George Manville Fenn.

Christmas Penny Readings: Original Sketches for the Season online

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down the street, till I'm blest if I could stand it any longer.

"Oh, you beauties," I says; "if I only had a gun." And then I lay
there, listening and wondering whether I mightn't just as well get up
and have a pipe; and at last of all, because I couldn't stand it any
longer, I gets up, goes to the window, opens it softly, and says -

"Ssh!"

Lor' bless you! you might just as well have said nothing, for there they
were a-going it all round to that degree, that it was something awful,
and I stood there half dressed, and leaning out of the window, wondering
what was best to be done. There was no mistake about it; there they
were, cats of all sorts and sizes, and of all kinds of voices - some was
very shrill, some very hoarse, and some round and deep-toned, and
meller. Now and then some one would open a winder, and cry, "Ssh," same
as I did, but as soon as they smelt what a sharp frost it was, they shut
them down again, and at last I did the same, and made up my mind as I
crept into bed again, as I'd go where there was no cats.

Yes, that was a capital idea, that was - to move to a place where there
was no cats, and on the strength of that determination, I went off fast
asleep.

Next morning over my breakfast, I got thinking, and come to the
conclusion, that I'd cut myself out a bit of a job. Where was I to get
a little house or lodgings where there was no cats, for were not the
happy, domestic creatures everywhere? No; that was of no use, but I
warn't going to stand having my rest broken night after night in that
way; so I mounted a trap, for I'd made up my mind, that out of revenge,
I'd have a full-sized railway rug lined with scarlet cloth, while the
rug itself should be of _fur_.

First night I sets my trap, I baited it with a bit of herring. Goes
next morning and found the herring had been dragged out at the side, and
the trap warn't sprung. Sets it next night, baited with two sprats;
goes next morning to find 'em gone, but no pussy. And so I went on,
week after week, till I got tired out, and tried poison, which hit the
wrong game, and killed our neighbour's tarrier dog. Then I thought I'd
try an air-gun, but somehow or another there was a fault in that gun,
for it wouldn't shoot straight, and I never hit one of the nuisances. A
regular powder-and-shot gun I couldn't try, because it would have spoken
so loud, that all the neighbours would have heard and known who was
killing the cats.

Last of all, one moonlight night I was down at the bottom of our garden,
when I happens to look up towards the back door, and see a long-tailed
tortoise-shell beauty sneaking into the kitchen.

"All right, my pretty one," I says, quietly. "You'll do for the middle
of the rug," and then stealing softly up, I got to the door, slips in,
and had it to in a moment, and then getting hold of the copper-stick and
lid, just like a sword and shield, I goes forward to the attack.

No mistake, there was Mrs Puss glaring at me like a small tiger, and as
I advanced, she made a rush by me, but there was no escape that way, and
then I shut the kitchen-door.

Bang - crash went the crockery, for as I made a hit at the brute, she
flew on to the dresser, and along one of the shelves, sending jugs and
plates down helter-skelter on the floor, where they smashed to bits.

"All down to your credit, my beauty," I says, and I made another hit at
her, when "whoosh," spitting and swearing, she was up on the
chimney-piece in a jiffey, and down came the candlesticks, while Polly
puts her head in at the door, and then, seeing what was the matter,
slips off again in a moment, bangs the door to, and keeps on shouting to
me to drive the thing out. But talking was one thing, and acting
another, for you never did see such a beast; she was here, there, and
everywhere in the same moment; and though I kept hitting at her with the
copper-stick, I could hit anything else but her, as you'd have said, if
you'd seen me fetch the vegetable-dish and cover off the dresser with a
smash, and then seen the copper lid split in two, when I shied it at
her.

Why, she flew about to that degree, that I got frightened of her, for at
last she came at me, tore at my legs, and then was over my shoulder in
an instant, while feeling quite scared, I just saw her dash up the
chimney, and she was gone.

"But you won't stop there, my lady," I says, and I was right, for next
moment the brute came scrambling down, and we went at it again: she
cutting about, and me hitting at her till I got savage, for I never
touched her once. Now I hit the table; now it was something off the
dresser; now she'd dodge behind the saucepans and kettles, on the black
pot-board under the dresser; and now there'd be such a clatter and
rattle, that Polly gave quite a scream, for she was wide enough awake
then, I can tell you; but the jolly a bit could I touch that precious
cat; and at last she stood in one corner of the kitchen, and I stood in
the other looking at her, with her tail like a bottle-brush, her fur all
up, and her back set up like an arch, and then I thought I'd try
coaxing.

