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Title: Murty Brown Author: Edward S. Sorenson * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1500131h.html Language: English Date first posted: February 2015 Most recent update: February 2015 This eBook was produced by: Colin Choat 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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I. The Girl on the Raft II. Murty Brown and the Kernel III. In Sleepy Hollow IV. The Check Suit V. Whiffs from the Pipe VI. The Sheet of Bark VII. With Professor de Quinlan VIII. Sam's Caravan IX. "The Queensland Marsupial Company" X. The Kidnapping of Brody XI. Koponey's Island XII. Riding Slinger XIII. The Housekeeper at Dulla XIV. "Island Lake" XV. Making a Rise XVI. Murty Brown: Detective XVII. The Cruise of the Log Hut XVIII. Cranky Pranks XIX. Murty Brown and Humphrey Hodge XX. A Bag of Bones
1. When Murty turned,
making demonstrations on the bank.
The cedar trade was brisk on the Richmond, and Mostyn Carrab practically lived on the river, drifting slowly down with a raft of cedar logs, and speeding back in one of the little steamers to start again from a busy skidway with another consignment. His wife and his daughter Priscilla travelled with him. Mrs. Carrab cooked and washed, and sewed, and knitted; while Priscilla helped her father to navigate the long procession of timber.
Mostyn had been a sailor in his younger days. His yarns implied that he was a retired sea captain. He had flags of all nations stowed in his sea chest as evidence, and whenever occasion warranted he aired the bunting on a line stretched from stem to stern. He was certainly captain of a raft, which he called the Cedric. They were all Cedrics.
She travelled only on the ebb tides, drifting with the stream, and took a deal of manoeuvring round the sharp bends. Priscilla, carrying a long pole, looked after the stern; the captain, similarly armed, operated in the forepart. In the evenings, when she was drifting straight, he liked to lie back in a canvas deck-chair, smoking a huge, pipe, with a gun on the logs beside him for ducks.
Half-way down the river was Muddle's farm, situated in a bight known as Big Bend, which took Carrab's craft several hours to get round. He and Tom Muddle were old shipmates, so he mostly went ashore when he got near the farm, and spent a good time with the Muddle's till Priscilla and her mother had brought the raft round to the opposite point. When the tide turned in the vicinity, and they had to tie up till the ebb, he took Mrs. Carrab and Priscilla with him to the farm house.
There was often jovial company there that sped those waiting hours, for Big Bend was looked upon as home quarters by half-a-dozen old mates who knocked about the bush. Chief among the nomads was Murty Brown, whose home was usually where he hung his hat. He had become almost a member of the family. Sometimes for brief periods he worked there; sometimes he made a short excursion on the raft; but of late he had been making long journeys in the country on some wild, romantic venture that was a tantalising mystery to his friends.
Muddle was a widower with two children, Octavius and Sarah. Octavius was a simple farmer's son, a sapling who had spent his 22 years in that bight. Sarah was two years younger—the same age as Priscilla. In the matter of looks the latter was nothing to rave about; she was a homely sort of girl. To simple Octavius she seemed an angel, and the farm began to be lonely when she wasn't there. He was soon desperately in love with Priscilla. She, appeared to regard him favourably, and Octavius determined to get her all to himself for once, so that the momentous question could be answered definitely one way or the other. He liked plenty of time when anything like that was in the wind. He had no chance on the raft or anywhere, else while her father was about. The captain was a fierce, aggressive person, who shooed off any intrepid swain who was likely to tamper with Priscilla's affections. He had his own opinions regarding courtship, and was strictly opposed to Priscilla doing anything in that line for the next three years at least. She was as good as a man on the raft.
Octavius was quite sure he would never meet with the approval of the old sea dog. The captain treated him with dull disdain, as something too insignificant to be regarded as a danger. He was certainly not a ladies' man; but Priscilla was inexperienced, and if he could gain her promise he would find a way to outwit the old man all right.
One evening he met the raft with a basket of eggs. The captain drew in just close enough to reach them. Mrs. Carrab came along to add her thanks to the old chap's grunt. They had known many little considerations of the kind from the Muddles.
"How's your father an' sister?" she asked.
"Sarah's sick," Octavius answered. "She's in bed."
"Oh, I'm sorry to hear that. Nothing serious, I hope?"
"Dunno," he said. "Took bad yesterday. She—she'd like to see Miss Carrab, if you ken spare her."
Mrs. Carrab had a private conversation with the captain, during which Octavius felt uneasy. He feared Mrs. Carrab would go up to see Sarah, and there would be no points in having a sick sister in that case. She took the eggs to the cabin, had a talk with Priscilla, and returned to him with the basket.
"Priscilla will be up d'rectly, tell Sarah," she in formed him. "She can stop to-night, as the tide will run out 'fore we get past the bight, an' she can walk across an' catch us up in the mornin'."
Octavius was delighted. He tore up to the house excited and panting. Sarah was standing at the kitchen table peeling cucumbers and humming "Molly Riley."
"Sarah, get to bed quick—she's coming'!" he gasped. Sarah dropped her knife without a word and ran into her room. Octavius hissed through the keyhole: "Be mortal bad, Sarah!" Then he picked up the knife, and was making a fine fist of slicing cucumbers when Miss Carrab came in.
"Ah!" she said, eyeing the uneven slices with an amused smile; "you're the cook, I see."
"Tryin' to do a little," Octavius replied modestly. "I hope you've got something nice for tea?" the smile more winsome, her eyes sparkling.
"Of course, I have," he returned; "something you like."
"What is it?"
"Wild duck an' green peas—an' a gooseberry puddin'."
"Oh, that's grand! Did you cook them?"
"Never mind who cooked 'em; you'll find 'em A1."
"But what do you want the cucumber for if you've got a hot dinner?"
"Only the puddin's hot," Octavius returned. "You must expect to find things a bit mixed when Sarah ain't about."
"How is she doin'?" Priscilla inquired.
"Think she's improvin' a bit," Octavius answered. "In here," he added, turning the knob.
Sarah was a good sister to Octavius. She had formed this little plan, she fondly hoped, to make him happy. He was slow and bashful; and she considered a name like. Octavius was in itself detrimental to a successful love career. She would tell Priscilla how good he was, and, feeling her way carefully, would ultimately confess that he was madly in love with her. Octavius accepted this proposal as his due. It was further agreed that if Priscilla didn't care for him Sarah would continue to be ill, so the Carrabs wouldn't know the truth; but if she showed that she was "shook on him" and would like him to tell her—
On a sudden Octavius gave a violent start and upset the dish. He heard a commotion in the bedroom, and a lot of giggling. Then the door opened, and Priscilla was shoved out.
"Here you are, Octo.!" cried Sarah, and immediately banged the door again. Priscilla stood before him, abashed and blushing. It was sudden.
Octavius advanced awkwardly—grinning, he caught her hand—after some fumbling. "Priscilla!" he said. She glanced at him shyly, and started to laugh. Then he flung two arms round her—and kissed her. That was all Octavius did to win his girl; but they loved each other well.
After tea they were playing cards—the happiest trio in Christendom—when in walked Captain Carrab. The momentary silence was painful. Both girls reddened, and Octavius looked ill. He had not expected the tide to turn so soon. He wasn't very well up in tides.
"You are, better, Miss Muddle?" said the captain, stiffly. He usually called her Sarah.
"Yes—much better, thank you," Sarah replied, unable to conceal her discomfiture.
"You look it," the captain rejoined, glancing round with an audible sniff.
"How far did you get?" Octavius inquired with a desperate desire to give the girls breathing time. The captain ignored him absolutely.
"Where's your father?" he asked Sarah.
"Gone for medical aid, I presume?"
"No; it's bags for the threshin', I think."
"When did he go?"
The captain's glance flashed round the apartment again, dwelling an instant on the row of polished tins on the shelf over the wide fireplace.
"Sit in an' make a four-hand, Captain," Octavius invited. "'S early yet."
The captain didn't appear to hear him.
"When will he be back?" continued the mariner, his glance returning to Sarah.
"Umph!" grunted the captain. "Priscilla, get your hat!"
Priscilla's expression was pitiable. She got her hat.
"Come on!" said the captain. "Good night, Miss Muddle."
When they had gone Octavius and Sarah stared blankly at each other.
"It was a terrible knock," Octavius said.
He did not get a chance to speak with Priscilla again for six months. The captain called at the farm occasionally to see his old shipmate, but he never brought his family. He brought excuses instead. He never addressed Octavius either—wouldn't look in his direction.
For a while the lovers corresponded. Priscilla would watch her opportunity and throw a note, wrapped round a stone, on the bank where Octavius dipped water. He in turn would crawl along through the weeds and brush, feasting his eyes on the bluff old raftsman's daughter, and when chance permitted he threw her a similar message. That, however, was not always possible, for the raft mostly passed in daylight hours when Octo. was at work. It was to bridge a long silence that Murty Brown, while holidaying at the farm, took a little trip on the drifting logs. He carried love letters to and fro, while pretending that his only concern was to catch fish. The secret missives for a time transported Octavius into the realms of Elysium. But the yearning to speak to her and hold her to him grew in his heart till he could stand it no longer. Courting is a pretty tame affair when the principals, by compulsion, are mute and there's half a river between them and a pugnacious person on the look-out at the masthead, and the girl's residence is always drifting away. So one cold winter's evening, after crawling a mile, along the bank he called softly across the water:
"I'll swim over to-night!"
Octavius donned an old suit of clothes expressly, and an extra-disreputable pair of boots. Having no hat befitting the occasion, he went bareheaded. It was bright starlight, and so cold that he breathed clouds of fog as he went along. He had some difficulty in finding the raft, and nearly broke his neck in the search. But once he located it he was soon in the water. The first dip nearly paralysed him, and he gasped for breath. The raft was hugging the opposite bank, though the stern was towards him. This made the swim doubly long; he thought he would have died with cramps before he got over.
Priscilla was waiting for him at her accustomed post. Her mother was watching in front, as the captain had taken a bad turn just after tea and was lying down in the cabin.
"C—c—couldn't be ber-ber-better," Octavius mumbled as he dragged his shivering form on to the logs.
"My poor dear Octavius," whispered Priscilla, patting his head feelingly. "You're a real brick."
He clasped her impetuously, but she shrank back with a shudder.
"Oh, you're so wet an' cold, dear! I'll kiss you instead, an' we can sit an' talk."
"I've been longin' for this mo-moment for months," Octavius said through chattering teeth.
"I hope you won't catch cold," said Priscilla, sympathetically. "It's such a raw night to be swimmin'."
"O—o—oh, I'm as right as p—p—pie," he replied, shivering with great violence. "It's heavenly to be sis—sis—sittin' here."
"What's the matter with your hands, dear?" Octavius was caressing his hands tenderly.
"Fell into a bed o' stingin' nettles," he explained. "Makes 'em smart."
"And your poor, dear face?"
"Oh, it'll soon be orlright," Octavius declared breathlessly. "Wish I could sis—sis—sit with you ev—ver—ver—every night."
Priscilla put her arm round his neck in pity—and snatched it back again. He reminded her of a water-rat.
Just then a portly form sprang out of the cabin, and came trotting briskly across the logs. Octavius hadn't time, to say good-bye, he had only time to drop off into the water and remain clinging by his fingertips with his face pressed against the end of a log. He almost howled with pain as the captain stepped by, and the swinging of the logs jambed his ear. Do what he, would he could not keep his teeth from chattering. They rattled like castanets.
"Thought I heard fish jumpin' here," said the captain, shaking out a scoop net and searching the ends of the logs with an owl-like eye. "Ought to be a good night for mullet," he added, and dropped the net directly behind the half-frozen agriculturist. He shoved it far down and under the logs, and soon he began to haul up again. There was something in it—something big and heavy. It kicked and splashed prodigiously, at the same, time making the rummiest noise Carrab had ever head from a fish. When he drew it on to the logs, it spluttered and gasped, and reared up, and threw out fins a yard long.
"Bring a light, girl!" cried the captain. "Got a devil fish, or octopus, or something! Keep clear—might bite!"
"For Gorsake!" gasped the fish, clawing at the meshes.
"Thunder!" cried Carrab. "It talks."
"Oh, father," pleaded Priscilla, tearfully, "It's poor Octavius."
"Octavius, eh? Hang me if I didn't think 'twas some kind of an octopus! Belay there, or I'll flatten you out with a marlin-spike. You "—turning to Priscilla—"you get to bunk."
"Th' tide's runnin' strong," Priscilla reminded him in a mutinous tone.
"Get to bunk," the captain repeated. "This chap understands tides. 'E's agoin' on duty right now. Out you come, you lubber."
He hauled the net fiercely towards him, and Octavius was emptied out in a sprawling heap on the logs. He couldn't speak, and his teeth were bumping now like a milk-shake machine.
"Purty cold Courtin' t'night," the captain remarked, helping him to his feet. The attitude of Octavius was eloquent. "Don't mind a decent, straight-out land-lubber, or a fo'es'le dosser doin' a bit o' spoony-winkin' aboard this craft, but can't stand fish. Jes' step along 'ere, Octovarious. Only one way as I ken hit on jest now o' dealin' with amphibian critters like you. Come along."
He led him to the cabin, and threw down a suit of warm clothes and a pair of sea boots. "Peel off an' get into them," he commanded gruffly. "Ken take this cap, too—an' this comforter. Look alive now."
Octavius hurried as fast as his numbed fingers would permit, wondering in a vague way what could be in store for him. He was in such a wretched condition just then that nothing really mattered.
When he emerged from the cabin, still shivering, he saw the captain standing with a lantern in one hand and a dog-chain and two padlocks in the other.
"This way, October," said Carrab, and led him back to the end of the raft. Here he secured one end of the chain to the cable, and proceeded to fasten the other end round the farmer's leg. "Useter have a dog one time," he remarked during the operation. "But he swum ashore an' never come back. 'Fraid you might do the same. Think so much of you, Octobius, I wouldn't like to lose you. Good thing to have a mate wot won't drown when he falls overboard. Lost two mates by drownin' when I was tradin' in the Islands."
The chain was padlocked, and Octavius Muddle was a prisoner.
"Now," said Carrab, "the tide'll run for four hours yet. You take that pole, an' keep the craft clear o' the bank, an' all obstructions till further orders. Y' 'ave chain enough, I reckon, to take a dip now'n again when yer scales get too dry."
Before Octavius could utter a word in reply, Carrab was half-way back to the cabin. Shortly he went to the front, and thence till the tide ran out he never came nearer to him than the cabin. The women had gone, to bed, enjoying a glorious "watch off" at his expense. He worked well. It helped to keep his blood in circulation. Once or twice he tried to get rid of his fetters. It galled him to be, put on a chain like a dog. But it was no use; and the captain wouldn't come near enough to open a discussion on the stability of dog-chains or the condition of the weather.
When the tide turned the captain's voice rang out loud and clear: "Belay there! Shove in an' make fast. Look alive now, you lubber!"
The tying-up completed, the captain ambled down and released him. "Come an' 'ave some coffee, Octopus," he said. "S 'pose yer cold?"
"R—r—rather!" Octavius answered, still doubtful. He was also simmering with resentment, and had a notion of getting even with the captain before he quitted the Cedric. Just now Priscilla, looking sweet in a red wrapper, was serving out the coffee, and he didn't want her to know he had been tethered by the leg and compelled to work his passage.
"Needn't be afraid of it now, Priscilla," the captain remarked as he sat down. "Quite tame now. Played up turrible, though, when it was caught."
Priscilla smiled sympathetically on her disconsolate lover.
"A man ketches queer fish in these rivers at times," he went on, his eyes twinkling.
"How did you know I was there?" Octavius asked. The query had troubled him all night. The captain's only response was a laugh.
He walked out immediately he had finished his coffee, and Octavius and Priscilla had a deliriously happy five minutes together before he came back. He saw Octavius to the shore, Octavius still nursing a grudge against him; but Carrab disarmed him.
"See here, young man," he said. "There's a good pint or two in you—an' there's some precious bad ones. When you want to see Miss Carrab, or Mrs. Carrab, or Captain Carrab, or any of the crew of the Cedric, come aboard like a white man, not like a turtle; an' if your sister wants to see Miss Carrab, or Mrs. Carrab, or Captain Carrab, or any of the crew of the Cedric, there's no occasion for her to get bilious to do it. Good night. Mind the gangway."
And Octavious, buried in thought, straightway fell into the water.
The Muddles were sitting down to tea when Murty Brown and Jim Webb, whose appearances were eloquent of a smash-up of some kind, presented themselves in the doorway.
"Sit in, lads. You're just in time," said Muddle. When they had seated themselves he asked: "Where's your horses?"
"Over the river; we're stopping at Woram tonight," Jim replied, speaking with apparent effort. "Been down to Ramornie with cattle from the Logan Valley," he added in explanation.
"You've just missed Bill Tarkalson," said Muddle. "He started up that way on Monday. I think, by what he said, he's got something in view at Brody's place."
"We'll circulate in that neighbourhood," said Jim, "and if I can keep Mr. Brown properly regulated, I dare say we shall amalgamate eventually. He's a little bit disorganised just now, and obsessed with Quixotic problems."
"What sort of disease is that?" asked Octo. "He's interested in a certain islet, of weird and wonderful potentialities, in mid-bush."
"That's a funny place for an islet," Octo remarked.
"Quite the opposite," said Jim. "The problem is to locate it. But Murty expects to connect with it eventually, and thereby transmogrify his fortunes."
"He seems to be very much transmogrified now—an' so do you," said Sarah.
Jim was a heavy-boned but supple-jointed young man of 26, as fresh-looking as a frosty morning. In deference to an extravagant style of language he affected, he bore the nickname of Webster. Murty was middle-aged—a light-limbed, tough-looking warrior, with a frill beard and a humorous smile that was contagious. That smile was a feature. It illuminated his remarks, it filled a void when he had nothing to say, it beamed on his friends and strangers alike. Sometimes it became ascetic, as when Murty found himself in a tight corner, or when Jim's unflattering perorations embarrassed him; but still it beamed.
"What's happened?" asked Octavius, his eyes shifting wonderfully from one to the other. "You look as if you've been in the wars."
"We have," Jim confirmed. "Murty will tell you all about it. Being disabled at the commencement of hostilities, I didn't see as much active service as he did."
"Fact is," Murty interposed, "the disablement was mostly on the jaw. Consequently it's no end o' stiff yet, an' hurts."
"What bumped it?" asked Sarah, impatiently. "Please to elucidate, Mr. Brown," Jim requested, with a peculiar pained twist of the mouth.
"It was this way," said Murty. "We'd come within a mile o' Tatham Bridge when we meets a procession o' forty men, all under arms, marchin' four deep. Being peaceable times an' a quiet bush track, it sort a' took us back a bit. They were mostly farmers an' selectors, with a few chaps among them from Sleepy Hollow, an' they had the queerest collection of arms you ever clapped eyes on—breech-loaders an' muzzle-loaders, pistols, revolvers, pea-rifles, carbines, muskets, blunderbusses, tomahawks, spears an' boomerangs, an' other implements of warfare. Tommy Saucepan, the black fellow, was in front, proud as a starched shirt; an' Dick Daghorn, who was the only cavalry they had, rode on the left flank, in supreme command. He was general. The rearguard was a wagonette, loaded with ammunition an' the canteen. There was no doubt they had something of powerful importance on. You could see it stickin' out of the whole regiment, from Corporal Saucepan to the bugle boy. I was forgettin' him; he was behind, barefooted, with a catapult, an' a cow's horn polished an' mounted.
"'Mr. Brown,' says Jim—he'd been starin' at the military pageant for a quarter of a mile—' what do you surmise? 'I'm fair flummoxed,' I says, pullin' wide to review the march past. 'Looks as if the population's mobilising,' says Jim. 'Good-day, Kernel!'—to Saucepan. The old darky grinned an' saluted, an' his pride got to be so tremendous he could scarcely bend. He 'ad a frock coat on, no boots, an' a tall silk hat. He didn't stop to talk; he was too important for that.
"Then we comes up with General Daghorn. His old, wrinkled phiz was fresh-shaved, an' that everlastin' smile of his seemed brighter than ever. He stood back in his stirrups an' yelled out, 'Ha-alt!' Th' contingent halted. Some stopped short an' straight as regulars. Others bumped into them, then staggered back, an' bumped the musketeers behind 'em, and there was some mutinous remarks in the ranks. Seemed a few of the rank and file 'ad been doin' canteen duty before they started for the front. 'What's the disturbance?' asks Jim. The general saluted, an' he says in the tone an' voice of authority, 'Join us! The river's declared war against the universal enemy, an' we're wantin' recruits!'
"'Where's the enemy?'
"'Only a couple o' miles farther.'
"'Is he numerous?'
"'Gee-whiz!' says Jim. 'What's his definition?'
"'Come an' see; you're just the volunteers we're looking for,' says Daghorn. 'Right about now.' Then he sings out, 'March!' an' the battalion proceeded. They were all as jolly as could be, all blow-in' about what they were goin' to do, an' what they had done—especially what they had done, which was wonders. We enlisted, an' moved with them for the theatre of war.
"'Say, General,' I says, after listenin' awhile to the measured beat o' the trampin' feet, have you a spare howitzer about you?'
"'Not a howitzer!' he answers.
"'Well,' I says, 'what's the use of a man goin' warrin' without a weapon?'
"'Plenty o' use,' says the general. 'The reserved corps don't want weapons; as the attacking force gets thinned out, the reserves fill the gaps. In the meantime, you'll follow with waddies and despatch the wounded.'
"'Is this the openin' engagement?' I asks him.
"'No,' he says. 'We started the campaign on Monday night. We had an army of a hundred then.'
"'Where's the others?'
"'Some deserted, some in hospital.'
"Kernel Saucepan was now signallin' from the front,
"'Berrer make a row with less noise now,' he says. 'Close up camp, mine think it. Yo' smell 'em?'
"The brigade lifted its head an' sniffed. 'Strong!' says twenty of 'em. 'Poo-o-o!' says the other twenty. The general was likewise samplin' the atmosphere. So were we—smellin' an' thinkin' hard; but we couldn't see daylight yet.
"We came to a fence just afterwards, an' while the infantry was gettin' through we ties our horses up to posts an' leaves them there with the canteen.
"From this out the whole regiment was lookin' up trees, an' pretty soon we understood. We saw the enemy, in fact. If there was one of him, there was forty thousand, all dead asleep, an' hangin' head down from the branches.'
"Hah!" laughed Sarah. "Flying foxes!"
"That's the varmints. We were honorary members of the Flyin' Fox Extermination Society. I can't say as we were proud of the distinction; 'taint everybody cares to have personal dealings with them critters. They're so out-an-out obnoxious that if they brush a peach with the tip of a wing that peach is ruined. It would float to London an' back without spillin' the effluvia; an' when you set about dispersin' a colony of 'em the smell is that mighty powerful you can almost see it. Seems they were gettin' so pestiferous there was no livin' on the river with them. So this society was formed, a secretary appointed, proclamations issued, an' a petition sent to the Gover'ment for ammunition. Whether the Gover'ment shelled out or not I didn't hear.
"'T any rate, we were on the battlefield. The artillery spread round the trees, the detachment with clubs got underneath, an' hostilities began. While they kept in that position the casualties were nothing to speak of; but when the dense masses were dislodged from their barracks, an' hundreds o' wounded were flappin' low an' flappin' along the ground, the excitement got so tremendous that you couldn't turn anywhere without meetin' a flyin' waddy or clubbed gun. An' there were collisions round bushes, sprawlin' over logs and sticks, an' tumblin' into holes or over one another. Some o' the chaps seemed to think there was no necessity for a lot o' the knocks an' busters, an' only for the tact of the General they'd 'ave become undisciplined. In less than an hour there wasn't half a dozen o' the squadron fit for service. The others were in the hospital, or makin' for it. Didn't take much of an injury to send any of them there towards the end; the hospital was in the same place as the canteen. But the enemy was routed with great slaughter.
"When we'd refreshed ourselves liberally, Mr. Bill Waggles comes up to me, an' he says: 'Murty, I've got a couple of parcels here for Mrs. Grabben. Her place is just the other side o' that bit o' brush—about a mile an' a half from here. I can't go down myself in this state.' He had some of his complexion missin', an one leg of his trousers ripped up to the knee. 'Will you an' Saucepan take them down for me'?' 'Certainly,' I says; an' the kernel bein' willing, we sets off. The kernel knew the way, so it wasn't very long before we were at the door. I hands over the despatches to Mrs. Grabben, an' waits for a reply, as instructed. She took them inside, an' I hears a great rustlin' o' paper for a minute or two: then a lot o' talkin' in two languages; an' presently she comes out again lookin' quite different.
"'What is your name, my man?' she asks me.
"'Brown,' I says. 'Murty Brown.'
"'Where do you come from?'
"'Saddler's Paddock—at present.'
"'What are you doin' there, may I ask?'
"'Havin' a bit o' fun with the enemy—the flyin' foxes.'
"'Oh! Is that so?' She swung round to the kernel. 'An' who are you, pray?' The kernel grinned pleasantly.
"'Me? Baal you know it me?'
"'Indeed, I don't!'—coldly.
"'Me Tommy Tsaucepan, belonga Tsandy Crick.'
"She turned to me again. 'Come inside, Mr. Brown,' she says, quite affable. 'Come in, Saucepan.' Tommy grinned again, an' we exchanged winks. It looked as if we were right for afternoon tea.
"As soon as we're in she locks the door, an' puts the key in her pocket.
"'You're havin' a bit o' fun with the enemy, are you?' she says, quite nasty. 'You actually have the impudence to own up to it. The brazen cheek to stand at me door to hear what I'd say! It would be your deserts if I throwed scaldin' water over the pair of you!'
"By cripes, I was knocked all of a heap. 'Excuse me,' I says; 'I don't quite get the hang of this—.'
"She eyed me with the blackest scowl I ever saw on a human face, then turned from me in silent, witherin' scorn. I felt all shrunk up.
"'Where are you Cliff?' she screeches; an' a wild-lookin' person comes out of the next room with an old shotgun in his hands. 'Move a finger, and I'll blow the black scalp off yer!' he says, presenting it at the kernel. 'Lash him up, Janet.'
"The kernel's eyes bulged, an' before he hardly knew what was happenin' Janet had strapped his hands behind him, an' slipped a pair of greenhide hobbles, shortened to one link, round his ankles. Then she turn to me with a similar set o' fixings. I reckoned 'twas about time to start an argument.
"'Shut up, you dog!'
"'What's the meanin' o' this outrage?'
"'Outrage? Ugh! You ought to talk of outrages, the pair o' you, after what you did on Monday night. You scamps! As if it wasn't bad enough to hang dead flyin' foxes on my peach trees, an' pile them at my door, an' steal the best clutch of eggs I 'ad for sittin', but you must come insultin' me agin to-day with more of your filthy varmin. Actually presentin' 'em to me, parcelled up, and with 'Mr. Waggles' compliments! Loafin' Bill Waggles that never did an honest day's work in his life. I'll make you pay dear for it, you take it from me. It'll be one for the enemy.'
"No mistake, my hair bristled at that. I wanted to say so much that I darned near choked. If Bill Waggles 'ad been there I'd 'ave choked him—cheerfully. A man who'd put up a job like that on another, an' think it a joke, wants spifflicatin'. I don't say it was him decorated the premises with the foxes Mother Grabben, I heard tell, 'ad a neighbour or two who wouldn't think twice o' doin' her a bad turn, without expectin' any reward for it—but he was one o' the troop in the first raid, an' knew all about it. The mean swine had sent us to stir up bull ants with our eyes shut.
"'Madam,' I says, 'we've been had—"
"'That's true,' she says, fixin' a scintillatin' eye on me; 'we have you, an' don't you rastle with me, or I'll forget what's due to me, an' knock you stiff.'
"'I'll stiffen him for you if there's any shinanikin,' says Grabben. 'Lash him up, Janet.' He put the gun away (that was only to frighten the kernel with), and was makin' a great show of rollin' up his sleeves. He was a man of about 14 stone—an' Janet was no midget, either. There was no p'ints in one man settin' up a rebellion there. So pretty soon I was handcuffed an' short-hobbled like the kernel. 'Now, go for the constable,' says Janet to her husband. 'I'll look after them till you come back.
"Grabben was gone in a minute, full gallop. Janet stood watchin' him for a bit, then bustled through the back way to hunt a fowl out, leavin' the front door open. The kernel signalled with his head an' eyes, an' we shuffled through as quiet as we could. But there was a heap of spare hobble rings, attached to us, which we couldn't muffle nohow. The clatter o' Janet an' the fowl served us at the start, but she was after us before we were off the verandah. 'Come on!' says the kernel, an' off he goes across the paddock, jumpin' like a kangaroo. I was shufflin' fit to disjoint myself, but it was no use. I couldn't go a mile in a week. To 'ave any hope at all, I saw I must do the kangaroo act, too. So I makes a leap—an' pretty near topples over. The loss o' my arms—or the use of 'em—was too recent yet. Old Janet closed up a lot before I could take off again, an' I made three desperate bounds without stoppin'. The first was Al, the second put a bit of a bend on me, an' the third nearly put me on my head—the consequence o' not havin' a tail to balance with. I lost precious seconds gettin' regulated again, an' had to put in some fancy work next. I'd leap sideways just as Janet would go to grab me, then make three more hops, an' after gettin' my balance spring the other way an' bound on again. Talk about hard work! It beat all the kill-ingest bullockin' I can think of. 'Twasn't the athletics only those greenhide hobble-straps hadn't seen a bit of grease since they were alive, an' they gave me sore fetlocks before I'd gone 20 yards. An' hot! You could see smoke comin' out of me. An' the old girl all the while was bustlin' here an' rushin' there, an' abusin' me something awful.
"About 50 yards from the house was a dog-leg fence. The kernel cleared it at a bound. No mistake he was a champion in hobbles. He'd take a dozen jumps right off—quick an' high like a startled wallaby, an' cover more ground in one go than I could in two.
