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THOMAS CHARLES BRIDGES
(WRITING AS T.C. BRIDGES)

THE BUSH BOYS

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A STORY OF THE AUSTRALIAN DESERT


First published by The Sheldon Press, London, 1930

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2022
Version Date: 2022-08-18

Produced by Keith Emmett and Roy Glashan

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"The Bush Boys," The Sheldon Press, London, 1930


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"The Bush Boys," The Sheldon Press, London, 1930


TABLE OF CONTENTS



Illustration

There was an ugly-looking spear in his right hand.


CHAPTER I. — THE BOY IN GREY

"ANY sign of Dad yet, Tad?" asked Bob Warburton, as he and Tad Kimber strolled up the wide sandy street of the little Australian township of Warragoola. The two were cousins and tremendous pals.

"The coach isn't in yet," Tad answered. "It won't be long now, though."

"I shall be jolly glad to see him," said Bob. "It seems more like a year than a month since he went to Brisbane. I do hope he has finished up that business of his all right. He was a bit worried when he went away."

Tad was not listening. He was pointing to a great swelling mound of yellow which rose above the high wooden fence surrounding the fair-ground. "Look at that, Bob?" he exclaimed. "What is it?"

"That? Why, I do believe it is a balloon. It is, too. And—and it's going up."

The two boys stood gazing as the balloon began to rise. Presently the whole great gas bag was visible against the rich blue of the Australian sky. Then the car came into sight.

"People in it!" gasped Tad.

"Yes, but it is held by a rope," added Bob. "I know. It is what they call a captive balloon. I say, Tad, I do wish we could go up."

A burst of jeering laughter made them both swing round. A tall boy, a year or two older than either of the cousins, and very smartly got up in pale grey flannels, was staring at them with a scornful expression on his sallow face.

"What's the matter with you?" demanded Bob. "What are you laughing at?"

"I'm laughing at you," explained the other. "Do you mean to tell me you have never seen a balloon before?"

A flush rose to Bob's sun-tanned cheeks. "No," he answered. "How should we? We've lived on a range all our lives."

"Do you mean to say you've never been to Brisbane or Sydney?" sneered the other.

"No!" Bob answered curtly.

"Well, I'm jiggered. There are some freaks up in these parts."

Tad cut in. "You're right," he said with a grin, and staring full in the tall boy's face.

An ugly expression came into the eyes of the boy in grey. He flushed angrily. "What d'you mean by that?" he demanded.

Bob explained. "Tad means that you are just as big a freak to us as we seem to be to you. And I dare say if you came out on our range there are others would tell you the same. Can you ride a brumbie or rope a bullock?"

The other looked a little embarrassed. "I'll soon learn. My father—he's the Hon. James Coppin—has just bought a big range up in these parts. A place called Warburton Downs."

"Warburton Downs?" repeated Bob. "What on earth are you talking about? That's my dad's place."

The other's eyes narrowed. "I know what I'm talking about if you don't," he retorted rudely. "Warburton Downs belongs to my father, not yours."

"He's clean crazy," said Bob shortly. "Come on, Tad."

The boy in grey grew furious. "I'll teach you to call me crazy," he shouted, and suddenly hit out at Bob. Bob dodged swiftly, yet even so, got a glancing blow on the jaw which staggered him. But only for an instant. Then he shot forward quick as light; there were two sharp smacks, and the long youth lay flat on his back in the dusty street.

"Look out, Bob!" shrieked Tad, and Bob jumped nimbly aside just in time to escape a vicious cut from the stick of a big, over-dressed man with a red face.

"You little reptile!" he roared. "What the blazes do you mean by assaulting my son?"

"He hit Bob first," cried Tad.

"It's a lie," shouted the other, aiming another blow at Bob. Again Bob dodged, then, instead of bolting, sprang in, seized the stick, and with a quick twist, wrenched it out of the big man's hand.

"It is perfectly true," he said in a tone which made the bully stare. "Ask him," he added, pointing to the boy.

The boy in grey had picked himself up and was standing with his handkerchief to his bleeding nose. Now he suddenly jumped at Bob and tried to snatch the stick from him. But Bob was too quick, and all the other got was a sharp prod full in his stomach.

He shrieked with rage and pain, and his father, crimson with anger, rushed at Bob, and pinning him against the wooden fence, got hold of him by the collar and started to punch him furiously.

But for Tad, it would have gone hard with Bob, but Tad had all his wits about him. Stooping suddenly, he caught the big man by one leg and jerked with all his might.

The big man, who was not expecting any such manoeuvre, lost his balance, toppled over and came down with a tremendous crash on the boarded side-walk.

Tad caught Bob by the arm. "Bunk!" he said briefly.

Bob hesitated. "Is he hurt?" he asked.

"It's you who'll be hurt if you stay here," retorted Tad, and Bob, seeing that his big enemy was already clambering to his feet, waited no longer, but followed Tad down the street.

"There's the coach coming," said Tad, pulling up as they rounded a corner, but keen as Bob had been to see his father, he did not even look at the sun-blistered old vehicle that came rocking over the plain, pulled by the four half-broken horses.

"What did that fellow mean?" he asked sharply of Tad.

"What fellow? Oh, the chap in the swell suit. Talking through his hat, I reckon," he grinned. "You're not taking any notice of what he said, are you. Bob?"

"N-no," replied Bob, but his tone was oddly uncertain.

Tad did not notice. "Come on," he cried. "Let's get to the hotel before the coach stops. It'll be jolly to see Uncle Robert again." He dashed off, and Bob followed.

"Hulloa, young Bob," called the driver cheerily to the boys as he pulled up his sweating team. "It's all right. I've brought your dad along." He bent down. "But he's not real well," he added in a lower tone. "You got to make him go slow for a bit."

"I'll see to that, Dempsey," said Bob, and ran to meet his father, who was just getting out of the coach.

"Bob, old chap," said Mr. Warburton.

Bob paused an instant. "Dad!" he exclaimed in a shocked voice. "Why—why, you are ill!"

"I'm not quite so fit as I might be," answered Mr. Warburton. "But don't worry yourself, lad. Come in. You too, Tad. I have to talk to you both."

Inside the hotel sitting-room Mr. Warburton sank wearily on a chair. "It's been a trying journey," he said feebly, "and—and I have bad news."

"Never mind the news, dad," said Bob, trying to pull himself together, yet so shocked at his father's appearance that he felt quite stupid. Mr. Warburton looked ten years older than when his son had seen him just a month earlier. His hair had gone quite grey and his eyes seemed to have fallen right back into his head. "Never mind the news," Bob repeated. "We must get you to bed!"

"Nonsense, Bob. I'm not really ill. It's worry. Sit down and listen to me, for I have to tell you at once, and I shall feel better when it's off my mind."

"I think I know already what it is," said Bob quietly. "You have had to sell the range."

Mr. Warburton's eyes widened. "How—how on earth did you know?" he asked hoarsely.

"I—we met a chap called Coppin. He said his father had bought Warburton Downs."

Mr. Warburton gave a sort of groan.

"We didn't believe him," broke in Tad. "We had a row, and Bob knocked him down. Then his father came up and interfered, so I tripped him and we hooked it. But, uncle, whatever made you sell the range?"

Mr. Warburton shook his head. "I did not sell it. These people proved their title to it, and the Court at Brisbane awarded it to them."

"Proved their title!" repeated Bob in a dazed voice. "I don't understand."

"How could you? You knew nothing of it. Nor did I until a month ago. That is why I went to Brisbane—to fight the case. Listen, Bob. The range came to me from my uncle, Joseph Warburton, and he had it from his father, Jabez, who was the first settler in these parts. But Jabez had a partner named Lemuel Coppin, who was grandfather to this Coppin. And it seems that the title was in his name.

"Now, according to my belief, Lemuel Coppin was a convict on licence, and therefore could not hold land. But this James Coppin has raked up old records to prove that his grandfather was not a convict, but a free settler. And now the Court has allowed his claim. So here are we, left landless."

"But the stock," said Bob quickly.

"I have sold nearly all the stock to fight the case."

"I see. You were quite right, dad." Bob paused. "I believe the whole business is a swindle," he added curtly. "These Coppins are a rotten lot. But never mind. Tad and I can work. We will soon start again, and if you'll promise not to worry, you can be jolly sure we won't."

"That's the way to talk, Bob." A gleam of real pleasure showed in Mr. Warburton's eyes. "While I have a boy like you I should be foolish to worry about anything else." Then his face changed. "All the same, Bob, it is a bit of a blow to lose everything at my age. And especially a place like the Downs, where I have lived all my life."

"It's rotten, dad," agreed Bob. "But I won't believe we've lost it for good. We'll get it back some day." Mr. Warburton shook his head. "Don't go building on that, Bob. There's not a chance of it."

"All right," said Bob quietly. "Then the sooner we start fresh, the better. And now I want you to go to bed."

"I won't go to bed. I'll rest here and have some tea presently. We will stay here to-night, and to-morrow "—his face twitched—"to-morrow we'll move."

"What—aren't we going back to the Downs at all?"

"No, Bob," said his father heavily. "Mrs. Carter will send our clothes and luggage. I could not bear to see the place again now it is no longer mine."

"Right you are," said Bob. "But if you won't go to bed, lie down on the couch for a bit. You badly need a nap."

His father agreed, and inside five minutes was sleeping soundly. "Absolutely played out," whispered Bob. "Tad, you and I will go out and stroll a bit and come back for tea."


CHAPTER II. — HALF PRICE

"THIS is a rotten business, Bob," said Tad, as the two boys walked up the street in the hot sunshine. Tad, short, stocky with a round face and carroty hair, was usually the most cheerful soul, full of jokes and fun, and Bob had never before heard him speak so solemnly.

"Yes, Tad," he said. "It's no use trying to pretend that it is anything else. I've hardly realised it yet. And the worst of it is that it's a swindle."

"How do you know it's a swindle?"

"I don't know. I just feel it."

"I'm with you, Bob. Those Coppins are a bad lot, and I believe that fat man would do anything for money." He thought a while. "Can't we do anything?" he asked.

"There's one thing we've jolly well got to do—keep dad cheerful."

"Of course, but it's going to be a job, Bob. What I mean is, can't we do anything about those Coppins?"

"I don't know. We must try and find out something about them."

"Let's follow them. They were going to the Show when we met them."

"Right! I've got some money. We'll go in." Admission to the fairground was only a shilling, and the two boys found themselves in the crowded enclosure with cattle, horses, sheep, and pigs in pens all round. They walked about for some time, but could see nothing of the Coppins. They bought a packet of ginger nuts and some chocolate at a stall, and presently found themselves close to the balloon. Bob stopped and stared at the notice:


ASCENTS EVERY HALF-HOUR.

SPLENDID VIEW OF THE FAIR GROUND, THE TOWNSHIP
OF WARRAGOOLA AND THE SURROUNDING COUNTRY.

TICKETS FOR THE ASCENT 5s. EACH.


"Come along, young fellers," said a man in charge. "Just going up. See here. The folk here ain't half doing their duty. They're scared, or something. I'll let you have a chance at half price."

Bob hesitated.

"Come on, Bob," said Tad. "It's a big chance. Tell you what," he added in a lower tone, "we can have a last look at the Downs."

That settled it. Bob produced the five shillings, and he and Tad got into the car, which was a basket about five feet across and three feet deep. Sand-bags hung over the side. Also, there hung there a coiled rope with an anchor. Above was the great spherical bag of yellow canvas. It looked huge, and was, in fact, fifty feet in diameter. Canvas pockets lined the inner walls of the basket. Bob noticed that one held a pair of powerful field-glasses. The balloon itself was held down to a small traction engine by a hempen cable which was rolled upon a steel drum.

The man in charge was trying to beat up more passengers, but they seemed shy of venturing. Bob and Tad, busy examining the car and the balloon, paid no attention to anything else, until suddenly someone scrambled over the side into the car. Then they both looked round.

"You!" said Bob in a distinctly hostile tone as he recognised the boy in grey. The latter glared back.

"Yes, it's me," he retorted, "and if you don't like it, you had better get out. I've paid my money, and you don't get me to move."

"Don't worry, Bob," said Tad. "Come to that, we've got something better to look at than him."

Jed Coppin snorted, but made no other reply, and at that moment the drum began to clank. "We're off," cried Tad, and sure enough the balloon was rising slowly, tugging at the great rope which held it. Bob and Tad promptly forgot all about their unwelcome companion, and Jed Coppin himself, in spite of his boast about all he had seen, was almost equally interested.

Up and up crawled the big balloon, to the clanking music of the drum. The people below seemed to get smaller and the fairground appeared to flatten out as the balloon rose.

"How high does she go?" asked Tad.

"Five hundred feet," replied Bob. "I say, Tad, look! We can see the range quite plainly."

"And the house and the dam," added Tad.

"Is that Warburton Downs?" questioned Jed Coppin.

Bob swung round on him. "Yes, that's the place you've swindled us out of," he said bitterly.

Jed's sallow face reddened. "Don't you dare talk like that, or I'll throw you out," he snarled.

Bob's fists clenched, but Tad caught hold of him. "Wait till we get down," he advised. "No use fighting up here. Besides, we want to see all we can."

Bob subsided. Tad had got out the field-glasses and was focussing them. By this time the balloon was nearly at her full height—so far, that is, as the rope allowed her to go. She tugged and strained at the cord and lay over at a considerable angle. While it was still enough down below, up here there was quite a stiff breeze.

"Look at that chap below," said Tad suddenly. "What's the matter with him? Why is he chucking his arms about like that?"

"Only giving the signal to haul us down," answered Bob.

"But why? We haven't stopped going up yet."

The words were hardly out of his mouth before the answer came. A violent gust of wind coming from the east caught the balloon and flung her sideways with such force that all three boys were forced to cling to the ropes to save themselves from being thrown out. Then, just as it seemed as though the great gas-bag would be torn to pieces by the gale, there was a crack like the report of a field gun, and the balloon leaped skywards.

"Oh, what's happened?" shrieked Jed Coppin.

Tad leaned towards him. "The rope's busted," he explained. "The rope's broke, and now you're going to see something you never saw before."


CHAPTER III. — LOST IN MID AIR

JED COPPIN'S sallow face went lemon yellow, he dropped back limply on to the sand-bags in the bottom of the basket and lay gasping like a stranded fish.

Tad craned over the edge. "Look at them, Bob, they're running like rabbits." Sure enough, there was fearful excitement below. People were rushing this way and that and pointing upwards, their upturned faces looked like white dots against the dark background of the crowd. Their shouts came up thinly through the wind.

"They can't do anything to help us," remarked Bob, who was taking it very coolly.

"Of course they can't," said Tad. "I say, she's going up like smoke. Everything's getting smaller and smaller down below."

"I know, and it's getting jolly cool," responded Bob. "I say, Tad, what happens if she goes too high? Does she bust?"

Jed heard, and a howl of terror escaped him. "Let me out," he shrieked. "I won't stay up here."

"There's nothing to stop you getting out," remarked Tad politely. "But it's a long way down—about three quarters of a mile, I should think."

Jed subsided again, moaning, and Tad turned to Bob again. "Bob, isn't there some way of letting the thing down? She's travelling like one o'clock. We're a mile and more from the fairground already."

"Funny!" said Bob, frowning. "I can't feel her move."

"Of course you can't, because she's just like a bubble. She goes with the wind, so of course you can't feel the wind," said Tad sagely. "But what about getting her down?"

"I don't know," said Bob doubtfully. "I believe I've read that there's some way of letting out the gas."

"Then we'd jolly well better do it, or we shall have to walk about half-way across Australia."

"Wait—let me think," said Bob. "Yes, I remember. There are two cords, one for the valve and one they call the rip cord. The valve cord's white and the rip cord is red."

"I can only see one cord," said Tad, "and that's red. Shall I pull it."

"For heaven's sake don't," said Bob hastily. "That rips the whole bag open and we should come down like a stone. The white is the one to pull, for that lets the gas out slowly. Where the dickens is it?" The two boys stared upwards, and suddenly Tad pointed. "There it is—right inside the bag."

Bob whistled softly. "It must have switched up there when that gust caught us. What about it? Shall I try and climb up and get hold of it?"

Tad shook his head. "Too big a job, Bob. I couldn't do it and I don't believe you could."

"I don't believe so either," agreed Bob, quite honestly.

Jed woke up again. "You've got to do it," he cried. "I can't stay up here. I—I've got to get back."

"Then why don't you do it yourself?" retorted Tad. "Go on!" He stirred him with his foot as he spoke.

"Me!" shrieked Jed. "Me climb up there! You're crazy."

Tad fixed him with an unfriendly eye. "About an hour ago you were laughing at us and bucking about all you'd done and seen. Here's your chance to make good. Get to it."

Jed flung his arms around one of the sand-bags and clung like a limpet in the bottom of the car. "I can't. I won't," he shrieked. "I've got no head for heights."

"Nor for anything else," snapped Tad. He turned again to Bob and whispered in his ear. "Rather a joke taking this blighter away into the bush," he said. "It'll give him and this unpleasant father of his a jolly good lesson."

"I'm not wasting any pity on them," said Bob drily. "It's dad I'm thinking of. He'll be awfully worried."

"Oh, he'll know we're bound to come down safe some time or other," said Tad comfortingly. "A balloon doesn't stay up very long. The gas leaks, I believe."

"Not much sign of any leak at present," returned Bob. "She's still going up."

Tad looked down, and saw that Bob was right. The balloon was now four or five thousand feet up, and still travelling at a tremendous pace. Warragoola was nothing but a few little dots on the eastern horizon, and even their own house, Warburton Downs, was a long way to the east. Beneath was the last of the big paddocks, an area of over three thousand acres, where cattle, looking like little red and white specks, were grazing. Beyond again were low hills covered with scrub.

"I don't half like the look of it," said Tad at last. "I'm strongly inclined to take a pull on that red cord and chance the consequences."

"It's a long way to fall," said Bob gravely. "I think we'd better hang on. I remember reading that gas contracts with cold, so I expect that, as soon as the sun sets, she'll come down by herself. There are several big places beyond ours, and we shall be all right if we don't get carried beyond the State line."

Tad's eyes widened. "Beyond the State line!" he repeated. "Great snakes, Bob, that's all of two hundred miles. You aren't reckoning we'll go as far as that."

