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Title: Collected Short Stories Volume 1 Author: Edward Sylvester Sorenson * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1501281h.html Language: English Date first posted: November 2015 Most recent update: November 2015 This eBook was produced by: Walter Moore Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia Licence which may be viewed online.
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Barmy Barker's Boots (8/21/1897)
On the Track (1898/7/30)
Daylight Mac (1899/2/4)
A Bush Naturalist (1901/11/23)
Among the Cockies (1901/12/7)
The Camp on Cattle Creek (12/15/1901)
Barmy Barker (06/29/1902)
The Track-Horse (07/05/1902)
A Cock-fight at Scanlans (08/22/1902)
Brodie's Cave (12/11/1902)
The Hut at Broken Gully (12/20/1902)
A Bush Race Meeting (7/18/1903)
Bill Studders (9/19/1903)
Mates--In the Bush and Out (9/20/1903)
The Jackaroo (12/19/1903)
The Rabbit Trapper - At a Western Tank (1/23/1904)
The Man in the Mountain (2/27/1904)
The Adventures of a Little Cowboy (5/19/1904)
Liz Capper's Grey Horse (7/10/1904)
When Brogan Went Fishing (7/16/1904)
The Trail of the Tilted Cart (12/08/1904)
Another Man's Wife (12/10/1904)
Scully's Romance (12/11/1904)
Murphy's Fireworks (12/17/1904)
Carrab's Raft (12/17/1904)
Track Luck (12/18/1904)
Transcriber's Note: The original newspaper pages were larger than normal and some lines are missing from the bottom of each page in the photo copies.
We had hobbled our horses out, and made our camp fire on the side of a hill, and not far below a small hut from whose chimney smoke was curling upwards. Tommy had just put on the billy for supper, and we were lying on the grass waiting for it to boil. Presently an old man came up from the swamp below us, and greeted us in the friendly, familiar way peculiar to tramps. He was a fairly well-built man of 40, aged beyond his years, and bore in his face the look of one who had suffered.
"Why don't you camp in the hut, mates?" he said, after inquiring the way we were going.
"That was our intention," I replied, "but seeing smoke issuing from the chimney we thought some one must be living there."
"There's no one there only me. I reached it about an hour ago, and made a bit of a fire to boil the billy. You'd better carry your traps up. There's plenty of room, and you'll find it warmer than camping out here."
"Yes, I believe we'll have a cold night. What do you say, Tommy?"
"I think we'll shift, but not till after tea. We've got all ready now."
"Then you'll come up?" the old man asked eagerly.
"Yes, in about half an hour or so," I replied.
"I am glad of that," he rejoined.
"I don't like camping alone, to tell you the truth. This place isn't haunted, is it?"
"I thought I heard a voice under the floor while I was having a smoke. But I won't mind if you chaps are there. I'll expect you."
"Queer fellow that," said Tommy looking after the old man.
"He seemed to be screwed."
"He's superstitious, at all events. What about going up?"
"I think we'll stop here," Tommy answered. "I don't like that fellow."
"Another thing," I added, "it's a bother shifting our traps now they're scattered. We'll decline his invitation, Tommy."
"Yes. The cold is better than sleeping with a madman. You don't know what he might do in the night. But we can go up and have a yarn with him to pass the time."
To this I readily agreed; and as soon as we had finished our tea Tommy and I sauntered up to the hut, filling our pipes as we went. The old man was seated before a roaring fire with a huge stick between his knees, now and again casting anxious glances around him. Certainly the scene was not an inviting one.
"Shall we go in?" asked Tommy, stopping short.
"That cove's as mad as a hatter.
"Nonsense. He's all right. Go ahead."
"You go first."
"What are you frightened of?"
I laughed aloud, and as I did so the old man sprang to his feet, clutching the heavy stick menacingly in both hands. Tommy turned and bolted, never stopping or looking back till he got to our own camp fire.
"All right, friend," said I, entering as nonchalantly as I could. The old man threw down the stick with a look of relief.
"I'm glad you've come," said he. "But where's your mate?"
"He decided to endure his present accommodation, and on second thoughts I think I'll remain with him since our camp is formed and baggage unpacked."
"I am sorry," said my host, and, indeed, he looked it.
"I'd reckoned on your company to-night, and had prepared for you. There's good straw here to lie on, a good fire to keep you warm, and a roof to keep the dew off. You'd be comfortable here. I think you'd better come. I'll help carry your things up for you."
"I thank you; but, as my companion prefers to remain below, I feel it my duty to remain with him."
"He's a fool, sir, a fool," cried the old man, half fiercely. "Only for him, I suppose, I'd 've had your company."
"Why have you such an antipathy to loneliness? Surely, in your travels you must have spent many a night alone, and in worse places than this?"
He stared into the fire for what seemed a considerable time without replying. Then he faced towards me so suddenly that I almost jumped to my feet.
"Don't be alarmed," he said in sepulchral tones, and raising his finger with a solemnity that made me shudder.
"I saw it all then—all," he went on; now speaking wildly. "Even Big Harry's eye, the nod; aye, I heard the savage yell of the half caste!" He sprang up, clutching at the air, his eyes ablaze.
"Whatever is the matter?" I cried, with one eye on the door.
"Ah, it was a tussle—life or death. My God! it was a near go." He turned round sharply and looked affrightedly at the ground. I was alarmed.
"What is it, for God's sake?" I gasped, feeling my hat rising and my heart sinking. He cast one look at me, then dropped back in his seat.
"Excuse me, mate. I was carried away. Wait a minute till I fill my pipe, and I'll tell you about it."
He was trembling and panting, but by the time he had lit his pipe he had calmed somewhat. A moment later I was listening with all my ears to the following extraordinary tale:—
You might not think, friend, to look at me now, that I was once a gentleman, aye, a clergy man. I was brought up in Devonshire by a rich uncle, who lived in the town of Devonport. At an early age I was sent with a party of missionaries to India, where I was accredited with doing good work. On my return I completed my ecclesiastical studies, and was enrolled as a member of the Church of England. I was assigned to the parish of Tavistock, where I became popular. Before three months had passed I was over head and ears in love with Madeline Otley, a nobleman's
who was a selfish, designing old man, and had set his heart on her marrying money. I had one consolation. I had won her affections, and we met every evening in Dartmoor Forest. These clandestine meetings were, perhaps, not in accordance with cleric rites; but I was never made for a parson. I never liked it. Moreover, when whispering love to Madeline, I seemed to be more in touch with Heaven than when I was preaching some desultory sermon from the pulpit. My sermons were always short and broken, for I never heeded the curriculum necessary for the production of a voluble and engrossing exhortation. I was filled with an all-consuming passion for a woman; I could think of nothing but Madeline.
In course of time the nobleman got to hear of our secret courtship, and one evening pounced on me unawares. Madeline fled, and I was confronted by her angry parent. He was past all reasoning, and called me by most blasphemous epithets. In my horror and indignation I forgot my cloth, and commenced to shove back my cuffs. The next instant I was lying on my back, not quite certain whether someone had struck me between the eyes with a brick, or a mule had kicked me. I got up and engaged him in a hand-to-hand fight. I came out of it in such a state that my own mother wouldn't have known me. He had blackened both my eyes, and I suppose, if I had had another, he'd've blackened that too. I betook myself at once to the nearest tavern, a place of doubtful repute; and to the good folk who gathered round me I stated that I had been brutally assaulted by a ruffian with whom I desired no further acquaintance. The good people were sympathetic. They dressed my wounds, victualled me, toasted me over and over again in flowing bowls, and before midnight I was a roaring dipsomaniac. My companions were a rough lot, all drunk and boisterous as myself. We drank, played cards, sang, and danced all night. We threw the furniture out of the window to make room, laid siege to the back rooms, and dragged the screaming maids out and made them dance with us. When the landlady expostulated I picked her up and sat her in the flourbin; and some of the other fellows fastened the landlord in an empty barrel and rolled him out into the yard. Then we returned to the impromptu ballroom, in one corner of which an old sailor sat on the floor playing a concertina. We dragged the frantic maids round and round in the dizzy whirls of a rapid waltz, fell against one another in the schottische, rolled over each other in the lancers, and varied the proceedings with bacchanalian songs, hornpipes, jigs, and every description of wildest revelry. In the midst of this the door was burst open by the police. The sight of them almost frightened me into sobriety. I crashed through the back window, taking nearly the whole sash with me, and cutting my face and neck with the broken glass. I made the best use of my legs, and was soon locked safely in the parsonage. Here I sat and moralised till daylight, then went to bed. In the course of the next day or two it was made apparent to me that my conduct was not quite becoming a parson, and that I should resign office. At this I decided to leave England without delay, and, if possible, to get away without encountering my uncle. Accordingly, I appropriated all the church money—thank goodness there had been a collection the previous Sunday, to augment the building fund—and whatever valuables of a portable nature I could lay hands on, and took horse to Plymouth, collecting tithes from dilatory parishioners en passant until I came to the end of my parish, which was likewise the end of my clerical career.
From Plymouth I despatched two letters—one to my uncle and one to Miss Otley—and sailed for Australia in the Moonbeam. She was a very old boat, and was bound for Brisbane. I was going out to dig for gold, as I had wanted to do ever since I was a boy, when I had caught an attack of the fever that was then at its height. Operations were then as now principally centred, in
corners as a little curiosity shop for the natives to spend their Saturday nights in. I did not know it mattered on what port of the coast I landed, imagining I could migrate to whatsoever part I wished to go without difficulty. Under this delusion I sailed without any settled plans, intending to shape my course according to circumstances. The voyage was a long and a disastrous one, ending in the total wreck of the vessel off the Queensland coast. I believe I was the only survivor. I was washed ashore in the night, and recovered my senses about daylight. I looked around me. Some sea gulls and plovers flying over the water were the only sign of life visible. Some wreckage was strewn along the beach, and here and there a dead body. Only the swish and seething of those destructive waves broke the stillness. I stood there alone, weak and famished, knowing not what to do.
After ruminating for many minutes I denuded myself of all clothing, and spread them out to dry. While this was in process I indulged in a sea bath, which freshened me considerably. When my clothes had dried I at once started inland, being of opinion that I would soon come upon some habitation where I could refresh myself and rest. In this I was disappointed. The Gulf of Carpentaria was almost as wild and desolate then as when Burke and Wills approached its dreary shores. I wandered on all day without any improvement in the prospect. I was beginning to despair, when I was startled by a beautiful half wild native girl suddenly springing out of a clump of bushes, and dropping on one knee a short distance from me. I was struck by her exceedingly dark complexion, and her raiment, which was the meagrest I had ever seen on a female. Beyond that she was a model of grace and beauty. Her features were as faultlessly delineated as a Grecian statue; her eyes were dark and brilliant, and her fine raven hair hung in tangled masses to her waist. She held a long double-pointed stick in one hand, and a crescent-shaped piece of wood in the other, called a boomerang; and as she bent there like a beautiful tigress about to spring, I stared in astonishment.
After a while I recovered my composure, and felt heartily ashamed of myself.
Thinking this was some formality peculiar to the country, I went down on my knee in imitation of the girl. She looked surprised. This reminded me of my rudeness, and I removed my hat, and bowed. She looked more surprised than ever.
"Confound her," I muttered, "what does she want me to do?"
Knowing no other way out of the difficulty, I rose and approached her. She never spoke, nor did she make any sign till I was within two paces of her. Then she stood up quickly, and, posing her spear as if to hurl it at my chest, said, in a clear, ringing voice, while her eyes flashed: "Friend or foe?"
I was so taken aback that I retreated involuntarily.
She followed me up and repeated the question, "Friend or foe?"
"Friend, certainly—friend, by all means," I gasped, while it occurred to me that this was a strange formality.
She lowered the spear immediately, and made a slight obeisance, which was more satisfactory to my somewhat shattered nerves.
"I am glad of that," she said. "You are a white man, but I suppose you are not too proud to shake hands with a native girl. If I mistake not we have one thing in common, and are well met."
"Indeed," I replied, not understanding the true meaning of her words, "I am very happy to make your acquaintance, and shall be happy also to be introduced to your people."
With that I kissed the little soft brown hand I held. She drew it away and looked abashed. I commenced to apologise in some confusion, when she interrupted me quickly. "It's not that, but I see
"What of yourself?" I asked. "Why are you alone? Do you live near here?"
"No," she answered, slowly, and her face became very sad. "It must be two hours since my tribe ran away."
Her tribe! Verily, I thought, the Australians have a queer way of calling their family. Apart from these crude expressions, which would crop out every now and again, her speech was that of a well-educated girl of good position, though in sooth, her attire in some sense belied the latter. I opined in explanation of this that some misfortune had befallen her and her people, and ascribed the exceeding darkness of her skin to the excessive heat of the Gulf climate. She reminded me more and more of a beautiful Creole and her form recalled to my mind the lithe grace of the Spanish-Indian maidens. I was much interested in her, and felt compassionate as it struck me that she was deserted and needed a protector.
"Why did your family run away, and where did they run away from?" I inquired.
"Oh, there's been a dreadful war, and they were beaten, and had to fly with the rest. My brother was slain, and when they had all left I crept out from my hiding place and stayed to bury him. That was on a flat two miles away."
This bit of information quite startled me. 'Is it possible,' I asked, 'that this country is engaged in civil war?
I had read nothing of Australian history and knew no more of its inhabitants than I did of life on other planets.
She pondered awhile before she answered: "Ours is a good tribe, and friendly; but around us are many savage tribes, who frequently invade our territory. The battle that was fought this morning was over a Bokharra gin."
"A bottle of gin! Surely such a trifle could not be an incentive to war?"
"You don't understand. A 'gin' in our language is a married woman."
"Indeed!" said I, smiling as I thought of the effect it would have on the Devonshire matrons were they alluded to as gins.
"Whither are you going?" she asked. "Night is coming on, and it's six miles to Gingindan, where I must join my tribe—for a day or two."
"I am a stranger here, and know not where to go. I was a passenger by the Moonbeam, which was wrecked off this coast last night."
"Have you no friends or home?"
"It will go hard with you then. There are no settlers about here. You are on a wild and dangerous part of the coast."
This was depressing. "I am inexperienced, and know nothing of Australia. Further, I am fatigued and famished. Pray, take pity on me. May I not go with you to your people?"
"If you wish it—come."
I poured out my thanks as I hurried along at her side, for she walked fast.
"May I inquire your name?" I said, feeling disposed to learn a little more of this charming pedestrienne.
"What a pretty name!" I could not help remarking.
"Yes," she returned, "they tell me it is a pretty name."
"It's your prenomen, I presume. What is your surname?"
"I am called by no other name than Neralie," she answered.
I was surprised. "What are you?" I asked.
"I am a princess. I will take you this night to my father, the king."
This was overstepping the mark altogether. I did not know much of the country, as I have said; but at least I knew it was under British government. I looked long at my companion in a state of dread uncertainty. She was perfectly composed, and looked as sane as could be; yet her words impressed me that she must be mad. Fresh from the home of royalty, the pomp and splendour of princes and princesses, the glittering sheen of epaulets, the grandeur of the nobility, with all their gorgeous trains and equipages, it was natural I looked askance on a princess in such a state as this; and I was inclined to laugh at the idea of being presented that very night to a king—the king of Australia! Were it possible I should find castles and palaces in such close proximity to all this wildness and desolation? Was Australia in reality ruled by a king; and whatever sort of a monarch could he be? Was the people divided into classes, and the country cursed with civil war? Did the noblemen call their wives "gins" and their families tribes? No, that was too much to swallow. I began to wish myself back in Tavistock, and to mourn my pleasant walks in Dartmoor Forest with Madeline. What would she think if she saw me walking here side by side with a princess!
Dwelling on memories of home and Madeline, I walked on in silence till we came to a blaze of lights. They were camp fires, spread over about an acre of ground, on which were many low, beehive shaped habitations. Around the fires were about two hundred hideous black men and women, and ten times as many mangy dogs.
"Are these your people?" I asked in dismay.
"This is my tribe," she answered.
"You need not be afraid. I will protect you." We now entered the camp, and a most unearthly row was the result. Two thousand dogs commenced barking at once, two hundred blacks shouted at them, and five hundred promising youths yelled at the top of their voices. It was like going into pandemonium. At last the clamour came to an end, and I was conducted before his majesty the king. He was a huge criss-crossed warrior, with nothing on him but a tabby, and about as much brains as he had clothes. His greatest concern was to know if I had any mool or wibra, which I understood to be the Australian for tobacco and matches. On learning that I was not a smoker, he asked for a "sic-pin," with which I readily parted. There upon he sedately inquired if I had any more, and when I informed him I had not, he gave me to understand that a shilling or a "arp-crown" would do just as well. The gentle Neralie replied for me in a gibberish that made me stare, and his majesty at once ceased his persecutions. A rag was thrown down at the side of one of the fires, which constituted my bed, and the charred and shrivelled remains of an animal which I took to be a dead cat were given me for my supper. The princess told me it was good, and at once commenced on the other half, at one end of which
some fine honeycomb on a piece of bark. This I greedily devoured. No tea was served, so I had recourse to the waterhole when I needed a drink. There were no tables or chairs. Supper was partaken of in every manner and position. Some reclined on their beds or on the grass, but the majority were squatted before the fires. Everything was of the most primitive description, and I wished myself anywhere but there. I was among barbarians, a recondite race whose nomadic life was remarkable for its unlimited freedom and simplicity. They were happier than gipsies, if the noise they made in their levity at times was any criterion. A few old gins were howling and throwing themselves on each other in token of grief at the death of some one of their number. This was hideous, and I covered up my head to get to sleep.
During my few days stay at Boorunoo I learned the history of Neralie. Her father had been a stockman in his youth, and had run away with a white girl who was enamoured of him. This is the only case of the kind I have ever heard of. But then he was really handsome for an aborigine, and a clever man to boot. The running away constituted part of the marriage ceremony according to their laws or customs. They had two children, and while they were yet infants the mother died. Neralie and her brother, Munchin, were then sold by their father to an English family, who lived where Caboolcha now stands. This family brought them up in a creditable manner, and gave them a real good education.
When Munchin was 18 he got into trouble over a white girl, and fled to his father, the king. This pair then plotted for the abduction of Neralie, which they ultimately carried out. She was then 16, and at the time of my meeting with her was 17. She loved her brother, who induced her to put up with the life in camp. She was in consequence allowed more freedom than she would have had if she had shown any inclination to rebel. But on her brother's grave she swore to return to the white people and never again associate with aborigines. I sympathised with her, and hoped she would succeed.
I was told by an intelligent blackfellow that payable gold was being got at Gympie, and that many diggers were on the ground. I decided to make for that place, which was many miles away, and gave the black five shillings to accompany me to the nearest settlement. He seemed to consider a crown for walking 60 miles and back a very liberal reward, and gladly started with me. Before we left the camp Neralie came to me.
"You are going to join the gold-diggers at Gympie?" she said, toying with my watch chain.
"Yes," I answered.
"Will you—if ever you should, meet me again—will you be glad to see me?" she asked.
"I shall always be glad to see you, Neralie," I replied.
She bowed. "We may meet again some day. Who can tell? But, look," she added, "You will have to face many perils on your way to Gympie. Wild blacks are numerous, and very hostile. Keep a good look out, and never sleep near a fire. If you are followed in the day time, make your fire at nightfall, and as soon as it is dark leave it, and camp a mile or so beyond."
I reached Gympie in a very dilapidated condition, you may be sure. This was the rich field discovered by the wily Nash in '67, and from which a nugget worth £4000 was got near the surface. In high hopes of unearthing its mate, I bought a claim and set to work. My inexperience now told against me. I was not used to such labour, and could get no gold, though others around me were doing well. Soon my provisions and money gave out, and I found it impossible to borrow any to go on with. Taking the advice of an old miner, I hired out at £2 a week. By this means I got into the way of working, and learned how to mine with profit. I stuck at this for three months, and had saved £20, when news reached us of a rich find on the Palmer River. A great rush at once set in, and I found myself hurrying on with the feverish stream of avaricious miners, many of whom never reached the field, but were killed on the roads by the natives. They were as thick as crows, a swarming, ruthless band of cannibals.
The Chinese, who were there in hundreds, seemed to suffer more at their hands than the whites. The blacks say they are more tender eating, and are generally fatter than white men. I got a good claim in the bed of a creek. A gentleman named George Dunstan, and an old sailor who had deserted his ship in Brisbane, had the next one above me, and an aborigine called Big Harry and a Pole the one below.
Dunstan was a very agreeable fellow, until one night I told him my tale. After that he avoided me. This puzzled me a good deal, and I tried to get at the truth from the sailor. He could tell me nothing more than that they had come out in the same ship just before the rush, and that his wife was a young woman of great beauty, and believed to be the daughter of a peer. I was much interested, and promised myself an introduction to this charming woman at the first opportunity. She might be able to tell me something of Madeline and the latest news from Tavistock. She, with two other women, had dared the perils of this isolated region. They lived together in a strong shed built of bark and slabs, about 50 rods above the grog shop and store, which were a quarter of a mile above my claim. I had never been nearer to it than the grog shop, and had never seen the women.
I was getting on well and rapidly growing rich, when I was attended by a great misfortune. I was afflicted with the sandy blight, which is very common in that climate, particularly on the gold fields. I became totally blind. Just as my sight left me and I was helpless, the old sailor came in one evening and told me that my claim was "jumped." This was gall indeed, for I had struck a rich vein in a new corner when my eyes compelled me to leave off work.
"Who is the party?" I asked.
"The chap we call Tim?"
"No, no. Old Tim's as square-rigged as any craft in port. He's not the one to tumble yer out of yer berth, when yer too disabled to put about, shiver my old timbers if he is!"
"Who, then, is this cowardly fellow?"
"Wal, he only hove in sight yesterday, and hasn't shown a flag yet. Been takin' bearin's all day, and only dropped anchor about a hour ago. Looks good enough for anything—splendid figure head, and as neat a craft from stem to stern as yer ever got aboard of. By Jimbo, here's the little
"Aye," continued the indignant sailor, as the strange craft entered port and hove-to, "this is the rascally pirate that run yer down and boarded yer as soon as he found yer disabled. Shiver me timbers, if I had holt o' the helm I'd send yer to Davie's locker in a jiff."
"If I am properly informed, sir, it's no concern of yours whatever," was the telling shot from the stranger. The old rover, as he would express it, was taken aback, and wisely retreated out of range, lest a broadside should throw him on his beam ends.
"Is it true, my good fellow," I said, "that you have taken so cowardly an advantage of my affliction as to jump my claim"
"I have taken possession of it," was the unequivocal reply. "Some one else would have jumped it if I had kept away, as your claim was forfeited by absence."
The sailor was about to make some retort when I, observing a hidden meaning in the words, said:
"Who are you, and what do you intend to do?"
The stranger came at once to my side and whispered in my ear:
"Don't betray me. I am Neralie!"
Aloud he said:
"If I can speak to you in private, I think we shall be able to come to terms."
The sailor took the hint and departed.
"Neralie, I am glad to—know you're here. I can't see you—I am blind—God help me. It is a terrible affliction."
"I am very sorry for you. But do not give up hope. I have cured many cases of blight, and I think I can pull you through—you will be able to work out your claim yet, as I have saved it for you, and will take care that no one jumps it."
"Are you not afraid, Neralie? There is much danger in your coming among so many rough miners."
"No. I am disguised as a miner. Call me Tom. I'll be your cook and your help meet till your sight is restored. Then you shall decide what I am to do."
I could scarcely express my gratitude to the brave good girl. It appeared that she had run away from her tribe, and gone to the Gympie to look for me. Hearing that I had left for the Palmer, she waited there a month for a batch of miners who were going across, and joined them for safety against savages. She obtained all information about me and my claim from a Frenchman, who also told her that Big Harry's mate was talking about jumping it. She knew the blackfellow and also the half-caste Tim. They belonged to her tribe, and like some others who mixed with whites did a little mining and shepherding at times. Tim had worked for Neralie's guardians, and she believed had persuaded the King to kidnap her, since she was picked out to be his 'gin.' She averred that she would sooner be dead than be married to a blackfellow, and desired to hold communication with none but white people. She remained with me, being at once my doctor, housekeeper, and working hand. She had picked up some knowledge of mining from watching the men at Gympie, and in prospecting with them on the way to the Mitchell River and the Palmer diggings. This enabled her to work daily at my claim, and thus saved it.
In about three weeks I had regained my sight, and was comparatively well.
are a good girl, and I don't know how I can repay you."
"Yes," she answered, "you can more than repay me for what I have done."
"How? What can I give you?"
"You would give me anything?"
"Yes, Neralie, anything. I will grant you anything you wish."
She was silent.
"What shall it be?" I asked. "My claim?"
"The gold I have saved?"
"Shall I take you back to the white people and beseech them to protect you?"
"You puzzle me, Neralie. What is this invaluable boon that I can bestow upon you?"
She came close to me, laid her hand on my shoulder, and looked wistfully into my face. I caressed her glossy hair, and smiled to reassure her, for she seemed uncertain and timid.
"What is it?" I said kindly.
The answer came soft and low, but it startled me, nevertheless. I had a strong infatuation for this dark girl; more than that, my obligations were great. I could not cast her off, friendless and miserable, on the mercy of the world—on the mercy of her world, which was less merciful, if that were possible, than mine—after the indefatigable energy and bountifulness of heart she had displayed on my behalf. I had been a parson—a wicked one, it is true—but I was man enough still to feel compassion for suffering mortals. I had meant well by her from the first, and though considerably surprised at the bold avowal no thought of wholly rejecting her occurred to me. My object was to gain time—to write Madeline and ascertain if her feelings towards myself were yet staid, and if she would share my fortune—if I had the luck to make it—on my return to England. I owed her that, for I was yet hers.
"We cannot get married here, Neralie," I said. "There is no one to perform the ceremony."
"Of course there is."
"What! I perform my own marriage ceremony!"
"Why not? You are a parson—you told me so—and you have married many couples, I suppose. You could easily marry us, and—and I—"
"I would be happy."
"Are you not happy now?"
"I am lonely. How can I be happy?"
"I love you, Euba. Don't send me away. I want you to be my prince—Prince Euba!"
Somehow the idea pleased me. The devil got hold of me in that moment, as he often did, and I took her at her word, thinking with a tinge of merriment rather than otherwise what Madeline would say to it all!
I took up a book, but took no notice of what it was, as I knew the formula by heart, and married myself to the Princess Neralie there and then. Whether such a marriage would be regarded as legal and binding under the circumstances in a court of law I cannot say. The supposition is, it would not.
But I would put forth one hypothesis in defence of my action. Supposing a ship was wrecked, there were only two survivors—a lady and a gentleman—and they were cast upon an uninhabited island to live, as best they could, for an indefinite time. It might be only a few days, or weeks, or months; it might be for ever. They could not tell, but feared the latter. The question is, how long would it be possible for them—for human nature—to continue on the same relationship as they landed? I don't think it would be of long continuity.
Now, I was always natural. I was born natural, and have ever been a loyal subject to the queen of my being. Therefore it behoved me to take Neralie at her word, and marry myself to her, or marry her to me. Its import is the same. In the eyes of God we were man and wife, and snapped our fingers at insignificant man.
Well, Neralie and I worked out our claim, and became rich. She was always disguised as a boy, and was my hutkeeper and cook as formerly, and kept to herself. There was much comment about "Tom, the dark lad," and some more boldly inquisitive than others questioned me about him. But they gained nothing by it. I wasn't to be pumped. I laughed in my sleeve, and confided all to my companion. I was quite happy, for Neralie had been a good helpmate, and my fortune was made—thanks to her. Whether I should have been contented with her always, and what I should have done in the future, had I been permitted to go quietly away and follow my own inclinations is hard to say.
We had made our preparations for departure on the following day for Brisbane. It was near Christmas, and we were going to give up mining, and go into the city to spend the festive season. I had been a long while in the bush, and wanted a change. Neralie too, was tired of her rustication. Moreover, she was afraid of the half-caste Tim, who had begun to loiter about our hut. She had a presentiment that he had discovered who she was, and was waiting for an opportunity to carry her off. I told her it was only fantasy, and tried to laugh her out of it; but she shook her head gravely, and warned me that some impending calamity would befall us if we remained in the vicinity. She was nervous and fidgetty, as though the spirit of some foreboding evil had taken hold in her. She hated the place, and the least sound at night terrified her. Therefore she was more anxious than I to quit the place. I had promised to show her wonderful things in Brisbane, believing it to be like other cities, and to give her such a Christmas treat as she had never dreamed of. This filled her with rapture, and she longed for the merry time to come.
I was reclining on the bunk smoking (for I had learned to smoke) and watching Neralie cooking our supper, when I thought I would take a walk up to "Petticoat Hall," and have a word or two with George Dunstan before dark. No sooner thought of than acted upon. I kissed Neralie—I don't know why—before I left the hut, with the intention of being back in half an hour. It was our last kiss, as it happened, for I never saw her again, nor one gram of all the gold I had stored. It was about sundown, and I was walking jauntily along towards the grog-shop without a care in the world; in fact, I was never in better spirits, as I remember. I had noticed that Big Harry, the blackfellow, was a little in front of me. Presently he sat down at the side of the track along which I was going. I would have passed along with a nod, but I noticed an expression in his face and eyes that startled me. At the same time he shifted his eyes from me, and looking whence I had come, made an almost imperceptible sign by inclining his head, which was accentuated by the contraction of his brows. I looked round quickly, and was horrified to see the half-caste, Tim, stealing upon me, and gripping a tomahawk. If ever there was murder depicted in a human countenance there was in his. Without speaking or hesitating I darted off towards the grog-shop. The half-caste uttered a savage yell and followed. Big Harry remained where he was, though he made a clutch at my legs to throw me as I sprang by him. As I neared the shop I was astonished to see the doors closed, and no one about but a lot of gins and black children. In my terror it seemed to me that the aborigines had murdered the whites and taken possession. I turned slightly to the left, and ran as fast as I could for Dunstan's house. The half-caste was a fast sprinter, and gained on me at every stride. When he had nearly overhauled me, I tried to shout for help, but only choked and stumbled. As I did so the tomahawk flew by my ear, and I heard a savage growl from the half-caste close behind me. I redoubled my efforts to get possession of that deadly axe. It was a terrible race, stride for stride, life against life. There lay the gleaming blade before us, and it occurred to me that whosoever reached it first would snatch it up and dash out the brains of the other. He was within an arm's reach of me, and I saw that I had no chance to pick it up, as he would push me on to my face as soon as I stooped. It was equally dangerous to pass it, for the aborigines are nimble of finger, and can lift any such thing from the ground while running at top speed. I had seen this demonstrated many a time in the bush, and feared to give this fellow the slightest chance of again possessing the weapon. He would throw it a second time, and I might not be so fortunate as to stumble in time to avoid it as at first. All this flashed through my mind in a second, and with it came a brilliant idea. I swerved aside suddenly, and then flung myself at right angles across his path, with the result that being unprepared for such a manoeuvre, he fell headlong over me. I was up at once, and grabbing the axe rushed upon him. He was barely on his feet when I dealt him a terrific blow on the head with the back of the weapon. He dropped with a groan, and without waiting to ascertain if he were badly hurt or not, which I opined he was, considering I had put a great deal of vim into the blow, I ran for the house, still gripping the axe. I burst through the first door I came to, which, as I soon afterwards discovered to my cost, opened into Mrs. Dunstan's bedroom.
She had been standing just within, dressing, and the result was a violent collision, which sent us both sprawling on the floor. Great heavens! I can hear her screams now. Nothing I had ever imagined could equal the shriek after shriek—wild and piercing—that she gave vent to, without in the least trying to rise from her recumbent position. She seemed to be too terrified to do anything but scream. George Dunstan rushed in, followed by the other women and their husbands.
with that terrible axe still in my hand. Before I could offer a word in explanation, a chair was dashed against my head with a force that knocked me backwards, bleeding and senseless. When I regained consciousness I was surrounded by a score of frenzied miners. I was roughly handled, and narrowly escaped being lynched. I trembled for my life, and cursed the waywardness and brute passions that caused my expulsion from the parish of Tavistock, and my expatriation at the same time. I was handed over to the police and taken to the nearest lockup. Subsequently I was put on my trial for assault and attempt to murder, and sentenced to seven years' hard labour. I was only saved the penalty of hanging by the woman on whom I was charged with assault, who gave credence to my story, and testified to my previous good character and my vocation. Who was this woman? She who had long haunted my dreams, she who had caused my ruin and disgrace, who was the nucleus from which eventuated all my peregrinations and tribulations—trials that engendered premature decay. She—Madeline Otley—my Madeline—George Dunstan's wife!
All was a seething chaos to me for the next day or two. Discrimination was impossible. I was as dazed and unstrung as one yet under the influence of an attack of some horrible incubus, and could no more separate the reality from the imaginary than I could fly. Then by degrees the filmy threads of succeeding incidents assumed definite shape; the faint and feeble idea became more lucid and tangible, and slowly I began to comprehend the terrible situation. Still I experienced a difficulty in tracing my supposed iniquity from its initiation. The incipiency of all my misfortunes, of course, was the quarrel with that obtuse nobleman in Dartmoor Forest and my debauchery at the tavern. But how so many conflicting things had ultimately concentrated to my detriment was for the nonce inexplicable. One thing, though, was ever manifest. Through all my troublous past I could see the face of Madeline shining like an evil star, guiding me not heavenward, but dragging me into tophetic ways, and yet no blame is attachable to her. It was her father's fault, that despotic man who prayed that a curse would fall upon me; and, sure enough, I was cursed. He died a miserable old villain, supplicating in vain for a sight of his daughter's face.
I had been in gaol six months when Madeline paid me a visit and expressed regret at my misfortune; and before taking a last farewell of me, at my earnest request, told me her story. Dunstan had met her father at a club in London, to whom he represented himself to be a wealthy squatter. He had had some previous experience in Queensland, and could expatiate pretty glibly on anything Australian. He was honoured with an invitation to the home of the Otleys, and there he very speedily fell in love with Madeline. She, however, had conceived a dislike for her admirer, and, far from reciprocating his feelings, repulsed him with a cold hauteur. But the impostor's suit had the approval of her father, and his intervention brought about a compulsory marriage. It was not till she arrived in Australia that the full extent of the wrong her father had done her was realised. Dunstan cast aside all dissimulation, and confessed the deception he had practised on her and hers. He was nothing more than a nomadic gold-digger, with neither home nor fortune. Her life after that was a monotony, varied only by the usual peccadilloes and bickerings that disturb the harmony of homes in which love is a stranger. She recounted all with a verisimilitude that engrossed and shocked me. This obdurate brute had shown her no more commiseration than he had exhibited towards me. She felt her position so keenly that she wept even there in the cell. Poor Madeline! How many fine promising girls have shared a like fate; how many happy lives have been crushed and blighted; how many a good career has been cut short, and plunged into the dungeons of despair and ruin at the glorious period of budding womanhood, through the designs of avaricious parents—people with hearts of adamant, who sacrifice their daughters, who are precious and dear to others, in their blind worship of the god Mammon! What is it but a pagan creed? No father has a right to interfere with matters affecting this heart of a daughter; and every father should give the preference to her happiness under any circumstances rather than to an exalted position in the social scale, or to wealth. It is a mother's place, as far as her means will permit of, to develop the mental and physical powers of her girls, to learn them well in the duties of the home, and in those graver duties allied with it, and which are ever inseparable from the sex; to place little or no restraint on her freedom, and to abstain from any intermeddling in the choice of a husband. Freedom among the opposite sex gains experience, and experience allows the marriageable woman to choose with judgment. A girl whose faculties have been properly developed will be guided rightly in all matters by her own instinct and good sense. It is those girls that are continually shut in, who are not permitted to roam and mix with the sexes, that generally go wrong, because they have been given no opportunity of acquiring a knowledge of the world. A woman is like a flower, which sacrifices itself to the cause of production, for she is seldom the same after marriage as she was before. For this reason no girl should enter the state of matrimony before the age of 25—she is then as old as a man of 30; and as a woman can freely choose only once in life, and as her happiness, her whole future career depends on that choice, leave her to choose for herself.
Poor Madeline was denied that privilege, and as a consequence, grew prematurely old in a life of perpetual misery. Before she left me I elicited a promise from her to the effect that she would look up Neralie, and be her guardian until I was free to claim her.
About four months after this interview Neralie herself sent me a note. She told me she had saved my gold from the enraged miners and had buried it at the foot of a hill overlooking a rocky creek, twenty-five miles from the field. She gave me a chart to enable me to find it when my sentence had expired. She went to England with Mrs. Dunstan, and a year later I received a letter from her, and learned with gratification that Madeline was a widow. After my release from custody I spent six months searching and digging for the buried gold, but I never found it. I saw it a hundred times in my dreams—tantalising, maddening dreams, that were never realised—and here I am to-day, a battered, worn-out tramp, battling against poverty and starvation.
and show me where the treasure is hidden. Then we'll leave Australia and live happily together in another land.
One evening, two years after my meeting with the tramp, I rode up to small homestead, just as the sun was setting. It was the day before Christmas eve a sweet, tranquil evening, that seemed to breathe of "Peace on earth and goodwill to men." In the garden in front were two women. Both were very beautiful, one dark and the other fair. They did not seem strange to me, though I had never seen them before.
"If you please, ma'am," said I, addressing the fair one, "can you tell me how far it is to Gympie?"
I knew the distance well enough, but wanted some excuse to stay there for the night. She meditated for a moment, then turned to her companion: "Do you know how far it is, Neralie?"
Neralie! This set me thinking, and I looked more closely at the woman. Surely they must be the same, and yet—were they not in England?
Unheeding Neralie's answer, I again addressed myself to the fair one:
Excuse me, madam, are you not Mrs. Dunstan—nee Madeline Otley, of Tavistock?"
"Yes," she answered, bending forward with a surprised, and, I thought, a startled look in her eyes. I hastened to explain my knowledge of her, my eyes all the while riveted on Neralie, whom I regarded as a most wonderful woman. They became deeply interested in me, called a servant to take my horse, and invited me inside. I was soon made comfortable, and at dinner told again my tale, or the tale of the tramp.
"He is dead now," said Neralie, "we wrote to him many times, and hearing nothing from him we advertised, and in course of time heard of his death. He died near where the gold was hidden."
"What brought you again to Australia?" I asked.
"To look for him," was the reply. "But all I could do was to erect a stone over his grave. You will know it by this inscription: 'Prince Euba.' That's what I called him."
"And the gold!"
"I found it where I had hidden it, and bought this place."
In conclusion I have only to add that my journey to Gympie was postponed indefinitely. I found my time fully occupied in looking after the station, in which I became a partner, and was more than contented in the charming society of the widow, and of my own little wife, who is still known as Neralie—the Wild Princess.
YOU see, Barmy Barker was once trampin' the roads. He was always forgettin' himself and was half his time bushed. He was awful absentminded, was Barker. For instance, he'd get up in the mornin' and wouldn't know no more 'n the man in the moon which way he'd been goin' the night afore, and ten to one he'd go back t' where he'd come from. He 'adn't gumption enough to beat about and track himself. He'd no idea of anythink barrin' straight ahead to nowhere in particular. What he was goin' for—he didn't know. Once he scorned the offer of a good billet, when he was downright 'ard-up for one. It came o' bein' 'ead-over-ears in some big scheme or other in his mind.
Often as not he'd go to stations with his tucker-bags and come away with nothin'. Couldn't recollect what took him up, and forgot his bags thinkin' of it. Then he'd 'ave to ante-up a bob to a blackfellow to show him where he left his swag. When it come to payin', Barker 'd say, quite innocent, "Do I owe you a shillin': what was it for, now? I can't think." "Me find um swag." "But that's my swag. I put it there." "Das right, boss. You been lose um camp, see?" Barker 'd barney over that for an hour sometimes, but he'd stump up at last. He lost a mint o' money that way.
