FIGHTING THE FLAMES.
As from one faint spark arise
The flames, aspiring to the skies,
And all the crackling wood consumes."—Pindar
"'Twas well; he toiled till his task was done,
Constant and calm in his latest throe,
The storm was weathered, the battle was won,
Then he went, my friends, where we all must go."
Australian Poets, A. L. Gordon.
"Are not those flying squirrels peculiar little creatures?" remarked Larry to Hilda as they walked by moonlight in the garden of the White House. "See that fellow, now, climbing by leaps to the topmost branch of that great gum; now he has sped out into space. How gracefully he flies down to the foot of that box, now up that red gum, to dart again down to another tree- trunk! Always up and down—just like our life."
"Can they not fly up?" asked Hilda.
"No," he replied, "nor even horizontally; only down, from one tree-top to another trunk-base. Just the way we make our running, it seems to me. Painfully climbing up—no flying then. When, for a moment, we spread our wings—such as they are—down we come with a jerk, to the level we started from."
"You're in a philosophical mood to-night, Larry," said his wife. "What has, become of your wonted good spirits?"
"Well, this news from Queensland is not cheering. If I had gone in with my cousin, as he urged me to do, my fortune would be made at this minute. He writes—you have not read the letter yet—that the Artesian bore has struck water, and has converted the chain of dried-up holes into miles and miles of perpetually flowing streams."
"But did you not say it was costing £1 foot to sink the bore, and that they had got two thousand feet down in two places? Think of the risk and the expense," said the calculating wife.
"That's all over now. He's a made man! What's £5000 to pay for such a boon! Think of it—a river drawn from underground! Mitchell plains, with abundance of water, is the finest country on earth. The entire north of our continent will be fertilized in another few years by Artesian waters."
"Never mind, dear boy, you stayed here for my father's sake and for others——"
"Yes, and I'll see it through. But the pace is getting hot. I had a brush with some of the fellows this morning. They have no gratitude and no sense, and I, alas! little patience. See those flying-foxes sweeping down on the peaches—and those 'possums, too! 'Pon my word I must get my gun."
In a moment he returned with it. The foxes, like bats the size of bull-dogs, were darting about—ill-omened birds or beasts of night. Larry brought down two or three.
"Now why should God make such ugly, mischievous creatures?" he remarked, prodding an expiring fox with his gun. "Why link each pair of feet together so as to enable such uncanny flesh to fly and extend their depredations? So with some two-legged nuisances, What are they made for? No sooner do you render some wilderness fruitful, than down sweep a few greedy creatures to spoil your labour. It will be like that in this valley, if the governor does not return quickly."
At that moment a figure, pushing its way through the sheltering pampas grass and bamboos, stood grimacing in the clear moonlight. Hilda, startled, clung to her husband's arm, then laughed aloud and exclaimed—
"Tom, where on earth have you been? You are a guy!"
"Useful rather than ornamental," the little man replied, surveying his costume. "We've been taking a bees' nest. Great fun! Despite all my precautions, however, I got terribly punished, till I took to my heels, with two or three swarms about my ears. They seemed to pick me out. None of the other fellows minded them a bit. Blood will tell," he continued; "mosquitoes, and now bees, prefer mine to any less blue. Now they're down my back, and up my legs! Hear them slyly buzzing before stinging," and the little man started off gyrating around the amused couple—now dashing his hat on the ground, now brushing the dazed creatures from his ears, now grabbing his legs as though he would tear away flesh and trousers rather than give the bee free play.
His was certainly a peculiar costume. A "viator" travelling-cap was pulled over head and ears, towel round the neck as though he were returning from a bathe, a great blouse, buckled by a saddle-girth about his waist, hung to the knees, his trousers were tucked into the top of woollen socks.
