The Brand of the Wild
The Brand of the Wild
THERE were thirty-nine pipes in the rack in the hall, and the top row was the one thing in the world that Douglas Brandon was afraid of. For it carried the pipes given by Lil on many birthdays and Christmas-tides, and there was not one of them all that would draw. But Lil had chosen them; and when she sat—as now—on the table below the rack, with her deep-lashed eyes watching, there was never a chance for the burnt old mates with their amber partly bitten through.
Douglas ceased his soft whistling; dragged out a patent double-headed thing with a loose screw, and looked down at his sister for approval. Then his harsh dark face softened and changed, and he slid his hand under her chin, upturning it.
"I sha'n't let you go down to Sydney any more, Lil. You've grown up. What did you do it for? You've been up to some mischief, I'll swear. What is it, then, girlie?"
The eyes did not meet his, and this was new. Lil's eyes were the clear direct blue of the sky.
"No-o; not mischief. I—just want to tell you. . . . I—I—"
Douglas was guiltily filling an old cutty one-handed in his side pocket, and the tobacco smell was sweet in his nostrils. He had been on the run all day where drought had crisped the tussock and the prairie-grass, and where the lighting of a match is an inexpiable sin.
"If there's no particular hurry, little girl—I'm hungry for a smoke . . . and I am always in a better temper after it, y' know."
"But you're always in a good temper with me, Douglas. And—promise that you will be to-night."
It was such a little child-figure, and such a soft-tinted child-face. Always Douglas gave to her the reverence that rough clumsy manhood gives to innocent girlhood. He stooped, kissing her fondly. "I reckon I can promise that, girlie. Now, go an' tune up, while I have my smoke."
The wind was dead in the air that held the heat of an Australian summer and all the strange scents of an Australian night. The sassafras-scrub, and the knotted blue-gums, and the tangle of mimosas by the dam gave out their sweetness to the dry scented warmth breathed by the plains and the sand-hills; and past the balsam odor of the fir plantation drifted the faint smell of sheep to the man who had spent the forty years of his life in serving them.
Lil was touching the piano keys uncertainly and without heart. The splash of a wombat sounded sharply from the dam, and down at the men's huts a dog's bark was shut off with a yelp as of pain. Then a light step, and the faint scent of violets; and Lil knelt by the long chair, with her rosy palms laid on Douglas's breast.
"Douglas, you remember what you said just now?"
Douglas had said it as he hid his old pipe on the far chair-arm. But he had not thought Lil could hear.
"That—that you'd never be angry with me. Dear old brother, you've never been angry with me yet—"
He caught both her wrists in one great hand, grinning at her with his eyes puckered up.
"Faith! I can't say but you've deserved it, though, you monkey. 'Member the time you shot that boomer when he was after the puppies? An' the day you rode the black colt, an' I nearly sacked Harry Lapont for letting you up?"
Lil's forehead burnt suddenly, and her voice was choked and low.
"That wasn't his fault. Douglas . . . anything . . . it's my fault only."
"Begad! you're wanting to make yourself responsible for a good deal, my lady! What's your fault only? Anything you do, or—"
"Or Harry," said Lil, in a whisper.
There was a strange silence without any breathing in it. Then Douglas said, "Will you kindly explain yourself?"
"Douglas! Don't! You—you said you wouldn't be angry. Douglas . . ."
Douglas held her away from him; and there was iron in his voice and in the grip of his hand.
"Look at me, and answer me when I speak to you! What has Harry Lapont to do with you?"
"He—I—" Lil flung it out in a sudden burst of tears: "I am his wife!"
Again the strange silence and the grip of his hand hot on her arm.
"Will you please say that again?"
"Douglas . . ."
"Is this true? . . . When, then?"
"Ten days ago. When he went for his holiday. I—I didn't stay in Sydney. I went with him. Oh . . . Douglas . . ."
It was the compelling of his eyes that had drawn the full sting at once. Now he loosed her and stood up; slowly, blindly, as a man who has received a stunning blow on the head.
Harry Lapont was rough-rider and roustabout on the station. There was never a horse that he could not break, nor a man that he would not fight, nor a woman in the little bush-townships that he did not make love to. But in his own recognition of the barrier between server and served Douglas's pride had held him unafraid.
