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Title: Short Stories Book 3 Author: Edward S. Sorenson * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 2000621h.html Language: English Date first posted: July 2020 Most recent update: July 2020 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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Rustic Peace at Ganter's
The Christmas Claim
Labor in Vain
The Courting of Selina
The Third Partner
Mr. Ganter was fussy—did everything in a great hurry, and accomplished very little in a long time. He mostly had a man of some sort on the place, though he was never known to pay wages. When there was any extra work to be done he would invite some acquaintance to spend a few days at the "station." That was how I came there. None of us went for love of Ganter, but—Ganter had a daughter. Madge was a jolly, good-looking girl, who even enjoyed the embarrassing situations that her Dad created. She helped to make a holiday at Wonbadgery worth having, even with Pa Ganter and his excitements thrown in.
When I arrived the dogs had chased a goana up the chimney, and Mr. Ganter was vigorously prodding it with the clothes-prop, to the evident concern of his good lady, who had a pot of stew on the fire for dinner, into which soot was falling in clouds. There was no chance of rescuing it while Mr. Ganter performed erratically in the fireplace. I suggested shooting the animal, whereat Mrs. Ganter, a fat little woman, having more girth than height, looked serious. She stood well back, out of reach of the menacing prop, holding young Bertie by the arm. Bertie was 6 or thereabouts, freckled and sunburnt.
"Mightn't it blow the house up?" she said, anxiously.
"Might set it on fire," Madge added, her eyes sparkling.
Mr. Ganter had no ears for such wild speculations. He got the gun down from the wall, and in a moment had fired it up the chimney. Several shingles came down, and a cloud of soot; there was a desperate scratching of claws, and presently the goana flopped into the stew, which splashed over the perspiring person behind the gun.
"Oh, jemini!" laughed Madge.
"Oh! my stew!" cried Mrs. Ganter.
"Well, I'm danged!" said Mr. Ganter, stepping back and staring at the agitated pot.
I hauled the unfortunate reptile out by the tail, and all followed to the back to see the dogs worry it. Riddled with shot and parboiled, it didn't want much worrying. Madge made some allusion to stewed goana for dinner as we turned to go in.
At the partition door Mrs. Ganter stopped and clasped her hands in horror. Old Bowler, the carthorse, was standing in the front room with his head in the cupboard. He backed out with a loaf of bread in his mouth and, as Ganter rushed at him with the broom, turned sharply at the door, and threw up his heels in defiance of law and order. One hoof caught a chair, which in turn caught Mr. Ganter, and that gentleman disappeared suddenly into the skillion. Madge darted after Bowler, holding her hand to her mouth, and presently merry peals of laughter came from the front, while something like the oratory of an ox-conductor emanated from the back.
We had scones and cold pumpkin for dinner, topped up with Ganter's opinion of Bowler and a light dissertation on goanas.
That day was one of greater import to Wonbadgery than a dozen coronations. Ganter was going to kill. The bullock was yarded in the morning, so that it would be cool, and fairly empty by evening. The rest of the day was spent getting things ready for the butchering. The wood-axe was ground, and the split handle bound with strips of wet hide; the steel was hunted up, and the two knives sharpened; ropes and chains were fixed on the gallows; the old blunderbuss was cleaned and loaded, a bench rigged for salting, and the brine cask scalded. The hack and the carthorse were ready saddled at the yard in case the beast got out—which it mostly did.
Then Ganter was ready to kill.
The victim stood very quiet, looking straight at him. He thrust the gun through the rails and fired, and the ball struck well in the forehead. But the beast didn't fall; half the yard fell instead—on top of Ganter, and the bullock went roaring down the paddock. I removed some of the timber to enable Ganter to regain his perpendicular.
"Wha—what happened?" he gasped. He glared around him, till he caught sight of the bullock plunging across the paddock. Then he understood. "Geronyerorse, boy."
We found the bullock dead in a waterhole, nearly two miles away; Ganter spoke with great eloquence, as he waded in to bleed it with a pocketknife. Harness, ropes, knives, etc., were brought down, and Ganter made a rope fast to its horns. Then Bowler wouldn't pull. He backed into the hole, splashing up a deluge of mud and water. Ganter delivered an essay on horses in ornate prose, and broke some saplings over one named Bowler by way of punctuation.
I suggested putting a pebble in his ear.
"I've heard tell o' that dodge before," Ganter said, meditatively. "They say it's a fusrate plan with jibbers. We'll try it, boy."
Bowler objected, and swinging his head round suddenly knocked Ganter into the waterhole.
"Tie the useless brute up, boy!" he spluttered, staggering out. "Tie 'mup!"
Ganter stripped, and wading in, skinned and quartered the beast to the waterline, carrying the meat out in junks. Then Bowler was hooked on again, and with the assistance of a few saplings and some forcible oratory, drew out the remains, and Ganter finished skinning and cutting up on the grass. He was very tired by this time, and very muddy. The meat was also muddy.
"Shouldn't wonder if it don't go bad!" he snapped.
"Do you often kill this way, Mr. Ganter?" I ventured.
"Do I? Try an' keep them ants off, will yer?"
Then he dressed himself, and we dragged the meat home on the hide. We were sitting on the verandah having a rest and a smoke, when a humming sound was heard passing low over the roof. Ganter sprang up with a yell of "bees!" In a minute the whole family was tearing along the creek, headed by Ganter with a kerosene tin and a boot, and followed closely by young Bertie, whacking a tin dish with the rolling pin.
"Get holter something that'll make a clatter, boy," Ganter yelled out to me across his shoulder. Suddenly he disappeared over a log, and the old tin clattered ahead in a different key. Mrs. Ganter wobbled up with a bucket of water and a dipper, and commenced sprinkling the bees as they began to lower. Madge joined her with a kettle and a pannikin. The boss settled gradually towards a dead limb, a few feet off the ground.
"Fusrate," said Ganter. "Fusrate!" The clattering ceased, and all stood watching the swarm bunching on the limb.
"I knew we 'ad 'em good as soon as I saw the queen flutterin' down," Ganter said. "No fear o' the swarm leavin' her."
"How do you distinguish the queen from the other bees?" I asked him.
"Well, er—you see, the Queen—she's different—We'll take 'em to-night."
He rushed at the dog, lest it should disturb the bees, while Madge looked at me quietly.
It took Ganter an hour after tea to dress for the occasion. His arms were encased in hosiery, a wire meat cover was fastened over his face, with a mosquito curtain hanging from the back like a bridal veil, and his trousers were tied tightly round the bottoms. Young Bertie carried a maul, with which to hit the limb to jerk the bees off into the box, and Mrs. Ganter bore a sheet to throw over the box to keep them in. Madge was entrusted with the fat lamp.
"Now, look out what ye're doin'," Ganter cautioned, as he thrust the box under the black heap. "Yer ready with the sheet, mother?" Mother said she was, and came forward gingerly. "Quick's the word, mind. Closer up Bertie, One good welt does it. Now, then!"
Bertie's welt was a good one. The limb broke off, and knocked the box out of Ganter's hands. He dropped on his knees just as Mrs. Ganter threw the sheet, and it covered him and the bees. Just then one, attracted by the light, stung Madge on the lip, and, with a yell, she dropped the lamp and fled. Mother Ganter clawed wildly at her hair, and followed. Suddenly the dogs sprang up, and rushed after a huge white thing that was running and roaring through the grass. Shriek after shriek rent the night air, mingled with hoarse admonitions to "Lay down! Lay down, you mongrels!" and finally a distressful "Coo-ee," then a wail, and "I'm done!" I ran up with a sliprail. Ganter with the meat cover and net hanging round his neck, was beating desperately at the dogs with the doubled sheet.
"Well, this is a fine go!" he gasped. "Ketch them dogs, Bertie, an' get me the kangaroo tail out o' the skillion."
Then we returned to the house, where we found Madge applying the blue-bag to her lip. She made an injudicious remark about taking bees, a liberty that evoked a truculent snort from Ganter. The next instant Madge was tearing round the house, and Ganter was tearing after her with the kangaroo tail. One of the dogs intervened at the chimney corner, and the chase ended abruptly with a howl and a grunt. Soon afterwards I heard Madge laughing near the yard. I joined her, and we sat down on a log until the old man had smoked himself into a better humour. I'm afraid we sat much longer, for Ganter was laughing in five minutes, whereas his pipe had long been cold when we returned to the house. But that hour under the stars was golden.
When Joe Darby chucked his billet down in golden Ballarat,
And set out with many others for the rush at Hard-up Flat,
He was not exactly worried with those monetary cares
That accumulate like rabbits on the heads of millionaires;
His assets consisted mainly of three youngsters small and light,
Of an antiquated moke, one wife, and eke a miner's right.
So when Darby came to Hard-up he was rather hard up, too,
And was forced, as things were costly, to subsist on kangaroo.
But he had great expectations, for by many it was told,
Fully half-a-dozen diggers there were half their time on gold;
And although of ten arrivals nine departed in disgust,
He pegged out a claim and named it—from the prospect—"Yellow Dust."
Darby made him then a shanty ('twas of good old
It was roomy, it was airy, and when all within was dark
He could see the planets winking through the sun-cracks overhead
As of nuggets he lay thinking after supper in his bed.
"Good enough," he said to Molly, "for the time that we'll be 'ere,
An' we won't get any poorer if we live for forty year."
Little Molly was a woman of the kind that's called a brick;
She could wield the long-tailed shovel, and could swing a digger's pick;
She could puddle dirt and cradle just as good as any man,
For they worked the claim together on the economic plan;
And there was no sound more cheery where the golden rivers flow,
Than the rattle of the windlass and her cry, "Look out, below!"
But the months went by, and Darby was still toiling on the
And he wasn't growing richer, neither was he growing fat.
It was drawing near to Christmas, and his mercury going down,
For there'd be no spree for Joseph, nor a roaring time in town
'Mong the shearers and the drovers, hugging girls behind the slabs,
With the members of the Union talking loud against the "scabs."
Now, the good name of the diggings he no longer would
But explosive was his language when you mentioned Hard-up gold;
Yet the while that he was wilting 'neath the scourge of Rotten Luck,
Scotty Dalker had such fortune that he cackled like a duck;
And Good Molly was so happy, turning at the windlass, too,
You'd have thought she had the washings of all Hard-up in her shoe.
Little mattered it to Molly how her hubby took her whim,
She'll a card to play at Christmas that was not beknown to him.
She would pirouette and whistle when she'd empty out the drum,
Then she'd lower it down to Darby looking quite sedate and glum.
Just to play a lark on Joseph, she told Scotty, was her aim,
And she made some vague allusions to a certain Christmas claim.
She had patched him up till Joseph, in his pantaloons and
Was the queerest-looking digger that had ever puddled dirt;
He had wired his broken boots to keep the uppers on the soles,
And his hat was perforated till his hair grew through the holes;
Yet he might have been a scarecrow, an' 'twould not have made him grieve.
If he only had tobacco and a "drop" for Christmas Eve.
There's no cause to fret and worry in Australia when you're
But the world is very awry when you're "dying for a smoke."
If you've bottomed on a duffer, while your neighbor's struck it rich,
And you feel so broken-hearted that your lips begin to twitch,
You can draw a lot of comfort from the old companion still—
But Joe Darby struck the duffer when he hadn't got a "fill."
Christmas came, and there was drinking and good cheer on Hard-up
Sounds of joy were borne to Darby, and he "couldn't suffer that";
So for want of some amusement to beguile the wretched day,
To the claim he said he'd toddle, and as usual peg away.
"You may please yourself," said Molly, with illuminated face,
"But I tell you plainly, Joseph, you'll be working on your ace."
"What with cleaning up and cooking in this stringyshack, 'tis
There's enough to occupy me on this day of all the year."
Darby did not stop to argue, though the fact was evident
That he disagreed with Molly, for he muttered as he went:
"Half a day to boil a billy an' to roast some kangaroo—
With a wife an' such a dinner, what's a blessed man to do?"
All the long and lonely morning, where the ground was virgin
Darby diligently fossicked for the value of a "wet;"
Till the sun was in the zenith, and he fizzled in its heat.
Till his appetite was awful, and he tottered on his feet;
But he didn't get a color, and at last he turned away,
The presentiment of mis'ry and of physical decay.
When he reached his humble residence he halted at the door,
For the first thing that he noticed was the children on the floor
Rolling round and making merry, while his partner welcomed him
With a "Merry Christmas, Darby," which made Darby very grim.
He threw down his tools in anger, banged his hat against the wall,
And declared that she was dotty who stood laughing at it all.
"Never mind, my precious Darby," said good Molly, pert and
"I have raked you up a dinner that you will be glad to eat;
After all we've got a pudding, never mind how it was made—"
"So you had the plums an' currants all the time, you lyin' jade!"
"No, I hadn't, Mister. Darby, it was by good luck they came.
And you'll share the luck, I reckon, when you've worked the Xmas Claim."
Darby flopped upon a gin-case, and, disdaining kangaroo,
Tried to cut a junk of pudding just as you or I would do;
But he struck on solid bottom ere the knife was out of sight;
In bewilderment he prodded, sawed and thrust with all his might;
Still the carver ground and grated on some hard and gritty stuff.
"Lord o' Mercy!" cried Joe Darby, "What the devil's in the duff?"
He stood up and squared his elbows, and he made the pieces
Which were pounced upon instanter by the children standing by;
With perspiring face he struggled with the something that was hard,
While he complimented Molly with endearments by the yard.
"Keep your hair on," she advised him; "strip the surface strata, Joe,
You might dislocate your molars if you try to bite below."
Then the irate Darby spinning sent his case across the
And the pudding at the grinning head of Molly by the door.
"There, you sanguinary jackass, take your hyphenated stuff.
You would daub a rock with putty, an' then tell me it's a duff!
'Aven't I enough o' worry, dynamite you, without that!"
And he pointed to the pastry that had fallen on his hat.
