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Title: Collected Short Stories Volume 5 Author: Edward S. Sorenson * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 2001081h.html Language: English Date first posted: September 2020 Most recent update: September 2020 This eBook was produced by: Walter Moore and Colin Choat Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia Licence which may be viewed online.
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An Old Flame
Ham Rolin's Love Affair
Murty's Strange Predicament
Peter Crump's Courtship
The Drovers and the Melon Patch
The Life of the Grey Possum
A couple who were sweethearts in their youth are thrown together again under pitiful circumstances. The woman is tied to a loafer and drunkard, whose death causes her no regret. Her former lover looks forward to winning her for his wife, but when, in accordance with an agreement, he returns at the end of a year, it is to realise that she has played him false.
* * *
It had been raining pitilessly all the morning, and already there was a rise in the Warrego.
Near Gowrie Crossing a man and a woman crouched miserably under a sheet of bark. There was no fire, and the woman was wet and hungry. The water dripped on to her shoulders, and soaked under till the bottom of her dress was sopping. Her husband, with more than his share of the meagre shelter, was dry. He leaned back on the half-opened swag and puffed at his pipe.
Nearer the crossing was a bagman, snug and dry in a 6 x 8 tent, with a little fire burning on a piece of galvanised iron. He had seen the pair move up the [illegible]nulla-road the evening before, the man carrying a swag and billy, the woman a bundle over her shoulder, and the "nosebag" [illegible word]. He had pitied her then, he pitied her more now. She was young and good-looking, with brown hair and grey-blue eyes; but she was poorly clad, and want and misery showed in her face. It was hopeless—the face of a woman whose heart was dead. For four hours he had watched them through the rain, and he had summed up the man as a lazy, worthless brute. He set his teeth and swore under his breath as his eyes wandered from the man to the shivering form of the woman. At last he threw a bag across his shoulders and went over.
"This is a pretty bad wicket you're on, mate," he said.
"It's a bit in favour of the bowler, all right," the other admitted. "Better let the missus go over to the tent," his visitor suggested.
The man sat up and grinned.
"With you?" he said.
"I'll get a sheet or two of bark for myself."
"An' stick it up convenient," the other sneered.
"Look here, mate," said the bagman. "There's no hanky-panky about me. My name's Mat Burkett, an' they know, me from one end o' this Warrego to the other. There's nothing o' the lizard about me, old man."
Mat was considerably put out at the reception of his good intentions, and only for the woman's sake he curbed the more bitter words that rose to his lips. She had risen, and standing in a pool of water, with the rain now pouring on her unchecked, he saw her eyes wander towards the tent.
"You go over there, missus, an' make yourself comfortable," he advised. "There's no points in perishing here. There's a fire inside, an' you'll find tucker in the bag, an' some tea in the billy."
She thanked him, while she glanced at her husband.
"Well, why don't you go?" asked the latter.
She picked up a little bundle and went.
Then Mat turned to the indolent husband.
"Better give me a hand to strip some bark, an' we'll rig a caboose over there for ourselves. This shower may last a week."
The man looked lazily at the sky.
"Don't think so," he said.
"Well, what about the bark?" asked Mat.
"Too wet to go strippin' now," the other answered. "I'll do here."
"Right!" said Mat, and presently they heard his axe strokes among the dripping trees.
At first Mat had not recognised the woman to whom he had given up his snug quarters; but when she told him her husband's name was Josh Canty, he knew her for the daughter of a well-to-do selector on the Balonne. The revelation for the moment stunned him, and he sat silently down, with the flood of a bitter past sweeping upon him. They had been sweethearts long ago, and he recalled one Sunday when they had ridden to where the Maranoa and Condamine join to form the Balonne. Their horses had got away while they rested in the shade, and they had tramped back to the Four-mile, where he carried her over the rocky crossing; and then they walked again through the lanes and paddocks home. The memory of the tired little girl he had kissed that night brought an oath to his lips now, and vehemently he cursed the man who married her.
Josh Canty was a "remittance man." He told her he would come in for a lot of money when his uncle died. He showed her occasional letters and small drafts he got from "home," and she believed him. Mat had been slow, and while he was down-country she married Canty.
Soon she discovered that her fine gentleman was a callous brute; the remittances ceased, and poverty and its consequent worries encompassed them. The furniture was seized, and they drifted into an outshed, where she kept herself and him by taking in washing. At length came a lawyer's letter stating that the uncle was dead; his property was heavily mortgaged, and when everything was squared there would probably be a few pounds to come to him. That was the end of their dreams of a resplendent future.
The man who owned the shed now began to call round to inquire if Canty had got a job yet. Then Canty decided to shift. He knew a squattage on the Warrego where he thought he could get a married couple's billet. The boss was a young man, and would like being waited on by a young and pretty woman like Laura. He might take a fancy to her, as lonely bosses sometimes did in such cases. Then Canty might get to be storekeeper or overseer and have easy times.
Laura wanted to return home until he was settled; but he said he couldn't get that good billet without her, and with more promises of a brighter future, he induced her to shoulder her share of the dunnage and go with him on the wallaby.
Thus after weeks of wandering and camping about, chance had led her again to Mat Burkett.
The rain had eased off, but still there was a drizzle and a cold wind next morning. The woman was ill in bed, and when he took her in a warm breakfast, Mat had to tell her that Canty was gone. He did not regret it himself, he knew she was better without him; but the woman was loth to admit that she was deserted.
"He will come back," she said. "He is expecting a letter and money here, and I suppose he has gone to the post-office to inquire."
When night did not bring him back, Mat asked:
"Do you think he would clear out and leave you?"
"I think he's got the money," she said, evasively. "He drinks, you know, and I shouldn't wonder if he's on the spree. He may come yet."
Mat sat down near her to keep her from feeling lonely till she went to sleep. Next day she asked frequently if there was any sign of Canty; and in the afternoon she called him into the tent.
"I have no one but you, Mat," she said, piteously. "I'm sorry to be giving you so much trouble—"
"No trouble at all, missus," he answered. "I wish I could do more for you."
"I'd like you to go up to town, Mat," she continued, "and see if he's there. If he's drinking, you will know he's got the money. Try and get it from him, or he'll squander it all. You know, Mat, I'm destitute."
Mat left her with a muttered oath.
From Gowrie Crossing to Charleville was only a little more than a mile. But it was a mile of mud and water, and Mat had to walk into the main street with his boots in his hand. At the first pub he found Canty making a ludicrous attempt to perform a jig on the verandah. Three or four carriers sat on a form, laughing and egging him on. Mat stood watching him until, staggering round, Canty discovered him.
"Hulloa, swaggy; how's the ole woman?" he cried cheerily. "Hope yer gorra dry. Keep hot bottles to her feet if she's cold. Ole girl's tremenjus partial to hot bottles 'gin her feet." With his hat in his hand he backed to the wall, chuckling. Then he addressed the company. "Wotcher think of swaggie, chaps? Shook my bloomin' missus from me yesterday. S'elp me Bob. Wouldn't think he 'ad it in him, would yer? How yer gettin' on with her, ole chap?"
The men laughed uproariously as Mat, flushed and indignant, walked into the bar.
From the publican he learned that Canty had received a sum of £70, most of which he had still on him. Then he called Canty into the little parlour, and told him that his wife was dying, and that the police were looking for him for deserting her. Canty was at heart a coward, and he was in a fit condition, besides, to believe any mulga the other might tell him. They had some drinks together, and in a few minutes £50 had changed pockets. Canty thought he was giving him twenty; but Mat did the counting. Afterwards he endeavoured to persuade him to return to the camp.
"No," said Canty. "I done with her—gorra a good thing without her. She left me of her own accord, an'—you can keep her."
"Don't be a fool. Go back to your wife."
"Haven't I sold her to you? Look 'ere, berrer give me receipt for Laura—just to show all's square."
Mat thought to humour him.
"It wouldn't be any good without her signature," he said. "Come down to the camp an' M we'll fix it up."
"You go an' fix yerself up. Wantsh ter get me stuff, dontcher? I'm up to you."
"Mat slipped out by the back way and, making a few purchases for the sick woman, returned to his camp. The woman looked up expectantly; and when he came to her side she looked beyond him.
"He's on the bust, missus," Mat told her, "Better let him have it out, an' then he'll come back."
"Did you get the money from him?"
"Most of it." He handed her the £50, in full.
"Thank you; he'll come back for the money if not for me."
Mat's face set hard.
"If Canty comes here, it's to be for you or nothing. You understand?"
"If you part a single John Dunn, an' he leaves you—?"
"So will I."
She was silent; but there was a faint smile on her lips.
He made her some soup with preserves and essences; then he fixed a candle by her bedside, and left her some papers to read. He hoped she would soon be well, for the position was awkward. He could not forget his old love; her face and voice kept the past before him. The thought of winning her from her allegiance to Canty and taking her out west would obtrude itself at times in spite of him, but he would cast it from him with a shrug of his broad shoulders and an imprecation on his own momentary weakness. If she were free he would try his luck again; as it was, he would not tempt her; he would try and forget her.
Laura wondered why he did not refer to old times, and ask her to make it up and pier (sic) with him; yet he treated her like a sister.
He went often to the pub to try to coax Canty away from the drink; and on [illegible word] day, when Laura had left her bed, he came home excited and pale, and told her that she was a widow. Canty had wandered off in the night, and that morning they had fished his body out of the backwash above the town. But for a momentary look of horror in her face at the mention of death, Laura betrayed no signs of emotion. She was a little greyer in her deportment, afterwards, and talked less, but there was no indication, to the watchful eye of the man, that any love had lingered for Josh Canty.
He had no regrets to offer; he looked upon it rather as an occasion for rejoicing, not from selfish motives, but because of the wretched life the man had led her.
"You'll return to your people now," he said; "and the sooner the better. People will talk. You can take the train from here to Mitchell, then coach it to St. George. In a few days you'll be home."
There were surprise and disappointment in her face.
"And you?" she asked sadly.
"I'll go west. But I'll come back by-and-bye," he answered. "You won't forget me, if I'm long?"
"No," she said, speaking in a dispassionate, even tone, and looking at him as though he puzzled her. "I'll never forget you."
On the platform, when he went to see her off, she asked indifferently, "When may I expect you?"
"A year from to-day," he answered.
She waved her hand to him, as the train moved away, and her lips were smiling.
It turned out a year of disappointments for Mat Burkett. He found himself drought-bound out west, waiting to get down with cattle. Month after month he fretted there, thinking always of the little widow whom he never doubted would be looking for him. At last the the rain came, and he started down with the mob. As he neared Panunda, he decided to write from there, and explain matters to Laura Canty. He thought it possible he could come back to a job there. He knew the Kreffords of Panunda. Young Arthur, he heard, had lately been married, and was busy managing the squattage for his father.
>It was sundown when he reached the homestead. The girl told him that the men were all away mustering and would not be back for a day or two. He was disappointed, but after a moment's hesitation, he asked to see Mrs. Krefford. Some minutes later a well-dressed, refined-looking woman appeared. She started slightly and the colour left her face as he turned towards her. He also showed surprise; but he spoke with gladness.
A look of fear came into her eyes, and her lips seemed to harden.
"I beg your pardon," she answered coldly; "I am Mrs. Krefford."
"What!" he cried, while a cold chill seemed to strike through him—"you Krefford's wife?"
She looked at him helplessly; but her eyes flashed.
"You forgot, then—an' so soon!"
"I think you're making a mistake," she said hoarsely.
"Have you forgotten the promise you made on the Warrego?"
"What do you mean?" she asked.
Then bitter anger seized him.
"You hypocrite! You know me—good heavens, woman, you could never forget—"
"You are evidently mistaking me for someone else," she said coldly. "What is it you want?"
A feeling of defeat came over him.
"Nothing much," he answered bitterly. Then, defiantly, "Just a shelter for the night."
"I am sorry," she returned, "but Mr. Krefford never allows travellers to camp at the station.
"Thank you, madam!" He turned away, but looked back once, and said: "I hope you'll be dry when it rains. Good-bye!"
With her face to the window pane, she watched him until he had faded away into the grey distance. Then she sat down, and cried.
It was a rough little hut that first sheltered the pioneers of Borabeen. There were only three rooms, built of slabs and roofed with bark, and a lean-to at the back for cooking in. Mrs. Drayden had often voiced her objections to the latter, for it necessitated her going out at all times when the men were away, and the thought of the blacks, who were bad at that time, was ever uppermost in her mind. She could not forget how they had come to Borabeen; she and her sister, Nellie Harrod, perched under the awning on top of the bullock waggon, and menaced day and night by wandering aborigines, and how the site had been marked by a battle on the first morning.
There was a grave at the edge of the scrub, half a mile from the sapling yard, whence the broad, grey plains spread away to the western horizon. She had objected to this scrub, too, as it afforded cover to the enemy; but Phil Drayden had pointed out that the homestead must be built there for the sake of the water.
The greatest trouble was experienced when the sheep were brought on to the run. The blacks looked on the jumbucks as legitimate game, and many skirmishes took place between them and the whites. The sheep were kept on the open country, where they could be seen at a great distance from the hut. When any blacks were seen approaching, Nell would gallop out, taking care not to get too close, and crack her stockwhip for a while. This ruse answered the purpose, but the blacks at length discovered that there was no harm in it, except when it fell on their shoulders; and they came to greet her efforts in the end with derisive yells.
Then one day she took the gun and, approaching nearer than usual, fired a charge of coarse salt at their legs. That changed their opinion of the white lubra, and they ran for their lives, some of the wounded ones with yells of agony, others leaping and slapping frantically at their stinging legs; and now that they were turned in flight, Nell galloped close at their heels, and gave them the contents of half a dozen salt-loaded cartridges.
For months after that they kept away from Borabeen. Them one afternoon they appeared at the hut.
The men were fencing at the back of the run, and the women were, seated quietly at a table sewing. The doors were closed, which was always the case when the women were alone. The rattle of a chain at the lean-to attracted Mrs. Drayden and, stealing to a crack in the back wall, she peeped out and was horrified to see a score of naked savages around the fire. She had a pudding cooking in a round pot for the men when they came home in the evening, and two of the unwelcome visitors were in the act of lifting it out with their spears. She tiptoed quickly back to her sister.
"Nellie, Nellie," she whispered, "the blacks are here! They're at the pudding. Oh, what are we to do?"
The colour left Nell's face at the shock, and she took a hasty survey of the scene. The blacks were in their war panoply, and the absence of women was an ominous sign. The men had taken the firearms with them, for men in those days fenced with a loaded gun ready at hand, or a pouched revolver slung at the bolt.
Nell, without a word, stole back to the front and looked out. The bay pony was standing behind some bushes, a few yards away, and in a moment she had made up her mind.
"Phyllis," she whispered, "you peg the doors and windows and keep quiet." She took the bridle down from a peg behind the door.
"But what are you going to do?" asked Phyllis anxiously.
"Gallop out for Phil and Bob," Nell replied. "I can get Nutley without being seen and the blacks are all interested in sampling the duff."
"Oh, let me go, too," cried Phyllis. "I daren't stop here."
"We can't both go," said Nell. "One would only hinder the other. Keep very quiet, and you'll be safe."
"I suppose I must," said Phyllis, resignedly. "But be quick back, won't you? And for goodness sake be careful!"
She watched through the chinks in the wall while Nell crept to the bushes, and slipped the bridle on Nutley. Springing on to his back, she galloped away along the edge of the scrub. The first clatter of hoofs aroused the preoccupied blacks and, after a hurried consultation, they fled precipitately into the thicket. Phyllis breathed freely again, and now watched, minute after minute, for Nell to appear on the plain.
