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   Chapter 31 No.31

Tom Gerrard By Louis Becke Characters: 10438

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


Three days passed before Gerrard and the black boy were able to leave the Rocky Waterholes. The bodies of their treacherous assailants they interred in the soft, sandy soil at the foot of one of the granite pillars, and then Gerrard took their valises containing their gold, together with their arms and saddle pouches, and rolled them in a blanket, which he strapped on one of the gang's horses, which was to serve as a pack. He intended to hand everything over to the Gold Commissioner, whom he expected to see at Ochos Rios in a few weeks, and who having judicial powers, would, he expected, hold the official inquiry into the deaths 'of the men at the station itself.

Tommy made but little of his wound, and only grinned when Gerrard said he was lucky not to have had his jaw smashed by the bullet. He doctored it in the usual aboriginal manner: first powdering it with wood ashes, and then plastering the whole side of his face with wattle gum.

"My word, Tommy," observed his master gravely, "you got him handsome fellow face now-all the same as me. Plenty fellow lubra want catch you now for benjamin." {*}

* "Plenty of women will want to get you now for a husband."

Gerrard's own wound, although painful, did not prevent him from either walking or riding. The soft wattle gum was a splendid styptic, and two whole days and nights of complete rest did much to accelerate his recovery; and game being plentiful at and about the waterholes, he and Tommy made themselves as contented as possible, for there was still a clear week before the pearling lugger was due at the mouth of the Coen. He had changed his mind about letting Tommy go back alone along the beach, and decided to take him with him in the vessel. The boy's bravery had impressed him greatly, and although he knew his resourcefulness and abilities as a bushman, he thought it would not be fair-for the sake of two horses-to let him run the risk of being cut off by the coastal blacks, while on his way to the station. As for the horses, they would find their way home safely in all likelihood, unless they came across poison bush. The blacks did not often succeed in spearing loose horses, the slower-moving cattle being their favoured victims.

They left the Rocky Waterholes as the strength of the afternoon sun began to wane, and headed due west As they rode round the side of the largest pool, the three horses of the dead men, which were camped under the shade of the Leichhardt trees, brushing the flies off each other's noses with their long tails, raised their heads inquiringly as if to say. "Are you going to leave us here?" and then sedately trotted after them.

Gerrard turned in his saddle. "Let them follow us, if they like, Tommy. They will be company for 'Dutchman' and 'Waterboy.' I think they'll all turn up at the station by and by."

The unexplored country from the Waterholes to the coast was very pleasant to see in all its diversified beauties: deep water-worn gullies whose sides were clothed with wild fig, wattle, and cabbage palms, opening out into fair forest country, well timbered with huge acacias and a species of white cedar, whose pale blue flowers filled the air with their delicious perfume. Bird life was plentiful, the chattering of long-tailed pheasants and the call of many kinds of parrots resounding everywhere, and filling the tree-clad gullies with melodious, reverberating echoes.

Night came on swiftly, but a night of myriad stars in a sky of cloudless blue; and then, fifteen miles from the Rocky Waterholes, they came to a wide but shallow creek, whose banks were well grassed, and which offered a tempting resting-place. Here and there were clumps, or rather groves, of graceful pandanus palms, with long pendant leaves, rustling faintly to the cool night breeze.

"We'll camp here till daylight, Tommy. I'm feeling a bit stiff."

As Tommy unsaddled and hobbled out the horses, Gerrard lit a fire, made the two quart pots of tea, and he and the native had their supper. Then, although they had seen no signs of blacks since they had left Hansen's, they took unusual precautions to prevent being surprised, for Gerrard especially was not in a fit condition for much exertion. Letting the horses graze where they listed, they put out the fire, and carried their saddles, blankets, arms, etc., out to a sandbank in the middle of the creek, and made themselves comfortable for the night on the soft, warm sand-too far away from either bank to fear any danger from a shower of spears.

The night wore all too quickly away for Gerrard, for as he lay on his blanket, gazing upward to the star-studded heavens, he forgot the pain of his wounds in his thoughts of Kate, and he sighed contentedly. In two weeks or so he would be by her side at Ocho Rios.

There had never been what some people call "courtship" between Kate and Gerrard. When she came to the station on her promised visit, her father had come with her. He stayed a few days at Ocho Rios, and then set out on his return to Black Bluff Creek, accompanied by Gerrard, who was going part of the way with him. They had ridden for a mile or two from the station, chatting on various matters, when Gerrard suddenly drew rei

n.

"Mr Fraser!"

The old man looked up, wondering at the "Mr."

"What is it, Gerrard?"

"I am going to ask your daughter to marry me."

