Tropic Days, by E. J. Banfield

Tropic Days

The next morning saw the NAUTILUS scudding before a strong south-east breeze, Jim, true to his name, sulky as a toad-fish. The good wind harped on the rigging as Mammerroo tirelessly lagged after the ever evasive tune. Jim heard him not. Billy, in a rage, was inclined to bundle the boy and his battered instrument overboard, for he saw in the race north nothing but a waste of time.

Three days later the NAUTILUS anchored to the north of Red Hill under the lee of a low mangrove island uproarious with nutmeg pigeons.

All hands turned out to prospect, with Mammerroo as pilot. He was not long in locating the reef — a forgotten and neglected patch that teemed with fish. Béche-de-mer lay in shallow water, thick and big, by the ton.. The reef, with its clear sandy patches, seemed to be the gathering-ground, the metropolis, the parliament of the curious creature which makes feeble eddies with its distended gills, moves with infinite and mysterious deliberation, and which, though it may be two feet long and three inches thick, can pass through a half-inch space, constricting its bulging body during the progress.

The mangroves of the islet provided the best of fuels for the preservative smoke. The fortnightly steamer passed not so very far out, so that it would be possible to send away a couple of tons at a time without leaving the locality or suspending work for more than an hour or two.

With cheerfulness and enthusiastic haste all started to work. No irritating odour, no vexing tune, was perceptible or audible. Boys brought in such quantities of fish that the mates could hardly cook and cure them. Money was being coined, and the making of money begat dreams. Seamen do not invariably build castles in the air. They devise aerial fleets. They build bigger, better, and faster boats to sail on bluer seas into more prosperous and happy havens than belong to this too substantial world. Each sketches out the boat of his desire, and fits her with wondrous comfort and conveniences. He glances, approving head thrown back, up her tall, tapering, well-oiled masts, silver-topped with golden trucks. He paints her in rival colours, rigs her with silken sails, names her after a sweetheart, and sails away to lands fairer than any of the isles of the Pacific — those isles of dreams where in coral groves the gold-lip is embarrassed with pearls of ineffable lustre and of excessive size.

As they day-dreamed they gathered in actual riches, for the lazy fish were big and almost overlying each other in their crowded spaces.

Never was there a happier béche-de-mer cruise, for the prospects of good wages soon and a quick return to accustomed camps overladen with the spoils of the Cooktown stores made each boy as joyful as a cherub and as industrious as a scrub hen. Mammerroo saw visions of mouth-organs, one of which was sure to contain the coveted tune. Little deaf Antony thought of tobacco unlimited, a silver-mounted pipe, and plenty of unforbidden rum. Indeed, most of the boys contented themselves with these ingredients to fill the cup of happiness. But big lazy Johnnie’s fancy went to a small jockey’s cap of red and yellow, to be worn with a football jersey of orange and green in stripes, and blue trousers. This gorgeous costume was to compensate for present pains and humiliation, for he had nothing but a scanty and dirty loin-cloth, a necklace of grass beads, and a chip of lustrous black-lip pearl-shell stuck in one ear. As they worked they let their fancies range, and thus was the toil eased and the bags of dried fish safely stowed in the hold. With twenty-eight bags in prime condition, the NAULITUS sailed out to intercept the steamer — the LAVA KAVA. The honest stuff was sent off to the agent at the Island post, and back the stout little vessel went to the reef.

“As good as a gold-mine,” said Breezy Jim, who every day became breezier, so that he threatened to develop into a gale of good humour.

“Better than splitting coco-nuts at the Mission Station,” said Billy Boolah.

“Do you ever feel like chucking Mammerroo overboard now?”

Another fortnight saw another big load on the way to the agents. Mammerroo poured out his soul in fervency over the limping phrases of his besetting tune, and even Boisterous Jim applauded his persistency.

“That boy will catch ‘The Last Rose of Summer’ some day if the mouth-organ market holds out. I’ll give him the best to be got in Cooktown, and I’m bothered if I don’t teach him the tune!”

Late one afternoon a strange sail came into view. Slowly the big cutter made for the anchorage, for the wind, busy elsewhere, could spare only a few idle puffs for her business.

“That’s a dago, I bet,” said Bill. “And I know who it is! Why, it’s that humbug, Black Charley!”

“We’ll have to be pretty spry, or he’ll have some of this patch. We’ll head him off, and ship what we’ve got to-morrow.”

A flattie slid over the side of the cutter and plopped into the water, and Black Charley, with a couple of downcast boys, came alongside the NAUTILUS.

“Hullo, Bill! Hullo, Jim! How’s yous getting on? Yous drop on good place. I see yous boys picking up fish like a hen picking up corn.”

“Not much,” replied Jim. “It was pretty thick, but it was only a small patch, and we’ve pretty well cleaned it up. Sent away half a dozen bags, mostly mainlan’ black. Too close in to be much good.”

“Well, I suppose you’se no objection to me anchoring here for a bit and ‘seeing what I can do with the leavings?” said Black Charley.

“We found the patch, and it’s too small for two boats. We’d be better friends if you cleared off and left it to us,” replied Jim. “But if you’re up to dirty tricks stay where you are. We don’t want sneaks on board this craft.”

“It’s no good being nasty. All the fish on the Barrier don’t belong to yous. I got a ton and more on board now, and I’m going to run out with it to-morrow.”

“So are we. Come on board and have a drink”

It was late in the afternoon when the smoke of the LAVA KAVA showed south-east. Both boats were waiting as she slowed down in her course, and while they made fast transhipment began. Then she steamed slowly ahead.

“Better send you’se boys back with the NAUTILUS,” suggested Black Charley, “and me and my mate will take yous back when we’ve had a drink and a bit to eat. It’s a long time since I’ve had a decent feed, and Captain Andrews, he won’t mind.”

Breezy Jim and Bill agreeing, the NAUTILUS cast off, with instructions to anchor at the old spot and to work until the bosses returned.

There was more than one drink as the steamer forged ahead, with Black Charley’s cutter romping and curtseying behind. Then tea-time came, and the captain asked his guests to remain. Black Charley had had so many refreshments that he was scarcely fit company for the saloon, so he offered his excuses and they were accepted with politely veiled relief.

The mates told of their bad luck down at the Barnards and the Palms; how they had been driven away by the unmusical black boy in desperate pursuit of “The Last Rose of Summer,” and of their great stroke of luck on the reef of which he had told.

There’s plenty more fish on it yet. We’ll be troubling you to stop for a couple of months yet.”

“You won’t be making a very early start to-morrow if we jerk your boat much further,” remarked Captain Andrews, with a smile.

“Come,” urged Bill. “We’ll hunt up Charley and cut away back.”

The well-contented partners strolled on deck, anticipating a very tipsy Charley, whom neither steward nor bo’sun could discover.

The sun had just set. A bewildering blank astern excited a wide and comprehensive survey, and there in the blue-grey of the south-east Black Charley’s big white-winged cutter was fast fading from view.

When the partners got back to the reef, via Thursday Island and Cooktown, a fortnight later, the boys were there, looking somewhat jaded. The NAUTILUS was as trim as ever, for which the owners were sufficiently thankful; but cute Black Charley, working both crews day and night like galley slaves, had mopped up the patch as clean as the floor of a hospital ward.

“We’ve bin had proper, Bill, old fellow. Let’s up and away for Cooktown. Mammerroo moans for that mouth-organ!”

And the Christian in Billy Boolah. smiled as he hummed “Left blooming Alone.”

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50