This story had the chance of being quite true. It would have been so, but for the denial of certain surly facts. So much the worse for the story.
As half-forgotten incidents became fixed in mind and were associated with happenings of the recent past, righteous endeavours were made to discover corroborative evidence of doubtful points; but fact and fable had become so blended that little could be done in the way of sorting out.
Would it not have been satisfactory to all concerned if it could have been proved that the rusty rifle-barrel lying among odds and ends in the barn was ever in the possession of Billy Too-gal (otherwise “Billy of the Leg”) and that it had been a serviceable weapon with carefully polished stock and rather more of brave brass in its mountings than is the style of the day? History is silent on this important point, while tradition shouts confidently in the affirmative. Trust rather to the affirmative of tradition than to the cheerless negative!
Tradition said that Billy Too-gal had been directly acquainted with the rifle; that he had treasured it during his day, and that when he had passed into the land of shades one of the mystery-men of the time had flung it into the sea because he deemed it uncanny, dangerous, and like to transcend in direct effect the magic in which he himself dealt. Years afterwards, “Jack Walk About” found it — a shapeless mass of rust — protruding from the sand at low water, and having chipped away some of the corrosion, had taken it to a certain Isle, as evidence, perhaps, of a forgotten tragedy!
There be some who declare that Billy Too-gal’s affection for the weapon was a grim sort of sentiment, which had germinated in the idea that he had suffered strange martyrdom through it. They assert that the bullet fired by the hasty and aggravated white man struck him on the left knee, giving to his gait that singular lurch or strut — almost rollicking in style — that his phantom perpetuated. Others, with equal force, and on, perhaps, slightly sounder evidence, maintained that the bullet shattered his lower jaw, so that the vestiges thereof hung loose; that he was thereby deprived of the ability to masticate his food; that he presented a repulsive, yet affecting, sight when he strove to appease his hunger; for was he not driven to throw scraps and fragments into his cavernous mouth and gulp them?
Poor Billy Too-gal may have been cheeky to the nervous and suspicious white man who had invaded his country; but his punishment did not fit his fault. It was excessive. It was cruel. Not only did it inflict lifelong anguish, sentence him to insatiable hunger, but it also ruined his temper. Behold him, thenceforward, a fierce-eyed man, tall and very lean, with a strut that would have been ludicrous on the stage, a wide-open, slobbering mouth, with portions of a frayed and dangling jaw.
His ghost retained, as ghosts should, the disfigurements of life — so the wise old men proclaimed with voices of authority that brooked no question. Those who were coeval with him had good cause to recollect his singularities, his eccentricities, his passionate and explosive moments. Not an infant in many a camp who did not recognize his phantom when the sages gathered together to discuss affairs of moment, for prying piccaninnies were kept in check by threats of the return to life of Billy Too-gal, with his fearsome, mobile head and the strut that swung his body to the right at every step. Billy was a “bidg-eroo” (malignant “debil-debil”), that would still the squeakiest piccaninny, and make her hide her eyes against her mother’s side or on the mangy coat of the pup she happened to be cuddling.
Boys might assume a tremulous air of bravado; but did ever one of them venture out on to the beach after dark, where, their elders declared, Billy of the Leg was wont to spend impatient nights spearing Too-gan? No; the boys, defiant in a crowd in daylight, cowered in camp after dark, for Billy’s strut as he slid along the beach gave him the faculty of glaring sideways with paralysing potency. They knew, too, that from the bark band across his forehead was slung a dilly-bag big enough to hold a captured piccaninny for breakfast, if the sleepy Too-gan failed to waver within range of his spear. For these reasons, the bold-at-daylight boys kept in the background after dark, glad of the muffling blankets teeming with fleas.
Old, old men had often told of Billy’s pitiful destiny. It was his to strut tracklessly along the beach every dark night, from the lonesome camp on the edge of the mangroves at Wongaling Creek to the intrusive rocks, there to stand, in a furious temper, waiting the never-to-be-granted chance of spearing a sleepy fish, his body the while swinging to and fro, and the big dilly-bag swaying uneasily from shoulder to shoulder.
If, said they, he was ever lucky enough to snap up a plump piccaninny — girl preferred — he would cut her to pieces with a shell-knife and use her for bait. Then he would be certain to catch a sleepy fish, and when he had eaten it his hunger would be appeased, and he would walk the beach no more.
