In the Shadow of the Bush
It is time that the reader should look in upon O'Byrne and his mates. With them, indeed, little had transpired lately worthy of record. An extension of the business had taken place, it is true. Dennis had found another customer for the manufactured article in a countryman of his own, Pat Regan by name, who kept a hostelry about twelve miles from Bloomsbury, in "the rising township of Swimborough." Regan's house was as yet the only habitation in the township; and as it was built on some of the highest ground there, the water was never known to be more than two feet deep in the bar, even during the highest floods of the river which ran near. The house stood at the junction of two district roads, and as a good deal of settlement was just then taking place in the neighbourhood, and the bush was coming down fast, Regan found the situation for the time a fairly lucrative one.
Though the township had not been built upon, and most of it still lay in standing bush, yet nearly all the sections in it had been sold. The sale had taken place in Wellington, after having been well advertised in glowing terms, in which the capitalist, the speculator, and all classes of the community were invited to participate in the good things about to be offered—to avail themselves of the opportunity of a lifetime, and invest in Swimborough town sections, the possession of any of which, one was led to believe, meant an assured fortune.page 233
O'Byrne and the old black mare made several nocturnal trips to Regan's; and Davie had made the journey more than once on foot, but he was beginning to object to this mode of doing business.
"He didna see why he couldna ride on horseback as weel as ither folk; an' he'd be d——d if he wad hump ony mair whusky to Swimborough on Shanks's powny. He didna mind steppin' doon to Bloomsbury in the cool o' the evenin' wi' a swag o' it, but Regan's was ower far. He micht juist as weel be on the wallaby amang the stations again—an', when a' was said an' done, it mebbe wasna the waur life o' the twa."
The truth was, Davie was growing somewhat discontented. The life he was now leading did not come up to what he had expected from it. His experience was only that which is common to mankind. How rarely does the fruition fulfil the promise—the reality equal the anticipation! The Will-o'-the-wisp still eludes our pursuit; but we will follow it to the end.
Davie had found that there was more work expected of him at times than he cared to perform. Some further bush-falling had been done in order to comply with the conditions under which O'Byrne held his section, but the work had been put off till almost too late in the season, when the mosquitos in swarms attacked those engaged in the felling. Davie had held most decided objections to work under the circumstances, and it was only on cool or windy days, when these summer pests of the bush were comparatively quiet, that he had consented to use the axe, and then only on the smaller timber.
"The land's no mine," he said to himself, "that I should burst mysel' chappin' doon trees; an' its ower risky wark—a man's life's no' safe at it. That auld de'il o' a Dan—naethin' wad please him better than to drap a tree on tap o' me, I'm thinkin'—but he'll no get the chance."page 234
Indeed, the work as a whole would not have borne strict inspection; for even O'Byrne himself was indifferent as to whether it was done well or ill, or whether the "burn" should be good or bad, and had hurried over it, anxious only to get the prescribed area down.
This had been done, and the bush was now burned. It was lit on the afternoon of the gale; and when the fire spread through the long grass and dry timber in the direction of the wharé, and threatened it, all hands were out combating the danger.
Davie had carried a few buckets of water and thrown them over the wharé and over a heap of cocksfoot straw which lay near the back of it, and from which some seed had only lately been threshed. But he did not care, even then, to exert himself overmuch, and seemed to think that his forte lay more in directing and supervising operations than in putting forth much manual labour on his own part.
"Lay intil it, Dan," he called out to that worthy, who, begrimed with smoke and surrounded by fire, was trying to beat out encroaching flames in the long grass—"lay intil it, ye auld de'il; ecod, ye wad mak' a gran' leeftenant to auld Clootie himsel'. I'm thinkin', Dennis, anither bucket or twa o' water on thae logs oot by there wadna be amiss."
"Then why the h——don't ye go and do it, instid av standin' there like a drill-sargent?" yelled O'Byrne, who was trying to prevent the stab fence that enclosed the garden from catching fire. "Don't ye see I'm busy here? If the wharé goes, an' the tucker with it, it'll be yersilf that'll be the first to call out!"
Old Dan muttered some fierce imprecation between his teeth.
The greatest danger was at length averted. The patch of cultivated ground at the back of the wharé, and at one side of it, protected it in a great measure; but within the page 235same enclosure, the fire had swept through the rough cocksfoot grass from which the seed had been cut, and the many logs and stumps were still burning fiercely. O'Byrne and the others sat up till morning, or till the wind dropped and the rain began to fall, in order to keep watch and use preventive measures lest the wharé should again be endangered by a fresh outbreak of fire.
Whisky was freely indulged in, and high words were exchanged once or twice between Davie and O'Byrne—a challenge by the latter to go outside and try conclusions with fists was, however, not accepted.
