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   Chapter 1 A NUCLEUS OF FORTUNE

At Large By E. W. Hornung Characters: 13602

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


A hooded wagon was creeping across a depressing desert in the middle of Australia; layers of boxes under the hood, and of brass-handled, mahogany drawers below the boxes, revealed the licensed hawker of the bush. Now, the hawker out there is a very extensive development of his prototype here at home; he is Westbourne Grove on wheels, with the prices of Piccadilly, W. But these particular providers were neither so universal nor so exorbitant as the generality of their class. There were but two of them; they drove but two horses; and sat shoulder to shoulder on the box.

The afternoon was late; all day the horses had been crawling, for the track was unusually heavy. There had been recent rains; red mud clogged the wheels at every yard, and clung to them in sticky tires. Little pools had formed all over the plain; and westward, on the off-side of the wagon, these pools caught the glow of the setting sun, and filled with flame. Far over the horses' ears a long low line of trees was visible; otherwise the plain was unbroken; you might ride all day on these plains and descry no other horse nor man.

The pair upon the box were partners. Their names were Flint and Edmonstone. Flint was enjoying a senior partner's prerogative, and lolling back wreathed in smoke. His thick bare arms were idly folded. He was a stout, brown, bearded man, who at thirty looked many years older; indolence, contentment, and goodwill were written upon his face.

The junior partner was driving, and taking some pains about it-keeping clear of the deep ruts, and pushing the pace only where the track was good. He looked twenty years Flint's junior, and was, in fact, just of age. He was strongly built and five-feet-ten, with honest gray eyes, fair hair, and an inelastic mouth.

Both of these men wore flannel shirts, buff cord trousers, gray felt wideawakes; both were public-school men, drawn together in the first instance by that mutually surprising fact, and for the rest as different as friends could be. Flint had been ten years in the Colonies, Edmonstone not quite ten weeks. Flint had tried everything, and failed; Edmonstone had everything before him, and did not mean to fail. Flint was experienced, Edmonstone sanguine; things surprised Edmonstone, nothing surprised Flint. Edmonstone had dreams of the future, and golden dreams; Flint troubled only about the present, and that very little. In fine, while Edmonstone saw licensed hawking leading them both by a short cut to fortune, and earnestly intended that it should, Flint said they would be lucky if their second trip was as successful as their first, now all but come to an end.

The shadow of horses and wagon wavered upon the undulating plain as they drove. The shadows grew longer and longer; there was a noticeable change in them whenever young Edmonstone bent forward to gaze at the sun away to the right, and then across at the eastern sky already tinged with purple; and that was every five minutes.

"It will be dark in less than an hour," the lad exclaimed at last, in his quick, anxious way; "dark just as we reach the scrub; we shall have no moon until eleven or so, and very likely not strike the river to-night."

The sentences were punctuated with sharp cracks of the whip. An answer came from Edmonstone's left, in the mild falsetto that contrasted so queerly with the bodily bulk of Mr. John Flint, and startled all who heard him speak for the first time.

"My good fellow, I implore you again to spare the horseflesh and the whipcord-both important items-and take it easy like me."

"Jack," replied Edmonstone warmly, "you know well enough why I want to get to the Murrumbidgee to-night. No? Well, at all events, you own that we should lose no time about getting to some bank or other?"

"Yes, on the whole. But I don't see the good of hurrying on now to reach the township at an unearthly hour, when all the time we might camp in comfort anywhere here. To my mind, a few hours, or even a night or two, more or less--"

"Are neither here nor there? Exactly!" broke in Edmonstone, with increasing warmth. "Jack, Jack! the days those very words cost us! Add them up-subtract them from the time we've been on the roads-and we'd have been back a week ago at least. I shall have no peace of mind until I step out of the bank, and that's the truth of it." As he spoke, the fingers of Edmonstone's right hand rested for a moment, with a curious, involuntary movement, upon his right breast.