"I wanted to see the fun," he explained; "I would not touch the stuff for worlds. I'd rather spread my 'Row's Embrocation' over my home-made bread than eat that stuff. To see it hanging, sugar-bags full, in the sun, with all the flies in creation fighting for a footing—white comb, black comb, and breeding comb jammed into the same old sack! I'd as soon eat macaroni, after seeing it hang like hurdles in all the dirty narrow streets of Naples, as touch your bush-honey! But I thought my education would be incomplete if I did not just for once see them 'take the bees.'
"The way they found the hive struck my fancy. You know that little black boy, Barry, that's always cutting about. He watches, it appears, the bees going to the water-hole to drink, or get mud for their comb. He catches a bee, twines a bit of wool or silkworm fluff about its body. Off it starts for home, black boy after it. Over logs, round bushes; he never takes his eyes from the sailing piece of wool. 'The Quest of the Golden Honey Fleece' you might call it. Miles away it may be, he observes the creature fly at length into the hollow of some lofty tree, through a crevice made by a broken bough. He 'blazes' that tree with his tommy—or billy, which is it?—and the next night 'lays the fellows on.' The biggest bit of comb they give him for his pains. They have three buckets full of the ambrosia-of-the-bush to-night. They are going to 'Italianize' the swarm, and set them up afresh on the bee-farm in the ranges.
"Bees, however," he continued, as he made a vigorous onslaught on his left arm, crunching an unfortunate captive, "are not the only creatures that carry honey in their mouths—or legs, is it?—and a sting on their tongue—or wherever they carry their arms.
"When the men had the tree down—didn't it topple with a crash!—I chased a juvenile 'possum perched on the back of its ma. She had experienced, painfully, the truth of the lullaby she had been singing to the occupant of her pouch—
'When the tree breaks the cradle will roll,
Down will come 'possum and mummy and all.'
"I missed my game, but barked my shins on one of the boughs sprawling most awkwardly about. When I returned I stood on a log, at a respectful distance from the bees, who were buzzing ferociously inside the hollow tree. The foolhardy men were cross-cutting close to the hive. Ere long they chopped out the block of wood between the cuts and laid bare the comb. They had managed to perform the operation in the midst of the dense smoke of a fire under the log. Some smouldering boughs they now put upon the aperture they had made, and sat down to rest while the poor bees scrambled away to the remotest ends of the hollow trunk.
"I could not avoid hearing snatches of the men's conversation. They ought, they said, to be paid so much a day for their labour, not merely to be credited with a share of profits.
"'I've worked,' said Bill Bastion, as they call him, 'eight hundred days, I reckon. I'm a-goin' to have £400 for that, in cash. They've got plenty—I'll not be content with the miserable £50 they've given me, and the rest in credit.'
"Others," continued Tom, "sought to explain that he held the balance in land and improvements.
"'How 'm I to know as I'll ever get 'em?' replied Bill. 'Courtenay's run away—Boss O'Lochlan's mighty high-handed. I'd not be surprised if some bright day one jumped up and said, "Here, all you fellows, clear out! This blooming place's mine!" He was determined to have it out at the meeting to-morrow.' Bastion announced that he intended to ask you to resign in favour of 'the Talkers,' as some call the committee. 'He's nowt but a squatter and a capitalist,'" he concluded.
"My thanks for renouncing a fortune," said Larry, bitterly. "Well, I've done the best I could, for the old man's sake, and if he finds chaos when he returns, I can't help it."
"The great bulk of them are loyal," replied Tom; "but that Malduke is ever sowing dissension, and, as I always told you, these fellows are suspicious to a degree. Brown says it's not their fault—goodness knows! That it's all owing to the system in which they have been brought up."
The next evening Larry had a bad hour with the men. Bastion especially, urged on by Malduke, was decidedly plain-spoken.
"What did O'Lochlan care for them, I'd like to know? Who ever took up a job such as he had nobbled for any one's good but his own?"
Save for the influence of Brown, who poured oil on the troubled waters, and of the better men, a painful scene would have been enacted.