"Pussy, pussy, pussy," I says, but she only swore and spit at me.

"Poor pussy; come then," I says; but she wouldn't come near me, and then
I turned so savage that I threw the copper-stick at her, but only hit
the tea-tray as stood on a little side-table.

"Bang, clang, jangle," down it come on to the floor, and then there was
a rush, and a smash, and a scream from Polly; and I stood skretching my
head, and looking at the broken kitchen-window - for the beauty had shot
right through it when the tea-tray fell down, and now there was nothing
to do but pick up the pieces, and go and ask the glazier to come and put
in the broken square.

"Oh, what a kitchen," says Polly, as she came in, and really it did look
a bit upset, and then seeing as she was put out, and going to make a
fuss, I says -

"Bad job; ain't it, my gal; but it warn't me; _it was the cats_!"

"Drat the cats!" says Polly; and she looked so scornful and cross, that
I give up all thoughts on the instant of ever getting a skin rug; but if
there is any one mortal thing as I do hate, it's a cat.



CHAPTER THIRTEEN.

AN AUSTRALIAN CHRISTMAS.

No snow, no frosts, no bare trees, but in the daytime glowing, sultry
heat, and of a night soft, balmy, dewy, moonlit hours, and yet it was
Christmas-time, and the whole of the past day I had been picturing to
myself the cold, sharp, bracing weather at home, with the busy shops and
the merry Christmas faces, and now on that 24th of December I was
dreaming away of the old home, fourteen thousand miles away; going over
again the sad hearts with which we come away, and how we gazed till our
eyes swam at the fast fading shores; recalling every sigh and sorrowful
thought, when all at once there seemed to be a feeling of horror come
over me, and I started up on the heath bed and looked about. But all
was still; close beside me lay Abel Franks, my mate and companion,
sleeping heavily; the moon was shining through the little window right
upon the two dogs stretched before the fireplace, and made it light
enough for me to see that everything was in its place. There were the
skin rugs on the floor, the rough bench, stool, and table; the guns,
rods, nets, and oars of our boat; the shelf with its pile of birds'
skins, the brightest hued which fell to our guns; skins of opossum and
kangaroo hung against the wall; the burnt-out lamp on the table, with
the fragments of our supper, all just as we had left them, while as the
surest sign that nothing had disturbed me the dogs were curled up quite
motionless, when their quick ears would have heard a step in an instant.

I lay down again and listened attentively for a few minutes, and once
heard faintly the howl of a wild dog, but that was all, and there in the
stillness of night, in that far-off Australian wild, I was slowly dozing
off when I again started up and this time Abel was up too staring at me.

"What is it, Harry?" he cried, as at the same instant I asked him a
similar question, and then up leaped both dogs, set up the rough hair
round their necks, and ran to the door growling fiercely. The moment
after came the cracking of sticks, a rustling through the bushes, and a
heavy body fell up against the door, making the rough woodwork creak.

Living as we did in a hut of our own making, furnished by ourselves, our
own cooks and managers, we studied dress and toilets but very little;
our custom was to throw ourselves down upon our skin-covered bed of
heath, so that upon this occasion we were both instantly upon our feet,
and, seizing our guns, stood in readiness for action, if defence were
needed, for in the days of Australia's early settlements, before the
bursting forth of the gold fever, many were the raids made by the
savage, and the worse than savage bushranger, escaped "hand," or
convict, sent over from the mother country as a part of the dregs of her
population, to settle in the infant colonies.

To open the door seemed the first thing, but we naturally hesitated, for
that meant giving perhaps an enemy admission to our fortress, for the
noise at the door might have been but a ruse to get the better of our
caution. A heavy groan, however, decided us, and as I stood with my
double gun ready cocked, and a couple of ready patched bullets rammed
hastily down upon the charges of duck-shot, Abel cautiously undid the
fastenings, and the two dogs, no mean aids at such a time, stood ready
for a spring.