Never was any piccaninny bold enough to think of Billy Too-gal as other than a terrifying phantom with a yearning for bait of most distressing kind, until You-an-linga — a dreamy little girl — dreamt a strange dream.
All the kiddies of all the camps knew that even the long-legged, light-footed little birds that ran trippingly over the sand at the edge of the blue sea made distinct tracks. You-an-linga dreamt that she saw Billy Too-gal lurching along the beach, with swinging head and gaping mouth. So vivid was the dream that she did not regard it as one. She firmly believed that she had seen the piccaninny-scaring man in the very flesh, and being, as some dreamers are, quite practical, she thought of following his tracks under the assurance and protection of the morning’s sun.
Being intuitive by nature, she concluded that Billy Too-gal would be certain to make a distinctive track, though no one had ever seen the records in the sand of his passing to and fro. She knew the track of every one of the denizens of the camps, and read into each never-failing characteristics. Though she might not have seen a group straggle off aimlessly along the beach, she could tell by a glance at the tracks the individuals of the party, where they had gone, why, and make good guess at what they were doing at the fleeting moment.
You-an-linga was able so to do because she had a gift. All enjoyed it in varying degrees; but in her case it was developed so remarkably and applied so vividly — recollect that intuition was also hers — that some of the crude folks believed her to be “ba-bah” (cranky). Could she not track the big “Oo-boo-boo”— the long-legged wolf-spider — and tell where it would be found next day hugging its dilly-bag?
Being thus quite out of the ordinary, You-an-linga was looked upon despitefully by others of her age, so that she was often lonely and occupied herself with affairs that had but slight interest to the swarms of piccaninnies. She likened the dilly-bag (egg-capsule) of “Oo-boo-boo” to a “chillen,” and got one from an interested white man as a reward for the aptness of the similitude. It was then that she told the visitor of the passing the previous night along the beach of Billy Toogal, whose head was loose “all asame Yam-boo” (praying mantis). She had not seen Billy Too-gal after the sun came up, but last night she saw him, and he was no good:
“Me no lik’m that fella. Might be that fella kill’m piccaninny. Me look out proper. What for that fella no mak’m track?”
You-an-linga’s father and mother stood by and smiled. Their smiles were not quite honest. Did they not implicitly believe that Billy Too-gal was a snapper-up of such trifles as piccaninnies at large on the beach after dark? And since, in their way, they loved You-an-linga, they sought to terrify her with stories of the nocturnal savage with huge mouth, and were afraid when she did not betray the slightest apprehension, but rather was eager for investigation.
The wise-heads in the camps looked upon Billy Too-gal’s phantom as the best item of an excellent stock-in-trade of mysteries, and would not, without harsh forms of protest, submit to it being set at naught by a piccaninny. You-an-linga was beginning to talk about their pet ghost in a familiar strain, and they plotted to get rid of her, so that their reputation as sorcerers and their rights as custodians of the mysteries might be strengthened.
Secretly they debated a situation boding little good, and decided that for three nights in succession Billy Too-gal’s ghost should parade the beach, and that all the camps should have the chance of witnessing the coming and the passing of the apparition. On the third night You-an-linga would be picked up and disappear from the camp forever. Then in a quiet spot they would eat the piccaninny’s vital parts and so assimilate some of the rare qualities which she had displayed. They would thus confirm their renown, rid the camp of a disturbing element, and secure for themselves the singular powers which had been hers.
Too-bee (The Maggot), played the part of the restless phantom on the first night. More than one quaking individual saw the lop-sided head, the appalling mouth, the huge dilly-bag dancing from shoulder to shoulder. You-an-linga heard early of the nerve-shocking apparition, and sat and shivered, wrapped in her father’s blanket. When the sun rose, she scrambled out and raced with others to the beach. Never before had Billy Toogal made tracks. His footprints were plain to be seen, and the children huddled up and scampered back.
You-an-linga had seen enough. She knew Toobee’s tracks as surely as she knew her own father’s. and her gift of intuition caused her to conclude that he was making a fool. of them all; nor was she wise enough to keep her own counsel.
Naturally, the old men were vexed, and Too-bee indulged in demonstrations towards You-an-linga with a weighty waddy. Innocent enough of any thought of defiance, she boldly said that Too-bee had been “Play about, all asame gammon; me no ‘frait.”