"When I got to that dog-leg my knees were buck-lin' under me. Hadn't a jump left in me. I made a desperate dive at it—took a pile of it with me, in fact, an' lost my good looks pullin' up on the other side. I was fair blown out, an' you could scarce see me for blood an' sweat.
"Janet was surroundin' me in a jiff, but she wasn't speechifyin'. Just puffin'. After a bit she hoisted me on to my knees, an' right then I grasped the great solution. If I wasn't the two ends an' the middle of the stupidest blamed ass goin', don't tell me. By just sittin' back on my heels I could undo the hobble straps with my fingers as simple as getting into trouble. I felt refreshed at once. But I wasn't done with her ladyship yet.
"'Mrs. Grabben," I says, 'I'm gettin' sunstruck—which I'm subject to.' I wanted my hat, you know.
"'Good enough for you,' she snaps.
"'I feel like dyin'.
"'Small loss if you did.'
"'I was thinkin' of you.' I says. 'You'd be had up for manslaughter. See what you've done...Will you get me a drink, an' wash this blood off?'
"She considered for a minute. Th' sight o' the hurts I'd collected in my travels had a softening effect on her. An' I wasn't puttin' it on a little either. As she saw me, I was a jolted up, broken-down, haggard an' melancholy-lookin' wreck.
"'If I lengthen th' hobbles,' she says 'will you walk back to th' house?'
"'Certainly,' I says. 'I'd sooner die in a house than in a paddock.'
"'Twould be just like th' pestilence you are,' she says, 'to go an' die on th' place an' make more mess an' trouble for me. It's a great pity you didn't die a week ago.'
"She steered me for a cask that stood at th' back of th' skillion, an' as soon as we gets there I flops down on my knees. She shortened' th' hobbles again before she give me a drink. Then she spruced me up like a mother, put ointment on my nose, an' straightened my hat. I was rested by that time. 'Thank you, Mrs. Grabbers,' I says, an' springin' up I cut for me natural. 'Oh, you dog, you!' she gasps. That was all I heard from her. She was too flabbergasted to say any more.
"When I got back to th' garrison, Bill Waggles was just comin' to his senses, an' the General was pourin' brandy an' water down his neck. Kernel Saucepan had laid him out with a nulla.
"Cliff Grabben? He was sittin' with his back against a wheel, tryin' to pick up a box of matches he'd spilt. Th' flyin' column had blocked him, an' he was court-martialled at the canteen."
Some additions were being made to the Boomerang Hotel, which occupied the main corner of the little town of Sleepy Hollow, and on the roadway in front Bill Waggles was leisurely mixing up a heap of mortar with a hoe. It was unusual to see Bill Waggles so usefully employed, which was partly the reason that his best friends, Josh Taylor and old Abner Boker, were specially interested in the operations. Captain Carrab, the raftsman, who was waiting in town for cedar, was also a spectator; and Jacob Mole, the road contractor, on his way from the Town Hall, had stopped at the same spot to fill his pipe. Bill Tarkalson, with swag ready for the northern road, had simultaneously deposited himself on the form outside the bar for the same, purpose.
It was then that Murty Brown came jogging up the street. He had left Jim at Woram, and was on his way round to Muddle's to pick up a horse that was spelling there, the only crossing for horses being the bridge at Sleepy Hollow. Attention was promptly diverted from the worker to the newcomer, who was riding a fresh-looking filly and leading a packhorse. His amiable grin, framed in a wispy ribbon of gingery hair, gave his wrinkly face, a peculiar attractiveness.
As he approached the group of idlers a scraggy, half-fed dog which had been industriously scratching itself in the gutter, slipped up behind the filly and nipped her on the heel.
Murty wasn't a bad rider, but he was taken unawares. A frantic leap unbalanced him, and two vigorous bucks following quickly, sent him sprawling into the heap of mortar. In his descent he unintentionally carried Bill Waggles with him, while the splash he made on landing raised the ire of Captain Carrab, who stopped the thick of the upheaval.
Bill Waggles scrambled up first and shook himself sulkily.
"Why th' blazes don't you mind where you're fallin'!" he growled.
"What the devil d'yer mean by obstructin' the traffic with your mullock heaps?" Murty demanded irascibly. A scowl had taken the place of the pleasant grin he had ridden up with. He was a deplorable-looking object, with wet lime and mortar all over him. That was bad enough; the humiliation of the circumstance was worse. It was the sort of thing that made sport for idling people in dull moments.
Jacob Mole stood aside, coughing behind his hand, while Abner Boker, who was sharking with an inward convulsion, pretended to be watching where the horses went to. Josh Taylor was sympathetic.
"Didn't hurt yerself, did yer?" he inquired.
Murty glared at him. "What would I want to hurt myself for?" He shook some of the loose mortar off himself and picked up his hat. Then he asked, addressing nobody in particular: "Whose mangy mongrel is that?"
Josh Taylor silently retired into the background as though the question didn't concern him. Jacob Mole supplied the information.
"Josh Taylor ought to have better sense, than to be followin' a dog like that about the town."
"The beast ought to be anchored at the bottom of the river," grunted the captain.
"So I say," Tarkalson put in. "That's the mongrel that pinched a lump o' meat from my camp last night."
"If that animal's pilotin' Josh Taylor about, then Josh Taylor ought to have himself seen to," added the captain.
These caustic comments soothed Murty's ruffled feelings a little; a visit to the bar restored the amiable grin, and led to a friendly agreement between him and Waggles and Tarkalson. They had a common grievance, the basis of which was Josh Taylor's dog.
"'Taint the first time I've been annoyed by that animal," said Mr. Waggles. "Only a week ago I caught him chewin' the head off a hen o' mine. One o' me best layers. I spoke to Josh Taylor about it, an' he says I ought to look after my hens better'n I do. An' the other night he nipped me on the heel as I was passin', an' Josh Taylor says he must 'ave mistook me for a burglar. Which was a dirty insult. An' a man don't like bein' heeled in public, an' have people laughin' at him because he jumps when he ain't intendin' to. Josh Taylor thinks it a joke, which shows th' perverted mind th' fellow has; an' its my belief he's taught that beast to nip people an' other animals for hie own amusement."
"'Tain't only Josh Taylor," said Murty. "I've seen that silly joke before to-day. A knot of yahoos standin' at a corner, maybe; an' when a stranger comes along, or one they want to take a rise out of, as a counterjumper Iearnin' to ride, one of 'em signs to the mongrel, an' then the hoodlums of the town have something new to laugh over. I go through a lot of towns in my travels, an' pretty near every one of 'em's got a set of mongrels that have nothing else to do but make a noise when somebody comes, an' frighten the grass out of his horse. There's nothing enlivens the street corner push more 'n a dog fight. They watch for a strange dog, an' their mangy beasts are so used to bushrangin' that no one can call 'em off. This town is well supplied with the breed."
"They're goin' to be, got rid of," Mr. Waggles declared. "An' the easiest way o' goin' about it is to get the owners to bring 'em to us. Look here. This man wants a job"—indicating Tarkalson—"He's bound for the Logan Valley, an' got no money for the road. If you put in a quid—which will be his wages, if he's willin' to assist me for a week, say, at Lankeyy's hut, where he'll be well housed, rent free—I'll guarantee to rid this town of a lot o' the mongrels that's infestin' it. I don't suppose I'll get a testimonial from the citizens for th' good work; but I ain't lookin' for limelight...Does that suit?"
"Well," said Murty, dubiously, "the case calls for some satisfaction, but without knowin' the specifications—"
"Oh, you needn't worry," Mr. Waggles assured him. "There'll be no unpleasantness. All you're, asked to do is to subscribe Tarkalson's pay for th' little assistance he'll be givin' me. As he's down on his luck, it will be helpin' a caber as well. If the scheme, works all right, there may be some profit in it. I'm sure there will. Just you leave it to me. I've been chewin' over this idea o' mine for a month or more."
After discussing the matter further they decided upon a plan of action. Waggles directed Tarkalson to a place known as Lankey's Hut, which stood in the middle of a small paddock about two miles up the river. It had once been the home of a selector named Lankey, who had disappeared after obtaining his deeds. He was a bachelor, who had always been something of a mystery, and no one knew what had become of him. As time revealed, his affairs closely concerned Murty Brown; but Murty had no suspicion of it then. Waggles, however, informed Tarkalson that he'd received a letter from Lankey, who was engaged in a big scalping industry, and wanted dogs; and Tarkalson might be commissioned to take a pack out, as it was on his road, if Lankey sent some money along in time.
As for Murty, he left town again that evening for Dick Daghorn's place, a few miles down the river, where his mate, Jim Webb, was having a week's spell.
Next morning a notice was posted up on the blackboard at the main corner:—
WANTED TO PURCHASE.
"Dogs of all descriptions. Good prices paid for mongrels. Apply at Lankey's Hut, 7 to 9 p.m."
One of the first interested persons to see, that notice was Abner Boker. He stood in front of it like a man who saw hope shining between the lines, and scratched his chin thoughtfully.
"That gravy-eyed poodle of the old woman's is the right sort if they're takin' mongrels," he muttered at last, walking away. "He ought to fetch five bob—an' that's more use to me than he is to her."
He pondered over it as he walked slowly home. Mrs. Boker thought a lot of that poodle, which was the reason Abner pondered so much. It monopolised his thoughts till after dark. Then he stole, into the yard, picked Towser up with a show of unwonted affection, and hurried away with him.
When he reached Lankey's Hut, half a dozen other men were there, haggling over terms. Money appeared to be no object with Tarkalson, who did the buying; but he stipulated that the dogs must be left there a week before the purchase, would be completed.
"If they stop then an' follow me when I want 'em to, they'll be paid for; but if they clear home again as soon as I let them go, it will be no use buyin' them."
There was some grumbling at this, but finally the unassorted dogs were handed over. Tarkalson passed them through to the back, where Bill Waggles, who kept out of view, locked them up in an old fowl house.
The same process was repeated the next and the following nights, after which time there didn't appear to be any more dogs for sale. Waggles, who was at the hut only in the evening, led up a couple with the remark that they were strays he had found wandering about the street.
The week was only half up when Mrs. Boker called at Lankey's Hut. Some thief had stolen her poodle, and she came to see if he had stolen it to sell, as she was told a couple of her neighbours' dogs had been taken within the last day or two. Tarkalson had just finished breakfast. With some scraps and bones on a plate, he led the way to the kennel, so that she might see for herself if the missing poodle was there. To his consternation he found the door open, and every dog gone. Even some that had been tied up outside had disappeared. Tarkalson was greatly concerned; it seemed to him that somebody else was in the dog business as well as themselves, and was not so particular how he obtained his animals.
Other people called to inquire about lost dogs. One of them was Josh Taylor. He had a good sort of dog he would have sold at a price, but it had disappeared before he saw the notice. Josh Taylor was rudely inquisitive; he meandered around—and he went away puzzled. He knew of several dogs being absent from home, and yet the dog merchants hadn't a solitary specimen to show.
At the end of the week Abner Boker called for his money. Tarkalson looked surprised.
"Didn't your poodle go back?" he asked. "No, he didn't," said Abner in dismay.
"Well," said Tarkalson, "he, escaped th' night before your missus came here lookin' for him, an I haven't seen him since."
"If that dog escaped he'd come home," said Abner. "Come home from anywhere—unless he was kept."
"Perhaps he is," Tarkalson rejoined. "We lost a pack mysteriously; an' I hear some one's goin' round thievin' dogs lately."
"H'm!" said Abner thoughtfully. "Th' old woman's been giving me no peace, unless I was lookin' for that poodle continuous; an' now I'll 'ave to look in earnest. I suppose you couldn't let me have half th' money now an' the other half when I find him?"
Tarkalson handed him the money without hesitation, and Abner departed with the satisfaction of having made a good bargain.
The others turned up punctually, and the result was pretty well the same in all cases. Each request was met by a blank look of inquiry; and as he learnt that no dog had gone home Tarkalson's surprise grew into profound astonishment. Every brute that had been brought to him was gone; there wasn't one left on the place.
Some of the sellers accepted the position good-humouredly; some said it was a darned fool of a way of buying dogs; others mumbled suspicions and inspected the hen-house. Jacob Mole said if he found out there was any crooked business going on he'd make somebody sit up. They went away in a body, discussing the matter warmly. They felt that they had been had somehow, and were annoyed at not being paid.
"Look here," said Tarkalson, turning suddenly on his mate when they had gone. "What's the game?"
Waggles thrust a pound note into his hand. "You make tracks an' leave th' rest to me—if there should be any trouble, which I don't anticipate—"
Tarkalson protested. He didn't want his name connected with anything crooked, and was entitled to an explanation.
"You're not known here," said Waggles, "an' you haven't done anything crooked. Everybody knows me, but they don't know I've been in this concern. You get out at once, an' that will be the end of the whole thing. I've got to get away from this hut now."
He got away at once, and Tarkalson, being in the peculiar position of a man who didn't know what he had been doing, and not liking the look of things, rolled up his swag and stepped out for the Logan.
A little later Murty Brown rode up to the hut, and finding it empty, he took possession, as the little grassy paddock was convenient for his horses.
In the meantime Waggles had strolled down to the Boomerang. On entering the bar he found a dozen disappointed dog-sellers there, still talking dubiously over the transaction. One asked him to have a drink, and while he was having it Captain Carrab and Tom Muddle stepped in.
"What's happenin' to all the dogs up this way?" asked the captain, pleasantly.
"That's what we're tryin' to find out," Jacob Mole returned.
"If I've had one bloated canine carcase stranded against my raft this week I've had a score," said the captain.
At this everybody stared at him with thunderstruck expressions. Bill Waggles gulped his whisky down, then propped himself against the bar in a deeply attentive attitude.
"All sorts an' conditions of dogs," continued the captain. "Black, white an' brindle. What's the epidemic?"
"Where are they now asked Jacob Mole, after a tense silence.
"Cruisin' towards the Heads somewhere," said the captain. "Pollutin' the river. Whoever heaved them in ought to be prosecuted. One of 'em was the dead spit of that mongrel of Josh Taylor's that upset Murty Brown. But I couldn't swear to it, as the scalp an' brush were missin'."
"Scalped!" cried two or three in a breath.
"All scalped—an' tailed too," the captain informed them.
Jacob Mole banged his fist on the bar. "Look here!" he cried. "That scoundrel's killed our dogs an' sold th' scalps—20/- apiece; an' he'll take the tails away to another district where they pay for th' brush."
"Let's after him!" cried Josh Taylor. "Pitch him in the river!"
They left in a mob, Josh Taylor making the pace. Bill Waggles followed to the corner of the street, then clewed for home. Only the captain and Tom Muddle remained.
After awhile Muddle inquired: "Where are they bound for?"
"Lankey's Hut," the captain replied with a chuckle.
"Why," said Muddle, suddenly serious, "Murty Brown has just gone up there...I'd better go and see what they're up to."
He got his horse after some delay, and followed in the tracks of the man-hunters. When he reached the hut he saw Murty standing in the doorway, keeping the besiegers off with a shovel, and loudly and indignantly protesting his innocence. Muddle rode between the mob and the door, and in a couple of minutes he had proved an alibi for Mr. Brown.
The avengers were chagrined and nonplussed. They looked through the hut and the shed, while Murty complimented them in exuberant language for a lot of fatheads; and when they were satisfied that the dog merchants had fled, they went back to town in a humour that nearly provoked fights among themselves.
"I'm goin' to get the hang of this jumped-up business if I bust," Murty declared when Tom Muddle had left him. He went straight to Bill Waggles' house, which was situated in a neglected and unfrequented street. Going quietly down the side, he discovered Bill in a small shed at the back, and in an instant he was master of the whole scheme.
Bill was sitting on an empty case, with a dish of reddish dye in front of him, in which he, was carefully immersing some dog scalps. There were more scalps, and some brushes, on a line above him, all of them a fair imitation of the colour of the typical dingo.
Waggles started guiltily as Murty stepped in on him unawares.
"So this is the idea, is it? By Gripes, Waggles, you ought to be pole-axed!"
"S'h!" said Waggles, jumping up and plunging his hand into his pocket. "Is any o' them fellers about?"
"No—but they were nearly havin' my scalp just now. What do you mean by it?"
"Here's your quid," said Waggles, thrusting it into Murty's hand. "Don't say a word—an' keep away from here, an' there'll be no unpleasantness."
"What about the profits?" asked Murty. "You seem to have, had a good harvest."
"They ain't ripe yet," said Waggles, with an impatient gesture towards the scans. "Want 'em to stink first."
"What's that for?"
"Well, you see, this lot won't stand a very close inspection. If they smell high, the scalp-receiver won 't examine them, or even count them. He'll just say, 'How many? Chuck 'em in the corner there.' I know him. But you'd better not be seen here."
"I think I'd better not," Murty agreed.
It was said afterwards in Sleepy Hollow that the job at the Boomerang infused new energy into Bill Waggles, for when the job was completed he went dingo trapping on the adjacent cattle run, and was eminently successful. He made a big haul of dingoes the first week.
Big black clouds were rolling up from the south, with intermittent clashes of thunder, sharp streaks of lightning and other accompaniments, as Murty Brown rode towards Muddle's farm. He was enjoying the atmospheric change, and watching the black cockatoos flying from tree to tree along the bank of a reedy lagoon, when, at the tail of the crying cohort, his eyes suddenly lit on a bearded person whose appearance gave him a momentary shock. The stranger carried a gun in one hand and a brace of ducks in the other, and his dress consisted only of hat, boots and a singlet. He was a man of about Murty's height, but younger and sturdier, and had an aspect just then of aggressive unfriendliness, which urged Murty to push along to avoid the coming rain. But the man in the singlet bailed him up.
"What sort of a caper do you call this?" he demanded. "Just peel'em off again quick an' lively."
"Peel what off?" asked Murty.
"That check suit o' mine you've got on," said the aggressive person. "Do you think good suits like that are put down for you to pick up?"
Murty's astonishment was mingled with anxiety. The semi-nude gentleman was apparently subject to dangerous delusions.
"You're makin' a mistake, old man," he said in a conciliatory tone. "What would I be doin' with your suit?"
"You've got it on, that's what you're doin' with it," roared the man with the unclothed legs.
"Get out! You've got beetles in your socks, man," said Murty. "You've got a suit just like this, I suppose, an' you've mislaid it somewhere."
"I 'know d—d well where I mislaid it," the claimant returned, with fierce gestures. "D' you think I don't know my own suit when I see it?"
"You don't, that's evident," said Murty. "How do you make out it's yours, anyway?"
The claimant jerked his thumb in the direction of the lagoon. "I was strippin' off in the bushes down there to swim after a duck I'd shot, when a mob settled behind the reeds farther up, an' I slipped me boots on again to go after 'em, leavin' th' suit under the bushes. An' when I get back it's gone—an' here's you wearin' it!" He threw the ducks down and leaned the gun against a sapling, at the same time seizing a rein with one hand to prevent Murty getting away. "Now then, what about it?"
Murty laughed mirthlessly, as if he was amused at the mistake. The claimant's cocksureness was certainly extraordinary. "Show me where you left it—or think you left it," he temporised. "Perhaps I can find it."
"That's no good to me," said the man whose legs Were bare. "Here! Just take 'em off, an' you'll see th' name sewed on under the collar of the vest."
Confident of being able to convince him of his error, Murty promptly took off the coat and vest—and the Other promptly grabbed them. "There's the name!" he cried triumphantly. "On the coat too."
"That's Klinker's Emporium'—the name o' the shop where I bought 'em," gasped Murty. "You pass 'em back here."
"You pass me them trousis. They're mine, an' you know d—d well they are. Come on; I've had enough argument."
He grasped Murty suddenly by the arm and dragged him out of the saddle. The horse pulled back in affright, and in the tussle Murty was upset. Whilst he hung on to the reins, and protested loudly and vigorously against the outrage, he was denuded of the remaining garment by main force.
"Well, by cripes, you're the dead limit!" gasped Murty, as the robber proceeded to dress himself with an equally injured air. "You're the two ends an' the middle of a blamed ass, that's what you are. You'll pay for this, you take it from me. The' suit isn't your size. Fits you too soon everywhere. Isn't that enough for you?"
The duekshooter looked a bit doubtful. He stretched his arms and shook his legs and eyed himself up and down; finally he scowled on the victim and departed in sulky silence.
"Don't think you've seen the last o' me, you fathead!" Murty called after him. "By eripes, I '11 make it hot for you before I'm done with yer."
The duckshooter took no notice, and soon he disappeared in the bushes. Murty sat on a log for awhile, digesting the situation. His appearance was more remarkable now than the thief's had been. His white shirt, starched collar, scarlet necktie and polished boots accentuated the unfinished state of his toilet. When he had mounted he was conscious of an aggravated grotesqueness.
He decided at once that he couldn't visit his friends until he had called somewhere and borrowed a new veneer of decency to go on with. Further reflection showed that he couldn't call anywhere until he had dressed himself. The residences about there belonged to farmers, and he remembered what a lot of young people they mustered among them. He couldn't go back to town. The only course was to wait for night. Even then, being of a sensitive nature, he shrank from the thought of letting his friends know of his humiliation. They would laugh about it for the rest of their days. He would be the joke of the district, if not an object of everlasting ridicule. Still, he had to resume the role of a respectable citizen somehow.
He had been riding slowly through the bushes along the lagoon during these reflections. The rain was pelting down, and the wind was whipping the tail of his wet shirt icily about his loins. Streams of water ran down his legs, and bubbled up again out of his boots. He pulled up among the bushes, sitting with bowed head and shivering limbs, heroically defying the elements. It looked the most dismal spot on earth to stop at, but the bushes acted as a wind-break, and they were the only available substitutes for trousers.
As a strong gust bowed the bushes in front of him, he glimpsed a crouching form under a leaning tree some little distance away. The sight electrified him. He slipped from the saddle, and darted through the dripping vegetation with the grim manner and look of an assassin.
A closer view assured him that the crouching form was wearing the stolen suit. The gun stood behind the robber, in a little hollow out of the rain. With a scintillating eye fixed on the barrel, Murty stepped stealthily and smartly to the rear, the rain and thunder drowning his footfalls. A grin relaxed the tenseness of his expression as he planted himself on the opposite side of the tree, where he waited till the storm had rumbled past.
The other man straightened himself up, and presently reached round for the gun. Instead of finding it standing in the hollow, he saw it pointing at him, with a fierce eye squinting murder along the barrel.
"Off with 'em, you cow!" Murty roared at him, at the same time making a threatening movement with the firearm.
The man in the suit gave an involuntary jump, then turned sharply and ran for his natural life.
Murty had expected meek obeyance. For a moment he stared after the runaway in dismay. Then he rushed back to his horse, flew into the saddle and galloped in pursuit. The rain had ceased, but there was a frolicsome wind, which played impishly with his riding attire as he got up pace.
He had not gone very far when he observed old Mrs. Dougherty, a tall, bony farmer's wife, driving across his path a little ahead of him. He pulled his hat down and kept on his way, grimly determined to overtake the suit.
The clatter of hoofs brought the old woman's head round, and immediately after it was jerked upward as if she had sat on a pin. She half rose from her seat, shook and pulled the reins with frantic impatience and whacked the dozing quadruped hard with a long stick. The moke gave a startled plunge; Mrs. Dougherty sat back suddenly, and losing her balance turned a somersault out of the cart. She was on her feet again in an instant, and with her hat and a plaster of mud hanging to her hair dashed after the retreating cart.
Murty clattered by, being now close on the heels of his panting quarry. Just beyond the ground dipped, and in the hollow he discovered a charcoal-burner's camp. This was the fugitive's haven, and for an instant or two Murty hesitated; but seeing no sign of life about the habitation, he dug his heels in and rode on.
Charcoal was sitting in the tent, enjoying a contemplative smoke. At the first sight of the breathless man charging down on him, and the armed apparition in hot pursuit, he started up in amazement, and the pipe dropped from his mouth. He started with bulging eyes till he could hear the panting of the pursued, and then he dived under the back of the tent, and made off towards a patch of scrub as fast as two bandy legs could carry him. The pursued staggered in and dropped helplessly on to Charcoal's tucker-box. Murty almost immediately pulled up at the door, fell off in his hurry to dismount, and charged in after him.
"Now, then you blithering idiot," he snorted, making demonstrations with the gun, "off with 'em, quick and lively!"
"Hold on!" the other man appealed, breathing hard.
"Hold on, be d—d!" snapped Murty. "Get out of 'em, or I'll blow you out. A spiflicated galoot like you ought to be in the asylum—or else in gaol. D' you hear? Get a hurry on."
"Not so fast, mate," pleaded the other. He pointed to a new check suit which lay in a careless bundle on Charcoal's bunk. "Whose is that?"
Murty picked it up. It was similar in every way to the one in dispute, except that it was a size bigger. In one coat-pocket were five cartridges.
"Know anything about these?" asked Murty, holding them out in his hand.
The other man's face changed. "Well, well!" he said, jerking his head and staring at the find. "Well, well!"
"What th' blazes am I to make of 'well, well'?" Murty demanded, irascibly. "Are these things yours?"
"That's my suit all right," was the answer. "It was that Charcoal scroucher who pinched it. I knew he was no chop."
"A nice sort of a fellow you are, ain't yer?" sneered Murty. "S'elp me, a man can't cross a paddock without bein' stuck up for his clobber. Dead sure it was yours, too, weren't you?"
"I'm sorry, old man," said the other, commencing to disrobe. "But never mind. When I round up Charcoal, I'll give him something for gettin' You into this fix. That cove ought to get six months."
Murty stayed at Muddle's that night, and after a limited look round the premises next morning, he sauntered in for a chat with Sarah, who was ironing at the table. She looked quizzically out of the corners of her eyes as he entered, leaving the door wide open.
"Ain't there no doors where you come from?"
Doors of country houses were more often open than shut, but to-day a cool wind was blowing in and that made Sarah's irons cold.
"No, Sarah," he replied. "Only slip-rails."
"Well, don't you put them up after you?"
Murty closed the door.
Sarah took another iron from the fire, spat on it to try its temperature, and rubbed it on a bag which did duty for a hearth-rug. After executing a few rapid curves and circles with it on her father's shirt front, she slapped it noisily on the stand, and said: "You don't mind if I smoke, do you?"
Murty had just lit his pipe, but the query surprised him so much that he nearly let it go out again.
"That's what Mr. Conyers always says when I'm present," Sarah added, without looking at him; and there was a peculiar movement about her lips as she resumed ironing.
"Well," said Murty, "that blamed old chimney's smoking fit to drive a person outside, and it ain't apologisin' any either. Seems to have an ambition to out-smoke any other chimney on the river. An when you can stand that, the little whiffs from my old dudeen ain't worth mentioning."
"Two evils don't make one good," Sarah returned. "And the chimney only smokes when the wind's blowing from that quarter. You're always smokin', wind or no wind. It's a beastly habit, smoking"—reflectively. "I don't know what you men can see in it. It doesn't do you any good."
"Maybe you're right, an' maybe you ain't. I know times when it does a power of good."
He pressed the glowing tobacco down in his pipe, and puffed reminiscently.
"I remember when I was a boy, an' I did anything that promised a hidin', I always kept out of sight till the old man had lit his pipe. I was safe then. Many a time I've crept round the house, after they'd finished tea, peepin' through the cracks to see if th' peacemaker was about, before I'd venture in. That's one o' the times when th' pipe does good, an' every boy whose dad is a smoker knows it. An' when it comes to mateship, give me th' man who loves his pipe—providin' he ain't short o' tobacco more'n five days a week. You look at two smokers holdin' a quaker's meetin', an' two non-smokers doin' th' same, an' you'll notice th' first two are comfortable, while th' other two chaps seem to be wishin' that a cart would bolt an' run over a dog. Th' pipe soothes an' comforts when a man's worried or troubled; it's a help when time crawls, an' a good companion in lonely places."
"Half the men are quite satisfied with th' company," said Sarah, viciously. "They would certainly give up anything else before the pipe—even their wives. If I couldn't marry a man without marrying a smoky companion, too, I think I'd rather die an old maid. If a woman can get through her worries an' loneliness without turning herself into a smokestack, then she's company and comfort enough for his lordship."
"Well, maybe you'd strike a prize, an' maybe you wouldn't. Smokin' is a good disinfectant, an' it's good for the digestion. Lots o' people start smokin' by th' doctor's orders."
"Did the doctor order you to smoke?"
"No-o; I can't say he did. I'll tell you how I started: I picked th' pipe up comin' home from school. 'Twas a short clay, soaked black, an' strong enough to knock me over now, seasoned an' all as I am. But I didn't know any different then. I thought it was a treasure. I washed it in the river, an' polished it with a bit of rag; an' when I got home I hid it in a mortice-hole of a big round post at th' corner of the yard. I was pretty well a week gettin' enough tobacco to fill it. Th' strongest black twist it was, too, an' I put that in th' mortice-hole along with a box o' matches—as it wasn't convenient to use 'em straightaway.
"I waited till a Saturday, when I had to go down the river with a message to a very strict old dame, who had seven prim daughters on the bargain counter. I mention them because girls was an embarrassment; to me in those days. Near the house was a patch of scrub, an' in there I lit up. Th' tobacco was a bit lumpy, as I'd cut it up with my thumb-nail, an' it only took fire in one corner, an' required hard drawin' to keep it goin'. Smokers know what that means. I didn't. I was quite content as long as I could blow a cloud.
"I blew harder than was necessary, though, trying to make spinnin' jenny wheels with the smoke.
"No mistake, I was proud—perched on a log with my back against a tree, an' restin' the bowl between my fingers. There's two occasions in every young man's life when his head's too big for his hat; when he blows his first whiffs from th' pipe, an' when he kisses his first girl."
"Oh!" in shocked tones from Sarah. "Murty...Brown!"
Murty crossed over in a stooping attitude to spit in the fire. At this Sarah chipped in again.
"That's another dirty habit of smokers—spitting. If there's one thing that disgusts me more than another it's a man spittin' about the floor—an' rubbin' it in with his boot. Could anything be more filthy?"