Anyhow, ratty as he was, he hit on a good plan to steer by. When he'd come to his campin'-place he'd take his boots off, and leave 'em pointin' the right way. Then he could twist about as much as he liked takin' his swag off, and makin' preparations in gen'ral for the night. Till them boots was right, though, he darsn't turn, or he'd be flabbergasted altogether. In the mornin' everything must be shouldered for the track 'fore he dare step into 'em. Otherwise he might get turned pickin' up something. He did go without 'em wonst, and it wasn't till he'd picked forty or so thorns out o' his feet it occurred to him he was in the 'abit o' wearin' boots. A trav'ler fetched 'em along for him that time.
One night he 'ad to get up and go to the waterhole for a drink. That was the turnin'-point in his life. He put his boots on—it bein' the time snakes go picnickin' and matin'; and there's nothin' in the wide world that sets Barker's hair standin' on end more'n snakes.
When he got up next day the boots was facin' the waterhole.
"Dang it!" says Barker; "I didn't know I 'ad to cross that!"
But the boots pointed that way, so there was no get out of it. It was only fifty yards round that hole, but leather said cross it, and 'cross it went Barker—up to his neck. He felt miserable when he got out, for Barker wasn't used to bein' wet. So he stripped off to dry. When he was ready to start ag'in he found his compass 'ad gone bung once more. One boot pointed east, t' other west. "Now, which way am I goin'?" says Barker. He sat down to think it out. But it wasn't no use. Thinkin' made him giddy, and put him in such a gen'ral muddle that he lost sight o' what he wanted to think about. So he saw there was no help then but to wait till some one came along.
So Barker filled his pipe. He 'adn't 'ad a smoke that mornin', and his mouth was waterin'. Soon he was puffin' away big licks, and found it a good help to his brain. So he tried ag'in to think them boots the one way, and finished up with bandicootin' murphies in the old country. He was that disgusted that he grabbed the old clay-dabber to knock the ashes out, and then he saw as he'd never lit it. Barker saved a lot o' 'bacca in his time forgettin' the match part o' the performance.
As luck 'appened, a stockman came in sight about dinner-time. Barker cooeyed, and he came over. " 'Scuse me," says Barker; "would you do me a favor, mate? I'm a bit flummoxed." "Certainly, old man—if it's not too much trouble. What is it?" "Ah, what is it? Lemme see—Oh!...Will you tell me where I'm goin' to, and oblige—yours sincerely"...Barker was workin' it off on his fingers.
"Why, strike me dead!" says the stockman to himself, "that bloomin' old fool's mad!"
"Where am I goin'?" asks Barker again.
"Off yer nanny," says the stockman, riding off. "Keep straight on, and you'll not be long afore you're there."
Barker chewed that over for an hour. One boot said east and one said west. Which was straight on? "Dang me if I don't go with Bobindie," says Barker—he called one of them boots Bobindie. So he put Bobindie on and went west. That night he struck a dry gully, and near perished for want of water. "You're the devil's own," says Barker. "To blazes with you!"
He got back next night—how, I dunno—and he says to the other boot, that he called Brian Boroo: "Brian," he says, "we'll go east at your wish, and the Lord strike you blind if your designs be treacherous!" So he put on Brian Boroo and went east, leaving Bobindie to perish. He'd 'ave no more truck with that gentleman.
In three hours Brian Boroo kicked ag'in a slug o' gold, and Barker danced and howled in his delight. Before sundown he struck this one 'orse place where I'm treed now. But in Barker's eyes, with that slug shining in 'em, this miserable old creek was Heaven. So here he stuck. He was offered a tidy sum afterwards by a shindykit in the township to show 'em the spot where Brian hit the slug; but, Lor' bless you! by that time Barker knew as much of its whereabouts as a gorilla.
Anyway, he took the old blucher off, and knelt down 'fore the 'ouses and kissed him. "Brian Boroo," says Barker, "you 're a brick!" So he pensioned him off straight away, and—well, there's the old fellow, snug and comfortable, in that glass case.
Me? Oh, I'm Barmy Barker.
Old hands can tell at a glance from what province a man comes, by the way he carries his swag. The swags, too, are different. "Matilda," of Vic., has the most taking figure. She is five or six feet long, neat and slim, and tapered at both ends. Her extremes are tied together, and she is worn over the right shoulder and under the left arm—much in the way a lubra wears a skirt. Thus the Victorian, in one sense at least, makes both ends meet.
The Bananalander's pet is short and plump. She is carried perpendicularly between the shoulder-blades, and held in place by shoulder straps. Getting into this, to a new-chum, is like putting on a tight shirt. But the "old 'un" says it's quite a pleasure to carry it that way.
The Cornstalk doesn't care much how he rolls his; merely objects to bulk and weight. Generally carries it aslant from right shoulder to left hip, his towel doing duty for shoulder strap. He chucks it down as though it didn't belong to him, and takes it up as if he'd much rather leave it behind. He's a cantankerous cuss, too, towards his 'Tilda—damning her eyes generally, and praying Heaven to sever the connection.
I was once shocked to see Matilda brutally assaulted by a Murrumbidgee whaler. Stopping of a camping spot, he pitched "Billy" aside with a growl; then took hold of Matilda by her tentacles, swung her high overhead, and banged her on the ground. Then, in his own vernacular, he "kicked her hitherer and thitherer" for minutes, unstintedly cursing her all the time—for not being able to travel "on her own."
"Neddy," the tucker-bag, is of more importance than the "blue one," and by way of precedence dangles in front, mostly hanging to Matilda's apron-strings. "Billy" sticks faithfully to the hand that claims him. The exact time when Swaggie, Bluey, Neddy, and Billy first entered into partnership would be hard to determine; but it's a fact that they've travelled together for nearly a hundred years without getting any forrarder.
It's a flourishing business that never prospers. Go where you will in the backblocks, and no matter how lonely, dry and hopeless the track, you'll not fail to meet the firm taking its usual walk and going to its usual picnic. Catechetical formula of such meetings. "How far's the next station?" "What's it like for tucker?" "Anyone died there lately? No one! Then it's no use agoin' for work." Then, as the firm moves on again, the manager mutters: "Hard lines—nobody won't die."
Some are legitimate work-seekers fretting while out of collar, and counting each day as so much wages lost; paying for every requisite until the last shilling's gone, and begging rations only when absolutely compelled to do so. Others are a take-it-easy sort, who'll work when there's work to be got, but don't care a rap if it's never got. Mostly boozers these, who beg tucker everywhere, but stick to the coin until the wayside pub pulls them up. Then it goes, and with it the best of their manhood, because, with such men, the mere fact of having money, whether they use it or not, sustains, to a certain extent, their self-respect, whereas an empty pocket has a degrading influence on the best.
Then there is the regular bummer who hangs about stations, pubs., or other places, cadging all he can, until actually booted from the door. Not one of him, so booted, is ashamed of it. He'll graphically describe the incident to the first brother he meets. He is applauded—for to be bold enough to get kicked (no matter where) is to be a hero. His name is spoken of from track-end to track-end.
Next come the true sundowners—men who are neither despised nor respected. They make no prolonged camps, and keep going, like travelling stock. It's their profession; they travel on from year's end to year's end, and never do a day's work. Time themselves to reach each station at sundown. If the next place is only a mile distant it will be sundown next day when they get there. Then they are sure of a camp—and rations. With that they are happy. They live for nothing more.
Then there are three financial classes. The first accepts work only at a fair wage, preferring the track and semi-starvation to "cutting down," or aught that would injure his fellow workers. He's the "straight goer." The second accepts almost any wage, and leaves the job as soon as he gets a few shillings in pocket. He's a blackleg. The third takes anything that's offered, and sticks to it until he gets the sack. He never resigns—is always ignominiously sacked. Jumps the places of strikers "for fair play and honest pay." On the walls of shearers' huts he is written "scab." Another undesirable specimen is the "crawler." Always carrying yarns to the boss about the other men; grafting hard in his presence and loafing behind his back. He is first cousin to the "smooger," who is only superficially a white man. When the crawler is sacked he "hangs around" trying to get on again even at reduced rates, and generally succeeds in disgusting his only mate before the last of him is seen.
Now for the mounted men. Here's one with two horses—one carrying his swag. He asks for beef when he calls at stations. If he wants anything else, he buys it. (The gent who pays for beef isn't a "traveller" at all. He's merely going somewhere.) This chap is a "swell," wears a white handkerchief round his neck, holds his head up, and looks afar off at nothing in particular. He's the only one who shakes hands with an acquaintance.
The next also has two horses. But he conceals them in the bushes below the station, and goes up on foot with the inevitable bags. By-and-bye, his dole topping the pack, he rides placidly by, leaving behind a trail of tobacco-smoke, and a squatter in the distance using heavenly language.
Another has only one horse; jogs along with a big swag strapped in front of him. Some use a wallet thrown across the horse's loins. The latter is considered more dignified. A third owns an old screw that won't carry him, but stumbles along with the pack, bumps it against every tree within reach, and now and again falls over itself for variety. Excepting the latter, none of the horsey men will associate with the bloke "that's paddin' the hoof." He's too low. The horse puts an impassable gulf betwixt its owner and the tramp. The tramp longs to enter that charmed circle, and knows that neither breeding nor learning will pull him through. He can only enter on the back of a horse.
Mac. was mostly sitting on his doorstep waiting for daylight. At the first streak he called his men, who came out all together—on one pair of legs. He, it, or they answered to the name of Brown. Now, Brown had to work twice as hard as anybody else's man to keep his billet. Also, he worked two days a day. That quadrupled him. So Brown was Mac.'s men.
Mac. had the name of being mean. He called it "'conomy." The menu for breakfast at Mac's was porridge, meat and pumpkin. Each man had two plates. One was used for everything; the other for covering it afterwards—to keep the cat and dog from licking it. At dinner-time the cover was removed, and the plate used again. Same at supper. Then the plate and the cover were wiped for next day. The cloth was washed on Sunday—weather permitting.
When Mac boiled a piece of meat he'd cut off enough for each, and put it back in the water. Next meal it was hauled up through the cake of fat, the required quantity cut off, and returned once more to the pot-liquor, where it was kept till finished. Kept the flies away, and saved the cost of a dish-cover. Nothing was ever wasted at Mac's.
If a tramp happened along at a critical moment Mac would rush in to his amalgamated men.
"Clear awa', mon! Clear awa', wul ye!"
"What's up!" asks the amalgamation.
"Losh, mon, there's a tramp makin' fo' 'ere, an' I wadna hae the sicht o' tucker increase his appetite."
The tucker is put out of sight, and when the tramp arrives Mac asks him for a smoke!...
Mac was economical, too, with his clothes. He never took his hat off at table, and never lifted it to a lady, because fingering it wore it out. There was nothing more extravagant to his mind than wearing a shirt in bed. He turned-in stark naked. Consequence was his shirt lasted twice as long. He took his boots off to go riding, and left his hat at home on cloudy days: saved 'em a lot of wear.
In the bush, after lighting his pipe, Mac would blow out the match and put the stem back in the box. At night, the slush-lamp or the fire would do as well as a head. Thus one match would light several pipes. Once he borrowed a match from his men, and, after using it returned him the stem. "I owe ye a head, me mon," he said.
Mac was once in love, and had serious thoughts of getting married. But when he came to size-up his Jean, he found that it would take far too much print and calico to cover her. So he let her slide, and decided to wait till a much smaller woman should turn up.
One day I happened to call at Mac.'s about dinner-time, and as I had tucker with me Mac asked me to fetch it in and eat it at his table. Thought I'd leave some, I suppose. Failing that, I was bound to knock off some crumbs. Anyhow, I sat down and "proceeded." Mac. went to his place—with his hat on and his boots off—and the first thing he did before seating himself was to take his trousers off also. I was quite astonished. I'd never seen a man dress for dinner that way before.
The Brown combination explained afterwards:
"It saves the seat of his pants!"
"I travelled a bit one time with one o' them bush natur'lists," said Tarkalson, "an' he beat all the rummy coves I ever shouldered swags with. Overhauled him one mornin' near Condobolin. He'd left his swag an' billy on the road, en' was away off proddin' up a frog with a stick to make it jump. When it'ud do a pretty good leap, he'd out with a two-foot rule an' measure it.
"'Discovered a frog on Cockle Creek,' he said, 'that jumped 14 foot. B'lieve it's a record, but I want the frogs out-back t'ave a go at it 'fore I give Cockle Creek the belt.'
"Wal, I thinks to meself, he's an int'restin' sort of a joker, anyway, an' I pal'd in with him. I got pretty tired of him, though, after a week. He was nat'ral hist'ry mad, an' always wantin' me to help him get specimens.
"When yer dead tired, an' yer ploddin' along ter get to camp, yer don't like chuckin' yer swag off all of a sudden to run down a frill-neck; an' yer feel like swearin', too, when yer stopped ev'ry ten minutes t' admire grass'oppers an' such like. At that rate o' goin' w'd 'ave got outback sometime in our old age.
"At first, when I barked me shins, or come near knockin' me eye out, I looked on it like he did, as little things ter laugh at. Sort o' give the game more int'rest yer know. But when I ripped the leg o' me Sunday pants, our views wasn't exactly sim'lar. I swore I wouldn't be worried an' blown an' busted in the int'rests o' Science any more. I didn't reckon ter get much credit if I helped it along ever so much. Some big bug, who never tore his pants at the game, would get whatever credit was goin', an' old Bill Tarkalson wouldn't be mentioned.
"Still I stuck to Mr. Richard De Quinlan, the natur'list, though from that out he 'ad ter natur'lise on his own. He asked me ter call him Professor De Quinlan before strangers. 'Twould make us look more important.
"Anyhow, we were makin' for the Barwon, an' there was any gors-quantity o' grubs an' things to keep him int'rested. We wasn't together much except in camp. He was mos'ly chasin' something or squintin' at a new inseck through a telescope. Lend's yer knife a minute.
"I useter tap the stations for rations while he was huntin' for ant-lions, or tryin' which grubs kicked the most on a ant-bed. Scoopin' in butterflies with his hat on a stick, an' lassooin' spiders with thread, were things he gloried in. If he only sat down for a bit of a smoke he'd 'av a couple o' caterpillars fightin' in front of him, or he'd be deliverin' lectures on a blowfly. Yer must've 'ad this knife a long time. It's purty blunt.
"I gen'elly 'ad the fire lit, an' a heap o' wood ready for night, before De Quinlan showed up. Sometimes his billy 'd be swarmin' with bore-sinkers an' wood-riddlers. He'd 'ave ter crucify 'em all with pins 'fore he could make his tea, so I useter offer him some o' mine. De Quinlan said he never liked t' impose on anybody's good nature; but he always drank my tea, an' wired into my damper, for all that.
"Now an' ag'in he'd hoist a dead snake or two out o' that billy, an' put 'em in bottles. Other times it'd be two or three kinds o' lizards. He'd tether them be the legs, an' watch 'em half the night to learn their 'abits.
"When he'd be lecturin' on triantiwontigons an' them crimby-jimby-something-gigantus (I was never much of a French scholar) I'd feel 's if I wanted to put me jaw in a sling. An' he'd want me to 'andle his snakes to prove they wur cold-blooded, or to sit at the fire an' count the legs of a santipede.
"His swag was a reg'lar trav'lin menagerie. When he unrolled it yer'd think it was a stink fact'ry. Beetles in all conditions yer could mention; an' heaps o' skins, half cured, or not cured at all. Useter strike me that De Quinlan was rather too thorough, 'sif he wanted ter see how many v'rieties o' smell a skin could shed 'fore it rotted away, How his int'rest in nat'ral hist'ry kep' up in spite o' the stink o' them specimens useter knock me bandy.
"He kep' a note-book, too, an' yer'd see him ev'ry spare minute jottin' down things 'bout bandicoots an' other insecks. Couldn't make 'ead or tail of his scrawl meself, an' if he didn't say 'em over purty often ter keep famelyer with the writin', I be hanged if he could make it out either.
"Wal, it was rainin' when we got ter th' Barwon, an' two days later on we wur flood-bound on a bit of an island. De Quinlan didn't mind if we wur stuck there f'r ever, providin' plenty o' live things come ashore. In less'n a week he 'ad the grass wore off all round that there island doin' sent'nel dooty.
"One o' the first things he pounced on was a turtle. An' wasn't he proud of it! 'Struth, yer'd 've thought he'd got a son. He tethered it on a patch o' sand, an' called on it 'bout 40 times a day. Called it Friday. Said it was a fine female specimen, an', it bein' the layin' season, he wanted ter see how many eggs th' adult turtle laid per diem. He always said per diem.
"Anyhow, a blackfeller swum over to us one day, an' he looked at that turtle. De Quinlan explained why he 'ad him tied up. The blackfeller looks at the turtle ag'in—an then be laughed. 'Baal dat one lay um egg,' he said—'dat feller ole man!'
"The weather kep' on show'ry most o' the time, an' as we'd only one tent—which b'longed ter Quinlan—I 'ad ter camp 'longside of him. In the daytime I useter try to get int'rested in his experiments. Sort o' put the time in. He wanted ter breed a cross 'tween a worm an' a caterpillar. He tried with sev'ral sorts—till the bloomin' tent was crawlin' alive with 'em. They'd fight an' buck an' wriggle like billy-o, but wouldn't 'filiate worth a cuss. So I tried t' explain as how grubs didn't breed that way; but he got narked.
"Then he 'ad two spiders hung at the tent door—wich made it awkward ter gerrin' in an' out—an' he'd fish for 'em with a fly on a bit o' cotton. If they didn't bite well, he'd swing 'em together an' lerrem knock slops out o' one another. Reach us that fire-stick over.
"The mos' shuddersome exhibition he give me was a fight 'tween a t'rantla an' a santipee. De Quinlan thought it was great sport, an' after that he was always huntin' for t'rantlas an' santipees. I took ter huntin' too—to kill all I could find. I tried hard ter get at a brute of a scorpion he 'ad. Lived in dread o' the thing gettin' away.
"He 'ad his side o' the tent dotted with specimens. He'd run out o' card-board, an' took to pinnin' 'em onter th' tent.
"There was rows and rows of 'em: Tiger-beetles, Pie-dishes, Nutcrackers, Dung-beetles, Whirligigs, Cow-busters—in fact, I dunno what he didn't 'ave in that line.
"I didn't mind 'em so much in the daytime, but at night it was awful. De Quinlan 'ad all me match-boxes emptied ter put beetles in, an' the scratchin' o' them blessed things at night was enough, ter shatter the nerves of a shingle-back. Then there was the buzzin' an' whirr-r-in' of pinned things that hadn't died yet; the stink o' them as had; an'—yer know them 'orny-legged mantis thing?—wal, they'd be kickin' an' jumpin' in jam-tins fit ter drive yer mad. The caterpillars that'd broke loose would come crawlin' over yer—I tell yer it useter give me about 390 nightmares a week.
"There was one little black beetle that was always gettin' on its back, an' then it'd crack its head like blazes on the bottom o' the box till it righted itself. Then it wouldn't be satisfied. It 'ud jerk it's neck about till it got topsy-turvy again. Then more cracks! I've cursed that there thing, an' Professor Quinlan and his menagerie half the night. His troubles! He was in his glory. The flood was fetchin' whips o' live stock to his island, an' he hoped the flood 'ud keep up for a month. Never see such a pipe 's this for gettin' stuffed up. Phe-e-ew!
"Wal, anyhow, it was the stingin' grubs that broke up our 'appy home. He'd two sorts of 'em. One's a black-an'-yaller horror found in clusters. When you go near 'em they chuck up their tails, an' the look o' the upended cluster would make a cove shudder his back-teeth loose.
"T'other sort's a hatter—mos'ly seen on wattle trees. It's four times bigger, an' not bad lookin'; but the least touch of it'll rise a white blister big 's a sixpence. 'Twas this thing that gorra stray one night, an' by the holy smoke, he gives me pertic'ler fits.
"I got up an' put me boots on, an' I jumped on that crawlin' inseck till there wasn't no inseck ter see. Then I flung the lamp at De Quinlan's pet lizard, an' kicked his best bottle o' frogs into the river.
"Poor De Quinlan nearly took a fit. The loss o' them frogs was a nash'nel calamity; an' he feared the lizard would lose the sight o' one eye. I felt sorry for the lizard till De Quinlan started ter tongue-wang me. Then I copped him by the neck au' hurled him through the beetle department.
"I rolled up there an' then, an' swum that billabong at midnight; an' the larst I saw of Professor De Quinlan was him in his shirt an' clodhoppers, chasin' an escaped beetle with a slush-lamp.
I landed at Coraki dead-broke, and started up the Richmond to exploit the cockies. The south bank wasn't so well lined with farms then as it is now; and very few would give me anything, barring pumpkin or a cob or two of boiled green corn. At some places I got a few spuds, and one old woman gave me the leg of a baked bandicoot. This didn't fit one for tramping over blacksoil plains and boggy flats where the foxtail grass grew six feet high and the seeds got in your eyes. There were belts of scrub, too, and ti-tree swamps, where your wet boots kept up a tune of "swish-swhop" as you plodded along.
So, one dinner-time, when Burke offered me 15s. a week to chip corn I was glad enough to take the job. He didn't offer me any dinner, but said I could give him a hand "to put in the afternoon." I thought it was some crop he was going to put in; but it turned out to be a chock-and-log pig-sty.
It was dark when we finished—after working like Kanakas. Then we chased pigs about for an hour in the dark, as there would be no time to "sty 'em to-morrer." When I had fed and watered them, Burke asked me to come and hold the slush-lamp for him. He wanted to see if "Speckley" had all her chicks under her, and if the ducks had come up from the river, and the black pullet and the red rooster hadn't got the nightmare. Then "would I mind fetchin' in a armful o' wood for the mornin'?" I fetched it—and the afternoon was put in.
We had tea—salt-junk, scones, and cold pumpkin; and while Burke filled his pipe, he said:
"Ye'll find it a bit lonely 'ere by yerself. Maybe as ye'd like to go down to the barn wid us?"
I didn't like to refuse, and seeing Miss Burke following the old couple, I took her in tow.
There was a fine big heap of early corn stowed in the barn. We husked at it till eleven o'clock. By the time we had cleaned the husks out with bush forks and burnt them, it was midnight.
Before he went to bed Burke said: "Ye can sthart work in the mornin'. Are ye an early riser?"
"Yes," said I. "I get up every morning at nine, sunrise or not."
I was getting full of Burke.
Sometime in the night I heard an awful rattling of chains and other things in the harness-room, which adjoined mine, mingled with shouts of "Whoa there!—d——yer, can't yer stand a minute!"—to the horses which Miss Burke hadn't run up yet. I was too sleepy to take the hint. It was so nice and cosy in bed, and it seemed only five minutes since I had turned in.
Presently Mrs. Burke began rattling the crockery, and dropping tin-dishes all over the place. Now and again she called loudly to the fowls, which wouldn't leave the roost; and hunted away the pigs, which were shut up in the sty. For shame's sake I got up. It was four o'clock.
"It's late ye are, bhoy," Mrs. Burke said. "Av coorse, Paddy will excuse ye, sein' it's yer first mornin'. But for Hiven's sake, kape the back o' the fince as ye go to work, lest M'Guire's min should observe ye. They do be pokin' it at us whin we overslape ourselves. M'Guire's min will be comin' in to breakfast as ye go out."
Burke came running up. He gave me a rusty hoe with a crooked handle.
"Ye'll find Miss Burke down the farm," he said. "She'll have about siven rows chipped by this time. Just sthart forninst her in the one beyant, an' chip it clane as ye may see her doin'."
Miss Burke was a gawky, bare-legged girl of 17, who chipped right and left at a rattling pace. In trying to keep up with her, I left a lot of uncut weeds covered up with cut ones, and nicked off a plant or two out of nearly every stool. These I stood upright, or buried, when Miss Burke wasn't looking.
She informed me that M'Guire's men were the best on the river. One was a stunner. Her father would like to have him. He woke M'Guire up one midnight after working very late, and asked for the loan of an axe to pass away a little time while chopping wood till it was time to go to work again.
"Father never got hold of any willin' coves like that."
After breakfast Burke told me I could have 10 minutes smoke-ho—while I was going back to work. On Sunday Burke said we'd have some sport—shooting paddy melons. The farm was overrun with them, which meant destruction to the young crops. We hunted through the scrub all day, which was mighty hard work, and returned after dark, dead tired.
Burke had great respect for a sporting man, and would even let him wash his dirty clothes on Sunday night instead of working. If he got hold of one who didn't care to chase paddy-melons on the Sabbath he'd sack him on Saturday night, and put him on again on Monday morning. That saved three meals.
I had just got a week in when Burke, one afternoon, saw me walking back about ten yards for my pipe. He came over to me.
"Ye seem to be doin' a lot o' walkin' about," he said. "Do I pay ye to walk about?"
"Am I to crawl or stand still?" I asked him.
"It's work ye are to do, an' work 'ard," he said. "Shure, it's the aisy billet ye've been used to, I'm thinkin'."
"Don't I suit you?"
"Faith, ye don't."
"Then why do you keep me?"
"It's the fool I am for kapin' ye. Come arn, now, an' I'll pay ye for the week's work ye haven't done."
He paid me, and with bluey up again, I set off up river for Tomki. At the dairy I was offered a job—at 12s. 6d. a week. All I had to do was to milk 60 cows before breakfast in a boggy yard. After breakfast, feed 200 pigs and 90 poddy calves; after which I would be required to work in the canefield till 4. Then I'd milk the 60 cows, and feed the 200 pigs and the 90 poddy calves all over again.
Old Crampy was explaining how easy it was when one of his men came up and asked for a holiday to go to town.
"I want to sell my blankets," he said. "I've got no use for 'em 'ere."
Crampy asked for an explanation with his eyes.
"I've been used to proper hours and regular meals," the man said. "Two suppers a night seems to be the custom hereabouts—one after dark an' one before daylight. Better gimme my cheque."
"Which way are you going?" I asked him when Crampy had bounced away in high dudgeon.
"Straight blanky bang to the back o' Queensland, where there's no cockies nor dairies," he answered.
"Right," said I, "I'm with you," and, shouldering bluey again, I streaked it for the Logan River
Maurice Quailey was well known about Coranga as a lucky prospector. He mostly went out alone, and on foot, leading an old horse packed with provisions. Coranga would hear no more of him for a month or six weeks, when he and the old horse would suddenly appear again in the town. He always came with a good parcel of gold, which he managed to divide pretty evenly between the two pubs and the general store during the following fortnight. A week "on tick," and another week getting over his spree would end his spell in Coranga, and he and the old horse would disappear among the mountains once more.
This had been the routine of Maurice Quailey's career for two years past. So regular had been his comings and goings that the publicans knew within a few days when to look for his return.
But one day the old horse returned alone with Quailey's swag and camp-ware packed upon him. Days passed and there was no appearance of Quailey. The inhabitants of Coranga became excited and speculative, and finally a couple of search parties went out to look for him. They found a deserted camp on Cattle Creek, 20 miles from the little town, but of Maurice Quailey they heard nothing, nor was he ever seen again at Coranga.
On his last trip out Maurice Quailey had met an old mate whom he had not seen for several years. This was Steve Brice, a much younger man than himself, who had mined a good deal with him about the patchy little fields of Nanango, and who had been on more than one droving trip with him to Homebush Yards. They had been the best of mates, and it was only a chance "job for one" on a station that parted them.
"How 'ave yer been gettin' on ever since?" Quailey enquired.
"Pretty badly," Steve answered. "I've been battling along dead broke this fortnight. I never did have any luck, somehow."
Dropping his swag by the roadside, he sat down on it and lit his pipe. Quailey squatted on his heels, whilst the old horse, knowing from long experience that a yarn meant a spell, had pulled up in the shade of a tree.
"Have yer anything in view now?" asked Quailey.
"Nothing. Worse still, I'm an utter stranger here," Brice replied.
"Well, I'll tell yer wot," said Quailey. "I'm off out to Cattle Creek, prospecting. If yer like yer can come with me. It's a lot better'n wages, an' it'll be a change for yer."
"It's a poor spec., anyhow, if it's not better than humpin' bluey," said Steve, only too glad of the opportunity to join his old time mate. His swag was therefore strapped on the old horse, much to that animal's disgust, and together they journeyed to Cattle Creek. Though only 20 miles from Coranga, it required the best part of two days to reach the place, for the track was rugged and difficult, winding through rocky hills, and mountains, till it crossed the Coranga Ranges. A blazed-tree line to the creek, and a cattle-pad down the winding course, brought them to the "One-man Diggings."
On a stony spot, between the creek and a wall of rock, was Quailey's old camp. Under the wall were two water-holes close together. One was surrounded by steep, precipitous banks, and from the dark color of the water was known as the "Black Pool." The water was deep, too, and appeared to run under the rocks.
Standing over it that evening Maurice Quailey said that he would not be surprised to see the legendary bunyip rise from such a pool as that. Long afterwards those words recurred to Steve Brice like a haunting dream.
* * * * * *
For a month they worked, and did well together on a narrow strip of country along the creek bank. A good quantity of gold had been amassed in that time, and they buried it for safety a foot deep between the camp and the pool, and covered the spot with a flat stone. It came to the time when, according to custom, Quailey should have visited Coranga for his usual jamboree. But he did not go. He showed annoyance even if the matter was mentioned. He became morose, fidgetty and irritable, and his actions and demeanor began to show pretty plainly that he was tired of his mate. Whilst the prospect of wealth had a benignant effect upon the temperament of Steve Brice, it caused an inordinate greed to possess Maurice Quailey. While the money was making he wanted to be alone, as he had always been till now on this new field of his. Yet when Brice, who began to see that he was in the way, proposed a "trip" to town, Quailey would not listen to it.
He was richer now than he had ever been but Brice was just as rich—and that's where the shoe pinched. He owed his rise to Quailey, and it did not seem right that he should take an equal share. He expected Brice to look at it in the same light as he did and surrender—voluntarily, of course—a quarter share as a prospector's reward. He said nothing, however, to Brice, but he thought the more, and brooded over it.
Their rations' were nearly done, and one evening, after putting a damper in the ashes, Brice spoke to him about it.
"One of us will have to go in this week for a fresh supply," he said. "It's no use stoppin' here till we're eaten out. We've done pretty well so far, and we may as well live well."
"I'm going in to-morrow," said Quailey, who was pacing to and fro, as was his wont after sundown, between the tent and the Black Pool. He was puffing meditatively at his pipe, and leaving wreaths of tobacco smoke hanging in the air behind him.
"I'll take the gold with me an' leave it at the post-office for safe custody," he added, after a pause.
"I'll go in with you," said Brice, laconically.
"Why?" asked Quailey, turning sharply, and meeting the other's eyes for the first time.
"Because," said Brice, "it's a monty you'll go on the bust, an' it's at the pubs the gold'll be left, not at the post-office. Anyhow every man likes to look after his own."
"P'rhaps it'd be as well to dissolve partnership," said Quailey, with a sudden flash of temper.
"Just as you like," answered Brice, quietly. "We always got on well together in the old days," he added; "but it's very evident you've altered a good deal since then."
"I s'pose it couldn't be you that's altered?" Quailey returned.
"I haven't become selfish and unsociable, at all events," Brice rejoined. He walked back to the fire, and looked at his damper. It was not quite done, so he raked the ashes over it again; and was turning to go into the tent when Quailey called out to him. He was standing over the Black Pool, looking down at the water.
"There's something down under the bank here," he said, as Brice came up. His voice sounded out of tune, and he appeared nervous. Brice thought it was merely the result of their recent tiff, and took no further notice.
It was nearly dark, and only the hum of mosquitoes could be heard. Brice stepped to the brink and leaned over. Quailey, watching him closely, stepped back a little as if to cross behind him, but, turning quickly, he threw his hands out suddenly against the man's back and pushed him over the bank. He shot head-foremost into the pool and disappeared.
A heavy stone lay close to the bank-brink, and, picking it up, Quailey rested it on his shoulder whilst he watched for his mate to come to the surface. But only a few wavelets rolled back from the shelving rocks, and again only the hum of mosquitoes was heard.
"There'll be no disputes now," he muttered, "an' as no one saw us come out together there'll be no questions asked as to dissolved partnership. An' now I'm goin' to keep up me birthday."
* * * * * *
That night was a restless one for Quailey, and his one desire now was to get into Coranga and deaden the immediate memory of his crime in drink.
Early next morning he packed his things, and went for the old horse, which was grazing on an open flat a mile above the camp. He returned as the sun was peeping over the eastern hills, and at once strapped the pack on the horse.
With feverish haste he then took a shovel and turned over the flat stone to dig up the gold. It was soft digging, and a couple of minutes sufficed to clean out the hole. When this was done, Quailey felt as though he had been turned into a lump of ice, and the shovel dropped from his trembling hands. The gold was gone!
Quailey's remarks and observations just here are unprintable.
Desperately and for hours he searched around the camp, turning, over stones, digging wherever the ground appeared to have been disturbed, and finally making wide detours to out the track of the thief.
In the meantime, tired of standing with the pack on him, the old horse had gone off on his own account in the direction of Coranga. He arrived in good order and condition, as previously related, and excited much interest in the little community as to what had become of Mr. Quailey.
Mr. Quailey had given up the search for the gold, and gone in pursuit of his runaway horse. In this, too, he was unsuccessful; and thus was another partnership dissolved, and one which Quailey had not looked for.
He returned to camp at sundown, for what reason not even Quailey himself had any definite idea, for there was nothing left for him—not even a bit of stale damper—and only a faint hope that the gold might yet be hidden among the rocks.
Supperless and miserable, Quailey stood in the moonlight, looking down into the Black Pool, with some mad notion in his head that Brice had stolen the gold and taken it with him into oblivion. He wondered how long it would be before the body would float, and if suspicion would fall on him if by any chance it should be discovered.
Something like a smothered laugh caused Quailey to look up, and there, sitting on the rocks before him, Quailey saw a ghost! It was smoking a pipe, and observing Quailey's abjectness and terror with evident relish.
"My God!" Steve Quailey gasped, staring at the supposed apparition with wide, terrified eyes. To him it was a weird object, uncanny—horrible. His teeth chattered as he looked at it, and his flesh felt cold and clammy. In his chaotic state of mind there seemed nothing ludicrous in the spectacle of a ghost smoking a pipe. Brice had often sat and smoked like that when alive; and this fact was sufficient to convince him that it was the dead man's ghost come back to haunt him for his iniquities.
He attempted to fly from the awful vision, but his trembling legs failed him, and he lost his balance in turning. For a moment he tottered on the brink, then, with a wild cry that echoed through the night, he disappeared headlong into the pool.
The ghost climbed down to render assistance; but the Black Pool had claimed Maurice Quailey for its own.
Now the ghost stood alone in the moonlight, and it smoked its pipe, and made remarks:
"It would be strange if that fellow's popped up under that leaf of rock and scrambled out in the cave, as I did...But I think he dropped too far away...Deuced lucky for me, though...If I report it...they'll say I murdered him...Have I to nurse that awful secret for ever?"
The ghost shook its head dismally, and returned to the rocks; but presently it came back, carrying a little bundle and a billy of water. It made a fire in the old place by the camp, and it put the billy on to boil.
Only Maurice Quailey could have seen anything of the spook about the man who, a little later, sat by the fire with a pannikin of tea in his hand, and the coveted gold by his side. Partly a bruised knee, and partly curiosity had urged him to hide all day among the rocks to see what Quailey would do. Now that Quailey was dead, and the horse had taken dumb tidings home, it would, perhaps, cost him his own life to be found in the neighborhood with the gold upon him. For who would believe his story?
Packing up a few scattered things in the moonlight, he started at once across the bush for a southern stock route. And there were none to tell that he had even been at the camp of the lost prospector; and when the latter's aged mother received a bank draft from "W. Jones, a friend of your son Maurice's," it threw no light on the matter.
* * * * * *
Long afterwards, and far away from Cattle Creek, Steve Brice told of a big cave whose only entrance was under water, into which he had accidentally dived and saved his life, and from which he had dived again in the dead of night and dug up his gold. Thus far he had spoken the truth. But he told further that his mate was saved from drowning—only to perish afterwards in the bush while looking for a runaway horse. And the Drought Fiend, draining Black Pool to its dregs, laughed derisively.
"Crosscuts" was a little man, whose hard, withered-looking face betokened a long spell in a dry paddock. He was full of resources, acquired by dint of much battling about the bush. A type of that clique who frequent gaffing schools, dog fights, and Bacchanalian revels, he objected strongly to hard graft.
But he'd live where another man would perish. It didn't matter to him how he got his money so long as the getting of it was easy; neither did it matter how short a road was if he could gain a point by cutting across country, he'd do so. Thus he gained his pseudoymn, "Crosscuts," and the bush man's love of brevity made it "Cuts."
* * * * * *
One day "Cuts" asked for a job. His usual policy was to spin a pitiful tale, and ask for tucker, and a postage stamp to write to an alleged wife. But his boots were done, and his pants wouldn't stand any more patching. So graft it must be.
He tapped M'Dougall, of Quondong. Mac. said there was nothing to do at present, but if he'd call in a month he'd be able to put him on burr cutting.
"Can't I go at it now?" asked "Cuts," with a despairing look at his unchangeables.
"Naw," said Mac.; "burrs not big enough."
"Can yer give me an old pair o' pants, then?"
"I canna," said Mac. "I wear out ma ain breeks."
* * * * * *
That afternoon, while riding through the paddocks, Mac. noticed "Cuts" dodging about with a bucket and a pannikin. A little puzzled, he rode up. "Cuts" appeared not to notice him. He was now on his knees, and into a little trench encircling a burr he was pouring pannikins of water.
"What are ye doin', mon?" Mac. asked at last.
"Makin' the burrs big enough to cut."
"Cuts" didn't look up. He continued watering. Mac. took a tighter grip of his reins.
"For what?" he roared.
"Want a job," said Cuts, quietly.
"Wul—dom ye!" he said, "go an' get a hoe."
* * * * * *
With a new rig-out, and a spare pound in his pocket, "Cuts" made a bee-line for the Harp of Erin, a roadside pub on the bank of the Darling.
John Guerdon, the host, wanted a man. His tent cook had left; so "Cuts" dropped in for a rosy billet. The tent was on the opposite side of the river, where the deadheads and bummers were mustered. They spread themselves out under trees in the day time, and made a circle round the fire at night. They were waiting the arrival of a "whale"—a man with a cheque.
No one ever left the Harp of Erin in those days with money in his pocket. On the contrary, all did terms "across the way." Communication was effected by means of a flat-bottomed punt.
"Cuts" was not altogether satisfied with the dough-banging. So he got it off his hands. Promises of coming beers induced the others to cook in turns. "Cuts" gave orders, and read the papers. That just suited him to a T. He'd been at it three days when the first signal was given—"a whale in the bend!"
"Now then, yous blokes," said "Cuts," "roll up and get aboard 'ere. Th' boss 's some work ter do."
There were seven of them. "Cuts" made eight. They crowded in somehow, and "Cuts" rowed the cargo across. Guerdon stood waiting on the bank.
"Eight," said he, counting them as they landed. "Four bob a man—four shouts all round—that's 32 bob."
He counted out the stipulated sum to each man. Then he said to "Cuts":
"You know the ropes. Walk in, an' each one shout. Eight rounds. He'll make nine. By that time he'll be drunk enough to pay the 32 bob to start with. Then you can drink what you like—that is, while his cheque lasts."
Guerdon trotted off, but at the top of the bank he stopped.
"It's old Jack Murphy. D'yer know him?"
"Why," said "Cuts," "me an' him was mates—"
"Well, call him Mister Murphy."
"Wot about when he's blown?" said "Cuts," with a chuckle.
