The Phantom Stockman

Guy Boothby

This web edition published by eBooks@Adelaide.

Last updated Wednesday, December 17, 2014 at 10:46.

To the best of our knowledge, the text of this
work is in the “Public Domain” in Australia.
HOWEVER, copyright law varies in other countries, and the work may still be under copyright in the country from which you are accessing this website. It is your responsibility to check the applicable copyright laws in your country before downloading this work.

The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005

The Phantom Stockman

“A remarkably charming situation, and as pretty a homestead as any I have seen in the Bush,” I said. “You have certainly worked wonders during the short time you have been in possession.”

It was a moonlight night, and Jim Spicer and I were sitting in the verandah of Warradoona Station in Western New South Wales. Ten o’clock had struck nearly half an hour before, and, at a quarter past, Mrs. Spicer had bidden us “Good-night” and had gone off to bed. On hearing that I did not feel tired, her husband had invited me to bring my pipe and grog into the verandah, where we could chat about old times without disturbing anybody. I had only arrived that afternoon from Melbourne, and, as we had not met for more than three years, it may be easily imagined that we had much to say to each other. Years before we had been on a station together in Queensland, had done two overlanding trips in the same party, and had more than once tried our luck upon the gold-fields in partnership. Then he had taken a billet as manager of a big station in the Far West, and I had gone south to Melbourne to give up the Bush and settle down to the humdrum business I had inherited from my father. My surprise may therefore be understood when one morning I received a letter from my old comrade, informing me that he was married and had taken a property on Warradoona Creek. He brought his letter to a conclusion by telling me that if I stood in need of a holiday, and would care to undertake the long journey out to his place, he would not only give me a hearty welcome, but would be very thankful for my assistance in unravelling a mystery which up to the time of writing had baffled him completely. What the mystery was he did not say.

Now, as all the Bush world knows, Warradoona, despite the fact that it is on the direct overlanding route to Western Queensland, is one of the most unget-at-able places on the face of our great Island Continent. To begin with, you have a four hundred mile railway journey, then a coach ride of upwards of two hundred more, which will bring you to the township of Yarrapanya, a settlement of four houses at the junction of Warradoona Creek with the Salt Bush River. In the township horses can be obtained, and with their assistance the remainder of the journey, upwards of a hundred miles, may be accomplished. At the best of times it is a tedious undertaking, but when the floods are out, or, on the other hand, in the summer season when there is no water at all, it becomes a peculiarly dangerous one. To compensate for these drawbacks, however, when you do reach the station you will receive as hearty a welcome as any to be obtained in the Bush. The property itself is a large one, and certainly the best in that district. The homestead is a neat Bush building constructed of wood, roofed with shingles, and boasting on every side a broad verandah. It is built on the side of a hill and overlooks the plain that separates the higher land from the river. Away to the north where the Ranges trend in towards the Creek, there is a narrow pass through which come all the overlanding parties bringing cattle from Queensland to the south. To the southward a dense Mulga Scrub commences, and clothes the whole face of the hills as far as the eye can reach. Across the river and lying some thirty miles due west is Yarka Station, where, at the time of which I write, resided Jim’s nearest neighbour, the Honourable Marmaduke Chudfield, a young Englishman, who, after he had given his family repeated opportunities of studying the more frivolous side of his character, had been shipped to Australia, where it was confidently hoped hard work and a limited supply of money would turn him into a staid and respectable colonist.

“Yes,” said Spicer, as he walked to the rail of the verandah, and looked down upon the moonlit plain, “it is, as you say, by no means a bad sort of place. As I shall show you to-morrow, the station buildings are above the average in point of completeness, the run is well sheltered and grassed, the supply of water is abundant, and, as you are aware, we are on the direct cattle route to the south. Moreover, I have got the place for a considerable period on exceptional terms.”

“I congratulate you most heartily. Now tell me the disadvantages; for I suppose there are some.”

“So far as I have seen there is only one. At the same time, however, I must confess that that one is quite big enough to outweigh all the advantages put together. In point of fact, it was that very disadvantage that made me write to you last week and endeavour to induce you to pay us a visit.”

“Now I come to think of it, I remember in your letter you did speak of some mystery that you wanted cleared up. What is it? In these prosaic days mysteries, save in mining matters, are few and far between. I am all impatience to hear what shape yours assumes.”

While I had been speaking Spicer had been leaning on the verandah rail looking down the hillside towards the river. Now he turned, and, placing his back against one of the posts that supported the roof, regarded me steadily for some seconds.

“First and foremost, old man,” he said, “try to bear it in mind that I don’t want to be laughed at. I’ve got so much at stake that I’m as touchy on the subject as an old man with the gout. The trouble I have to contend with is that this place is supposed to be haunted. I know it’s a silly sort of thing for a matter-of-fact fellow like myself to say; but still the fact remains, and a remarkably unpleasant fact it is.”

“The deuce it is,” I replied. “And pray what is the place supposed to be haunted by?”

“By a man on a white horse who rides about on a plain down yonder.”

“Is this only hearsay, or have you seen the apparition yourself?”