Billy Too-gal was next represented by Oon-narra (The Cloud), and with such realistic effects that the camp buzzed for the rest of the night. None could now deny the existence of the ghost. Brave would be the man or woman or piccaninny who would trust to the beach when it had been announced by the mystery-men that it was reserved for the ghost. The envious crowd flattered the old men., renewed their demonstrations of deference, and contributed all sorts of fat things, from oysters to scrub-turkey eggs, to their fires.
Again You-an-linga satisfied herself from the best of all evidence that, light-footed as The Cloud might be, he had merely mimicked Billy Too-gal; but she kept her opinion to herself until the evening when she took her diffident father and mother into her confidence. She proposed that they should wait on the beach for Billy Too-gal, and that when he appeared her father should spear him, and then kill him alonga head with a tomahawk —“dead finis”— and take his dilly-bag and long fishing-line for his own. The proposal was decidedly obnoxious to Mur-juri (The Cicada), You-an-linga’s father, who being quite commonplace, had never questioned the authenticity of any ghost; but having only the fag-end of a fishing-line, and entirely lacking a dilly-bag, he was tempted. The mother’s repugnance was also overcome by the thought of the huge dilly-bag her husband had actually seen and described.
The trio stole quietly out and snuggled into depressions in the still warm sand.
Nor had they to wait long. The night was cloudy, with a fresh south-east breeze bearing in from the sea a mist that seemed to be luminous. The crests of the rustling breakers, blown ashore, mingled with the mist, making a thin margin of vapour, which blurred, yet exaggerated, the form of Kurran-doola (the Millepede), the wiliest and most resourceful of the mystery-men who imitated Billy Too-gal’s lurching gait on the third night.
You-an-linga’s mother screeched when the substantial phantom came abreast of the lair, but at the same moment Murjuri hurled his dugong spear. The range was short; the aim true. Down went the phantom with a grunt, and one blow of the tomahawk silenced him for ever.
Morning revealed naught. The undertow had taken charge of the bleeding body and the current conducted it out to sea — a feast for sharks.
But what had become of Kurran-doola, the oldest of the old men. the most mysterious of the mystics? No questions were asked. The other mystery-men knew that they had been trapped by a piccaninny, and were sage enough to keep silent.
Years afterwards, You-an-linga was wont to smile capaciously as she told that she really had seen Billy Too-gal, and that he made tracks “all asame” Too-bee, Oon-narra, and Kurran-doola!
In time the old men, taking up the cue, laid it down authoritatively that You-an-linga was quite right; and that her discovery proved that Billy Too-gal still walked the beach on cloudy nights. Mystery-men, of whatever complexion, are ever artful in explaining awkward complications by added mystification.
But what became of the hasty white man whose deed had provoked Billy Too-gal’s ghost hungrily to strut the wholesome beach? Billy Too-gal never actually said; but the old men had so vividly interpreted his gestures that the younger, in their love of movement and display, in time embodied them as one of the most frequent themes of their corroborees. What did this crudest of dramas, with its beggarly array of sticks and slips of barks as stage properties, reveal?
A solitary tent. Billy Too-gal, his wound still raw, creeps from a background of cycads, noiselessly as dew, tomahawk in hand. He enters. A pause. A thud. A grunt. Several groans. Silence. Billy Too-gal gropes his way out, carrying a rifle. He looks round. Putting down the rifle, he picks up two thin sticks and squats, and holding one with his toes, twirls the other between his palms. Presently a faint blue smoke arises. A glow appears like a ruby in a black setting, and is gently flicked on to a leaf. Tenderly he breathes on it, waves it to and fro, and it flames. With a torch of grass he fires the tent and watches, and gathers dry cycad fronds to ignite the smouldering blankets. He seizes the rifle nervously, carries it to the brink of the lagoon, and, leaning over so that his footsteps may not impair the muddy margin, drops it so gently that neither lily leaf nor bud wavers, and — without once looking back — slowly disappears. After an interval he reappears with wide-open, slobbering mouth and a hooked stick, fishes for the rifle, and with it — exit!
Thus, though Billy Too-gal does not nightly walk the beach in ungovernable, voiceless rage, the camp clatters and chuckles over the mimicry of his revengeful deed.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50