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Title: Mateship and The Strangers' Friend Author: Henry Lawson * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 2000671h.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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The Strangers’ Friend
The grandest stories ever written were the stories of two men. That holds good up to our times, from Sidney Carton and Charles Darnay to Tennessee’s Partner and Tennessee.
I can always see Sidney Carton mounting the scaffold to the guillotine, his hands tied behind, a dreamy, far-away expression in his eyes; his hair bound back in its ribband, much more carefully than was usual with him; himself clothed more tidily than was usual with him, because he was supposed to be the man for the sake of whose wife and little girl he was about to die. Poor Sidney was a drunkard, and perhaps that is why some of us are drawn to him all the more.
And Tennessee’s Partner at the Court of Judge Lynch: “An’ I answers you fair and square, Jedge, as between man and man, ‘What should a man know about his partner?’” And Tennessee’s Partner knew all.
And Tennessee’s Partner, with his donkey Jenny and cart, and rough coffin, in the shadow of the trees, after the lynching. He didn’t want to hurry the gentlemen at all. “But if yer quite done with Tennessee, my partner thar” —And the last glimpse of Tennessee, the grave filled up—the grave in the little digger’s vegetable garden, I’ve seen them in Australia—Tennessee sitting on the foot of the mound, wiping his face with his red bandana handkerchief.
They used to say I was influenced by Bret Harte. I hope so. I read “Tennessee’s Partner” and the other stories when I was about thirteen, and Dickens a little later on. Bret Harte died near to where I lived in England, by the way.
Tennessee forgave his partner the greatest wrong that one man can do another; and that’s one thing that mateship can do.
The man who hasn’t a male mate is a lonely man indeed, or a strange man, though he have a wife and family. I believe there are few such men. If the mate isn’t here, he is somewhere else in the world, or perhaps he may be dead.
Marcus Clarke speaks of a recaptured convict being asked where his mate was, in a tone as if a mate were something a convict was born with—like a mole, for instance. When I was on the track alone for a stretch, I was always asked where my mate was, or if I had a mate.
* * * * * * *
And so it is, from “Boko Bill” (bottle-ho!) and “Three-Pea Ginger,” of Red Rock Lane, up or down—or up and down—to Percy and Harold who fraternize at the Union Club. Bill gets “pinched” for shifting cases from a cart, or something of that sort, and Ginger, who is “pretty swift with the three-pea,” but never rises above a little safe “thieving” or paltry swindling, and is, therefore, never likely to need serious “outside” assistance, works for Bill for all he is worth. For a good deal more than he is worth, in fact. But in spite of the positive and unanimous testimony of “Frowsy Sal” (one time “The Red Streak”), Bill’s “piece,” “Ginger,” “The Red Rover,” “One-Eyed Kate,” “Stousher,” “Pincher,” and as many other equally respectable and well-known ladies and gentlemen as the Court will listen to, Bill goes up for a “sixer.”
Ginger’s work doesn’t end here. Others are “pinched” and sent up, and they take messages into Bill, and arrange with certain prisoners who are “on tobacco” to help Bill, and be helped themselves when they come out. Poor Pincher being pinched, Sal says to him: “If yer do get fixed, Pincher, tell Bill I’m stickin’.”
Presently the word goes round that Frowsy Sal is stickin’ ter Boko Bill, and is received, for the most part, with blasphemous incredulity by the “talent.” But Sal cooks in third-rate public-houses, and washes and works hard to keep the kid, the room, and the “sticks,” and have a few shillings for Bill against he comes out, and she keeps “the blokes” out of her kitchen. Which facts are commented on with yet further wondering blasphemy, into which creeps a note almost of reverence.
So Ginger, being Bill’s cobber, is deputed to send round the hat to help Sal, because Sal is sticking to Bill. It is a furtive hat, but the money comes in, and so Ginger sticks to Bill through Sal. The money is from thievish hearts and thievish hands; but the hearts o’ men are there all the same.
Ginger, by the way, gets two black eyes, and a blue, swollen nose, from a bigger “bloke,” in an argument concerning Sal, and is hurt about it. But wait till Bill comes out!
