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   Chapter 14 No.14

Tom Gerrard By Louis Becke Characters: 9910

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

Mustering on Kaburie was almost over, much to the satisfaction of every one taking part in it, for the weather had been unpleasantly hot even for North Queensland, and heavy tropical thunderstorms had added to the difficulty of the work by the creeks coming down in flood. All the cattle running in the mountain gullies and on the spurs, had been brought in, the calves and "clean-skins" branded, and now there remained only those which roamed about the coast lands.

Early one morning Gerrard, Fraser, and Kate, with three stockmen, were camped near the mouth of a wide, but shallow creek, whose yellow, muddied waters were rushing swiftly to the sea. The party had arrived there the previous evening, and now, breakfast over, were ready to start to muster the cattle in the vicinity. Heavy rain had fallen during the night, but Kate's little tent, with its covering fly had kept her dry, and the rest of the party had slept under a rough, but efficient shelter of broad strips of ti-tree bark spread upon a quickly-extemporised frame of thin saplings.

Just as they started the sky cleared and the blue dome above was unflecked by a single cloud as they rode in single file along a cattle track leading to the beach, which they reached in half an hour.

"What a glorious sight!" said Gerrard, as he drew rein and pointed to the blue Pacific, shimmering and sparkling under the rays of the morning sun. "Look, there is a brig-rigged steamer quite close in-evidently she must be calling in at Port Denison, or would not be so near the land."

"Yes," said Kate, "that is one of the new China mail boats, the Ching-tu. How beautiful she is-for a steamer, with those sloping masts, with the yards across, and the curved shapely bow like a sailing ship. Oh! I do so wish I were on board. I love ships and the If I were a man I should be a sailor."

"Would you?" said Gerrard, as he looked at the animated, beautiful face. "I, too, am fond of the sea, though it robbed me of father, mother, and a brother-in-law, my twin sister's husband. She died of a broken heart soon after."

Kate's eyes filled with tears. "Oh, how dreadful!" and then as they rode on Gerrard told her the story of the Cassowary.

"What a sweet child your little niece Mary must be," she said, when he had finished, "and I am sure, too, that your protégé, Jim Coll, must be a perfect little man. I wish I could see him."

"I can safely promise you that, now that I have bought Kaburie, and I feel pretty sure that you will gain his affections very quickly; especially if you will let him ride that bucking filly. I daresay that I shall be back here within twelve months, and bring Master Jim with me."

"This is where we separate, boss," said a stockman named Trouton, "if you, Mr and Miss Fraser and me take the right bank of this creek, my two mates will work down on the other bank, and we'll get the cattle on both sides at the same time, and drive 'em all on to Wattle Camp, which is between this creek and the next to the south of us." Then turning to the other stockmen, he warned them to be careful of alligators.

"You chaps must keep your eyes skinned if you have to swim any bits of backwater, now the creeks are up. Don't cross anywheres unless you have some cattle to send in fust, and keep clost up to their tails if yous can't get in among 'em. 'Gaters like man and horse meat next best to calf."

The two men nodded, and riding down the bank, crossed the creek and quickly disappeared in the scrub on the other side; then Gerrard's party turned towards the coast, Trouton leading the way with the packhorses along a well-defined cattle-track. A quarter of an hour later they came across a small mob of cows and calves, which as the stockwhips cracked, trotted off in front, to be joined by several more, and in a short time the mob had increased to five hundred head, and Trouton and Gerrard decided to drive them across the creek to join those which were being rounded up by the two stockmen on the left hand bank. In reply to a question by Gerrard, Trouton said that the crossing was a good one even when the creek was as high as it was then, on account of its width-about two hundred yards from bank to bank.

"It is a hard, sandy bottom, boss, and we shall only have about forty yards of swimming to do. If we rush 'em they'll get over in no time."

"Very well. But we will cut out all the cows with calves too young to swim."

This did not take long, and some thirty or forty cows with calves were separated from the mob, and driven some distance back into the scrub by Fraser. Then with the usual yelling and cracking of whips the main mob was rushed down the bank into the water, a wide-horned, stately bullock, plunging into the yellow stream, and taking the lead Close behind the cattle followed the three men and Kate, the latter and Gerrard keeping on the "lee" side of the mob so as to prevent them spreading out and getting too far

down-stream, where there was danger from a number of snags of ti-trees, which showed above water in the middle of the creek. The cattle, however, kept well together, and when the deep part was reached, swam safely across, despite the rather strong current.