Larry kept his temper admirably. All his old squatter instincts prompted him to go down and strike the man as he jeered amongst his comrades. The sense, however, that he was holding the position for another, restrained him. The task imposed of fighting a hard battle almost alone, had brought out all the better elements of his character. The rollicking, dare-devil young squatter had settled into a self-ruling, painstaking toiler for others.
Though touched to the quick, stung by the deadly bite of ingratitude, he that night smoked his pipe in seeming cheerfulness, and, owing to her delicate state of health, forbore to tell his wife of the indignities to which he had been subjected.
The settlers paid dearly for their three buckets of honey. Intent upon their rights, the men forgot to put out their fire. The next morning, before noon, an ominous column of dense smoke announced a bush-fire. The country was dry, and ere long the crackling of burning bushes startled the settlers.
Here again co-operation saved them. A thousand hands, all under discipline, moving like skirmishers in a long line on the edge of the fire, beat back the flames.
For the present the valley was safe.
Girls and children, like angels of comfort, brought the "squash," for which parched tongues were thirsting. Little ones wondered to see "how the water ran off daddy's face." For the moment there was breathing-space.
The fire, nevertheless, must be watched. It had a knack of creeping stealthily about, and leaping up where least expected.
Suddenly in the afternoon the wind changed with a wild gust. The slumbering fires leaped into furious life, tongues of flame sprang along dried trunks, and leaped from tree to tree overhead. Where only grass was burning before, the whole forest was ablaze now. A hundred feet high, clumps of scrub and undergrowth sent up a roaring column of fire, half-burnt leaves circling upward in a whirlwind, to be scattered far and wide. Scorched, the men fell back.
Human aid was powerless—save here, to sweep a road with bushes, or there, to burn back the grass on the side of the track that was threatened.
Suddenly Bill Bastion appeared. He was rushing madly along the flaming hill-side, crying, "My child! My little Poll! My own wee Mary!"
Some of the children, it appeared, had been taking lunch to their parents on what was then the back of the fire. The sudden change and rise of the wind had converted this into, the front. Up the valleys on each side of a hill the hungry flames swept.
With extreme difficulty the infant band had, by strong arms and swift feet, been rescued. Alas ! one of their number, little Mary Bastion, was missing. She had been with the party on the ridge, and now "was not." Her parents were distracted. For a while none could pass that barrier of smoke and fire. When it rolled away, what would be left of wee Mary?
The hill on which she last was seen was partially protected by masses of bald rock, which had checked the advance of the fire in that direction. Ere long, however, it would creep through interstices, and, revelling in the thick undergrowth that crowned the summit of the knoll, envelop all in flame.
Larry, who had been galloping round all the morning, directing and encouraging the fire-fighters, appeared at this juncture on the scene.
In a moment he grasped the situation. At the wall of fire and down at his horse he glanced.
"I think we might manage it, 'Salamander,'" he cried. "I'm game to try if you are!" Patting the arched neck, his eye searched for some break in the mass of fire and smoke that was mounting to the skies.
Springing to his side Bastion laid a trembling hand on his rein.
"No, sir," he cried, "you shan't try it. No living man could ride through that forest now. When we can—it'll be—— But you couldn't fetch her out of it now."
"Give me your hand, Bastion," cried Larry. "I'll bring your child back, if I find her, though, of course, to serve some selfish end!"
Remorsefully Bastion looked at the man he felt he had wronged, and was silent.
In a moment Larry, dashing spurs to his horse, was making straight for the roaring furnace. Women screamed.
"It's madness! It's certain death!" declared selectors standing by, who knew all that lay beyond that flaming cordon. "If he gets through that wall of fire, the smoke 'll smother him."
Yellow-haired Saxon and gleaming chestnut were in an instant lost to sight. One wild leap! and the impenetrable wall of smoke closed, as though a thick curtain had fallen behind them.
With lips compressed, eyes half-shut, peering through the resinous canopy, the daring rider dashed. The smell of fire was on him and his horse. On all sides trees crashed, boughs were falling from blazing tree-tops. Horribly, as here and there they found vent at the top, the fires roared through the hollow funnels of the trees.
