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   Chapter 12 No.12

Tom Gerrard By Louis Becke Characters: 9651

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


Fraser, his daughter and their two guests were on the road to Kaburie, and within a few miles of the turn-off to Boorala. Kate and the clergymen were together, her father and Gerrard some hundreds of yards in advance, and all were walking their horses slowly, for the sun was beating fiercely down upon them through the scantily-foliaged gum trees, and Kaburie was yet twenty miles away. The girl sat in her saddle with bent head, and there were traces of tears on her cheeks.

"I am very, very sorry, Mr Forde, for I do like you very, very much-more than any other man in the world except my father. You have always been so kind to him and to me; but I never thought that you would ask me to be your wife. And it hurts me to--"

Forde placed his hand on hers. "Never mind, Kate. It was a foolish dream of mine, that is all. But you were always the one woman in the world to me ever since I first met you two years ago. And it grieves me that I should have made you shed one single tear."

His calm, steady voice, and the firm pressure of his hand reassured her. Her father had said to her a few hours before that Forde would take her refusal "like a man," and she had replied that she knew it.

She raised her face to his as he bent towards her, and, on the impulse of a moment, born of her sincere liking for the man, kissed him. His bronzed features flushed deeply, and his whole frame thrilled as their lips met; and then he exercised a mighty restraint upon himself.

"Good-bye, little woman, and God bless you," he said softly, as he bent over her.

"But why are you going away, Mr Forde? Father will be so distressed, and so indeed will be everybody-for hundreds of miles about."

Forde had drawn himself together again, and swinging his right foot out of the stirrup sat "side-saddle" and lit his pipe.

"Well, you see, Kate, my mother has left me two thousand pounds or so. It was that that gave me pluck enough to speak to your father last night. I thought I would go to him first. Perhaps I made a mistake?"

"No, indeed! He told me all that you said to him, and-oh! Mr Forde, we shall all miss you so much," and as she spoke her eyes filled with tears again. He looked at the gum tree branches overhead, and went on meditatively, apparently not taking heed of her emotion, though his heart was filled with love for the girl, who with bent head, rode by his side.

"And I shall miss much-much out of my life when I leave this part of the colony, Kate. But I was never intended to be a clergyman. I was driven into the Church by my mother-good, pious soul-who, because my father was in the Church, condemned me to it, instead of letting me follow my own bent-which was either the Army or Navy or Commerce."

"But you made a good clergyman," said the girl artlessly.

He shook his head. "Well, the fact is, Kate, that I was always pretty sick of it, although I must say that I like the free open life of the bush, and the people; especially the working men, diggers, and stockmen. And their frank hospitality and rough good nature I can never forget."

"Where do you think of going?"

"To Sydney first Then I'll decide what to do. I am very much inclined to follow your father's example and go in for mining; either that or cattle-breeding. But, of course, I shall write and let you know."

"Do!" she said, earnestly, and then they quickened their horses' pace, as they saw that Fraser and Gerrard had pulled up at the turn-off to Boorala, and were awaiting them.

"Well, Forde, old man," said the mine-owner, as he bade the clergyman good-bye, "you will leave a big hole in the hearts of the people about here. Kate and I especially will miss you. And I do hope that we shall meet again."

"Nothing is more likely. I like Queensland too much to leave it altogether," and then with another warm grasp of the hand, he said good-bye to them all, and turned along the Boorala track.

"One of the whitest men that ever put foot in stirrup," said Fraser a few minutes later to Gerrard.

"I'm sure of it!" assented Gerrard. And then they began to speak of Kaburie, Fraser giving his visitor every possible information about the country and its cattle-carrying capabilities. It was, he said, one of the best-watered runs in the north, and a drought had never been known.

"See!" he said, pointing to a sandal-wood scrub, "that is one of the mustering camps on the Kaburie boundary, and there are some of Mrs Tallis's cattle down there in the creek. Crack your whip, Kate."

Uncoiling the long stock-whip, the girl cracked it once only, but loudly, and in a few seconds hundreds of cattle appeared from the creek, and through the fringe of she-oaks that lined its banks; they clambered up the steep side and stared at the disturbers, and then at a second loud crack of the whip, trot

ted off quietly to the camp-bullocks, steers, cows and calves, the latter performing the usual calf antics, curving their bodies, hoisting their tails, and kicking their heels in the air. Once under the cool, grateful shade of the dark green foliage of the sandalwoods, they quietly awaited to be inspected, and Fraser and Gerrard slowly walked their horses about among them. .

