When the party had travelled a dozen miles from the convict camp, the evening closed, and the sergeant called a halt. A chain was passed round a tree; and locked; and to this the manacles of the prisoner were made fast, leaving him barely the power of lying down. With a common prisoner this would have been security enough; but the sergeant meant to leave no loophole open. He and the private trooper would keep guard all night; and according to this order, after supper, the trooper entered on the first four hours' watch.
The natives and wounded men took their meal and were stretched on the soft sand beside another fire, about a hundred paces from the guard and prisoner.
The tired men soon slept, all but the sentry and the captive. The sergeant lay within arm's length of the prisoner; and even from deep sleep awoke at the least movement of the chain.
Towards midnight, the chained man turned his face toward the sentry, and motioned him to draw near. The rough, but kind-hearted, fellow thought he asked for water and softly brought him a pannikin, which he held to his lips. At the slight motion, the light motion, the sergeant awoke, and harshly reprimanded the trooper, posting him at a distance from the fire, with orders not to move till his watch had expired. The sergeant returned to his sleep, and again all was still.
After a time the face of the prisoner was once more raised, and with silent lip, but earnest expression, he begged the sentry to come to him. But the man would not move. He grew angry at the persistence of the prisoner, who ceased not to look towards him, and who at last even ventured to speak in a low voice. At this the fearful trooper grew alarmed, and sternly ordered him to rest. The sergeant awoke at the word, and shortly after relieved the trooper, seating himself beside the fire to watch the remainder of the night.
When the prisoner saw this, with a look of utter weariness, though not of resignation, he at last closed his eyes and sank to rest. Once having yielded to the fatigue which his strong will had hitherto mastered, he was unconscious. A deep and dreamless sleep fell on him. The sand was soft round his tired limbs, and for two or three hours the bitterness of his captivity was forgotten.
He awoke suddenly, and, as if he had not slept, felt the iron on his wrists, and knew that he was chained to a tree like a wild beast.
The sleep had given him new strength. He raised his head, and met the eyes of the sergeant watching him. The look between them was long and steady.
"Come here," said the prisoner, in a low tone; "I want to speak to you."
Had the gaunt dog beside him spoken, the sergeant could not have been more amazed.
"Come here," repeated Moondyne. "I have something important to say to you."
The sergeant drew his revolver, examined the caps, and then moved towards his prisoner.
"I heard you say you had spent twenty-five years in this colony," said Moondyne, "and that you might as well have remained a convict. Would you go away to another country, and live the rest of your life in wealth and power?"
The sergeant stared at him as if he thought he had gone mad. The prisoner understood the look.
"Listen," he said impressively; "I am not mad. You know there is a reward offered for the discovery of the Vasse Gold Mine. "I can lead you to the spot!"
There was that in his voice and look that thrilled the sergeant to the marrow. He glanced at the sleeping trooper, and drew closer to the chained man.
"I know where that gold mine lies," said Moondyne, reading the greedy face, "where tons and shiploads of solid gold are waiting to be carried away. If you help me to be free, I will lead you to the mine."
The sergeant looked at him in silence. He arose and walked stealthily towards the natives, who were soundly sleeping. To and fro in the firelight, for nearly an hour, he paced, revolving the startling proposition. At last he approached the chained man.
"I have treated you badly, and you hate me," he said. "How can I trust you? How can you prove to me that this is true?"
Moondyne met the suspicious eye steadily. "I have no proof," he said; "you must take my word. I tell you the truth. If I do not lead you straight to the mine, I will go back to Fremantle as your prisoner."
Still the sergeant pondered and paced. He was in doubt, and the consequences might be terrible.
"Have you ever known me to lie?" said Moondyne.
The sergeant looked at him, but did not answer.
At length he abruptly asked: "Is it far away?" He was advancing towards a decision.
"We can reach the place in two days, if you give me a horse," said Moondyne.
"You might escape," said the sergeant.
"I will not; but if you doubt me, keep the chain on my wrist till I show you the gold."
"And then?" said the sergeant.
"Then we shall be equals. I will lead you to the mine. You must return and escape from the country as best you can. Do you agree?"
The sergeant's face was white, as he glanced at the sleeping trooper and then at the prisoner.
"I agree," he said; "lie down and pretend to sleep."
The sergeant had thought out his plan. He would insure his own safety, no matter how the affair turned. Helping a convict to escape was punished with death by the penal law; but he would put another look on the matter. He cautiously waked the private trooper.
"Take those natives," he said, "all but the mounted tracker, and go on to Bunbury before me. The wounded men must be doctored at once."
Without a word the disciplined trooper shook the drowsiness from him, saddled his horse, and mounted. In half an hour they were gone. Moondyne Joe and the sergeant listened till the last sound died away. The tracker was curled up again beside the fire.
Sergeant Bowman then unlocked the chain, and the powerful prisoner rose to his feet. In a whisper the sergeant told him he must secure the native before he attempted to take the horse.
Moondyne went softly to the side of the sleeping savage. There was a smile on his face as he knelt down and laid one strong hand on the man's throat, and another on his pistol.
In a few moments it was over. The bushman never even writhed when he saw the stem face above him, and felt that his weapon was gone. Moondyne left him tied hand and foot, and returned to the sergeant, who had the horses ready.
When the convict stood beside the trooper he raised his hand suddenly, and held something toward him—the tracker's pistol, loaded and capped! He had played and won. His enemy stood defenceless before him—and the terror of death, as he saw the position, was in the blanched face of the sergeant.
"Take this pistol," said Moondyne, quietly. "You may give it to me, if you will, when I have kept my word."
The sergeant took the weapon with a trembling hand, and his evil face had an awed look as he mounted.
"Call the dogs," said Moondyne; "we shall need them tomorrow." In answer to a low whistle the wolf-like things bounded through the bush. The men struck off at a gallop, in the direction of the convicts' camp, the sergeant a little behind, with his pistol ready in the holster.