Soon his wandering eye alighted on the thing that caused the
And he saw that it was yellow. Great was Darby's wonder now.
With a mighty stride he reached it, and with eager hands took hold,
Whereupon a yell escaped him: "Holy wars, it's solid gold!"
"Which you don't deserve," said Molly, "for you've thrown it twice away,
In the dirt at Yellow Dust an' in the pudding here to-day."
Then Joe Darby hugged his missus, and the best of fun began,
For she danced in pudding plasters, swung as only women can,
Knocked the 'stonished kiddies sprawling, nearly squashed grimalkin's pate,
Turned the table bottom upwards, crunched on broken cup and plate,
Till their yells. aroused the miners, who came rushing 'cross the mire,
And they burst into the shanty as the pair fell in the fire.
Panting, breathless Darby couldn't to their queries make
But a woman's never beaten—she can always talk or cry;
And the wondering miners listened while good Molly told the tale—
Which she told full often after, for the telling's never stale
How from poverty to riches, which for years had been her aim,
They were lifted in a twinkling by Joe Darby's Christmas Claim.
"A little more of this an' I'm going to chuck it," said Tom Breen as he and his mate, Neil Quinton, sat one hot afternoon in a little canvas humpy among the gibber hills of Mount Browne. A heavy duststorm was sweeping over them, and shrouding the desolate landscape in darkness.
"Nothing but heat, flies, an' duststorms!" Tom continued, knocking the ashes from his pipe. "We haven't struck a color since you rooted out that curse of a skull a fortnight ago."
Quinton laughed. "It's a monument to a dead and dreary land, Tom," he said.
"It is that," said Tom, and new light flashed suddenly into his eyes. "But why stick it up 'ere? Take the blarsted thing to the top o' the rocks and hoist it in a mulga tree. There's enough about here, God knows, to remind us of Hell's Hole!"
"It can't hurt you, Tom; it's only a bit of bone," Neil Quinton answered, turning his face to the wall as the driving red dust beat up under the canvas.
Like dozens of other diggers, Neil Quinton and Tom Breen had been fossicking about Mount Browne off and on for several years. In very dry seasons they shut up the humpy and went shearing or rouseabouting, returning home when work slackened, to potter about the flats and gullies with their cradle and dryblower. They did well enough while waterholes lasted, but it so seldom rained in that desert country that nine months in the year it was a hand-to-mouth existence with them. They had sworn time and again to clear out from the hated glare of Mount Browne as soon as they struck something substantial enough to take them below; they cared not where, providing distance made the glistening sand dunes, the glare of the stone-capped hills, flies, heat, thirst, duststorms, all but a memory.
"We'll never get further than Milparinka now," said Tom; "that skull's brought us bad luck."
Neil shook on his bunk with subdued laughter. "Do you really think it brought the duststorm?" He chuckled softly, and added: "We'll have to whack him, Tom, as John Chinaman does his Joss."
Tom, peering through the floating dust that darkened the humpy, caught the ghostly grin of the skull, and shuddered.
* * * * * * * * *
They were playing cards by the light of a slush-lamp. The storm had long passed, and a million stars shone in a clear blue sky. Dinny Cowle, a neighboring fossicker, who had been down to the wayside pub for the mail, had dropped in. He was "a bit on," and introduced a bottle of wayback special. The mates drank his health, and Dinny took a hand at cut-throat.
They played several games, punctuating them with nips. By this time they were all pretty merry, and tongues began to play instead of hands.
"I'll tell you wot," said Crowle, "I'll give you a tenner for that there skull!"
Breen opened his eyes wide and looked expectantly from Crowle to Quinton. Here was a chance to make a few pounds easily, and get rid of the ghastly relic at the same time. He looked at the skull with fresh interest, but turned from it quickly and cast an impatient glance at Quinton.
"You see," Crowle continued, "that skull is th' remains of me ould uncle, Pater Munn, an' it kinder hurts me feelin's to see the ole feller's brain-box shtuck on a table here 'stead o' bein' dacently buried. It's against me religion, too, an'—look 'ere, Nale," he stood up and banged his fist on the table, "if ye're a man, ye'll give me my uncle's head!"
"Now, don't get excited, Dinny," said Quinton. "That ain't no ordinary skull, that ain't. It's as heavy as a rock, an' it's my belief that the brain's been an' gone and got petrified. If so, that skull's worth all out fifty quid. I'm going to have it examined, anyway."
"Would you take poor Pater's head from his body," cried Dinny, leaning forward. "Shame on you, Nale Quinton! It's yerself that should 'ave more rispect for the dead—an' a God-fearin' man, too, as was Pater Munn! I'm desaved in ye, Nale!"
"Let him have the thing,"' said Breen, impatiently; "we want the money bad enough, heaven knows. What're you thinkin' about? The ghastly thing's not worth ten bob!"
Quinton frowned him into silence, and, turning again to Crowle, he said:
"Wasn't old Munn a bit of a miser? People said he had a lot of money hoarded somewhere when he died."
"Shah!" said Dinny. "Don't they say it av everybody as kapes to himself, and always has a speck to buy rations wid? Ould Pater, I tell ye, was the quintessence of poverty. An' now, whin he's dead an' gone—to your shame be it said, Nale Quinton—ye' would rob 'the poor ole fellow av his head! It's body-snatchin'!"
"There was no body, Dinny," Neil interrupted. "I dug all round for yards, but could find nothing but the skull. I kep' it at first for luck, because, in a dint in the forehead there is, as you can see, a very tiny nugget of gold. We've been digging ever since along the way it was lookin', an' we've never so much as struck the color. So you see, Dinny, there's a bone of contention atween us an' the remains of Peter Munn."
"Ye're a vile heretic, Nale Quinton! A vile heretic." said Dinny Crowle, rising again with outstretched hand. "Pass over me uncle, an' I'll give ye the tenner!"
"To-morrow, Dinny, to-morrow!"
* * * * * * * * *
"There must be something valuable about that old cranium,' said Neil next morning.
"You're a fool, Neil, not to 'ave took that ten quid last night," growled Tom. "As we're halves in everything, I reckon you've robbed me of an' honest fiver."
This nettled the usually good-tempered Neil. "Will you take a fiver for your share now?" he asked.
"Will a duck swim?" said Breen.
Neil thrust his hand into his pocket. "Here you are then," he said, and five pounds were passed over.
"Mind you," he continued, "if that skull pans out anything extra, don't try to come the double or say you wasn't treated fair, or anything o' that sort."
"It's all your own," said Tom, with a chuckle. "I'm quite satisfied."
"Right," said Neil. "I reckon if that skull's worth a tenner to Dinny Crowle it's worth a tenner to me. There's something in it, anyhow—that's a monty. That yarn he pitched about Peter Munn is a pure mulga, for I knew Peter Munn long before Dinny Crowle came to Mount Browne. He was found dead in his hut, somewhere near where we're workin', but he wasn't buried there. He was supposed to have had some money hidden somewhere, an' that old rogue, Dinny Crowle, dug about lookin' for it for months after. But he didn't find nothing. Now, when I seen how that skull excited him, an' he offered to give ten quid for it, it struck me that it must be a clue somewhere to old Munn's treasure. Do you see the drift?"
"No, I'm hanged if I do!" said Tom.
"Well, you are satisfied with your bargain?"
"I am; an' if you can find Munn's swag with that skull, old man, you're welcome to it."
"That's settled then. But I must examine the fakus before that old fraud comes down to claim it."
He placed the skull on his knee, and began chipping it in various places with his penknife. The holes, with the exception of one eye, were blocked up with some hard, white substance like plaster of Paris. The left eye was stopped with a tightly-fitting cork. Neil became deeply interested.
"Hand us the corkscrew, Tom."
Tom laughed as Neil began screwing into the socket.
"I've seen many a glass eye," he said, "but, drat me, if ever I saw a cork eye before."
The eye came out suddenly, and as the skull slipped on his knee, something dropped from it and clinked on the floor.
"Good Lord!" gasped Tom Breen. "Sovereigns!"
"Ah," said Neil, "now I understand old Dinny's anxiety to get his uncle's cranium. See, the thing's been carefully drilled an' cleaned out. It's the treasure chest!"
He grasped it tightly in both hands, and shook it vigorously, and the eyeless socket shed tears of gold that dropped in a glittering heap on the floor. Tom sat back on his bunk, clenching his hands and inwardly cursing his folly, whilst Neil, with an excited glare in his eyes, and beads of perspiration on his brow, continued to shake the grinning skull till the gaping eye had shed its last golden tear.
"Who's the fool now, Tom Breen!" he cried exultantly. "Ain't you sorry you sold out?"
"It looks—" he began, and stopped. "Never mind," he said, "but I'll ask ye to do me a last favor. Give me that skull!"
"There you are!" said Neil. "You can do what you like with it, now."
* * * * * * * * *
Neil and Tom were packing, up when Dinny Crowle called that afternoon.
"Hulloa!" he said, "what's the manin' o' this?"
"Goin' to tackle shearin'," said Neil. "There's nothin' in fossickin' this weather."
"Well, that's thrue," said Dinny. "But—about me uncle, now. Ye won't be carryin' the poor ould chap away wid ye?"
Tom laughed bitterly. "I'd burn th' thing to a cinder first," he said. "We've had one row over it, an' the sooner we see the last of it the better. If you want it, hand over the stuff and take it to blazes!"
Crowle paid him the ten pounds with alacrity. Neil looked at his mate with lifted brows, but said nothing.
"Well, so long, chaps, an' I wush ye luck!" And Dinny Crowle shuffled away, hugging his prize. "Ye're mine at lasht!" he chuckled, taking it from under his arm and weighing it fondly in his hands. "A queer old fellow was Pater Munn, an' it's me, Dinny Crowe, an' no one else, as knew he used th' skull he found in the creek for a money-box. It's powerful heavy—God rest yer soul, Pater Munn!"
Reaching his camp, he took up an old axe and with feverish haste tapped at the skull till he had broken it open. Some sand fell out, and heaps of nuggets—nuggets of lead!
With an oath he took up the axe again and battered the skull into a thousand pieces.
The manager of Moolyong was standing at the gate of the horse-yard waiting for some colts to come in, when a breathless and excited traveller came hurrying up to him.
"For God's sake, ken yer lend 's a horse an' cart, boss?" he panted, while he breathed with the hard, rasping sound of a winded sheep.
"What's up?" asked the manager, now scrutinising the stranger with some concern.
"Terrible accident—Four Mile Tank—God, it's awful!" said the traveller, in disjointed gasps, his eyes bulging.
"What is? What's happened?" the manager repeated.
"My mate—poor old Bob—got his leg broke." He waved his hand impatiently towards the Four Mile. "I want a cart to run him to th' hospital 'fore dark."
"How did it happen?" asked the manager, complacently.
"It was this way," said the traveller. "We camped 'long side a dead tree, an' Bob—he was always a bit of a fool, was Bob (God forgive me)—he makes his fire agin it, an' 'fore he got up this mornin' the blamed thing falls across his legs, an' breaks one of 'em. I dunno how he wasn't killed. He's in a purty bad way, though, I ken tell yer."
"You'd better wait till the men come, and they'll help you take him in on a stretcher. The jolting of a cart will be too severe."
For some reason the traveller's face turned a shade paler at this suggestion. "Yer needn't trouble 'em at all, boss," he said, hurriedly. "Bob's got th' constitootion of a cart 'orse, an' he's use-ter 'avin' broken legs. We've bound it up with a couple o' shingles an' saddle straps, an' he's doin' fine. He specially mentioned not to fetch anybody or anything—barrin' a cart. 'E's a queer sort—Bob; independent like. Don't like to see anyone else fussin' around him—or even lookin' on."
"You'll want somebody to help you get him in, anyhow."
"There's another cove, there," said the traveler, quickly. "He'll be help enough. All we want's a cart an' a good-steppin' 'orse. There's no need to trouble yer a bit further, boss, thank yer all th' same."
"Well, there's a spring-dray there—it's the only thing I've got in the line of vehicles just at present. The harness is in it. Catch that bay horse in the yard, while I set you a mattress and some brandy. A nip will do him good."
The traveller smacked his lips as he got the winkers, and hurried into the yard to catch the horse. In a few minutes he was driving away at a fast trot.
The camp was in a clump of gidgee, two miles from the station. Around it were stacks of billet wood, recently cut in readiness for shearing. Bob was sitting on a rolled-up swag, quietly smoking, and looking very pleasant—considering. A broad grin was on his face as the cart came bumping and rattling up to the nearest pile of wood, against which it was backed. Then the traveller threw out the mattress with a curse. Bob walked over, and he walked well for a man with a broken leg.
"So yer worked th' oracle, Joe?" he said, and the grin expanded.
"Aye," said Joe; "but it was ticklish bizness, lemme tell yer. I was afraid th' old dog was comin' himself."
"But what's this?" asked Bob, kicking the mattress.
"That's a comfort for yer broken leg. It'll be a dashed nuisance, but I couldn't very well refuse it, or he'd 'ave got suspicious. Had to pitch him a few mulgas as it was to stop him from sendin' th' whole bloomin' station out for yer. Broken legs seem to be quite unordinary in this part. But here's one good thing he sent yer, anyway." He drew the flask from his pocket, and took a long swig before handing it to Bob. "Try how that acts on yer leg, mate. It's th' real Ma-ki."
It was near midnight when Joe got back to the station with the cart, and a very tired and sweat-stained horse. "Had to drive awful slow, as poor old Bob was purty bad," he explained. "It'll be a long time 'fore he's fit for th' wallaby again."
"I'll have a look at him to-morrow," said the manager. "I'd have gone out to-day, only we were so busy in the yard—and short-handed."
"Oh, there's no occasion to 'pologise," said Joe, gratefully. "We managed fust-class—an' many thanks to yer, boss, for th' loan o' th' cart."
The manager offered him a night's board and lodging, and promised to see what he could do for him; but Joe politely declined any further assistance, and very shortly took his departure.
