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page 68


Aman rode up one of the dark winding trails to Henny's Road-house, whistled twice a clear call, and waited, still as a tree. The back door opened with a thin thread of orange light and a woman slipped out. Their meeting together was as silent as the meeting of animals, and something of the animal sense they must have had to see at all in this vague blackness that abolished outline. But he stooped at once from the saddle, lifted a burden out of her arms, and laid it across the pommel.

"The grub, is it?" he murmured.

"Aye. An' here's the bloody powder. I can't git no more, Collins. It was near as much as my life's worth to git that."

Henny inlaid her speech with words of prison slang that were obsolete to the man. She had left Port Arthur while Collins was still a twelve-year-old youngster being "disciplined" at Point Puer. Of the other children who had come with him on the boat from England several had disciplined themselves into suicide, but Collins had always been fond of his life. He was no less fond of it because it was now forfeit. Twice he had killed his man, and some day he would be killed: by one of the hunted half-scared rabble he led, by a gun in the hands of some pursuer, or by the gallows down in the prison at Hobart Town. It was only the last he dreaded. Other endings were all in the game.

"Got a chew, Henny?" he said hungrily. "Carn't git the taste o' them bloody leaves outer me gullet. We been livin' on leaves an' possums this larst month."

Henny broke a plug of tobacco and handed a piece up. Her dim gaunt shadow had a grotesque head which was the beaver bonnet no man ever saw her without. "Now you vamoose, Collins. There's more folk than I likes about, to-night."

Within the hut sounded the mourning notes of an accordion clumsily played, the rhythmic stamp of heavy feet.

page 69

"They got a roof over 'em, anyways," said the man who would never walk freely under a roof again. "How much, yer bloody old witch?"

She told him, and he pulled out a gentleman's silk purse, running the rings and selecting gold pieces. "There'll be more to-morrer," he said with a chuckle. "Clent's a rich place, and there are rich folks there to-night. Military gent too." He patted the pistol on his hip. "That's fur him, blarst him."

The mare backed away under his hand, dainty as a lady. Henny held his leg with her hard old claw. "Don't kill Comyns," she whispered.

"Let 'em not git in my way, then. We must have the loot."

"I'll niver help 'ee agin, Jack, if tha kills Comyns."

"Curse it! We gotter live," the man responded violently. "An' we gotter git enough to-night to live on for months. The hull country'll be up on us arter this." He stooped to her ear. "You starve in the rain an' cold in them bloody hills till yer do' know you're a man no more an' yer won't be too pertickler how yer takes what yer has to have," he said, and melted into the dim trail, the imported blood mare stolen from Baxter moving over dead sticks and leaves delicately as a ghost.

The woman stood still, staring into the dark where he had vanished, as though he drew her mind after him. She glanced once over her shoulder in the brainless terror of a brute, frightened at he knows not what, gave a long hushed gasp as though some spell worked in her, and then threw it off with a shudder. For a moment she had been tempted to send one of her visitors over to warn Clent, but fear of what Collins would do if ever he found out overwhelmed her. She put her skinny hands to her mouth and bit them in a transport of fear. Fear such as the Ancients knew, bodiless, unescapable.

"No, no. They must take theer chanst," she muttered, and went back, dragging her heavy man-boots into the hut.