"Oh! Old Jack will do then. Anything!"
* * * * * *
Murphy was in the bough-shed attending to his horses. "Cuts" gave his mates "the office," and joined him. They had tramped and worked together, and were old friends "staunch and true."
"Goin' ter stop ter-night?" asked "Cuts," when the greetings were over.
"Yes, for a couple of days, perhaps. Nags want a spell. This one's right, but the pack-horse is a bit tender-footed."
"Yer want ter be careful 'ere," said "Cuts," in a whisper. "Don't flash any big money, or yer'll go down for it. How yer off for small stuff?"
"The only stuff I've got is a £70 cheque."
"Cuts" blew a long, low whistle. "That'll never do, Jack," he said. "They'd murder yer for less'n that! 'Ere, take this poun' note. It'll do yer 'ere, an' yer can send it back by post."
"Thanks, old man. Some day, perhaps, I'll do as much for you. Let's go an' have a wet."
* * * * * *
Guerdon couldn't understand it. No one had seen anything of "Cuts" since last night. It was now afternoon. He returned from a fruitless search, and totted up Murphy's account. Drink, gaffing, and wreckage totalled £23.
"I must take his cheque," said Guerdon. "He won't know but what he handed it over."
First he went through Mr. Murphy's swag and saddle-bags. They contained nothing that a man would "do in." So he examined Mr. Murphy. One pocket panned out tobacco-dust, another two shillings. All the rest had holes in them.
Guerdon nearly fainted.
"P'rhaps Mr. Murphy sent it to the bank, John," the Missus suggested.
"Mister Murphy!" said John, with a pronounced sneer. "I tell you, Maria, that Jack Murphy is the dirtiest old dog on the river."
* * * * * *
That night a traveller, who bore a striking resemblance to "Crosscuts," put up at a distant pub., from which no road led to the Harp of Erin. He left early next day, with his pockets well lined with "small stuff." He got it in exchange for a £70 cheque!
Transcriber's Note: The original story was rewritten as "Barker and the Widow" after the original publication in The Sunday Times. This is the later version.
"The absentest-minded man I ever knew was Barker. I often laugh when I think of him, an' the way the Widow Conyby profited by his want of a memory," said the old miner as he sat down by the camp-fire.
"Barker had been off the track some time, and was spellin' in a little humpy on the Widgeego. He lived a hatter, undisturbed even by the nearest settlers. They didn't hanker after his sort. His only friend was Widow Conyby—a hard-workin' little body who kept herself by fossickin' down the creek, an' doin' a bit o' washin' and mendin' for the diggers. She'd pop in occasion'ly, and rustle her skirts about the shanty, which was variation even for him. She'd sweep the place out, and brush the cobwebs down, an' straighten the disreputable residence up a bit generally. He wanted a lot of improvin' to make a woman feel she wasn't losin' her self-respect in visitin' him. It was mostly wasted effort. He never cared a sprat how things went. Certain times he'd remember he was alone. Then he'd feel lonely, and would talk of goin' home to the old people.
"Barker's home was a 200-mile track. The old people were the squatters on the way, who doled out rations to him when he used to pad the hoof in earnest. He had one standin' complaint. There, was no fatted calf for the Prodigal Son on these homecomin's; only sour looks and—'You here again!' Otherwise he'd trudge along contented and happy, recallin' recollections of old days. Sweet memories of home, Barker called 'em. He knew all the trees and stumps, and he'd sit by his favorites and yarn to 'em for hours. When a crow quarked overhead he'd look up and say, quite pleased like: 'Hulloa, old fellow! Dang me, I haven't see yer for a long time! And how are yer? Remember when yer gobbled up my damper, yer cow? I'd just took it out of the ashes an' stood it up agin the butt of this very identical to cool, and while I was havin' a sloosh at the crick you dropped in unexpected and polished it off.' Then he'd laugh outright. He was always in good spirits at home.
"One day when he'd trudged wearily back to the humpy, his widow friend got on to him. 'Why don't you drop these silly notions, Barker, and settle down? What's the good o' bein' a fool?'
"'Must go home once in a while,' says Barker, 'to see the old folks. Quietens one's longin', and a feller can spell better 'ere arter a trip 'ome'
"'Home, me granny!' says the widow, and then she starts picturin' the pleasures of a home she had in mind—where she and Barker was one an' undivisible.
"She'd a rare gift of the gab, had the widow, and she'd jabber away to Barker till he wouldn't know which end he stood on. But it was like a parrot prattlin' to a stump! Barker would sit an' grin, an' smoke an' spit; sometimes he'd grunt—an' that's about all he'd say. He never was much of an orator—except when nobody was by, and he fell to talkin' to people that come into his mind, some of 'em dead and gone these many years.
"Of course the widow knew he had a stockin'. Trust a woman for quizzin' that out. She was a patronisin' old girl, quite a mother to Barker, in fact, an' just the sort as suited him to a T if he could only have realised it. She fetched her own lunch when she come to dine with him. She didn't like Barker's dishes—they were too mysterious.
"He promised each time to return the visit. Soon's she was gone, though, Barker would forget all about her. Sometimes—maybe a month after—he'd recall her to mind, and start off at once to see her. Once the thought struck him just as he was goin' to turn in. It was late, but that didn't matter; all hours were alike to Barker. So he jumps up, and away he goes—bareheaded and barefooted—to pay his respects to Widow Conyby.
"On the way he sighted a possum, and took after it with a long stick. The possum zigzagged in all directions. Barker zigzagged after it, slashin' here, bashin' there, and swipin' generally where the possum wasn't. When it made tracks up a tree Barker told it he would see it again next night. Then he went home fully convinced that he'd come out for no other purpose than to chase that possum.
"There was a big lagoon near the hut where Barker used to go fishin'. The track from the widow's skirted this lagoon. One day she was bobbin' along it to see the old fellow when she spots him straddlin' a limb that hung over the water. He had a rod in his hand, and was catchin' a fish. He swung it over his head into the water behind him; then turned round and swung it back again. How long he'd been at that Widow Conyby couldn't say, but as she came up it flew off the hook and knocked her hat off. It was dead and stiff, all the scales were off it, its lips were torn off, and its jaw was broken.
"'What are you doin', Barker?' she says. 'Fishin',' says Barker. 'Havin' great luck. That's fifty.' 'But where's the other 49?' 'Ain't they there?' cries Barker. 'Dang it, they must 'ave got in again!' The widow smiled. 'No wonder the poor thing's dead,' she says. 'Come off o' there, for goodness sake!'
"Barker came down in a hurry. His foot slipped. The widow picked him up, and fished his hat out of the weeds. She wiped it carefully with her apron, and brushed his hair back. Barker looked pleased. He liked the sensation, and stood like a calf bein' cow-licked. The widow put his hat on for him. Then she took him home, and after she'd persuaded him to change his clothes, she further impressed on his dull intellect the immense advantages of havin' a woman like herself to look after him.
"At times Barker experimented in the cookery line—which come of the mailman deliverin' an odd pamphlet at his residence. One day he got hold of a recipe for a custard. It sounded good, so he set to work oh it. All went well till he come to milk. He had no milk. So off he pelts to Widow Conyby's—all flour and dough. Most everything he had he'd borrowed from her. Even her lap-dog that had the screwmatics he'd got the loan of, likewise the chain to keep him from returnin' himself. Then he borrowed her tabby cat to clear the place of mice, her axe to cut a bit of wood with, and lots of other things, includin' sundry utensils an' various odds and ends. One way and another, the poor soul at last had nothing left worth mentioning.
"Now and again she'd ask for the return of something or other—if Mr. Barker was done with it. Mr. Barker wasn't done with it. He was never done with anything. 'I've got it in use,' he'd say, 'otherwise you'd be quite welcome to it, Mrs. Conyby.' Of course Barker 'ad forgotten they'd ever belonged to her. She'd sigh, perhaps, but wouldn't say much. She was waitin'.
"Barker was squeezin' his finger when he got to the door. The widow was delighted. So glad to see Mr. Barker—thinkin' at last he'd begun to take a bit of notice. 'Would Mr. Barker come in?' 'Excuse me,' says Barker. 'Fact is, I'm cookin'. Lemme see! Egg's—sugar—One pint o' milk—mix thorough—an'—Mrs. Conyby, would you oblige me with the loan of the goat?' The poor widow was too flabbergasted to say whether she would or not. When she got over the shock, Barker had gone. So had the goat.'
"At last the widow set to meditatin' more seriously. She'd been mashin' Barker quite a lengthy while—to no satisfactory end. Barker was blind, or he didn't want to see—perhaps both. She'd worked him up to proposin' pitch twice, and each time something turned him off at the critical moment. She hadn't absorbed him enough, she thought; she'd been too backward in comin' forward. But she could stand it no longer. 'It must come to a head!' she said. 'It must—an' it will!'
"Barker was squatted in his lonesome retiracy peelin' spuds. He'd started to do a couple for the stew, an' forgot to leave off. Fell to thinkin' of one thing an' another of years ago. The sack was nearly emptied when the widow bounced in.
"'Mr. Barker, I've come to talk to you,' she said. Barker thanked her. Not many come to talk to the likes of him nowadays. 'Twas different in other times, when he could hold his own with any gay young spark around. He got a warm glance from the girls then. From lots of 'em. But Mrs. Conyby was the only one that had a thought for him now. It was very good of her to come and chin with him once in a while.
"The widow got settled. You could see that by the way she wet her lips. 'Mr. Barker,' she said, 'you've taken every blessed thing I could call my own. So—now—what do you think?' 'Dunno,' says Barker, quite disinterestedly.
"'I'll tell you then,' the widow says, bristlin' up. 'You'd better take me with them. That's what!'
"'Indeed 'n I'm much obliged to you,' says Barker, 'but, really, Mrs. Conyby, I've no use for you. An' there's no accommodation here for a woman. Maybe you'd get a sitawation among the diggers. I shouldn't wonder.'
"The widow had a mind to bounce, but the tears come into her eyes and she broke down. It was hard courtin' Barker.
"She put in another lonely month, what time Barker was away seein' the old people. The parson called just as he got back, and straightaway the widow trots him down to the hut, with a couple of gray-haired derelicts she washed for in tow. Her hook was baited this time.
"'Here we are, dear!' she says, bustlin' in, all frills an' scent an' cheerfulness. 'The parson's come to marry us.'
"Barker was surprised.
"'Dang it, Mrs. Conyby,' he says, starin' stupidly from one to another, 'when did we make the arrangement? I can't remember.'
"'Well, well,' says the widow archly. 'What a funny man you are!' Didn't we settle to get fixed up the first chance we got?'
"The parson was sayin' something when Barker chips in—
"'I s'pose it's all right. I do lose sight o' things terrible o' late years. Can't r'member where I'm at scarcely.'
"'Aye,' says the parson. 'You want a wife to look after you, Mr. Barker.'
"'Well, fire away, parson, an' let's 'ave it over,' says Barker.
"He was makin' a damper at the time. He left it as it was, washed his hands—with some persuasion—and stood ready. Change his togs? No; he didn't want no flash things to get spliced in.
"The widow did want to titivate the hut a bit, but Barker said there would be more time afterwards. They could spend the honeymoon at it.
"The widow found the ring, and helped Barker to put it on. He didn't know where it went.
"When it was all over, the parson said: 'You are now man and wife—or words to that effect.
"'Rightum,' says Barker, and with that he went on with his damper.
"That was their weddin' cake."
"I never travelled with a horse but once," said Tarkalson, "an' I don't want any more of him. He's a nuisance on a dry track—an' they're all dry out back. Yer always askin' about grass, an' lookin' for grass; an' when you've got grass there's bound to be no water. I reckon a horse-man's never troubled with want o' work or tucker his greatest concern is finding grass. When he strikes a patch he's got to hobble-out whether he likes it or not. Then instead of feedin' to keep his condition up, the brute goes ramblin' about, takin' a mouthful about every ten yards. You think he's makin' off, an' turn him back. When you're asleep he'll go some other way—you don't know where. Best way is not to turn him back at all. If he's a rambler, hobble him short, or side-line him with a bullock-chain. In the mornin' you'll see his track. Of course you'll know where to find him—at the other end of it.
"A good campin'-horse is like a good mate—he's precious scarce. Mostly you're up all night listenin' for the bell an' it's surprisin' what a variety of sounds resembles that bell o' your'n. It's a burden on yer mind all night. In the morning, you go to ketch him—where you heard his bell just before daylight—an' he ain't there. You walk back 10 miles, to the last gate you come through, am' find him with his head hangin' over the fence. You've tramped a day's journey after him—if he's broke his hobbles, you run yerself blind ketchin' him. an' you lead him a day's journey to camp. Then you start. Many a poor devil starts goin' mad. Someone's ratted him, p'raps, while he's been away; or crows an' dogs have copped his tucker ; of the wind's set the fire blazin' an' burnt everything. A horse is right enough where there's whips of grass, an' water every mile. He travels more at night time then.
"This cuddy of mine was a pot-gutted bay. I called him Nugget. He was a great horse—in size. Frisky as a monkey, an' could gallop like a racer—if you wanted to yard him. Ridin' him—he was too slow for a funeral. He always had his eye on me, though, an' if he saw I wasn't watchin' he'd jump two ways at once. If that shifted me— it mostly did—he'd down with his head an' give three sudden bucks. No occasion to give more'n three. By that time I'd have my second seat, an' be spittin' out teeth an' dirt an' grass. I once bit a caterpillar in two, spearin' down on him sudden like. I had a great respect for Nugget in them days.
"Travellin' from Nanango to Tenterfield put a set on him. Terribly dry it was, with not as much grass as would keep a billy-goat. Chuck a log on that fire, mate, Gettin' a bit chilly:
"Well, Nugget got that blamed poor that he had to stand broadside to the sun to make a shadder. Then he'd try to get in it, an' when he lost it by turnin' end on, he'd whinny for it. He was a bit shook-up in his intellect. An' his head—it looked the size of a house, with a lip on the end of it that'd trip a bullock-waggon. Worse'n all, he'd got a sore back, an' swelled wither, an' puffed legs, an' tender feet, an' was girth-galled both sides. I useter have him padded, too, fit to break him down. Tried all sorts of remedies—from axle grease to Stockholm tar; but I couldn't effect a cure nohow. An' darn me if I wasn't travellin' as a vet'in'ry surgeon at this time, too!
"I never went through a town without a dread of bein' had up. As for Nugget, he'd sidle into every house. If a woman came out he'd whinny at her, an' stand. I'd ask the way to the baker's. If I sat there talking, Nugget would look round mournfully, an' I'd fancy he was sayin', 'Why the——don't you get off!' He'd smell my boots, fust one an then the other; an' by-'n'-bye he'd cop one in' his mouth an' try to pull it out of the stirrup. I'd start him again, an' he'd sidle 'across to the next place. I'd ask for the butcher's shop. When I'd asked for every blessed place in the town, I'd get off an' drag him out of it. I was ashamed o' that moke if ever a man was. He seemed to do things a-purpose. When no one could see him he'd go fusrate. Soon's a cove come along he'd slow down to a crawl. Never met a horseman wot hadn't to crawl round Nugget. Everyone would say, 'Yer nag looks poor.' Looks poor! 'Struth, they uster have me fairly jumpin'. '
"Then we come into flat, swampy country—plenty of green feed. I gave him a spell there—an' he got the scours. That left him so weak that he staggered when I put the saddle on him. I led him for a week, an' carried the pack meself. When we got to dry country again, the clods an' stones bruised his feet till he couldn't scarcely walk. The swamps had softened 'em, an' he limped an' grunted something awful. I'd have left him long ago only for the saddle. That was worth a pound, I uster envy the tramps—walkin' calmly by with bluey up. Seemed like Heaven to have no worry about grass an' knocked-up horses. Take my tip for it. With a pair o' big feet like mine an' your'n, a man can get along surprisin' well without the cuddy. Gorany tea in that billy?
"One day I was ridin' up to a house for bread. Nugget was goin' splendid. He must've thought it was home, seein' ladies outside. I'd got pretty close up when—down goes Nugget. Turned me a turtle spank among the petticoats! An' how they did yell! 'Oh dear, I hope he's not hurt!' says one. 'Oh, look at that poor horse!' says another. 'Poor, poor thing!' An' everybody looked at Nugget. His legs was spread out, his head down, an' his bottom lip hangin' a yard. I asked the way to So-and-so's. Then I hauled Nugget round, pulled him down the road, an' let him go for another spell. After you with that there fire stick.
"I uster notice flash blokes wavin' han'kerchiefs to girls as they went alone. Seemed fine fun to me, an' I reckoned I'd have a joke, too. I hadn't as much sense then as a respectable man oughter have. There was a house half-a-mile off, an' a girl at the door. Just the thing! I hauled out a sweat-rag an' waved it. She waved back, then run inside. Presently she comes out again, with the old woman—puttin' on her specs.—the old man, three more girls, an' Loramighty knows how many kids. I felt scared, but was jest liftin' the sweat-rag for another shake when—down went Nugget! Dash his old hide, but he shot me summersettin' through the dust like a tumblin' Tommy. Dunno how they took it. Didn't look. Slipped on in a hurry, and stared straight ahead for hours. Damn me! but that did make me feel small.
"The last station we passed, me an' Nugget, was Ellangowan. Was close to the Condamine then. There was a hut on the bank, so I reckoned on havin' a week's spell—ketchin' cod. I fastened the reins to the stirrup-iron, so's he'd dodder along in front.
"Tell yer wot a cantankerous cuss he was! He actually tried to bolt with the pack! He did get away—into a swamp. He's there yet. Bog! It'd bog a duck. In two minutes all yer could see was his head an' the top of the pack. I got that out. The poor brute whinnied to me, too. Thought he was bein' let go. But it warn't no use. His bones is there still, not a rifle-shot from Ellangowan. I've stuck hard and fast to Blucher since, and travelled strickly per boot. There's nothing to lick it in the dry country."
Scanlan was a man of importance—something between a cockie and a squatter. He owned Wonbadgery, where cock-fighting was a favorite Sunday indulgence. Scanlan's champion was an old bird he called Draggletail. The name fitted; it seldom had more than one shabby feather waving at the back of it.
The heir to the dungheap was a beautiful young bird. His name was Bill. Scanlan took much pains to teach him the way a rooster should go; but Draggletail had kicked so much terror into him that he rarely had company except when he found a hen away out by herself somewhere. He always took the precaution to look carefully around before stooping to pick up a grain of corn; and, when he occasionally mustered courage to crow, he would stop in the middle of it, to ascertain if Draggletail was not creeping up behind him. He was the last to roost at night, and the first off in the morning; even then the most horrible squawks would come from him in his sleep, and sometimes he would start running and nearly brain himself against a tree before he woke up. He was dreaming of Draggletail.
Scanlan was much troubled on Bill's account.
"I'd give an 'onest fiver ter see Bill turn round an' knock slops out o' that old dog," he said, as Bill started across the 40-acre paddock on one of his wild stampedes. I suggested white washing as an effective means of bringing on a battle. I explained the idea, and Scanlan chuckled in anticipation.
On Sunday he whitened the old fellow from head to foot, and when the coat was dry set him at liberty, and threw out some grain. Bill came sidling up, looking suspiciously round for Draggletail. The latter spied him, and immediately took the offensive. Bill thought it was a newcomer, and stood rigid until the intruder was within reach. Then he let fly, and Drag. was knocked kicking on his back.
The old chap got up slowly, and stood glaring at Bill, while his head shook, and peculiar noises came out of his throat. Nothing in the world was ever more surprised. Then indignation filled his feathered breast, and he made a furious charge at the presumptuous cockerel. Bill met him again with a staggering drive. The veteran couldn't understand it. For another moment his head shook as if he was trying to swallow something. Some of his favorite hens began to cackle at his downfall, and that seemed to rile the ancient more than anything. He put down his head, flung out his neck-feathers, and fairly flew at his rival, but only to be knocked sprawling for the third time. Draggle thought there must be something radically wrong somewhere; he surveyed the youngster with a critical eye. It was Bill sure enough, the fellow he had thumped a score of times. Where had Bill got his courage and prowess from?
Drag. shook the dust off himself, and seemed to pluck up courage from the memory of former victories. Then the pair went at it hammer-and-tongs, and for 10 minutes it was the best cockfight ever witnessed on Wonbadgery. Scanlan danced with delight. The veteran had met his Waterloo, and Bill was licking him out of recognition, kicking skin and feathers off him, and jumping on him all over the yard.
"Good on yer, Bill!" yelled Scanlan, "kick the old (beauty's) lights out! Well done, Bill! Well done!!"
Bill started to crow in triumph, but stopped short, and a scared look shot into his blinking eyes. The whitewash had all been belted off Draggletail, and Bill recognised him. He stood straight up, his neck stretched, his head jerking from side to side, and chucked in a scared manner. His comb was a shade paler than usual, and he began to back away.
Draggle had regained breath, and came sidling up to make one more desperate attempt to maintain his reputation. Then, with a frantic screech, Bill turned and sped across the paddock with the stride of an emu; and after him full tilt went Draggletail.
Scanlan was speechless, and stared after them with his mouth open. A mile from the house was a round swamp, and we could just make out the birds, as they crossed the clear spaces, pelting round it. All at once they disappeared.
"Well, I'm d—d!" said Scanlan, straightening up. " Put my saddle on Bowler, Paddy."
We saw him ride some distance round the swamp, then turn suddenly and ride into it. When he pulled up he stared at the water and back at the house alternately. Finally he picked up two limp-looking birds by the necks, and when he bashed Bowler across the ribs with them we knew there was peace at last between the two roosters.
For several weeks Jack Brodie and Doris Wynton had been in the habit of meeting twice a week at the bush post-office—a small candle box nailed to a tree on the mail track, and equidistant between Brodie's and Wynton's selections. Doris was a graceful little girl of 19, and Jack, a sturdy young bushman, who had made a bit of money at droving, and invested it in a few acres of land. He had built a comfortable hut thereon, and had been supremely happy in his bachelor home until Doris crossed his path. Then, for the first time, it occurred to him that the place was lonely; and, thenceforth, it grow lonelier and lonelier despite the improvements he put on it.
The fresh, sweet face of Doris Wynton had at once attracted Jack's notice; he grew fond of her, desperately fond; indeed, he had long confessed to himself that he was passionately in love. But he had not told Doris; he had only gone so far as to request the favour of seeing her at a certain hour on mail-day at the post-office, to which Doris had graciously acquiesced. It was on a calm, warm night at the selection while Jack sat staring into the moonlight, anxious yet shy, with Doris reclining on a rough lounge beside him. He had asked her suddenly, with his gaze still down the track, and she had answered laughingly, with her face averted.
He considered that a conquest in itself, and had contented himself with a half-hour's chat at their meetings under the gum-tree. He was waiting for a sign of increasing fondness on her part, but Doris appeared always the same—always smiling and pleasant. She addressed him always as Mr. Brodie with conventional politeness, and he called her Miss Wynton. To the coach-driver, and other passers-by who saw them constantly waiting together, she was known as "Brodie's Girl." Thus matters stood when one evening he pulled up at the mail-box to find that she had been and gone.
At first he felt discouraged. He was only a few minutes late; and surely, if she cared for him at all, she would have waited that little while to see him. He gazed up the track, but there were no sign of her. Apparently she had come early, and his spirits went down with a run as he thought she had done it on purpose to avoid meeting him. But why?
A new idea occurred to him, and with it came fears for her safety. A bush-fire was raging around him; it came from the direction of Wynton's selection, and was rapidly approaching the mail-road. This, then, had caused Doris to hasten back. But had she got safely home?
"It isn't far to the hut," he mused, "and I may as well canter over and satisfy myself that she is safe. If anything happened—"
He broke off suddenly as he turned towards Wynton's, and put his horse into a canter. The air was thick with smoke; on each side of him the ground was black, and logs and trees blazed everywhere. Wynton's hut stood behind a low hill. On rounding this he came face to face with Mrs. Wynton. She was coming from the sliprails, leading the little chestnut mare that Doris always rode. Instinctively he knew that something serious had happened, and his heart gave a jump as he jerked his horse to a standstill.
"What's the matter?" he asked breathlessly.
"Oh, Jack, have you seen Doris?" asked Mrs. Wynton in the same breathless manner.
"No! Hasn't she come home?" he gasped, and his face paled as he noted the dust on the mare's side, the cut knees and soiled saddle, which told too plainly that she had fallen. Then where was Doris? He had seen no sign of her along the burnt track.
"Kitty galloped up to the sliprails a few minutes ago with the reins swinging," Mrs. Wynton explained, her face the pallor of his own.
"How long is it since she left here?" asked Jack.
"An hour—I told her to hurry on account of the fire. My God! I hope—"
"You go back to the house, missus," said Jack, hastily, "and send Wynton and the boy Jim after me. I will find Doris."
"Go for your life, man—the fire!" she cried after him.
"I don't think there's anything to fear, missus; the mare has pulled away," he shouted as he galloped away. But Mrs. Wynton knew better than that. The signs on the mare were as plain to her as they had been to him.
It was nearly sundown now, and he made all haste through the blackened bush. He kept to the right of the track, examining each heap of burning bark and each blazing log, in dread of finding her smouldering there. Down to the mail-box he galloped, but without success. Then he hurried back on the left side of the track, till he met Wynton and Boy Jim. Wynton, who was mounted on the cart-horse, and armed with a useful waddy, looked at him mutely.
"No sign of her along the track," Brodie volunteered. "Had she anywhere else to go after getting the mail?"
"She wouldn't turn off to see if a cow had calved, for instance?"
"No; she was to come straight home. She's had a buster, there's no two ways about that; an' if she was hurt, an' that fire caught her?—Have yer been along the lagoon?" he asked suddenly.
"No, it's a good bit off the road," Jack answered.
"Still the fire might 'ave drove her there. It seems queer though, she aint turned up afore this. Anyhow, you go down this side, an' coo-ee as yer go along. Jim an' me'll foller the other side."
Through the gloom, by the light of a burning tree, Jack caught sight of the anxious mother hurrying down the track on foot. His lips quivered with emotion then, and he rode quickly away.
Over the black earth, through the thick timber, and down by the long, still lagoon, rode the two men and Boy Jim, anon venting a loud coo-ee that startled the wild fowl from the darkened waters, while far away through the night rang the loud, shrill call of Doris' mother. One fear possessed them all—that the girl had been crippled, and had perished miserably in the grass-fire. Jack shared the mother's heart-burnings to the full as the coo-ees echoed through the timber, and no answering shout came back. The silence was ominous, and suspense deepened as time went by.
A preconcerted signal for the concentration of the searchers was three calls delivered in quick succession. Wynton, being on the less wooded side, was far down in the lead when that signal at last rang across the dark lagoon, and went thrilling through him with a mingling sensation of fear and hope. Boy Jim, with the quick spirits of youth, and the keener eye for intervening branches, at once plunged ahead, and rounded the water at a brisk cantor, despite his father's intermittent warnings of "Steady, boy! Hold 'ard, Jim!" varied occasionally with, "Wait for your father, Jim!" But Jim pushed on, with bowed head, eager and anxious to learn what Jack had found.
Far up in the timber the call was answered in a plaintive tone, long and shrill like the cry of a curlew. "That's poor mother," muttered Jim, as he eased into a trot along the steep bank.
"Hulloa there!" he cried.
"Here!" answered Jack. He was standing on the edge of the bank, holding his horse, and staring down at the water. Jim sprang from his horse, and running to his side, followed his gaze in silence. Nothing could be seen in the dark depths, and no sound came up. Jim breathed heavily, dreading to ask the question that was in his mind. Wynton came panting up.
"Have you found her?" he cried.
"Yes," Jack answered shortly.
Wynton lurched heavily from the saddle, and strode to the brink.
"Well?" he asked.
"She's safe, old man; safe as the bank."
"Thank God!" Wynton murmured. "Where is she?"
"Under where we'er standing—in a cave."
"Well, I'm blessed!" He leaned over. "Ye're there, Doris?"
"Is that you, Dad?" came faintly from below.
"Aye. Are you 'urt?"
"No—only a few scratches. But, oh, I'm so cold."
"Poor old girl! She must 'ave had a duckin," said Wynton, stepping back. "We'll have to get a rope, Brodie, to haul her up with. That bank there drops sheer 20 foot to the water. A rattlin' bit of a fall, an' no mistake."
"We can't drag her up the face of that rough rock with a rope," said Jack feelingly. "It would be cruel."
"She'll have to come up it whether or no," Wynton rejoined. "It's too far a swim across the lagoon, an' she might get hooked up in th' woods."
"What length is that long ladder of yours?" asked Jack.
"About 15 foot, if I reckerlect. Bit shickery, too."
"It'll do us, anyhow. We can sling it with our stirrup-leathers. Do you think we could manage to carry it down on horseback?"
"Why, yes—we could do that."
Wynton again leaned over the brink, "Doris, we're going for the ladder. Yer mother an' Jim will stop 'ere." Jack had already bustled Jim on to his horse, "Find your mother, boy, and bring her here; then light a big fire."
As Boy Jim started away the two men mounted and turned towards Wynton's hut.
On the way up Jack related how Doris had got into her peculiar position. The fire had crossed the track, and was roaring towards the lagoon, as she rode back with the mail. Putting her horse into a gallop she raced along between the fire and the lagoon, and would have won through but for a wombat hole that brought the mare down heavily, flinging her rider into the grass. Kitty was first on her feet, and, taking fright at the fire, immediately galloped away. The grass was long there, and the flames were too high for Doris to get through. So she ran to the lagoon, intending to throw herself into the water. She was only a poor swimmer, but reckoned she could cling to the bank until the fire burnt out above. Long thick vines hung over the rock, and by the aid of these she descended to a very narrow ledge at the bottom. An unfortunate slip precipitated her into the deep water, from which she emerged like a half-drowned rat.
"And what do you think I found?" she cried through chattering teeth. "A great big cave! The vines had hidden it. I got into it at once—I was a little frightened at first—it was so very dark; and I'm sure there must be a thousand bats here. Well, it was lucky for me I did. The vines burnt off at the top, and dropped into the water—a seething mass. Then I looked up and saw that I was a prisoner!" Boy Jim had come and interrupted the narrative there; but Doris confessed afterwards that on making this discovery she sat down and cried.
Carrying the long ladder down was an irksome task. Jack rode in front with one end on his shoulder, Wynton, under the other end, regulating his horse's pace to suit the leader. Still it shook and twisted a lot and chafed the shoulders of the bearers. As the timber was thick and the night dark their progress was necessarily slow; and it was with a sigh of relief that they lowered it at last to Boy Jim and his mother, standing in the glare of a huge fire on the bank. Then stirrup-leathers were at once buckled together, and the ladder swung over the steep bank till the foot grated on the ledge below. The leathers were made fast to a sapling, and Jack climbed down to test its security. Striking a match he stepped into the cave, and found poor Doris crouching against the side, shivering with cold.
"Oh, Doris!" he cried involuntarily, hastening towards her as she straightened up. "I thought I had lost you!"
Doris smiled bravely, and said, with a quick, shy glance, "But you never had me, Jack!"
The match went out, and in the darkness he caught her in his arms, for those words had told him all he wanted to know. "Doris," he said, his voice full of love and tenderness, "if you love me as I love you, in the words of the old song, 'let your answer be a kiss!' "
"Coo-ee!" came loudly from above.
"Hulloa!" cried Jack.
"Aint yer got it fixed yet?" asked Wynton.
"Just about!" said Jack. Wynton, of course, meant the ladder, but Jack found it appropriate in another sense.
Both laughed softly; and far down in the gloom of that cavern, looking out upon the fire-lit water of the broad lagoon their lips felt the first caress of true love. Then he guided her to the ladder, and waited below until Wynton had lifted her safely to the top. When he presently joined her there, Wynton said:
"By jove, Brodie, that cave must be a deuced awkward place to get out of?" The young couple exchanged glances.
"The fact is," Jack explained, "Doris and I have come to an understanding."
"Which means," added Wynton dryly, " that there'll be a priest wanted by-an'-by, eh?"
"That's about it," Jack admitted. Doris, her flushed face to the fire, became suddenly interested in drying her skirts.
"Well, Brodie," said Wynton, " 'twas a queer time an' place yer chose for love yarnin', an' 'tween me an' you an' the gate post, that place'll be Brodie's Cave from this out."
"But where does Doris come in?" asked Jack.
"Why, hang it," said Wynton, "doesn't she come in for Brodie?"
A general laugh greeted him, and presently they strolled off to the hut, where all made merry for the rest of the night.
As for Wynton's prediction, the name has come to be synonymous with the neighbourhood generally; and the coach driver has always a yarn to tell when passing the mail-box on which is painted "Brodie's Cave."
"Well, here we are at last," said Hartley, as he threw himself wearily from the saddle, and dropped the reins on the ground.
"Is this the hut?" asked his mate, a man twenty years his senior, and of lighter build. Hartley knew him only as "Tom." He had met him a fortnight before at a flooded creek. Hartley had been washed off his horse, and Tom had valiantly plunged in, and saved him. They travelled thence in company, Hartley having promised him a "handsome reward" on reaching the hut at Broken Gully.
"Yes, this is the hut. Not a very elaborate structure is it? Just one room, with a fireplace at the end, slab walls, bark roof—and tumbling to pieces at that. And I've come all the way from Maoriland for no other purpose than to visit this—3000 miles! Just think of it. But there's something here to repay me for twice the journey. It has a queer story, has this same hut. I'll tell you after tea."
"Looks as if it's had visitors lately," said Tom, looking curiously around him, as they entered. There was a tinge of sorrow in the soft blue eyes of this man, as he gazed steadily at different objects. He betrayed a knowledge of the hut, too, and appeared interested in every little thing—but it was in a pathetic way.
"Travellers, maybe," Hartley answered carelessly. "There's a track through here now to the main road." He looked casually around him, and noted the contents of the room—a bunk (broken down at one end), a side table (made of packing cases), a broken shovel, and a three legged stool. "Very primitive furniture, anyhow," said Hartley, with a light laugh. "Never mind; it'll serve our purpose. Make a fire, Tom, and I'll hobble the horses. The poor brutes will be glad of a spell."
In a few minutes a fire was blazing in the chimney, and the old hut assumed a more inviting appearance. It was sunset, and by the time they had finished tea, night had settled in. From a leather bag, Hartley produced a bundle of papers and a chart. Tom sat silently watching him, and occasionally his fingers twitched nervously.
"Now," said Hartley, "I'll tell you the history of this hut, and what brought me here." He paused while he lit his pipe. "In the first place, I'm here in the interests of a lady—one Lena Groud—"
"Lena what!" Cried the other, with sudden animation. As he spoke he sprang to his feet, as though he had been stung, and his pipe dropped from his mouth and clattered on the floor.
"Lena Groud," Hartley repeated, and waited wonderingly.
"Of where?" asked Tom.
"Rororua!" mused Tom. "Rororua!"
"Why—what's up?' asked Hartley, puzzled at his mate's strange behaviour.
Tom picked up his pipe, and sat down again. "Nothing," he said awkwardly. "The name struck me as familiar. I've had some strange experiences, old man, and that name, uttered here, called back the whole past. But it's not the same...Just a coincidence ...Go on with your yarn." He turned away from Hartley, and sat peering into the fire.
* * * * *
It was in the early part o' '53 that five diggers started from Mount Abundance for the country we're now in. It was the Never-Never then, a wild region, known only to the blacks. What a difference now! Look at Roma, Mitchell, and the settlements round about. But, then, I'm speaking of 45 years ago.
"These diggers were bound on a fossicking expedition. They got the first 'colour' at Omeo; but the find wasn't good enough, and they went on. Water was scarce. As for tucker, before a month was out, they were livin' on cranes and wallaby. Sometimes they'd pot a few galars, or a mallee hen. Those were luxuries.
"Hundreds o' miles they tramped, these five, huntin' for gold, an' huntin' for tucker, till they were little better'n walkin' skeletons. About noon one day four of the party chucked it up. The other, Burward Hynes, went on alone. He was a sturdy fellow, and meant to win fortune or perish. He didn't bustle either—just pegged along quietly. It's the best way, too, on a long journey.
"Well, about' a week after, he struck a dry watercourse, and called it Broken Gully. Thats it there at the back o' the hut. He slept in it that night, and in the mornin' set off down creek for water. What does he find, right in a big bend, where the flood wash had formed a bit of a tunnel, but several small slugs stickin in the clay. He got water close handy and decided to camp. He noticed a few blacks hangin' about during the day, but a long way off. They didn't disturb him then; but they gave him a surprise next morning. He'd just boiled his billy for breakfast (he still had some coffee and sugar left), when he chanced to look up. Not a hundred yards off, silent as mummies, an' rigid as statues, was a mob of naked blacks. They looked just splendid, he said, with the sun light on 'em. But it was a terrifying spectacle, for all that.
"By degrees they approached his fire, and one tasted his coffee. He spat it out with a grimace, and flung his boomerang at the pannikin. Hynes put some sugar in it, and the taste being then satisfactory they quaffed the lot, and turned to him to make more. He made it. Then one, in his eagerness, dropped on his knees and took a mouthful. It scalded him, of course. He sprang up, and drove his boomerang through the billy-can. That ended the coffee drinking.
"Hynes was then chagrined to find himself threatened, in return for his hospitality. Two gins ran up to him, jabbering like excited monkeys, and signalled to him to lie down. He did so, and the gins, to his astonishment, lay down, one at each side of him. The blacks at once left, and the three rose to their feet. The gins signed again for him to go; but he didn't want to go. The blacks gathered round him a second time, and with poised spears. 'It's all up with me now,' thought Hynes, as they closed on him in a dense circle. But again the gins beckoned him to prostrate himself, and again they threw themselves down at his side. The mob retreated; and they were no sooner out of sight, than Hynes made off as fast as two legs could carry him. He kept on going, too, till he got back to the settled districts of New South Wales.
"He tried often afterwards to organise parties to return with him and work the gully. But Hynes was a bit barmy when he got home, and no one took him seriously after that. Then he married and settled down, and for 40 years the find remained untouched. People had selected all around it, and huts were built in a hundred places. But no one struck Hynes' patch, an' I don't suppose anyone ever dreamt there was a grain o' gold in the creek."
"Now we come to '93. I can read you this part o' the yarn, as I copied it out of an old diary kept by a girl friend o' Miss Groud's. I don't know her name. But that's neither here nor there. Poke the fire up a bit, Tom. The writin's a bit small, an' it's so long since I writ it that I forget most of it, an' have a job to make it out."
He drew his seat closer to the fire, and after a prefatory cough or two, commenced to read:
"Not far from the spot where Hynes had encountered the blacks in the early days was a rough bark shanty, known as Groud's Selection. At a table in the skillion stood a short, stout woman of forty, who was bare-footed, sun-browned, and wrinkled, and robed in a garment of black 'streamers.'
"This, according to love letters from Peter Groud, was 'Dearest Eliza,' now better known among the neighbours as 'Old Mother Groud.' She had a voice like a tram whistle in a midnight fog, and a tongue that must wag if it wrecked creation. She was a grumbler, too; and, worse still, a quidnunc. Peter called her 'mother;' she called him 'dad,' except when they quarrelled, when they called each other things unprintable.
"Peter was at the back of the selection patching a fence to keep the grey mare from getting out and Hooligan's cow from getting in. The 'missus' was ironing a shirt for Larkin, who batched in a hut down the creek. Near by sat a girl of twenty, who was darning Peter's only pair of socks. He wore them when he went to town, for riding worked the legs of his trousers kneewards, and the street arabs 'poked fun at him' if he had no socks on. The girl was decidedly pretty, with bright, rosebud cheeks, long, wavy hair, and flashing, dark eyes. She was considered cultured by the neighbours, having spent six years with an aunt in Roma, and now in Maoriland, who had sent her regularly to the 'big school.' The girls around called her a 'pretending minx,' a 'stuck-up little hussy,' and other delightful things. Her right name was Leana, which Mrs. Hooligan was wont to pronounce 'Goana.' Lena had a way of turning up her pretty nose, and giving her head a haughty little toss when spoken to by 'vulgar folk.' They were all vulgar folk on Broken Gully, with big months and big hearts; in fact, they were big all round. Feet were seldom heard of, the lower extremities being known as yards of turned-up leg.