"I hope not," said Bob, "If we did we should be in the soup, for beyond it's nothing but spinifex and granite. But don't worry. We aren't travelling more than thirty or forty miles an hour, and it will be sunset in an hour and a half."

"We'd best sit tight then," Tad said. "I say, Bob, is there any grub aboard? I'm feeling a bit peckish."

Canvas pockets lined the inside of the basket, and Bob began to examine them. His first find was a pair of powerful field-glasses, his next a small kit of tools, which included a couple of wrenches, a screw-driver and gimlet. Then he pulled out a thermos-flask, but this was empty, some enamel iron cups and plates, three knives and three forks and finally a large metal flask. "This has something in it," he said as he shook it. He unscrewed it, smelt it and made a face. "Whisky or something of the sort." He was just going to chuck it over when Tad stopped him. "Hang on to it, you ass. It might be jolly useful if one of us got snake bitten."

"Snakes!" Jed woke up again in a fresh spasm of fright. "Are there any snakes where we're going?"

"Heaps of 'em," said Tad remorselessly. "Carpet snakes that'll squeeze you to death and tiger snakes whose bite kills you in ten minutes."

"Shut up, Tad," said Bob. "You'll scare him into a fit."

"Not much loss," retorted Tad. "Chap who bluffs like he has and then goes to bits the first minute anything's wrong don't deserve any sympathy."

"You leave him alone, anyhow," said Bob with decision, and Tad, though in most things he took the lead, merely grinned and obeyed.

Bob went on examining the pockets. "Nothing else," he said.

"What—no grub!"

"Not a mouthful!"

Tad's face fell. "That's rotten. What the mischief do they mean by sending up a balloon without any grub?"

"They didn't expect it to fly away, you juggins," said Bob. "And anyhow we've still got quite a lot of that chocolate we bought at the stall."

"Good egg!" exclaimed Tad. "I'd forgotten that." He hauled out a stick, and was just going to start on it when Bob stopped him. "Better keep it for brekker, old man. We may come down a jolly long way from the nearest house."

"Perhaps you're right," agreed Tad rather reluctantly. "Well, if we can't eat, let's make ourselves comfortable."

"Comfortable!" said Jed bitterly. "How can you be comfortable in this beastly little basket? And I'm frightfully cold. I shall have a sore throat after this, I'm quite sure."

Tad shrieked with laughter. "Poor dear! Will it catch cold?" he jeered, but Bob gave him a dig with his elbow and told him to dry up.

It was not really cold, but it seemed so in comparison with the baking heat which they had so recently left. The worst of it was that they were all wearing light clothes, and of course had no overcoats or anything of that sort.

"Tell you what," said Tad. "I'm going to cut open one of these sand-bags and use it for an overcoat. It'll do fine."

With his knife he split the top of the bag and set to emptying the fine dry stuff over the rim of the basket. Bob gave a sudden yell. "Stop that!" he shouted. "We're going up like a rocket."

Tad stopped, but the mischief was done. The balloon had jumped at least two thousand feet, and if it had been chilly before, now it was cold in earnest.


CHAPTER IV. — A NIGHT WATCH

"YOU are an ass, Tad," said Bob.

Tad looked injured. "How was I to know I'd upset the balance of the beastly thing like that?" He shivered. "My word, but it's properly cold now!"

"I'm freezing," groaned Jed, his teeth chattering.

"Swing your arms," Tad told him, as he began beating his own arms across his chest. But Jed was too scared and miserable to follow his example, and lay shaking and shivering while the big gas-bag drove on across the Continent. The sun was getting low and the sky was a splendour of scarlet and gold. There is no place to match the car of a balloon from which to see a sunset, but the three occupants of the car were in no mood to appreciate the beauties before them.

"There's a creek below us," said Bob. "I believe it's the Mort."

"The Mort," said Tad, horrified. "We haven't come as far as that already."

"Yes, it's the Mort all right. I can see the Standish hills beyond."

"But that means we've come a hundred miles already!"

"I expect we have. We've been going an awful bat ever since you let that sand out."

"Oh, well, we can't help it," said Tad recklessly. "One good thing, we can't be carried out to sea."

"We could if the wind changed. We might be taken right up into the Gulf of Carpentaria."

"It don't look like changing at present," said Tad, and after that both fell silent.

The sun dropped behind a range of low hills far to the West, and since there is precious little twilight in the Tropics, the country beneath was soon wrapped in dark shadow. As the sky darkened the stars came twinkling out.

"One thing, it ain't getting any colder," said Tad at last.

"No, we've dropped quite a lot."

"How do you know?"

"By the barometer, juggins," said Bob, as he pointed to a small barograph set on one side of the basket. "We're back at about two thousand."

"Is that all she's come down?" grumbled Tad.

"It's quite enough," replied Bob. "We don't want to go bumping into some beastly mountain in the dark."

"I hadn't thought of that," said Tad in some dismay. "My word, we'd better keep a look out. Are there any mountains this way?"

"If I knew what the way was I could tell you," said Bob drily. "So long as we're going due west I don't think there's anything except a few low ranges. All the same, we'll keep an eye lifting."

"All right," said Tad, "we'd better take turns. That beggar Jed's asleep already."

"I'll take first watch," agreed Bob. "You get forty winks."

Tad curled up as best he could, and was asleep in no time, and Bob sat watching. A balloon differs entirely from an aeroplane, in that it floats in perfect silence, and at first this silence was broken only by the noises Jed made while he slept. Sometimes he groaned, then he gnashed his teeth and then he muttered. Tad breathed softly and regularly.

Bob kept careful watch on the ground below. Twice or thrice he saw lights, but by degrees these grew scarcer, and finally vanished altogether. For a time all was silence; then a weird thin barking came up from below, the voice of a pack of dingoes or wild dogs hunting. Bob strained his ears for the bellow of bullocks, but heard nothing of the kind.

It was an eerie experience floating through the dark over the unknown with nothing to tell how fast they were going or in what direction. He did not even know what the time was, for, though he had an old silver watch, it had not a luminous dial, and he did not want to strike matches, for he knew that lights were dangerous under a gas-filled envelope.

Hours seemed to pass, and then all of a sudden he became conscious of a dark mass just ahead. He saw in a moment that it was a range of mountains, and it looked as if the balloon would charge straight into them. Leaping up, he seized the sand-bag which Tad had already partly emptied and poured the rest of the sand over.

Up went the balloon with an incredible leap, and in a moment the mountains had faded into the depths beneath.

The others did not stir, and Bob waited a long time before rousing Tad.

"Gosh, I thought I'd only just gone to sleep," exclaimed Tad.

"I'll bet it's nearer daylight than sunset," replied Bob. "Keep your eyes lifting, Tad. We nearly knocked a mountain down about an hour ago."

"Where are we now, Bob?"

"We haven't got to sea yet, that's all I can tell you. I saw the stars gleaming on something like water just now, but it might have been a salt pan."

"All right. I'll take over. That bag I was sleeping on is the softest."

Bob lay down, closed his eyes, and the next thing he knew Tad was shaking him by the shoulder. "Dawn's coming, Bob, and—and we're in the middle of about a million miles of desert."

Bob sprang up. The stars had dimmed and the grey light of dawn was stealing over the sleeping world. He looked down, and his heart sank within him. Desert! He had seen desert before, but never anything like this. Sand and Spinifex, and here and there a line of mulga scrub marking a dry creek. That and nothing else so far as eye could see.


CHAPTER V. — DAWN IN THE DESERT

THE balloon was lower now. It drifted along only seven or eight hundred feet above the dreary waste. The breeze had fallen light, and the balloon was moving quite slowly—not more than twenty miles an hour. Bob looked up at the gas-bag, and saw that it seemed shrunken and wrinkled. A lot of gas must have escaped, or else the cold of the night had contracted it. "She'll come down pretty soon," said Tad.

"If she does it'll be our finish," said Bob grimly. "That sand below will be like an oven an hour after sunrise, and I'll swear there's no water within twenty miles—maybe not within a hundred. Our only chance is to dump some ballast and go up again."

"I expect you're right," said Tad, and Bob noticed with dismay that his cousin's voice had gone dull and lifeless. Surely Tad was not losing heart! Then he remembered the strain of all those hours of lonely watching, and understood.

"See those hills," he said briskly, pointing to a low range of granite on the horizon. "We'll let her go as she is until we get nearer to them, then if there's water we might be able to drop down and get some."

"Good enough," agreed Tad. "I say, what about a bite of chocolate? I'm as empty as a drum."

"Just a bit," agreed Bob. "But we'd better only have a bit apiece. It'll make us fearfully thirsty."

"Give me a piece," said Jed, so suddenly that both the others started. They had thought Jed was asleep.

"All right," said Bob, as he broke one stick into three and divided it.

Jed munched his hungrily. Then Tad, who had been staring at him, spoke suddenly. "Haven't you got anything with you—any grub, I mean?"

Jed's sallow face reddened. "No," he began—"at least only a few bits of toffee."

"Fork it out," ordered Tad curtly.

"I—I won't. Why should I? I bought it."

"And I bought that chocolate which you're eating," replied Tad with deadly calmness. "Fork it out, you blighter."

Jed glared at Tad. He looked as if he would go for him. Bob cut in. "Hand it over at once, Coppin," he ordered, and this time Jed obeyed. His pockets were simply bulging with sweets. He had half a pound of toffee, three sticks of almond rock and a big bag of mixed chocolates rather squashed, but still quite good.

"Well, if you aren't the limit," said Tad bitterly. "All that stuff stowed away, yet you'd bag ours as well. Aren't you ashamed of yourself?"

"No," snarled Jed. "You got me into this fix. I don't see why I should help you out of it."

"I got you into it!" Tad's eyes blazed, his fists tightened. Jed scrambled to his feet. Another moment and the two would have been at one another hammer and tongs, when a sharp cry from Bob interrupted them. "Look! People running. A girl and natives."

Forgetting everything else, the other two turned and hung over the side of the basket. "The girl's white!" exclaimed Tad in extreme astonishment.

"And—and she's running away from those black men," gasped Jed.

"That's about the size of it," said Bob sharply. "And look at the beggars. They've all got waddies and spears. My word, they're going to kill her."

It looked indeed as if he was right. The girl, who seemed to be quite young, was running hard across the desert. They could see that her legs were bare and that she had neither shoes nor stockings. She was running at a most amazing pace, simply scooting across the sand, chased by eight big blacks all armed. Fast as she went, the blacks were gaining, and it was plainly only a matter of a few minutes before they caught her.

Bob felt his throat go dry, and Tad shook all over. Even Jed went quite white.

"And we can't do a thing," groaned Tad.

"We can," cried Bob. "We must." And without another word he seized the red cord and jerked it.

There was a harsh splitting sound, and as the gas began to whistle out of the torn envelope the balloon began to drop. She was only a few hundred feet up, and luckily there was hardly any wind at all. More luckily still, the pull which Bob had given had not been hard enough to rip the fabric right across.

Even so, the balloon fell pretty fast, the basket swinging from side to side so that the three in it had to cling to the ropes.

Jed screamed with terror, but Tad was quite steady. "Hang on to the ropes," he said to Bob. "It'll take the jar off a bit."

Bob seemed hardly to hear. His eyes were fixed on the girl, who was still running hard, and now almost beneath the balloon. But the blacks were gaining. "They'll get her," he gasped. "They'll get her before we get down." All of a sudden he stooped, grabbed a sand-bag and lifting it with both hands flung it with all his force at the blacks.

The odd thing was that the natives had never even seen the balloon. Their whole attention had been so fixed on the girl that they had none left for anything else. The bag dropped right in front of the first, caught his ankles, and he came a lovely header. The others looked up, saw the balloon dropping out of the skies on lop of them, and, screaming like lost souls, turned and ran for their lives. The leader, the one who had fallen, picked himself up, gave one dreadful yell and followed. If he had been running fast before it was nothing to what he did now.

"Hurray!" roared Tad. "Good for you, Bob!"

"Chuck out some more sand," said Bob swiftly, as he seized another bag and dumped it. The pace of the fall checked, the balloon dropped gently to the ground and Bob and Tad jumped out. "Where's the girl?" asked Bob, looking round. But there was no sign of her. She seemed to have vanished like a ghost.

There the two stood alone in the centre of a huge waste of sand, rock and spinifex with a huge red sun just climbing over the bare hills to the east.


CHAPTER VI. — A GIRL GUIDE

"WHERE'S that girl?" asked Bob in a very puzzled voice.

Tad was already searching, and suddenly he swooped down on a patch of prickly spinifex. "Here she is," he said. "My word, but she's a rum-looking lady."

The girl had dropped and hidden just like a wild animal, but now, finding that she was discovered, had risen to her feet and stood gazing at the boys with her eyes wide open and her lips parted. She was still panting from her terrible race, and Bob saw that she was badly frightened.

She was the strangest-looking object, for the only clothes she wore on her poor skinny little body were a short skirt of opossum fur, and an upper garment that seemed to be made out of a piece of sacking. No shoes, no hat, and her skin, though she was undoubtedly white, was burnt to a rich red by sun and wind.

"Who are you?" asked Tad. "Where do you come from?"

Her lips moved, but she did not speak. She reminded Bob of a trapped rabbit. "Go slow with her, Tad," he said in a low voice. "She's simply a white savage, and you can see she's scared stiff."

"You tackle her, Bob," replied Tad. "We've got to find out where we are, and she's the only person who can tell us. We shall be absolutely in the soup if we're stranded here without water."

"All right," said Bob, and taking a stick of chocolate from his pocket he broke it in two and offered half to the girl. The other piece he put in his own mouth. She stared at him, then very slowly followed his example. The moment her teeth met in the chocolate her whole face changed. A look of amazed delight showed in her eyes, and gobbling up the delicious mouthful, she stretched her hand for more.

Bob smiled. "Give you some more if you'll find us water," he said.

"Ain't you got no water?" The girl's voice was a sort of cockney whine, different from anything Bob or Tad had ever heard. "Funny blokes you be ter come 'ere without water."

"We didn't mean to come," Bob explained. "The balloon broke away."

"Wot's a berloon?" asked the girl, who seemed to be getting over her fright.

Bob pointed to the wreck of the balloon. "That. It is a gas-bag. Floats in the air. We've come hundreds of miles in it since yesterday."

"Floats in the air," repeated the girl. "Is that strite?"

"Quite straight," smiled Bob.

"I sye, you do talk funny," said the girl, showing while teeth in a smile. Then she turned grave again. "But yer'd better get in and fly awye agin quick as yer can. Ef yer don't Blyne'll get yer."

"Who's Blyne?"

The girl shivered. "Him wot I'm runnin' away from."

"You were running from blacks," said Bob.

"Them blackfellers took arter me arter I left their camp. I wish yer'd killed 'em," she added fiercely.

"We pretty nearly scared them to death," said Bob. "But I say, what about the camp? Where is it? And you haven't told me who this chap Blyne is that you were running away from."

The girl looked at him sharply. "'E's a dirty dog, 'e is," she said, and shivered again.

"Is he there now?"

"Aye, 'e's there right enuff, an' puttin' Saul and all through it proper."

"Who's Saul?"

"My dad."

"You weren't running away from him?"

"No, I told yer I were runnin' from Blyne."

"But where to?"

"Anywheres so as ter get awye." A sullen look crossed her face, and she said no more.

"This is a queer sort of business," said Tad to Bob.

"I should jolly well think it was. But we've something to go on. There's a camp somewhere near, and the girl's father lives there and a man called Blyne—I expect it's Blayne—is there, and raising Cain with them."

Tad nodded. "See here, Bob, where there's a camp there must be water, and we've got to find water. I'm thirsty as blazes already, and in less than two hours we shall all be pretty near crazy if we don't get a drink. We've got to chance Blayne and get to the camp."

"That's about the size of it," agreed Bob. "I'll try and get her to take us to the camp."

He tackled the girl again. "I say, what's your name?"

"Tib," she answered.

"That's rather a nice name," said Bob tactfully. "Well, see here, Tib, we've got to have water. And so have you. Won't you take us to your camp?"

Tib shrank away. "I won't. Blyne'll kill me."

"Not if we are with you," said Bob stoutly. "We'll tackle Blayne."

"You ain't skeered of 'im?"

"Not a bit," vowed Bob.

"'E'll put yer to work, 'e will."

"We'll chance that," laughed Bob, and oddly enough the laugh did the trick, for poor little Tib had a sort of reeling that anyone who could laugh at the dreaded Blayne could not really be afraid of him. "I'll take yer to the creek," she said simply. "Then I'll 'ide until yer 'as killed Blyne."

Bob gasped. He couldn't help it. The deadly simplicity of Tib's words proved more plainly than anything what he and Tad were up against.

Jed, who had been standing listening in a dazed sort of way, spoke. "Who is this Blayne?" he asked. "You know as much as we do," Tad answered.

"B-but he must be an awful brute," faltered Jed.

"Certainly sounds like it," agreed Tad drily. "But the three of us together ought to be able to handle him."

"I—I think I'd better stay here," said Jed.

"Just as you like," said Tad. "But there's no water, and you'll be dead of thirst before night. You'll find it a lot easier to be killed than to die of thirst."

"Shut up, Tad," said Bob sharply. "It's all right, Jed. Tib will take us to the water, and after that we'll have a squint round before we tackle this Blayne person. Come on, Tib."

"Wait a jiffy," said Tad. "We want the glasses and things from the balloon." He took the things out of the pockets of the basket—the tools, the thermos, the cups and plates, knives, forks and finally the flask, and divided them into three lots. Each took one, and they started off.

Though the sun was not half an hour up it was hot, and getting hotter every minute, and Jed soon began to lag. Tib looked back at him. "'E ain't no good," she said scornfully. "Wot did yer bring 'im for?"

Jed got very red, but he was too blown and his mouth was too dry to resent openly Tib's remark.

Tib led towards the low range of granite hills. Bob saw that she was very scared. So was he, for that matter, but not for the same reason. It was the natives he was thinking of, for he knew well enough what brutes the blacks are, and that if the tribe was anywhere near, his life and those of this three companions were not worth a brass farthing. Tad, too, was not happy, and kept looking round. "If we'd only got a gun I should feel a lot more comfortable," he whispered to Bob.

