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Title: Collected Short Storiess Volume 2 Author: Edward S. Sorenson * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 2000601h.html Language: English Date first posted: July 2020 Most recent update: July 2020 This eBook was produced by: Walter Moore Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia Licence which may be viewed online.
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Brushook’s Great Scheme
That Valuable Mare
Bill Tarkalson and Co.
Don of Lone Farm
The Fortune Hunters
Caleb — A Country Life Sketch
A Haunted Hut
“Wur yer ever on Cooyar Crick?” asked Scully, taking the pipe from his mouth, and chuckling softly to himself. “It was a pretty lonesome place when I knew it,” he continued. “That’s sev’ral year ago now. I was dodderin’ along down the crick with Matilda, lookin’ for a job, as per usual. An’ hour or so ’fore sundown I spotted a ramshackle sort of a humpy off the road a bit. It didn’t have a very invitin’ look to a trav’ler, but the next place was a good bit on. I put th swag down an’ stood, consid’rin’. Presently a queer-lookin’ old feller comes shuffling over from th’ humpy. He was an unord’nary squat junk of a chap, all knobs an’ corners, with a great straggly beard stickin’ out all round. His face was sallow an’ wrinkled, an’ its expression was peculyer; he looked as if he’d lost something, an’ had a suspicion that I was that something transmogrified. He didn’t speak when I said ‘Good day’ to him but his eyes kep’ peerin’ at me so rummy-like as made me feel uncomfortable. He walked round me—thought he was goin’ ter hit me at fust—an’ when he come to the front of me ag’in, he stood an’ cast his lamps up an’ down me in a preoccupied sort o’ way as though he wur lookin’ for a splittin’ tree, an’ had mistook me for something of the sort.
“‘How old are yer?’ he ses all at once.
“‘Why—about 40,’ ses I, with a bit of a start.
“‘Are yer married?’ he asks next, quite as a matter o’ fact,
“‘No,’ I ses, starin’.
“‘Knocked about the bush much?’
“‘D yer go seein’ gurls, nights or Sundays?’
“‘Know anything about kangarooin’?’
“‘Done a bit o’ shootin’,’ I ses, gettin’ more an’ more mysterfied ev’ry second.
“‘Anything of a butcher?’ ses he.
“‘Quite a dab,’ ses’ I.
“He took another look round me. ‘Looks just the thing,’ he muttered. ‘How’s yer joints! Chuck yer limbs about—let’s see how they work. Some coves’ joints wants ’ilin’.’
“‘By gum,’ I thinks to meself, ‘this bloke’s as cracked as a dry plain. Better humor him.’ I shook me legs an’ whirled me arms around. He didn’t seem satisfied.
“‘Got any corns or bunions? Ever have backache?’
“‘How’s yer teeth?’
“He took a pin from his shirt-front an’ threw it on the road. ‘Pick that up,’ he ses, short an’ sharp, as yer might to a dog. I picked it up. ‘Not too bad,’ ses he; ‘seems just the thing.’ Then he drew the heel of his boot across the track. ‘Le’s see yer jump,’ he ses, an’ stood aside with his hands on his hips.
“‘But wot yer drivin’ at?’ I asks him. Thought he might be one o’ them fool jokers takin’ a rise out o’ me . He didn’ seem anyways unord’nary ter look at, now I come ter take stock of him, ’ceptin’ his manner was peculyer.
“‘It’s orlright,’ he ses. ‘Yer’ll see it all d’rectly. It’s a great-scheme. But lemme see if yer can jump.’
“I toed the scratch an’ took a big leap ter get away from him. I was gettin’ uneasy ag’in.
“‘Good!’ he ses. ‘That was real good. How’s yer lungs? Have yer got good wind?’
“‘Come up here a bit,’ he ses, ’an’ le’s see if yer can run.’
“‘But wot’s the game?’ I protests ag’in. I was gettin’ about full of it.
“‘Just up ter this ironbark,’ he answers. ‘Comeon.’ He waited for me, so I thought I’d better go.
“When we got to the ironbark he sung out, ‘Off!’ an’ started back full lick. I lost about 10 yards’ start; but he couldn’t sprint for sour apples, an’ I caught him half-way. He pulled up on a sudden an’ yelled after me, ‘Can yer so’dder?’
“‘So’dder what?’ sez I, puffin’ like a broken-winded cart ’orse.
“‘Tin cans,’ he ses; ‘I want a good so’dderer.’
“I looked at him, wonderin’ what all this tom’ foolery had ter do with solderin’. But I thought I might as well see the thing through, an’ told him I’d served an apprenticeship to the trade.
“‘Just the thing, he ses,’ ‘just the thing! What’s yer name?’
“‘James Scully,” ses I; ‘mos’ly called Jim.’
“‘Scully?’ he ses, musin’. ‘Think I’ve heard that name before. Wur you ever in gaol, Mr. Scully—if it’s a fair question?’
“‘No,’ I ses. ‘If you met a Scully in gaol, he was no relation o’ mine.’
“He faced towards me, but looked down at me boots while he lifted his finger an’ give me his pedigree. ‘Le’me tell you, Mr. Scully, that my name’s Samyel Brushook, an’ it’s sufficient testermony to my noble ancestry ter say that no Brushook has ever been in gaol. That isn’t the place ter make the acquaintance of a Brushook, allow me. It was orig’nally a hyphenated name, I might tell you. Me grandmother’s name was Brush, an’ me gran’father’s Hooke. They put ’em tergether an’ made Brushook; an’ Samyel Brushook is the larst of a long line—’
“‘Just so,’ I breaks in. ‘I’m glad, ter meet yer.’
“‘Yes,’ he ses. ‘Yer oughter think yerself highly honored. Yer honest, I’spose?’
“‘Well—I hope so.’
“‘So do I. ’Tanyrate, yer look just the thing, an’ I think yer’ll do. Come on over an’ ’ave some tea.’
“I was with him there, an’ we went over to the humpy, an’ he put th’ billy on. I reckoned on gettin’ a good feed into me, an’ slippin’ away as soon as it got dark. In the meantime I tapped him for an explanation.
“‘I want a good partner,’ he ses; ‘a man after me own heart—ter join me in one o’ the best specs yer could root out in a month o’ Sundays. I’ve been doin’ purty middlin’ with scalps and skins since I took up this s’lection; but slaughterin’ for scalps an’ skins means a woeful waste o’ good meat—a loss o’ millions o’ pounds, mate. It’s a big thing; an’ it’s a surprisin’ wonder no one’s ever hit on it before. Shows a deplorable lack o’ brain’. The natch’rel resources o’ this country is simply marv’lous, an’ all neglected— sadly neglected. Now, I’ve been tryin’ for months ter get a good man ter go into the bizness with me, but could never get one ter suit. Most of ’em would be orlright for a day or two; then something was bound ter go wrong with th’ works. It’d be backache or toothache, or stringhalt or screwmatics. Some ’ud have cronk feet or broken wind, an’ couldn’t run; an’ a man as can’t run in this industry ain’t worth his salt. So of late I’ve been puttin’ the applicants through an examination, an’ you’re the fust one o’ 50 that’s passed muster. Yer ain’t pertickler ’bout pay, I serpose?’
“‘Well,’ I ses, ‘I should like ter know wot I was gettin’, an’ I’d also like ter be sure I was goin’ ter get it.’
“‘I’m sorry ter hear that,’ he sez, an’, by gum, he looked it. ‘It’s the fust p’int you’ve failed in, an’ I was beginnin’ ter hope yer wur purfect.’
“‘A man can’t work for nix,’ I protested.
“‘The money would come in lumps—big lumps,’ ses he, ‘but it might be a long time in showin’.’
“‘That’s a different thing,’ I ses, ‘providin’ it’s morally certain it will come. But give us the prospectus of the concern.’
“‘It’s this way,’ he ses. ‘As I told yer, I’ve been scalpin’ an’ skinnin’ a good while ’ere, an’ it goes against me grain ter see all the good marsupial meat left rottin’ in the bush. I propose ter have it all brought in, boiled down an’ canned— preserved, yer understand—an’ shipped ter W.A. They tell me the miners there ’ave been livin’ on tinned dog for years. I hold as dog ain’t a proper diet for a miner, no matter wot breed o’ dog he might be; and I reckon the Sandgropers would jump at good, sound marsupial meat. We’d label the tins “Sheep’s Tongue,” “Chicken an’ Ham,” “Veal,” “Beef Paste,”’ an’ such like. It’d bust up the dog industry in one act.’
“‘But wot about the plant?’ I asks him.
“I’ve collected some pots an’ boilers an’ karersene tins,’ he ses. That’ll do ter begin with. As bizness expands, of course, we’ll improve an’ enlarge the works, and I look forward with confidence to the day when we’ll have a great big factory in full swing, with a hund’ed hands in constant work. Of course, we’ll have ter be satisfied with small consignments for a while. I’ve collected all the jam-tins an’ sardine-tins, an’ other sorts on Cooyar, an’ when we’ve got ’em filled an’ so’ddered up, they’ll bring enough ter give us a supply of regulation tins an’ labels. We’ll ’ave ter see about a trade-mark, too, as there’s bound ter be heaps o’ imitators. There always is. But we can settle little details like that afterwards. The main thing is ter get the preservin’ works goin’.’
“‘Have yer made any arrangements with regard to the supply o’ stock!’ I asks him,
“‘That’s simplicerty itself,’ he ses. ‘The run is swarmin’ with marsupials, an’ there’s any gors-quantity o’ blacks ter run ’em in. They’ll do the yardin’, killin’ an’ skinnin’. Th’ expense ’ll be nothin’. A little opium an’ terbacca will satisfy ’em, an’ the waste meat ’ll do ter feed ’em on. Our work ’ll be mainly in the shed—boilin’ down an’ cannin’. We’ll have the gins ter help us, too—stokin’ an’ skimmin’, f’rinstance. Then there’s the hides an’ scalps an’ bones. They’ll attend ter them departments, too.’
“‘You have teams, I s’pose, for takin’ the stuff ter port?”
“‘I ’ave a horse, but he’s crippled. ’Tanyrate the niggers can hump the stuff down to the wharf.’
“‘How far is the wharf from here?’
“‘ ’Bout 125 mile. ’Fore we ship the fust lot we’ll arrange for an agent to act for us in the West. I know a party over there—if he ain’t dead —who would be just the thing.’
“’An’ do yer think it would pay from the jump?’ I asks him.
“For a moment speech utterly failed Brushook, an’ his eyes blinked at me in a way that was painful to see.
“‘Pay!’ he gasped at last—‘why, man, there’s thousands in it—millions! If success wasn’t assured, I’d float the scheme into a company an’ work it that way; but who wants ter have a lot o’ deadheads pocketin’ divs. they’ve no right ter’? It’s a simple, money-makin’, legitimate spec, that you an’ me’s goin’ ter work on our own. We’ll be independent, and kowtow to no gold-glorified nobody—’
“Brushook stopped sudden, with his lips parted, an’ a blank look came into his face as a tall, toffy-lookin’ man walked into the hut. He didn’t seem very pleased at seein’ me there.
“‘Take the saddle off my horse, Brushook,’ he ses. He went through the hut, lookin’ everywhere; then went out an’ met Brushook. ‘Who’s that feller in there?’ he asked. ‘Oh, a trav’ler,’ ses Brushook. ‘Well, get rid of him. I’ve told you often enough not to encourage travellers here.’
“He came in again, an’ I hurried out ter Brushook. ‘Who’s that fellow in there?’ ses I.
‘Oh, that’s the boss,’ sez Brushook, quietly. He didn’t seem inclined to discuss the matter any further, but pushed past. All the fire of enthusiasm had gone out of his eyes, and they looked about as live as the eyes of a dead eel.
“I took a hitch in me swag, which I’d left at the door, an’ while I was at it the boss come out ag’in. ‘Excuse me,’ I ses, ‘but I can’t quite get the bearin’s o’ this establishment. Brushook told me this was his selection, an’ led me to b’lieve he wanted a man.’
“The boss laughed. ‘It was his, one time; but drought an’ wallabies put the dead finish on him. He’s bound’ry-ridin’ for the station now.’
“‘I see; that accounts for the marsupials hoppin’ on his brain. Well, good-night,’ I sez, an I went down an’ camped on the crick.”
Hundreds of farms on the Clarence River are totally submerged during every big flood. Caramana, though standing miles back from the river, was covered in 1887. The hard work commenced after the flood went down. Several fine patches of lucern had been destroyed. One patch, about five acres, was on an island. There was a lane at the back, and a deep gully, like a canal, swept round from one point to the other, It contained about 7 ft. of water, and was spanned by a log bridge.
Jack Thompson and I were deputed to cut this dead lucern and tip it into the gully. We commenced carting one morning with a fat brood mare. Her owner thought so much of her that she was seldom worked, but this was considered an easy job—just drawing the loads a few yards to the bank and backing. It turned out to be quite exciting.
Jack insisted on doing thc driving; and backing himself.
“I understand her better’n you do,” he said. “An’ she’s so valuable—the boss ’ud take a fit if anything ’appened to her. Refused £30 for her th’ other day.”
She was worth about half that. Still I believed Thompson; two fools often meet on the horse track.
