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Title: The Guardian Angel
Author: Arthur Gask
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Language: English
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THE GUARDIAN ANGEL



By ARTHUR GASK



Published in the Chronicle (Adelaide, SA : 1895 1954), Thursday 4 April 1935.





ONE burning summer day in South Australia, towards late afternoon, two men were drinking in the bar of a small hotel, situated about 50 miles north of the railway line that runs its long and dreary way between Yunta and Broken Hill.

They looked hard-bitten and well-salted adventurers, who if the world had dealt unkindly to them, had nevertheless at all times been prepared to pass on that unkindness to others to the best of their abilities.

One of them was tall, with hawk-like face and eyes, and of an appearance generally not unlike that of a bird of prey, and the other of much shorter stature, with coarse and sallow features, would certainly not have inspired confidence upon a chance encounter in a lonely place.

The hotel stood by itself, and was the last of the ramshackle buildings, comprising the little township that lay isolated in the surrounding wilderness of uninhabited bush.

The men were strangers to the hotel, having arrived barely an hour previously, in a shabby car that now stood blistering outside, and it annoyed the landlord considerably that he could learn nothing about them.

With the confiding nature of one to whom it was at all times a pleasure to impart information, he had, unasked, given them the news of the little township, but to all his scarcely veiled suggestions that they should be communicative in return, they had made no response.

They had just, from time to time, ordered more refreshment, and in the intervals replied curtly, and in monosyllables only, to his advances.

Their reticence was the more annoying because the landlord was sure, from everything about them, that a frank disclosure of their business would have greatly interested him. That they had been prospecting after gold he had no doubt, and that they had been unsuccessful in their quest he was equally as certain.

He had not kept a hotel for ten years in a gold-bearing district for nothing, and all the signs of "no luck" were most unmistakably apparent. They showed no eagerness or hurry to get away, and no indications even, that they themselves knew what they were going to do next. They seemed, he thought, to be men who, having failed in one direction, were now just waiting for another to open up.

Resentful at having to do all the talking, their palpable unfriendliness at last stung him into silence, and resigning himself to the inevitable, he imitated their bored attitudes and stared stonily, out of the window.

Suddenly then, the brisk 'toot-toot' of a motor horn was heard in the distance, and at once his face brightened.

"Ah!" he exclaimed with animation, "that's Bent Spinks. I'd know his horn anywhere." He shot a malicious glance at the strangers. "He strikes it rich every time."

The tall man at last deigned to ask a question. "Where?" he asked carelessly.

"Where!" echoed the landlord grinning, "why, everywhere! He always makes his pile."

The tall man made no comment, but the landlord, his amiability now in part restored, went on, "Yes. I'll bet he carries a couple of hundred with him every time he comes through here, and it's four journeys he makes a year." He became more explanatory. "He's a travelling draper and covers six or seven hundred miles each trip. Very smart man, and going to be married soon."

A gaily-colored light delivery van pulled up before the hotel and a dapper little man alighted and entered the bar. He shook hands with the landlord and ordered a long beer. He noticed the strangers. "Evening, gentlemen," he said politely, "a hot day."

The stranger nodded without replying, the taller of them, however, eyeing him intently.

The draper was of slight physique and of a rather foreign appearance. He had a sallow, oval face and large dark eyes, and he sported a heavy moustache, with the ends spikily waxed.

He chatted with the landlord, as he sipped his beer slowly. "I shall be staying the night, Sam," he said presently. "I've a little job to do on the car." He took out his watch and clicked his tongue. "Gee! but tea must be coming on. It's nearly six o'clock."

The shorter of the two strangers thereupon at once looked at his own watch and, rising to has feet, picked up his hat. He motioned to his companion and moved towards the door.

But the voice of the hawk-faced man broke in quietly. "We want tea, too, landlord. We shall be sleeping here tonight."

The short man, after a moment's hesitation put down his hat and, with no comment, resumed his seat.

In the meal that followed, strangely enough, the little draper, in spite of the good fare provided, had anything but a pleasant time. He had sat down prepared to enjoy everything, and then all at once he began to worry and lose all interest in the food.

It was not that he found himself in stiff or disagreeable company. On the contrary, for the two strangers, the only others there, were chatty, and affable in manner.

