Chapter LXXII.
 

The party, consisting of Jacky, Jem, Robinson and George, had traversed about one half the bush, when a great heavy crow came wheeling and cackling over their heads, and then joined a number more who were now seen circling over a gum-tree some hundred yards distant.

"Let us go and see what that is," said Jem.

Jacky grinned, and led the way. They had not gone very far when another great black bird rose so near their feet as to make them jump, and peering through the bushes they saw a man lying on his back. His arm was thrown in an easy, natural way round his gun, but at a second glance it was plain the man was dead. The crows had ripped his clothes to ribbons with their tremendous beaks, and lacerated the flesh and picked out the eyes.

They stepped a few paces from this sight. There was no sign of violence on the body.

"Poor fellow!" said Jem. "How did he come by his end, I wonder?" And he stretched forward and peered with pity and curiosity mingled.

"Lost in the bush!" said Robinson, very solemnly. And he and George exchanged a meaning look.

"What is that for?" said George, angrily, to Jacky--"grinning in sight of a dead body?"

"White fellow stupid fellow," was all Jacky's reply.

The men now stepped up to the body to examine it; not that they had much hope of discovering who it was, but still they knew it was their duty for the sake of his kindred to try and find out.

George, overcoming a natural repugnance, examined the pockets. He found no papers. He found a knife, but no name was cut in the handle. In the man's bosom he found a small metal box, but just as he was taking it out Jem gave a halo!

"I think I know him," cried Jem. "There is no mistaking that crop of black hair; it is my old captain, Black Will."

"You don't say so! What could he be doing here without his party?"

"Anything in the box, George?" asked Robinson.

"Nothing but a little money. Here is a sovereign--look. And here is a bank-note."

"A five-pound note?"

"Yes--no; it is more than that a good deal. It is for fifty pounds, Tom."

"What?"

"A fifty-pound note, I tell you."

"Jem!"

"Captain!"

A most expressive look was exchanged between these two, and by one impulse they both seized the stock of the gun that was in the dead man's hand. They lifted it, and yes--two fingers were wanting on the right hand.

"Come away from that fellow," cried Robinson to George. "Let him lie."

George looked up in some wonder. Robinson pointed sternly to the dead hand in silence. George, by the light of the other men's faces, saw it all, and recoiled with a natural movement of repugnance as from a dead snake. There was a breathless silence--and every eye bent upon this terrible enemy lying terrible no longer at their feet.

"How did he die?" asked Robinson, in a whisper.

"In the great snow-storm," replied George, in a whisper.

"No," said Jem, in the same tone, "he was alive yesterday. I saw his footprint after the snow was melted."

"There was snow again last night, Tom. Perhaps he went to sleep in that with his belly empty."

"Starvation and fatigue would do it without the snow, George. We brought a day's provisions out with us, George. He never thought of that, I will be bound."

"Not he," said Jem. "I'll answer for him he only thought of robbing and killing--never thought about dying himself."

"I can't believe he is dead so easy as this," said Robinson.

The feeling was natural. This man had come into the wood and had followed them burning to work them ill, and they to work him ill. Both were utterly baffled. He had never prevailed to hurt them, nor they him. He was dead, but by no mortal hand. The immediate cause of his death was unknown, and will never be known for certain while the world lasts.

L'homme propose, mais Dieu dispose!