Below the rise on which the hut stood was a long waterhole, and to round this Nell had to pass through a projecting point of the scrub. She was half through, riding hurriedly, when, a broken limb caught her hard against the shoulder, and knocked her out of the saddle. She was not hurt and was soon running after the pony, which had turned and crossed the main creek. For half an hour she chased it about; but, though Nutley was easily caught at any time in the little house paddock, his behaviour was quite different in the open country. Fearing to lose any more time, she gave it up, and continued her way on foot.
In her hurry, and the confusion consequent upon running about after Nutley, she had lost her bearings and, without taking much notice, she now crossed a branch creek in mistake for the main channel, and struck across the wide plain that spread before her. The line of timber on her right, which really marked the main creek, she mistook for that which fringed the water hole, and the dry course that led into it. Thus, by a slight error, her footsteps were directed at right angles to the course she should have taken.
It was five miles across that plain, and when she had reached the far side she know she was bushed. This was not Borabeen boundary, for a chain of waterholes ran east and west. She gazed around her in dismay, with a growing fear in her heart, as she thought of her sister waiting alone in the hut. She quenched her thirst on her hands and knees; then hastened along the watercourse, seeing that it led towards the other line of timber, now a low bank in the distance.
Her eyes filled with tears as the sun went down, and the howl of the dingo came faintly through the trees. What was she to do? She could not find her way back in the dark, and she dared not leave the water. Neither could she light a fire to guide those who would come in search of her; she had nothing to light it with.
As she stumbled on, tired and breathless, the night shut down on the silent plains, and now horror came with it. She was being followed by dingoes, and the frequent howls of others in the distance indicated to the frightened girl that they were gathering around her. She picked up a stick to defend herself and, ever searching for a tree she could climb, or for other means of escape, she hurried desperately on through the night.
* * *
That afternoon had been a torture to Mrs. Drayden. The disappearance of Nell in the scrub, and her non-return, told plainly that something serious had happened, When she saw the men returning at sunset she ran down to meet them.
"Nellie...Nellie!" she cried faintly. "Oh, Phil, where is Nellie?"
"How do I know?" asked Phil, roughly. Nevertheless he stopped short, and stared at her. "What's happened?"
"The blacks were here," said Phyllis, "and she galloped away on Nutley to bring you home."
"We haven't seen her," Phil returned, looking blankly at his mate, Bob Wylie.
"I didn't see her leave the scrub," Phyllis continued, tremulously. "Oh, Phil, she's dead—she's killed!" She broke into sobs, and wrung her hands.
"She can't be far," he told her, though his own heart felt as though it had been plunged into an ice chest. "Go back to the house, Phyllis."
He handed her the billycan and, with the gun on his shoulder, made a beeline for the scrub. Here, standing against the fence, he found Nutley. Springing upon his back, he followed the horse's tracks till dark, then cantered across the eastern sandhills in search of the blacks' camp.
Meanwhile, Bob had cut off some broad and meat, and with this in a saddle-pouch slung over his shoulder, started on the girl's tracks, with a good dog scouting before him.
Bob had not been very long on Borabeen, but quite long enough to discover that Nellie Harrod was the dearest little woman on earth. His had been a rough and adventurous life, exploring for land-seeking squatters and overlanding; so a night out on the downs was nothing to him. He would do a hundred times more than that for Nell's sake. They had been firm friends from the first; beyond that Bob had not ventured, but this incident told him very much he was in love with her.
For a while the dog led him straight on, but after crossing the creek his course became so erratic that Bob had to search himself for the tracks with lighted matches to ascertain if the animal were not leading him false. When he saw the girl's and the horse's tracks he understood; but still he was filled with misgivings. She would not be all this time following the horse. Then what had become of her? Had the blacks come upon her and speared her?
Only when the dog crossed the branch creek, and headed straight across the plain did the expectancy of coming upon her dead body leave him. He knew then that she was bushed; but how would she come out of it? He thought of the many thirst-perished travellers he had heard of and found; of bushed women who had wandered in circles and died. And ever, as he followed in the wake of the faithful animal, four lines kept running through his mind:
Dead on the sandhill
The sundowner lies,
The crow on the quondong
Has pecked out his eyes.
Would he find Nell Harrod so? A hundred ways he anticipated the finding of her as he stumbled along in the dark; but all his dreamings never pictured what really happened.
He was glad when the dog led him to the water, and he could have shouted with joy when, striking matches along the edge, he saw the impression of her hand still fresh in the mud. Now satisfied that she was safe, he sat down and ate some of the bread and meat he had brought, keeping the bigger share for the girl. He bathed his feet in the water to ease them, for Bob had done a hard day's work before starting on this long night tramp. Then he pushed on again, the dog following the chain of ponds. In an hour they came to a standstill between two trees. The dog sniffed around them, then stood still, looking up.
High up across the branches of these trees was a bulky stage, built of logs and sticks. Bob recognised it at once as the repository for the bodies of dead aborigines, a custom peculiar to that part of the country. A faint stench reached him, and it was probably this that attracted the dog. He struck his last match—and it went out. The last match nearly always does go out, somehow. Then he tried to induce the animal to go on; but it would only dodge aside and look up. When he led the way it followed him slowly and dejectedly. He was puzzled; the dog had never betrayed his confidence, and it was not the first aboriginal burial place the twain had investigated. He persisted for half an hour, but the dog would not go on.
"There's no help for it but to camp till mornin'," muttered Bob, impatiently and, with much disappointment, he went to a bushy tree some 50 yards distant, and lay down on the grass. A smoke would have done him good just then; but he had no matches. So he lay with his boots and hat for a pillow, gazing at the stars, and thinking of Nellie Harrod.
* * *
Phil Drayden had returned to the hut long before this time, having found no trace of the blacks.
"We can do nothing more till morning, Phyllis—or till Bob comes back," he said, as he sat wearily down to supper.
Poor Phyllis was heartbroken. "You shouldn't have taken the gun away from the hut to-day," she reproached.
"I'll never do so again," he promised her.
* * *
Bob was wakened at sunrise by the persistent growling of his brute companion. He sat up, and almost immediately his eyes fell on a number of wild blacks, standing a hundred yards off. Yabbering, and pointing excitedly in his direction. He thought that he was the object of interest, and a sold chill wont through him as it struck him that here was the solution of the dog's strange behaviour last night, and of Nell's disappearance.
"You black fiends," he hissed, as he leaped to his feet, with his hand gripping his revolver.
Then he chanced to look towards the stage and there, sitting a few feet from the withered remains of a native monarch, was Nellie Harrod, her hair dropping about her shoulders, staring with terrified eyes at the equally terrified blacks. They swayed a moment, then, turning as one, fled precipitately into the bush, apparently convinced that their dead compatriot had "jumped up white-follow."
Bob was so pleased that he shouted lustily:
Nell turned quickly.
"Oh, Bob, is it you?" she cried joyfully.
She slipped down and, limping towards him, threw herself into his arms. The relief from her pent-up feelings was so great that she let him cover her face with passionate kisses. But presently she drew back, with bowed head, and little crimson patches dyed her cheeks.
Bob hold her hands.
"You needn't be ashamed, Nell," he said. "I've wanted to kiss you ever so long, an' I'm goin' to kiss you always. Last night put the finisher on me. I couldn't go on lookin' at you any longer; I had to kiss you or bust. An' you'll be my very own, won't you, dearie?"
"Let me tell you when I get home, Bob," she answered, faintly.
"All right pet. I'm a brute to 've forgotten. You must be famished. An' what's the matter with your foot?"
"I hurt it climbing on to that horrid place there. I was so frightened of the dingoes that, in my hurry, I slipped and hurt my ankle. However, am I to get home?"
"I'll carry you, my girl. You mustn't walk one blessed inch. Let me lift you along to the water first of all—just to get into the way of it. I've got some tucker in the pouch for you, an' with that and a drink of water, you'll be as fit as a fiddler to ride home."
He carried her tenderly in his arms to the water's edge, and there she eagerly ate what rough provisions he had brought. His own breakfast was only a drink of water and a chew of tobacco; but he led her to believe he had already eaten.
"Wonder you didn't hear me moochin' around under your roost last night?" he remarked.
"I suppose I was dead asleep," she answered. "I was so awfully tired when I got up there."
"Good thing you struck that fakus, anyhow," said Bob. "My oath, you gave those niggers a Yankee start this morning!"
"I was really thinking of my prayers when they turned," Nellie confessed, with a coy little smile.
"They won't come any more," Bob asserted. "An' now we'll get you home, girlie, or Phil an' the missus will be going dotty."
He helped her up, then stooped for her to get on his back.
"Don't be the least afraid," he assured her; "you'll find me a thoroughly reliable mount—never bucked in my life."
That was a terrible journey for poor Bob; seven miles of gritty plain, under a blazing sun, that drenched him with perspiration; but he never murmured. At the bottom of the house paddock Phyllis and Drayden met them, frantic with delight; and Bob was relieved of his burden. But when Drayden put her down in the hut, she turned to him again.
"Bob," she said, with a little quiver in her voice, "I'll give you your answer now."
Then she put her arms round his neck, and kissed him.
As Narrated by the Boy
Aunt Miranda was a sedate old-fashioned dame. She lived on a lonely scrub farm, four miles from Slocum's. Having no children of her own, she showered her affections on Bowser, who was a little white poodle, with long, woolly hair, like an Angora goat's. It hung over his eyes and shook when he walked. His ears shook too, being limp flaps, and wherever Aunt Miranda went that poodle was sure to go.
So far as I could see, he was no earthly use for anything, except to lie around and eat. Ha was so fat that he reminded me of a barrel standing on four pegs. I hated that dog. As for him, if he could have spoken his thoughts, I would often have heard insulting remarks like this:
"What my mistress keeps that awful boy for, I don't know; I can't stand him."
I could never entice him with me when I went across the river, or away down into the dark scrub for a clothes-prop. He seemed to have a suspicion that my religion was the same as Butler's. When anybody else fed him he gulped the food without a moment's hesitation; but when I was the donor, he eyed that food suspiciously, and smelt it all over, and turned it about with his paw, and licked it.
Sometimes, after doing all that, he would sit down and watch it, as though he suspected it of being jadoo'd, or loaded with an infernal machine; Yet I had been more attentive to him than anybody else. I had tried him with all sorts of things to see what suited his palate best. I discovered that he liked his meat better without condiments, such as mustard and cayenne pepper, and he liked common salt in his soup better than Epsom salts. He didn't like painkiller, either, which I had to give him for an irritating cough he had contracted; and he liked plain water better than good rum.
I discovered that through picking up a bottle on the road when Bowser had bronchitis. Uncle Ephraim always took rum when he felt a cold coming on. It was remarkable how often he was threatened with colds, and how effectually the rum blocked them. I reasoned that what was good for Uncle was good for Bowser; so I took him down the gully, and emptied a pint or so into him by way of experiment. It was the happiest half-hour I had known for months, seeing him home again. He fell over the geraniums looking for the keyhole on the wrong side of the house, and went to sleep with his legs in the air, and a seraphic smile on his countenance.
When Aunt Miranda was due to call on the Slocums, she got up early, and bathed Bowser with warm water and scented soap. Then I tethered him on a bag in the sun to dry; after which he was carefully combed and brushed from his nose to the tip of his tail and, when his toilet was complete, a piece of blue ribbon and a necklace of brass bells were tied round his neck. He knew what all this meant. He would, dance round like a kid that's going to the circus and pant with excitement. He liked being taken out, did Bowser.
We walked down, and as it took Aunt Miranda all her time to look out for snakes, I had to look after that poodle. This spoilt my enjoyment. I couldn't hunt for birds and flowers and 'possums with that little mongrel on my mind. His proper place was on the track, just in front of Aunt Miranda, as a sort of buffer against snakes; but he never could keep his place, that dog. He was a connoisseur in the matter of smells, and whenever he struck anything special he wanted to go after it. If we flushed a bandicoot, or anything like that, he was carried away by sheer excitement, and I had to run after him.
Where there was much water and mud I had to carry him. There was only one thing he liked better than wallowing in mud—that was to scent himself by rolling round a dead cow. One day he succeeded in doing both. I got the blame. I also had to wash him—a task that was rendered more distasteful because Aunt Miranda superintended, and I didn't get a chance to duck him. After that I had to lead him with a string, releasing him when we got close to Slocum's. So I hated Bowser.
He used to show the greatest delight when Uncle came up from the paddock, and would run to meet him, and jump up at, him. But when I approached he slunk under the table, and growled disapprovingly. No matter how long I was away, he never showed any pleasure when I returned safe and well. He was disappointed. He said plainly and often that I was an undesirable person, and ought to be got rid of. Uncle Ephraim and Aunt Miranda used to laugh at me, and say good-humouredly, that I must have done something very bad to Bowser to incur such animosity. I didn't mind that so much until, as it seemed to me, they began to look at me suspiciously, and to act as though they were uneasy about me.
This came about through a remark made by Nat Crisp from over the river, who called in borrow the corn-cracker. He said:
"I never trust anyone that a dorg won't trust. I've always found that the instinct of dumb animals is to be relied on."
I never liked Nat Crisp after that.
Then George Spencer came to our place for the loan of the crosscut, and when he saw how the ill-bred little brute carried on in my presence he said he knew a similar case, many years ago. A dog like Bowser had a most unaccountable dislike for a boy like me. Everybody noticed it, and it was openly said, that it was an intuition of some dormant or undeveloped wickedness that human beings as yet had no conception of. In other words, the dog saw what was hidden from human eyes. Spencer stopped there to scrutinise me. Then he shook his head sadly, and concluded:
"That boy turned out a murderer—a cold-blooded mur-r-derer. There was instinct for you!"
Spencer was no friend of mine henceforth.
I had a nightmare that night. I was set on by endless packs of Bowsers, each one as big as Bayley's white bullock. I woke myself screeching for help.
For the next week I killed that awful dog a hundred times a night. I killed him in all manner of ways that a pestiferous canine could be exterminated. But he always popped up again, and each time he resurrected he was a ferocious mad dog, from which I fled with the fear of death in me. If I climbed a tree, it was almost certain that the tree would join in the conspiracy against me. It would transpire to be a mere flexible sapling, which would lower me down till the brute could almost reach me, then swing back and lower me again. If I dived into the river, that, too, would help the enemy by shallowing till there was scarcely enough water to cover me.
The only way I could escape the monster called Bowser was by flying. That wasn't an undiluted success, either. I was never very expert at flying. I could only just keep out of Bowser's reach, which kept me in an agony of suspense. It was the same when I happened to have a gun. The weapon would either miss fire, or the powder would be too worthless to carry the ball five yards—or the target would be unhitable.
It was some relief to wake up in the morning and find that Crisp and Spenser were still alive, and that I had no blood on my hands; but Bowser's matutinal greeting was more annoying than ever. I tried to make friends with him. I endeavoured to show him that I had reformed; that I was most exemplary in my conduct towards dumb animals; that I specially loved poodles with long, white hair; but he repulsed all my advances. He whimpered and whined, and cowed on his back, if I petted him, though it was seldom I got a chance to do that.
I patted the cat to give him confidence, and I booted that animal when it clawed at him, to show him that I was his friend. It was no use. I lost the friendship of the cat instead—and this corroboration convinced more than Crisp and Spencer that I would come to a bad end. Then I killed him more numerously at night, and had more nightmares than ever. One morning Aunt Miranda said, eyeing me closely:
"Poor little Bowser seems quite ill this morning. Have you been doing anything to him?"
I had not; but it was usual now to look to me for the cause when anything ailed him. She made him a soft bed on the verandah seat, and instructed me to sit by and watch for developments—kissing him on the ugly black nose before turning away.
