.

We left Geelong about the end of August, and after a few months' slow travelling reached the locality known as Mosquito Plains, bat now known as Narracoorte. We soon erected huts and sheepyards, and began to feel at home. It was a splendid place for all kinds of game. The plains were alive with kangaroos and emus. The lagoons were full of swans, ducks, and teal, whilst the great gum trees were the homes of screeching white cockatoos, gorgeously-plumed parrots, and other kinds of birds. At first we treated them all as game, but soon regarded some, of them as vermin. The kangaroos were especially so, because they fed upon the grass of the higher grounds thus depriving our sheep of it. Mac. soon invented a novel way of dispersing them. One morning we caught an old man kangaroo, and securely fixed on him an old pair of riding-pants, a pilot doth jacket, and soft felt hat Around his neck was tied a cracked metal bullock-bell. He was certainly a queer-looking object, and much was the fun we had getting him ready. His rig-out was not appreciated, for with one leap he was many yards from us. We watched him giving for very life. All the while the bell was jangling as such a bell only can. He made straight for his companions, and when near them they turned and fled in every direction; and for the rest of the season we had very few amongst us.

We had been there just twelve months, and were eagerly expecting the promised party with fresh supplies and news from home. One bright morning in December, a month late, we saw them coming, and a right glad welcome we gave them. Victor Elliston, the leader, was well known to us, but the other two were strangers to all but myself. I was alarmed when I recognised them and they appeared somewhat surprised when they saw me. However, more about them later on. Elliston told us that he picked them up on the road, to replace his first two, who had left him lo go gold-digging. They saw many small parties prospecting; and doing a little themselves, it had made them just a month late in reaching us. They had each found some of the precious metal, and before leaving the locality Elliston had exchanged his for sovereigns.

On the second morning after arriving Elliston handed me his money to keep, as I was the recognised head of the party, and generally remained at home. The two others did not do so. I took the sovereigns, intending to fix on some suitable place of safety; till then, I put them in my body-belt.

It is said that the face is an index of character. It was true in this case, for in addition to a facial display of bad tendencies, I knew them to be bad characters, and therefore very undesirable men for us, and decided to get rid of them as soon as possible. I noticed that one of them appeared very abstracted, and was evidently working out some problem. The apparent studied indifference of the other also struck me very forcibly. My first cause of alarm happened the first evening, after tea. when both went out and did not return till nearly midnight. They said they had been to an old cave to set some traps, but instinctively I knew they were not telling the truth. I was now on the alert, and made up my mind the very next night to talk the matter over with Maitland, Elliston, and Mac.

CHAPTER II.—Caught in a Trap.

The next morning, after an early breakfast, all except myself went mustering sheep. About two hours later I saw one of the party galloping home at a furious pace. It was one of the new-comers, Dowling. Springing from his saddle, and almost breathless with excitement, he said .Maitland had fallen down an opening in a big cave; he could hear his cry for help, but could not reach him. Hastily getting my horse, and taking with us some rope, candles, and matches, we hurried to the caves. I knew them well, for I had often taken shelter in one of them during a storm. We reached the spot; the opening was like a well-hole in the ground, which I afterwards ascertained led in o the "big cave." Listening, I could distinctly hear a piercing cry for help. Picking up the trunk of a small tree close by we let it down with a rope. Hastily we descended. The bottom was only about fifteen feet from the surface, but it led off into a cave. As thick darkness was before us we lit our candles. hollowing the sound of Maitland's voice we passed through a small aperture, which led into a great vaulted cave. It was of immense size, and lying on the floor were great broken columns of stalagmite, which at one time appeared to have supported the roof. In some places there were gaping openings in the floor, which led to unknown depths. Passing on as rapidly as we dared we came to a number of pillars of stalagmite. Squeezing between two, we were in another large chamber, or cave. In the distance there appeared to l)e great cages, behind whose bars the imagination easily pictured huge animals of all kinds, all formed of beautiful stalactite hanging from the roof, of the same peculiar formation in pillars and columns supporting it. As it was my first time of being so far within these caves, I shuddered, as a thought flashed through my mind, "What if a block of rock or stalactite should fall across the opening and shut us in?" I was very anxious to rescue Maitland and then as quickly as possible get out of such an unearthly place.

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We were now nearing him, and knew by his call he was not many yards from us. But how strange the tone of his voice! And supposing he fell where we entered, how came he so far from it? These were thoughts of mine, but in my eagerness to save him they were not heeded. Lifting our candles, and peering into the shadows before us, we saw him lying down, apparently injured. I was stooping to help him, when, quick as thought, both he (who was not Maitland, but Price) and my companion (Dowling) raised their pistols to my head, and said, "We've got you out of the way!" and demanded my money, or they would leave me there. I was for the moment speechless, so sudden was the act. Caught in a trap, and at the mercy of these two villains, what could I do? Having nothing to defend myself with. I handed them my body-belt, containing my own and Elliston's money, thinking that when I got out my companions would soon catch them and make them suffer. But little I knew of the diabolical plans of my captors. Dowling said I was to remain a prisoner till they were cleat away, and that they would tie me with the very rope I had brought. I pleaded with them not to do this cruel wrong, but the wretches were relentless. I determined to resist them, even if I lost my life in the attempt, but was not prepared for their well-laid scheme. Suddenly one light was put out, a pistol was held against my brow, I felt a rope round my waist, and in less than half a minute was securely tied to the column against which I had placed myself.

I saw them leaving me, and for a few moments was speechless from the suddenness of the act and 'my exertions whilst resisting. I saw their lights dying away in the distance. Suddenly they disappeared, and I was in Egyptian darkness. I called as loudly as I could, and asked them not to leave me bound in the horrid place, but they heeded not my cry. I heard their retreating steps fainter and fainter. Now they had died away—and I was alone, and fast bound, in a chamber of death!