Hearts o’ men are kind to Sal in other places. The warder inside the gaol gate lays a kindly hand on her shoulder, and says, “Come along, my girl.” But Sal has no use for sympathy, and little for kindness. “Blarst their eyes!” she says. “They can always ketch and gaol better men than themselves. If it wasn’t for the likes of poor Bill they’d have to go to work themselves, from the Guv’nor down, blarst ’em!”
* * * * * * *
Let’s have a look where Bill is, and, though I might seem to be on branch tracks from my subject, the red thread is running all through.
If you go in “under the Government,” and not as a visitor, you might be the Duke of All-That-Is, and yet little Cooney, who is finishing a sentence for breakin’ ’n’ enterin’, and is “on tobacco,” is a greater man than you. Because he is on tobacco, which is worth twice its weight in gold in gaol, and can lend bits to his mates.
In gaol the initiated help the awkward newcomers all they can. There is much sympathy and practical human kindness cramped and cooped up in gaol. A good-conduct prisoner with a “billet”—say, warder or pantry-man in the hospital or observation ward, or cook or assistant in some position which enables him to move about—will often risk his billet, food and comfort (aye and extra punishment) in order to smuggle tobacco to a prisoner whom he never met outside, and is never likely to meet again. And this is often done at the instance of the prisoner’s mate. Mateship again!
* * * * * * *
True mateship looks for no limelight. They say that self-preservation is the strongest instinct of mankind; it may come with the last gasp, but I think the preservation of the life or liberty of a mate—man or woman—is the first and strongest. It is the instinct that irresistibly impels a thirsty, parched man, out on the burning sands, to pour the last drop of water down the throat of a dying mate, where none save the sun or moon or stars may see. And the sun, moon and stars do not write to the newspapers. To give a weaker “partner” the last sup of coffee, or bite of boiled beans and bacon, on the snow wastes of Alaska, when the rim of the sun only touches the rim of the south at noon. To give up the only vacant place in the boats at sea, and die that perhaps most dreaded of all deaths—the death by drowning in mid-ocean.
And the simple heroes of common life! They come down to us from a certain Samaritan who journeyed down to Jericho one time, and pass—mostly through Dickens in my case. Kit Nubbles, the uncouth champion of Little Nell! The world is full of Kits, and this is one of the reasons why the world lasts. Young John Chivery, turnkey at the Marshalsea, who loved Little Dorrit! There was never a gentleman in all his family, he said; but he stood, in the end, the greatest gentleman in that book. All the others had something to gain—either money, fame, or a woman’s love; but he had nothing. Mark Tapley, poor Tom Pinch, and simple Jo Gargery, Cap’n Cuttle, and—and Newman Noggs. Newman Noggs, the drink-ruined scarecrow and money-lender’s drudge, wiping little Kate Nickleby’s eyes with something that might have been his handkerchief, but looked like a duster, and risking his very bread to fight for her afterwards. Newman was a gentleman once, they said, and kept his dogs. I think he was a gentleman yet. And little Snagsby, the mild and the hopelessly henpecked, with his little cough of deference behind his hand, and his furtive half-crown for a case of distress.
The creed of mateship embraces an old mate’s wife, sons and daughters. “Yes, I’ll lend you the money, Jack; don’t mention it—your father an’ me was mates on the diggings long before you was thought of, my boy.” Or, simply: “I’m an old mate of your father’s.”
Mateship extends to an old absent mate’s new mates and friends; as with the present generation of Bush mates: “Why!” —with a surprised and joyful oath, and a mighty clout on back or shoulder—“Did you know Bill? Comeanavadrink!!” And, when you get confidential: “You don’t happen to be stiff, do you? Don’t be frightened to say so! There’s always a quid or two there for any of blanky old Bill’s friends as is hard up!” (Bill is still young, by the way.) And the mighty burst of joyous profanity when two Bush mates meet after a separation of some years!
* * * * * * *
Visiting an old mate in the hospital! The broad grins! Bill wasn’t used to being fixed up like that in the old days, with pretty nurses, in caps and uniforms, gliding round him. But there was a woman—
Bill-o’-th’-Bush being dead, Jim and mates bury him, and Jim blubbers and is unashamed. Later it is Jim’s sad duty to take round the hat and gather in the quids for poor Bill’s missus and kids. And Jim sticks to them, and helps them all he can; though Bill’s missus always hated Jim like poison, and Jim “could never stand her.”