"All the young chaps had been spoony on Lena; Billy Palmer in particular. He had made her a leg-rope for her cow, and given her a pet 'possum, which made him the envy of his compeers. He was proud of this, and boasted of his progress. 'Twas said, too, that he bet 'Sundown Mick' five bob that he'd be switched inside twelve months, and that he'd spoken to Paddy the blackfellow about stripping bark for the house. He'd done more. He'd made a pair of three-legged stools, and a bucket out of a kerosene tin; also a table out of a big case that Hooligan got at the show; and he had a whole fiver put by in the Bank of the Creek. Poor Billy! He never suspected that Lena thought of anyone else, least of all Larkin the hatter. But Lena considered Larkin more polished than anyone else about there, and loved him accordingly. The engagement was kept a secret, for Mrs. Groud did not mean it to come to anything. She esteemed him only for his wash money. Beyond that he held the monopoly of all the venom of her nature.
"'He's no chop,' she said, as she dumped the iron down on the table. 'He's got a sneakin' look, an' I wouldn't be surprised to hear as how he'd been in gaol. There's allus something crooked about them hatter coves.'
"'Lykeley has a good countenance,' Lena feebly protested, 'and I'm sure he has never done any wrong. He hasn't it in him.'
"'He's mighty little in him of any account, I'm thinkin,' or he'd 'a' paid me the two an' thrippence he owed me Saturday. If he can't pay his washin' how's he goin' ter keep you? Keep 'er! A nice time yer'd 'ave with him! As well be drowned.'
"Of course, she had a very nice time with Mrs. Groud.
"'He's never agree'ble to nobody,' continued that amiable lady. 'He's a surly brute, that's wot he is!'
"'You are prejudiced, mother. Lykeley is always affable and debonnair—.'
"'How many times 'ave I told yer not ter be usin' them Latin words ter me? D'yer want me ter knock yer sideways? Yer flash cat, you!'
"Lena's cheek flushed, but she did not reply. The dog barked in front of the hut. 'Run an' see who's comin.' Hit out!'
"Lena went to the front with a stately mein, her mother watching her with the utmost scorn. 'Look at her!' she sneered. 'Anybody'd think the fool was the queen o'—God-knows-wot!' Presently the poor little beauty returned. 'It's only an old swagman,' she said. 'He's coming to the house.'
"Only an old swagman! Little did she dream what the coming of that swagman meant to her.
"'Blast him!' said Mrs. Groud, as she burnt her fingers with the iron. 'Wot the devil's he want? Go an' cover that pie up.' There was a knock at the door, and with much grumbling, Mrs. Groud answered it. 'Wot d'yer want?' she demanded as the old fellow put his swag down.
"'If you please, ma'am, could you tell me is this Broken Gully?'
"'It is, an' it's well named, too. Drat me if there's a thing on it that ain't broken. Wot brings people to it beats me.'
"'D'yer know a hatter fossickin' here?' the swagman asked, unheeding her diatribes on the Gully.
"'S'pose yer mean Licky Larkin?'
"'Is that his name?'
"'It's wot he goes by. But no un knows anything about him—an' p'rhaps it's just as well for him they don't, for it's my opinion he's not the clean pertater. Licky, I might tell yer, is short for Lykeley.'
"'Lykeley—Ah!' said the old man, with much satisfaction. 'So I'm on yer heels at last, yer scoundrel!' His manner had completely changed. His face wore a grave expression, and his little eyes glittered. Mrs. Groud was all attention. Here was proof that the despised hatter was a scoundrel. She must hear whatever there was to tell. So must Lena. It would do the little hussy good.
"'Come inside, me man, an'—'ave a drink o' water.'
"'Thank you ma'am! I'm thirsty,' said the old man, and followed her into the room.
"As the old man poured out his tale, Mrs. Groud drank in the words with the greed of a spiteful woman, while Lena, with pale cheeks and palpitating heart, stood by the work table in the skillion. But she was not working. The spirit of rebellion was in her heart, and the flash of defiance in her pretty eyes.
"'Wal,' said the old fellow, throwing one leg across the other, 'me an' the missus lived on a farm on the Hunter. We'd only one child of our own. He wasn't a gel neither, much as missus wanted one. He was a boy. We 'ad some rows an' argyments over the scamp, too; she sayin' he'd likely be this, an' likely be that; an I sayin' he'd likely be nothin' o' th sort. So, when it come to christ'nin', we called him Lykeley. She spelt it that way, as she would 'ave it t'other was only a grammar word. Dunno much o' grammar meself; but I know a man's a man no matter wot yer call him. Isn't that a fact?'
"Mrs. Groud agreed that it was.
"'Wal,' the old fellow continued, 'missus wants a gel then right or wrong. But it never come. It was as well it didn't—an' yet, p'r'haps, it would've been better if it had. I dunno. Wal, anyhow; next farm to ours was Baden's—a widow an' her father. Her only child was a pretty little gel, two years younger 'n Dick. Elsie her name was. When she was six her mother died, an' her grandfather axed my missus to take her. You bet, she jumped at the chance. We reared her, the old cove dyin', and' leavin' her something like 300 quid. She grew into the loveliest little woman yer ever saw, an' as good as gold. Then the one wish of my poor old woman was to see her Lykeley's wife. She'd set her heart on it, bein' so much took with Elsie. Elsie loved the boy sure enough, an' it looked as if the old woman's little scheme would work out, as she'd 'ave it. When he was 22 he offered to marry her, an' we 'ad things readied up for the weddin'. Elsie drawed her money from the bank an' give to him to put with his own, so as to do up wot was her grandfather's place an' furnish it decent like. He fixed things up, he told her, an' the carpenters would get everything shipshape while they wur honey moonin'.
"'On the weddin' day he went off to town in the spring cart for the parson. The weddin' was to be at 'leven; an' we were ready when 'leven struck. But there was no sign of the cart. At twelve a horseman rode up. Elsie saw him first. She was standin' at the door, watchin'. Poor little gel! I never saw anything like she looked that mornin'. So sweet an' pretty. I saw her cheeks pale a bit when he come up an' give her a note from Lyke. An' this is wot was in it:—
"'Elsie,—I have altered my mind. I chewed it over on the road, and I don't think it would be right to marry you, as I don't love you well enough. It's better to say good-bye. I'm going up country for good. I hope you will forget me, and marry Rodney Green. He loves you, and will make you happy. Good-bye.—L.H."
"'The scamp 'ad gone! An' he'd took' my money, as well as my gold field charts an' papers—as I found out after. We went after him, but we never got him. I can never think o' that day without a stab. Poor Elsie fainted at the door, an' we carried her in. She was far from all sorrow in the mornin'. She got hold o' some poison as I had in the 'ouse, an' suicided. In less'n a year my old woman was in the lunatic asylum. I was left alone. I went to the old dart that year, thinkin' I might in time forget it there, an' get used to bein' a hatter. But no matter where I went the spirits follered me, an' cried in me ears, 'Vengeance! Vengeance!' They haunted me day an' night, an' at last druv me back to hunt down the villain as ruined our home. I know'd where to find him. I dropped d'rectly I missed me papers—pertainin' to gold on this crick. I'm on his tracks now, an' the moment I sets eyes on the cur he'll be a dead man. I'm goin' to swing for a dog, missus.'
"Mrs. Groud started back in horror. 'My goodness! Would you shoot the man?' she cried.
"'I would—an' I'm goin' to,' he said wildly. 'I'll never rest till it's done. It's my dooty. Blood for blood! That's the law of the land, madam. Blood for blood.'
"Mrs. Groud shuddered. 'Ave another drink o' water, mister; yer excited.'
"'Thank you, ma'am; I'm thirsty.' He emptied the quart, and then, with a nod to the woman, took up his swag and departed. She watched him from the door, whilst Lena was coaxing Billy to undertake a task of personation.
"'You have only to get to the hut before that man,' she said, 'and persuade him that you are Larkin.'
"'Wha' for?' Billy stood with his back to the fire, his hands behind him. The idea didn't please him.
"'That is Larkin's father. He's mad, and he's going to kill his son. You can save him if you will.'
"'S'pose he kills me?'
"'He'll kill no one but Larkin. When he finds you there he'll reckon he's made a mistake, and go away. Will you do it, or must I go?'
"Billy's suspicions were aroused. 'Wotcher so anxious about him for?'
"'We musn't neglect our neighbour, Billy; above all, we can't see murder committed at our very door when it may be so easily prevented. Larkin doesn't come home till sundown, and that man might fire the hut while he's away.' She caught him by the shoulders. 'Billy, if you care for me—do this—for my sake!'
"Touched by the soft tone of her voice, he kissed her cheek, and then, as if abashed at his own boldness, rushed away. That kiss however, had given him courage, so that, if need be, he would have faced the devil himself. It was his first and his last, for he and the pretty Lena never met again.
"Billy was standing in the doorway when the old swagman came up. 'Good day!' he said, quite cheerfully. Hynes treated him to a long steady scrutiny before speaking. 'An' who are you?' he demanded.
"'Who's me!' said Billy. 'Why doncher know? I'm Lykeley Larkin.'
"'You're a likely liar! That's what you are, me shaver!'
"'You're purty insulting, anyway,' said Billy. 'Better mind wot yer saying!'
"'I know what I'm sayin'. I'm here on business, an' I've got no time to fool round.'
"'An' who may you be?' asked Billy.
"'I'm Burward Haynes, an' I want the man as calls himself Lykeley Larkin.'
"'I'm him, I tell yer!'
"'Rightum!' said Hynes, with a peculiar snap. He threw his swag down, and pulled out a revolver. 'I've come here to shoot him. As you're the man, yer can say yer prayers while I'm loadin.'
"'Billy turned white, and gasped for breath. 'I dunno 'em out o' the book. Lemme go 'ome for me book?'
"'Ain't this yer home?' asked Hynes, looking up for a moment.
"'I mean me mother's. I won't be long.'
"'Too late! I'm in a hurry. The spirits are cryin', 'Vengeance!' Don't you hear them? You've got to die inside two minutes.'
"Billy backed into the chimney corner and grasped the fire-shovel.
"'Now then!' Hynes had come to the door.
"'Hol' on!' Billy yelled.
"'Lemme pray! Lemme go home! Lemme—'
"Bang! The bullet grazed his ear, and Billy staggered just in time to miss the second. Till then, though alarmed a little at the manner of his assailant, he had doubted the man's sincerity; but he was now convinced that he was in deadly earnest. Hardly knowing what he did, he swung the shovel round, and brought it down heavily on the man's head as he was in the act of firing the third shot. It went off as he fell on the earthern floor, the blood gushing out in little streams. Billy reeled back into the hut, and dropped dead; for that chance shot, fired by the dying hand, had struck him in the temple."
"You'll naturally wonder," Hartley continued, "how the narrator came to know what took place between the two men before they killed each other, when, you may presume, there was no one left to tell the tale. But hold on."
"Lyke came home about sunset, and found the body of his father (though he didn't know him then) lying in front of the door, and the body of Palmer just inside. You can imagine his feelings when he found 'em both done to death, an' not a livin' person, as he supposed, within miles; for he saw at once that the charge of murder would be laid to him, and—where was the proof of his innocence?
"He examined the hut, an' looked to his gold; but nothing was touched. He came back to the door, an' what he saw for the moment made him stagger. Standing a few paces away, with an old plaid shawl over her shoulders, was Mrs. Groud. There was a demoniacal triumph in her eyes as they met his. 'Murderer!' she hissed; 'Murderer!'
"'It's a lie!' gasped Hynes, for such was his true name. 'I am innocent.' She pointed at the body near her.
"'I saw you kill him—yer own father!'
"'Woman!' cried Hynes, recoiling.
"'Ah! it's no use, Lykeley Hynes. I know you now. I seen you kill him!' she repeated. 'An' I saw you shoot Palmer afterwards, so's he couldn't tell. But I can tell!'
"'Good God!' cried Hynes, aghast at the villainy of the woman. 'Would you accuse an innocent man of murder? Do you know what you're doing? For God's sake—'
" 'Bah! Didn't I see you murder them? Wasn't I behind that tree yonder, I follered the old man down, an' stopped back there jes' to see as no 'arm come to him, an' you 'ad him stiffened afore I could lift a 'and. But I'll see you swing for it. I'll see you swing!'
"She turned to go. Hynes stepped after her. 'Woman,' he said, 'for God's sake speak the truth—only speak the truth, and I'll never trouble you again—'
"'That you won't!' she answered. 'Trust me; I'll speak the truth, an' the truth will hang you!'
"She hurried away, and Hynes caught up a bridle and went after his horses. He intended to ride to the selection to talk with Peter. But on reflection he decided not to, knowing well that Peter's courage wasn't strong enough to stand against Mrs. Groud. So, when he come back with his horses, he concluded to pack up at once and clear out.
"Whether he would 'ave done better by stayin' I can't say, but when he fled like that, there was only one who believed him innocent, an' that one was Lena Groud. Where the poor fellow went to no one knows; for he's never been seen or heard of from that day to this.
"Two years afterwards old Peter was drowned in the creek, an' it was then the old hag confessed to Lena an' her friend, the narrator. She was always a bit ratty, after that, and came down and lived alone in this hut. She used to imagine that Hynes shared the hut with her, and she'd sit here of a night by the fire, prattling to the empty stool in front of her. Every night she'd go through the whole rigmarole, and sometimes, when she'd come to the tragedy; she'd rush out screeching 'Murder!' She died in a fit, and lies buried not 20 yards from where we're sittin'. Then Lena sold the selection, and went to live with her aunt in Maoriland, after trying all she knew to hear something of her runaway lover."
"Now I'll tell you how I come to know Lena," Harley continued as he threw the manuscript on the table. "In July, '95, I went to see a dying man in Sydney Hospital. He'd come down from the country, and I was the only one he knew in the big smoke. 'I want to tell you a secret,' he said, abruptly; 'an' I'll die happier then...I had a friend once named Lykeley Hynes, and I did him a great injury. I loved the girl he was going to marry,' he went on, 'and the thought that I had no hope while he lived made me desperate. I daren't kill him. Yet I must put him out of the way. It's a wretched, tragic thing, mate, to love a woman who loves another. What was I to do? I did this: I robbed the old man of his papers and some money. Then I got hold of young Hynes in town on the day he was to've been married. I gave him a powerful Indian drug that I'd got from a sailor years before. It's influence was something similar to alcohol, with the exception that, after it passed off, the victim could remember nothing of his past life. That was one long blank. It was a fearful drug. I'd often felt curious to try it on someone, and here was my chance; and I did it. When I'd blotted out his life, as it were, I took him to a place called Broken Gully. He'd go anywhere with me—he was so dull and stupid. By-and-bye, of course, he began to recover, and to remember things. I thought it time to get, and returned to the Hunter. But I was too late. I heard that he got back, too; but when he heard what 'ud happened, he returned to Broken Gully. I heard of him next from a woman in Maoriland—Lena Groud, of Rororua. They were lovers, she said, when he got into trouble in Queensland. That's been cleared up; and there's, only this against him. I want you to tell her what I've told you. Here's money. I won't want it now.' The nurse touched me on the arm. 'Time's up!' When, I called again he was dead and buried. His name was Rodney Green.
"Well, I found this woman, and she sent me out to get the buried gold. Hynes had left a note for her in their bush 'post office,' telling her to get it if he did not turn up in ten years. She's waited through all those years, but has heard nothing.
"That's all I can tell you to-night," Hartley concluded. "We'll see to the gold in the morning. It's buried somewhere in this hut—if the old lady didn't find it before she pegged out."
"The gold is safe," said Tom, quietly. Hartley looked at him in surprise. "I looked as soon as I came in," Tom continued. 'It's just under the surface in the corner there."
"How do you know?"
"I put it there."
Hartley did not speak, but his eyes asked a dozen questions in a moment. There had always been something about Tom he could not understand; and it was only when he had mentioned the woman's name, and noticed the effect it had upon him, that he began to suspect the truth.
"I'll tell you now who I am," said the man, turning from the fire. "My name is Lykeley Hynes."
"I thought so," said Hartley, as he took his mate's proffered hand. "I'm sorry we haven't a drop o' something to honour the occasion. But—now that you know all, what do you intend to do?"
"I'm going back to her."
"And you will marry her?"
There was a long silence, broken at last by Hartley. "I think we'll turn in, mate. I'm getting drowsy."
Next morning Hynes found this note on the table:—
"Do not seek to find me. I am off to the West. Take back what I came to get, and receive for your reward the love of a faithful woman.—Frank Hartley."
"Poor devil," muttered Hynes. "He loved her, too!" As he rode away from the hut that morning he added regretfully: "I wish he'd stopped and gone back with me, if only for Lena's sake."
To Lena he wired from Roma: "Am coming to spend Christmas with you." And Lena, in far off Maoriland, cried for very joy.
It was a bush meeting in every sense of the word. There wasn't a habitation of any kind within miles, and a couple of intersecting fences undulating through the gums and ironbarks was the only sign of settlement. The course was a cattle pad along a straight bit of fencing on Sandy Creek Run, Richmond River. The final quarter-mile was level, and while the horses followed the pad there were no logs to jump or trees to pull round. The rest of the course was down in a deep hollow, and just beyond the winning post was a cross-fence; but the double gate on the track was propped open, so that fast or hard-mouthed horses could be pulled up in the ordinary way in the next paddock. The races had been got up by selectors and farmers in the neighbourhood, and the prizes were bridles and saddles, which were dumped in a heap at the butt of a gumtree. There was also a special prize of a load of pumpkins, which had been brought out by the farmer who gave them, to be run for by beaten horses at the end of the programme.
A stockman and a blackboy were tailing heifers on the flat that day, and as good riders were scarce their services were requisitioned for the first race. Five horses started, and as they tore up the straight the string of hacks tied along the fence took fright. Bridles were snapped in all directions; some of the fence was pulled down; and a dozen riderless horses, with tails in the air sped before the racers through the open gate, and sailed away with a tremendous clatter of hoofs across the paddock. Excitement ran high, and the meeting promised to be a great success. The blackboy ran last and the horse's owner—who had been imbibing rather freely—sent a bottle whizzing after him as he went past, and afterwards accused him of pulling, and challenged him to fight. At the stockman's advice, the boy left to turn the heifers. The exasperated owner had one or two more drinks, which made him still more pugnacious, and increased his feeling of having been wronged. He got on his horse and galloped after the blackboy, whom he pursued round and round the ringing heifers, yelling like a maniac, until the stockman met him and knocked him off. Then he went to sleep under a log. The blackboy returned to the course, but nothing could induce him to take part in another event.
Meanwhile, two more races had been run, and some more of the station fence had been destroyed. The majority of the hacks had been removed to the adjoining paddock, where the ladies were congregated round the pumpkin cart. The owners helped themselves freely to pumpkins, and smashed, and scattered them about for their equines. Empty bottles began to strew the grass around the "stand," and three or four sportsmen were already "down to it." The bar was a plank, one end of which rested on the bottom rail of the fence, and the other on the spoke of a cart-wheel, the bulk of the spirits being kept in the cart. There was no luncheon booth; everybody picnicked about under trees. The aborigines formed a conspicuous cluster, many of the gins, in gaudy finery, sitting about among the white women; while their dusky lords drank whisky, and rum, and laid modest sums on the competing nags. They all had money, the majority of them belonging to neighbouring stations, and their judgment was pretty sound.
The fourth race saw the judge too unsteady on his pins to mount the box—a gin case; but by sitting on it he managed to strike a fairly straight line with the iron bark tree standing opposite. His decision evoked a roar of laughter—"the two black horses a dead-heat." There was only one black horse in the race. He appealed to the grinning group around him—"Wotcher goin' to do 'bout it—run off or divide th' stake?"
The owner, grasping the situation, replied, "They both belong to me, so it's six of one an' half-a-dozen of the other."
The judge fixed him with his bleary eyes. "As to what's one or the other, I'm judge o' that," he retorted. "My decision's final, bear'n mind."
"All right, old man. Don't get yer shirt out," said the selector.
"I ask yer wotcher goin' to do—divide or run off?" the judge repeated.
"Oh, we'll divide it."
The prize was a saddle; but luckily, the judge did not insist on seeing the division.
His attention was diverted by two bumptious farmers disputing the merits of Berkshire and another breed of hogs. One, armed with an empty bottle, was dodging round the grog cart, while the other shuffled after him with an ironbark sapling. The dispute was settled abruptly by the capsizing of the bar, and the impromptu publican routing the disputants with a bucket of water.
The women were harnessing up the dray horses by this time, in readiness for an immediate start for home after the next race; and it was noticeable that the pumpkins began to dwindle very rapidly. The blacks were very noisy, and only the tact of the white women prevented the gins emulating a section of the white men in settling differences by violently assaulting one another.
The Produce Stakes (for the pumpkins) was run about sunset, and the judge, losing his balance at the critical moment, only saw the last horse go past, and promptly awarded him the victory. It didn't matter, however, as the remnants of the prize were not worth fighting over. The trouble arose immediately the settling-up commenced for the other events. The secretary could only find a saddle—the prize for the big handicap. The bridle had disappeared. Angry voices arose, and the secretary was accused of embezzlement, and had to take to his heels through the bush. Night fell on one of the wildest scenes imaginable. Men were fighting all over the place, dogs were fighting among and around them, and blacks fought with waddies and bottles; while the noise was tumultuous. The women were active participants in the melee, each trying to pull her old man away, and administering a vicious dig to his antagonist when opportunity offered. Their efforts prevailed at last and the sound of cart-wheels was soon heard going off in many directions, mingled with loud voices, wild yells, Bacchanalian songs, and the yabbering of excited blacks.
But the field was not deserted. About nine slept on the course, and in the morning some had lost their boots and some their hats, and some had bunged eyes and disfigured faces, and, on the whole, presented a most woebegone appearance. No water was to be had in the vicinity, and 20 empty bottles were eagerly clutched and inverted in the hope of obtaining a reviver. That being a failure, and the nearest pub being 10 miles away, they started sorrowfully for the nearest waterholes on their divers ways home.
Bill Studders was 17, a big, strong lad, sunbrowned and barefooted, in a ragged shirt and a dilapidated felt hat, through one side of which his ear protruded. He was the mainstay of the selection. He had fenced it in, built the yards, and put a skillion on the hut. He looked after the cattle, and carted wood and water for his mother, and it was he who ringbarked the flats, built the calf-pen, and put up the gallows. Occasionally he broke in horses for the neighbours, and now and again he gave Bucknell a few days to keep the pot boiling while his father was away shearing or droving. At times Studders pere would be absent for mouths at a stretch, and, with money scarce, they had to be sparing with the provisions, and Bill felt it. His mother fished the waterholes, and his sister Liz hunted for "sugarbags" and duck eggs, and snared birds, to save killing another beast when the meat cask got low. There was always a big feast and a time of plenty for a couple or three months after Studders came home; but he didn't come home often enough for Bill's liking.
He would not have minded so much if his father had given him a few pounds occasionally for all the hard work he did on the selection. It would have given him heart and made him feel like other young fellows who rode past sometimes on flash horses, and with bright spurs jingling at their heels. He could then have got himself at least one decent suit of clothes, and a pair of 'lastic side boots for Sundays, and a hat that wouldn't let his ear stick out in the sun. His ear looked so conspicuous when it got sunburnt. He wanted a tie also, and a silk handkerchief, like Jim Traynor wore. There were lots of little things that Bill wanted.
He often felt ashamed when he went over to Bucknell's and sat down at their table in his rags, or with his big brown feet sticking up while they smoked on the verandah. Bill always smoked at Bucknell's and for a day or two after he got back, when the tobacco would give out, and then there would be a tobacco hunger added to the other hunger. His clothes wouldn't have mattered so much, but Maudie Bucknell was 16 now—just the age to take notice. She was a pretty little girl, and Bill had a soft heart, and somehow she made him feel miserable and out of place when she talked to him. For one thing, his feet, in his own eyes, always looked three times bigger at Bucknell's than they did at home.
He was patching the boundary fence one day when young Bob Bucknell rode up. The Bucknells could sport horses, and though Bob rode barefooted, and with his old felt doubled under at the sides, he was clean and neat, and he had good things to cut a dash in on special occasions. Bill envied him.
"Well, Bill?" he said, throwing his leg over the pommel.
"Doin' a bit o' fencin'?"
"Yas, a bit." A pause. "How's yer sister?"
"Oh, she's orlright. How's your'n?"
"Oh, pretty fair. Hot ain't it?"
Bob looked at the sky.
"Yas, think we'll have a storm." Another pause. "Hear about Colly Smith?"
"Rolled up an' hooked it fer Solferina diggings."
"Go on! 'Ave a row?" Bill propped himself against a post to listen better.
"No; just wanted a change. Bet he'd 'ave a blow out 'fore he went far too. They're none too well off, the Smiths. But seein' as he was leavin', his mother raked him up a reg'lar load of rations an' tucker—mor'n Colly'd ever had the handlin of at one time in his life. She's not bad hearted, mother Smith; an' I s'pose she didn't like the thoughts of him goin' short on the road."
Bill's mouth watered and his eyes glistened. He leaned on the rail, shuffling the brown gum leaves on the ground with his toes. All the rest of the afternoon he was thinking of Colly Smith, and of the grand new life that was before that intrepid youth; new scenes, adventures, freedom wealth! He thought of his own sordid surroundings, the monotony of his existence, working month after month, and getting nothing for it but a chronic appetite. It was time he was earning something now, and sprucing himself up a bit. Maudie was getting a year older every summer, and he had noticed that the stockmen from the station were beginning to take shortcuts through Bucknell's paddock when mustering this part of the run. They always seemed to be thirsty too, and preferred the water in Bucknell's cask to that in the creek. He knew it was stale at times from standing, and full of green frogs and "live things;" but they didn't mind little matters like that when Sweet Sixteen brought out the pannikin and stood by to take it in again. What chance had he against those gay knights of the stockwhip? And his eyes wandered again regretfully to his big brown feet. Those unfortunate feet were eyesores to Bill.
He was unusually silent and abstracted all that evening, and his mother wondered what had come over him, and asked him "wasn't he feeling well?" He left them early, but some time afterwards his sister found him sitting on the floor and making desperate attempts to thread a needle by the sight of a slush lamp.
"My word!" she said. "Bill's got 'em bad. He's makin' something out of a lot of old rags. Yer ought to see him sewin'!"
Mrs. Studders laughed. It was probably something for use on the selection. Bill had been accustomed to act for himself, and never confided much in his mother and sister. He was more moody than ever next day, and became irritable when spoken to. He seemed to have something on his mind. The women watched him closely; they couldn't understand this sudden change that had come over Bill.
He went to his work as usual, but he had lost all interest in the fence. Liz, while looking for a poddy calf along the creek, saw him sitting under a bean tree, sewing again at the something that had puzzled her last night. She watched him for some minutes, while Bill's arm went out into space and back again, as he drew the long length of thread through the mystery. Then her curiosity conquered her, and she went towards him.
"What the dicken's yer makin', Bill?"
Bill hastily concealed his material, and looked confused and silly.
"I b'lieve yer actually makin' a doll or something for Maudie Bucknell!" said Liz, trying to steal a look at the mystery.
"You clear out o' this," said Bill, reddening to the eyes.
"Well, you are a mollycod after that!" Liz went on unperturbed. "I'll tell Maudie fust time she comes over. See if I don't!"
"If you don't want sousin' in the crick, yer'd better do a get!" said Bill, angrily. "Go an' look after yer own bizness."
When he went home in the evening he knew Liz had told his mother by the way she looked at him. He felt embarrassed and ashamed. He had nothing to say, and kept aloof as much as possible. This caused Mrs. Studders a good deal of anxiety. She had never seen Bill like this before. His movements and actions were unaccountable. He showed resentment, and snapped at Liz when she discovered him putting a wire handle in a fruit tin at the back of the calf-pen; and he slunk away from her when she caught him smuggling some old straps into his room. They heard him working there, with the door shut and pegged, when they went to bed, and his light was still burning when they went to sleep.
It was after midnight when Mrs. Studders woke from her first sleep, and the working of the grindstone at the end of the hut caught her ear. Slipping out of bed, she tiptoed to the wall, and pulled some bagging out from between the slabs. Peeping through the crack in the faint moonlight she was horrified to see her only son grinding on an old tomahawk. He was very intent on his work, and now and again he paused to try the edge of the blade with his thumb. Occasionally he made light chops at the air, as a man does when trying a new handle, or the fall of a new axe.
Mrs. Studders was faint with horror as she tottered back to the bed, and her trembling hands grasped Liz by the shoulder.
"Lizzie, Lizzie," she whispered, "for the love o' God, get up!"
Liz turned over sleepily. "What's up?" she asked.
"Sh!" said her mother softly, placing a warning finger on her lip, and pointing with the other hand towards the sound. "Bill's gone mad an' he's grindin' the tomahawk to murder us!"
"Oh, mother!" gasped Liz, springing out. "Surely it ain't come to that!"
Mrs. Studders breathed hard.
"He's been strange this several days," she whispered nervously. "Oh, whatever are we to do?"
"Put yer frock on, quick," said Liz, "an' we'll slip out an' hide somewhere an' watch. It might go off him d'reckly."
They crept out into the trees about 50 yards away, and from behind the bole of a grey gum they watched the slow and deliberate grinding of the axe. The metallic ring of it on the freestone made them shudder.
"I wish yer father was home," Mrs. Studders lamented.
"Fancy Bill goin' like that!" mused Liz.
"I heard yer father say as how one of his people was took that way once, an' they had to put him in a straight-jacket every full moon." She looked up at the moon. " 'Ain't quite on the full yet—he'll be gettin' vi'lent about Thursday. It runs in fam'lies, I've heard say—but I never dreampt poor Bill would break up so young. He do look queer, poor feller!"
"And his eyes," added Liz. "They're like Strawberry's looked when she was bogged two days in Yaller Waterholes."
Mrs. Studders sat down with her back to the tree, and sighed.
"He's done grindin'," said Liz presently. "He's gone in ter look for us." She watched to see him come out at the front, but Bill didn't come out any more. He had gone to bed, blissfully ignorant of the scare he had caused. The women continued to watch, dreading to leave the screening trees. The mopokes called intermittently along the creek, and at intervals a curlew's scream came faintly from a far-off flat. The hours dragged away, and one by one they saw the stars set. When the morning star showed in the east they stole back to the verandah, and sat on the adzed log till daylight. The kookaburras greeted them from the trees, and the magpies began to warble their morning song what time Liz was reconnoitring. She came back with the reassuring news that Bill was lying asleep. Then the worn out women went back to their room.
Bill slept late that morning. Liz was getting breakfast ready when she heard him stirring, and tiptoed at once to the partition to see if he "looked safe now that the moon was down." He looked anything but dangerous; he was whistling softly to himself, but there was surely a screw loose somewhere.
"Mother," she said, her wide eyes full of excitement, "Bill's rollin' up his swag! Go an' look."
Mrs. Studders went very gingerly to the door, her heart thumping loudly. Her son and heir had become an ogre in the night. His few things were already rolled up in a blue blanket, and the tomahawk was thrust through one of the straps. She took courage.
"Yer goin' away, Bill?" she asked softly.
Bill felt ashamed of himself; it looked mean to him now to be going like this.
"Yes, mother," he said, "for a little while. Yer won't mind, will yer?"
"No, Bill; whatever you think is best."
She was afraid to give offence. Mad people were easily excited, she had heard. Bill was no less surprised than delighted. He had expected strenuous opposition and reproaches, and he called himself a fool for having been so secret in his preparations?
"It's this way, mother," he said, and she wondered much at his calm, rational way of speaking, "there ain't much ter do here now, an I want some money ter get clothes. You an' Liz want some togs, too; so I thought I'd 'ave a fly round the diggin's an' see if I could make a bit."
"Yer ought to 've told us, Bill," she said, very gently. "I'd 'ave cooked yer something ter take."
"I can cook on the road," he answered. "I'll 'ave plenty o' time. I thought if I told yer the thinkin' about it would only keep yer awake at night. But yer can put me a bit o' flour an' some tea an' sugar in these bags."
Then Liz understood what he had been sewing, and she began to think that her brother was not so mad after all. Still, his conduct wasn't exactly what it should be. Madmen were cunning, her mother said.
"Did yer put in yer clean shirt, Bill—the striped one?" the latter asked.
"An' yer other flannel?"
"Yer want a tow'l, too."
"Oh, me shirt'll do. I got all I want."
They shook hands with him at the door, and then they stood on the verandah watching him until he disappeared in the creek. Tears welled in Mrs. Studders's eyes as she stood with her hands clasped under her big white apron. She had often watched her husband away—but Bill was different. It was his first time of leaving home, and his brain was affected, too, poor fellow.
"Why did yer let him go, mother?" asked Liz, swallowing the lump in her throat.
"I thought it safer ter let him have his way. They get rampin' if yer try ter master 'em," Mrs. Studders replied, her thoughts running on lunatics. "Yer father will soon fetch him back when he comes home. He's been gone five months on We'n'sday." And she stared out into the trees.
Five months was nothing to Studders, senior. He was used to the bush, and to travelling alone in strange places. But Bill was used to home, and the companionship of his mother and Liz. He had looked back often while the place was still in sight, and he thought of many happy evenings he had spent in the hut, and of the lonely little fire that would burn beside him to-night. There was a dull throb deep down in his heart, and even the weight of the ration bag did not cheer him. It was hard leaving the old familiar scenes and faces, to go among strangers in a strange country. And then there was Maudie. He would like to have said good-bye; but he couldn't go there the way he was. So he beat round Bucknell's selection, and at the back corner he stopped. It was very hot, and he would make some johnnie-cakes here, and go on when it got cooler.
He cut a piece of bark from a spotted gum, and was busily mixing up his dough on it when, as he told it afterwards, who should ride up but Maud Bucknell, looking fresh and sweet in a grey dress, and wearing a man's felt hat. She laughed heartily, which made Bill Studders blush, and shamefacedly he told her what he was doing, and where he was going.
She stopped laughing, a quaint look of surprise and concern on her face. "An' you never come to say good-bye!" she reproached him.
"I didn't think you'd care," he stammered.
She twisted her fingers in the horse's mane. "It'll be lonely when you're gone," she said.
Bill's heart rose towards his throat, increasing in its thumps.
"Will—will yer miss me?" he asked, timorously.
"Of course." she answered, " 'twon't seem the same."
He went nearer, and patted her horse on the neck. "If yer ask me ter stop," he said, bashfully, "I won't go."
"Well, I ask you to stop," she responded, smiling.
Bill patted the horse again. "For—your sake?" he inquired.
"For my sake, yes!"
"That settles it, then," said Bill. "I'll be home to-night."
"Let me carry your bluey for you," she said. "We can go right down our back line. There's a gap near the creek—an' I'll take it right to the door for you."
"Help me cook th' johnnies fust," he stipulated. "We can have a drink o' tea while they're doin'."
Laughingly she dismounted, and set to work with an enthusiasm that pleased him. They lunched together in the shade, and meanwhile he told her of his prospects. He was going to ask his father for 5s a week when he came home, and when he broke in the next lot of horses he would get a suit of clothes, and a hat, and a pair of 'lastie-side boots-like the stockmen wear. She said he would look nice then, and promised to go riding with him the first Sunday he put them on.
Bill was at the zenith of happiness as he paced down the back fence by the side of her little chestnut. Approaching the house she rode on to the front, and quite startled Mrs. Studders by throwing the swag down on the verandah. "That's part of him," she said, laughing; "the other part's coming"
"Bill?" Mrs. Studders inquired, anxiously.
Maud nodded. "I've brought him back," she said.
Mrs. Studders stepped off the verandah. "How is he? Is he orlright?"
"Of course! Do you think he's been bushed?"
"No, no; it's about his intelleck."
Maud looked puzzled, and just then Bill himself strode through from the back. Liz threw her arms round his neck and kissed him, as though she had not seem him for a month. She was glad he had changed his mind and come back to them, and she hoped he would soon be his old self again. That set Bill thinking a bit, but the way his mother eyed him and held aloof quite worried him. He thought she was disgusted with him.
"I got thinkin' how lonely yer'd be here by yerselves, an' how something might 'appen, an' all that," he explained apologetically.
His mother was still uncertain. She was "a bit dense," and it was hard to root out prior convictions. "Yer ain't goin' ter hurt us, Bill, are yer?" she asked timidly,
For a moment Bill gasped for breath. "Hurt yer! Wot th' devil would I hurt yer fer?"
"I dunno, son. Yer head don't fell queer, do it?"
"Yer ain't got anything on yer mind, son, have yer—nothing worryin' yer?"
"Why, dash it, what's the matter with yer all?" Bills distended eyes glared stupidly from one to the other. Suddenly he remembered how they had been watching him about while he was secretly making his preparations for the road, and the truth flashed upon him.
"By cripes!" he said, looking up at Maud. "Just as well I come back. Here's a bloomin' lunatic asylum, an' it wants a caretaker!"
Maud Bucknell laughed merrily as she turned her horse for home.
"It is not good for a man to be alone," Man wants a mate, whether he be at home or on the pad. By home I mean a fixed domicile with walls—not the butt of a tree. Travelling about alone conduces to brooding, which drives a fellow barmy. That is why I am not so sane as I used to be. Some people lose their equanimity without just cause or excuse. I had just cause and excuse.
"It is not good for man to be alone." I chewed that over as I trudged the lonely pads out back. I was never much of a talker; sometimes when I'm asked a question I think the answer and forget to speak it; so there wasn't much fear of Me and Myself striking up an argument anent the wearing of corks or any such congenial subject. I never went further than passing a few remarks to Nobody when I sighted a station; but that was merely to ascertain that nothing had gone wrong with the works during the long silence. Some people find entertainment in telling themselves what they've done, where they're going, and what they're going to do. I confess I tried it once as an experiment, but just as I was working up a little excitement I stumbled upon two men grinning behind a tree. I've always felt a humble sort of an individual since that time.
Then I struck a one-eyed man with a halt in his speech, and another in his off leg. We amalgamated. He was nicknamed "Ballarat," from the fact that every yarn he heard reminded him of something similar that happened years ago on Ballarat diggings. He was what a bushman would describe as a good-natured sort of a poor cove. He was lavish with his money when he had any. He seldom had any.
In his insolvent state he expected you to be lavish with yours. Thus it struck me that his good nature was confined to throwing out a sprat to catch a mackerel. There are men like that. You'd think they were the best sort in the world. They share with you all they have (having previously discovered that you are much better provided for), and, of course, when they run short you are in duty bound to share what you have with them. Ballarat's good nature, I discovered, partook somewhat of this kind.
He was willing enough to do anything for three or four days. After that he got lazy. Half the people in this world endeavor at the outset to make a reputation, and then loaf on the strength of it for ever after. Ballarat was one of these.
When we'd come into camp he'd wait to see if I'd go for the water and the wood. Now, it's a recognised principle in mates for one to make the fire, and the other to carry the water. Ballarat mostly got a sore foot coming into camp, and it was "awfully sore" as he threw his swag down.
Of course I did everything without a murmur. Seeing this, the soreness in his feet became chronic. I wouldn't have minded even this, as he was good company. One often keeps a parrot just to hear it talk. I kept Ballarat for that purpose. But he had a disagreeable habit of putting dirty hands on the meat, so we parted.