"Gie me a fair field an' nae favour, an' I'll haud ye at fisticuffs till ye're sick o' it, my bonnie man," Davie said—"but it's no' here that I can look for that, wi' naebody by but yer d——d auld Vandemonian uncle—or whatever he may be to ye—at yer back. I'll meet ye on ony ither grund, though—wi' somebody alangside to see fair play."
"Any ground ye like, me boy. It's the greatest plisure in life it'll give me to dress ye down," Dennis replied.
Old Dan was as taciturn as usual, though he took his share of the whisky. The fiery spirit which had excited the passions of the others appeared to have no such effect upon him; but when Davie called him an old Vandemonian, a demoniacal gleam overspread his grim features for a moment, and shone from his evil eyes.
In the morning, after a late breakfast, O'Byrne caught his horse, and prepared to start for the township, with the intention of enjoying himself there in the congenial atmosphere of the Cosmopolitan, or in the sweet solace which love and Molly's presence might afford. He was a good-natured fellow on the whole, and not inclined to bear malice or keep a grudge for long, and, when leaving, he called out to Davie, who had stretched himself again on his bunk:page 236
"Good-bye to ye, Davie, me boy; we'll be afther forgettin' all we said last night—not but if ye have a moind to have it out, be the powers, ye've only to name lime an' place, an' I'll be there—down in Jacob's back yard if that would plaze ye best. But well be afther puttin' it down to the whisky, an' say no more about it—not but a good lambastin' might do ye no harm, an' take some of the laziness out of ye."
"I'll think it ower," said Davie. "I'm sure I'm no' ane to keep illwull, an' can forget an' forgi'e as wullenly as ony man."
The truth was, Davie was not anxious to try conclusions with O'Byrne in the manner suggested, for Dennis was handy with his fists and being of an active and sinewy build, would probably have been able, as he once told Davie, to "walk round him like a cooper round a cask."
O'Byrne departed, and Davie spent the most of the forenoon in bed, where he cogitated deeply what his future course had better be. He was becoming dissatisfied with his manner of life here, and was longing for a change. The love of his former wandering life had returned, and was growing strong within him. The novelty of his present occupation and surroundings had worn off, and the drawbacks were being more and more fe!t. The occasional trips which he made to the Cosmopolitan did, indeed, afford an agreeable change, but he was beginning to find his sojourn on O'Byrne's section on the whole anything but pleasant.
"I hae been used to mair society," he said to Brasch on one occasion, when speaking on the subject; "there was aye a cheefu' evenin' to be spent on a station, an', aftcner than no', gude company on the road. O'Byrne's richt enoo'," he went on, "but he's gey aften awa' frae hame; an' nae company's better than Auld Dan's—ye dinna want vinegar wi' yer victuals when he's at the table."page 237
With O'Byrne he could generally get along smoothly enough, though latterly some outbreaks of feeling, as on the previous evening, had taken place between them. But between him and Old Dan there had from the first been strong mutual antipathy, and he could see more plainly each day that the old man's hatred of him was intense. When Dan spoke to him now, which was but seldom, it was with an imprecation, or to utter some stinging jibe. Davie was pretty thick-skinned, and it took a good deal of rough usage or hard language to make much impression on him; but his dislike to Old Dan had been gaining strength, and it now included in a measure O'Byrne also, of whom at times he was in some bodily fear.
He ruminated long over the matter as he lay on his bunk. At last he jumped up, saying:
"Ecod! I'll dae it. An' they can blame naebody but themselves."
Davie thereupon, after first helping himself liberally from the whisky jar, began to busy himself in evident preparations for departure. He gathered together his blankets and other belongings, and rolling all up with well-accustomed dexterity into a neat and handy swag, awaited the boiling of the tea-billy and the cooking of some potatoes, which he had placed on the replenished fire.
"It's an auld sayin' that prayer an' provender never yet hindered ony ane on a journey," he said to himself. "I canna' mebbe speak wi' much experience aboot the prayer, but I'm able—nane better—to uphaud the truth o' it respectin' the provender."
He had just finished his meal when Old Dan returned. Dan had been back at the whisky-still, or had been employing himself somewhere on the clearing, and Davie had seen nothing of him since O'Byrne left.
"Be the powers," he said in his hard voice as he came in, "it's a nick in the post I'll be afther puttin'—the billy boiled page 238and the praties cooked. But, faith, it's the only work ye have any relish for, is getting ready the tucker; and ye won't do that same itself, av ye can lave it to somebody else, till hunger drives ye to it—bad luck to yer lazy carcass and greedy guts—it's the wan is the only thing that'll make the other exart itself."
