The Toll of The Bush
Chapter XXXIV The Toll is Paid
Chapter XXXIV The Toll is Paid
At a spot four miles back in the forest a huge column of flame and smoke roared upwards into the midnight sky, and round it—seated, squatting, or stretched out full length on the ground—an army of rescuers waited impatiently for the dawn. For at last the trail had been found.
On a mound, their backs against the broad barrel of a tree, sat three men, while a third—a native—lay half asleep at their feet. There was no sleep, however, in the eyes of Mr. Wickener or Robert or Sandy Milward, and in their restless movements, snatches of eager speech, and ever-recurrent watching of the stars, was to be read such a state of mental anxiety and suspense as might well keep slumber at a distance.
'Twenty past one,' said Mr. Wickener, referring to his watch,—'say four hours.'
'It will never pass if you keep counting it like that,' Robert said.
'Makit te watch te stop,' Pine grunted; 'dat te best.'
'You sleep on, Pine,' Mr. Wickener said, looking page 398down upon him. 'I'm going to make you a rich man.'
The Englishman had made the same promise several times already, but he still uttered it as though it had just occurred to him, and appeared to derive satisfaction from the repetition.
Pine sat up, yawned dismally, and passed an eye over the constellations. 'If no fire,' he said, 'dat good, dat te easy; but fire—ah, makit te biggy search! No fire here, no fire any more. All ri' now.'
'How old do you reckon the trail is?' Sandy asked.
Pine put his hand in his shirt and pulled out a fragment of black cane. 'Dat not te rongy time,' he said. 'I 'pose tree, four days.'
'And you are certain they are together?'
'If Iwi, she not makit te cut like dat. Dis te strong cut. If Geoffrey, he makit one cut, he not cut all te same he cut down te bush; dat acause Iwi come arong ahind.'
'You lie down and go to sleep, Pine,' said Mr. Wickener approvingly. 'You save yourself up for to-morrow.'
'Go on with what you were saying about Stephen, Sandy,' Robert said.
'Yes; where was I? I told you I left him and Jack Wilson to look after the horses. When I got back the next morning I sent Wilson on to the station, and took Stephen with me. The fire had burnt itself out, and we walked along the road as far as the creek where the bridge used to be. The road falls steeply there on both sides, and the first thing we saw as we looked down was the carcass of page 399a horse, still bridled, but lying all doubled up with its back broken. It was not a pretty sight—death has no dignity in an animal—but Stephen paled as though he had seen a ghost and caught me by the arm. "I wouldn't go nigh it if I were you, Mr. Milward," he said. "That's Mark Gird's horse." But I had seen something else, partly hidden by the water and the charred piles, and that put what he was saying out of my head. I knew the horse in fact the moment I saw it, and I guessed the rest. When we had got him out, and it was no easy task, Stephen told me of what occurred the night before. It appears that when Fletcher rode through the pair of them sprang up to stop him, but he took no notice; and from this, and the circumstance that he was riding a black horse, they seem to have made up their minds that he was Mark Gird's ghost.'
'There's a good few of them tarred with that brush,' said Mr. Wickener, his eyes travelling round the camp.
Sandy nodded. 'But this is what I was going to tell you. Stephen had been terribly despondent up to that time, so much so that I believe if I had proposed to give up the search as hopeless he would have thought it a perfectly natural suggestion and acquiesced. But the discovery of Fletcher's dead body made all the difference. "There's the mark of the bush there, Mr. Milward," he said. "There's no askin' pardons about the bush; it's just life and death. That man never knew what happened to him any more'n Andersen did. The thoughts he were thinkin' when he galloped on to the creek he's thinkin' still; fur his neck were snapped on the page 400piles before he come to the water, and what he got in his brain were fixed there time everlastin'."'
'That's not a pretty idea,' said Wickener, 'unless——' and he fell silent.
'What was he thinking just then?' Robert wondered.
'It was understood that he was to wait events. I saw him on the road to Rivermouth. He must have come back after dark and been making for Gird's when they saw him. An hour earlier he would have seen the danger, but the fire had passed on and left the gully in darkness. He never pulled up on the rise; he rode with a loose rein down the slope. What was he thinking? He was thinking the bridge was there.'
The others were silent.