While riding next morning the manager struck the cart track and followed it, to have a look at the scene of the alleged catastrophe. The first thing he noticed was the disappearance of several small heaps of his billet wood, and several tracks, indicating that two trips had been made, leading thence towards the town. Putting spurs to his horse, be followed them at a gallop, and they led him into the yard of Murphy's Hotel, where the missing wood was neatly stacked in one big heap. He called Murphy without dismounting.
"Where did you get that wood?" he demanded.
"Bought it from those shearers you lent the cart to—the two chaps," said Murphy, "who are cutting wood in your paddock till shearin' starts."
"What did you give for it?"
In less than half an hour a black-tracker, two troopers, and the irate manager of Moolyong were following like bloodhounds in the tracks of two swagmen. Three miles from town they found the remains of a fire; and there they were baffled, for no tracks led from it.
Joe and Bob had taken their boots off at that fire, and wrapping pieces of woolly sheepskins round their feet, had cut across country to another road. One of the troopers accidentally hit upon the tracks there three days afterwards, when it was too late to follow Joseph and his poor mate, and picked up the improvised moccasins they had discarded. These he sent as a memento to the manager of Moolyong.
There had never been two better mates in the bush than Dave Hardy and Ham Rolin, until they started work on a road contract near Tubbs' farm. They had both had a nodding acquaintance with Tubbs before, but the fact that he had a perfect little peach of a daughter, as Ham phrased it, was a revelation. Ham was a demonstrative admirer, a conceited clap-trap, who believed himself invincible where woman were concerned; but Dave, beyond admitting that Maria Tubbs was a fine young woman, kept his opinions and his feeling to himself. He was not a talkative person.
When they visited the farm house on Sundays, and were trotted round to inspect the crops, and the fowls, and the pigs, and the poddy calves, Ham would monopolise the old man and orate on things agricultural to no end; but when Maria was available he would shunt the amiable parent on to Dave, and make special efforts to ingratiate himself with the daughter. Dave appeared to appreciate the old man's company more than he did Maria's.
There was nothing of the school-missy stamp about Maria. She was more womanly than girly in appearance; a common, sensible, good-looking young, woman, whose mere glances fascinated Ham Rolin. At first she gave him an attentive ear, and focussed him with full laughing eyes. Then those eyes began to wander furtively to Dave Hardy, and she would seem to hang on to his words, while Ham talked to the atmosphere. She would joke and laugh with him, keeping always at a respectful distance; but she would stand up close to Dave, and talk to him, in that way, as Ham knew, that a girl does only to the man she loves. He began to see much in her conduct, real or imaginary, that favored the other fellow. If she came into the room where they were seated, and she could do so without attracting special notice, it seemed to him, she would sit near Hardy; and while she dismissed Ham as though she didn't care if he broke his neck going home, her hand would linger a little while in Daves, and their eyes would seem to speak. And the way she smiled at him, coupled with the graciousness of her melting manner, made Hamilton squirm.
He was soon satisfied that his mate was not only the white-haired boy with Maria Tubbs, but with her gruff old father also. He asked Dave's opinion of things now, which he didn't do at first, and his judgment appeared to weigh against all the rest of creation. If Dave said a certain vegetable was a crown pumpkin, then it was a crown pumpkin; and when Ham argued that it was a button pumpkin, Mr. Tibbs would ask him if he knew a pumpkin from a grammar. Then a raging jealousy got into Hams composition, and he wished his mate had gone to San Francisco in time tor the earthquake. As for Dave, he never suspected that Ham had any serious intentions in regard to Maria Tubbs. His conduct had been the same with other girls, and he had ridden away and talked about them, and boasted of his supposititious conquests. Men, too, were mostly attracted at first by his talk and showy manner, and when they had gradually warmed towards the quiet man, and treated Harn as an empty blatherskite, Ham never took any notice. He regarded himself, in fact, as a man who made friends quickly, while the reserved and backward Dave presented an armour that took some time to pierce. Until they came into collision on the Tubbs' plantation, this had precluded any suspicion that he was not exactly the lion of the community. Now would it have mattered anywhere else, but to be dropped from the pinnacle of confidential friend and first favorite by Mr. Tubbs, and the bewitching Maria, was humiliating. Still his manner did not betoken any grudge; they continued to work together on the most amicable terms.
A mile below their camp there was a store and post office, where the pair got their supplies and mails. They went down usually on Saturday afternoon and, occasionally, at night. One night Ham went down alone, and got their rations, and on the following Saturday, having an attack of rheumatics, he remained at the camp, while Dave went for the mail. The mail consisted mostly of the local newspaper. On this occasion there was a pink-tinted letter, inscribed "in haste" and addressed to himself in a woman's hand. Tearing it open, he read:—
"Fishing Saturday night. Meet me on the wharf. Important.—Maria Tubbs."
The wharf, Dave remembered, was merely a slab supported by a crosspiece on two stakes, where the Tubbs dipped water. Maria fished there in the afternoon, but he had not known before that she fished at night. Here then was a pleasant means of passing the long evenings when there was nothing to read, and nothing to do in camp. This would be good news to Ham.
He stayed at the store till sundown, and then, instead of going back to camp, made his way leisurely to Tubbs' wharf. It was after dark when he got there, and soon afterwards a muffled form came stealthily down the bank and joined him. At first he thought it was Maria's mother; she seemed too stout and heavy for Maria, and she held a big shawl over her head, which hid all but her eyes.
"Is that you Dave?" she asked in a whisper.
"That's me," he answered, sniffing. She smelt of tobacco. "What's up?"
"I'll tell you directly," she whispered. "I want you to draw my line for me You'll find it at the end of the plank. I set it before tea so as to have an excuse for bein' out if I'm missed."
"How husky your voice, is tonight," said Dave. "Sounds quite strange."
"I've got a cold." She coughed into the folds of the shawl, and thumped her chest. "I oughtn't to be out in the night air. Mother would give me a talkin' to if she knew." She coughed again, convulsively.
"Takin' anything for it?" Dave queried.
"No; we haven't anything in th' house."
"I'll bring yer some eucalyptus tomorrer," Dave promised. "Ham's got some wot he uses for his rheumatics."
"Thank you," she said "Get me the line now an' we'll go up to th' yard."
Dave stepped cautiously on to the plank, feeling his way with his foot. It was a dark night, and the water under him looked black as ink. She moved quietly after him, and as he stooped down to feel for the line, she threw her hands out suddenly and shoved him into the river. She waited on the plank till he came to the surface gasping for breath, and struggled into shallow water.
"Ye'll come prowlin' round at night after my daughter, will yer?" cried the deep voice of a man from behind the shawl. "This is the way yer respect a man's confidence, eh? Get off my ground, you sneak, an' never let me ketch y'r inside my fence again. Be off!"
Dave, breathless and bewildered, didn't say anything, but he was in a vicious temper as he scrambled out of the mud and weeds, and pursued the aggressive person up the bank. The latter did not go into the house, but doubled round the yard and across to a one-horse stable that had housed a stallion at one time. It was built of strong slabs, and had a wide door, cut across the middle. The top part was closed, and pad-locked, but the bottom half was open, and a heavy wooden bar that was used to fasten it stood against the wall. The farmer darted in and pulled the door after him. Dave came up immediately after, but he made no attempt to force it open. He seized the bar instead, and dropping it into the iron staples, made him a prisoner.
"Wanted to get out of his finery 'fore he went in, I s'pose so's Maria wouldn't know what he'd been up to," chuckled Dave to himself. "He's got something more to get out of now; an' while he's safe from interferin', I'll just see what Maria Tubbs knows about this racket."
Still dripping, and minus hat, he strode across to the house. The front door was open, and when he stepped on to the threshold his astonished eyes encountered Mr. Tubbs himself, lolling back in an easy chair, and comfortably smoking a clay pipe.
"Holloa!" cried the old chap, rising. "What's 'appened to y'r?"
"I—I've been fishin'," Dave stammered, staring at him, and at the same time wondering who the person in the stable could be.
Tubbs' face reddened and wrinkled.
"Must a been, a purty big one," he remarked. "I've had 'em take hook, rod an' line, but never met one as could yank me in too. Must a been powerful swift."
Dave brushed the wet hair from his forehead, and grinned.
"How did it happen, Dave?" Maria asked him, with more compassion.
"I was goin' to set a line at your wharf, an slipped in," said Dave. "I called to ask y'r to have a look there in th' mornin' an' see if my hat's floatin' around."
"Better see to it now lad," Tubbs advised. "Th' tide 'ill take it away before mornin'."
"I'll go down with you," said Maria, jumping up. "You get the clothes prop out there, Dave an' I'll bring the lantern. You needn't disturb yourself, Dad," she added, as her father began to hunt round for his boots. "We can manage."
As soon as they were out of hearing, Dave drew the soddened letter from his pocket, and held it up to the light. "Did you send me that?" he asked.
She took it in her hand and read it over with knitted brows.
"I've been hoaxed," said Dave, as he tore it into smithereens.
"That's how you came to fall in the river, then?" she asked.
"That was it; but you needn't mention it. It wouldn't do you any good, perhaps, if it got about. You know what they are around here to talk."
"That's true. I'd like to find out who wrote it, though. I'd give her a bit of my mind."
Dave's thoughts all the while were on the prisoner, but he did not mention him. He had an idea that that party, when discovered by Tubbs on the morrow, would do his best to conceal the truth, and the onus of explaining such a predicament as he was in, after a night on bare blocks, and a long fast, would at least cause him to look well before he leaped into another practical joke.
Despite much wetness, Dave had now recovered his spirits, and he had also recovered his hat, and said "good night" to Maria Stubbs. He hurried out to camp, chuckling as he thought how Ham would look and laugh when he told him what had happened.
But when he got the camp, Ham was no there. Neither did he turn up that night, and he was still a missing quantity at dinner time next day. Fresh wheel tracks near the camp suggested that someone who knew Ham, driving past the previous evening, had taken him to town. He could think of nothing more feasible to account for his absence; and now he watched up the road for the return of the vehicle. The fun at Tubbs would not be half as good without Ham. He had little fear that his prisoner would be discovered, till Tubbs went round that way about sundown, collecting eggs. The stable was a good way from the house, and as the family were not much about on Sunday, he would have to cooee pretty loudly to attract attention. Dave reckoned, however, that he wouldn't make any noise, surmising that his keeper would come back and release him.
Reluctantly, in the afternoon, Dave had to set out alone on this mission. As his way led him past the stable, he stepped over to have a peep through the cracks. The place was still barred and tenanted. The man within had made a shakedown with his dress and shawl, and was lying on his back, listening. The first glimpse of the prostrate form gave Dave a shock, and materially altered his plans. The prisoner was Ham Rolin.
"Hulloa, there!" he called. "How 're yer getting' on?"
Ham sat up, looking scared. "Is that you, Dave?"
"That's me. How's your appetite?"
"For God's sake let me out o' this," cried Ham, rising to his feet.
"Sleep well last night?" Dave inquired.
"You'd sleep well on hard blocks, wouldn't y'r?" growled Ham.
"How would you like to sleep in the river?" asked Dave. "Purty cold an' wet down there, Ham."
"It was only a joke, Dave, old chap," Ham pleaded. "Don't be vindictive."
"I might a been lyin' there now, Ham, stretched out on th' dark oozy mud an' weeds, with me glassy eyes starin' at th' hungry catfish, an' big slimy eels crawling over me—
"I knowed you could swim, or I wouldn't a shoved you in," Ham protested.
"How did yer know?"
"I've heard yer say so, 'n' I was sure a duckin' couldn't hurt a man of your constitution. That one thing I've often admired in you Dave. You've got a fine constitution."
"I remember you admired that suit o' clothes o' mine, too, Ham. They're ruined now."
"I'll make that all right, old man. You won't lose anything."
"Cost fine guineas, that suit," Dave continued.
"Don't let it worry y'r," said Ham. "Open th' door like a good fellow. I ken talk better outside."
Dave surveyed him for a minute, with one eye glued to the crack.
"Ham," he said, sorrowfully, "you're the last man in the world I would 'ave suspected. I thought it was some scurvy pumpkin lout that had done it."
Ham moved to the door and shook it. "'Twould be rather awkward y'r know," he remarked, "if Tubbs came along. Awkward for you, too."
"'Twas rather awkward for me when I left the plank last night," Dave taunted him, without moving, from the crack.
"Look 'ere, Dave," said Ham, coming back to him, and speaking with a pitiful earnestness. "I didn't mean y'r any 'arm. I only wanted to stop you from comin' 'ere."
"Ah! now we're gettin' to th' bottom of the joke."
"I acted the enraged parent, thinkin' you'd go straight 'ome after receivin' my malediction, an' never show yer face 'ere any more," Ham concluded.
"Because I wanted her to meself, an' I 'ad no chance against you."
"I see! An' who wrote th' letter?"
"I promised not to give her away. You wouldn't ask a man to break his promise, would, y'r?"
"Well, no; though it seems of less consequence 'an to break another man's neck or to drown him," said Dave. "Is that some of her wardrobe, you've got there?"
"No," said Ham, savagely, "I picked 'em up. 'Twas them blamed things give me the idea."
"An the rheumatics?" Dave suggested.
Ham rattled the door impatiently, and coughed.
"An' the cold on th' chest?" Dave added, moving round.
"'Twas me husky voice that sounded so strange give me that," said Ham viciously.
Dave threw down the bar and opened the door. Ham met him with extended hand.
"I think you ken call it quits?" he said.
"Quits it is," Dave answered.
"You've won her fair an' square," Ham continued, still holding his hand. "Take her, old man."
"She's already took."
"Oh!" said Ham. "It's settled, is it? Well, I wish you joy."
"Why, you blamed yahoo," cried Dave, "Maria Tubbs is a married woman!"
"Married woman!" gasped Ham."
"Been married these two years. Thought you knew it all along."
"But—why—do they call her Maria Tubbs?"