Then, after a short pause: "Who was the first girl you kissed? I didn't think you were that sort."
"I'm speakin' of young fellers generally," Murty replied, watching the almost stationary iron through the smoke drift. When it began to drive and circle again, he went on:
"I smoked about half a pipeful, as near as I recollect, an' left th' pipe an' matches on th' log so as to have another draw comin' back. I was afraid they'd smell th' evidence of my evil habits if I carried 'em. Women have long noses where pipes an' cigarettes are concerned"—with a sly look at Sarah, who pretended to be more than usually busy.
"I walked along whistlin'. Seemed as if I'd entered a new an' happier state of existence. Felt all right till I'd delivered the message. Then I began to feel queer, an' got anxious, an' tried to get away without showin' I was in a hurry. But they were hospitable folks; they were just goin' to 'ave afternoon tea, an' insisted on me sittin' in, too. I said I'd had afternoon tea before I started, an' another on th' road, what I brought with me. But they wouldn't listen. I informed 'em that I was told to hurry straight back, an' not to stop one minute on any account. They only waved their hands an' smiled. Wasn't often they saw me, they said, an' I mustn't go rushin' away like that. An' all th' time I was gettin' worse.
"The old lady was a gossipy sort; she wanted to know all the news from up our way, from th' current history of th' family to the state of th' crops an' th' layin' activity of th' poultry. There was no shakin' her off once she got warmed up to it. An' I was still gettin' worse.
"She noticed my strange manner first, an' then how white I was. Did I feel ill? I said I had a bit of a headache, an' would like to go an' dive in th' river. A cold dive was always refreshin' when I had a headache. Ah, she knew there was something; I couldn't deceive her. She'd get her salts bottle, an' that would relieve me. I did feel relieved at th' mention of it; I thought she'd have to go into another room for the bottle, an' then I could do a bolt. But it was on a shelf in th' corner; an' after she'd nearly suffocated me with it, she poured out a cup of tea, an' asked me how much sugar I liked. I was very fond of sweets, but just then I didn't want any at all. I only wanted to rush away and commit suicide.
"She was arguin' that it was only my bashfulness, when five of th' daughters trooped in, an' they wanted to know whose cat had kittens, an' what sort of dress Melinda wore at Bayley's dance. An' I was goin' on gettin' worse.
"I was in th' middle o' shakin' hands with them, an' th' old lady was hearin' up with th' salts bottle again, when the squeamishness developed with a jump. 'Twasn't any use tryin' to explain; I hadn't a second to spare. I snatched up my hat an' bolted for th' scrub like all possessed. I could see them from where I stopped—where I had to stop—all grouped outside, starin' after me. I never called there any more.
"I've been seasick since; I've had the barcoo, an' other upheavals; but that first smoke eruption lay over 'em all. I thought I was dyin'."
"Did you go back for the pipe?"
"I did, an' I heaved it right out into the river."
"How did you get on when you got home?"
"I had to find an excuse for bein' sick, an' I hit on one that didn't fit the case. I said I'd eaten a lot of wild cherries."
"And how did they know you hadn't?"
"They didn't know. The guv'nor mixed a packet of Epsom salts in a cup of water, an' I had to drink it without sugar. He said if I could stuff myself with wild cherries without sugar, I didn't want any with salts. I went to bed with th' conviction that the old man was a dangerous lunatic when it come to doctorin'."
"Good enough for you—oh!"
Sarah gave a jump as she turned again to her work, and snatched the iron from the table. "Bless you and your old pipe!" she cried, crossly. "I've burnt father's shirt." She held it up, and examined it critically, and with much concern.
"That's your smoking again, Murty Brown. If you ain't out of this with your beastly pipe in two jiffs, I'll burn you."
As he went out laughing, she addressed herself to the damaged garment with considerable vim: "It's a pity you hadn't died!"
Murty got his horse from the little paddock at the back, and in a few minutes he, was at the front again.
"I suppose you haven't seen anything of that old moke o' mine, which I left in the big paddock last time I was down?" he called out.
"I haven't been in the big paddock,' said Sarah, who was making a great noise with the iron.
"I must go an' find him," added Murty. "I've got to make tracks up country to-morrow."
"You're always makin' tracks somewhere. I never saw such a wanderer. Why don't you settle down?"
"Will you marry me?" asked Murty.
"No, I won't!" was the prompt response.
"I knew you wouldn't; that's why I asked," said Murty.
"I wouldn't marry any man that wasn't more than a week or two in one place," Sarah added.
"I don't want to be a rock," Murty returned. "But I hope to have a permanent address by-an '-bye—when the great quest is ended."
"Now, didn't Jim tell you—I'm lookin' for an island that's in the middle of some lake," said Murty.
"But what are you lookin' for it for?" asked Sarah.
"I've been commissioned to explore it for some antique relics that are hidden there," Murty answered. "I call the place Koponey's Island, an' if I only knew the name of the lake I'd know where to look for it."
"How do you know there's such a place if you don't know where it is?" asked Sarah.
"I've got a document in my swag," Murty replied. "But it doesn't give the latitude or longitude, or any particulars as to its situation. I've searched a lot of country, one time an' another, but haven't struck a clue yet. Maybe I'll hit it next time."
"Sounds like a mare's nest," Sarah commented.
"Well, this ain't gettin' any nearer to it," said Murty, turning away. "Must get after that moke o' mine."
Murty was patiently searching among the hills for his spare horse when a terrific thunderstorm came on. He sought shelter from the pelting rain and falling branches under a shelving rock. But there was no shelter for his horse, and a whirling branch, lobbing on its neck, gave it such an all-fired start that the sudden pull on the bridle threw Murty full-length into the flooded grass. When he had got to his feet and clawed the wet out of his eyes, and picked up his hat and his pipe, the animal was disappearing at a great bat down a winding creek.
Murty remained under the rock for a couple of hours, when the wind dropped and the rain slackened to a drizzle. He did not bother going after his steed, but struck a bee-line for home. In a few minutes he was baulked by the creek, which was running half a banker. The sun was going down, and it seemed to be setting in for a wet night. Recognising the futility of trying to find a crossing before morning he determined to go back to the rock and camp.
Having a tomahawk in his belt, he stripped a sheet of bark off a grey box, and leaned it against the rock. Under it he kindled a fire, and while it burned he gathered a supply of the driest wood he could find, and stripped another sheet of bark. By this time the sap side of the first sheet was warm and dry, which suggested to Murty a healthier, if harder, bed than the damp ground. So he laid it down under the rock, propping the other sheet up in its stead.
It was a few inches shorter than himself, with a deep dent in the middle where it had fitted over a bulge on the tree. This was convenient, forming a most comfortable receptacle for his hip. In it, therefore, after drying his clothes and piling on plenty of wood, he stretched himself and went to sleep.
He woke at dawn to find himself in a peculiar position. Try as he would he couldn't get up. However he wriggled and twisted, he could not disengage himself from the embrace of his bed. The heat of the fire had caused the bark to curl tightly round him, so that the edges considerably overlapped. His arms being straight down at his sides, he could get no purchase anywhere to wrench it apart. Anyone who has tried to open a sheet of bark that has rolled up in the sun will know what power was wrapped around him.
Murty soon realised that he was trapped, and that his only hope of escape was to get to his feet. In a straight-jacket that reached from his forehead to his shins, that was no easy task. Not being an acrobat or a click beetle, the only way that occurred to him was to roll down to the creek and bring the sloping bank to his assistance. He had the use of his feet and his head, and the close fit of the bulge round his hips helped him to roll.
It was hard getting away, for there were some half burnt pieces of wood to bump over, and the fire shelter to bowl down. Having accomplished that, there were numerous logs, stumps and trees to get round; there were sharp blades of grass that sawed across his eyes, and there was ever the thought of snakes in his mind as he turned strenuously over and over.
"If one gets in here," he muttered, pausing for breath, "or a rattled goanna mistakes me for a hollow log, I'll be fair flummoxed."
Only when he struck a jumper's nest did he forget snakes and whiz over the landscape till the trees spun around him.
"Awful sickly thing, rollin'," he declared as he brought up sharply against a root, and lay for a moment gazing at the moving-picture show.
A few cautious turns brought him within view of the creek bed. Luckily the flood had run out. Edging round, he screwed and zigzagged till he slid over a steep spot, and landed at the bottom on his feet. He was still leaning against the bank, but after several hard shoves with his head, and some masterful feats of balancing, he at last attained the perpendicular. He was panting and thirsty. Cool water gurgled at his feet—but he couldn't stoop.
Climbing the bank was a painful, anxious undertaking. Inch by inch he felt his way, tremblingly swaying on the inclines, breathlessly pausing on the levels, until, with a final, staggering rush, he reached the top.
Before him was a flat, at the end of which, a mile away, stood a selector's house. Eagerly he set out for it. His steps were distressingly abbreviated. The knee action being limited, his motion was more of a shuffle than a walk. His hat, which he had used for a pillow, was jammed behind the back of his neck, and his ruffled mop was smothered with leaves, twigs, grass and spiders' webs. His eyes just showed above the edge of the bark. He resembled nothing so much as an animated bottle tree with the top cut off.
Near the house he heaved forcibly through a rickety gate—and nearly fell over. The noise awoke the dogs, whose barking in turn attracted a woman who had been chopping wood, and a girl who was standing by with a dish under her arm. They grasped each other, and pointed simultaneously at the strange thing approaching them. Murty chuckled at their alarm. He was feeling a lot better now.
The dogs, with raised bristles, kept up an excited barking and growling, running round him and smelling at him between whiles.
"Lay down, you mongrels!" rasped Murty, at the same time jumping and dancing to frighten them. At this strange conduct the women fled into the house and slammed the door. Murty chuckled again. How they would laugh presently when they came to strip the bark off him! He could smell bacon and eggs, and smacked his lips as he anticipated the motherly invitation, "Sit in, my poor man, and have some breakfast."
He shuffled up to the step.
"It's all right, missus; you needn't be afraid," he said, soothingly. The engulfing bark gave to his voice a deep, muffled sound, and at the same time partly smothered his words.
"Clear out!" came the answer through the keyhole.
"I'm in a tight fix, ma'am," said Murty, more seriously. "Open th' door, an' you'll see for yourself. I'm not a burglar, or an ogre—"
The door was opened cautiously, and the woman, stepping from behind it, thrust a revolver at the astonished supplicant.
"Now, then, make tracks, quick!"
"Hold on!" gasped Murty, backing away. "There's nothing to get excited about, ma'am. Can't you see—"
"Are you goin' to get?" The revolver was pointed more menacingly.
"By cripes! You're a nice sort, you are!" said Murty, rebelliously. "Do you think I'm an armored robber, or an escaped lunatic? Haven't you got eyes?"
She stepped out from the door, a frightened but determined look on her face. "Be off, now! Be off, or I'll shoot!"
Chagrined and despairing. Murty shuffled away without further argument.
"Th' woman's a fool!" he snorted as he looked back savagely from the gate. "Th' two ends an' th' middle of a double-barrelled idiot."
He went on with quick steps and a fierce look in his eyes.
Out of sight of the house he leaned against a tree to rest. In a little while a blackfellow and his gin came mooching along, looking for 'possums and sugar-bags. Murty was delighted to see them. He couldn't have been more pleased if they had been his brother and sister.
He moved away from the tree, and just then Binghi's wandering eye lit on him. He stopped short with a startled ejaculation, and bending forward stared with rounded, bulging eyes as the apparition drew towards him. But he didn't wait to discover what it was. In a moment he was a flying study in perspective, and the old gin a whirlwind of legs and skirts behind him.
Murty resumed his weary way, embittered and disgusted.
He was in'a populous district. There were plenty of houses at no great distance from the track he was following, but fences blocked him from getting to them. He might have fared better with the people he met had his face been in view. As it was, he looked more like a walking stump than a human being.
He met several persons in the course of the next hour. One was a young man who came cantering along the track, sitting loosely in the saddle, and singing at the top of his voice. The horse was a young one, and it was close up when it spied the awful object in front. It stopped dead, and with a snort leaped sharply aside, shooting the rider out of his seat like a shot from a catapult. The victim scrambled quickly to his feet, grabbed his hat and dashed away through the bush as though he had no thought of anything but the catching of his bolting horse.
Murty went on, too tired and famished to smile at the fun he was having.
At the edge of a bit of brush he encountered a stout old lady carrying a basket.
"O goodness!" she cried, dropping the basket as her hands flew involuntarily upwards.
Before he could offer an apology she had gathered up her skirts and fled.
"All th' darn fools alive seem to be livin' hereabouts," Murty remarked sourly.
He went on, meditating seriously.
Ascending a gentle rise, he descried three small boys trying to pelt down a bird's nest. So intent were they on this object that he had shuffled within a few paces of them before he was discovered.
"Oo! Bluey, look!" shrieked a freckled-faced, ginger-headed urchin, which focussed all eyes searchingly curiously on the approaching mystery.
"Oh, strike!" cried Bluey. "What is it?"
"It's only a man, my boy," said Murty, anxiously. He was afraid they were going to run away. "A man what's 'ad a misfortune, an' will reward you handsome if you help him—"
"I know, Ginger!" the smallest boy broke in. "It's a bunyip!"
"'Tain't a bunyip," said Ginger, edging away "Look at his boots."
"Ah, you're th' boy that's got sense," said Murty, in his most ingratiating manner, and edging after him. "You're an observant lad, one as is destined to come to a great end. If everybody was as cool an' sensible as you, I might have been out of this predicament long ago."
"He's a loony, that's what he is," Ginger asserted at this juncture.
"Let's pelt him!" cried the smallest boy, with enthusiasm.
"Hooroo!" seconded Bluey, ecstatically waving his arms.
"Do you want to earn five bob?" Murty inquired quickly, and in a much louder voice. But the boys had darted after sticks. Bluey aimed the first, which struck over Murty's chest with a loud, hollow sound. Vociferous applause greeted him. Ginger and the smallest boy followed suit, and as each stick rattled against Murty's casement his tormentors yelled and danced with delight. The noise the sticks made, and the way they bounced was great sport. Murty lost his temper, and making a rush at the smallest boy, lost his balance and fell like a log. The boys cheered tumultuously. When they saw he couldn't get up again their joy was supremo. They looked down on his casement from the top, and they looked up at it from the bottom, what time Murty was pleading and threatening by turns.
"See here, sonny," he said, addressing Bluey, "if you an' your mates 'ill pull this fakus apart so I can get out, I'll give you five bob."
"Give us it now," Bluey stipulated, holding out his hand.
"I can't get my hand into my pocket till I get out," Murty returned.
"Yah! he ain't got five bob!" cried Bluey, derisively.
"He's got rats, that's what he's got," Ginger declared. "If he ain't what did he get in there for?"
"Let's roll him down the hill," suggested the smallest boy, who seemed to be the genius of the family.
The suggestion was greeted with joyful exclamations, which encouraged him to shove against the bulge.
"You mind what you're at, young fellow!" Murty growled at him, grinding his teeth.
"Yas!" Bluey shouted defiantly. "Come on, Ginger!"
Murty cast a horrified glance down the steep slope.
"Stead—y, now!" he gasped as they laid hands on him. "It will kill me, an' you'll be hung, th' whole bilin' lot of yer. D' yer hear? I'll die on th' way...I'm dying now...d—— yer!"
"Now, then, over!" cried Bluey, totally ignoring the harrowing prospect.
With the next move he shot up suddenly.
It was a long-distance roll, but it gave Murty the liveliest minute he had ever known. Gaining momentum with every revolution, bumping and bonncing, he outpaced his young persecutors with ease.
At the bottom he was conscious of a bigger bump, than usual, followed by a tremendous clatter, and a frantic roar as of some one being knocked down and run over; then a violent wrench that threw him clean out of his easing, and over the bank of a deep gully.
At the bottom, hidden in long grass, he lay in a dazed condition for several minutes. The clatter above continued for a little while, and was succeeded by a scream of vituperation, poured forth in a loud voice, and with much feeling. Murty listened more eagerly as he recovered from his dizziness, but the sounds of tramping feet seemed to be receding, and the angry voice dying away in the distance. He sat up with a jerk.
"Was anybody killed?" he asked; and then he saw that he was alone in the bottom of the gully. He was bruised and sore from head to foot, and still feeling sick.
"Wonder what happened?" he mused, as he got slowly to his feet.
He crept up the bank and peeped over. Nearest to him, lying under the point of a dead limb, and split in two, was the sheet that had enveloped him. The lap had caught on the limb, and with the pace he had on, it had been torn open, and he had been forcibly ejected. That much was plain.
Beyond was a demolished bark gunyah, a temporary structure that he had partly crashed through and partly bowled over. That also was plain.
On the top of the hill, waving his arms and still talking, was an angry old man, whom he recognised as the charcoal burner he had seen the day before.
The boys had fled in terror before him. It was all plain.
"Them little cherubs can have the credit of it all," he decided, brightening at the idea. Then the billycan at the fire caught his eye.
"You ain't in a good humour for receivin' visitors, Charcoal," he mused; "but, maybe, if a sympathetic traveller called d'reetly, you wouldn't forget he had a mouth on him. Long step home, yet, an' I'm starving."
Reaching for his hat, he crept back, and picked his way down the gully to a secluded pool, where he attended most carefully to his toilet.
A little later he sauntered up to the camp of the charcoal burner, who was then busily sorting out his personel property from the ruins of his residence.
"Good day, mate," said Murty.
"Good day!" sulkily.
"Had a collapse?"
Charcoal straightened up, and wiped some blood off his face.
"I was havin' a nap in th' caboose 'ere," he said, "when three lovely imps o' boys rolls that there durned fakus down on to th' camp an' flattens it out on top o' me."
"That sheet o' bark?" questioned Murty, with well-feigned surprise.
"They 'ad a big stone in it—to give it weight, an' make it go faster, I s'pose," Charcoal explained. "Th' stone's in th' gully somewhere, as I see th' track of it down th' banks."
"The scamps!" said Murty, sympathetically. "Might a 'urt yer!"
"'Urt me!" Charcoal snorted. "Might a stoomed me out!"
"If I was you I'd go an' see their fathers," said Murty, feelingly.
"I'm goin' to!" Charcoal answered, nodding his head by way of emphasis. "Straight away as soon as I've fixed up 'ere."
Murty looked hungrily at the tucker that was scattered among the wreck.
"What's about th' time?" he asked glancing at the sun.
"About 2 o'clock," was the reply.
"I'm lookin' for a horse that got away from me; been lookin' since daylight," Murty volunteered.
"Had no dinner yet?" Charcoal inquired hospitably.
"Better sit down an' 'ave some," said Charcoal, and Murty sat down willingly.
By the time Murty had collected his stock, and was ready to resume his travels, Jim had gone off to Brisbane to see a venerable uncle of his, who had wired for him. Thereupon Murty set off alone towards the Logan.
Ere many miles had been covered, he picked up with an unusual kind of traveller, who changed what plans he had formed for the immediate future.
"His name was Richard de Quinlan," said Murty, when giving an account of himself a few weeks afterwards; "an' he was about the rummiest mate I ever knew.
"He was travellin' about the bush in a tilted cart, collectin' specimens and trappin' for a Sydney dealer. It was a pleasant sort of industry, an' good money in it; but Quinlan was so deeply interested in studyin' the mysteries of nature that he often overlooked the business aspect. I came on him one mornin' near Sleepy Hollow. He'd left his cart on the road, an' was away off proddin' up a frog with a stick to make it jump. When it fairly extended itself and made a pretty good leap, he would out with a two-foot rule an' measure it.
"'Discovered a frog on Piora Creek that jumped fourteen feet,' he said by way of explainin' his antics. 'I believe that's a record, but there's lots of districts the haven't been represented in the competition yet.'
"He put the new candidate for the championship in a little perforated cage, with a beddin' of green grass, wrote some memoranda on it, an' stowed it away carefully in the menagerie.
"'Are you a bushman?' he inquires turnin' to me an' puttin' his hands on his hips.
"'That's my profession,' I assures him.
"'Then you'll know something about the fauna of this country,' he says. 'Ken you climb trees?'
"'To a certain extent,' I replied.
"'Well,' he says, 'I want an assistant to go with me up north. I think you'll about do.'
"I thought it a grand chance of findin' Koponey's Island; wanderin' around explorin' the country, as you might say, and gettin' paid for it all the time; so I took it on.
"Nature study always was an absorbing thing to me, though I can't say I was so enthusiastic after I'd had a week with Quinlan. I drove, the caravan, while he wandered about lookin' for specimens, an' every now 'n' again he'd call me off the track to climb a tree, or to run down a frill-neck or something of the sort. As a naturalist, he applied himself to his occupation with marvellous zeal; all day long you'd see him squintin' up trees, probin' hollow logs, turnin' over sticks an' bark, an' peerin' through a telescope at any strange insects he encountered; but when it was a job requirin' activity and exertion he entrusted it entirely to me.
"At first, when I barked my shins or nearly knocked my eye out, I looked on it in the same light as he did, as incidental trifles to laugh at; but when I ripped gaps in my limited toggery, our views weren't exactly similar. I decided I wouldn 't be worried and damaged in the interests of science any more. I didn't reckon to get much credit if I helped it along ever so much.
"Some big bug who never kinked his neck over a log or tore his pants at the game would get whatever credit was goin'; an' Murty Brown wouldn't be mentioned.
"Still, I stuck to Mr. Richard De Quinlan, the naturalist. He asked me to call him Professor De Quinlan before strangers, as that would make us look more important, and help us in our investigations, especially on runs where common trespassers were objectionable. Lend's your knife a minute, James.
"I used to attend to the victuallin' while he was huntin' for ant-lions, or tryin' which grubs kicked the most on an ant-bed. Scoopin' in butterflies with his hat on a stick, and lassooin' spiders with thread, were things he gloried in. I. he only sat down for a bit of a smoke he'd have a couple of caterpillars fightin' in front of him, or he'd be deliverin' lectures on dragon flies an' the prayin' mantis. You never saw such a feller. If he came across two colonies of jumpers havin' a disagreement, he'd hang around the vicinity as long as the war lasted. You must have had this knife a long time. It's pretty blunt.
"I generally had the fire lit an' a heap o' wood ready for night before De Quinlan showed up. He'd disburden himself of his day's collection, an' have a look round.
"'Water the frogs?' he'd ask.
"'Yes.' We put them in jars of water in camp, but carried 'em in little cages when travellin'.
"'Feed the snakes?'
"'Find a bed for the echidnas?'
"'Aye.' Quills and Spikes, as we called the two porcupines we'd captured, had to be tethered near an ant bed.
"Sometimes his billy when he came in would be swarmin' with bore-sinkers and wood-riddlers. He'd have to annihilate them with pins before I could make the tea. Now an' again he'd hoist a dead snake or two out o' that billy, an' put 'em in bottles. Other times it would be two or three kinds of lizards. He'd tether them by the legs, and watch 'em half the night to learn their habits.
"His cart was a regular travellin' menagerie. When he opened it up in the mornin' you'd thought it was a stink factory. Beetles in all conditions you could mention; an' heaps of skins half-cured, or not cured at all. Used to strike me that De Quinlan was rather too thorough, as if he wanted to see how many varieties of smell a skin could shed before it rotted away. How his interest in natural history kept up in spite of the vile odours of those specimens, I don't know.
"He used to keep a notebook, too, an' you'd see him every spare minute makin' records of his observations. Couldn't make head or tail of his scrawl myself, and if he didn't go over it fairly frequent to keep familiar with the writin', I'd be hanged if he could make it out, either.
"When we'd got about a hundred miles west, an' were makin' for a railway to unship our cargo, it came on to rain, an' two days later we were flood-bound on a bit of an island. De Quinlan didn't mind if we were stuck there for a year, provided plenty of specimens came ashore. In less than a week he had the grass worn off all round that island doin' sentinel duty.
"In the course of our conversations we discussed all the inland islands he'd seen in his travels, but none agreed with the description of Koponey's.
"'What's the attraction?' he asks me.
"'There's a rare orchid growin' there,' I tells him, 'an' a gentleman collector has offered a big reward for specimens.'
"'That's interestin',' says De Quinlan. 'Just the sort of thing that appeals to me. There's a lot of romance in orchid huntin'; an' lives have been sacrificed in the hunt, too. But it's a good hobby for a man that's knockin' about the bush.'
"'That's how I take it,' I says. 'Something to keep me interested when I'm lookin' for a job; or when I'm on a long journey an' got nothing else to do to relieve the monotony.'
"The weather kept on showery most o' the time, an' as we'd only one tent, I had to camp alongside De Quinlan. In the day-time I used to try to get interested in his experiments. Helped to put the time in. He had two spiders hung at the tent door—which made it awkward to get in an' out—an' he'd fish for them with a fly on a bit of cotton. If they didn't bite well he'd swing them together, an' let them knock spots off one another.
"The most shuddersome exhibition on his programme of entertainments for wet days was a fight between a triantelope an' a centipe. He was always huntin' for those sort of gladiators to fill in a dull hour. I took to huntin' for them, too—to kill all I could find. I tried to lose a brute of a scorpion he had, but it was no go. He was so anxious about the state of its health that he pretty near nursed it; an' I lived in dread of the thing gettin' away.
"He had his side of the tent dotted with specimens. He'd run out of cardboard, an' took to pinnin' them on to the tent. He also had a row of assorted abominations swingin' from the ridge-pole on bits o' thread, just where they'd bump a person in the eye when he was thoughtless enough to stand up straight.
"There were rows an' rows of 'em on the walls. Tiger-beetles, pie-dishes, nut-crackers, clickers, whirligigs, fireflies—in fact, he could 'ave set up a respectable museum in that line.
"The elephant beetles, an' a lot more in the novelty class, he kept alive; an' the bombadier was one of his variety artists that used to amuse him in times of enforced idleness when there were no pugnacious creatures to provide, excitement. He'd set it runnin' along the floor, an' at every foot or so he'd give it a prod to make it let fire with its detonator, an' eject a cloud of acrid vapour.
"I didn't mind 'em so much in the daytime, but at night they were an all-fired nuisance. De Quinlan had all my match boxes emptied to put beetles in, an' the scratchin' of those blessed things at night was enough to shatter the nerves of a shingleback. Then there was the buzzin' an' whirr-r-ing of pinned things that hadn't died yet; the smell of them that had; and—you know those 'orny-legged mantis things?—well, they'd be kickin' an' jumpin' in jam tins fit to drive you mad. The caterpillars that broke loose would come crawlin' over us, an' I'd think it was that villainous scorpion. I reckon I averaged two dozen nightmares a week in that camp.
"There was one little black beetle that was always gettin' on its back, an' then it would knock its head on the bottom of the box till it righted itself. Then it would try to climb the wall of its prison, an' tumble down topsy-turvey again. Then more whacks! I've hurled enough descriptive remarks at that one little pest to incinerate the museum. Professor didn't mind it at all; he was in his glory...Never saw such a pipe as this for gettin' stuffed up. Ph-e-ew!
"Anyhow, it was the stingin' grubs that broke up our happy home. He had two sorts of them. One was a black an' yellow horror that's found in clusters. When you go near them they chuck up their tails, an' the look of the up-ended cluster is the most shiversomely ugly thing I know in the bush. The other sort is a hatter—mostly seen on wattle trees. It's four times bigger, and not bad lookin'; but the least touch of it will raise a white blister as big as a sixpence. 'Twas that thing that got astray one night, an' no mistake it gave me particular fits.
"I got up an' put my boots on, an' I jumped on that crawlin' insect till there was no insect to see. Then I flung the lamp at De Quinlan's pet lizard, an' kicked his best jar of frogs into the creek.
"Poor De Quinlan nearly took a fit. The loss of those frogs was a national calamity; and he feared the lizard would lose the sight of one eye. I felt sorry for the lizard till De Quinlan started to tell me what sort of person I was in his opinion; then I caught him by the neck an' hurled him through the beetle department.
"I rolled up there an' then, an' plunged through that billabong at midnight; an' the last I saw of Professor was joggin' down the slope of the island, chasin' an' escaped beetle with a hurricane lamp."
"Well," said Murty, after a reflective interval, "that jaunt with Quinlan took me a long way out from my old tracks. I got round to the Macintyre after leavin' him, and thereabouts I picked up with another tilted conveyance.
"Some blokes think the tilted cart is a comparative luxury on the road. I travelled with it to the Burnett, an' I can 't say as I was particularly struck on that kind of locomotion. Lend's a match. Never saw such tobacco as this for goin' out."
After lighting his pipe he resumed:
"It was this way. I'd left my horses at Jondoey, one dead lame an' the other dog poor, an' set out to walk to Nanango, where, I expected to hear of some of my old mates. I was wearin' new boots, an' before th' first day was out I was fair crippled with blistered heels an' toes. Hadn't enough in the bags to stop an' break th' things in; so I was hoppin' along with one foot tied up in an old felt hat, an' carryin' th' boot, when I came up with a bloke an' his missus in a tilted cart. The fellow's name was Sam, an' he called the other part of the firm Melita. What they were further called, I dunno.
"Sam took my swag on board in return for some tobacco. There, wasn't much in the cart, but quite enough for what was left of his horse to crawl along with. The woman walked behind with me, an' Sain led Stromboli—that was the horse. There was a happy time when the couple sat on cushioned seats—in the early days of their wallaby life. Every footman they came across wanted to sit there, too, or expected his swag to be carried. Stromboli's job was strenuous enough as it was, but Sam was too soft, Melita said; an' so with helpin' this one an' helpin' that one the proprietors at last had to get down an' walk themselves. They were tryin' to swop th' cart for a horse an' pack-saddle when I joined them.
