Short Stories
All Titles

In Association with Amazon.com

Home > Authors Index > Browse all available works of Louis Becke > Text of Escapee

A short story by Louis Becke

The Escapee

Title:     The Escapee
Author: Louis Becke [More Titles by Becke]

One hot, steaming morning, a young man, named Harry Monk, was riding along a desolate stretch of seashore on the coast of North Queensland, looking for strayed cattle. He had slept, the previous evening, on the grassy summit of a headland which overlooked the surrounding low-lying country for many miles, and at dawn had been awakened by the lowing of cattle at no great distance from his lonely camping-place, and knew that he would probably discover the beasts he sought somewhere along the banks of a tidal creek five miles distant. Although the sun was not yet high the heat was intense, and his horse, even at a walking pace, was already bathed in sweat. The country to his right was grim, brown, forbidding, and treeless, save for an occasional clump of sandal-wood, and devoid of animal life except the ever-hovering crows and a wandering fish-eagle or two. To the left lay the long, long line of dark, coarse-sanded beach, upon which the surf broke with violence as the waves sped shoreward from the Great Barrier Reef, five leagues away.

The track along which the man was riding was soft and spongy sand, permeated with crab-holes; and at last, taking pity on his labouring horse, he dismounted, and led him. Half a mile distant, and right ahead, a grey sandstone bluff rose sheer from the water's edge to a height of fifty feet, its sides clothed with verdure of a sickly green. At the back of this headland, Monk knew that he would find water in some native wells, and could spell for an hour or so before starting on his quest along the banks of the tidal creek.

It was with a feeling of intense relief that he at last gained the bluff, and led his sweltering horse under an acacia-tree, which afforded them both a welcome shade from the still-increasing heat of the tropic sun. Here for ten minutes he rested. Then, taking off the saddle, Monk took his horse through the scrub towards the native wells, after first satisfying himself that there were no natives about, for the wild blacks upon that part of the coast of North Queensland were savage and treacherous cannibals, and he knew full well the danger he was running in thus venturing out alone so far from the station of which he was overseer. As yet, he had seen neither the tracks by day nor the fires by night of any myalls (wild blacks), but for all that he was very cautious; and so as he emerged from the scrub, holding his bridle and carrying his billy-can, he kept his Winchester rifle ready, for above the native wells were a mass of rugged sandstone boulders, thrown together in the wildest confusion and covered with straggling vines and creepers--just the sort of place to hide the black, snaky bodies of crouching niggers, waiting to launch their murderous spears into the white man as he stooped to drink. For a minute or so he stood and watched the boulders keenly, then he dropped his rifle with a laugh and stroked his horse's nose.

"What a fool I am, Euchre! As if you wouldn't have smelt a myall long before I could even see him! Stand there, old boy, and you'll soon have a drink."

He soon clambered down to the bottom of the ravine, and found to his joy that two of the three wells contained water, sweet, pure, and limpid. After satisfying his own thirst he thrice filled his billy-can and gave his patient horse a drink, then, leaving him to crop the scanty herbage that grew about the wells, he climbed to the top of the bluff and sat down to rest under a lofty ledge of rock.

Taking out his pipe and tobacco he began to smoke. Below him the surf beat unceasingly against the base of the bluff and sent long swirls of yellow foam high upon the desolate beach beyond.

An hour had passed, and then, rising and descending to the wells, he filled his canvas water-bag. Then, giving Euchre another drink, he saddled up again and led him through the scrub to the summit of the bluff. Here for a moment he stood to enjoy the first breaths of the sea breeze which had sprung up during his rest, and to scan the coast to the southward, which was rather high and well-wooded. Suddenly he uttered an exclamation of astonishment, and, springing into his saddle, rode down the steep descent at a breakneck pace--a white man was running for his life along the beach towards the bluff, pursued by six blacks. Un-slinging his Winchester as he galloped over the sand he gave a loud cry of encouragement to the man. But neither the man nor his pursuers heard it. Dropping his reins, but urging his horse along with the spur, Monk levelled his rifle at the foremost native, fired, and missed, and then he saw the white man fall on his hands and knees with a spear sticking in his back. But ere the black had time to poise another spear the overseer's rifle cracked again and the savage spun round and fell, and the other five at once sprang towards the short thick scrub that lined the beach at high-water mark. Then Monk, steadying himself in the saddle, set his teeth and fired again and again, and two of the naked ebony figures went down upon the sand.