"Her husband's name is Tubbs—same as her father's. He's engineer or fireman or something on the river boat."
"Well, I'm hanged!" cried Ham. He stood looking at his mate for a moment as though stunned. Than he gathered up his dress and his shawl in silence, and hurried away to the camp.
Conyers had got a temporary job with a surveyor, who lived two miles out or Dumboon. He had not been there many days when Murty Brown and Jim, who was nicknamed Webster, called on him with a view to enlisting his company on a trip North. At first Mat agreed heartily to his old mates' proposals; he was tired of dragging the link chain over hills and through swamps and scrubs, and acting as general rouseabout on the estate when the surveyor was out of employment himself; but it was unluckily mentioned that two young lady friends of his, Fiona Martell and Selina Saddler, had come down from Dulla, and added to the attractiveness of Dumboon by their beauteous presence. The former was barmaid at Parker's, while the latter officiated in a manifold capacity at the Wesleyan Parsonage. Mat wasn't anxious to see Fiona; but he got quite excited at the thought of meeting Selina again. She had smiled on him once or twice at the squattage on the Logan, and he recalled some little acts and looks and mannerisms that betokened a favorable impression that might easily be cultivated to advantage. He decided to cultivate it, and therefore the proposed trip was postponed indefinitely, if not absolutely abandoned.
Mat recognised at once the difficulties of courting at the parsonage, especially at a Wesleyan parsonage. He began by going to church. He was a Catholic by religion, but he didn't let a little thing like that stand in his way. He arrived early at the sacred building, and at once a couple of aged brethren, having nothing else to do, buttoned on to him, and talked about Wesley and his tenets, and asked a lot of unpleasant questions. At the end of ten minutes they regarded him with suspicion.
He saw Selina enter with the Rev. Dominic Rumsey and his good wife—a tall, thin lady in black, whose expression was a combination of acid and melancholy. Mat shrank from her at first glance, and hoped fervently that Selina would soon get another place. When the service began he crept in with the tail-end of the congregation, and ensconced himself among the crowd that is always at the back of a church. He noted well where Selina was sitting, and when the lights were put out, as is usual at a certain stage of the proceedings, he tip-toed up the aisle, slipped into the seat, and nudged her gently with his elbow.
"I'm Mat Conyers," he whispered. "How are yer?"
She didn't answer; Just nudged him back. He thrust his arm through hers and squeezed it, thrills of ecstasy permeating him meanwhile. He was still squeezing it, and asking her if she would meet him somewhere after service, when the lamps were re-lit, and—O, horror! It was the parson's wife he was squeezing. Selina was at the end of the seat, near the wall, whispering to a girl friend. As the old lady turned her frigid gaze upon hum and pulled some skirt from under him, he thought enviously of [illegible text of about 20 words]. He knelt down and prayed with the deportment of a penitent; but it was a fortunate circumstance that no one heard the prayers.
He didn't go to church any more, though he haunted the precincts of that edifice, mingling with a lot of young chaps who attended regularly outside, for the purpose of escorting some little charmer home. He saw Selina arrive regularly, and saw her safely home—at a respectful distance. The chaperonage of that awful woman was a bar to further progress. He visited town every night, and smoked dozens of cigarettes in the neighborhood of the parsonage; he saw her sometimes passing between house and kitchen, and threw kisses after her from his dark seclusion; he learnt to know her room and, when the light appeared in the window, his fancy pictured her actions there, and after gazing on the magnetic glimmer for an hour or so he would whisper "Good night, sweetheart," and go home. There wasn't much satisfaction in a courtship of this kind; still it was consoling to know that no one else was enjoying her society in the meantime—barring the parson.
The time for the Oddfellows' Ball came round. Selina, he heard, was to be there, so he looked forward to it as the chance or his life. He was road-surveying that day, and didn't get home till late. Worse still, he got home tired, too tired to walk. There was only one horse kept in, the surveyor's town hack, which he allowed nobody to ride. He objected, in fact, to any of his horses being ridden on private business, especially at night. Mat, however, had never seen him outside his own garden after dark; so he decided for once to steal a ride, thereby saving a valuable half-hour and his legs at the same time.
There were two gates into the lane, but to reach either he had to pass close by the house. He led the horse along quietly, holding the bit-ring, and avoiding bare spots where the hoofs would sound. All went well till he got to the woodheap opposite the kitchen. Then, without warning, the horse shook himself, and the sound of the agitated saddleflaps and stirrup-leathers was like a thunderclap. Conyers swore, and punched the offending animal on the nozzle. He snorted, and reared and plunged, and made quite a disturbance. This, coupled with the perfume of cigar smoke that came from the garden, induced Conyers to rush the intervening space as fast as the horse would lead.
There was a tennis lawn in the house plot behind the kitchen. The surveyor, with a tasselled cap on his head, happened to be smoking a cigar there and, hearing the unwonted clatter, he climbed over the paling fence into the lane, and met the disgusted Conyers just as he had mounted at the gate.
"Is that you, Conyers?"
"I'm goin' in to see the doctor, Mr. Barden," said Conyers, in a painfully strained voice. "'I felt bad, an' gettin' worse, so I took the colt."
"Oh, that's all right, Conyers," said Harden. "What's the matter with you?"
"I think it's ptomaine poisoning. I brought some sandwiches home from a party last night, an' et 'em comin' along this evening'."
"Have you contracting pains in the abdomen?" asked Barden
"Yes—regular doubles me up."
"And a feeling of nausea?"
"Yes," said Conyers, again. "Feels as if I'm goin' to be seasick."
"That's ptomaine poisoning, all right," Barden declared. "I'll go in with you in case you get worse on the road. Give me hold of the stirrup, and we'll get along."
Mat's cheek went pale, and his heart seemed to freeze, while his tongue thanked the surveyor. Half way in, he said he felt better, was improving rapidly, in fact; so there was no necessity to trouble and inconvenience Mr. Barden with a long walk. He must be tired after working all day.
"No, I don't feel a bit tired," Barden replied. "I had a shower before tea, and that freshened me up."
"Er—won't Mrs. Barden be wondering where you are?" Conyers suggested. "Might be anxious."
"Oh, she knows I went for a walk; I was just meditating a stroll when I heard you," Barden answered. "I'll see you to the doctor's now, then I can stroll leisurely back."
There was a glimmer of hope in this arrangement. He must square the doctor, that was all; then Barden would leave him at that gentleman's gate, and he could hurry thence to the Oddfellows' Hall.
The hope was short-lived. Barden, being an intimate friend of the doctor's, accompanied them into the surgery. He explained what had happened to Conyers, and Conyers had to describe the symptoms he hadn't got, though he hastened to add that he had almost completely recovered now.
"You've far from recovered yet," the doctor told him. "Too pale; and your nerves are all unstrung. I'll give you an emetic."
Conyers shuddered. "Is—is it necessary?" he asked.
The doctor looked at him with a frown. "If it wasn't, I wouldn't give it to you," he said, sharply.
Thenceforth Conyers submitted in silence. If he had no contracting pains and no feeling of nausea when he started, he soon acquired them after swallowing that emetic. What little color he had come in with vanished, and his nerves went to ruin. He was kept under observation for two hours, while Barden and the doctor picked a team of tennis experts to play Lismore. The very name of tennis was hateful to Conyers after that night.
"I think you'll do now," the doctor said at last handing Mat a bottle of stuff, to be taken every two hours—after shaking the bottle—and a powder to be assimilated on going to bed.
"What's the damage?" asked Mat.
He paid it sulkily, and departed without saying good-night.
"How do you feel now, Mat?" Barden asked, on reaching the horse.
"Oh, as right as rain," Mat answered. He wanted to get rid of Barden.
"Strong as a horse."
"Well," said Barden, in a dry, drawling voice, "I'll ride the colt, and you can take the stirrup-leather and jog alongside."
Mat jogged alongside with the spirit of an anarchist. When they reached home, Barden saw him in and gave him the powder like a good nurse and blew the light out for him.
As soon as was gone Mat got out of bed again, dressed in the dark, to the accompaniment of foul language, expressed in undertones, pitched the bottle at the calf-pen, and then dragged his weary legs back to town. It was close, on midnight when he got there. Murty Brown, who was looking in at the door and obstructing the traffic, volunteered the information that he had just missed seeing the belle of the ball.
"Who?" asked Mat.
"Who took her home?"
"Miss Martell. She brought her. Th' sinshifters don't approve of trousered escorts. Wonder to me how they ever get hitched up themselves, some of 'em. Goin' in?"
"Too late now. Jes' toddlin' home. Good night!"
He went off whistling, and trying to walk as though he was in good trim; but he slept on a vacant allotment, among the Paddy's lucerne, that night.
For the next three weeks he was camped in the bush, surveying Crown lands for selection. It was an awful time for Conyers, twenty-one tortured nights, wondering who was talking to Selina, and who was presuming or conspiring to take her out. When he saw anyone from Dumboon, he would lead the talk round to girls, remarking finally in a casual sort of way: "There used to be a nice little piece at Rumsey's when I was in town. I can't think of her name now?" The visitors couldn't either; neither could they tell if she was still there. In the light of subsequent happenings, this was an unpardonable sin of omission on their part.
The surveyors returned on a Friday and Mat, receiving a holiday till Monday, drew his cheque, and shifted his quarters into town. That night he planted himself against the same wall, watching the gate. Soon another man planted himself against the some wall, on the opposite side of the gate. Mat ground his teeth, and edged closer, so as to have the advantage if Selina should come out. The other man also edged closer; they edged and edged till finally they met and stood up at the gate. The other man was a slim, gaunt looking painter, whom Conyers knew slightly.
"You!" he said, disdainfully.
"You!" echoed the painter, with equal disdain.
There was a moment's silence. Then Conyers said, frigidly:
"If you want to see Mr. Rumsey, you'll find him on th' verandah."
"Don't want to see him."
"Waitin' for Mrs. Rumsey, perhaps?"
His answers were rudely abrupt. Still Conyers maintained his equanimity. He tried another tack. "Know the girl here?"
"I ought to."
"Goin' to marry her next month."
Conyers regarded this as a bit of bluff; but he felt as though he had bumped an iceberg all the same.
"You don't go to church with her?" he said.
"Don't I?" the painter dissented. "She ain't been once 'thout me th' larst three year. That I'll swear."
"Get out!" said Mat, contemptuously. "I've seen her there dozens o' times, an' never saw you with her once." He became more contemptuous. "I don't believe she'd be seen in a forty-acre paddock with y'."
"That's a d—— insult!" cried the painter, hotly. "Put 'em, up!"
Mat had to put them up smartly to defend himself. He couldn't fight much, the painter could fight less; still they managed to accomplish a lot of damage in the first round, and falling inside, tore down the nasturtiums and rolled on the bouvardias. Hurried footsteps were heard through the house as they separated from the wreckage. They decamped as hurriedly, resuming hostilities a few seconds later on the bank of the river, opposite Carrington Park. The bank sloped there like the roof of a house, with a ten-foot drop at the bottom like a wall. They fought three furious, whirlwind rounds, then the painter, half-blinded and groggy, clutched Conyers in his long arms, and fell with him. They rolled down the steep slope, bumping and pummelling, and dropped over the broken bank on to a policeman, who had been crouched underneath watching two men who were suspected of dynamiting fish. The fall separated the combatants, but Conyers and Constable Murphy were knocked into the river. The painter escaped before they got out. Conyers was arrested, and locked up; and next morning he was fined £5 or fourteen days for riotous behaviour, interfering with Constable Murphy while in the execution of his duty, and damaging his uniform.
Conyers blamed the painter for it all, and vowed vengeance. Half a dozen whiskies before dinner put him in a good frame of mind for an interview, and a couple more after dinner set him going determinedly towards the paint shop. He found the artist breaking down white lead in an oil drum.
"Put 'em up, you cur!" he said, shaping up. The painter, who had a black eye and numerous abrasions, didn't want any more. He dodged behind the bench of paint-pots. Conyers threw a lump of putty at him, and called him vile names. That proving ineffective, he snatched up a pot of red paint and threw it over the tall person. That nettled the painter, and jumping on the bench, he first blinded Conyers with a handful of whiting, then poured a gallon of black paint over him. When he got his eyes open again, the enemy had vanished.
A passing drayman took Conyers to his hotel under a tarpaulin, picking up Jim and Murty, who were looking for him, on the way. They smuggled him to the bathroom, and helped him to undress. Then Jim stood back and looked him over carefully.
"I hope you left that decorator person enough material to go on with," he remarked.
"D—— the decorator!" snapped Conyers, disentangling an eyelash. "What's a good thing to take off paint?"
"Boilin' water," Murty answered, promptly.
"Oh, talk sense!" said Conyers, irritably.
"There's another way," Murty went on. "I've seen painters burn it off o' doors, an' scrape th' charcoal off with knives."
Conyers turned on him fiercely. "Am I a door?" he demanded, bending forward and clenching his hands.
Murty, his chin gripped between thumb and forefinger, studied him seriously for a moment. "Y' ain't a door," he replied, with decision. "Seems to me y' wur intended for a painter's signboard."
Conyers answered him with a snort of disgust. He stepped into the bath, and soaped himself till he was white with lather; but it had no apparent effect on the paint—except that it gave Murty a new idea.
"Y' have th' wrong soap, Mat," he in formed him. "What th' cook uses for cleanin' th' stove, which is every bit as black as you are, is monkey soap—"
Conyers heaved a wet sponge at him; then he looked at Jim, with the mute appeal of a bogged sheep in his eyes.
"Among the cognoscenti," Jim responded, impressively, "the usual remedy adopted for the removal of tar is fat, applied externally; so I presume the same prescription will answer for the present disorder. Get you to the chemist, Brown, and order a hogshead, to be delivered immediately and with promptitude."
"Chemist be hanged!" growled Conyers. "Go down to the cook."