“I have seen him on three occasions,” replied Spicer solemnly. “The first time was the week after I arrived on the place, the second was three months ago, and the last was the very Saturday upon which I wrote to you. But as if that were not enough, we have been worried ever since our arrival by the most dismal noises in the house itself.”

“What sort of noises do you mean?”

“By all sorts, confound them! Sometimes by a shriek about midnight that fetches you up in bed with the perspiration rolling off your face; sometimes by moans and groans; and sometimes, but not so often, by a peculiar noise that is for all the world like a human voice, muffled by a blanket, trying to say, ‘Save me, save me,’ and not succeeding very well. As you know, I am a fairly plucky man, and for that reason I think I might manage to stand it myself; but then I’ve got some one else to consider. I have to think of my wife. Under ordinary circumstances she is as plucky a little woman as ever made her home in the Bush, but no woman’s nerves would stand the continual strain that is put upon them here. You see, my work often takes me out on the run for days at a time, and I have to leave her alone. Female servants we have none, not so much even as a solitary black gin. When we came up we brought a woman with us from Melbourne, but she only stayed a week and then went off with the first bullock team that passed this way. However, we managed, by offering big wages, to get another. She stayed a month, and then said she would prefer to go off to the township alone rather than stay another night upon the place. We have been here five months and a week, and during that time I have had four men cooks, three chief stockmen, eight inferior ditto, and ten horse boys. As for a strange black, I’ve not seen one near the place since I first set foot upon it. The last time I was staying the night at Chudfield’s place across the river, I tried to persuade one he wanted to get rid of to come over and keep my own two boys company. His answer was significant. ‘Baal (no) come up this fella,’ he said. ‘Too much debbil debbil alonga Warradoona.’ The long and the short of the matter is, old friend, unless I can manage to put a stop to this phantom business I shall be a ruined man. All my savings are locked up in this place, and if I don’t make it pay, well, I must sell up and go back to Queensland and be a servant again instead of a master.”

“It’s a nasty position,” I said. “I don’t wonder you want to get it settled. By the way, how long has the place possessed this sinister reputation?”

“Only for the last three years,” he answered.

“Is there any sort of story to account for it?”

Spicer was silent for a moment.

“Well, there you have me on a tender spot,” he replied. “Though I don’t like to own it, I must confess there is a story.”

“Can you tell it to me?”

“If you think it will help you to a solution of the problem I shall be glad to do so. You must understand that about three years ago a mob of cattle camped, according to custom, upon the plain down yonder. They were on their way from Queensland to Adelaide, in charge of an old drover named Burke, a worthy old fellow who’d been on the road all his life. During the evening a quarrel arose between him and his second in command. From high words they came to blows, and in the encounter the subordinate got the worst of it. He professed to be satisfied and turned into his blankets apparently sorry for what he had done. An hour later the third white man of the party mounted his horse and went out to watch the cattle, leaving the other two, as he thought, asleep. When he returned two hours later he found Burke stabbed to the heart and the other man missing. Do you remember, when you crossed the river to-day, noticing a grave enclosed by a white railing?”

“Perfectly. I wondered at the time whose it could be.”

“Well, that’s where Burke is buried.”

“The phantom, then, is supposed to be the ghost of the murdered man? What form does it take?”

“It is that of an old man with a long grey beard; he is dressed all in white and is mounted upon a white horse, who carries his head rather high. He holds a stock-whip in his hand and wears a white felt hat pulled far down over his eyes.”

“Has anybody else seen him?”

“Dozens of people. It drove away Jamison, the first owner of the place, and the original builder of this house. Williams, from Mindana, came next; he built the men’s hut away to the left there, and cleared out bag and baggage exactly three months to a day after he had paid his purchase money. He said he would rather lose five thousand pounds than stop another night on the place. Macpherson, a long-headed Scotchman, as hard as a tenpenny nail, and about as emotional as a brickbat, came next. He paid his money and was not going to lose it just because he heard funny noises and saw queer sights. But at the end of six months he had changed his tune. Money was no object to him, he said; he was content to lose every penny he possessed in the world provided he saw no more of Warradoona. Benson followed Macpherson. He got the place dirt cheap, cattle thrown in, and, from what the folk in the township told me, seemed to think he’d done a mighty smart stroke of business.”

“What became of Benson?”

“He returned to the south without even unpacking his bullock wagons. He has bought a place in New Zealand now, I believe. It was from him that I purchased the property.”

“And the price you paid for it?”

“Would be less than a quarter of its value but for the Phantom Stockman. As it is, I am upset on an average three nights a week; my wife is frightened nearly out of her wits every time she goes to bed; and with the exception of my head stockman, Ruford, and two black boys, I can keep no servants upon the place, and in consequence have to work my stock short-handed, which is an impossibility. To put it plainly, either the Phantom Stockman or I must go. I thought all this out last week and the upshot of my cogitations was my letter to you. I know from experience that you’ve got a cool head, and I have had repeated evidence of your pluck. Young Chudfield, my next-door neighbour, the man who, for the sake of my company, has done his level best to persuade me to give the place a further trial, has promised to come over and give us a hand, and if we three can’t settle the mystery between us, well, I think we ought to be ashamed of ourselves, that’s all.”