We had emptied about four loads when I heard an agonised shriek from the careful Jack. The cart was going over the steep bank, and that valuable mare was backing after it. Jack hung frantically to one wheel, and yelled to me to “get her by the head.” I got her by the head, and she helped the cart down the bank all the more. Then the weight of the load lifted her, she swung round on the incline, and the next instant the cart turned over; and the lot dropped with a great splash into the water. For a moment I stood on the bank; with a pitchfork in my hand, staring helplessly at two wheels and four kicking hoofs.
Jack had disappeared, and I thought he was under the load. Then a pile of wet lucern popped up, bobbed violently round for awhile, and finally Thompson’s head burst through the side of it. He couldn’t swim, and was trying to call for help, but could only gasp. Reaching out with the pitchfork, I thrust the prong through the neckband of his shirt, and drew him to the cart wheel. He was crawling through the spokes, when the wheel turned and jammed him, and old Poll drove water at him with her heels in blinding showers. I got him out, and without waiting for breath, he plunged in again, and hauled the mare’s head up above water. She looked pretty sick. So did Thompson. He stood nearly to his shoulders in water. The mare was on her back, but the shafts partly held her up, as the lucern underneath kept the cart off the bottom.
Getting the mare out was ticklish work. One had to dive down at times to undo a chain or to cut a strap. Her struggling to get up made things worse. Jack essayed to hold her leg, and she knocked both of us down, and got her head under again. Jack took no notice of his own bruises and cuts and torn clothes, but he was visibly concerned about the little scratches on that priceless mare. We got her out at last, and Jack spent twenty minutes rubbing her legs, and examining her generally.
The next thing was to get the cart up. We couldn’t get Poll near enough to the bank to do any good, and Jack wouldn’t go for another horse, or help of any kind. He had the reputation of being a careful, trustworthy young man with horses, and that reputation had be considered. So we fished the harness up first, then took the wheels off, and worked like bullocks getting them to the top of the bank. That made lunch time. Jack wouldn’t stop for the usual “smoke-oh” afterwards, but hurried back to work. He just loved work.
We spent three hours at that cart, zigzagging it up the bank with levers—6 in. at a time. Putting the wheels on again was another prodigious task, and by the time it was accomplished we had acquired a thirst of no mean order. We shoved the old mare in the shafts again and told her, to stand there. Then we cut through Bellamy’s corn to Kenny’s pub, and ran slap into an embarrassing situation. The boss himself in the bar “doing a kill” with Mrs. Kenny. Jack nearly fainted. Trustworthy young men are not expected to be found in public houses when they are supposed to be at work.
“Hulloa, Jack!” he said, “what’s the matter?”
Jack’s mind was a blank for a moment. He could only raise a grin—a grim, bitter sort of grin, such as he wore when the mare knocked him down. Then, resting his hand on the bar, he noticed a scratch on his finger, and it gave him an inspiration. He held it up.
“A goana bit me,” he said, “I—I thought it might be dangerous.”
“Do you feel, bad,” the boss asked.
“Feel a bit queer,” Jack said. He looked it, too.
The boss examined the wounded digit.
“Must have been a very old goana, he remarked. “Only one tooth.”
“Oh, he didn’t get a fair holt o’ me,” Jack explained.
The boss turned to me.
“Have the goanas been at you, too?”
“No,” I replied, with a determination to stick up for Thompson. “Jack thought I’d better come with him in case he should take bad on the road.”
“Come and have a drink,” he said.
We didn’t mind, and when we had emptied our glasses, he added—
“Now, get back and wire into that lucern. That’s the best antidote for goanna bites.”
We got back, and found the old mare had got back some, too. She and the dray, were in the water again, and she wasn’t struggling any more. Her head was underneath, and she lay quite calm
“My God!” Jack said, and took a few hasty strides towards her. Then the uselessness of it all seemed to strike him, and he turned and ran back, then he changed his mind, and ran towards the mare a second time, he stopped again, and finally deciding on action, both of us fled across the lucern, and down the lane. The lane was 150 miles long.
“We struck Brody’s station one evening about sundown,” said Tarkalson, resting his arms on his knees and gazing into the bed of red coals with a smile that had something grim in it. “There was me an’ Jim Scully an’ Mat Conyers. We ’ad a pound or two among us at th’ time, but our ’orses wur fair knocked out, an’ the grass-bearin’ country ahead warn’t none too good, so we wur ready to tackle anything on offer at Brody’s to give ’em a spell. Conyers was th’ only one of us who had two mokes. He carried Scully’s pack an’ his own. I was walkin’ as usual, but I ’ad a pack-’orse, leadin’. Took ’im for wages owin’ last place I worked. Le’s try a fill o’ that new terbacca o’ yours.
“Brody was a fine-lookin’ man at this time. ’Ad the name o’ bein’ a straight goer, but he was a darned hard nail all the same. We went up to him with our coats off, an’ our sleeves rolled up to show our muscle, an’ we kinder took Brody’s eye. ‘I think I ken put you on to something that you’ll make good money at,’ he ses. ‘This place is overrun with wallabies—’ad to wire-net my horse-paddock to keep the brutes out. I’ve just sent a mob o’ 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, an’ buyin’ all skins at market rates less 30 percent, for commission an’ carriage. Yer ken get what rations you want ’ere, an’ th’ amount ’ill be deducted from your account,’
“We cottoned on at once. Scully an’ Conyers ’ad a rifle each, an’ I got one from Brody, cheap. ’Twasn’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, ’cordin’ to his own skite, was a crack shot. Could put a bullet in the bung-hole of a beer-cask every time it turned up rollin’ down hill. ’Ad been buffalo shootin’ in the Territr’y, too—shootin’ with one hand at full gallop. Just a matter of nerve, he sed. We wanted t’ ’ave 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 ’ad a proposition to make. He was mostly bristlin’ with new-fangled ideas at times like this. We’d gerra supply of opium from the Chinaman, he sed; then we’d go out to Lorry’s Lagoon an’ get th’ blacks to hunt f’r us. They’d do anything for opium in that part—’specially when it was on the spot. We’d give ’em a little terbacca too—not too much—an’ promise ’em a divvy when we got th’ cheques. I agreed it was an easy way o’ makin’ a rise. ‘One thing certain,’ I ses to Scully. ‘they’d get as many in a day as we’d get ’n a week.’
“‘Eggs-ackly,’ ses Scully, in his slow, deliberate way. He warn’t never very eloquent, but when he sed anything it was convincin’ like. ’S good a man as ever I met was Scully. Mostly shaved clean, an’ his face was splashed with freckles, just ’s if brown paint ’ad been sprinkled on ‘t. Conyers was a reg’lar beauty in comparison, but he warn’t half the man Jim was.
“‘Wot I don’t like about the bizness is this,’ I sez to Mat. ‘they’ll be doin’ all the hard work an’ we’ll be gettin’ the profits.’
“‘Eggs-ackly,’ ses Scully.
“‘I don’t hold to that,’ I ses. ‘I believe in doin’ me share.’
“‘But they’re only niggers,’ ses Conyers.
“‘Eggs-ackly,’ ses Scully agin.
“But Matthew’s forcible logic floored me in two ups, an’ in the end he had his way; an’ armed with opium, terbacca an’ rations, we goes out to Lorry’s Lagoon. He spent our last few bob on a set o’ books, pens, ink, an’ other darned things that we could ’a’ done without.
“‘With so many employ-ees, an’ doin’ bizness on a gi-gantic scale,’ he explained, hitchin’ the blamed ledgers up under his arm, ‘there’ll be a lot o’ bookkeepin’ to do—receipts an’ disbursements, an’ that sort o’ thing. We ought t’ ’ave scales for weighin’ too, but we’ll get them next time. I’ll look after th’ books an’ scores, measure out opium an’ terbacca, check the takings an’ give receipts, an’ superintend operations gen’ally. That ’ill keep me purty busy. You bein’ the best cook, Bill,’ he ses to me, ‘you’ll attend to the colander department and string scalps, an’ Jim ’ill peg out th’ skins. Ye’ll find we won’t have much time to scratch ourselves—if th’ hunters are any good at all.’
“‘Eggs-ackly,’ ses Scully; but I noticed there was a mystified; half-vacant sort o’ look showin’ between the freckles.
“We fell in with Conyers’ plans. We mostly did. Conyers was a Barwon native, an’ to hear him talk ye’d think he’d been over half the earth. I yooster try at fust to gerrim bushed about Australia, but my ‘umble 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 an’ class wool, he could survey land an’ navigate a ship. Learnt ’em at the Yooniversity, I s’pose. He ’ad plenty o’ push, an’ an impressive way with him that always put him in front—so far’s me and Scully wur concerned.
“Well, Matthew talked the blacks over all right—there wur about 40 of ’em. He read out an agreement to ’em (verbal agreement it was), an’ took down their names—which wur mostly Sandy’ an’ Jacky. They wur all to be purpendiklar by sunrise every nornin’—strict, an not to show back from work afore night. I forget wot th’ penalties wur now; ‘instant dismissal’ applied to a lot o’ cases, I know. Anyhow, he made ’em pull down their gunyahs fust of all, an’ build ’em in two long rows. He ’ad original ideas, you’ll understand. Then they helped him build an office an’ storehouse with bark, an’ a galley for the cook. Wonder he thought of such a ‘umble person as th’ cook at all. He spent most of his time in the office, postin’ an’ balancin’ accounts. There was no end o’ rows over them accounts, too. Sandy’s notched stick seldom tallied with Matthew’s ledger. But it was the billet his soul hungered for, though bizness got so pressin’ after a time that he, ’ad to get ’n assistant. Her name was Avelina. Gerls, he sed, wur more gen’ally useful than boys. She cleaned the office out purty often, brushed his hat, an’ greased his boots. Mat was purtiklar ’bout his appearance, lemme tell you. Made a good impression on the servants, he sed. Avelina also fetched the mails. Mat subscribed to the local paper, an’ he gorra letter, now ’n’ again from a piece down be Gunnedah somewhere. I got hold o’ one of her letters one day. He’d dropped it among th’ scalps. Seems he’d been tellin’ her he was head manager of th’ ‘North Queensland Marsupial Company, Unlimited,’ an’ had 140 men an’ 60 odd gerls under him; an’ she was askin’ for some purtiklars. She trusted Matthew wouldn’t be gettin’ mixed up with any o’ the fact’ry gerls. So far as I could see there’d been no mention of Avelina.
“At night time Mat would stand in front of the office, with his thumbs hooked in the armholes of his weskit, an’ look down the street. Looked just like a street with th’ fires goin’ in front of the gunyahs. When th’ bucks wur singin’ corroboree songs, an’ the dogs wur fightin’, an’ the kids chasin’ ’em, an’ the gins yellin’, ’twarnt unlike Paddy’s Market. Then he’d stroll down an’ 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. He liked effect, anyway an’ was partiklar on style. I’m methodical meself, an’ Scully ses he’s systemataic. Dunno; he upsets the billy purty often. ’Tanyrate, after doin’ th’ block, Matthew’d give us th’ latest wallaby quotations from th’ BILLABONG BANNER, an’ reckon up our wealth. We wur makin’ 25 quid a week. After you with th’ firestick.
“Well, everything went swimmin’ for about a month. Then we ’ad to render our accounts an’ square up, ’cordin’ to agreement. Scully an’ me wanted to get a conveyance from Brody, but Conyers sed there was no necessity for that. It ’ud mean th’ loss of a day, an’ meantime the employ-ees would be idle, ’T was bad management to leave the employ-ees idle. So wot does he do but pack each blackfeller with a bundle o’ skins an’ scalps, an’ send ’em off fust thing in the mornin’ to Brody. The gins follered wi’ the campware, ’es we wur goin’ to shift to new ground next day. We could a-got in simul-taneous ourselves, but Conyers ’ad a balance-sheet an’ a capital account an’ some profit-an’-loss to make out yet, an’ the day-book to rile off.
“‘We must ’ave these matters in order when go to th’ office,’ he explained, ‘so we’ll be able to check th’ station account an’ see that all’s square. I don’t say es Brody would do a man of a scalp, mind you; but no man’s infallible, an’ figures is things th’ best o’ ’em might easily blunder at—often do. Just as well to be sure.’
“‘Eggs-ackly,’ ses Scully, starin’ at th’ ground.
“We got th’ horses an groomed ’em, an’ 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 o’ matches in front of him. There was scraps o’ paper an’ ink splotches all over th’ ship, but th’ blamed accounts warnt balanced yet. We has dinner, an’ he goes at ’em again. ’Twas four o’clock ’fore we gorra move on.
“‘Wot’s th’ sum total?’ I asks him as we rides along, Mat with th’ ledgers under his arm, some papers stickin’ out of his top pocket for effect, an’ a pencil stuck behind his ear.
“He ses proudly it was £126 7s. l0d. We wur surprised.
“‘How much is that each?’ I ses.
“Mat opens th’ ledger an’ examines several pages—folios he called ’em.
“‘It’s £42 2s. 11¼d.’ he ses. ‘That’s ten guineas a week we’ve been makin’. In a year’s time we’ll be worth £500 each.
“‘Eggs-ackly,’ ses Scully.
“We leaves our ’orses in th’ stockyard when we gets in, an’ Matthew sails into th’ office with th’ ledgers. Me an’ Scully stopped at th’ door, there bein’ no need for all to speak at once.
“‘Well, wot d’yer make of it, Mr. Brody!’ asks Mat, his face one big smile.
“‘Make of wot?’ ses Brody,
“‘Th’ skins an’ scalps, of course.’