"Oh, you beautiful darling!" she said, looking at him over her shoulder, as she passed indoors.
"Oh, you beautiful mongrel!" I said, as I sat down to watch the beast.
But when Bowser saw who his nurse was he got out of bed, and left the hospital at once.
Aunt Miranda, seeing him slinking dejectedly under the sofa, bounced out in a temper, and her fat hand made a loud noise against my left ear. At last I began to plot in my waking moments for his riddance.
The foul deed would have to be done so that no suspicion would rest on me. I read the Newgate Calendar to begin with—which wasn't promising. All the crimes were too easily traced. I thought of infecting him with tuberculosis and other virulent diseases, of attaching bottle ticks to him, of carrying him away, and plugging him in in hollow log; of shutting him up with a big carpet snake until the latter had killed and swallowed him.
One did swallow the cat about this time, which gave me the idea. I was never so chagrined in my life as I was then, to think it was the cat, and not Bowser, that was swallowed. Then I got a better idea. I would catch a black snake by the middle with a split stick, and make it bite Bowser.
That was the ticket. Up to this time, whenever I went out I was always in dread of treading on a snake, either basking on the narrow track or foraging in the long grass; and when collecting wood it was necessary to exercise the utmost care in shifting logs and bark. Now, when there was an urgent demand for one snake, the whole tribe seemed to have migrated or gone into recess.
Before I could find the desired reptile, Bowser came to grief unexpectedly. Nemesis had overtaken him, as the Newgate Calendar says, and the agent he employed was such as I had never dreamed of.
One morning he discovered a koala near the scrub. I don't think he had ever met one before. It was certainly an uncommon scent, and he nosed around it, I suppose, with his usual enthusiasm, until the tailless one got a grip on him. It was a great fight, so far as it went. The koala did all-the biting, keeping a hard grip of Bowser's leg, and Bowser supplied all the noise that was required. His outcry was excusable; his leg was hopelessly crunched.
Eventually the koala let go, and shuffled off into the scrub. Bowser sat back, and howled lustily, while a wedge-tail eagle watched with interest from a lofty limb. I dashed away to break the sad news to Aunt Miranda.
"What's up?" she asked, as soon as she saw me. I was excited and breathless.
"Bowser's had an accident," I informed her.
"What's happened to him? Where is he?"—suspiciously.
"Down near the scrub. His leg's broken."
"Oh, you infernal imp! I knew you'd do something—I knew—"
"'Twasn't my fault," I protested. "He got it stuck in a koala's month, an' the koala chewed it."
"Show me where he is." She was greatly distressed.
I led her towards the spot where I had left Bowser lamenting his misfortune. He was still lamenting, but now there was a ring of terror in his voice. As we drew near, the eagle before-mentioned rose laboriously from the ground and passed over the scrub across the river. Bowser was lamenting more vociferously than ever when we saw him last, for he was gripped in the eagle's talons.
There had never been two better mates in the bush than Dave Hardy and Ham Rolin, until they started work on a road contract near Macks's farm. They had both had a nodding acquaintance with Macks before, but the fact that he had a perfect little peach of a daughter, as Ham phrased it, was a revelation. Ham was a demonstrative admirer, a conceited clap-trap, who believed himself invincible where women were concerned. But Dave, beyond admitting that Maria Macks was a fine young woman, kept his opinions and his feelings to himself. He was not a talkative person.
When they visited the farmhouse on Sundays, and were trotted round to inspect the crops and the fowls and the pigs and the poddy calves, Ham would monopolise the old man, and orate on things agricultural to no end; but when Maria was available he would shunt the amiable parent on to Dave, and make special efforts to ingratiate himself with the daughter. Dave appeared to appreciate the old man's company more than he did Maria's.
There was nothing of the school-missy stamp about Maria. She was more womanly than girly in appearance, a commonsensible good-looking young woman, whose mere glances fascinated Ham Rolin. At first she gave him an attentive ear, and focussed him with full, laughing eyes. Then those eyes began to wander furtively to Dave Hardy, and she would seem to hang on to his words while Ham talked to the atmosphere. She would joke and laugh with him, keeping always at a respectful distance; but she would stand close up to Dave and talk to him in that way, as Ham knew, that a girl does only to the man she loves.
He began to see much in her conduct, real or imaginary, that favoured the other fellow. If she came into the room where they were seated, and she could do so without attracting special notice, it seemed to him she would sit near Hardy; and while she dismissed Ham as though she didn't care if he broke his neck going home, her hard would linger a little while in Dave's, and their eyes would seem to speak. And the way she smiled at him, coupled with the graciousness of her melting manner, made Hamilton squirm.
He was soon satisfied that his mate was not only the white-haired boy with Maria Macks, but with her gruff old father also. He asked Dave's opinion of things now, which he didn't at first, and his judgment appeared to weigh against all the rest of creation. If Dave said a certain vegetable was a crown pumpkin, then it was a crown pumpkin; and when Ham argued that it was a button pumpkin Mr. Macks would ask him in a loud voice if he knew a pumpkin from a grammar. Then a raging jealousy got into Ham's composition, and he wished his mate had gone to San Francisco in time for the earthquake. As for Dave, he never suspected that Ham had any serious intentions in regard to Maria Macks. His conduct had been the same with other girls, and he had ridden away and talked about them, and boasted of his supposititious conquests. Men, too, were mostly attracted at first by his talk and showy manner, and when they had gradually warmed towards the quiet man, and treated Ham as an empty blatherskite, Ham never took any notice. He regarded himself, in fact, as a man who made friends quickly, while the reserved and backward Dave presented an armour that took some time to pierce.
Until they came into collision on the Macks's plantation this had precluded any suspicion that he was not exactly the lion of the community. Nor would it have mattered anywhere else; but to be dropped from the pinnacle of confidential friend and first favourite by Mr. Macks and the bewitching Maria was humiliating. Still, his manner did not betoken any grudge. They continued to work together on the most amicable terms. A mile below their camp there was the post office store, where the pair got their supplies and mails. They went down usually on Saturday afternoon, and occasionally at night. One night Ham went down alone and got their rations, and on the following Saturday, having an attack of rheumatics, he remained at the camp, while Dave went for the mail.
The mail consisted mostly of the local newspaper. On this occasion there was a pink tinted-letter, inscribed, "in haste," and addressed to himself in a woman's hand. Tearing it open, he read:—
Fishing Saturday night. Meet me on the wharf. Important.—Maria Macks.
"The wharf," Dave remembered, was merely a slab supported by a crosspiece on two stakes, where the Macks dipped water. Maria fished there in the afternoon, but he had not known before that she fished at night. Here, then, was a pleasant means of passing the long evenings, when there was nothing to read, and nothing to do in camp. This would be good news to Ham.
He stayed at the store till sundown; then, instead of going back to camp, made his way leisurely to Macks's wharf. It was after dark when he got there, and soon afterwards a muffled form came stealthily down the bank and joined him. At first he thought it was Maria's mother—she seemed too stout and heavy for Maria, and she had a big shawl over her head, which hid all but her eyes.
"Is that you, Dave?" she asked in a whisper.
"That's me," he answered, sniffing. She smelt of tobacco. "What's up?"
"I'll tell you directly," she whispered. "I want you to draw my line for me. You'll find it at the end of the plank. I set it before tea, so as to have an excuse for bein' out if I'm missed."
"How husky your voice is to-night," said Dave. "Sounds quite strange."
"I've got a cold." She coughed into the folds of the shawl, and thumped her chest. "I oughtn't to be out in the night air. Mother would give me a talkin' to if she knew." She coughed again, convulsively.
"Takin' anything for it?" Dave queried.
"No; we 'aven't anything in the 'ouse."
"I'll bring yer some eucalyptus to-morrer," Dave promised. "Ham's got some wot he uses for his rheumatics."
"Thank you," she said. "Get me the line now, an' we'll go up to the yard."
Dave stepped cautiously on to the plank, feeling his way with his foot. It was a dark night, and the water under him looked black as ink. She moved quietly after him and as he stooped down to feel for the line, she threw her hands out suddenly, and shoved him into the river. She waited on the bank till he came to the surface, gasping for breath, and struggled into shallow water.
"Ye'll come prowlin' around at night after my daughter, will you?" cried the deep voice of a man from behind the shawl. "This is the way you respect a man's confidence, eh? I 'appened to see that letter afore it went, an' as Maria couldn't very well keep th' 'pintment, I reckoned I'd give you all th' fishin' you wanted. Now get off my ground, you sneak, an' never let me ketch yer inside my fence ag'in. Be off."
Dave, breathless and bewildered, didn't say anything, but he was in a vicious temper as he scrambled out of the mud and weeds and pursued the aggressive person up the bank. The latter did not go into the house, but doubled round the yard, and across to a one-horse stable that had housed a stallion at one time. It was built of strong slabs, and had a wide door cut across the middle. The top part was closed and padlocked, but the bottom half was open, and a heavy wooden bar that was used to fasten it stood against the wall. The farmer darted in and pulled the door after him. Dave came up immediately after, but he made no attempt to force it open. He seized the bar instead and, dropping it into the iron staples, made him a prisoner.
"Wanted to get out of his finery 'fore he went in, I s'pose, so's Maria wouldn't know what he'd been up to," chuckled Dave to himself. "He's got something more to get out of now; an' while he's safe from interferin' I'll Just see what Maria Macks knows about this racket."
Still dripping, and minus hat, he strode across to the house. The front door was open, and when he stepped on to the threshold his astonished eyes encountered Mr. Macks himself, lolling back in an easy chair, and comfortably smoking a long-stemmed pipe.
"Hulloa," cried the old chap, rising. "What's 'appened y'r?"
"I—I've been fishin'," Dave stammered, staring at him, and at the same time wondering who the person in the stable could be.
Macks's face reddened and wrnikled.
"Must a been 'a purty big one," he remarked. "I've had 'em take hook, rod, an' line, but never met one as could yank me in too. Must 'a been powerful swift."
"How did it happen, Dave?" Maria asked him with more compassion.
"I was goin' to set a line at your wharf, an' slipped in," said Dave. "I called to ask y'r to 'ave a look there in th' mornin' an' see if my hat's floatin' around."
"Better see to it now, lad," Macks advised. "Th' tide 'll take it away 'fore mornin'."
"I'll go down with you," said Maria, jumping up. "You get the clothes-prop out there, Dave, an' I'll bring th' lantern. You needn't disturb yourself, Dad," she added, as her father began to hunt round for his boots. "We can manage."
As soon as they were out of hearing, Dave drew the soddened letter from his pocket and held it up to the light.
"Did you send me that?" he asked.
She took it in her hand, and read it over with knitted brows.
"I did not," she answered. "I wouldn't think of doing such a thing."
"I've been hoaxed," said Dave, as he tore it into smithereens.
"That's how you came to fall in the river, then?" she asked.
"That was it, but you needn't mention it. It wouldn't do you any good, perhaps, if it got about. You know what they are around here to talk."
"That's true. I'd like to find out who wrote it, though. I'd give her a bit of my mind."
Dave's thoughts all the while were on the prisoner; but he did not mention him. He had an idea that that party, when discovered by Macks on the morrow, would do his beet to conceal the truth, and the onus of explaining such a predicament as he was in, after a night on bare blocks and a long fast, would at least cause him to look well before he leaped into another practical joke.
Despite much wetness, Dave had now recovered his spirits, and when he had also recovered his hat and said "good night" to Maria Macks, he hurried out to camp, chuckling as he thought how Ham would look and laugh when he told him what had happened.
But when he got to the camp Ham was not there. Neither did he turn up that night, and he was still a missing quantity at dinner time next day. Fresh wheel-tracks near the camp suggested that someone who knew Ham, driving past the previous evening, had taken him to town. He could think of nothing more feasible to account for his absence, and now he watched up the road for the return of the vehicle. The fun at Macks's would not be half as good without Ham. He had little fear that his prisoner would be discovered till Macks went round that way about sundown collecting eggs. The stable was a good way from the house, and as the family were not much about on Sunday he would have to coo-ee pretty loudly to attract attention. Dave reckoned, however, that he wouldn't make any noise, surmising that his keeper would come back and release him.
Reluctantly, in the afternoon, Dave set out alone on this mission. As his way led him past the stable, he stepped over to have a peep through the cracks. The place was still barred and tenanted. The man within had made a shakedown with his dress and shawl, and was lying on his back listening. The first glimpse of the prostrate form gave Dave a shock, and materially altered his plans. The prisoner was Ham Rolin.
"Hulloa there," he called. "How're yer gettin' on?"
Ham sat up, looking scared.
"Is that you, Dave?" he asked softly.
"That's me. How's your appetite?"
"For God's sake let me out o' this," cried Ham, rising to his feet.
"Sleep well last night?" Dave inquired.
"You'd sleep well on hard blocks, wouldn't yer?" growled Ham.
"How would you like to sleep in th' river?" asked Dave. "Purty cold an' wet down there, Ham."
"It was only a joke, Dave, old chap," Ham pleaded; "don't be vindictive."
'I might 'a been lyin' there now, Ham, stretched out on th' dank oozy mud an' weeds, with me glassy eyes starin' at th' hungry cat fish, an' big slimy eels crawlin' over me—"
"I knowed you could swim, or I wouldn't 'a shoved you in." Ham protested.
"How did yer know?"
"I heard yer say so, an' I was sure a duckin' couldn't hurt a man of your constitution. That's one thing I've often admired in you, Dave. You're got a fine constitution."
"I remember you admired that suit o' clothes o' mine, too, Ham. They're ruined now."
"I'll make that all right, old man. You won't lose anything."
"Cost five guineas that suit," Dave continued.
"Don't let it worry y'r," said Ham. "Open th' door, like a good fellow. I ken talk better outside."
Dave surveyed him for a minute, with one eye glued to the crack.
"Ham," he said sorrowfully, "you're the last man in th' world I would 'ave suspected. I thought it was some scurvy pumpkin lout that 'ad done it."
Ham moved to the door and shook it.
"'Twould be rather awkward, y'r know," he remarked, "if Macks come along. Awkward for you."
"'Twas rather awkward for me when I left th' plank last night," Dave taunted him, without moving from the crack.
"Look 'ere, Dave," said Ham, coming back to him, and speaking with a pitiful earnestness. "I didn't mean y'r any harm. I only wanted to stop you from comin' 'ere."
"Ah now we're gettin' to th' bottom of the joke."
"I acted the enraged parent, thinkin' you'd go straight 'ome after receivin' my malediction, an' never show yer face 'ere any more," Ham concluded.
"Because I wanted her to meself, an' I 'ad no chance agin you."
"I see. An' who wrote th' letter."
"I promised not to give her away. You wouldn't ask a man to break his promise, would y'r? 'Twouldn't be 'onourable."
"Well, no; though it seems of less consequence 'an to break another man's neck or drown him," said Dave. "Is that some of her wardrobe you've there?"
"No," said Ham, savagely. "I picked 'em up. 'Twas them blamed things give me the Idea."
"An' the rheumatics?" Dave suggested.
Ham, rattled the door impatiently, and coughed.
"An' the cold on th' chest?" Dave added, moving round.
"'Twas me husky voice that sounded so strange give me that," said Ham, viciously.
Dave threw down the bar, and opened the door. Ham met him with extended hand.
"I think you ken call it quits?" he said.
"Quits it is," Dave answered.
"You've won her fair an' square," Ham continued, still holding his hand. "Take her, old man."
"She's already took."
"Oh," said Ham, "it's settled, is it? Well, I wish you Joy."
"Why, you blamed yahoo," cried Dave. "Maria Macks is a married woman."
"Married woman," gasped Ham.
