'Who brought it?' I said.

'One of the Dalys -- Patsey, I think.'

'All right,' said Jim, kissing her as he lifted her up in his great strong arms. 'I must go in and have a gossip with the old woman. Aileen can tell me after tea. I daresay it's not so good that it won't keep.'

Mother was that fond of both of us that I believe, as sure as I sit here, she'd have put her head on the block, or died in any other way for either of her boys, not because it was her duty, but glad and cheerful like, to have saved us from death or disgrace. I think she was fonder of us two than she was of Aileen. Mothers are generally fonder of their sons. Why I never could see; and if she thought more of one than the other it was Jim. He was the youngest, and he had that kind of big, frolicsome, loving way with him, like a Newfoundland pup about half-grown. I always used to think, somehow, nobody ever seemed to be able to get into a pelter with Jim, not even father, and that was a thing as some people couldn't be got to believe. As for mother and Aileen, they were as fond of him as if he'd been a big baby.

So while he went to sit down on the stretcher, and let mother put her arms round his neck and hug him and cry over him, as she always did if he'd been away more than a day or two, I took a walk down the creek with Aileen in the starlight, to hear all about this message from father. Besides, I could see that she was very serious over it, and I thought there might be something in it more than common.

'First of all, did you make any agreement with George Storefield?' she said.

'No; why should I? Has he been talking to you about me? What right has he to meddle with my business?'

'Oh, Dick, don't talk like that. Anything that he said was only to do you a kindness, and Jim.'

'Hang him, and his kindness too,' I said. 'Let him keep it for those that want it. But what did he tell you?'

'He said, first of all,' answered poor Aileen, with the tears in her eyes, and trying to take hold of my hand, 'that he had a contract for fencing timber, which he had taken at good prices, which he would share with you and Jim; that he knew you two and himself could finish it in a few weeks, and that he expected to get the contract for the timber for the new bridge at Dargo, which he would let you go shares in too. He didn't like to speak about that, because it wasn't certain; but he had calculated all the quantities and prices, and he was sure you would make 70 or 80 Pounds each before Christmas. Now, was there any harm in that; and don't you think it was very good of him to think of it?'

'Well, he's not a bad fellow, old George,' I said, 'but he's a little too fond of interfering with other people's business. Jim and I are quite able to manage our own affairs, as I told him this evening, when I refused to have anything to do with his fencing arrangement.'

'Oh, Dick, did you?' she said. 'What a pity! I made sure Jim would have liked it so, for only last week he said he was sick and tired of having nothing to do -- that he should soon lose all his knack at using tools that he used to be so proud of. Didn't he say he'd like to join George?'

'He would, I daresay, and I told him to do as he liked. I came away by myself, and only saw him just before we crossed the range. He's big enough and old enough to take his own line.'

'But you know he thinks so much of you,' she groaned out, 'that he'd follow you to destruction. That will be the end of it, depend upon it, Dick. I tell you so now; you've taken to bad ways; you'll have his blood on your head yet.'

'Jim's old enough and big enough to take care of himself,' I said sulkily. 'If he likes to come my way I won't hinder him; I won't try to persuade him one way or the other. Let him take his own line; I don't believe in preaching and old women's talk. Let a man act and think for himself.'

'You'll break my heart and poor mother's, too,' said Aileen, suddenly taking both my hands in hers. 'What has she done but love us ever since we were born, and what does she live for? You know she has no pleasure of any kind, you know she's afraid every morning she wakes that the police will get father for some of his cross doings; and now you and Jim are going the same wild way, and what ever -- what ever will be the end of it?'

Here she let go my hands, and sobbed and cried as if she was a child again, much as I remember her doing one day when my kangaroo dog killed her favourite cat. And Aileen was a girl that didn't cry much generally, and never about anything that happened to herself; it was always about somebody else and their misfortunes. She was a quiet girl, too, very determined, and not much given to talking about what she was going to do; but when she made up her mind she was sure to stick to it. I used to think she was more like father than any of us. She had his coloured hair and eyes, and his way of standing and looking, as if the whole world wouldn't shift him. But she'd mother's soft heart for all that, and I took the more notice of her crying and whimpering this time because it was so strange for her.

If any one could have seen straight into my heart just then I was regularly knocked over, and had two minds to go inside to Jim and tell him we'd take George's splitting job, and start to tackle it first thing tomorrow morning; but just then one of those confounded night-hawks flitted on a dead tree before us and began his 'hoo-ho', as if it was laughing at me. I can see the place now -- the mountain black and dismal, the moon low and strange-looking, the little waterhole glittering in the half-light, and this dark bird hooting away in the night. An odd feeling seemed to come over my mind, and if it had been the devil himself standing on the dead limb it could not have had a worse effect on me as I stopped there, uncertain whether to turn to the right or the left.

We don't often know in this world sometimes whether we are turning off along a road where we shall never come back from, or whether we can go just a little way and look at the far-off hills and new rivers, and come home safe.