It was only about a mile to the hills, but the sand was deep and soft and hot enough to scorch right through their boots, and when they reached the hills the bare rock radiated heat like a furnace. Jed stopped, and stood gasping like a stranded fish. "I can't go any further," he groaned.

"Don't talk rot," said Bob sharply. "Suck a sweet and you'll be all right. Tib, where's the water?"

"It ain't far. Jest over the rynge."

"Her feet must be solid leather," said Tad enviously as he followed her. But Bob had to help Jed.

The range was only a couple of hundred feet high, yet Bob was precious thankful when they approached the top. Tib had got there first, but as she reached the summit she bent double and, dropping behind a large boulder, signed to the others to keep back.

Presently she came down to them.

"I can't see Blyne," she told them, "but you gotter keep right arter me. An' tell 'im"—pointing to Jed—"as 'e's got ter go keerful."

Bob and Tad crawled up behind the rock and peeped out. "My word, there's water all right," exclaimed Tad joyfully.

"Water! I should think there was," replied Bob. "A regular big creek. We're in luck, Tad."

Tad grunted. "Don't know so much about that. Some rum-looking customers over there." He pointed to a clearing in the thick brush that bordered the creek—a clearing in which stood about a dozen bark-built huts. They were just like native gunyahs, only larger and more solidly built. From the clearing a rough trail ran back to the foot of the hill. The path seemed to end in the rock, for it did not go up the hill. And down this path were walking five men, each carrying a heavy load on his back.

"Yes, they do look a bit queer," agreed Bob.

"Regular white savages. But what in sense are they carrying?"

"Stones, I believe," said Tad. "And I say, look at that boat! They're loading it."

Sure enough a large flat-bottomed boat lay alongside the creek bank. It was half full of rocks, which two men who looked like Malays were stowing.

Tad looked at Bob, and Bob saw he was frowning in puzzled fashion. "I wish I knew what we'd struck," he said slowly. "It's something almighty odd, Bob."

But Bob was looking at Tib, whose small face was twisted with rage. She shook her dirty little fist in the direction of the Malays, and under her breath muttered something about "yaller devils."


CHAPTER VII. — TAD SOLVES THE MYSTERY

"WHO are those yellow chaps?" Bob asked her.

"Them's Blyne's chaps," she answered fiercely. "Miking slyves of our folk."

"Now we're getting it," said Bob aside to Tad. "Those chaps loading the boat are Malays. Blayne's their boss."

"That's about the size of it," agreed Tad. "But see here, Bob, I can't stick this sun much longer. Let's shin down the hill and get to the creek. Then we can hide up among the trees and plan what's best to do."

"Good egg!" agreed Bob. "But we'll have to be jolly careful not to be seen."

"That'll be all right," said Tad. "See that rift. If we go back we can crawl down the bottom of it without those chaps being the wiser."

Bob pointed out the rift to Tib, and she agreed that it would be the best way. So they went back a bit in a southerly direction to reach it, and started down. If it had been hot on the way up, the rift was a furnace. Exposed to the full blaze of the sun, the rock was hot enough to blister the skin. Jed collapsed, and the other two had to drag him along. It was like heaven to get into the shade of the trees, and when they reached the creek they all plunged straight into the water, clothes and all.

"Here's your chocolate, Tib," said Bob as he came out dripping. "We'd better all have a piece," he went on, plumping himself down in the shade. They sat and munched in silence for some minutes. Everything was very quiet, and the only sound was the harsh voices of the Malays, who were still busy with the boat about a quarter of a mile downstream. Jed had hardly finished his chocolate before he fell back and went sound asleep. He was quite done in.

"Tib," said Bob presently, "where does this fellow Blayne come from?"

"Ow do I know? 'E come up the billabong in 'is boat."

"Then the creek runs into some river, and most likely he came from the coast," said Tad shrewdly.

Bob tried again. "How long have you lived here, Tib?"

Tib's eyes widened. "I ain't never lived nowheres else."

"And Saul—how long has he been here?"

"I dunno. Always, I reckon."

"Does he ever go away?" Bob went on.

"'E goes 'unting. But none of us don't go far, 'cos o' the blackfellers. Sam, 'e went too far, an' they speared 'im."

"Nice sort of country," remarked Tad, with a slight shiver.

Bob went on questioning Tib, but he got very little out of her. The poor little thing was just a savage. She had never heard of reading or writing. She did not even know the name of the country she lived in. Yet she told Bob that she and her people had been quite happy until the coming of Blayne. With fish from the creek and game from the wood they had always had plenty to eat, and the blackfellers were afraid of them and dared not attack them unless they could catch one alone. She did not know how long it was since Blayne had first arrived, but Bob gathered it was about a year, and she was very vague as to why this man had enslaved her people. But oh, how she hated him! Her blue eyes fairly flashed when she spoke of him, and she begged Bob not to waste any time in killing him.

Bob stuck to his questioning. "Does Blayne stay here all the time?" he asked.

"No, 'e goes off with the boat. But 'e always comes back," she added, with a shudder. "And them yaller men—they're fair devils."

"Do they stay?"

"No, they goes, too."

"Then why don't your people go off?"

"Where 'ud they go?" Tib asked.

"Down the billabong," suggested Bob.

"We ain't got no boat," Tib answered.

"And they can't build one," said Tad to Bob. "Looks to me as if they were pretty well fixed here."

Bob shrugged his shoulders. "That's about the size of it. But the rum thing is how they ever got here in the first place."

"It's a queer business anyway you look at it," said Tad. "What I want to know is where we come in. What are we going to do?"

"Lie low until Blayne's hooked it," said Bob. "Since he's loading his boat he'll probably be off pretty soon, then we can go and have a look-see."

"That sounds good to me," agreed Tad. "Meantime, what price a snooze? I'm dead sleepy."

"Carried," grinned Tad, as he stretched himself comfortably in the shade.

Bob was as weary as Tad, and had hardly closed his eyes before he was sound asleep.

Jed was the first of the three to wake. He was very stiff, sore and hungry. He dug Bob in the ribs, and Bob sat up. "What's the matter with you?" he asked rather crossly.

"Give me some chocolate," demanded Jed.

Bob paid no attention. He was looking all round. "Where's Tib?" he demanded sharply. He shook Tad. "Tad, Tib's gone."

Tad was up in a second, and looking about. "Here's her track," he said. "I say, Bob, she's gone back to the village."

"What—with Blayne about? Not likely!"

"Perhaps Blayne's gone," said Tad. "We've been asleep for hours."

Bob looked very uneasy. "We'll have to find out. Come on."

"You haven't given me any chocolate," whined Jed. "I'm hungry."

Bob flung him a stick. "Hide among the trees while you eat it," he ordered.

"You're not going to leave me?" cried Jed in a fright.

"Don't make such a row," Bob told him. "And stick where you are, or I'll know the reason why."

Jed scowled, but Bob's tone scared him, and he slunk away into the trees. The other two went on, Tad following the tracks of Tib's bare feet. "I say, Bob," Tad whispered. "I suppose that girl hasn't been playing a game with us?"

Bob shook his head. "She's square, Tad. I believe she's scouting to see if Blayne has gone."

Tad grunted. "I'm sure I hope you're right, and that we're not running slap into trouble."

They reached the edge of the clearing and dropped to the ground. "The boat's gone," Bob whispered.

"You're right," said Tad. "But where are Tib's people? I can't see a soul."

He was right, for there was not a sign of any living thing in or about the huts. The sun was low in the west, and the shadow of the range lay across the clearing. The place was deathly still, the only sign of life being a couple of crows sitting solemnly on a dead tree opposite.

Outside the huts were the ashes of cooking fires, but the ashes were cold and no smoke rose.

"Tad," said Bob, "I believe Blayne's collared the lot, and Tib, too."

"Then it's a healthy lookout for us," replied Tad. "Shall I go and have a squint, Bob?"

Bob hesitated. "Tell you what," he said. "Suppose we go up the trail to the hill first. They may be there."

"Try it, anyhow," agreed Tad. "But we'd best keep to the trees, and not show ourselves till we have to."

Bob nodded, and they stole away up through the thick timber alongside the trail. The trail was wide and well beaten, but as deserted as the rest, and when they reached the end all they could see was a good-sized hole in the rock.

"No one in there," said Bob. "Let's go and have a look."

The hole was about eight feet high and ran into the cliff face a matter of twelve or fourteen feet. The inner surface seemed to have been freshly cut, and a couple of rough pickaxes, a crowbar and two shovels were lying on the floor. But what caught the eyes of both boys was a broad yellow streak about eight inches wide, which ran slanting all across the newly cut rock face. Tad stared at it, then looked oddly at Bob. "Bob," he said in a hoarse whisper. "That's gold."

Bob laughed. "Gold! Don't be silly."

"Then what else is it?"

"Copper," said Bob.

Tad picked up the crowbar and drove the point against the yellow vein. It sunk in almost as though the stuff was cheese. He gouged out a piece as big as an egg and handed it to Bob. "Does brass weigh like that?" he asked.

Bob examined the lump of metal and his eyes widened. "I do believe you're right," he said at last. "But who ever heard of a vein like this? Why—why there must be millions here, Tad."

"A regular jeweller's shop," agreed Tad. "I say, Bob, this explains the whole business."

Bob nodded. "Blayne, you mean. Yes, of course. The beggar is using forced labour to get out the gold, and he and his Malays are taking it down to the coast. What a brute!" He paused and thought a moment. "Tad, we've got to stop this."

"If it's not too late already," said Tad grimly. "It looks to me as if Blayne had collared the lot this time, or else—"

"Look out!" yelled Bob, seizing Tad and shoving him violently aside. Just in time, for, with a vicious hum, something hurtled past them and struck the rock behind with such force that it broke and fell in pieces to the ground.


CHAPTER VIII. — THE KING OF THE TRIBE

"A BOOMERANG," gasped Tad.

"Keep down," ordered Bob. "The next ain't likely to miss."

"But he hasn't another," said Tad. "There he is, Bob. My word, a regular white savage!"

Tad was right. The man who had thrown the boomerang was standing in the full blaze of sunshine some thirty paces outside the mine mouth, and he might have been a blackfellow, only that his skin was tawny and his hair straight and yellow instead of black and kinky. His clothes were even more scanty than Tib's, for all he wore was a pair of loose trousers made of sacking, coming a little below his knees. His skin was burned the colour of an old saddle, and though not a big man, his muscles were thick and corded. Half his face was covered with hair, from which his blue eyes looked out with an expression half scared, half savage.

"A rum-looking customer," agreed Bob. "Must be one of Tib's people."

"Question is what he takes us for," said Tad. "Hi, you!" he shouted. "No need to chuck boomerangs at us. We ain't doing any harm."

The man scowled. "'Oo are yer?" he demanded. "What yer doin' there?" As he spoke he lifted his left leg, and quick as a flash there was an ugly-looking spear in his right hand. It seemed like a conjuring trick, but both the boys knew the native dodge of carrying a spear between the toes.

"Tib'll tell you," said Tad quickly.

"Tib ain't 'ere," said the man sourly. "What yer done with 'er?"

As he spoke he raised his spear.

"Look out," said Bob sharply, but Tad stood up and stretched out his arms. "No need for that spear," he said coolly. "We have no arms. We found Tib out in the desert with blackfellows after her. We saved her and she brought us here."

"Thet's a lie," was the rough answer. "Wimmen ain't allowed 'ere."

He whistled, and next moment three more men like himself came running up the trail. All were armed with spears and boomerangs. "Come out Dr that," ordered the first man.

"Strikes me we're in the soup," said Bob. "What Are we going to do, Tad?"

"Just what he says. There's nothing else for it," replied Tad and stepped out. "Hold your hands up, Bob. It's our only chance." Bob followed. He did not feel happy, and small blame to him, for these four fellows were about as ugly a looking lot as he had ever seen. He wondered vaguely what would happen to the wretched Jed if he and Tad were scuppered.

Tad walked out bold as brass. "Here we are," he said. "What are you going to do with us?"

"Kill yer, I reckon," replied the man. "Ef we don't, Blyne will."

Tad grinned. "Why not kill Blayne instead?"

If Tad had dropped a bomb the men could hardly have been worse scared. They stood and gaped. Tad followed up his advantage. "I mean it," he said sharply. "See here, you chaps. Tib's told me how Blayne's been treating you. And now I've seen that"—pointing to the gold—"I know the reason why. Why do you stick it? You're white men, aren't you? Why do you let this fellow make slaves of you."

The blue-eyed man stared at Tad in a dazed way. "You're loony," he said thickly. "'E'd shoot us, like 'e shot Seth."

"Why do you let him shoot you?" demanded Tad. "Can't you make a fort of some sort?"

"Fort—wot's that?" demanded the man suspiciously. Before Tad could answer one of the others spoke up. "Tike 'em ter Bastable, Saul," he said. "Bastable'll know wot ter do with 'em."

"Right," said Tad cheerfully. "Let's go to Bastable."

He and Bob were marched off down the track to the village, and taken to the biggest hut, where a huge gaunt old man sat on a rough wooden stool. His thick hair and beard were white as snow, his face was a mass of wrinkles, but his eyes were still clear and blue under their shaggy brows. "My word, what a man he must have been when he was young!" was the thought that passed through Tad's head as he looked at the splendid old giant, then, walking straight up to him, put out his hand. Bastable stared a moment, then took the offered hand in his huge old fist. "'Ulloa, cully," he said genially, "where'd you spring from?"

"From a balloon, Mr. Bastable," replied Tad with a smile. "Bob here and I went up in a balloon and it broke loose and carried us right out over the desert. Then we saw Tib being chased by some niggers, so we came down, and scared 'em stiff. They hooked it, and Tib brought us along here."

"Wot's Dr berloon?" demanded Saul suspiciously.

"A gas-bag as floats in the air," explained Bastable. "I've seed 'em in my young days afore I come out to this 'ere dratted never-never land."

"Floats in the air?" repeated Saul, scowling.

"Yus," said Bastable, "but 'ow'd you know anything about it, you pore ignorant beggar?"

"'E's tellin' yer lies, granfer," growled Saul. "We found 'em in the gold 'ole. An' Tib, she ain't 'ere."

"Oh, ain't she?" retorted the old chap briskly. "She was 'ere jest a minute afore you come in, an' told me about these 'ere lads. Saved 'er life, they did, jest as this one sez."

Saul looked rather blank. "Then wot was they doin' in the gold 'ole?" he demanded. "An' see here, granfer, this one, 'e sez we'd orter kill Blyne."

"Aye, an' 'e's right, too. Yer'd hev done it long ago if yer'd been men."

Saul flushed angrily. "An' be killed like Seth was," he snarled.

Tad cut in. "Who is this Blayne, Mr. Bastable?"

"'E's a dirty dog," said the old man fiercely. "I dunno 'ow 'e got 'ere, but 'e come up the billabong in a boat about a year agone. First off 'e pretended to be friendly like, but that were all a plant, and next thing we knowed 'e'd got these 'ere Malays round us with their guns. My grandson, Seth 'e wasn't takin' it lying down, and 'e put it acrost one o' them Malays. Blyne shot 'im dead." The old man's blue eyes flashed, and his great fists clenched. "Arter that wot could we do? We 'adn't no guns. 'E took all the gold we 'ad, our cookin'-pots an' everything, an' 'e told us 'e'd be back for more in three months, and if we didn't 'ave enough 'e'd shoot another of us. Since then we been nothing but dirty slyves. S'welp me, I'd as soon be back on the chain gang as live like this."

"He was here to-day," said Tad quickly.

"'E's been 'ere three days. 'E thrashed Tib acos she checked 'im. That's wot she run for."

"The brute!" snapped Tad. "I say, can't we do anything?"

"'Ave you got any guns along?"

"No such luck," said Tad sadly.

"Then it ain't a bit o' use," said old Bastable with decision. "The best thing as you kin do is ter get into that there berloon o' yours an' skip out sharp."

Tad laughed. "The balloon's bust, but even if she wasn't you wouldn't catch us clearing out, Mr. Bastable. We're here to help you if we can, and I'm willing to bet that if we put our heads together we can bust up this Blayne person."

A smile deepened the million wrinkles on old Bastable's brown face. "Thet's the way ter talk, son. I likes to hear yer. We'll 'ave a proper pow-wow arter supper. Set ye down. Grub'll be ready soon."

Bob nudged Tad. "I say, have you forgotten Jed?" he said. "The beggar will be scared stiff."

Tad nodded. "We'll fetch him and those things from the balloon. They'll come in handy as presents for these folk. Wait till I tell Bastable, then we'll be off."


CHAPTER IX. — PLANS, AND—!

TIB was waiting outside. "'Ave yer seed Bastable?" she asked eagerly.

"Yes, but you let us in nicely, Tib. Saul wanted to finish us when he found us in your gold hole."

Tib's nose curled scornfully. It was plain she had little respect for her father. "'Im, 'e's skeered o' Blyne. But I were watchin', I wouldn't ha' let 'em hurt you."

"H'm, you didn't stop him chucking a boomerang at us," returned Tad. "But it's all right now. Mr. Bastable has asked us to supper, and we're off to fetch Jed."

"You'd best leave 'im where he be," advised Tib. "'E ain't no good. 'E ain't worth the grub 'e eats."

Tad laughed. "Come on, you bloodthirsty little beggar. We're going to try and reform him."

Tib shook her rough head. "I dunno wot that means," she answered crossly. "I wisht you'd talk plain."

"We'll try," said Tad good-humouredly. "Come along."

But when they reached the place where they had left Jed, Jed was not to be seen.

"What the mischief has become of him?" growled Tad.

"Croc's got 'im, I reckon," suggested Tib. "They gets 'ungry evenings."

"Nonsense!" said Tad sharply. "Jed! Jed! Where are you?"

"Here," came a thin voice from somewhere overhead, and, looking up, there was Jed clinging to a branch twenty feet from the ground. He had lost his hat, his face was scratched and he looked even worse scared than usual.

"What in sense are you doing up there?" demanded Tad.

"You'd better come up quick," said Jed in a terrified voice. "There's an awful beast under that rock. It's an alligator, I think."

"An alligator under a rock! You're crazy," retorted Tad.

"I'm not. It came right at me. It was as long as me or longer, and had the most awful teeth."