It was Ballarat who first told me about Kearney and the "Gay Boy." The latter was a run-away sailor from home. Kearney was a native of Geelong. They met there, dead broke, and started together on the wallaby. They were well mated except for one thing: Kearney wouldn't cadge on the Geelong tracks, as most of the people knew him.
The Gay Boy, on the other hand, didn't care a tinker's curse who knew him or who didn't. It was all the same to him. But he objected to having the whole of the responsibility of provisioning the firm cast upon his own shoulders, and waited a chance to get home on his mate. It came at Toowong.
The Gay Boy had called at a cocky's. He entered the kitchen at the back just as the woman passed out by the front door. On the table was a steaming beef pudding just taken up for dinner. When the woman came back it was gone.
"How did you get on?" asked Kearney.
"Fusrate!" said his mate. "Look wot she give me! I b'lieve it was all she 'ad, too; but she said: 'Take it, me poor man, an' welcome.' I took it."
They made a big dinner; and when the Gay Boy had washed the basin, he said: "Now, Kearney, I've been findin' you in tucker since we started, and I think the least you can do is ter take the basin back ter th' good ole soul as give us the puddin'."
"Oh, certainly!" said Kearney, and he went off quite pleased. He wasn't away very long. When the Gay Boy saw him coming he felt sorry. He helped patch his broken nose; shaved his head in three places where the scalp was broken, and gave him a new shirt. For all that Kearney spoke not a word, and next day went off alone on another track—which shows the ingratitude of some mates.
* * * * *
My last mate was Davie, a shearers' cook. He was a unionist, and talked "scabs" and "blacklegs" all day. He was overflowing with good-nature and love of mankind—according to his skite. He was particularly bitter against those who didn't recognise old mates when "in collar," who looked on swagmen as loafers and bummers when they called, and could find no better name than "hums" for them when they didn't.
I was pleased with Davie. He appeared to be a white man. We joined lots in Thargomindah, and tramped together up Mt. Margaret way. It was the main stock route, Davie said, and there was always chance of striking something on a stock route.
Well, Davie got a job at Cooroopa. There was no chance for me; so I camped in the hut till Davie should know the rounds of the kitchen.
Next morning I went up for tucker. Davie didn't know me. Hadn't travelled, from Thargomindah at all. I must be making some mistake. I asked him to oblige me with a loaf of bread.
"I've none to spare," he said. "You fellows seem to think that a man's got nothing to do on these stations but cook for travellers."
"Get out, you hyphenated blank etcetera!" I said. "It was only yesterday you were padding it yourself."
"Me!" he said. "Me!" His look of surprise and wounded dignity was superb. "If you ain't out of this in two jiffs," he said. "I'll call the boss."
"Don't trouble," I replied, "I've no doubt you'll suit the boss very well. Good morning."
There was a drover camped down on the road. I bought a lot of tucker from him and carried it up to the station hut. Spread it all out on the table, with rations and two or three little bags of sand. It made a fine display.
On the door was a notice: "No travellers allowed to camp here." To let the boss know that his notice was being ignored, I made a big fire in the chimney. He was soon down, and the "spread" at once caught his eye. I purposely mistook him for a rouseabout.
"That's a jolly good sort of a cook you've got here, mate," I said. "Gave me the best lift I've had for a long time."
"Did he give you all that?" he asked, his wide eyes sweeping the table with a look of horror.
"He did. Told ne to spell a few days, and in the meantime he'd fill my bags. Have a couple of spare ones yet. He's a thorough white man is Davie."
"Hem!" said, the boss, with a grim compression of his lips. He had another long look at it; the sight seemed to fascinate him. Then he walked out. I posted myself at a convenient crack. Presently I saw Davie rush out of the kitchen; next I saw him at the office; a little later he was going great licks along the road with blue up. He was a hum, there was a vacancy at the station for a cook. I filled it.
Tom Doran had returned unexpectedly after five years' mining in the West. His parents were getting too old for active work, and required his sturdy hands on the farm and in the dairy. That was one reason but not the only one, that had caused him to quit the West. In her last letter to him his mother had mentioned that rumour had it that Molly Rook was soon to be married to Dudley Barham, the jackeroo on Binong station. The Rooks kept a small store by the roadside. It was also the post-office for the neighbourhood, and Molly herself was the official receiver. The mail coach passed twice a week and twice a week, five years ago Tom had ridden over to the Rooks for his mail. He took two papers though he could ill afford it then and in neither of which could he find any earthly interest. But one came by the up coach and one by the down coach, so that he had an excuse to see Molly every mail day. They were fast friends then, more than friends; and though he said nothing to her at the time of what was in his heart, he had reason to think that she was fond of him when he left her to build a fortune in distant fields. He had done fairly well, and had dreamt of finding Molly watching and waiting for him. Then came the letter from home that told him she watched and waited for Dudley Barham. Tom had known Barham slightly—enough to dislike him. He had come to Binong ostensibly for colonial experience, and received remittances from "home." Molly had laughed at him heartily when she saw him riding, and had christened him the jackaroo. But five years was a long time to look back, and evidently they had wrought changes in Molly Rook.
As he rode up to the store he noticed Rook and Barham at the shed examining a new spring cart. Molly was in the office sorting the mail. She was surprised and a little embarrassed as she noticed her visitor. Tom was in a somewhat cynical mood.
"You might have written and told me," Molly reproached, looking shyly at him as he held her hand. "I didn't know you were within 1000 miles of us."
"And didn't care by all accounts," added Tom.
"Accounts are sometimes conflicting," Molly returned. "We are always glad to see you."
"We? Does that include Mr. Barham?"
She laughed lightly. "Mr. Barham is here. Have you met him?"
"Yes—five years ago. Is he as big a fool as ever?"
"I didn't know he was a fool. I have always found him a gentleman."
"Of course, I forgot; I haven't the privilege of knowing him as you do."
"He was a new chum when you left. He has improved wonderfully since," Molly continued, ignoring the insinuation.
"So I should judge—since the mocker has become champion," Tom returned.
"I speak of a man as I find him," said Molly stoutly. "You were good friends, I think?" she added, doubtfully.
"As friendship goes on a station," he rejoined. "But you and I were better friends. I thought we would one day be something nearer. Do you remember the day we were gathering quondongs on the hill?"
"I remember you offered to bend down a branch for me, and kissed me instead."
"You didn't mind it either."
"Oh, but it was only play!"
"Perhaps—yet I have gathered quondongs in my sleep since then, and kissed that kiss a million times over."
"You must be quite an adept by now," laughed Molly.
"I had hoped to realise my dream at last," Tom rejoined. "But evidently lips, like ships, should be insured when you go on a long trip. Am I to congratulate you as Mr. Barham's intended?"
"I wouldn't if I were you!" She leaned against the desk, her eyes inscrutable, her lips smiling.
"But you are engaged?" asked Tom.
"Not yet—though mother thinks it's time I was."
"I see!" said Tom, brightening at the agreeable surprise. "So he's the white-haired boy with the old folks?"
"Oh, there's no one in the world like him. He's a gallant gentleman, quite a hero, in fact. He's been a soldier in India and has done great deeds. They called him Dudley the Reckless—he was so brave."
Tom laughed in derision. "Bravo?" he sneered. "I believe the fellow's an arrant coward. He was white to the gills and trembling like a leaf when he mounted his first horse on Binong. It's all skite, Molly. Self praise you know, is no recommendation."
"But others praise him," Molly insisted. "And he would go through fire and water for me. He told mother so only yesterday."
"By Jove! I'd like to test him. I'd like to see him called upon to face that flood—"
"Oh, that blessed flood!" cried Molly in alarm. "The river's rising yards an hour, and I have to keep shifting the stake the punt's tied to or we'll lose it—the punt, I mean. You'll be over next mail day?"
"That'll be decided presently. Let the punt go hang for a bit," said Tom, adroitly blocking the way.
"But I mightn't be able to reach it if I delay any longer," Molly protested. "See where the water is now!"
"Never mind; I'll get it for you. Tell me about this gallant jackaroo."
"Oh, there's nothing to tell. He's desperately in love with me, and everybody thinks he's a most desirable party. That's all."
"All? But what about yourself."
"I suppose I should consider myself fortunate."
"Then I'm to consider myself a back number?"
"It appears so. They," with a nod towards the house, "think you're not fit to be in the same paddock with Mr. Barham."
"I don't think so either—he ought to be in the back paddock. But—you don't speak for yourself. Do you wish me to discontinue coming here?"
"Oh, no!...' You—you'll be taking the papers again, won't you?"
"I think so." A pause.
"A newspaper is good company in the bush—something to look forward to," Molly hazarded. "And the ride over on mail days will be a change."
"Especially," added Tom, "if it was extended occasionally to the quondongs."
"That might be lonely...unless—"
Her eyes flashed mischievously. "You would have to clip Mr. Barham's wings," she said.
Tom gazed out through the window at the flood, and the rushing water gave him an inspiration. He turned suddenly and placed his hand on her shoulder. "If you will trust your life to me, Molly, I will soon see what this bold jackaroo is made of. Unless he has greatly changed since I knew him, I think the test will disillusion your parents, and then, perhaps, I mightn't be such an objectionable creature after all."
"What is it you wish to do?" asked Molly, still smiling.
"Go and see to your punt. When you get there the broad, calm sheet of water in the bend will entice you to row; you pull out and get into the current, and accidentally you lose both oars and are helpless—at the mercy of the flood. Finding yourself being swept away, you coo-ee for help. "Then I'll give Dudley the Reckless a chance to dash in and save you."
"Oh, Tom, I couldn't!" cried Molly, aghast at the proposal. "That current is stronger than you think, and the whirlpools would be too much for a horse. I saw one drowned in a smaller flood than this."
Tom half turned from her with a gesture of impatience. "This is to be the decisive moment," he said, resolutely—"the trial of the jackaroo. Go to your boat Molly; the river's rising. I shall be waiting and watching. If I hear you coo-ee and see you out in the rushing water, I'll know you love me; if otherwise, then, I will know that Dudley Barham has your hand and heart."
As she hesitated for a mere breathing space, he pushed her gently from the office. Then Molly, with the rich colour in her checks slightly faded, threw him a glance he could not interpret, and hurried away. Tom was not quite certain what would happen. One instant he felt confident of Molly's love; the next he was less sanguine. Molly was very womanly, she was steadfast and brave; and she had a way of playing tricks, and might, inadvertently, play into the hands of the jackaroo. Again, circumstances might favor that worthy, a catastrophe might happen, or the whole affair might end ludicrously and to his advantage. One thing, if she followed his instructions, it would be at the risk of her life, and he meant to be early on guard.
Rook and Barham were now standing at the fence where Tom's horse was tied, and when he joined them his left arm was carried in a sling. Barham was stand-offish in his demeanour, but Rook showed a manly concern.
"What's 'appened yer arm. Doran?" he inquired.
"Horse fell with me," said Tom laconically; but he didn't add that such had happened seven years ago.
"You follows are always getting hurt about here, and so simply, too, at times," said Barham, loftily. "I've never suffered any serious injury yet, and I've been through flood and fire, and seen as much wild life, I suppose, as any two ordinary men."
"You're one of the lucky ones," said Tom, twisting his moustache, and sweeping the river with an expectant glance.
"Perhaps I am," Barham acquiesced. "I've been in some tight places at all events, and I've faced death a hundred times—"
All eyes turned instantly towards the flood, and two at least were startled and amazed to see Molly Rook standing helpless in a small punt, and shooting swiftly down on the frothing water. "Help, help! I've lost my oars!" she called to them. She was far out in the whirling current, her hat was gone, and her brown hair waved in the stiff breeze. Rook was the first to move, hurrying towards the river; and he shouted to her to sit down lest she should topple overboard.
Then spoke Tom Doran. "Jump on my horse, Barham, and save her! Quick—he's a good swimmer, and will carry you out!"
Barham white and flurried, made several feints in as many directions, but finally reached the horse and swung into the saddle. As he galloped straight for the broad, brown river, Tom thought that the reckless spirit of his boast was in him after all, and that the little plot for his downfall would be a signal failure. But at the first splash in the shallow water his courage seemed to fail him, and he pulled up quickly. For a moment he looked around him, then rode gingerly on, tapping his heels incessantly but harmlessly against the horse's sides, and holding hard on the reins, with his elbows at right angles. Molly had grasped the top of a dead sapling, and kneeling in the stern, was holding on for dear life. The strain was too great, and Barham heard her call to him to hurry. He gazed affrightedly at the swirling water, and lifted his feet till his heels were level with the back of the saddle. Another step or two and the horse was all but swimming; then, against the protests and jeers of the men and Mrs. Rook, the gallant Dudley Barham turned quickly round and rode out.
"Get a line and throw it to her!" he faltered. "It's madness to ride in there."
"Go on, you coward!" cried Tom. "That horse will carry you from bank to bank."
"Not in that current, he won't," said Barham, speaking excitedly, and at the same time dismounting. "It would be suicide to attempt it."
"An' ye the man they call Dudley the Reckless!" sneered Rook. "Ye th' chap that can face death 'thout turnin' a hair! An' it's afeared of wettin' yer feet yer are. Gi' me the horse ye braggart! Old an' hobbled as I am, it's not a drop o' water that'll stop me from gettin' to Molly."
He would have gone too, despite the protests of Mrs. Rook, had not Tom forestalled him. He was scarcely in the saddle when Molly called out again, and looking round, he saw that she had let go the snag and was spinning, swiftly down stream. Just below was a two-railed fence, and galloping at it, Tom was over in a bound, and flew along the bank until he was a hundred yards in advance of the punt; then he turned sharply and plunged into the flood. It was a long hard swim, struggling outward and upward against the current, till the punt was met; but the swim back was easy, though they were swept nearly a mile down ere a landing was effected. Rook hurried along to meet them, and was profuse in his thanks to "the one-armed lad."
"You're a trump, Doran, a real trump!" he cried as he wrung his hand. "Ye shall 'ave the pick o' my paddocks. Doran. That ye shall."
Of course, he meant the pick of his horses, but Doran chose to include all belonging to him in those paddocks.
"Right!" he said." I'll pick Molly Rook!"
"Molly Rook?" said the old gentleman in perplexity. "Sure, I 'aven't a filly of that name!"
"You have a daughter though, and she's in the paddock."
For a moment Rook was staggered, and his eyes wandered searchingly towards Molly.
"Who of the two would you pick, father?" she asked him. "The man who saved my life, or the great hero who wouldn't wet his boots for my sake? 'Tis your pick of the paddock, now, father."
"Ah, well, Molly," said Rook with a sly smile, "as ye put it so, I'll let you pick for me."
It was not till years afterwards that Molly and Tom told him how they had connived at the undoing of the jackaroo, and no one enjoyed the joke more, or laughed heartier than the old gentleman.
"Here's a job here—if you care to take it." said Bullswool, screwing up his eyes, as he looked out into the glare of the fierce sunlight. "It's night-work—watching a tank that's netted in for trapping rabbits. The netting has to be opened to let sheep in for water at sundown, and again first thing in the morning. The rabbits in the enclosure, you see, have to be killed at daylight, and then the netting drawn aside for the sheep. The tank's getting boggy, so there'll be a bit of pulling out to do if they come in big mobs. You'll be paid according to results—a bob for every hundred rabbits you kill."
"Are the rabbits very plentiful?" I gasped.
"The country's simply swarmin' with them," he said. "There's good money in it."
"All right," I acquiesced. "Let's have some rations, and I'll have a cut at it."
I wanted a few shillings badly, and even if it took me a week to trap a pound's worth I would be satisfied. The week's spell would be as refreshing as the quid, for there would be very little to do through the day.
Equipped with tomahawk and a stout rope, and loaded with swag and tucker, I set off for the Six-mile Tank. There was no trouble in finding it; a tank can be seen a long way off in desert country. It was on flat, half-a-mile off a dry creek. A clump of trees stood under the bank at one end, and here I opened my swag, and gathered wood for the night. It was yet early—and hot. The insufferable heat of day lasts long into the night on these western plains. Nothing was showing, save crows and hawks, and the perennial flies that came pregnant with disease from putrifying carcases. Bones lay everywhere—bones, pelts, and dead rabbits. Others apparently had been after bunny's scalp at a bob a hundred. Why didn't they stick to the contract, and make a pile?
I took my billycan, and climbed the bank to get some water for tea. A lot of crows flew out, and a couple of "goannas" scrambled up the batters. What didn't fly out or scramble up distressed me. It was a ring of bogged sheep—about 90; and they looked up at me expectantly, pleadingly, and one or two bleated. They knew; many of them had been man-hauled from a bog before. Some emaciated little lambs wandered around trying to suck bogged mothers, and they wagged their tails violently when they got hold of a bit of wet wool.
There was no help for it; if I was to earn my few bob I must pull them out. It was dirty disagreeable work, and I finished at sundown covered with mud and slush, and drenched with perspiration. I got nothing for the work? I did it for the privilege of trapping bunny!
I fixed up the fence, and filled my billy. The water was brown, but when you looked into it you could see millions of greenish insects, and it had quite a penetrating odour. When I climbed the bank again I found I had been premature in my preparations. Out of a cloud of dust to eastward trailed a long line of sheep. The leaders came running across the flat with tumultuous cries, and I hastened to undo my work again Then I looked at the mud, and sighed, and went back to the trees to have tea. I had earned that much, anyway.
It seemed that all the denizens of the wilderness came to that tank in the next hour. Galahs, corellas, and other birds concentrated there in vast flocks; marsupials bounded toward it in long strings, and emus and plain turkeys came stalking across the plain; while the long lace lizards, and even snakes, wriggled by me. When I remembered that this was the nightly rendezvous of all living things, I did not feel comfortable in my camp. I gathered more wood while there was yet light, and made up a good blaze, though I was more in want of a cool shower than a fire. But some light was necessary.
It was growing dark when the last of the sheep began to make out again. I climbed the embankment once more, to make the netting secure for rabbits. Special arrangements had been provided for bunny in the shape of netted tubes. These allowed him to enter freely, but it was almost impossible for him to get out again.
There was a splash in the water, and a ring of white wool showed in the dim light round the water. There were a hundred bogged this time. I pulled them out in the starlight, and they knocked half my precious fence down in their blundering rushes, when I let them go. I had done a lot of hard graft by the time things were straightened up, and there wasn't the price of a smoke in sight yet. I scraped the loose mud off my clothes in the fire, killed a snake near my nap and lay down.
I had been told that sheep wouldn't trouble me much in the night; but I must be particularly alive about daylight. I soon discovered that there were several unspecified brutes that kept no regular hours, and caused quite enough trouble in themselves. Kangaroo and wallabies came thumping along at frequent intervals; in fact, their heavy whop-whop was a familiar sound through the night. Now and again there would be a clatter at the tank, and more whop-whops than usual, and I would go down, to find my fence wrecked, sometimes with a macropod fast in it and trying desperately to get away with the whole concern; whilst the few rabbits that had been imprisoned in the enclosure lost no time in getting over the embankment. I repaired that fence about 20 times during the night and estimated my loss in rabbits consequent upon breakages at little short of 2000. Twenty whole shillings! It was hard to see all that money running back to the burrows, through the blundering and interference of a danged marsupial. In the small hours, the dingoes came trotting round, and they occasionally treated me to a soulful duet from the top of the bank. I ran at them, yelling, and whirling a firestick, for I was certain that no rabbits would venture into my trap whilst dogs were prowling in the vicinity.
I was worn out at last. It seemed to me that I would make so little money in a very long time that it didn't matter. So I went to sleep, and dreamed that I was annihilating bunny with such velocity that four men were sent down to cart away the dead in drays. I was roused up in the grey dawn by a violent commotion in the tree tops. Branches were being pulled down and broken off, and dropped promiscuously around, while directly over me reared a monster like a grey mountain, and a peculiar munching noise, came from his topmost point, which was somewhere up in the atmosphere. I was lying under it, between its front and hind legs, and I stared and puzzled for some seconds before I made out that it was a camel. A jingling of bells and horrible grunting noises told me that more of him were circling the tank. Lord help my fence! I crawled slowly and cautiously from under it, and, jumping up with an ear-splitting whoop, I flung the billycan at it. Then I ran after the other brutes, yelled "hooshta," and pelted them with stones and clods till they trotted away down the creek. Soon, afterwards I heard several Afghans running after them, and talking to one another in excited tones. They had camped late on the other side of the timber. They brought the brutes back, and I dispersed them again with more clods. Five excited Afghans jabbered at me simultaneously in their own tongue. Then one said, in broken English:
"Whaffor you drive away my camel?"
"To h—with you and your (foreign) camels," said I.
They consulted, talked loudly and angrily, and making menacing gestures in my direction; and presently two went in pursuit of the retreating animals, whilst the other three came determinedly towards me. I hurried down the bank, and got my tomahawk, and then as determinedly went to meet them. They hesitated a moment, and as I approached, looking as fierce as possible and gripping the tomahawk menacingly, they turned and ran to waylay the offending camels.
It was now broad daylight, and thin clouds of dust began to sweep across the flat—the herald of a blinding, suffocating day. I looked to my tank. A horse and two sheep were bogged in it, and about 150 rabbits were inside the enclosure. The fence was bent low in a couple of places, and even as I approached, rabbits were jumping out. Then came the tumultuous bleating of sheep from the creek. The thirsty flocks were coming back. I hurriedly fixed up the killing pen, and, armed with a long stick, made a desperate attempt to yard my little flock of bunnies. Some went in, a lot jumped into the water, but the majority broke back. Round and round the tank I chased them slashing and swiping wildly at them whenever I got within reach. Finally I got a hundred in the pen, where I left them shut up while I renewed the chase after the others. In a few minutes half of them were swimming in the water, and I ran from side to side to meet them as they came out. I killed about forty. Then the sheep poured over the banks in a compact mass, and I made all haste to draw the netting back at the ends to let them in. Whilst thus engaged I heard a crash and a rush, and turned to find my pen demolished, the sheep sweeping into the mud and water, and rabbits scampering off in all directions. I left off right there, and went to camp to boil my billy. I was much distressed.
Soon after breakfast Mr. Bullswool came down to count the rabbits. I followed him to the top of the bank, where he pulled up and swore to himself for five minutes. There must have been 200 sheep bogged round that tank.
"Why didn't you pull them out?" he demanded.
"I've pulled them out all night," I said. "It's your shift now." And I left him to it. He owed me fivepence, but the cheque wasn't worth the walk to the station to collect. He still owes it.
"They are such a slow, ordinary lot about here," said Brenda Newn, looking up from her novelette, whence she got her inspirations and her ideals. "There is not a man I know who is not commonplace."
"You shouldn't judge men by appearances, nor take your models from stuff like that," Toby Carson protested, with a disdainful glance at the volume she held in her hand.
Toby, the son of a neighbouring squatter, was young and good-looking, but awfully simple, as Brenda put it. He was very much in love with Brenda, the stationmaster's daughter, but that young lady treated him with good-humoured contempt, as a man of no consequence. He was too soft, she said, and he was not smart at anything; he aspired to nothing beyond horses and cattle, and he hadn't the grit and energy to become a "king" even in that line. He could ride, but he wouldn't ride at shows, where he might win a prize, and be admired by a hundred girls. When she had suggested it to him he had said,. "What's the use?" He had no ambitious spirit that would carry him out of the ruck of the commonplace. She would court the friendship of a crack jockey or a brilliant cricketer; people applauded them, their names frequently appeared in the papers, and were known all over the country. But Toby was hopeless, and she had long given up the idea of "making anything of him."
"My models," she returned, "are fine gentlemen. They are gallant, clever, courageous; men who would 'do or die' for a woman's sake. Their personality and disposition could not under any circumstances fail to win renown. Heroes—oh, how I would like a hero!" She gazed out upon the silent bushland and sighed. It was all so monotonous.
"Hero worship is folly," returned Toby. "A fool can be a hero when the opportunity comes to him—that is, the mushroom kind. That sort of fame can be purchased for a song."
"You should buy some of it, Toby," suggested Brenda, with a scornful little laugh.
'It isn't impossible," answered Toby; and he, too, smiled scornfully at the thought of Brenda's fictitious heroes being pitted against him in pioneering work in the wild bush. Brenda was only 20, and these foolish fancies would in time leave her; but Toby feared if he delayed too long that her dream-love might one day appear in the flesh, and though he might in reality be a worthless scamp she would be ready to fall at his feet and idolise him. That would never do. Toby would show that he was at least smart enough to get over the barrier that her ridiculous whims had raised between them.
Brenda toyed with the novellette, whilst her eyes wandered towards Crow Mountain. That blue height rising majestically towards the fleeting clouds was the only notable spot in the neighbourhood that she had not yet explored. To see the rising sun from its top was exquisite, she had heard, and she longed to see it for herself. There was nothing else worth seeing at Dulla siding. And the camping out would be a delightful experience. She had already made arrangements for the trip, and Toby—tame, insignificant Toby—was to be their guide and protector.
"We'll see how you shape on Saturday, Toby." she laughed. "We've decided to spend Saturday night on the mountain, and return on Sunday morning. Of course, you will be ready?"
"Of course!" Toby assented. "Who are the others?"
"Mrs. Hickett and her little brother, Tommy Kane. You'll bring a pack-horse to carry our luggage and tents—"
"But that won't be camping out," protested Toby, to whom the mere thought of women's luggage was a horror.
"Oh, yes, it will," said Brenda. "We must have tents and rugs, and billy cans and pint-pots, and the rest. One horse will carry them easy enough. It's only 10 miles, and we'll have plenty of time."
"You won't be afraid of the banshee—the wild man that's up there?"
"Oh, that's nonsense! I don't believe a word of it. Every mountain in the country, according to local traditions, has its hairy man, or some such weird creature. It's only a bushman's yarn to scare people—but it won't scare me. I hope you're not afraid, Toby?"
Brenda hadn't a very exalted opinion of Toby's courage. This he knew, and it piqued him; for no one, as a matter of fact, had ever known him to show the white feather.
"I've camped there before," he said in rebuttal. "But let me assure you that it isn't all skite about Crow Mountain. Old Marcus Croutt, the boundary rider, who camps just across the range, has seen the wild man, and he vouches for some strange doings there."
"Could he rope him in for our inspection, do you think? I would like to see him." laughed Brenda. "The old German has never come to any harm, at all events. And he lives there."
"Have you ever seen him?" asked Toby.
"Old Marcus? No. Could we pay him a visit?"
"N-no! I—He will be away, I think." said Toby, awkwardly.
"You have some objection to him. What is it?" asked Brenda.
"Oh, I don't know anything against the man," said Toby, hurriedly. "He's a bit eccentric at times, that's all. He wouldn't appreciate a surprise party, I'm sure."
"How far is his hut from Crow Mountain?"
"About a mile from the foot. But it's a stiff climb down to the flat."
Toby rode to the mountain next day ostensibly to look for water and a camping place. At all events he was able to take them direct to a cosy spot by a small spring on Saturday afternoon. When the bells and hobbles were put on the horses Brenda helped enthusiastically to unpack on the grass and to pitch the tents. The hum of crickets and locusts, and the notes of a thousand bell-birds, rang in their ears as they worked.
At sunset a fire blazed before the tents, and when the billy boiled they sat down on the grass to tea. The mopokes called to them from the scrubs, and curlews screamed along the mountain spurs, while the jingling of hobble-chains and the tinkling of horse bells made music by the spring. It was all a novel, delicious experience to Brenda Newn. Her cheeks glowed in the firelight, and her eyes flashed luminously to the after glow of a golden sunset. To Toby she had never looked so betwitching.
For awhile after they had packed away the provisions they chased 'possums about among the trees; then Toby surprised the company with a song. He was out to-night to win the heart of Brenda Newn, and he was a good enough bushman to know that a well-sung, homely song there would make a lasting impression. He was really a splendid singer, and, standing under the light of a million stars, he sent his voice in a flood of melody along the mountain. Brenda had never heard him sing, nor had she the least suspicion that he was gifted that way, and she stared at him with surprise and admiration. He was not so insignificant as she had thought; he was a fine, manly fellow—but still he was not heroic. She appealed for another song, and Toby set her whole being a-thrill with the "Exile of Erin." She began to look at him in a new light; she admired him.
Toby had sat down to fill his pipe when there was a sudden stampede among the horses. They galloped with a furious jangling of bells to the top of the spring, where they stood snorting. Then footsteps were heard approaching over the dead twigs and withered leaves, and presently a grotesque-looking man stepped out of the gloom and stood blinking in the firelight.
He was built like an ourang-outang—squat and stooping, and he was clothed in a garb of 'possum skins, with a towering headgear of the same material. He held a revolver in each hand—old, rusty weapons, bound up with wire and greenhide.
"Oh, Lucy; it's the hairy man!" gasped Tommy, clutching his sister's arm and crouching behind her. The others did not speak.
"You make merry, my freindts," said the intruder; "I am gladt you was happy. Can you spare me von hundred poundts?"
"What for?" asked Toby, while Brenda could only stare in speechless astonishment.
"I would be happy, too," said the stranger; "but I am so poor. You are rich man—so happy!"
"I haven't a hundred pence!" protested Toby."
"Ah! was that so? Then I must take the pretty lady away for der ransom. You lofe her, maybe; some peoples lofe her I hafe no doubt. She is so pretty. They find the money quick, you bet my hat. They pudt it on der stump here, an' go away, an' ask no question. Den I send her back."
He moved towards Brenda Newn; but Toby stepped between. "You put a hand her, and you'll rue it," he said, and he struck a determined attitude that so accorded with Brenda's ideal champion that she forgot her own fears, and became a breathlessly interested spectator.
"You sit down, my little fellow, or you might get hurt," said the man quietly, presenting the ancient firearms, Toby looked painfully embarrassed and indignant. He wasn't a little man, and to be treated with such contempt made him wild. But he was unarmed, and to place the other on an unequal footing he must use strategy.
"It is you who will be hurt if you attempt to use those shooters," he replied, looking beyond the man. "My mate has you covered, my big fellow!"
The "big fellow" turned quickly to look behind him, and in an instant Toby sprang forward and clutched his arms. Brenda jumped up excitedly, and followed a few steps as the two men disappeared into the darkness, struggling and fighting for supremacy. A few yards from the fire was a deep chasm, and into this they seemed to have plunged. Brenda stood for awhile peering into the darkness, and listening with bated breath. She could still hear the clatter of stones, the rustle of bushes, and the breaking of branches; then, suddenly, there was a loud report, and with a shriek she ran back to her companions, who were now crouching in the tent.
"Oh, Lucy, Lucy, he's shot!" she cried. "Poor Toby's killed!"
"God help us!" said Mrs. Hickett, hoarsely. "What are we to do? He will come back and take us!"
Tears stood in Brenda's eyes, her face white ashes. "It was my fault—it was all my fault!" she moaned..."And he was so brave—so courageous!"
"Let's run away an' hide!" suggested Tommy through chattering teeth.
"Yes, Brenda! There's a scrub here where he won't find us," his sister added. "Let's go."
They crawled under the back of the tent, and stole quietly into the scrub. Through the bushes they could see the fire, and crouching together they watched for the return of the enemy. Five—10—20 minutes passed—minutes that seemed like hours. Then sounds reached them as of someone climbing over loose stones, and presently they heard the crushing of dry leaves and twigs on the level. Breathlessly they waited holding the boughs apart with their hands; and when he appeared in the firelight they darted from their cover and ran delightedly to meet him. It was Toby—Toby tattered and torn, blood-stained, dust covered, and exhausted. Brenda grasped his hands impulsively, her eyes aswim with tears, and her lips trembling.
"Oh, Toby, you're a hero—a real hero!" she affirmed chokingly, and as Mrs. Hickett came up she sank down on the grass and cried. Toby smiled faintly.
"You're not shot, are you?" asked Mrs. Hickett anxiously.
"No," said Toby, taking off his hat and examining a bullet-hole through the brim. Brenda shuddered.
"Where is he?" she asked.
"He got away," said Toby; "but you needn't be afraid he'll come back. He had a couple of heavy falls, and was pretty badly hurt."
Of course, Toby had to tell them all about it, but he was tactful enough to be modest in the telling. His condition was eloquent testimony of the part he had played. And Brenda knew that it was for her!
There was little sleep for any of them that night, and in the morning they were more interested in looking for the horses than in watching the sun rise. Brenda was unusually animated on the way-home, riding beside Toby all the way, but Toby appeared indifferent. He once asked her to say nothing about what had happened, but that didn't suit Brenda's book at all. He had proved himself a worthy knight, and the world should know it.
Inside a week the story of his encounter had spread through the district, people called to congratulate him, and to hear the particulars, the police interviewed him and searched the mountain, and finally a full account appeared in the local paper. Brenda was delighted, but Toby was quite distressed at all this notice.
One day Marcus Croutt, the boundary rider called on him.
"I hear you was to be married, Toby. Was that so?" he asked.
"That's so." assented Toby.
"Ah!" said Marcus, rubbing his hands. "You marry th' pretty Miss Brenda, eh? I thought she would lofe you somehow. She admire a hero. Und you go away, Toby?"
"I'm going to Maoriland for three months," Toby answered grumpily.
"Ah! you go on th' honeymoon. Yes! Well, I am in some little difficulty, Toby," he added. "Can you settle that little account of mine?"
"You haven't said anything, have you?"
While Toby stood meditating and twisting his moustache, Marcus drew a crumpled piece of paper from his pocket. "I have set him down here," he explained.
Toby's cheeks turned pink as he read the items:—
"To bein' a hairy man. 1 £. 0s. 0d.
"Injuries received fallin' down a mountain, 2 £. 0s. 0d."
"To shock to my sistem. 1£. 0s. 0d.
"And 1 possum suit, which I destroy so nobody find out, 1£. 0s. 0d.
"To totals, 5£. 0s. 0d."
"You shouldn't have put this stuff on paper." Toby complained. "You might have dropped it."
"I look oudt for that," said Marcus.
"If I recollect," continued Toby dubiously, "the amount agreed upon was £2. You've more than doubled it."
"You might also recollekt, Toby," said Marcus, "that I didn't agree to be chucked myself off th' mountain, an' I didn't further agree to sustain the system shock. What you expect? Hav'n' you win the girl? Goot gracious! she wort' payin' £5 for. She is so beautiful. An' the honour of bein' a hero! All for fife quid! Und you grumble! Goot gracious!"
Marcus looked as though his system had received another shock. Toby tore the bill into fragments and paid the fiver.
He saw nothing more of Marcus for several weeks. Then the boundary-rider paid him a second visit—and it was Toby's wedding day.
"What is it now?" he asked, with ill-concealed annoyance.
"I am so sorry to trouble you, Toby—specially just now," said Marcus. "But I am in such a difficulty." He came nearer and whispered, "Can you len' me fife pounds?"
It occurred to Toby at once that the old man intended to make capital out of their secret. Still he couldn't afford to haggle with him there; he was anxious that Brenda should not see him; so he paid the money to be rid of him. But he knew that the little difficulty would be recurrent. That thought became a burden, and he who should have been the happiest was the least happy of the wedding party. Everybody seemed to think it complimentary to make some allusion to the hairy man, and Toby hated the very mention of that person, and hoped he would never be a hero any more. He saw plainly that he must confess all to Brenda to save his pocket, or submit to being continually bled by the boundary rider to save his prestige. And he chose the former course.
It was in Maoriland, as they sat watching a geyser playing in the sunlight, that he told her the truth. Brenda heard him in silence, and when he saw the expression of her face for a moment he repented.
"Oh, Toby, how could you!" she exclaimed, regarding him fixedly with extended eyes.
"You told me to," Toby pleaded shamefacedly.
"It's the meanest thing I ever heard of," she went on, resentfully.
"I wanted to show you the folly of hero worship," he contended. "And, also, that such honour could be purchased—which you said it couldn't."
"But it was so deceiptful, so—Really, Toby, I'd never have thought it of you."
"All's fair in love and war," Toby protested feebly.
There was a long silence. Brenda staring at the spouting water with unseeing eyes, with chin resting on her clenched hand. Toby felt miserable. He stole his arm round her waist—expecting her to throw it off. But she took no notice.
"Brenda," he said, softly, "will you forgive me?"
"It's no use crying over spilt milk," she answered, philosophically, and with a harsh little laugh. Then she turned to him with a commingling of amusement and pique in her expression. "And you're not too slow after all," she added.
As Toby expected, old Marcus called again soon after they had returned home. Another little difficulty had beset him. As it happened, Toby was away, and Brenda had the interview.
"I believe you are the famous hairy man, Mr. Croutt?" she said.
Mr. Croutt started back in surprise. "So he hafe told you?" he exclaimed.
"Yes, he hafe told me," said Brenda, quietly. "And let me tell you, Mr. Croutt, that it will go hard with you, if it leaks out, what you did that night. Do you know that your little joke is one of the worst offences in the criminal code? Robbery under arms—attempted abduction!"
Marcus turned pale. "My dear madame, I hafe no wish efer to mention it," he said, hurriedly. "An' I promises you faithfully there will nefer be no more hairy mans. Nodt if I know it!"
That was the last they saw of old Marcus, and no one but the two principals and Brenda ever knew the truth about the man in the mountain.
Tommy, when a very little fellow, lived on a cattle station, and, seeing so much of stockmen and their work, he longed to be a great rider, and to go out in that wonderful bush where they mustered the cattle. He would sit for hours on a corner post, or on the capping of the yard, watching the bellowing mobs coming in and the exciting work of drafting through the gates. Sometimes he would climb timidly down and help the blackboys to run a few calves through. It was great fun while the calves ran along with their tails towards him; but when one rushed back he would bolt for the fence as hard as his little legs could pelt, and clamber up on to the capping with the most surprising agility.
The men soon began to take notice of him, and they delighted to get him in the branding pen and box him up with the calves. Then they would laugh heartily to see him plunge wildly out between the rails. But he soon got used to calves, and laughed himself when he was occasionally knocked down and run over. When the work was finished, if there was any time to spare, two or three calves would be kept back, and Tommy and a couple of the little blackboys would be invited to ride them. Beginning with very quiet little animals they were gradually schooled until they had no fears in mounting the strong and active poddies that would buck like little demons. Having nothing to hold by, and riding bareback, the youngsters would be flung all over the place, sometimes on top of one another. Laughing and spitting out dust, they would scramble on again, only to be pitched head over heels once more.
In this way he received his first riding lessons, and by-and-bye, to his great delight, was promoted to a pony and saddle, being installed as cowboy. His work was to ride with the groom after the milking cows and the quiet horses in the home paddock. The novelty soon wore off; also, he often fell off, and he soon discovered that a buster off the pony was a more serious affair than tumbling off a calf. He had many adventures with that pony. Once, cantering unexpectedly on to a deep but narrow arm of a lagoon, the pony made an unexpected bound in the air to clear it, and, as a consequence, left Tommy behind. The pony stopped for a moment on the other side and looked round as though to say, "Well, I'm here; but how the deuce are you going to get over?" Then he kicked up his heels and galloped home—to let them know, perhaps, that Tommy was in difficulties. It was a tired little cowboy who went to bed that night, for he had a long walk home.
The next adventure he had was one he would never forget. He could ride fairly well at this time, and the men thought he would be useful at the tail of a mob and to mind the cattle camps. So Tommy, with his blackboy companions, some even younger than himself, was taken on a mustering trip to a distant out-station. It was a new world to him, and he entered upon his work with the greatest enthusiasm. He was at last in the broad, mysterious bush of which the stockmen talked and he had so long wished to explore. His opportunity came unexpectedly, but in a way that was far from pleasant.
They had mustered a mob of cattle on the tablelands, and were bringing them down through miles of scrubby ranges. The boys were behind, while the men rode at the sides to keep them together and in front to steady them. Presently a cow turned off into a thick scrub, and Tommy went after her, picking his way slowly through bush and vines. She led him into a deep ravine, and as he could hear the cattle on the spur above, which ran parallel with it, he drove her leisurely along the watercourse at the bottom, expecting to meet with his companions on the flat, which he reckoned could not be far below. But the sounds above died out; even the whipcracks grew faint, and soon were heard no more.