"Been married these two years. Thought you knew it all along."
"But—why—do they call her Maria Macks?"
"Her husband's name is Macks—same as her father's. He's up country somewhere."
"Well, I'm danged," muttered Ham, as he moved away with his head down.
Murty Brown had been searching among the hills for a spare horse, when a terrific thunderstorm came on. He sought shelter from the pelting rain and falling branches under a shelving rock. But there was no shelter for his horse, and a whirling branch, lobbing on its neck, gave it such an all-fired start, that the sudden reef on the bridle speared Murty full length into the flooded grass. When he had got to his feet and clawed the wet out of his eyes, and picked up his hat and his pipe, the animal was disappearing at a great bat clown a winding creek.
Murty remained under the rock for a couple of hours, when the wind dropped and the rain slackened to a drizzle. He did not bother going after his horse, but struck a bee-line for home. In a few minutes he was baulked by the creek, which was running half a banker. The sun was going down and, as it seemed to be setting in for a wet night and recognising the futility of trying to find a crossing before morning, he decided to go back to the rock and camp.
Having a tomahawk in his belt, he stripped a sheet of bark off a grey box, and leaned it against the rock. Under it he kindled a fire and, while it burned, he gathered a supply of the driest wood he could find, and stripped another sheet of bark. By this time the sap side of the first sheet was warm and dry, which suggested to Murty a healthier, if harder, bed than the damp ground. So he laid it down under the rock, propping the other sheet up in its stead.
It was a few inches shorter than himself, with a deep dent in the middle where it had fitted over a bulge on the tree. This was convenient, a most comfortable receptacle for his hip. In it, therefore, after drying his clothes and piling on plenty of wood, he stretched himself and went to sleep.
He, woke at dawn to find himself in a most peculiar position. Try as he would, he couldn't get up. However he wriggled and twisted, he could not disengage himself from the embrace of his bed. The heat of the fire had caused the bark to curl tightly round him, so that the edges considerably overlapped. His arms being straight down at his sides, he could get no purchase anywhere to wrench it apart. Anyone who has tried to open a sheet of bark that has rolled up in the sun will know what power was wrapped around him.
Murty soon realised that he was trapped, and that his only hope of escape was to get to his feet. In a straight-jacket that reached from his forehead to his shins, that was no easy task. Not being an acrobat or a click beetle, the only way that occurred to him was to roll down to the creek and bring the sloping bank to his assistance. He had the use of his feet and his head, and the close fit of the bulge round his hips helped him to roll.
It was hard getting away, for there were some half-burnt pieces of wood to bump over, and the fire shelter to bowl down. Having accomplished that, there were numerous logs, stumps and trees to get round; there were sharp blades of grass that sawed across his eyes and there was ever the thought of snakes in his mind as he turned strenuously over and over.
"If one gets in here," he muttered, pausing for breath, "or a rattled goanna mistakes me for a holler log, I'll be fair flummoxed."
Only when he struck a jumpers' nest did he forget snakes and whiz over the landscape till the trees spun around him.
"Awful sickly thing, rollin'," he declared as he brought up sharply against a root and lay, for a moment, gazing at the moving picture show.
A few cautious turns brought him within view of the creek bed. Luckily the flood had run out. Edging round, he screwed and zig-zagged till he slid over a steep spot and landed at the bottom, on his feet. He was still leaning against the bank, but after several hard shoves with his head, and some masterful feats of balancing, he at last attained the perpendicular. He was panting, sweating—thirsty; cool water gurgled at his feet but he couldn't stoop.
Climbing the bank was a painful, anxious undertaking. Inch by inch he felt his way, tremblingly swaying on the inclines, breathlessly pausing on the levels, until, with a final staggering push, he reached the top. Before him was a level flat, at the end of which, a mile away, stood a selector's house. Eagerly he set out for it. His steps were distressingly abbreviated; the knee action being also limited. His motion was more of a shuffle than a walk. His hat, which he had used for a pillow, was jammed behind the back of his neck, and his ruffled mop was smothered with leaves, twigs, grass and spiders' webs. His eyes just showed above the edge of the bark. He resembled nothing so much as an animated bottle tree with the top cut off.
Near the house he heaved forcibly through a rickety gate. The noise awoke the dogs, whose barking in turn attracted a woman who who had been chopping wood, and a girl who was standing by with a dish under her arm. Each grasped the other and pointed simultaneously at the strange thing approaching them. Murty chuckled at their alarm. He was feeling a lot better now.
The dogs, with raised bristles, kept up an excited barking and growling.
"Lay down, you mongrels!" rasped Murty, at the same time jumping and dancing to frighten them. At this strange conduct the women fled into the house and slammed the door. Murty chuckled again. How they would laugh presently when they came to strip the bark off him!
He shuffled up to the step.
"It's all right, missus; you needn't be afraid," he said soothingly.
The engulfing bark gave to his voice a deep, muffled sound, and at the same time partly smothered his words.
"Clear out!" came the answer through the keyhole.
"I'm in a tight fix, ma'am," said Murty, more seriously. "Open th' door, an' you'll see for yourself. I'm not a burglar, or an ogre—"
The door was opened cautiously and the woman, stepping from behind it, thrust a revolver at the astonished supplicant.
"Now, then, make tracks quick!"
"Hold on!" gasped Murty, backing away. "There's nothing to get excited about, ma'am. Can't you see—"
"Are you goin' to get?" The revolver was pointed more menacingly.
"By wipes! you're a nice sort, you are!" said Murty, rebelliously, "Do you think I'm an armoured robber, or an escaped lunatic? Haven't you got eyes?"
She stepped out from the door, a frightened but determined look on her face.
"Be off, now! Be off! or I'll shoot!"
Chagrined and despairing, Murty shuffled away without further argument.
"The woman's a fool!" he snorted, as he looked back savagely from the gate. "Th' two ends an' th' middle of a double barrelled idiot."
He went on with quick stops, and a fierce look in his eyes.
Out of sight of the house he leaned against a tree to rest. In a little while a blackfellow and his gin came mooching along, looking for 'possums and sugar-bags. Murty was delighted to see them. He couldn't have been more pleased if they had been his brother ans sister.
He moved away from the tree and just then Binghi's wandering eye lit on him. He stopped short with a startled ejaculation and, bending forward, stared with rounded bulging eyes as the apparition drew towards him. But he didn't wait to discover what it was. In a moment he was a flying study in perspective, and the old gin a whirlwind of legs and skirts behind him.
Murty resumed his weary way, embittered and disgusted.
He was in a populous district; there were plenty of houses at no great distance from the track he was following, but fences blocked him from getting to them. He might have fared better with the people he met had his face been in view. As it was, he looked more like a walking stump than a human being. He met several persons in the course of the next hour. One was a young man who came cantering along the track, sitting loosely in the saddle and singing at the top of his voice. The horse was a young one, and it was close up when it spied the awful object in front. It propped dead and, with a snort, leaped sharply aside, shooting the rider out of his seat like a shot from a catapult. The victim scrambled to his feet, grabbed his hat, and dashed away through the bush as though he had no thought of anything but the catching of his bolting horse.
Murty went on, too tired and famishing to smile at the fun he was having. At the edge of a bit of brush he encountered a stout old lady carrying a basket.
"O goodness!" she cried, dropping the basket as her hands flew involuntarily upwards.
Before he could offer an apology she had gathered up her skirts and fled.
"All th' darn fools alive seem to be livin' hereabouts," he remarked sourly.
He went on, meditating seriously.
Ascending a gentle rise, he descried three small boys trying to pelt down a peewee's nest. So intent were they on this object that he had shuffled to within a few paces before he was discovered.
"Oo! Bluey, look!" shrieked a freckle-faced, ginger-headed urchin, which focussed all eyes searchingly, curiously on the approaching mystery.
"Oh, strike!" cried Bluey. "What is it?"
"It's only a man, my boy," cried Murty anxiously. He was afraid they were going to run away. "A man what's 'ad a misfortune an' will reward you handsome, if you help him—"
"I know, Ginger," the smallest boy broke in. "It's a bunyip."
"'Taint a bunyip," said Ginger edging away. "Look at his boots."
"Ah, you're a boy that's got sense," said Murty, in his most ingratiating manner, and edging after him. "You're an observant lad, one as is destined to come to a great end. If everybody was as cool an' sensible as you, I might 'ave been out o' this predicament long ago."
"He's a loony, that's what he is," Ginger asserted at this juncture.
"Let's pelt him!" cried the smallest boy, with enthusiasm.
"Hooroo!" seconded Bluey, ecstatically.
"Do you want to earn five bob?" Murty inquired quickly, and in a much louder voice. But the boys had darted after sticks.
Bluey aimed the first, which struck over Murty's chest with a loud, hollow sound. Vociferous applause greeted him. Ginger and the smallest boy followed suit and, as each stick rattled against Murty's casement, his tormentors yelled and danced with delight. The noise the sticks made, and the way they bounced, was great sport. Murty lost his temper and, making a rush at the smallest boy, lost his balance and fell like a. log.
The boys cheered tumultuously. When they saw he couldn't get up again their joy was supreme. They looked down on his casement from the top, and they looked up at it from the bottom, what time Murty was pleading and threatening by turns.
"See here, sonny," he said, addressing Bluey, "if you an' your mates 'll pull this fakus apart so I can get out, I'll give you five bob."
"Give us it now," Bluey stipulated, holding out his hand.
"I can't get me hand into me pocket till I get out," Murty returned.
"Yah! he ain't got five bob," cried Bluey, derisively.
"He's got rats, that's what he's got," Ginger declared. "If he ain't, what did he get in there for."
"Let's roll him down the hill," suggested the smallest boy, who sounded to be the genius of the family.
The suggestion was met with joyful acclamations, which encouraged him to shove against the bulge.
"You mind what you're at, young feller," Murty growled at him, grinding his teeth.
"Yah!" Bluey shouted defiantly. "Come on, Ginger."
Murty cast a horrified glance down the steep slope.
"Steady, now!" he gasped as they lay hands on him. "It 'll kill me an' you'll be hung, the whole lot of yer. D'yer hear? I'll die on the way...I'm dyin' now...d—— yer!"
"Now then, over!" cried Bluey, totally ignoring the harrowing prospect.
"Oh, you darlin's!" hissed Murty, as he was turned face upwards.
With the next move he shut up suddenly. It was a long-distance roll but it gave Murty the liveliest minute he had ever known. Gaining momentum with every revolution, bumping and bouncing, he outpaced his yelling persecutors with ease.
At the bottom, he was conscious of a bigger bump than usual, followed by a tremendous clatter, and a frantic roar, as of someone being knocked down and run over. Then a violent wrench that threw him clean out of his casing, and over the bank of a deep gully.
At the bottom, hidden in long grass, he lay in a dazed condition for several minutes. The clatter above continued for a little while, and was succeeded by a stream of vituperation, poured forth in a loud voice and with much feeling. Murty listened more eagerly as he recovered from his dizziness, but the sounds of tramping feet seemed to be receding and, the angry voice dying away in the distance, he sat up with a jerk.
"Was anybody killed?" he asked; and then he saw that he was alone in the bottom of the gully. He was bruised and sore from head to foot, and still feeling sick.
"Wonder what happened?" he mused, an he got slowly to his feet.
He crept up the bank and peeped over. Nearest to him, lying under the point of a dead limb, and split in two, was the sheet that had enveloped him. The lap had caught on the limb and, with the pace he had on, it had been torn open and he had been forcibly ejected. That much was plain.
Beyond, was a demolished bark gunyah, a temporary structure that he had partly crashed through and partly bowled over. That also was plain.
On the top of the hill, waving his arms and still talking, was an angry old man, whom he recognised as a charcoal burner he has seen the day before. The boys had fled in terror before him. It was all plain.
"Them little cherubs can have the credit of it all," he decided, brightening at the idea. Then the billycan at the fire caught his eye.
"You ain't in a good humour for receivin' visitors, Charcoal,", he mused; "but, maybe, if a sympathetic traveller called d'rectly, you wouldn't forgot he had a month on him. Long step home, yet, an' I'm starving."
Reaching for his hat, he crept back, and picked his way down the gully to a secluded pool, where he attended most carefully to his toilet.
A little later he sauntered up to the camp of the charcoal burner, who was then busily sorting out his personal property from the ruins of his residence.
"Good day, mate," said Murty.
"Good clay!" sulkily.
"Had a collapse?"
Charcoal straightened up, and wiped some blood off his face.
"I was havin' a nap in th' caboose 'ere," he said, "when three lovely imps o' boys rolls that there durned fakus down on to th' camp an' flattens it out on top o' me."
"That sheet o' bark?" questioned Murty, "with well-feigned surprise.
"They 'ad a big stone in it—to give it weight an' make it go faster, I s'pose," Charcoal explained. "Th' stone's in th' gully somewhere, as I see th' track of it down th' bank."
"Th' scamps!" said Murty, sympathetically. "Might a' hurt yer."
"'Urt me!" Charcoal snorted. "Might a' stoomed me out!"
"If I was you, I'd go an' see their fathers," said Murty, feelingly.
"I'm goin' to!" Charcoal answered, nodding his head by way of emphasis. "Straight away, as soon as I've fixed up 'ere."
Murty looked hungrily at the tucker that was scattered among the wreck.
"What's about the the time," he asked, glancing at the sun.
"About 2 o'clock," was the reply.
"I'm lookin' for a horse that got away from me; been lookin' since daylight," Murty volunteered.
"Had no dinner yet?" Charcoal inquired hospitably.
"Better sit down an' 'ave some," said Charcoal, and Murty sat down most willingly.
Shearing had just commenced at Mundilla. Being near town, little knots of visitors appeared at the shed almost every afternoon. Among the first lot was one who attracted the attention of the board almost to a man. She was a beautiful girl of 23, symmetrical and graceful from her tan shoes to the top of her crinkled brown hair; a dignified, immaculate young lady of the sort that fire men with desire, yet convince them of the hopelessness of pursuit—like lovely flowers blooming out of reach.
As she moved slowly along the board, quietly but keenly observant, one eye after another was slyly cocked in her direction and while some blew softly through puckered lips, others expressed their feelings with lifted brows and indrawn breaths.
"How would you like to have her, Scotty?" asked Barney McMahon of his pen-mate, who was taking a lingering back view of the retreating beauty.
"My word, she's a daisy, eh?" he responded admiringly.
"'Bout the daintiest bit of goods I've struck for some time," added Red Tom, a big Bogan River native. "Who is she?"
"Keira McKenzie, of Targo. Old 'Malcolm Mack's daughter," answered Bob Sharkey, who knew the district and its people.
"An' who the jumpin' adder is old Malcolm Muck?" asked Tom.
"Th' magistrate. A real old spitfire. Better look out you don't murder anybody in his circuit. You'll he hung without the option."
"I hear th' postmaster is breakin' his neck after her," said Barney.
"So is th' stock inspector," added Bob. "An' some o' th' young merinos here an' elsewhere are inclined the same way. But they say she's got her lamps on Armand Twigg. Ever hear of him?"
"His father owns this place—an' lots of other places. Don't know the end of his wealth, by all accounts."
"Armand Twigg!" Stumpy repeated with a chuckle. "What a name to go to bad with!...Almonds an' Figs!"
This conversation had been carried on in whispers, while deft hands guided the little pieces of clicking machinery over the bodies of the sheep, and the creamy-white wool tumbled about the boards while the pickers-up dashed to and fro, gathering up the falling fleeces and rushing away with them to the rollers.
When the ladles had passed back towards the bins, Stumpy called softly to a man who was shearing three stands above him.
"Say, Peter! Think I heard you blowin' one day when we were shearin' at Tully's, that you could kiss any girl in the country if you set your mind to it!"