Murty departed, and in a few minutes returned with a bucket of tallow. Rollins their sleeves up, they took handfuls of it, and plastered it thickly over Conyers' face and neck. The other parts of him, where the paint had run down, didn't matter. Jim said, as his clothes would cover that, and it would wear off before he would be ready to get married.
"The directions on the bucket says 'To be well rubbed in,'" Jim remarked, dabbing half a pound over Conyers' mouth and rubbing vigorously.
"Specially in th' excavations!" added Murty, slapping a handful over each ear.
"Oh!" Conyers gasped, twisting and screwing away from the torture. "This is awful!"
"Now, don't got excited," Jim advised. "Sit tight and look pleasant."
"Think of Selina," Murty put in.
"That girl ought to be proud of a man like this," Jim declared. "If he hasn't gone through fire and water for her, he's been through paint and fat."
"He has been through water," Murty corrected. "Wasn't he arrested in th' river? An' he's been anti-physic'd for her, too!"
"Correct," said Jim. "And what says my lady fair, Matthew? Has she deigned you one amorous glance of her seductive optics yet?"
"Leave some skin on, Jim, for Heaven's sake!" Conyers groaned in reply. "An' I don't want a feed of it," he added, spitting out fat. "It stinks!"
"It isn't a high-class perfumery, I'll allow," said Jim, "but its recuperative powers are simply astonishing; you're the fattest man in town already."
They rubbed at him till they were tired; then they soaped him and showered him, and soaped him again, till they got the fat off. But the paint remained.
Conyers turned from the looking-glass in disgust, and threw the tallow bucket out of the window.
"Go down to Raddicliffe's coach factory, Brown, an' ask them for something to take off paint. Be quick!"
Murty bustled out, while Conyers sat down on the edge of the bath tub, and Jim squatted in the corner and commented on his looks in black.
Murty returned with a quart of turpentine as the supper-bell rang. They wrapped the patient in a blanket, sent his supper up to him, and later on, resumed the process of making him white. In the course of the night they accomplished the task, with the exception of some body streaks, and some spots in the angles of his ears and the corners of his eyes.
He kept to his bed all Sunday, taking the rest cure; but after tea he went down to the church to watch for the painter. He saw him come from the rectory, with a big fat girl on his arm.
"Who's that?" he asked a bystander.
"Selina Anderson—girl at Rumsey's," was the answer.
Mat started. "Why," he said, "I thought Selina Saddler was there?"
"She was there for three weeks, while Selina Anderson was home for a spell. Th' painter an' this one's to be hitched soon, I hear."
"How—how long has Selina Saddler been gone?"
"Oh, a month or more."
Mat slunk away into the darkness to kick himself.
What his real, name was nobody seemed to know—and nobody cared. He was simply known as Bendigo, because he had so much to say about Bendigo wherever he went. He was a wandering digger; he had never been anything else in his life. He had passed his three-score-and-ten; every hair on him was snow white; he was wrinkled and bent, but he still had a ruddy glow on his face, and the strength to burrow down through rock and granite.
For more than half a century he had padded the hoof from gold field to gold field, and from station to station! He had made fortunes in his time—little ones—and blewed them like a whaler. Every pub knew him as the "Old Murray Barge," because be had a lumbering gait, and had been stranded so often, and because he wandered up and down rivers and always alone.
At last he drifted into quiet little Narraburra, where a small diggings had broken out. That was years ago. Hundreds had come to it with money, and had gone away again with nothing. It was a good poor, man's field—it kept him poor. Still Ben and a few Chinamen stuck to it. Also some grizzled fossickers, who begged "old things" of passing drovers to avoid arrest for indecency. Once a discoverer of fields and the leader of rushes, he was now content to fall in with the fossickers, working over old ground long after the busy hum of life had departed. Old men foregather on these fossicking fields, where they can make just enough to live on till their days are numbered. And when the body grows weak, and the fare is scanty and irregular, they become correspondingly cunning, and selfish. Ben developed both these characteristics before he had been very long at Narraburra.
Things got so brisk in the little place that every door-post had some one leaning against it, waiting for better times and a dog fight. At this stage Downey, the storekeeper, and Rocky Roberts, the publican, offered £50 for the discovery of gold on new ground. It was Rocky himself who stipulated that is should be paid to the men who pegged first claim.
The reward caused quite a stir among the fossils. They met at Ben's canvas humpy at nights to discuss it, and the subject led Ben off into a long history of rewards and lucky finds and rushes, that he had known or heard of in the course at an extensive career. He filled the whole club of antiques with excitement and enthusiasm, till the all-conquering gold fever fired their withered fibres and whipped them into renewed energy; and they confided to each other what they would do with this stupendous reward, and the result of the reward claim (which they would sell to a syndicate), if the luck of discovery fell to them. Then they interviewed the storekeeper, and when he refused to trust them with a month's rations and new tools their enthusiasm slumped, and with the reflection that such, wealth was not for them, they went back to the old routine.
Ben firmly believed there was gold in the neighborhood. Often he would stop in his perambulations and look towards the scrub. "There's gold in that there mallee," he would mutter, shaking a trembling finger at the bush. "I know there is." And, after a long pause, he would add, "but dang me if I know where."
And he never looked. Like the other patriarchs, he concluded that prospecting on an extensive scale was beyond him now, and just waited for something to turn up.
It turned up.
He was sitting in the bar one night, smoking and dreaming, when Rocky's little girl passed through with something in her hand that glittered when the light fell on it. She took it to her father in the next room. Ben watched through the half-opened door, alert as a basking adder.
"Look, dad, wot I found! Yaller stone. Ain't it pretty?"
Rocky's face brightened. His wife peered over his shoulder.
"Goodness, dad, it's gold, ain't it?"
"Three ounce slug!" said Rocky, weighing it in his hand. "Where did yer get it, Midgy?"
"In the mallee," the child replied.
"Ah!" said Bendigo under his breath. "Didn't I say so? Didn't I know it?"
Rocky's wife grasped his wrist and whispered, "Don't let old Ben hear of it. Get a right for the groom to peg out for yer, an' we'll see his miserable old heart break." She peered cautiously into the bar. But Ben wasn't looking. He was asleep.
Ben always drank with the flies, when he drank at all, and frequently he questioned the quality and the measure of the grog, which brought down a shower of abuse upon his head from Rocky. So they thought a lot of each other in a perverse way.
Rocky and Midgy returned from the mallee next morning in high glee, having located the find without difficulty. The groom bought a miner's right and a kit of tools, and they spent the day getting things ready—Rocky, overjoyed at the prospect of saving his reward money, and getting the other half as well. His wife ordered seven new dresses on the strength of it. She expected a big rush shortly, and of course she must be prepared when the old town felt the first galvanic shock of awakening life.
Rocky started for the mallee at dawn, carrying a flask of whisky to christen the claim. He would call it the "Midgy Roberts." The groom, who was a distant relation, carried the tools. Rocky waxed generous, as he drew near.
"In about a month, Tom," he said, "I expect t'ave all I want out o' this claim, an' you can 'ave the rest. You can 'ave the pub, too, Tom an' the grey mare, an' old Nanny, an' the sow."
He stopped short, and dropped the whisky. The flask broke, and at the same time the groom exclaimed, "The Murray Barge!" The claim was christened.
In the centre of a little square, which Rocky had cleared, stood Bendigo, leaning on a shovel and wet with perspiration. He had been working hard.
"What dirty trick is this?" gasped the publican. "You miserable old scab! What d'yer mean by jumpin' my claim?"
"Your claim?" cried Bendigo, surprised. "Do you mean to tell me, Mr. Roberts, that you knowed of this 'ere?"
"I found it!" Rocky shrieked. "D—— you, you know I did."
"No, Rocky. Them's my pegs, an' wot's inside 'em's mine. An'I hope you'll remember that trifle o' fifty quid, Rocky. You're tryin' to do a shuffle now, which I never thought as you would—"
"I'll screw your cursed neck," roared Rocky. "Be off!"
Ben raised his shovel. "You step inside o' them pegs an' your 'ead gets this—sorry, though, I'd be to 'urt yer. Go back to yer bar, Rocky. That sort o' bluff ain't the proper thing in a bizness man. If it got about as you tried to cheat an old man out of his just reward, I'll lay it wouldn't do you no good, Rocky. You'd be done for in Narraburra."
Rocky saw he was beaten and departed without any further argument. But he left the groom to prospect around the Barge and keep an eye on him.
That evening Ben, good-naturedly overlooking the little unpleasantness of the morning, dropped in to give him good cheer.
"Have a drink with me, Rocky," he said. "I've struck it rich."
"I hope it strikes you blind, you dog," growled Rocky. "'Twon't do you any good, mark me. I'll see you beggin' yet."
"Don't you fret, Rocky. There's whips o' gold in th' mallee."
Some mornings later Ben came rushing to the local constable with the news that Rocky was lying dead in his shaft, but the local constable muttered, "Gor-em-agin," and walked away.
The Chows and grizzled fossickers went out, doubting. But Rocky was there, with a pick and shovel and a bull's-eye lantern lying near. He had tumbled into the shaft, and struck his head on the edge of a shovel which Ben had left standing in the corner.
"Yer, see, mates, he was always hankerin' round arter this claim o' mine; seemed to think he 'ad a better right to it, somehow," said Ben to the wondering group around him. "An' he pegged out 'ere arter all!"
Dave Hardy and Ham Rolin were all-round bush workers; but occasionally, in slack times, they quitted the usual fields of employment and went into camp in the wild game haunts of Bungawalbyn Creek. There they shot ducks for the Sydney market. No change of life could be more complete. It had its disadvantages, its dangers, and hardships: but it was free, adventurous, remunerative, and stimulating to their sporting instincts.
In the heat of summer, in the frost of winter, it was all the same to Dave and Ham. They would tramp over miles of country in sunshine and rain, wade shoulder deep for hours through weed-covered water, where ugly, ravenous leeches stretched after them like animated indiarubber, to be emptied later from blood-reeking boots. In winter, blue and numbed with cold, their teeth chattering like castanets; in summer, teeming with perspiration in breathless mangroves, crawling within strike of snakes in long grass, stepping out of one swamp with dripping clothes that dried on them before they reached the next. There were buoyant mangrove beds over which they trod to reach the duck ponds, and through which, treading unexpectedly on a weak spot, they often dropped into deep water. The rushes rustled like dry cane leaves, and cut like razor blades, necessitating much time and patience to get through without hurt, and without startling the game.
The game laws were openly infringed. In the close season, and on Sundays, they had need of sharp ears and keen sight to keep out of the clutches of the police. More than once the duck-shooters had shivered for hours in mid-swamp, crouched between bunches of reeds, while the sergeant and his henchmen patrolled the shore. If surprised on land, they threw the game into the grass, and pleasantly inquired, when they met the hostile party, if it had seen any dingoes or kangaroos in its travels. In one instance they were almost caught near camp. Ham Rolin happened to be carrying a young kangaroo for the dogs. This proved their salvation. When Dave saw the blue coats coming, he just dropped the game and walked on. Ham knelt down, ostensibly to tie his boot-lace, and packed some twenty ducks hurriedly into that marsupial, which had been cut open to lighten it, then skewered it up with a stick. It bulged like a sheep that has just come out of a tank; even Constable X24 remarked that it was a fat macropod for that time of the year; but the trick passed undetected.
The two men had been away from the swamps for eighteen months. Consequently they expected to find them replenished, the game less wild, and big bags waiting them. They were out early, shouldering a canvas dingy, which was an improvement on their previous methods. It was the shooting season, so the whole phalanx of waterfowl was fair game.
They talked in excited whispers as they approached the margin of Reedy Swamp, their biggest and most profitable water. The first day on the marshes is always exciting; business is tempered with pleasure. The cry of the alarming plover on the slopes, the croak of black shags on half-buried logs, the cheery quack-quack of ducks, the flapping of wings, and splashing in distant pools were music to their ears, sounds that had called them in their dreams, had echoed in their waking hours with an insistency that was irresistible. The air seemed fresher, the morn more glorious, in the haunts of the waterfowl, and they felt as some long-caged animal must feel that has got back lo its native wilds.
They launched their dingy at the eastern side, where a broad mass of floating reeds, running out past the centre, provided efficient shelter for stalking. Ham stepped to the front and proceeded to fix up a screen with green bushes, while Dave knelt down to paddle. Just then two quick reports came booming across from the reed bed, followed by the roar of rising wings from the sheltered pools.
"Euchred!" said Dave, watching the coveted bevies winging westward, and poising for a shot when they should circle back.
"I kin guess him in one," said Ham. "Big Harry Capp. We 'ad a tussle last time for these swamps, an' if he's on th' job this year, which it looks like he is, I guess we'll just about 'ave to sleep out here with the poultry to get ahead of him. There ain't room for two firms on this lay, an' bein' first on it, I reckon we've got th' best right to stay. But that sort o' thing don't count much with Big Harry; he'd jump his own father's claim if he couldn't see a better, without much lookin' round. He's got no principle, that man. I told him so when he showed his black mug 'ere three year ago."
"You told Big Harry that?" Dave questioned a twinkle of amusement in his eyes.
"How far was he away from you?"
"Purty near as close as you are."
Dave measured the distance with his eye. "How did y' escape?"
"Warnt no danger," Ham answered. "Never lifted a finger."
"Couldn't 'ave heard you," was Dave's verdict. "Don't suppose you meant him to."
"He wanted to join us as third partner, you remember," Ham went on, ignoring the remark. "But I couldn't stand him. Then he tried to get us copped for shootin' an' liftin' eggs out o' season, an' him goin' hot lick at it all th' time himself. An' you mind th' time we left our bag under that clump o' tea trees, an' when we come back out o' th' swamp there was only th' tracks of Harry's hobnails there. Must a watched us out, then sneaked up an' collared 'em. There's special bad pints in a man that does them sort o' tricks, Dave. He's a p'inter, out an' out, an' if we're goin' to hold our own with him, we got to p'int too. Not as I hold with p'intin'; but I like to see something like fair dealin' on th' other side. I wouldn't like to do him anything extra in bad turns even now if I could help it. He's got th' two finest-lookin' daughters you ever clapped eyes on. Reg'lar make-yer-mouth-water sort."