A she-oak by the veranda tossed its long-jointed fingers and sighed as a breeze touched it; the earth was dumb-asleep and uncaring; down at the huts a dog barked again, and a sharp whistle cut the distant air.
Douglas wheeled at the sound, and terror brought Lil's arms round his neck. For the lamplight struck through the window on a face that was wicked in its coldness.
"Douglas—oh, Douglas . . . you won't hurt him—"
The fall of the word was raw on Douglas's brain. But he had not guarded his tongue and his mind all his years without result.
"Let me go, Lil. I shall not ask you questions. They are for him to answer. Let me go."
"You—don't go to him now, dear. Not like that. Wait—"
Douglas laughed a little.
"Do you think that to-morrow will do? Or next week? Or in five minutes? You don't know much of me yet. Nor do I know much of you apparently."
"Dear . . . it was just . . . oh, remember that I love him. Douglas . . . Douglas . . . remember that I love him!"
"There have been more than you said that—and will be yet. Let me go."
He went down the little track that his feet had trodden out since boyhood. Taken in the raw, his life was bare and hard as the track; but he did not know it. Lil meant to him all that a man may need this side of heaven. Round the huts the men were sprawled on the rough grass, with rough talk and rougher jokes. Harry Lapont was astride a kerosene-box by a door; Micky Sheehan had the chopping-block and thumbed cards spread between them. Five more were conducting a union quarrel against the wood-pile, and Din, with his back to the iron tanks, chanted "My old Dutch," helped out by Angus Macrae's rumbled Scotch. Harry glanced up, a card in his teeth, and his handsome face grinning.
"Won't somebody choke Din?" he asked. "Or give him another song. We're all full up of that. D'you know 'My Mother's Mangle,' Din? Not? Like to hear how it goes, then?"
"Yes," said Din, dubiously.
"Round and round, of course. Yes . . . my trick, Micky. Don't you try to gammon me, my innocent!"
Then he put down his card, with the smile still on his lips. But there was gathering concentration in the eyes that looked across to the opening yard gate. Douglas stood in the gateway, bare-beaded, and in evening slippers. His usual slouch was gone, and Harry whistled softly under breath.
"Ten to one Lil mucked it," he murmured. "Well—"
"Is Lapont here?" demanded Douglas, unmoving.
"That's me," said Harry, cheerfully.
"Come this way a minute. I want to speak to you."
"That's six bob you owe me, Micky," said Harry, getting off the kerosene-box. "And if you fellows let him vamoose, I'll take it out of you all, an' don't you forget it."
Then he followed through the gates, and into the shadow of the pines, where the brown needles slipped under his quick light tread.
Nature had made Harry Lapont a gentleman.. He had made himself more things still. And the result was difficult and dangerous to handle, as men well knew. He faced Douglas with the gay impudence yet on his well-cut mouth; and every muscle of him gave the suggestion of a man who has the whip-hand.
"I . . . believe you have something to say to me," said Douglas, his words slipping from him.
"Judging by the look of you it's all said, isn't it? What more do you want? Do you think it will pay to kick up a shine, Brandon?"
"You'll tell me particulars before we go into that. You have married her? Where? . . . What day? . . . And witnesses?"
Harry gave answers, light and straight.
"You can't undo it," he said. "I fixed it all right, you see. She's mine now. Don't you want to ask why I did it?"
Douglas had kept his lips clean as his life. But the loathing of this man as against Lil's delicate girl-innocence maddened him. He sprang with his heavy whip swung up and black words in his mouth. Harry moved back one step.
"I'd advise you to think what you're doing," he said, quietly. "Lil obeys me now—not you. Do you mean to lose her out of your life entirely?"
The words hammered on Douglas's naked heart. He dropped his arm with a choked groan and stood still. Harry smelt of the huts and of the sheep-yards and the stable. The lines on his handsome face were scored by fast living, and there was mercilessness in the very set of his head.
"What made her do it?" said Douglas. "Oh, God . . . what made her do it?"
Harry's laugh was irreverent.
"Best ask me if you want to know. I made her do it. She loves me—most women do—and—" He did not add the one word that could have given Douglas comfort, and Douglas would not ask it.
There was a blank silence. Douglas's mind was feeling for some weapon. But the grip was gone. Harry spoke first.