“‘Wot skins an’ scalps?’ ses Brad, surprised like.
“‘Why, them es we sent in with th’ blacks this mornin’.’ The smile was wastin’, an’ looked sick.
“Brody leaned back in his chair an’ looked mystified. ‘I’ve not heard anything about ’em,’ he ses.
“Mat’s jaw dropped an’ his eyes jumped ’s if he’d been hit on th’ back o’ the neck.
“‘Th’ only blacks that have come in wur those I sent to Lorry’s lagoon,’ ses Brody. ‘They brought their lot in, an’ I paid them. You’ll find them in town.’
“‘My Gawd!’ ses Scully, turnin’ his head round slowly like a bogged cow does. Poor chap— ’e was stunned.
“‘Th’ scamps ’ave took us down, Jim,’ I ses in a whisper.
“‘Eggs-ackly,’ ses Jim, an’ he looked sad.
“‘You paid ’em!’ gasps Conyers, an’ he seemed to get something in his throat wot he couldn’t swaller—p’rhaps th’ dead smile. ‘Well, that’s a dem fine go! Them was our skins,’ he ses. ‘We employed th’ blacks to hunt for us’—
“‘I know nothing about that,’ Brody chips in, cold-like. ‘I employed them to hunt for me, an’ I paid them accordin’ to results. In any case, as th’ law is in Queensland nowadays, you can’t employ aborigines without a special license.’
“‘Wot are we to do, then?’ asks Conyers.
“Brody opens an account-book, an he ses, ‘There’s ‘leven pounds against you an’ your mates for supplies. You ken pay that.’
“That floored Conyers proper. He walked out with his head down, tryin’ to hide them blamed ledgers under his coat. Scully was squattin’ agin th’ wall now, chewin’ a bit o grass an’ starin’ at the floor. I goes up to Brody to arrange for the liquidation o’ the darned company.
“‘It’s purty evident we’ve been had.’ I ses. ‘We’re left without a bean, so I s’pose you’ll allow us time to settle that little account.’
“‘Well, yes,’ he ses; ‘I’ll allow you three months’—
“‘Thank you, Mr. Brody,’ I ses. ‘It’a unfortunit’—
“‘In th’ meantime,’ old Brody goes on, ‘I’ll look after your gear for you, an’ yer ’orses ken be fatt’nin’ in my paddock. I won’t make any charge for that.’
“ Darn his eyes, but that knocked me. I believe to this day the old dog put them blacks up to it. He went with us to th’ yard. There was only Scully’s hack an’ my pack-’orse there; Conyers an’ his live stock ’ad fled. I took possession of me swag, an’ Brody took possession of the rest. We squatted down an’ filled our pipes then. ’Twas ’n occasion when a draw was comfortin’— though ’twarn’t much of a draw out of a hundred an’ twenty-six quid.
“‘Wot are we goin’ to do about it, Bill?’ ses Scully.
“‘Damfiknow, Jim,’ I ses. ‘Don’t see es we’ve gorra hope
“Warn’t no use hangin’ round, anyway, so we got goin’ purty soon on Matthew’s tracks. Come on to him, camped, at sundown. He ’ad th’ day-book left, an’ was tearin’ out th’ leaves an’ feedin’r th’ fire with ’em.
“‘Pity yer didn’t boil yer billy, with ’em at fust,’ I ses. ‘This is where yer management o’ th’ great Marsupial Company ’as landed us;’ an’ I throws me swag down, with emphasis.
“‘Never mind. Bill, he says, very quietly; ‘we’ll get even with old Brody one o’ these days.
“‘We want £3 13s. 4d. from you, anyway,’ I ses. ‘That’s your share o’ the bill yer left us to foot.’
“‘Eggs-ackly,’ ses Scully.
“‘Oh, that’ll be all right,’ ses Mat, softly. ‘I’ll fix that up. For the present I’ll carry your swags along on my horse.’
“He carried ’em along right enough—for severn weeks; then, bein’ mostly ahead of us, he poked into the one solitary vacancy that was out that way, an’ me an’ Scully wur left to hump our own. But Matthew was mag-nanimous, after all. ‘I’ve fixed that little account up for you,’ he ses, handin’ me a sealed envelope es he was goin’ away. When I opens it I finds this—writ on a survivin’ folio of th’ company’s books:—
“Th’ balance herewith was his share o’ th’ bit o’ rations we had, an’ three tucker bags.”
A long sharp sweep of the Richmond embraced three scrub farms known as Muddle’s, Scully’s, and Don Garry’s. Muddle’s was wedged in the bight; Scully’s was the first arm. above him, and Don Garry’s the first below him, the three slab-walled, shingle-roofed houses being less than a mile from each other, with the one narrow flat for their front view.
Don Garry was an old bachelor, and had for years lived a hatter on Lone Farm. That was the name given it by his neighbors. The name fitted in one sense, for no lonelier man planted corn on the river than Don Garry. He had no relations. Only Jim Scully and Octavius Muddle called on him, and once in a blue moon he attended a husking party at one of their barns. This only made him lonelier and more discontented afterwards.
His neighbors were newly married, and he desired above all things to emulate their good example. He had made a halfhearted bid for Sarah Muddle, but Sarah, true and homely, and proud of the ring that Bill Tarkalson had placed on her finger, would have nothing to do with the Lone person. He had been laughed at and belittled so long that Sarah considered herself insulted if he was mentioned to her in the light of a suitor. Thereafter he sat in his big fireplace at night, and talked discouragingly to his dogs and his cat, and smoked his pipe, and stared wistfully at the ballet girls on the news-papered wall.
He was not an ill man to look at; he had a frank, ruddy face and a twinkling eye; yet, with a goatee as solitary hirsute adornment, it was a frontispiece that influenced his friends to be jocular. He was a reserved, backward man; he had none of the dash and boldness that a woman likes. There was in him a strange mixture of modesty and pride that impelled him to avoid any initiative in regard to a feminine acquaintance who did not openly encourage him. At the same time he imagined himself a most desirable parti, and would have given the world to appear as a hero in her eyes. If he could only have appeared before her, if he could have spoken and acted in her presence as he did in his day dreams, he would have been a model light in the Big Bend; but his imaginings were never realised. He was a smart, intelligent worker, but he was unobtrusive and seldom understood. There are men whose real nature, whose true inwardness, is never revealed, men who are capable of great sacrifices, of big acts of kindness, which, accomplished, they would shrink from mentioning. These are not the sort who make conquests in Cupid’s realm; they must be led from the jump. Such a man was Don Garry when the first tinge of romance came to throw its glamour over Lone Farm.
It was early summer time. The flat was a golden blaze of buttercups, and over and among them fluttered millions of beautiful butterflies. The Round Swamp, alive with waterfowl, was picked out in huge clusters of reeds and rushes, broom and water-lilies, with here and there on the margin a clump of tea trees, their tops white with blossoms, and patches of swamp oak and red bottle-brush; and beyond, joining the scrub that fringed the winding river, a deeper clump of wattle crowned with a glory of golden bloom.
Don was out in the bush getting wood with a horse and slide, meanwhile admiring the beauty around him, and blissfully inhaling the fragrant air, when he came suddenly upon a young woman lying prostrate in the long grass. Such a thing would have startled anybody; its effect on Don Garry was akin to that of an electric battery.
“Good Gawd!” he ejaculated, and sprang back as though from a snake. A moment’s observation reassured him, and he stepped forward again. “My! but she’s sweet,” he murmured. “Wonder if she’s dead!”
She was unconscious. At first he thought she was dead, and stood staring at her in an awe-struck manner for several minutes.
“Sth, sth, sth!” he clicked with his tongue, walking slowly round her. “Fine woman wasted! A fine young woman. I wonder how it ’appened?”
He bent down and touched her hand gingerly. It was warm. That brightened him a lot, and dropping on his hands and knees he held his cheek over her mouth. The warm breath thrilled him, his own breathing became short, and his heart was palpitating. Raising himself like a kangaroo, he looked round, then suddenly bobbed down again and kissed the pretty mouth.
It was the first time his lips had ever touched a woman’s since his mother died years and years ago, and for a moment he felt like a man intoxicated. She seemed to him as a vision dropped from heaven in the last shower—dropped at his feet when all the land was bright, and he was lonely. “Now, I do wonder!” he mused. Then he threw the wood off the slide, and five minutes later he was driving home with the girl stretched on the rude conveyance on a litter of grass. A new light shone in his eyes; he was excited, his big frame a-tremor as he lifted her out at the house and laid her tenderly on the rough pine stretcher on the verandah, and put a pillow under her head.
What to do with her now puzzled Don Garry. He’d never had any dealings with women, and what ailed this one he had no idea. He thought of taking her boots off, as they looked like things that pinched; and he had heard that the proper thing was to undo all tight-fitting clothing—he could see she was tightly-corseted, and they should come off; but on second thoughts he shrank from taking such liberties. With a man he would have been at ease, but every suggested step here was delicate ground.
“Never was in such a blamed fix as this afore, never!”
He was holding her hand, half fondling it, half rubbing it, when she opened her eyes. Don sprang up, and his face went a deeper red; but he could have danced like a schoolboy.
“Are you hurt much anywhere?” he asked, compassionately.
She motioned feebly for a drink. He ran in and got a dipperful of water from the cask, and raising her head with one hand, held the clumsy vessel to her lips with the other. She swallowed a deep draught, then sank back and put her hand to her head.
“Yer any better, dear?” Don inquired, and turned away immediately, abashed at himself, He had no right to call her “dear,” She only smiled and asked if his wife were in.
“No-no—that is,” said Don, painfully confused, “I ain't never married.”
“Oh, I beg your pardon,” she returned, “Are there no women about? I’m sorry to be so much trouble to you—,”
“Don’t mention it — no trouble at all,” said Don, quickly. “Jest you rest there, an’ I’ll rush Sarah over ’ere in nex’ to no time, you bet. ’Ere’s the water if yer should want a swig. Blamed dry weather this.”
Saying which he left her, and ran all the way to Muddle’s. It took him some time to make them understand; he had run himself out of breath. Finally, grasping the situation, Mrs. Muddle and Sarah accompanied him back. He led the way with hurried strides, and was tearing round and through the house when they came up. He met them at the door, the most puzzled and alarmed-looking man they had ever seen.
“What’s up?” they asked in unison.
“She aint ’ere!” he cried, his eyes roiling. “She’s been ’an slithered.”
The women laughed. “Was she ever ’ere?” asked Sarah.
“Sure you didn’t dream it all?” Mrs. Muddle inquired.
“’Taint no jokin’ matter, Mrs. Muddle,” said Don, much hurt. “I left her on that there stretcher with th’ dipper o’ water handy. There’s th’ dipper, but the water’s gone, an’ she’s similar. Blamed queer thing that!”
The women looked at one another incredulously. “Where did she come from?” asked Mrs. Muddle.
“I got her in th’ grass, I tell y’r.”
“An’ don’t you know anything about her?”
“Nothin’—dunno her from a crow.”
“You fetched her home an’ left her here, just returned to her senses, a matter of a few minutes ago, and there's no trace of her?”
“That’s so! That’s so!”
“Such a cock-an’-bull story I never heard,” Sarah remarked.
“What was she like?” asked Mrs. Muddle.
“She was the purtiest critter I ever looked at. Big brown eyes?—”
They laughed immoderately, and Don, abashed, turned into the house again. He searched it through and through; he searched the barn and the fowl house and the pigstye; he looked in the water-butt, and in the hollow log in front of the house, and round the woodheap, and along the river bank, the pained, mystified look on his face never changing. Coming back he saw the fresh tracks of two horses on the bare ground near the end of the verandah. The two women were sitting on the stretcher, hardly knowing what to make of it.
“See ’ere,” said Don, pointing to the hoof prints. “Dang me if she ain’t been took.”
They examined the tracks; they followed them some distance, and returned to the verandah. “I can’t make it out,” said Mrs. Muddle. “She must be some sort of freak to go off like that.”
“’S a queer caper,” Don admitted. He sat down, took his hat off, and ruffled his damp hair. “Never knowed th’ like o’ that before, never!’ he said; and, folding his arms across his knees, dropped into a brown study.
“If she should come back,” Sarah remarked after a while, “tie her up, or shut her up, so we can see her.”
Don straightened up and said, as though he had not heard her: “I do wonder—” Then he dropped back into his former attitude without saying any more.
When the women went home, he saddled his horse and tried to follow the tracks. He lost them on the hard, short-grassed flat, and then he galloped round and about like a busy butterfly; but he found no trace of Brown Eyes — which was the only name he could apply to her.
Later he called upon several people he didn’t know, in the hope that he might come across her. He did not state what his real errand was; as an excuse for calling he pretended to he looking for a farm hand. To his chagrin he found that person. He thought to put him off by offering him a miserably low wage, but the man accepted, and started straightaway for Lone Farm. Don kept him a week, and then got him a corn-pulling job up the river.
Months went by, and nothing was heard of her — except jocular references to the matter by his neighbours. Jim Scully and Octavius Muddle, whenever they saw him, inquired if he had found his girl yet. The farmers up the river, and the farmers down the river, heard of it, and when any of them met him, they too made inquiries about his lost girl. This told severely on a sensitive man like Don Garry, and in one sense he was about the maddest man on the river. He never went near any of them now, and he encouraged none of them to put foot on Lone Farm. Even when Octo, his most confidential friend, showed near, he hid in the corn, or bobbed down behind the pigstye. He pined for Brown Eyes; he dreamed of her day and night, and often he looked at the stretcher and pictured her as she had lain there, but he didn’t want disrespectful people asking after her as though it was a huge joke.