Tommy now began to feel really alarmed. He left the cow and hurried on to get out of the gorge and the scrub. In half an hour he came to a sudden stop. The rocky walls closed in, leaving a passage so narrow and winding and obstructed with tangled growth, that it was impossible for him to get through even on foot. He sat for awhile and coo-eed, but only the echoes answered. Then the silence of the mighty mountains awed him, and the dread, oppressive feeling of the lost one came over him. In desperation he turned back, and, riding hurriedly over the rocky course, searched vainly for an opening in the walls that towered above him. In the thick growth he missed the spot where he had entered, and when he finally managed to climb out it was on another spur, whence he know not where to turn for home. All around the country was wild and forbidding, and there being no other course he rode on blindly down the spur, hoping to meet some of the stockmen looking for him. They had come back when they got down into the clear country and missed him, and they had followed his track down the gorge, got out by a passage they knew, and returned along another range without again cutting his track.
Just at sunset, when Tommy had given up all hope of rescue, he burst through a thicket and came upon two men skinning a beast. The men were plainly startled, and one reached for a rifle standing against a tree.
"Where did you come from?" asked the other, a rough, stern-visaged man with a black beard.
"I'm lost," said Tommy, "and I want to get back to Binga."
"You belong to Binga Station?" said the black-bearded man, and he stepped up at once and examined the brand on Tommy's pony, while the other made a few deft slashes with his knife to conceal the brand on the beast. Then Tommy noticed the Binga earmark, and his fears returned at the thought of bushrangers. He had heard, too, that some of the selectors were suspected of killing station cattle like this, and there was £100 reward offered for information that would lead to a conviction.
"How did you got lost?" the man asked, with his hand on the reins.
"We were mustering on the tablelands, and I left the mob in a scrub to fetch a cow back," Tommy answered.
"How long ago was that?"
"It was dinner-time."
"Were there any blacks with the cattle?"
"Trackers!" the other man suggested, looking uneasily around.
"It will soon be dark," said the first.
"Time enough yet," the other rejoined. "And what about after that? That imp can talk"
They drew apart and held a consultation, looking frequently the while up the way Tommy had come. Their horses, including two pack-horses, were tied close by.
"Hack off enough and we'll bury the rest," said the dark man, in a low voice, and again approached Tommy. "Get off!" he said, as he caught him roughly by the arm and pulled him out of the saddle. Then he struck the pony a heavy blow across the hind-quarters with a stick, which sent it off at a gallop.
Tommy's heart sank. At the same time he protested indignantly, "What did you do that for? I want my pony to get home."
"You come with me, my boy," said the man, leading him into the bushes. "Your eyes are too sharp and your tongue is too glib. We'll have to tie you up for awhile."
Despite his frantic protestations and his promises not to tell anything if they let him go, he was placed face against a small tree, and his hands bound tightly together at the back of it with a saddle-strap. It was almost dark in the scrub when the man had left him, though it was light yet outside. He heard them working for an hour afterwards, and when the horses were packed they stood by the fringe of the bushes talking.
"That lot's all safe and secure, anyway," said one, "and that storm coming up will hide our tracks."
"What's the use of that when the nipper is there to give us away," growled the other. "It's dead certain there'll be a crowd out here after him to-morrow. Better silence him."
Cold with fear, Tommy began to twist his aching wrists, and to work his trembling fingers desperately on the buckle of the strap. But it was drawn too tightly, and he could only touch it. For a moment he prayed for deliverance.
"It's an ugly business," the other man rejoined. " 'Twould be safer to take him to the cliff—very simple to fall over in the dark."
"We'll fall over something if he gets back to Binga, that's certain," said his mate. "Anyhow, we'll give him a show by the cliff route, and if he meets with an accident—well, that's his look-out."
Something like an inspiration had in the meantime come to Tommy. He had plenty of arm play, and, bending his bound wrists round the trunk of the tree, he got his teeth on to the strap and gradually worked it loose Even as he heard his fate decided by the two villains he slipped off his bonds, and glided stealthily away through the dark woods. When he considered he had gone far enough to be out of ear-shot, he turned into the open, and, running across the ridge, descended into a deep gully, which he followed all night.
Many times that night he hid in the grass and bushes, and awaited breathlessly, or crawled along on his hands and knees when uncertain sounds were heard about him. They were mostly wallabies hopping about or bounding away. Now and again one would spring up beside him, and for a moment he would think that his enemies had him. Again, the hoot of an owl or the cry of a curlew, would sound like a signal, and he would drop down as if shot, his heart thumping wildly and his breath coming in hard, short gasps. At last, weak and weary, he sank down in a small hollow, where, screened by a friendly bush, he soon fell asleep.
The sun was high over the eastern hills when he began to stir again, and in the act of waking he was conscious of the presence of someone. An old blackfellow, his face wreathed in smiles, was sitting beside him, and had for some time been tickling Tommy about the ears and nose with a straw. When Tommy threw up his hand to scratch the afflicted part, old Murri would lie back, and his body would be convulsed with suppressed laughter.
After a first momentary scare, Tommy looked up with joy in his eyes. "Hulloa, Sandy!" he cried.
"My word!" said Sandy. "Little fellow Tommy belonga Binga! What for you camp here like it wallaby?"
Tommy told his story from beginning to end, his sable listener punctuating it with an approving grunt or an ejaculation of surprise.
"How far Binga?" Tommy asked in conclusion.
"My word, long way," said Sandy. "Better come to my camp and wait till boss come out with horse."
Tommy was cute enough to know that the men, if anywhere in the neighbourhood, would come to the camp to make inquiries about him. So he readily approved of Sandy's suggestion, and in less than half an hour he was among the gunyahs of Sandy's tribe, surrounded by a phalanx of yelping dogs and a crowd of inquisitive youngsters. Reaching Sandy's private abode, he was accommodated with a 'possum rug and handed over to the care of Mrs. Sandy, who was squatted before a smouldering fire, nursing a half grown pup and smoking a short clay pipe. He was ravenously hungry, and his eyes wandered eagerly to the mysteries on the fire, and then to his indolent looking hostess, He didn't like her; her passive indifference was chilling. He was glad when Sandy came back to him.
"You give me some dinner, Sandy?" he elicited.
"Alright, Tommy," said Sandy affably. "What you have?"
"What have you got?" asked Tommy.
Sandy totted off the bill-of-fare on his fingers.
"White grub, carpet snake, boiled caterpillar, baked goana, roast 'possum—"
"Give me some 'possum," said Tommy. He had tasted 'possum before, and thought it would be palatable enough now.
Sandy took a black and twisted carcase off the coals, and chopping it in two with a tomahawk threw half of it to him. Tommy scraped off the cinders and burnt skin, and commenced to make a meal. He was about half-finished when two blackboys came in. One grabbed the 'possum and ran off; the other indignantly snatched up the rug, which threw Tommy violently against his half-dozing hostess. The latter, wrath at losing her pipe and the thread of her dream, picked up the pup and flung it at the miscreant, who was knocked clean through the back of the gunyah, taking half the roof with him. The imps disappeared, while Mrs. Sandy and Tommy repaired the family residence. Then the rug was returned to him, and the much-pestered little cowboy of Binga coiled himself up for another sleep, while as many mangy dogs as could squeeze on to the rug coiled themselves up likewise around him.
Blessed deliverance came in the afternoon in the form of the manager and two black stockmen. They had brought no spare horse with them. So Tommy, after once more recounting his experiences, and giving as well as he could an idea of the locality where he had encountered the cattle-stealers, was lifted on to the horse behind one of the stockmen and taken straight off to Binga. The manager and his other dusky henchman picked up Tommy's tracks and followed them back to the scrub; thence they followed the tracks of the two men to a far-away selection. Here, from Tommy's description, they recognised the culprits, but beyond an angry altercation nothing was done.
Long afterwards Tommy heard from his father that those men had once saved the manager's life in an outcamp when the wild blacks had planned to kill him; and what also influenced him was the fact that one of them had a wife and a young family. That seemed a sufficient reason to Tommy why the matter should be "hushed up;" but why he was subsequently presented with a purse of sovereigns and packed away to a boarding school was never explained.
It had been raining for a couple of days, and expectations of a flood in our neighborhood started Lowry reminiscencing:—
"The biggest flood I ever seen was on the Clarence in '87. Floods, you'll remember, were gen'ral in that year," he said as he deftly lifted a live coal from the ashes. "I was workin' at Caramana at the time. That's two miles from the river; but it's all low country between an' the water spread right across to the door of our hut. We were sittin' on the v'randah, smokin', an' watchin' the haystacks, pumpkins, furniture, an' dead live-stock floatin' by, an' speckyerlatin' on the chances o' Liz Capper seein' it out. Liz was a widder, with a bit of a farm between us an' the river. We could just see the place on a little knob through the trees, an' the old grey 'orse as she always knocked about on, standin' belly-deep on the slope. For a rogue that grey stood over everything I ever saw on four legs. No one but Liz could put a bridle on him, an' all the spurs an' whips from Yamba to Tabulam couldn't make him budge one step if you wanted to ride him. He'd back you into a cockspur bush quick enough, but if no cockspur was handy, he'd just sit down on his tail like a circus 'orse, or else he'd lay down an' roll. He nearly flattened out a mate o' mine once doin' the rosey posey trick with him.
"When Liz was on him he was the finest hack you ever clapped eyes on. Go! he'd go for a month—any pace she liked. She thought a heap of him in consekwence o' that peculyerty. There was sev'ral round there who was always borryin' 'orses, an' who it was hard to refuse, an' if she'd 'ad any ord'nary sort o' moke as would 'a' gee'd with 'em, they'd 'ave been no end of a pest to her. He saved her a power o' worryin'.
"Well, as I was sayin', we were lookin' across at the old grey coolin' his feet in the flood, an' just after sundown we hears the boom of a cannon away down in Grafton, which meant that more water was comin', an' to look out. We had a flat-bottomed punt at the hut, which we used on the swamp, an' was preparin' to pull out for Liz Capper when we noticed the light of a rescue boat comin' down. It danced about the widder's place awhile, an' then' went spinnin' on with the current. We reckoned she'd been took off, an' didn't bother any further.
"In the mornin' fust thing , we looks over, an' the water is up to the wallplates, an' there's no sign, o' the grey. 'Let's pull over an' see how things are,' ses one. 'Right,' says I, an' we gets the punt an' away we goes—three of us. When we got up close I give a shout, just to make sure; an', dang me, if old Liz herself didn't yell up the chimney to us. I wasn't long scramblin' on to the roof, an' when I looks down—there's old Liz standin' on the crosspiece in the chimney, with her head stickin' up the flue. She looked a daisy, too—her head an' shoulders black with soot, an' her face streaked like a painted myall.
"How to get her out was the trouble. We 'ad plenty o' rope, but the flue wasn't wide enough to haul her up, an' we 'ad no axe to give us a' start on the shingles. The eaves were under water, or we might 'ave jabbed 'em up with the oars, an' drug her out 'tween the rafters.
"Anyhow, some one suggested lassooin' the chimney an' pulling the top off; an' it was no sooner said than acted on. We gets the rope round it, an' makin' the boat fast to a tree, we hauls on to it. It come away at once—not the top, but the whole, bloomin' concern. The water 'ad loosened the posts in' the ground, an' come up by the roots. The inside part bein' open, of course, the widder dropped out into the water, an' as it floats away she clings on. An' didn't she go to market! She called us everything but gentlemen—'cos we'd wrecked her home. Anybody but a set of asses like us, she sed, could 'ave extracted her without wreckin' her house. An' she'd take her chance o' getting drownded rather than be seen in the same boat with us.
"'Tannyrate, the chimney didn't take her far, bein' on the rope. We were undoin' it, an' trying to pacify her, when suddenly we sees the old grey 'orse come floatin' out of the house. We were knocked dumb; we knew what that grey was to Liz Capper. The sight of him shook a lot of the dignity out of her, an' she asked us to tow him down to Morrisey's. She didn't say wot for but, anyhow, we reckoned we'd see her stiffened fust. We were a bit narked, yer see, 'count of her carryin' on so after us doin' our best for her. She turned away from us 's if we're worthless, an' as the moke floated past she made a sudden leap on to him; with a defiant yell at us as she splashed in the water. He was very round in the girth, the old grey, an' by a little manoeuvrin' she got him right way up, 'sif he was swimmin', an' away she went through the trees, an' across the cornfields, ridin' her larst ride on the moke that'd carried her since she was so high.
"We got goin' as soon as we could, an' pulled along after her, feelin' dead certain she must come to grief sooner or later. But she waved us off. 'There's none of you could ride, him when he was alive,' she ses to us. 'He wouldn't carry you a yard, but I'll let you see that he'll carry me to Grafton even when he's dead!' It was four miles to South Grafton, an' we thought the woman was mad. We paddled along behind as she navigated the dead horse across to the Orara-road. From there she had a straight clear run to town. Hundreds o' times she'd ridden the grey down that same, road an' she told us, as he couldn't take her back, that she'd never be seen along there again. We laughed at her.
"There was an ugly bit o' current 'tween M'Manamy's an' Tully's—long sweep; but she'd picked up a clothes prop on the way, an' managed to steer through. Past Tully's a bit, though, the old grey headed for mid-stream, an' we thought she was lost. But she yanked the old fellow round in the nick o' time, an' made a straight run for Morrissey's blacksmith's shop. The big door stood open, an' the men were paddlin' round in a boat, pickin' up things that was floatin' about. In rides Liz on her dead grey, an' Morrissey darn near took a fit. He didn't know her at first glance; her hair was all hanging anyhow, an' her face was streaked more'n ever. Looked 's if she couldn't help herself.
"'Take, me into your boat, Morrissey,' she ses, 'an' then pull the shoes off my 'orse. They're good ones.'
"'But he's dead, woman!' gasped Morrissey.
"'I know he is; more's the pity,' ses Liz. 'That's why I want the shoes. Get 'em off now!'
"Morrissey got his hammer an' pinchers, an' they hauled his stiff legs up, an' had the shoes off in a twinklin'. Then, ketchin' him by the mane, she ses, 'Pull out into the stream a bit, Morrissey. I'm goin' to let him go for good now.' She sent him off with a good-bye pat, an' the flood carried him down to the sea.
* * * * * *
"No; she never went back. Some friends brought her effects down—wot was left of 'em, an' she settled in North Grafton. She never' rode again, either; but she often talked o' the way she left the farm, an' was quite proud of the fact that she rode all the way to town on a dead 'orse."
"Oi raymimber wan day," said Brogan, "Oi wint fishin' in th' Sivern—up be Texas, d'ye moind. 'Twas cod Oi was afther, but 'twas meself Oi caught. 'Tis thrue as Oi'm tellin' ye. Divil a lie. Oi was doin' a bit av a camp be th' lagune at th' toime, an' a bosthoon tells me there's plinty av cod to be had in th' strame forninst me. 'Good luck to it,' ses Oi, 'tis meself will have wan.'
"Av coorse, th' fust thing Oi wants is bait. So Oi pokes about in th' grass, shufflin' me fate so; an' phwat do Oi foind but a whopperin' craythur av a frog. Faith, he was a soize, an' as grane as th' shamrock av Erin. Ses Oi, 'Ye're th' idintical craythur Oi'm afther,' an' wid that Oi overtakes him, th' laper an' all as he was; an' Oi shticks th' hook through his botthom lip, an' be jabers, ye shud av seen th' kickin' av him. He had the power in th' leg, he had. Thin Oi whizz an' whizz an' whizzed, him round an' round to give him a good hist, an' be th' same token, Micky, Oi whizzed him again me ear a toime or two. But Oi jerked th' divil out into th' wather at lasht.
"Oi sits down thin on th' bag Oi had, an' lights th' dudeen. 'Tis a foine shmoke ye ken have whin th' fish ain't bitin', Micky. Oi shmoked an' Oi waited, an' Oi waited an' Oi shmoked, for th' Lord knows how long, an' th' sorra a bit av a boite did Oi get at all. Sivrel toimes th' loine tugged, like somethin' nibblin', ye undershtand, an' ivry toime Oi pulled up hand over me fisht as fast as ye plaze, an', bad cess to it, 'tis only th' frog was bitin'. 'Th' cod take ye,' ses Oi, an' Oi hists him but agin.
"Thin Oi lays down on me back, an' be th' same token, Oi dhrops off to slape. 'Tis aisy to doze off whin ye're fishin', as aisy as slapin' in church, so it is. 'Tis meself knows that, Micky. But, begorra, Oi was roused moighty sudden boyn-bye, Oi ken tell ye. 'Twas be a power o' tuggin' at the leg av me, as moight be by a bullock tame. 'Twas th' lift leg, moind ye, Oi had th' ind av th' loine tied to, an' 'twas that same was bein' tugged fit to dislocate it. 'Shure, there musht be a fish on th' frog ind av it,' ses Oi, an' Oi shtarts pullin' in as shmart as make haste. Thin, be jabers, th' other leg av me's histed in th' atmosphere, an', be th' blissin' o' God, as Oi hauls away on th' loine 'tis meself is bein' drug along th' ground; wid th' right boot av me shtickin' up into me nose. 'Avast, ye omhadaun,' ses Oi, an' Oi takes a ginrel squint about th' primises. Then Oi says two varmints av bhoys alaughin' fit to busht a troifle beyant, an' a-rollin' on th' ground loike Brannigan's ass whin' 'he had th' groipes. Ye moind th' time well, Micky. An' there was me loine a-hangin' over th' limb av a threy. 'Tis true as Oi'm tellin' ye. Th' grane bogthrotter had swum ashore, divil doubt him, an' nuthin' less wud do him but he musht get up a thray. Faith, an' th' loggerjowl walks along the fusht limb on his belly, an' falls off th' wrong soide av th' soide he wint up be, so he ave th' loine a-hangin' over th' limb. Ye undershtand, Micky?
"'Twas thin thim two squint-issences av mischief, th' bosthoons, gets howlt av th' loine an' shticks th' hook through th' botthom av me pants—av th' roight leg, moind ye. An' phwat do they do nixt but pull on th' frog ind and av it so Oi'd think th' fish was bitin'. Oi thought so, sure; an' that was th' way Oi caught meself."
Tarkalson's mate had been speculating on the luxury of travelling in a tilted cart as compared to footing it. "There'd be no swag-rollin' in the mornin' an' unrollin' at night," he explained. "We could carry more, an' 'ave our beds always ready made in the cart. Look at the trouble that would save! Then we could 'ave a box to put the tucker an' rations in, so they wouldn't get knocked about. An' the yootensils we could 'ave—buckets an' dishes an' all sorts! We'd sit on a cushioned seat—plenty o' horsehair an' feathers about to make cushions—an' smoke our pipes an' yarn while the neddy pulled us along. Sittin' down an' gettin' over the weary miles at the same time—or takin' a snooze turnabout! Wet or dry, we'd be always comfortable under cover. An' we'd 'ave fishin' lines an' a gun—plenty o' ducks an' turkeys an' pigeons along the road. It'd be a real picnic compared to this."
"It would—if you had a sound, level road all the time, feed an' water when you wanted it, an' plenty o' money to buy tucker. Stations don't care about supplyin' tilted carts with rations. The blamed things look too much like hawkers. I had a trip in one o' 'em from the Macintyre to the Burnett once, an' I can't say as I was purtiklar struck on that kind o' locomotion."
"How did yer get on with the tilted cart?" asked his mate.
"Well, it was this way: I'd bought a pair o' boots at Jondoey, an' the fust day I had the things on they chafed me heels an' ankles till there was blisters on 'em the size o' that bowl. Hadn't enough in the bags to stop an' break the brutes in; so I was hoppin' along with one foot tied up in a bit o' old hat, an' carryin' the boot, when I come up with a bloke an' his missis in a tilted cart. The fellow's name was Sam, an' he called the other part of the firm Melita. What they wur further called, I dunno.
"Sam took my swag on board in return for some tobacco. There warn't much in the cart, but quite enough for wot was left of his horse to crawl along with. The woman walked behind with me, an' Sam led Stromboli—that was the horse. They use ter ride one time—in the early days of their wallaby life. Every tramp they come across would expect a lift, too, or their swags carried. They all seemed to have something the matter with their feet. Stromboli useter say 'no' plain enough, but Sam was too soft, Melita said. He had a gun at that time too. Swopped it for flour. Was tryin' to swop the cart for a horse an' pack saddle when I joined him.
"We made about ten mile a-day while the road was good. That was mostly where there was no feed. When we'd unharness, Sam'd get out a bran bag an' two butcher's knives, an' we'd fossick about the gullies an' scrubs an' prickly pear clumps for blades o' grass. Took us about two hours, as a rule, to get the moke a feed. He was too tired for hard fossickin' himself. When we'd put him in the cart in the mornin' he'd turn his head round till his cheek touched the shaft, an' he'd look at the near-side wheel for two minutes; then he'd turn round the other way, an' cast his gaze on the offsider till you'd think he was petrified. Fin'ly he'd give a big sigh; an' when Sam touched him up, he'd go into the collar, put his head down an' snort, an' go back agin. Useter prance an' blow his nose an' switch his tail till he got warm. 'Twarn't no use hittin' him; he'd stop an' give a bit of a kick with one leg. Same time he'd blow a real sneezer. It took a lot o' humorin' to get him goin'.
"One night it rained, an' I crawled underneath for shelter. Sam an' Melita useter camp in the cart, proppin' the back up with a stick. I must 'ave kicked the prop away in me sleep, for the fakus tipped up suddenly in a big shower. Luck'ly the wheels turned a bit, an' the tailboard just dropped clear o' me feet; but Sam an' Melita an' their 40 years' gatherin' was mixed up an' flung vi'lently out into the wet. They growled a lot gettin' back; Sam sayin' it was Melita done it with her fidgetin', an' Melita sayin' it was the vibration from Sam's snorin'. Anyhow, I shifted.
"Next day the flats was sticky, an' we wur most of the time spokin', me at one wheel an' Melita at the other. I useter pity poor old Melita. She had big 'lastic-side boots on, an' the 'lastic was worn out. Now an agin an extra-stiff bit o' clay would grip her by the heels; she'd give a heave, with her hands on the spokes, an' leave the boot behind. She put 'em in the cart at last. Then she looked like—dunno wot; her skirts wet and muddy, an' clingin' round her ankles. At every bit of a rise we had to unload an' carry the things to the top, sometimes a mile or more, then help Stromboli up with the empty cart. I suggested takin' him out an' draggin' up one at a time, as bein' much easier; but Sam reckoned the old fellow had a pull in him yet. Maybe he had, though it was purty evident he'd lost all ambition to demonstrate it. I was workin' me passage, it seemed, but I didn't like to leave Sam in difficulties after he'd helped me over a crippled foot.
"The fust serious trouble we had was crossin' a slippery gully. We'd carried the dunnage over an' was zigzaggin' Stromboli up the bank, when he slips an' slews side on, an', 'fore yer could say 'Gen'ral Koorapatkin,' the whole pot an' bilin' turned a turtle into the gully. The tilt was smashed up, a shaft broken, an' Stromboli was kickin' on his back an' smotherin' in two foot of water. Sam was fair paralysed, an' only for old Melita plungin' in, the team would 'ave been wiped out there an' then. She held Stromboli's head up while we undid the harness an' pulled the cart off him. When he got out he stood on top of the bank an' snorted at that gully for an hour or more. We had to take the wheels off to turn the fakus over, an' then we were two days repairin' the damage.
"Just as we were all ready to make another start a traveller name o' Spargo came up. He was a per-swasive sort a chap with a bit o' style about him, an' had a darn lot to say. Hadn't been in camp an hour 'fore he purty well owned the plant, Sam an' all. Sam was easy-goin', a bit soft, yer know; an' Spargo could talk him out of any mind he had in 'arf a jiff. He ridiculed the turnout fust glance, and poked borak at us for bein' seen with such a scrap-heap.
"'It's nuthin' but bad management,' he sez, standin' up like a trageedian on a stage and flingin' out both hands. 'Yer ought to be travellin' luxurious, man—all spick an' span, with full an' plenty, an' a fat 'orse. And look at yer! Wot 'ave yer?' He walks round the property, jerkin' his head like a sick fowl. 'A battered old rattle-trap that I wouldn't pick up, an' a hide full o' bones. An' yer starvin', too!'
"'Plenty o' single men starve on these tracks,' ses Sam, which remark struck me as bein' purtikler hard on poor old Melita. She warn't a bad sort in camp, an' she could spoke a bogged wheel fair to middlin' when the clay warn't jerkin' the leathers off the end of her.
"Spargo fairly bristled. 'Ah!' he ses, convincin' like, 'If you was single there'd be some excuse. But you've gorra wife always with yer! Why don't yer use her—as any common-sensible man would?'
"Sam lit his pipe with a fire-stick, an' thought on it for a bit. Then he says, 'How would you use her? Supposin' you was in my place now?'
"'Just listen to me.' Spargo hitched up the legs of his pants an' squatted down on his heels. We cleared our throats to listen. 'Soon's I sighted a station,' ses Spargo, 'I'd get under cover an' turn out. Then I'd take the wife with me an' go up to the house on foot. Of course I'd 'ave a dummy swag up, an' a billy for the occasion; an' the missus would be fixed up with a bundle, too, an' the waterbag. The sight of a woman under such conditions would be extra touchin', 'specially if she's young an' not bad lookin'. They'd just load us with rations; the storekeeper would part up little extras, the cook would shell out A1, an' maybe the squatter's wife would find some old clothes for us, besides books an' papers, an' other little comforts to make our lot easier. Then we'd drive a few miles on, an' camp for two or three days to keep the horse in good buckle.'
"Sam didn't show how the scheme took him one way or the other. He couldn't speak for thinkin'.
"'Tell yer wot I'll do—just to convince yer,' ses Spargo, more perswasive like. 'I'll doddle along with yer for a day or two, an' provide for all hands. That is, if yer'll lend me the missus?'
"Sam shifted the pipe to the southern end of his mouth, an' turned slowly round to Melita. 'Are yer on?' he ses. She ses she didn't mind, an' that settled it. Fact was, poor old Melita was dog-tired of the way things were jiggin', an' Spargo's scheme seemed to offer some relief. She rolled up a rug, and copped out on the water-bag. Spargo took all he had come with.
"'We'll go on ahead an' tackle Bundock—that's about three miles,' he ses to Sam. 'You an' the other chap fetch the cart along, an' we'll have a spread ready for yer when yer overtake us.' With that they sets out for Bundock. We fetched the cart along all day, but we didn't overtake them. Looked to me's if they'd bolted, but I didn't like to disturb Sam by mentionin' it, as he seemed to 'ave found a lot to think about. We got goin' earlier than usual next mornin', an' when we'd lost sight of Bundock, Sam begun to look like some one that'd mislaid his identity.
"'She ought to've known better,' he ses at last.
"'Better'n wot?' ses I.
"'Than to think Stromboli could do it.'
"He meant the distance. Struck me Spargo had done it, but I didn't like to disturb Sam with too much conversation just then, an so didn't mention it.
"We passed a pub an' store, that evenin', an Sam inquired if any travellers had passed that way within the last day or two. The publican sed he'd seen nobody but a married couple, who called early that mornin'. Sam didn't ask any more questions—just sed, 'Get up, Strom,' an' passed on. By an' by, he ses to me, 'Dunno wot's come over Melita.'
"'Must 'ave been Spargo?' I ses.
"'She always acted straight,' ses Sam, starin' at the track an' flickin' his whip.
"'Seems to me Spargo's put a bend on her,' I ses, thinkin' it better to break it gently to him. I could see the drift plain enough now; but Sam was as dense as a gum log, an' he had tremenjus faith in Melita. He was still watchin' for the smoke ahead.
"We camped at the fust gate at sundown, an' while moochin' around after wood I comes across Melita's 'lastic-sides agin a tree. I sneaked 'em away into the bush, thinkin' they might hurt Sam's feelin's if he 'appened to see 'em. He didn't eat much for supper; there warn't much to eat. But he was more talkative after.
"'That was a good new rug,' he sez, after starin' 'bout 20 minutes at the fire. 'Wot rug?' ses I. 'Melita took,' ses Sam. 'Where'd yer get it?' I asks him, just to keep him interested. 'Jondoey,' ses Sam, fishin' out a coal. 'That's where I got me boots,' I ses. He looks at 'em for five minutes. 'How much?' 'Eight an' six.'
"Half an hour later he ses, 'Poor old Melita wants a new pair.'
"That put the stopper on me, an' we didn't talk any more that night.
"Well, we kept on fetchin' that cart along—fact, we fetched it along for a week; but we never come up with Spargo's spread. The tilted concern had become a nightmare with Sam by that time. He sold the lot for a fiver just after we passed Nanango, an' swagged it up North. I stopped on the diggin's there."
"'An' yer never heard any more about the slopers?' said Tarkalson's mate, in an assertive sort of way.
"Who's tellin' this yarn—you or me?" asked Tarkalson. A long pause. "Purty near two years after I'd lost sight o' Sam I stumbled across the pair out Bowen way. Spargo an' Melita had a married couple's billet on a big cattle station."
Long silence and much smoke.
"He was a per-swasive cuss, Was Spargo."
It had been raining pitilessly all the morning, and already there was a rise in the Warrego.
Near Gowrie Crossing a man and a woman crouched miserably under a sheet of bark. There was no fire, and the woman was wet and hungry. The water dripped on to her shoulders, and soaked under till the bottom of her dress was sopping. Her husband, with more than his share of the meagre shelter, was dry; he leaned back on the half opened swag and puffed at his pipe.
Nearer the crossing was a bag man, snug and dry in a 6x8 tent, with a little fire burning on a piece of galvanised iron. He had seen the pair come up the Cunnamulla road the evening before, the man carrying a swag and billy; the woman a bundle over her shoulder, and the "nose-bag" in her hand. He had pitied her then; he pitied her more now. She was young and pretty, with brown hair and grey-blue eyes; but she was poorly clad, and want and misery showed in her face. It was hopeless—the face of a woman whose heart was dead. For four hours he had watched them through the rain, and he had summed up the man as a lazy, worthless brute. He set his teeth and swore under his breath as his eyes wandered from the man to the shivering form of the woman. At last he threw a bag across his shoulders and went over.
"This is a pretty hard do of it," he said. "Better let the missus go over to the tent."
The man sat up and grinned. "With you?" he said.
"I'll get a sheet or two of bark for myself."
"And stick it up convenient," the other sneered.
"Look here, mate," said the bagman, "there's no hanky panky about me. My name's Mat Burkett, an' they know me from one end o' this Warrego to the other. There's nothing o' the lizard about me, old man."
Mat was considerably put out at the reception of his good intentions, and only for the woman's sake he curbed the more bitter words that rose to his lips. She had risen, and standing in a pool of water, with the rain now pouring on her unchecked, he saw her eyes wander towards the tent.
"You go over there, missus, an' make yourself comfortable," he said. "There's no points in perishin' here. There's a fire inside, an' you'll find tucker in the bag,' an' some tea in the billy."
She thanked him, while she glanced at her husband. "Well, why don't you go?" asked the latter. She picked up a little bundle and went.
Then Mat turned to the husband. "Better give me a hand to strip some bark, an' we'll rig a caboose over there for ourselves. This rain may last a week."
The man looked lazily at the sky. "Don't think so," he said.
"Well, what about the bark?" asked Mat.
"Too wet to go strippin' now," the other answered. "I'll do 'ere."
"Right!" said Mat, and presently they heard his axe strokes among the dripping trees.
* * * * * *
At first Mat had not recognised the woman to whom he had given up his snug quarters; but when she told him her husband's name was Josh Canty he knew her for the daughter of a well-to-do selector on the Balonne. The revelation for the moment stunned him, and he sat silently down with the flood of a bitter past sweeping upon him. They had been sweethearts long ago; and he recalled one Sunday when they had ridden to where the Maranoa and Condamine join to form the Balonne. Their horses had got away while they rested in the shade, and they had tramped back to the four-mile, where he carried her over the rocky crossing; and then they walked again through the lanes and paddocks home. The memory of the tired little girl he had kissed that night brought an oath to his lips now, and vehemently he cursed the man who married her.
Mat was only a station hand. Josh Canty was a "remittance man," who loafed about town. She met him first at a dance in St. George, and he contrived to see her frequently afterwards. He told her he would come in for a lot of money when his uncle died; he showed her occasional letters and small drafts he got from home; and she believed him. The thoughts of a grand home, and the prospect of wealth, dazzled her; and after a short courtship, while Mat was down country, she married him. Soon she discovered that her gentleman was a callous brute; he neglected and ill-treated her. Then the remittances ceased, and poverty and its consequent worries encompassed them. The furniture was seized, and they drifted into an outshed, where she kept herself and him by taking in washing. At length came a lawyer's letter stating that the uncle was dead; his property was heavily mortgaged, and when everything was squared there would probably be a few pounds to come to him. That was the end of their dreams of a resplendent future.
One day his father-in-law called and remonstrated with him. He called Canty vile names, and knocked him down. He was shunned by his old mates, and the old man who owned the shed began to call round pretty often to inquire if Canty had got a place yet, and hinted at charging a small rental. Then Canty decided to shift. He would look for a married couple's billet, and he knew a station on the Warrego where he was sure of an engagement. The boss was a young man, and would like to be waited on by a young and pretty woman like Laura. He might take a fancy to her, as lonely bosses sometimes did in such cases; then Canty might get to be a storekeeper or something, and have easy times.
Laura wanted to return home until he was settled; but he said he couldn't get that good billet without her, and with more promises of a brighter future he induced her, hard as it was, to shoulder her share of the dunnage and go with him on the wallaby
Thus, after three months of wandering and camping about, chance had led her again to Mat Burkett.
* * * * * *
The rain had eased off, but still there was a drizzle and a cold wind next morning. The woman was ill in bed, and when he took her in a warm breakfast Mat had to tell her that Canty was gone. He did not regret it himself; he knew she was better without him; but the woman was loath to admit that she was deserted. "He will come back," she said. "He's expecting a letter from home with money here, and I suppose he has gone to the post office to inquire."
When night, did not bring him back, Mat asked, "Do you think he would clear out and leave yer if he was disappointed?"
"I think he's got the money," she said evasively. "He drinks you know, and I shouldn't wonder if he's on the spree. He may come yet."
Mat sat down near her to keep her from feeling lonely till she went to sleep.
Next day she asked frequently if there was any sign of Canty; and in the afternoon she called him into the tent.
"I have no one but you, Mat," she said piteously, "and I'm sorry to be giving you so much trouble."
"No trouble at all, old girl," he answered. "I wish I could do more for you."
"I'd like you to go up to town, Mat," she continued, "and see if he's there. If he's drinking, you will know he's got the money. Try and get it from him, or he'll squander it all. You know, Mat, I'm—destitute." And Mat left her with a muttered oath.
From Cowrie Crossing to Charleville was only a little more than a mile. It was, however, a mile of mud and water, and Mat had to walk into the main street with his boots in his hand. At the first pub, sure enough, he found Canty hilariously drunk, and making a ludicrous attempt to perform a jig on the verandah. Three or four carriers sat on a form, laughing and edging him on. Mat stood watching him until, staggering round, Canty discovered him.
"Hulloa, swaggie, how's the ole woman?" he cried. "Hope yer gorra dry—hic—keep hot bottles to her feet if she's cold. Ole girl's tremenjus partial to hot bottles 'gin her feet." With his hat in his hand he staggered back against the wall, chuckling. Then he addressed the company. "Wotcher think o' swaggie, chaps? Shook my bloomin' missus from me yes'day. She was the only one I had—pure white un, too—swelp me bob. Wouldn't think he 'ad it in him, would yer? Gors truth, he did. How yer gettin' on with her, ole chap?" The men laughed uproariously as Mat, flushed and indignant, walked into the bar.
From the publican he learned that Canty had received a sum of £70, most of which he had still on him. Then he called Canty into the little parlor, and shouted. When the attendant had left them, Mat told him that his wife was dying, and that the police were looking for him for deserting her. Canty was at heart a coward, and he was in a fit condition to believe any mulga the other might tell him. They had more drinks, and in a few minutes £50 had changed pockets. Canty thought he was giving him £20—for expenses, and to claim her as his wife if anything serious happened; but Mat did the counting. Afterwards he endeavoured to persuade him to return to the camp.
"No," said Canty, "I'm done with her—gorra good thing on without her. She left me of her own accord an'—hic—you can keep her."
"Don't be a damn fool. Go back to your wife."
"Haven't I sold her to you? Look 'ere, yer berrer give me receipt for Laura—just 'er show all's square." Mat thought to humour him.
"It wouldn't be any good without her signature," he said. "Come down to the camp an' we'll fix it up."
"You go to—hic—an' fix yerself up. Wantsh ter get me stuff, doncher? I'm up to your sort. Yer sneaked th' ole mare from me—Whasher 'ell yer bummin' round me for?"
Mat slipped out by the back way, and making a few purchases for the sick woman, returned to his camp. The woman looked up expectantly; and when he came to her side she looked beyond him.
"He's on the bust, missus," Mat told her. "Better let him have it out, an' then he'll come back."
"Did you get the money from him?"
"Most of it." He handed her the £50 in full.
"Thank you; he'll come back for the money if not for me."
Mat's face set hard. "If Canty comes here, it's to be for you or nothing. You understand?"
"If you part a single John Dunn, an' he leaves you—"
"So will I."
She was silent, but there was a faint smile on her lips.
He made her some soup with preserves and essences; then he fixed a candle by her bedside, and left her some papers to read. He hoped she would soon be well, for the position was awkward. He could not forget his old love, her face and voice kept the past before him; and the fact that she belonged to another made it the more embarrassing. The thought of winning her from her allegiance to Canty and taking her out west would obtrude itself at times in spite of him, but he would cast it from him with a shrug of his broad shoulders and an imprecation on his own momentary weakness. If she were free he would try his luck again; as it was he would not tempt her, he would try and forget her.
Laura wondered why he did not refer to old times, and ask her to make it up and go with him. She knew she would be happier with him; and she secretly chided him for his weakness. He had her alone with him here day and night, and he treated her like a child—as one might a sister. Expectancy and wonder gradually developed into indifference in regard to him, and finally she looked on him with something of the contempt a healthy woman feels for a weakling or a coward.
He went often to the pub to try and coax Canty away from the drink; and one day, when Laura had left her bed, he came home excited and pale, and told her that she was a widow. Canty had wandered off in the night while in the horrors, and that morning they had fished his body out of the backwash above the town. But for a momentary look of horror in her face at the mention of death, Laura betrayed no signs of emotion. She was a little graver in her deportment afterwards, and talked less; but there was no indication to the watchful eye of the man that any love had still lingered for Josh Canty. He had no regrets to offer; he looked upon it rather as an occasion for rejoicing, not from selfish motives, but because of the wretched life the man had led her.
"You'll return to your people now," he said, "and the sooner the better. People will talk. You can take the train from here to Mitchell, then coach to St. George. In a few days you'll be home."
There was surprise and disappointment in her face. "And you?" she asked.
"I'll go west. But I'll come back by-and-bye," he answered. "You won't forget me if I'm long?"
"No," she said, speaking in a dispassionate, even tone, and looking at him as though he puzzled her, "I'll never forget you."
On the platform, when he went to see her off, she asked, indifferently, "When may I expect you?"
"A year from to-day," he answered. She waved her hand to him as the train moved away, and her lips were smiling.