"You've always been a devil to your men," he said. "Perhaps I did this to teach you a lesson. Perhaps I did it for other reasons. You don't know, and you're not going to know. Now . . . what do you mean to do?"
Douglas wheeled from him, and the riding-whip was broken in his hands. "I will see you in the morning," he said. "You can go."
Harry went back to his cards with a light in his eye that gave the men suspicion; and Douglas picked Lil out of his veranda chair, where she had fallen asleep, and carried her to her room. She slid her arms round his neck drowsily, murmuring a name that was not his, and so sending him blind and weak for the moment with pain and fury. Then he left her, with the rosiness of sleep on her child-face, and went out to meet that which a man does not speak of. For it is a silent place and a lonely that is set apart for each soul that must enter in for the firing.
In the morning he said just the one thing to Harry:
"I can't let her go to the life you would give her. She must stay here—though it means you too."
Harry looked at him and nodded.
"I thought so," he said. "Mind you, I think you're a good lump of a fool. But I don't care. I can always take her away if you make it too nasty."
And with this thought to guide his feet Douglas stumbled on to the new track that would be so strange to tread.
To Douglas, Lil was a child, with a child's white unmarked heart and mind. So carefully had he shielded her from all that could smirch and weaken her that this thing was almost unbelievable in its horror. But he did not understand that the passion of Harry's wooing had struck Lil into sudden womanhood, with all the deep, patient, unbreakable love that some women can give.
There was summer on the earth, and summer on Lil's gay eyes and mouth. Without doubt Harry could play the lover, and Douglas bit the tongue that would have told Lil why. He smoked by himself in the evenings, shaking Lil's pleading hands from his arm, and leaving untouched the top row of pipes in the hall.
"I'm tired," he told her. "Go with Harry—unless you want him to go down to the huts and play 'two-up.' "
Once before Harry had done this, when Douglas made a third. Lil went into the garden of roses and moonlight, remembering. Harry knocked out his pipe and slid an arm round her.
"Come down to the dam," he said. "You can see a thousand miles from there—an' that's the next-best thing to riding over 'em."
There was the wild unresting Australian blood in Harry's veins, and all the hot passionate love and desire. He held the slim child-figure close.
"Lil," he said—"Lil! What makes you like a little bit of white snow that has come down straight from heaven? What does it make you feel like when I kiss you, Lil? Tell me!"
"It—makes me remember where I came from," said Lil; and her shy laugh broke with happiness.
"That's the sweetest little speech ever made! Who did you learn that talk from? Not Douglas! Lil, he's the solemnest old sinner ever I saw. Well . . . we won't talk of him, dear. Now, sit up here on the concrete and I'll tell you about all the life away behind those ranges."
He dropped on the step at her foot, with keen eyes looking over the dun distance of plain into the wild lives beyond. His breath shortened, and the squeal of a horse in the next paddock made him quiver. For already the unrest was on him, and the curbed ways and speech of these six weeks galled his love and swept the joy from it. Lil leaned over the concrete and scraped the green moss on it into the hollow of her hand.
"This was here when I was quite a little girl, Harry," she said. "Before I knew you. Doesn't it seem strange that anything could have been before I knew you!"
Harry was holding the hem of her frock against his cheek.
"You don't know me now," he said, very low.
"I know that you love me."
"Yes!" He sat up, catching her hands in his. "Lil, whatever you hear of me, whatever I do to you, wherever I go, believe that! Believe it always! I made my life before I took you into it, and I can't alter it. I can't. I . . . try. Lil . . . promise me . . . no matter what comes, you will believe in my love for you! You will believe it?"
"While I believe in my own," she said.
Harry laughed and lay down again.
"There may be reservation in that! No . . . I know you don't mean it, sweetheart. Now we'll talk nonsense for a little while, and then we'll go in, or brother Douglas will be locking us out."
"If you two could only be friends!" She touched the close-cropped dark head with wistful fingers. "Harry . . . if you could only be friends!"
"Dear, we can't. You must let that go. I took something of his . . . stole it, if we want to be quite correct. And do you think he will ever, forgive me for that? He who has never stolen anything—not even a kiss."
"You don't know that!"
"I do! His very face blazons it. Lil, do you see that big red star swinging low on the horizon? That's the way to Thursday Island, where they breed the biggest pearls and the biggest thieves in all the world. . . ."