It was no joke to Don, he was too sorely smitten. It seemed dead out of the proper order of things that he should lose her after the way he had found her.
“If ever I clap eyes on her again, I’ll know something about her, you bet,” he confided to his brute companions, Blucher and Towser. “Just like an angel she come— an’ gone like a whiff o’ smoke. Queer thing that.”
The dogs looked up and wagged their tails. “Warn’t no delusion about it, Blucher,” he went on. “You saw her with your own eyes. . . A be-yoo-tiful reality she was. . . Didn’t I bring her home on th’ slide an’ lay her on th’ stretcher, an’ give her th’ dipper? Aye, an’ them fools thinks I dreamt it. . . They think yer boss ’es gone cracked, Towser. . . He’s dead shook, an’ dunno who th’ gel is, nor where she’s at. . . but old Don knows what he’s doin’, Blucher, you bet. . . Only let me clap eyes on her again.”
After a long wait, when hope had almost died within him, he got his wish; as unexpectedly as she had come into his life, as suddenly as she had gone out of it, she flashed across his view again.
He had seen her on the deck of the little steamer as it passed up stream, while he leaned on his hoe in a patch of young corn. She stood near the wheel, looking at the wild growth that fringed Lone Farm. She was neatly garbed in a grey material, with a green veil thrown back over her hat.
Don was not versed in dress fabrics; but he knew that face in an instant — it was frescoed on his brain. He started violently, and let the hoe drop. He went cold and hot by turns, and his eyes never left her till the steamer disappeared behind the fringe of scrub. Then he rushed up to his hut, saddled his horse, changed his clothes, mounted, and rode hard after the steamer.
“She ain’t goin’ to slip me this time; blow me if she is!” he muttered as he thundered across the flat. “I’m goin’ to see where she leaves th’ puffin’ jinny, you bet!”
He cut across a big bight, in which were half a dozen farms, and when he reached Dougherty’s Point there was no sign of the steamer. He knew she hadn’t passed, for there was no froth on the water, and no marks of the wash along shore; but she had whistled away down in the bight before he left home, and she only whistled when she was calling somewhere.
While he sat waiting to see if Brown Eyes was still on board, Jim Scully rode up from Brand’s, carrying a crosscut saw on his shoulder.
“Wal, Don,” he drawled. “Wot ’ave yer found?”
“Thought I heered th’ Triton,” said Don. “Was just wonderin’ if she ’ad any passengers.”
“Heered any more o’ the brown-eyed mystery?” asked Scully.
“I’m makin’ for town,’ Don went on, ignoring the impertinence. “Run out o’ flour.”
“Eggsackly,” said Scully, with a grin. “I could a lent yer some—”
“’Ere she comes,” Don interrupted. “I thought I heered her.”
“Lady on board,” said Scully, standing in his stirrups.
“Ah, I do wonder now who that ken be?” mused Don. “Fancy I’ve seen th’ like of her afore, somewhere.”
“It’s Lucy Barmon,” Scully announced as the boat come opposite.
“Is that her name?” cried Don, growing excited.
“Eggsackly,” said Scully. “Yer know Horry?”
“That’s his sister. Very nice gel, Lucy.”
“Wal, I be danged!” Don ejaculated. “An’ they live just on five mile from my place.”
“About that,” said Scully, wondering.
Don suddenly recollected himself.
“’F I could cop her anywhere now ’t ’ud save me a ride this week. Got a message for ’Arry. He was wantin’ t’ exchange me some duck eggs for a rooster. ’Ave yer any idea where she’s bound f’r?”
“T’ town, most likely,” drawled Jim. “Can’t say for certain, but she goes up to Sleepy Hollow occasion’ly for a day or two — sometimes ridin’, an’ sometimes be boat.”
“Where does she put up at?”
“Rooney’s Corner, I think — mos’ly.”
The steamer whistled near Brand’s, and without another word Don started away at a gallop. There was no road this way, and he lost much time breaking through fences, reefing through scrubs, and plunging through swamps and creeks. When he got to Brands’s the steamer was far ahead. He rode up to the house to make sure.
“Good day, Harry, Y’ any Manhattan spuds for sale?”
“Haven’t any at all, Don,” Harry replied, leaning against the doorpost.
“Wanted to get a few for seed to try ’em,’ Don explained. He struck a listening attitude. “Is that th’ Triton I ken hear?”
“Well, she passed half an hour ago. If you can hear her now you must have surprisin’ good ears.”
“I’m purty sharp in the ear yet,” Don said, “but not wot I used to be. Wal, so long. Must try an’ get some o’ them spuds somewhere.”
At the next point he touched he assured himself that Miss Barmon was still on board; and thence he jogged leisurely into town. The place known as Rooney’s Corner was a boardinghouse, with a little shop in front. An hour after dark Don limped slowly across to the shop door, using a stout stick to lean on. He wore only one boot, the other foot being encased in a huge pile of bandages. Two ladies were behind the counter. One of them was Lucy Barmon, but Don did not notice her.
“I was wonderin’,” he said to the other, “if yer sold pocket knives?”
“We do keep them,’ he was told, “but we haven’t one in stock at present.”
Inwardly he rejoiced to hear it.
“Just my luck,” he said. “Got a bad foot —trod on a rusty nail, an’ I don’t want to walk too much on it. May be in town a day or two with it, as ’tis.”
He was turning away when he pretended to notice Lucy Barmon for the first time. “I b’lieve I’ve seen you, before,” he said. “Ain’t you th’ young lady I took ter Lone Farm?”
“Oh! you’re Mr. Garry!” she cried, springing up, and with a vivacity that banished his nervousness.
“I am,” Mr. Garry admitted. “An’ I’ve been much troubled — I mean I couldn’t make out—”
“Of course, you couldn’t: Indeed, I must apologise, Mr. Garry. I’m so sorry. It was all Horry’s fault. You see, we were after horses that day, and mine turned turtle and left me stunned. We were to have met in front of your place. Horry came along with my horse while you were away, and, having a restless mob on the fence, he would have me get on at once an’ go with him. He said he’d be round again in a day or two an’ would thank you for me, and I only found out this week that the wretch never went near you. What must you have thought of me?”
“‘Twarn’t what I thought,” said Don. “’Twas what th’ neighbors thought when I fetched ’em over an’ then couldn’t find yer. They got a notion that I was cracked, an’ nothin’ will satisfy ’em now as I ain’t — unless,” he added, hesitatingly, “yer’d drop in an’ straighten out th’ kinks, for ’em.”
“I’ll do so as soon as I get home then, Mr. Garry,” she assured him. “Mr. Garry saved my life, Julia,” she informed her companion. Julia nodded sympathetically, and offered him a chair.
“Sit down, Mr. Garry, an’ rest your foot. I’m sure it must be painful.”
“I’ll run over an’ get the pocket knife for you,” Lucy added. “I know it’s a smoke you want.”
Don protested vigorously, but Lucy ran off and purchased one. It cost 7s 6d. He had a good one in his pocket, and could have bought one to suit him for a shilling. But he paid the 7s 6d willingly, and when he got to his room that night he kissed it many times because her hands had held it.
He saw her again next morning, when he bought a package of matches he didn’t want, and yet again that night, when he bought a tobacco pouch he had no use for. He saw her twice more on the following day, which cost him a new pipe and a pocket book, neither of which he wanted; and the acquaintance was further augumented on the morning after, at the expense of a lead pencil.
By this time he was now quite comfortable in her presence. When he called the third night—for tobacco—she was gone. That hit him hard. Her brother had come in unexpectedly with a trap, he was told and she had gone back with him to save the coach and steamer fares. She had left “good-byes,” but Don didn’t want “good-byes.”
“There ain’t goin’ to be no good-byin’ with me an’ Lucy. She an’ me’s goin’ whacks, you bet!
He tore off the bandages then, threw his stick under the bed, put his boot on, and rode home in the starlight.
For a week he kept a close eye on the track that led to Barmon’s. One morning she came. She called on the Scullys and the Muddles, and thus reestablished him in their good opinion. She stopped a couple of hours at Lone Farm, while her horse fed ravenously on Don’s corn. He showed her the pigs and the fowls; they inspected the barn and the crops, and they gathered wild gooseberries and sat in the shade of a dead gum tree husking and eating them.
“I’m goin’ to titivate th’ house up,” he told her on the way back, “an’ put a lot of improvements on the farm.”
“That will be nice,” said Lucy. “‘It’s a real pretty place as it is.”
Suddenly he caught her hands, and they stood.
“Lucy,” he said, his heart in his mouth, “would yer like to share it with me?”
Her eyes drooped. “I don’t know, Mr. Garry,”
His words came tremulously. ‘If you don’t, Lucy, I’ll sell Lone Farm, an’ clear out. Dang me if I ken stand this racket any longer. Which is it to be, Lucy?
Then her big brown eyes met his. “I wouldn’t sell Lone Farm,” she said. “It needn’t be lonely — Don.”
Lavert’s pub stood just across the Gap, where the narrow macadamised road swung sharply round an abrupt spur of Wombat Range. On the verandah in a brown study, sat Davie Bramell, the shearer. He had knocked down his cheque during the fortnight he had been there, and was now getting himself straight again for the track. He was thinking over his chances of getting another stand, when Mick Rooney—an old acquaintance—came plodding round the curve, and presently threw his swag down at the pub corner. Davie was glad to see him. His pot-companions had gone two days ago, and even the bummer had decamped the day before when he found that Davie was “flyblown.” With the exception of some carriers camped a mile down the range, there was not another soul about the place to talk to, or to fly to for protection when the sportive blue devils, came romping down the ranges at night. Lavert had been a jolly fellow, always willing for a rubber at euchre, and with a fund of information that beguiled the time; but when Davie had parted with his last sprat Lavert left off playing cards. He also left off talking. It was plain to Davie that he wasn’t wanted any longer. Even the range seemed to frown at him to begone. It was a week since the last mob of cattle had crossed the Gap, and not even a swagman had brightened the prospect till now. So Davie welcomed him as a long-lost brother. They had drink and Lavert started talking again.
“I think I’ve seen you before?” he said, leaning on the bar and beaming across at the newcomer. “Wasn’t you pressin’ at Toonbar one year?”
“I was—me an’ the Cockroach. That’s a good few years ago now,” said Mick reflectively.
No one could easily forget Mick who had once known him. He was short and thick set, with a big nose—dumped in the middle—and a squint in one eye; a rather comical-looking man on the whole. Davie was a giant beside him, but he had a slouching gait, and was slow and dull, in comparison.
“I was havin’ a bit of a yarn with the old gel round the corner,” Mick presently resumed, as he thrust his glass back and wiped his mouth with his shirt sleeve.
“Mother Donelly?” queried Lavert, dipping the glasses in the tub.
Mick nodded. “She tells me Gummy Gale, the hatter, scragged himself in the old hut somewhere about three year ago.”
“Aye, he went off his onion at the last, and took a drop from the crossbeam.”
“Poor old Gummy! I didn’t think he’d come to that. What did he pan out?”
“Next to nothing. The yarn goes that he had a pile stowed away somewhere, but I think it was only skite. They found nothing anyhow—unless it was Mother Donelly.” He laughed softly. “Did yer ever hear of th’ ghost on the Wombat?”
“No?” said Mick expectantly. The publican laughed again and waited. It was one of the little intermissions where he might “fill ’em up again,” but Rooney didn’t catch on.
“The old gel used to go every evening at dusk an’ squat down on a big rock on the side of the range,” Lavert began. “’Twas just below her place, an’ overlookin’ the caboose where Gummy Gale hung out, There, she’d smoke her pipe—she was always fond of her pipe was Mother Donelly—an’ sometimes jabber to herself for an hour or more. Donelly, yer, see, is away through the week workin’ on Toonbar, an’ of course she feels it a bit lonely always bein’ by herself. She an’ Gummy were great chums, an’ they used to visit one another reg’lar. If the truth was known the old fool was shook on her. Anyhow, he went off his nanny, an’ took a short cut across th’ boundary. It was with her dog chain he done the trick. I remember the barney she ’ad with the bobby to get the chain back. Well, after that it was a common thing to see blokes come peltin’ round the point there at night ’s if the devil was after ’em. They’d seen Gummy Gale’s ghost. Most of ’em saw him sittin’ on the rock, smokin’, as he used to at his door, an’ talkin’ in serpulkral tones; an’ some would see him rise up, sudden like, with a long sigh (sometimes it was a groan), an’ glide away like a shaddler to look for Mother Donelly. Of course, I knew it was Mother Donelly herself, but they wouldn’t have it. Not them. Every benighted son of a gun that streaked round that corner swore black an’ blue as it was Gale’s ghost, an’ the yarn spread till Wombat Range got such a bad name that no one but a total stranger would come by there at night. Even the drovers reckon that no mob of cattle can be made to camp within five miles of it. It got about that Gale had a bit of stuff planted about his humpy, an’ Mother Donelly put pincher on it; so the old chap can’t rest, an’ goes moanin’ around night after night. It just shows what fools some people are,” Lavert concluded, re-wiping a dry glass.