"I can see that," returned Flint, serenely. "The burden of riches, you see-and young blood! When you've been out here as long as I have, you'll take things easier, my son."

"You don't understand my position," said Edmonstone. "You laugh when I tell you I came out here to make money: all the same, I mean to do it. I own I had rotten ideas about Australia-all new chums have. But if I can't peg out my claim and pick up nuggets, I'm going to do the next best thing. It may be hawking and it may not. I mean to see. But we must give the thing a chance, and not run unnecessary risks with the gross proceeds of our very first trip. A hundred and thirty pounds isn't a fortune; but it may be the nucleus of one; and it's all we've got between us in this world meanwhile."

"My dear old boy, I'm fully alive to it. I only don't see the point of finishing the trip at a gallop."

"The point is that our little all is concealed about my person," said Edmonstone, grimly.

"And my point is that it and we are absolutely safe. How many more times am I to tell you so?" And there was a squeak of impatience in the absurd falsetto voice, followed by clouds of smoke from the bearded lips.

Edmonstone drove some distance without a word.

"Yet only last week," he remarked at length, "a store was stuck up on the Darling!"

"What of that?"

"The storekeeper was robbed of every cent he had."

"I know."

"Yet they shot him dead in the end."

"And they'll swing for it."

"Meanwhile they've shown clean heels, and nobody knows where they are-or are not."

"Consequently you expect to find them waiting for us in the next clump, eh?"

"No, I don't. I only deny that we are absolutely safe."

Flint knocked out his pipe with sudden energy.

"My dear boy," cried he, "have I or have I not been as many years out here as you've been weeks? I tell you I was in the mounted police, down in Vic, all through the Kelly business; joined in the hunt myself; and back myself to know a real bushranger when I see him or read about him. This fellow who has the cheek to call himself Sundown is not a bushranger at all; he and his mates are mere robbers and murderers. Ned Kelly didn't go shooting miserable storekeepers; and he was the last of the bushrangers, and is likely to remain the last. Besides, th

ese chaps will streak up-country, not down; but, if it's any comfort to you, see here," and Flint pocketed his pipe, made a long arm overhead and reached a Colt's revolver from a hook just inside the hood of the wagon, "let this little plaything reassure you. What, didn't you know I was a dead shot with this? My dear chap, I wasn't in the mounted police for nothing. Why, I could pick out your front teeth at thirty yards and paint my name on your waistcoat at twenty!"

Flint stroked the glittering barrel caressingly, and restored the pistol to its hook: there was a cartridge in every chamber.

The other said nothing for a time, but was more in earnest than ever when he did speak.

"Jack," said he, "I can only tell you this: if we were to lose our money straight away at the outset I should be a lost man. How could we go on without it-hawking with an empty wagon? How could I push, push, push-as I've got to-after losing all to start with? A hundred pounds! It isn't much, but it is everything to me-everything. Let me only keep it a bit and it shall grow under my eyes. Take it away from me and I am done for-completely done for."

He forgot that he was using the first person singular instead of plural; it had become natural to him to think out the business and its possibilities in this way, and it was no less in Flint's nature to see no selfishness in his friend's speech. Flint only said solemnly:

"You shouldn't think so much about money, old chap."

"Money and home!" exclaimed Dick Edmonstone in a low, excited tone. "Home and money! It's almost all I do think about."

Jack Flint leaned forward, and narrowly scanned the face of his friend; then lay back again, with a light laugh of forced cheerfulness.

"Why, Dick, you speak as though you had been exiled for years, and it's not three months since you landed."

Dick started. It already seemed years to him.

"Besides," continued the elder man, "I protest against any man growing morbid who can show a balance-sheet like ours. As to home-sickness, wait until you have been out here ten years; wait until you have tried digging, selecting, farming, droving; wait until you have worn a trooper's uniform and a counter jumper's apron, and ridden the boundaries at a pound a week, and tutored Young Australia for your rations. When you have tried all these things-and done no good at any of 'em, mark you-then, if you like, turn home-sick."