'We laid him out on the bank,' Sandy resumed after awhile, 'and the natives came down with an ox-waggon and took him away into the township. But the effect of it all was that Stephen cheered up and began to look about him. He had counted the chances according to his bush philosophy, and they were all in our favour. 'The bush strikes hard,' he said; 'but it don't strike often, and I reckon the price is about paid. 'Twere meant—well, never mind how 'twere meant—this chap took up the bill when he hit the creek, and there won't be no more'n the three graves yet awhile.'
Wickener rose quickly to his feet and paced restlessly up and down. 'If only one possessed that primitive capacity of belief,' he said. 'For me it would suffice to feel assured that the sun will rise again.'
'Faith is an impressive thing,' Sandy said page 401musingly. 'No man, however incredulous he may be, is entirely proof against its influence. I believe they are alive. I believe that within a week we shall be able to begin to forget. But that is only so with me because I have clung to Stephen as a drowning man clings to an oar.'
'I could believe in the daylight but not now. This place is too tremendous for me.'
Wickener reseated himself with a groan, and a silence fell on the group.
So the protracted minutes drew their unforgettable trail across the minds of the watchers and building up the hours brought finally the first faint indications of dawn. Long before this the camp was astir, and a new spirit of hopefulness had dispersed the gloomy forebodings of the darker hours.
Hitherto the search, spread across a wide tract of country, had been conducted in isolated groups of two or three individuals, the difficulty of their task being greatly increased by the fires which had ravaged the country in the neighbourhood of the road; but now the discovery of a trail and the necessity that it should not be crossed called for a different order of advance. Where all were eager for work, howsoever severe, it was no grateful task to apportion to the voluntary workers the share of prominence they should take in the rescue, but at length the various parties were organised and the plan of campaign propounded. The leaders, on whom lay the delicate task of following the trail, consisted of the party on the mound, together with Charlie Welch, Stephen, the bushman, and three natives, of whom Pine, as the discoverer of the first clue, was tacitly acknowledged captain. An hour after their page 402departure an advance was to be made by the second party, and after a further interval the third. It was hoped in this manner to avoid any overrunning of the trail, while provision could also be made for the return journey by a direct, and having regard to possible encumbrances, more practicable route. Thus in the first dim light of the morning the memorable journey began.
'Show them the stuff you are made of, Pine,' said Mr. Wickener, laying his hand on his protégé's shoulder. 'We've got to reach them to-night, and you are the boy to do it.'
But Pine drew himself erect, and shaking from his person the detaining hand of the white man, regarded him with the offended dignity of the savage. Then he spoke in a low swift voice in his own liquid tongue and turned away.
'What does he say?'
Sandy looked embarrassed. 'He says you are to keep behind. He has no time to talk with children.'
'That so?' said Mr. Wickener good-temperedly. 'Well, you can never tell the depth of the sea till you put down a line'; and he fell back to the rear.
The natives moved forward, now rapidly, again only after long deliberation, and as they moved the men behind blazed the track with their axes. The dew had not ceased to rain from the foliage when they came to the spot where Geoffrey and Eve had built their first fire. The joy with which the party regarded the gray ashes was, however, short-lived, for there was a long and heartbreaking suspense, and the second party was already in sight before the advance could be continued. It was not the absence page 403of a trail, but the number of them which caused the delay, and it was in the solution of the problem these trails afforded that Pine again covered himself with glory. Yet while his companions scoured the forest he squatted on his heels near the white men, his eyes fixed on the scene, only occasionally deigning to cast a brief reply in his own language to the questions Sandy put to him. Even Mr. Wickener began to lose faith in the oracle. 'This will never do, Mr. Milward,' he said; 'if the natives can't manage it, we should consider the desirability of passing the command over to Stephen.'
'Wait awhile. I see the importance of what he has in his mind. They were looking for something, and if we can discover what it was, we shall get a clue to the direction they took.'
'Water,' said Robert.
Sandy shook his head. 'I suggested that, but he says no; they were looking for a tree, but——'
His words died away, for Pine, with one swift movement, was on his feet, his eyes scanning intently every inch of the scene. For twenty seconds he stood there, then, with a loud cry, plunged down the hillside.