"Which rock?" asked Tad, and Jed pointed to a big boulder among the trees. Tad went over to explore. "There's nothing here," he said. "Come down, Jed."

Taking courage from numbers, Jed climbed slowly down. Just as he reached the ground Tib, who had been nosing round the rock like a hunting dog, uttered a shrill scream. "A 'guana!" she cried, and, flinging herself flat, thrust her arms into a hole. "I got 'is tail. Come an' 'elp!"

Tad chucked himself alongside her and reached down. "She's right, Bob," he exclaimed. "It's a whacking big 'guana."

"What's a 'guana?" asked Jed shakily.

"A lizard," Bob explained. "Iguana. Jolly good to eat. Don't be scared. It can't hurt you."

Tad and Tib were pulling like demons, but the beast had dug its claws in and they could not shift it. Bob took a hand, and the three hauled for all they were worth. Jed, still scared, kept well behind and watched.

The combined weight of the three proved too much for Master Iguana, and all of a sudden he let go. Tib, Tad and Bob fell backwards and rolled over one another, and the guana went flying through the air, and hit Jed full in the chest, knocking him flat on his back. Jed and the guana rolled together, Jed yelling as if he were being murdered.

The guana got its legs first and bolted, but Tib was after it like a terrier, and, snatching up a dead branch, caught it a whack across the back that broke its spine and killed it at once.

"Good for you, Tib!" cried Tad. "Now we have got something for supper."

Jed picked himself up, and gazed disgustedly at the huge lizard, with its great head and frilled crest. "You don't mean to say you'd eat that?" he asked in a horrified tone.

Tad laughed as he shouldered the body. "I'll bet you'll be jolly glad of anything half so good before we get home again."

"When are we going to start back?" Jed wanted to know.

"We've a job to do here first," Tad told him briefly. "Come on, if you want some supper."

The cooking fires were re-lighted when the four got back to the village, and the people seemed almost cheerful. Tib explained that the reason why no one had been about when the boys first visited the place was that everyone was so tired with loading Blayne's gold that they had been asleep. Blayne had forced them to work nearly all night carrying ore from the mine to the boat.

"We're in luck," said Tad to Bob. "I mean arriving when we did. Now we've got three months to organise this crowd."

Bob looked doubtful. "Think we can do anything with them?" he asked. "Though their skins are white they're not much better than blackfellows."

"Old Bastable's all right," said Tad. "Don't you worry. We'll settle Blayne's hash."

Old Bastable's blue eyes shone when he saw the iguana. "Proper good vittles," he said, smacking his lips. "'Ang 'im up to a tree, an' then we'll 'ave supper."

Supper was fish from the creek broiled over wood embers and roast wallaby. "We ain't got no bread or cawfee or sugar," Bastable explained. "We 'as to live like blackfellers."

"Don't worry about that," Tad told him. "We've had nothing but a bit of chocolate since yesterday. I'm hungry enough to chew coke. And here are some plates and knives and forks."

Bastable took one of the neat white enamelled plates in his hands and stared at it. "First time as I've seen a plate in fifty years an' more," he said slowly.

"You mean you've been here that long?" exclaimed Tad.

"Aye, lad. Wot year is it now?"

"1925," said Tad.

"An' we come 'ere in 1872. Fifty-three year. It's a long—long time."

He put some fish on the plate and began to eat it with a knife and fork. He was curiously clumsy, yet seemed to enjoy the use of the long-forgotten implements. Hungry as he was, Tad stopped eating to watch him.

Presently the old man went on again: "There was four on us, Joe Goggin an' 'is wife, an' me an' my gal. The gold-fields police was arter us, an' we was drove right out inter the scrub. We didn't dast turn back, but kept on west, driftin' from one water-'ole to another, livin' on wot we could trap or snare. It were a wet year, the wettest ever I remembers. If it 'adn't been we'd 'ave died o' thirst. But the water-'oles was full an' the desert thick with grass an' flowers."

He paused again, and the boys sat waiting breathlessly, until he went on: "At last we struck this 'ere billabong. Goggin's wife were ill, and the rest of us weren't no great shakes, so we reckoned to camp fer a week or two. But it were three months afore Goggin's wife were fit ter walk, an' then it were too late. The water-'oles was dried up, the grass were dead. Goggin sez ter me, 'I've seed worse places, Ned. We might as well stop 'ere.' So 'ere we've been ever since. Joe's dead, 'is wife's dead an' my wife's gone too. I'm the only one as is left."

He looked so old and desolate that Bob felt desperately sorry for him. "But you're not alone, Mr. Bastable," he said gently. "You've got your children and grandchildren."

"Aye, but wot's the use? They're jest savages. No eddication or anything. An' now, as I told ye, they ain't no better'n slaves to that there Blyne."

"That's what we've got to talk about," said Tad promptly. "We are going to do down Master Blayne."

"I wish I knowed 'ow," said Bastable. "It's this 'ere cussed gold. Joe, 'e found it, an' mighty useful it were, fer we 'adn't no metal, and Joe 'e made cookin'-pots an' things outer it."

"Cooking-pots out of gold!" gasped Jed, speaking for the first time.

"It were all it were any use fer," growled Bastable. "We couldn't buy nothing with it."

"Blayne's buying things with it," cut in Tad. "And he'll keep on coming for it as long as there's any left. We've got to stop him."

"'Ow are ye going ter stop 'un?" demanded Bastable. "We ain't got no guns, so we can't fight 'im and 'is dirty Malays. We can't clear out, fer there ain't nowheres to go. What yer going to do about it?"

"Can't we make a fort on the hill and keep him off?" suggested Bob.

"We kin make a fort fast enough, but 'e ain't going to be fool enough to attack it. All Blyne's got ter do is set down an' wait till our water's gone."

"What about laying for him down the creek and chucking rocks into his boat and sinking it?" suggested Tad.

Bastable laughed harshly. "Don't kid yourselves. Blyne's wise ter any game o' that sort. 'E comes in the day-time and 'e keeps a mighty good look out."

Bob spoke again. "What about building boats and clearing out down the creek? Surely we could dodge him that way."

"I've thought Dr that," allowed Bastable. "Trouble is we ain't got no axe nor saws nor tools ter build boats. An' if we 'ad, there ain't no one 'ere 'cept me as could use 'em. And you'd need a lot 'er boats to move the 'ole lot. There's eighteen on us besides you three." He paused. "You got any more notions?"

"Yes," said Tad. "Build a boom across the creek and stop Blayne's boat from getting up."

"A boom—wot's that?" demanded Bastable.

Tad explained that it was a number of logs fastened together and slung across the creek under water so that any boat coming up would stick on it.

Bastable shook his head. "Wouldn't be no use," he said. "Them fellers 'ud get her off, an' then it 'ud only be the worse fer us. Likely they'd shoot one Dr two of us men, an' flog the women."

Tad refused to be discouraged. "If we put spikes on the boom it would knock holes in the boat and sink her. Then if we were ready for them with boomerangs and clubs they wouldn't stand a show because all their guns would be under water."

Bastable leaned forward, and his blue eyes shone. "By gum, there might be something in that, son. I reckon it 'ud be worth trying."

"Let's try it," said Tad quickly. "We've got three months to work it."

"Aye, there or thereabouts," said old Bastable.

Someone rushed frantically into the hut. It was Tib, and her face was white under its tan and her eyes were big with fright. "Blyne's come back," she cried. "Young Joe, 'e seed 'im coming up the billabong. 'Im an' Lamok and three on 'is men."


CHAPTER X. — JED DISAPPEARS

THE shock of Tib's news was so great that for a moment no one spoke. They simply stared at her. Tad was the first to recover his wits. "Blayne coming back!" he said sharply. "What for?"

"Mebbe 'e's forgot something," suggested old Bastable. "Or one o' them Malays of 'is may 'ave bin spying round an' got wind o' you boys."

"That's not likely," said Bob. "He—"

Tib broke in. "Didn't I tell yer Blyne was coming? 'E'll be 'ere an' cop the lot o' ye ef ye don't do something better'n jest talking."

"She's right," said old Bastable quickly. "Likely Blyne don't know as you're 'ere, and there ain't no sense letting 'im know. Tib, you tyke 'em up the creek and 'ide 'em somewheres in the bush an' wyte until I sends word as all's clear."

"That's talkin', granfer," said Tib. "I'll 'ide 'em. Come on, you."

She led the way, and the three boys followed her out of the hut. Tib could move like a shadow; Tad and Bob were almost as light on their feet as she, but Jed was clumsy as a cow. It was lucky for them all that it was dark, for otherwise Blayne and his men must have seen the fugitives before they reached the trees. Bob got hold of Jed by one arm, Tad took the other, and they fairly dragged him through the thick bush. He stumbled over roots, and panted like a pig, but somehow they hauled him on until the dark trees dosed round them and they felt it safe to slacken their pace a little.

"Where are we going?" demanded Jed crossly.

"How the mischief do I know?" responded Tad. "Ask Tib. She knows."

Jed did not ask Tib. He was scared of this wild, brown creature with her sharp tongue, and realised that she had very little use for him.

Tib kept on. She seemed to have eyes like a cat, and did not stop until she came to a huge fallen tree. "There's a 'ole underneath," she explained. "Big enough fer all on us if anyone comes. But there ain't no need to git inter it yet." She sat herself down with her back against the log, and the others followed her example.

"I wonder why Blayne came back," said Tad thoughtfully. "I can't believe he knew anything of our arrival."

"'E didn't know nothing about yer," Tib answered. "I'd 'ave knowed if any o' 'is Malays 'ad been 'anging round. It were wot granfer said. 'E'd left something be'ind."

"Then when he's got it he'll clear out and go on down the creek," Bob said.

"I 'opes so, anyways," said Tib. "Any'ow, I'll go ter see as soon as it's light."

"Who's this Lamok you spoke of, Tib?" asked Bob.

"'E's the boss Malay," Tib told him. "'E's worser than Blyne 'isself." She shivered, and Tad patted her on the shoulder. "Don't you worry, Tib," he said. "We'll fix the swine if he comes after us."

"You can't do nothing," Tib told him gloomily. "You ain't got no gun. 'E'd shoot yer soon as look at yer."

Jed put in his oar. "But Blayne is a white man, isn't he?"

"White outside," remarked Tib bitterly. "Inside 'e's blacker 'n a blackfeller."

"Is he English?" asked Jed.

"'Ow do I know? You better arsk 'im," said Tib.

Jed turned to Bob. "Look here, Warburton," he said in a lower voice. "How would it be to go to this man, Blayne, tell him who we are and how we got here, and ask him to take us home? My father would pay him anything he asked."

Bob laughed. "Why, you ass, what do you think money means to a fellow like that when he's digging thousands out of that gold hole? He'd simply collar you and stick you in with the rest of the gang to dig gold for him."

"I don't believe he'd do anything of the sort," insisted Jed. "After all, we're a bit different from these people here."

"Speak for yourself, Coppin," said Tad scornfully. "And anyhow, I never heard a sillier suggestion than yours. Bob's perfectly right, for if Blayne got hold of you he'd make a slave of you with the rest. Our one chance is to lie doggo until Blayne shifts, then we'll have time to look round and fix up some plan for scuppering the blighter."

Jed turned sulky, and shut up. The others talked a little, then fell silent. There was no sound from the camp, and the night was very still. Now and then the queer croaking cry of some night bird came from the distance, now and then there was a rustle up above as a possum moved on its nightly search for food. Occasionally there was a splash from the creek as a fish rose, but for the rest all was quiet.

"Seems all right," said Tad at last. "No one after us, is there, Tib?"

"Not as I knows of," Tib answered.

"Then what about forty winks?" asked Tad.

"I ain't never 'eard of 'im," said Tib, puzzled.

"His other name is Morpheus," laughed Tad. "What I mean, Tib, is whether it's safe to go to sleep."

"Why don't yer say what yer mean?" returned Tib, rather crossly. "Yes, yer can sleep if yer wants to."

"I don't know whether I want to," said Tad, "but it's about the best way of putting in the time." He leaned back against the big log and made himself as comfortable as he could. Bob followed his example, and in a very few minutes the pair were sound asleep. Jed fidgeted a while, then seemed to make up his mind that he might as well do the same, and he, too, became quiet. Tib waited with the quiet patience of a wild creature until Jed began to breathe deeply, then she curled herself up on the warm dry ground and was asleep in a matter of seconds.

Tad was wakened by a small, hard hand which clutched his arm and shook him. "Wike up!" came Tib's voice in his ear. "Wike up, Tad."

"What's the matter?" asked Tad drowsily.

"I'll tell yer wot's the matter," said Tib fiercely. "That there Jed, 'e've gone."

Tad was wide awake in a flash and sat up straight. "Jed gone! By gum, so he is. Bob—Bob, I say, Jed's gone."

Bob roused as quickly as Tad. "Where's he gone?" he demanded.

"I'll lay 'e've gone to Blyne," said Tib, with extraordinary bitterness.

"Nonsense!" exclaimed Bob. "He couldn't have been such a fool."

"'E's worse 'n a fool," Tib declared. "'E said 'e'd pye Blyne ter tike 'im 'ome, and now 'e's gone ter find 'im."

"Then you heard?" said Tad sharply as he sprang to his feet.

"In course I 'eard. I ain't deaf."

"But he'd never find his way," objected Bob.

"I dunno so much about that," said Tib. "'E's only got ter get ter the creek, an' foller down the bank."

"That's true," said Bob. "Come on, Tad, we've got to stop him at any price."

It was all very well to talk of stopping him, but none of them knew how long it was since Jed had left. It was still pitch dark, and no sign of dawn, and they could not even see to follow the tracks.

Tib spoke up. "It ain't no use ter foller 'im. Best thing we can do is ter 'ide ourselves where Blyne can't find us."

"We can't let him go tumbling into Blayne's hands!" said Bob sharply. "You don't know what that brute might do to him."

"'E's only got 'isself ter thank," argued Tib. "If we does go arter 'im, we can't do nothing ter 'elp 'im."

"We've got to try, anyhow," said Bob doggedly. "Come on, Tad."

To his surprise Tad did not move. Bob caught him by the arm. "What's the matter with you, Tad? Aren't you coming?" he asked sharply. "We must rescue the chap."

"How are you going to do it?" Tad asked.

"I don't know."

"No more do I," said Tad. "And I ask you what chance have we got against half a dozen men all armed? We should only be caught like him or shot down."

"You're not funking it, Tad!" said Bob in a scandalised voice.

"Don't be silly," said Tad shortly. "There's no question of funking. How will it help Jed for us to run our heads into the same mess that he's in?"

Bob hesitated. "But we must do something," he argued.

"Of course we must do something, but Tib's jolly well right when she says it's no use to follow Jed. See here, Bob, you've got to remember that old Bastable is depending on us to get him out of this mess, and if we are collared by Blayne we shan't be able to help him or anyone else."

"Yes," said Bob slowly, "you're right about that. All the same it goes against the grain to leave Jed in the hands of these brutes. Why, they may murder him."

"Not likely. They'll be much too keen on getting another pair of hands to dig their gold."

"I daresay you're right," said Bob; "but here's another thing you've got to remember. Blayne's no fool, and of course he'll question Jed as to how he got here."

"And Jed'll give us away," added Tad quickly. "Yes, that's a certainty, so the first thing we have to do is to shift out of here. Where can we hide, Tib?"

"There's caves up in the Range," Tib told him, "but wot's the good? We ain't got no grub, and Blyne'll tike care we don't get no water either."

"Can't we go right up the creek?" suggested Bob.

"'E'll come arter us," said Tib gloomily. "'E's a terror, Blyne is, an' them Malays kin foller a track like blackfellers."

"We're in a pretty mess," growled Bob. "Seems to me our only chance is to slip back to the village, collar some spears or waddies and try to finish Blayne."

The three stood silent for some moments, seemingly at their wits' ends, then suddenly Tad burst out. "No, I've got a better idea than that. It's a crazy sort of notion, but it does give us a chance of sorts."


CHAPTER XI. — "DOWN AMONG THE DEAD MEN!"

TAD paused. "Go on," said Bob sharply. "Let's hear."

Tad raised his hand. "Wait! What was that?"

"That wasn't nothing," said Tib. "Jest one of our folk yelling. One o' them Malays is arter 'im with a whip."

A surge of anger made Bob hot all over and his fists clenched. "Brutes!" he muttered.

"Brutes all right," agreed Tad bitterly, "but perhaps we can snooker them. Listen, Bob. Their boat; can't be very far away down the creek, and I don't suppose there's anyone in it. My notion is to go round behind the village, slip along through the scrub as quietly as we can and try to find the boat. Then we nip in and shove off. The current is with us, and by daylight we'll be too far away for the beggars to catch us."

"And leave Jed!" exclaimed Bob, horrified.

"We can't help that, but it will be only for a little while. As soon as we reach help we'll collect a good strong force and come back and rescue him."

Bob hesitated, and Tad grew impatient. "If you've anything better to suggest, out with it, Bob," he said sharply.

"No," said Bob frankly. "I haven't got any plan at all. It's only that I hate leaving Jed."

"I tell you it can't be helped," said Tad half angrily. "And anyhow, Jed hasn't done such a lot for us that you need to be so jolly tender about him."

Bob sighed. He could not argue with Tad, yet he had a nasty feeling that he was not doing the right thing. "All right," he said at last, "I'm game."

"What about you, Tib?" asked Tad. "Hadn't you better keep out of this? It's taking big chances."

"Wot else ud I do if I didn't come?" asked Tib.

"Go back to the village, I suppose," answered Tad.

Tib fairly snorted. "An' git skinned by that there Lamok," she said scornfully. "Not me. And anyways 'ow'd you find the wye without me along? I'm gyme like Bob, and we'd better be moving if we're to find that there boat before day."

As she spoke she started off, and the two boys followed. Like a little dark shadow she drifted in and out among the trunks of the huge trees, until presently they came to the edge of the creek and saw the brilliant stars mirrored in its calm surface. "Keep awye from the bank," she whispered. "Them crocs comes out nights." As if to confirm her warning there was a heavy splash just ahead, and big ripples showed where some monstrous beast had plunged into the water. At the same time a thick, musky smell drifted through the heavy air.