There was something startling and oppressive there in the stillness of
the great wild, quite two miles as we were from the nearest station, and
now roused from slumber in so strange a way; but there was no time for
thought, for grasping his long knife in one hand, with the other my
companion sharply opened the door, and as he did so a figure fell into
his arms. The moonbeams, which streamed in at the open door, gave
enough light to show us that we had nothing to fear from the new-comer,
who lay before us groaning, while the dogs darted out after a momentary
pause by his side, and began scouring about the open.

"Shut the door - quick - quick," groaned the man, "they're tracking me."

We quickly acted upon his advice, and then, carefully covering the
window and door with rugs, obtained a light and began to examine our
visitor. And a ghastly spectacle he presented: a gash on his forehead
was bleeding profusely, covering his face with blood; his shirt was torn
and dragged half off, while one arm lay doubled under him in a strange
unnatural position, as if it were broken.

"Why it's Jepson," cried Abel in a whisper, and as he spoke the wounded
man started, opened his eyes and stared wildly, but closed them again,
groaning heavily.

We lifted the poor fellow on to our bed, all the while listening for the
warning we expected momentarily to hear from our dogs, for without
explanation we knew well enough what had happened, namely, a night
attack upon the little station of our neighbour, Mr Anderson, whose
shepherd had made his escape to us.

Abel was, like me, all in a tremble, for we knew not yet what was the
extent of the disaster, and though we neither of us spoke, we knew each
other's thoughts; and our trembling was not from fear for ourselves, but
for what might be the fate of Mary Anderson, the blue-eyed Scottish
girl, whose presence lent a charm to this far-off wild.

Hastily binding up the poor fellow's head, I looked at and laid in an
easier position his arm, which was also bleeding, having evidently been
broken by a ball from gun or revolver. A few drops of rum poured
between his teeth revived him, and he was able to answer our questions.

"Rangers, sir - six of 'em. They've burnt the place down, shot the
master and young Harry, and gone off with Miss Mary and the servant gal.
I was tracking them, but they were too much for me; two of them hung
back and caught me from behind. I did all I could, and then ran on
here."

The exertion of saying this was too much for him, and he fainted away,
while half mad with grief and horror, Abel and I stood gazing at one
another.

It was evident that the villains would not molest us, for they probably
only followed poor Jepson for a short distance, and then hurried after
their companions. If they had been in pursuit we should have known of
their presence before this from the dogs, which now came whining and
scratching at the door for admittance.

We did all we could for the shepherd, and then, following Abel's
example, I drew the shot charge from my gun, replaced the bullets,
buckled on an ammunition pouch, and then reloaded and primed my
revolver. Seeing these preparations going on, the dogs immediately
became uneasy and eager to be off, and though our quarry was to be far
different to any to which they were accustomed, it would have been a
strong, daring man that could have successfully combatted our
four-footed allies.

Our preparations were soon made, and then, after placing the spirit and
water beside the wounded man, we started off for Anderson's Creek
through the dense tea-scrub, for in our then excited state we made for
the shortest cut. The moon was fast sinking towards a heavy bank of
clouds, but she gave us light for best part of our journey, while the
remainder was made plain for us by the glowing house and farm buildings
in our front.

I couldn't help it - when I saw the wreck of that house where I had spent
so many happy hours, and shudderingly thought of poor Mary, dragged off
by the bloodthirsty villains, I stopped short and gave vent to a bitter
groan.

This roused Abel, who cried savagely to me to come on; for, faithful and
true friends in everything else, there was one rock upon which we split,
and that was our admiration for Mary Anderson. He was maddened himself,
and scarcely knew how to contain his feelings, but the idea of me
grieving for her at such a time seemed to exasperate him, and he almost
yelled out -

"Don't be a woman, Fred; come on, or we shall be too late."

"Too late!" Too late for what? A shudder ran through me as I asked
myself the question, and taking no notice of Abel's angry manner, I was
at his side in an instant, and we dashed on though the bushes.

Just as we got up to the rough fence Abel stumbled and fell over
something, and on recovering himself he stooped and raised the head of a
man. The ruddy flames shone full upon his countenance, and we saw that
it was Harry, one of Mr Anderson's men. He was quite dead, for the
side of his head was battered in. Abel softly laid down the poor
fellow's head, and then we went cautiously round the building, with guns
cocked and ready, in case the villains might be lurking about, though we
knew enough of such catastrophes to feel assured that directly they had
secured all the plunder and ammunition they could carry off they would
decamp.

