The Land of The Lost
"Jess," said Hugh suddenly, as the dip of the road extinguished the lights of the inn, "have you forgotten what they did to you the last time you visited that place?"
"No," replied Jess.
"And yet you put yourself in their power again.
Why are you so foolish?"
"Do you not sometimes help your friends?" Jess asked.
"Yes, but Bart is used to it. The darkness is nothing to him, while to you——"
"Darkness is something to every man," Jess replied irritably. "Even though they don't know it, it acts just the same. All diseases and misfortunes have their beginning in the night-time. Did you think the black gum leaked out of the trees while the sun was shining?"
"Darkness has its horrors, no doubt," Hugh said; "but it has its delights as well. What about sleep?"
Jess drew closer to his companion. "I will tell you about sleep," he said in a whisper; "when God saw the darkness, He was afraid, and He made sleep that we should not know it was there." He leaned forward and peered up into Hugh's face. "I call that kind of Him," he concluded triumphantly.page 255
"You should not have gone," Hugh repeated, "and you must never attempt such a thing again,"
Jess turned away and for a space was silent. "I have tramped this bush many many years," he said sadly at last, "and no man knows it as I do. I have seen men come and seen them go, and none are left here now that I knew in the old days barring only him. Where have they gone? God have pity on me, where are they?"
"Now, Jess," Hugh said, with gentle remonstrance.
"Drunken and mad and diseased," muttered Jess, stopping short "I see them. Spade and spear—devils and men; but the bush was silent all the while."
He paused abruptly and, holding the lantern above his head, peered anxiously about him. "Where are we?" he asked.
"Close to my tent," Hugh replied. "I will come up with you and see you safe home."
Jess moved forward irresolutely, every now and then shrinking close to his companion.
"What is it, Jess?" Hugh asked at length.
"The darkness," exclaimed Jess pitiably, dropping the lantern, which was instantly extinguished. "Oh, the horror of the black night!"
Hugh recovered the lantern, and again lighting it, held it up. "Come along," he said cheerfully. "Don't give way."
Holding the light low to guide their steps, he led his companion off the road on to a track which led round the low, scrub-covered hillocks in the direction of Olive's cabin. By degrees Jess, who had at first trembled violently, grew calmer.
Olive's cabin stood on a little flat half-way up the side of a hill. It was constructed of the stems of tree page 256ferns sunk into the ground side by side, the roof being thickly thatched with palm leaves. A wooden door, secured by a lock and staple outside and a bar within, formed the only break in the solid walls.
Jess unlocked the door, and taking the padlock inside, slipped the bar to behind them. The interior of the hut was thatched between the fern stems with rushes to exclude draughts. At the further end was a fireplace and chimney of corrugated iron, a few embers smouldering on the hearth. To the right and left of the fireplace were a couple of narrow bedplaces, filled with the dry, elastic stems of the climbing fern, and covered with mats of native flax. The blankets lay neatly folded at the head of the beds. In the centre of the cabin was the sawn section of a tree, forming a low, solid table. The whole place presented an appearance of cleanliness and comfort; the tin-ware and crockery were bright and clean; the hard earth floor was smooth and dustless; the large oil lantern, which Olive proceeded to light and suspend from the roof, had its glass polished to the utmost degree of luminosity.
Once inside Jess became his old self on the instant.
"Sit down," he said, disencumbering himself of his coat and hat. "There is no sense in going back to your tent to-night; and there is a reason why you should not go."
"Very well," said Hugh willingly. "What is the reason?"
"I have a message for you from Bart," Jess said, feeling in the pocket of his coat. "What happened down there made me forget it, but here it is." He handed Hugh a soiled and twisted piece of paper.
Hugh opened the paper and found a bill in the name of Higgins for sundry supplies; on the back a page 257short message was scrawled in pencil, and holding the sheet up to the lantern, Hugh deciphered it as follows:—
"Clifford,—You have more enemies than one, and they are men without scruples. Do not sleep in your tent again. Do not sleep on the field again. If you know why any man should desire your life, you will guess whom you have to fear. Take this warning from your well-wisher—Bart."
Hugh crumpled the note up, and looked inquiringly at his companion.
"Yes," said Jess, "I know what it is. He asked me to read it. You must obey him."
"Do you know what his reasons are?" Hugh asked.
Jess shook his head.
"Depend upon it, they are good," he said.