They discussed things in general; the weather, the likelihood of rain coming and the varying merits of different motor cars. They appeared interested in all he said, and laughed appreciatively when he trotted out some of his old stock jokes. Indeed, altogether their behavior was only what one would have expected of ordinary, good-natured travellers at a casual meeting.

Still the little draper was not happy, for his instinct was telling him that, for some reason, he had become an object of special interest to them, and very soon he was sensing an atmosphere of danger as when, in his commercial ventures, someone was trying to jockey him into a bad deal.

So he was not by any means in an easy frame of mind during the meal, and when later he retired to his room and prepared for bed, thinking everything over, he soon became positively afraid.

He had a good sum of money with him, and he was sure the men were crooks. They looked hard-up crooks, too, and the tall one, particularly, he was certain, would stick at nothing, for his eyes were hard and cruel and his mouth was set in a pitiless straight line.

He thought then of his journey on the morrow, and the forty-seven long miles he would have to cover before he struck the next township, and fellow-men again. What then if they held him up and robbed him?

He knew the dirt-track would be good, and if appearances counted for anything, he would easily be able to outdistance them in his car. But that would not help him if they got away first and laid in wait for him, say, at Binders Creek, ten miles out. He would have to slow down to walking pace when crossing the bed of the creek there, and they would be able to get him without any trouble if they were so minded to.

His heart beat violently as, sitting upon the bed, he stared out into the shadows with frightened eyes.

That he was not the man to put up a fight he was quite aware. Certainly there was a pistol in one of the side-pockets of the car, but he would never dare to use it, for his, he knew, was not the courage of lethal weapons. His bravery was of the commercial kind, and there, he prided himself, he could hold his own with anyone and chance his profits almost to the razor's edge. But fighting—that was a different matter, and he would never fit the bill.

For a long time he thought everything over and then his pulse began to slow down and his confidence to come back. He saw what he must do! He would be up and away by daylight, and then, whether his suspicions were justified or not, he could escape all chances of being held up.

He made sure that his door was securely fastened and then, without undressing, threw himself upon the bed.

But sleep was long in coming, for the moment he had put out his candle all his fears came back, and he tossed and fidgetted until in the end he thought he would be awake all night. But Nature had her way at last, and towards morning he sank into a troubled slumber.

The night waned and the dawn grew dim, but he slept on heavily, until suddenly he was awakened in the crisis of a dreadful dream.

It was a dream that froze him to the marrow, for it struck at him in a vital spot.

He dreamed that he had sold a woman a line of towelling, three pillow-slips, and a colored counterpane, all of good quality, and she had not paid for them and he did not remember either her name or address. It was a dreadful dream and he awoke shivering, and in a muck sweat.

He rubbed his eyes and then sprang in consternation from the bed, for it was broad daylight, and he heard a car being started up in the yard. He looked at his watch and saw that it was past 8 o'clock.

Darting to the window, he was just in time to catch sight of the two strangers driving off in their shabby car, and he bit savagely at his moustache and his mouth grew very dry.

But daylight has always a reassuring effect upon the human mind. The phantoms of darkness lose their grip, and so often then, laughter and mocking take the place of fears.

And thus it was that morning with Bert Spinks, only a few minutes after the strangers had gone.

His first shock over, he saw he had awakened to quite a pleasant morning. A cool change had set in during the night, and the overburdening heat of the previous day had gone. He heard the landlord's wife bustling in the kitchen, and smelt the agreeable smells of coffee and an appetising grill.

He was a fool, he told himself with a sickly smile. Yes, he was a fool. It was a commonplace and everyday world in which he lived, and highway robberies and hold-ups were only picture stunts.

So he took heart again, and, symptomatic of his calmer state, waxed his moustache tips to their usual points of vanishment.

After breakfast he attended to his car, and by 10 o'clock was waving a gay farewell to the landlord, as, with a gold-tipped cigarette between his lips, he drove blithely away.

But, unhappily, his contented state of mind did not continue for very long, and the moment he was fairly away from the township, he began to become apprehensive again.

The track was so very lonely and the bush stretched for so many miles on either side! If those men were really crooks, they must have realised at once how easy it would be for them to put a bullet in him and escape all consequences of their crime, for, with his body buried under the sand, and his car driven deep into the bush, they could be thousands of miles away before it even began to be surmised what had happened to him.