“We’ll certainly have a good try,” I answered. “I’m not a believer in ghosts myself, and it will go hard with us if we can’t manage to discover of what sort of material our troublesome friend is composed. One further question. Does he put in an appearance at regular intervals, or is he indiscriminate in his favours?”

“As far as he is personally concerned he is fairly regular. It is about the full of the moon that he appears to be most active, but the noises in the house go on at all hours, sometimes two or three nights in succession. Then perhaps there will be a week’s silence, after which we will be worried night after night, till we are nearly driven distracted.”

“It seems a most mysterious affair,” I said. “And I can quite understand that you are worried by it.”

“You would say so if you had to live here,” he answered. “It gets on your nerves till you feel inclined to jump away from your own shadow. Now I expect you’re tired, and would like to be off to roost. Help yourself to a night-cap, and then we’ll have a look at your room together.”

I had leant forward to the table and taken up the demijohn containing the spirit — in point of fact, I was in the act of pouring some of its contents into my glass — when from the dark house behind us there came a long, low moan, followed by a shriek that cut the still night air like the sharp tearing of a sheet of calico. After that there was complete silence, which to my thinking was worse even than the scream. I sprang to my feet.

“My God,” I cried, “what’s that?”

But Spicer only laughed in a curious way.

“You are being introduced to our supernatural friend,” he replied. “Now you know the sort of thing we are being continually called upon to put up with.”

“But it sounded so intensely human,” I said. “And yet, now I come to think of it, there was a peculiar muffled note about it that rather upsets my theory. One thing, however, is quite certain: it came from the house, and I should say from the centre passage.”

“You are quite right. That’s where we always hear it. But if you think there is anybody hiding there you’re mistaken. Come and look for yourself.”

So saying he led the way into the house. I followed him. As he had said, there was nobody to be seen. The passage in question was about twenty feet long by four wide. There was a door at each end, and two on either side. It was well lighted by an oil lamp supported on an iron bracket screwed into the woodwork. The walls were composed of weather boards, while the floor was covered by a strip of oilcloth, which stretched from end to end. Spicer lifted the lamp from its socket, and, opening one of the doors on the left, led me into the sitting-room. We explored it carefully, but there was nothing there that could in any way account for the noise we had heard. Having satisfied ourselves on this point, we crossed to the room on the opposite side of the passage. This was my bedroom, and in it, as in the other apartment, our search was unrewarded. The room next to it was Spicer’s office, and, save a safe, a desk, a small cupboard, a chair, and a row of account books, contained nothing to excite our suspicion. We passed into the passage again.

“This room,” he said, pointing to the door opposite the office, “is our bedroom.”

He tapped on the door.

“Minnie,” he cried, “are you awake?”

“Yes,” was the answer, “and very frightened. How long will you be before you come to bed?”

“I am coming now,” he replied. Then, turning to me, he held out his hand. “Good-night,” he said, “and pleasant dreams to you. It seems a shame to have brought you up here only to worry you with our troubles.”

“I am very glad, indeed, that I came,” I replied. “And if I can help you to some solution of your difficulty I shall be still more glad.”

A quarter of an hour later I was in bed and asleep. If there was any further noise that night I did not hear it. I was tired after my long journey, and slept on until long after the sun had risen next morning.

When I did turn out I went into the verandah, where I discovered my hostess.

“Good-morning,” she said, as she offered me her hand. “Jim has just gone across to the stockyard, but he will be back to breakfast in a moment.”

Many people might have been discovered in Australia who would have thanked their stars that they were not the proprietors of Warradoona Station, but there would have been few who would not have envied Spicer his partner in life. She was a pretty brunette, with wonderful brown eyes, and a sympathetic, motherly way about her that made every one feel at home in her company, even if they had never seen her until five minutes before.

“I cannot tell you how very kind I think you are,” she said, “to come to our assistance. You can imagine what a depressing effect this place has had upon Jim and myself. We have tried everything we can think of to solve the mystery, but without success. Now it remains to be seen whether you will fare any better than we have done.”

“I am going to do my best,” I answered, and as I said so, Jim came up the steps.

“Good-morning,” he said as he reached the verandah. “I hope you slept well and that you were not disturbed by any more noises.”

“If there were any to hear they didn’t wake me,” I answered. “I suppose you have not discovered anything that throws any sort of light upon that scream we heard last night?”

“Nothing at all,” he replied, shaking his head. “But, to add to the discomfort we are already enduring, our cook has just informed me that he saw the White Horseman on the plain last night, and in consequence has given me notice that it is his intention to leave at mid-day. He says he would rather forfeit all his wages than remain another night.”

“Oh, Jim, I am sorry to hear that,” said his wife. “We shall have great difficulty in getting another. We do indeed seem doomed to misfortune.”