"Well, what about it?"
"There's a fiver in my pocket says you can't kiss that one."
"Another in mine holds th' same opinion," Red Tom chipped in.
"Here's more of it!"' Scotty Dalker called out.
Peter Crump straightened up, holding the sheep between his knees, and turned a perspiring countenance towards the barrackers.
"Look here," he said, "if you're game to make it 25, I'll kiss her on this board before the lot of you, when the shed cuts out."
Half a dozen men on either side of him paused a moment to look at him. He not only looked serious, but he was in that half-angry, hurt sort of humour in which men make reckless wagers. He had shorn with these men in New South Wales and Queensland sheds, and had been their good-natured butt all through. Physically, he was a fine man, but of the 80 shearers on that board he had the least claim to good looks.
He had been the ugly duckling at the shearers' balls, sitting out dances when even Stumpy could find a dainty little damsel to swing around. They had taunted him about this at Tully's, with the result that he had made the boast now flung back at him by Stumpy.
"Are you game?" Peter demanded. The five mates had been consulting in whispers, and trying to repress their bubbling merriment.
"Money up?" asked Stumpy.
"Money up to-night." Peter replied.
"It's a wager!"
Shearing was resumed to the accompaniment of broad grins, and some whispered commentaries anent Peter's opinion of himself. Peter overheard one or two remarks, which stung him into further recklessness.
"I'll bet you another 25 that I'll marry her afterwards!" he said, loud enough for the whole board to hear.
"Holy Frost!" gasped Stumpy. His further remarks were drowned in a roar of laughter. The pickers-up passed the joke along, and the hilarity became tumultuous.
The wool-classer shed tears of joy, and Sol Slocum, the presser, took convulsions in the box when the news got out to him.
"Are you goin' to elope with her?" asked Scotty Dalker.
"No, Scotty," said Peter. "Mr. McKenzie will give her away."
Stumpy slipped and let his sheep go, which bounded up the board with the half-shorn fleece trailing from it, amid a scone of boisterous levity.
"When will it happen?" asked Bob, when the tumult had somewhat subsided.
"Six weeks after the cut-out. Will you cover it?"
"Every bleedin' cent."
Going from one big shed to another, through three States, driving in their buggies and sulkies, £50 was a mere bagatelle to that quintet. The money was put up that night, the Rep. being stakeholder. There was a lot of excitement and discussion over the matter, especially in the rouseabouts' quarters. Here, nothing was known of the antecedents of Peter Crump; but one and all, judging by appearances, voted him a self-conceited person, who had more money than sense. As for the shearers, loss than a dozen had shorn with him before.
None of them doubted that he would kiss the girl on the board; he was fool enough for that; but she had to show some reciprocity. It would be no kiss unless she showed herself willing to be kissed. Any man could kiss a girl by force; but when Peter Crump boasted that he could kiss any girl in the land if he set his mind to it, the meaning was that he could win the kiss. And it was made clear, to the satisfaction of all, that he must win it from Keira McKenzie.
On this phase of the matter many of the shearers were willing to give two to one that Peter hadn't a hope. Stumpy was magnanimous. He was quite prepared to let the decision rest on a snatch kiss.
"Poor fool will want all th' money to pay th' fine for assault," he explained. "'Most unprovoked assault, your worship,' the sergeant will put it."
"There won't be any fine," Bob Sharkey declared. "He'll got seven years."
"I suppose we'll all be up as witnesses," Scotty Dalker surmised. "'Twill be dead funny!"
There were little groups of men in the dining-room, in the smoking-room, and in the library, and the talk among all concerned "Peter and Keira." It had got to "Peter and Keira," though some said Mr. Crump and Miss McKenzie. This went on till 10 o'clock coffee had been served, and all hands went to bunk. There were two men in each room and those, with the exception of Peter and his room-mate, continued to exchange confidences till nearly midnight.
The cook cracked jokes about it at table in the morning and when Miss McKenzie came again she was spoken of as Peter's Intended. Naturally she excited more interest throughout the shed than any visitor had ever done before. Every eye was on her, scrutinising her from every point of view, and the more they studied her the more convinced they were that Peter's chance was akin to Buckley's.
They watched Peter closely, too. They had expected to see him start in to make acquaintance with her; had looked forward in fact, with a lively interest, to some sort of love-making, They followed him about, without appearing to do so, and only sat on their stands at smoke-o when he sat on his.
The cook came up three times in half an hour to see if the tea bucket was empty. But Peter made no effort to speak to her; he didn't once look in her direction. What was move puzzling still, he did not go to town at night to see her. He never once left the hut.
The only thing that seemed to trouble Peter was the tally board. Right from the very first bell he had been cutting in as hard as he could go, doing his utmost to beat the noted big guns of the shed. When Keira McKenzie was on the board, when a dozen ladles were watching operations, and most of the men were painfully conscious of their greasy shed-clothes and their conspicuous moccasins, he had eyes only for the leading shearer, ripping the wool off as though his life depended on it, oblivious of everything else around him. He checked the counting out, and every morning when the tally-board was posted near the wool-table he was the first to scan it.
This was a new departure for Peter Crump. At all other sheds, in which the quintet had shorn with him, he had worked at a comfortable pace, with an occasional spurt in good sheep. It mattered not to him whether his name appeared at the top of the tallies or at the bottom. But now that little matter worried him. From a jolly, talkative follow, he had become the most silent man in the shed. He was cutting considerably over 200 a day, and still he was dissatisfied. He said nothing, hinted at nothing, but his drawn face and his actions showed it.
Of course the change was plain to his old associates, but they took little notice of it. Once Stumpy remarked that Peter must have an idea that Keira McKenzie would like to be kissed by the ringer of Mundilla shed; but it only evoked a chuckle from his audience. It was Aubrey Duck, the tar-boy, who set them thinking. He slipped into the room occupied by Stumpy and Red Tom, one night after the cook had put the lights out.
"I heered a whisper to-day," he said, excitedly.
"Was it through a keyhole?" asked Stumpy, ungraciously.
"No, it wasn't, smarty. I was havin' a quiet camp behind a wool-bale when I heered it."
"Don't you fellows give me away," Aubrey enjoined with impressive cautiousness. "I heered Mr. Cosby, the manager, tell Jimmy Power—that's th' crack shearer what Peter's cuttin' agin'—that if he licks Peter he'll give him a tenner."
"Ho-he!" cried Stumpy. "'What else?"
"Jimmy said his wrist was troublin' him, but he thought he could do it. Our cook sez Jimmy Power was fetched down from th' Cooper to shear here. Cosby wired for him."
"What do you make of it, Bob?" asked Stumpy, when Aubrey had taken his departure.
"It's one too many for me," Bob returned.
"He's a lot more concerned about his tally than about th' girl," Stumpy went on. "That's what gets over me. And I notice Cosby has got a mighty strong team together this year. All fliers."
"I'd just like to know!" said Bob, dropping into a meditative mood. "Still, I don't see as we're anyway concerned," he concluded after awhile.
The other three, when informed of the new development, were of the same opinion. For all that, they were more circumspective than hitherto. They also shared the general interest in the fluctuating tallies. One day, Jimmy Power was leading; the next day a Warrego crack was ahead; then Peter Crump occupied the place of honour. Half the team were cutting for the lead; the other half were watching—waiting—and wondering.
They were in the third week when Aubrey again rushed breathlessly into Stumpy's room.
"Heered another whisper!" he panted.
Stumpy took the pipe from his mouth to listen.
"Old Slocum saw Miss Mack puttin' th' tallies down in a little book when she thought nobody was watchin'. She only 'ad three names—Power, Crump an' Warrego. She was porin' over th' figures, lookin' dead serious, with th' pencil agin' her lip, when her mother comes out an' sez, 'I'm afraid he's going to lose, Keira.' 'It's a shame,' sez the girl. 'An' I shall write an' tell Mr. Twigg what they did.' Strike me up a wattle, I thought she was goin' to blubber.'"
"Who's goin' to lose?" asked Stumpy.
"They didn't mention no names."
"What else did they say?"
"Nothin' else. They went away then."
"Dash it all!" cried Stumpy. "Them tarnation whispers o' yours always blow out just when they're gettin' interestin'."
He lost a night's sleep worrying over it. The whole shed was obsessed with that one problem. The cook tried to think it out, and burnt his chops; and the card cranks played the joker without the fortissimo crash that was wont to accompany it.
As the week drew on, every musterer and boudary-rider who came near the shed was besieged with inquiries as to how many more sheep were to come in. When this information was definitely obtained, the arithmeticians set to work to figure out what time the cobbler would be lot go.
On the eve of the cut-out, as Stumpy was turning into his bunk, a head was thrust in at the door, and a voice said, "Heered another whisper!"
Stumpy was all interest and animation in a moment.
"Come in, Aubrey," he said, kindly.
"Ain't time," Aubrey returned. "Just off to bed."
"Well, what's the news?"
"Know Peter's room-mate?"
"Heered him tell Warrego that you fellows would win to-morrow, if he didn't ring the board."
"If who didn't ring th' board?"
"What else did he say?"
"They mooched off then—"
"Oh, to blazes with y'! You never do ketch the important part. Go on to bed!"
Stumpy tried not to think any more about it. But It was no use. He couldn't shake it off. It would creep back into his thoughts before he was aware of it. He lost the best part of another night's sleep without arriving at any plausible solution. The last day came, the last run and, what seldom happens in a shearing shed, there was a desperate race for the cobbler. It was between Jimmy Power and Peter Crump. The tallies had been made up to the final run, and both knew that the cobbler was Blucher. Steaming with perspiration, with bloodspots showing through the yolk on their clothes, they struggled for the least measure of vantage, for the second's interval in the let-go.
The other shearers were grouped nearby in tense silence. A dozen visitors crowded down the board, for an Aubrey Duck whisper had gone to town and hurried them to the cut-out. Among them was Keira McKenzie, pale and nervous. Every eye was following the tired, aching wrists of the two champions as they rushed the clippers forward and back, and round to the last ounce of strength. Peter turned first, just a few clicks ahead; but it was enough. The advantage was cheering, and he gained, if ever so little, on the run down the off-side. Thick stockings on Power's ewe helped him again. His fleece was off, the sheep hustled into the pen, and the cobbler was dragged on to the board just as Power let go.
The sheep were counted out, and the last pens added to the tallies while Peter finished the cobbler. That cobbler made him ringer. He stood up, a worn and haggard-looking man after his terrific three-weeks' race, and looked at the crowd. There was no move yet among them, no word from his shedmates. The crucial moment had come, and they waited.
Keira McKenzie was leaning over the rail of the catch-pen, looking out into the yards. He stepped over and put his arm across her shoulder. She turned with a nervous start, a slight tremor about her mouth, a liquid glisten in her eyes. He smiled confidently, while drawing her gently towards him. She was frightened of the crowd, now packed around them. Her cheeks went crimson, then paled again; and suddenly, with a quick catch of her breath, she threw her arms around his greasy neck, and their lips went together.
The crowd clapped and cheered them. There was at once a lively stir among them, and jokes flew round with much hilarity. But there was no smile on Stumpy's face. He stared at the unexpected with mouth agape.
"Strike me funny!" he exclaimed finally. "If she ain't an old cobber of his!"
Bob Sharkey made a dart for the book-keeper.
"Here," he said, "I want a word with you." He led him into one of the bins, Stumpy shuffling after him. "Know anything about that lot?" he asked, with a backward jerk of his thumb.
"Why, yes," the bookkeeper answered. "The ringer, who has been masquerading as Peter Crump, is Armand Twigg."
"Seems his father couldn't do any good with him in Melbourne. Prodigal son, you know. So he gave him a last chance. It was to knock around with shearers and station hands for three years, working and living with them; and if he completed the term by ringing the board at Mundilla, he was to have the station and everything on it. The old gentleman reckoned if he did that, he would know enough, and be man enough, to be trusted with a sheep station. If he failed, he was to remain Peter Crump for the rest of his days."
"An' Cosby didn't want him to win, because that would lose Cosby his billet," said Bob.
"It wasn't that," the bookkeeper returned. "Cosby was instructed to make the test as severe as possible. By George, he did too."
"An' the girl?"
"Oh, Army's been hanging after her for a long time. Met her down below. Seems he pressed her for a definite answer before he started outback and she told him that if he accomplished what his father had set him, she would kiss him on the board, no matter who was there. That would be her answer. If he failed, there was to be no recognition between them."
"What do you think of that?" Bob asked Stumpy, who had been standing behind him with his mouth open.
Stumpy tilted his hat back, dragged it forward again, and screwed his eyes and his mouth a few times, before he spoke.
"In one sense," he said, "Mr. bloomin' Almonds and Figs has 'ad us fair biled from the outset. Still, we had a rattlin' go for our money, an' I'm satisfied. The poor devil deserves all he's won—girl included...Come on, Bob, we'll go an' shake hands with him."
It has often been remarked that the back-block settler, when driven to seek a living in other fields, can take up his rolled blanket and billy and start straight off on the pad as if to the nature born. Yet there is nothing to wonder at. He began his training for the wallaby when he started to go to to school; and, for anyone destined in after life, to follow the precarious existence of the swagman, there is no better institution than the far-off, lone little building that stands like a signal-box on Gum Ridge, or in the bend of Wattle Creek.
It is anything from two to six miles from M'Gee's selection or Duggan's farm; and Bill and Jim, with the tucker-bag containing their lunch, and their boots slung over their shoulders, their pants rolled up to their thighs to escape the wet grass, start off at daylight on a winter's morning, and even then at times have to |sprint to get there before "school goes in."
Their track is a winding streak, which their own hardened feet have trodden through the long grass, over hills and over gullies, round swamps and through scrubs. In the rainy seasons they wade through miles of mud and water, and the grass-shoots prick like needles; in dry times the caked black soil is hard and rough as a cobble-bed.
Far on their way, they see the sun rise up redly above the fog-banks, and know if they are late or early by certain trees, or particular points on the road; they compare his his progress thence with their own, telling the time to a minute.
They discuss the intricate and skilfully-woven webs of bush spiders, glistening from a thousand grass-spires, examining the spiders' work and methods; they hunt for birds and eggs, elimb after 'possums and koalas, criticise butterflies and grass-hoppers; everything living whether bird, animal, insect, or plant, comes under the keen scrutiny of inquisitive eyes. That track is part of the bush school.
In summer time their load is supplemented with a water-bag; for as often as not, there is no tank or other means of obtaining water at school. The shaded part of the establishment would remind one of a soft-drinks shanty or a curiosity shop. Thirty or forty bottles of all sizes, shades and colours, stand in a row on the ground while twenty dinner-bags hang on nails above them. The scholars eat their lunch under trees, a hunk of bread and beef in one hand and the bottle in the other.
In the afternoon, during the short days the bush scholar has sometimes to run part of the way to get home in time to chase the cows round the paddock, to cut weed for the pigs and put the ducks in. After tea he husks corn till 11 o'clock. On Saturday he carries water and wood, and on Sunday he has a holiday—following dad round the swamps, carrying the game and the ammunition-bag. Poor Bill is always carrying something.
Some of the youngsters, who live beyond walking distance, ride to school on horseback. Two or three straddle the one horse, boys and girls alike, and they bump along like a package on a trotting camel. On the way home they give their mates a lift, and the poor old pony is covered from tail to neck. Sometimes the moke remonstrates and, kicking up vigorously, deposits his load of assorted boy and girl in a huddled heap on the roadside.