Dave chuckled as he quietly swung the double-bladed paddle from side to side.
"I'm constituted a little that way myself," he said.
"What way?" asked Ham. He had completed his screen, and was kneeling with his back to his mate, peering over it.
"I ken shut my eyes to a lot when the other fellow has pretty daughters an' I want a wife. Kinder levels up things."
"I ain't sayin' I'm hankerin' after th' feminine gender." Ham returned. "You must allow some to a man that's got a family to keep."
"Specially when the family ain't boys," added Dave.
"Of course, we ken all sympathise a lot more with a gel. We're built that way," Ham conceded. "If they wur boys they could battle with th' rest of us an' help keep th' pot b'ilin'. 'Taint so with gels."
"How long 'ave you known th' Miss Capps?" asked Dave.
"Only met 'em at th' Coraki races last year. There was a ball that night, an' I 'ad th' honour of a swing with one. Maggie, they called her. Real pearl of a dancer. Dressed just lovely, too, in a drop-neck affair with no sleeves. Her sister was something sim'lar. I'll introduce yer to her sister one of these times, when I get better acquainted."
"It's three years ago, isn't it, since Big Harry wanted to go partners with us?" asked Dave.
"What about it?"
"Seems he was a bit too previous in makin' that proposition," Dave answered. "He should 'ave invited you to tea."
"Suppose," said Dave, "he let on that a partnership this season would be agreeable to him, what would you say to it?"
"He ain't goin' to let on anything of th' sort. That ain't his style," Ham replied. "He's jes' goin' to peg away from th' jump to do us bad, or I don't know him. See that smoke? He's thereabout, at th' first hole. Must a dropped quite a heap out o' that mob. One thing, he's bound to be wadin', so we ken donkey-lick him to th' other holes in th' dingy."
"Don't count your ducks afore they're shot," Dave advised. "What do you call that—straight ahead 'tween th' green rushes?"
"Done brown, by gum!" cried Ham, as he sighted Big Harry paddling far ahead in a dingy like their own. "Well, it's no use follerin' that. We're too 'eavy-loaded to 'ave a ghost of a show, so we may's well light out full split for th' next place."
"An' hunt all th' game over here to him?'" Dave dissented. "I know a trick worth two of that. We'll plant 'ere in th' reeds, an' let him do th' beatin'. Them ducks 'ill come back."
They followed this course, and waited—waited all day, just moving from pool to pool, and getting a shot occasionally. Big Harry waited too, at the other end. It was a game of patience, played till long after the last duck had left the swamp. The birds had gathered in their thousands in neighbouring swamps, but both parties resisted the temptation, so as not to drive the game back to the other.
At sundown Ham and Dave hid their dingy under a log in the long grass, and started home. Soon after dusk they heard Big Harry's gun at another swamp. They heard it even after nightfall.
"Must be shootin' whistlers," Dave surmised. "Saw some to-day."
"He knows how many goslins make a pair, that chap," said Ham. "Drivin' 'em back now ready for mornin'. But I'll bet you th' best swan on Reedy to a bob-down diver I do him. We'll be out 'ere afore th' magpie's awake."
"I doubt if we'll steal a march on him, then," said Dave. "He'll 'ave a big hurry on to-morrow. You take it from me."
"Oh, we ken spurt some, too," Ham declared. "I'll go alone in th' dingy, while you'll dodge round shore for flyin' shots. You'll see me out there, with one eye ready shut so as to save time, an' th' other layin' along th' barrel at number one hole, waitin' for th' first glimmer to let drive. Th' big chap can't start blazin' 'fore it's light, an' I reckon I ken tell a duck from a turtle on a log 'bout as soon as he can."
Ham was so excited, and so eager to be first off scratch in the morning, that he had very little sleep that night. He got up so often to look at the time, and made so much noise finding the furniture with his toes and upsetting the bric-a-brac that he kept Dave awake also. Ham explained each time that to lose the start was to lose the day, whereas a little activity and determination might have the good effect of forcing the third party to seek fresh haunts. The early shooter saves the worm.
They left camp at 3 o'clock, and at 4 o'clock Ham was afloat, while Dave lay down at the butt of a red gum to wait for daylight. The ducks could be heard in the first pool, and there was another sound that made Ham's pulses quicken, the chatter of wild geese nestling round the margin of the hole. His hands shook as he breathlessly picked his way towards the delicious bird-voices. He paused when the nose of the dingy touched the clear water, and with the gun thrust through the brush screen he waited impatiently for dawn.
When at last he could see across the water he could discern only an odd teal here and there. These were not good enough; neither did a cluster of shovellers on a knob of matted roots tempt him, Hamilton wanted geese this morning. They were bunched on a green carpet at the far end, obscured by a strip of rushes that ran out in front of him.
He was paddling very quietly towards this point, certain of his quarry from the fine position in which he found himself, when two shots broke the stillness of the grey dawn. Ham was so disconcerted by the unexpectedness of it that a hundred geese had passed low over his head, and out of range before he had picked up his gun. Over the reeds he had been making for there hovered two thin puffs of white smoke, and as he floated in disappointed idleness the rival dingy, with bags and rugs lumped in the stern, was launched from the floating bed of decayed vegetation. Big Harry had slept with the mallards.
The next pool was a good way up. They shot out at different points, and a hard race for the prize commenced. There were scattered ducks in plenty along the floating grass and green reeds through which they paddled, but these they ignored, while the packed masses in the clear pools beckoned them. It was to be a race for the front, which meant more game and less work.
Big Harry had a slight lead at the start, but Ham, being lighter laden, and paddling with desperation, crept up inch by inch till the dingies were level, then slowly forged ahead. Seeing that he must lose, Big Harry raised his gun with the intention of frightening the birds ahead, but suddenly changed his mind, and swinging round emptied both barrels into the stern part of his adversary's dingy. The heavy duck shot tore through the canvas on both sides level with the waterline. Staggered for a moment by this hostile move, Ham Rolin stopped paddling to stare at the double stream of water that was pouring into his craft.
"Oh-ho!" he said, then. "Doggerbank a man, will yer? Right! If I'm to sink, by th' duckbilled platypus, you'll sink, too. Here goes."
There was no more paddling, no further thought of the duck pools. Big Harry had reloaded, and now it became a hot duel between the two. Time after time the opposing guns were discharged at the canvas dingies, each being careful, however, not to hit the occupant. The crack, crack, of the breech-loaders rumbled like thunder across the broad marshes, smoke hung like a fogbank between them, hundreds of ducks circled over and around them unheeded. Splinters flew from the light woodwork, the once taut canvas bulged and sagged, and grew narrower as the water poured through the rents.
Ham sank first, up to his chin. Being able to stand, he saved his weapon and ammunition by holding them over his head. Big Harry, being further out, sank in deep water, and had to swim. He was a fine waterman, and Ham could not but admire him even then as he balanced his gun across his shoulders, and towed three brace of geese on each side of him, with the tips of their wings gripped between his teeth, while liquid drops glistened like a network of diamonds on his black beard.
Ham watched him until he had obtained footing, then waded shorewards. Neither man had spoken a word to the other, yet on each face was a hard grin, while the battle lasted, as though they were merely engaged in a friendly rivalry. Now Rolin chuckled at the humour of it.
"So it come to a fight, did it?" cried Dave, as he stepped out.
"Great naval engagement," laughed Ham. "Hear th' cannonadin'?"
"Hear it!" said Dave. "It's scared off everything that ken flap a wing. Nice morning's start you've made of it."
"'Twas a grand fight, though," Ham persisted. "Both squadrons sunk, an' only th' two admirals escaped."
"A miserable-lookin' pair of admirals they are!" sneered Dave. He had built that dingy, and was annoyed. Ham didn't mind the loss of it at all. Big Harry had fared the worse, so he felt triumphant.
"Well, we're afoot again," he said, "but we've got th' field to ourselves. That's th' indemnity. Let's 'ave some breakfast, David."
Later in the day Ham received another surprise. Maggie Capp, the girl he had danced with, rode up to the camp soon after the pair had returned from the swamps. Dave had ridden into Coraki with the morning's bag. Ham was building a new dingy.
"Good afternoon, Mr. Rolin."
"Good afternoon, Miss Capp."
"Father wants to know if you're hurt?"
"'Urt!" Ham turned nine colours in two seconds. "Not a scratch," he said, uneasily.
"And would you call and see him this evening?"
The question further embarrassed him, yet it engendered a certain sense of victory. "I suppose he told you all about it?" he queried.
"Yes, he told me;" she answered, pertly. "You ought to feel proud of yourselves, both off you. You had little enough to go to war over."
She laughed in spite of herself.
"What's he think of it?"
"Oh, he had a great laugh over it when he got home."
"Oh, he can't be too bad, then. What's he want me for?"
"Well, I suppose he is dissatisfied with the way things are. It's not his fault; he wanted to join interests with you three years ago."
"You think he wants to renew that proposition?" asked Ham.
"I don't know; perhaps he does."
Ham stood with his hand on the horse's neck, looking at her. She was a very pretty girl.
"You tell him," he said, "that I don't want to be hard on a man that's got a family to keep. He ken come in as third partner if he wants to."
Don Garry was cleaning his gun, preparatory to a walk round the swamps after duck, when his adopted son, Punty, who had been turning a couple of dry cows out into the station paddock, rode up in a glow of excitement.
"There's a great big kangaroo standin' just behind th' p'int o' scrub," he reported. "Reg'lar sollicker."
"By himself?" asked Garry.
"Yes; not another one in sight."
"Didn't go enywheres near to scare him, did yer?"
"No; I was a good way off. He just stood straight up an' looked till I got out o' sight."
"Behind th' first p'int, y' say?"
"Quite close agin it," Punty affirmed. "Y' ken plunk him fine out o' th' scrub."
"We'll have him boy, we'll have him," Garry declared, putting a dry piece of flannel on the end of a wire and running it quickly through the barrels.
"Old woman's been pesterin' me for a kangaroo skin this twelve months or more," he went on, as Punty hurried off to let his horse go. "Wants it for an extra special sort o' footmat. If I've tried once to suit her with mats, I've tried forty times. Got a rippin' hide for her off a cow that got bogged at th' Four-mile; cured it an' currycombed it an' brushed it an' trimmed it up, till it was fit for a drawin' room; but she said it was too dry, wouldn't lay flat all over, an' made a row like only a old hide can, every time you walked on it. She didn't like th' fragrance of it neither. 'Twas a bit strong, though 'twas moderatin' fast. Then I got her some bearskins an' possum skins, an' spent nights an' nights makin' 'em into mats, an' when I shot Brand's goat by accident—th' one as used to follow th' teams back an' forth, so th' pine-getters could 'ave milk when-ever they boiled th' billy—I fetched th' skin home an' dyed it a beautiful vermilion, an' made a mat with it good enough to win a prize at th' show, an' I made her a mat with th' skin o' Muddle's foal wot died last winter, an' mats with dingo skins, an' native-cat skins, an' other sorts, till she 'ad enough to cover th' whole blamed house with. No go. She'd made up her mind she wanted a kangaroo skin, an' when Luce gets fixed that way there ain't no shiftin' her, you bet. You couldn't do it, mate, with dynamite."
"Why not have gone out an' got the right skin at first?" I inquired.
"Easier to fall off a 'ouse 'an do that. I went out, as you say, fust go off, an' got fined for kangaroo shootin' on th' station run. Lost a day tendin' th' court, got drunk through people sympathisin' with me, an' fell off on th' metal road comin' back late at night. Punty fetched me home next mornin' on th' slide. That's why I've been takin' such purtikler pains to please Luce with some other sort o' mat. You don t see a kangaroo about the farms once in ten generations o' cats nowadays, an' I wasn't wantin' to take any more risks. Hits a poor man stone hard. But we'll 'ave th' real genuine article now, you bet."
We were by this time heading towards the scrub, Punty leading, and rapidly drawing away with long, eager strides, a tuft of red hair sticking out through his broken hat. Punty was 14 at this time. In a loose cotton shirt, baggy trousers, much too large, and heavy bluchers, slouching through the long grass, he looked an awkward and lumbersome sort of youth. He had the stride and the peculiar gait that is acquired behind a plough. But when you saw him with his big boots off and his trousers rolled up, tearing round trees and over logs after a possum, he struck you as being quite a smart lad. He was smarter than a boy much younger.
"Better call him back," I suggested. "He'll be scaring the game away."
"Don't you fret," said Garry, confidently. "I'll back that boy to stalk anything that walks, hops, or flies. Good as a blackfeller. Always take him with me when I go in th' bush. He knows what to do if anything 'appens. Quick to act; never loses his head. I mind me one day a lot of us wur gettin' passionfruit in th' scrub opposite Muddle's. It was th' time Lem Scully brought his bride over to settle 'ere, an' we Big Bend folks give 'em a party. Well, when we'd been gatherin' awhile we meets in a clear place, an' Punty notices a whip snake twissed among the fixins on Sarah's bonnet. Now any other half-grown man on th' river would a sung out, an' ten to one she'd a put her hand up, or tried to tear th' bonnet off, an' got bitten; but what does Punty do, but steps across, quite careless like, an' not lookin' at her, as if he 'adn't a mission in th' world as you could give a name to. An' when he gets behind her he grabbed that reptile quick an' light by the tall, and' whisked him off like that. They all sung out then, you bet. Such hollerin' an' frisky capers an' antics among quiet family folk as were tired with fruit pickin' you never saw."
"Good presence of mind," I commented.