* * * * * *
It turned out a year of hardship and disappointments for Mat Burkett. He found himself drought-bound out west, waiting to get down with cattle. Month after month he fretted there, thinking always of the little widow whom he never doubted would be looking for him. At last there came sufficient rain to leave a little surface water on the track, and he started in, carrying his swag. As he neared Panunda, he decided to write from there and explain matters to Laura Canty. He thought it possible he could come back to a job there. He knew the Kreffords of Panunda. Young Arthur, he heard, had lately been married, and was now managing the station for his father.
It was sundown when he reached the homestead. The girl told him that the men were all away mustering, and would not be back for a day or two. He was disappointed; but perhaps Mrs. Krefford would permit him to camp there until the boss returned. Could he see her?
Some minutes later a well dressed, refined-looking woman appeared. She started slightly, and the colour left her face as he turned towards her. He also showed surprise, but he spoke with gladness.
A look of fear came into her eyes, and her lips seemed to harden.
"I beg your pardon," she answered coldly, "I am Mrs. Krefford."
"What," he cried, while a cold chill seemed to strike through him, "another man's wife!"
She looked at him helplessly; but her eyes flashed.
"You forgot then—an' so soon!"
"I think you're making a mistake," she said hoarsely.
Mat laughed bitterly. He was not infallible; but he could never mistake another for the woman who had once thrilled him with her kisses.
"Don't you remember Mat Burkett?" he asked. She had recovered her composure, and her grey-blue eyes met his unflinchingly. Her silence stung him.
"Have you forgotten the promise you made on the Warrego?"
"What do you mean?" she asked.
Then bitter anger seized him.
"You hypocrite! You know me—good God, woman, you could never forget—"
"You are evidently mistaking me for someone else," she said coldly. "What is it you want?"
A feeling of defeat came over him. "Nothing much," he answered bitterly. Then, defiantly, "Just a shelter for the night."
"I am sorry," she returned, "but Mr. Krefford never allows travellers to camp at the station."
"Thank you, madam!" He turned away, but looked back once and said, "I hope you'll be dry when it rains. Good-bye!
She smiled, and muttered: "I have kept my promise: I have not forgotten you."
With her face to the window pane, she saw him take up his swag and billy, and watched him until he had faded away into the grey distance.
"Talkin' o' the big '87 flood on the Clarence," said Scully, "reminds me o' the only bit o' romance I was ever mixed up in. Was workin' on a contrak at the time with a chap be the name o' Mat Conyers. Don't 'spose yer knew him? Come from down Brewarrina way. Only a handful he was, but a reg'lar tiger to work. Could skite a bit, too, an' smoke cigarettes to no end. We'd swagged it together, an' bullocked together for close on two year. Rippin' good mate.
"Hadn't been long on this contrak, though, 'fore he took to wanderin' off by himself. Never did that before. Sed he'd dropped across an old acquaintance—farmer chap name o' Bill Maynard. Don't 'spose yer knew him? Come from down Condobolin way. Struck me he was dooc'd fond o' old Maynard. Use-ter stop out blather-skitin' purty near all night sometimes.
"By'nbye. I discovers the old chap's got a rather good-looking filly. Her front name was Harriet. It's Harriet yet, by the way. Felt sorry for Matthew when I heard that. He was dead shook on her—anyone with half an eye could see—an' that meant dissolution for us if it come to a head. Best mate I ever had, too.
"One day Bill asked him to bring his mate over for Sunday dinner. Didn't like goin' at fust; but Mat reckoned 'twould look unsociable if I refused.
"Also told me, in confidence, that he wanted me to talk to old Bill while he mashed Harriet. Seemed to me a man ought to do that much for a mate. The old chap's always a meddlin' sort of a cuss when yer pokin' round after his daughter. Seems to want to be courted all the time himself. So I greased me boots, an' put on a clean flannel, an' dolled meself up gen'elly, an' we went to dinner.
"Fust sight of Harriet upset me terrible. Never was so slewed be a gurl before. She was purty as paint could make her, an' as fetchin' in her ways as a stump extractor.
"Long before we got back to camp I begin to wish there was no such purson as Matthew Conyers in creation. We wur such good mates, too. But gurls is gurls—an' ev'ry man gets a feelin' about him some time or 'nother that he wants one of 'em to keep. I wanted Harriet Maynard, dead sure.
"Well, I got into the habit o' goin' to see old Bill then—just as Mat did, in a manner o' speakin'. Mat didn't like it, an' ev'ry day we discovered some bad pints about each other that we'd never guessed before. We didn't pitch now as we use-ter, an' we never mentioned the Maynards in one another's hearin'. Mat would go off alone after tea, without sayin' a word, an' he'd be smokin' a pipe with Bill when I'd drop in. Not likin' to int'rupt the conversation, I'd jine the missus an' Harriet. That 'ud nark Mat. By'nbye he'd pretend not to be goin' out, an' 'ud lie down on his bunk till I left; then he'd drop in just es old Bill ud got me fixed with a long, dreary yarn 'bout nuthin' in purtikler.
"Fair murderin' t'ave to sit quiet an' look pleasant, an' 'pear int'rested, while he'd be jabberin' be the furlong, an' me wantin' to see the gurl, an' knowin' Mat was makin' up to her somewhere all the time.
"Didn't get home on me more'n twice, though. I'd stroll off, if he wouldn't go fust, an' sit behind a log till Mat got ahead, then drop in a bit later an' cop Harriet. That use-ter kill him dead. Still we never mentioned the subjek. Seldom spoke at all, an' 'twas plain we'd go different tracks once that contrack was over.
"By'nbye he got another fellow on the job to talk to old Bill. Dan Dorney his name was. Don't 'spose yer knew him? Come from down Deniliquin way. Then me an' Mat ud sit one on each side of Harriet, scowlin' at one another like two strange dogs. Warn't much talkin' either. Harriet use-ter get durn tired of it, an' go out to hear Dan pitchin.' So Mat dropped Dan.
"We use-ter live purty cheap, me an' Mat—goin' about in just bare coverin', an' wearin' 'em 'slong's they'd hold together. Courtin' put a set on that economy. He started fust with white shirts an' stand-up collars—reg'lar ear-props, an' neckties, an' a brand new suit, an' a straw hat. Of course, I 'ad to foller suit, to be in the runnin'; an' there was a washin' an' ironin' bill ev'ry week to pay. Use-ter wash our own duds in a bucket afore that. Then he gets high-heeled boots, an' brushes an' blackin' to clean 'em; an' a silk han'kerchief an' o-dy-ko-lone; an' a glass an' comb an' hair-brush, an' bees wax for his moustache. I 'ad to get them d—things, too; wouldn't even lend me a boot brush. Harriet was makin' things purty expensive, I tell yer. Begun to wonder if the contrak would pan out courtin' expenses. But Mat warn't done yet.
"He spek-u-lates next in a tooth brush, an' use-ter scrub his grinders ev'ry ev'nin' at the waterhole; then a gingham, bless yer soul; an' a silver mounted pipe, an' a tobacco pouch, an' a Waterbury—an' heaven knows what he didn't get. Darn near broke me keepin' pace with him. An' wearin' the dash things was fair crucifyin'. Them starch shirts was something awful, an' the stand-up collars ringbarked me till I couldn't chew without hurtin'. As for them small-sized, high-heeled boots—they wos the quintessence of the Inquisition. Got that worried an' sore, I use-ter wear me big bluchers till I got close to the place, an' carry me coat an' vest an' courtin' boots an' gingham under me arm. Why he wanted a gingham at night, I dunno; but as he took it I lugged mine along, too, jes' to show es I had one. But Matthew warn't done yet.
"He begins buyin' presents next for Harriet—fruit an' lollies be the barrer load, fancy-colored silk han'kerchiefs (an' they're darn expensive things, yer know), bottles o' scent, gloves, boxes o' pins, needle cases, manicure sets, an' such like. Pesky nigh had me bankrupt now. We wur playin' nap for that bit o' skirt. I'd go one better'n him, then he'd go one better'n me agin, an' so on. Ruther feared he'd wind up with a pram-yoo-later, or somethin'o' that sort. But the flood come, an' put a sudden stop to it all. Warn't sorry, I assure yer.
"We'd finished our job when the wet set in, an' soon's we wur settled with, Mat goes off on his own without so much as good-day to me. Seen a chap next day name o' Jack Thompson. Don't 'spose yer know him? Come from down Gilgandra way. Tells me Mat's goin' to work for Maynard soon's the weather took up a bit. That hit me hard. 'S a big handicap when the other fellow's on the premises. Reckoned he had a long pull on me anyhow, an' felt purty glum as I strolled over on the Sunday. The flood was at its highest then, an' shiftin' camp wasn't to be thought of. Had a notion o' poppin' the question that day—'fore Mat had time to get anythin' like a lead on in the courtin'. Knowed he'd put my pot on with old Bill if he got the least show.
"Well, when I gets there, I sees there's a bit of excitement goin' on. Harriet was adrift in an old flat-bottomed punt that belonged to the place. She'd been paddlin' about with one oar, an' let it slip, somehow. It was floatin' near shore, but the punt was driftin' out into the current. Mat was nearly bustin'—tearin' up an' down, shoutin' to Harriet to do this, an' yellin' to Maynard to do that. Just then a heap o' cedar boards, lashed together in the form of a triangle, floated round the point of the hill. I plunged in an' got aboard it, an' was paddlin' it with me hand towards the oar, when in jumps Mat, an' collars it. Meets me with it, an' climbs on to the craft, an' starts pullin' like Bill Beach. Didn't seem to notice me at all.' I didn't say anything, but pulls out a short plank, an' gives a hand. Was ruther risky to Harriet to be squabblin' just then as to who had the most right to save her.
"The punt was a long way ahead of us, an' we could see Harriet kneelin' agin the seat, holdin' on to the side with one hand, an' wavin' the other to us, encouragin' like. We 'ad our work cut out from the jump to steer that blamed three-corner craft through the trees, an' the floatin' timber an' rubbish. Last we got fairly out into the stream, but the punt was still half a mile ahead, an' drifting straight for the scrub on Susan Island. Looked purty serious then. Th' scrub was half covered, an' yer know how water shoots an' curls round obstructions o' that kind. Reckoned there'd be a disaster, dead sure.
"We was paddlin' like blazes when there was a mishap on board, an' another dose of excitement. The three cornered fakus fouled a whirlpool, an' she was whusk round an' round like greased lightnin'. Mat warn't a good sailor, an' purty soon he was pitched overboard, an' sucked under. Thought he was a gorner for a bit; but he popped up drekly, an' I hauled him in with the plank. Th' whirlpool, though, ud shook up the craft turrible, an' the planks begin to bulge an' scatter; an' out from between 'em comes a swarm in' regiment o' crawlin' critters. She carried more ants an' beetles an' caterpillars an' scorpions an' san-ty-pees an' lizards an' other pesky insecks to the square inch than old Noah 'ad ever dreamt of. Stoppin' to brush 'em off our legs, an' shunt them as wur extra objectionable, overboard, took up a lot o' time.
"Steppin' back from one trav'lin' pizen fact'ry, I went overboard meself. Mat could 'ave easy reached me with the oar when I come up, but he 'adn't missed me seemly. Yelled out to him, but he was hard o' hearin' on water, somehow. Never turned his head, an' only stopped for a second now'n agin to make a swipe at a bull-ant or some thing. Warn't a square go, that.
"Anyway, I shaped for the trees on Susan Island, an' swum like Dick Cavill. Mat was rods ahead, an' runnin' bit wide o' the island. Harriet was swallowed in the scrub somewhere. Seen Mat clutch a bush, but it broke, an' he swept out o' sight round the island. I brightened up consid'rable then. Had purty straight cuttin' for Harriet—barrin' she warn't dead. Brutal hard swimmin', though. 'Tany rate, I managed to hit Susan 'bout the middle, an' clumb along the trees, peerin' round. By'nbye, I hears something, an' coo-ees.
"'Come quick!' ses Harriet. 'I can't get out o' the water—there's snakes in the boughs.'
"The trees wur purty thick, an' not too bushy; an' I clumb along like a flyin' fox till I gets nigh her. She was clingin' to a tree that stood away a bit by itself—her blouse torn from the shoulder, an' her wet hair hangin' round her neck. Swum out to her, an' got her on to a limb, so she could rest awhile. Hadn't been there long when I twigged Barefooted Tom spinnin' by in a boat—a long way off. Don't 'spose yer knew him? Come from down Quirindi way. Didn't bother singin' out. Hadn't been long enough there to make impressions yet. 'Twas summer time, an' though 'twas pouring 'rain, an' all the island was covered 'cept the tree tops, an' there wur snakes there an' creepin' things be the million, an' nothin' to eat, I reckoned Harriet wouldn't come to no harm for a week or so; an' it ud be something for her to remember me by. Seemed to me I had best right to her now. 'Tany rate, I was ready to fight for it if Mr. Matthew turned up in the scrub.
"Near dusk we clumb down agin, an' swum along together to the opposite side o' the island. Picked a good clump o' trees for a camp, an' gathered up a heap o' dead timber from the water to make a sort o' platform. Then I broke off armfuls o' soft bushes an' made a comfortable bed for Harriet. Sat by her there for hours, keepin' the rain off her face. Hadn't that bloomin' umbrella with me when it would 'a been o' some use. The wind fair howled through them trees, an' the water roared round like Niagara. People wur shoutin' an' screamin' from housetops, cattle wur lowin' away south of us, an' lights wur flashin' here an' there as rescue parties rowed about over the farms. Night was that thick black, too, yer could scarce hear yerself talk through it.
"Harriet warn't too good in th' mornin'. Courtin' in wet tree tops didn't agree with her.
"'We're in a purty tight fix, Harriet,' I ses. 'Wouldn't be so bad if we could get down an' 'ave a walk. 'D ruther walk than swim.'
"'It's awful!' ses she. 'However we goin' to get out of it?'
"'Don't you worry,' ses I, easy like. 'You an' me's goin' to be 'appy together, Harriet.'
"'We deserve to be after this,' ses she.
"'An' after this,' ses I, stealin' me arm round her neck an' me hand under her chin, 'shell I tell 't' parson?'
"'What'll yer tell him?' ses she.
"'We've a job o' tyin' up for him to do,' ses I.
"'Do yer want me true?' ses she, shy like.
"'My oath!' ses I.
"'Yer ken ask mother,' she ses.
"'Never mind mother,' ses I. 'She's got an old man of her own. Say the word, an' we'll chance all about her.'
"'Alright!' ses she; an' I was that durned pleased I forgot where I was, an' kotched her up hard an' sudden. Crash went the danged platform, an' we tumbled through into th' water ker plunk. Warn't pleasant that, but it kinder made the happy moment easier t' remember. Clumb into a big tree then, an' soon after sunrise we sees Jack Ford an' a nipper cruisin' round an' pickin' up things. Don't 'spose yer knew him? Good singer; come from down Maitland way. Hollered fit to bust now. Wanted to get off that island extra quick. Gettin' purty hungry. Stiff, too.
"Thought he warn't goin' to tackle it fust; but after pullin' a long way up, he turned sudden, an' shot out into the current. Soon swept down, an' in half an hour or so we wur aboard.
"Two hours' hard pullin' landed us at Morris'. Don't 'spose yer knew him? Farmer chap from Balranald way. Give him two quid for that job—last I had. Courtin' Harriet dead broke me after all. Had to pawn that gingham when I got home—an' the Waterbury, glued shirts, toilet rek-wisits, silk han'kerchiefs, an' lots o' other things that warn't no d—use 'cept to bustle Matthew Conyers. Had to take more contraks, too, an' warn't able to tell parson for a year or more. Guv him the vital intelligence at last, though. He wur a stoopy chap with soup whiskers—name o' Wilson. Don't 'spose yer knew him? Come from down Bungendore way.
"Matthew Conyers? Oh, yes; Matthew turned up 'bout a month after. Didn't stay long though—an' never sed so much as good-day to me. Cleared out to—goodness knows where. Use-ter be a purty good mate, too; but gurls is gurls, an' there's no denyin' a man must 'ave one of 'em to keep. Feel much better now, anyway."
"Take out that poem of mine and put this in," my uncle instructed one afternoon, handing me a manuscript. He was the proprietor-editor of the "Bunilla Yabba," and sometimes "rushed into poetry" to fill up with.
I looked at the poem. It was headed "Mustering at Wogangaree." and was signed "Nancy." Who " Nancy" was nobody knew, unless it was my uncle, and he never close to enlighten us. She was a constant contributor, and we were all interested in her. There weren't many girls about Bunilla, none of them bright, and a bush girl who wrote "dashing articles" and "stirring pomes" was reguarded as a bit of a wonder.
"Have you any friends at Wogangaree, uncle?" I asked him. It was about the time I took my annual week's holiday.
"Yes," he answered, looking at me with questioning eyes.
"I'd like to spend my holidays up there this time," I said, "to—er—see something of station life. Must be interesting—according to this."
"Umph!" be grunted. "You mustn't put too much faith in that; poets are mad. They see things that don't exist, and go into rhapsodies over trifles that common folk wouldn't notice. Life is a dream, and that's the poet's theme."
"But," I ventured, "haven't we printed a lot of prose about Wogangaree?"
"Oh, yes." my uncle agreed. "All beautiful, glowing articles, but—still they were written by a poet, and, as I said, poets are mad."
Nevertheless," I returned, "I should like to see Wogangaree."
"Very well," said my uncle. "I'll give you a letter to Brampton, of Bando—three miles from the station. We used to be good friends when I was up there. I haven't seen much of him of late years, but I dare say he'll make you welcome. Be prepared to rough it, though, for all that. And see if you can't get me some copy—something bright and sensational."
A few days later I was on my way to Bando—a long ride. The track led me over some of the roughest country I had ever crossed. Here, broad lumpy flats, with grass to the knee-pads, then long winding hills, clad with jungles of gum and ironbark. It was a new world to me. There was always something to gaze upon, something to admire. Dancing rivulets frequently intercepted my course; bright flowers bedecked the open spaces, with gorgeous butterflies fluttering over them; ferns grew luxuriantly in the hollows, and birds flew from tree to tree. This was Nature's garden, and how grand it was to ride through it, leaving behind a trail of tobacco smoke.
The evening drew on, and the charm wore off. My legs began to get chafed and sore. I ceased to study the scenery, and kept an anxious lookout for the settler's house.
I came upon it suddenly. It was a slab hut, bark-roofed, with a lean-to at the back, under which hung a pot and a kettle over a smoky fire, and was surrounded by a dog-leg fence. A short, fat woman, two girls and a boy came out and stood staring at me until I had reined in and proffered my letter of introduction. The woman wiped her hands on her dress and took it.
Whilst she was reading I took a careful survey of the two girls. The elder one was short and stout, like her mother, and decidedly plain. But she had the look of one who was full of fun and gaiety. Her sister was a very different girl. She was not tall, but she had a fine figure, and the sweetest little face I had ever seen. She was about twenty, and her dark brown hair hung in a single plait down her back.
"You are Mr. Crotty's nephew?" the woman said, extending a red and wrinkled hand. "I never thought we'd see any of the Crottys again. Your uncle often came down to our place when he was on Wogangaree. But, dear, what a time ago that is. You're going to stay with us?"
"That is my wish—"
"Indeed, you're quite welcome, Mr. Crotty. Let your horse go here. I'm sorry Bill's not home. He works on the station, an' doesn't get home till after dark. I'm afraid you'll find it dull here."
"Not at all," I said. "The bush will be a delightful change. Mustering the cattle, I believe, is very exciting?"
"Ah, Mr. Crotty," she rejoined, her face beaming. "I'm afraid you've been led away by that stuff 'Nancy' writes."
Nancy! There it was again. "Do you know anything about her?" I asked.
"Nothing," she answered. Then she introduced me to her daughters, Phyllis and Hetty. The latter was the pretty one.
I was glad to get inside and sit down—though the seat was a hard one. It was late when "Bill" came in. He was a rough-looking old fellow, and grumpy, too. He seemed to enjoy the prospect of taking me out on the run, and promised me no end of adventures. I went with him next day, but the horse they gave me did not take kindly to me. He threw me into a waterhole and went home on his own. The second day they put me on a brute that galloped so fast that I hadn't time to stop on him, and on the third day, while riding through a scrub, a vine caught me under the chin and hauled me out of the saddle.
"Why dang me," cried Bill, irritably, "you beat all the bloomin' messers I ever met. Why th' blazes don't you stop in the saddle?"
"Stop in the saddle?" I repeated. "I assure you I hadn't the slightest wish to leave it."
I didn't go out again. Old Bill stoutly refused to take me. But I had seen quite enough of Wogangaree. The mustering might be thrilling and stirring, and all that, but there was a seamy side to it which the poet left out.
However, the Bando girls were very companionable. The old lady was feeble, and greatly troubled with rheumatics. So Phyllis did the housework, and Bertie (her thirteen-year old brother carried wood and water for her, milked the cows, looked after the pigs and fowls, and made himself generally useful during spare time from school. The duty of minding the sheep was allotted to Hetty. She had been shepherdess from the time she left school at fifteen. She took her lunch with her and spent the whole day in the bush. I was sorry for Hetty. She was more fitted for the drawing room, I thought, than for shepherding.
Occasionally I accompanied her on to the flats with her sheep.
"Why do you always mind the jumbuks instead of Bertie or Phyllis?" I asked her.
"Phyllis is a better housekeeper than I am, and Bertie isn't to be trusted," she answered. "Of course," she went on, "I needn't be always at it if I didn't wish." Her eyes roamed over the landscape. "These wilds have a subtle charm that sets one brooding. That's what I like. I lie here and dream, and I am happy."
Hers was, indeed, a curious nature. She was very different from the common run of women. I felt myself drawn towards her. The old hut seemed much brighter in the mornings and evenings when she was there. Phyllis was always full of fun, and would talk like machinery; there was Bertie, ever ready to go shooting with me, and there were books to read and sights to see. But my mind would wander away to the sheep pastures, and at last I woke to the fact that I was desperately in love with Hetty Brampton.
One morning there was quite a commotion at the selection. Bertie was breaking in a heifer, and Hetty had gone to the yard to give a hand. I joined them, and helped with the roping and pulling in. Then Bertie put on the spancel and milked her. I stood in the centre of the yard as he let her out. Hetty was standing outside leaning on a rail. The cow stepped back very quietly.
"Why," I said, holding my pipe between my fingers, "she's broken in al—" I hadn't time to finish. That cow gave me one look, then came at me with a vicious snort. I made a dash for the cockatoo fence, and got over it head first. I heard a crash behind me, and then a cartload of broken rails and posts clattered about my ears. I sprang up, minus pipe and hat, wondering what had happened. The cow was going like fury down the flat, and, Great Scot! Hetty was lying on the ground with a sapling across her. I threw it off quickly and raised her in my arms. She was pale, and couldn't speak.
"Oh, Hetty, Hetty," I panted, "are you hurt?" She raised her eyes slowly and smiled. Bertie came out.
"Bertie," I cried, "run and get some water. Your sister's hurt."
"Oh, she's all right." said Bertie, carelessly. "That sapling flopped her in the stomach an' knocked her wind out. That's all."
All! I could have screwed the little villain's neck. I bent down and kissed her. She blushed, and gazed at me half in fear, then hung her head.
That heartless little wretch was leering at me with his tongue stuck against his check.
"Bertie," I said, sternly, "go and milk your cows."
"Then take the milk to your mother. It's bad to leave it standing in the yard."
He grinned and slouched off. I am sure he understood. Hetty got up at once. She was a little bruised, and was still breathing hard. I gave her my arm.
"You are trembling," she said.
"No wonder," I returned. "I thought I had lost you."
"Hetty, I love you..."
That was all. Her eyes looked into mine, those sweet, pretty eyes, and she gave me back my kiss.
We reached the door in time to hear. "Oh, mother, Mr. Crotty kissed Hetty!"
What a trying moment that was. Hetty broke from me and hastened round to the front. I walked boldly in. Master Bertie appeared a little disconcerted as he met my frowns, and Mrs. Brampton eyed me suspiciously.
"Why, Mrs. Brampton." I said, with all the nonchalance at my command, "Hetty has had a most miraculous escape from being killed this morning."
"Good lors!" cried her mother. "What happened?"
I was right now, and proceeded at great length in explaining things, frowning at Bertie whenever he threatened to correct me, for what he saw and what I told didn't exactly fit. But he was a shrewd youngster, and I heard nothing more about it.
I persuaded Hetty to remain at home that day and I took the sheep out. The experience was novel and one can appreciate anything while it's in that stage. I hung my lunch on a low branch and sat down. Unfortunately I fell asleep, and when I woke up there wasn't a woolly in sight. I ran about for two hours, and crossed more hills than I had thought was in that part of the country. Once I climbed a tree to view the universe, but a limb broke from under me, and the fall nearly broke my neck. I didn't climb any more.
Feeling peckish I made a bee-line for my lunch. A thousand crows flew up as I approached, and quarked as though in resentment. All that was left of my lunch was the paper it had been wrapped in. I now hurried towards the hut, and this time I discovered my flock. They were slowly ascending the last hill. Never had I run so hard as I did to get ahead of them. I crept along the brow so the women wouldn't see me, and ran at them on all-fours. They went back at a great rate, and stood and stared at me for half-an-hour after I stopped running. I thought the little brutes would never go on feeding again.
To pass the time, I commenced hunting about for 'possums in hollow trees. There was a track leading from a crossing log, and following it I found it ran to a box tree that had a good sized hole a few feet from the ground. I peeped in very cautiously, expecting to see a 'possum snugly coiled up. Great was my surprise to discover instead a letter and a paper. "A lover's post office," thought I, and without further ceremony extracted the mail. The paper was the "Yabba," and both were addressed to "Nancy, care of Mr. Bryan, Bando." There it was again! Now, what did it all mean? I sat down to think. The writing was my uncle's, and the mail had been delivered at the schoolhouse the day before, and apparently deposited here that morning. The school was only half-a-mile distant. If "Nancy" could get her mail here, why couldn't she go a little further to the office for it? Where could she live at all, and who was she? I determined to watch the place and say nothing. I had a clue, and—"Oh, Lord, where's the sheep!" They were gone again. The time had slipped away whilst I sat musing over Nancy, and it was now nearly sunset.
I reached the top of the last hill, weary and breathless, and looked towards the house. They were there, and Bertie and Hetty were putting them through the gate. I hurried down.
"I began to fear you'd got bushed," Hetty remarked.
"I've been looking for precious stones on the ridge," I told her.
"Did you find any?" laughing.
"Nothing of value."
We had dinner before dark that evening, and Mrs. Brampton remarked that shepherding had given me a good appetite. I said it was the air and the exercise. Somehow, I didn't like to mention the crows.
Hetty took charge again next morning. In the afternoon I paid a second visit to the post office. There was only one packet in the hollow, and it was addressed to the editor of the "Yabba," in a lady's hand. According to circumstances, her place of abode was somewhere in the mountains, and it seemed to me that an unnecessary amount of secrecy was employed in the transaction of her business. I resolved to test Hetty on one point. She fed her flock about here pretty often, and must know something of the comings and goings of the letter carrier. She was just turning the sheep homeward as I joined her.
"You must find it lonely out here," I remarked. "Do you never see anybody passing this way?"
"Only a stockman occasionally. Sometimes Mr. Bryan comes across when school is over. He's a fine old gentleman, and we have many a yarn together."
"And the school children—do none pass this way?"
"No, they come from below us. There are no settlements out here."
"How do the station people get their mail?"
"My father takes it up."
I was cornered again. I couldn't let her see that I was interested in Nancy, for she might resent that. Girls are funny creatures.
On Sunday we all saddled up and started out for a kangaroo hunt, Hetty and Phyllis taking the lead. Old Bill and a Wogangaree stockman told of previous exploits, and talked of horses and cattle for half-an-hour. Then we sighted a mob of kangaroos, and away went Hetty and Phyllis like the wind. The men followed, but my horse couldn't get through the tress fast enough, somehow. Not knowing which way they went after crossing a hill I looked about for tracks. I was leaning over the horse's neck when he shied badly at something in the grass. When I picked myself up the brute was racing for home, his tail up and the reins and stirrups swinging.
I took a short cut across the hills. This led me to make an extraordinary discovery. At the bottom of a steep incline I noticed a narrow track going through a dense mass of ferns, and followed it. It led me to a small opening in a wall of rock. Entering this I found myself in a huge cave, and groped my way to what appeared in the semi-darkness to be a large flat rock standing against the wall. I put my hand on it and great was my surprise on discovering it to be wood! Marvelling as to how it came there I struck a match. Never shall I forget the sight I beheld. Remember, I was at least two miles from the settler's hut, and the fact that none of the Bramptons had mentioned this cave in speaking of the sights to be seen around Bando led me to think I had entered some animal's den hitherto unknown to man.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I found myself standing in the centre of a roughly-furnished office with shelves and pigeon-holes in the walls, and piles of books and papers around me. For a moment I stared at them in bewilderment. I could only think it was the studio of some lonely hermit, who, perhaps, had eked out a miserable existence here and died, leaving his possessions to moulder away to dust, like his bones in the years to come. I looked around with a shudder, half dreading to behold the horrid skeleton stretched on the rocky floor. But nothing of the sort was discernible.
I turned again to the table, and saw for the first time a lantern standing on a ledge of rock. It contained a small piece of candle, which I lit. Then I subjected the contents of the cavern to a closer inspection. What constituted the table was a square case, covered with oil cloth, and on it were sheets of paper, books, pens and ink. The seat was a gin case, and in one corner was a tin box, securely locked. There were files of papers—even the "Bunilla Yabba." There was no accumulation of dust; everything was scrupulously clean. These facts caused me some alarm. The owner must be still "knocking around," and if he should suddenly appear—
I hurriedly surveyed the apartment to ascertain if there were any more caves further in. There was one of diminutive size at the western end. I felt pretty shaky as I peered in and espied what I took to be a man standing still and rigid in the corner. In desperation I thrust the light forward. Great Scot! He wasn't standing at all, he was hanging! I gasped for breath, and beads of perspiration oozed out of me. Breathlessly I advanced step by step, now I stood beside it, stretched out my hand, and drew it back again. I could see no legs, no arms, no head. Had they rotted away and left only the clothes hanging? I stepped back involuntarily and looked on the floor. There was nothing there.
Gaining courage, I thrust my hand against it very gingerly at first, then more forcibly, and finally I grasped the thing and shook it till it fell. It was a lady's cloak, and had been hanging to a rocky projection!
An idea occurred to me on a sudden, and, leaving the cloak as I had found it. I rushed back to the books and papers. Setting the lantern on the table, I overhauled everything that came within reach. My suspicions were quickly verified. There, carefully pigeonholed, were pencilled copies of articles and verses that we had printed in the "Yabba;" there were letters from my uncle anent certain manuscripts, and on the fly-leaf of nearly every book was the name—Nancy! I was in "Nancy's" studio!
I hastily arranged everything in their places, blew out the light, and was about to quit the cavern when the rustling of ferns near the entrance betokened the approach of someone. Not having much presence of mind, I darted into the smaller cave, and crouched in the corner. There was a very feeble light at the entrance, and I kept my eyes on it to get a glimpse of the intruder. There was a flutter of garments, a grating on the stone, and in stepped a veiled lady. I had just time to notice that she was dressed in a tight-fitting jacket and riding habit, when the gloom enveloped her. She went straight to the table and lit the lamp, and after looking carefully around her, came deliberately into the inner cave. I stood up against the wall and held my breath, dreading every moment that she would strike a match and discover me. I cursed my folly in having hidden there. What would she think of me? What explanation could I give?
She took the cloak down, and stood there fumbling with it, her skirt the while brushing against my legs. I trembled. And now something seemed to stick in my throat, and I wanted to cough; the next instant I wanted to sneeze; then a beetle crawled from my shoulder, round my ear and across my nose. I screwed my mouth and nose into all manner of shapes, but the thing wouldn't fall off. Then a confounded bat struck me on the back of the neck and clung there. I gasped and shuddered, and twisted my neck, but it wouldn't move on. To make matters worse, something like a centipede commenced crawling up my leg. Oh, the agony of that moment! What the deuce was she doing with the cloak? Would she never go? I'd have to scratch directly or bust.
She hung up the cloak, and was turning to go, but I couldn't stand it any longer. "Ashew! Ahem! Ashew!" Flop went the bat on the floor, bang went the beetle against the wall, and—a frantic scream echoed through the caves, and "Nancy" rushed out to the light. I followed, but stopped short in the middle of the cave and pulled up the leg of my trousers, when out dropped a long, red caterpillar known as "thousand legs." Then I looked up scratching vigorously.
Great Scot! it was Hetty Brampton.
"Hetty!" I gasped. "How in Heaven's name did you come here?"
"Oh, Walter," she panted, sinking down on the gin-case, "what a fright you gave me!" She drew a long breath, then continued: "We separated coming home to look for you, and I came here for something I wanted. My horse is at the foot of the hill. But—oh, Walter, how did you find this?"
Succinctly then I told her of my experiences and in answer to my inquiries, she said:
"My father 'roused' on me once for 'sitting about instead of working,' when he caught me writing. I had left school then, and Phyllis and I used to take turn about with the sheep. She was better in the house than I was, so I persuaded mother to keep her there, and let me mind the sheep always. I had formed my plans, and soon got to work. It's this—what you have discovered."
"Then you are Nancy." I gasped. She nodded, smiling shamefacedly.
"The schoolmaster showed me this place, and gave me most of what you see here," she went on. "I hated my surroundings, and wanted to make some money to take me to a better place."
"Let me find that better place and make you happy. Will you come with me, darling?"
"Yes—but I don't think father will consent."
"Then we'll go without his consent," I declared. "Why didn't you tell me your secret before?"
"I intended to tell you all before you went back. You didn't tell me you had discovered my retreat?"
"But I thought it was Nancy's."
"Well." She paused, and looked at me archly. I caught her in my arms.
"Hetty, I am so glad—so glad that you are Nancy!"
* * * * *
I mustered up courage to ask old Bill for her before I left, and Bill ordered me off the premises. But he softened afterwards—a long while afterwards. We were married then.
It was a rough little hut that first sheltered the pioneers of Bora Downs. There were only three rooms, built of slabs and roofed with bark, and a lean-to at the back for cooking in. Ms. Drayden had often voiced her objections to the latter, for it necessitated her going out at all times when the men were away, and the thought of blacks was ever uppermost in her mind. She could not forget how they had come to Bora, she and her sister, Nellie Harrod, perched under the awning on top of the bullock waggon, and menaced day and night by wandering aborigines, and how the site had been marked by a battle on the first morning.
There was a grave at the edge of the scrub half-a-mile from the sapling yard, whence the broad grey plains spread away to the western horizon. She had objected to this scrub, too, as it afforded cover to the enemy; but Phil Drayden had pointed out that the homestead must be built there for the sake of the water.
The greatest trouble was experienced when the sheep were brought on to the run. The blacks looked on the jumbucks as legitimate game, and many skirmishes took place between them and the whites. The sheep were kept on the open country, where they could be seen at a great distance from the hut. When any blacks were seen approaching Nellie would gallop out, taking care not to get too close, and crack her stockwhip. For a while this ruse answered the purpose, but the blacks at length discovered that there was no harm in it, except when it fell on their shoulders, and they came to greet her efforts in the end with derisive yells.
Then one day she took the gun, and, approaching nearer than usual, fired a charge of coarse salt at their legs. That changed their opinions or the white lubra, and they ran for their lives, the wounded ones with howls of agony, and now that they were turned in flight Nellie galloped close at their heels and gave them the contents of half-a-dozen salt-loaded cartridges. For months after that they kept away from Bora Downs. Then one afternoon they appeared suddenly at the hut.
The men were fencing at the back of the run, and the women were seated quietly at a table sewing. The doors were closed, which was always the case when the women were alone. The rattle of a chain at the lean-to attracted Mrs. Drayden, and stealing to a crack in the back wall she peeped out, and was horrified to see a score of naked savages around the fire. She had a pudding cooking in a round pot for the men when they came home in the evening, and two of the unwelcome visitors were in the act of lifting it out with their spears. She tiptoed quickly back to her sister.
"Nellie, Nellie," she whispered, hurriedly, "the blacks are here. They're at the pudding. Oh what are we to do?"
The colour left Nellie's face at the shock, and she took a hasty survey of the scene The blacks were in their war panoply, and the absence of women was an ominous sign. The men had taken the firearms with them, for men in those days fenced with a loaded gun ready at hand or a pouched revolver slung at the belt.
Nellie without a word, stole back to the front and looked out. The bay pony was standing behind some bushes a few yards away, and in a moment she had made up her mind.
"Phyllis," she whispered, "you peg the doors and windows, and keep quiet." She took the bridle down from a peg behind the door.
"But what are you going to do?" asked Phyllis, anxiously.
"Gallop out for Phil and Bob," Nellie, replied. "I can get Nutley without being seen, as the blacks are all interested in sampling the duff."
"Oh, let me go, too," cried Phyllis. "I daren't stop here."
"We can't both go," said Nellie. "One would only hinder the other. Keep very quiet, and you'll be safe."
"I suppose I must," said Phyllis, resignedly. "But be quick back, won't you? And for goodness' sake be careful!"
She watched through the chinks in the wall while Nellie crept to the bushes and slipped the bridle on Nutley. Springing on to his back she galloped away along the edge of the scrub. The first clatter of hoofs aroused the preoccupied blacks and after a hurried consultation they fled precipitately into the thicket. Phyllis breathed freely again, and now watched minute after minute for Nellie to appear on the plain.
Below the rise on which the hut stood was a lone waterhole, and to round this Nellie had to pass through a projecting point of the scrub. She was half through, riding hurriedly, when a broken limb caught her hard against the shoulder, and knocked her out of the saddle. She was not hurt, and was soon running after the pony, which had turned and crossed the main creek. For half-an-hour she chased it about, but, though Nutley was easily caught at any time in the little house paddock, his behavior was quite different in the open country. Fearing to lose any more time, she gave it up and continued her way on foot. In her hurry and in the confusion consequent upon running after Nutley, she had lost her bearings, and without taking much notice, she now crossed a branch creek in mistake for the main channel and struck across the wide plain that spread before her. The line of timber on her right, which really marked the main creek, she took for that which fringed the waterhole and the dry course that led into it. Thus by a slight error, her footsteps were directly at right angles to the course she should have taken.
It was five miles across that plain, and when she had reached the far side she knew she was bushed. This was not Bora boundary, for a chain of waterholes ran east and west. She gazed around her in despair, with a growing fear in her heart as she thought of her sister waiting alone in the hut. She quenched her thirst on her hands and knees, and hurried along the watercourse, seeing that it led towards the other line of timber, now a low bank in the distance. Her eyes filled with tears as the sun went down, and the howl of a dingo came faintly through the trees. What was she to do? She could not find her way back in the dark, and she dared not leave the water. Neither could she light a fire to guide those who would come in search of her; she had nothing to light it with.
As she stumbled on, tired and breathless, the night shut down on the silent plains, and a new horror came with it. She was being followed by dingoes, and the frequent howls of others in the distance indicated to the frightened girl that they were gathering around her. She picked up a stick to defend herself, and ever searching for a tree she could climb, or for other means of escape, she hurried desperately on through the night.
That afternoon had been a torture to Mrs. Drayden. The disappearance of Nellie in the scrub, and her non-return, told plainly that something serious had happened. When she saw the men returning at sunset she ran down to meet them. "Nellie...Nellie!" she cried faintly. "Oh, Phil, where's Nellie?"
"How do I know?" asked Phil roughly. Nevertheless he stopped short, and stared at her. "What's happened?"
"The blacks were here." said Phyllis. "and she galloped away on Nutley to bring you home."
"We haven't seen her," Phil returned, looking blankly at his mate, Bob Wylie.
"I didn't see her leave the scrub," Phyllis continued, tremulously.
"Oh, God, Phil, she's dead—she's killed!" She broke into sobs and wrung her hands.