There was Erny Green, who was a cobber of mine in those irresponsible times. He took several of his mates on board one afternoon, then sent his mount at a log, to show them how he could ride. Two deserted backwards at the take-off, and the others all landed on top of boy Green on the other side. The old horse kicked up again with delight, and galloped home. Green never attempted to show off after that.
Those not compelled to hurry from school duties to home duties have gay times on the road. It is the time that little differences are settled at the turn-off tracks, when coats are "peeled," and fists perform unscientifically under the gum trees. All manner of games are played on the way, from "tippenny-catcher" to "kiss-in-the-ring" (girl kissing girl not allowed). Wild flowers are gathered, and forest yams dug up with sticks. They probe the hollow logs for native cats, and bathe in the lagoon. There are racing and hunting on foot, and kangarooing and dingo-chasing on horse-back.
It is all "experience," and all part of the bush school—the main part, probably. Many of the scholars can subtract a bandicoot from a log with greater ease than they can bring pounds of corn to bushels.
It was at Phegan's Academy that I learnt to make pot-hooks and hangers. It was a private institution, maintained by several farmers, whose corn-weights Phegan had to reckon up every threshing and divide into bushels and make the bushels into £ s d; and woe be to Phegan if he erred to the extent of a "tray-bit."
The school fee was a shilling for a week; which was often paid in farm produce; and the class-room was in a barn between the corn straddles. There was probably more whacking done there than in any other school in creation. The scholars couldn't sit still for weevils and ants; and when the farmer was threshing or husking, Phegan, who was a bit deaf, couldn't hear the class reading, and the class couldn't hear Phegan dictating. Then the fowls and pigs would come in, and now and again the cart horse made a tour of inspection. Occasionally the brindle cow and the spotted steer offended, and the class scrambled up on to the corn.
It was the duty of Bolem, the black boy, to hunt out all wandering stock; but Bolem wasn't always equal to the occasion, so the dog had to be sooled on. When the intruders were driven out, the big boys re-adjusted the furniture, gathered up the inkpots and pieces of slate—and we got on with the pot-hangers.
Phegan had other troubles to contend with. Some of the scholars were big enough to be married, and they resented Phegan's idea of moral suasion by occasionally "plugging him in the eye." Phegan's uninjured optic would then scintillate on the smallest boy in the class, and the boy daren't scratch or wriggle for a week, though a horde of weevils were torturing him. I was one of the small boys; but it was over the letter R that I got my first drubbing.
"Say ar-r-r-ah," said Phegan, one day.
"Ar-r-r-ah," said I, imitating as nearly as I could the peculiar quaver of Phegan.
"Don't say ar-r-rah!" cried he. "Say ar-r-ah!"
That beat me completely. I could hear no difference between one ar-r-r-ah and the other ar-r-r-ah. Still, I had another go at it, giving it a more determined quiver—"ar-r-r-ah!"
The sound might haye been compounded of the burr of a distant bull and the whirr of a crosscut, saw.
Phegan turned purple. "Not ar-r-r-ah, drat ye! Say ar-r-r-ah!"
He meant me to give it the English pronunciation, and probably had no idea that he himself was rolling it. I didn't "tumble" even then. I screwed myself up and, shaking my head to give it the supposed necessary amount of quiver, I rolled out ar-r-r-r-ah till I was red in the face. Then I got it hot—on hands, arms, back, and shoulders.
"By me sowl, I'll learun ye to spake English, yer chatterin' gorilla," he cried, as he flung me back on the seat. "Now say ar-r-r-r-ah!"
A boy behind me whispered "ar." In an instant I saw where the mistake was, and jumped to my feet.
"Ar!" I almost shrieked.
"Arrah!" said Phegan, "I thought I could knock it into ye, be gob!"
Phegan was a stern disciplinarian, and the punishment meted out to delinquents took a form in accordance with the current requirements of the establishment.
"You shtop in, Charlie Pickles," he would say, "an' rub the shoots off av four dishes of spuds. They're in the skillion. That will learn ye to count up yer sums maybe."
Charlie would measure off four dishes of spuds, and pick the shoots off the top of the heap.
"Phil Nolan," said Phegan, addressing another boy, "yer copy book's absolutely filthy. Shtop in an' husk 200 cobs of corn, ye dirty hog."
One day as school was going out Mrs. Phegan entered with a complaint that the water-butt was empty.
"Halt!" cried Phegan instantly. He went along the line till he came to a short, chubby lump of a youth with red hair and brown legs. "I cot ye copyin' terday, Jack Thompson. It escaped me memory till this minute," said Phegan sententiously. "Copyin' is stealin', Thompson, an' stealin' is wan av the black sins. Sin must be punished to give honesty a chance av a shtand. So go you now with Mrs. Phegan an' carry 10 buckets av water from the river before ye ate yer dinner. Left, right, march!...Halt!...Right-about-face!...Shtand at ease!...Dismiss!—An' (sotto voce) to the divil wid ye!"
We had military drill every Friday. Sometimes we had it twice a week—it depended on the state of Phegan's wood-pile. The manoeuvres were executed in this way:
We ranged up on the marble-ground in front of the barn.
We stood rigid, hands at sides, while he inspected us.
"One—two—three—" and so on from end to end.
"Odd numbers step back!"
We marched straight ahead for two miles, out into the bush, being halted at last where there was plenty of dry wood strewn about. General Phegan would inspect us again, and perhaps deliver a short address on military tactics. Then—
Each cadet would pick up a lump of wood. Any boy picking up a small stick when a big one was handy was severely reprimanded for shirking his duty.
We marched back, all heavily armed with firewood. We halted at the back of the kitchen.
We Stacked them neatly, were commended for out efficiency, and dismissed.
About once a month Phegan had a spree and, on the Monday following, it was usual to find him very ill. He would, give us lessons, then go to sleep. One day Reardon, the senior pupil, got the clothes line and leg-roped him to a post. Threshing had been going on the previous week, and there was a heap of corn-flour, sieved out of weevily corn, in the skillion. We were smothering one another with this when Phegan woke. With a snort he scrambled to his feet, and grasping a hoe-handle, sprang at an inoffensive little boy, who was looking on. The leash wasn't long enough, however, and Phegan landed on his stomach with a tremendous grunt. For a moment he lay there, spread out like a frog on a hot shovel. Then he upended very slowly, glaring at us with murder in his bleared eyes.
"Fall in!" he roared.
We fell in.
"Now, then, ye bog-throtters, spake the truth, mind ye, or be the howly shmoke, I'll be the death av wan av ye! Is it a dirty cow ye take me for?" He shook his tethered leg. "Who leg-roped me?"
His eyes wandered along the lines, while he brandished the hoe-handle.
Silent and rigid stood the line. Phegan spat out some of the dust he had gathered up.
"Spake," he roared, "or be the Power above me, I'll knock ye down, the whole row of ye!" The hoe-handle was lifted threateningly. "D'ye hear? Who leg-roped me?"
Reardon's hand suddenly shot up. We anticipated a fight.
"Please, sir, it was Bolem!" The instant the name was uttered the black boy broke from the ranks and took to his heels.
"After him, all of ye!" roared Phegan, making a dart forward himself; but the rope jerked him back, and the school floor left an abrasion on his nose.
"Catch him, ye divils!" he gasped, "or I'll murder ye."
We spent the remainder of the school time chasing Bolem through the corn and sampling melons. Bolem escaped. Phegan didn't reign long after that. He drank more than ever, and got the sack. Then they installed, an eccentric old bachelor named Bowker. He wasn't a bad sort, and would light his pipe, and sit in front of us for hours, spinning' yarns. He seemed to think that we were gathered around his old camp-fires. He taught us a lot about tramps and squatters, and the way to catch fish, but be couldn't reckon up corn.
We got along very well with him till the farmers heard of a little peculiarity he had, of making love to the big girls. They called on him one day, and the subsequent proceedings were so sultry that Bowker jumped into the river and swam for new fields. He hasn't come back for his' things yet.
[A Murty Brown Story]
The drovers were feeding their cattle along by the side of a selector's cultivation paddock, half a mile below the family residence. Near the fence was a melon patch. Big striped beauties lay thick among the green vines, and looked cool and luscious in the shade of a tall gum tree. A dozen eyes looked hungrily at them, and half as many mouths watered. Those months had tasted nothing since daylight; it was now past noon; so the fruit was especially aggravating just there.
Coming from the interior, where the watermelon is scarce, and therefore all the more longed for in the hot months, the unprotected patch had an attraction for them that was irresistible. It revived memories of delicious feasts on the farms, and of adventures in their daring boyhood days. Murty Brown remembered a lot of adventures in connection with melons, most of which took place on moonless nights, and ended in a wild scramble over the palings, and a precipitate flight through the darkness with an enraged Chinaman in pursuit.
"I'll never forget old Sam Suey," said Murty. "He could run a bit—too much for me, anyway; and when he overhauled me one night, instead of layin' hold of me, he starts shootin'. He must have had two revolvers, for he fired a dozen shots altogether, all close behind me. I was so all-fired scared that the blast used to nearly knock me over; an' after each bang I'd hear him say: 'My wor', I hittee you next time, all li'.'
"At last I took a header over a log, and was too exhausted and terrified to make any effort to get up again. 'Ah!' says old Sam, 'I thought I shootee all li'. Welly goo! Melon get lipe now.' An' chucklin' to himself, he shuffles off back to his caboose. No mistake, I nearly died that night."
Nobody dropped a hint about a raid, but all fell back as though drawn by some magnet to the tail of the mob. Horses started to feed, and a leg here and there was thrown listlessly across the kneepad, while each man looked carefully around as though expecting some one. There was no one in sight, however; even the selector's house seemed deserted. Then one slipped off his horse behind a clump of bushes, and crawled away through the fence. In a moment six horses were clustered behind those bushes, and six hungry drovers wore snaking through the long grass.
The gap was soon bridged; each grabbed his pick of the melons and, tucking it under his arm, crawled back to a low, shady tree near the fence. Here they sat, jubilant, each with his prize on the ground between his knees. They were red-ripe, cracking deliciously before the ripping knives.
"This is something like," said Murty, with his mouth full. "They're just lovely."
"Superb!" added Jim Webb.
"Can't beat th' Richmond for growin' vegetables," the Second-in-Charge asserted. "Good soil; plenty o' rain."
"Melons ain't vegetables; they're fruit," Murty corrected.
"They're bobbydazzlers, anyhow," the Second-in-Charge declared. "I saw a pumpkin at Woram last year that was five feet long. There isn't many places grow fruit that size."
"Pumpkins is vegetables, not fruit," Murty again corrected.
The Second-in-Charge, holding a crescent shaped slice with both hands, paused in the act of lifting it to his mouth.
"What's pie melons?" he inquired.
"Why—er—What's pie melons?" Murty repeated.
"Why," Murty said, thinking hard, "seein' as th' product is used for makin' jam, it stands to reason it must be a preservin' fruit."
"I was in a jam factory once," the Second-in-Charge rejoined, "an' they used more pumpkins an' Swede turnips in the establishment than anything else. On the same line o' reasonin' then, pumpkins an' Swedes must be preservin' vegetables?"
He had hardly finished speaking when they heard a growl, and the noise of something rushing through the grass. Jumping up, they saw two venomous-looking dogs tearing towards them. The Second-in-Charge sprang up the tree, followed closely by the others.
The dogs sniffed round the butt; then sat down and growled. Forty yards away was a woman in a felt hat and blucher boots, swinging a portion of a box tree in her hand as she came determinedly towards them. Her sleeves were rolled above her elbows, showing a pair of arms that a heavyweight pugilist would have been proud of. She was anything but a gentle-looking creature. They felt sorry for each other.
They could hear her talking to herself as she stopped to examine the melon patch. She stopped again when she came to their patch, counting the spoil. Then she looked up and counted them.
"You're a bright lot, ain't you?" she snorted. "Robbin' a poor old wider of her few melons!"
"We didn't know you were a widow, ma'am," Murty interpolated, resenting the imputation more in sorrow than in anger.
"A fat lot you cared!" she returned. "But you'll pay for 'em, I'll lay. It's not the first time this 'as 'appened. Not be a dozen times; but I'll make an example of you!"
"What's the damages, missus?" asked the Second-in-Charge, soothingly.
"Damages—yes!" she shrieked. "There's me vines broke an' trampled on." She paused. She was hot and breathless. "Thirty bob's th' damages. Not a copper less."
"Oh, that's ridiculous. We only took six—"
"All right; you can have six months."
She turned towards the house, and cooeed. The men consulted, each searching his pockets, and counting his wealth; but they could only muster ten shillings. They offered her the amount to take her dogs away.
"It's thirty bob or the police," she answered, and looked again towards the house.
Then they saw a boy cantering down. The Second-in-Charge hastily explained that he would have to go to the boss for the balance of the money. The boss was in town, two miles away. She wouldn't listen to it.
"You come down," she answered, "an' them dogs 'll make you glad to get back again. You can rush 'em if you like, but the police will rush you after."
"Well, we haven't got the money, so what's to be done?"
"You give this boy an order for the money, an' he'll go an' get it. Have you pencil an' paper?"
None of them had. She turned to the boy, without waiting for their approval.
"Ride back an' get a sheet of paper an' a pencil, Jimmy. The pencil's in th' jug on th' shelf. Hit out."
Jimmy took about ten minutes to get the materials. They had already decided to make use of them, and when the order was given to him the woman said:
"You be quick now, an' if you don't get the money bring th' p'lice. Don't come back, mind yon, without one or the other."
While Jimmy was gone the Second-in-Charge parleyed again with the aggressive female. The cattle were spreading, and there were "strangers" about. It would make no difference to her to let one man go, and round them up. But she only expressed a hope that they would "lose the half o' them."
"We've just about gone an' done it," he remarked gloomily.
"Contain yourself in patience," Jim Webb returned; "we're bound to be extricated eventually."
"She's a double-barrelled idiot," Murty declared. "What's she want the whole lot of us for?"
"We're the security," Jim answered.
"Six men for thirty bob!" Murty snorted. "By cripes, she's pure; she is!"
He looked' down at the patient female with a lordly-contemptuous air.
"I'd be extra hard up if I took her at a gift—with th' melon plantation thrown in."
"If you had her, Murty, you wouldn't be gettin' into scrapes like this," said the Second-in-Charge. "She'd look after you."
"It's the bad company I'm mixin' with just now that's got me into this," Murty retorted.
It was a long while before Jimmy showed up. Then they saw him and someone else rounding up the cattle. They thought it was a case with the lot of them then. Two or three were on the point of offering the old lady five pounds, when they recognised Jimmy's companion. He was the boss. Jimmy left him at the fence, and hastened excitedly up to his mother.
"It's Tom!" he panted. "It's Tom, an' them's his cattle, an' those fellers are his men."
"Good lor'!" she exclaimed, and at once fluttered across to him. He shook hands with her, and kissed her. The men stared. Jimmy stood minding the dogs.
"Who's that person in his domestic capacity?" Webb asked him.
"Me brother," Jimmy replied. "Tom wot's been away nilly three year."
"Well, by cripes," gasped Murty, "that bangs me holler!...If the push I'm associatin' with 'ad been honest, we'd 'ave got all the melons we wanted—an' they wouldn't 'ave cost us anything."
The Second-in-Charge then threw Jimmy the ten shillings.
"Take those mongrels away, like a good chap," he entreated. "Your mother's done with us now."
Jimmy smiled approval and, patting his legs, slouched off, with the mongrels jumping around him. They slipped down, and struck a straight line to their horses, not one casting a glance towards Tom and his mother. They didn't see Tom again till next day. He rode into camp at sundown.
"Don't you fellows go shaking melons again, or you'll got into, trouble," he said, severely; but there was a grin on his face as he turned to unbuckle his girth.