"Haud yer tongue, ye limb o' the de'il," Davie replied, rising and picking up his swag, "haud yer tongue, an' keep yer venomous auld breath to cool yer parritch wi But I needna' quarrel wi' ye noo when I'm pairtin' wi' ye, an' it's ower thankfu' I'll be to see the last o' ye this day—the last o' ye, am I sayin'?—ecod; mebbe no, for when you're gaun to be hanged—as I ha' sma' doot ye wull be—I wad gang fifty miles to see ye dance on the ticht-rope. But I'm leavin' ye noo, an' we needna' pairt ill freends. I'm leavin' ye for guid an' a', an' that's news that'll gi'e ye pleasure, I'm thinkin'."
"Och! sure an' ye'll lave us a lock av yer hair afore ye go, won't ye now? "Dan said, mockingly. "But ye're lavin' us, are ye? An' what's the manin' av yer takin' yersilf aff in sich a hurry, all at wanst now. Faith, an' it's no good yer afther, I'll be bound—it's no good ye're afther—do ye mind me now?"
Dan was more voluble than was usual with him, and seemed bent on a quarrel.
"It's ower lang I ha'e been here," Davie answered, as he walked outside and laid his swag for a moment on a bench there, while Old Dan followed him. "I'm thinkin' I hae been ower lang here whaur honest folk ha'e sma' richt to be—an' sae I'm juist leavin' ye."
"Ye come like a snake (sneak), and ye'll go like a snake," Old Dan replied with an oath, "It's informer ye'll be afther turnin' now, isn't it, sure?" and he laughed a mocking laugh, edging nearer the other, and taking a hurried glance around. "Ye're too honest a man to be defraudin' the rivinue, and page 239ye'll be for bringin' the police on us, that's what ye'll be afther doin', isn't it, now, and be gettin' a reward, faith, for that same?"
"I'll no' dae that—I'll no' be daein' that," replied Davie, hurriedly. "De'il tak' the information I'll gi'e," he went on. "I wull say ye ha'ena' been vera freendly or ower ceevil to me since I cam' here, an' no' likely to be, an' sae we may as weel pairt, an' I'll just gang awa' back to the tramp again. But de'il tak' the information I'll gi'e," he repeated, as he turned to pick up his swag. "Though if the hale business wad be publeeshed by the morrow's morn, it wad, mebbe, only serve ye richt."
"Publeesh it in hell, then," Old Dan hissed, as, drawing the knife from its sheath on his hip, he sprang forward, and ere Davie could raise a hand to defend himself or leap aside, struck him through the heart.
One gasp and groan was all poor Davie uttered as he fell.
The murderer, waiting only to cast another anxious look around, dragged the body to the back of the wharé, and concealed it under the heap of cocksfoot straw which Davie himself had damped with water on the previous evening. He little thought when doing so that his dead body would lie under it before another sun had set. Alas for the short-sightedness of poor humanity!
Davie's swag was carried round and hidden in the same place. Dan then proceeded to efface all traces of the deed. Blood marks were removed, and hot ashes or fresh earth strewn over them. Then, after a long swig from the whisky jar, Old Dan sat down to his dinner, which he seemed to relish with appetite undiminished and unaffected by the terrible incident which had just taken place, and in which he had been the chief actor. And afterwards, during the afternoon, as he sat on a hinaú log outside the door and smoked his pipe, his hard-set features gave little evidence page 240of the working of the evil mind within. A furtive glance once or twice in the direction in which the body of the murdered man lay, and the persistent watch which he kept on the track leading to the outer world, as far as it was visible to him, were the only signs which told of uneasiness or anxiety.
But visitors to O'Byrne's section were rare. There were no settlers beyond it, or in the vicinity of it; and, in the direction of the township, it was nearly two miles to the first clearing or habitation. Dan's chief concern was lest O'Byrne himself should return for some reason sooner than anticipated; but he judged, and judged rightly, that Dennis would make a stay in the township of a night or two at least. There was, however, always a degree of uncertainty about the latter's movements, and Dan's great anxiety was lest his mate should unexpectedly return.
But his solitude remained unbroken, and as soon as night fell he began to busy himself about the burial of his victim. Behind the wharé, in the potato plot, where some of the early crop had been already dug, was the spot he selected for the grave. The top soil he carefully placed on one side, to be again replaced on the top when his awful work was finished; but the chocolate loam was deep, and the subsoil even, for a considerable depth, differed but little in colour or appearance from the soil on the surface.