In ordinary cases, when a man or woman is in a hole—and the man need not be a saint, nor the woman any better than she ought to be, either—the hat is started round with bad swear words of unnecessary vehemence, lest some — might cherish a suspicion that there is any — sentiment behind it at all. “Chuck in half a quid and give the poor — a show!”
* * * * * * *
Another kind of case—a little story of two men who went up and down in the world. One mate went up because Fortune took a fancy to him, and he didn’t discredit Fortune; the other went down because he drank, and Luck forbore to camp by his fire. In later years the pair came together, and the mate who was up gave the mate who was down a billet in his business in town, and bore with him with boundless patience, and took him back time and again. And it came to pass that one day the mate who was down saved the life of the little girl of the mate who was up. Forthwith, the mate who was down rolled up his swag and took the track, without even giving the mate who was up a chance to try and thank him. He felt he couldn’t meet him and look him in the face again. And the old mate who was up understood. It was an extremely awkward and embarrassing case all round. A money gift was absolutely impossible—utterly out of the question; and it was equally impossible for them to continue comfortably in their old relations. The only way to mend matters would have been for the mate who was up to save the life of the child of the mate who was down, in return; but the mate who was down didn’t have a child that he knew of. He went away, and straightened up, and did not return until he was on his feet, and the late affair had had time to blow over.
A man will more often reform because of a good or heroic deed he has done, and has not been rewarded for, than because of a foolish or bad one he has done and been punished for. Punishment does not reform men.
* * * * * * *
Mateship is jealous at times; and, if any jealousy can be unselfish, free from vindictiveness, and even noble, this can be. Which reminds me of an incident in the mateship of Bob Lucas and Jim Barnes, professional shearers, west of the Darling River.
Bob was a good cove, a straight chap, a white man. So was Jim, so long as he kept away from drink, cards, dice, and headin’ ’em. They had lost sight of each other for two or three years, and it had been whispered that Bob had been in trouble, but for “nothin’ bad.” But it wasn’t whispered in Jim’s presence, for he was always over-eager to fight where Bob’s name was concerned.
But there came a man, or a chap, to the shed where Bob and Jim shore—or rather, a cove, in the vague sense of the term. Some of the chaps referred to him as “a ——.” Call him Cooney. Cooney was short and stout, or rather fat, where some men would be called burly, or nuggety. He had, where it showed through holes in his rags, the unhealthy pallid fatness of the tramp or gaol-bird who hasn’t worked for a long time. He had no moustache, but stubble nearly all over his face. He had no proper swag, just a roll of rags on a string; he had no water-bag, only a billy. To the surprise of some, Bob recognized him and went and spoke to him. And Bob gave him tobacco, and spoke to the boss over the board, and got him on picking up in the place of a rouse-about who was leaving.
Jim was greatly disgusted, for Cooney was picking up for him and Bob and three others, and was no good. “We’ll cut out in a week or so, and he’ll get into it,” said Bob. “Give the man a show.” Jim and mates grumbled, but mateship forbore to ask Bob’s reasons for sticking to the —. It was the etiquette of mateship. But Cooney, who was short of something in his head, and got worse, instead of better, though Bob helped him all he could, and Cooney had to be put off when an old hand turned up. But Bob stuck to him, got him a few things from the store, and arranged about his tucker for a day or two.
Cooney seemed neither slouching nor sullen, but he kept vaguely and unobtrusively to himself. He would sit smoking in the row by the hut after tea. His manner suggested that of a mild, harmless, deaf man of rather low intelligence. Bob, who was a silent, serious man, would sometimes squat beside him and talk in a low voice, and Jim began to brood, as much as it was in his nature to brood, and to wonder more often what there was between Cooney and his old mate. But mateship forbade him to inquire. And so till “cut-out,” and next day, the river-boat being delayed, and time of little importance (for it was the end of the season), while for an extra pound or two they decided to take the track up the river to the township where they intended to spend Christmas. As fuel to Jim’s growing resentment, Cooney—who had a decent swag by this time, and a water-bag, thanks to Bob—seemed prepared to travel with them. Then Jim burst out—
“—it all, Bob! Yer ain’t going to take that — on the track with us, are yer?”
