On Our Selection, by Steele Rudd

Chapter 25.

The Man with the Bear–Skin Cap.

One evening a raggedly-dressed man, with a swag on his back, a bear-skin cap on his head, and a sheath-knife in his belt, came to our place and took possession of the barn. Dad ordered him off. The man offered to fight Dad for the barn. Dad ran in and got the gun. Then the man picked up his swag and went away. The incident caused much talk for a few days, but we soon forgot all about it; and the man with the bear-skin cap passed from our minds.

Church service was to be held at our selection. It was the first occasion, in fact, that the Gospel had come to disturb the contentedly irreligious mind of our neighbourhood. Service was to open at 3 p.m.; at break-of-day we had begun to get ready.

Nothing but bustle and hurry. Buttons to be sewn on Dave’s shirt; Dad’s pants — washed the night before and left on the clothes-line all night to bleach — lost; Little Bill’s to be patched up generally; Mother trotting out to the clothes-line every minute to see if Joe’s coat was dry. And, what was unusual, Dave, the easy-going, took a notion to spruce himself up. He wandered restlessly from one room to another, robed in a white shirt which wasn’t starched or ironed, trying hard to fix a collar to it. He hadn’t worn the turn-out for a couple of years, and, of course, had grown out of it, but this didn’t seem to strike him. He tugged and fumbled till he lost patience; then he sat on the bed and railed at the women, and wished that the shirt and the collar, and the church-service and the parson, were in Heaven. Mother offered to fasten the collar, but when she took hold of it — forgetting that her hands were covered with dough and things — Dave flew clean off the handle! And when Sal advised him to wear his coloured shirt, same as Dad was going to do, and reminded him that Mary Anderson mightn’t come at all, he aimed a pillow at her and knocked Little Bill under the table, and scattered husks all over the floor. Then he fled to the barn and refused dinner.

Mid-day, and Dad’s pants not found. We searched inside and outside and round about the pig-sty, and the hay-stack, and the cow-yard; and eyed the cows, and the pet kangaroo, and the draught-horses with suspicion; but saw nothing of the pants. Dad was angry, but had to make the most of an old pair of Dave’s through the legs of which Dad thrust himself a lot too far. Mother and Sal said he looked well enough in them, but laughed when he went outside.

The people commenced to arrive on horseback and in drays. The women went on to the verandah with their babies; the men hung round outside and waited. Some sat under the peach-tree and nibbled sticks and killed green-heads; others leant against the fence; while a number gathered round the pig-sty and talked about curing bacon.

The parson came along. All of them stared at him; watched him unsaddle his horse and hunt round for a place to fasten the beast. They regarded the man in the long black coat with awe and wonder.

Everything was now ready, and, when Dad carried in the side-boards of the dray and placed them on boxes for seat accommodation, the clergyman awaited his congregation, which had collected at the back-door. Anderson stepped in; the rest followed, timid-looking, and stood round the room till the clergyman motioned them to sit. They sat and watched him closely.

“We’ll now join in singing hymn 499,” said the parson, commencing to sing himself. The congregation listened attentively, but didn’t join in. The parson jerked his arms encouragingly at them, which only made them the more uneasy. They didn’t understand. He snapped his arms harder, as he lifted his voice to the rafters; still they only stared. At last Dad thought he saw through him. He bravely stood up and looked hard at the others. They took the hint and rose clumsily to their feet, but just then the hymn closed, and, as no one seemed to know when to sit again, they remained standing.

They were standing when a loud whip-crack sounded close to the house, and a lusty voice roared:

“Wah Tumbler! Wah Tumbler! Gee back, Brandy! Gee back, you ——! ——!! ——!!!”

People smiled. Then a team of bullocks appeared on the road. The driver drawled, “Wa-a-a-y!” and the team stopped right in front of the door. The driver lifted something weighty from the dray and struggled to the verandah with it and dropped it down. It was a man. The bullock-driver, of course, didn’t know that a religious service was being conducted inside, and the chances are he didn’t much care. He only saw a number of faces looking out, and talked at them.

“I’ve a —— cove here,” he said, “that I found lying on the —— plain. Gawd knows what’s up with him — I don’t. A good square feed is about what he wants, I reckon.” Then he went back for the man’s swag.

Dad, after hesitating, rose and went out. The others followed like a flock of sheep; and the “shepherd” brought up the rear. Church was out. It gathered around the seeming corpse, and stared hard at it. Dad and Dave spoke at the same time.

“Why,” they said, “it’s the cove with the bear-skin cap!” Sure enough it was. The clergyman knelt down and felt the man’s pulse; then went and brought a bottle from his valise — he always carried the bottle, he said, in case of snake-bite and things like that — and poured some of the contents down the man’s throat. The colour began to come to the man’s face. The clergyman gave him some more, and in a while the man opened his eyes. They rested on Dad, who was bending benignly over him. He seemed to recognise Dad. He stared for some time at him, then said something in a feeble whisper, which the clergyman interpreted —“He wishes you —” looking at Dad —“to get what’s in his swag if he dies.” Dad nodded, and his thoughts went sadly back to the day he turned the poor devil out of the barn.

They carried the man inside and placed him on the sofa. But soon he took a turn. He sank quickly, and in a few moments he was dead. In a few moments more nearly everyone had gone.

“While you are here,” Dad said to the clergyman, in a soft voice, “I’ll open the swag.” He commenced to unroll it — it was a big blanket — and when he got to the end there were his own trousers — the lost ones, nothing more. Dad’s eyes met Mother’s; Dave’s met Sal’s; none of them spoke. But the clergyman drew his own conclusions; and on the following Sunday, at Nobby–Nobby, he preached a stirring sermon on that touching bequest of the man with the bear-skin cap.

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Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 15:33