In my struggles to release myself, I felt the column to which I was bound jagged at several points. Against these I rubbed the rope up and down with all the energy of despair. It was giving way! A few minutes later the ends fell apart, and I was free I—but, in my joy, forgot I was as one blind. I stretched out my hands and felt all around, crawled along the ground, feeling my way till I came to the side of the cave, and then reached up as high as I could. Then I walked around it, still feeling my way by touching the wall and floor alternately. But I was absolutely lost, and did not know whether I was going towards the entrance or still retreating further in. A column intercepted me, and in getting around it I fell into an opening in the floor as far as my armpits. Oh, horrors! I could hear the stones I had loosened striking the sides of the chasm, then a splash! as they fell into the water, as it were a hundred feet below. With a desperate effort I scrambled out, and sank exhausted on the ground.

When consciousness returned I remember calling as loudly as I could for help, but could only hear the faint, hollow echo of my own voice, reverberating through the vaulted chamber. How horrible my position! All was still as death, and black as if in the darkest dungeon. Only the heavy throbbing of my own heart could I hear. Fear and grief now took possession of me. Great drops of perspiration ran down my face, and a cold, chilly, deathly feeling came over me. Thoughts of home, of my father and mother, of my past life, all vividly flashed across my mind. Higher thoughts came. A passage from the "Good Old Book" I had learned when a boy came as an inspiration. I prayed to God for deliverance, for was I not in trouble? I vowed that if I escaped my future life and wealth should be devoted to "God and humanity." With such thoughts as these crowding on my mind—fearing to move lest I fell again—with limbs sore and stiff, and with that horrible blackness and stillness around me I fell upon the ground, and gave myself up as lost.

CHAPTER III.—Rescued.

When my comrades returned, at an earlier hour than usual, they found the place deserted, and everything left in disorder. They had missed Dowling and Price a few hours after starling in the morning, and were wondering what had become of them. Now that I, too, was missing, they "became very much alarmed. "What was the meaning of it? Had the two newcomers anything to do with it? Had they taken Stansbury's life?" These were questions put to each other. Hastily calling "Jimmy," the native, they decided to go at once in search. Briefly they told him the facts of the case. A few minutes later he was on their tracks. He said " One horse come along this way; two horses go 'long other way." Following these up for nearly seven miles, they were led to the mouth of the "Big Cave," and from there the tracks of three horses led off in another direction. Dismounting rapidly, they decided to search the cave before pursuing, for they felt sure some fatality had happened. At the entrance leading down into the cave there were recent footprints of two men only coming out, though there were no signs of a struggle. One of the bootmarks was that of Dowling, whose left foot was turned in a little. Jimmy examined the marks, and said—"Master no bin there." (This was true, because I had entered the cave at another and a smaller entrance.) But they felt sure that I had been in the vicinity, because my horse was one of the three whose tracks they saw, and yet only two men went with them.

Picking up two pieces of candle, which had evidently been dropped by Dowling and Price, they told "Jimmy" they were going in. He said, "Me know big one cave. Long time ago blackfellow kill'em nother blackfellow; then him brother come along, and spear first blackfellow. Him crawl in this one cave, lie down, and 'crackaback,' (die)."

At first he was unwilling to go in with them, but after promises of good things, and that they would go first, he consented.

They entered single file, the native going second. When they had gone about two hundred yards " Jimmy" gave a frightful yell, and rushed to the left-hand side of the leader. Pointing with his long, black, bony hand, he said, "Me see blackfellow; him dead." They lifted their candles, and in the crevice of the rock, crouched up in a lying position, was the form of a man. It startled them, for at the moment they thought it was my body. Looking closer, they saw it was the rigid form of a native. Whilst gazing and wondering, they were startled by hearing a faint "Coo——ee." Hark! there it is again. The tone was that of one in deep distress. Giving a "coo——ee" in reply, and knowing now they were on the right track, they hastened on. Coming to a small opening they crawled through and found themselves in a great vaulted chamber. Now they heard a louder call from me, in response to theirs. Pushing on with as much haste as the dangerous floor would allow, and repeating the signal cry, in five minutes they were within speaking distance of me. "Is that you, Stansbury?' " Yes," was faintly given. "Are you safe?" "Yes." "We are coming." In reply they heard my faint, but joyous, "Thank God."

They reached me just in time. I was weak and helpless from my fails; had lost all hope; was terrified at my position; and felt that the few hours I had been there I had lived a lifetime—and that my end was near. Oh! how glad I was. How passionately I thanked them, and even hugged them in my rapturous joy.

We sooned gained the mouth of the cave, and when I saw the glorious sunlight, and realised that I was saved, I lifted my heart, and prayed that my vow in the cave might never he broken.

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CHAPTER IV.— Retribution.

When we reached the station we found that Dowling and Price had been there, and had stolen a gun, two pistols, all the ammunition that was handy, besides provisions for their journey. We discussed, was it wise to pursue? I pointed out "if we did blood would be shed—probably our own—as they were better armed than we were." Being the greatest sufferer, the decision was left to me. In the interests of our party, and because my life had been spared, I decided not to follow them. My companions consented, at the same time saying the "just retribution of Heaven" would overtake them.

Two years later Maitland, Mac, and myself left for Adelaide. Going through the Ninety-mile Desert one night our horses strayed. Whilst searching for them the next morning Mac. pointed Lo a heap of bleached human bones. Near by, almost buried in sand, were a battered canteen and a rusty pistol. These we recognised as having been the property of Dowling. Scratched in the canteen after some difficulty these words were made out—"We are dying from thirst." Thus they miserably perished.