Then he told her tales that brought the laughter, so that Douglas heard it through the still air when he lit the candle in his room. He shut it out with the window, for all the heat of the night. And there was a new sting in his heart. He had never made Lil laugh like that. In the next month the young colts were brought down from the hills to be broken. Lil saw Harry with his lunging gear and the keen set face of the man who means to be master, and she fled to Douglas.
"Douglas, you won't let him do it! Not now! For my sake . . . Douglas . . ."
Douglas was getting into his riding-boots. He was going out to the end of the run.
"He has got to earn his living, Lil, like the rest of us. That's the way he has chosen."
"He mustn't do it!" The agony on Lil's white face stung Douglas. "Stop him! Douglas, you must stop him! He was nearly killed last time, and—and—"
"One of those colts is worth three hundred, well broken. And there isn't another breaker like Harry in Queensland. You mustn't be so silly, Lil."
She had her arms round him where he stooped to his boots.
"Douglas—you used to love me once—"
"Ah-h! Don't, Lil! It isn't I who have ceased loving."
"Then you'll tell him, dear? You'll tell him?"
"Kiss me, Lil." He held her very close for a moment. "Yes, dear. I'll tell him."
"And—he won't want to give up. But you'll make him?"
"Yes. . . . I'll make him."
He went down to the stock-yards with the very devil of temptation alive in him, and hate was raw in his heart.
Ten men were about and over the yards: sweating in the blazing heat, foiling the attempts of the maddened youngsters to jump the rails, lending their weight to a lunging-rope when Harry Lapont gave the word. Harry was bareheaded and loose-shirted in the yard; the whole of him was strung up to that intentness which is nothing short of mesmerism, and every slow movement was planned and unyielding. He carried a bridle, and the chestnut colt in the corner watched it with a bloodshot eye. For Harry's hands had been on him at daybreak, and he understood in some way that they made him shiver. Douglas saw the play of muscles on the trembling chestnut quarters; he saw Harry's forehead white with sweat in the sunlight; he saw the steady hand that wrenched the bridle on with merciless swiftness. Then, in the sudden flurry of striking forefeet and swinging shirt-sleeved arms, he sent his command.
"Come away out of that, Lapont."
Harry was struggling to buckle the cheek-strap. He flung a word, with the rein gathered up in his hand.
"Shut up, you there! I'm busy."
Douglas leant over the wall, and there was no mistaking his meaning.
"Let that colt go, and come out here."
"You be damned!" said Harry, in white wrath. "You nearly messed me up just now with your shouting. Clear out, till I've done with him."
The men were staring at each other and at the pulse that was throbbing in Douglas's neck.
"Thought as the boss 'd like ter see him killed," growled Blaurin, and Din giggled:
"Didn't yer hear 'im tryin' jes now?"
"I order you to leave my horse alone," said Douglas. "I am going to get Perrin to break this lot—not you. Come out, and leave them alone!"
Harry's gentling hand dropped away from the colt's crest.
"You're drunk," he said, sweetly; "so I won't come out and tell you what I think. Stand clear when I mount him. He means to kick."
It was a quick, lithe twist that brought him athwart the glossy barrel. The colt reared, wild-eyed and screaming; took the length of the yard with open-mouthed head up, and cleared the seven-foot rails with never so much as a rap. There was no move out of Harry at the landing, and a mutter from the men ran along the fence-line. Then the unshod hoofs came over their native tussock again, and the colt headed for the ranges with a single-reined light bridle and a reckless man to curb him.
Douglas drew a long breath.
"May he never come back," he said in his heart, and turned to the stables.
Perrin brought the colt in that afternoon; and brought, too, a letter for Lil. Lil read it, flung on her knees by the bedroom window:
"Little bit of white snow . . . Remember that you promised to believe always that I love you. I will come back when I've forgotten that I want to kill Douglas. You must forgive and wait. I'm going out West—droving, breaking, anything. But, my own little girl, I'll come back—when I can. There's the brand of the wild on me, and you didn't know it."
Lil carried that letter in the bosom of her dress through days that came after; and Douglas drew near her again, giving her his unshaken love; rejoicing in the long, long evenings that were for them two alone, and never comprehending the waiting in Lil's eyes, and the patience and the strange wisdom. Neither spoke of Harry, though wild stories came down to the south, and Douglas did not know how much Lil knew of them.