Fraser could not help a smile. "There's no beating about the bush with you, Tom Gerrard." Then he put out his hand, and said with grave kindness: "You are the one man whom I should like to see her marry."

"Thank you," and the younger man's face flushed with pleasure.

Then Fraser, like the tactful man he was, said not a word more on the matter.

"Look here, Gerrard, what is the use of your coming any further with me when you have so much to do? Get back, my son-and I wish you luck. Give Kate my love, and tell her I said so," and then shaking hands with his friend, he struck into a smart canter.

Gerrard rode slowly home. Kate, Jim, and Mary were engaged in making a seine in the cool back verandah. Kate looked up with a smile, surprised and pleased to see him back so soon.

"Will you come with me and shoot some guinea-fowl, Miss Fraser?" Then he hurriedly turned to Jim: "You need not come, Jim. Go on with the seine."

An hour later they returned-without any guinea-fowl. Gerrard was in high spirits. He slapped Jim on the back.

"Let the seine rip, Jim, and get your gun, and we'll try and get some pheasants. We couldn't see a blessed guinea-fowl anywhere; could we, Kate?"

"No, Tom, we could not; they are horribly scarce to-day, Jim," she replied demurely, as she fled to her room.

After a quiet, restful night, Gerrard and Tommy made an early start, driving the pack-horse in front of them, and followed by the three spare horses. All that day they travelled slowly, and at sunset reached the mouth of the alligator-haunted Coen, where, to Gerrard's delight, they saw a smart, white-painted lugger lying at anchor. In answer to their loud coo-e-e! a boat manned by two Malays, put off, and the master jumped ashore.

"How are you, Mr Gerrard? You see I'm three days sooner than I said, but we got a rattling north-westerly as soon as we rounded Cape York. But what is wrong with your face, Mr Gerrard?" he added sympathetically; "and you're lame too, I see. Niggers, I suppose?"

"No, we haven't even seen a nigger, Captain Lowry. But I'll tell you the whole yarn by and by, after we get aboard. Got any arnica?"

"Plenty, and whips of plaster too. I'll soon fix you up, ship-shape and Bristol fashion."

"Thank you, captain," said Gerrard, as he and Tommy began to unsaddle the horses; "I'll be glad if you will. I don't want to get back to the station until I look a little bit less patchy. And so if you are agreeable, I'll be glad if we go on a bit of a cruise along the coast for about ten days or so."

"I'm agreeable-more days, more dollars. But it will cost you another fifty pounds or so above the charter money."

"Well, I shall spend it for the benefit of my complexion, Lowry. Now, hurry up with our traps, Tommy, I'm going to eat a supper that will astonish you, Lowry."

As soon as he reached the vessel he went below, and wrote letters to his sister and Kate, enclosed them in an old piece of an oilskin coat given him by Lowry, then called Tommy, and told him to go on shore again, and secure it to Waterboy's mane. His object was to allay any fears about him if the two station horses got to Ocho Rios before the lugger. The yellow packet would be sure to be noticed, and opened. He had carefully avoided any mention of his encounter with Aulain, and had also cautioned Tommy on the subject: he did not want his sister and Kate to know anything of the matter, from himself at least. He had decided upon a pardonable fiction-he would tell them that he had been thrown from his horse, and received a rather bad cut; of his bullet wound and the tragedy at the Rocky Waterholes he made no allusion.

"It's no use worrying them over nothing," he said to Lowry, when he had told the seaman the story of the attack by Forreste and his gang. "In a week or so I'll be as fit as you are. But you'll have to back me up in what I have written about you being afraid that we are in for a week or two of calm; they won't forgive me in a hurry if they ascertain that instead of being becalmed, the Fanny Sabina was cruising merrily about the Gulf of Carpentaria."

Lowry gave his promise, and then he and his passenger had supper on deck under the awning which covered the smart little vessel's deck from bow to stern.

At dawn next morning, Gerrard, after a delightfully refreshing sleep, was awakened by the captain.

"Rouse up, Mr Gerrard. We're underway, and I want to know the programme."

"How far to Cape Keerweer?"

"Four days' sail in such light weather as this."

"That will suit me. I'll be able to begin to enjoy myself by then, and I want to see those big lagoons near the Cape. Tommy says that they are alive with game, and you and I can put in a day or two there."

"Just the thing. I've a couple of good guns on board," then he turned to the man at the tiller.

"Keep her south, my lad. For'ard there, set the squaresail. Now, Mr Gerrard, you'll see what the little Fanny Sabina can do even in a light wind like this," and Lowry looked with an air of pride at his dainty little craft.

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