In the Shadow of the Bush
O'Byrne did not find that Dan's temper improved at all with the absence of Davie. On the contrary, the old man became, if possible, more morose and cantankerous than before. Occasionally, indeed, when well primed with whisky, which he now seemed fonder of, and partook of to excess more frequently, he would indulge in bursts of fiendish hilarity, and would dance and caper in outrageous mockery of merriment, giving vent the while to obscene and blasphemous profanity.
But he kept his secret. No word he uttered, at least, in his waking hours, could arouse suspicion as regards that which was rarely absent from his thoughts. The terrible proximity of the potato plot and of what lay beneath it began to have an effect on even the iron nerves and callous feelings of Old Dan. Though his hardened nature was proof against all approach of pity or remorse, or even of the dread of retributive justice, yet it was not wanting in superstitious fears. Had the buried body been but a mile away, he could have borne with the thought of it unmoved, but the persistent presence of it so near him, both by day and night, was beginning to be felt even by him. In the dark, especially during the after-effects of a more than usually severe drinking-bout, he did not care to pass the spot where his victim lay, and if be came to the door of the wharé after nightfall, he was apt to cast a scared look in that direction. Impelled, page 246on the one hand, to keep watch and guard over the fateful spot, on the other, the inclination grew strong within him to get away from it, if only for a day or two; and at length he went down to the Cosmopolitan to seek the relief which a brief sojourn there might afford. But he did not like the scrutinising way in which Brasch eyed him, and felt uneasy under his glances: and when that individual came quietly behind him as he lounged by himself in the doorway on the evening of his arrival, and whispered, "Vat did you do mit Davie?" Dan started, and then turned savagely on his questioner with an oath and a look in his eyes that made Jacob hastily retreat a step or two.
"What the—— ——do I know about him?" he answered. "Didn't he lave the wharé beyant an' come down this way? It's yersilf that mebbe knows more about him than I do, I'm tellin' ye now. It wouldn't do for ye, now, av he brought the pelice on ye, ye know what for. Faith, an' ye'd have more to lose than ayther av us, so be after kapin' yer tongue quate, me boy. Av the Scotch b——has gone aff on his travels ag'in, sure an' it'll hurt nayther me nor you."
"I vill hope he vill not have travelled on his long journey, dat is all," Brasch said, as he turned and went into the bar.
Though no further mention was made of Davie's disappearance, Dan did not feel quite at home during his stay at the Cosmopolitan, and did not make it a long one. He drank more deeply, however, than was usual with him when away from home, and spent his money more freely than was his wont. Later in the evening when several fellows had come in, he shouted for all hands in the room, took a hand at a game of euchre, and became, for him, noisy and talkative, though somewhat quarrelsome at times.
On the following forenoon, as he strolled down to the other end of the township, he came upon Frank Ashwin, who was standing in front of one of the principal stores page 247in company with M'Keown, who had also come in on some business of his employer's.
Ashwin had now nearly recovered from the effects of his accident. Old Dan had heard of it, and gloated over it with many a malediction and muttered wish that worse had befallen; for the sting of the stock-whip still rankled in his vindictive breast, and he vowed to himself that he would some day wipe out that score. He now leered at Ashwin as he approached, and stopped on coming near. He had already taken two or three whiskies during the morning, and feeling, besides, at more than usual enmity with the world, was disposed to vent his spite on some object, and could not resist the impulse to accost Ashwin, whom he so cordially hated.
"An' how's yer honour this mornin', Mr. Ashwin? an' how did ye lave yer frind the ould convict, an' his lovely daughter, eh? Have ye married her yit? O be the powers," he went on, "ye wud niver be afther doin' that same widout axin' me to the weddin'—all the ould frinds av the family will lie there that day for sartin, mesilf among thim in a sate av honour."
"Be off, you old scoundrel. It is perhaps as well that I haven't a stock-whip handy, or I would lift your hide with it again," Ashwin said, with rising anger, as he turned and walked into the store, anxious to get rid of the undesirable presence of Old Dan, and prevent further words of insult.
