One blazing hot day in the Christmas week Jim and I rode up the 'gap' that led from the Southern road towards Rocky Creek and the little flat near the water where our hut stood. The horses were tired, for we'd ridden a long way, and not very slow either, to get to the old place. How small and queer the old homestead looked, and everything about it after all we had seen. The trees in the garden were in full leaf, and we could see that it was not let go to waste. Mother was sitting in the verandah sewing, pretty near the same as we went away, and a girl was walking slowly up from the creek carrying a bucket of water. It was Aileen. We knew her at once. She was always as straight as a rush, and held her head high, as she used to do; but she walked very slow, and looked as if she was dull and weary of everything. All of a sudden Jim jumped off, dropped his horse's bridle on the ground, and started to run towards her. She didn't see him till he was pretty close; then she looked up astonished-like, and put her bucket down. She gave a sudden cry and rushed over to him; the next minute she was in his arms, sobbing as if her heart would break.

I came along quiet. I knew she'd be glad to see me -- but, bless you, she and mother cared more for Jim's little finger than for my whole body. Some people have a way of gettin' the biggest share of nearly everybody's liking that comes next or anigh 'em. I don't know how it's done, or what works it. But so it is; and Jim could always count on every man, woman, and child, wherever he lived, wearing his colours and backing him right out, through thick and thin.

When I came up Aileen was saying --

'Oh, Jim, my dear old Jim! now I'll die happy; mother and I were only talking of you to-day, and wondering whether we should see you at Christmas -- and now you have come. Oh, Dick! and you too. But we shall be frightened every time we hear a horse's tread or dog's bark.'

'Well, we're here now, Aileen, and that's something. I had a great notion of clearing out for San Francisco and turning Yankee. What would you have done then?'

We walked up to the house, leading our horses, Jim and Aileen hand in hand. Mother looked up and gave a scream; she nearly fell down; when we got in her face was as white as a sheet.

'Mother of Mercy! I vowed to you for this,' she said; 'sure she hears our prayers. I wanted to see ye both before I died, and I didn't think you'd come. I was afraid ye'd be dreadin' the police, and maybe stay away for good and all. The Lord be thanked for all His mercies!'

We went in and enjoyed our tea. We had had nothing to eat that day since breakfast; but better than all was Aileen's pleasant, clever tongue, though she said it was getting stiff for want of exercise. She wanted to know all about our travels, and was never tired of listening to Jim's stories of the wonders we had seen in the great cities and the strange places we had been to.

'Oh! how happy you must have been!' she would say, 'while we have been pining and wearying here, all through last spring and summer, and then winter again -- cold and miserable it was last year; and now Christmas has come again. Don't go away again for a good while, or mother and I'll die straight out.'

Well, what could we say? Tell her we'd never go away at all if we could help it -- only she must be a good girl and make the best of things, for mother's sake? When had she seen father last?

'Oh! he was away a good while once; that time you and Jim were at Mr. Falkland's back country. You must have had a long job then; no wonder you've got such good clothes and look so smartened up like. He comes every now and then, just like he used. We never know what's become of him.'

'When was he here last?'

'Oh! about a month ago. He said he might be here about Christmas; but he wasn't sure. And so you saved Miss Falkland from being killed off her horse, Jim? Tell me all about it, like a good boy, and what sort of a looking young lady is she?'

'All right,' said Jim. 'I'll unload the story bag before we get through; there's a lot in there yet; but I want to look at you and hear you talk just now. How's George Storefield?'

'Oh! he's just the same good, kind, steady-going fellow he always was,' says she. 'I don't know what we should do without him when you're away. He comes and helps with the cows now and then. Two of the horses got into Bargo pound, and he went and released them for us. Then a storm blew off best part of the roof of the barn, and the bit of wheat would have been spoiled only for him. He's the best friend we have.'

'You'd better make sure of him for good and all,' I said. 'I suppose he's pretty well-to-do now with that new farm he bought the other day.'

'Oh! you saw that,' she said. 'Yes; he bought out the Cumberers. They never did any good with Honeysuckle Flat, though the land was so good. He's going to lay it all down in lucerne, he says.'

'And then he'll smarten up the cottage, and sister Aileen 'll go over, and live in it,' says Jim; 'and a better thing she couldn't do.'

'I don't know,' she said. 'Poor George, I wish I was fonder of him. There never was a better man, I believe; but I cannot leave mother yet, so it's no use talking.' Then she got up and went in.

'That's the way of the world,' says Jim. 'George worships the ground she treads on, and she can't make herself care two straws about him. Perhaps she will in time. She'll have the best home and the best chap in the whole district if she does.'

'There's a deal of "if" in this world,' I said; 'and "if" we're "copped" on account of that last job, I'd like to think she and mother had some one to look after them, good weather and bad.'

'We might have done that, and not killed ourselves with work either,' said Jim, rather sulkily for him; and he lit his pipe and walked off into the bush without saying another word.