The Queensland winter gave swiftly to spring, to the red heat of summer, and yet no word from Harry came out of the west where the wild hearts make their playground. Douglas spoke to Lil once in the twilight of the veranda, with his hands holding hers very close.
"Shall I go and look for him, darling? I'll make him come back if you want him, Lil."
Lil shook her head.
"Not now, dear. Not yet. He will come—some day."
"You believe that still?" said Douglas, bitterly.
"Always," said Lil; and leaned back, looking at a great red star that swung low to the north.
Again Douglas spoke to Lil, and his fingers were touching a bundle of fleecy white that lay in the hollow of her arm.
"You will forget him now, dearest. He doesn't deserve it. And now you have—this, you will forget."
"Stoop down," said Lil, and with her lips to his ear she whispered:
"I want him now, Douglas. Oh, I want him. He would come if he knew. Douglas . . . have you heard . . . anything . . .?"
Douglas had news from the Chillagoe Mines, from the cattle-camps up in the Gulf, from the sweat-and-sin-sodden townships strung along the coast. It was not such news as he could tell to Lil.
"My darling, he would have come already if he had cared. I think he has forgotten, Lil. And you must forget, too."
"He has not forgotten. Douglas . . . will you find him and bring him back to me?"
Douglas walked over to the window. He dared not let Lil see his face. The whole stern, honorable soul of him was sick with hatred and disgust and dread. "May God give him his deservings," he said in his throat. "May God pay him double for all that he has done. And she will love him to the end—him only."
In the next week the doctor from the township said to Douglas:
"Can you get her husband back?"
"Is it—necessary?" asked Douglas, with cold fear gripping him.
"It would be wise," said the doctor, guardedly; and Douglas took horses and rode north to beg from the man whom he could have killed with his bare hands.
At Kiarabilli Douglas received the first authentic news of Harry. He had been there with a mate a week back, driving cattle to the north.
"An' I give ye my word they made the town hum, the pair on 'em," said the barman. "Devilment, that's what it is—an' pluck what don't belong to no sane man. They was goin' over the Warrebee Range, an' they orter be along ter Buroggy be now—if they ain't stuck up a bush-pub somewheres, an' tuk it ter pieces."
Douglas picked up the track and followed over the salt-bush plains, where the wombat-burrows were broken in by the passing of many cloven hoofs, and where the half-dried water-holes held the prints yet in yellow clay. There were two bushmen with Douglas, and they read the story of the track aloud to him:
"A hundred head, all told. And steers in light condition be the pace on 'em. . . . There wuz a stampede along 'ere in the night-watch—dingos, like 'nuff. Gosh! They wuz headed on this 'ere bluff." Binnie got off and grubbed in the moss. "Harry Lapont did that," he said, rising. "His mare were shod wi' leather. He's got the devil's own pluck, hez Harry—"
"And the devil's own character," said Douglas, dryly.
Binnie looked at him, rubbing up his grizzled beard.
"I dun't know," he said, soberly. "He's wild clean through, an' there ain't trouble nur nuthin' else as 'll tame him—yer'll see plenty o' them kidney in Horstrayler. But he ain't done no real sin, Harry ain't. Jes wild."
They came to Buroggy through miles of gray open gum-bush, and the dust and heat of the day were heavy on them. The town was one lean street among the rung gums, and there were five hotels in it. But it was the lowing of pent cattle in the camping-paddock by the road that brought Douglas's heart to his mouth before Binnie said:
"They're here, sure's death. An' in at Carmen's, I reckon. He's the flash place."
"C-can we have a feed and a wash somewhere else?" said Douglas, gripping for the self-possession that was failing him.
"Sure," said Binnie; and it was in the fly-filled, breathless dining-room at Butt's that Douglas heard the very latest news of Harry:
"They come in last night wi' every drop o' go sweated outer their horses. An' they raised Cain fur a few hours—jes ter git the fellers waked proper—and then they had bets goin'; an' the end o' it wuz they wuz ridin' races up the street till sunup. All the hosses they cud git hold on—an' then if that limb Harry didn't fetch up a old bull from somewheres an' bucket him round. They bin spellin' the hosses ter-day—but there ain't no spells fur no one else when as Harry an' Jake's around."
"Where are they now?" asked Douglas, leaning across the table.