Jim said nothing, but I saw his mouth harden as we went in to breakfast. His patience was well-nigh exhausted, and I suspected that if the mystery were not solved before many days were over he would follow the example of his predecessors, forfeit all the money he had put into it, and sever his connection with Warradoona.

During the morning I gave him a hand with some branding in the stockyard, and in the afternoon we went for a ride across the river, hoping to meet the mob of cattle his men were out collecting. We were unsuccessful, however, and it was dusk when we reached home again. By the time we had turned our horses loose, and placed our saddles on the racks, the full moon was rising above the Ranges behind the house. On reaching the verandah we heard voices in the sitting-room.

“That’s Marmaduke Chudfield, I’ll wager a sovereign,” said Jim. “I’m glad he’s come over, for though he’s rather a namby-pamby sort of individual, he’s not bad company.”

A moment later we had entered the room, and I was being introduced to a tall, slim youth of perhaps eight-and-twenty years of age. His height could not have been much under six feet two, his face was devoid of beard or moustache, and boasted a somewhat vacuous expression, which a single eye-glass he wore continually only served to intensify. He spoke with a lisp and a drawl, and if one could judge by his own confessions, seemed to have no knowledge of any one thing in the whole system of the universe. In less than five minutes’ conversation I had struck the bed rock of his intelligence, to use a mining phrase, and, while I had small doubt of his good nature, was not at all impressed by his sagacity. His station, Yarka, was, so Jim informed me later, a grand property, and carried a large number of cattle. This success, however, was in no sense due to Chudfield’s exertions. To quote his own words, he “left everything to his overseer, a German, named Mulhauser, don’t-cher-know, and didn’t muddle things up by shoving his spoke in when it was no sort of jolly assistance, don’t-cher-know. Cattle farming was not exactly his line, and if he had to pay a chap to work, well, he’d make him work, while he himself sat tight and had a jolly good time with continual trips to town and friends up to stay, and all that sort of thing, don’t-cher-know.”

After dinner we sat in the verandah and smoked our pipes until close upon ten o’clock, when Mrs. Spicer bade us “Good-night” and retired to her own room, as on the previous evening. After she had left us, there was a lull in the conversation. The night was perfectly still, as only nights in the Bush can be; the moon was well above the roof, and in consequence the plain below us was well-nigh as bright as day. The only sound to be heard was the ticking of the clock in the sitting-room behind us, and the faint sighing of the night-breeze through the scrub timber on the hills behind the house. And here I must make a digression. I don’t think I have so far explained that in front of the house there was an unkempt garden about fifty yards long by thirty wide, enclosed by a rough Bush fence. In an idle sort of way I sat smoking and watching the rails at the bottom. The beauty of the night seemed to exercise a soothing influence upon the three of us. Jim, however, was just about to speak when Chudfield sprang from his chair, and, pointing towards the fence, at which only a moment before I had been looking, cried, “What’s that?”

We followed the direction of his hand with our eyes, and as we did so leapt to our feet. Being but a sorry scene-painter I don’t know exactly what words I should employ to make you see what we saw then. Scarcely fifty yards from us, seated upon a white horse, was a tall man, with a long grey beard, dressed altogether in white, even to his hat and boots. In his hand he carried a white stock-whip, which he balanced upon his hip. How he had managed to come so close without making a sound to warn us of his approach was more than I could understand; but this much was certain, come he did. The time, from our first seeing him to the moment of his wheeling his horse and riding silently away again, could not have been more than a minute, but all the same we were able to take perfect stock of him.

“Follow me,” shouted Jim, as he rushed down the steps and ran towards the gate at the bottom of the garden. We followed close at his heels, but by the time we reached the fence the Phantom Stockman had entirely disappeared. We stared across the moonlit plain until our eyes ached, but not a sign of the apparition we had seen rewarded us.

“That is the third time he has been up here since I have had the place,” said our host, “and each time he has vanished before I could get close enough to have a good look at him.”

“What beats me was the fact that his horse made no sound,” remarked the Honourable Marmaduke, “and yet the ground is hard enough hereabouts.”

“Wait here till I get a lantern,” cried Spicer. “Don’t go outside the fence, and then you won’t obliterate any tracks he may have made.”

So saying he hastened back to the house, to return in about five minutes carrying in his hand a large lantern. With its assistance we carefully explored the ground on the other side of the fence, but to no purpose. There was not a sign of a horse’s hoof to be seen.

“Well, this beats cock fighting,” said the Honourable, as Jim blew out the light and we turned to walk back to the house. “This is Hamlet’s father’s ghost with a vengeance, don’t-cher-know. I shall be glad whenever he takes it into his head to pay me a visit at Yarka. I’m afraid in that case my respected parent would see me in England sooner than would be quite convenient to him.”

To this speech Jim replied never a word, nor did I think his remark worth an answer. Once in the verandah we separated, bidding each other good-night, Jim to go to his own room, the Honourable to take possession of the sofa in the sitting-room, upon which a bed had been made up for him, and I to my own dormitory. I saw Jim turn down the lamp in the passage and heard him blow it out as I shut my door. Then I undressed and jumped into bed.