Giving way to his fears, he had soon worked himself again into a state of absolute terror, and a mile off the dreaded Binders Creek, the last vestige of his courage left him, and he turned his car round hastily and headed back to the township.

It was instinct, he told himself. He was certain there was danger. Of course, those men were waiting for him at the creek. They would be just behind the rise on the far bank, and what their intentions were, there could be no doubt. No, he would wait at the hotel and not take to the track again until he had someone to come with him. He could easily make some excuse to explain his return. He would say he was not feeling well, or that his car was giving trouble. Thank goodness, he was his own master and could do exactly as he liked!

Quite confident then, that he was acting rightly, he drove back to the township, but, when arriving before the hotel, he saw the landlord there in conversation with another man, he felt rather sheepish and the reasons he was intending to give for his return no longer seemed quite as adequate as he had been regarding them.

The landlord hailed him boisterously. "Good gracious! Bert. Now what on earth had happened?"

"Oh! nothing much," replied the draper, now thinking all suddenly again that he was a fool. "It's only that I found I'd hardly any water in the radiator."

The landlord shook his head. "But it's Fate that's brought you back, Bert," he said solemnly. "Fate and old Granny Henson's prayers. Pete here was to have driven the old girl down to Yunta this morning to catch the train to Adelaide, but he can't do it, because now he's got a broken axle. Granny's in a dreadful state, because there's no one else in the township today with a car, and it's her great-granddaughter's wedding tomorrow." He grinned. "I don't know whether it'll be quite proper, but you'll take her now, of course!"

The little draper drew in a deep breath. "Sure, I'll be delighted," he replied, in a voice, however, that did not sound exactly like his own. "When will she be ready to start?"

"Straightaway," said the man whom the landlord had referred to as Pete. "I'll have her here in less than ten minutes," and off he went, at a run.

Bert Spinks made a pretence of filling up his radiator, and then after a stiff rum in the bar, sat down to wait for his passenger.

His feelings were mixed and, strange to say, it was amusement that was now uppermost. He had been obsessed that it was dangerous to take the track alone, and now, behold! a companion had been thrust upon him. An old woman! It was a joke! His heart palpitated unpleasantly and he had another rum.

Very quickly, in fact in less than the ten minutes specified, Granny Henson appeared. She was very old and very deaf, but she was tall, straight-backed and as stiff as a poker. She looked at the draper with a pair of very troubled eyes, and thanked him shakily for offering to take her down, but she made a great demur when she found her seat was going to be an open one, next to the driver.

"But I shall be cold," she croaked. "Can't I go inside?"

"No seats, marm," shouted back the draper, "only goods, inside. But I tell you what I'll do. I'll lend you a nice thick rug out of my stock. No,"—the rum was really very strong—"I'll give you one. A real good Onkaparinga, and you shall keep it, as a present to remember your great granddaughter's wedding day."

The old lady was hoisted up, and well tucked in, and the draper started his engine.

"Go easy, Bert," called out the landlord. "She's well over ninety, remember." He winked his eye. "And no stopping on the way, even if you are not yet a married man."

The little draper winked back delightedly and letting in his clutch, for the second time that day the bonnet of the light delivery van was turned for Yunta, Adelaide, and home.

In after years Bert Spinks often thought that there was much in that ride of the nature of a dream, for, as in dreams, he felt no astonishment at anything that happened. It seemed all quite ordinary and commonplace.

As he drove along, the strong rum warmed within him, and he felt as brave as a lion. Binders Creek held no terrors for him, and he had no apprehension at all as to who might be waiting for him there. Indeed, he seemed to be like a man who was playing some huge practical joke, and he felt irresponsible and light-hearted as a boy. He shouted small-talk to the old lady and continually tootled up his horn, to amuse her by making the parrots fly up among the trees.

The bank of the creek soon hove in sight and slowing down, the draper tootled loudly half a dozen times, as if to make certain that anybody waiting there should know that he was coming. It pleased him not a little to imagine that he saw two heads bob up quickly on the farther side and then, as quickly bob down again.

He dropped into the bed of the creek very slowly, talking loudly to the old lady all the time. Up the far side he crawled, and then upon the top, he came upon, just as he had been expecting, the two strangers of the previous night.