The three stole onwards until a dull glow showed the village cooking-fires, then Tib turned sharply to the right and, creeping along quietly as a cat, led the others close to the base of the granite cliffs. Before them was the open track leading to the mouth of the gold hole, and Tib crept to the edge and looked and listened for some moments. "All right," she whispered, and hurried across. Bob and Tad slipped after her and were precious glad to find themselves safe in the thick growth opposite.

So far they had heard nothing from the village but a sound of gruff talking coming from old Bastable's hut, but as they moved away through the bush a voice broke out into a sudden roaring song. "Down among the dead men. Down among the dead men. Down—down—down—down!" it bellowed.

Tib shivered. "That's Blyne," she muttered. "'E always sings that. 'Ow I 'ates 'im!" she added passionately.

"Sounds as if he'd been drinking," Tad whispered in Bob's ear. "If he has, so much the better for us."

"Yes, but don't forget his Malays," replied Bob. "For all we know the boat is full of them."

"You're right. We'll have to be pretty careful," agreed Tad.

Tib took them back to the creek bank, and they moved along it among heavy timber. For about a mile Tib went briskly, but after that slackened her pace, and every now and then stopped short and listened hard for a few moments. There was still no sign of dawn, and it was too dark for the boys to get any idea of their surroundings. But Tib knew every step, and guided them as surely as if it had been broad day.

They went on in this cautious manner for another half-hour, then Tib suddenly froze. As the boys came up she pointed, and in the distance they caught sight of a faint glimmer of reddish light. "Their campfire," whispered Tad.

"That's right," Tib answered. "You wyte 'ere while I 'as a look at 'em."

"Nonsense!" retorted Bob. "That's my job."

Tib caught him by the arm with such force that her skinny little fingers dug deep into the flesh. "You stay right 'ere," she ordered so fiercely that Bob was fairly startled.

"B-but I c-can't let a girl take a risk like that," he stammered.

Tad chuckled softly. "She's right, Bob. She can move a jolly sight quieter than you or I. We've to obey orders. All right, Tib," he went on. "You go and scout, and we'll be here when you come back."

"I'm glad one o' yer's got sense," said Tib witheringly, and, diving forward, faded into the darkness.

Bob was very uneasy, but Tad comforted him. "She'll come to no harm. She's been at this game all her life, and can give us points and a beating at it. Anyhow, Blayne's men are pretty sure to be asleep. They won't dream that anyone is coming near them, and the odds are that they won't have set a sentry." He settled himself on a log as he spoke, but Bob remained standing, straining his ears for any sound.

Minutes dragged by, each seeming as long as an hour, but except for an occasional rustle as some night beast moved in the bush the boys heard nothing. Then, so suddenly that even Tad started, Tib was back. "I got it," she said triumphantly.

"Got what?" asked Tad.

"Why Blyne came back," she answered. "Them boats is stuck."

"Gone aground?" said Tad.

"Stuck in the mud. 'E can't move 'em."

"I see," said Tad. "So he's going to make your people help get them off in the morning. But what about the rest of his Malays?"

"I dunno 'ow many there are, but they're asleep by the fire. I didn't wake none of 'em."

"How far is the fire from the boats?"

"It ain't a long ways," said Tib gravely.

Tad turned to Bob. "Is it good enough, Bob? Shall we try it?"

"What can we do?" asked Bob doubtfully. "If the boats are aground we can't move them."

"Of course we can. We've only got to dump the gold and they'll float all right."

Bob whistled softly. "I hadn't thought of that. All right. Let's try it." He paused. "But suppose we get one boat afloat, what about the other? Won't they be able to chase us in it?"

"We'll have to sink it," said Tad. "Luckily I've got those tools from the balloon in my pocket. And if the boat is full of ore it won't take much of a hole to fill her."

"Good egg!" said Bob. "Let's get to it. It's a big job, and we want to finish before daylight."

Tad turned to Tib. "Tib, you understand what we are going to do."

"I understand all right, and I'll 'elp."

"The best way you can help," said Tad, "is by staying on the bank and keeping watch, and warning us if the Malays wake up."

"All right. If any on 'em moves I'll 'owl like a dingo."

Once more Tib led the way. She took them so close to the fire that they were able to see the little brown men lying on the ground around it. Luckily the fire was very low—nothing, indeed, but a pile of red smouldering ashes. Another piece of luck was that thick bushes lined the edge of the creek so that no light from the fire reached the water.

Tib took them through these bushes, and there, sure enough, were the two boats. One was afloat, moored to the bank by a stout rope, but the other, some ten yards out, was evidently fast on a mud bank.

Tad pointed to the floating one. He did not dare to speak. He motioned to Tib, who faded away in the gloom, then he and Bob stepped cautiously aboard the moored boat. She was a flat-bottomed craft about twenty feet long and four wide, pretty solidly built and heavily loaded with ore.

Without losing a moment the two boys set to work. Of course they could not pitch the stuff overboard. Each lump had to be lifted separately and dropped silently into the water. There was some light out here, and as Bob lifted the heavy chunks great yellow streaks of gold glinted faintly in the starlight. It was like some queer dream to be throwing away thousands of pounds worth of precious metal, but, after all, what did gold count compared with life and freedom? They worked like furies, perspiration streamed down their faces almost blinding them, but every moment the boat became lighter.

At last it was done. Tad pointed to the other boat, and Bob, unfastening the rope, took a pole and pushed out towards the other. At that very moment the long-drawn, melancholy howl of a dingo came echoing weirdly through the sleeping bush.

"Push her back," hissed Tad in Bob's ear. "We'll have to leave the other boat and be ready to pick up Tib."

They pushed back and stood waiting, tingling with suspense. But the seconds dragged by and nothing happened. Then all of a sudden a new sound burst upon the stillness. A great voice roaring out "Down among the dead men!"

"Blayne!" gasped Bob. "Blayne! What's he doing here?"


CHAPTER XII. — TIB'S CAVE

INSTEAD of answering, Tad grabbed Bob's arm. "Get ashore," he hissed in Bob's ear. Jumping out of the emptied boat across the other, the two reached the shore, dived into the thickest of the bush and flung themselves flat on the ground. If they made any noise it was covered by Blayne's roaring song.

Heavy steps came tramping past their hiding-place and stopped close by. Blayne's song ceased, and they heard his voice, "Lamok! Lamok! Curse that yaller-faced baboon! Where is he?"

Twisting his head round, Bob found himself able to catch a glimpse of Blayne, who was standing in a little open space not ten paces away. There was not sufficient light to see his face, but enough to realise the great solid bulk of the man, who stood nearly six feet and must have weighed all of fifteen stone.

"Lamok!" he shouted again, and a lithe brown shadow glided silently up. "I am here," he said, speaking in perfect English, but with a curious hissing intonation which somehow reminded Bob of a snake.

"Where's that white kid?" demanded Blayne thickly.

"In Bastable's hut, as you ordered," replied Lamok quietly. "He will be safe there until morning, when he will be set to work with the rest."

Tad nudged Bob. "Just what I told the silly ass," he whispered.

Blayne was speaking again. "That's all right, Lamok. I'd forgot. That there brandy—I had a drop too much. Time I got some sleep if we're to get off at daylight."

"We shall get off," replied Lamok. "At dawn, or I will know the reason why."

A shiver ran through Bob, for there was something deadly in the Malay's soft voice. Instinctively Bob felt that he was much more ruthless and dangerous than Blayne. Blayne chuckled hoarsely. "You're the lad to handle them white fellers," he remarked, and turned away towards the camp.

Bob gave a sigh of relief, but he sighed too soon, for Lamok, instead of following Blayne, stepped towards the bank. Next moment Bob heard his voice raised a tone in sharp surprise. "That boat is afloat."

Blayne heard and turned. "You're crazy, Lamok. How can she be afloat? There ain't no flood come down the creek, far as I knows." But Lamok, instead of answering, sprang lightly across to the second boat.

Tad nudged Bob. "The fat's in the fire now," he muttered, and sure enough it was. "She is empty," cried Lamok.

"Empty?" repeated Blayne stupidly. "You're dreaming."

"Come and see," said the Malay, and Blayne went blundering across the moored boat to the other. Next moment his great voice rose in a howl of rage. "Gone! Gone overboard, every darn bit of it! Who's dared to do this, Lamok?"

"Need you ask?" replied Lamok, with a slight sneer. "Who but those white boys that came in the balloon?"

"Those brats!" roared Blayne. "By gum, you're right! Of course you're right." He burst into furious threats, of which the mildest was that he would skin them both alive as soon as he caught them.

"It will be well if you catch them instead of threatening," said Lamok curtly, as he started back towards the shore. "They cannot be far away."

"We'll be far enough before that brown beggar lays hands on us," whispered Tad. "Come on, Bob. And for any sake don't make a noise." He started crawling away up-stream, and Bob followed. Bob's heart was thumping so that it almost hurt him. He was horribly afraid of Lamok.

Luckily for the boys the cover was thick, and the darkness under the thick waterside brush was intense; more luckily still, Lamok ran straight back to the camp to rouse his men and bring them in pursuit. This gave the boys a few minutes' start, of which they made such good use that, before the hunt began, they were in the heavy bush two or three hundred yards away in the direction of the village.

Tad stopped and listened a moment. "They're going down-stream," he said swiftly. "They think we've gone that way. This gives us a chance, Bob."

"But where are we going?" asked Bob urgently. "When they miss us they'll come back to the village. Where can we hide?"

Tad hesitated. He knew as well as Bob that their chances were of the slimmest. They had no food, no weapons, and this oasis of bush was bounded on all sides except the south by desert. And just then a small figure seemed to appear out of nowhere and Tib spoke. "Wot's 'appened?" she gasped.

Tad told her quickly. "They'll be on our trail in a minute or two," he ended. "Where can we hide?"

"That there cave as I told yer on," said Tib.

"That's the ticket," said Tad. "Take us there quick."

"Wyte! I gotter get some water first," said Tib, and Tad saw she had a possum-skin bag in her hands. "Wyte 'ere," she ordered, and ran silently away towards the creek.

It was quite close, and she was back in a few moments, then she took the lead and hurried them through the heavy timber in an easterly direction. She seemed to travel as easily in darkness as in light, but the two boys stumbled among fallen trunks and twisted roots, bruising their shins and sometimes taking bad falls.

The belt of timber was narrow, and in a very short time the boys felt harder ground under their feet, the trees thinned, and they saw the steep side of the range rising stark into the starlight. Then Tib was climbing like a squirrel and they hard after her.

Now and then she stopped and listened, but each time with a quick nod urged them on again, and at last, after a scramble up an almost perpendicular rock face, they gained a ledge behind which opened a narrow crevasse ending in a cave. A small place, yet, as Tad saw at once, a very safe one, for attack could only come from below, up the hill. He looked at Bob. "If we'd only got grub," he said, "we could laugh at those swine."

"I've still got a bit of chocolate," said Bob. "And, thanks to Tib, we've water for a day or two. We've left no tracks on the rock, and I don't see why they should ever find us."

Tad laughed. "You don't know Malays, Bob. They can trail like bloodhounds. They'll find us all right." He turned to Tib. "It was you let us in for this, Tib," he said sharply. "Why didn't you warn us that Blayne was coming?"

"'Ow could I warn yer?" retorted Tib sharply. "I were watching them fellers as were asleep. One on 'em kept moving, and I 'ad to keep my eye on 'im. Blyne come afore I could do anything, and Lamok, 'e'd have seed me if I'd crossed the open. I tried all I knowed, and if ye don't believe me—"

Tad stopped her. "Of course we believe you, old thing," he said, patting her arm kindly. "We know you've done all you could, and we're jolly grateful to you. We're in a tight place, but we're safe enough till daylight, so the best thing we can do is to curl up and get a wink of sleep. In the morning we'll see what we can do."

Tad's advice was sound, and after the excitement of the last two hours they were all pretty weary. In spite of the hardness of the rock they were soon asleep, and did not wake until the red sun came blazing up out of the east. Since the cave faced west they were safe for some hours from the fierce rays, but all the same the air soon began to grow hot, and Bob, glancing at the small skin bag of water, wondered unhappily how long they would be able to hold out. For breakfast they each had a small piece of chocolate and just a sip of water. After that there was nothing to do but sit and wait.

Presently Tib, who had been lying flat at the mouth of the cave, wriggled back. "They're a coming," she said briefly.


CHAPTER XIII. — ONE FOR LAMOK

TAD and Bob crept cautiously forward. The mouth of their cave was well sheltered on both sides by the edges of the crevasse, while above them the cliff was so sheer that it was impossible for anyone to attack from above. Below the ledge the rock fell away very steeply for about fifty feet, then there was another fairly wide ledge and beneath that again a further slope dropping a couple of hundred feet to the valley of the creek. Their height gave them a wide view. They could see the village, the creek for a mile or so above it, and the heights on the far side of the valley, while to the north Blayne's two gold-boats were visible through an opening in the trees. But it was not these things they looked at; their eyes were fixed on a party of four Malays headed by Lamok, who were working along the edge of the bush. Bent almost double, with their eyes fixed on the ground, they reminded Bob of hounds on the trail of a fox.

"They're on our track right enough," whispered Tad. "See! They're following the very line we came along last night."

"Yes, but they can't track us across the rock," objected Bob.

"I wouldn't gamble on it," returned Tad grimly. "Anyhow, they'll know we've taken to the range, and they'll go through it with a fine tooth-comb. You can't stop those beggars with anything less than a gun."

"We might try a rock if they get too close," suggested Bob.

Tad was not listening. "If we'd only got a gun!" he said longingly, as he watched the swart little men quartering to and fro across the rock.

The sun rose higher, the heat increased, but the Malays paid no attention, and a sort of horror came over Bob as he watched them picking out the trail foot by foot, yard by yard, and realised that he and his two companions were the quarry which these remorseless little brutes were seeking. Sometimes they stopped and talked together in low clucking tones, then one or other would point to some tiny scratch on the rock face, and on they would come again. It almost seemed as though they could smell the trail like hounds.

"I told yer," said Tib despondently. "It don't matter where yer goes them fellers'll find yer."

Tad patted her on the back. "Buck up, Tib," he said. "Even if they do find us they'll have a job to get us. We can give 'em beans if they try it."

"Wot's beans?" asked Tib, and Tad chuckled softly. "Stones, old thing," he said. "Get all you can, and I'll do the chucking."

So he and Tib began to collect stones, of which there were plenty within reach, and while they did so the brown men worked steadily closer. There was no sign of Blayne, who was probably sleeping off the brandy in his tent, nor could they see anything of Jed. The mouth of the gold hole was invisible from the cave, but from the sounds rising through the hot, still air it seemed that all Tib's people were hard at work there. Once or twice a scream echoed through the valley, making Tad and Bob bite their lips in silent fury.

As for Bob, his job was to watch the Malays. Sometimes they were out of sight in the deep crevices and gullies which seamed the granite, but always when they appeared again they were a little nearer. At last Bob turned and beckoned to Tad, who crept up alongside. "They've spotted us," Bob whispered.

Tad looked down, and sure enough there were the four Malays, almost exactly below the cave mouth and looking up. They could not see the mouth of the cave, but quite evidently they suspected its existence.

Tad's eyes gleamed as he pointed to the pile of stones which lay on the rim of the ledge. "If we turned those loose they'd smash the lot."

Bob looked uncomfortable. "But you couldn't, Tad. It would be murder."

"Well, they're here to murder us, aren't they?"

Bob was silent, and Tad grew annoyed. "I never saw a chap so confoundedly conscientious. Those blighters are the most awful swine, especially Lamok. You heard what he said last night, and you know he's been using a whip on Tib's people. If we wipe out the four of them that's half of Blayne's lot gone at one swoop."

Bob stuck to his guns. "It would be murder," he repeated. "I'll fight all you like, Tad, and plug rocks at them if they attack us, but I can't see myself wiping them out until they've done something to us."

Tad growled something under his breath, which Bob could not catch. "Well, I'm not so beastly squeamish," he remarked aloud. "Come on, Tib. Help me start the landslide."

"It's too late," said Bob. "They've shifted." He was right. Whether Lamok suspected anything or not, it was impossible to say, but he had moved, and now the four had spread out and were coming steadily up the steep rock slope, but each at a distance of several yards from the next.

"We'll get 'em just the same," growled Tad, as he picked up a hefty stone and made ready.

The four Malays came slowly up until they were so close that the boys could see their harsh brown faces and even the beads of sweat on their foreheads.

Tad saw that it was only a matter of a few moments before they reached the ledge, and suddenly shouted at them. "Keep back!"

A pistol seemed to appear by magic in Lamok's hand, and the sharp explosion sent echoes crashing along the face of the range. The bullet struck the stone which Tad held, knocking it out of his hand and numbing his fingers.

That was enough for Bob. His stone whizzed downwards straight at Lamok's head, and if the man had not dodged as quickly as a cat, would most certainly have killed him. As it was he lost his hold and went sliding and slithering down the rock face until he landed heavily on the broad ledge a long way below.


CHAPTER XIV. — THE TRICK UP BLAYNE'S SLEEVE

TIB was on her feet in an instant, and stones whizzed from her small, grimy hands. She used both with equal ease, and few boys of her age and size could have rivalled her as a marksman.

Bob, too, sprang up and began pelting the other Malays with steady aim. One, hit full in the chest, was knocked backwards and sent rolling and bumping down till he landed beside Lamok. The other two let go and, followed by a shower of stones, slid down any way they could.

Tad chuckled. "Here endeth the first lesson," he said softly.

"The first is all right," said Bob, "but how about the second?"

"I only hope they'll try it again," said Tad. "If they do we might finish the lot."

Bob shook his head. "They won't do that. They'll try besieging us, Tad. They know we haven't any grub."

Tad frowned. "That's the worst of it. But see here, Bob, isn't there a chance of old Bastable taking a hand?"

It was Tib who answered. "'E might," she said. "But 'e's too old ter do a lot, and Saul and them others they're too skeered."

"Tib's about right," said Bob. "We can't depend on any outside help. Whatever's done will be by us three. Be careful!" he added sharply. "Don't go sticking your head out like that, Tad. Lamok has still got his gun."

"He hasn't. He's dropped it," replied Tad eagerly. "I say, Bob, if we could get it it might just turn the tables."