“He’s only going as far as the Wanaaring track,” said Bob, “and then he’s going to strike Out Back to look for a chance amongst the stragglers.” Then he added in a mutter: “He’s got pluck anyhow, poor devil.”
“Well, I don’t know about the pluck,” said Jim. “But—why, he’s got all the brands of a gaol-bird or something, and I can’t make out how in — you came to cotton to him. I ain’t goin’ to ask neither, but if it goes much farther it’ll be a case of either him or me.”
“You wait, Jim,” said Bob, quietly. “I’ve got my reasons, and I might tell you afterwards.”
“Oh, orlright. I don’t want to know.”
They said little all day, except a word or two, now and again, with reference to matches, the direction, and the distance to water, for they were on the outside track from the river, and they were very quiet by the camp-fire, and turned in early. Cooney made his camp some distance from the fire, and Jim some distance from Bob—they lay as at the points of a triangle, as it happened; a common triangle of life.
Next day it was much the same, but that night, while Bob was walking up and down, as he often did, even after a long day’s tramp, Jim, tired of silence, stretched himself, and said to the silent Cooney—
“Well, Cooney! What’yer got on your mind? Writin’ poetry, eh? What’s the trouble all this time, old horse?”
And Cooney answered quietly, and the reverse of offensively—
“Wotter yer care?”
“Wotter yer care?”
“Wotyer say that for?”
“Oh, it’s only a sayin’ I have.”
That hopelessly widened the breach, if there could be said to have been a breach, between Jim and Cooney, and increased Jim’s irritability towards his mate. But they were on the Wanaaring track, and, next morning, after an early breakfast, Cooney, who had rolled his swag at daylight, took the track. He had the bulk of the tucker in his nose-bag, for they would reach the township in the afternoon, and would not need it. Bob walked along the track with him for a bit, while Jim sulkily rolled up his swag. Jim saw the two men stop about half a mile away, and something pass between them, and he guessed it was a pound-note, possibly two, and maybe a stick or so of tobacco. For a moment Bob stood with his hand on Cooney’s shoulder, then they shook hands, and Cooney went on, and Bob came back to camp. He sat for a few minutes on his swag in front of the fire (for early mornings can be chilly Out Back, even in midsummer), and had another pint of tea to give zest to his morning pipe. He said nothing, but seemed very thoughtful.
“Well, Bob!” Jim blurted out at last. “What the—are yer thinkin’ about? Frettin’ about yer new mate? Hey?”
Bob stood up slowly, and stood with hands behind, looking down at the fire.
“Jim,” he said, in his sadly quiet way, “that man and me was in gaol together.”
It brought Jim to his feet in an instant.
“Bob,” he said, holding out his hand, “I’m sorry. I didn’t know what I was drivin’ at.”
“It’s all right, Jim,” said Bob, with a quiet smile; “don’t say no more about it.”
But Jim had driven to gold.
A friend or a chum might have shunned Bob after that; a partner might have at least asked what he had been in trouble for; “a pal” would certainly have done so out of curiosity, and probably with rising admiration. But mateship didn’t.
The faith of men is as strong as the sympathy between them, and perhaps the hardest thing on earth for a woman to kill.
Jim only glanced a little regretfully after the lonely little blur in the west, and said—
“I’m sorry I didn’t shake hands with the poor little —. But it can’t be helped now.”
“Never mind,” said Bob. “You might drop across him some day.”
There is one Chinaman the less in Australia by a mistake that was purely aboriginal. Perhaps he is missed in China. Ted Butler brings the account of the tragedy from Northern Queensland or somewhere.
The old shepherd had died, or got drunk, or got rats, or got the sack, or a legacy, or got sane, or chucked it, or got lost, or found, or a wife, or had cut his throat, or hanged himself, or got into Parliament or the peerage—anyway, anything had happened to him that can happen to an old shepherd or any other man in the bush, and he wasn’t there.