"What do you think of them?" asked the mine-owner, who was himself a good judge of cattle.

"Very fair lot indeed, and all as fat as pigs," replied the squatter, scanning them closely. "Now then, Bully boy, what are you staring at?" he said to a sturdy twelve months' old bull calf, who had advanced to him. "Ah! you want to be branded, do you? Quite so! Well, I think it very likely you soon will be."

"There has been no branding at Kaburie for six months, Mr Gerrard," said Kate, who added that there were now only Mrs Tallis's overseer, and one black boy stockman on the station, who did nothing more than muster the cattle occasionally on the various camps.

Gerrard nodded. "Ladies are bad business people as a rule. There will be a terrible amount of branding to be done now."

Kate, unaware of the twinkle in Gerrard's eyes, was indignant. "Indeed, Mrs Tallis was considered a very good business woman, and knew how to manage things as well as Mr Tallis. What are you laughing at, Mr Gerrard?"

"At Mrs Tallis's smartness. She has saved herself some hundreds of pounds by dismissing her stockmen, and leaving the calves un-branded. All the work and expense will fall on whoever buys the station."

"Oh, I see!" and Kate smiled. "But, after all, I suppose--"

"That all is fair in love and war. And buying a cattle or sheep station is war in a sense between seller and buyer. I should have done the same thing myself, I suppose."

"I don't believe you would," said the girl frankly. "Mr Aulain told father and me that you were very Quixotic."

"Aulain doesn't know what a hard nail I am in money matters sometimes, Miss Fraser. I'm a perfect Shylock, and will have my pound o' flesh-especially bullock flesh."

"I know better, and so do you, father, don't you," and her eyes smiled into Gerrard's. "Mr Aulain told us all about your selling a hundred bullocks to the French authorities at New Caledonia, and then, because half of them died on the stormy voyage to Noumea, you returned half the money. Was it your fault that the steamer was nearly wrecked, and the cattle died?"

"Aulain did not think that it might have only been a matter of my setting a sprat to catch a mackerel. You see I was anxious to establish a big cattle trade with the French people."

Kate shook her head decisively, but there was an expressive look in her eyes that gave Gerrard great content.

Towards the afternoon the travellers saw a horseman coming towards them, and Kate recognised him as Tom Knowles, the overseer of Kaburie, for whom Gerrard had a letter from Mrs Tallis. He was a lithe, wiry little man of fifty, and Kate and her father exchanged smiles as, when he drew near, they saw that he was arrayed in his best riding "togs," was riding his best horse, and that his long grey moustache was carefully waxed. He had long been one of Kate's most ardent admirers, and had a strong belief that he was "well placed in the running with Aulain and the parson" for the young lady's affections-and hand.

"Well, this is a pleasure," he cried, as he rode up and shook hands with Fraser and his daughter; "I was coming over to Gully to spend an hour or two with you, Fraser, but, of course, you are coming to me?"

"Yes!" said the mineowner. "This is Mr Gerrard, Knowles. He has come to see you on business, and we came with him."

The overseer, who had at first looked at Gerrard's handsome face with some disapproval, at once became at ease, and in a few minutes, after Gerrard had explained the object of his visit, the party put their horses into a smart canter, and half-an-hour later came to a wide, sandy-bottomed creek, fringed with huge ti-trees. On one of these, which was on the margin of the crossing, was nailed a large black painted board with an ominous inscription in white.

"LOOK OUT FOR ALLIGATORS."

"Mr Tallis had it put up," explained the overseer to Gerrard; "as two men were collared by 'gaters here. But when the water is clear, and the creek low, as it is now, there is no danger. It is when the creek is high after rain, and the water muddy, that the crossing is risky. I suppose you have any amount of the brutes up your way?"

"Thousands! The rivers, creeks, and swamps are full of them, and I have lost a lot of cattle and horses at Ocho Rios by them."

An hour later they arrived at Kaburie, and Kate was, at the request of the admiring Knowles, acting as hostess and preparing supper.

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