The white men followed pell-mell. In a few minutes the whole party stood under the shade of a kauri, listening to the talk of the Maoris, who were assembled in the centre.
'I don't want to be a nuisance,' said Wickener; 'only tell me if it is good news or bad.'
'Good,' said Sandy. 'Pine knew that they were looking for the kauri; what puzzled him was why they didn't find it.'
'And why didn't they?'page 404
'Because they found this one instead.'
'What was the object of finding it?'
'It was their landmark. They did the right thing. If they had found it they would have been on the right side of the spur, and every step of a straight course must have brought them nearer the road; but they struck the wrong tree and went up between the hills instead of outside them.'
'That's a miraculous piece of reasoning,' the Englishman said incredulously.
'Well, it is capable of proof. If we pick up the trail here, and if we find it running along the hillside, the thing is demonstrated.'
And in a few minutes the trail was picked up. The first announcement was to the effect that the unfortunates had descended to the bottom of the ravine for water and had returned by the same track. Then came the discovery of a fragment of lace clinging to a thorn bush, at which tender evidence that the trail they followed could be no other than the one they sought, such a ringing cheer went up from the whole party as had never been heard in that forest before.
Then all day long, with only brief interruptions, the natives led them slowly but confidently ever deeper on and on into the silent forest. The sun reached his highest altitude and began to descend, the gloom of the woods deepened, the vegetation increased in density, but the trail ran on—here, a severed cane or a broken frond; there, a torn fragment of moss or a crushed fern; at times well defined, at times a thing of inference, at times vanishing away altogether, to be rediscovered only by that obscure blending of reason and instinct which is the page 405miraculous faculty of the savage. But slow, with an agonising slowness, was the journey. So delayed and cautious that again and again, tortured beyond endurance, the white men cried out to go on at all hazards.
'Taihoa' (wait), said the guides, when they deigned to take notice at all. Their brows were knitted in hard lines over piercing eyeballs that nothing escaped. The sweat of their exertions poured down their faces disregarded. They never flinched; they took no risks. Step by step, every step in the right direction, they led the army of rescuers like a huge snake through the forest. Now and then a gun was fired, rousing perhaps a solitary pigeon or a noisy troop of parrots and bringing down a rain of dust from the foliage, but no response came, and the bush sank immediately back into its original stillness.
At length they reached and penetrated into that huge thicket of supple-jacks where Geoffrey's most heroic effort had been made, and at the same moment, as though there were a blight on the place to wither the hopes of the rescuers, the sun sank below the ranges and the light began to wane rapidly. Presently there was a halt. There had been many such, and every man stood still, possessing himself of what patience he might. A minute went by—ten minutes. Still no movement. Man after man dropped down by the wayside to discuss the situation with his neighbour. Was it the end of the journey? No, or the guns would have announced it. Then a disquieting rumour crept backwards. The trail was lost. The light ahead was insufficient for the trackers. It would be page 406necessary to form a fresh camp. Nothing more could be done till the morning. Those behind might close up with the advance party.
So to the building of the camp fire, the getting ready of food, the preparations for the long night.
'Can nothing be done?' asked Mr. Wickener, not for the first time, his face drawn and haggard.
'We can keep the guns going,' Sandy replied; 'that will encourage them if they are within hearing. Nothing more.'
With the advent of darkness and cessation from toil Pine's English returned to him. Again he sat at the feet of the white men, following their conversation with the simple admiration of a child, and showing himself, in strange contrast to the hauteur of the daytime, a creature of no reserves.
Mr. Wickener, grateful for the opportunity, plied him with eager questions.
'How do you account for the trail disappearing?'
'I tink p'raps Geoffrey lose te knife. One time he makit plenty cut, nex' time he makit no cut. I look—he not come back—so I tink.'
'But you will be able to go on.'
'Dis te hard bush. No fern in dis bush. Only te dry stick. Dat te very hard trail.'
'But you will be able to go on.'
'I tink dey makit camp not far. Too mutty te biggy work; no kai (food), no water, p'raps so. If dey go on—ah! we no find; dey die.'
'That's what it amounts to then,' said the Englishman, turning to the others; 'we shall either find them close at hand or not at all.'