"I haven't forgot the stock-whip, ye b——," Dan said; and then he laughed mockingly and called out, "Och, ye're a purty man, a swate gintleman, intoirely—an' ye'll not forgit to ax me to the weddin'—an ould frind av the family, ye know—faix, an' mebbe it's wanted I'll be to give the bride hersilf away, av the ould man shouldn't feel up to it." And Dan took a few steps forward, moving as if he had someone on his arm.page 248
"Look here, you imp of the devil," said Maurice, earning up to him—"you satellite of Satan, double-distilled old villain—old Vandemonian and cheat-the-gallows that you are, that ought to have kicked at a rope's-end long ago, or else your face belies you—if you speak another vile word I'll knock you down."
"Who the h——are you, that I mustn't spake?" Dan asked savagely. "Av it's knockin' down ye're talkin' about, I'll drop ye wid this," and he raised menacingly the heavy stick that he carried. But before he could bring it down on the head of M'Keown, if such had been his intention, the latter sprang in upon him, and seizing his descending arm by the wrist twisted it backward, and exerting his great strength, with adroit movement of font and disengaged hand, landed Old Dan on the board of his back on the road, his stick meanwhile having been jerked out of his grasp.
"Lie there, you old villain," said Maurice quietly, "and let it be a warning to you to pass decent people by when you meet them without opening that foul mouth of yours."
But Dan was tough and active for his age, and now, blind with passion and vindictive fury, and regardless for the moment of all consequences, he jumped to his feet, and drawing his knife made a desperate lunge at his opponent. But M'Keown was again too quick for him, and, narrowly escaping a wound, leaped aside and at the same time dealt Dan such a blow on the side of the head as stretched him senseless.
"I hope I haven't killed you right out," he said, with some anxiety. "You're too old a man for me to strike, but when knives are out one can't very well stand on scruples."
By this time several people had collected, and Ashwin, who had again come out, remonstrated with Maurice for page 249having any quarrel with such a man. But he himself, however, felt keenly the insult offered to Miss Elwood through having her name uttered in foul jest by such a one as Dan, and was not, perhaps, sorry to see him prostrate in the road.
Dan now showed some signs of returning animation. Maurice picked up the knife which the relaxed grasp of its owner had let fall.
"An ugly weapon it is in the hands of such a cutthroat," he said, as he examined its long, keen blade and finely-sharpened point; "and I'll send it where it will be out of his reach and lie harmless for a while," and he flung it across the road and some way down a vacant section there, to where, at a bend of the shallow gully that traversed the township, a piece of raupo swamp lay; but no "arm, clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful," caught and "drew under in the mere" Old Dan's Excalibur.
Meanwhile, Dan had recovered consciousness and was making an effort to gain his feet.
"Lie still," said Maurice; "lie still, old catamountain, till I talk to you; but don't utter a word, or I'll gag you with your own cudgel here, and hand you over to Constable O'Flaherty if he's about, or tie you to this horse post and let the boys make a cockshy of you till he comes, or I'll walk you down to the lock-up myself. You would do murder, would you? If one tries to stop your foul breath from polluting God's air, you would draw the knife and do murder, would you, you old hyæna? Now, up you get—I'd lift you by the scruff of the neck and set you on your feet again, but I've really an objection to touch you if I can help it. It's to prison you ought to go for this, but I'd rather not be put to the trouble of appearing against you—so you can go now, my picture of benevolence; but on the understanding, page 250mind you, that when you walk the streets of this township, you'll only speak when you're spoken to, and then in a low voice and civil tone. I'll see you on your way a bit, just out of the crowd; and, maybe, give you a little advice in private, if I could think it would do you any good. Pick up your stick."
Dan picked it up and walked sullenly off towards the Cosmopolitan, accompanied for a little way by M'Keown, but whatever his feelings may have been, he uttered not a word. After the other had departed from him, however, and returned to the store, Dan faced round, and by the movement of his lips was seen to be speaking to himself
"He's asking a blessing on us now and making a vow that he'll turn over a new leaf," Maurice said, with a laugh.
Had he listened to the dreadful vow registered by Old Dan he might not have laughed so lightly, nor would the sweet slumbers of pretty Mary Robinson have been unbroken for many a night had it reached her ears, for Old Dan's hatred was now turned into a new channel, and the latest object of it—this man who had mastered and cowed him and held him up to ridicule should, he intended, be the first to feel his vengeance.
Dan returned home the same afternoon with temper, as O'Byrne found, not at all improved by his visit to Bloomsbury. But his eye brightened and a grim smile played on his hard features as he took down and examined the rifle which he was in the habit of using in his hunting expeditions.