“That’s right enough,” said Mick, fingering the half-crown in his pocket, “but all ghosts ain’t Mother Donelly’s. Now, I’ll tell you a queer thing that ’appened to me one time. Mind yer, there’s no gammon about this lot.” He paused, while he fingered the half-crown again, and looked hungrily at the rows of bottles. “Come on, Davie, we’ll ’ave another,” he said suddenly. “This talk’s a bit dry.”
“Of course there’s many a rummy thing happens that no one can account for,” said Lavert, brightening up again; but my faith in spooks was a good bit shook by this Wombat Range affair.”
“Wal,” said Mick, his eyes sparkling with, the fire of backblock rum as he set down his glass and made the sign of the cross with his arm as before. “I was camped one night by the mailman’s track on the side of Mt. Lindsay. I was out of tobacco. I s’pose yer know what a lovely plight that is when yer alone? I was praying to Gawd someone would turn up that smoked, when all at once I hears the rattle of dray wheels down through th’ timber, an’ after awhile I sees a dray comin’ up the track. There was an old joker sittin’ in it, moody like, with one hand proppin’ his chin, an’ th’ other holdin’ the reins. I reckoned I was in luck’s way at last, an’ waits till he comes close by. Then I gets up an’ sings out ‘Good night!’ The clock clock of the wheels stopped, an’ th’ ’orse, dray an’ driver disappeared like a whiff of smoke. I went to the road an’ looks about; but there wasn’t a sign of anything—not even a wheel track. I skedaddled out of that mighty slick, believe me, an’ when I gets to Unumgar they tells me about a murder wot happened on the mountain years ago. It was the time of the Taroom diggins, an’ a rough shanty was opened on the road ’tween Noogara an’ Koreelah Creek. An old bloke with a horse an’ cart stopped there one night, an’ it leaked out somehow that he had pretty close on a ’undred quid on him. He left next mornin’; an’ hours afterwards th’ ’orse comes back with the the cart—but no driver. They found him dead on the Range—fleeced of every bean. Wal, after the shanty was deserted, people used to see a ghost there pretty often, but it mostly took the form of an old chap sittin’ on a log, patchin’ his pants. I s’pose the loss of his money left th’ poor devil dog poor, an’ he had to get down to that or go naked, an’ naked ghosts somehow don’t seem to be in th’ fashion.”
The publican nodded approval, and Davie seemed to recognise that it was up to him to shout. He edged along the bar a bit closer, and coughed.
“How do I stand for a shout, boss?” he asked.
Lavert shook his head. “Slate’s broke, Davie,” he said, and became interested in the view through the doorway.
“Right!” Davie returned in an aggrieved tone, and slouched out of the bar hitching up his trousers. Lavert turned to Rooney.
“Give you a shake, Mick,” he said affably.
“No, I’m darned if you do!” said Mick, and walked out.
Davie had returned to his seat on the verandah. Mick joined him. “Pretty mean old cuss, I think,” he remarked, jerking his thumb towards the bar.
Davie straightened up as though for a supreme effort. “He’s a fair cow, Mick!” and having said which he settled down again.
“We’ll do a get at jackass to-morrer, Davie,” Mick declared, making methodical cuts at a stick of black tobacco. “But . . . touching this racket round the bend,” he continued. “I knew old Gummy Gale years ago, an’ I know for a positive fact he ’ad whips o’ stuff. If Mother Donelly hasn’t copped out on it, I’ll take my dyin’ oath it’s buried about that there humpy. I’ll tell yer for why. Me an’ him swagged it once from Tallerawang to Mudgee, an’ every bloomin’ night as soon as we’d fixed camp, he used to chop a hole with his tomahawk an’ bury his bunce. When we’d settled down for any length o’ time he’d ’ave gold an’ silver an’ copper planted all over the shop. The ground about some of his camps was like a ploughed field, which come of his huntin’ after plants he’d lost the run of. He’d been robbed once on the Turon in the diggin’ days.”
“An’ yer think his swag’s still buried at the humpy?” asked Davie, with greedy eyes.
“I’ll stake my 40 years’ gatherin’ on it—providin’, of course, Mother Donelly ain’t been an’ nailed it. She was always a pryin’ old cat; but still Gummy was fly enough for her, an’ he was pretty close fisted.”
“Gawd, Mick, a haul like that would be a chuck in now!” Davie exclaimed.
“WaI, I’ll tell you wot I was thinkin’,” said Mick, with a quick side glance towards the door. “Don’t want his blooming nabs to get wind of it,” he added cautiously. “Is there such a thing as a pick about, d’yer know?”
“Aye,” said Davie, “there’s a couple leanin’ agin the ’orseyard at th’ back. They’re not up to much an’ I think one o’ the handles is a bit wompy.”
“That don’t matter a hang. Wal, look ’ere, you collar the picks as soon as it’s dark, an’ we’ll go down an’ prospect. The haul’s worth havin’.”
“An’ we’ll have it if there’s a possible,” Davie added. “We want a lift bad enough, Gawd knows.”
“We’ll go an’ get supper—I think you’re about played out ’ere by th’ look o’ things?”
“Just about,” Davie admitted sulkily.
“Wal, get yer traps, an’ we’ll doss down at the waterhole. I’ve only gorra bob or two left, an’ I must hold tight in case we don’t strike it lucky.”
There was no moon that night, but still it wasn’t very dark. A cloudless sky bedizened with countless stars rendered it an easy matter, for one thing, to pick put the squat form of Mother Donelly perched on the rock above Gale’s humpy. She was smoking as usual, and enjoying the cool night breeze that came in little puffs along the range. Further down the slope, the carriers’ fires glowed redly, while the jangle of horse bells came incessantly from the surrounding timber. Nothing stirred about the humpy, which stood in the deep shadow of the hillside. The two men crept towards it hugging the slope to escape the owl-like eyes of the woman. The hut was in ruins; many of the slabs had fallen in, leaving huge gaps in the sides; and storm winds had stripped half the bark from the roof. Davie shuddered as he looked in, then glanced nervously around him. He had a horror of any place where murder had been committed, or a suicide had taken place. More than that, like most bushmen, he was a trifle superstitious, and he did not like the idea of searching by night for a dead man’s gold. Every strange object that caught his eye on a sudden gave him a violent shock. He was suffering, too, from the effects of his two weeks’ spree and his mind was in a fit condition to conceive a semblance of the uncanny in the most commonplace objects about him. Rooney, though disliking the neighbourhood, was too intently bent on business to harbour any such foolish thoughts. His only fear was of discovery by the crone on the hillside.
Stooping low in the gloom, they began a systematic search for the miner’s hoard, starting at the door and working outward with the pick point, one to the left and the other to the right. Rooney opined the money would be wrapped in cloth or bagging, which would be easily felt with the pick.
Hours they toiled, till the whole surface was broken up for several feet around the humpy. Every boulder in the vicinity was overturned, and the ground well proved where it had lain. But nothing was discovered.
“Looks like huntin’ for a mare’s nest,” whispered Davie, leaning wearily on his pick,
“Don’t give in yet,” said Mick encouragingly, though he too began to lose hope. “We’ll try inside. I don’t like the thought o’ missin’ it.”
“We’d stand a better show in daylight,” Davie went on, staring hard at a phantom-like bush he had not noticed before.
“If we could work it in daylight,” added Mick. “But we’d be twigged in half a jiff. I’m beginnin’ to think that old’ hag up there got away with the swag years ago, an’ the loss of it drove Gummy Gale off his pannikin. Anyhow, we’ll ’ave a root about inside afore we give it best. Yer not knocked up, are yer?”
“Oh, no!” said Davie, with a sigh of resignation.
The air within was ahum with mosquitoes, and a jubilant cricket chirruped shrilly in the fireplace. It was too dark to work, and their only hope was to light a fire. Before taking this risk Rooney stole up the slope and ascertained that the old woman had gone home. Then they gathered some wood and lit a fire, and as soon as it began to blaze they resumed operations, working from one end in the same systematic order as they had done outside. Many a trouser button turned up with the glint of a sovereign and helped in some way to keep their interest alive; and now and again they scooped up bits of bag that lured them on with the same delusive hope.
They had broken up half the caked floor when a rustling outside caused Davie to look round sharply. “My Gawd!” he gasped the next instant, and the pick dropped from his nerveless hands.
“Wot’s up?” whispered Mick. “Have yer found it?”
But Davie, with bulging eyes, was staring through a gap in the eastern wall. “Look—lo—o—ok! W—what’s that?” he gasped hoarsely.
Shuffling along the grass was a huge white object that seemed to be sniffing and scratching at the broken ground. It resembled a man lifting himself along on his hams, and the rustle of his snow-white garments sounded ghostly weird. Even its breathing they could hear—deep horrible breathing that made them shudder. The clink of a chain sounded clearly with every movement, and their very hair bristled at the recollection that it was a dog chain that Gale hung himself. Suddenly it rose straight up from the ground, and stood waving its white arms as though beating off an invisible foe.
“My Gawd!” gasped Davie again, as he clutched the back of Rooney s shirt.
“Lemme go?” hissed that person fiercely. “What—wha—what yer frightened o’?”
“It’s Gale’s ghost!” came tremulously from Davie?
“Lermme go; you blamed fool. Lemme go!” whispered Rooney prodding him in the ribs with his elbows and retreating towards the door. His face was now as bloodless as the white horror that held his eyes fixed like balls of glass, and in his superstitious terror it assumed the phantom image of the defunct Gale. Its arms and body were covered with a long white robe, and on its head was a fantastic covering that looked like a white frilled bonnet. Straight and gaunt it stood, gazing at them with eyes that seemed to look through and beyond them.
With trembling knees, and a cold creepy sensation permeating their quaking frames, the treasure hunters crept slowly to the doorway. Gripping his pick in his hands under some vague idea of protection, Mick Rooney darted suddenly from the hut and rushed wildly along the hill. After him, groaning in abject terror, staggered Davie, his knees doubling and bumping together, and his breath coming in short hard gasps. Almost immediately they heard a peculiar bump, bump, and the rattle of chains behind them, and glancing over their shoulders they saw the awful thing flying through the air with a greater flutter of white. Now and again it would bump the earth hard, as though gambolling in its glee, then leap into the atmosphere again, its arms waving and its white robes flowing. Such peculiar antics utterly demoralised the two mates, and their pace dwindled to a tottering walk. They were no longer capable of speech; fright gripped their throats and shackled their legs.
As they neared the turn in the road, Davie collapsed and fell heavily against a bush. The white horror flew past him with a jingle of chains that sounded like a death rattle, and the next instant he saw it clutch Mick by the back of the shirt and jerk him to a sudden standstill. Something like a half-strangled howl came from the victim; he struggled feebly for a moment, then Davie saw him lift the pick and send it with a wild fierce drive into his ghostly assailant. He expected to see the pick cleave as though it were empty air; but it plunged deep into a solid body, and with a sharp grunt of agony the creature toppled over and lay struggling on the road. Rooney staggered a few yards away, and sank down on the bank, bathed in cold perspiration. Davie, with a new fear gripping his heart-strings, now scrambled to his feet to join him, beating wide of the dying phantom.
“My Gawd, Mick, you’ve done it! You’ve done it!” he cried as he sank down beside him.
“Done wot?” demanded Mick, hoarsely.
Davie groaned. “You’ve done murder!”
“You gibberin’ idiot, wot yer say it was a ghost for?” Rooney wailed in an agony of remorse, for he was now dead certain that it was a man, who had probably been playing a lark on them, whom he had killed. Its struggles had ceased, and it lay a still white blob on the road.
“O, Gawd! wot are we to do? You’ve done murder!” Davie repeated, in the tone of one half demented.
“Shut yer mouth, you idiotic—gorilla!” hissed Rooney fiercely, his squint eye fairly scintillating, and the bulbous point of his broken nose expanding like the head of an angered snake. “There’s only one thing to do. Roll up an’ clear out at once. Come along, get an adjective move on for God’s sake.”
Filled now with the horror of a gallows crime, he hurried down to his camp, with the big man, equally concerned, panting at his heels. Never before had their swags been bundled together and rolled in such a slipshod hurried manner, and in ten minutes, with their boots in their hands and strips of torn shirt wrapped round their feet, they were tramping at the rate of knots with their faces set doggedly to the Western sky.
“We’ll ’ave to travel all night an’ spell all day for the fust week,” panted Mick, pulling up five miles away for a breath. Davie was too exhausted to speak. “Must ’ave been one o’ them pumpkin-headed carriers actin’ the goat,” Mick continued, wiping the perspiration from his forehead.
“But the blamed thing was flyin’!” Davie gasped.
“Flyin’ be hanged!” sneered Mick. “We wur too flamin’ slow to get out of his way, an’ he was doin’ the hop, skip an’ jump trick, comin’ down with a great whop behind us to make the thing more impressive.” Pause. “The darned cow deserved pick-axin’!” Another pause. “He was th’ two ends an’ the middle of a blanky lunatic!”
He clutched his swag again, and they went on—onward and Westward into the solitudes of the Never Never, till the phantom police and the spectral trackers were outwitted and beaten.
Toward noon the next day Mrs. Donelly came waddling up to Lavert’s. She was mumbling, and when Lavert came out, she pointed down the road with her stick.
“What d’yer think o’ them blasted carriers that cleaned out this mornin’?” she cried with a vicious ring in her voice.
“What’ ave they been doin’?” asked Lavert.