He seated himself and his blue eyes regarded Hugh steadfastly.
"Tell me, boy," he said gently, "is it true that you have won her heart away from that man?"
"Yes," replied Hugh simply, "it is true."
"Be good to her, boy," said Jess almost inaudibly.
"Let that one life be without a cloud."
"God help me to make it so, Jess," the boy answered.
"Who is your enemy?" Olive asked.
"Unless it is Roller, I can think of no one. He has good reasons for disliking me, but it is absurd to suppose he would go the length Bart seems to anticipate."
"Jealousy is a fierce passion," said Jess. "Often in the night, when I cannot sleep, I listen to the voices of the bush, and it is among them."
He began divesting himself of his clothing, but stayed his hand when the task was half completed, and spread-page 258ing out the rugs, lay down and covered himself up. Hugh followed his example, removing only his boots and coat.
"Do you keep the light burning?" he asked.
"Screw it out," said Jess. "Home is like the sunshine to me at all times."
Hugh obeyed, and the cabin was plunged in darkness.
"When the wind is howling," resumed Jess, "I hear the voices of the evil spirits—hatred and jealousy and lust and madness, and there is murder in the throats of them all. Only when the nights are still do the beautiful things come out and encourage one another."
A morepork, hunting for rats, alighted on the projecting roof-pole of the cabin, and gave vent to a prolonged harsh shriek, followed by a mysterious "koko." The sound of a person shouting or singing floated up from the direction of the inn.
"What else do you hear?" Hugh asked, as Jess remained silent.
"Sometimes I hear the sound of a tree falling far off in the bush, and then I know that I shall sleep no more that night. I hear it lying awake, or I start from my sleep with the sound in my ears, and that is the worst of all the noises of the bush. For it is like some hope destroyed. Sometimes"—he lowered his voice to an awed tone—"I have even for hours lost faith in the goodness of God."
"Sleep, Jess," said Hugh; "there are none but the beautiful things abroad to-night."
Jess was silent.
A lonely breeze, presaging the advent of the morning, touched the roof of the cabin with a stuttering message and was gone. The shouting or singing page 259came again, still indistinguishably faint, and was lost abruptly in the silence.
Hugh, dreaming a tree had fallen in a dream forest, awoke to find the crash in his ears. So realistic was it that he lay still listening, unable to believe that the sound was merely a figment of the brain. Hearing Jess stirring, he called him softly by his name.
"Yes," said Jess, "I heard it fall. Strange that it should happen to-night."
And he sighed.
Suddenly something struck the roof of the cabin and slid down the dry, rustling thatch to the ground.
Hugh started up, and feeling about for his boots, felt his hands grasped in a trembling hold.
"Boy," whispered Jess fearfully, "the evil spirits have come at last."
Hugh gripped the other's hands in swift, stormy reflection.
"Jess," he said persuasively, "listen to me. These are no spirits, but men like ourselves. Perhaps they are those of whom Bart has warned us, and there may be truth in the worst he has suggested. Nothing can harm us if we stand together and help one another."
The speech had its effect, Jess returning him grip for grip.
"Have you any weapons?" Hugh asked in a whisper.
"None," said Jess.
Suddenly the silence was again broken by a loud hammering on the door. Hugh was on the point of stepping forward when Jess held him by the arm. "Boy," he whispered cunningly, "they want us to open the door; we will keep it shut."page 260
Hugh by a motion of the hand signified assent.
The next indication of the presence of the enemy was a slight rattling of the door-bar, followed by heavy, muffled blows, as though from the shoulder of a person testing the resistance of the lock and hinges. Hugh stood braced for all emergencies, but the door held. After a moment or two the blows ceased and all was again still.
"What is the next move, Jess?" Hugh asked, his spirits rising. "A sortie ought to be effective now, I should say."
"Wait," said Jess; "they may be tempted to show who they are, and it's a good thing to know one's enemies."
There was an interval of quiescence, then the walls of the hut began to tremble and there was a sound of clawing and rustling in the thatch. Hugh felt Jess slip quickly away, and half a minute later there was a howl of pain and a heavy body slid with a thud to the ground.
Jess had prodded the party on the roof with a gum spear.
The next event was the sound of running footsteps and a violent blow on the door. Hugh darted forward, and setting his foot against the bottom of the door and his hands on the upper part, braced himself for the shock. Again and again it came till the cabin reeled to the furious onslaught, but the stout slabs of the door received the blows uninjured. Presently a thought struck Hugh, filling him with fierce amusement.