"Aye, th' presence o' mind o' that boy is wonderful. An' he always knows what's th' right thing to do, never makes no error. Y' remember when th' paddymelons wur bad all over th' river 'ere. We used to meet on Sundays, a lot of us, with dogs an' guns, an' when we'd get a big drive on, most of us would be that blamed excited we'd be shootin' a dog purty near as often as a paddymelon. An' there'd be Punty, firin' an' loading like machinery an' cool as a frog in a water barrel."
"Never misses. Tell you how he learnt. I often laugh now when I think of it. I used to send him mindin' cockatoos with th' single-barrel gun an' a tin o' Thribbie-F. No shot. An' Punty 'ud go through all th' manoeuvrin' an' sneaking up, as he'd seen me do after game, 'fore he'd fire his blank charge, too. Th' closer he got to th' cockies th' bigger fright he'd give 'em. His ambition was to let a blast go right up agin one while it was busy dinin' on corn. He reckoned if he did, th' bird would be that paralysed with fright, not to mention th' danger 't 'ud run o' chokin', it 'ud drop off th' stalk, an' he'd ketch it 'fore it could collect itself.
"One day he fetched home a mangled carcase on a sheet o' bark, an' I thought he'd succeeded. 'I shot it meself!' he sez, in great glee. Next mornin' I caught 'im rubbin' some ointment on his shoulder. There was a big bruise on it, with a bit of skin off in th' centre.
"Punty," I sez, "which shoulder do you mos'ly shoot off of?"
"'This one,' he sez, touchin' th' bruise. I has another look at it.
"Gun kicked yesterday, didn't it?"
"How much shot did you put in it, Punty?"
"'Eh? Why?' He stopped, lookin' scared.
"How much shot did you put in that gun?"
"Good Gawd! A handful; 'tis a wonder you're alive, boy. I knowed a gun to kick an' break a man's jaw with less 'n half that. Don't you never touch shot agin—unless I tell you to."
"He didn't either. But one day, long after that, I comes on to a heap o' dead cockatoos an' parrots stacked agin a stump. Some of 'em wur fresh, an' some were bone an' feathers. I noticed Punty lookin' mighty uncomfortable as I poked round it, so I sez to him, 'Been 'avin' good sport; 'aven't you?' Punty grinned and reddened, but didn't say one way or the other.
"Punty," I sez, "what did you shoot them birds with?"
"Pebbles," sez Punty, hangin' his head.
"Sure you didn't take any shot?"
"How many birds do y' tally up you've got 'ere?"
"Unded an' twenty-two."
"How many shots?"
"Unded an' twenty-two."
"Purty good drawin' a bead, ain't you?"
"I ken beat Octo Muddle," he sez, his pride gettin' th' better of him. "We 'ad a shootin' match, an' he was usin' duck shot, too."
"What was th' match for?"
"A new hat."
"Where's the hat?"
"Got it planted in a holler log."
"Better get it. Punty. Might get sp'ilt there."
"I was talkin' hard to him all th' time: but when he'd gone to his room that night, me an' Luce 'ad a real hearty good laugh over it all. He's 'ad all th' duck shot he's wanted since."
We had now reached the point of scrub. Punty with his finger on his lip, and holding, Towser, the terrier, under his arm, came out and met us.
"Ain't budged an inch," he whispered, "Straight through there. Ken pot him dead easy from th' scrub."
"You look after Blucher, mate," said Garry, fixing his hat on tightly. Blucher was the big dog. He was of an excitable nature, and required a lot of attention to keep him quiet.
When he had got as near as he dared go, Garry knelt, down, thrust the barrel through the bushes carefully, and proceeded to aim. He shifted this way, and shifted that way, and lowered the weapon, and sighted it again, several times before he fired. The report shook Towser out of Punty's arms, and he was first out of the scrub. The boomer tore madly round and round for a while, plunging and falling, and bounding up again, with a lot of loose wire, swinging and swishing after it. This wire had been drawn out of an old fence, that had enclosed a boghole, and left lying about in the grass. The animal had evidently become entangled in it during the night, which accounted for its being alone and remaining so long in one spot. Finally it stood bolt upright on the brink of a deep gully, with its long sharp ears cocked, staring at its foe.
Garry walked towards it. His intention was to approach as near as possible, like Punty used to when frightening cockatoos, and give it the second barrel. Towser accompanied him, making a great fuss. Punty stood in the open, waiting developments, while I was still in the scrub, holding Blucher with my belt.
When he had reached within a couple of paces, close enough to touch it with the gun, Garry stopped, with one hand resting on a half-burnt post, debating whether to shoot it, or kill it with a stick. Without knowing it, he stood in a double loop of the wire, one end of which was twisted round the kangaroo, the other being fast round the bottom of the post.
"Better shoot it, an' be done with it," he concluded, and lifted his hand to alter the set of his hat again, a preliminary action peculiar to most shooters.
Then one of the great incidents of his life happened. The kangaroo made a sudden bound to get away, and the wires snapped tightly round his ankles. Before he could realise what had happened to him, the animal, which had been flung on to its side, had jumped up, and swung round to its starting-point, so that he was not only severely hobbled, but firmly lashed to the post as well. He emitted one startled cry, that was between a roar and a yell, after which he merely winced and gasped, and turned his bulging eyes towards the scrub in mute appeal for help.
The move for a moment staggered Towser. He had never seen a marsupial do anything like that before. He fell over himself with astonishment, then retreated hurriedly in a series of half-circles, barking in a whining way that suggested hysterics.
The kangaroo was sitting back, keeping a strain on. Now and again it clawed at its flanks, where the wire encircled it, and tore the ground with its toes. It was too well tied up to get away, even had it not been badly wounded. Garry would not have cared now if it had got away, providing it did not take him with it. But he didn't want it to do any more circus tricks round the post. The wire pinched too much. Besides, another circle would bring them into contact. He stood still, and kept quiet, for fear any movement or noise would start it plunging round again. His arms were free, but he couldn't stoop on account of the post; and though he still held the barrel of the gun, the stock was bound, like his legs. So that was useless.
The infallible Punty appeared to be as staggered as Towser had been. He came up leisurely, and walked from side to side a couple of times, Garry's eyes following him with a ferocious glare. Punty couldn't understand what he was standing there for.
"Why don't you shoot th' thing?" he asked in surprised tones.
"Shoot—th'—thing!" the victim gasped, "Can't you give a hand, you useless fool of a feller?"
Punty walked half round again, by which time he saw how matters stood but he couldn't see where he had to begin to undo the tangle.
Garry became more exasperated.
"Y' goin' to stand there garpin' all day?"
As an experiment Punty grasped the wire and heaved on it. The kangaroo hung back and kicked, while Garry squirmed and wriggled as the wires pinched him. He clenched his teeth, and hissed at his adopted son.
"You curse o' Crom'ell! Ha'n't you got no better sense 'an 'that?"
Punty let the wire go; then he picked up a stick, and aimed a vicious blow at the animal's head. The stick was half rotten, and, breaking in the middle, it swung round and smacked Garry across the ear, and a shower of dust and a few red ants went down his neck and into his hair. The kangaroo lurched forward a little, binding him a wrench or so tighter. He gasped and swore, and his blinking eyes glistened with tears.
"D—— your hide! You awkward-fisted blunderin' galoot! Ye' ain't as much use as an old woman. Can't do anything—"
Punty stood back, scared and helpless.
"Goin' t' sleep?" Garry rasped across his shoulder. "Undo th' other end o' th' wire, can't yer? Not got that much gumption, you owl!"
Punty didn't hear. He saw Blucher, who had at last broken away, bounding towards them. He clapped his hands, and said, "Sool him, boy!" and "Ketch him, Blucher!" while Garry yelled at him to keep the dog off. But it was too late. Blucher had been impatient to get at him for some time. He made a terrific leap at his throat from three yards back, and there was a sudden and violent separation. The jerk snapped the post off at the butt, and all three shot over the bank and disappeared in the deep gully.
I had forty or fifty yards to cross, through long grass, to the top of that gully. When I got there the participants had changed so much that none of them could be sworn to. The kangaroo was lying dead and half buried at the bottom, and the man-image in dripping black mud stood beside it, one hand resting on the carcase, the other raised and agitated. The unerring Punty, and a dog that looked liked Blucher, were going for a walk down the gully.
"— useless, blunderin' galoot on th' two rivers!" the image was saying with much feeling. "Never seen yer do anything right yet. Never."
Then I knew it to be the maker of mats.
It was a night in November, in a little mining camp at the back of Goolgardie. Before a small fire sat two hardy, sun-browned bushmen, named Joe Harden and Bob Bracken. They had met in the East, where they were known as "Long Joe" and "Bogan Bob," and had wandered into this wilderness when the gold fever was on. Success had crowned their efforts, and that evening they had cleaned up.
"I'm not sorry this is our last night here," said Bob, lighting his pipe.
"Neither am I," added Joe. "It'll be a treat to get back, and to see a woman's face again after being buried here so long."
"Do you intend to marry?" asked Bob.
"If all goes well; but it's a question that takes two to decide. After you with that firestick." He paused, holding the firebrand to his pipe. "For the present I am going back to Yarranbar," he resumed. "I was stock-riding there some years ago."
"Why," said Bob, with sudden interest, "I was there myself only four years ago. Strange this never cropped up between us before."
Joe stared into the fire, puffing meditatively at his pipe.
"Did you know a young chap there by the name of Herbert Bradwell?" Bob continued.
"N-no!" Joe answered, shortly.
"That's strange! Everybody knew Herbert—nothing else was talked of for weeks on the Rocky River. It was thought old Greyson killed him. They made me feel as if I'd stepped into a dead man's shoes' anyway."
"You got his billet, then?" asked Joe, glancing at his companion.
"Yes; but he'd been gone some time," Bob answered. "Of course you knew Phoebe Greyson?"
"Knew her well."
"And did you never hear anything about that wild escapade of hers?"
"Don't recollect. What was it?"
"Well, I'll tell you; it might interest you as you're going there." He threw some small wood on the fire to make a blaze.
"Herbert Bradwell was head stockman there about that time," Bob began as he reseated himself. "He was rather good lookin', and pretty well educated for a bushman. He'd been, on Yarranbar a long while before he got into trouble. It was old Greyson's fault in one way; he used to take her out mustering with them in the home paddocks. Phoebe, as you know, was a very pretty girl—rather dark, perhaps, with a deep voice, but fascinating for all that when she liked. Herbert generally acted as her groom, and danced attendance on her whenever possible. As might have been expected, they fell in love with one another. You can't beat young people for that sort of thing.
"Their courtship ran smoothly for a time, but at last old Greyson found it out and kicked up the deuce's own' row. Herbert got a week's notice to quit the station. In the meantime he arranged with Kate, the housemaid, to act as inter-medium, by which means illicit love-letters were smuggled backwards and forwards. Phoebe was always a bit wild, and at 18 was ready to play her part in any dare-devil scheme that was put into her head. So they fixed it up to elope; and one night when Greyson was away she stole quietly out to a clump of trees where Herbert was waiting with the horses.
"'I hope you'll never regret this step, Phoebe,' he said, as he kissed her; 'I feel that I am doing wrong in taking you away from your home.'
"'I would rather go with you, Herbert,' she answered. 'Only promise that you will be true to me.'
"'I'll be true till death, Phoebe,' he replied.
"'Then, I fear nothing; let us get away,' she rejoined, and he lifted her into the saddle.
"They rode away in silence, and were beginning to congratulate themselves, when the clatter of horse's hoofs was heard up the track. Phoebe drew rein, and clutched her companion's arm.
"'Someone's coming!' she whispered. 'Oh, what will we do?'
"'It's all right,' answered Herbert. 'It's only Toby coming in from Rosett's.'
"Toby was the black boy. Herbert had sent him out in the afternoon to ride round the boundary fence, and had not expected him back before this hour. Quite satisfied as to their safety, they rode towards him, Herbert's intentions being to give him certain instructions to throw Greyson off the track. It had been dark up to this, but now the moon rose clear of the mountain. The three met on a little flat in the broad moonlight. Phoebe started in her saddle, and caught her breath quickly; while Herbert muttered something, and pulled up with a jerk. The man before them was Richard Greyson.
"'Hulloa! what's this mean?' he asked, bending forward to peer at Phoebe.
"'I'm taking Kate to a surprise party at Rosett's,' Herbert answered.
"Greyson turned to Kate. 'Don't you know it's nearly eleven o clock, Kate?' he asked.
"'Yes, Mr. Greyson,' she said faintly.
"'And do you consider that a proper time to go surprising people?'
"'We had nothing to do with the arrangements,' Kate answered. 'We were asked to be there at twelve.' Her voice betrayed her. Riding up close to her, Greyson snatched off her veil, and the moon shone full on Phoebe's pale face.
"'I thought so! By heavens, I thought so!' cried Greyson, jerking his horse round towards Herbert, 'You scoundrel!' he hissed, a big whip swinging menacingly in his hand.
"Herbert leaned towards Phoebe and whispered hurriedly, 'Gallop away—I'm going to fire!'
"'Oh, Herbert, don't—don't!' cried Phoebe, as Greyson's horse thrust its head against Bradwell's knee.
"Drawing a revolver from his packet, he put the muzzle to the horse's head and fired. As the horse fell forward, Greyson caught Bradwell's arm and dragged him down with him. Phoebe's mare swerved round and plunged when the shot was fired, and when Bradwell saw her last she was lying in a swoon. Greyson was the first on his feet and struck Bradwell a blow on the head with the butt of his whip. The two horses had bolted down the paddock. Greyson's was dead. He picked his daughter up in his arms and carried her home, and they shut her up in a room at the station.
"Greyson went back next morning to see if he could find anything of Bradwell; but there was only the dead horse there. On taking off his saddle he found that his pouch and a flask of brandy he carried were missing. This was told to Phoebe by the maid, and satisfied her that Bradwell was safe. Greyson took his horse for the one that was shot. That shooting was the worst part of the business; but for which Herbert mightn't have fared so badly. It was done, I suppose on the spur of the moment, as a good many rash acts are done in the bush. But Greyson was quits. He often inquired for Bradwell in his travels, but never heard anything of him. The settlers on Rocky River believe to this day that he was killed."