"She can't be far," he told her, though his own heart felt as though it had been plunged into an ice-chest. "Go back to the house, Phyllis."
He handed her the billycan, and, with the gun on his shoulder, hurried down to the scrub. Here, standing against the fence, he found Nutley. Springing upon his back, he followed the horse's tracks till dark, then cantered across the eastern sandhills in search of the blacks camp.
Meanwhile Bob had cut off some bread and beef, and with this in a saddle-pouch slung over his shoulder, started on the girl's tracks, with a good dog scenting before him.
Bob had not been very long on Bora Downs, but quite long enough to discover that Nellie Harrod was the dearest little woman on earth. His had been a rough and adventurous life, exploring for land-seeking squatters, and over-landing; and a night out on the downs was nothing to him. He would do a hundred times more than that for Nellie's sake. They had been firm friends from the first; beyond that Bob had not ventured, but this incident told him how very much he was in love with her.
For a while the dog led him straight on, but after crossing the creek his course became so erratic that Bob had to search himself for the tracks with lighted matches to ascertain if the animal were not leading him false. When he saw the girl's and the horse's tracks he understood; but still he was filled with misgivings. She would not be all this time following the horse. Then what had become of her? Had the blacks come upon her and speared her?
Only when the dog crossed the branch creek and made a bee-line across the plain did the expectancy of coming upon her dead body leave him. He knew then that she was bushed; but how would she come out of it? He thought of the many thirst-perished travellers he had heard of and found, of bushed women who had wandered in circles and died. And even as he followed in the wake of the faithful animal four lines kept running through his mind:—
Dead on the sandhill
The sundowner lies,
The crow on the quondong
Has peeled out his eyes.
Would he find his Nellie so? A hundred ways he anticipated the finding of her as he hurried along in the dark, but all his dreaming never pictured what really happened.
He was glad when the dog led him to the water, and he could have shouted with joy when, striking matches along the edge, he saw the impression of her hand still fresh in the mud. Now satisfied that she was safe, he sat down and ate some of the bread and beef he had brought, keeping the bigger share for Nellie. He bathed his feet in the water to ease them, for Bob had done a hard day's work before starting on this long night tramp. Then he pushed on again, the dog following the chain of ponds. In an hour they came to a stand still between two trees. The dog sniffed around them, then stood still, looking up.
High up across the branches of these trees was a bulky stage, built of logs and sticks. Bob recognised it at once as the repository for the bodies of dead aborigines, a custom peculiar to that part of the country. A faint stench reached him, and it was probably this that attracted the dog. He struck his last match—and it went out. The last match nearly always does go out, somehow. Then he tried to induce the animal to go on; but it would only dodge aside and look up. When he led the way it followed him slowly and dejectedly. He was puzzled; the dog had never betrayed his confidence, and it was not the first aboriginal burial ground the twain had investigated. He persisted for half an hour, but the dog would not go on.
"There's no help for it but to camp till mornin'," muttered Bob, impatiently, and with much disappointment. He went to a bushy tree some fifty yards distant and lay down on the grass. A smoke would have done him good just then; but he had no matches. So he lay with his boots and hat for a pillow, gazing at the stars, and thinking of Nellie Harrod.
Phil Drayden had returned to the hut long before this time, having found no trace of the blacks.
"We can do nothing more till morning, Phyllis—or till Bob comes back," he said, as he sat wearily down to supper. Poor Phyllis was heart broken. "You shouldn't have taken the gun away from the hut to-day." she reproached.
"I'll never do so again." he promised her.
Bob was wakened at sunrise by the persistent growling of his brute companion. He sat up, and almost immediately his eyes fell on a number of wild blacks standing a hundred yards off, yabbering and pointing excitedly in his direction. He thought that he was the object of interest, and a cold chill went through him as it struck him that here was the solution of the dog's strange behaviour last night, and of Nellie's disappearance.
"You black fiends," he hissed, as he leaped to his feet, with his hand gripping his revolver. Then he chanced to look towards the stage, and there, sitting a few feet from the withered remains of a native monarch, sat Nellie Harrod her hair dropping about her shoulders, starring with terrified eyes at the equally terrified blacks. They swayed a moment, and then, turning as one, fled precipitately into the hush. apparently convinced that their dead compatriot had "jumped up white fellow."
Bob was so pleased that he shouted lustily, "Hulloa, there!"
Nellie turned quickly. "Oh, Bob, is it you!" she cried, joyfully.
She slipped down, and limping towards him threw herself into his arms. The relief from her pent up feelings was so great that she let him cover her face with passionate kisses. But presently she drew back with bowed bead, and little crimson splashes dyed her cheeks. Bob held her hands.
"You needn't be ashamed, Nellie," he said. "I've wanted to kiss you ever so long, an' I'm goin' to kiss you always—because I love you. Last night put the finisher on me. I couldn't go on lookin' at you any longer; I had to kiss you or bust. An' you'll be my very own now, won't you, dearie?"
"Let me tell you when I get home, Bob," she answered faintly.
"All right, pet. I'm a brute to've forgotten. You must be famished. An' what's the matter with your foot?"
"I hurt it climbing on to that horrid place there. I was so frightened of the dingoes that, in my hurry, I slipped and hurt my ankle. However am I to get home?"
"I'll carry you, my girl, you mustn't walk one blessed inch. Let me lift you along to the water first of all—just to get into the way of it. I've got some tucker in the pouch for you, and with that an' a drink of water, you'll be as fit as a fiddler to ride home."
He carried her tenderly in his arms to the water's edge, and there she eagerly ate what rough provisions he had brought. His own breakfast was only a drink of water and a chew of tobacco; but he led her to believe he had already eaten.
"Wonder you didn't hear me moochin' around under your roost last night?" he remarked.
"I suppose I was dead asleep," she answered. "I was so awfully tired when I got up there."
"Good thing you struck that fakus, anyhow," said Bob. "My oath, you gave those niggers a Yankee start this mornin'!"
"I was really thinking of my prayers when they turned," Nellie confessed, with a coy little smile.
"They won't come any more," Bob asserted. "An' now we'll get you home, dearie, or Phil an' the missus will be goin' dotty."
He helped her up, and stooped for her to get on his back. "Don't be the least afraid," he assured her. "You'll find me a thoroughly reliable mount—never bucked in me life."
That was a terrible journey for poor Bob, seven miles of gritty plain under a blazing sun, that drenched him with perspiration, but he never murmured. At the bottom of the house paddock Phyllis and Drayden met them frantic with delight, and Bob was relieved of his burden. But when Drayden put her down in the hut she turned to him again.
"Bob," she said, with a little quiver in her voice, "I'll give you your answer now." Then she put her arms round his neck and kissed him.
They were never afterward molested by the blacks, and no matter how far the sheep wandered, they were never interfered with. So they came to look upon Nellie's adventure as the best thing that could have happened for Bora Downs.
Wood was a scarce commodity about Nuggety—a little mining town in the north-west. The old fossickers, living in little canvas humpies, could manage very well with a few sticks in summer, but in the bleak winters they wanted a good log pretty often. The nearest supply was in the hotel yards. When business was brisk the publicans didn't mind good customers taking a cheap log home with them instead of a bottle. But there were some who never spent anything on drink, yet carried off more wood than those who spent everything. They would smoke a pipe on the verandah, and when Murphy (proprietor of the Lost Souls' Hotel), had a conversation on in the bar, slip quietly round to the back, lift a handy log from the woodheap, and sneak off into the shadows of the rock-heaps.
The flats were honeycombed with shallow holes, and narrow pads zigzagged through them to the various camps. It was an awkward place to meet anyone at night when carrying wood out of town, as to step off the track would probably mean an ugly fall down an abandoned shaft, and to turn back would simply invite investigation. One might cross 99 times empty-handed and meet nobody, and next time, staggering under a fat lump of gidgee, he might meet half-a-dozen, including Constable Swanker, who sometimes struck off among the burrows for no apparent reason.
It was by accident I discovered the trick adopted by the fossickers. I came suddenly on to a man one night climbing out of a shaft and shoving a log in front of him. He had been making home with it when he heard someone coming towards him. He dropped it quietly into the nearest hole, took a few steps forward, and stopped to light his pipe then went on. When the other man had passed out of earshot he went back and recovered his bit of wood. It cost a lot of exertion at times to get a log home. Sometimes it would have to be popped down half-a-dozen holes, and some of those holes were deep.
There was one grey-bearded hatter of the blue ribbon variety, known as Old Ned, who had become a perfect plague to Murphy. He lived directly behind Murphy's yard, and consumed enough firing material for a factory. At least, Murphy blamed him for it all, though the quantity that "walked" more than equalled what Murphy used himself.
It cost Murphy £1 a load. So, when business was slack, and the weather a little colder than usual, he set a trap to catch old Ned. Several short, junky logs were chucked carelessly about the heap, where Ned would have no trouble in finding them. An inch hole had been bored into each, filled up with powder, and carefully sealed.
That night, about 9 o'clock, noticing a big blaze in Ned's shanty, Murphy examined his wood heap. Every "doctored" log was gone. Then he crept over to Ned's, and posted himself at a crack in the door. Ned was sitting on a stone before his fire, his elbow on his knee and his pipe propped between his fingers. A cat lay coiled up at his feet. It was a cheery picture of a rugged fireside.
Presently a deafening explosion happened; the logs jumped, and splinters flew up in a cloud of ashes, sparks, smoke, and cinders. The cat took a flying leap through the window, and old Ned fell over on his back, and lay wedged between the stone and the foot of his bunk, gasping and staring in a dazed way at the fireworks. Murphy tore round a heap of gibbers to laugh.
A few minutes later a shot was heard from down the flat, then another behind the hill. While Murphy stood scratching his head, and shaking in his boots a terrific blast came from Widow Bran's hut on his left, followed by screams and shrieks, and a cloud of sparks up the chimney. More shots down the flat and over the hill filled the interval; then two echoing reports broke up the serenity in the Chinese camp, mingled with yells and a babel of Mongolian chatter. Murphy had a fit at this juncture, and rolled on the ground.
When all was quiet again, he made a circuit towards the pub, and back to Ned's humpy. Ned was standing outside, viewing the disturbing element from afar off.
"Plenty of fireworks about to-night, Ned," he remarked. "What's on?"
"Er—dunno!" said Ned, with a scared look inside.
"Thought I heard a shot here," Murphy went on.
"Er—was outside," Ned stammered. "Some fool goin' along let a cracker off."
"Scattered your fire a bit," said Murphy quietly. "Those coals 'ill be burning something directly."
Ned put one leg through the doorway, and drew it back again. "Oh, it's all right," he said. "Nuthin' to burn."
"Better rake it together," Murphy, advised. "There's a bag behind your bunk smoking."
Ned made another attempt to screw up his courage, but just as he moved his leg the cat jumped back through the window. Ned jumped also.
"I—it's all right," he repeated. "Be turnin' in drekly."
Murphy went in and had a look round. Then, as he walked off, grinning, "All's safe enough now, Ned," he assured him. "I only put one charge in that log."
* * * * *
Murphy's woodheap needed no watching for a long time after that. But towards the end of winter crowds of men passed through on their way to the early sheds, and the wood began to disappear again. Many of the old hands put up at the Lost Souls' Hotel, getting credit till after shearing. Others, especially rouseabouts from "Down Below," pitched their tents on the flat. About twenty of them camped near Old Ned's, and Murphy watched them with a suspicious eye as they searched about for twigs and chips. Murphy had a derry on those people, and was determined to make an example of some of them. He was unusually busy about the woodpile after dusk, and, subsequently smoked a good many quiet pipes outside. Still nothing happened that night.
Early in the morning he noticed they had a big fire going. A bucket was swung over it, billies stood round, three or four dogs sat on their haunches waiting, and, whilst a couple of men were cooking meat in a frying pan, others were saddling and packing horses. A hasty survey of his yard satisfied Murphy as to how many beans made five, and he hurried down to the lockup for Senior-constable Swanker. The portly officer was very eager for a case. He much regretted having missed Old Ned, and requested Murphy, as a personal favour, to give him timely warning when he laid the next trap. He hadn't done so, and now he almost ran, in case Swanker should miss "the grand opportunity." He thought a lot of Swanker; he saluted when he passed, and treated him from the best bottle whenever he "looked in." Swanker looked in every day—several times.
The courthouse was a narrow building, with a small office at the back. Here Swanker was seated before a brisk fire. It was a cold morning, and Swanker was a man who loved comfort. He was dressed for duty, and was pulling on his riding boots when Murphy entered. "Come on, Swanker," he cried, excitedly. "Got twenty of 'em nicely trapped. Hurry up; the logs are burnin'."
Swanker turned pale, and cast a scared glance at his fire. As though in reply, the innocent looking log blazing there suddenly commenced shooting like Port Arthur. A flying cork struck Swanker hard between the eyes, and spread him out on his back. Whether the force of the blow stunned him, or he fainted with fright, Murphy never knew; but by the time he had fetched him round, and brought him brandy, and had a little talk with him, the great event at the travellers camp had happened. He saw some of it while running for the reviver. He saw a bucket and a pan jump into the air with a shower of ashes, sparks, chops, and johnnycakes; he saw men and dogs falling over one another, horses pulling back and dropping down shafts, others bolting across the flats, scattering packs and campware as they went. Afterwards, when he saw them hauling their mates out of holes, digging out half-buried horses, and collecting their disseminated property, he decided that they were sufficiently punished, and let them off under the First Offenders Act. He was a feeling man, was Murphy.
Concerning his old friend, Constable Swanker, however, he had grave doubts. He even suspected him of being an old offender, and gazed at his own bit of mulga, burning in the house of justice, with a pained expression. He was a bit staggered when Swanker turned towards him, and said, with emphasis, while he beat a pencil on the table—
"Ye can think yeself a lucky man, Murphy, that ye're a friend of mine. Had any wan else done that, I'd 'ave had him up for damages—for the doin' of that which is a menace to the public welfare. I dunno but what ye'd get seven years. How did I know whin I picked that log up on the flat beyant as I was comin' home that it had been shtolen from your yard an' dropped there? Maybe it was dropped for me—to cast a shlur on the foorce. Ye see, Murphy, bein' a bit short for wance, I picked up th' shtick as any wan would—seein' it lyin' about. I warn ye' now, Daniel Murphy, not to be doin' anything agin, that's likely to endanger human life widout givin' me proper notice. Had you done so lasht night, we'd 'ave had the wood stalers this morning. Come on, Murphy, I'll have a drink wid you."
Late that night a big meeting of shearers and roustabouts dismounted at a fence about half a mile from the Lost Souls' Hotel. Their horses, and bikes made an imposing line in the dim starlight. The men were a determined looking lot, and they were armed with augers, braces and bits, tins of cheap powder, and bags of corks. A few carried hammers, and all wore bagging or sheepskins round their feet. Silently, they entered Murphy's yard, and like crows on a carcase, they swarmed over his woodheap.
For an hour they worked as only shearers work when they're cutting for a bell sheep. Long men and short men, thin men and stout men, sweated over an assortment of bought, borrowed, or stolen augers, and grunted over a variety of equally doubtful braces and bits. Every stick of wood was riddled—there was to be no escape for Daniel Murphy and his Chinese cook. Other men followed with tins of powder, and others behind them with corks to plug up the charge. They did their work neatly and thoroughly. Even Murphy, they reckoned, could find no fault with their workmanship.
Having still a quantity of powder on hand, they spread out among the fossickers and other residents, and operated on every woodheap and stray stick and log they met with. Then they stole away as quietly as they had come.
It happened that Cow Fat, the cook, had enough small wood inside to do him till nearly midday. For all that Murphy was puzzled and anxious all the morning. An artillery duel had commenced at an early hour, and shots continued to be heard for a considerable time all over the field. Swanker rode off in one direction to investigate. From another direction came a score of miners, bearing down on the Lost Souls' Hotel with picks and shovels, bottles and brickbats. Having lost sundry eyebrows and other personal adornments, and suffered otherwise from concussion of the atmosphere, they had assembled in the manner of crows, and decided on Daniel Murphy as the culprit. They had all heard how Murphy had enjoyed his little joke on Old Ned and others, and it was plain to them that he was extending operations and laughing at them all in secret. If there is anything a miner abhors more than a "jumper," it is the practical joker. So things looked pretty sultry for Daniel Murphy when they ranged up outside the bar, and invited him in caustic terms to come out.
He stood at the door. He heard what they had to say and indignantly denied the impeachment. That angered them still more. A liar, they said, was the next worst thing to a practical joker. Some wanted to fight him, others brandished their picks and shovels menacingly at the pub. Murphy asked them to come and have a drink, in vain he proclaimed his innocence of any complicity in the matter. It looked certain that the Lost Souls' Hotel would be wrecked before Swanker turned up. Swanker was always a long time when he was wanted.
Luckily a diversion happened. Something like a thunderclap struck the rear of the premises, and set the windows and bottles rattling. A moment of breathless silence followed, then three shots, and as many shrieks, in quick, succession, and finally, a wild and frantic Chinaman rushed into the bar.
"Ho you—you Murphy—whaffor!" he cried, with delirious gesticulations. "Whaffor shoottee me—whaffor makee mine blow me up! Whaffor!"
"What's happened, you gibbering idiot?" gasped Murphy.
"I puttee wood on. Bynbye he jump—bang—bustem—shoo!" the cook explained, throwing up both arms. "Stove—he blow up; loast meat blow up, cabbage blow up, plum duff—he blow up. No fear, no more cookum. No good. I wantee cheque. I clear ou'."
There was doubt in many faces of the miners. Some had already hurried to the kitchen. They saw the wreck, and were scared out by more shots. Then they recognised Murphy as a brother in misfortune, and fell on his neck in the bar. Later, on Murphy borrowed all the available corkscrews on the field, and set a dozen blacks to work extracting the charges. They worked about ten minutes—when Combardelo Billy had an accident. He let a spark drop on to some powder, and the resultant blast blew his pipe through the leaf of his straw hat. In the end, Murphy fired the stack, and the whole mining population turned out to see the performance. It was the last of the fireworks; but for a year or more no one on Nuggety would pick up a stick without first subjecting it to a microscopic examination.
It was in the days when the cedar trade was brisk on the Richmond, and Mostyn Carrab was kept busy nearly all the year round rafting the logs down the river. He practically lived on the river, carrying a small cabin, which he could take to pieces and stow away in the boat when he reached his journey's end. The trip down occupied about a fortnight, but the river steamer towed him back in one day. Then his cabin would be re-erected on another raft. His wife, and his daughter Priscilla travelled with him. Mrs. Carrab cooked and washed, and sewed and knitted, while Priscilla helped her father to navigate the raft.
Mostyn had been a sailor. In his cups (he took a little occasionally, especially on a wet trip, to keep the damp out) his yarns implied that he was a retired sea captain. At all events, he earned the title of Captain Carrab on the river. He was certainly captain of a raft. He called her the Cedric. They were all Cedrics. When he started on the first tide with his new command, he would cry out to the timber-getters on the bank as he stepped, barefooted, along the dancing logs, "Away we go again on the old Cedric!" She travelled only on the ebb tides, drifting with the stream, and took a deal of manœuvring round the sharp bends. Priscilla, carrying a long pole, looked after the stern, the Captain, similarly armed, operated in the fore part. In the evenings, when she was drifting straight, he liked to lie back in a canvas deck-chair, smoking a huge Dutch pipe, and with a gun on the logs beside him for ducks.
Half-way down the river was Muddle's farm, situated in a big bight, which took Carrab's craft several hours to get round. He and Tom Muddle were old shipmates, and he mostly went ashore when he got near the farm, and spent a good time with the Muddles till Priscilla and her mother had brought the raft round to the opposite point. When the tide turned in the vicinity, and they had to tie up till the ebb, he would take Mrs. Carrab and Priscilla with him to the farm-house.
Muddle was a widower with two children, Octavius and Sarah. Octavius was a simple farmer's son, a sapling, who had spent his 22 years in that bight. Sarah was four years younger—the same age as Priscilla. In the matter of looks, the latter was nothing to rave about; she was a homely sort of girl. To simple Octavius she seemed an angel, and the farm began to be lonely when she wasn't there. He was soon desperately in love with Priscilla. She appeared to regard him favourably, and Octavius determined to get her all to himself for once so that the momentous question could be answered definitely one way or the other. He liked plenty of time when anything like that was on the tapis. He had no chance on the raft or anywhere else, while her father was about. The Captain was a fierce, aggressive, little person, who shoo'd off any intrepid swain who was likely to tamper with Priscilla's affections. He had his own opinions regarding courtship, and was strictly opposed to Priscilla doing anything in that line for the next three years at least. She was as good as a man on a raft.
Octavius was quite sure he would never merit the approval of the old sea dog. The Captain treated him with dull disdain, as something too insignificant to be regarded as a danger. The young farmer was certainly not a ladies' man; but Priscilla was inexperienced, and if he could gain her promise he would find a way to outwit the Captain. So he thought.
One evening he met the raft with a basket of eggs. The Captain drew in just close enough to reach them. Mrs. Carrab came along to add her thanks to the old chap's grunt. They had known many little considerations of the kind from the Muddles.
"How's your father an' sister?" she asked.
"Sarah's sick," Octavius answered. "She's in bed."
"Oh, I'm sorry to hear that. Nothing serious. I hope?"
"Dunno," he said. "Took bad yesterday. She—she'd like to see Miss Carrab—if yer ken spare her."
She held a private conversation with the Captain, during which Octavius felt uneasy. He feared Mrs. Carrab would go up to see Sarah, and there would be no points in having a sick sister in that case. She took the eggs shortly to the cabin, had a talk with Priscilla and returned to him with the basket.
"Priscilla will be up directly, tell Sarah," she informed him. "She can stop to-night—as the tide'll run out 'fore we get past the bight—an' she can walk across an' catch us up in the mornin'."
Octavius was delighted. He tore up to the house excited and panting. Sarah was standing at the kitchen table, peeling potatoes, and humming "Molly Riley."
"Sarah, get to bed quick—she's comin'!" he gasped. Sarah dropped her knife without a word and ran into her room. Octavius hissed through the keyhole, "Be mortal bad, Sarah!" Then he picked up the knife and was making a fine fist at the spuds when Miss Carrab came in.
"How's she doin'?" Priscilla inquired.
"Think she's improvin' a bit," Octavius answered. "In here," he added, turning the knob and leaving her to go in.
Sarah was a good sister, and she and Octavius confided wholly in one another. She had formed this little plan, she fondly hoped, to make him happy. Octavius was slow and bashful; and she considered a name like Octavius was in itself detrimental to a successful love career. She would tell Priscilla how good he was, and feeling her way carefully would ultimately confess that he was madly in love with her. Octavius accepted this proposal as his due. What was the use of having a sister if she couldn't do that much for a man? It was what sisters were for. After matching their brothers, they could look out for suitable matches for themselves. If Priscilla didn't care for him, then Sarah would continue to be ill, so that the Carrabs wouldn't know the truth; but if she showed that she was "shook on him," and would like him to tell her—
On a sudden Octavius gave a violent start, and upset the dish. He heard a commotion in the bedroom, and a lot of giggling. Then the door opened, and Priscilla was shoved out.
"Here you are, Octo!" cried Sarah, and immediately banged the door again. Priscilla stood before him, abashed and blushing. It was sudden.
Octavius advanced awkwardly—grinning. He caught her hands—after some fumbling. "Priscilla!" he said. She glanced at him slyly, and started to laugh. Then he flung two huge arms round her—and kissed her. That was all Octavius ever did to win his girl; but they loved each other well.
After tea they were playing cards—the happiest trio in Christendom—when in walked Captain Carrab. The momentary silence was painful. Both girls reddened, and Octavius was the one who looked ill. He hadn't expected the tide to turn so soon. He wasn't very well up in tides.
"You are better, Miss Muddle?" said the Captain, stiffly. He usually called her Sarah.
"Yes—much better, thank you," said Sarah unable to conceal her discomfiture.
"You look it," the Captain rejoined, glancing round with an audible sniff.
"How far did yer get?" Octavius inquired, with a desperate desire to give the girls breathing time. The Captain ignored him absolutely.
"Where's your father?" he asked Sarah.
"When did he go"
"Umph!" grunted the Captain. "Priscilla, get your hat!"
Priscilla's expression was pitiable. She got her hat.
"Come on!" said the Captain. "Good night, Miss Muddle."
When they had gone, Octavius and Sarah stared blankly at each other.
"It was a terrible knock," Octavius said.
He did not get a chance to speak with Priscilla again for six months. The Captain called at the farm occasionally to see his old shipmate, but he never brought his family. He brought excuses instead. He never addressed Octavius either; wouldn't look in his direction.
For a while the lovers corresponded. Priscilla would watch her opportunity, and throw a note, wrapped round a stone, on to the bank where Octavius dipped water. He in turn would crawl along through the woods and brush, feasting his eyes on the bluff old raftsman's daughter, and when chance permitted, throw her a similar message. But the yearning to speak to her, and hold her to him, grew in his heart till he could stand it no longer. Courting is a pretty tame affair when principals, by compulsion, are mute, and there's half a river between them, and a pugnacious person on the look-out at the masthead. So one cold winter's evening, after crawling a mile along the bank, he called softly across the water, "I'll swim over to-night!" The Captain happened to be on shore getting wood. He heard, but he said nothing to Priscilla.
Octavius donned an old suit of clothes expressly, and an extra disreputable pair of boots. Having no hat befitting the occasion, he went bare-headed. It was bright starlight, and so cold that he breathed clouds of fog as he went along. He had some difficulty in finding the raft, and nearly broke his neck in the search. But once he located it he was soon in the water. The first dip nearly paralysed him, and he gasped for breath. The raft was hugging the opposite bank, though the turn was towards him. This made the swim doubly long, and he thought he would have died with cramps before he got over.
Priscilla was waiting for him at her accustomed post. Her mother was watching in front, as the Captain had taken a bad turn just after tea, and was lying down in the cabin.
"C-c-couldn't be ber-ber-better," Octavius mumbled, as he dragged his shivering form on to the logs.
"My poor dear Octavius!" whispered Priscilla, patting his head feelingly.
He clasped her impetuously, but she shrank back with a shudder.
"Oh, you're so wet an' cold, dear! I'll kiss you instead, an' we can sit an' talk."
"I've been longin' for this mo-mo-ment for months," Octavius said, through chattering teeth.
"I hope you won't catch cold," said Priscilla, sympathetically. "It's such a raw night to be swimmin'."
"Oh, I'm as right as p-p-pie," he replied, shivering with great violence. "It's heavenly to be sis-sis-sittin' here."
"What's the matter with your hands, dear?"
Octavius was caressing his hands tenderly. "Fell into a bed o' stingin' nettles," he said. "Makes 'em smart."
"And your poor dear face?"
"Oh, it'll soon be orlright," Octavius declared breathlessly. "Wish I could sis-sis-sit with you ev-ver-ver-very night.' "
Priscilla put her arm round his neck in pity—and snatched it back again. He reminded her of a water rat.
Just then a portly form sprang out of the cabin, and came trotting briskly across the logs. Octavius hadn't time to say good-bye, he had only time to drop off into the water, and remain, clinging by his finger-tips, with his face pressed against the end of a log. He almost howled with pain as the Captain stepped by, and the swinging of the logs jambed his ear. Do what he would, he couldn't keep his teeth from chattering. They rattled like castanets.
"Thought I heard fish jumpin' 'ere," said the Captain, shaking out a scoop-net, and searching the end of the logs with an owl-like eye. "Ought to be a good night for mullet," he added, and dropped the net directly behind the half-frozen agriculturist. He shoved it far down and under the logs, and soon he began to haul up again. There was something in it—something big and heavy. It kicked and splashed prodigiously, and made the rummiest noise Carrab had ever heard from a fish. When he drew it on to the logs, it sputtered and gasped, and reared up, and threw out fins a yard long.
"Bring a light, girl!" cried the Captain. "Got a devil fish, or octopus, or something. Keep clear—might bite."
"For God's sake!" gasped the fish, clawing at the meshes.
"Thunder!" cried Carrab. "It talks! Must be a mermaid—or a merman."
"Oh, father," pleaded Priscilla, tearfully. "It's poor Octavius."
"Octavius—eh? Hang me if I didn't think 'twas some kind of an octopus. Belay there, or I'll flatten you out with a marlin spike. You"—turning to Priscilla—"you get to bunk."
"Th' tide's runnin' strong," Priscilla reminded him.
"Get to bunk," the Captain repeated. "This chap understands tides. 'S agoin' on duty right now. Out you come, you lubber."
He hauled the net fiercely towards him, and Octavius was emptied out in a sprawling heap on the logs. He couldn't speak, and his teeth were bumping like a milk-shake machine.
"Purty cold courtin' t' night," the Captain remarked, helping him to his feet. The attitude of Octavius was eloquent. "Don't mind a decent, straight-out, land-lubber, or a fo'c'sle dosser doin' a bit o' spoony-winkin' aboard this ship, but can't stand fish. Jes' step along 'ere, Octovarious. Only one wav as I ken hit on jest' now, o' dealin' with amphibian critters like you. Come along."
He led him to the cabin, and threw down a suit of warm clothes, and a pair of sea boots. "Peel off, an' get inter them," he said, gruffly. "Ken take this cap, too—an' this comforter. Look alive now."
Octavius hurried as fast as his numbed fingers would permit, wondering in a vague way what would be in store for him. He was in such a wretched condition just then that nothing really mattered.
When he emerged from the cabin, still shivering, he saw the Captain standing with a lantern in one hand, and a dog-chain and two padlocks in the other.
"This way," said Carrab, and led him back to the end of the raft. Here he secured one end of the chain to the cable, and proceeded to fasten the other end round the farmer's leg. "Use-ter have a dog one time," he remarked during the operation. "But he swum ashore an' never come back. 'Fraid you might do the same. Think so much of you, Octobius—I wouldn't like to lose you." The chain was padlocked, and the luckless Muddle was a prisoner—very much muddled, too. "Now," said Carrab, "the tide'll run fir four hours yet. You take that pole, an' keep th' craft clear o' the bank an' all obstructions till further orders."
Before Octavius could utter a word in reply, Carrab was half-way back to the cabin. Shortly he went to the front, and thence till the tide ran out he never came nearer to him than the cabin. The women had gone to bed, enjoying a glorious "watch off" at his expense. He worked well. It helped to keep his blood in circulation. Once or twice he tried to get rid of his fetters. It galled him to be put on a chain like a dog. But it was no use; and Captain wouldn't come near enough to open a discussion on the stability of dog-chains, or the condition of the weather.
When the tide turned. Captain's voice rung out loud and clear, "Belay there! Shove in, an' make fast. Look alive, now, you lubber!"
The tying-up completed, he ambled down and released him. "Come an' have some coffee," he said. "S'pose yer cold?"
"R-r-rather!" Octavius answered, still doubtful. He was also simmering with resentment, and had a notion of getting even with the Captain before he quitted the confounded Cedric. Just now Priscilla, looking sweet in a red wrapper, was serving out the coffee, and he didn't want her to know he had been tethered by the leg and compelled to work his passage.
"Needn't be afraid of it now, Priscilla," Captain remarked, as he sat down. "Quite tame now. Played up turrible though when it was caught."
Priscilla smiled sympathetically on her disconsolate lover.
"A man ketches queer fish in these rivers at times," he went on, his eyes twinkling.
"How did yer know I was there?" Octavius asked. The query had troubled him all night. Captain's only response was a hearty laugh.
He walked out immediately he had finished his coffee, and Octavius and Priscilla had a deliriously happy five minutes together before he came back. He saw Octavius to the shore, the latter still nursing a grudge against him; but Carrab disarmed him.
"See here, young man," he said. "There's a good p'int or two in you—an' there's some precious bad ones. When you want to see Miss Carrab, or Mrs. Carrab, or Captain Carrab, or any of the crew of the Cedric, come aboard like a white man, not like a turtle; an' if your sister Sarah wants to see Miss Carrab, or Mrs. Carrab, or Captain Carrab, or any of the crew of the Cedric, there's no occasion for her to get bilious to do so. Good night. Mind the gangway.
They were words that went to the heart of Octavius Muddle, and when the next raft came down stream he went on board like a white man in broad daylight, and had no cause to complain of the hospitality of Captain Carrab, or Mrs. Carrab, or Miss Carrab, or any of the crew of the Cedric.
They were gathered in front of Rogan's pub.—seven, or eight Western men. Some one started the ball with a lucky find, and the ball rolled round, gathering "windfalls."
"Luck is every thing," said a red bearded man from the rabbit-proof. "Some will tell you that luck an' destiny, an' such like, is all tommy rot. But it seems to me that some men are born lucky, while others seem to meet with nothing but misfortune.
"A swagman, travellin' once through a dry part of the country, was dead beat for food an' water. His dog was nearly done, an' when it staggered along a few paces in front of him an' whined, he felt disgusted. He considered it the duty of every respectable dog to find water for his boss; but this cur seemed to expect his boss to find water for him. He picked up a stone at last to brain him with it, but as he went to throw it he noticed something glitter. Then the weight of it struck him as remarkable for a stone of its size. He turned it over, wettin' an' rubbin' it, an', dang me, if it wasn't a lump of almost pure gold. He found water for the dog."
"Dat vos yoost like me," said a boundary-rider known as German Harry. "I hafe a dog, undt he vos no tam goodt. I reckon I drown der brute. I vos geddin' ofer der booze at der time, undt vos deadt beadt for a nib. I reach a waterhole, utndt I pick up dat dog. Budt I fall in undt der mongrel gedt away. As I scrample myself oudt I feel somedings slibbery, undt I haul up—vot you tinks? A boddle of whisky. I make mine dog a ped in der tent dat night."
"Another swaggie," continued the first speaker, "who had been fossickin' in the Mt. Brown district years ago, was makin' his way towards Wilcannia with a good pile. A life of ease in a little hut on the Darling was to be his future. But it was a dry year, an' thirst got the best of him on one of the long stretches. He perished in a sandy creek, after followin' the dry bed for 20 miles, an' scoopin' holes with his hands at likely places. Ten yards from where they found him, just round a bend, was a pool of clear water. That was hard luck.
"Some are lucky at findin' money. They find it in all sorts of queer places—notes stuffed in horses' collars, and gold coins packed in capped augur holes in old bullock yokes. Trav'lers used to carry their money that way in the bushrangin' days, when it wasn't safe to have it about 'em, or among their clothes. I remember a swaggie on the Turon who had a billycan with a false bottom. The bottom proper screwed in somehow, an' underneath this was an inch space, where he stowed his valuables. One day his mate, in his absence, boiled some rice in it. A lot of notes an' references that were stowed in the secret compartment got burnt to cinders. There wasn't much luck about that.
"As I was sayin', some people are lucky at findin' money—which, of course, somebody else, in the first instance, had the bad luck to lose. A station manager, drivin' from Adavale to Charleville, dropped a purse, with 80 quid in it A swagman, following behind, found it between the wheel tracks. He met the manager next day drivin' back for it. Handed it over, an' got the most generous reward of two an'-six. Wasn't even offered a lift in the trap. Acts like that make rogues an' vagabonds of honest men. I picked up a purse myself once. Contained two pounds. I left the purse in a con-spic-u-ous place so the owner might find it, an' rewarded meself with—two pounds."
"Dat vost yoost like me," said Harry. "I find a deamster's ducker box on der road. My golonial gonscience! I vos right. Der vos beef undt tamper, undt prownie, undt tea, undt sugar, undt bickles, undt all sorts of lofely tings. I haul him ofer to a tree, undt poil der pilly. Yoost as I sit down, some gottam lunadic tear up full split on der horseback. 'Ach!' he schnort undt lift me der box off, undt kick me through der fire. Den he pudt der box on der horse, undt go der full split some more. Ach Himmel, my luck go oudt like you snuff der gandle."
"As you say, some men have the luck of a Chinaman," said a wrinkle-faced opal-gouger, addressing himself to the first speaker. "I've had about as much luck as an old maid. One time I palled in with a cove on the Blackall road. Weren't mates, you understand; just travelled along together for a day or two for company. In that time he picked up a plug of tobacco, a pocket knife, a new waterbag, an' a 50 lb. bag o' flour that some team had dropped. A snow-white bag it was, that you could see two miles off, but his bloomin', eagle eye seen it first. Camped with him a day, thinkin' he'd share it; but he made it too plain that my room was better than my company. Two trav'lers passed in the meantime. Next day met a drover, who said he'd been lookin' for a couple of men for a week. Got both that mornin'. Towards ev'nin' I picked up a couple o' turnips, dropped out of the drover's waggonette. The turn of the tide, I thought; as I was wantin' vegetables. That night I was arrested, handcuffed, an' took off to the lock-up. Seems a tramp had robbed a Chinaman's garden the night before. I got three months for that find."
"Dat vos yoost like m—"
"Talkin' about droppin' into jobs, reminds me of an experience on the Wanaaring road," another man interrupted. "Was between town, where there was a lot of unemployed, an' a station where only a married couple was kept. One might get hungry there seven days a week; anything better was pretty hard to get. About half-way I finds a nipper an' two little gels, with a broken-down sulky. They'd been drivin' home from school, an' had a smash. The boy was helpless, an' the gels worse'n useless. I wanted to get to water at the time, but, anyhow, I put in an hour fixin' things up; an' when the young 'un took the reins, he ses, 'Call at our station just ahead, an' you'll get a job.' It made me smile; he was such a little chap, an' a man gorra job at 'Hungry Jack's' about once in a blue moon—an' that cuttin' wood. Furthermore, I'd been trampin' straight off for six solid months 'thout gettin' a tap. Anyhow, I called. Old Jack an' the boy was standin' at the stables. Been talkin' about me, seem'ly. 'You're the man that fixed up the trap for the youngsters?' ses he. 'I am,' ses I. 'Lookin' for a job, I s'pose?' ses he. 'Right agin,' ses I. 'Alright,' ses he. 'Take your swag over to the hut an' you can start in the mornin'.' Well, I had a rosy billet there for several months—good wages, good tucker, an' darn little to do. Best collar I ever got into."
"Dat vos yoost like me," Harry began; but a drover, who had been helping Rogan to pay his license, chimed in.
"There's nothing much in that," he drawled. "I've been droppin' on to those sort of good things all me lifetime. Never knew what it was to be dead broke. Always drop in for something, quite simple like, before I get down to the last bob. Had no end o' luck that way. But I had one great misfortune that nearly broke me heart. Was ridin' along on a cattle pad when I finds a heap of human bones, with a swag, partly open an' pretty rotten, alongside. Didn't like to touch it. Some men keep a look-out for corpses, an' overhaul anything like that. But I was off it. Reported it at the p'lice station, an' led a constable an' a tracker out to the spot. The tracker overhauled the swag, an in about a minute he had me like a corked-up volcano that wants to bust an' can't. May I never move from here if that rotten old bundle didn't pan out a little fortune. There was a bottle of gold, a heap of sovereigns, an' a roll of banknotes—wrapped in shammy an' packed in a leather bag—altogether about £700. Seven hund'ed, mind yer—an' me as poor as wood! Its misfortunes like that wot drives a man to drink. That blamed swag's haunted me ever since. When I'm on the bust 'tain't decent snakes an' goanas wot does the circus tricks about me; it's swags. They come rollin' an' bowlin' an' upendin' at me from all manner o' places, an' I tumble over 'em no matter where I turn. An' the one I'm carryin' gets bigger an' bigger, an' clings like a hoctopus. Snakes an' blue devils is bad enough, God knows, but personified swags is fair terrors—I b'lieve that's one o' the jumpin' things quizzin' round the corner there now! It's gettin' near their time to come out. Lets go an' have a wet."
"Dat vos yoost—"
But the company upended in a hurry, and the rest of the yarn was swamped in the subsequent lubrications—yoost like Harry
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