The greater part of the buildings were blazing. The house was nearly
level with the ground, but the men's shed and the wool store still
blazed furiously, and on getting round to the back we both raised our
pieces to fire, but dropped them again directly, for just in front,
squatting round some glowing embers, were a party of black fellows, whom
we might have taken for the perpetrators of this foul outrage, had we
not known of their peaceable, inoffensive conduct.

In another instant they were running up to us, and a tall fellow,
evidently their leader, suddenly threw himself into position, with his
long, slender spear held horizontally, as if for throwing, and with the
point aimed directly at my breast. Even in the midst of my trouble and
anxiety I could not help thinking what an effect such a salute would
have upon a stranger, for the unerring aim with which these untutored
men can throw a spear is something surprising. But in another instant
the spear end touched the ground, and the party closed round us,
chattering and begging, and earnest in their efforts to make us aware
that they had not been the guilty parties.

"Mine no fire," said the leader. "No black fellow kill."

"No, no," I said; "but who was it?"

"Dat Sam, Sooty Sam," said the savage, holding up six fingers, and
pointing towards the bush.

I nodded, and shuddered, for I knew but too well the character of the
mulatto convict known as Sooty Sam.

"You give me tickpence, mine shar," cried the fellow.

Money was an article I seldom carried then, unless bound for the nearest
settlement for stores, but I happened to have a fourpenny piece in my
tobacco pouch, and I gave it to him.

"Dat not tickpence, dat fourpenny," shouted the fellow, indignantly, for
constant communion with the settlers had induced a strong desire for the
coins that would procure rum or whisky.

A display of my empty pocket, however, satisfied my black ally, and
leading us towards one of the sheep pens, he coolly pointed out the body
of Mr Anderson, shot through the head, and lying just as he had fallen.

We soon learned from the blacks which way the men had fled, and tried to
induce them to go with us to track the marauders, but without avail,
night work being their special abomination, and nothing short of a fire
like the present sufficing to draw them from their resting-place. We
knew that our proper course was to rouse the neighbours at the nearest
stations, but in our impatience to pursue the scoundrels prudence and
management were forgotten. Unable to gain the assistance of the blacks,
we determined to commence the pursuit alone with our dogs, after
promising the fellows "much rum" if they would rouse the neighbouring
settlers, who, we knew, would soon be on our trail; but in spite of the
direction being pointed out, we found, to our disappointment, that the
darkness would prove an enemy, and that we must wait for daylight, and
reluctantly turned back.

All at once a ray of hope shot through my breast; just before me was old
Gyp, my favourite dog, a great half-bred sheep and wolf hound, who was
growling and snarling over a heap of what looked like sail cloth, but
which inspection showed to be a tattered duck frock, filthily dirty, and
stained with blood, evidently having been cut off by some wounded man.

Old Gyp was licking the bloody part, and growling angrily, and on my
speaking to him, and encouraging him, he yelped and whined; and then,
setting his nose to the ground, ran a few yards, looked back, yelped
again, and then would have set off full speed along the trail, had I not
called him back and tied a piece of tar band to his neck, holding the
other end in my hand.

Abel's eyes glittered as he saw the great powerful beast strain to be
off, and then, without a word, we set off at a trot, and leaving the
glowing fire behind, plunged into the darkness before us.

We reckoned that the villains had about two hours start, but encumbered,
as we knew they must be, with booty, and the two women, we felt sure
that, even with the horses they had doubtless taken, they could not have
retreated at a very great rate; why, though we both felt that it was
like plunging into the lion's jaws, and that most likely one, if not
both of us, would lose our lives in the impending struggle, there was
not a thought in either of our breasts that savoured of fear, for the
desire to overtake the villains was intense.

But it was a fearful task. The darkness was now terrible, and the eager
beast struggled on, irrespective of bush or thorn, while every now and
then some thick tuft in the track would trip me up. Abel had a hard
task to keep up with me. But before daylight matters grew better, for
we were in the wood, where there was scarcely any undergrowth, and when
day broke we were threading our way through the sombre forest, where the
tree trunks were all around, apparently endless, and so similar that
only the sagacious beast before us, or a native, could have found a way
through.