"We made about ten mile a day while the road was good. That was mostly where there was no feed to speak of. When we'd unharnessed, Sam would get out a bran bag an' two butcher's knives, an' we'd fossick about the gullies an' scrubs an' prickly pear clumps for blades o' grass. Took us about two hours, as a rule, to get th' moke a feed. He was too tired for hard fossickin' himself. When we'd put him in the cart in th' mornin' he'd turn his head round till his cheek touched the shaft, an' look at the near-side wheel for two minutes; then he'd turn round the other way, an' cast his gaze on the offsider till you'd think he was petrified. Finally he'd give a big sigh; an' when Sam touched him up he'd go into the collar, put his head down an' snort, an' go back again. Used to prance an' blow his nose an' switch his tail till he got warm. 'Twa'n't no use hittin' him; he'd stop an' give a bit of a kick with one leg. Same time he'd blow a real sneezer. It took a lot of humorin' to get him goin'.
"One night it rained, an' I crawled underneath for shelter. Sam an' Melita used to camp in the cart, proppin' the back up with a stick. I must 'ave kicked the prop away in my sleep, for the fakus tipped up suddenly in a heavy shower. Luckily the wheels turned a bit, an' the tailboard just dropped clear of my feet; but Sam an' Melita an' their forty years' gatherin' were mixed up an' flung violently out into the wet. They growled a lot gettin' back; Sam sayin' it was Melita did it with her fidgetin', an' Melita sayin' it was th' vibration from Sam's snorin'. 'Tanyrate, I shifted.
"Next day the flat were sticky, an' we were most of the time spokin', me at one wheel an' Melita at the other. I pitied poor old Melita. She had big 'lasticside boots on, an' the 'lastic was worn out. Now an' again an extra-stiff bit o' clay would grip her by the heel; she'd give a heave, with her hands on the spokes, an' leave the boot behind. She put 'em in the cart at last. No mistake, she looked a trick; her hat an' hair skew-whiff, her skirts wet an' muddy, an' clingin' round her ankles. At every bit of a rise we had to unload an' carry th' things to the top, sometimes a mile or more, then help Stromboli up with the empty cart. I suggested taking him out an' draggin' up one at a time, as bein' much easier; but Sam reckoned the old fellow had a pull in him yet. Maybe he had, though it was pretty evident he'd lost all ambition to demonstrate it. I was workin' a mighty stiff passage, that was sure, but I didn't like to leave Sam in difficulties after he'd helped me over a crippled foot.
"The first serious trouble we had was crossin' a slippery gully. We'd carried the dunnage over, an' was zigzaggin' Stromboli up the bank when he slips an' slaws side on, an' before you could say get up, the whole pot an' bilin' turned a turtle into the gully. The tilt was flattened out, a shaft was broken, an' Stromboli was kickin' on his back an' smotherin' in two foot of water. Sam was fair paralysed, an' only for old Melita plungin' in, the team would 'ave been wiped out there an' then. She held Stromboli's head up while we undid the harness an' pulled the cart off him. When he got out he stood on the bank an' snorted at that gully like a locomotive. We had to take the wheels off to turn the trap over, an' then we were two days repairin' the damage.
"Just as we were all ready to make another start a traveller name o' Spargo came up. He was a persuasive sort of chap with a bit o' style about him, an' had as much to say as a political meetin'. He hadn't been in camp an hour before he pretty well owned the plant, Sam an' all. Sam was an easygoin', dull-witted kind of person, an' Spargo could talk him out of any mind he had in half a jiff. He ridiculed the turnout first glance, an' poked borak at us for bein' seen on a public road with such a scrapheap, disfigurin' good scenery at every turn of its wobblin' wheels.
"'It's nuthin' but bad management,' he sez, standin' up like a tragedian on a stage an' flingin' out both hands. 'Yer ought to be travellin' luxurious, man—all spic an' span, with full an' plenty, an' a fat 'orse. An' look at yer! What 'ave yer?' He walks round the property, jerkin' his head like a sick fowl. 'A battered old rattle-trap that I wouldn't pick up, an' a hide full of bones. An' yer starvin', too!'
"'Plenty o' single men starve on these tracks,' sez Sam, which remark struck me as bein' partic'ly hard on poor old Melita. She wasn't a bad sort in camp, an' she could spoke a bogged wheel fair to middlin' when the clay wasn't jerkin' the leathers off the lower end of her.
"Spargo fairly bristled. 'Ah!' he sez, convincin' like, 'if you was single there'd be some excuse. But you've gotta wife always with you! Why don't yer use her—as any commonsensible man would?'
"Sam lit his pipe with a firestick, an' thought on it for a bit. Then he says, 'How would you use her? Supposin' you was in my place now?'
"'Just listen to me.' Spargo hitched up the legs of his pants an' squatted down on his heels. We cleared our throats to listen. 'Soon's I sighted a station,' sez Spargo, 'I'd get under cover an' turn out. Then I'd take the wife with me an' go up to th' house, on foot, carryin' a dummy swag an' a billy for the occasion; an' the missus would be fixed up with a bundle, too, an' the waterbag. The sight of a woman under such conditions would be extra touchin', 'specially if she's young an' not bad lookin'. They'd just load us with rations; the storekeeper would part up little extras, the cook would shell out as if he loved us, an' maybe the squatter's wife would find some old clothes for us—if she happened to have any that she couldn't find any other use for. Then we'd drive on a few miles, an' camp for two or three days to keep th' horse in good buckle.'
"Sam didn't show how the scheme took him one way or the other. He couldn't speak for thinkin'.
"'Tell yer what I'll do—just to convince yer,' sez Spargo, more persuasive like. I'll doddle along with yer for a day or two, an' provide for all hands. That is, if you'll lend me the missus.'
"Sam shifted the pipe to the southern end of his mouth, an' turned slowly round to Melita. 'Are yer on?' he asks her. She says she didn't mind, an' that settled it. Fact was, poor old Melita was dog-tired of the way things were jiggin', an' Spargo's scheme seemed to offer some, relief. She rolled up a rug, an' copped out on the water-bag. Spargo took all he had come with.
"'We'll go on ahead an' tackle Boonda—that's about three miles,' he sez to Sam. 'You an' the other chap fetch the cart along, an' we'll have a spread ready when yer overtake us.' With that they set out for Boonda. We fetched the cart along all day, but we didn't overtake them. Looked to me as if they'd bolted, but I didn't like to disturb Sam by mentionin' it, as he seemed to 'ave found a lot to think about. We got goin' earlier than usual next mornin', an' when we'd lost sight of Boonda, Sam began to look like some one who'd mislaid his identity.
"'She ought to 'ave known better,' he says at last.
"'Better'n what?' I asks him.
"'Than to think Stromboli could do it.'
"He meant the distance. Struck mc Spargo had done it, but I didn't like to disturb Sam with too much conversation just then, an' so didn't mention it.
"We passed a pub an' store that evenin', an' Sam inquired if any travellers had passed that way within the last day or two. The publican said he'd seen nobody but a married couple, who called early that mornin'. Sam didn't ask any more questions—just said, 'Get up, Strom!' an' passed on. By-an'-bye he says to me, 'Dunno what's come over Melita.'
"'Must 'ave been Spargo,' I says.
"'She always acted straight,' said Sam, starin' at the track an' flickin' his whip.
"'Seems to me Spargo's put a bend on her,' I sez, thinkin' it better to break it gently to him. I could see the drift plain enough now; but Sam was as dense as a gum log, an' he had tremenjus faith in Melita. He was still watchin' for the smoke ahead.
"We camped at the first gate at sundown, an' while moochin' around after wood I comes across Melita's lastic-sides agin a tree. I sneaked 'em away into the bush, thinkin' they might hurt Sam's feelin's if he happened to see 'em. He didn't eat much for supper; there wasn't much to eat. But he was more talkative after.
"'That was a good new rug,' he says after starin' about twenty minutes at the fire. 'What rug?' I asks. Melita took,' says Sam. 'Where'd you get it?' I asks him, just to keep him interested. 'Jondoey,' says Sam, fishin' out a coal. 'That's where I got my boots,' I says. He looks at them for five minutes. 'How much?' 'Eight an' six.'
"Half an hour after he says: 'Poor old Melita wants a new pair.'
"That put the stopper on me, an' we didn't talk any more that night.
"Well, we kept on fetchin' that cart along—in fact, we fetched it along for a week; but we never came up with Spargo's spread. The tilted concern had become a nightmare with Sam by that time. He sold the lot for a fiver just before, we reached Nanango, an' swagged it up north. I stopped awhile on the diggin's there.
"And you never heard any more about the Elopers?" said Murty's mate in an assertive sort of way.
"Who's tellin' this yarn—you or I?" asked Murty. Along pause. "About two weeks after I lost sight o' Sam while makin' down to the Logan, I stumbled across the pair out Boonah way. Spargo an' Melita had a married couple's billet on a big cattle station."
Long silence and much smoke.
"He was a per-suasive chap was Spargo."
At Gater's pub, on the Logan, Murty picked up his mate, Jim Webb. Here, also, he found Bill Tarkalson and Lem Scully, who were working at Dulla, the adjacent squattage.
"I thought you'd made your pile by this, Bill," said Murty. "Tom Muddle told me you had a big contract on at Brody's."
Tarkalson's expression became pathetic. "It was a bungled up business, Murty," said he. "You might be able to help us rectify that affair," he added after a moment's pause.
"Rectify it?" Murty repeated, puzzled.
"Come and have a drink," Tarkalson invited, "and I'll tell you about it."
They sat down in a little parlor, and Murty took off his hat to listen better.
"We struck Brody's station one evening about sundown," said Tarkalson, resting his arms on his knees and gazing at the floor with a smile that had something grim in it. "There were three of us—Lem Scully, Mat Conyers, and I. We had a pound or two among us at the time, but our horses were fair knocked out, an' the grass-bearin' country ahead was none too good, so we were ready to tackle anything on offer at Brody's to give them a spell. Conyers was the only one of us who had two horses. He carried Scully's pack and his own. I was walk-in', but I had a pack-horse, which I took for wages owin' at the last place I worked. Let's try a fill o' that new tobacco of yours.
"Brody had th' name of being a straight goer, but he was a hard nail all the same. 'I think I can put you on to something that you will make good money at,' he says. 'This place is overrun with wallabies. I had to wire-net my horse-paddock to keep the brutes out. I've just sent a mob of blacks out to Lorry's Lagoon; but if you go anywhere north-west you'll be clear o' them. I'm payin' tuppence each for scalps, and buyin' all skins at market rates, less 20 per cent. for commission an' carriage. You can get what rations you want here, an' the amount will be deducted from your account.
"We cottoned on at once. Scully an' Conyers had a rifle each, an' I got one from Brody, cheap. It wasn't much of a concern, but I wasn't much of a shot, so it didn't matter. Scully was no dab either; but Matthew, accordin' to his own talk, was a crack shot. Could put a bullet in the bung-hole of a beer-cask every time it turned up rollin' down hill. He'd been buffalo shootin' in th' Territory—shootin' with one hand at full gallop. Just a matter of nerve, he said. We wanted to have a few practice shots at a tree next mornin', but Matthew wouldn't hear of it. There was no sense in wastin' good ammunition like that. He was surprised at me an' Scully.
"'T any rate, he had a proposition to make. He was mostly bristlin' with new-fangled ideas at times like that. We'd get a supply of opium from the Chinaman, he said; and then we'd go out to Lorry's Lagoon an' get the blacks to hunt for us. They'd do anything for opium in that part—especially when it was on the spot. We'd give them a little tucker an' tobacco—an' promise them a divvy when we got the cheques. I agreed it was an easy way of makin' a rise. 'One thing certain,' I said to Scully, 'they'd get as many in a day as we'd get in a week.'
"'Eggs-actly,' said Scully, in his slow, deliberate way. He was never very eloquent, but as good a man as ever I met was Scully. Though he shaved clean regularly, he always looked rough; you could hardly see his face for freckles. Conyers was a beauty in comparison, but he wasn't half the man Lem was.
"'What I don't like about the business is this,' I said to Mat; 'they'll be doin' all the hard work, an' we'll be gettin the profits.'
"'Eggs-actly,' said Scully.
"'I don't hold with that,' I said. 'I believe in doin' my share an' paying a fair thing for services rendered.'
"Matthew argued about comparative values in regard to whites and blacks, and in the end he had his way; and, armed with opium, tobacco and rations, we went out to Lorry's Lagoon. He spent our last few bob on a set of books, pens, ink, and other superfluous things that we could 'ave done without.
"'With so many employees, and doin' business on a gigantic scale,' he explained, hitchin' the ledgers up under his arm, 'there'll be a lot o' book-keepin' to do—receipts and disbursements, and that sort of thing. We ought to have scales for weighin', too, but we'll get them next time. I'll look after the books an' stores, measure out opium and tobacco, check the takings, and give receipts, and superintend operations generally. That will keep me pretty busy. You being the best cook, Bill,' he said to me, 'you'll attend to the colander department, and string scalps; an' Lem will peg out the skins. You'll find we won't have much time to scratch ourselves—if the hunters are any good at all.'
"'Eggs-actly,' said Scully; but I noticed there was a mystified, half-vacant sort of look showin' between the freckles.
"Conyers was a Barwon native, an' to hear him talk you would think he'd been over half the earth. I used to try at first to get him bushed about Australia; but my humble remarks would only remind him of something in Borneo or Brazil, or some such place that was a week o' Sundays off my track. Besides bein' able to ride outlaws and class wool, he could survey land and navigate a ship. He had plenty o' push, and an impressive way with him that always put him in front—so far as me and Scully were concerned.
"Well, Matthew talked the blacks over all right; there were about forty of them. He read out an agreement to 'em, and took down their names—which were mostly Sandy an' Jacky. They were all to be perpendicular by sunrise every mornin', and not to show back from work before night. I forget what the penalities were now; 'instant dismissal' applied to a lot of cases, I know. Anyhow, he made them pull down their gunyahs first of all, an' rebuild them in two long rows. He had original ideas, you'll understand. Then they helped him build an office and storehouse with bark, and a galley for the cook. He spent most of his time in the office, postin' an' balancin' accounts. There was no end o' disputes over those accounts, too. Sandy's notched stick seldom tallied with Matthew's ledger. But it was the billet his soul hungered for, though business got so pressin' after a time that he had to get an assistant.
"Her name was Avelina. She cleaned the office out, brushed his hat and greased his boots. Mat was particular about his appearance, let me tell you. Made a good impression on the servants, he said. Avelina also fetched the mails. Mat subscribed to the local paper, and he got a letter now 'n' again from a girl in Gunnedah. I got hold of one of her letters, which he dropped among the scalps. Seems he'd been tellin' her he was head manager of the 'Queensland Marsupial Company, Unlimited,' and had 140 men and 60 odd girls under him; an' she was askin' for some particulars.
"At night time Mat would stand in front of the office, with his thumbs hooked in the armholes of his vest, an' gaze down the street. It looked just like a street with the fires goin' in front o' the gunyahs. Then he would stroll down and view the effect from the other end. I think Matthew did really consider himself a big employer—if he didn't feel like a bloated capitalist. 'T any rate, after doin' the block, he would give us the latest wallaby quotations from the 'Billabong Banner,' an' reckon up our wealth. We were making 25 quid a week. After you with the match.
"Well, everything went swimmin' for about a month. Then we had to render our accounts an' square up accordin' to agreement. Scully and I wanted to get a conveyance from Brody, but Conyers said there was no necessity for that. It would mean the loss of a day, an' meantime the employees would be idle. 'Twas bad management to leave the employees idle. So what did we do but pack each blackfeller with a bundle o' skins an' scalps, an' send 'em off first thing in the morning to Brody. The gins followed with the campware, as we were goin' to shift to new ground next day. We could have got in simultaneous ourselves, but Conyers had a balance-sheet an' a capital account an' some profitan'-loss to make out yet, an' the day-book to rule off.
"'We must 'ave these matters in order when we go to the office,' he explained, 'so we'll be able to check the station account, and see that all's square. I don't say as Brody would do a man out of a scalp, mind you; but no man's infallible, and figures are things the best of 'em might easily blunder at—often do. Just as well to be sure.'
"'Eggs-actly,' said Scully, starin' at the ground.
"We got the horses and groomed them, and pottered about till dinner-time. Mat was still in the office, perched on a saplin' seat' an' bent over a bark desk, subtractin' from a pile of matches in front of him. There were scraps of paper and ink and splotches all over the ship; but the blamed accounts wa'nt balanced yet. We had dinner, and he went at them again. 'Twas four o'clock before we got a move on.
"'What's the sum total?' I asked him as we rode along, Mat with the ledgers under his arm, some papers stickin' out of his top pocket for effect, an' a pencil stuck behind his ear.
"He said proudly it was £126 7s. 10d. We were surprised.
"How much is that each?' I asked him.
"Mat opened the ledger and examined several pages. '£42 2s. 11¼,' he said. 'That's ten guineas a week we've been makin'. In a year's time we'll be worth £500 each.'
"We left our horses in the stockyard, and Matthew sailed into the office with the ledgers. Scully and I stopped at the door, there bein' no need for all to speak at once.
"'Well, what do you make of it, Mr. Brody?' asked Mat, his face one big smile.
"'Make of what?' asked Brody.
"'The skins and scalps.'
"Brody looked puzzled. 'What skins and scalps?'
"'Why, them we sent in with the blacks this mornin'.' The smile was wastin' an' lookin' sick.
"Brody leaned back with a mystified air. 'I've not heard anything about them,' he said.
"Mat's jaw dropped, and his eyes jumped as if he'd been hit on the back of the neck.
"'The only blacks that have come in were those I sent to Lorry's Lagoon,' said Brody. 'They brought their lot in, and I paid them. You'll find them in town.'
"On hearing that, Scully turned his head round slowly like a bogged cow does and looked at me with a half-stupefied expression.
"The scamps have taken us down, Lem,' I said in a whisper.
"'Eggs-actly,' said Lem, an' he looked sad.
"You paid 'em!' gasped Conyers, who seemed to 'ave got something in his throat that was hard to swallow. 'Well, that's a dash fine go! Those was our skins. We employed the blacks to hunt for us—"
"'I know nothing about that,' Brody chipped in coldly. 'I employed them to hunt for me, and I paid them accordin' to results. In any case, as the law is in Queensland nowadays, you can't employ aborigines without a special license.'
"'What are we to do, then?' asked Conyers.
"Brody opened an account book, and he said: 'There's eleven pounds against you and your mates for supplies. You can pay that.'
"That floored Conyers properly. Ile walked out with his head down, tryin' to hide the ledgers under his coat. Scully was squattin' against the wall now, chewin' a bit of grass, and starin' at the floor. I went up to Brody to arrange for the liquidation of the busted company.
"'It's evident we've been had,' I said. 'We're left without a bean, so I suppose you'll allow us time to settle that little account.'
"'Well, yes,' he said; 'I'll allow you three months—"
"'Thank you, Mr. Brody,' I said. 'It's unfortunate—'
"'In the meantime,' Mr. Brody went on, unheedin' my respectful thanks, 'I'll look after your gear for you, and your horses can be fattenin' in my paddock. I won't make any charge for that.'
"That knocked me over. I believe to this day, the old dog put those blacks up to it. He went with us to the yard. There was only Scully's hack an' my pack-horse there; Conyers and his livestock had disappeared. I took possession of my swag, an' Brody took possession of the rest. We squatted down and filled our pipes then. 'Twas an occasion when a draw was comfortin', though it wasn't much of a draw out of a hundred and twenty-six quid.
"'What are we goin' to do about it, Bill?' Scully asked.
"'Hang me if I know, Lem,' I said. 'Don't see as we've got a hope.'
"It wasn't any use hangin' round, any way, so we got goin' pretty soon on Matthew's tracks. We came on to him, camped, at sundown. He had the day book left, an' was tearin' out the leaves an' feedin' the fire with them.
"'Pity you didn't boil your billy with that rubbish at first,' I said. 'This is where your management of the great Marsupial Company has landed us.' An' I threw my swag down with emphasis.
"'Never mind, Bill,' he said, very quietly; we'll get even with old Brody one of these days.'
"'We want £ 3 13s 4d from you anyway,' I told him. 'That's your share of the bill you left us to foot.'
"'Eggs-actly," said Scully.
"'That'll be alright,' said Mat softly. 'I'll fix that up. For the present I'll carry your swags along on my horse.'
"He carried them along right enough—for seven weeks; then, bein' mostly ahead of us, poked into the one solitary vacancy that was out that way, and Scully and I were left to lump our own. But Matthew was magnanimous, after all. 'I've fixed that little account up for you,' he said, handin' me a sealed envelope as he was goin' away. When I opened it I found this—writ on a survivin' folio of the company's books:
William Tarkalson and Lem Scully, Esqs., Dr. to Matthew Conyers. "To carry their luggage on his horse for seven weeks, at 10s per week, 3 10 0 By contra account 3 13 4 ——— Balance herewith £0 3 4 ———-
"The balance herewith was his share of the bit of rations we had, an' three tucker-bags."
"I suppose you weren't off the beaten roads anywhere durin' those seven weeks?" Murty inquired.
"Very little," said Tarkalson.
"Ever see anything of a lake with an island in it?" asked Murty.
"Not that I recollect. What's it called?"
"'Taint been called anything in my hearin' that's of any use in locatin' it," said Murty. "That's why it's so tarnation hard to find. The bloke that gave me the map of it only drew the lake an' the island, an' its prominent vegetation. Which is all right once I get there, but no good to anybody otherwise. I'll make it worth your while, Bill, if you can get its address for me when you're knockin' round."
"What do you want it for?" Bill asked him.
"There's some documents buried there in a bottle that means a tremendous lot to me," Murty informed him.
"Well," said Tarkalson, meditatively, "if you help us to rectify the bungle we've got into, I'll help you."
"Right," said Murty. "If I can do anything for a mate, of course, I'm always ready—providin' I'm not required to point a loaded gun at myself."
The sun had set, and the stone curlews were making weird melody on the thickly-timbered ridges across the Logan, when Brody drove up to Gater's. He had left town in the morning half sprung; he had departed from Dulla station late that afternoon, three-quarters sprung; and when he resumed his homeward journey from Gater's pub that night he had to be assisted into his buggy. He was still a straight-laced, dignified gentleman; the only ludicrous thing about him in his lapses was his studied effort to appear sober. They all knew him along the road, and the women at every house watched interestedly from door and window as he rattled past. They judged his condition according to his pace. If he was driving steadily, he was sober; if he was driving hard, he was pretty full; and if he was driving furiously and singing, he was as drunk as a lord. Nor was this his limit. He got blind drunk at times, when he tore down gates, barked trees, and got bumped out over logs. These lapses occurred only when John Brody paid his periodical visits to town, where he sometimes sat on the Bench, and reproved the common herd for being drunk and disorderly, and fined them five bob—decorated with the option.
While he talked with Gater in the bar, Tarkalson, Scully, Murty Brown, and Jim, who was nicknamed Webster, were talking of him in the next room.
"He's mean enough, that man, to skin a flea for its hide," said Tarkalson. "If he ken get out of payin' his men's wages on a technicality, or any blamed shuffle at all, he'll do it—an' him worth thousands. He did me an' Scully in for our beans because we 'adn't a leg sound enough to stand on in court. He's studied law for that special, I think."
"In law parlance," said Jim, "the case was ex parte, and you had no locus standi."
"Briefly," said Jim, "the claim for skins and scalps delivered for you by blacks, who had previously been hunting for themselves. They represented the goods as their own, and received the emoluments. When you transpired subsequently, your claim was rejected with contumely and other natural products; and you had no redress against the dusky fraternity because you had no license to employ them."
"Eggs-ackly," said Scully.
"But I've found out since that he didn't pay th' blacks more'n a fiver altogether," said Tarkalson. "Nobody knows th' justice of our claim better 'an Brody, an' he'll admit in his own heart, when we bring him to book, that he deserved what he got. What's sauce for the goose is sauce for th' gander."
"Precisely," said Jim, "though the application of the sauce is not exactly similar."
"That isn't necessary," Tarkalson declared. "We can't afford to mince, matters an' be mealy-mouthed in dealin' with a man that's on th' crook. We've tried all fair means, an' it's been no go. So we must put th' screw on him. An' we'll know nothing after, just as he pretends to know nothing, you understand?"
"I comprehend," Jim responded.
"Th' principal thing is to work together, so as not to give him a pull on us."
"Succinctly," said Jim, "you want me and Mr. Brown to kidnap the gentleman, so that you and Mr. Scully can claim a ransom without incriminating yourselves?"
"Something like that," Tarkalson admitted. "If you do as I say, there'll be no hitch."
"I don't hold with them proceedin's," Murty objected. "They're unlawful."
"Yer needn't be afraid, Murty," Scully assured him. "He'll be too drunk to 'urt y'r."
"'Tain't that; it's what will 'appen if we're bowled cut," Murty explained. "Kidnappin' th' owner of Crowlong will make a mighty big stir in this country let me tell yer."
"Might do the country good," said Tarkalson. "It wants stirrin' up."
"A J.P., too!" Murty went on.
"The bigger the game the greater the thrill," Jim put in.
"Damn th' thrill!" snapped Murty. "I like a quiet life myself."
"Shugh!" said Scully, "I only wish I could go."
"I only wish you could," Marty returned. "'S a pity to do you out of a little enjoyment like that."
Scully winked at Tarkalson, and left the room. Jim rang the bell for Mrs. Gater. When she had brought in the drinks, she said, indicating the bar: "Doin' in a cheque with the flies."
"Must be wobbly now," said Tarkalson, carelessly. "Shouldn't wonder if something 'appens him gain' home."
"He's got a good quiet team," Mrs. Gater answered, "though that isn't much to depend on when whisky's driving."
"I s'pose he's middlin' helpless when he's drunk?" Murty enquired.
"Don't you believe it," Mrs. Gater replied airily. "He can get around now, an' he's got a good idea what he's doing, though he may be as full as a tick."
Murty chewed that over very seriously, and he didn't like the taste of it.
When she had left them, Scully returned, carrying several straps, a bag, and four pieces of sheepskin. He threw two of the latter to Jim, and himself tied the other two round Murty's feet.
"Keep on th' grass," Tarkalson enjoined, as they set out, "an' don't drag your feet."
A mile and a-half from Gater's there was a double gate, and two miles off the road from this spot, and across a scrubby hill, there was an empty hut in a small paddock. It was never visited by travellers, and had, therefore, been considered the safest and most efficient repository for the person of John Brody, Esq., J.P.
At this double gate, behind a bush, waited the kidnappers.
Brody drove up full tilt, and stopped with a jerk that staggered him in his seat. He talked to himself gutturally for awhile, then got down, and led his horses through. As he closed the gates again, and was fumbling with the catch, he was suddenly enveloped in the cavernous mouth of a three-bushel bag. His involuntary roar, and the bump he gave the gate in his first leap for liberty, startled the horses. As these had to be retained to ensure success, Jim ran after them, leaving Murty to hold the bag on.
Murty fought the battle of his life with that bag but Brody was a strong man, and he threw him off repeatedly, and seriously damaged the gate with him.
Murty closed with him again, and in the tussle that ensued he lost his moccasins, and got his feet badly trampled. Then the bag came off, and the big man's fists got full play. They played on Murty's jaw, they whizzed against his ear, banged into his neck, and rattled against his ribs. Murty, gasping and groaning, and bleeding at both ends, was sparring desperately for wind when Jim returned and tripped up the human cyclone. Murty would have liked to express his opinion on kidnapping at this stage, but he was under a pledge of silence until the job was completed.
Having secured their prize with straps, and drawn the bag over his head again, and Murty having recovered his hat and his moccasins, and drawn a bush several times over the scene of the fight, they lifted John Brody into the buggy and drove off to the hut. On the way, Murty, who had acquired a thirst, and a lot of dust in his throat, explored the vehicle, and, finding a bottle, applied a liberal portion of its contents to his wounded feelings.
By the time they reached the hut, Brody was asleep. Getting him out in that condition was awkward and laborious. Consequently they dropped him in the process. Brody woke, swore voluminously, and, after giving them ten years each for assault and battery, evinced a desire to go to sleep again. They sat him comfortably in a canvas chair, which he had brought from town, lashed him securely to it, and locked him in the hut. The horses were turned loose in the paddock, and the buggy run in among some bushes behind the hut. Then they started back across the bush to the pub.
As soon as they had got out of earshot of the prisoner, Murty exploded.
"By Gripes, Jim, you're th' two ends an' th' middle of a double-barrelled idiot! No mistake about it."
"What's your speciality in disturbances now?" asked Jim.
"Look at me!" Murty cried, pathetically. "I'm marked enough to be identified."
"That's not a delectable condition, I'll allow," said Jim. "But the minor protuberances and contusions and abrasions will disappear eventually, if not sooner."
"A nice mate you are!" Murty went on, in an injured tone. "To run away an' leave me alone with a darned velocipede like that. Dunno how I escaped alive."
"You didn't mobilise with sufficient celerity in the first place," said Jim. "And, as you were so dilatory in despatching yourself in pursuit of the horses, it was absolutely necessary for me to leave you in sole charge of the attacking force. Had you kept the gentleman's head in the bag—"
"Kept the devil in a bag!" Murty sneered. "Do you think I wanted it out to see what colour its hair was? If he ken recognise us when he sees us agin, it will be your fault. But I s'pose I'll have to suffer, as usual."
"Don't alarm yourself, Murty," said Jim. "We can prove an alibi. Just keep your mental pabulum, and remember we are playing cards at Gater's."
* * * * *
After breakfast on Sunday morning Jim and Tarkalson, carrying a gun each, went down the river looking for ducks. Murty wasn't feeling very well, so kept to his bed. Scully remained at the hotel to keep Gater company. The shooters had no eye for game until they came near the hut. At a small waterhole close by they shot three ducks, and the reports of their guns were immediately answered by faint coo-ees from the hut. Tarkalson coo-eed back, and continued to call at intervals as they approached, as though the voice was hard to locate.. When they pushed the door open, and saw the big man lashed to a canvas chair, their astonishment was a masterpiece in facial expression.
"Good Lor'! it's Mr. Brody," Tarkalson exclaimed. "A contortionist, I presume?" said Jim, surveying him from the doorway.
Brody heaved at the chair, and shuffled his feet. "Undo these straps, Tarkalson, for God's sake!"