Their car was parked a little way to one side of the track, and they were both leaning against it. The hawk-faced man was frowning and his companion had got his mouth wide open, as if very surprised. Hawk-face was holding his right hand in his trouser pocket.

Still proceeding very slowly, for the track was rough, and of course his passenger must not be shaken, the draper drew level with the strangers, and then, with a grand flourish of his arm, he gave them the time of day. But neither of them made any response or took the slightest notice of his courtesy. All their looks were concentrated upon Granny Henson, and they stared and stared, as if for all the world they had never seen an old woman before.

It was all over in a few seconds, and then, for Bert Spinks, it was good-bye for ever to the strangers and their shabby car.

A minute later, and in spite of all protests on the part of Granny Henson, the light delivery van was touching fifty miles an hour.

Everything then proceeded without mishap, and long before noon the old lady was deposited with her friends in Yunta, there to await the departure of the train for Adelaide, whilst the draper, with no delay, and with an open throttle, took the track along the railway line to Peterborough.

There had, however, been one little poignant incident at their parting. The reaction from the two rums having long since set in, the draper had been minded to put the Onkaparinga rug back into stock, for the old lady being so very deaf, he was hoping she had not heard him offer it to her as a gift.

But he at once found that he was quite mistaken there, for whilst Granny Henson allowed him to carry in, without demur, all the other items of her belongings, the old fingers clutched tightly to the rug, and would not for one moment let it out of their grasp. He sighed deeply, for the selling price of the article was forty-six and six.

* * * *

Some six weeks later Bert Spinks was married to a big, strapping girl of fine proportions, and in due time a noisy little Spinks arrived to make great inroads upon the draper's stock of baby clothes.

From the very first Bert was immensely proud of his tomato-faced offspring and, the infant being a boy, he secretly resolved to make of him a professional man. With this end in view, then, as time went on, he grudged every penny that was expended unnecessarily, and worried, when in his commercial ventures, he did not consider his profits had been large enough.

In his ruminating moments, too, it was always a grief to him that he had once parted for nothing with a genuine Onkaparinga rug, and that he had given it to an entire stranger whom he had not seen before or since.

But it was one day, he excused himself, when the heat had made him foolish, and he had mistaken two harmless and inoffensive prospectors for assassins of the worst bushranging type.

This memory rankled in him for a long time, but its bitterness passed, all suddenly, about five years after his meeting with Granny Henson.

At a loose end one afternoon in Adelaide, he was passing down a side-street when his eyes fell upon an announcement in huge lettering that a waxworks show was being held in a small hall there.

"All the latest notabilities," he read, "and just added, James Blendiron, the infamous murderer of Blakeside Farm."

He paid the admission sixpence and went in, but the waxworks did not prove very entertaining and soon, becoming bored, he was just about to leave again, when his attention was attracted to a small group of people who were standing in awed silence before a narrow alcove at the far end of the hall.

Idly curious as to what could be of such interest to them, he strolled over, and reading a notice above the alcove that it contained the exact representation of the Blakeside Farm murderer, "true to life in every particular," he approached close up, to see what the man had been like.

Then he received such a staggering shock that his breath come in quick jerks, and his legs almost gave way under him, for, to his amazement and horror, he recognised in James Blendiron, the hawk-faced man of Binder's Creek!

There was no possibility of any mistake, and the eyes glared at him now with the same relentless evil that had so filled him with fear those years ago.

He had read all about Blendiron, as indeed who in the Commonwealth had not? A man of dreadful crimes, who, at last, after long immunity, had fallen into the clutches of the law, and less than two months previously had paid the extreme penalty.

The little draper wiped the perspiration from his forehead and like an evildoer himself, crept from the hall.

* * * *

Upon his next journey through the bush, when he was passing, as per schedule, through the little township where Granny Henson lived, he enquired after her, and learnt, strangely enough, that she had only a few days previously passed away. As she had been the oldest inhabitant in the district, and in her hundred and first year, a public subscription was being raised to provide means for erecting a suitable headstone upon her grave.

To everyone's astonishment, Bert Spinks at once contributed five pounds.

"Now, I wonder," mused the landlord of the hotel when he heard about it. "I wonder"—he shrugged his shoulders and grinned. "But if she had only been about 80 years younger"—he chuckled—"only about 80 years, after that journey down to Yunta together—then I could have understood everything."



THE END.