Then a Chinaman came from nowhere, with nothing, apparently, save a suit of dungaree, basket boots and hat, and a smile that was three thousand years old. He looked as if he had fallen out of China last night, and had been blown all the way in a dust storm, and the cracked sweat and dust made him look more like an ancient Joss. He had no English, but understood the boss as new chum Chinamen always understand bosses, or as bosses can always make them understand.
“You want a job?”
“Yel,” said the Chinaman.
“Can you shepherd sheep?”
“You saw that hut along the track, where there were some sheep in a yard?”
“You go back there, and put the sheep out in the morning, and put them in at night.”
“By and by I send you some ration.”
“Well, stop yellin’ and get.”
“Yel.” And China toiled and ploughed through the dust towards the hut.
Presently Billy, the black boy, came riding home.
“I say, Billy.”
“Don’t take the saddle off yet. I want you to take some tucker along to the Mile Hut, and give it to the new shepherd you’ll see there. Go to the storekeeper, and he’ll give you a bag of ration.”
But in about three-quarters of an hour Billy was back, and he brought the rations back with him.
“Wotinel, now, Billy? Didn’t you see the new shepherd?”
“Didn’t you see anybody there at the hut?”
“——— it. Didn’t you see a Chinaman there?”
“No, boss. What like it that phella?”
“X X X!———!!! Didn’t you see a man—or a —— woman if you like? Didn’t yer seen any double dash thing?”
“No, boss.” Then, as an afterthought, “I see it something. Yellow, like it dingo. Tail like it yarramin.” (A horse. John had his pigtail down and loose, and was dressing it when Billy happened.) “Talk it like a plurry cockatoo. Bin killit sheep, mine think it. I bin kill it!”
I suppose they buried the Chow—and the boss carefully gave Billy an elementary lesson on the Races of Man before another blew out of China.
Sober, honest, steady and kindly men have too little place in our short-story literature. They are not “romantic” enough—not humorous enough—they are not “picturesque.” Yet the grandest of them all has lived for ages in one of the best short stories ever written, for longer than we know—in old Chinese Bibles perhaps—and he’ll live till the end of human troubles. We do not know his station and condition; we do not know his religion, except it be the religion of mateship.
He was not a “Christian” as the name is understood by us, for Christ had not been born. We don’t even know his name; I can’t think of him as a fat or stout man, or a rich man; not even as a man who was moderately well off. Dickens thinks that he was lank and lean, and found it hard to live. I picture him as a silent, grave, earnest man, with very, very sad eyes. Perhaps he had dealt in myrrh and spicery from Gilead, and, being honest and unworldly, had fallen amongst thieves himself, and lost all he had. No doubt he had his troubles too. It is certain he was a sober and honest man, and it is equally certain that he was well known on the roads to Jericho, and known for more than one act of kindness, else the host of that old inn wouldn’t have trusted him so readily, as it is inferred he did. For: “And whatsoe’er thou spendest more, when I return I will repay thee.”
And there was a certain Nazarene about whom we know so much and so little, and Whose teaching we preach so widely and practise so narrowly, Who was so touched by this little story about the man from Samaria that He told it wherever He could, to the multitude and in high places; saying: “Go thou and do likewise.” And certain men have been doing likewise ever since.
For a certain man from anywhere, call him Biljim, journeying out to Hungerford, leaves a sick mate at the Half-way Pub. (A man need only be sick, or a stranger in distress, to be a “mate” in this case.) And Biljim gives the boss of the shanty a couple of quid, and says: “You stick to the poor——, an’ fix him up; an’ if it’s anything more, I’ll pay yer when I come back after shearin’.”
And so they pass on: the man from Samaria, with his patched and dusty gown, his sand-worn sandals, and his patient ass, journeying down to Jericho; and the man from anywhere, with his hack and pack-horse “trav’lin’” out to Hungerford and beyond; with but two thousand years between them, and little else in the matter of climate or character.