"The other four won't trouble me any more," he muttered, as he rode back to the wounded man; "and I'm no native police-officer to shoot black fellows for the pleasure of it, though I'd like to revenge poor Cotter and his murdered children "--a settler and his family had been murdered a few weeks previously.

The wounded man was lying on his left side, unable to rise, and Monk, jumping off his horse, saw that the long, slender spear had gone clean through his right shoulder, the sharp point protruding in front for quite a foot.

The man was breathing hard in his agony, and Monk, before attempting to draw the spear, placed the nozzle of his water-bag to his lips. He drank eagerly, and then said--

"Now, comrade, pull the cursed thing out."

Taking a firm grip around the shaft of the weapon, the overseer succeeded in drawing it, and then began to staunch the flow of blood by plugging the holes with strips of his handkerchief, when the man stayed his hand, and said calmly--

"Let it bleed awhile, my friend; it will do good. So; that will do. Ah, you are a brave fellow!"

Supported on Monk's arm, the stranger, who was a powerfully-built, black-bearded man, dressed in garments which were a marvel of rags and patches, walked slowly with him to the foot of the bluff and sat down under the shade of a tree.

"My good friend," he said, with a smile, "you were just in time. Now, tell me, what are you going to do with me?"

"Carry you up this bluff, and then put you on my horse and take you to Willeroo Station as soon as the heat of the sun has passed. 'Tis only thirty miles."

He shook his head. "I was never on the back of a horse in my life, and I am weak. I have not had food for nearly two days, and no water since last night. Ah, heaven! give me that water-bag again."

He drank deeply, and Monk pondered as to what had best be done. He soon made up his mind. He would carry him to the top of the bluff, leave him food and water and his Winchester, and then ride as hard as he could to the station for assistance. But, to his astonishment, the man implored him not to do so.

"See, my friend. You have saved my life and I am grateful. But I shall be doubly grateful to you if you do not bring assistance--I want none. This spear-wound--bah! it is nothing. But I do want food."

His words, few as they were, rang with earnest entreaty, and then it flashed through Monk's brain who the man was. He was Kellerman, the notorious escapee from New Caledonia, for whom the North Queensland police had been seeking for the past six months, after his breaking out of Cooktown gaol. For the moment Monk said nothing; but, with sudden sympathy, he lit his pipe and handed it to his companion. "Take a smoke, old man, and we'll see presently what is best to be done."

The story of Kellerman's escape from that hell upon earth, the prison of He Nou, in New Caledonia, was well known to Monk, and had filled him with pity, for the man before him was the only survivor of a party of five escapees who had landed at Cape Flattery; the others were killed and eaten by the blacks. Kellerman, who was a man of powerful physique, had succeeded in reaching a beche-de-mer station on the coast, where for six or eight months he worked steadily and made a little money. From there he went to a newly-discovered alluvial goldfield north of Cooktown with a prospecting party, who all spoke well of him as "a plucky, energetic fellow, and a good mate." Then, one day, two mounted troopers rode into camp; and Kellerman, with despair in his eyes, was taken in handcuffs to Cooktown. He was at once identified by a French warder from Noumea, and was placed in prison to await transhipment to the terrors of Noumea again. On the third night he escaped, swam the alligator-infested Endeavour River, and hid in the dense coastal scrubs. What horrors the man had gone through since then Monk could well imagine as he looked at his gaunt frame and hollow, starved-like eyes. The overseer made up his mind.

Carelessly picking up his rifle he strolled over to where his horse was standing, and placed the weapon on the ground. Then he came back, and, sitting on a rock in front of the convict, he leant his chin on his hand and looked him in the face.

"I'll tell you what I will do," he said quietly, "I shall take you to a place on the top of this bluff, make you a damper and a billy of tea, give you my blanket, and stay with you till daylight. Then I shall ride to Willeroo Station and return early the next morning with more provisions and some clothing and a razor--your beard is too long. And perhaps, too, I can get you a horse and saddle. Then, as soon as you are better, you can travel towards New South Wales. You speak English well, and New South Wales is the best place for you."

The Frenchman sprang to his feet, his face blanched to a deathly white, and his limbs trembled.

"Why do you---- who are you? Ah, my God--you know me!"

"Yes, I know you; sit down. You are Kellerman, but I will not betray you."

"You will not betray me?"

The anguished ring in his voice went to the overseer's heart, and rising he placed his hand on the convict's arm. "Sit down. I will give you a proof that I harbour no evil intentions to you." Then he walked away to where his Winchester lay, picked it up, and returning placed it in the convict's hands.