The man who had given the news chased a potato round his plate with his knife, swallowed it, and said:
"Takin' the roof off Carmen's. Can't yer 'ear them? They're going ter pull out at daybreak—an' they won't git no more fun fur a week."
"I want to see Lapont to-night," said Douglas, getting up.
The man grinned, rubbing the crumbs from his beard.
"Ye'll jes remember that Harry's a hair-trigger when as yer rile him. An' yer don't look like yer was goin' funnin' yerself."
"No," said Douglas; and went down the street, past the tin-roofed shanties that exuded heat yet, and into Carmen's bar.
Here some one had just put the lights out. More than one voice swore high that it was Harry, and a rush of men swirled Douglas into a corner, where his wisdom kept him. Then Harry's voice rode clear on the blast of sound:
"On the bar. Put 'em on the bar! If they won't fight by lamplight, they shall do it in the dark. Go on, Jerry; I'm backing you. Bring Shud up to it, Brackett! My man 'll get a chirp out of him . . . hit out, you young beggar, or I'll show you."
"You've got some hanky-panky on, Harry. . . . Make a light there, boys. . . . Hang it! he's smashed the lamp. Here's kerosene all over the place!"
"Put a light to Tommy if you want a torch," suggested Harry. "He'll burn blue flames. Hallo, Jerry! got one in that time! Shud's backing down already, Brackett. Told you he hadn't any spunk."
"It's a shame ter git them two little kids fightin' . . ."
"That's all you know about it! I'd teach my own kid to use his fists if I had a kid. It's a cleaner game than lots you play, Moses. Hey . . . that was worth coming out for to hear, Jerry!"
The close-smelling heat, and the dark, and the crowding presence of unseen, unknown men, and the power of Harry's gay voice above all, made his message unreal to Douglas. The distant wide verandas and scented garden with the little white mother and child had no part in this hot, virile, lawless life of men.
Some one struck a match, that was blown out on the instant. Then another flame spurted from a far corner, and a yell of laughter went up. Across the bar Harry and Brackett were sparring, while the boys lay flat, with heads tucked under their arms. Harry pulled himself on the bar, rocking with laughter, and candle-light brought by some one flickered over him. Douglas looked across the heads of the men, and anxiety warred with the hate in his eyes. Harry was thinner than of old; browner, and the lines of his handsome face were deepened. But there was nothing of the sot or the sinner. Nor was there anything of the lover whom Lil's heart remembered.
"Ill lam you, Brackett," Harry was saying. "Got me on my own game that time. Did you think—"
" 'Tain't the fust time yer hit a feller what can't see yer, Lapont!"
"Who said that?"
Harry was off the bar, with a face that was not known to Douglas. It was a true word that his temper was set to a hair-trigger. His eyes ran along the front, finding that which he sought.
"You, was it, Campbell?"
"An' meant it," said Campbell, with an oath.
Harry wheeled, snatched a glass from the bar, slung it straight at Campbell, and leaped after. Ten men parted them, and in the struggle Harry's glance crossed Douglas's. His hands dropped.
"Let me go," he said, quietly. "I'll come back and settle him afterwards. Jake, come along out here a minute! Hands off, you fellows, 'fore I make you."
He was gone before Douglas understood. When he did he found Jake standing in the street scratching his shock head and muttering stray oaths without meaning.
"Where is Lapont?" demanded Douglas.
" 'Git Brackett ter help yer' . . . that's what 'e said. 'I'm goin' 'ome' . . . that's what 'e said. 'Yer'll hev ter lump along as yer can' . . . that's what 'e said, too. What the this an' that an' the other—"
"Where is he?" cried Douglas again.
"Gone! Didn't I tell yer? There ain't no grass don't grow under Harry's feet. Goin' 'ome, that's what he said. If I ain't blest . . ."
And there, in the dirty little street, with the noisy bar behind and the great dim distances whither Harry had gone before him, Douglas gained some faint understanding of the breed that carries the brand of the wild. Harry had not forgotten; and since it could be but a message from Lil had brought Douglas out-back, Harry had gone to find it out for himself. Gone alone, unasking one word from the man who had given him hate only from the beginning.