"The wild cattle have come over to this side ag'in," Dennis remarked. "I heard thim bellowin' last night not far aff. Ye'll be thinkin' av havin' a shot at thim ag'in, Dan. Faith, an' it's out av mate we'll be afore long."
Dan acquiesced, and said he would give the rifle "a bit av a clane," as it would be all the better for it.
It has been said that Dan, in his intercourse with page 251O'Byrne, allowed no word to escape him that could tend to arouse suspicion in the mind of the latter relative to the dreadful end that had overtaken Davie. But in Old Dan's confused mutterings whilst asleep on the night following his return from the township, O'Byrne heard enough to startle him, and cause him to sit up in his bunk with the perspiration breaking on his brow.
"Holy Virgin!" he whispered as he listened, "could there have been foul play?"
But he could hear nothing additional to give further light or assurance. Dan's thoughts had taken a new turn, and he muttered savagely of stock-whips and number thirty-seven, and then laughed mockingly in his sleep.
"It's only drames," O'Byrne said to himself—" drames that come to us in quare shapes in spite av ourselves, an' flit an' flutter through the head like birds in the top av a tree, that sing or scraigh as the fancy takes thim."
But he was not altogether at ease; and, besides, he had become somewhat dissatisfied of late. Old Dan, as a companion, was getting each day more objectionable, and the prospect in front of Dennis did not give promise of much happiness. How could he expect Molly to share his life here? Whisky-making might be an easy way of gaining money, but the money seemed to slip away just as easily. He found that he was no better off at the end of the year than he was at the beginning. There was, of course, a certain charm about the life to one of his rollicking disposition, but it was beginning to pall with him, and after all there was not so much profit in the business as he had expected. Brasch really had the best of it, for the price he paid for the manufactured article was very low, while he was able to retail it at the usual price.
Dennis, after much thought as he lay awake, made up his mind to offer the section and his share of the whisky still to Brasch at a low figure, and clear out.page 252
"Ye can have it," he said to Brasch—for he went off specially on the following morning to see him on the subject—"Ye can have it at purty well yer own figure. You an' Dan can work the thing between ye aisily enough, an' do a bit av trade with Pat Regan as well."
But Jacob would not entertain the idea at all.
"Mein Gott!" he said, holding up his hands with a frightened look, real or assumed; "mein Gott! I vould not take it at no price at all mit only Old Dan in it. I vould not, Dennis, I tell you sure, mit no ones but him. Ah, no, Dennis, mein boy; you must not tink of leaving us like dat. Ve could not do mitout you. Ve vill make de pusiness grow more big, und bring in de sponduliks like nodings. Ve hab not got Davie to share mit now. I vill still vonder," he added, thoughtfully, "vere he could haf gone. Gone avay to his rambles again—and you vould go, too—vat vill it all mean? Nobodys but Old Dan und meinself vill stick to it. Ah, no, Dennis, mein boy, ve could not work de pusiness mitout you, und I vill haf nodings to do mit Puying."
And thus the negotiation failed.
"You vill stop here for de night," Jacob went on, "und ve vill haf a good time. De boys vill be in, und dey vill be vanting you to sing your songs."
O'Byrne stayed, and in jovial company forgot amidst the bacchanalian orgies of the night his previously-formed resolution to forego whisky-making and, perhaps, whisky-drinking also, and if the words of Old Dan uttered in his sleep crossed his mind in terrible suggestiveness, he did not allow them to dwell there.
"Drames," he said to himself, "nothin' but drames."
Dan, meanwhile, had cleaned the rifle carefully. He took it down again towards evening and handled it affectionately, and the intention crossed his mind of going on an expedition with it the same night now that O'Byrne was page 253absent. But the moon would rise about nine or ten o'clock, and his purpose would be bust suited by darkness. He was not anxious for recognition when he went on the particular service upon which he had set his heart. Besides, he concluded that some delay might be judicious.
"It'll wait," he said. "It'll kape fresh and green. The divil a need there is for hurry, an' it's safer to wait. I'd better lie low for a bit, but I'll kape It in mind, divil a fear av that. It'll do in a twelvemonth for the matter av that for ayther av them. The night afore the weddin' wud suit fine for wan av thim."