"How did you get like that?" Tarkalson asked, interestedly.
"A couple, of d——d brigands waylaid me and brought me here. I was a bit fuddled, to tell you the truth, and have only a faint recollection of what really happened...I know I had a fight at the gate."
"An' have you been here all night?"
"Must feel rather uncomfortable by this time," Tarkalson remarked, sitting down on the doorstep. Jim sat down beside him, and commenced to fan himself leisurely with his hat. Anger, fear and suspicion were blended in Brody's eyes.
"Are you going to release me, Tarkalson?" he asked, sharply.
"By th' way, Mr. Brody," said Tarkalson, "I hear you've sold Crowlong, an' that you're leavin' these parts in a week or two."
"What's that to do with it—or with you?" Brody demanded.
"Why," said Tarkalson, "there's a little matter of fifty quid owin' to me an' Scully, an' it's just struck me that you mightn't get another chance like this to square, up with us."
"If you have any claim on me, Tarkalson, we can discuss that at the station."
"We discussed it there before," said Tarkalson. "It was your innings then; it's mine now."
"Look here, my man," said Brody, angrily, "let me warn you that you are, making things very ugly for yourself. It's extortion; and though you may be innocent of any complicity in this outrage on me, you render yourself liable as an accessory after the fact by leaving me like this."
"But we don't know you're here!" said Tarkalson, quietly.
Brody, who had been straining forward, dropped back limply in his bonds.
"What's more," Tarkalson continued, "you're likely to be uncomfortably stiff afore anybody else knows you're here, seein' as you've, got into the habit o' sometimes stoppin' away a week without notice. It's a bad habit, Mr. Brody."
Brody remained silent, staring at the ground.
"I suggest, Mr. Tarkalson," said Jim, getting up, "that we leave our mutual friend to his reflections till the day after to-morrow, by which time, I predict, he will be more amenable to reason."
"I think so," Tarkalson agreed, following him out. Brody woke up from his reverie as the door closed, and called him back.
"Come here, damn you!"
Tarkalson thrust his head in.
"There's a cheque book and a fountain pen in the inside pocket of my coat. Get them out. Then free my right hand."
"Now, you're comin' to your senses," said Tarkalson, complying with the requests. "Date it for yesterday, please, Mr. Brody. This is Sunday."
When he had thus purchased his release, they harnessed up the horses for him, helped him in with much courtesy, and he drove away without a word. Before leaving themselves they carefully swept out all tracks inside and outside the hut, even to the marks of the chair legs.
Brody drove straight to Dulla, the nearest station, and returned after dinner with Toby Carson, the manager, and two blackfellows. They spent several hours about the gate and the hut, and along the road; and when they could find no tracks in support of Brody's sensational story, Carson began to question him jocularly as to the number of glasses and the sort of grog he had had at Gater's on Saturday night.
Brody came back to Gater's in a sullen mood. Tarkalson and Co. were lolling on the verandah—except Murty Brown, whose eye was filling a hole in the window curtain.
"Tarkalson," he said, "I want you to describe to Mr. Carson how you found me this morning."
"How I found you?" Tarkalson repeated, surprised.
"Yes, yes! You know—in the hut."
"Why, the Three-mile hut!"
Brody was getting exasperated.
"You must be makin' some mistake, Mr. Brody," said Tarkalson. "I haven't been near the Three-mile hut."
"Damn it all!" Brody cried, "didn't you and that man beside you find me bound to a chair?"
"Me!" said Jim, elevating his brows.
"You, yes!" Brody answered nodding emphatically, and getting red in the face. "You had three ducks with you. Do you deny that?"
"Are you sure they had three?" asked Gater.
"Well, they only brought one home."
That staggered Brody. Tarkalson, in fact, had planted the other two birds to take to Dulla.
"He's got 'em badly this time," remarked Carson in an undertone to Scully.
"Did I not give you a cheque this morning?" Brody demanded.
"You gave me a cheque," said Tarkalson, "but not this morning."
"Last night in the bar. Don't you remember when Gater went out to see what was disturbin' his fowls?"
"I don't!" snapped Brody. "I gave you that cheque this morning."
"You couldn't 'ave done that," Gater interposed. "It's dated yesterday."
"He asked me to ante-date it because to-day was Sunday."
"And I cashed it for him last night!" concluded Gater, who was taking no chances of having a bad document left on his hands.
The roar of laughter that followed drowned Brody's remarks, and it rang in accompaniment to the furious rattle of his wheels as he drove away.
They were yarning that Sunday afternoon at the back of Gater's pub—all except Murty Brown, who was continuing the rest cure in a darkened room.
Murty had expressed a wish to lose himself outback for awhile, and to employ the time searching for the unplaceable speck; but Jim, who had been engaged on that quest before, threw a damper on the proposal.
"What its official title is I have never ascertained, but it was known to us as Koponey's Island," said Jim, who was nicknamed Webster.
"Never mind the title; let's 'ave the yarn," said Tarkalson.
"With the greatest animosity," Jim returned, taking his coat-tails in his arms and seating himself on a portion of the wood-heap. "We had been on a job-hunting expedition for about three months, when we came to a big depression in the landscape that had an upheaval in the middle of it like a camel's hump. The road snaked off in two directions to circumnavigate it, and I sat back in the breeching at the fork for a minute while Murty Brown brushed up his bump of locality.
"'By cripes, Jim, we've hit it!' he says. 'We've hit it!' he repeats, in capitals, and heaves his roof at the bifurcation.
"'Hit what?' says I.
"'See that atoll in the middle of the lake, with a fringe of lignum round it, an' one bushy tree for top-dressin'?' says Murty. 'That's Koponey's Island.'
"'I don't quite comprehend,' I says. 'The decorative item is certainly obtrusive, but the lake eludes me.'
"'You're the two ends of an ass, Jim,' he says. 'All this dumped-in vicinity is a lake when it's full. S'far's I know, this is th' first time it's been struck thirsty since Koponey navigated it in a bark canoe and went into recess on that atoll. An', seein' as how we're only shoein' the shoemaker at present, I think we might do worse'n go into recess there ourselves. It's quite on the cards that we'll discover something. I 'appen to know, at any rate, that Koponey took a valuable cargo across with him; an' I've reason to believe he left it there.'
"'Please to elucidate,' I says, as Murty charged down on the concavity. 'Who was this Admiral Koponey person, anyhow?'
"'He was a spry chap as lived by his wits, Jim. Haunted back town an' shanties, an' took down honest bushmen like you an' me at hazard an' other games, when they were shikkered, an' bought their live-stock an' jool'ry for nex' to nothing when they were cleaned-out an' 'ad an extra-special desire to fill 'em up again. Plenty o' jokers knockin' around like Koponey; they do a bit o' tommyhawkin' at shearin' time, an' lay up with gammy wrists about three days a week; but Koponey never tackled hard work at all. He worked the sheds with French photos., and lay by at the shanties like a spider waitin' for flies. His French specials were real pure. 'Twas them, an' some cronk bizness with a cheque that set the traps after his scalp. He got wind of it an' made tracks across a multitude o' territ'ry at short notice. One evenin' he camped at a muddy waterhole on Sandy Brannon's, an' while he's there a nice fat hogget gets bogged. 'Twas rotten luck, Koponey said; th' darned thing couldn't get mud-hobbled only just when he 'appened to be there. Of course, it suggested fresh chops for breakfast, an' bein' in a lonesome place, Koponey extracted it as an act of mercy, an' led it to the slaughter. 'Ad it skinned an' slung up, an' was just openin' it down nicely, when Sandy Brannon an' one o' the men rode slap on to him. It was a desp 'rate case, an' needed desp'rate measures. Koponey outs with a revolver in one hand an' a pound-note in the other. 'I was starvin' when I pulled that sheep out o' the bog an' killed it,' he says, 'but I know that won't save me. Take the quid an' leave me alone, an' I'll be off your run before sundown.' 'All right, me man,' says Brannon, an' rode off without takin' the quid. Then Koponey slipped his anchor an' made a dinnyaiser for his lake. He 'ad a pile o' money on him, besides a swag o' jewellry, an' he shipped it to that island in a bark canoe. Hid there for a couple o' months, then cleared out-back, leavin' everything behind him. He meant to come back in a year or two, dig up his plant, an' go into business somewhere in a new quarter. But he got smashed up in a mining accident—where he'd tackled work for th' first time, I b'lieve, in his born days. I 'appened to be workin' mates with him, an' when he knew he was booked for a brighter sphere, he ups an' tells me about his treasure. 'It's on a little island in th' middle of a lake,' he says. 'There's one bushy tree on it an' a fringe of lignum round it.' An' that there eminence, Jim, is accordin' to prescription, ain't it?'
"'Omitting the trifling matter of a wet circumference,' I says, 'I'll allow the similarity is conspicuous; but what are the precise bearings of the lake as mapped out by the lamented Koponey?'
"'Never mapped 'em,' says Murty. 'He collapsed right at th' lignum fringe. That's why I've been ten years, off an' on, explorin' Australia an' ploddin' round every darned lake I ever heered on. An' here I run slap on to the blessed situation when I'm not givin' it a thought. By cripes, Jim, you an' me's in for something special.'
"'I hope it will develop as you prognosticate,' I says, as we lands on the lake's protuberance. Its population was a wedge-tailed eagle. We ousted him, and took possession with due formula. As a quiet place for a Quaker's residence, Koponey's Island was sublime. There was water at one extremity, but the wood supply was painfully abbreviated. The eagle had most of it up the tree, and we commandeered that with promptness. While I rigged the tent and boiled the billy, Murty was chopping up the island with a tomahawk—which comprised our mining outfit. It was a sight for sore eyes to see the bottled up energy escaping from him. But the treasure eluded him that night, and it was ten days before he got a renewal of his mineral license. It rained—rained for 36 solid hours; and when we upended ourselves on the second morning, we found the blessed deluge had marooned us. The lake was full, and an obstreperous bullock had materialised on the premises.
"At first we rather congratulated ourselves on his approximateness, but when he introduced himself, in his robes of office, we weren't quite so exuberant in his company. It was a foregone conclusion that we would have to assimilate him sooner or later, you understand; besides, we wanted his outer casing for a coracle. We thought the brute would be amenable to reason, and allow us to negotiate in a peaceable manner; but he became so demonstrative at first sight of us that we removed to the eagle's quarters without waiting to get our hats. He arrove with much snort, and established himself tinder the balcony, swinging his fly-killer and taking observations. We christened him Pugnacity. He remained thereabout for two hours, then went off a little way to take in grass. He couldn't go far without embracing aquatics, as that blessed island was only 40yds. long, and deplorably attenuated in the waist. Our roost centralised it. Murty slipped down after his tomahawk, and he had just shinned back out of reach when Pugnacity returned to investigate.
"'By tripes, I'll make cold meat of him,' says Murty, and he heaves the hatchet at him with criminal intentions. It collided with his cranial armament, bounced off, and revoluted into Lake Monotony.
"It was a national disaster just then on Koponey Island. Our pocket-knives were blunt and wobbly in the blades, or we might have managed with a stick and a bootlace to guillotine the beast. He was the most cantankerous specimen of the bovine genus I ever rubbed acquaintance with. There was plenty of grass in our country for a day or two, and he had only to turn round to lubricate. That would satisfy any respectable quadruped; but Pugnacity had been badly brought up. He was bellicose by nature, and had selfish ideas; and that hurt us all the more now that we had nothing to kill him with. He would haunt our basement for hours, then go on circuit duty for a little while, and take refreshments, but as soon as he saw us connected with his grass-plot he would resume hostilities, and we'd have to streak for the elevator.
"We got our furniture aloft before dark. Sleeping on the same plane with Pugnacity was too precarious. Murty made a hammock with the tent, and I constructed another out of the blankets. We hung our ration-bags and paraphernalia about the limbs, till that blessed vegetable looked like a Christmas tree. Pugnacity deposited himself within call, in case we fell out, and consequently Murty retired with disturbances in his mind. He annexed the nightmare, among other catastrophes, and kept the community awake with his agony shrieks. My lamps lit on him in the grey dawn as he clutched a handful of hammock on each side of him, and prospected the universe for calamities.
"'Good morning, Murty,' I says; 'how are you sagaciating?'
"'By tripes,' says Murty, 'it was real awful. If I put in another night like the last I'll die of heart-disease. I wish that beast would emigrate. I'd face starvation willingly if I could only 'ave a bit of real estate to sleep on.'
"'It isn't a very salubrious situation. I'll allow,' I says, 'but it will be much more in juxtaposition if that fellow goes voyaging. He's the natural resources of this island, and we must develop him somehow.'
"'I hope he'll be developed soon,' said Murty.
"'We are unanimous on that identical point,' I says. 'If we concentrate our superior intelligence on that desirable end, we are bound to accomplish his bamboozlement in the course of time.'
"Pugnacity was browsing at the north pole just then, and we took the liberty to drop down and make a fire. He was enjoying a good breakfast evidently, but he left when he saw me appropriating a small decoction of the lake, and we found it necessary to hurry upstairs again. We boiled the billy, though in spite of him. Murty suspended that utensil over the fire with the tent-rope, and when it boiled he just hauled it up, and hung it intermediate so we could dip from our respective allotments. Pugnacity remained contiguous, with a resentful optic glued on the combustion, and we had an argument on his driving power, and discussed him generally from a gastronomic standpoint. There were times when we could crack jokes about the European situation, and feel quite hilarious; and then would come the relapses when the thought of being evicted by a cow's uncle would stir the bile in us, and cause an ebullition of bad language. He regarded the shade of our residence as his birthright, and when the sun got hot he favoured the neighbourhood with much conspicuousness.
"We held out for five days, hammocked most of the time, and taking exercise on the instalment system between whiles. That put finality on our menu card and the sixth day found us with a void that ached for the enemy. About noon Murty crawled out of his hammock, and, dressed in a week's beard and some sunburn, dropped quietly over the balcony.
"'What do you meditate?' I says.
"'I'm goin' to fish out my tommy,' says Murty. 'That disgruntled son of a cow's 'ad the loan of us long enough. Here goes!'
"Pugnacity was studying perspective seascape; but the first glimpse of Murty in his dismantled state electrified him. He seemed to regard him as a fresh indignity, and focussed him with opprobrium till he had penetrated some quantity of lake. We were confabulating with regard to the whereabouts of the lost property, and didn't observe his manoeuvres. When Murty turned, with the precious implement in custody, Pugnacity was making demonstrations on the bank. Murty jumped and ejaculated spontaneously.
"'My Gawd, Jim,' he says, 'he's got me!' For a moment he shifted and twisted as if he was trying to get behind himself.
"'Don't alarm yourself,' I says. 'Transmit that hatchet this way, and I'll attack him in the rear.' Murty transmitted it. Then Pugnacity heaved his bulk of contumacy at him, and Murty precipitated himself into the lignum bushes. I dropped down and acquired the hatchet, but had to elevate again with express speed. The tantalising beast wouldn't come to the sacrifice, and he wouldn't despatch himself far enough to restore confidence in Mr. Brown. He was more aggressive than usual. Our residence was the only comestible left on the island, and swimming after lignum didn't appear to be a habit of his, so we got the benefit of his spare time—especially Murty.
"'This is awful,' he says, when he'd been transfixed about two hours. 'Why don't that atrocity emigrate? Can't you do something for me, Jim?'
"'Unfortunately,' I says, 'I have no influence with the obstructionist. But we might contrive to circumvent him between us. How's your constitution?'
"'I'm gettin' th' cramps,' says Murty.
"'Well, that's not too voluptuous, I'll allow,' I says. 'But keep your head up, and I'll guarantee you'll be relieved in less than a week.'
"'I'll be defunct before then,' says Murty. 'Haven't you enough agility about you—a young man like you—to decoy him further?'
"'He decoys with too much velocity,' I says, 'when you consider the gradient of our staircase. But if you'll conduct yourself to the farthest extremity, and make yourself attractive there, I'll be able to initiate something.'
"Murty set off wading round the island with a disturbance in his dental department, and as soon as he had got Pugnacity interested at the north pole, I took the tent and rigged it on its gable end near the water—temporarily, you understand, so it would col—lapse and conglobulate on the slightest provocation. Then I constructed an effigy of Murty Brown, titivated him up in a red shirt and a flaming tie, and erected him in the immediate foreground. I drew Murty's hat well over his frontispiece, and introduced an eagle's feather to impart a military aspect. I had to abbreviate the finishing touches, for old Pugnacity was coming along to interview the proceedings. His indignation, when he saw Dummy, was even more emphatic than when Murty's nakedness was imposed on his sensibilities. He approached with deliberate step, his cranium in the atmosphere, his olfactory organs in full blast, and murder scintillating in both eyes. Dummy was a new sensation; he didn't vamoose like the other two-legged monstrosities on Koyoney's Island. He stood defiant, and Pugnacity seemed to recognise that his reputation was at stake. He craned forward to sample Dummy's effluvium, and one prodigious snort nearly upset his attitude. His tie fluttered, and the next instant he struck the background with violence in six places. The background fell over Pugnacity like a winding-sheet, his horns hooked it, and, with a frantic roar and a mighty upheaval, the conglomeration plunged into the lake. His departure and Murty's home-coming were contemporaneous.
"'How-wow-wow are yer?' says Murty. Poor chap was pretty nigh refrigerated.
"'Oh, salubrious,' I says. 'How are you appreciating?'
"'For Gawd's sake, go an' chop some steak off him while I thaw meself,' says Murty. 'My very bones are petrified.'
"The lamented Pugnacity had struggled into deep water, and towing him into the shallows, with his caudal appendage between my teeth, was a distressing process. But we landed him eventually. We flayed him with the hatchet, and we butchered him with the same instrument; and four days subsequently we embarked in his cuticle—which we scuttled on the main coast. It had the station brand on the port bow."
"And what about the treasure?"
"Well, as to that," said Jim, who was nick-named Webster, "I won't insinuate that Koponey was a fabricator; prospecting with a hatchet wouldn't have done the man justice. But the plain fact was the local features of the place didn't tally in all particulars with Koponey's map; and that satisfied Mr. Brown eventually that it was the wrong address. All we shipped from that island were the foundation poles of the eagle's residence and a sun-dried hunk of Pugnacity."
Shortly after the affair at Gater's, the chief actors shifted their quarters to Dulla homestead. Murty was eager to continue his search, but want of funds called a temporary halt. He also wanted an enthusiastic mate. Jim had gone cold.
"Searching for a crook's hoard doesn't altogether conform with my code. of honour," he informed Murty.
"Look here," said Murty. "I've only told you half the yarn yet. It's not the money or the jewellery that's planted on the island that I'm after. There'd be men all over the country lookin' for it if I told 'em the secret."
"Be a little more explicit, Mr. Brown," said Jim.
But Mr. Brown turned away. "If you've lost inteinterestthe quest," he said, tantalisingly, "it's no use sayin' any more about it. Anyhow, we've got to earn some money before we can go any further. I hear there's cattle goin' away from Dulla. That job would do me nicely."
Dulla was one of the oldest squattages on the Logan. Its patchwork buildings, and the collection of wrecked vehicles about the blacksmith's shop, were evidence of the fact. There were bullock waggons, horse drays, spring carts, buggies and waggonettes; some were mere frames of splintered wood and bent iron, and some had wheels without tires, or wheels that had lost a number of spokes and felloes. Toby Carson, the young manager, had brought them in from out-camps and elsewhere, and Lem Scully and Bill Tarkalson had taken the contract of making them into serviceable rolling stock.
Scully was the blacksmith. He stood at the anvil, artistically decked in a doughbanger's cap and a leather apron, flogging iron and making sparks fly.
Tarkalson, who modestly described himself as a rough carpenter, sat chopping out spokes with a tomahawk, and piling up chips. Lolling on the bench was Matthew Conyers, who had just arrived from the Richmond, looking for droving. He was interrupting the work by recounting how he had broken in 40 colts at Wyangarie at a pound a head.
"That's a good price, ain't it?" asked Tarkalson. "For ordinary horses it's a fair thing," said Conyers, "but it was little enough for that lot. Rip-snorters they were, every one of 'em. Buck a house down."
"Didn't buck you down, though?" remarked Scully, blowing the bellows.
Conyers smiled as though such a contingency was among the impossibles. "They had an outlaw there that'd thrown all th' crack riders on Wyangarie," he went on. "The' boss offered me a pound one mornin' to ride him. I snapped; an' he set me about the roughest go I've had since th' black mare bucked over th' precipice with me on Gordon Brook."
"Thought it was McPherson who rode that mare over the precipice?" questioned Scully, leaning on the pole of the bellows.
"It was me," Conyers informed him with decision.
"It said McPherson in th' paper," Scully persisted.
"I contradicted that report," said Conyers. "But they mislaid my letter till it was too late. McPherson was a subscriber. I wasn't."
Toby Carson came to the door with a bridle on his arm. A couple of stockmen were catching horses in the yard.
"Anybody ridin' Slinger to-day?" asked Tarkalson. "No," said Toby. "Want a seat?"
Tarkalson, with a jerk of the tomahawk over his shoulder, drew attention to the interested person on the bench.
"This chap's fit for an argyment with anything you ken produce—providin' you make it worth his while. Crack rider from Wyangarie."
"Well, if he can ride Slinger I'll give him the brute," said Toby.
"There you are, Mat," said Tarkalson. "Th' finest-lookin' 'orse on Dulla."
"'N animal with a bit o' spirit in him," added Scully with a grin.
Conyers slipped off the bench and limped across to the forge for a light. "I'd like to snap that," he said, limping back. "I'd like to—but I'm afraid my leg won't stand it."
"What's th' matter with your leg?" asked Tarkalson, surprised.
"Horse fell on it crossin' the range. My back's been troublin' me a bit, too," said Conyers, indicating the spot with his thumb.
"You seemed all right when you came in," Tarkalson remarked, aggressively.
"Felt all right, too," Conyers admitted. "Comes on me after I sit down awhile."
Tarkalson and Scully exchanged glances. "Give us a blow, Bill," said the latter, and the matter would have, dropped there but that Toby Carson scented fun.
"There'll be some, cattle going away from here next week, and I'll want another hand," he said. "Have a camp, and you can ride Slinger some afternoon before we start."
Conyers didn't look as pleased as the occasion seemed to call for, but he consented, remarking that he would be quite fit for the droving at any time, and hoped that gammy leg of his would not deprive him of the pleasure of a seat on the outlaw. He wanted a horse of Slinger's reputed calibre for a buck-jumping contest at the Sleepy Hollow show.
"I remember you entered for the Grafton show one time," said Scully. "Yer didn't go any further, though."
"Th' blamed horse got out into the bush th' day before," Conyers explained.
"Heard 'em say th' fence was cut where he got through, an' there was tracks of a lot o' gallopin' thereabout," said Scully, tapping the anvil busily.
"I heard about that too," said Conyers, twisting uneasily. "Believe that fellow as won the prize did it. I know he was a bit frightened o' me an' my nag."
Tarkalson was seized with a fit of coughing.
When Conyers had been a couple of days on Dulla an event happened that precipitated matters. A sheep had got out of the killing pen, and Toby Carson and a rouseabout were trying to catch it near the yard. Tarkalson and Scully went out to give a hand, the yard being close to the shop. Conyers followed. He was a good runner, was Conyers. That is, he could run away from the blacksmith and the carpenter. He flew around, darting this way and streaking that way; he dodged and danced and leaped in the air, knocking his heels together and throwing his arms about to show his agility. When the sheep had been caught, Carson sail:
"Leg seems pretty right now, Conyers. What about a ride this afternoon?"
Conyers' expression was that of a man who had been taken an unfair advantage of. He ran his hand down the afflicted limb and began to limp again. "I'm afraid that twistin' about didn't do my leg any good," he said. Then his thumb dived into his spine. "Back's th' worst. Caught me up pretty sharp once or twice."
Carson grinned and walked away.
"Look 'ere, Conyers," said Tarkalson when they had got back to the shop. "I bet th' boss two quid this mornin' that you cross Slinger an' sit him. Seems I'm goin' to lose."
"You wouldn't if I was right," said Conyers.
"Eggs-ackly," assented Scully. "But it looks 's if them ailments you've picked up are goin' to be chronic. Often taken that way?"
"If you don't mount him, I've got to forfeit," Tarkalson continued. "If he slings you I lose, but if you stick to him half th' wager's yours."
"You oughtn't 'ave bet that way, knowin' how crippled up I am," said Conyers.
"I thought I could depend on an old mate, who's not in th' habit o' sayin' he ken do things he carn't, an' who's got a wholesome contempt for a person who has no pluck in him."
Conyers left the shop offended, and strode off down the paddock. At dinner-time he came back—a new man. He joked about Slinger, and smiled all over his face.
"Your two quid's safe, William," he said, with a confidence that surprised Bill. "I'm goin' to ride the outlaw this afternoon. Pass the mustard."
They couldn't account for his high spirits and sudden change of manner.
"Must 'ave let him out," Tarkalson whispered as they left the table.
"Eggs-ackly," said Scully.
But Slinger wasn't let out. He appeared in the yard an hour later, and Conyers at once went over to fulfil his promise, carrying his saddle and bridle on one arm, and a long bolster on the other.
Slinger was a big black horse, with the sleek coat and carriage of a stallion. He looked powerful and active, and he was certainly a snorter. He snorted every time Conyers moved.
The others sat on the caps, recalling the men Slinger had maimed or killed in his time. Conyers looked pale. He saddled the murderer in the crush, with a lot of trouble. Then he secured the bolster by the middle to the crupper staple, hooked the reins under the stirrup leathers, and let Slinger loose in the yard. He bucked like a demon, bucked, grunted, and squealed; and at every prop the ends of the bolster swung out and slapped him across the flanks, which made him kick and buck all the more. Conyers kept him going round the yard for an hour, till he was too tired to buck any more—till he would hardly even kick at the bran bags and kerosene tins Conyers threw at his heels. He was in a lather of sweat when Conyers caught him and relieved him of the bolster.
"You're not going to get on him yet?" Toby inquired with sarcasm.
"I'd try him with th' fam'ly bed-tick an' a few pillows first," Tarkalson suggested.
"Do yer want a landin' net?" asked Scully.
Conyers didn't hear these opprobrious remarks. He led Slinger out of the yard, and started across the paddock, watching the snortful beast across his shoulder as he went.
"Means to have clear ground," Toby remarked as the three followed him. They followed him for half a mile. Conyers still led the horse.
"Showin' th' animal some scenery," said Scully.
When they had tramped about a mile Toby began to grumble, and to make caustic allusions to Matthew's appearance and horsemanship Tarkalson, having blown the trumpet for him, felt inclined to kick that person.
"Don't think th' skiter ken sit a kick-up," he confided savagely to Scully. "Where's he travellin' to, anyway?"
It was soon clear where Conyers was travelling to. A mile and a-half from the homestead was a boggy spring, and into this he led Slinger till the horse was bogged up to his knees, and he began to bog himself. Then he prepared to mount. He had a monkey-hold rigged on the off-side of the pommel, which he took a firm grip of before he left the ground. Slinger stood pretty quiet. He couldn't do anything else; he was too well hobbled with black mud. Still, when he felt the weight on him, he made a good effort to get rid of it, plunging desperately through mud and slush; but he grunted and stumbled more than he bucked. Conyers went twice over the pommel, once behind the saddle, and several times he lost his stirrup irons and stuck a foot down into the quagmire, to the jeering yells of Toby and company. But he wasn't slung; there was always some of him on the horse.
Below the bog was a big dam, where the stock watered. Conyers rode Slinger into it, and swam him round in it; he flanked him, caught him by the ears, stood up in the saddle, and took other liberties with that outlaw. He rode him back into the bog, back again into the water to wash him, and so on till sundown; while Carson and Scully chiacked him, and Tarkalson threw mud over him when his back was turned, and called him things unprintable.
Suddenly Conyers left the water on the dry side, and headed for the yard at a good jog, the horse going like an old stager. He was dead beat. With a yell, Tarkalson rushed after him, picking up sticks. Scully remonstrated.
"Let him go, you fool! If he gets to th' yard safe, you'll win th' wager."
"Win th' wager be darned!" cried Tarkalson. "I never made no wager, 'n' if that blamed yahoo don't fall off I'll 'ave to pay him a pound. A pound for that!" And Bill made renewed efforts to get near enough to throw a stick at Slinger's heels; but, just as there was a prospect of success, his foot caught in a creeper, and he lost some skin off his nose in the resultant fall.
When they reached the yard, Conyers had unsaddled, and was sitting on the gate-post, smoking a cigarette. He looked pleased.
"I'm goin' to make a pack-horse of him," he informed Tarkalson, with a nod towards the depreciated outlaw. "Wouldn't mind gettin' a few more at the same price." He jumped down, laughing. "You might let me have that quid to-night, Bill, if it's convenient."
Tarkalson, dabbing a bleeding nose with a handkerchief, swore under his breath, and went and sat down on the anvil.
Breakfast had been earlier than usual at Dulla, as Toby Carson, the manager, was driving his wife that morning to Beaudesert, where she would stay for the month or six weeks that he expected to be away with cattle. Work had not yet started in the blacksmith's shop. The two mechanics, over their pipes, were discussing a delicate problem with Mat Conyers and Jim, who was nicknamed Webster. The latter had come up from Gater's pub the previous evening. Murty Brown was in the hut sleeping off the effects of too much conviviality as the result of meeting old friends. Jim had just been engaged for the road. Murty hadn't been similarly fortunate, and the finances of the firm being at a desperately low ebb, the question of a profitable occupation for him was a serious one.
A housekeeper was wanted to take charge of the place, in conjunction with Selina Saddler, the pretty housemaid, during the absence of Mr. and Mrs. Carson. The subject had been debated with Mrs. Gater at the hotel, and it was settled to their mutual satisfaction, that Murty Brown should have the the situation.
"Murty likes a bit of fun," said Conyers, "and I don't see why he shouldn't provide it."
"Eggs-ackly," said Scully. "An' 'twill be a nice, rosy billet for him. He ought to jump at it."