Douglas routed out Binnie, took fresh horses, and turned his face again to the plains and the red sand-hills. It was not his way to explain matters to his inferiors, and—so that there was money in it—Binnie had no care whither their track might lead. The summer lightning was writing careless words across the sky, and each star shone, round, hard, and polished as a jewel. The twisted gums gave place to clogging sand, to rough scoria, to close-set she-oaks that moan and whisper among themselves though all the wind of the world be dead. By the water-hole beyond Wudyong, Binnnie climbed from his horse and made search in the long grasses that were faded under the coming dawn.
"I don't see—see no tracks—" Then he swore with a fervency that startled Douglas.
"What is it? What is it, Binnie?"
"Hit's a loonatick," said Binnie, with his withered face puckered. "Hit's what yer'd expec' o' Harry, an' o' no other man livin' . . . ef he are livin' now."
The breath caught in Douglas's throat.
"If? Why . . .?"
"He's tooken a short cut . . . where we ain't goin' ter foller him. He's gone over the Never-tire, which is precipusses an' river an' rotten footholdin' an' 'ell. He's gone ter cut twenty mile off the track an' ter break 'is bloomin' neck. Come up, Jenny."
He kicked the mare into a quick amble down the naked road, and Douglas followed, his chin sunk on his breast, and Lil's yearning face alive in his heart. Binnie chewed his plug in silence, while the sun came up raw and scarlet over the wastes, and a brood of emu scuttled through the dried grass. Then he said:
"If we don't pick hup 'is tracks at Kiarabilli, 'e's dead. That's Harry. Never no 'alf-an'-'alf wi' him. You knows best why 'e's bin foolin' round 'ere this six months, an' now 'e's bustin' 'is mare an' 'isself ter git 'ome—"
"I don't," said Douglas, curtly.
Binnie shrugged his shoulders and grunted.
"You wasn't born on the aidge o' airth an' sky where the winds are," he said, and spoke no more until they off-saddled at a bush-cutters' camp for feed. It was golden afternoon, with the magpies singing in the gum-scrub, when they passed Kiarabilli and came to the little side-track that ran down from the Never-tire. Binnie drew rein at the lip of it, tumbled off, and went up it two chain, with keen, searching eyes on the ground. Douglas sat and waited, watching the great black backbone of the Never-tire where the white teeth of a torrent shone on its distant flank. And Lil's face was a vivid pain in his heart.
Binnie came back, with his withered old face suddenly gray.
"Never no hoss 'as bin down 'ere terday," he said, "let alone Harry's bay mare. Well . . . it wuz gin cocktails an' whiskey straight wi' Harry allers. He lived swift, an' he'd die swift. Him an' the Never-tire'd see ter that!"
"He—he might come yet," said Douglas.
"It ain't Harry'd take a short cut 'nless it were goin' ter be a short cut. He'd past two hours agone—ef 'e were livin'."
They took the unending level road at a walk, and silence was very heavy between them. The knowledge that he was glad at the sudden snapping of this gay, reckless life was thundering in Douglas's brain. He had prayed to his God daily since he learned at his mother's knee . . . and in these later months he had prayed for Harry's death. Memory of the deserted child-wife and her baby that carried Harry's dark head was swept from him. He saw for just one instant into the hereafter, whither his prayer had sent a soul so vivid with life's loves and passions that the red blood must surely beat there yet and the gay voice be calling.
"He deserved it," said Douglas, over and yet many times over. "God! he deserved it."
Then later, his eyes blinded in the heat-wrung distance, "Oh, God . . . forgive."
Two miles of the slow gray road; three; and then a sudden chuckle from Binnie. Douglas raised his head. He had been mapping out the words that he would say to Lil.
"What is it?" he said.
"See them tracks? I bin follerin' them this quarter-mile. A sundowner dun't run light-weight on 'is toes, an' he dun't gen'ally wear ridin'-boots. Harry wears narrer eights in ridin'-boots, an' he picks hup 'is feet clean. Now, what d'yer think?"
Douglas stared down at the red blown dust, and the blood was whirling in his head.
"I don't see anything," he said.
"Where was er born at all? Well—ef yer wanter know . . . Harry's lost up his mare someways an' he's doin' it out on foot. He tuk down the dried crik 'stead o' makin' in fur Kiarabilli 'cos o' the river, an' he'll git in ter Palliser's all right ef 'e kin stand it out fur eight mile arter all the days an' nights as 'e's got behint him." He turned to Douglas earnestly. "What's 'e doin' it fur?" he asked.