How long I had been asleep I do not know, but I have the most vivid remembrance of suddenly finding myself sitting up in bed with the sweat pouring off my face, and the echo of surely the most awful shriek mortal man ever heard ringing in my ears. Before I could recover my self-possession it rang out again, followed this time by a strange moaning sound that must have continued while I could have counted twenty. Thinking this had gone about far enough I jumped out of bed, opened the door, and ran into the passage, only to be seized by a pair of arms. Lifting my right hand I took my assailant by the throat, and just as I did so, Jim’s door opened and he came out, holding a candle in his hand. Then it was that I made the discovery that it was not the ghost’s throat I was clutching between my finger and thumb, but that of the Honourable.

“Confound you two,” said Jim angrily. “What on earth are you up to?”

“Up to?” gasped Chudfield. “Why, I heard the most villainous scream just now that I ever heard in my life, and came running out of my room to see what was the matter, only to be collared by the throat by this chap.” Then turning to me he continued, in his usual drawling way, “I believe you’ve half broken my neck, don’t-cher-know.”

“Bother your neck,” I cried shortly, for my dander was up and somebody had got to suffer for the fright I had received. “Jim, did you hear that scream?”

“Worse luck,” answered poor Jim. “I wish I could say I hadn’t. What the deuce does it mean?”

“It means,” I replied sternly, “that if there’s a ghost in this place I’ve got to see him before I’ll be satisfied. And if it’s a trick, well, I’ve got to find the chap that’s playing it or know the reason why. When I do, I’ll do what Chudfield here accuses me of half doing. I’ll break his neck.”

With that I walked first to the door at one end of the passage and examined it, then to the other; after that I tried the door leading into the office. All three were securely locked on our side.

“As far as I can remember, the sound seemed to come from about here,” I said, pointing to the centre of the floor. “What is underneath these boards, Jim?”

“Only solid Mother Earth,” he replied. “I had some of the planks up when I came into the place and put new ones down.”

“Well, I’m going to sit up and await further developments,” I said. “Do either of you feel inclined to share my vigil?”

“I will do so with pleasure,” said Jim.

“And I too, if it’s necessary,” said the Honourable, with peculiar eagerness. “I’m not going to risk being wakened out of my sleep by another shriek like that.”

Jim went into his bedroom and said something to his wife. After that we dressed and made ourselves as comfortable as possible in the sitting-room. But though we remained there till daylight we heard nothing further. As day dawned we returned to our beds to sleep soundly until we were roused by Mrs. Spicer at eight o’clock.

That afternoon, in spite of our jeers, the Honourable left us to return to his own abode. He had had enough and to spare of Warradoona, he said, and as he had not proved himself a very good plucked one, we did not exert ourselves very much to make him change his mind.

“I never thought he’d prove to be such a coward,” said Jim, as we watched the youth disappear behind the river timber. “Still, he’s a man extra about the place, and if those wretched cattle are coming in to-night we shall want all the hands we can raise to look after them on the plain.”

“Do you think they will be here to-night?”

“It’s more than likely. They ought to have been in this morning, and as they can’t halt in the scrub they’ll be driven by force of circumstances into camping on the plain. In that case it will be a pound to a sixpence that our friend the Stockman will give us some trouble. He generally puts in an appearance when there’s a mob passing through.”

“If he does we must tackle him, and decide once and for all the question of his — well, of his spirituality, shall I say? You can find a couple of revolvers, I suppose?”

“Half a dozen if need be, and what’s more, cartridges to fit them.”

We then walked back to the house together. It was tea time, and as soon as we had made ourselves tidy we sat down to it. Half way through the meal there was a heavy step in the verandah, and a moment later Ruford, Jim’s one remaining stockman, entered the room.

“So you’ve turned up at last,” said Jim, as he became aware of the other’s identity. “Where are the cattle?”

“Camped on the plain,” was the reply. “Bad luck to ’em. It was as much as I could do to get the two black boys to remain with them. Are you coming down?”

“We’ll be down in half an hour,” said Jim. “This gentleman and myself will camp with you to-night and give you a hand. Now be off and get your tea.”

He disappeared without another word.

“But if you two are going to help with the cattle, what is to become of me?” asked Mrs. Spicer. “I cannot be left here alone.”

“That’s perfectly true,” said Jim. “I never thought of it. Confound that miserable coward Chudfield. I’ll tell you what I’ll do, Minnie. I’ll send Ruford up to take care of you. He won’t be sorry for an evening’s comfort, and it is most imperative that we should go down, you see, in case the Stockman should turn up to-night. If he does we hope to bring matters to a crisis.”

Faithful to our promise, as soon as the meal was over, we saddled our horses and rode down towards the camp fire that we could see burning brightly on the plain below.

By the time we reached it the appearance of the night had changed, clouds had covered the sky, and a soft drizzle was falling. Ruford had taken the cattle down to the river, and when they had drunk their fill had tailed them slowly on to camp, where the two black boys were watching them. It was not a cheerful night, for the wind had risen, and was moaning among the she-oak trees like a million lost spirits. A more lonesome spot I never was in than that plain.