The other did not answer. Leaning forward, he whipped up the horses, and gazed once more towards the setting sun. His companion could not see his face; but trouble and anxiety were in that long, steady, westward gaze. He was very young, this lad Edmonstone-young even for his years. Unlike his mate, his thoughts were all of the past and of the future; both presented happy pictures; so happy that his mind would fly from the one to the other without touching the present. And so he thought now, gazing westward, of home, and of something sweeter than home itself; and he blended that which had gone before with that which was yet to come; and so wonderful was the harmony between these two that to-day was entirely forgotten. Then the sun swung half-way below the dark line of the horizon; a golden pathway shone across the sandy track right to the wheels of the wagon; the dark line of scrub, now close at hand, looked shadowy and mysterious; the sunset colours declared themselves finally in orange and pink and gray, before the spreading purple caught and swallowed them. The dreamer's face grew indistinct, but his golden dreams were more vivid than before.

A deadly stillness enveloped the plain, making all sounds staccato: the rhythmical footfall of the horses, the hoarse notes of crows wheeling through the twilight like uncanny heralds of night, the croaking of crickets in the scrub ahead.

Dick was recalled to the antipodes by a mild query from his mate.

"Are you asleep, driver?"

"No."

"You haven't noticed any one ahead of us this afternoon on horseback?"

"No; why?"

"Because here are some one's tracks," said Flint, pointing to a fresh horse-trail on the side of the road.

Edmonstone stretched across to look. It was difficult in the dusk to distinguish the trail, which was the simple one of a horse walking.

"I saw no one," he said; "but during the last hour it would have been impossible to see any one, as close to the scrub as we are now. Whoever it is, he must have struck the track hereabouts somewhere, or we should have seen his trail before sundown."

"Whoever it is," said Flint, "we shall see him in a minute. Don't you hear him? He is still at a walk."

Edmonstone listened, and the measured beat of hoofs grew upon his ear; another moment and a horseman's back was looming through the dusk-very broad and round, with only the crown of a wideawake showing above the shoulders. As the wagon drew abreast his horse was wheeled to one side, and a hearty voice hailed the hawkers:

"Got a match, mateys? I've used my last, and I'm just weakening for a smoke."

"Here's my box," said Dick, pulling up. "Take as many as you like."

And he dropped his match-box into a great fat hand with a wrist like a ship's cable, and strong stumpy fingers: it was not returned until a loaded pipe was satisfactorily alight; and as the tobacco glowed in the bowl the man's face glowed in company. It was huge like himself, and bearded to the eyes, which were singularly small and bright, and set very close together.

"I don't like that face," said Dick when the fellow had thanked him with redoubled heartiness, and ridden on.

"It looked good-natured."

"It was and it wasn't. I don't want to see it again; but I shall know it if ever I do. I had as good a look at him as he had at us."

Flint made no reply; they entered the forest of low-sized malee and pine in silence.

"Jack," gasped Edmonstone, very suddenly, after half-an-hour, "there's some one galloping in the scrub somewhere-can't you hear?"

"Eh?" said Flint, waking from a doze.

"Some one's galloping in the scrub-can't you hear the branches breaking? Listen."

"I hear nothing."

"Listen again."

Flint listened intently.

"Yes-no. I thought for an instant-but no, there is no sound now."

He was right: there was no sound then, and he was somewhat ruffled.

"What are you giving us, Dick? If you will push on, why, let's do it; only we do one thing or the other."

Dick whipped up the horses without a word. For five minutes they trotted on gamely; then, without warning, they leaped to one side with a shy that half-overturned the wagon.

Side by side, and motionless in the starlight, sat two shadowy forms on horseback, armed with rifles, and masked to the chin.

"Hands up," cried one of them, "or we plug."

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