And he laughed as he hung up the rifle again, and went outside. One of the dogs was scratching a hole in the potato plot, and Dan, with an oath, flung a piece of wood savagely at him, which sent him off howling.
Dan, probably, sooner or later, would have carried to accomplishment the fell purpose which he had formed, had not an incident occurred that prevented him.
O'Byrne returned early on the following day, and as the wild cattle had been again heard in the vicinity, it was decided to go out in quest of them.
After an early dinner, armed with the rifles and accompanied by the dogs, they set out. Skirting the spurs of the mountain range in the direction from which the bellowing had been heard, they at length came upon fresh tracks. These they followed up till, on a small plateau well up on the range, they came upon the mob.
Cautiously, and keeping the cattle to windward, they crept nearer, the well-trained dogs following close at heel, for the hunters hoped to get near enough for a shot before the cattle became aware of their approach. Had the herd seen or scented them before a shot could be obtained, and broken and fled, then the dogs would have been sent in pursuit, and would probably have succeeded in bailing up and detaining some members of it; though, most likely, page 254only an old bull or two that, scouting danger, would have turned and shown fight. On this occasion, however, Old Dan was able to sight and bring down a fine heifer before the presence of the hunters was apprehended; and this put an end to the chase for the day.
After skinning and cutting up the beast, and reserving a sufficient burden of it for each to carry home, they hung the rest of the carcass to a tree, out of reach of any wild pigs that might be roaming the neighbourhood. They then started homewards, each with his load of meat, intending to return on the following day for a further portion. They proceeded down the same spur for some distance, following a cattle track through the dense bush; and it was O'Byrne's intention to still continue down the same spur to the lower ground, and then keep along the foot of the hills to the wharé by a route that he was familiar with. By crossing a deep gully or ravine on their left, they could have gained a spur on the opposite side which led more directly homewards, and might have shortened the actual distance to be travelled by a mile or more.
This route, however, was extremely rough and steep in its first part; but Old Dan seemed determined to take it.
"Bad luck to the fut I'm goin' roun' the night," he said; "wanst I'm on the other side, it'll be straight down on the wharé for me—an' a dacent track, too."
"Faith, an' ye'd be savin' yersilf a rough tramp an' a steep climb if ye tuk my advice an' come with me," said Dennis—"an' be home ivery bit as soon."
"The divil a fear," replied Dan, who was in an obstinate mood. "Take yer own road for it, an' av I don't bate ye home by twinty minutes, I'll folly like a dog iver afther. It's the night'll be on ye afore ye're there. Ould man an' all that I am, it isn't a gully on the Range that'll frighten me to cross, an' hump a swag av mate into the bargain."page 255
They parted, each taking his own way, the dogs following O'Byrne. He was able to keep on the cattle track for some considerable distance down the spur, and made good progress, though the load which he carried was much heavier than Dan's. He was anxious to reach the wharé first, but was by no means confident of doing so, for though Dan had a long and steep sideling to descend, and another yet steeper to climb on the opposite side, yet he knew that the old man was tough and wiry, and would put forth every effort to beat him.
But when he reached the wharé Old Dan was not there. O'Byrne boiled the billy and had his tea, and still Dan did not come. Night had now set in, and he began to fear that something might have happened to the old man. He could not have lost his way in the bush altogether, he thought; for after crossing the ravine the route could not well be mistaken; and even if he had wandered slightly from the true course, he still ought to have reached home before now.
At last O'Byrne set out to look for him, taking the direction in which he was most likely to meet him. He "cooeed" now and then as he went, stopping to listen for a reply, but none was returned. When at length he gained the brow of the ravine, and was about to again "cooee," he was startled by a wild, despairing yell, more like the howl of some wild animal than the cry of a human being, that rose from the depth below him.
O'Byrne at once plunged downward through the thick and tangled bush, for he knew that he whom he sought was there in some dire strait. The descent appeared to him long and difficult, for the supplejacks caught and held him at times, or tripped him in his hurry. When he had nearly reached the bottom, the same yell was repeated, and was his guide as to the direction he should take; and as he proceeded still farther, he could hear low mutterings, page 256rising at times into what appeared to be fierce questionings and denunciations. Led by the sounds, he at length found Old Dan lying, ripped and drenched with blood on a small flat close by the stream that rattled over its stony bed in the bottom of the gully. He had evidently, in coming down the other side, stumbled into, or invaded suddenly in some way, the lair of a wild boar. The fierce brute must have at once charged him, throwing him down, and inflicting with his tusks as he passed a fearful wound in groin and side. It would seem, also, that as Dan attempted to gain his feet, the boar must have returned to a second charge; but this time, as the brute passed over him, inflicting another gash, Dan, who in the interval must have drawn his knife, had plunged it from beneath into the body of the animal, and, as it was afterwards proved, with fatal effect, for the carcass of the boar was subsequently found only a chain or two away from the spot. He was a huge beast with the scars of many a previous encounter thick upon him. O'Byrne remembered having put a bullet into him on a former occasion, and having had one of his dogs badly ripped by him.