"He married my sister and left her," said Douglas, curtly. "Now he is going back—to take her away before I come, I think. He stole her once before."
Binnie spat out his plug and cut another.
"She'll forgive him," he said at length. "The woman as Harry loved 'd forgive 'im anythin' . . . an' she'd be wuth the seein', that same gel."
Douglas said nothing; and still the track wound on, through brush, over sand-hills, along sidelings; and ever into the gathering night. To Douglas the man they followed was before them in the shadows. He heard the labored breathing and the drop of the sweat on the shrivelled gum-leaves or the hard red dust. And slowly a reverence for this man's unbroken pluck woke beside the old hate. At Palliser's Binnie asked questions, and the answers were few.
Harry had taken a horse from there at sunset. His coat was ripped, and there was blood on his shirt. But he had paused for no more than one nip, had buckled the girths almost before the saddle was on. . . . "An' that was the larst we seed o' him," said Palliser. "Cops arter him, eh? He looked like he was ridin' fur his life."
In so far as Harry understood what he was doing he did ride for his life through that night. Exhaustion dizzied his brain and showed pictures of Lil laid dead in the room that had been theirs. Of Lil's grave in the fir plantation among the brown needles that she loved to play with. Of Lil crying for him in the night . . . crying where he could not come . . . where he would never come, because of the punishment that was on him for eternity. The mad life among the men out-back that he had exulted in dropped from him, and instead there were Lil's soft lips and Lil's blue child-eyes wide with love.
Red dawn brought him to the edge of the tussock plain; and in the cool beauty of early morning he reined up by the dam, tripped among the long grass, and lay there. It was later when some power came back and he crawled to (he house, tired almost beyond fear, and treading the familiar ways reverently. There was a great stillness over the sunny garden and the magnolia-bushes and the loops of purple clematis along the veranda. A woman passed the trellis beyond the summer-house and went up the steps into the house. A white cap caught the sun on her head, and white bands showed at her wrists and throat. Harry was afraid then, because a hospital nurse generally means illness and death. He went away from her, along the trellis, touching the wood uncertainly with his fingers. And at the end of the trellis was a big cane chair and Lil. She moved at his step, and the covering fell away from a round, sleeping head on her breast. Harry held his breath, looking on the two.
"Harry . . . Harry . . . Harry . . ." Lil was struggling to get up; but Harry did not move.
"You will never forgive me," he said. "You will never forgive me!"
"Harry! Oh . . . dearest . . ."
Then he stumbled to his knees, with his head against her shoulder.
"What am I made of that I could go away from you!" he said. "Lil—my little white bird! Lil!"
It was there that Douglas found them, and Harry stood up, gripping such strength as was left him.
"It's you to throw this time," he said, with a quiver of his old defiance. "For you've first right here now, Douglas."
Douglas was grimed with dust, and his eyes were reddened from sun-glare and want of sleep. He turned from the gladness of Lil's face to Harry, swaying on his feet with utter weariness.
"I am glad you admit so much," he said.
"I never knew—" cried Harry, and caught himself in. "Double sixes, is it? For, or against? They've reason to be loaded now, haven't they?"
Lil was rolling the shawl round the little' black head.
"Douglas," she said, "take him . . ." And as Douglas handled the bundle she added, "Will you take him to nurse, or—will you give him to Harry yourself, dear old boy?"
Harry stood very still, and his tired face was livid under the tan. For so much power lay in Douglas's hands now. Under all the wide sky, through all the wild ranges, there was nothing he could give Lil instead of all that she would forsake if she followed him when Douglas should cast him out.
The baby body was warm against Douglas's own, and the soft hand beat once on his cheek. Douglas looked at Harry. He himself stood between the other man's wife and child, now and to the end of life. And he knew it. For the wild, careless blood that was Harry's unasked-for birthright would wrest nothing stable from all the earth's gifts.
Into the silence that was strung upon the tension of hearts came suddenly to Douglas the memory of his last prayer . . . "Oh, God, forgive." He took three steps and held the bundle forward.
"I think you'd better take him to nurse, Harry," he said. "You haven't come to let me do all the work, have you?"
"B-but which end up d'you hold the thing?" demanded Harry, and fumbled for Douglas's hand instead.