She planted the stick hard on the rubble before her and folded her hands on the knob. “They killed Barney O’Bryan last night, an’ left him laying stiff an’ dead on th’ road at the pint there. That’s what they did, the dirty dogs!”
“What for?” asked Lavert.
“What for?” Mrs. Donelly snorted; “’Cos they’re a lot o’ crawlin’ curs. They took Donelly’s white shirt an’ my Sunday bonnet off the line, an’ put em on Barney, an’ they untied his chain (I tied him up at sundown), an’ they tuk him down to the road there an’ kilt him as dead as a door nail by drivin’ a pick through his soul case. The dirty dogs, they did!”
“What a d— shame!” said Lavert. “They want six months.”
“Gaolin’s too good for ’em,” Mrs. Donelly declared. “They want rollin’ in a spiked cask down Wombat. Brutes like them as would steal a lone woman’s kangaroo for no reason but to take it away an’ kill it ought to be hounded off th’ roads. So they ought! I want you now, Lavert, to come an’ help me carry him to th’ cemetery.”
Lavert, got his hat and went at once, for the Donellys often had their little picnic at the pub; and they burled Barney O’Bryan by the side of Gummy Gale.
With the return of the teams they learnt that it was the carriers’ boys who had dressed Barney and let him go, what time the old woman was having her evening smoke on the rock; and then, Barney evinced a desire to follow them, they had cut back to camp. But it was not till years afterwards that they learnt how Barney had met his death, and it was told by a harmless crank who had a squint in one eye and a broken nose, and who was looking for a dead man’s gold.
The cedar teams were creeping towards Dunoon, Abe Watts and Bill Sooley in the lead. Three miles from the township Abe was in difficulties. One of the bullocks (Yellowman, he called him) had jibbed, and was lying down in the yoke. Abe was prodding him, and twisting his tail, and cursing by turns; but couldn’t get so much as a grunt out of him.
“That fellow would be better in a cask than in the team,” I said to him.
“It’s an adjective pity Bill Sooley warnt in a cask with him,” says Abe viciously. “Swopped me that crawlin’ cow for a sparklin’ good steer. Sed he could pull like Bill Beach. By cripes, I’ll be one with him. You’ll see!”
Sooley, a thin sinewy giant, whose face was set in a perpetual grin, came along behind, singing:
“If I ’ad a ’orse an he woulnd’t go,
Wouldn’t I whack him— no, no, no!”
“Wot the L d’yer do with a bullock that wont go?” says Abe, sulkily.
“Tell yer fust rate plan,” says Bill, leaning on his whip. “Put yer mouth to his ear and whistle. Takes his mind off everything else, and fetches him to his feet in one act.”
Abe took hold of Yellowman’s ear, and thrusting his mouth through the hair, blew a sharp and sudden blast down the orifice. Yellowman snorted, and swinging his big head round, struck Abe on the jaw, and knocked him sprawling in the dust. Then he jumped up and kicked Abe in the stomach, after which he rushed into the yoke so hard that he shifted the jinker himself.
“Heard tell that was a good dodge,” said Sooley. “Ye’ll know how to manage Yallerman now.”
Abe got up slowly, rubbing his stomach, and spitting out dust. He scowled across his shoulder as he brushed his hat, then walked away in dead silence. For days Abe brooded over this crowning indignity. At the same time he did not allow it to be suspected that he bore any malice, being on the most friendly terms with the long person. Sooley had the faculty of grasping his opportunities at a moment’s notice, but Abe was a slow mover, and the amount of brainwork he did to get back on his mate was prodigious. The inspiration came when he saw Peter Johnson driving home from town with a horse called Stopdead in the shafts of the springcart. That horse had one characteristic the thought of which so pleased Abe that he even patted Yellowman as he unyoked him at the camping place. The bullocks were turned up a flat by Peter’s selection for the night. Abe took them up and rode back on Stopdead. Said he had bought him for £15. Sooley said he was a fool; the horse was no good
“Jes’ get on an’ try him,” says Abe. “Canters like a rockin’ ’orse, an’ ken jump anything with hide on. Dirt cheap, I reckon.”
Sooley got on, smoking, and took a twist or two out of him. “Fair to middlin’,” he commented. “Bit hard in the mouth.”
“Try him at the gutter,” says Abe. “Go over like a bird, ye’ll find.”
“The gutter was about ten feet wide, with a foot or two of water in it, covered with weeds, and very boggy. Sooley went a long way back, and pelted at it with arms and legs and reins swinging. Though a masterful man in many ways, William’s horsemanship was defective. Abe was standing near the take-off, and just as Stopdead was going to leap, he yelled out, “Whey!” sharp and sudden. The old horse acted up to his name. He stopped dead—but Sooley didn’t. He shot head first into the gutter, like a frog off a rail. Abe just waited to see him regain his perpendicular, with a heap of mud and weeds dripping from his head; then he remembered that Johnson wanted the horse at 6.21 sharp, and raced away to keep the appointment. He had borrowed him for the sole purpose of chucking Sooley into the mud-hole.
It was midnight when Abe returned to camp, having spent a very pleasant evening exaggerating the circumstance to Peter Johnson. Sooley was in bed and, with smiles writhing about the corners of his mouth, Abe was getting in very quietly when his feet touched something deadly cold. It was a warm night, but the contact made him feel like an iceberg. He’d had seven years’ growth frightened out of him once in the scrubs. Woke up one night and felt a snake crawling under his shirt. Had to lie mighty still while Sooley got a light and a waddy; then as soon as Sooley saw the shirt move he gave Abe a most unmerciful welt across that part of him where his supper was digesting. Explained afterwards that he’d forgotten in his excitement that Abe was under the snake. Abe upended like dynamite, knocked Sooley through the tent, and stood over the fire till the reptile was rooted out, and exterminated. Feeling the cold thing this night his hair bristled, and he bounded out as though ejected by machinery, and yelled out to Sooley to light up. But Mr. Sooley was in an extra heavy sleep, and didn’t hear. He snored loudly in confirmation. Abe got the lantern and a stick and searched carefully all round, then be turned the blankets back very gently with the stick, and discovered a wet shirt, the one Sooley had taken his bath in, tightly rolled up. Abe clutched it vengefully, and was tip-toeing towards the other bunk when the long one sprung out and cut away into the bush like a startled emu. Abe darted after him with the wet shirt, but Sooley had too much foot. After chasing him half way to Johnson’s he went back and chopped up a lot of horse hair and sprinkled it in Sooley’s bunk. The tall person was very restless after he turned in again, and got up earlier than usual. They cried quits at breakfast time.
It was a cold night, still and frosty. In Muddle’s barn a lantern and a couple of slush lamps threw a glare on a row of figures seated on 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 a husking party, the central figure of which was old Tom Muddle, who was a widower; beside him was his next-farm neighbor, Don Garry; and distributed among the Palmers and the Doughertys were his son and daughter, Octavius and Sarah Muddle. The men yarned and smoked and worked, and the women gossiped and worked, and the stripped cobs rained into the straddles. Now and again a cob would slip from some one’s hands and hit some one 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 at least for Tom Muddle.
These parties, were held once or twice every winter at the different barns. At other, seasons, when there was no husking, they had card parties, and possum-shooting parties; and once a surprise party had been planned to come off at Muddle’s. Captain Carrab, the raftsman, was due that night and they had boarded his unwieldy craft at Woram Bight after tea, and had all landed about eight o’clock at Muddle’s wharf, bearing with them baskets and concertinas, and Fred Rann’s fiddle. Accompanied by Mrs. Carrab and her daughter Priscilla, they stole up the bank, intending to make a sudden musical announcement on the verandah. Unfortunately, Octavius Muddle had brought in a young cow that day, and she was standing in the yard, keeping a determined vigil over her penned offspring. When her astonished eyes lit on the silent crowd that seemed to rise from the ground, she plunged out with an aggressive snort and scattered the Palmers and Doughertys and Carrabs, and the baskets and concertinas, about the landscape. Their screams and yells brought the Muddles to the rescue with dogs and clothes props. But the Captain was incensed at the conduct of Muddle’s cow and went back to the raft, taking his wife and Priscilla with him. Of the others, Dougherty had run his eye against a twig and couldn’t stand the light; Harry Palmer had cut his foot on a broken bottle; Fred Rann had lost the bridge of his violin, one concertina was punctured, and the other one lost. Everybody was agreed that the surprise party was an ignominious failure, though from the cow point of view Tom Muddle was inclined to consider it a success.
On this night 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 loudly, whilst some one approaching from the darkness growled back at them to ‘lay down.’ Before he had got to the husks they were jumping around him and licking his hands. He was a young man of medium height, thick set, with dark-reddish beard, and a bright open countenance.
“All at home!” he called out cheerily, as he waded into the rustling husks.
“Oh, it’s Bill!” cried Sarah, and a glow came into her face and a sparkle into her eyes as she jumped up to meet him. “Poor old Bill!”
“Our wandering Bill’s come home!” cried Octavius. They all knew Wandering Bill, and one by one they shook his hands, left and right, hoped he was well, asked him if he’d had tea, and finally requested him to sit down and tell them all about himself. Sarah gave up her favorite block, shaking up the cushion for him, and when he had seated himself, she substituted a brandy case and deposited herself alongside. Sarah liked Bill. She was almost hysterically pleased to se him. They had been children together or pretty nearly so; but she had seen little of him since he had grown up. He was a homeless wanderer, always wandering and always on foot; but he was not thriftless. She believed he made good money and saved it. And he was so manly and so handsome. She hoped he would stay a long while this trip; in fact, as she looked shyly into his pleasant face, she even dared to hope that something might eventuate to keep him in the family.
What she knew of his early career she had gathered from the talk of the men as they worked in the barn. Bit by bit she had threaded it together for herself, for there were some things which Bill would not speak of to her, and which, as she grow older, she would not refer to. She had heard her father tell Don Garry that Bill had been a wild, precocious youth, and at his home on the Clarence his constant playmate was the daughter of a swell family—a bold romp as wild as himself. It was owing to some indiscretion between them that Bill became a wanderer at 14. His misdemeanor was not definitely named; but she gathered that the girl’s father had caught them swimming together, and he had been so incensed at young Bill’s lack of modesty that he induced that youth to leave his clothes behind and rush home, as though truculent wild blacks were at his heels. He had several houses to pass down a narrow lane, and women and youngsters laughed and yelled after him as he tore past with nothing covering him but his hair. He had dressed himself and put on his best boots and best hat when the irate gentleman rode up. He abused Bill’s father, demanding that his degenerate progeny should be horsewhipped, and threatening to put the police after him. Bill shuddered; and when the author of his being duly promised that he should be severely chastised, and then sent to the Presbytery to act as rouseabout, to be “boots” and bellringer, and do penance generally, he pulled the blanket off his bed, extracted a florin from his mother’s drawer, and armed with a tomahawk “took to the bush.” His father, a well-to-do farmer, was a man of rigid moral principles and a strict church-goer. In his eyes Bill was a scamp who deserved harsh treatment. And at that time Bill thought he had committed a terrible crime; but as he grew older he laughed at the escapade, and called himself a fool for running away; but he never went back.
He tramped to the Richmond, and eventually pulled up at Muddle’s farm, half starved and almost barefooted. Tom Muddle took him in, and for two years he worked on the farm. Tom was won’t to say at this time that he was the best behaved boy on the river. Octavius and Sarah, especially Sarah, became strongly attached to him, and on Sundays they went shooting and fishing together, and gathering wild tomatoes, cherries, passion-fruit, and gooseberries. Sarah, in her short homespuns, bare-legged and sun-browned, was equal to any exploit they engaged in then, for the responsibilities of keeping house all on her little own had not yet come upon her.
One night, when Octavius had gone to Tatham for the mail and was late returning, she and Bill went out on the flat to get a possum, Bill carrying the gun and Sarah the ammunition. Tom Muddle had warned them to look out for the dingo trap, which was a deep hole covered over with bagging, lightly pegged, and this in turn covered with grass. Rambling round side by side, mooning trees, they inadvertently stepped upon it and both dropped through. Soft earth and rift at the bottom saved them from serious hurt, but they had barely got to their feet when a rustling in the grass and litter warned them of danger: The light of a match revealed a black snake rearing at them. Hastily handing the matches to Sarah, and telling her to keep a light going, Bill held the muzzle of the gun close to it and blew its head off. Then he caught it by the tail and attempted to throw it out. It spun in the air and dropped back on to Sarah. She screamed and let the light out. She also lost the matches, and as they crouched in a dark corner the squirming and twisting of the headless reptile in the brittle drift stuff suggested the presence of a horde.
“We’ll ’ave to get out o’ this somehow, an’ that purty slick,” said Bill, setting his gun down. “Climb on to my shoulders an’ see if yer ken reach.”
She climbed on to him, and with one foot on each shoulder she was able to clutch the tufts of grass on top and draw herself out. Then she ran home, and her father and Octavius returned with the ladder from the fowl house, by means of which Bill climbed out of his prison.
There came a day when a trouper called at Muddle’s with the census papers, and when Bill’s name was given, with the necessary particulars, the man in blue said there was a hue and cry after the runaway, and his father meant to have him back. He was going to put him in a reformatory, or apprentice him to a trade, or something of that sort. Bill didn’t wait to hear any particulars, or to discuss problems. He was gone almost as soon as the trooper, and this time he did not stop until he had crossed the border. Sarah cried when he left, and for a long while she felt as though something had gone out of her life. The farm wasn’t the same; nothing was the same, without Bill.