As we approached the fire Ruford said snappishly —

“I suppose you think it’s funny to hang round a camp, whispering and moaning, in order to frighten a man out of his wits.”

“Who has been hanging about the camp whispering and moaning?” asked Spicer. “Why, you duffer, we’ve only just come down from the Homestead. You must be either drunk or dreaming.”

“Dreaming be hanged!” he said. “I tell you that there’s been some one moaning like old —— round this ’ere camp ever since dusk!”

“Moaning like your grandmother,” said Spicer, descending from his saddle and tying his horse up to a tree near by. “I want you to go up to the house and camp there. Mrs. Spicer is all alone, and I think she may be frightened. We’ll look after the cattle.”

When he had gone we stretched ourselves beside the fire on the blankets we found there and fell to yarning.

I can see the whole scene now. Owing to the heavy clouds mentioned above, it was as dark as the inside of your hat, with not a gleam of light in the whole length and breadth of the sky. Ruford had stirred up the fire before he left us, and the flames were roaring upwards, when suddenly there came a long, peculiar moan from the scrub behind us that brought us up into a sitting posture like one man. We looked in the direction whence it seemed to come, and saw there, standing in the full light of the fire, a tall, thin man, of about fifty years of age. He had white hair and a long grey beard. He was dressed, even to his riding boots, in some white material, and he carried a stock-whip in his hand. His face was as pale as death and infinitely sad, and he seemed to be looking from one to the other of us as if he did not know which to address.

We were both struck dumb with astonishment, until Spicer, raising himself on his elbow, shouted —

“Hullo, my man! Where do you hail from?”

Then the figure faded away into the darkness as quietly as it had come, and you can just imagine how we stared.

“Well, this beats all the other manifestations into a cocked hat,” cried Spicer, and seizing a burning stick and bidding me follow with another, he dashed into the scrub in the direction we supposed the stranger to have taken.

For upwards of twenty minutes we searched high and low, in every possible hiding-place within fifty yards of the camp, but without success. Not a single trace of our mysterious visitor could we discover. Then we returned to the fire and lay down again.

Spicer’s watch was from nine to eleven, and as it was almost eight then, he resolved to try and snatch an hour’s sleep before it would be necessary for him to get into the saddle once more. He soon gave up the attempt, however.

Though we did not see any more of the stranger just then, I can assure you we were far from being easy in our minds. The cattle had suddenly become very restless, and from their lowing and snorting we could tell that they were uneasy. While we listened, the same peculiar moaning noise came from the scrub away to our left. It sounded for all the world like the crying of a woman in dreadful trouble, but though we peered repeatedly into the night, and twice crept away from the fire in that direction, we could discover nothing to account for it.

At nine o’clock Spicer went on watch, and the black boys came into camp reporting the cattle as very restless.

For some time after he had gone I lay on my blankets looking up at the sky. Clouds still covered the heavens, and it looked as if a wet night were pending. Sometime about ten o’clock Spicer called to me to join him, as something was radically wrong with the mob; so saddling my horse I rode out.

As I went the clouds parted, and for a moment the moon shone brilliantly forth. It was a curious sight that I then beheld. The cattle — there were about five hundred of them — were all up, moving to and fro and bellowing continuously. What made us the more uneasy was the fact that, now and again, the old bull in command would separate himself from the mob and sniff the wind, after which he would let out a bellow that fairly shook the earth. Whenever he sees the leader do that, a cattleman knows that it behoves him to stand by and keep his eyes open for trouble.

Coming up with Spicer, I asked him what he thought was the matter, but for some moments he did not answer.

Then he said very mysteriously —

“Did you meet him as you came out?”

“Meet whom?” I asked.

“Why, our friend, the Phantom Stockman?”

“The devil! And has he turned up again?”

After looking cautiously round, Jim edged his horse up alongside mine and said quietly —

“He’s been hovering round these cattle for the past half-hour. They can see him, and that’s what’s making them so confoundedly restless. You take my word for it, we shall have serious trouble directly!”

“Confound it all,” I said. “That will mean double watches all night, and in this drizzle too.”

“It can’t be helped. But you had better tell the boys to be ready in case they are wanted. Look! Look! Here he comes again!”

I looked in the direction he indicated, and, true enough, out of the thick mist which now hid the trees along the river bank, and into the half moonlight where we stood, rode the phantom whom we had seen two hours before by our camp fire. But there was a difference now; this time he was mounted on his white horse, and seemed to be like us on watch. At first I fancied my brain was creating a phantom for me out of the whirling mist; but the snorting and terror of the cattle, as they became aware of his presence, soon convinced me of his reality.

Little by little the fellow edged round the scrub, and then disappeared into the fog again, to reappear a minute or two later on our left. Then he began to come slowly towards us. I can tell you the situation was uncanny enough to creep the flesh of a mummy. He was sitting loosely in his saddle, with his stock-whip balanced on his hip; indeed, to show how details impress themselves on one’s mind, I can remember that he had one of his sleeves rolled up and that he carried his reins slung over his left arm.