Now reining horse on haunches, the rider escaped destruction from the six-foot trunk hurled across his path, then, dashing spur at critical moment, he leaped a tree-head ere the dust of its fall had arisen. Here to right to round the base of the gum that was falling to left, there to left to escape the forked tree-top descending upon him.
Blinded, gasping, smothering, he reels in the saddle. His legs mechanically hold him in his seat, as, when life is extinct, the ring-tailed 'possum clings by its tail to the bough.
"Into the jaws of death,
Into the mouth of hell,"
rode the O'Lochlan.
At length the knoll is gained. Across the bare rock limps the almost hairless 'Salamander.' "Co-ee!" shouts the singed and blackened rider emerging on the hill-top. The universe seems wrapped in smoke and flames.
Again and again—between the roar of the flames, the scream of the kangaroo enclosed in the fire, as snakes crawled away between the horse's feet to die, and the iguana hung to the blazing bark unable now to dodge the rider, as if playing "hide and seek" round the smoking trunk, as the hot rocks beneath his feet seemed to quake, and the hill reverberated with the crash of giant gums—the rider staggered round the little knoll, calling with thicker, choking voice—
"Mary! Coo-ee! Hullo—o!"
Ah! there, surely, is a response!
Only the death-cry of the opossum, awakened from dream of gum-leaves galore to find that for it "the end of the world" had come.
Hark! a moan of pain! Only the wombat that has dug, with bandicoot and rabbit, its own grave, and is being buried and cremated at the same time.
There, indeed, is a step behind! Only the emu singed, frightened no longer of aught save the fire, with native companion, blackened and graceful of gait no more.
The flames creep on. Soon the little oasis in the desert of fire will be swept by the devastating flames. Here already they have found entry. There is no beating them back. They have seized, with wild joy, the wattle-clump, and are leaping from its silver boughs to the pine-tree top above. Another moment and the bushy knoll will be wrapped in one sheet of roaring fire!
Ah! what is this, nestling in the heather?
"My God, I thank Thee! The child! The child!" cries the choking rider. He reels from his horse.
There, beside the prone trunk, whose head is already attacked by the flames, lies the rosy-cheeked, three-year-old, smiling in her sleep! She is clasping the flowers she had plucked—tapering, open-mouthed orchids, wild fuchsias with delicate maiden-hair.
Overcome by the enveloping smoke, stupefied but unhurt, the little one had cast her golden head across the dimpled arm that still clasped the flowers, and committed herself, unconsciously, to the guardian angels that keep special watch about children—and drunken men!
In a trice the daring Irishman is in the saddle; the child, half-stupefied, on his arm!
Down the hill he dashes, as the dried bracken, on which the little one had lain, catches fire, sending a lurid column to heaven, to mingle with the firmament of smoke above.
Again, over blazing logs, round crackling, tottering trees, through walls of smoke and flame—for the cruel wind keeps high—the limping steed and reeling rider stagger—
"Back from the jaws of death,
Back from the mouth of hell."
Hours seem to pass! A hundred deaths impend!
At length, ah! can it be? The light of the outside world penetrates the canopy of smoke. They must be near the edge of the ring of fire. They may yet escape from their Inferno!
"A few strides more, 'Salamander,'" Larry hoarsely cries. "Ah, another branch! Leap, lad, leap!"
The spent horse is slow.
He responds to the warning spur. Half a second too late! The cruel bough strikes the fated rider on the neck. The broken fork-ends of the dead branch penetrated the ground on either side. Stooping low the horse walks free from beneath the yoke. With wild eye the terror-stricken beast seems about to fly. It pauses; utters a plaintive whinny. It paws the ground as though in pain; sniffs the cheek of the motionless form stretched beneath the upright fork, but still grasping the unconscious child.