It may be heroic for a drunkard to do a brave deed, and save lives, as drunkards often do. It is certainly picturesque, but there is such a thing as Dutch courage. It may be noble, and it is romantic and picturesque, for a scamp to do a deed of self-sacrifice, but there is generally little to lose, even with life, and there is vanity—and there is a character to be regained. It may be generous, even noble, for a drunkard to stick to another through thick and thin, but there is the bond, or the sympathy, of the craving for drink—and there is such a thing as maudlin sentiment. How much greater it is for a sober man to stick to a drunkard! But it is neither picturesque nor romantic. How much greater is it for an honest man to stick to a scamp! But it is not picturesque nor romantic enough for most writers.
One of the beauties of human nature is the fulfilment of its duty to the stranger. “The stranger within thy gates.” In all civilized lands, and in many uncivilized ones, the stranger’s presence is sacred. “The stranger’s hand to the stranger yet” may be all very well, but there is the bond of the sympathy of exile—the sort of roving clannishness about it. Nowhere is the duty to the stranger more willingly and more eagerly performed, nor his presence held more sacred, than in places where the folk have never been fifty miles from their birthplace.
A humorous side of the stranger question appeared in California of half a century ago, when so many were strangers that all were familiar: “Now, look yar, stranger.”
Australia is the land of strangers, as were the Western States of America. I met Out Back, once upon a time, a man they called the Strangers’ Friend. I met him in Bourke last, and his name was, say, Jimmy Noland. He was a stout, nuggety man, in clean white “moles,” crimson shirt, and red neck-handkerchief with white spots; and he wore belt and bowyangs. He had a square face of severe expression that might have been cut out of a block of wood. He had something of the appearance of a better-class and serious bricklayer’s labourer; or, better still, a man in charge of the coaching stables of earlier days; or, still better, a man who, by sheer force of hard work and dogged honesty, had risen to be manager or foreman of a small station or something Out Back.
He used to come into the pub on the main road, or the township, for his half-yearly spree, and, though he seemed to drink level with everybody, he never got really drunk. He took the spree seriously, as he took everything else far too seriously to enjoy it, you’d think. The spree seemed a religious rite with him, and he, as a shouter, was something sacred to the drunks to whom drinking was religion all the time. First he’d shout (sternly) for all he found on the verandah and in the bar, and the drinks would be taken in solemn silence. Then he’d shout again, rounding-up any stragglers he might have missed (or who might have missed him) and any dead-drunks he could wake and get on their feet. Then he’d demand of the boss, or barman, in a tone that admitted of no nonsense or frivolity—
“Enny wimmin here?”
“Yes. The cook, and ther’s a washerwoman round at the back.”
“Wotter they take?”
Being told, he’d presently go round to the back with a couple of glasses. But he was never known to stay and do any fooling round there. He’d arrange, though, to have an extra pair of moleskins, shirt, neckerchief, handkerchief and pair of socks washed against the end of his spree, and pay well for them. Not that he couldn’t or wouldn’t wash for himself, but he thought it his duty “to pay the wimmin for doin’ what they was made for doin’, an’ pay ’em well.”
Then, after another shout or two all round, he’d look up the stranger.
The stranger’s only qualifications need be that he should be fairly decent, a stranger, and hard-up or sick.
“I’m the Strangers’ Friend,” said Jimmy, severely. “The fellers as knows can battle around for their bloomin’ selves, but I’ll look after the stranger.”
If the stranger was ragged, Jimmy would shout him a new shirt, pair of trousers, and maybe a pair of boots, at the store; and he’d shout him drinks, but see that he didn’t take too much. He’d arrange for the stranger’s bed and tucker, and find out the stranger’s name and where he came from and the places he’d been in, and he’d yarn with the stranger about those places, no matter where they were. And he’d talk to the stranger about the back-country, and its old times, and its future, or its chances—and the stranger’s chances, too. And if the stranger got confidential or maudlin on the verandah after sunset, he’d comfort or check the stranger with some blunt philosophy which might sound brutal in cities. If he knew of a place where there was a chance of a job, on the back track, he’d fix up a swag, water-bag and tucker for the stranger, and start him on the track with full directions that sounded like a stiff lecture from a magistrate. And if he had a commission to take a new hand back to his station, he’d be happy; happier still if he had a commission to take two, for then he would look up a second likely stranger and fix him up, and take them both back with him at the end of his spree, when he would appear exactly the same as when he started it.