He remained away three years. Though he had now lived down his fears and joked about his early folly, he did not remain at Muddle’s. Still he looked on the place as a home, being free to come and go as he liked. He returned at long intervals, staying a week or a month, and going off again, mostly back to a place he had left for a spell. These scant visits were golden epochs in the life of Sarah. She spoke of things as happening so long before Bill went away, or so long before he came back. And he came with a fund of anecdote that she listened to with absorbing interest, that evoked hearty laughter in house and barn. This time he had been away four years, he was now 25, and Sarah, though barely of age, was as much a woman as she would ever be; and she regarded the wanderer now with a different throb in her heart to what she had felt in their earlier reunions.
“An’ how ’ave yer been doin’, lad?” asked Tom Muddle, as the husking was resumed”
“Purty fair, all considered,” answered Bill. “Was shearin’ out on the MacIntyre an’ Condamine a bit, an’ worked round till I got down to Carson’s, on th’ Logan. Just finished a contract buildin’ some sheds there, an’ I thought I’d drop in an’ see how yer were gettin’ along ’fore I looked for another collar.”
“Yer don’t drop in very often, lad,” said Tom. “Yer might come home at least once a year—say Christmas time. There’s not a soul here but what would give yer welcome.”
“I know that, mate. But, darn me, if I seem to get on th’ right track somehow. There’s th’ tide o’ circumstances, yer know, an’ it mos’ly has me drifted a thousand miles away, or in th’ middle of a cut or some other job, just when I oughter be loomin’ up ’yond th’ round swamp there. Must try an’ circumvent that tide somehow, an’ be a bit more frequent.” He glanced at Sarah, who responded with a man-melting smile. Mrs. Dougherty and Mrs. Palmer nudged one another and nodded as though they knew all about the tide in the affairs of Bill.
“There’s plenty doin’ ’ere just now, Bill,” said Tom, “an’ yer ken earn as good wages on th’ farm as elsewhere. No need to go trampin’ round for a time, anyway.”
“There’s my dead-dog luck as per usual,” said Bill. “Warn’t lookin’ for anything more’n a bit of a spell down this way, an’ promised a couple o’ mates o’ mine at Carson’s that I’d be back. So they’ll be waitin’ for me. We’re’ goin’ out to Brody’s together to try an’ make a rise.”
A cob slipped out of Sarah’s hand and hit Dougherty on the ear. While he was rubbing the afflicted organ and swearing with his eyes, and Sarah was apologising, the dogs rushed out barking again. Tom waded out through the husks to investigate, and Bill, not being used to husking, followed to stretch his legs. It was now broad moonlight. 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 him at the slip-panels down the flat. He wished to get to Cox’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, Bill. As luck 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 sliprails, he ken fetch your saddle back on my horse. He’ll lead up without trouble after his rest.”
Bill said “Right-o!” and started off down the track before Tom could offer any objections. That was the last they saw of Bill that night.
The sliprails were a mile from the house. Arrived there, the parson, dismounting, produced a long-barrelled pistol from his pocket, and drawing a bead on the astonished Wanderer, he ordered him to get on Captain. Bill noticed that the weapon 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 across the rump with his hat, sent him off with a jump that nearly dislocated Bill’s neck. Then he mounted the knocked-up horse and galloped furiously away into the bush.
“Well, this is a darn queer go if yer like!” muttered Bill, kicking at Captain’s sides in the hope of working him round to the house. But Captain steered for the round swamp, 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 common sense or reason in a caper like this? Darn his hide, what did I ever do to him that he sh’ud make it his special bizness to come ’ere an’ tie me to this animal? Nothing”— with emphasis. “Never, seen, him, in me life before!”
It was the greatest conundrum Bill had ever encountered in his wandering career. There was no motive, no object; the thing was inexplicable. He got wild with Captain, and kicked him into a jog. Then Bill humped 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 Bill watched the possums and squirrels, listened to the mopokes and curlews, and studied astronomy. 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 Bill tried to kick him out of it the deeper he went into it, till Bill’s feet were under water and his toes were partially frozen. He cursed him 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 he was. But free he could not get it.
“It’s no use,” he muttered; “I’m part an’ parcel o’ this darned quadruped, an’ jes’ 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 Bill very nearly toppled over. He was a poor horseman, and when the mob cantered away, and Captain kicked up his heels and cantered 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, Bill encouraged him to do so. He was very tired and sore and stiff, and after trying for 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-oed lustily. Sarah and her father had been standing, on the verandah, watching along the track, and wondering what had become of William.
A few minutes later they were down the paddock, making, frantic efforts to catch Captain. Tom holding out his hat, with a few clods in it, and saying “Kerp, kerp, kerp!” —while Bill sat back and said “Whey-e-e-yah!” 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 yer up. Bill?” she yelled after him.
Bill, between jerks; related the circumstance in as few words as the English language would permit.
“That was poor old Barker from down the river,” she shouted. “He’s broke out again!”
“S a pity he didn’t break his blamed neck!” snapped Bill
“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’s always a bit weak like, but there’s no harm in him.”
Bill 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 Barker.
“His uncle was here this mornin’,” Sarah rattled on as she unbound him. “He’s been all night chasin’ around. Seems Barker went off yesterday with an old pistol he’d found. ’Twasn’t loaded, but he stuck up a parson with it on th’ Coraki road. Took his horse an’ made him change clothes. Luck’ly, the uncle found parson, or there might ’ave been trouble, They’re always afraid th’ police will be interferin’ an’ takin’ him away. The people all know him down there, an’ have great fun with him”
“The pistol warn’t loaded?” said Bill, rubbing his numbed hands on his legs.
“No,” said Sarah. “’T had no hammer or trigger.”
Bill swore under his breath, separated himself from the cantankerous Captain with a groan, and limped painfully into the house. Tom came panting in and condoled with him, and hoped he would excuse Barker’s little joke. The poor chap didn’t mean any harm. Bill looked at his swollen wrists and said nothing.
“Sit in, lad,” said Tom, “an’ have some bacon an’ eggs an’ a cup of hot tea. Then get to bunk. You ken’ tell us all about it to-night.”
Sarah had laid his breakfast at one end of the table. On the other end was a parcel, just opened. It contained a box of handkerchiefs, a bottle of scent, a box of pins, a dozen of assorted cotton, a needle case, thimbles, and other fancy ware.
“Know, anything about that lot?” asked Tom. “Found ’em under the geranium bush when I was feedin’ th’ fowls.”
Bill grinned and reddened. “They’re for Sarah,” he said. “Meant to tell her when we came down from the barn.”
Tom laughed heartily, while Sarah blushfully thanked the wanderer, and said they were nice. Bill always brought, a miscellaneous parcel for Sarah when he came home. This time she had something for him, a gorgeous tie she had made herself. It had been waiting two years for him. He found it under his pillow when he retired after breakfast. A week later Bill stood ready to start for Brody’s. He shook hands with them all, lit his pipe, and made a feint to hoist his swag—but put it down again.
“Think I’ll ’ave a drink first,” he said, and walked round to the cask at the back of the house. The men were sitting on a stretcher on the verandah. Sarah stood at the door, looking miserable. Turning, she shoo’d an imaginary fowl from the back room, and on that pretext she joined Bill at the cask as that person dipped up a pannikin of water and poured it back again.
“How long are you goin’ for this time, Bill?” she asked, making pleats and tucks with the hem of her apron.”
“Be back Christmas after next, if not before,” Bill answered.
“That’s what you always say,” Sarah reproved. “Then when you get away with your mates, you forget—”
“I’ll be punctual to the month,” said Bill, with earnestness. “If Scully an’ the other chaps want to keep me, as they mostly do, I’ll tell ’em I’ve been yarded in the Big Bend, an’ ’twas Sarah Muddle that yarded me.”
“An’ tell ’em she forgot to put up the rails,” added Sarah, shyly.
“Dang me if I don’t think, they’re up,” said Bill, seriously. “They only want peggin’.” He held her hand in a firm grip. “So long, old gel.”
“So long, Bill.”
He hesitated a moment as he looked into her moistened eyes, then, catching her round the shoulders, bent down quickly and kissed her on the mouth. The rails were pegged.
I hobbled my horses out one afternoon in a grassy bend of the Bulloo River, between Emudilla and North Comongin. Here I had the company of a swagman who was an enthusiastic cobbler, tailor, and other things. He was an old man, bony and muscular, and his face was sharp and wrinkled, with a big hollow in each cheek. He had a habit of addressing himself occasionally as though he were speaking to a second person, in the course of which I learnt that his name was Caleb.
“Your 40 years’ gathering ain’t what it might be, Caleb, old man,” he informed himself, confidentially. “Still, it ain’t as bad as it could be. No!” Then, to me “I’m havin’ a sailor’s pleasure—overhaulin’ the dunnage an’ cleaning up. Want to buy any gems? Precious stones for rings?”
He had several small bags—made out of pockets and the linings of coat sleeves, containing various kinds of stones—some valuable, the majority worthless. He showed me, consecutively, licking each stone and polishing it with his palm, or on his knee, opal chips, diamonds, emeralds, agates, rubies, garnets, sapphires, and others, mingled with crystals, pieces of quartz, and little pebbles showing here and there a glint of gold. There were chunks of stone scored with greenish veins, which he said were samples of a rich copper lode that he had discovered, and was waiting for capital to work; specimens of lead and silver ores, and soft lumps that glittered with mica or fool’s gold. Besides these, there were bags containing pieces of tobacco, match-boxes, old pipes, and rusty pocket knives. These various items, together with some he didn’t show me—his tucker and rations, blankets, clothes, implements, pieces of leather, nails, sprigs and miscellany—made up a bulk that was at least explanatory of the worried look that accompanied Caleb.
He tied up each bag and parcel very carefully with string and put them aside. Then he went on with his cobbling. He had four pairs of old boots, two of which he was using to repair the other two. His last was a broken flat-iron, and his awl was a nail, filed sharp, with a handle on it. For palm he used a small, rough stone. As he finished each boot he tacked pieces of thin horse-shoe on the heel and sole for protectors.
The man who travels the bush, as a rule, besides being a tailor and cook in a small way, and many other things, is an adept at mending old boots. There is generally no call for a tradesman to set up business in his neighborhood—even had he always the means at hand to enable him to patronise local industry—and his absence has caused bushy to think and act for himself until he has become expert. Finding his leathers wearing, he first appropriates all sprigs or tacks that come in his way, and borrows a piece of good sole leather; then he acquires a hammer of some kind and goes to work. Caleb’s hammer was a tomahawk, the rounded head of which, slipping off the nails, accounted for the scars and blood blisters on his thumb, and seemed to me to accentuate the grim set of his lips as they closed over the stem of his pipe. Sometimes he hurled it savagely at the landscape, and hissed after it like a snake; then he would shake his digits in distress and mumble, while his eyes flashed, with a suspicion of moisture in them. A moment later he would recover the awful implement and resume operations.
The repairing done, Caleb commenced washing. He had a pile of soiled clothes in soak. “Cleanliness is next to Godliness, Caleb,” he told himself, as he fished up some wearing apparel that was dirty enough to pollute Bulloo Lake. “You’ve never forgot that, Caleb. No!” Then, to me; “I’ve always made it a practice to have a gen’ral washing day twice a year.”
“Must make an appreciable difference in the weight of your swag,” I remarked.
“Well, it do,” he admitted. “Real estate is good property when you’ve got enough of it; but there’s no points, as you say, in carrying samples of it about the country.” Swish, splash, rub. “No, Caleb. No!”
The washing process was interesting. He had a pint of kerosene in a black bottle, and numerous small pieces of soap, collected at station huts and deserted camps. His only vessel was a kerosene tin, obtained from the garbage tip at Emudilla. He first washed everything in this, in warm water, with a drop of oil in it, and stacked them one by one on a log. Next he boiled them in it, and finally rinsed them in the stream. Then he spread them over the neighboring bushes and hung them over limbs.
There is no work a bushman dislikes more than washing his own clothes—unless it’s milking another man’s cows in a mucky yard. If he can get out of it by hook or by crook he will do so. A few energetic men in places where there are no gins take advantage of this by washing for their work-mates at extortionate rates. There was one man on the Lower Bulloo who was a peregrinating laundryman. He kept to the one beat, calling at the huts about once a fortnight, and, besides washing for the men, he scrubbed floors, beat carpets, cleaned the chimney and the stove, and did other little jobs when required for the squatteresses. Caleb spoke of this person with scorn.