"Stand aside, Jess," he whispered loudly, at the same time slipping the bolt and drawing back. "If he doesn't go through the other side we'll collar this beggar, at any rate."page 261
There was a rush, a loud clatter of the door, and something pitched heavily over the table into the fire-place. Then followed a spluttering as of someone spitting out hot ashes and loose teeth and segments of oaths.
Hugh grinned to himself as he stood with his eye on the doorway awaiting further developments.
They came with tragic suddenness. From the impenetrable darkness of the region of the fireplace came a spurt of flame, followed by several others in rapid succession, as the contents of a six-shooter were emptied in all directions through the cabin.
"Stand clear, Jess," Hugh cried, creeping forward along the bed. A bullet whizzed past his ear, burying itself in the thick wall of the cabin. There was a scrambling in the fireplace, followed by an oath as the retreating enemy barked his shins against the table, then the moonlight in the doorway was obscured. A sound of cartridges being knocked out and replaced warned Hugh that the situation was becoming desperate. He was preparing himself for a spring, when the door swung to with a crash and the bar fell into the slot.
"Are you hurt, lad?" asked the anxious voice of Jess, and at the same moment the flame of a match illumined the cabin.
"Not a scratch," said Hugh, looking thankfully at his uninjured companion. "Shall we lock ourselves away from one man?" he asked in the next instant.
"There is another lurking about outside," said Jess. "I saw him against the sky—a short, thick-set man. What chance would we have unarmed against ruffians like those?"
Hugh looked round for something in the nature of a weapon, but in vain. A few knives, such as are used for page 262pig-sticking, lay on a shelf in one corner, but the English hatred of a knife caused him to avert his eyes. "If there were only a stick of any kind," he said restlessly, "pistol or no pistol, I would tackle them."
Meanwhile Jess had lit the lantern and set it on the floor in front of the table in such a position that while the door end of the cabin was illuminated the rest remained in shadow. He now drew Hugh into the darkness by the fireplace.
"Listen," he said, "let us see what they will do next."
A sound of voices was audible some distance away, as of two persons in angry dispute, but the words were indistinguishable. Presently this ceased, and for three or four minutes silence prevailed. Hugh, tired of inactivity, approached the door, and silently slipping the bolt, looked out into the night. The open space in front of the cabin was flooded with moonlight, and had any person been present he must have stood revealed. No one was in sight. He stepped out and made a circuit of the cabin, scanning the surrounding bushes for the slightest motion which might betray the presence of his enemies, but nothing stirred. Returning to the front of the cabin, he found Jess gazing intently down the hillside.
"They have gone," Jess said; "I heard their voices. Listen!" he broke off suddenly, holding up his hand.
A sound of talking floated up through the still air from the bottom of the hill.
Hugh brought a couple of seats out of the cabin, and the pair sat down with their backs against the door.
"What can be the meaning of it?" Jess wondered. "All the years I have been on the field I have never known a thing so shocking as this. That man has the disposition of a wild beast."page 263
"They seem to be searching for something," said Hugh, who had been listening intently to the noises below.
"Perhaps their horses are there," Jess surmised.
It may have been a quarter of an hour later that Hugh discerned a glow in the sky straight in front of him. "Can that be the dawn, Jess?" he asked.
"No," replied Jess, "it's a fire." Suddenly he laid his hand on Hugh's shoulder. "They are revenging themselves on you, my boy," he said; "that is your tent."
Hugh laughed unpleasantly. "I suppose I shall have an innings some day," he observed, as a brilliant flame shot suddenly up into the night.
"You shall," said Jess; "only be patient."
The flame from the tent died down as suddenly as it had arisen, but the fire, spreading to the tea tree, became visible as a bright band of gold creeping across the field, and gradually increasing in length as it advanced. Clouds of red and orange-coloured smoke hung above it and drifted away backwards, until everything beyond the gilt line was dimmed or concealed. Now and then, as some bush of loftier growth was enveloped in the fire, a gorgeous flame-blossom sprang and quivered for a few moments above the pervading level. In time the fire was checked by the road, and dying out in the centre, it spread away east and west in a great semicircle over the hillocks.
Hugh and Jess again barricaded themselves in the cabin, and did not awake until the day was several hours old.