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Wanted By The Police
by [?]

“I wonder where poor Jim is?” the mother moaned, rocking the baby, and with two of those great, silent tears starting from her haggard eyes.

“Oh don’t start about Jim again, Ellen,” said her sister impatiently. “He can take care of himself. You were always rushing off to meet trouble half-way–time enough when they come, God knows.”

“Now, look here, Ellen,” put in Uncle Abe, soothingly, “he was up in Queensland doing well when we last heerd of him. Ain’t yer never goin’ to be satisfied?”

Jim was evidently another and a younger uncle, whose temperament from boyhood had given his family constant cause for anxiety.

The father sat smoking, resting his elbow on his knee, bunching up his brush of red whiskers, and looking into the fire–and back into his own foreign past in his own foreign land perhaps: and, it may be, thinking in his own language.

Silence and smoke for a while; then the mother suddenly straightened up and lifted a finger:

“Hush! What’s that? I thought I heard someone outside.”

“Old Poley coughin’,” said Uncle Abe, after they’d listened a space. “She must be pretty bad–oughter give her a hot bran mash.” (Poley was the best milker.)

“But I fancied I heard horses at the sliprails,” said the mother.

“Old Prince,” said Uncle Abe. “Oughter let him into the shed.”‘

“Hush!” said the mother, “there’s someone outside.” There was a step, as of someone retreating after peeping through a crack in the door, but it was not old Poley’s step; then, from farther off, a cough that was like old Poley’s cough, but had a rack in it.

“See who it is, Peter,” said the mother. Uncle Abe, who was dramatic and an ass, slipped the old double-barrelled muzzle-loader from its leathers on the wall and stood it in the far corner and sat down by it. The mother, who didn’t seem to realize anything, frowned at him impatiently. The coughing fit started again. It was a man.

“Who’s there? Anyone outside there?” said the settler in a loud voice.

“It’s all right. Is the boss there? I want to speak to him,” replied a voice with no cough in it. The tone was reassuring, yet rather strained, as if there had been an accident–or it might be a cautious policeman or bushranger reconnoitring.

“Better see what he wants, Peter,” said his sister-in-law quietly. “Something’s the matter–it may be the police.”

Peter threw an empty bag over his shoulders, took the peg from the door, opened it and stepped out. The racking fit of coughing burst forth again, nearer. “That’s a church-yarder!” commented Uncle Abe.

The settler came inside and whispered to the others, who started up, interested. The coughing started again outside. When the fit was over the mother said:

“Wait a minute till I get the boys out of the road and then bring them in.” The boys were bundled into the end room and told to go to bed at once. They knelt up on the rough bed of slabs and straw mattress, instead, and applied eyes and ears to the cracks in the partition.

The mother called to the father, who had gone outside again.

“Tell them to come inside, Peter.”

“Better bring the horses into the yard first and put them under the shed,” said the father to the unknown outside in the rain and darkness. Clatter of sliprails let down and tired hoofs over them, and sliprails put up again; then they came in.

Wringing wet and apparently knocked up, a tall man with black curly hair and beard, black eyes and eyebrows that made his face seem the whiter; dressed in tweed coat, too small for him and short at the sleeves, strapped riding-pants, leggings, and lace-up boots, all sodden. The other a mere boy, beardless or clean shaven, figure and face of a native, but lacking in something; dressed like his mate–like drovers or stockmen. Arms and legs of riders, both of them; cabbage-tree hats in left hands–as though the right ones had to be kept ready for something (and looking like it)–pistol butts probably. The young man had a racking cough that seemed to wrench and twist his frame as the settler steered him to a seat on a stool by the fire. (In the intervals of coughing he glared round like a watched and hunted sneak-thief–as if the cough was something serious against the law, and he must try to stop it.)