"They went over splendidly, didn't they?" cried Fraser to Gerrard, as he gave his horse a loose rein and leant forward to let the animal swim easily. "We are lucky to get them over so easily, and--"

His words were interrupted by a cry of terror from Kate, as the colt she was riding gave an agonised snort of terror, and began pawing the water with its fore-feet.

"Help me, father! Mr Gerrard! Oh, it is an alligator!" and as she spoke she was nearly unseated. "It has Cato by the off hind leg."

Gerrard, only ten yards away from her, turned his horse's head, and shouted to her to throw herself off, and then, with a deadly terror in his heart, saw her shaken off; and disappear in the surging stream, but in a few seconds she rose to the surface, panting and choking, but swimming bravely, though she was unable to see. Gerrard, now beside her, leant over, placed his left arm round her waist, and held her tight.

"Don't be afraid," he said, "I have you safe; take a good grip of my horse's mane and hold on; he will take you across in a few minutes," and as the girl obeyed, he slipped out of the saddle, so as to swim beside her. Then his bronzed face went white with horror as the black snout of an alligator thrust itself out of the water between the girl and himself, and the saurian tried to seize her by the shoulder. In an instant Gerrard had clutched the reptile by the throat with his right hand.

"Go on, go on; for God's sake, do not mind me!" he cried to Kate; "I have the brute by its throat," and then, as he and the hideous creature were struggling fiercely, Fraser came to his assistance, and emptied the five chambers of his heavy Colt's pistol into its body, and Gerrard, whose face was cut open by a stroke of one of the reptile's fore-paws, remembered nothing more till he found himself lying upon the bank with Fraser and the stockmen attending to him.

"Is Miss Fraser safe?" was his first question.

"Yes, thanks to God and to your bravery," answered Fraser with deep emotion; "but don't speak any more just now, there's a good fellow. The brute has ripped the left side of your face open from the top of your head to the chin, and we are trying to put in some stitches."

"All right," was the cheerful, but faint response; "but tell me-is my eye gone?"

"No, boss," said Trouton quickly, "your eye is all right, but the eyebrow is mauled pretty badly, and was hanging over it, but we've got it back again now, and tied it up in place. Here, boss, take a sup o' this," and he placed a brandy flask to Gerrard's lips. The liquor stung his lacerated lips like fire, but it revived him.

"Where is Miss Fraser?" he then asked.

"Here, beside you, dear Mr Gerrard," said the girl brokenly, as she pressed his hand, and turned her face away in blinding tears.

"Narrow squeak for both of us, wasn't it?"

"Yes, but please do not try to talk, dear Mr Gerrard."

"Oh, I'm all right, and must gabble a bit, now I know that I haven't lost an eye. You see, Fraser, the beast, although he was only a little fellow--"

"Eight feet he were, boss," interrupted Trouton, "but a young 'un, as you say."

"Well, just after I collared him, he swung his head about and hit me such a tremendous smack on the side of my brain-box that it stunned me. But I didn't let go, did I?"

"No," replied Fraser, "you held on like grim death. I settled the brute by putting five bullets into it."

"There was two 'o 'em, boss," said Trouton, "the one as collared Miss Kate's horse, and the one as you tackled."

"Did Cato get away?" Gerrard asked quickly.

"Yes, yes, he got away," said Kate hurriedly, trying to speak calmly, though the poor colt, which had managed to struggle to the bank with a lacerated and broken leg, was then lying dead with a bullet through its head. Trouton had put it out of its misery.

There was no more mustering that day, for Gerrard's condition was so serious, though he tried to make light of it, that Fraser, leaving the cattle to the care of the two stockmen, first sent off Trouton to Boorala for a doctor, and then he, taking one of the pack-horses, made Gerrard mount his own.

"We'll be at Kaburie as soon as the little German doctor is there," he said, as he, Gerrard, and Kate started.

And when they reached Kaburie they found Doctor Krause, a quiet, spectacled little man, awaiting them with Knowles the overseer.

"Will he lose his eye, Krause?" asked Fraser, after the doctor had attended to Gerrard, and he with Kate met him in the dining-room.

"No, but his face is very much cut about, and the poor fellow may be disfigured for life."

Kate turned away with a bursting heart, and went to her room.

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