"I'll get it," said Tib, and before they could stop her she was over the edge of the platform and clambering down the rock face with the speed and certainty of a squirrel.

"She'll be killed," gasped Tad. "Lamok's coming round. See, he's moving!"

Sure enough, the Malay was reviving. He had only been stunned, and now he was trying to sit up.

Bob leaped up, seizing a stone. "You there, Lamok!" he shouted. "Get down the cliff or we'll kill you." He emphasised his threat by sending the stone whizzing past the man's head.

Lamok looked up and saw the two boys, each with a jagged lump of granite ready in his fist. His dark face twisted with rage, and his eyes reminded Bob of a snake about to strike. He saw Tib coming down towards him, and his hand went to his belt. But his pistol was not there, for it lay on a ledge ten feet above him. Once more he looked at the resolute faces of the two boys, and knew that they meant what they said. With a snarl of baffled fury, he began climbing slowly downwards.

"Watch out for the other two," said Tad swiftly. "They're armed. Listen! Lamok is calling to them."

Bob shouted again. "If your fellows shoot, Lamok, we'll get you."

"Tib's got the pistol," cried Tad.

She had, and, snatching it up, began climbing back as fast as she had gone down.

The boys watched in terrible suspense. The two Malays who had got safely to the bottom had bolted into the brush and hidden. Tib, out on the open rock face, was at their mercy, yet they did not fire. Evidently they understood that Lamok would pay the penalty if they did.

But Lamok was nearly at the bottom, and once he was safe his companions would certainly begin firing.

"Be quick, Tib!" shouted Tad, but Tib was already coming at the very top of her speed. She was within ten feet of the cave when Lamok reached the bottom and instantly plunged under cover. The boys heard him call sharply to his men, and at the word a pistol cracked viciously. But the range was long for revolver firing, and the first two bullets spattered harmlessly against the cliff face a long way below Tib.

Lamok, who was evidently watching, shouted again, and the third shot, better aimed, struck so close to Tib that splinters of rock splashed over her, cutting one bare arm. She hesitated and almost lost her hold. Reckless of danger, Tad plunged to her help, grabbed her and dragged her up. Bob's heart was in his mouth as he flung himself flat and stretched his arms down to help Tad. A fourth shot pinged viciously just above him, and wasted itself in the depths of the cave, then Bob grasped Tad's hand and hauled him and Tib together on to the platform.

"I got the gun," panted Tib in triumph, then dropped flat on the rock, quite done.

Bob gave her a mouthful of water, then, tearing up his handkerchief, bandaged up her arm. It was only a surface cut, but was bleeding badly. Tad meantime examined the revolver. "Five cartridges in it," he told Bob. "Enough to make it pretty hot for Master Blayne. Bob, I believe Tib has turned the trick."

"I hope she has," replied Bob soberly. "It's Lamok I'm scared of."

"What can he do?" demanded Tad.

"I don't know," Bob answered, "but I'll lay he'll do something, and won't be very long about it, either."

Tad shrugged. "All right. Let him try, and next time I'll lay he won't get off so easily." He leaned back in the shade and mopped his face, while Bob lay in the mouth of the cave and kept watch. An hour passed, the heat increased, but nothing happened.

At last Bob looked round. "They're coming," he said quietly.

"Who's coming?" asked Tad.

"Blayne, Lamok, the whole show."

"An attack in force." Tad's eyes gleamed. "If we can slay Blayne we ought to come out on top," he added.

"They won't attack," said Bob. "They know too much. See, Blayne's waving a white rag. He wants to parley."

"Making terms, eh?" chuckled Tad, but Bob did not laugh. "Don't be too chirpy, Tad. There's something funny up. They've got Jed with them."

"Perhaps they think he'll make terms," said Tad with a slight sneer.

"I don't know." Bob was uneasy. "I'm afraid they've got some dirty trick up their sleeve."

"Oh, don't croak!" retorted Tad.

Blayne came climbing up to the lower ledge, Jed with him. Jed, covered with dirt and streaming with perspiration, looked perfectly miserable. The two gained the ledge, and Blayne's great roaring voice broke the hot silence of the scorching hill side. "You coming down?" he bellowed.

"No!" returned Tad curtly. Blayne pointed to the shrinking Jed. "I'll give ye ten minutes. If ye ain't down by then I'll strap this here kid to a tree whar you can see him plain, and skin him alive with a whip."


CHAPTER XV. — IN THE HANDS OF THE ENEMY

BOB looked at Tad in blank dismay. "I told you the fellow had got some dirty trick up his sleeve. We've got to go down."

Tad bit his lip. "The filthy brute!" he muttered. "Yes, I suppose we must." He got up, but with a scream Tib pulled him down again.

"'Ere, wot are you a doing of? You ain't a going down there to Blayne."

"We've got to, Tib," Tad told her. "Blayne's going to beat Jed if we don't."

"'Oo cares if 'ee does beat 'im?" cried Tib. "Wot's Jed done fer you as 'ee shouldn't be beat? If Blyne kills 'im it ain't any more'n 'ee deserves."

"Jed's a pretty average swab," allowed Tad, "but whatever he is, we can't let Blayne thrash him."

"Why not?" demanded Tib. "It'll only 'urt 'im. It won't 'urt you."

"It wouldn't be playing the game," Tad explained.

"I don't know nuthin' about no gymes," snapped Tib. "We're safe up 'ere, and wot 'appens to Jed don't make no difference to us."

Tad looked at Bob in despair. "Tell her, Bob. I can't make her understand."

"Of course you can't," replied Bob, "for from the way she looks at it she's perfectly right."

Blayne's great roaring voice came from below. "Time's up. Be you coming?"

Bob poked his head out. "My cousin and I will come if you'll let Tib stay," he called out.

"I ain't doing no bargaining with you kids," snapped Blayne, very red in the face and quite plainly in a fearful rage.

"All right," was Bob's surprising answer. "Then you can get on with the job. As Tib says, Jed Coppin deserves all that's coming to him. He's no friend of ours, anyhow."

"Here, Bob," gasped Tad scandalised. "You can't let Blayne torture that wretched kid."

"Shut up!" said Bob in a quick whisper. "I'm only bluffing." Tad fairly gasped, for he had never dreamed that Bob could take the lead like this, but he had sense enough to keep quiet and see what would happen.

Blayne got angrier than ever. "I'll skin this here kid first, and arter that I'll come and take you three out o' that there hole and do the same to you," he threatened.

"You'll have your work cut out," replied Bob calmly. "We knocked out your first lot of chaps with rocks, but now we've got a pistol as well. Come and try it."

Blayne stamped with fury, but Lamok said something to him and he calmed down a little. "I ain't going to tackle you like that," he retorted. "I'm a going to put my chaps to watch ye until ye starves. I knows ye ain't got no grub."

"We have water, anyhow," replied Bob. "We can hang on for a couple of days, and by that time our people will have come to our help."

Tad chuckled softly. "That's the way to talk. Bob," he whispered admiringly.

Lamok and Blayne conferred again, then Blayne spoke in a rather quieter tone. "You're putting up a pretty good bluff, young feller," he said, "but you knows as well as I do as it'll take your folk a month to follow you, and then the chances is all against them finding you. Ef you knows what's good for you, you'll come down out o' there."

"I've told you that Tad and I will come down if you'll leave Tib alone," said Bob.

"That's all right," said Blayne eagerly. "I don't want the dirty little kid. She can stay there till the roof falls for all I care."

"Think we can trust him?" asked Tad of Bob.

"I'm afraid we've got to," replied Bob rather ruefully. "Anyhow, we can leave her the pistol, and I'll be sorry for anyone who tried to tackle her."

Tib had been listening hard, and now she spoke again. "You ain't a going," she demanded.

"We've got to, Tib," said Bob. "Tad and I are going, but you are to stay, and Blayne has promised not to touch you."

"But wot's 'ee going to do to you?" Tib asked. "Make us work at the gold hole, I expect," Bob told her. "Don't you worry about us, Tib. We can look after ourselves. Come on, Tad."

Tib caught hold of Tad again. "You ain't a-going," she shrieked. "I won't stay 'ere by myself."

Tad loosed himself gently. "You've got to, Tib. You'll be much more useful to us if you're free. You can help us." Tib began to cry in dry hard sobs, and Tad suddenly stooped and kissed her. "Don't worry, old thing," he said earnestly. "It'll all come right." Then, looking rather red and confused, he turned to Bob. "Come on, quick," he said sharply.

Blayne was waiting grimly at the foot of the slope. He glanced at the two boys with red inflamed eyes. Bob looked him fearlessly in the face. "Here we are," he said. "Now what are you going to do with us?"

"What I'd ought to do is tie ye up and give ye a dozen apiece," replied the big man. "But I guess I got something better to do with ye first. You emptied that there boat o' mine. Now ye can fill it again." Lamok said nothing, but Bob took little comfort from the look in the man's narrow, deep-set eyes. Instinctively he knew that he was far more dangerous than the loud-voiced, blustering Blayne.

It was cruelly hot, marching back through the scrub down the creek, but it was hotter still when they reached the open space where the gold-boats lay. A couple of men from the village were at work already retrieving the ore from the mud, one of whom was Saul. He scowled at the boys as they came up.

"In ye get," ordered Blayne grimly. "I'll give ye two hours to get the last bit of that there ore, and ef ye don't ye knows what's coming to you."

"Give us something to eat first," said Bob boldly. "We've had no breakfast, and we can't work without grub."

Blayne chuckled. "You got your cheek with you," he retorted. Then Lamok spoke swiftly. "Let them wait, Mr. Blayne. It will be time enough to think of feeding them after they have done their work."

"We can do it a jolly sight quicker if we have some food first," Bob insisted.

"Get to your work," snarled Lamok, with a very evil look, but Bob was not to be cowed.

"Who's boss here, you or Blayne?" he asked scornfully.

Blayne gave a great bellow of laughter. "Got ye there, Lamok. Give 'em a bit o' damper apiece. Then if they don't do their job you can take it out of 'em."

If looks could have killed, Bob's life would have been a short one, but Lamok turned away to the tent to fetch the food, and Blayne sat down in the shade and lit his pipe.

"Bob," said Tad in a low voice, "you'd best have let it alone. Lamok's fit to murder us."

"He can't hate us any worse than he does already," Bob answered. "And dad's always said that you must never let these yellow chaps think you're afraid of them."

Lamok came back with a couple of lumps of damper, soggy, ill-baked stuff. "You have won this time," he said softly to Bob, "but next time Blayne may not be near."

"There's always the chance that something might happen to you, my friend," returned Bob coolly, and saw Lamok's face twitch with ill-concealed fury.

He and Tad were too hungry to be particular, and the damper soon disappeared, then Lamok drove them into the creek and they set to picking up the ore. The jagged lumps, which were enormously heavy, had sunk deep in the mud, and the boys had to grope elbow deep in the mire. The heat was simply frightful; even the water was lukewarm, and the sun beat down upon their backs and necks like a blast from an open furnace door. Lamok, his head protected by a broad-brimmed, steeple-crowned hat made of palm leaves, stood over them, whip in hand. More than once he cut at Saul and the other white savage, yet it was noticeable that he did not strike either of the two boys. But his nasty snake-like eyes were on them the whole time.

After about an hour Bob's head began to swim. He had had precious little food or sleep during the past forty-eight hours, and had been through a lot. He was not fit for this gruelling toil in the fearful heat. He glanced at Tad, and saw that he, too, was beginning to look very dicky. About three-quarters of the ore was back in the boat, but the rest was in smaller pieces and took longer to find and collect. Blayne still dozed in the shade, but Lamok was as full of vicious life as ever. There was nothing for it but to carry on and hope to be able to stick it out.

Time dragged on, and the pieces of ore became more and more difficult to find. Then quite suddenly Tad toppled over, and fell face downwards into the water.

Bob caught him and hauled him to the bank.

"What are you doing?" demanded Lamok viciously.

"My cousin has fainted," replied Bob quietly.

"Drop him there in the shade, and leave him to come to. You get back to your work."

"I'll wait till he does come to," returned Bob. "I'm pretty well done, myself."

Up went Lamok's whip, and fell with a stinging swish across Bob's back. In a flash Bob was at the man's throat. So sudden and furious was his attack that he caught the Malay off his balance, and knocked him backwards into the creek, falling on top of him. The pain and the insult had driven Bob crazy, and for the moment he had the strength of ten. He forced Lamok's head under water, and in spite of his struggles held him there. He would most certainly have drowned him had not a great hand gripped him by the waistband of his trousers and hauled him off.

"What d'ye think you're doing?" thundered Blayne, as he picked the boy up bodily and flung him on to the bank alongside Tad. Then he dragged Lamok out.

The Malay had swallowed quarts of the muddy water and was almost insensible. Blayne held him up by the legs and emptied him like a bottle. "You've done it now," he remarked to Bob. "He'll kill you when 'ee comes to hisself."

Bob's reply was to pick up Lamok's whip. "Two can play at that game," he said, and Blayne looked at him oddly. "You're a proper young game-cock, ain't you?" he remarked, but Bob was not listening, for he was seizing the chance to drag Tad into the shade. The effort almost finished him, and he dropped beside Tad, panting for breath. He had a pretty good notion of what was going to happen as soon as Lamok came to himself.


CHAPTER XVI. — LAMOK GETS HIS OWN BACK

CURIOUSLY enough, Blayne made no attempt to interfere. He had gone back to his seat and was watching Lamok. Saul and the other man were also watching as they worked, and so were two Malays who had been busy in the camp.

Tad was the first to come round. "Sorry, Bob," he said hoarsely. "I didn't think I'd be ass enough to faint. What happened?"

"Had a little trouble with Lamok," replied Bob. "I held him under water till he was jolly near drowned."

"Pity you didn't finish the job," remarked Tad with a weak grin. "Blayne wouldn't be so bad by himself."

"It was Blayne pulled us out," said Bob. "Lamok is going to be nasty when he comes round. But I've got his whip."

"I wish we'd got his gun," said Tad uneasily. "But we ought to be able to handle him, between us, if Blayne doesn't interfere."

"I don't believe Blayne will do much," replied Bob in an equally low voice. "It's my notion he's fed up with that yellow-faced brute."

Lamok meanwhile had got rid of the water he had swallowed and of pretty well everything else inside him. Presently he sat up and looked round, and as his eyes fell on Bob there was a look in them that made Bob shiver slightly. It was the very essence of evil.

"Watch out," whispered Tad.

"I'm watching," said Bob. "You lie still. Don't let him think you're able to move." He spoke in too low a voice for Lamok to hear, and Tad merely winked one eye in reply, and lay still.

All of a sudden Lamok sprang to his feet, at the same moment snatching a knife from its sheath at his belt. It was lucky for Bob that he had been watching keenly, for this gave him time to gain his feet before the Malay was upon him.

"Here, what are you about?" roared Blayne in his thundering voice. "Drop that knife. D'ye hear me?"

Lamok may have heard, but he did not heed. He darted at Bob like a striking snake. As Bob sprang aside he cut at Lamok with his own whip, and the heavy raw-hide, missing the man's head, struck the hand in which he held the knife. The blow paralysed the muscles, and the knife flew from Lamok's fingers, the keen blade glittering in the sun glare.

Though the pain must have been intense, Lamok did not utter a sound, but, wheeling with extraordinary speed, flung himself on Bob. Bob went flat on his back on the hard ground, and now conditions were reversed, for it was Lamok who was on top. Bob was half stunned by the fall, and before he could do anything to save himself Lamok had him by the throat with his left hand, and set deliberately to throttle him.

But now Tad was up, and picking up the whip which Bob had dropped as he fell, struck Lamok over the head with the butt of it. Instantly Lamok's grip slackened, and with a groan he rolled over and lay flat on the grass.

"Thanks," said Bob, but Tad, instead of helping him up, spun round. With the tail of his eye he had seen the other two Malays come racing from the camp, each with a knife in his hand.

Blayne, who so far had not moved, now jumped up and yelled to the men to stop. But the Malays had seen their chief knocked out and apparently killed. They paid not the slightest attention to Blayne's orders, and Blayne did not attempt to interfere, for he knew what a Malay is when his blood is up, and was aware that they would knife him as readily as anyone else if he got in their way.

"Bunk!" yelled Tad to Bob. "Run for it!" But Bob was still on the ground, painfully trying to get back his breath. The last thing he could do was to run.

Then—it all happened in a second—a shadow passed over them, a pistol cracked two—three—four times in rapid succession, one of the Malays went down and the other stumbled over him.

"A plane!" shouted Tad, and Bob scrambled to his feet just in time to see a large aeroplane which had swooped to within a hundred feet of the ground swinging upwards again. He waved frantically, and a man waved back, but next moment the machine was soaring again and rapidly passing across the valley.

"No place to land," explained Tad hastily, "but, by gum, they saved us all right."

The arrival of the plane roused Blayne thoroughly. He leaped up, rushed to his tent and came out with a rifle. Tad meantime relieved Lamok of his knife. Lamok, being still quite insensible, was in no case to resist. The shot Malay also lay still, but his companion, a vicious-looking little fellow, had got to his feet and was staring after the plane.

"They've come to look for us," said Bob sharply. "What will they do, Tad?"

"Land out on the desert, I expect."

"And come back. Tad, we've got to stop them. Blayne will shoot them."

"I know," said Tad, "but how the mischief are we going to manage it? We can't cross the creek. Blayne would shoot us down before we were half-way across."

By this time the plane had crossed the range of granite on the western edge of the creek valley and disappeared from sight, and now here was Blayne, armed with his rifle, thoroughly roused and very angry. In response to his shouts, three of his men came running. "Take them boys," he added, "and tie 'em under the trees. You ain't to hurt 'em. The feller who hurts 'em gets a bullet from this through him." He patted his rifle as he spoke.

"What do we do?" Tad asked swiftly.

"Do as Blayne says," replied Bob, equally quickly. "The only thing is to mark time."

Tad nodded. "I reckon you're right. But it's a nasty mix up."

"We're safe, and help is near. No use worrying," replied Bob calmly. "Of course Blayne means to keep us as hostages. They can't shoot us so long as we're with him."

Blayne's next order was to Saul, to go up to the village and bring the rest of his men, and Saul, only too glad to get quit of his back-breaking toil, hastened to obey. Meantime the three Malays seized Bob and Tad, and taking them into the bush tied them under a big tree. The boys were able to sit on the ground, and the shade was pleasant after the fierce glare of the sun.