No one answered him, and a long silence fell on the group.page 407
Round the camp fire the low-toned murmur of conversation died away at point after point as the men lay back and settled themselves to sleep. Only the sharp crackle of the blazing branches broke the quietude of the night. Here and there the trunk of a tree stood forth, gleaming redly in the firelight, a dead branch projected itself like a flame overhead, the leaves of a sapling glittered and darkened, but the background remained of an inky impenetrable blackness. Suddenly an owl squealed loudly from the thickets. Pine glanced quickly over his shoulder and drew nearer to his companions.
'Dis te bad bush,' he said. 'Te Maoris not come here; too many plenty what you call ghostes in dis bush. My mates very 'fraid men, dey no likit te stop, dey tell me clear out te best; but I tell no, dat te bad ting, dat make all our hapu1 ashamed for long time—so dey not talk it any more.'
Sandy put out a hand and clasped the dusky paw of the native. 'You are a man, Pine,' he said.
'I tink it more ghostes come when run away den when stop here,' Pine explained easily. 'You tink plenty roun' dis place?'
'Did you ever see one?'
The native nodded. 'My mother's father he very ol' man when he die, more'n one hund'ed years. Two, tree monts ago I come down te bush to his kainga2 when te moon shinin' pretty roud, and I see te ol' man on his horse. I call out to him, and he rook back over'm shoulder, but he go arong jus' same. I make my horse te trot, he trot too; I garrop, he garrop too. When I purrup, he purrup page 408and rook back rike before. Dat make me very 'fraid, so I turn and garrop te other way; but when I rook back, I see him come after me rike he terriber angry, and dat te worse kind. So I purrup and he turn roun', and I go after him arong out te bush. But when I come to Waiomo I not see him any more, but prenty many light der and te biggy tangi, and dey tell me te ol' man been dead—one hours.'
No one commented on Pine's story, but Stephen, who had been an interested listener, opened his lips to say: 'There's them kind o' ghosts and there's the kind that ain't never been nothing else but ghosts, and they're harder to see and the meanin' hangs to them thicker. I mind the night before Jim Biglow was killed, as was the best bushman, barrin' only Mark Gird, inside the county pegs, that I sat within a few yards of one and never seen 'un. Me and Jim had gone up to the back of Wairiri to mark a spar for the barque Eliza, that lay inside the bar with only one stick standin', and what with one thing and another, not knowin' the lay of that country too well, and the kauri bein' most all cut out of it, we got a bit farther than we intended and had to camp out for the night. It was a middlin' cold night, and we kep' a good fire goin' the first part of it; but somewhere about the small hours Jim woke me with a clutch of the arm, and I see as it had burnt down till there weren't no mor'n a pile of red embers with a flame or two runnin' over'm now and again. "There's something here besides ourselves," says Jim, trembling like. "Look dead across the fire agen that kauri we marked and tell me what you see." "I don't see nothin', Jim," I says, "barrin' a bit o' scrub." "Why, where's your page 409eyes, Steve?" he says, "The blarsted thing's lookin' dead at us and 'is eyes is like live coals." Well, I looked this way and that way, but I couldn't make nought of it more'n a bit o' scrub. We got up and went over, and sure enough there was nothin' there, but when we got back Jim see it again plain as ever, and he never left off seein' it that night. Well, in the mornin' we come down together till we struck the track, and there I left him, havin' something to do up in the township and Jim wantin' to make the river. Well, gents, he never got there. There was a big wind blowin' that day, and when we come to look for'n, we found'n on the track with a branch across his chest that would have broken the back of an elephant. An' I reckon,' concluded Stephen, 'if I had seen that thing same as he seen it, that they'd have pulled more'n one of us out when they come to get the jacks under that tree.'
No one spoke, and in the silence that followed the morepork squealed again, and away in the supplejacks the black canes rattled without reason.
Pine looked round him with bulging eyes.
'Any other gentleman like to oblige with a humorous story?' Mr. Wickener asked.
'Hark!' said Robert suddenly.
Away in the supple-jacks the canes were rattling again, this time continuously for nearly a minute, then complete silence.
'Kiwis,' said Sandy, his hand falling by force of habit on his gun. He handled it a moment, then, picking it up, set the butt on the ground between his knees and drew the trigger.