When he was within eight or ten paces of where we stood, my horse, which had been watching him as if turned to stone, suddenly gave a snort, and wheeling sharp round bolted across the plain as if the devil were behind him. Before I had gone fifty yards I heard Spicer come thundering after me, and we must have had a good two miles gallop before we could pull the terrified beasts up. Then we heard the cattle rushing a mile or so on our right.

“I knew they’d go,” wailed Spicer; “they’re well-nigh mad with fright. Now, what the deuce is to be done?”

“Try and head them, I suppose.”

“Come on, then, for all you’re worth. It’s neck or nothing with us now!”

We set off down the angle of the plain as fast as our horses could lay their legs to the ground. It was a near thing, for, hard as we went, we were only just in time to prevent the leaders from plunging into the river. If you know anything of overlanding, you’ll understand the work we had. As it was, I don’t believe we could have managed it at all if it had not been for the extraneous — or, as I might perhaps say, spiritual— aid we received.

While Spicer took the river side, I worked inland, along the bottom of the cliff, and as the two black boys had bolted for the Homestead long before the cattle broke, we had no one between us to bring up the tail. Suddenly, Heaven alone knows how, the Phantom Stockman came to our assistance; and a more perfect drover could scarcely have been found. He wheeled his cattle and brought up his stragglers, boxed ’em, and headed ’em off, like the oldest hand. But however clever a bushman he may have been, it was plainly his own personality that effected the greatest good; for directly the mob saw him, they turned tail and stampeded back on to the plain like beasts possessed.

At last, however, we got them rounded up together, and then Spicer rode over to where I stood and said —

“Give an eye to ’em, will you, while I slip back to the camp? I want to get something.”

I had not time to protest, for next minute he was gone, and I was left alone with that awful stranger whom I could still see dodging about in the mist. When he got back, Jim reined up alongside me and said —

“This is getting a little too monotonous to my thinking.”

“What are you going to do?” I gasped, my teeth chattering in my head like a pair of castanets.

“Try the effect of this on him,” he answered, and as he spoke he pulled a revolver from his pocket. “I don’t care if it sends every beast across the river.”

At that moment, on his constant round, the phantom came into view again. On either side of him the cattle were sniffing and snorting at him, plainly showing that they were still wild with terror. This behaviour puzzled us completely, for we both knew that a mob would never treat an ordinary flesh-and-blood stockman in that way. When he got within twenty paces of us Spicer cried —

“Bail up, matey — or, by jingo, I’ll put daylight into you!”

Obedient to the order the figure instantly pulled up.

The moon was bright enough now for us to see his face. And, though, as I’ve said before, I’m not a coward as a general rule, I can tell you that it made me feel fairly sick, so white and creepy-looking was it. Then he held up his hand as if in protest and started towards us.

This didn’t suit Spicer, however, for he yelled —

“Stand off! or by the living God I swear I’ll fire. Stand off!”

But the figure continued to come towards us. Then Crack! Crack! Crack! went the revolver, and next moment there was a frightful scream and the sound of galloping hoofs. I saw no more, for, as Jim fired, my horse reared and fell back, crushing me beneath him.

I suppose I must have been stunned by the fall, for when I recovered my senses Spicer was leaning over me.

“Is he gone?” I asked as soon as I could speak.

“Yes! Gone like mad across the plain and the cattle with him. I must either have missed him, or the bullet must have passed clean through him.”

As there was now no further reason why we should remain where we were, we returned to the Homestead and told our tale. Then when it was light enough, we had our breakfast and mounted our horses and went out into the scrub to look for the cattle we had lost. By the time dusk fell we had collected three hundred and fifty out of the five hundred head Ruford had brought on to the plain. The poor beasts were quite knocked up; and as it was useless thinking of pushing them on in that condition, we were consequently compelled to camp them for one more night on that awful plain. But to our delight we saw no more of the Phantom Stockman.

Next morning while we were at breakfast, Billy, the black boy, who had been out after the horses, came dashing up to the Homestead, almost beside himself with excitement.

“Me been find him,” he cried. “Me been find him, all same fellow what been make debbil-debbil longa here.”

“What do you mean?” asked Spicer, putting down his cup of tea. “Where have you found the man?”

“Me been find him longa billabong. My word he most like dead, mine think it.”

Spicer made a sign to me, and without another word we jumped up and ran in the direction of the stockyard. Mounting our horses we followed our guide through the scrub for a distance of perhaps a mile and a half until we came to a small billabong or backwater of the main river.

Away at the further end we could see a curious white heap, and towards it we galloped, making our horses put their best feet foremost, you may be sure.

On reaching it, we found a man lying huddled up upon the ground beneath a low-growing tree. He was dressed in a complete suit of white flannel, his boots were painted the same colour, and even his hat was fixed up to match, white. Still looped over his ears was a long grey beard and moustache of false hair.

Spicer dismounted and knelt beside him. After feeling his heart he plucked the beard away and almost shouted his astonishment aloud.

“Good heavens!” he cried; “do you recognise this man?”