The next thing the three Malays did was to shift the camp, hiding tents and everything else under the trees.

"Pretty cute of Blayne," Tad whispered. "He's making sure that, if the plane comes over again, they won't know where we are."

"But the chaps in the plane can see the boats," replied Bob.

"If Blayne leaves them there. But he may hide them, too."

And this was exactly what Blayne did, for he made his men pole the boats back to a spot where big trees arched clear across the creek, and where, in consequence, they were quite hidden from the air.

"He may be a bluffer," said Ted thoughtfully, "but he's got a head on him. What do you think he will do next, Bob?"

"Wait till dark, then push off," replied Bob.

"But the chaps in the plane will know he can't have gone up-stream. They're bound to follow down the creek."

"They don't know anything," Bob reminded him. "Remember, they have no knowledge of the gold mine or anything else. They're likely to think that this is a regular settlement."

"That's so," agreed Tad in a troubled voice.

"And, for all we know, they may be coming straight back here on foot this very minute."

"Not likely," Bob told him. "They saw we were in a tight place, and one shot that Malay. No, Tad, you can bet that they'll be pretty careful."

"If we could only get word to them!" said Tad, then he started. "And so we could," he added sharply, "if we could only get hold of Tib."

Bob shook his head. "Afraid there's not much chance of that, old man. Tib will keep far enough from Blayne and Lamok. I expect she's still in that cave."

"Bet you she isn't," returned Tad. "I'll lay you she's somewhere in this neck of woods this minute."

"I hope, for her sake, she isn't," Bob answered seriously. "Even she would have a job to hide herself with these Malays all over the place."

"They're sharp, but she's sharper," said Tad. "Look at the way she took us through the bush last night." He paused. "Have you got a pencil, Bob?" he asked presently.

"Yes, and a note-book."

"Good business. Then watch your chance when no one's looking and scribble a message. Then if Tib does turn up we'll have it ready for her."

The pair were tied to two big trees by ropes round their waists, and tethered so that they could not get at the knots. And their knives had been taken away so that they could not cut the ropes. But their hands were free, and Bob waited eagerly for the coast to be clear so as to write his note. It was an hour or more before he got his chance, then he scribbled a few hasty lines on a page from his note-book and hid the sheet inside his shirt.

He had hardly done it before Lamok came into sight among the trees. His head was tied up and he looked pretty shaky, but as ugly as ever. He came straight up to the boys, stood opposite, and fixed his yellow eyes upon them. "So you think you are safe," he remarked in his soft purring tones. "You believe that your friends in the aeroplane will shortly come to your rescue. You are wrong." He paused and smiled evilly. "Two of my men have been scouting, by my orders, and have discovered the aeroplane at rest on the sand a short distance beyond the Western Range. The men are camping there for the night. It will be their last camp, for soon after dark one of the white savages will be sent to them with a message that will appear to come from you two. He will guide them back to this camp and then"—he rubbed his brown hands together and grinned again—"then it is easy for you to imagine what will happen." Without waiting for any reply, he turned and went away again. Tad looked at Bob, and Bob looked at Tad. Neither of them spoke, for there did not seem to be anything to say.


CHAPTER XVII. — FEEBLE FINGERS

EVEN in the shade the heat was terrible. Though they had lived in Australia all their lives and were accustomed to summer temperatures of one hundred degrees in the shade, Bob and Tad had never felt anything approaching this. It was like an oven. Not a breath of air moved, and a queer faint grey haze which covered the sky seemed to make it worse rather than better.

What made it all the harder for the boys to bear was that they were more than half starved, besides being utterly worn out with all they had gone through, especially the killing toil of reloading the gold-boat.

Yet they were, neither of them, the sort to give up, and presently Bob began to work at his lashings. But though his hands were free he soon found this was no use. The knots were at the back of the great tree trunk, quite out of his reach, and the only result of his efforts was to make the perspiration pour from his parched body. "It's no use, Tad," he said at last in a low, hoarse voice.

"I could have told you that," replied Tad bitterly. "You may just as well chuck trying to untie yourself, Bob. Our only chance is to get hold of something to cut the ropes. A sharp stone might do the trick if we could only get one, but I can't see one anywhere in reach, and they've taken our knives."

"But we must do something," said Bob urgently. "Lamok means to murder the chaps in the plane."

"I know he does, and after that he will finish us. That fellow is simply a fiend, Bob, and he'll never forgive us for the hammering we gave him. Tib's our best bet," he continued. "I'm sure and certain she will give us a hand if she possibly can."

"Of course she will if she can," said Bob; "but the chances are that she is still stuck in that cave. She would never dare leave it in daylight, for I'm pretty sure that Lamok has left one of his beauties on guard."

"If that's a fact we're properly done," said Tad, "for Lamok will send that faked message just as soon as it's dark."

"I know," groaned Bob. "For goodness sake think of something, Tad."

"Thoughts won't cut ropes, Bob," said Tad grimly.

"But teeth might," said Bob, and, bending his head, began gnawing at the hard cord which encircled his body.

Tad watched him pityingly. "That's no good. Bob," he said presently, "You'll only dry your mouth till you can't breathe."

"It's bad enough already," said Bob. "It's hotter than I'd have believed possible. And, I say, what's up? It's getting dark."

"Sandstorm, I expect," Tad answered.

"But there's no wind."

"Probably coming. Bob, a sandstorm will finish us if we can't get to the creek."

"You needn't tell me that," retorted Bob. "And if it's bad it will do for that plane as well."

"It's a pretty average mess up all round," was all Tad could find to say.

It grew darker and darker, and under the great trees the gloom became almost like that of night. Yet the heat was worse than ever. The Malays were not visible. Lamok was nursing his sore head, and Blayne appeared to be also in his tent. The two boys, fast against their trees, could only gasp. They were suffering cruelly from thirst.

"If it hadn't been for that fellow Jed we'd have been all right," said Tad, after a long silence.

"I don't know so much about that," replied Bob. "It's true he messed things up by going to Blayne, but even if he had stayed with us we couldn't have got away."

"He's a rotter," said Tad harshly, but Bob raised a hand.

"Hush!" he whispered. "There's someone behind us."

"Tib," said Tad sharply.

"It's not Tib," came a low voice from behind them.

Bob started. "It's Jed."

"Yes, it's Jed," answered the other in a scared whisper. "I sneaked round here when it began to get dark and those beasts weren't watching me. I—I wanted to tell you, Warburton, how decent it was of you to get me off that beating."

Bob was too amazed to answer. This was a change of tune and no mistake. He could hardly believe that the speaker was the bumptious Jed Coppin.

But Tad wasted no time. "If you want to show your gratitude, Jed, don't talk; do something. Cut us loose."

"But I have not got a knife," said Jed. "They took it away from me."

"Can't you get one from the tents?" asked Tad.

"I—I dare not. That Lamok frightens me."

"Then untie us," Tad ordered sharply. "If you don't it's our finish and yours too. Your only chance is to get us free."

"I—I'll try," stammered Jed, and the words were hardly out of his mouth before a terrific blaze of blue fire cut the gloom, and was followed by such a crash of thunder as made the ground tremble beneath them. The echoes went crashing and rumbling up the valley, rebounding terribly between the two ranges of granite. As they died away down came the rain.

It does not often rain in Central Australia, but when it does it seems as if flood gates had been opened overhead. It was a waterfall, a cataract roaring down in solid sheets. There was lightning—plenty of it, for almost every other second a flare like a magnesium flame showed the steel-like rods of streaming rain; there was thunder, too, but the noise of the rain drowned it or mixed with it so that you could not tell one from the other. Except for the glimmering lightning it was dark as a starless night.

"Jed! Jed!" Bob called, but though he was shouting he could hardly hear his own voice.

No answer, and he called again, and presently Jed showed up in a winking flash—Jed filthy dirty, his soaked clothes clinging to him, his face white and terrified.

Bob caught him by the arm and drew him close. "Don't be scared, Jed. This is the best thing that could have happened, for none of Blayne's lot will move from their tents until it is over. Listen. The people in that aeroplane are down in the desert a mile or so across the creek. If we can reach them they'll take us away home at once. What you've got to do is to get Tad and myself loose. You understand?" He spoke with a fierce urgency which impressed Jed.

"I'll try," he promised, "but as I told you I've got nothing to cut the ropes with, and if I went away to hunt a knife I'd never find you again in this darkness."

"Untie the knots. Untie me and I'll soon have Tad loose."

"I'll try," Jed said again, and went round to the back of the tree.

Tad saw what was happening and said something. Bob could see his lips move, but the din of the storm drowned his words. By this time the water was fairly roaring down from the ranges and sweeping through the wood ankle deep, and still it came down in the same relentless torrent. Lightning struck a great tree not fifty yards away, and it blew up as if a charge of dynamite had been set off in its trunk. Great masses of split timber were flung in every direction, but the size and weight of the trees to which Bob and Tad were tied protected them.

Bob could not see Jed, who was hidden by the huge trunk. He knew he was working, but minutes passed and nothing happened, and the strain of waiting became almost more than he could bear. At last Jed appeared again. "The rain's tightened the knots so I can't untie them," he whimpered. "What am I to do, Warburton?"

"You've got to untie them," Bob told him fiercely. "Your life depends on it just as much as ours."

"B-but I can't," blubbered Jed.

"Man," cried Bob, "you can't be so feeble as all that. Try—try again."

Jed slunk out of sight again, and Bob had to wait. Cool and steady as he was by nature, he was in such a state of suspense that he found himself shaking from head to foot. Each minute was like an hour.

The storm was passing, the lightning was not so close, though the rain still fell as heavily as ever. Bob knew that these fierce tropical storms are only short-lived, and that it could not be long before this one was over. It nearly drove him frantic to feel how Jed was wasting the precious moments. If he could only get free and release Tad before the storm was over they could cross the creek in one of the boats, reach the aeroplane and be safe in the air long before Blayne and Co. could do anything.

It began to grow lighter, and Bob jerked at his cords in desperation, but they were as firm as ever. Firmer, indeed because the rain had tightened them.

Jed appeared again, and now his face was white as chalk and his fingers were bleeding. "I can't do it, Warburton. Indeed—indeed I've tried my best, but the knots are like iron. Look here, I'll go and get a knife."

Bob groaned. He knew it was too late, yet even so he kept his head. "Try it if you like, Jed," he said, "but before you go hand me that bit of sharp stone just in front of me." Jed gave him the stone and stood hesitating, and trembling. "They'll kill me if they find me with a knife," he said.

"Dirty little coward!" snapped Tad, but Bob stopped him. "Steady, Tad. He's doing his best, and anyhow I've got a bit of flint. If I'd only had it half an hour ago I might be free by now." He spoke to Jed. "Listen, Jed," he said kindly. "Don't bother about a knife unless you can get one without any of Blayne's fellows spotting you. But hang around somewhere in sight, and specially just after dark. I can cut myself loose with this flint in course of time, and then we'll all three clear out."

"All r-right, and—and thanks for being so decent," Jed stammered, and slipped away.

"Of all the miserable idiots!" groaned Tad. "Such a chance, and now it's gone. The light's coming back."

"It's pretty tough," allowed Bob, "but of course Jed is a fool. He's never had a chance to be anything else, and he doesn't know how to use his hands. But cheer up. We still have a chance."

"I don't see it."

"Yes. Jed's got me a good piece of flint, and it's in my pocket. As soon as it's dusk I'm going to start cutting the rope, then we'll slip across the creek in one of the boats and warn those chaps."

Tad glanced in the direction of the creek. "I'll bet we don't," he said. "Look at the flood."


CHAPTER XVIII. — BOB BLUFFS

IT was still raining furiously, but the mist and fog of it had cleared enough to show the creek, and even Bob, accustomed as he was to the rapid rise of Australian streams, was startled at what he saw. The slow smooth creek which an hour earlier had been almost as placid as a canal, was now a roaring torrent, at least four times as wide as then, and rushing like a mill-stream. Every moment more and more water pouring down from the hills was added to it, and it was coming up across its banks in great loops and swirls. Huge logs and whole trees were swinging down the centre like chips, and great yellow waves broke over them as they checked and bumped one into another.

But instead of being dismayed, Bob drew a long breath of relief. "That's the first bit of luck we've had to-day," he said.

"What do you mean?" growled Tad.

"Don't be stupid. If we can't cross, neither can Blayne or anyone else. Lamok can't send that faked message to the chap in the plane."

Tad's face cleared. "My word, but I'm a fool!" he exclaimed, and his voice was almost cheerful. "You're right, of course, Bob. Those chaps will be safe for twenty-four hours, anyway. I'll tell you another thing. Those gold-boats won't last long. The ropes will never hold them."

Someone else besides Tad had just realised this danger, for at this moment Blayne's great roaring voice was heard, shouting to his men to come and help, and he himself came charging through the trees down to the creek edge. Four Malays followed him, and after them came Lamok, looking very much the worse for wear, but as vicious as ever. Blayne was cursing his men for their slackness, and they were evidently in as big a stew as he.

As he came pounding past he caught sight of the boys, and paused an instant. "Turn them loose and make them give a hand," he ordered. "You, Lamok!" he added.

Lamok's dark slit-like eyes gleamed evilly as he came towards the boys, and as he came he drew his heavy parang from its sheath. "I could make better use of this than cutting your ropes," he said in his low, hissing voice. "But that is only a pleasure deferred. You will live just as long as I can make use of you—no longer."

"What a nice kindly soul you have got!" said Bob with a grin.

Lamok had no sense of humour, and the grin nearly drove him mad. "You laugh at me," he snarled. "Dog, but I will cut the skin from your back."

"You'll do what your boss tells you," said Bob scornfully. "If you don't it's your yellow hide that will come off."

Tad's eyes widened. He could never have believed that the quiet, easy-going Bob could talk like this. He was scared, too, for he fully believed that the Malay would run amok and murder them both.

Lamok did nothing of the sort. On the contrary, Bob's coolness seemed to flabbergast him, and though he scowled hideously, the only use he made of his knife was to cut the boys free of their lashings.

The delay, short as it was, had made Blayne furious, and his language was almost hot enough to dry up the flood. No wonder he was annoyed, for one gold-boat had just sunk, and the other was rapidly filling. "Get on to this rope," he roared. "Quick, you yellow sons of sin. Here, boys, get hold. If ye don't get her ashore I'll skin you alive."

"If you lose her it's your own fault," said Bob curtly. "Any fool might have known that this rain would bring down a flood. And how do you think we're going to pull when we haven't had a meal all day? Do your own pulling. You're big enough." Tad held his breath. He fully expected to see Bob knocked silly by Blayne's huge fist. He could hardly believe his eyes when he saw a grin on Blayne's hard face. "'Ulloa, bantam, you crowing again?" he jeered. "Tail on here and give us a hand, and I'll see ye gets some supper."

"That's a bargain," said Bob, and got hold. He and Tad hadn't much strength left, but the rain had refreshed them and the air was almost cold after the downpour. All pulled their best, but the heavily-laden boat hung in the flood, and they could not get her ashore. The yellow waves were breaking over her, and she was slowly filling.

Bob's quick eyes saw the reason, "There's a log under her," he told Blayne. "She can't move until that's shifted."

"By gum, you're right, kid. But who's a-going to clear it? None of us can't reach the darn boat."

"No need to," retorted Bob. "Got any more rope?"

"Aye, there's plenty. What be ye going to do?"

"I'll show you," said Bob, and picking up the coil, swiftly made a running noose at the end. Standing knee deep in the edge of the flood, he flung the rope, and at the very first attempt got the loop over the big clumsy tiller. "Tie the bow rope to a tree, and all of you tail on here," he ordered as he pulled the loop tight. The Malays hesitated, but Blayne repeated the order in a roar, and they quickly obeyed. One good pull was enough to jerk the boat off the sunken log which was wedged under her keel, then they got on to the bow rope again, and in less time than it takes to tell, the heavy craft was dragged up into shallow water and grounded safely.

Blayne brought his great hand down on his knee with a smack like a pistol shot. "My word, that was smart!" he cried. "I reckon you've earned your supper, kid, and I'll see you gets it."

Lamok's face went almost black with rage, but he knew too much to say anything. So Blayne took the two boys with him up to his tent, and provided them with a tin of corned beef, a whole round of damper and a pot of cold coffee.

It was the first real meal they had had for days, and they both tucked in like good 'uns. Blayne watched them with a cynical twinkle in his hard eyes. "Gosh!" he remarked at last. "I'm glad I ain't got to keep ye."

Bob looked up. "Well, you're going to, aren't you?"

"Dog gone if I'm a-going to do anything o' the sort. I'm a-leaving you here to help dig the rest o' that there gold."

"Do you think you'll find us here when you get back?" asked Bob.

"If you wants to starve in the desert I ain't hindering you," retorted Blayne.

Bob finished his last mouthful of damper and looked the big man full in the face. "Why should we starve in the desert when that plane is waiting to take us back?"

"Likely it'll wait a long time. Lamok'll attend to that," said Blayne, with a grim edge to his voice.

Bob's eyes did not fall. "No one can reach that plane until the flood runs down," he told Blayne, "but even supposing that Lamok does manage to murder these two airmen, do you suppose that's the end of it? I'll tell you something you don't know. That plane has wireless, and by this time our people know where we are. They'll send two planes next time, or six if need be."

He saw Blayne's expression change, and quickly followed up his advantage. "See here, Blayne, we'll make a bargain with you. Turn us over to the airmen, and you clear out with the gold you've got and give us your word you won't come back. In return, we will promise that we won't give you away. We won't mention your name or anything else."

Blayne sat frowning thoughtfully. It was clear that he was a good deal impressed by what Bob had said.

While Bob waited anxiously for his answer, a clattering roar was heard above the low thunder of the flood, and suddenly Lamok rushed into the tent. His dark eyes were blazing with excitement. "We have them," he said in his hissing whisper. "The fools have given themselves into our hands. They have crossed the river and are coming down on our side."

Bob and Tad sprang up and rushed out, and sure enough there was the plane. Its dark shape was outlined against the clearing sky like a huge dragonfly. As they watched, the engine was cut off, its nose dipped and it dropped out of sight behind the granite peaks on the near side of the creek. Tad came close to Bob. "That's torn it," he whispered.