Old Dan laboured unremittingly at his work, and silently, save when a muttered curse broke from him. His task was at length so far completed—deep and long and wide enough the hole which he had made seemed to lie for its purpose. With difficulty he drew himself out of it, and then, dragging the body to the edge, he rolled it in. But first he rifled the pockets of what money they contained, and even appropriated a stick of tobacco which he found page 241in one of them; for Old Dan was of a frugal habit in his way, and careful that nothing should be needlessly wasted. Davie's swag was flung in also; that swag which had been carried over many a far-away lonely track, which had been flung off in the men's quarters of many a distant station, where its colour and outline was almost as well-known as its owner was, at last found a permanent resting-place. The well-worn Tam-o-'Shanter cap was also thrown in, and lay near the head it had so often covered. Old Dan then filled in the earth, ramming it tightly with a wooden rammer, round and over the body, and thence to the surface, so as to guard as much as possible against any subsequent subsidence exciting suspicion as to what might lie beneath. The potato stalks, which had previously strewn the ground, were again scattered over it, and the work was finished.
The night was now very dark. At first, as Old Dan laboured at his task, a young moon had looked aslant upon him from above the tree tops in the west, but it had now set, and heavy clouds had come up. A rising wind moaned dismally through the bush near by, and through the branches of some dead trees which still stood in the clearing, and which, just dimly visible against the sombre sky, looked spectre-like and weird. As Old Dan turned and walked towards the wharé a "mopoke" owl that had settled on the ridge of it, and had been uttering at intervals its mournful cry, shrieked and flew away. A superstitious dread for a moment laid its hold upon the murderer, and with a scared look behind him, he hurried into the doorway and struck a light. The light and a deep draught of whisky re-assured him, and he could then even laugh grimly at his momentary fears. He afterwards went back and fired the heap of cocksfoot straw. It had been damped only on the outside on the previous evening and now burned brightly; and as Dan with a long stick tossed up the flaming mass and piled it heavily page 242on the particular spot in which the body had for a time lain, the gaunt tree-tops, the miserable hut and its surroundings, and the fiend-like features of the old man were lit up in clear distinctness. The last trace of the deed was effaced.
The murder was never made public. When O'Byrne returned to the wharé two days afterwards, he was surprised to find that Davie was not there, and made enquiries about him from Dan.
"Didn't ye sue anything av him in the township beyant?" the latter replied. "Sure an' he left the very day ye did yersilf, but late—near dark it was. An' so ye niver sot eyes on him. Begorra, it's the fear av death ye wor afther puttin' into him that mornin', by the same token, whin ye axed him to meet ye down below an' have it out wid ye, av he was afeard to stand up to ye here. Faith an' he tould me he wud go aff on the wallaby agin, an' divil a longer put up wid yer bouncin' an' bullyraggin'—an', faith, I didn't ax him twice to stop, for it's a good riddance av he's gone intoirely."
O'Byrne expressed his fear that Davie, going off as he was supposed to have done, might inform against them, and bring the police down on the whisky-still, and suggested that the plant and material should at once be removed and hidden in some place of concealment in the bush; and to this suggestion Old Dan made at first a show of cordial assent, but afterwards ventured the opinion that they might safely leave things as they were, for, said he, "It's a couple of days or more since he wint, an' av he was goin' to split on us, he wud have done it the very minit he got to the township. Dipind on it, he's aff on the wallaby agin, an' the divil a more we'll hear av him."
And so the contents of the cave were left undisturbed.
O'Byrne visited the township again on the following morning for the purpose of making enquiries from Brasch or others page 243as to whether Davie had been seen during the past two or three days. He could hear no tidings of him, Jacob had not seen him.
"Mein Gott!" he whispered to Dennis, as they sat by themselves in the little back room, "vas you sure he vill have gone at all."
"What do ye mane?" queried Dennis.
"Vell, vell," replied the other, "von does not know vat to belief. Vy did he not call and see me, I venders? And vat moneys had he? He vould vant moneys, von vould belief, to say nodings and for his share of de pusiness."
O'Byrne replied that he believed Davie had a few pounds, and that his reason for not calling at the Cosmopolitan might have been his fear of a renewal of the quarrel between them, about which Dennis made no reservation, and reminded Brasch that Davie had been growing discontented of late, and had often spoken of going back to his old rambling life.
"Ah, veil," said Jacob, musingly, "time vill tell."
But time did not solve the mystery to his mind, yet if he entertained any suspicions of foul play, he discreetly kept them to himself. He did not think that O'Byrne was guilty of any deceit in the matter, but, truth to tell, as the days passed and nothing was seen or heard of Davie, he began to have doubts about the innocence of Old Dan. But to have given expression to his suspicions would have led to other disclosures which it was to his interest to avoid, and he remained silent.
On Davie's old beat—among the companions of his class whom he had met and associated with in his wanderings, among the station hands and station managers in both islands, by whom the cessation of his periodical visits had come to be talked about and regarded as strange—many conjectures were hazarded as to what had become of Scottie, Scotch Davie, Davie Dunlop, the sundowner. It was reported, page 244indeed, that he had gone into the bush country "up north," and, again, that he had died in the hospital in Christchurch, but his true fate and last rusting place remained unrevealed.