Jimmy’s boss was one of the best-hearted squatters west the Darling. He was a small squatter, but he was a squatter, not a bank, syndicate nor manager. Jimmy was said to be the real boss, as far as station work went, by virtue of his long years of service, his capacity for hard work and his obstinate honesty. About sundown he’d come over to the “travellers’” (strangers’) hut, put his head in at the door, and demand, in the tone of a boss who would take no nonsense—
“Enny trav’ler here?”
One or two new chums or green hands might start to their feet, expecting to be ordered off the station; but some one would answer: “Yes.”
“Then come up an’ git yer tea.”
“You chaps got enny tobaccer?”
And he’d hand out a stick to be divided amongst them.
It was said that a great part of his wages went on strangers. But they said he was never so happy as when he caught a sick traveller at the hut. Jimmy would cross-examine him at length and with apparent severity—as if it were the stranger’s fault—and then he’d get out his patent medicines. In the same tone, with a note of shocked decency, he’d ask a man if that was the only pair of trousers he had to go on the track with; and then he’d proceed to look him up another pair.
But no one, not even his nearest friend, if he had one in the squatter, could accuse Jimmy of having the faintest streak of sentiment, poetry or romance in his soul. They said that the cult of the stranger was a mania with Jimmy—a curious branch of insanity. The stranger was to him something sacred, and his duty to the stranger was a religious rite, without a suggestion of reward, whether here or in the Hereafter. But, perhaps, long years ago, when women, or a woman, was to Jimmy something more than a being to be paid for doing what she was made for doing, he, a stranger himself, and sick in body, and heart-sick, in a strange land, had been found by another Strangers’ Friend who stuck to him. And the memory of it had stuck to Jimmy all his life.
The only explanation he was ever reported to have given was that once—and it must have been in a weak moment—when remonstrated with for squandering time and money over a “waster,” he said—
“Ah, well, poor beggar, some day, when he’s in a better fix, he might go and do something for s’mother pore chap as he drops across.”
It was in the drought of ’91, that broke almost with the new year in ’92. Jack Mitchell and I were “carrying swags” west from the Darling in hopes of “stragglers” to shear, and one morning we started from a place that begins with “G,” making for a place that ought to begin with “Z,” and, after an hour or so, we noticed, by the age of the wheel tracks, that we’d taken the wet weather and much longer track to the next Government tank. We decided to strike across the awful lignum flats, or dry marshes, to the right track, and got lost, of course; and it was late in the day when we struck the track—or rather when we didn’t. We stumbled on a private tank in the lignum, where there were still a few buckets of water, and, under the alleged shade of three stunted mulga saplings, we found two green hands, slight young Sydney jackeroos, in the remains of tailor-made suits, with one small water-bag between them, and the smallest of “stage” swags. They had good lace-up boots, I noticed; but it takes a long time for boots to wear out on those soft, dusty tracks. One man was knocked up and very ill, and more sick with the horror of his condition in such a country; and his mate was nearly as bad, what with the scare of his mate’s condition and out-back “stage fright.” It was boiling hot, with a smoky, smothering drought-sky over the awful, dry lignum swamps.
“Now, this would be a job for Mark Tapley, Harry,” said Mitchell. “But neither of us is built for the character, and I don’t know what we can do just yet. We can’t carry him on to the tank nor back to the shanty; besides, they’re all drunk there, from the boss down, and the missus has got her hands full. Best camp and boil the billy, anyhow, and see how he gets on; and then one of us can go back and see what can be done. Some horsemen might come along in the meantime.”
The tank was just off the dry weather track, with a little track of its own, and the jackeroos had struck it more by new chum luck (which is akin to the drunk’s luck) than by directions. We kept an ear out for the sound of wheels or of horses’ feet, and now and then one of us would go out of the lignum on to the track, and look up and down it; and, at last, just as Mitchell and I were deciding that one of us should leave his swag and walk right back to the shanty, we suddenly heard the click-clack of wheelhubs quite close, and saw two horses’ heads and the head and shoulders of the driver over a corner of the dry lignum. I started forward, and was about to call out when Mitchell said: “Never mind, Harry, he’s coming into the tank.” As the turn-out came round I saw it was a four-wheeled trap, with a spring stretcher on the load, and a mattress rolled up in sackcloth on top of it. I glanced at Mitchell, and saw one of his strange, faint grins on his face.