CHAPTER XIX. — TREACHERY

BOB had gone rather white, but he kept wonderfully steady. "Wait!" he said in Tad's ear.

Lamok was talking eagerly to Blayne. "I will send Saul. There will be no trouble at all. Once these fools are out of the way we are perfectly safe."

Blayne did not speak. He stood frowning, seemingly uncertain what to do. The boys could hardly breathe for sheer suspense.

Lamok stopped speaking and stood mute, with his gleaming eyes fixed on Blayne.

Suddenly Blayne stiffened. "No," he said curtly. "The deal's off. Leave those chaps alone, Lamok."

A look of blank dismay crossed the Malay's dark face. "You are mad," he said with bitter scorn.

"Mad, am I?" retorted Blayne, glowering down at him. "See here, Lamok, if you're boss of this outfit, say so. If not, do as I say and keep your mouth shut."

Lamok stood perfectly still, his lips moved, but he did not speak, yet the look in his deep-set eyes was absolutely terrifying. Blayne saw that look, but did not flinch. "Yes, you'd like to put a knife into me," he said harshly. "Only you know better. If I was done in you'd never get away with the job. You couldn't get the gold to the coast, let alone sell it. I've got my reasons for my orders, and they're good ones. To-morrow we'll raise that sunken boat and clear out. You get me?"

"I understand," said Lamok quite meekly, and, turning, went out of the tent.

"My word, that's the way to talk," said Tad in a gleeful whisper to Bob. "And you did it, Bob."

Bob's face was very grave. "I'm not so sure, Tad. Lamok took it too quietly to suit me. We'll have to go very carefully."

"Stop that whispering," Blayne roared suddenly. "Get into that other tent and turn in. You're going to do a job of work in the morning."

The boys slipped out and into the empty tent. "Wants us to help load the boats in the morning," said Tad. "Well, I don't mind so long as we get away afterwards. It's panned out a lot better than I expected, Bob."

"Don't crow till you're out of the wood," returned Bob. "Lamok has something up his sleeve, and one of us will have to watch to-night."

Tad grunted, for the prospect of keeping awake was not amusing, yet all the same he felt that Bob was right. "All right," he said rather grumpily. "We'll draw straws for first watch." They did, and Tad lost. "Give me three hours' sleep and I'll be all right for the rest of the night," said Bob.

"Rot! It's three hours on and three hours off," replied Tad. "Get to it, old man."

Bob lay down, and was asleep all in one act. Tad sat up straight and tried to convince himself he was not sleepy. But, like Bob, he was worn out. In spite of all his efforts his eyes closed, he dropped back and lay like dead.

He was roused by a sharp tugging at his sleeve, and jumped up with an awful start. "What's up?" he gasped.

"Keep quiet, can't yer?" came a familiar voice, and there was Tib beside him.

"I've been asleep," said Tad.

"Asleep. I thought yer was dead," said Tib, with bitter scorn. "Lamok's gorn ter kill them fellers with the airy—what yer call it."

"Aeroplane. Oh, Tib, and I said I'd keep guard!"

Tad shook Bob awake. "Bob, I've been sleeping on guard," he said, with bitter self-reproach. "And Tib says Lamok has gone after those chaps."

Bob was up in a flash. "Did he go alone?"

"'E took all o' his chaps," said Tib.

"How long's he been gone?" asked Tad. "Ever so long. I couldn't get ter tell yer till 'e was gorn, and then I couldn't wake yer."

The boys were out of the tent before she had finished speaking. "Is Blayne asleep?" whispered Bob.

"Sounder'n you," said Tib, as she led the way through the scrub.

The night was clear, but it was dark enough under the trees, and it took the boys all their time to follow Tib. "We'll never catch them," muttered Tad bitterly, "and if they're killed it's all my fault."

"It's all right, old man," said Bob kindly. "We'll catch them."

"And if we do, how can we stop them?" asked Tad.

"I got the pistol," said Tib. "Can't yer go no faster?" She herself went at an amazing pace, and presently the three were out of the wood and clambering up the range. Here it was lighter, but the climb was fearfully steep, and their muscles ached dreadfully with what they had been through the previous day. It seemed an age before they reached the top, and so far they had seen no sign of Lamok and his pack.

Tib pointed to a spot of light far out on the desert. "That's their fire," she explained, briefly. "They're silly ter light a fire like that."

"Gives Lamok a landmark," said Bob. "I only wish we could see the blighters. We mustn't run into them, or they'll scupper us first and the airmen afterwards."

"We ain't near them yet," Tib told him. "Come on."

It was worse going down than coming up. The rain had loosened the whole hillside, and they had to be desperately careful. But for Tib they would never have got down in safety. Once on the level they found the sand packed hard by the rain, and the stars were reflected in pools of water. So cleverly had Tib guided them that they found themselves right on the trail of the Malays, the prints of whose feet were plain in the sand.

"If we could only see them!" said Bob again, but they could not, so dared not go fast. It was terrible to feel that Lamok and his savage followers were creeping up on the sleeping airmen, without any possibility of warning them.

Suddenly a flare of sheet lightning shot across the sky, and for an instant all was clear as daylight. Tad gripped Bob's arm. "I saw them. I saw the plane. Bob, the Malays are too close. We can't stop them."

"Then there's only one thing to do," said Bob coolly, and taking the revolver from Tib, he deliberately fired two shots in the air. The report rang out startlingly loud, echoing like a volley along the face of the range.

"Good man!" said Tad. "That's done it."

"But it's done us, too, I'm afraid," said Bob quietly. "They'll be back on us for a certainty, and our only chance is to reach the range ahead of them."

"Come on then," said Tad, and started to run.


CHAPTER XX. — TRAPPED

IT was time they did, too, for Bob's shots had had a startling effect. In the first place they had been answered by a rattle of rifle shots from over by the fire, a rattle that sounded almost like a machine-gun; in the second there had been a beast-like snarl from somewhere about half-way between the fire and the boys, and in the third a thudding of feet on the hard, wet sand told that the Malays had realised exactly what had happened and were in full chase.

If it had been bad climbing up the range on the other side, now it was ten times worse. Tib, who had been resting all day in the cave, and who had managed to get a good meal at the village, was fit to run for her life, but the two boys were terribly stiff from the effects of their desperate toil unloading the gold-boat and of their long hours of imprisonment, bound to the trees. Bob's legs felt like water under him as he scrambled frantically behind Tib, and Tad, Bob could see, was just as bad. Both kept stumbling, and stumbling was dangerous when clambering up ledges leading up a cliff side that was nearly sheer.

Another flicker of lightning lit the night, and Bob, glancing back, saw five men already at the base of the rocks and beginning to clamber like cats behind them. Tib saw them, too. "Be quick!" she panted as she swung like a monkey from one ledge to the next above. Bob followed, but Tad failed and nearly fell. Tib and Bob between them hauled him up.

"It's no good," said Tad hoarsely. "I'm done. You two go on and leave me."

"Likely, ain't it?" retorted Bob. "Rest a moment, and when they get a bit closer I'll take a whang at them with the pistol."

Tad dropped panting, and Bob turned to face the enemy. Tib was very uneasy. "They won't arf murder us if they catches us. Can't yer come along, Tad?"

"You've got to give him a chance, Tib," said Bob.

"They're a-coming," said Tib. "You better shoot."

Bob leaned over, and in the starlight could see a line of dark figures coming up the steep with uncanny swiftness and silence. He set his lips, aimed straight at the nearest and pulled the trigger. There was a click—nothing else. A misfire! He pulled again, but the same thing happened. He opened the breech and felt the cylinder. "No cartridges left," he gasped "Got any more, Tib?"

"No, I ain't got none. Come on, or they'll 'ave us."

"Can't you find a stone, Tib?" Bob whispered urgently.

"There ain't none," said Tib blankly. "Come on, I tell yer."

"I'm all right," said Tad pluckily as he scrambled to his feet. All three went on again. Tib had purposely led them up a terribly steep place, for she had hoped to get to a spot the Malays could not reach. She had not realised that the boys could not climb as fast or far as she, and now it looked as if all three must be caught. And all of them knew Lamok too well to expect mercy at his hands.

They were not very far from the top, but the brow of the cliff seemed a terrible way above them to Bob's weary eyes. Below the Malays were coming up with swift and deadly certainty. They had revolvers, but were not troubling to fire, so certain were they of their prey.

The three were working along a ledge which ran steeply upwards. It grew narrower and narrower, and beneath was a sheer drop of more than a hundred feet. But Bob saw that the ledge ran clear to the top, and he hoped that by a last desperate effort they might reach it and find stones to throw down on their foes. The dim light hid a fatal trap, and Tib, leading the party, suddenly stopped short. "We can't go no further," she panted. "The cliff's fell down."

Bob gave a gasp of dismay as he saw that a fall, caused by the storm, had broken the ledge, leaving a gap too wide to cross. "It's the end, Tad," he said in a low voice. "We've just got to stop and finish as many of them as we can."

Tad laughed. "Let 'em all come," he said recklessly, and turned, prepared to fling himself on Lamok and carry him down with him into the depths.

A sound from above stopped him. A pebble fell. "W-what?" he began, but his voice was drowned in a heavy rumbling sound. "Cliff's falling," yelled Tad, and seizing Tib, drew her further up the ledge, close to the edge of the gap.

Bob sprang after, and only just in time, for a great stone came leaping downwards, striking the ledge where he had been standing the moment before, and rebounding out into the night, sending out a shower of sparks. That was only the beginning. A rock that seemed as big as a house came thundering downwards, making the whole hillside shake with its crashing bulk. It was followed by a great slide of rocks large and small; it seemed to the boys, as they crouched on their ledge, as if the whole mountain was falling. Pebbles, stones and great boulders poured by them in a huge cascade, and the boom of their passing echoed like thunder all up and down the ranges. Each instant the fugitives expected to be swept from their ledge, but the bulk of the fall was behind them, and a great crag projecting above saved them from the scattering stones.

It lasted a minute, which seemed a year, then the echoes died and all was silence. Tib was the first to recover. She looked over the edge. "Lamok, 'e won't whip us no more," she said with a chuckle. "'E's dead."

Bob shivered as he peered down into the darkness. Much as he had hated Lamok, it was pretty awful to think of him and his men not only dead but buried deep in the huge landslide.

Tad found his tongue. "Bit of luck for us, eh, Bob?" he said hoarsely, and the words were hardly out of his mouth before there came a shaky voice from up above. "I say, you chaps, are you all right? I didn't think that stone would start such a lot of stuff."

Tad started violently. "Good Gosh, it's Jed!" he exclaimed.

"It's Jed all right," said Bob quietly. "And I'll thank you to remember, Tad, that he's saved our lives."


CHAPTER XXI. — HAPPY DAYS

NOW that the danger from Lamok was over, it was not difficult to turn back and find a way to the top, where Jed met them. He was half crying with excitement and relief at seeing them again.

Bob patted him on the back. "Don't worry, Jed," he said comfortingly. "You did the very best thing any chap could do, and you've saved us all by doing it."

"It—it was pretty awful," stammered Jed.

"But it would have been a jolly sight more awful if Lamok had caught us," Tad told him. "You're all right, Jed, and, as Bob says, don't worry." Tib had been gazing at Jed in the queerest way. At last she spoke. "I never thought as 'e could ha' done it," she remarked in a tone of extreme amazement.

"Question is, what do we do next?" said Tad, but before Bob could answer a shout came ringing up from below. "Coee! Coee! Warburton, Kimber, are any of you left alive?"

"It's the airmen," cried Bob joyfully, and his answering "Coee!" rang out through the starlit night. "We're all right," he shouted. "It's the Malays are dead."

"Good egg!" was the cheery answer. "Come down and talk to us, for I'm darned if we can see ourselves shinning up that range."

It was lucky that Tib was with the boys, for without her they would certainly have broken their necks getting back down the range. But when they found two tall young white men awaiting them they forgot all their troubles and could not talk fast enough. The airmen, whose names were Ross and Baistow, seemed hardly able to believe their ears, but the sight of Tib was proof of the truth of the story which Tad and Bob told.

They rested a while, then all four went back with the airmen to their camping ground out in the desert, where the big plane spread her long wings across the sand. "We'll talk of plans to-morrow," said big Ross with decision. "Now, you folk, we'll have supper and a jolly good sleep."

How they all enjoyed that meal of biscuits, potted meat, jam, tinned peaches, a great billy of boiling hot tea with condensed milk and sugar! And tired as Bob and Tad were, they had to laugh at Tib struggling with spoon and fork, implements she had never before seen in all her life.

Then real blankets to roll up in and a real sleep for the first time since leaving home.

The sun was high before Ross woke them, and the calm air was rich with a smell of frying bacon. And how they talked over their breakfast! Jed, all his sulkiness gone, was as eager as the rest to tell his part of the story, and Bob whispered to Tad, "Let him talk. This is going to be the making of the chap."

"You bet!" replied Tad. "Only I can hardly believe it yet," he added with a grin.

"And now what about this chap Blayne?" asked Ross. "We've got to rope him in."

"No, Mr. Ross," said Bob firmly. "We promised to let him off if he played the game. And he did. It wasn't his fault Lamok tried to finish you."

Ross was doubtful, but Bob stuck to his guns.

Suddenly Tib jumped up. "'E's coming. 'Ere 'e is!" she cried.

Blayne, big and bulky, came striding up. He may have been a brute, but he had pluck. "So you got away with it, eh, kid?" he remarked to Bob.

"Lamok's finished, if that's what you mean," said Bob quietly.

Blayne nodded. "I don't know as I'm sorry. He weren't no better'n a snake. But how am I to get my stuff to the coast?"

"Why should you take it at all?" demanded Ross with a frown.

"The kids promised," was all Blayne said.

Ross nodded. "I'm not going back on them. You go ahead. Take Saul and any others who will go with you. Only you've got to pay them—understand that?"

"Right," said Blayne quietly. "I'll see to it." He turned to Bob and Tad. "So long, kids. You're all right." Then without another word he strode off through the white glare of the sun blaze.

"More visitors!" cried Tad, and, sure enough, here was old Bastable—a strange figure, with his garments made of possum skin and his snow-white hair.

The boys introduced him to Ross and Baistow, and he shook hands heartily and talked a while. But his eyes were on the aeroplane. "I always wanted ter see one o' them things afore I died," he said.

Ross laughed. "Give you a flip in it, if you like, Mr. Bastable."

He had not the faintest idea that his offer would be accepted, and Bastable's reply amazed him. "I'll come along with yer, if yer'll tike me," he said promptly.

"What, back home?" exclaimed Tad.

"Yus," said the old man. "I've a notion I'd like ter see these 'ere moty cars and things. I don't reckon the peelers'll[*] make no trouble arter all these years." He paused. "Besides, I wants ter see your dad, Bob."

[* Old-fashioned term for police.]

"I wants ter come, too," cried Tib.

"But we can't all go in one plane," said Bob quickly, "Tad and I will wait here if you like, Mr. Ross."

Ross laughed. "Four small and three big. Don't worry. We'll manage all right. These D.H. machines are built for passengers, and the engine is 385 H.P."

He paused and turned to Bastable. "Do you mind if we put off our start till to-morrow? I want to see the valley and the gold mine first."

"A day or so don't make much odds with the years I been 'ere," replied Bastable. "I'll show yer round."

Ross said afterwards that he never had a more interesting day in his life. Bastable's folk probably thought the same, though they did not say so.

At dawn next morning the big D.H. took off, with the whole village watching. Bastable took it all quite calmly, and Tib, though a little frightened at first by the roar of the engine, soon got over that, and enjoyed every minute. Rising to three thousand feet, the plane roared across the desert at a hundred and twenty miles an hour, and well before midday alighted safely on the open ground close to Warragoola, where the whole town turned out to meet them.

Mr. Warburton was waiting, and he could hardly speak as he wrung first Bob's hands, then Tad's. Everyone was talking at once, but Bob, who kept his head in the uproar, got hold of old Bastable and Tib, pushed them into a car with Tad and his father, and drove away to the hotel, where dinner was laid for them in a private room.

Mr. Warburton's face was lined and worn, but he was so happy at getting his boys back that for the moment he forgot his other troubles. "I'm not too old to make a fresh start," he said. "I have a few hundred pounds left. We'll manage somehow."

Old Bastable chuckled. "I kin give yer a start, mister. I likes these 'ere kids o' yours. They're white. I'm reckoning ter make them partners in this 'ere gold mine, ef you'll let 'em come."

Mr. Warburton's eyes lit up. "You're a brick, Mr. Bastable. Of course they shall come, and some day we may be able to buy back the range."

Bastable nodded sagely. "I've 'eard abaht that," he said. "It's this 'ere Coppin 'as claimed it, ain't e?"

"Yes."

"'Ow did 'e claim it?"

"Through his grandfather, Lemuel Coppin, who took up the land a great many years ago."

Bastable nodded again. "I knowed Lem Coppin," he said. "'E come out with me, 'e did."

"From England?"

"Yus, in the same convict ship—the Wesley, she were called."

"B-but then he was a convict!" exclaimed Mr. Warburton.

"That's right. 'E were transported fer sheep-stealing."

"But if that's true he couldn't hold land," cried the other.

"Jest wot I come to tell yer," said Bastable calmly.

* * * * *

AND so it was. Bastable's evidence made it clear that Coppin's claim must fail, and Warburton Downs came back into the hands of its rightful owners. Bastable went back in the D.H. to his people, with Ross as pilot, and the boys went too. The mine was developed and the gold taken out to the sea by water. Bastable and his people became more or less civilised, and some left, but most stayed where they were. Tib, however, refused to go back. Mr. Warburton engaged a governess for her, and Tib soaked up civilisation like a sponge. Inside a year she talked as correctly as Bob himself, and looked as smart as any girl of her age. She learned to ride a horse and drive a car, and Mr. Warburton became almost as fond of her as if she had been his own daughter.

Still more surprising was the change in Jed. His father died three months after the case was settled, and Jed, left almost penniless, came to Mr. Warburton and asked for a job. Mr. Warburton took him in, and was good to him, and now he is like one of the family, and the finest rider on the range.


THE END


Roy Glashan's Library
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