“Are you afraid?”
“It is so desolate, and he may be so far off, and we couldn’t get to him if any thing happened, and we shouldn’t know.”
Then they were again silent, and remained without exchanging more than a word or two for nearly half an hour. They took hold of each other, and every now and then went to the kitchen door that the old woman might be comforted by their presence, but they had no consolation to offer each other. The silence of the bush, and the feeling of great distances, and the dread of calamity almost crushed them. At last there was a distant sound of horse’s feet. “I hear him,” said Mrs. Heathcote, rushing forward toward the outer gate of the horse paddock, followed by her sister.
Her ears were true, but she was doomed to disappointment. The horseman was only a messenger from her husband—Mickey O’Dowd, the Irish boundary rider.
He had great tidings to tell, and was so long telling them that we will not attempt to give them in his own words. The purport of his story was as follows: Harry had been to Boolabong House, but had found there no one but the old man. Returning home thence toward his own fence, he had smelled the smoke of fire, and had found within a furlong of his path a long ridge of burning grass. According to Mickey’s account, it could not have been lighted above a few minutes before Heathcote’s presence on the spot. As it was, it had got too much ahead for him to put it out single-handed; a few yards he might have managed, but—so Mickey said, probably exaggerating the matter— there was half a quarter of a mile of flame. He had therefore ridden on before the fire, had called his own two men to him, and had at once lighted the grass himself some two hundred yards in front, making a second fire, but so keeping it down that it should be always under control. Before the hinder flames had caught him, Bender and Jacko had been with him, and they had thus managed to consume the fuel which, had it remained there, would have fed the fire which was too strong to be mastered. By watching the extremities of the line of fire, they overpowered it, and so the damage was for the moment at an end.
The method of dealing with the enemy was so well known in the bush, and had been so often canvassed in the hearing of the two sisters, that it was clearly intelligible to them. The evil had been met in the proper way, and the remedy had been effective. But why did not Harry come home?
Mickey O’Dowd, after his fashion, explained that too. The ladies were not to wait dinner. The master felt himself obliged to remain out at night, and had gotten food at the German’s hut. He, Mickey, was commissioned to return with a flask full of brandy, as it would be necessary that Harry, with all the men whom he could trust, should be “on the rampage” all night. This small body was to consist of Harry himself, of the German, of Jacko, and, according to the story as at present told, especially of Mickey O’Dowd. Much as she would have wished to have kept the man at the station for protection, she did not think of disobeying her husband’s orders. So Mickey was fed, and then sent back with the flask—with tidings also as to the desertion of that wretched cook, Sing Sing.