“What is it, Jack?” I asked.
“It’s Jimmy Noland,” he said, “and without a stranger. Jimmy’s in luck to-day” (and with a cluck, as if it were a mild sort of joke), “and he don’t know it yet.”
It was Jimmy, and he’d been into the “township” for a temporary supply of necessaries for the station. (By the mattress we reckoned that a kid, or a death, was expected out there.)
Jimmy got down, took a bucket that was slung under the tailboard, and, seeing something peculiar about us, he came over.
“What’s up here?” he demanded, in the tone of a boss whose men have gone on strike, or left off work without warning.
We told him as much as we knew, and that the man seemed very bad. Then, for the first time, I saw what might be likened to the shadow of a smile of satisfaction on Jimmy Noland’s face. But the next instant his face was severe, and I thought I was mistaken.
“Here!” he said to me, as if I were one of his hands, and he had an urgent appointment elsewhere. “Here!” he said, handing me the bucket, “water my horses while I go and see what’s up with the man.”
He went over and squatted down by the sick man’s side.
I’d finished watering the horses when he came back. “That’s right,” he said. “Now, help me shift some of these boxes over, and get the mattresses out in the side of the trap. I’ll cover the soft ’un with the baggin’, and you’d best roll a swag out on it, for it’s for some one at the station and it mustn’t get dirty. . . . Now come and help us lift the man on. . . . Not that way, I tell yer. Lift him this way—I never seed such orkard men in me life.”
And so we got the sick man on to the mattress in the trap.
“Chuck up yer swags,” he said to us, “and jab yer trotters (step out), for it’s too hot an’ heavy for the horses to take all on yer.”
We tramped on ahead, or beside the trap, to escape the dust. It was a long, smothering, hot stretch, and we had to stop now and again to attend to the sick man; and at last we struck one of the long gutters that ran the water into the Government tank, and presently, round a bend in the track, the tankheap loomed before us on the open plain like a mountain against the afterglow.
While Jimmy was watering his horses at the long troughs, Mitchell went, with the billy, into the little galvanized iron pumping-engine room, where the tank-keeper (an old sailor) was, and when he came out I saw, by the half-moon, a decided grin on his face.
“What now, Jack?” I asked.
“Jimmy’s luck’s in for the day, Harry, and no mistake,” said Mitchell. “There’s a man there with a bad leg!”
“Wot’s that about a bad leg?” demanded Jimmy, whose sharp ears caught the last words.
Jack told him.
“Where’s his mate?” growled Jimmy.
“Left him at the border Saturday week, and he’s been crawling back ever since,” said Mitchell. “Making for the hospital at Bourke. Says he was bit by a dog a couple of years ago. His leg looks a sight.”
The station was not far away, but on a branch track of its own, an anabranch track, in fact; and Jimmy had told us we’d better come on to the station and have a good tuck-out, and one of us, at least, would get a cut at the “stragglers.” So presently we started again, the man with the leg sitting on the trap’s seat beside Jimmy, and Jimmy smoking, and with a look of stolid satisfaction on his face, talking to the man with the leg about the various bad legs he had known, and now and then grunting an inquiry over his shoulder to his other patient in the body of the trap.
Mitchell asked Jimmy who the fancy mattresses were for, and he said they were for a stranger. “Man or woman?” asked Mitchell.
“Dunno yit,” grunted Jimmy. “It ain’t come yet.”
They said at the station that four strangers at one time was Jimmy’s record, but one or two said it wasn’t.
I think that that old Jericho track, where so many men fell amongst thieves and were left sore, hurt, and like to die, would have been right into Jimmy’s hands.
And, come to think of it, none of them “rightly knew” Jimmy’s real name, or where he came from. Jimmy said “Somewheres.”
But when he dies the boys will have a good headstone, if they have to bring it all the way from Sydney, and on it they’ll have chiselled the words—
TO THE MEMORY OF
THE STRANGERS’ FRIEND.
And underneath, if the advice of one prevails—
“Go thou and do likewise.”
And men shall do likewise until the Great Strangers’ Friend calls them.
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