The bough that struck the blow shielded the pair from branches that fell about. The hot breath of the faithful steed recalled the fallen man to life.
He moved his head. It was agony! He sought to raise his body. The weight of the world seemed resting upon him, though the fork was six feet off!
"My God, my back is broken!" exclaimed the wounded man.
Still his steed pawed the ground, and turned himself about as though to say, "Mount on me, and I will bear you out of this hell."
"Go, 'Salamander': go! You must not perish here: go, and tell them where we are."
The creature never stirred. With a painful effort the wounded man sought to throw a stick at the faithful animal. It only shook its head, while the silken mane fell over its bowed neck. It absolutely refused to leave.
The maimed man dragged himself, after a while, along a track, beside which he had fallen. Here the gravelly soil had afforded little for the fire, that raged overhead, to feed upon. Clinging to the child with one arm, writhing along with the other, the horse following with nostril sniffing the ground, and burnt hoof casting up the heated ashes, as in grief, the procession neared the opening on the hill-side.
Now, from very pain, the indomitable Irishman faints. He recovers again.
"I must save the child," he gasps, "whatever comes." Again, along the pathway of pain he drags himself.
When night had fallen, he found himself—he knew not how—on the track outside the timber, where the party had swept and burned.
The tide of fire had rolled away westward. The searchers, some of whom left the spot almost as he emerged upon it, were hoping now to get from behind upon the hill, where traces of Mary and her rescuer were expected to be found.
The shifting breeze from the south had swept the valley clear of smoke. In all its beauty it lay untouched below.
Supporting himself on one elbow, while the other arm clasped the child he had saved, the dying man looked out across the valley he was to scamper over no more. His eyes rested on the White House, where, at that sunset hour, his wife clasped in her arms a new-born child that was never to know the light of a father's smile, or the inspiration of his voice.
As he clung to the child of his enemy of yesterday, the father seemed to think it his—the little stranger he was leaving in a world of woe. Ineffectually he tried to brush a tear from his eyes.
"Happy little vale!" he murmured, as he looked down on the smoke-crowned chimneys, beside which old folk were discussing, "Where they'd find Mister Larry and poor little Mary's corpses."
"I've done what I could! For the old man, for duty, and for God!" he gasped.
Up the stretch of glittering water the last rays of the setting sun were dyeing red and gold, he looked for the returning vessel so long expected. He thought he saw it approaching. "In at the death! Relieved at last!" he cried. "Hilda, to horse! Governor! My child." Convulsively he clung to the little one sleeping on his arm, and in death still fancied it his.
When the darkness of night was lighted only by the lurid glare of some expiring flame, that flickered here and there about a blackened tree-bole, little Mary awoke.
"Daddy," she cried, springing to her feet, and bending over her preserver. "No, it's not! Why, it's dear Mr. Lochlan, fast asleep! Mr. Larry, do look at me," she piped, toddling about him. "Talk to me, please. Vill you take me home? I's so frightened!"
She tried to turn his head. It was stiff and cold.
"You'se not asleep," the child half-laughed and half-cried; "you'se eyes open. But you's so cold."
Poor little Mary! Happy little Mary!
Never before had she looked upon death; knew it not when she saw it! Partially stupefied still by the smoke, the wee one crept again into the encircling arm, stiff in death, and slept beside the smouldering fires as if in Paradise, with the brave man's spirit that had passed.
In the morning they found them.
The horse that had been feeding about during the night stood whinnying by. The golden wavy hair of the dead man was blown by the morning breeze back from his smooth icy brow. A smile was fixed on the clear-cut face! The hand still supported the firm, resolute chin. The eyes were widely open—looking out across the valley, and, seemingly, on into another world. Scarce could they believe him dead.
Bastion, as he clasped to his bosom the crowing, chattering child, knelt down with bowed head, shaking like an aspen leaf. Strong, rough man as he was, scalding tears of bitter remorse fell drop by drop upon the cold brow of the wronged man, who had died for his child.