A spurt of flame, a ringing report, answered by many echoes, hushing away at length into silence; page 410then again, distinctly audible, nearer at hand, the rattle of the canes.
Every man rose as by one accord to his feet. Round the camp-fire the sleepers stirred and sat up one by one. Into every countenance crept an intense expectancy.
Silence again, this time prolonged until strained attention relaxed and a little fire of speech crackled from lip to lip.
'Wild dogs hunting them more likely.'
'There is one story,' said Wickener in a low voice, 'of a man who—but it reached me second hand—'
'Hush! What was that?'
Men were rising to their feet in all directions, urged by an uncontrollable impulse of hope. Every eye was bent fixedly on a spot in the blackness whence the rattling again proceeded. A moment of listening, then some one voiced the hope in an excited 'Yes.' And as though there were a charm in the word to loosen the spell that held it, the camp broke suddenly into action. From a bundle near the fire a dozen hands grasped the native gum torches, and thrusting them into the flames, cast the glittering light in the direction of the sounds.
Was it man or beast that came crawling thus toilsomely through the tangled vines and panted as it came? Was it human or animal that seeing them drew gaspingly to its feet and pointed wildly back the way it had come?
Yes, yes, poor soul, we understand you. And even as you thus urge us, the slash-hooks are at work which shall never cease until they have brought page 411rescue to her also. But first feel the grip of these human hands that have snatched you thus alive from the jaws of a dreadful death. First moisten those parched lips that have lost for the moment the trick of speech and stumble dumbly against one another. We know what you would say and we lose no time. We know that you cannot have come far, and in every direction the rescuers are cutting through the jungle.
No talk of waiting for the dawn now, as in the flare of the torches each little party hewed its own way through the thickets. No heartbreaking delays absorbed in the re-discovery of a lost trail, but every man for himself, and as rapidly as the nature of the ground permitted.
'There is an opening here,' said Sandy Milward, stepping from the dense tangle into uninterrupted starlight. A torch burst through at the same moment a few yards to the right, a second indicated itself flickeringly behind the foliage at the end of the glade.
'Give me the light, Mr. Wickener; I think this is the end of our journey.'
A few steps brought them unexpectedly in front of the shelter, and by one impulse both men stood still.
'Go on,' said Wickener hoarsely.
Sandy stood motionless. The hand holding the torch began to tremble and droop earthwards.
The Englishman caught it suddenly from his weakening grasp and shook it into vigorous flame. His own face was deathly.
'Go now, Mr. Milward,' he said.page 412
And Sandy nerved himself and went.
A long minute passed. From the skirts of the opening the torches straggled up singly or in pairs, every moment adding to the group. A word or two sufficed to convey the intelligence to each ewcomer, but for the rest they waited in silence. At last a shadow came forward to the front of the shelter.
'Is it all right?' asked a voice.
There was a deep breath.
'Don't make a row,' some one cried just in time.
There was a quick shuffling of feet—a laugh. The lights scattered, came together again farther away, grew gradually dimmer, and finally went out, one by one, among the trees.
Long before dawn the whole camp had been transferred to the glade, and a great fire of logs crackled before the shelter. Then their anxiety relieved, their task accomplished, a great drowsiness overcame the workers, and man by man they dropped down where they stood and fell asleep. Only in the shelter where the two rescued ones turned torturously back on to the highway of life was there a waking eye in the camp.
The morning came dimly through a dense fog, causing Sandy to defer the return journey until the sun should have dispersed the vapours. But meantime word must be sent through to Major Milward, and who more entitled to the honour of carrying the good news than Pine.
Stand up then, Pine, bearer of glad tidings, ragged and unwashed as you are, and take this pencilled scrawl, which shall be more precious to the receiver than all the gold of Waihi.page 413
Pine tightened the strap at his waist and looked anxiously at Mr. Wickener. 'You make me te rich man?' he asked.
Mr. Wickener smiled; every one smiled, but there was no malice in their amusement.
'I have said it,' the Englishman replied; 'and I say it again now.'
Pine regarded him with undisturbed seriousness. 'Dat good,' he said. 'I see you again by'm-by.'
With a rattle of the canes he was gone.
And some hours later, when the heavy mist had lifted and the golden sunlight filtered through the leaves, the whole party followed in his wake.