"He's the best material here to make a woman out of, anyway," said Conyers. "He's got small hands that ain't been disfigured much with hard work, an' a squeak in his voice that'll pass for a woman's. He's pretty clean about the lip an' cheeks, too, an' when he shears that wisp round his throat an' powders a bit, he ought to pass. Toby won't see much of him, an' if Selina bowls him out, we can easily talk her over. Seems a good, simple sort, who wouldn't make any fuss."
"I'll speak to Toby 'fore he goes," said Tarkalson. "Lemme see. We'll call him Mrs. Winkles."
"Mind your pronouns, William," cautioned Jim.
"She's stoppin' at Gater's while her 'usband's away shearin'," Tarkalson continued, "an' she'd be glad of a job for a month or two. A rough, staggyfied-lookin' old piece she is (which should be consolin' to the missus), but a good grafter, an' thoroughly reliable. Mrs. Gater ken confidently recommend her. That'll satisfy Toby."
"See him at once, Bill," Conyers advised, "an Jim an' I will go an' talk Murty out of his sex. He's bound to be a bit obstropulous at first."
"You needn't anticipate any impediments in the arrangements, Mr. Conyers," Jim interrupted. "His impecuniosity will be an inducement from the jump. I know Brown. Let's interview him."
Tarkalson's part in the negotiations occupied only a few minutes, but nearly an hour elapsed before Conyers and Jim returned with Murty.
"Well?" said Tarkalson.
"Mrs. Winkles is agreeable," Jim announced. He nodded towards the vanishing vehicle. "What's the governor's proclamation?"
"Conyers is to take the waggonette an' bring her up at once."
"Good!" said Jim, "I'll go with him and superintend the transmogrification. Are you ready, Mary Ann?"
"Who the 'ell are you calling Mary Ann?" Murty demanded, firing up.
"He's a bit obfuscated yet," Jim explained apologetically to the company. "Get the locomotive, Conyers, and we'll obliterate him at once. And," he added, turning to the indignant Brown, "mind you moderate your vernacular when you're Mrs. Winkles, and conduct yourself with the utmost decorum before the immaculate Selina."
"'Twon't matter when I'm Mrs. Winkles how I conduct myself before S'lina," Murty returned. "I'll 'ave to be careful what I say before the men."
"Likewise be deaf and blind to their palaver and blandishments, Mary Ann," Jim advised.
Their laughter evoked no response from Murty, and he departed with mixed feelings. Arrived at Gater's, they lost no time in getting to work on the transformation. This wasn't all smooth sailing. To begin with, Murty couldn't see the sense of changing his trousers and socks for stockings, till Jim explained that Selina would be sure to notice them sometimes when he stooped, or stood on a chair, or fell over something. Such catastrophes happen to women at times, and it was a good policy to be properly dressed for the occasion. The corsets he threw out of the window as unworthy of argument. If his waist wasn 't the orthodox style, they might tight-lace him a bit in that quarter with a saddle-strap. Then Conyers approached him with two pink pin-cushions.
"What's them fakements for Murty demanded.
"Them's your bust," said Conyers. "You're a a bit flat-chested for a dame of your age."
Murty peered down at the excrescences with mutinous eyes. His hand stole behind him. "You're not puttin' an improver on me, are you?" he queried. "You want a lot of improvin' yet," Conyers informed him.
"I mean the swellin' behind what they call a bustle," Murty explained.
"Don't alarm yourself," said Jim; "the protuberance is obsolete. But we can accommodate you with a crinoline."
"Darn the crinoline," snapped Murty. "It's enough to put a bustle on a bloke's chest 'thout makin' a balloon of him. Where do I carry my sweat-rag?" he asked suddenly, as his blouse was drawn on.
"In your bosom," said Conyers. "You'll want some eau-de-cologne for it."
"In my bosom!" Murty repeated, and chuckled mirthlessly.
Conyers was busy with the skirt. It was a heavy black one, with several rows of pleats and tucks at the bottom, and of a waist limit that affected Murty's breathing apparatus when it was hooked. Then he was handed over to Mrs. Gater for the artistic touches, which she performed with a joviality that Murty at once resented and envied. He felt like a funeral himself. A prize-packet brooch was pinned at his throat, and his ears having been pierced in his youth, the good woman couldn't resist encumbering them with two pendulous ornaments; his face was beautified with rouge and powder and other mysteries, all of which, Murty ascertained, would wash off when required; a pink ribbon encircled his neck, and, topped with a gargantuan dish-cover hat, specially designed for tropical suns, the transition from Murty Brown to Mary Ann Winkles was complete.
"Now, let's see you do the block," said Jim.
Murty started with swinging arms and the thump of an elephant. "Abbreviate, your stride, or you'll burst through the fabrication," said the mentor. "Hold your appendage—so, and don't make a flutter as though you were an agitated tarpaulin. Now elevate your parasol. That's it. How do you particularise her, Mrs. Gater?"
"Oh, she's simply magnificent," Mrs. Gater replied, with tears in her eyes.
"Looks charming," said Conyers.
"Give her a small decoction of rum and cloves for her spasms, Mrs. Gater," Jim requested, "and then we'll elope with her."
Everybody at the hotel turned out to see her off, and they all said "Good-bye, Mrs. Winkles," and hoped she would like her place. Mrs. Winkles hoped so too. She breathed with difficulty, and perspired freely, and ultimately disappeared in a cloud of dust. Arrived at the homestead, Conyers escorted her to the front door, and, having introduced her to Selina, left her with much haste to join Tarkalson and Scully, who were outside the shop examining some old wheels they didn't want. Jim had a fit in the stable, after which he took the horses out, and also hurried round to the shop, blowing his nose and wiping his eyes. Selina showed Mrs. Winkles to her room, eyeing her with every indication of disapproval on the way.
"You look hot," she remarked. "Perhaps you'd like to rest till dinner time?"
"I would," Mrs. Winkles affirmed, with alacrity, "I'm sweatin' like a horse."
Selina sat down on the bed, while Mrs. Winkles got from under her hat.
"What short hair you have," remarked Selina, biting her lip to discourage the threatened development of a giggle.
"I suffer with headaches," Mrs. Winkles explained. "Th' doctor told me I'd never have any relief till I cropped it. Such lovely hair I used to have, too. Dick used to admire, it."
"Dick's your husband? What shed's he working at?"
"I can't think of the name of it now," Mrs. Winkles answered, pondering. "I've got a shockin' memory for names, you wouldn't think. It's out west, anyway."
"It would be nice for you if he got on here," Selina suggested. "So much better than travelling about."
"It would," Mrs. Winkles admitted, "but I wouldn't care to stop permanent. I s'pose there's plenty to do in this caboose?"
"The washing and ironing are the worst," Selina replied. "There's a pile of white dresses and shirts, cuffs and collars, and other starched things." Mrs. Winkles opened her eyes and mouth, and stared. "That and the scrubbing and general cleaning-up can all be done the first week," said Selina. "Then you'll have it pretty easy till the missus comes back. There'll only be the jam to make, and the mending and darning and sewing to do."
"Jam—mendin'—darnin'—sewin'?" Mrs Winkles repeated, diving distressfully into her bosom for her sweat rag.
"There's a big bundle of damaged hosiery," Selina proceeded. "And there's several pillow-slips to make and new sheets to hem. Of course, it won't take long to run them up on the machine."
"No—of course not."
"The baby's clothes will take the longest—"
"Ba-by's clothes!" Mrs. Winkles gasped, with a horror-stricken expression that was pathetic in its intensity.
Selina nodded. "She left a list of what she wanted, in the workroom."
"And the material—flannelette, linen, thread, tape, and so forth—it's all ready to hand—"
"But I didn't know she had it."
"The baby? Oh, it hasn't arrived yet. But missus thought it a good time, I suppose, to get things ready, as Mrs. Gater recommended you as specially experienced in that line."
"Mrs. Gater's th' two ends of a blamed ass!" said Mrs. Winkles, fiercely. "How would an old bushy like me know anything about babies now?"
"How long have you been married?" asked Selina. "Oh, years. Years an' years. I disremember how many. Charlie could tell, I dare say."
"My 'usband—Mr. Winkles,"
"I thought you said his name was Dick?"
Mrs. Winkles started. "You see," she said, and coughed behind her hand to hide her embarrassment, "his name's Richard Charles. So sometimes I call him Dick, an' sometimes Charlie. Th' name of him don't get monotonous that way."
"What a funny idea! Well, I must go and lay the table for the men; and, meanwhile, you can have a rest."
Left to herself, Mrs. Winkles, after an exhaustive search for her pocket, and a liberal use of bad language, extracted her pipe and proceeded to smoke herself into something like a settled state of mind. Unfortunately, Selina returned unexpectedly, and, unable to find that pocket again as speedily as circumstances demanded, she concealed the pipe in her lap. Selina sniffed and looked round suspiciously. In a moment, as though in answer to her unspoken query, Mrs. Winkles' lap began to belch smoke like a miniature volcano.
"Look out! your dress is afire!" in such a startling manner that Mrs. Winkles jumped to her feet without thinking, and the shameful pipe clattered loudly on the floor.
Selina looked horrified.
"Oh, Mrs. Winkles, do you smoke?"
Mrs. Winkles coughed desperately, and beat her chest.
"I'm afflicted with th' asthma, S'lina, an' the doctor says I must smoke asthmatic tobacco for it. You don't mind me, do you?"
"Oh, it's nothing to do with me," Selina answered coldly, and withdrew.
Mrs. Winkles addressed some ornamental remarks to the offending pipe and the unfindable packet, then sought relief to her shattered nerves in further indulgence. At the same time she formed her plans for the future. She would sweep and scrub, and dust, and potter about to kill time until the boss and the men were gone. After which she would tackle the washing; and that was as far forward as she had the heart to look just then.
In pursuance of this decision, on the third day of her career as working housekeeper, she was scrubbing out the office when she came accidentally on a bottle of brandy—kept for sickness. Mrs. Winkles wasn't feeling very well just at the moment, so she tried a dose of it. She was so favourably impressed with the mollifying result that she took three more doses in five minutes. She felt so happy then that she, sang a lullaby to the scrubbing brush, and even joked about the prospective infant. Her courage also revived, and all the difficulties of house-work began to vanish. She scrubbed industriously for a while, refreshed her flagging energies again, scrubbed spasmodically a little longer, took more stimulants—and finally fell over the bucket. Soon afterwards Selina found her lying on her back in a pool of muddy water, tobacco ashes and loose matches strewn about her, and all her pristine splendour gone. In disgust she went to the men, and those worthies carried her to her room, commenting that they had never thought she was a woman of that sort, took off her wet garments, and put her to bed—a proceeding that so shocked the modest Selina that she threatened to give notice first thing in the morning.
Mrs. Winkles slept off the effects of her debauch in the course of the afternoon, and at dusk, arrayed in a pink petticoat, slipped over to the hut, looking, as Scully said, like a walking nightmare.
"By cripes, this is a nice caper you've got me at," she grumbled, dropping on to a bunk. "I've disgraced my manhood."
"Excuse me, Mrs. Winkles," said Jim. "It wasn't stipulated in the agreement that you were to make an alcoholic receptacle of yourself."
"You've belied me an' Mrs. Cater, who recommended you," said Tarkalson, sorrowfully. "What'll Toby say when he hears of it?"
"My troubles about Toby!" Mrs. Winkles snapped. "I'm full of it. Look 'ere"—striking a melodramatic attitude—"there's sewin' an' mendin' and darnin' to no end, an' toggery to make for a blamed baby what ain't 'appened yet. It's got me fair flummoxed. I ain't equal to the situation. No!" she went on, tragically, "I ain't built that way. An' Selina suspicions something, too, or she thinks I ain't quite respectable. Stuck in the room talking to me last night when I wanted to get my nightgown on—which is th' only comfortable thing I've, got to wear. Had th' blouse half undone, holdin' it, when a darned beetle hooked me in the neck. I made a grab at th' beast, an' my blessed bust falls off. Had to own up then as I padded. S'lina seemed to be thinkin' a lot when she left me."
"Phew!" said Tarkalson, "you're too chickenhearted."
Mrs. Winkles shook her head deprecatingly. "We ain't doin' th' fair thin g by Selina," she declared. "She embarrasses me th' way she talks."
"Well, that won't make you blush, will it?" said Jim.
"I do, gunbust me if I don't. I warn't meant for a woman, Jim, an' 'taint fair to hoodwink S'lina—"
She stopped short, with a violent start, and the pipe dropped from her mouth. Toby Carson stood in the doorway, looking as cross as two sticks. He had not been expected home till the morrow.
"Are you Mrs. Winkles?" he asked in an awful voice.
"I—I am!" said the lady who smoked and wore a pink petticoat, avoiding his eye.
A moment of dreadful silence, everybody waiting breathlessly. Toby shoved his hat back, and pulled it forward again. Then he coughed.
"I wished to tell you that Mrs. Carson has changed her mind, and is coming back with a companion; so we'll be able to dispense with your services."
"Very well!" said Mrs. Winkles, squirming under his glance.
"I'll pay you a week's wages in the morning," he concluded, turning away.
"You'll have to draw it for me, Jim," said the housekeeper, disrobing. "Mrs. Winkles is dis-appearin'."
"I'll want a document from her to do that," said Jim.
Murty at once produced the document:
"Please pay my wages to Mr. Jim Webb, and
"Mary Ann Winkles."
Then he left for Gater's with Mary Ann's remains under his arm.
The cattle which Mat Conyers and Jim Webb had been waiting for left Dulla run for Ramornie a few days later, with Toby Carson in charge.
They picked up Murty Brown on the road. He emerged from the wilderness at the first night camp, and got the place of a Dulla stockman who had gone back sick.
Murty, though a restless, wandering bushwhacker, liked to work back to his old quarters now and again. His customary track, when not engaged in the great search, was from the Logan to Ramornie. Any part of it was home, but Sleepy Hollow and Big Ben were headquarters.
Apart from an occasional stampede at night, nothing occurred to disturb the serenity of his life on the road. Droving had become merely a pot-boiler with Murty, a necessary evil that handicapped him in pursuit of his main object. Its chief virtue was that it kept him moving. A job that kept him stationary was an infliction. If he couldn't be exploring new territory, he could meet travellers on the stock route who hailed from all parts, and who followed a thousand tracks in the back country, and the front country too. Murty's perennial smile beamed on them all. He was particularly affable to loquacious nomads who had apparently been everywhere. He always had tobacco and matches for swagmen: and if he met any near the night camp he invited them to tea. Then Murty yarned with them about the country, about all parts of the country, but especially about localities that were dotted with natural reservoirs. He had no time for people who didn't travel. Hunters, drovers, shearers, cattle buyers, prospectors, and workless wanderers were his choice spirits.
Near the Orara River he met an old man who was nearly blind with sandy blight. He had been shepherding far away on the Darling Downs, and was making for the coast to recuperate. He knew the place Murty was looking for—and he spoke with the air of a man who was not given to romancing. Murty swung out of his saddle and squatted on his heels to absorb the intelligence.
"I was lookin' for a couple of strayed horses when I hit the lake," said the old man. "I noticed smoke on the island, which I thought was a queer place for anybody to be camped. The water wasn't deep, or very wide, it bein' a dry season. At times, I understand, there's no water there at all. So I rode across, an' there I found a bloke I had seen once or twice before at shearin' time, a tall, flash sort of bloke named Koponey—"
"That's the joker!" cried Murty, his eyes dancing with excitement. "That's the very identical spot! I used to know Koponey, though he hadn't an extra special good character."
"No, he 'adn't," the old man agreed, "an' I tell you I didn't stop long in his company. There was a grave at one end of the island, not more than a week or two old by the look of it. Koponey said he'd buried his dog there. He did use to have a dog, an' he had none then. But he seemed uneasy when I questioned him about it, an' about him being there himself, like a marooned pirate. I didn't like the look of things, an' left. For the same reason I never mentioned it to anybody. If there was a murder I didn't want to be mixed up in it. As there was no witness, it would have been just as easy for Koponey to say he had found me in the suspicious circumstances. I wasn't lookin' for trouble, anyway."
"All Koponey murdered was a bogged sheep," said Murty. "He was hidin' on that island for fear the police would be after him for it. He wasn't the clean spud, but he wasn't fracturin' the peace on that speck."
"I'm glad to hear it," said the old man. "I've always worried about that, thinkin' I'd struck a tragedy on Island Lake."
"Is that the name of it?" asked Murty, quickly. "That's all I knew it by. To most people it was just a flooded plain."
"Well, if you can direct me to it," said Murty, "I'll fix you up for a holiday. Koponey left his will there, pertainin' to a valuable estate, an' I'm commissioned to recover it."
"I can do that easy enough," was the reply. "You want to set out from Jondoey or Jondaryan—"
"Gunbust me!" cried Murty. "That's where De Quinlan took me. If I'd stuck to him we might 'ave hit it. How far is it from Jondaryan?"
"I don't know the distance, but it's a darn long way. See here—"
Picking up a stick, he commenced to draw a map in the dust, showing the route and the places along the way, and while he scratched about on the road, Murty copied the tracings into his pocket book. When it was completed, he drew his wages from Toby Carson and handed the cheque to the old man.
"That leaves me stony, motherless broke again," he reminded himself.
But he could not go straight to the long-unfindable, so he could afford to wait awhile before setting out.
Soon after they had parted, with mutual good wishes, Murty ranged up alongside Jim Webb. But he rode along without speaking for some distance.
"Say, Jim," he said then, "do you think the skeleton of a man could be carried all right on a pack-horse?"
Jim flashed at him a sharp look of surprise.
"If you can be, carried on Packer," he replied, "the neddy wouldn't have any difficulty in transporting a mere skeleton. 'There would certainly be no complaints from the dear departed."
"It wouldn't break or damage his small bones?" Marty questioned.
"Providing you packed him carefully, and avoided violent contact with trees; and providing he was not afflicted in the flesh with osteomalacia—"
"What the devil's that?" cried Marty.
"It means brittle-boned," said Jim. "Eliminating those contingencies there would be no danger of breakages. But what are you cogitating about now, Mr. Brown."
"I was just thinkin' of a yarn the old bloke was tellin' me," cried Murty. "Poor old chap can scarcely see daylight from granulation of the eyelids."
Then he pulled his horse round to turn in a straggling bullock.
After delivering their mob at Ramornie, Murty Brown, Conyers and Jim, who was nicknamed Webster, pitched camp on a grassy flat just below South Grafton, to spell their horses before striking north again. Meanwhile they discussed improbable ways of getting rich quickly to finance what Jim called wild-cat ventures.
Conyers turned over many schemes in his mind, and one morning he came into camp simmering with excitement.
"I've just struck it!" he announced, dropping on to the bunk. "A dead certainty, an' 's easy as flippin' yer finger."
"What's her name?" asked Murty, who was sewing on buttons.
"It's business," said Conyers. "With a little smartness, we ken make £10 a day. Easy."
"Shugh!" said Murty, taking up his work again. "You're woolgatherin'."
"Ten Pound a day an' no risks!" Conyers repeated.
"Kindly elucidate, Mr. Conyers," said Jim. Conyers lit a cigarette.
"I met a chap in town this mornin' as wants horses," he began. "His name's Phineas Jones. Ruin' for Japan or India, or somewhere. Anyhow, money's no object to him, seein' as he's willin' to part up twenty quid a head for good, upstandin' hacks. I got into conversation with him, an' when he asked me if I had any to sell, I told him I was ex-pectin' a few down shortly from my estate."
"What d'yer call it?" asked Murty.
"Meanwhile," Conyers continued, ignoring the question, "I had three nags at the camp that I could sell him for £15 a head. He'll be out this afternoon to look at them."
"I don't quite comprehend," said Jim. "Where are the quadrupeds?"
"I've got one that I don't want," said Conyers.
"Quain, over here, has another, an' McFogg, the farmer across th' road there has th' third. We'll get them two first of all, an' if we succeed in sellin' 'em to Phineas Jones, then we'll lose no time in buyin' 'em off Quain an' McFogg."
"Horse-stealin'!" cried Murty. "By tripes, if you're goin' at that, Mat Conyers, the sooner you disconnect with this company the better."
"My dear fellow," said Conyers, loftily, "if you would only keep that simian face shut up, you might be mistaken at times for a man of odd'nary intellect. There's nothing crooked about this business. It's a straightforward, honest deal."
"You mean, then," said Murty, "you'll buy the 'orses off Quain an' McFogg, an' then sell 'em to Phineas in th' usual manner?"
"No, I don't. We'll sell them first an' buy them afterwards. That's where the beauty of it comes in. There's no risk of losin' an' you know what you're makin' when you're buyin'."
"If that's what you call an honest deal, then I'm a darned rogue," Murty declared.
"Well, your looks don't belie it, anyway," Conyers retorted. "'S a wonder to me how you escape arrest like you do."
"Don't haggle, Conyers," Jim interrupted. "Introduce a little more luminosity into your remarks."
"The idea is this," said Conyers; "I'll go an' 'ave a talk with Quain while you're roundin' up our neddies—fetch up what's runnin' with them too, as a mob makes a good impression; an' Murty will whip ever an' interview McFogg.
"Ho! Will he?" cried Murty mutinously.
"You'll put on your best clothes, Brown," Conyers resumed. "You can 'ave th' loan o' my chain to give you a well-to-do appearance—"
"That darned brass thing with no watch on it?" Murty protested.
"There's a hobble-ring on one of my straps; that'll keep th' chain from slippin' out of your pocket, an' nobody will know but 'tain't a watch. You'll go to him as a buyer. You 'card he had a chestnut 'orse to sell. When he trots him out, you look in his mouth as though you knew all about 'orses' teeth, feel his fetlocks, look round, an' try an' beat down the price. You ask what he's by; if he's staunch, and if he has any vices. You were took down with a vicious brute once, says you. Inquire if he's easy to ketch, an' if he bucks. Finally, you say you are pleased with the look of the beast, an' his references are satisfactory, but you'd like to try him. You want him specially as a town hack, an' would like to ride him down Prince-street. If he shapes Al, you'll be over with the money before sundown. That's all straight sailin', isn't it? Jim's a bit of a bush lawyer; ask him if there's anything illegal in that transaction."
"Providing you don't covenant with Mr. McFogg in any way that would be binding," pronounced Jim, "there would be no infringement of the law."
"Well, that's delightfully obscure, anyway," said Murty. "But, mind you, if any hitch do occur, you've got to be attorney for the company."
Mr. Brown having acquired the necessary well-to-do appearance, the three set out on their respective errands. In an hour they were back again, all with horses.
"Ah!" said Conyers, beaming. "All a man wants in this country is brains and a little push. What's the price, Murty?"
"Ten quid." Murty answered. "If 'twarn't for this hobble-ring watch I'm wearin' I might 'ave got him for less. Gunbust me if old McFogg's clock 'ain't stopped when I got there, an' seein' me sport-in' th' jew'l'ry, he reckoned 'twas a good time to set her jiggin' again. 'It's mighty unfortunit,' I sez, 'but mine's stopped too. Forgot to wind her up last night.' He looked at me 's if he expected me to haul it out. People mostly do show th' ticker. It got me fair flummoxed. Daren't stoop even to feel th' prad's fetlocks for fear th' darned thing would drop out o' my pocket; an' 'ad to be rude to th' youngster when it wanted to climb my knee. Next time I wear a chain, there'll be something on the end of it that ken put McFogg's clock right, I'll bet. Here you are, Matthew; put it away careful."
Phineas Jones turned up at the appointed time. He inspected the horses, bought them, paid for them, and took them away. Conyers was jubilant. He almost ran to the bank to cash the cheque and bustled himself out of breath getting back again.
"That's the way to do business," he said, producing a bundle of crisp notes. "We'll simply coin money at this game. There's thousands in it. Byan'-bye we'll be able to buy in mobs an' pay cash on the nail. We might corner horses, in fact, an' become millionaires. You laugh, but there's plenty o' things more impossible than that. Here's your tenner, Murty. Go an' pay McFogg, an' I'll skip over an' settle with Quoin. You might cook something extra appetising—while we're gone."
Murty found McFogg at the pigsty, chopping up pumpkins.
"Where's th' 'orse?" he asked.
"Hobbled him at the camp," said Murty. "He suits."
"Suits, does he?" McFogg repeated, slowly and moodily tossing pieces of pumpkin over to the porkers. "Wal, I don't think I'll sell. I've changed my mind."
"Changed—your—mind!" gasped Murty, turning pale.
McFogg put his broad back against the chock-andlog wall, and his arms on top of it.
"Anderson was over from th' next farm," he began, "an' he tells me I ken get a lot more for that 'orse from a buyer in town be th' name o' Jones. Anderson traded him one that ain't worth shucks agin mine for fourteen lovely sovereigns. He'll be along this way in th' mornin'."
"I wouldn't 'ave any truck with him if I was you," said Murty, swallowing the dryness in his throat. "I hear he ain't no account."
"Don't matter so long's his money's all right."
"That's just where it is." Murty chipped in. "I 'ave it on good authority that his cheques ain't to be relied on. He's some sort o' crook. Whether-orno, Mr. McFogg, you sold th' beast to me, an' I've come to pay th' tenner."
"He ain't sold yet an' he ain't goin' to be sold for that," McFogg answered.
"If I'd known you was that sort of man—" said Murty.
"What sort of man?" McFogg demanded, loudly.
"Why," said Murty, abashed, "I—I thought when you said you'd do a thing—why, of course you'd do it."
"I offered to sell at a price to-day," McFogg returned, "but since then the market's improved. You should 'ave closed at th' time. As it is, I want th' 'orse returned to-night."
"But—he—he can't be returned," Murty was in a blue funk, and breathed like a man who was suffering from enlargement of the liver.
"Why not?" McFogg demanded.
"He ain't as well as he used to be."
"What's th' matter with him?"
McFogg sprang away from the pigsty. "Dead!" he cried. "What did he die of?"
"It was this way," Murty explained. "We took him over Dobie-street punt an' back to see how he'd shape, an' jogs down Swan Creek Road. Comin' back, we goes for a bit of a spin, but we ain't gone far 'fore he turned a turtle an' dislocates his blamed neck. He warn't reliable, that 'orse. I'm sufferin' all over from th' buster yet. 'S a wonder I warn't killed. But I've come to pay for him—"
"You'll pay £25 then," McFogg declared.
Murty staggered, and for a moment he blinked at the big farmer in painful silence. "Why," he said, finally, "he warn't worth half that when he was alive."
"I value that hoss at £25," McFogg repeated doggedly.
"By cripes, that's a bit pure!" gasped Murty. "It's pre—posterous!"
"Are ye goin' to pay me?" McFogg asked. "If ye 're not, I promise you, me man, I'll make it warm for you afore I'm done with you."
Murty hadn't the least doubt that he could do that. "I'll go and see my mates," he said, edging away. "We were partners in th' animal."
He hurried off in a state of nervousness bordering on collapse. To the camp was only a few minutes' walk, but Murty's dull perceptions were unusually active during the interval. Conyers was sweetening the tea with a pannikin, and talking of silver teapots when he arrived. Murty's distress was so eloquent that Conyers' radiant smiles vanished at first sight of him.
"By cripes, we're in a nice mess now," he burst out, glaring wildly around him. "Where's that blamed Attorney-General?"
"What's up?" asked Conyers.
"McFogg won't sell!"
Conyers turned pale. "My Gawd!" he said, hoarsely. "What sort of a bungling blamed fool's deal did you make with him? Dynamite your idiotie eyes!" he yelled; "didn't you follow my instructions?"
"I did," Murty yelled back at him. "But you didn't instruct me that McFogg was an unprincipled swine-breeder, an' warn't to be relied on. He's a cow of a feller."
"What's interrupted the negotiations?" asked Jim, coming out of the tent.
Murty detailed the circumstances in figurative language, and gave several descriptions of an agriculturist who represented the two extremities of an ass.
"It's not a delectable situation, I'll allow," said Jim. "But don't get excited. Though Mr. McFogg can claim continuity of ownership, and though you violated the laws of your country in disposing of the quadruped before you had acquired him by the orthodox process, I adduce from the evidence that there were no criminal intentions, and with a little diplomacy—"
"An' plenty o' that sort o' periphrastic flap-doodle," Murty broke in, viciously.
"I presume we can circumvent the corybantic extortionist," Jim concluded. "Affix my saddle to the most adjacent hack, Mr. Brown, while I get ready to confabulate with him."
Murty executed the order with the hurry and fuss of a sycophantic groom. He wanted a free mind to go to bed with.
It was sundown when Jim left the camp on a black colt, and ere dusk had given place to night the two distressed stock dealers were surprised by a visit from Mr. McFogg. Murty asked him, in a low voice, to have a pint of tea; but the big man intimated that he had left his own tea waiting at home.
"I've been thinkin'," he said, hitching up the legs of his trousers and squatting on one heel.
"Eh?" said Murty, with feverish expectancy.
"I've been thinkin' over that affair," McFogg repeated, "an' seem' as litigation's expensive, an' means worry an' loss o' time, I've decided to take th' tenner."
Murty rushed him with it, also with paper, pen and ink for the receipt.
"You wouldn't 'ave done any better with Phineas Jones, anyway," Conyers remarked when the document was in safe custody.
"No-o," McFogg droned gloomily. "I was talkin' to Phineas Jones awhile ago. He's a man what's 'ad a lot of experience in dealin's, an' knows a heap about law. He pinted out, when I told him how we stood, that I was renderin' myself liable to prosecution for breach of contract, as a verbal agreement is bindin' in 'orse dealin', sheep-shearin' an' marriage. 'N' as for himself, he wouldn't 'ave anything to do with a hanimal that was liable to get tangled up in a lawsuit. Said my simplicity, an' other hifalutin' things I couldn't keep track of, filled him to the utmost capacity of his astonishment."
"Was he ridin' a black colt!" asked Murty.
"Ah!" said Murty, winking at Conyers. "That was him we saw goin' to your place."