“You wouldn’t do that sort of work, Caleb. No!” he assured himself. Then, to me: ‘I tell you what we used to do, though, on Crosscut station. You’ve never been on Crosscut, I suppose? No, I thought not,” he added, before I had time to say yes or no. “It belonged to McNab,” he went on. “Sandy McPherson was manager at the time. Dunno who’s there now,” meditatively. “Anyway, I was workin’ there.” He said this emphatically, his voice pitched three keys higher than usual, as though I had disputed the point. “You put in a twelvemonth there, Caleb,” he reminded himself. “And you didn’t get the run, either. No!” Then, to me: “It was the custom on Crosscut to play cards on Saturday night to decide who should wash for all hands on Sunday. One night it fell to Johnny, a new hand, who’d evidently seen better days, and had reached Crosscut per medium of a registry office. Everyone overhauled his kit for soiled duds, and Johnny bundled them up and carried them down to the creek to put ’em in soak till mornin’, as he’d seen the rest of us do one time an’ another. He forgot the tub on the bank, though—just dumped ’em in the pot-hole. That night it rained heavens hard, and just after daylight Big Tom went to see how Johnny was gettin’ on. Found him sittin’ on the bank laughing at a roarin’ flood. ‘What the dash are yer laughin’ at?’ says Tom. ‘Why, doncherknow, there’s no washing to be done this morning,’ says Johnny, rubbin’ his hands and grinnin’ all over his face. He was admirin’ that flood. First he’d seen. ’Bai Jove, now,’ he says, ‘that’s a fine body of watah!’ Then a body met a body. Johnny had a long swim before he landed, an’ a long walk after to the pub. ‘With a bottle in each hand’ was the only way they would allow him to return to the hut. No one offered to wash, even a shirt on Crosscut after that. ’Twasn’t safe.”
Crosscut was the last place Caleb had worked at for wages, and that was more than a decade since. He had taken to fossicking, and intended to fossick until fortune enabled him to develop some of the rich mines he had discovered in his travels.
“You stick to yourself, Caleb, old man,” he advised, with a jerk of his head by way of emphasis. “You’ll never, find a better boss. No!” Then, to me: “It’s a fool’s game working for other people. Let ’em do their own work. That’s the sort of leveller; we’d all be tarred with the one brush then. And,” raising his voice, “Rockfeller’s gold wouldn’t be worth as much as a dish of spuds. No!”
When I left the camp next morning Caleb was examining the gibbers and pebbles at the crossing with a magnifying glass.
“There’s been many a fortune overlooked in this country through defective eyesight,” he said, moving about on one knee. “Who knows but there might be minerals hidden here that would make me a millionaire!”
“But what would be the use of being a millionaire,” I questioned, “if you wouldn’t have other people work for you? Unless you produced your own necessaries, and you don’t want riches to do that, the manufacturers of whatever you purchased would, directly or indirectly, be your servants.”
“If you’re a d—d fool,” he answered, with asperity, “is that a logical reason why I should be another? No!”
He picked up a pebble, licked it, and examined it carefully through the glass.
“You don’t want a licker, I suppose?” I inquired, jocosely.
He straightened up, and for one moment the worried expression left his face.
“A man to lick stones for you?” I hastened? to explain.
The worried expression returned, so pronounced that it seemed to me that it would never depart any more.
“A drop would do you no harm, Caleb. No!” he said, rooting after another gibber. “Though I can say you ain’t a liquor-lovin’ mortal. Caleb. No!” Then he turned sharply to me. “Don’t you lick for anybody, young man, or you’ll be licked yourself in the long run. Good day!”
Saying which, he dropped on his hands and applied his tongue to a hundred-weight chunk of geology.
Just off the Unumgar track, on a stony rise, and sheltered by box and ironbark trees, was a small hut with a weird reputation. Miles of silent bush for a background, a patch of dense scrub in front, with a nightly accompaniment of curlew and dingo, and a boobook in the distance, were all in keeping with its uncanny fame.
It was dusk. A fire was burning in the chimney, and on a bunk opposite the cavernous fireplace sat “Paddy the Ambler.” He seemed uncomfortable, and maintained a wary, listening attitude.
“Place seems all right,” he said, looking round. “Queer yarn, though, they tried to run into me back at the station. Reckon it’s haunted! No one ever camped here without seein’ the ghost—well, time he showed up if I’m to see him. Never seen anything in the spook line yet, though I’ve camped in ’nough so-called haunted huts one time an’ ’nuther to make a decent township.”
His bushman’s ear caught the sound of treading feet on the hard ground outside. It drew nearer— nearer—and presently the door opened softly inwards.
Something—entered, Paddy knew not what. He drew his legs up to his chin on the bunk, and stared like a startled owl. It was the most grotesque looking thing he had ever seen. It had all the essentials to the constitution of a man, sure enough; but the extras it bore about it were puzzling. He overlooked its dress—which was hairy, and only reached to its knees—and he excused its long, matted hair, for barbers are not always at hand in the bush when you want your hair cut. But it was the tail, that long stiff thing that trailed and prated on the ground, that upset his calculations. It carried an old tin dish full of potatoes, which it put on the hearth near the fire. Then it sat down and commenced poking the embers about.
Paddy thought it was time to speak. “Good night!’ he said.
It nodded familiarly, but did not speak or turn its head.
“What a’ yer doin’?” Paddy asked.
“Roastin’ spuds,” was the reply.
“Where‘d yer come from?”
“Where a’ yer goin’?”
Paddy sat staring at the queer object. Talking to it availed him nothing. It certainly had the power of speech, but was apparently too tired to make much use of it.
“’Taint a gorilla,” Paddy muttered, shaking his head. “’Taint an ourang-outang neither. It’s th’ consarn’dest queerest critter I’ve ’appened on for a long time.”
He tried again. “Been ’bout ’ere long, mate?”
“Purty near a century, I s’pose?”
“Thinkin’ o’ shiftin’ soon?”
“Bust an’ bile the scrub!” muttered Paddy, drawing his arm back as though in search of a brickbat.
His strange visitor stooped over the fire, and Paddy now saw that the tail was appended to the skin of an old-man kangaroo, which the man—for a real man it was—wore for an overcoat. His feet were bare; so were his legs; in fact, the skin was his only covering.
His roasting completed, he got up and walked out.
“Well, good night,” said Paddy, “an’ thank yer for a pleasant ev’nin’!”
“Spuds cooked,” said the man from the scrub, as he disappeared into the darkness.
Paddy camped a week in that hut, “solving the mystery.” He solved it, and won the gratitude of many a traveller by leaving the following, scrawled in charcoal, on the door:
The gost wot hornts this ere shanty ain’t no gost at all. He’s a bloke wot groes spuds in the scrub and roasts ’em wen some cove makes a fire. Wen the fire goes out, the bloke eats raw spuds till somebody comes along and lites ’nuther fire. Don’t trie to keep it goen. Ain’t got no sents. Don’t
store up no roast spuds kneether. Guaranteed kwite.
Paddie the Ambular.
This masterpiece completed, Paddy notified the wild man of his intention to quit in the morning.
“Look ’ere, mate, he said, “better get a light from ’ere ’fore the fire goes out. May be a month ’fore yer next stoker comes along. Make a blaze of yer own in the scrub, if yer prefer to live with the owls, an’ keep it goin’. Then yer’ll allus ’ave roast spuds, or roast anything else for the matter o’ that.”
The wild man put his finger to his nose and stared at the ground for several minutes. Then he uttered one grunt, and departed.
Sunrise. Paddy was preparing to go while something outside was tugging at the chimney wall. Crash went a slab. Presently down went another, followed by a chuckle, and the patter of hurrying feet. Paddy looked out, and saw the scrub-dweller running about, picking up sticks.
“What a’ yer up to now?’ asked Paddy.
“ ’S alright,” said the man, with a shake of an elevated forefinger. He was quite happy. A grin played on his distorted features as he laid the sticks in the breach he had made in the wall, and ran off for another armful.
Looking scrubwards, Paddy saw that there were hundreds of these armfuls, placed closely together in a zig-zag line, and extending away into the heart of the scrub. The fellow had worked at it all night.
Soon he had built it up to the fire, and the long trail of wood took light. Slowly it burned through the gap, and crackled on, down the ridge, towards the scrub. The wild man followed, watching it, and when a puff of wind increased the blaze, he danced and clapped his hands with delight.
“Well,” said Paddy, as he shouldered his swag and made off, “that’s one way o’ gettin’ a light from yer neighbour’s fire!”
Droney’s Crossing is well known, but the origin of the name is not.
Droney was a station hand, a stout, blustering little party, with short bandy legs, and the mental capacity of a sheep. The only thing that could be said to his credit, so “Long Mick” averred, was that he bathed regularly.
“Often comes to work soppin’ wet,” said Mick, on more than one occasion. “Hasn’t time to moult an’ doll up again, an’ as he can’t pass a drop o’ water without havin’ a plunge, he jes’ goes in togs an’ all. Sort o’ kleptomania with him— or maybe it’s hydrophobia.”
The station where he worked was on one side of the river, while Droney, for want of other quarters, lived in a two-roomed hut on the other side. He crossed the river night and morning, partly by means of a log, which spanned about three-quarters of the stream, and partly by a sapling, which spanned the other quarter. This sapling was very slender, and as Droney wasn’t built for tight-rope walking, he mostly reached home in a very wet condition through falling into the river.
One evening he tried it with bare feet. Half-way over they slid from under him, and he sat down—very hard. His hat was jerked off, and floated down the river. He also lost his boots, which he had been carrying in his hands, and in making a desperate grab after them, he overbalanced, and added another plunge to his long record.
“Drought strike this blamed river!” he gasped, as he clawed his way out like a half-drowned dog. “There’s both ends o’ me gone, an’ I’m soppin’ wet as usual.”
The jeers of his wife, and the grinning faces of his children, hurt Droney’s feelings more than did his involuntary plunges into the river. He was too depressed to say anything; he was getting thin with anxiety and the continual worry of that awful dividing stream. It was his first thought on waking, his last thought at night; it flowed thro’ his mind all day at work, and even gurgled through his dreams.
It became a habit with the children to get up early to see the morning’s performance. It was their circus, and Droney was the clown. When the entertainment was over they would race back to the hut, and yell excitedly as they reached the door: “Father fell in again, mother!”
They waited for him at sundown, and they would make bets as to how far over, and on which side of the log, father would fall in. It was an exciting moment for them when they saw him on one occasion attempt to negotiate the obstacle on his hands and knees. He passed the big log safely, but when he got on to the sapling he wobbled and fell on his back. When he reached home, the first thing he saw was young Bob on all-fours on the long stool, showing them the way father did it.
Droney determined to make a domicile on the station side, if it was only a canvas one. He had got a few poles together for the purpose, and was congratulating himself that, after another week or two, he would be able to remain dry like other people, when the elements turned against him. A week’s heavy rain swept the bridge out of existence, and a continuous small flood separated him from his home.
“Why not drown a man at once, an’ not be a-dippin’ an’ a-dippin’ of him!” he cried, casting an angry glance skywards.
The family supplies ran short, and the family was threatened with starvation. Droney felt that he must cross that river somehow or perish.
Having no material with which to build a boat, he hit upon the idea of a catamaran, which wonderful invention evolved itself into two rough logs lashed together with fencing wire. This needed a wire stretched from bank to bank to pull the concern to and fro. He got over this difficulty with a line, with, which the children hauled; the end of the wire over. They fastened it to a tree, and Droney drew it taut and secured his end.
Having cut and prepared a couple of stout cedar logs in an adjacent scrub, “Long Mick,” the station bullock-driver, drew them to the water’s edge for him, and Droney made his catamaran and launched it. Then, loaded with two small bags of flour, some pumpkins, a bag of meat, and several heads of cabbage, Droney started on his voyage across the flooded stream.
He smoked his pipe at the start, for he was pleased. But the pleased look soon gave way to one of dismay. A wandering log struck him amidships to begin with—and he lost his pipe. A little further on Droney nearly went frantic as a piratical snake tried to board him. He shoo’d it off with what spare breath he had, which wasn’t much.
There was a minute’s respite after this; but the work was becoming more arduous as he got further from shore. As he approached the centre current it took him all his time to keep his feet on the logs. He was on the down side of the cable, and the unwieldy craft was washing away from under him. Droney thought of turning back to tie his feet to it, but the youngsters yelled out to him to come on, and Droney “come on.” But the further he went the more his body inclined to an angle; his legs pointed down stream, and his arms seemed to be tearing from their sockets.
His hat blew off and spun away on the muddy water. The children yelled, and Droney gasped for breath, tugging at the wire for dear life. The river seemed ten miles wide, and Droney thought it was running at 2000 knots an hour. The “missus” came to the bank with the baby in her arms, and made sarcastic reference to an “old fool.”
Droney was now in midstream, hanging on for his natural. The missus called out to him, and Droney indiscreetly looked up. The next instant the “cat” was whirling down stream, with its cargo swimming around it. The sudden jerk, as Droney dropped into the water, broke the wire from the tree where he himself had tied it, and Droney, too, went spinning down the river. Being still secured at one end, however, the wire swung him into the shore, and more dead than alive Droney scrambled out. He was across at last.
The missus met him with a long face, “In God’s name, how’re we goin’ to live?” she said, casting a despairing glance after the vanishing flour. There wasn’t a bite in the house, and now that Droney had crossed from the land of plenty it seemed to the hungry woman that the last hope was gone with the last cargo.
“Bob,” said Droney, with a desperate look in his eyes, “go an’ get th’ gun, an’—an’ bring me yer mothers bonnet!”
He shot a wallaby in the scrub, and throwing it down on the doorstep set out for “Forty-mile Town” to get him a punt. And the children, following the river down, fished out the flour from against a log. They hid it in a cave where they were wont to play at bandits; and every day for months afterwards they made dampers and johhny-cakes on the bank, and hoped father would always fall in the river when he took flour on board. It was better than wallaby. That was more than half a century ago, and though the present inhabitants have long forgotten Droney, if they ever knew him, they are all familiar with “Droney’s Crossing.”
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