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Chapter 43
Across the Snow.

Hawker the elder, as I said, casting one glance at the body of his son, whom he knew not, and another at Captain Desborough, who was just rising from the ground after his fall, set spurs to his noble chestnut horse, and, pushing through the contracted barriers of slate which closed up the southern end of the amphitheatre where they had been surprised, made for the broader and rapidly rising valley which stretched beyond.

He soon reached the rocky gate, where the vast ridge of schist, alternating with the limestone, and running north and south in high serrated ridges, was cut through by a deep fissure, formed by the never idle waters of a little creek, that in the course of ages had mined away the softer portions of the slate, and made a practicable pass toward the mountains.

He picked his way with difficulty through the tumbled boulders that lay in the chasm; and then there was a cool brisk wind on his forehead, and a glare in his eyes. The chill breath of the west wind from the mountain — the glare of the snow that filled up the upper end of the valley, rising in level ridges towards the sky-line.

He had been this path before; and if he had gone it a hundred times again, he would only have cursed it for a rough, desperate road, the only hope of a desperate man. Not for him to notice the thousand lessons that the Lord had spread before him in the wilderness! Not for him to notice how the vegetation changed when the limestone was passed, and the white quartz reefs began to seam the slaty sides of the valley like rivers of silver! Not for him to see how, as he went up and on, the hardy Dicksoniae, still nestled in stunted tufts among the more sheltered side gullies, long after her tenderer sister, the queenly Alsophylla had been left behind. He only knew that he was a hunted wild beast, and that his lair was beyond the snow.

The creek flashed pleasantly among the broken slate, full and turbid under the mid-day sun. After midnight, when its fountains are sealed again by the frosty breath of night, that creek will be reduced to a trickling rill. His horse’s feet brushed through the delicate asplenium, the Venus’-hair of Australia; the sarsaparilla still hung in scant purple tufts on the golden wattle, and the scarlet correa lurked among the broken quartz.

Upwards and onwards. In front, endless cycles agone, a lava stream from some crater we know not had burst over the slate, with fearful clang and fierce explosion, forming a broad roadway of broken basalt up to a plateau twelve hundred feet or more above us, and not so steep but that a horse might be led up it. Let us go up with him, not cursing heaven and earth, as he did, but noticing how, as we ascend, the scarlet wreaths of the Kennedia and the crimson Grevillea give place to the golden Grevillea and the red Epacris; then comes the white Epacris, and then the grass trees, getting smaller and scantier as we go, till the little blue Gentian, blossoming boldly among the slippery crags, tells us that we have nearly reached the limits of vegetation.

He turned when he reached this spot, and looked around him. To the west a broad rolling down of snow, rising gradually; to the east, a noble prospect of forest and plain, hill and gully, with old Snowy winding on in broad bright curves towards the sea. He looked over all the beauty and undeveloped wealth of Gipp’s Land, which shall yet, please God, in fulness of time, be one of the brightest jewels in the King of England’s crown, but with eyes that saw not. He turned towards the snow, and mounting his horse, which he had led up the cliff, held steadily westward.

His plans were well laid. Across the mountain, north of Lake Omeo, not far from the mighty cleft in which the infant Murray spends his youth, were two huts, erected years before by some settler, and abandoned. They had been used by a gang of bushrangers, who had been attacked by the police, and dispersed. Nevertheless, they had been since inhabited by the men we know of, who landed in the boat from Van Diemen’s Land, in consequence of Hawker himself having found a pass through the ranges, open for nine months in the year. So that, when the police were searching Gipp’s Land for these men, they, with the exception of two or three, were snugly ensconced on the other water-shed, waiting till the storm should blow over. In these huts Hawker intended to lie by for a short time, living on such provisions as were left, until he could make his way northward, on the outskirts of the settlements, and escape.

There was no pursuit, he thought: how could there be? Who knew of this route but himself and his mates? hardly likely any of them would betray him. No creature was moving in the valley he had just ascended; but the sun was beginning to slope towards the west, and he must onwards.

Onwards, across the slippery snow. At first a few tree-stems, blighted and withered, were visible right and left, proving that at some time during their existence, these bald downs had either a less elevation or a warmer climate than now. Then these even disappeared, and all around was one white blinding glare. To the right, the snow-fields rolled up into the shapeless lofty mass called Mount Tambo, behind which the hill they now call Kosciusko — as some say, the highest ground in the country — began to take a crimson tint from the declining sun. Far to the south, black and gaunt among the whitened hills, towered the rounded hump of Buffaloe, while the peaks of Buller and Aberdeen showed like dim blue clouds on the furthest horizon.

Snow, and nothing but snow. Sometimes plunging shoulder deep into some treacherous hollow, sometimes guiding the tired horse across the surface frozen over unknown depths. He had been drinking hard for some days, and, now the excitement of action had gone off, was fearfully nervous. The snow-glint had dizzied his head, too, and he began to see strange shapes forming themselves in the shade of each hollow, and start at each stumble of his horse.

A swift-flying shadow upon the snow, and a rush of wings overhead. An eagle. The lordly scavenger is following him, impatient for him to drop and become a prey. Soar up, old bird, and bide thy time; on yonder precipice thou shalt have good chance of a meal.

Twilight, and then night, and yet the snow but half past. There is a rock in a hollow, where grow a few scanty tufts of grass which the poor horse may eat. Here he will camp, fireless, foodless, and walk up and down the livelong night, for sleep might be death. Though he is not in thoroughly Alpine regions, yet still, at this time of the year, the snow is deep and the frost is keen. It were as well to keep awake.
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