Jim dropped in just then. Murty and Conyers shook hands with him as though they hadn't seen him for 12 months, and called him Mr. Jones. But next morning the real Phineas Jones called on his way to McFogg's farm, and he was riding the horse that was supposed to be dead.
As soon as he had left them, the three conspirators packed up hurriedly and lit out for Sleepy Hollow.
Murty, Jim and Conyers turned out at Lankey's Hut, where there was a good grass paddock for the horses. Between the Hut and Sleepy Hollow was Abner Boker's residence. The Bokers were people of some importance in the district. They had a rent roll in town for one thing, and it was said that they had retired from an hotel business with a substantial bank account. It was also common property that Mrs. Baker wore the breeches. She drew the money, and paid the bills, allowing Abner barely enough to keep him in tobacco.
Murty had seen Mrs. Boker on his way to the hut, and she had askeed him to come down after tea.
"Seeing as you'll be campin' a week, and time will be hangin' heavy on your hands," she said, as she directed him to a corner chair, "I thought you might be able to do a little job for me. Maybe, 'twill put something in your pocket."
Murty cocked his ears. At the same time he murmured that he would be only too glad to oblige her in any way.
"I remember you telling me you had been in the detective line one time, and I've heard from Mr. Webb that you're good at ferretin' out things."
Murty tried to recollect when he had told her that and concluded that he must have been drunk. However, he thought of the something that it might put into his pocket, and decided to stand by it.
"I like followin' up clues," he said, modestly.
"Of course," Mrs. Boker rejoined. "Everyone to his profession. Well, as you know, I've been devoting my energies almost wholly to rearin' turkeys. Fine, prime turkeys they are too—the best on the river, though I say it as shouldn't. But I've taken the prize four years runnin' with them at the show. You know that."
"Yes," said Murty, wishing to keep her to the point.
"I fatten 'em for the Christmas market principally," she went on. "I make a good lot out of them that way. But lately some infernal thief's been robbing my yard, and catch him I cannot. Every Sunday morning there is one bird missing."
"Every Sunday morning?" Murty repeated.
"As regular as the sun rises."
"No other mornin'?"
Murty took out a frayed note-book and a stub of pencil. This was evidently a case worthy of a detective.
"Do you count the flock every mornin'?"
"I do that, but it's only on Sunday there's one short."
"Count 'em goin' to roost?"
"Aye. I've got into the way now that I count 'em whenever I feed 'em."
"Don't make no mistakes?"
"Then that's one point clear. That's a clue," said Murty, making a note of it.
"The thief has turkey for dinner every Sunday."
"No doubt he does, the scamp."
"Knowin' that, we have two chances of coppin' him; either while he's shakin' th' bird, or while he's dinin' on it. He'd 'ave to account for it being in his possession. That's the law as laid down in the Act. Unfortunate, I ain't tasted turkey, or 'ad an opportunity o' smellin' one fresh cooked, for a long time. If I could refresh my instincts in that respect," he said longingly, "it would be worth while to stroll round on Sunday about dinner time."
"I want to tell you," she chipped in, "that Abner is at home every night except Saturday. He goes down to the hotel on Saturday night to smoke a pipe and chin a bit with his old cronies."
"No, I tell a lie. There was one Saturday he didn't go. It was damp, and he, had a cold, so I made him stop in. And that night the turkey didn't o either."
"Ah!" said Murty. "That's important. What was the date?"
"I don't know the date; but 'twas five weeks come to-morrow."
"I'll look it up," Murty promised, making hieroglyphics in his note-book.
"It's somebody as knows my husband and his movements," Mrs. Boker went on. "He slips up here while Abner's at the hotel."
"That's so. I saw that at once," Murty declared. "Now, tell me. What time does Abner leave here?"
"Eight o'clock, as a rule."
"What hotel does he most frequent?"
"Nowhere else? Think."
"No, nowhere, else."
"What time does he arrive there?"
"Oh, before half-past, I should say. It's only a mile."
"That's rather indefinite," said Murty, tapping the pencil on the paper. "We must be precise in these things. Shouldn't take a man half an hour to walk one mile."
"Perhaps, no but Abner don't hurry himself these times—'specially when he's cuttin' wood, or goin' a message."
"If he was expectin' a nip, though, 'twould accelerate him some?"
"It would. Indeed, it would."
"What time does he come home?"
Murty put all this down in his book. He was feeling a pride in his work by this time.
He expressed a desire to view the poultry shed, and when Mrs. Boker got the lantern, he examined it carefully inside and out, noted the material it was built with, the height of the roosts, and stepped the distance from it to the house. He was somewhat nonplussed to learn that the door was padlocked every night, and it was still padlocked in the morning. Further, she carried the key in her pocket, and she had sat on the verandah, watching the door, till Abner returned. Still the turkey disappeared.
"Nothing at all?"
"He ain't no ord'nary barnyard thief, that," Murty remarked at this juncture. He pondered over his notes for a while.
"Does he favour hens or gobblers?" he asked then. "Gobblers—the biggest and fattest, too, the brute."
"Ah! Good judge of poultry. That's another clue." He put it down.
"Any particular age?"
"No, they're all much of a muchness."
"Any special colour?"
"They're all one colour, man. As like as two peas."
"So they are. Lemme see. Ever hear any row?"
"I fancy I heard a flutter once or twice, but I couldn't be sure. You see, I'm a bit hard of hearin'."
"See any tracks in the mornin'?"
"Never a track, Murty—'cepting our own. That's what puzzles me more than anything."
"Don't puzzle me," said Murty, proudly.
"How, then, do you account for it?"
"Sheepskins tied round his boots, wool side out."
"Well, well! Look at that!" said Mrs. Boker, admiringly. "It It takes the trained detective mind to put two and two together, so it does."
Murty's self-importance rose immensely. He made more notes, studied them, and pondered. Then he started on a new tack.
"How does your husband come home, Mrs. Boker?"
"On foot," Mrs. Boker answered promptly.
"I mean in what condition. Sober?"
"Oh, yes! He has a glass or two. 'Tis the only time he has that I know of. He did come home a bit clewed one Saturday, but 'twas through meetin' unusual company."
"What does he drink?"
She could not understand the force of these questions, but she had faith in the great mind that was working in pursuit of clues.
"Has nothing through the week?"
"Well, now, I have fancied I smelt it on him, though I don't know where he could get it. I. may have been mistaken."
"Do you kiss him?"
"If you kissed him anyways regular," Murty explained, "you'd know at once if he had drink."
"Oh, aye," said Mrs. Boker, a little embarrassed. "Well—we're not always young, you know, Murty."
"Quite correct," Murty agreed. "'Tis a pity you left off though. I'd like to be sure on that point. Do you know who he drinks with?"
"Anybody that'll shout for him. Abner ain't particular. But mostly he hobnobs with Josh Taylor."
"Ah!" said Murty. "Just as I suspected."
"This Josh Taylor is a confederate. He shouts for Abner, an' keeps him talkin', while the other fellow comes up here an' collars th' turkey. Josh don't expect Abner to shout, of course; so Abner, with his own couple of bob, can have a drop to fetch home with him, if he has a mind to."
"Look at that! And that old liar swears to me he doesn't have a drop. T recollect now, one night here, he was quite maudlin...I do hate slyness, Murty. I do, indeed. Though, mind you, Abner's honest. I'll say that."
Murty smiled in a superior way.
"Now, what is this Josh Taylor?" he asked. "What's he do?"
"Anything he, can get. He 's workin' for Barden, the surveyor, just now."
"A pound a week and his tucker."
"Married or single?"
"How many children?"
"Ah, as I suspected. Another clue."
Mrs. Boker looked at him with interrogatory eyes.
"Small wages, big family to keep; that man must have cheap poultry to make ends meet."
Murty had now assumed quite a professional air. His notes were becoming voluminous, and every time he added to them he felt a deeper glow of pride. This was the work he was cut out for. He had found himself.
"Indeed," said Mrs. Boker, "I often wondered how that family made, a do of things. And such airs she puts on—with her feathers and frills, and the lord knows what. The idea!" She leaned forward and lowered her voice. "If you can bowl out mother Taylor I'll give you a fiver. That I will."
"To-morrow's Saturday," said Murty, reflecting. "I'll have something to report within 24 hours. You leave it to me."
He closed his book, and having slipped it into his pocket, felt to make sure it was there, and remarked that it was thirsty weather. Mrs. Boker agreed it was, but thought it would soon rain. Then she shook hands with him, and wished him luck.
Of course, he told Jim all about it as soon as he returned to the hut—and Jim laughed at him.
"Why, man alive," he exclaimed, "all you've got to do is to sit tight and watch the turkey's residence!"
"You think you're smart, don't you?" said Murty, irascibly. "How would I get the confederate, an' all th' particulars, that way? It's my firm opinion that Josh Taylor has turkey one Sunday, an' his confederate the next Sunday. 'Taint as simple as it looks. It's a system."
"Whatever its designation," said Jim, "I wouldn't help that old termagant if all Sleepy Hollow was feasting on her gobblers. She's got no end of money, and there's poor spineless Abner no better off than a pauper."
"She buys his clothes for him, and allows him half-a-crown a week for pocket money," added Conyers. "And the old nincompoop took her from the washtub!"
"She's got sense," Murty contended. "She's made up her mind she ain't goin' back to that tub. She might do a heap better by old Abner without hurtin' herself any considerable. But that ain't no concern o' mine. He married her, not me.."
Murty spent a lot of time poring over his notes next day, and the outcome of it was that Jim's suggestion soaked into him. He would begin that way, he said to himself, and thus get something definite to work upon.
So Saturday night found him crouching under a bush behind the poultry shed. He had not been there long when a man came briskly to the back, slipped a slab out, and disappeared inside.
Murty commended him subsequently for his adroitness, for there was hardly any noise, and in a little while he stepped out with something bulky in a bag, replaced the slab, and set off for town.
Murty followed with a solid lump of wood in his hand.
The man with the bag made straight for the back door of the hotel. Here the publican met him, lifted the turkey from the bag, and took it into the kitchen. Five minutes later he reappeared, and handed the bearer a square bottle. This he hid in the yard, and then ambled jauntily round to the bar for a pot and a yarn with Josh Taylor.
But Murty didn't follow him round. He merely ejaculated: "Cripes, if that don't knock me clean out!" then sat down on a case of empty bottles, and thought hard.
Finally, he decided that he had got an urgent message from Tom Muddle, telling him to "come at once," and he would therefore have, to abandon the case.
The man who carried the bag was Abner Boker.
Ebook editor's note:
In 1938, Edward Sorenson wrote a short article in The Queenslander, 14 December 1938, page 2, under the heading, "So They Say" a column of short items. It seems that Sorenson had used this incident to create the short story appearing is this ebook. The article reads:
Some timber-getters on the Richmond (River) built a temporary hut on the bank of the river, where they rafted their logs. Its foundation consisted of three big pine logs, laid a few feet apart, and decked with pine slabs; the walls built thereon and the roof were also of pine. It was a cosy high and dry hut—until a big flood came down one night, when there was only a caretaker on the premises. the startled inmate was awakened by a heavy bump, splashing of water below deck, and scraping of bushes on the roof. Looking out, he found his address had shifted into a patch of dense scrub, having navigated a wide hollow where a backwash had kept it out of the current.
The place was still quite dry inside, though swarming with small refugees from the jungle. These, coupled with an anxious watch on the eddying water, kept him busy during the rest of the night. In the morning, with the aid of a boat, long ropes, and a bullock team, the hut was returned, intact, to its original site.
Murty and Jim left Lankeys Hut for Big Bend early in the morning; but only Murty reached there, and that was nearly a week afterwards.
"We got weather-bound at Brand's Hut," he explained, when at last he was comfortably ensconced at Muddle's.
"Th' hut that was built on three pine logs?" Muddle queried.
"The very identical," said Murty. "You see, 'twas all scrub round there then, and there was no end o' snakes an' other critters pokin' round that there was no demand for. So when it come to buildin' a hut for th' pine-getters to camp in, they decided to build it on high blocks so's th' dogs could get under it. Three logs were drawn up to cut into blocks. They 'appened to be left right on the site, a few feet apart, an' all nice an' level, an' it suggested to one cove, who didn't like sawin' blocks, that it would be a good plan to build the hut on th' logs as they were. As they only wanted a temporary residence, they fell in with this idea. 'T rather pleased 'em, in fact, as bein' something out of the ord'nary style of architecture; besides which the foundation would always be sellable, which it wouldn't be cut up. I mind the chaps around used to talk about that hut, an' travellers who'd heard tell of it would go out of their way to see it.
"Th' logs were adzed level on top, an' th' sleepers spiked across 'em. All the timber used was split pine, even th' floor, an' th' door, an' the shutters. So 'twas strong an' light, an' well ventilated. There was a loft in it, with a shutter in each gable end, as the dimensions of th' ground floor was a bit limited, an' there was a good many lodgers to be accommodated at times.
"When we got there the pine 'ad all been cut in th' vicinity, an' the men 'ad shifted back into the hills. But the log hut, bein' built at the main skid-way, was left standin', as it was handy for 'em when raftin' the logs. 'Twas handy for us, too, as it was pourin' rain, water layin' everywhere, an' the river runnin' a banker. We boiled the billy on a sheet of tin, then got up aloft in ease the water rose in th' night. The hut was stripped of everything, savin' three or four bag bunks, stuffed with corn husks, a couple of whipstacks, some greenhide, an' an old straw hat that wasn't worth pickin' up.
"We opened one of the shutters; an' we felt very comfortable, sittin' there in dry clothes; listening to the rain hummin' on the shingle roof, an' th' frogs croakin' round us, an' watchin' the logs an' rubbish spinnin' down the river. Near dark we sees Capt'n Carrab skimmin' along on a monster raft, an' too blamed busy to look round if a dog bit him. He just loved the river when she was that way—no creeping with tides, and waiting for the turn, but one straight run down at the rate of knots. Over 500 logs he had that trip, and I tell you it was no play handling that round sharp curves on a swift current. Now'n again he'd knock a branch off, an' carry away bits o' the shore decorations, an' he'd no sooner be clear of a point on one side than he'd be tearing into a point on the other side. She's a fine twisty-twiny river is th' Richmond; she'd go a long way if she was straightened out.
"'Tanyrate," Murty went on, "'twas no sooner dark than we were asleep, bein' tired out with plod-din' over boggy country. We didn't seem to 'ave been sleepin' long, when I starts up in a double-dyed blue funk, an' can't make out where I am, or what's happenin' nohow. Looked like I was out at sea, on board ship, an' she was tossin' an' pitchin' an' rollin' so I could scarce hold myself in bed, an' th' waves were swishin' against her, an' chuckin' spray on to me through th' porthole. I was mighty scairt.
"'Jim,' I sez, bracin' myself on my hands an' knees.
"'Hulloa!' sez Jim, very quiet.
"'Are you awake?' I asks.
"'I'm under that impression,' he sez. He'd been sittin' up some time adjudicatin' on th' situation, as he told me after. 'What do you surmise?' he asks.
"'By cripes, Jim,' I sez, 'we've been, shanghaied We're on the bounding main.'
"'Bounding puddleholes!' sez Jim, laughin' sarcastic. 'Our ship is the log hut, from Brand's skid-way.'
"'Then she's slipped her blamed anchor,' I sez, 'an' we're signed for an excursion in her.'
"'Correct!' sez Jim, quite cool. 'But don't alarm yourself. She's a bit tumblesome, an' evidently erratic in her steering, but she's quite seaworthy. If she keeps the middle of the channel she's as good a risk as there is afloat.'
"'But will she keep it?' I questioned. 'Th' current has a habit o' whizzin' short round bends, an' cuttin' across points.'
"'That's our only danger,' sez Jim, 'With nobody at the helm, we're likely to hit a tree an' go smash to pieces at any minute—"
"'I'm goin' up on to th' hurricane deck,' I tells him, feelin' for the leather fast'nin' on th' shutter.
"'Better not,' sez Jim. It's a wild night outside.'
"'Oh, I don't mind it bein' a bit boisterous,' I sez. 'When I go on an excursion I like to be on top, where I can see all th' scenery.'
"'Well, mind you don't get smashed against a tree gettin' out,' sez Jim.
"'By cripes, that's logic,' I sez, an' I crawfished double-quick, an' left the fo'c'sle porthole open. 'We'll vamoose by th' stern companion-way.'
"Jim talked mightily unconcerned all the time, but he wasn't behind me crossin' the 'tween decks. He was in front. 'If you will leave a dry cabin to sit out in th' wet,' he sez, 'I suppose I must go an' look after you.'
"It was fair gruellin' on the hurricane deck, which was the ridge of the roof. It was easy to climb up an' get astraddle of it, but with her bumpin' an' dippin' an' rollin', an' now 'n' again givin' a shake, an' then doin' a bit of a waltz, an' th' cappin' wet an' cold an' slippery, it wasn't so easy to keep there. We crouched low, peerin' ahead for trees an' branches, but it was like lookin' into a tar barrel. Never saw such a black night. We had no fear about th' craft itself; the three logs kept her balanced, an' wouldn't let her turn over one way or the other; but 'twas a narrow fairway, a swift current, an' trees an' snags all along on both sides. We expected to hit something full tilt every minute, an' it was odds on if we did the whole fabrication would collapse in one ace. We could locate a good many trees by th' noise th' waters made gettin' round 'em. Jim, who was ridin' th' bowsprit in front o' me, would holler: 'Sit back, breakers ahead!' An' as we whisked past, he'd say: 'Pretty close that time!' Kept th' thrills shootin' up to my hair all the way.
"Once we hit a snag, which was rotten, as luck 'appened; but it spun her round twice, an' must a started some of her plates, for she groaned a lot after. Th' shock knocked me skew-whiff, an' I 'ad to cling on like an all-fired wild eat till she got goin' in one direction again. Then she dragged an' bumped over th' top of a willow tree, goin' in little jumps an' jerks that made it hard ridin'. Jim sez 'twould rub th' carbuncles of her hull, an' make her travel better. Dunno; she was a trifle careened when she got clear. Maybe, the ballast shifted.
"By 'n' bye we saw a light on the port bow, an' a little farther on a glimmer to starboard, then another to port. We knew by them, an' the twistings we'd done between, like cuttin' out th' letter S, that we'd passed Bill Brooks, Rann's Bight, an' Dougherty's Point. Th' next was Woram, an' as Dick Daghorn 'ad a punt, which would be close up to his verandah now, we reckoned he'd come after us an' land us somewhere about Big Bend, an' we'd be snuggled in the old barn in half an hour. He was out with his flashlight like th' rest takin' observations. River residents don't sleep much when their river's a banker. They put a stake in at the edge o' th' water, an' every hour or so they trot down to see how much she's riz, an' put in another stake, maybe, an' haul th' punt in a bit more.
"We let out a yell soon's we saw Dick's light bobbin' round. The rain was holdin' off a bit then, but there was a strong head wind. 'Who's that?' he shouts. 'Murty Brown an' Jim Webb. We're adrift!' I yells back. 'All's safe here!' roars Dick. 'An' I don't think it's reached Muddles yet. Goin' far?' 'We're driftin' on Brand's Hut!' Jim bawled out to him. 'Stop an' 'ave a cup o' coffee,' sez Dick, an' 'fore we could thank him for th' invitation, we were past th' clearin'.
"'Shiver my woodheap!' growls Jim (Jim was always usin' nootical expressions on board th' log-hut), 'old Daghorn thinks we're a rescue party flyin' round to see if his feet's wet...How are you propitiating, Mr. Brown?'
"'I was thinkin' I couldn't get any more miserable than I was,' I tells him, 'but since that blamed ass mentioned hot coffee I find I was mistaken.'
"From Woram, for three or four miles, there was thick scrub on each side, some of it buried out of sight. Roundin' th' first turn, th' current swept in to starboard, an' we hears the tree-tops brushin' and knockin' agin our bottom. I took a firmer grip o' th' jib boom. Next minute she crashed into the top, of a cherry tree, an' I hears th' tearin' an' smashin' o' limbs, an' a big splash. I wondered Jim didn't make some nootical remark. She shook an' staggered for a bit, then swung out into the open. The swing set her spinnin'. Round an' round she went, rollin' an' creakin', an' pretty soon I was as sick as two dogs. Couldn't hear a sound from Jim. When she got into her stride again, we were scurryin' down river stern first. That was worse'n before, but I daren't try to turn round. ''Twill soon be all over now, Jim.' I groans out. No answer. 'D' yer notice th' cant she's got on her?' I sez, louder. Dead silence. I feels in front o' me; edges along till I could feel th' figure-head. Jim was gone!
"No mistake, I felt sorry for myself then. 'Poor old Jim!' I sez to myself. 'Must 'ave got knocked off th' bridge in th' collision. An' now he's gone to Davie Jones' lock-up.' Then I thought he might a popped down into the cabin for refreshments. So I leans over an' sends a coo-ee through the porthole.
"'Ship ahoy!' comes ringin' back from ahead o' nie. I darn near fell off th' poop with surprise. Lookin' over my shoulder—gingerly—I could see a light travellin' across th' river. 'Hullos!' I sez. 'Port your helm! Port your helm!' 'Twas Capt'n Car-rab shoutin'. 'Port your own helm,' I sez. 'I ain't got any.' 'Stand off!' he shouts. 'You spiflicated, long-nosed pirate; where th' tarnation cats are yer goin'?' ''Fore I could explain that I wasn't responsible for where I was goin', th' log-hut was rip-smash into his middleships.
"Seemed Capt'n ad' been tryin' to get into slack water hereabouts to tie up for th' night, havin' left his wife here goin' up; but his forepart got tangled in the scrub, an' his stern swung across an' got stuck in the scrub on the other side, an' there it hung, with a big sag in th' centre. What good I'd a-done portin' my helm, when he was all over th' channel, I dunno.
"'Tanyrate, I made clear way for th' next excursion ship. Th' shock o' th' collision left nothing but the hulk of the log-hut afloat. The uprights were all tenanted into the sleepers, an' being brittle pine, they snapped off like carrots, an' the whole fabrication toppled over on to its beam ends on th' raft. I got off lucky considerin'; but when I collected my self, I was whirlin' down river again, an' the light was half a mile away. Th' cable 'ad parted in the middle, an' I was on one half o' th' raft, carryin' the wrecked hut an' a tent, an' Capt'n was on the other half, with only his oilskins an' a lantern. He was usin' some bad language when I heard him last.
"I crawled into th' tent, an' feelin' round I finds another lantern an' some matches. Then I got hold of a black bottle which gave me a better opinion o' th' weather an' things in gen'ral. There was plenty o' tucker, clothes, an' a good bunk to turn into; an' there was tobacco an' a big pipe, with a stem half a yard long, an' a nice easy canvas deck-chair to smoke in. Gunbust me, I'd struck it plum sumptuous. I has another swig out o' th' bottle—to ward off rheumatics—then I changes my wet things for a master mariner's uniform, with gold braid on the sleeves, an' gold buttons, an' a monogram on the cap. I was Capt'n Brown. Dined in state, then lay back in th' deck-chair, an' pulled more comfort out o' that long pipe. I was happy—only for one thing; couldn't help thinkin' o' Jim, poor old Jim! If he could only see me in that uniform!
"I meant to go to bed an' trust to Providence; I couldn't do any good watchin'; but in the mornin' I found I was still in th' chair, an' feelin' none too good. Has a reviver, an' steps out to get the latitude. The sun's up a mile, an' th' water's at a standstill—just on the turn to back up. I was that dashed glad I could a yelled. Then I looked behind, an the inclination to jubilate died. Just above me was th' Capt'n in his boat, tryin' to tow his half o' th' raft down to my half. I dived into th' tent again, an' 'ad the Capt'n's uniform back in his sea-chest in two jiffs; thought he'd want to dress for dinner soon's he arrived. He left off towin' drekly after, an' comes aboard. I tried to look surprised. Pretty soon he made the look genuine.
"'Split my thunderin' tops'le!' he sez in a sort of gasp, stoppin' an' gazin' at me. 'You dunder'eaded, blunderin' son of a land-lubber,' he sez, or something like that. 'It was you cut me down last night! What d'yer mean by scurrying down stream without lights, you buccaneerin' clod-squasher?'
"He stood up like an admiral, his chest out, his face red with the intensity of his feelin's, an' his eyes glarin' like tramlights. I reckoned a lot of it was bluff. So I hauls up, an' fires back at him with his own ammunition.
"'Splinter my scuppers!' I sez. 'You goggle-eyed lobster; what do you mean by blockin' the thoroughfare with your darned lumber? Why warn't you on your own side, you crusticated old barnacle?'
"He pretty near choked at that. 'What!' he roared; 'do you presume to teach me th' law o' th' river? You, that knows as much about navigatiin' as a stump-cacklin' jackass! If you don't lay over all the brazen noodles I ever sailed into, by the holy bunyip!"
"'Take a reef in your weather-gaff, Captain, I sez (whatever that means, I dunno). 'There's goin' to be a marine inquiry into this, an' you're up agin a heap o' trouble.'
"I put on a sorrowful air. 'Captain,' I sez, 'you didn't see a dead man floating about as you come down, did you?'
"'Why—no!' he sez, starin'.
"'Suppose he won't float for awhile yet,' I sez, meditative like.
"'Who?' sez the Captain.
"'Jim Webb,' I sez. 'Poor old Jim.'
"'What's happened him?'
"'Lost overboard in th' collision an' drowned.'
"That knocked him. He went into the tent, an' picked up th' bottle. Th' weight of it seemed to surprise him; he shook it an' held it up to the light, an' looked 's if he was suddenly struck with a great sorrow for poor Jim.
"T busied myself gettin' th' breakfast, an' kept him quiet deseribin' the excursion. He said there was no doubt he was to blame for the mortality.
"When we'd 'ad a feed, we goes down to salvage what we could from the wreck. Poor Jim 'ad left a new pair o' blankets behind him, so I give mine to the Capt'n. He'd left some good clothes, too, which I promised I'd wear in memory of him. Chucked some of my old togs an' my boots, an' some odds an' ends overboard, an' makes what was left into a big swag.
"'You can put me ashore, now, Captain,' I sez.
"'What's your hurry?' sez Captain. 'Stop where you are, an' we'll rig up a berth for you."
"'Can't stop now, Captain,' I sez. 'It's my duty to find poor Jim, an' give him decent burial. It's th' least I can do for him.'
"He put me ashore, an' I tramped back to Woram. It was about seven or eight miles by road; but I follered the river round, which made it near 30, an' mud an' water all the way' thinkin' the corpse might be floatin', or come ashore somewhere. I called at th' farmhouses, an' told my troubles to a lot of sympathetic people, an' inquired if they'd seen anything o' Jim's remains. They were all keepin' a look-out for him after I left. Some of 'em couldn't drink river water thinkin' of him, an' one fam'ly chucked away a lot o' fine fish thinkin' they might a-been spilin' Jim's features. Several people, mostly women an' nippers, 'ad seen him floatin' past. They'd thought he was a log at first, but now they were sure it was the corpse. Others took me out o' my way to investigate something they'd seen floatin' among a heap o' rubbish. Mostly turned out to be a deceased calf, or a defunct pig, or some extinct poultry... No mistake. I was fit to drop when I got to Woram."
"And did you find Jim?" asked Octavius, as Murty paused.
"I did...I found him sittin' on the verandah yarnin' with Daghorn."
The corn-pulling season made Murty a welcome acquisition in Big Bend for the time being. Murty wasn't in love, with corn-pulling, but circumstances had lately made the surroundings more congenial than they had been, and simultaneously the northern track had become a trifle lonesome. Lem Scully had married and settled in the Bend. Bill Tarkalson had also established himself nearby, and Mat Conyers was stock-riding on Wyangaree. So Murty applied himself with passable contentment to the study of corn cobs.
"While, I'm undressin' cobs, among other domesticated pursuits," he told Sarah, "the horses will be puttin' on condition."
It was a frosty, moonlit night. In Muddle's barn a lantern and a couple of slush-lamps threw a glare on a row of figures seated on pine blocks before a huge pile of unhusked corn, with a straddle, of yellow cobs on either side, and a growing heap of white husks behind them.
It was the husking party, the central figure of which was Tom Muddle. Beside him sat Murty Brown; and distributed among the visitors were his son and daughter, Octavius and Sarah Muddle.
The men yarned and smoked and worked; the women gossiped and worked; while the stripped cobs rained into the straddles. Now and again a cob would slip from someone's hand and hit someone else's head, which had the effect of invigorating the whole party: and sometimes they had a race, a hundred or a thousand up, for the Championship of Big Bend, which was good business for Tom Muddle.
"What about that great quest of yours. Murty?" asked Sarah, with a touch of sarcasm.
"It's just a matter of one, more trip now," said Murty.
"When will that be?" Her eyes were laughing, for 'Murty's Island' had become a joke with Sarah.
"As soon as I've accumulated enough to finance the expedition," he informed her. "But I'm stuck for a mate just now. James has deserted me for a girl in Sleepy Hollow. In fact, the whole bloomin' confraternity's tarred with the feminine brush."
"What about Conyers?" asked Sarah.
"Conyers is all right," answered Murty. "Only he's got a wonderful genius for gettin' me into trouble. But as everybody else is goin' into double harness, I suppose in the long run it will be Mat and I for the island."
When the husking party had got well settled down to work and reminiscences, the dogs on a sudden sprang out of their warm beds in the husks, and barked with enthusiasm, whilst someone approaching from the darkness growled back at them to "lay down."
Tom Muddle waded out through the husks to investigate, and Murty, not being used to husking, followed to stretch his legs.
At the corner of the barn they found a tired-looking parson approaching sideways, with his eyes on the dogs. His horse had knocked up, and he had left it at the slip-rails down the flat. He wished to get up to Barmon's that night—if Mr. Muddle would oblige him with the loan of a horse till to-morrow.
"Certainly, certainly," said Muddle. "Lend's a hand to ketch old Captain, Murty. As hick has it, I've got him in th' little paddock 'ere, but he's a blamed old rogue to ketch."