"In that rifle there are left twelve cartridges. I have thirty more in my saddle-pouch. They and the rifle are yours to defend yourself from the blacks on your way down the coast. If you use it against white men you will be a murderer."

Kellerman clutched the weapon convulsively for a moment, and his eyes flashed. Then he thought a moment.

"I promise you that I will not use it against a white man--even to save myself."

In less than an hour Monk had fixed the wounded man comfortably under the overhanging ledge of rock, boiled him some tea, and made him a damper, of which he ate ravenously. His wound troubled him but little, and as he lay on the overseer's blanket he talked freely of his past life. His earlier life had been spent in England and America. Then came the Franco-German war, and from America he had returned to France to take part in the struggle, and when the dark days of the Commune fell upon Paris, Kellerman was one of its warmest adherents, and paid the penalty with worse than death--he was sentenced to transportation for life. His only relatives were a brother and a sister, both of whom were little more than children when he was transported.

Monk listened with deep interest, and then bade him try and sleep. The Frenchman at once laid his head upon his pillow of leaves and was soon slumbering. At dawn Monk rose and saddled his horse; then, making some fresh tea, he was about to bid his companion goodbye till the following morning when Kellerman asked him if he had a pencil and paper with him.

The overseer pulled out an old pocket-book which he used when out mustering cattle to note down the brands of any strange cattle on Willeroo run.

"Before you go, my friend, I want you to write down something in that book," said the convict. "Do you know a little creek about fifteen miles from here?"

"Yes, I do; there is a lot of heavy timber on it, pretty fer up."

"Exactly. Now, there is gold in the headwaters of that creek, and it has not yet been prospected by anybody, except myself. And if I had had a dish with me I could have washed out ten, twenty, aye, thirty ounces a day. It is easy to get. I lived on the headwaters of that creek for six weeks. Then the water dried up, but still I got gold. But thirst drove me away, and knowing these native wells were here I made up my mind to come and camp on this hill till rain fell; and, but for you, I would now be being eaten in a blacks' camp. Now, write as I tell you. You must work that creek, my friend, and send me some share of all the gold you get. If I am dead you must seek out my brother and sister. No, no; to-morrow may never come; write now."

Then he gave Monk explicit directions as to the locality of a particularly rich "pocket," which the overseer wrote carefully down.

The sun had just risen when Monk, bidding the convict goodbye, turned to lead his horse down the hill. Suddenly he stopped, and, walking back, he carefully put out the fire.

"You need have no fear from blacks," he said, "but there is a detachment of native police at Willa Willa, thirty-five miles from here, inland. Possibly they _may_ be out on patrol now, and if so, might come to the wells to water their horses. Therefore it is best to take precautions, though you are safe out of sight up here."

"Thanks, my good friend," said the Frenchman, with a sigh, as he laid his head upon his pillow again.

Once more filling his water-bag at the wells, the overseer mounted, and, pushing through the scrub, soon emerged upon the open beach, and struck into a canter. Suddenly he pulled up sharply--a number of horse tracks were visible on the hard, dark sand, just above water-mark, and leading round the back of the bluff. Turning his horse's head he followed cautiously.

"It must be Jackson and his black troopers," he muttered; "and, by heavens, they have gone through the back scrub to get to the top of the bluff!"

For some minutes he hesitated as to the best course to pursue, when suddenly he heard a voice from the summit above him, "Surrender in the Queen's name!" There was a moment's silence, then he heard a laugh.

"_Peste!_ I could shoot you all if I cared to, Mr. Officer, but, being a fool, I will not break a promise to a friend." Then the sharp crack of a rifle rang out.

Spurring his horse through the scrub, Monk dashed over the rough ground and up the hill. In front of the cave were a sub-inspector of black police, a white sergeant, and eight black troopers. They were looking at Kellerman, who lay on the ground with a bullet through his heart--dead.

"Confound the fellow!" grumbled the sergeant; "if I'd ha' known he meant to play us a trick like that I'd ha' rushed in on him. I wonder how he managed it? I could only see his head."

"Leant on the muzzle and touched the trigger with his naked toe, you fool!" replied his superior officer, sharply.


Twelve months afterward Monk left North Queensland a rich man, and went to Europe, and spent quite a time in France, prosecuting certain inquiries. When he returned to Australia he brought with him a French wife; and all that his Australian lady friends could discover about her was that her maiden name was Kellerman.

[The end]
Louis Becke's short story: The Escapee