Months afterwards they knew why he grinned. The two dogs that had held them in the tree wore "uselessly harmless;" they couldn't be made to bite a man under any provocation.
Quiyan, the grey 'possum, came to realise the stern realities of life in the dawn of a summer morning. He was a pretty little ball of fur as he lay snugly coiled in his mother's pouch, his pink nose buried in the folds of his own sleek body. It was getting light, and he wanted to sleep. Time after time he snuggled down, but only to move restlessly again, and wonder why his mother was still and cold. Then he put his head out and saw that she was hanging by the neck from a pole which was leaning against a tree where she had been feeding. Looking around, he noticed similar poles set everywhere through the great forest, and under many of them 'possums were hanging with a noose round their necks.
While his pretty round eyes were still staring in affright, the trapper came quickly through the bushes behind him. He had never seen a man before, but instinct told him that this monster that walked on its hind legs was an enemy, and he made an effort to wake his mother, to hurry her home. The trapper, grown callous in his work of slaughter, dragged him out by the neck, and would have thrown him to the waiting dogs but that Abe, the trapper's son, came up and asked for him for his cousin Joe.
Abe handled him carefully, and after admiring his dainty hands, and stroking his soft fur, tucked him under his arm. In this position he was taken the rounds of the traps, and later he came to know much about the dreaded trapper and his work.
The latter started out early to beat the crows and hawks, skinning the dead and resetting the traps as he went. The rest of the day was spent in pegging out skins at the camp, packing those that were cured, and making fresh pegs and snares. When he shifted camp these snares made a cartload in themselves. His wife and children shared with him the lonely forest life, living in tents. Besides horses and a serviceable vehicle, they had a couple of cows, which were milked in a rough bail rigged in a sapling yard. A flock of fowls was also kept, the much-travelled hens having frequently to make new nests in the middle of their laying. A low tree near camp suited them to roost in, but native cats and bushytail rats gave a lot of trouble. The worst foe of the trapper, however, was the dingo, which stole his 'possums at night. The struggling of the animals when caught often caused the pole to fall, and even when it retained its position against the tree it was not always safe.
Scores of young 'possums, like Quiyan, were torn ruthlessly from the parent pouches, but none of them were brought to camp to keep him company in the box they made for him. The naked joeys made dainty morsels for the trapper's dogs, while the furred ones were liberated, so that their skins by-and-bye might return ninepence to a shilling each.
The trapper finds them in all stages of growth, from a lifeless-looking atom no bigger than a peanut, which is very shortly after it has been born and placed on the teat by the mother. For a long time that speck of life is fed automatically, being held on by a little bulb on the end of the nipple. This forms after the nipple, then hard and pointed, is placed in the mouth. Thus, once removed in its embryo state it cannot be replaced, and so must perish. The pouch, which is at first small, and the opening narrow, now develops quickly. The joey is as big as, or bigger than, a new-born kitten before the fur begins to appear, which is also about the time it becomes a separate, self-feeding animal. It now shows considerable activity, and its growth is rapid. Pretty soon it finds the snug quarters where it has snuggled for months getting cramped, and has some difficulty in turning round, while the mother's movements are hampered with the increasing burden. She doesn't travel much these days, or climb any more than she can help.
The days in the nursery are now soon over, for there comes a night when the young one has feasted too well to get back, or his mother decides it is time to wean him. Still he is not turned away from the parent roof tree with a mother's blessing and not a gum leaf in his pocket. He will probably go about with her, and share the nest with her until the next season. About then his father, who has been away shearing some planter's crop and neglecting his home and family responsibilities, will return to the sanctum and kick him downstairs. In these times when it is a strenuous matter to exist, with so many foes around, and the pristine splendour of the ancestral forests a mere dream, the unfortunate father, who has no burden, to shackle his wandering feet, very often doesn't live to see his child. Not that he wants to see him very much, or would recognise him if he met him at dinner; but the mother is widowed—or she marries again. In either case, the little one has to go for good and find a hollow for himself. With the continual thinning of forests this is not an easy matter, unless he goes right away into new country. This many do, eventually.
In due time Quiyan was delivered into the hands of Joe Grimby, who lived on a farm on the Richmond River. Though 'possums were numerous in the neighbourhood, Joe made a great fuss over the orphan. His sisters, who were older than Joe, made more fuss still. They said he was a dear little creature, and they laughed till the tears came into their eyes when he hugged Joe round the neck, or clung to his matted hair. Their shrieks and contortions of delight astonished him at first, but they treated him so gently and caressingly that his timidity soon wore off. Indeed, he became ere long a cheeky and mischievous little imp.
Joe built him a large cage, with a dark corner in it, where he could snuggle up in soft corn husks, and fed him on gum and wild apple leaves, fruits and grain, varied with damper, cooked corned meat, and sugar; and he was provided nightly with a clean saucer, from which he lapped milk and water with gusto, and sometimes sweet black tea.
He took kindly to Joe. He would perch on his shoulder and purr; and when he found the opening in Joe's shirt-front he liked him better than ever. Joe was his new mother, and here was the pouch he had, so long missed. He got half into it, then his sharp claws touched Joe's ribs, and he was violently ejected, while Joe danced and his sisters went into hysterics. This astonished him some, and he desisted. Still, he was satisfied with Joe; he was evidently a marsupial of some kind. Joe's father, however, he regarded with suspicion, for he was a fierce-looking monster like the trapper. Grimby treated him with good-humoured indifference, until an incident one night raised hie ire against Quiyan and all his kind.
Grimby was having tea, meanwhile discoursing unlearnedly on the nationalisation of coal mines to his admiring family, when Quiyan, who latterly had been allowed the freedom of the house at night time, sprang down off the wallplate on to his head, which was bald. The roof-lifting roar that came from Grimby, simultaneously with the jump he gave, caused his good wife to drop the teapot on the cups, and the baby to topple off its high stool. Quiyan was so startled, by all this that he leaped on to the table, where he sat with his tail in the butter staring at the monster. Joe snatched him up, and disappeared for half an hour. When he returned, his father was able to deliver himself more calmly on the situation.
"You get rid of that little beast, Joe, as soon as you like, or there'll be a bust-up here. The idea of making pets of 'possums on a farm. One of the greatest night pests we have—next to wallabies and paddymelons and bandicoots. Look down the farm now. Round, every tree and stump the corn's stripped."
Joe could not but admit that in such localities the 'possum was content to take up his residence in a dead tree, or even in the root of a stump, to save travelling. His rambles at any time never take him far from home. He must have trees, and when they go he has to go too. So Joe humbly suggested that the best remedy was to shift the trees.
"What," asked Mr. Grimby, ignoring the suggestion as beneath notice, "what does he do in the wheatfield? He hasn't been very long acquainted with wheat, but he soon showed ability to adapt himself to circumstances. He couldn't climb the wheat stalk, so he nibbled at the bottom till it fell, and ate the head of grain on the ground. In the barn he did better, and now and again showed a desire to live there, making his abode on a wallplate. When he found a stack of bagged wheat he made his presence felt more than ever. He called his kind to the feast, and they feasted. They, spent the night there, for the heaped bags were just fine for racing over between meals, and for skylarking, and doing handsprings, and playing leapfrog. In the morning the farmer found holes eaten in his bags and wheat scattered all over the place. And you want to set him up in the house, and make a pet of him."
Like most Australians, Joe had a warm spot in his heart for the nimble 'possum, and he had no sympathy for the hunter when the hunted scored against him. The grey 'possum, he argued, was a frisky, sportive little animal when not seriously molested, and he was inquisitive, fond of sweets, and always on the lookout for a change of diet, propensities that too often led him into jeopardy; but he wasn't a pest any more than the horse, or cow, or pig, or the chook, any one of which would do more damage if it got at a wheat stack.
Quiyan was kept in his cage that night for his own good; for Mr. Grimby was a fussy, nerve-sensitive man at best, and a nocturne so soon after the tea-table episode would be fraught with peril. But the following night, when everybody had gone to bed, Joe let him out, first closing all openings about the house, including the chimney-top, so that he could not get away into the bush. He put some green leaves, bread, sugar, and water near the cage to keep him from rambling; but he rambled all the same. Joe was awakened by the falling of the clock, and immediately afterwards two glass vases clattered down and smashed. Joe knew at once it was his pet, and, hearing a commotion in Grimby's room, together with some remarks befitting the occasion, he slipped out quickly to capture him before his father found the matches. A great clatter of falling tins and a bottle of spirits from the mantelpiece guided him, and he captured the little mischief, and regained, his room, as Grimby fell over the rocking-chair. Then, while the latter fumbled and groped about, he opened the back door, hauled the cat in, and returned to bed. By the time Grimby had found the matches the cat was purring round his legs. It got a reception that surprised it, while Mrs. Grimby was soundly rated for shutting up the house without putting the cat out. Nothing was said about the 'possum.
Next night Quiyan was kept in again by way of punishment. But he managed to get out, and, the window being up, he was very shortly viewing the situation from the top of a post. The bush was calling, calling; besides, he was dissatisfied with a mother who slept all night, and only got up when it was time to go to bed. So he jumped down, and bounded away into the whirl of trees. A squeak in the distance told him of the presence of other 'possums. He stopped once with a sharp stab of fear as a squirrel darted over him with a sudden squeal; and his heart fluttered painfully when a dingo howled quite close to him.
Just as he reached his fellows, many of whom were gambolling on the ground, they made a wild scamper for the trees. Pausing a moment, he noticed that none of them rushed straight up on reaching a tree, but darted partly round it first, instinct told him that danger was hot-foot in the wake, and in terror he fled likewise. They were high up among the branches in a few seconds, but Quiyan was very young yet, and his gymnastic exercises had been neglected. Desperately and laboriously he climbed a few feet, then he almost dropped off with shock as a brute like a dingo leaped at him from the grass. Trembling with fright, he struggled to a limb and crouched down beside an old buck, who was purring defiantly at the enemy.
"What is that?" he asked.
"A fox," said the veteran. "When I was young like you there were none of them about, but now they are plentiful, and they are worse than the wild dog. They lie in ambush, and when you go down they spring out and catch you. You'll have to keep your eyes peeled, young 'un. Where is your mother?"
"She was caught in a snare a long way from here."
"The old, sad tale," said the veteran. "Where do you sleep now?"
"I haven't found a place yet," said Quiyan; "I must look for one to-night."
"Better get a hustle on, young 'un," said the veteran. "If the man foe sees you in the day he will shoot you with his gun. The most terrible of all our enemies is the man foe."
Quiyan shuddered, and his pretty eyes filled with tears.
The fox went away at last, and then Quiyan descended, and began his search for a suitable hollow. Dozens of trees he climbed, pausing now and again to refresh himself on various leaves, and on choice bits of herbage and sweet roots between trees; but what hollow knobs and spouts he found were already occupied. The occupiers were seldom at home, but they were never far away. He entered one, which appeared from the cobwebs in the corners and the dust on the floor to be deserted; but he was almost immediately ejected, and knocked head over heels off the balcony. This made him wary and, though considerably shaken and discouraged, he continued his search.
The dawn found him still searching. He was then on a treeless flat, stepping gingerly and miserably through wet grass, and in terror of his life. What chance would he have if Reynard appeared now? There were other foes which he had not yet encountered, but which he came to know later. There was the carpet snake, which every 'possum dreaded, for he could not always hear it on the grass, and it often threw its deadly coils around him before he was aware of its presence. Though the dingo could find him anywhere by following his scent, he gave warning of his approach, and the 'possum could escape. Not always, however. He is a poor traveller on the ground, though he can spring around and side-step with marvellous agility. If no friendly tree is handy he falls an easy prey to the dingo and the tiger cat. In the air were the eagle and the great brown hawk, which swooped suddenly upon him and carried him off in their powerful talons.
He made all haste to the first clump of trees, which was on the bank of the river and, choosing a bushy sugar-gum, clambered wearily up on to a limb. When the sun peeped through his arbour he was trying to sleep under difficulties, and soon his eyes were tear-wet and sore with the fierce light. The minah and the soldier-bird discovered him, and these made such a noise that other tormentors were attracted. They seemed to recognise his plight, and therefore persecuted him for hours. The worst were the kingfisher and the magpie. He grew tired with dodging and ducking as they darted at him, and sometimes he put his hands up to ward off an attack. The vicious snap of the magpie's mandibles, missing his ear by only a hair's breadth, so alarmed him that two or three times he almost fell off his lodging.
"This will never do," he thought, looking dejectedly around; "must get a house to-night If I have to fight for it."
He went higher up the trunk, seeking the shelter of clustering leaves. Above the first branches there were several knobs, like huge warts and, in one of these, to his great joy, he found a cosy hollow. There was no danger of being knocked up here in the middle of the day, for all 'possums had long ere this returned from their meetings and banquets. This hollow had no owner. It was his, and in it he coiled up and slept.
For many months he occupied that comfortable hollow, content to live alone, though he mingled awhile with other 'possums at night. But there came a change as he grew to maturity; a strange restlessness that drove him to seek companionship, and not the companionship of his own sex. With these he fought fierce battles, till his ears were scarred with tooth and claw. In most cases the cause of battle was a coveted doe. On a leaning ironbark he had met one who welcomed his advances, but his love-making was shortly interrupted by a rival. There was a short, sharp tussle on the bent trunk, ending in a sousing fall for both. Limp and sore, they sat awhile on the couch grass, sparring and snarling; then the rival decamped, and Quiyan returned quickly to his waiting partner.
For a long time after that he was absent from his home, for he slept with his mate by day in another hollow. When he returned he had lost his sleekness and good looks. He was poor, and his fur was thin and falling out. He slept more now; only a yearning for a ripe banana or a feast of green lucerne could take him far from home. Once he came across a tent, which some timber-getters had rigged under a low ridge. Here he discovered flour, sugar, raisins, and a tucker-box, in which was much that suited his palate. He chewed holes in all the bags, and sampled their contents. When he repeated the visit the timber-getter was waiting fop him, and he chased him hotly from tree to tree, venting terrific yells, and lashing at him with a long bullock whip. Three different trees he made desperate attempts to ascend, only to be whipped off when he had got several yards up. When he at last escaped the terrible whip, and perched panting in a silky oak, the timber-getter hurled blazing firesticks at him. Twice he was knocked swinging off his perch, being saved each time by his prehensile tail. He was so terrified, and had got so many sores and aches, that he never went near that tent again.
When the cold months returned, he had put on a new coat, which was firm and thick. With his gay appearance came gaiety of spirits, and ere long he was treading again the nuptial path that is strewn with gum blossoms. But this season he had a new mate, for his first had been captured by a black man, and her furry coat, which he had so often clasped in his arms, was now carried by the wandering lubra.
The blacks he had most reason to dread by day, for it mattered not how high the 'possum was, or how well selected the hollow that formed his nest, they knew by the number and age of the claw marks on the soft bark that be lived there; and they climbed up with tomahawk and vine, and cut a hole in the wall of his bedroom, through which he was unceremoniously hauled by the tail, then battered against the tree trunk, and dropped to the ground dead. The flesh was their favourite meat, and the furry skin their best material for making rugs to cover them in cold weather.
Ever as the seasons came and went, the settlements grew thicker, and the forest thinner, till at last his own tree was sent crashing through the brush on the river bank. When he scrambled out of the debris, dazed and bruised, he had a wild race for life from the axeman's dogs. Being hot pressed on the brink, he sprang into the river and swam hard for the opposite bank. He swam fairly well, though he had never been in water before. The dogs beat about and barked for a moment or two before they followed him, and thus he landed with just time enough to spare to get up a convenient lillipilli. They squatted under the tree, barking at him for half an hour; but as the man had no boat he was let off.