When the rogue had been caught and mounted, the parson said: "If this young man will come with me to the bottom slip-rails, he can fetch your saddle back on my horse. He'll lead up without trouble after his rest."
Murty said "Right-o!" and started off down the track before Muddle could offer any objections. Murty didn't like husking corn.
That was the last they saw of Murty that night.
The slip-rails were a mile from the house. Arrived there, the parson dismounted, and, producing a long-barrelled pistol from his pocket, levelled it at the head of his astonished attendant.
Murty's hands shot up smartly, and his hair, by the feel of his scalp, seemed to be following suit. "Have you any weapons?"
"Have you any cord to tie yourself up with?"
Murty dropped them with pleasure.
"What's your name?"
"How old are you?"
Murty raised them again rebelliously.
"Can you ride?"
"Mount that horse."
Murty noticed that the weapon pointed at him was old and rusty, and the stock appeared damaged; but he never doubted that it was capable of doing him violent injury, and lost no time in getting into the saddle. Then the parson bound his hands behind him with a strap, and, taking the reins off, tied his feet to the stirrups with them. Next, standing on a stump, he gagged him tightly with two folded handkerchiefs, and finally, giving Captain a whack with his hat, sent him off with a jump that nearly dislocated Murty's neck. Then he mounted the knocked-up horse, and galloped furiously away into the bush.
"By cripes, this is a queer go if you like!" muttered Murty, kicking at Captain's sides in the hope of working him round to the house. But Captain steered for the round swamp in the middle of the paddock, stopping at intervals to take in grass. "What did he do it for?" he kept asking himself, without deriving any satisfaction from the query. "Where's there any commonsense or reason in a caper like this? Lord love a duck, what did I ever do to him that he should make it his special bizness to come 'ere an' tie me to this animal? Nothing!" with emphasis. "Never saw the lunatic in my life before!"
It was the greatest conundrum Murty had ever encountered in his wandering career. There was no motive, no apparent object; the thing was inexplicable.
"I've had to do with some cranky pranks in my time," he mumbled, "but this one's away top of the whole bunch."
He tried some more contortions on Captain with the object of changing his course. Captain treated them all with indifference.
"If I owned such a cow of a horse as this," Murty said, vengefully, "I'd buy a pig an' feed it with th' beast. No mistake, he's a pearl! Get up! Gee back—whe-ey!"
Getting wild, he kicked him into a jog. Then Murty bumped up and down till his teeth rattled, without getting any nearer home. Fortunately Captain was a quiet horse. He didn't seem to mind being sat on continuously, providing he was let graze about. He grazed about for hours, while Murty watched the 'possums and squirrels, listened to the mopokes and curlews, and studied astronomy.
At intervals he sat back and mumbled the following remarks to the shadows:—
"What's your name, you cow?"
"How old are you, darn you?"
He saw the fire blaze up at the barn, and knew they were burning the husks; then he saw lights at the house, and knew they were having coffee and doughnuts; and later he heard the visitors talking and laughing as they made their way home across the flat. He kicked Captain again on the off-chance of intercepting somebody. Captain walked into the round swamp, and the more Murty tried to kick him out of it, the deeper he went into it, till Murty's feet were under water, and his toes were partially frozen. He cursed him inwardly for a stubborn beast, while Captain fed greedily on water-grass and rushes. He bit desperately at the gag, worked his jaws, and twisted his face into all manner of contortions. If he could get his mouth free he would soon let them know where be was and what was keeping him. But free he could not get it.
"It's no use," he concluded, "I'm part an' parcel of this gormandisin' quadruped, an' jus' got to graze about till mornin'."
By-and-bye Captain got tired of the swamp, and, going out on to a rise, picked up several mates. They trotted round him and snorted, and one came up and smelt him. Captain wheeled round and lashed out so suddenly that Murty very nearly toppled over.
He was a fair horseman, but he, wasn't used to riding in that fashion, and when the mob galloped away, and Captain kicked up his heels and galloped after them, it tried him to the utmost to maintain his equilibrium. They went round the swamp twice before, Captain pulled up; and when he turned into a clump of trees and showed a disposition to camp, Murty encouraged him to do so. He was very tired and stiff, and after trying an hour to keep his eyes open, he fell asleep.
When he woke, the sun was up. Looking towards the house, he saw Octavius and a stranger riding away. He was still in the clump of trees. Leaning towards a friendly limb, he succeeded in forcing the gag from his mouth. Then he kicked Captain into the open, and coo-eed lustily. Sarah and her father had been standing on the verandah, watching along the track, and wondering what had become of Brown.
A few minutes later they were down the paddock, making frantic efforts to catch Captain, Tom Muddle holding out his hat with a few clods in it, and saying, "Kerp, kerp, kerp!" while Murty sat back and said, "Whey-e-eyah!" with great emphasis. But Captain had seen the hat trick before, and dodged away. Sarah, being more nimble-footed than her father, ran after him, flying to right and left, till she had him going towards the yard.
"Who tied you up, Murty?" she yelled after him. Murty, between jerks, related the circumstances in as few words as the English language would permit. "That was poor old Brushook from down the river," she shouted.
"Samuel Brushook," Sarah repeated. "He's broke out again."
"It's a pity he, didn't break his blamed neck!" snapped Murty.
"He gets queer fits at times, an' plays high jinks. One time he imagines he's a bushranger, an' then he thinks he's a parson—an' other things. He was a squatter one time, owned a station somewhere on Cooyer Creek, but lost it all. He's always been a bit weak like since, but there's no harm in him."
Murty grinned at the irony of it. He found himself wondering, as she dodged him into the yard, what might have happened to him if there had been harm in Brushook.
"His uncle was here this morning," Sarah rattled on as she unbound him. "He's been all night chasin' around. Seems Mr. Brushook went off yesterday with an old pistol he'd found. 'Twasn't loaded—"
"'Twarn't loaded!" Murty exclaimed, with disgust and mortification in his voice.
"No," Sarah answered. "It had no hammer or trigger; but he stuck up a parson with it on the road. Took his horse and made him change clothes. Luckily, the uncle found the parson, or there might have been trouble. They're always afraid the police will be interferin' an' takin' him away. The people all know him down there, an' have great fun with him."
"Do they?" said Murty. "'Tis to be, hoped they won't let him escape any more. They're welcome to all the fun they can have with him."
He separated himself from the cantankerous Captain with a groan, and limped painfully into the house. Tom Muddle came panting in, and condoled with him, and hoped he would excuse Brushook's little joke. The poor chap didn't mean any harm.
Murty looked at his swollen wrists—and said nothing,
When the corn pulling was finished at Muddle's. Murty Brown drifted casually into Bill Tarkalson's service, assisting him first in fencing his bit of farm land, then burning off logs and stumps in preparation for ploughing. Being used to droving and station life, Murty found this kind of work anything but congenial. But he held on, partly on account of a chronic state of bankruptcy, but principally because his usual mate, Jim Webb, could not be induced to locate himself beyond two or three hours' ride of the township. He had tried to cure Jim of the courting habit, but when he found that his old comrade had acquired in addition an intense interest in "lands for selection," and spent what spare nights he had studying maps, he gave him up as a hopeless case. Murty was about as sentimental as an axe handle.
Then Bill married Sarah Muddle, and went away on the river boat for the honeymoon, and by way of filling the vacancy Sarah had left, Octo Muddle married Priscilla Carab.' "The Girl on the Raft."
When Murty emerged from the excitement of the double event, he discovered that he had a new mate. He had a hazy idea that Bill had put him on to assist in the heavy work of levelling logs, and grubbing and splitting, but he wouldn't condescend to ask. Murty had a little pride about him. To admit his ignorance of the engagement would be to lower his status on the plantation, if it didn't lead the new-comer to regard himself as head man. He did seek enlightenment from the Muddles, and from Don Garry his next neighbor; but the excitement had obscured their memories also. In the end, Murty took things for granted, and lost no time in securing the reins of government.
The mate's name was Humphrey Hodge. He was a big man of slommicky build, an immigrant, whose movements lent an impression that he had been reared in a land of lots of time. But he was enthusiastic in pointing out to Murty what he would do if he owned the selection. Expense was immaterial to him. It also appeared immaterial to him whether the job in hand lasted a day or a month. It was hot work burning off in the middle of the day, and he made an effort to alter the hours.
"We're not goin' about this in a proper, systematic way, Murty," he said, in a confidential sort of manner. "We should work early in the mornin', an' a bit at night, an' camp through the day, 'stead o' sweatin' our eyes out. Fires seem to burn better at night, too. Have you noticed?"
Murty had noticed that Humphrey took a lot of calling in the morning, while he never let the sun sink on him in the paddock, and he checked the threatened innovation in the bud.
"'Taint a safe job to be doin' at night, 'count o' snakes," he said. "Killed three black ones to-day."
Murty was cook. He left off half an hour before Humphrey at mid-day to boil the billy. Then he coo-eed. Murty could never see when he went back what Humphrey had been doing in the interval, but he said nothing. For a week they got along amicably together, Humphrey proving himself a sociable sort in the evening, after he had tucked away a good feed, and helped himself liberally from Tarkalson's tobacco store, which, he said, Bill had told him to make use of. Then their good relationship ended abruptly.
Murty had coo-eed for dinner as usual, but without response. He had his own dinner, and his customary smoke, before going to look for Humphrey. He found him lying under a tree, fast asleep. Instead of calling him, Murty began chucking logs about with a great noise a little distance away. Humphrey jumped up, looked at the sun, and started to work again. With a good-humored grin on him all the time Murty busied himself close by, waiting for the big fellow to ask if dinner was ready. But he didn't ask; he worked all the afternoon, worked harder than he had ever done before, and never spoke. He did not seem to know if Murty was in the neighbourhood.
It was the same at tea time. He reached for everything, whereas he used to ask Murty to pass them; and he washed up his own things, leaving the rest on the table.
When they had lit their pipes, Murty thought it time to mend matters.
"What 're you makin' all th' noise about, Humphrey?" he asked pleasantly.
"Seem to be hard o' hearin' lately?"
"Anything get in your ear to-day?"
Humphrey slapped the bowl of his pipe hard against the palm of his hand, blew into the stem, then shuffled over to where the broom was standing, for a straw. Afterwards he went to bed without saying good-night.
The breach widened in the morning. Murty got up earlier than usual, and shook the roof with the clatter he made getting breakfast ready. Humphrey came out, and put his own billy on. He repeated this at noon, and in the evening, and thereafter he made his own damper, and boiled his own beef and potatoes. He worked in a different part of the paddock, did things in his own way, acted on his own initiative, and never uttered a word, good, bad or indifferent.
"This don't suit my complexion at all," Murty grumbled. "'Tw'an't all rosebuds ail' vi'lets before, but with a yahoo skulkin' around as ought to be in th' deaf an' dumb asylum, it's the' dead finish. Wouldn't even swear when he jammed his finger this mornin'. Gunbust me if I think he'd let loose if I hit him with an axe. Always meditatin'. Devil take such a feller. He'll have to make himself scarce, an' th' sooner th' quicker."
"Kick him out," Octo Muddle advised. "By Gripes, I'd like to be there!" Octo was a mere stripling alongside Humphrey.
"You're welcome to come at once, Octo," said Murty quickly. "I'll put you on in his place, if I have to pay you myself."
"I'd be only too glad to," Octo said, "but we're very busy just now."
Things went on much the same to the end of the week, the monotony being relieved once by an exchange of compliments over the lighting of the fire, Murty had been fire-lighter all through, but now he suggested to Humphrey that he should do his share of it. Humphrey was evidently hurt by this departure, for thenceforth he carried his own wood, and lit his own fire—alongside Murty's. On the first occasion Murty stared at the duplicate as though he couldn't believe his eyes.
"Lord love a duck," he said, "if I had a disposition like yours, humpy, I'd put it in a bag with a blackfeller's dog an' drown it!"
Humphrey struck up a soft, low whistle as he lowered his hilly into the flame. He had made a hook for himself out of a piece of wire.
"Must be a burden to you," added Murty. Humphrey went on whistling. "S'pose you'll be puttin' up a new fireplace tomorrow?"
Humphrey slewed sharply. "What yer slingin' off at?" he snapped. "Fire ain't in your way is it?"
"Nobody said it was."
"Don't cost you anything, does it?"
"No, it don't!"
"This is a free country, ain't it?"
"I suppose it is."
"Then shut yer clap-trap!"
Murty shut it as desired, but he didn't keep it shut long. He felt that a prolonged association with Humphrey Hodge would drive him to drink. Tarkalson was not expected back for another fortnight, and Murty decided that the curmudgeonly person would have to shift before then. They were at the tea table when Murty spoke to him.
"You started on a Monday, if I recollect, Mr. Hodge?"
Mr. Hodge began to gather up his tableware very busily.
"I said, you started on a Monday?" Murty repeated, much louder.
"I can hear yer!" Mr. Hodge bawled back at him, with a side glance like the leer of a dingo.
"Oh I thought you couldn't," said Murty.
Mr. Hodge cleared away with more bustle than usual.
"I wanted to notify you," Murty went on, "that I won't be wantin' you after this week."
"Bill will be home by then, an' th' two of us will be able to manage," Murty explained.
"An' what are you supposed to be?" Humphrey Hodge inquired.
"I'm in charge 'ere," Murty told him.
"Oh! Are yer?"
"Yes, I am!" Murty's eyes began to flash. "An', see here, Humpy, I don't want any of your insolence. If I've put up with your peculiarities so far, it's because I thought you was some poor crank as was hard up. But let it end there."
Humpy planted the heels of his palms on the table, and leaned towards him, speaking deliberately. "Mr. Tarkalson is the owner of this estate?"
"I ain't disputin' it," said Murty.
"He engaged me?"
"Well, what about it?"
"He'll sack me."
Saying which, Humpy turned to his own corner with a triumphant stride.
Murty was chagrined, but he wouldn't admit that he was beaten. He sat back and thought. He smoked a couple of pipes over the disagreeable subject. Gradually the hard cast of his countenance relaxed; and when, presently, he put on his hat and went out, he seemed to be trying hard to keep from laughing.
"Think you're mighty smart, Humphrey, don't you?" he said, 'when Humphrey couldn't hear. A few steps further on he looked round and spoke again. "Think you can do as you like in this establishment, don't you?" Still a little further on, he flung back with increasing vim: "Think I'm a darned fool, don't you?"
Next day was Sunday. Murty was quite cheerful over breakfast, but soon afterwards his face assumed a drawn worried aspect. In this state he went through the house like a man walking in his sleep, searching the drawers and boxes, and stopping often to think; while his fingers went mechanically to his vest pockets. He examined his wardrobe, and felt along the shelves, coming to a standstill at last alongside Humphrey.
"Now, what th' deuce did I do with it!" he remarked meditatively. Humphrey took no notice; he was sewing a button on his spare shirt.
"Didn't see a watch about anywhere, did you, Humpy?"
Humphrey sewed on for a few seconds as though he hadn't heard him, then looked up with a jerk.
"Were you addressin' me?" he inquired with mocking politeness.
"Was I addressin' 'ell!" said Murty, turning disdainfully away.
He was gazing at the rafters, holding his chin between his thumb and forefinger, when Tom Muddle and Don Garry stepped in. He asked them if they had seen a watch in their travels. They hadn't.
"Strange where it could 'a' got to!" said Murty. "'Tain't th' first thing that disappeared lately," he added, looking momentarily at the needle, which Humphrey was now jerking about in a way that threatened to break the cotton.
"I missed Bill's meerschaum pipe first," he continued. "Then my pocket-knife went an' a gold pin, an' other odds an' ends. All in th' last fortnight!"
Humphrey left off sewing, and measured him slowly with his eyes.
"D' yer mean to insinuate that I stole 'em?" he demanded.
"I ain't accusin' anybody," said Murty. "All I say is, there's only been you an' me in th' house, an' th' things couldn't walk."
"Which means that I'm a thief!" cried Humphrey, jumping up, and throwing the cotton reel on the floor so that it bounced. He threw the shirt after it, and commenced to tuck his sleeves up.
"Call me a thief!" he repeated, spitting on his hands and shuffling his feet about in an agitated manner. "Come on!"
He shaped up, making feints and flourishes, while Murty stood with his hands on his hips, quiet, but expectant.
"Let me at him!" cried Humphrey, still exercising. His face was sickly white, his breath short. Nobody was stopping him; there was nothing in his way. He hitched his pants up, then threw his arms out like a man swimming. "Stand back!" he said. "Let me get at him!"
He spat on his hands again, bounded into a fighting attitude, stood on the cotton reel, did a rapid skate on one leg, and landed heavily on his back. The other men laughed boisterously.
The fallen gladiator got up slowly, directing vivisecting glances at the audience as he did so.
"Got a dashed lot to laugh at!" he remarked sulkily.
"You ought to be in a pantomime, Humpy," said Murty.
"You look out, or I'll put you somewhere," growled H. Hodge. "You don't call me a thief for nothing. I've got me faults like other people; but I'm honest."
"What d'yer strap your swag up every mornin' for, when you're in a house?" asked Murty.
"What's that got to do with you?" Humphrey demanded.
"If a policeman was lookin' for missin' property," said Murty, "'twould be th' first thing he'd want to overhaul."
"Well," said Muddle, pacifically, as the pantomime threatened to break loose again, "an honest man courts investigation if only to allay suspicion."
Hodge was considerably mollified by this. He drummed his fingers on the table for a moment, meditating. Then he straightened up and said: "Come an' search it," with the air of one who was conceding a great point.
He threw the swag on the bed and left it to Murty to open and overhaul. Murty accomplished this task with alacrity.
Among the contents was a small hag. This he turned bottom up, and out dropped the watch, pocket-knife, Bill's meerschaum pipe and other items.
He gathered them into his hands, glancing at Humphrey as he picked up each article.
"Might 'ave his faults, like you an' me an' other folks," he said, exhibiting them all round as he passed out, "but he's honest."
Humphrey looked dumbfounded. He was still staring at the swag, as if fascinated, when the other three left the room.
He came out presently with the swag rolled up. "It's a dirty, mean, put-up job, an' you know it; all of you!" he said, speaking in low jerks.
"Enough o' that!" said Muddle, holding up his finger. "The less you say the better."
Murty slapped two one-pound notes on the table.
"There's your wages for th' two weeks you've been 'ere," he said. "Now emigrate like Ven'rable Henry. An' let it be a lesson to you to live sociable if you do miss your dinner sometimes."
Humphrey put the money in his pocket and walked away without another word.
When Tarkalson came back Murty briefly informed him that he had sacked Hodge because he was an insolent old pig, and Tarkalson called him a chuckle-headed chump for doing so.
"Why, darn your eyes!" he said, "that man was puttin' in a month here to work off a dead horse. He owed me five pounds!"
"Why didn't you say so before?" gasped Murty. "That's finished me; I'm off!"
Murty left his job without notice, and leaving his pack and spare horses at Lankey's Hut, rode on to Wyangaree to see Mat Conyers.
"I thought you might like to pick up two or three hundred pounds, Mat," he remarked as they sat together in the latter's room that night.
Conyers' head jerked up with sudden interest.
"If you've got that ambition," continued Murty, "you can join me as workin' partner. I'm off in a few days to Koponey's Island."
"Oh," said Conyers, with an air of disappointment. "Another wild goose chase!"
"No, Matthew; it's the dinkum oil this time. I've located the famous atoll, so we'll make for it direct."
"An' strike another duffer like you an' Jim did," said Conyers, still dubious.
"We had the wrong address that time," Murty returned. "An' what Jim told you in regard to that failure, was only a mere side issue. He didn't know what I was lookin' for. I've never told anybody yet. But you can take it from me, there's a big divvy in it."
"All right," said Conyers. "I'll be with you at Lankey's Hut at the end of the week."
"There's one condition," Murty added, crossing his legs and looking steadily at the elevated boot, whilst Conyers eyed him expectantly. "I'd want you to scrape and pack some bones."
"A Chinaman's," said Murty. "He's been dead a long time, so I don't expect he'll be too bad after he's been resurrected an' aired awhile."
Conyers stared harder, his lips slightly parted.
"What's the strength of this caper you're on?" he asked at last.
"Lend's a match," said Murty, "an' I'll let you into the secret."
After lighting his pipe, he went on: "You know that Koponey hid on that island when the police were after him. Ile had some jewell'ry with him that he didn't want to be carryin' till the storm blew over; so he buried it there, as well as some letters an' papers in a pickle bottle. After he got smashed up in that minin' accident, you recollect, an' knew he was done for, he gave me a rough map o' the island, an' asked me if I ever bumped that speck to get the documents an' send 'em to a brother of his in Brisbane, whose name an' address I'd find in the bottle. The jewell'ry, he said, I could keep in remembrance of him. As I didn't know its antecedents, the plant didn't interest me; and, anyhow, he shut off before I had got the bearin's of the place."
"If that's all that's there," said Conyers, "you can have it on your own."
"You're a bit too previous, Mr. Conyers," said Murty. He made a soft place on Conyers' bunk for his elbow before he resumed. "When Koponey landed on that islet he discovered a dead Chinaman in possession. Deceased was lyin' on his back, claspin' a little black god as if he, loved it: an' alongside him was a wallet with a letter in it addressed in English an' Chinese to Hop Long, a rich merchant in Brisbane. The dead Chow was over ripe, which made him extra inconvenient to have, about the premises; so Koponey buried him with his little black god. The letter he took away with him, thinkin' he might collect something if he delivered it later to Hop Long. It was written in Chinese, an' when Koponey handed it over to me with the map, he didn't know any more than I did what it was about, otherwise, I reckon, his career would 'aye been shaped very different.
"'T any rate, I got to Brisbane with cattle from the Logan. While there I delivered the letter to Hop Long—an' 'twasn't long before half a dozen of the family were jabberin' at me an' at one another. No mistake, it made, a stir in that camp. Turned out that the writer was Hop Long's father, an old fossicker named Sam Yik. The pull o' the goldfields 'ad been too strong for him to anchor himself in a store. He came in once or twice a year for a blowout o' birds' nest soup, chop suey, an' other mysteries; an' I heard he took a swag of opium back with him, though he never smoked it himself. His speciality in vices was rum.
"He was makin' in the last time with £600 worth of gold on him, when he took sick. A couple of blokes were trampin' close, behind, an' he got it into his head that they were trailin' him for his pile. To shake 'em off, an' have a safe camp till he got better, he roped some floating logs together an' shipped to Koponey's Island. He buried his pile at once for safe custody, an' when he knew he was done for he wrote the letter to Hop Long, tellin' him everything, an' commandin' him to collect his bones an' send 'em to the Flowery Land, where they could rest among their ancestors. If Hop Long neglected that filial duty to his old father, he would never have any rest himself, an' the little black god would play up like forty imps of Satan.
"When I mentioned that nobody knew where the island was, Hop Long was fair flummoxed. The black god, it seemed, had been in the family for unknown generations, an' they had a tradition that if it got lost all sorts of calamities would happen to those responsible. Hop Long, as next of kin, was the proper owner an' custodian of the buried image; an' he recollected that business 'ad been fallin' off an' he hadn't been feelin' very well of late. I gathered from the questions that were fired at me, an' the general excitement, that the god would be vastly offended at bein' buried with a corpse.
"'T any rate, Hop Long offered me all the buried gold to find the island an' bring the god an' what was left of Sam Yik to Brisbane. I accepted the contract; an' for two years I searched for that blinded speck without gettin' a hint as to its whereabouts. I informed Hop Long that I was only accumulatin' expenses, an' he, wrote that he would give me a thousand pounds, besides Sam Yik's gold, if I recovered the treasures. A fire had destroyed a shed of his in the meantime, an' a cyclone had taken the roof off his store, an' Hop Long, I suppose, was gettin' desperate.
"So I kept on lookin' for Sam. By a lucky chance I got on to his track, an' in about two months the job will be through. The little black god, of course, an' a ring on the third finger of Sam's right hand, will be, the proofs that we've got the right remains. You'll 'ave to be careful when you're tidyin' up the old party, not to dislocate that finger or dislodge the ring."
"What do I get out of the swag? asked Conyers.
"You get half Sam Yik's gold," answered Murty.
"You're very generous," said Conyers. "What about the thousand? Half an' half's a fair thing."
"By cripes, Conyers, you're pure!" cried Murty. "What about all the years I've spent lookin' for the island? You're just goin' out, direct to the spot, to clean an' pack Sam Yik, an' you've got the cool cheek—"
"I forgot for the moment," Conyers broke in, waving his hand to stem the threatened flood of compliments. "We'll let it go at that."
"I'll get things ready while, I'm waitin' for you," Murty concluded. "We go from here to Jondoey, on the Macintyre. I left two horses there when I finished with Professor De Quinlan, an' they'll come in nicely for a half-way change on this expedition."
* * * * *
A week later the pair set out from Lankey's Hut, and after three weeks travelling they reached the lake in which their treasure island was situated. The lake was full from recent rains, so they pitched camp on the mainland, where they put together a canvas dinghy that Murty had packed in pieces. In that they crossed, taking with them only tools and bags.
The island was a narrow strip about 30 yards long, with a small rise in the centre, and surrounded with a thick fringe of lignum. The grave was conspicuous at the foot of the rise. A few feet from it was a big ants' nest, the sight of which made Conyers pause and smile. He had been rather reluctant to tackle his unpleasant job, but after a brief study of the ants he set to work quite cheerfully.
The grave was shallow, the digging soft; and in half an hour they had the grinning skeleton on the surface. The little black god was still clutched in the bony hands. Murty took possession, spat noisily two or three, times, and rushed down to the water to wash the hideous thing.
When he returned Conyers was sitting on the slope, smoking a cigarette, and the remains of Sam Yik were spread across the centre of the ants' nest. A multitude of excited ants were rushing over them.
"That colony can't have, too much to eat here when it's high water," Conyers remarked. "We'll leave Sam with them for two or three days. He won't be so beastly unpleasant then, an' there'll be less of him to clean."
Murty, with the aid of the map and Sam Yik's directions, went after the treasure. That, too, was easily located. Sam's gold being at one, side of a bushy tree and Koponey's plant on the opposite side.
Among Koponey's bottled papers Murty made a discovery. One was the deeds of the bit of land on which stood Lankey's hut. Others revealed that the late Mr. Koponey was Tom Lankey, the owner, whose whereabouts had been long unknown.
"By tripes," said Murty, "I'm right on it. That estate's goin' to be mine."
"But he's willed it to his brother Jack," said Conyers, who was perusing another document.
"Well, can't I buy it?" Murty insisted. "Taint worth much to him, an' it's the only home I've got. When I've been paid for Sam, I'll be able to make it a real sumptuous residence."
With their spoil they returned to camp, and two days were allowed to lapse before they shifted the skeleton. The gold in the meantime was carefully divided and buried in the tent, whilst Koponey's jewellery and papers were parcelled and addressed to Jack Lankey.
Next day Murty went after the horses. On his way back he was whistling happily and dreaming of a cosy little shack down east. Suddenly he stopped whistling, and his hair bristled with alarm. Two mounted troopers were at the camp, and Conyers, a disgusted-looking bone-cleaner, was under arrest. One of the troopers was inquiring about Sam, while the other was examining things about the tent.
Murty clutched his reins, pulled his hat down hard, and in a few seconds arrived with a clatter of bells and hoofs. He explained and expostulated; he produced his maps and letters; but the law was obdurate. He was arrested too.
"You'll have to come to Toowoomba, both of you," said the senior trooper. "So roll up your swags now."
"What about Sam Yik?" cried Murty, anxiously. "I can't leave him behind. The goannas will be spoilin' him."
"H'm!" said the trooper. "There'll have to be an inquest on him; so you can pack him too. I'll want to have a look at the place where you disinterred him, One of you can row me across while the other packs up."
"You're the best liar, Conyers," Murty whispered. "I want to keep an eye on the cosherman that's stoppin' here to watch me."
Much against his will, Conyers took the trooper over, and having pointed out the grave, he explained that the two holes under the tree were dug to get the parcel for Jack Lankey, the first having been sunk in the wrong place. He was subjected to a long, embarrassing catechism concerning the island and everything and everybody connected with it, including himself and his private affairs, what he did for a living, where he lived when he was home, and what he expected to get for Sain Yik. Conyers didn't know much about anything; he was merely engaged as Murty Brown's assistant.
"Hm!" said the trooper in conclusion. "The corpse was buried without a permit, and you removed it from the grave without license. You'll have to come to Toowoomba."
"D—— Toowoomba!" Conyers muttered under his breath.
When they got back to camp, everything was packed on the horses including Sam Yik, who had been tightly rolled in an old blanket and securely tied in a chaff bag. Murty took charge of him, and the troopers took charge of Murty and his mate. To avoid further embarrassments, the gold was left buried where the tent had stood. That was the main thing that worried Conyers as they rode away. He had been planning to take up a nice little selection with the money, and was very dejected at having to leave it behind.
"You can come back for it when you've served your sentence for murder," whispered Murty, viciously.
So they growled in undertone along the road. The midday sun intensified their bitterness, as it had a steaming effect on the bag of bones. The senior trooper edged a little farther away and remarked that Sam appeared to be getting up a sweat. The more his bones were rattled over the uneven tracks the more unpleasant his company became.
Conyers wore the aspect of chief mourner, except that he smoked numerous cigarettes as the funeral procession moved drearily towards Toowoomba.
Once there, Murty got busy. Being released on bail, he picked up some spirits in a double sense at the nearest bar, and having further complimented Conyers on his perfunctory methods of cleaning dead Chinamen, sent urgent wires to Hop Long and Jack Lankey.
Both gentlemen arrived by the first train, and when Hop Long produced Sam Yik's letter, and identified the bag of bones by the little black god and the ring as his lamented parent, bcsides testifying as to Murty's authority to dig up the remains, the police case broke down. At the conclusion of the inquest Hop Long was given possession of the exhibits, and Murty collected his reward.
Conyers was then despatched with caustic instructions to recover the two parcels of gold; and when they met later at Lankey's Hut, Murty had the legal documents in his pocket that made that little homestead selection his own.
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