The mosquitos, which were still troublesome in the bush, attracted now by the smell of blood, had collected in myriads about the helpless man, swarming upon his face and in his ears. Maddened by these, and weakened by his wounds and loss of blood, Old Dan was fast losing his senses. He, however, recognised O'Byrne's presence and voice.
"Is it you, Dinnis?" he said. "I'm done for now, Dinnis—the b——boar has put the kybosh on me at last." And then he reverted with wandering mind and disconnected utterances to some of the scenes of his past life.
"Whisht, alannah, whisht," he muttered in soft tones; "it had to be done, an' what's the good av cryin'—let thim that owned him 'keen' for him, bad luck to the page 257breed av thim." And then, breaking into louder speech, and making a vain effort to rise, he went on, "Are ye here agin, ye Scotch b——, standin' there wid yer Glengary cap, an' glarin' at me wid yer stupid eyes, like ye did the minit I knifed ye. The pratie-plot couldn't hould ye, couldn't it?—an' yit I rammed ye well in. Av I could raich ye, I'd knife ye agin," and he made another attempt to raise himself, but fell backward, uttering again, but more feebly, that wild yell of hate and despair which first attracted Dennis to the spot.
Recalled for a moment to a sense of his present position by the effort and by an exclamation of horror from O'Byrne, who crossed himself and began to repeat his prayers, Dan whispered, "Wanderin' in me mind, was I? Ye'll not be heedin' what I was sayin', Dinnis. Ye're me sister's son, Dinnis, an' it's no saycret to ye what I was sent out for—an' me mind is going back in spite av me to the ould places—an' the faces av the dead have looked at me. Whisht!" he went on, after a pause, "do ye hear the keenin' av the wimmin now—they're wakin' Darragh, the night afther he was shot. Och, a bloody vingeance there'll be for that same."
O'Byrne, sorely distressed and perplexed in mind, and horrified by what he had heard, was doubtful how to act. It was impossible for him, single handed, to carry Dan to the wharé; and, on the other hand, it seemed cruel to have to leave him in his present desperate plight in order to seek assistance which could not be obtained in less than an hour and a half or two hours, hurry as he might; and if other ears listened to Old Dan's awful ravings, what fateful consequences might ensue. To set out in search of help was after all the only course likely to be of service to the injured man. O'Byrne, therefore, first binding up and staunching, as best he could, the wounds which even he could see were most serious, if not indeed mortal, and page 258lighting a fire of damp wood near, so as to abate in some measure the onslaught of the mosquitos, and fastening up one of his dogs as some protection, hurried off. Denis was fleet of foot, but his progress through the bush was necessarily slow; and it was only after he reached the wharé, and gained the track leading to the township, that he was able to put on speed. It was some two miles down the track to the nearest habitation; and here he was fortunate in obtaining assistance to return with him, while a boy was sent off to Bloomsbury in quest of the doctor.
It was well that O'Byrne had tied up his dog where Dan lay, and had thrown a log on the fire he had made, else the returning party might have experienced great difficulty in finding the exact spot. The dismal howling of the dog, and, afterwards, a gleam of light from the fire guided them thither—but only to find the dead body of Old Dan. His face still wore the black look of hate that had become familiar to it.
They carried the body to the wharé on a roughly made stretcher, and in the morning it was conveyed to the Cosmopolitan, where an inquest was held.
O'Byrne never returned to the wharé or the section. He shunned the place as if it were plague-stricken. He left Bloomsbury the day after Old Dan's body was laid in clay, and went road-making farther up country.
Brasch gave out that he had bought the section, but some said that O'Byrne had made him a present of it. In any case, Brasch had it transferred to his name, and continued to keep up all payments on it.