That night he trekked still further afield, and found a new home in a strange forest. Here there were hundreds of his family, who frollicked on the boxwood flats between a high ridge and a broad lagoon. He was a happy, contented 'possum thereafter, playing and feasting the night long, and fulfilling his duties at regulated periods, though he had many adventures and some narrow escapes. At first two other 'possums had their abode in the same tree as himself, though In a different spout. The man with a gun, who walked abroad on moonlight nights, shot them both. He remembered every detail of the shooting; the man mooning round the tree until he had got the foolish 'possum in the full face of the moon; the flash and roar of the gun; the thud of the victim; and its agonised cries as the dogs pounced upon and worried it.
Descending warily that same night, he found a mother koala sitting at the butt of the tree with a baby on her back.
"I wonder you didn't fall," said the koala. "Do you always come down head first?"
"Of course," said Quiyan. "Don't you?"
"No; I descend backwards. It's easier."
"Do you go up backwards?" asked Quiyan.
The mother koala gave a loud snort, which woke the baby, and made Quiyan jump. "What an idea," she exclaimed chuckling In a koala-ish way. A stentorious cry down the flat interrupted her. "That must be the old man," she said, listening. "I haven't seen him since the afternoon."
"Do you go about in the day?" asked Quiyan.
"He does. He's out at all hours, the old villain. I must go and see what he's up to." Saying which, she dropped on all fours and went off slowly down the flat. Quiyan darted r away in another direction, where he knew there were some young ladles, who would console him for the loss of his friends.
One day a piercing shriek rang through the forest, startling the birds on land and water, Quiyan, rudely awakened by a scratching at his door, had looked up to see a black goanna stealing into his bedroom. Lacking the shrewdness and cunning of the platypus, he had only one opening to his domicile, and thus when the black robber thrust his head in his exit was cut off. With his back to the wall, he hissed and sparred at the approaching foe, his eyes aglare with horror, but the goanna rushed through his guard, and seizing him behind the shoulder dragged him out, shrieking and struggling. A frantic plunge lifted the goanna off the limb, and both fell heavily. The struggle was continued on the ground, while peewits and gillbirds, attracted by the commotion among the dead leaves and twigs, chattered excitedly on adjacent limbs.
Poor Quiyan put up a good fight, but his claws and teeth made little impression on the hard, scaly body of his foe, and in a few minutes he lay limp and still, a fat meal for the gluttonous victor.
We brought cattle over for Ramornie meatworks. Barney McMahon, the owner, was in charge, and his understrappers were Murty Brown, Matthew Conyers and myself. Nothing out of the ordinary eventuated on the journey; it was after we delivered our quadrupeds and came to honour the town with our several presences that the trouble began. The governor had some pettifoggery to transact with the Lord Mayor and other dignitaries, and meantime we annexed a vacant plot contiguous to the racecourse. Our only responsibilities were to see that the horses didn't evaporate, so we had plenty of time to circulate about the neighbourhood.
We'd habitated about a fortnight on our conjoint allotment when we noticed peculiar developments in the conduct of Conyers. Hitherto he'd been quite confidential and sociable, exercised spontaneously after the horses, and operated in the culinary department. Now he was a grumptious ergophobian, and wore an aspect, while consuming his nefarious cigar, as if we were so many encumbrances. He couldn't tolerate our degenerate company when going to town. He had his hair amputated in style, and his face scraped twice a week. We saw him also rubbing lemons on his hands to obliterate the tan and freckles.
We were perambulating down a side street one evening, and had brought the Post Office Hotel in juxtaposition. It was an antiquated establishment, but commodious. Two vociferous individuals held possession in the bar, so we turned off at a tangent and discovered a private parlour—where we were obviously objectionable. It was monopolised by Matthew Conyers and a captivating piece of gentility in white. She was decorated with cochineal bows and rosettes, and had a tortoiseshell rake and a Botanic Garden in her hair. She was simply voluptuous. Matthew was deposited in proximity, and appeared to be deranged in the nervous system.
"This is opportune," I said to him. "We encountered the boss at the intersection of the local thoroughfare and the main artery—"
Matthew frowned and grimaced so horribly that I terminated with abruptness.
"The boss?" said the young lady, focussing Matthew with interrogation marks in her beauteous eyes.
"He means the gentleman who buys our cattle," he explained to her, with a ghastly attempt at a smile. "I was conferrin' with him just now. He wants more cattle, and I think we'll be able to get a substantial rise in the price o' th' next lot. I I agreed we'd confer with him some more at 10 sharp to-morrer—"
"Well, by cripes!" Murty ejaculated, but Matthew jumped up and said: "Excuse me, gentlemen; allow me to introduce you to Miss Fiona Martell. This is Mr. James, owner of Dirrawong station; an' this is Mr. Murty Brown, owner of Weppo station—both neighbours of mine."
I tumbled to the situation instanter, and, bowing my acknowledgements, contrived to joggle Mr. Brown to induce him to close the space in his countenance. The unexpected elevation to a full-blown squatter affected his breathing apparatus, and suffocation was setting in. I requested liquid refreshments to allow him to recover. Miss Martell took our dispatches graciously and faded into the next compartment.
"I'll be gunbusted!" Murty ejaculated, and collapsed on the upholstery. "No mistake, Mat Conyers, you're pure! Owner of Weppo, eh? Where th' confusion's Weppo, anyway?"
Matthew made warlike demonstrations with his fist. "You give me away, you ragtaggled old geyser, an' I'll spifflicate yer!" he hissed.
"Don't get yer hair off," said Murty. "I'm quite prepared t' accept th' property an' all th' accessories. But where's she situated?"
"On th' Logan, you fool!" said Matthew. "Keep them hobnailed horrors under th' table, an' try an' be a gentleman for once—if yer do dog a man up an' shove yerself in where yer not wanted—"
"Excuse me, Mr. Conyers," I said, "Your opprobrious remarks are unwarranted—"
Miss Fiona Martell transpired with the libations just then, and I jumped expeditiously into an announcement that I'd be transmogrified if £10 a head would buy those bullocks I had in the back paddock at Dirrawong.
"I suppose you're married, Mr. James?" she inquired sweetly.
"Both married," Matthew interposed quickly. That muzzled us in one act.
"When we get back to the Logan there'll be three of us conjugalated," I said, with malice aforethought. She looked at Matthew, whose face was a vermilion contortion.
"But you're not going back to get married, Mr. Conyers?" she said.
"Take no notice of him," said Matthew, wriggling and trying to look pleasant. "Mr. James will 'ave his joke."
"But you know, Conyers," I said, "you told me you were predisposed that way."
"Ah, yes," said Matthew, "but I never 'ad any serious intentions—till now." His glance at Fiona was significant. Her expression fluctuated as she established herself approximate to Mr. Brown.
"How many have you in family, Mr. Brown?" she asked. The question staggered Murty.
"Eh—family? Oh, ten!" he said, remembering the bellicosity of Mr. Conyers, and in his discomposure he hauled one of the offensive extremities from under the furniture. Matthew kicked it into concealment again with promptitude.
"O dear!" said Fiona, "you have a tribe. How many boys?"
"Seven," said Murty.
"And I suppose they can all ride?" said Fiona.
"Rippin' riders," said Murty.
"That's nice!" said Fiona. "It's a wonder you didn't bring a few of them down with you."
Fiona was interested in Murty's domestic arrangements.
"They're a shade too young yet," said Murty, tapping the hob-nailed atrocities together for exercise.
"What age is your oldest, Mr. Brown?"
"Nine," said Murty.
"Nine!" she cried with an elevation of her eyebrows, "And you have ten!"
Murty was apoplectic with confusion, and his attempt at rectification pretty near brought disaster on the confraternity.
"They weren't singles," he said. "There was four pair o' twins an' one lot o' triplets."
"Good gracious!" said Fiona. The simultaneousness of Murty's progeny astounded her. She did some calculations and said, "That makes eleven."
"Well, dang it, there is eleven," said Murty with desperation. "I missed count o' one o' the gels."
"Don't mind him, Miss Martell," said Conyers in a profuse perspiration; "it's only his chaff. The old dog's been married twenty years or more, an' 'as sons as big as me."
Murty's facial orifice gaped with amazement. He reddened and smirked distressfully. The propinquity of the dazzling Fiona embarrassed him; and his strenuous efforts to act in conformity with what he imagined to be the deportment of a squatter of family were heartbreaking.
"Mr. Brown has peculiar ideas of jocularity," I said. "In fact, his peculiarities are extensive. He's an oddity, Miss Martell, which is evidenced even in the appellations he's encumbered his three charming daughters with."
"Indeed!" said Miss Martell. "What do you call them, Mr. Brown?"
Mr. Brown hadn't the scintilla of an idea what to call them; but he prevaricated like a genius.
"Bet yer drinks yer don't remember them names now, Conyers," he said.
"'S a wager," said Conyers, and he shoved his hands into his pockets and contemplated with impressive solemnity. The clink of the spondulix brought inspiration, and he said "Goldenia, Sylvia and Copperina."
"By cripes, he's got 'em off as slick as pie!" said Murty, and whacked the furniture with his fist.
"But those are not their names?" said Fiona, surprised.
"They are," said Murty. "I calls 'em Gold, Silver an' Copper for short. Yer see, I christened 'em so becos about th' time they 'appened I discovered traces o' them min'rals on—on—my run." The name of the run was elusive. "Let's 'ave th' drinks, Miss," he said, and when the main attraction had decamped he pivoted on his axis and fulminated something terrific. "Yer th' two ends of an ass, Jim," he said in conclusion. "Christ'nin' them blamed daughters cost me 18d.,* an' I can't afford to lavish money on christ'nin's an' baptisms if I am a squatter."
[* 18 pence.]
"Shut yer clatter," hissed Conyers, producing the 18d. "It's a pity yer can't stop in th' company yer fitted for."
"As an 'onest drover, I reckon I'm fit company for th' likes o' you an' that bit o' skirt yer playin' th' high an' mighty with," said Murty with dignity. "She's an ignoramus anyway. Don't she strike you so, Jim?"
"I certainly can't compliment her on her perspicacity," I said, "and her gullibility astonishes me."
"An' it's not the clean pertater to circumvent any gel, 'specially one as is the acme of innocence, be false pretences," said Murty. "Stuffin' th' out 'n' outest crammers plum down her swan neck!"
"For his own aggrandisement," I said, "it's pusillanimous." Conyers looked venomous. "I never suspicioned that our compatriot was such a complicated impostor."
"I wouldn' 'a' believed it of him," said Murty.
"It's none o' your bizness," snarled Matthew.
"'Twarn't none o' your bizness to saddle me with a family I couldn't keep count o'," Murty retorted.
"I 'ad nothing to do with your family," said Conyers. "I only married you."
"It's manifestly unfair, Conyers," I said. "I intended to select a permanent residence hereabout and to amalgamate with one of the petticoated fraternity; but the incongruous position you have placed me in has deteriorated my prospects."
"No one knows it but Fiona. You ain't hankering after her?" said Conyers, suspiciously.
"I have no predilections in that quarter," I said. "But women confabulate, and that won't be propitious, you'll allow. Besides, your hoodwinkery is too preposterous, Matthew. It's highly abominable."
"All's fair in love an war," quoted Matthew.
"There's a fundamental difference," I says, "between love and war, and rank hypocrisy and vile deception—"
"It's unbecomin' of a gentleman," said Murty. "It humiliates me to be in his company."
"You blitherin' old idiot!" said Conyers. "If I had my wish I wouldn't be seen in a 40-acre paddock with y'r."
"Unless you condescend to abrogate the erroneous impressions and other impediments that you've inveigled her with," I said, "and pay her an adequate indemnity, it will be our painful duty to instigate proceedings."
"Yes, I think you'll be actin' sensible in holdin' on to them bullocks," Matthew chipped in hurriedly. Fiona arrived with the brewery.
"Where are you staying, Mr. Brown?" asked Fiona.
Mr. Brown paused in perplexity. He couldn't recollect any tony hotel in proximity to our humble tent where squatters would be likely to vegetate. But he could prevaricate magnificently.
"What's th' name o' that blamed 'stablishrnent now?" he said, scratching his pate, and ruminating.
"The Junction Hotel," said Conyers.
"That's four miles out!" says Fiona, "You're not Walking all that way?"
Conyers cackled as though the mere suggestion of it amused him. "Not much fear o' Mr. Brown an' Mr. James walkin' far while they've got a buggy an' pair," he said.
* * *
Conyers transpired about midnight. We were under blankets, pretending to be asleep; but Murty got cogitating about Weppo and the mineral family, and exploded. Matthew scowled, and spread his loose grass mattress with the fussiness of a poultry farm. We jeered him with some volubility. He precipitated himself under the blankets with his inexpressibles on. The high panjandrum of the station wardrobe had forgotten to pack his pyjamas in the portmanteaux.
* * *
I couldn't prevail on Murty to join the symposium next night; but on a subsequent evening we happened in on the tale-end of some of Conyers' bristling reminiscences of squatting life.
"It must be jolly to be a squatter," said Fiona.
"It's jollier to be a squatteress," said Matthew. He was progressing. Then a scare-eyed citizen framed himself in the doorway and requested a word with Mr. Conyers. Matthew eyed us doubtfully, and followed him out. The fellow wanted a job. He Was the third who had interviewed Matthew that evening. Meanwhile Fiona made herself agreeable.
"Mr. Conyers has a very nice place, I believe," she said.
"Reg'lar plum," said Murty.
"What does he call it? I can't think of that name," she said.
"Dang me if I can either," said Murty, "Some funny name."
"It escapes me for the moment," I added, and the three of us were ruminating when Matthew returned.
"We've all been trying to think of the name of your station, Mr. Conyers," she said.
"Camalingo," said Matthew, with a vile, vinegar expression.
"I knowed it was something like a camel," said Murty, heartily. "Them two sandhills near th' 'omestead often reminds me o' th' double hump."
"Why, you told me there wasn't a grain of sand on your property, Mr. Conyers," said Fiona.
"Them hillocks you mean, Brown, are on a reserve," Mr. Conyers informed him.
"Oh! are they? I didn't know that," said Murty. "I never study maps."
Six more unemployed obstructed the rightaway. They'd been told Mr. Conyers had burrs and prickly pear to exterminate. Mr. Conyers was indignant at the bare insinuation of such obnoxious growths being on his estate, and regarded Murty's levity with opprobrium.
Just then Barney McMahon intruded.
"I want you to bring my saddle in to-morrow, and get it counterlined, Conyers," he said, with a pitiless lack of ceremony. "Get the packhorses shod also, and be ready to start back early on Friday."
Conyers nodded in abject misery. The poor chap was almost conglaciated.
Barney turned to the mystified enchantress.
"How's Miss Martell?"
"Quite well, thank you," she said. "This is quite an occasion, Mr. McMahon—having four Logan River squatters in here at once."
"Four?" said Barney, prospecting for the species. "Where?"
"Why, there's Mr. Conyers, owner of Camalingo—isn't it true?" she said, as Barney went off into convulsions.
"Well," he said, "I believe Conyers does own a building allotment in Nanango, now I come to think of it, but I don't know what he calls it."
Two disorganised clerks presented themselves. Was Mr. Conyers on the premises? Barney indicated the misery with a fluttering malacca. They coughed in unison.
"I heard you wanted an overseer," said one, deferentially.
"And a storekeeper," added the other.
The mirth of Fiona and Barney pretty nigh paralysed the Community. Matthew dispersed with great velocity, dismantling the overseer and the storekeeper in the process. While the mortified pair were still under observation the owners of Dirrawong and Weppo lit out for a more salubrious atmosphere.
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