I stooped and looked. I don’t know whether you will believe it, but the Phantom Stockman, the person who had performed such prodigies two nights before, was none other than our friend Chudfield, the young English owner of Yarka Station, across the river, the man who had appeared to be so frightened by the ghost, and who had made it his boast that he knew nothing at all about Bush-work. For some moments we stood and stared at him in stupefied amazement. I was the first to speak.

“Is he dead, do you think?” I asked.

“Quite,” said Spicer. “Look at this mark under his chin. Galloping through the scrub in the dark the other night to get away from us, he must have been caught by that bough up there and have been dashed from his saddle. Death must have been almost instantaneous.”

Round his waist was a long thin cord which ran away some twenty yards or so into the bush. We followed it up and discovered a large piece of raw hide tied to the end of it.

Spicer examined the latter carefully.

“The beast that owned this skin was only killed two days ago,” he said. “Now I know why our cattle were so restless. They smelt the blood, and, as you are aware, that invariably terrifies them. Cunning beggar! he pretended to know nothing, and yet he knew enough for this.”

“Yes,” I said; “but what about the other night when the phantom appeared at the garden fence, and this man was sitting in the verandah with us?”

“Why, he probably wanted to disarm suspicion, and so sent his overseer, who must be in the secret, to play the part.”

“But what was his object in frightening you?”

“Can’t you guess? Well, just let me find out where our friend’s stockyard is situated in the Ranges up yonder, and I think I’ll be able to tell you. I remember now that when I came here his cattle were all over Warradoona, and that he used the place just as if it were his own, to say nothing of having his choice of all the unbranded and other cattle that former tenants had left upon it.”

Leaving the body where we had found it, to be picked up on our homeward journey, we crossed the river and plunged into the scrub beyond.

An hour later we discovered, cunningly hidden in a lonely gulley, a big stockyard in which our lost cattle were still penned up. There was no one in sight and nothing to prove how the animals had got there, but a clearer case of duffing could scarcely have been found. Moreover, there were branding irons in the shed adjoining, and they were those of Yarka Station.

“I think we know quite enough now,” said Spicer solemnly, as we mounted our horses to return.

“Enough to lay the Ghost of the Stockman of Warradoona at any rate,” I replied.

Three hours later we were at home once more, and Chudfield’s body was lying in a hut, waiting for the police from Yarrapanya who would hold the inquest. A black boy had meanwhile been sent across to Yarka Station to inform the manager of the catastrophe.

Our lunch that day was a mixture of happiness and sadness. Happiness, because the mystery of the Phantom Stockman had been cleared up for good and all; and sadness, because of the pain that was inseparable from the discovery of a friend’s duplicity.

When the meal was at an end we passed into the verandah. After a little conversation there, Spicer disappeared, to return in a few moments with a pick-axe and a basket of tools.

“What are you going to do?” I inquired, as he set them down in the passage and took off his coat.

“I want, if possible, to discover how those screams were worked,” he replied. “It looks like being a long job; so if you will give me your assistance in ripping up these boards, I shall be very grateful.”

“Of course, I’ll help,” I said, and thereupon we set to work.

But though we laboured for the best part of the afternoon, the result was disappointing in the extreme. Nothing but dry earth and wood-shavings confronted us.

“That being so, we’ll take down the posts that support the walls on either side,” said Jim, and as he spoke he attacked that upon which the lamp was fixed. “If we can’t find anything there we’ll continue to pull the house to pieces until we do.”

But we were spared that trouble. On loosening the post in question we made an important discovery. It was hollow from end to end, and in the cavity reposed a lead pipe, about an inch in diameter. We consulted together for a moment, and then took the pick-axe into my bedroom and ripped up a plank in the floor. By this means we were able to see that the pipe crossed the room and passed under the further wall. Outside we picked it up once more and traced it past the well, the kitchen, and the stockyard, into the scrub, where it entered an enormous blasted gum tree standing fifty yards or so from the house.

“I see the whole thing as clear as daylight,” cried Spicer joyfully, as he mounted the tree and prepared to lower himself into the hollow. “I believe we’ve solved the mystery of the shrieks at night, and now the whole thing is as simple as A B C. Go back to the house and listen.”

I did as he wished, and when I had been in the passage about a minute, was rewarded by hearing a scream re-echo through the house, followed by a muffled cry, “Oh, save me! save me!”

As the sound died away, Mrs. Spicer came running into the house from the kitchen with a scared face. A moment later we were joined by her husband.

“Did you hear that scream, Jim?” she inquired anxiously. “I thought you said we should not be worried by it again?”

He put his arm round her waist and drew her towards him.

“Nor shall we, little woman,” he said. “That scream was to let us know that the phantom is laid at last, and that after to-day this place is going to be as sweet and homely as any a man could wish to live in. That poor beggar in the hut there tried to keep it empty as long as he could for his own purposes, but I beat him in the end. Now I’ve got it for a quarter its value, and whatever else he may have done we must not forget that we owe that, at least, to our old enemy the Phantom Stockman of Warradoona.”

This web edition published by:

The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005