There was silence for several moments after Bob concluded. Then Joe asked:
"When did you last see Phoebe Greyson?"
"Four years ago."
"How was she looking?"
"A little melancholy, I thought, but otherwise well."
"And she still believed that Herbert Bradwell was alive?"
"Yes, she was always looking for him. She had great faith in that man."
"Poor little Phoebe!" Joe murmured, and lapsed again into a meditative mood. Bob threw same more wood on the fire and refilled his pipe. Joe did not stir. He leaned back in the shadows thinking of that lovelorn girl and her distant home.
The mates had crossed into Queensland by December, and camped one night in a deserted hut near the Condamine. In the morning Joe went for the horses, while Bob boiled the billy. He was riding back across the ridge when he came upon what appeared to be a dead man. A closer examination, however, proved that the man was breathing. His condition looked critical enough, but still there was a chance of saving his life. Joe made him as comfortable as he could and galloped across to the hut.
"Get that old stretcher out, Bob," he cried breathlessly. "There's a man lying out there on the ridge. We must fetch him down."
Joe explained matters as they hurried back. The man had shifted slightly, but showed no sign of consciousness. Lifting him on to the stretcher, they carried him to the hut, and while Bob fixed up a bunk, Joe administered what restoratives they had. It was some time before he recovered his senses. Then he looked wonderingly round him, and asked, "Where am I?"
"You are all right, old fellow," Joe replied. "We'll have to put in a couple of days here," he added, turning to Bob.
"He won't be long pulling round," Bob returned. "Let him have a sleep."
He was considerably refreshed by the afternoon, and from his disjointed sentences they learned that he had been up country with cattle, and had been thrown against a tree on his way home. On recovering he tried to track his horse, but was overcome with thirst and exhaustion, and remembered no more until he found himself in the hut.
"Your are looking for work, I suppose?" he asked. "You might come with me tomorrow to Boora."
"Is that where you live?' asked Joe.
"Are you sure?"
Joe's expression changed to one of distrust. Bob had gone out for a back log, and presently Joe followed him.
"Did you ever see that man before, Bob?" he asked.
"I'm sure I did," said Bob; "but I can't bring him to mind."
"That's Richard Greyson!"
"Hang it, yes," cried Bob. "I should have known it at once."
"But he says he lives at Boora. There's something wrong there."
"He may have shifted. Let's question him."
They carried the log in and put it on the fire. Then Bob turned to the drover.
"How long have you been on Boora, Mr. Greyson?" he asked bluntly.
"Two years," the man answered, looking up sharply. "But how did you know my name?"
"We are a couple of old stockmen. My name's Bob Bracken."
"Ah! I remember you now. And your mate?"
"Joe Harden—'Long Joe' they called him on Lower Rocky. He used to be head stockman on Yarranbar. Greyson shook his head.
"There was never any one of that name on Yarranbar."
Bob's eyes turned questioningly on his mate
"He is quite right," said the latter. "I wasn't Joe Harden on Yarranbar. My name is Herbert Bradwell!"
"Eh?" cried Bob. "Why, hang it, Joe—"
"We have met again, Mr. Greyson," Joe interrupted. "Perhaps you recollect how we parted?"
"Good God, man—I should never have known you! You have altered since—"
"Since we parted in the moonlight," Bradwell added with a bitter laugh.
"But why did you go away like that?" asked Greyson.
"What else could I do? I shot your horse. Anyhow, we're quits on that point. I hope Miss Greyson is well?"
The other moved uneasily. "She left me," he said. "I don't know where she went to."
Herbert's tanned cheeks paled slightly as he stared at Greyson.
"When?" he asked hoarsely.
"Last year," said Greyson. 'We've gone through a lot of trouble in the past few years. Bad seasons broke me up to begin with, and the bank got Yarranbar. I went to Boora, droving and overseeing. My wife died there, and twelve months ago I quarreled with my little girl—and she left me—I've never heard of her since."
Bob withdrew to get a billy of water for tea.
"Will you tell me the nature of your quarrel, Greyson?" he asked.
"A mere family tiff, that's all," Greyson answered. After a pause he added, with a side look at Herbert. "I thought she had gone to you."
"She might have fared worse," Herbert returned with a touch of resentment. "But what about Kate? They were much attached to one another."
"If she knows anything she won't tell it. She's still at Yarranbar. I and others have searched the country for Phoebe."
"I'll take up the search, then," said Herbert, "and I'll never relinquish it until I have found her." He thought it probable that Phoebe had gone back to the old place, and that Kate had reason for not disclosing the fact. "She's of age now, Mr. Greyson," he concluded, bitterly.
Greyson bowed gravely. "I bear you no ill will, Bradwell," he said. "We can at least part friends."
"We are quits!" Bradwell answered.
They accompanied Greyson to Boora, and during a couple of days at the station Herbert instituted inquiries among the men, but could learn nothing from them, nor could he elicit any further information from Greyson.
"I shouldn't wonder if he isn't hiding something about Phoebe," he remarked as they rode away. "He's greatly altered, don't you think?"
"He is not at all the imperious old follow he used to be," Bob rejoined. "It's wonderful what changes misfortune can make in a man. He may deserve it all, and yet I feel sorry for him. He was always a good boss to me."
"As far as that goes," said Herbert, "I had nothing to complain of in regard to him—until he found me edging into the family circle—I think he's been sorry for it since."
They soon left Boora behind them. One of the main stock routes to the Lower Rocky passed along at the back of the run, and they had not traversed many miles of this when they came upon a young drover making his camp at a waterhole. He had turned out early, as it was a very dry track, and the next water was miles ahead. Herbert and Bob let their horses go, and availed themselves of a share of his camp fire.
During the opening they learned that his name was Jim Grey. He had been down with cattle, as horse-boy, and was making back to Yarranbar. A traveller had told him that a couple of Yarranbar stockmen were staying at Boora, and he had loitered along the road to allow them to catch up to him. Herbert became interested.
"Do you work on Yarranbar?" he asked.
"No; I call there as I'm passing up and down to see a lady friend."
"I see! And who is this lady friend?"
"Oh, her name is Kate," Jim answered simply.
Herbert smiled. "Then you know the Greysons," he asked.
"Yes; they're gone. Phoebe, I believe, ran away—"
"Ah! that's what I want to come at," Herbert broke in. "What made her run away?"
"The usual thing that happens when the pater is hard up and there's a rich suitor hanging around. In short, Mr. Greyson was forcing her to marry an old man as a means to retrieve his lost fortunes. Phoebe resented it, and that's what the 'bust up' was over. She left Boora one night, and though Greyson hunted for months he never heard of her again. Kate is the only one who knows anything, and I think she'll part up the secret readily enough when the right man comes along."
"Well, look here, Jim," said Herbert, presently, "I'm looking for Miss Greyson, and as my mate is leaving me at Yarranbar. I'll want somebody to hunt up the horses for me. How would you like that billet?"
"I'd like it very much," Jim answered, with a peculiar smile.
"Then consider yourself engaged."
Jim was delighted. There was something humorous in the idea of roaming over the country in quest of his boss's "lost, stolen, or strayed" sweetheart that tickled his fancy, and he was a perpetual smile all the way to Yarranbar.
Herbert lost no time in seeking an interview with Kate once he reached the station. Sundry hints let drop by Jim en route had somewhat excited him, and he was impatient to get on the track of his little wild flower.
Kate was a natty woman of 35, and there was a twinkle of mischief in her dark eyes when Herbert importuned her for tidings of Phoebe Greyson.
"Indeed, I think that it's more than you deserve after the way you treated her," was Kate's reply. "What have you got to say for yourself?"
"I've come to marry her, Kate," he answered. "I've battled hard for her, and have made a bit of a pile. Perhaps I'll be able to buy Yarranbar—thus I could bring her home!"
"Goodness! What a lot you are going to do all at once!" Kate lifted her hands in mock wonder, and made a long face. "What a pity I haven't got her on a string!" she exclaimed. "It's even worse than that; I can't tell you where she is till I've been to the post to-morrow. You see, she's here today, and a hundred miles away by the end of the week. There was always a bit of the wild blood in Phoebe; and you never knew where to find her. She's developed into a wanderer."
"Do you mean to say she is with some travelling troupe?"
"Well, something of the sort, though it is far from a circus. If you want explanation you'll have to wait till you find your lady love."
"Well, I'll go to the post with you, and you can tell me something about her."
"I cannot—and Jim is going with me. He's not a bad-looking chap, is he? Where did you pick him up?"
"On the track." Herbert had no thoughts for the horse-boy.
"You were lucky." Kate laughed mischievously. "Is he a good hand with horses?"
"Oh, bother the horses!" cried Herbert, peevishly. "Where was Phoebe when she last wrote? Can't you see—"
"Curb your impatience, dear boy! When I get her letter you shall know all. I'm under orders."
Failing to get any satisfaction from her, Herbert went to Jim, and questioned him closely concerning the trip to town, and Jim smiled mysteriously and professed ignorance.
Herbert was a little ruffled, and waited Kate's pleasure with growing impatience. He was standing at the yards the following night, when Kate suddenly rode round from the back of the garden. She was leading a horse, and there was no one with her.
"Where's Jim?" was the first question that came to his lips. She slipped off her horse and threw him the bridle. Then she unstrapped a parcel from the other saddle, and handed it to him with the remark, "That's Jim!"
She had darted away in an instant, leaving him with the horses. He was annoyed. But when he saw the contents of the parcel he was surprised and puzzled. They were the clothes Jim had worn to town! He thought the joke ill-timed; and with the clothes dangling on his arm, the hat and boots in his hand, he went alter Kate.
She presented a straight face to him at the door. "You've brought poor Jim with you!" she cried, clasping her hands as she bent forward. "I thought you'd want him to look after the horses. Come in!"
Herbert was mystified, and carried his burden as though it were dead things. Suddenly he flung them from him. "Look here, Kate, what scurvy trick—"
He stopped, staring at what seemed an apparition. The neat grey dress and the hat were familiar, but—
"Let me tell you," said Kate. "Poor Jim disappeared at the back gate, and I brought this young lady home instead. She understands droving, and horse-tailing, and all that, so you'll have a good substitute."
Herbert still stared stupidly at the "substitute," but presently the spell was broken by a rippling laugh.
"Good God—Phoebe!" In a second he had caught her hands; but now he hesitated again, looking into the little sunburnt face.
Kate laughed. "I must say I'm sorry. It would have been a real treat to see you wandering about the country looking for yourselves. It's what you deserved; but she took pity on you. You mustn't mind if she's spoilt her complexion. You see, she disguised herself as a drover so that no one would find her, and for the novelty of the thing; she wanted to travel about like a man, and meet with adventures and all that sort of thing that you men talk so much about. It would have been a delightful experience going round with you. But it's all up now. You have found your sweetheart."
"Kate—you tantalising little vixen, I'll never forgive you."
Kate laughed merrily as she clasped the little substitute in her strong arms and kissed her. "What strange fancies run in little heads!" he exclaimed. "I should never have found you through the guise of Jim Grey!"
"I feared you would," laughed Phoebe. "But, for mercy's sake, never mention it; no one knows. And—Kate, as Jim won't be wanted any more, you might gather up what's left of him and pack him away."
Five years later. Christmas Eve.
Herbert and Phoebe were standing on the verandah watching the sunset, when an old swagman came limping across the paddock to the hut. The cook spoke to him at the door, and Herbert caught his concluding words: "You'd better go an' see th' boss." The man put down his swag, and limped across. It was after sunset, and night was coming on.
"I suppose he wants a job, or a night's lodging," mused Herbert.
"Take pity on the poor old fellow," said Phoebe. "Remember it's Christmas Eve." She went down the garden to pluck a rose. The tramp accosted Herbert.
"Could I see Mr. Dobbie?"
"Mr. Dobbie isn't here now," answered Herbert. "He sold out years ago."
"And who owns Yarranbar now?'
"Herbert Bradwell—at your service."
The tramp gave a gasp. "Herbert Bradwell! Well, well, here's revolutions! Do you remember the man you found at the back of Boora? Aye, the man who owned Yarranbar when you were stockman here?"
"Great Scott! Richard Greyson!"
"Aye, Bradwell; the last few years have wrought terrible changes. You've got Yarranbar; and I—what am I?—a common tramp!" He held out his hands, shaking with excitement. Herbert seemed unable to take his eyes from the transformation. Inside he heard Phoebe's voice singing, "Home, Sweet Home." She was happy; and here, in rags, careworn and weary, stood her father, come unwittingly to her door—for what?
"This is a bitter pill, Greyson," said Herbert, "and yet do you know the mill you put your daughter through?"
"Let it rest," said Greyson, with a deprecating flourish of his arms. "God knows, I've been ground in the mill myself."
"And what brought you to this?"
"The old cry, Bradwell, the old cry. I lost my billet, and I took to drink. That and trouble brought me to this."
He threw out his arms again, and Herbert pitied him.
"Come in," he said huskily.
Phoebe was seated at the piano when they entered.
"This is my wife," he said. "Do you know her?"
Phoebe sprang up. "Gracious, Herbert, what's this mean?" she cried, her eyes wandering quickly from one to the other.
"It means that your father has come back to ask your forgiveness."
Greyson held out his hand. "Phoebe!"
Herbert left the room for a moment. When he returned, with a decanter and glasses, Phoebe was speaking.
"So you see, father, I have got on very well without John Higgins!"
Greyson raised his head, and answered with a touch of the old imperiousness: "The past is dead, girl; let it rest."
"Yes," said Herbert, to the gurgling of wine. "The bright days are before us. Let's commemorate the restoration of your home." The glasses clinked head high. "Time and wine soften the bitters of memory, and by and bye you'll be telling little Bertie the strange story of Yarranbar."
They clinked again, and three glasses were drained as one.