Now and then we could catch a glimpse of a star or two, but directly
after the clouds seemed to close up again, and we stumbled on till a
faint light announced the coming day, which found us blackened, torn,
and bleeding, but as feverishly eager for the fray as ever.

As for track, that was invisible to us, excepting now and then, where
the print of a horse's hoof showed in a moist place, and told us that
the faithful beast with us was worthy of the trust placed in him. Now
we were out in the open, then making our way again through the
tea-scrub, and then skirting a ravine beside the range of rugged, bleak
rocks, standing out bold and barren, while the ravine, now here and
there green, where a pool of water remained, or a tiny rivulet trickled
along where we saw a rushing river in the rainy season.

If one's heart could have been at rest how beautiful was the scene
around, tree, bush, flower, and rugged mossy stone, where the track
wound in and out, now down into the deep ravine, now crossing the little
bright rill which sometimes trickled beneath the grass, and again
appeared, leaping from rock to rock. Birds everywhere flitting and
climbing about the trees, or hanging in places, like flowers of gorgeous
hues.

But there was no peace for us, and we strode on till from the early
freshness of the morning we were panting through the heat of the day,
heat so oppressive that it grew unbearable, and but for the errand of
life and death upon which we were engaged, we should have rested until
the sun was again low down in the horizon.

Sooner or later we felt sure that we should come upon some traces of the
marauders, and we were not disappointed, for, all at once, the dog gave
a whining bark, and began snuffing about in the grass, where lay a
bottle evidently but lately cast aside. Then on again, panting, with
parched lips and tongue: any doubts that we had formerly had respecting
the dog's ability to trace the marauders being now fully put to flight.

And now the track led us right down into the deep ravine, where the
sides rose seventy or eighty feet high on either side, at times almost
perpendicular; but in spite of the roughness of the path, the coolness
was most grateful as we struggled on beneath the shade.

I was at times so faint that I could gladly have rested, but the thought
of those on before acted as a spur to my flagging energies, and I
pressed on. Abel seemed to know no fatigue, and when he was in front,
holding the dog, I had hard work to keep up with him, while I could hear
him muttering to himself angrily as he pressed on.

All at once we pulled short up, startled by the threatening aspect that
had come over the heavens. It was evident that a storm was coming on;
and knowing, as we did, the character of the rain in the region we were
in, the thought crossed both our minds, what would the ravine be if a
storm came. But the dragging of the dog roused us, and again we pressed
on, feeling convinced that we must be close upon the scoundrels; and
indeed we were so close that, at the next turning, we came in sight of
them - six, with two horses, two of the fellows being mounted, and with
one of the women before him.

No sooner were we in sight than the dog bayed loudly; the two mounted
men dashed on, while the other four posted themselves to oppose our
further passage. There was no turning to the right or left, for the
rugged banks effectually opposed all exit, in some parts completely
overhanging the glen, and, outnumbered as we were, ours was but an
awkward position. However, in the excitement of the moment, fear seemed
to have fled, and holding the dog back, we hurried forward to where the
fellows stood, taking advantage of every screen which presented itself
as we advanced, for we knew how much mercy we had to expect as soon as
we came within shot.

Fortunately for us, the huge blocks of quartz lying about afforded ample
shelter, and we darted from place to place, each minute getting nearer
and nearer. All at once, as I made a run forward to a mass in my front,
there was a sharp reverberating crack, and I heard a bullet whistle by
my ears, but the next moment I was in safety, and then Abel rushed to my
side, but he was not so fortunate, for, as he crossed the open, two
shots were fired, one of which grazed his shoulder and just drew blood.

It was now a matter of regular Indian warfare, and we knew well enough
that if we dashed forward we must be shot down before we could get
hand-to-hand with the ruffians, so Abel took one side of the rock, and I
the other, to try and get a return shot at our enemies. It was a mass
some fifty feet in length, and when I reached the end I heard Abel fire,


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Online LibraryGeorge Manville FennChristmas Penny Readings: Original Sketches for the Season → online text (page 9 of 19)