Introductory. — On the evening of Tuesday, the 8th, I had called officially at Mondunbarra homestead. No one was visible except Bert Smythe, the managing partner’s younger brother, who was leaving the store, with a ring of keys on his finger. His icy response to my respectful greeting revived certain memories connected with the Chinese boundary man, and Warrigal Alf’s bullocks, as related in last chapter. In the fewest words possible, Bert informed me that Mr. Smythe was in Melbourne, and would n’t be back for another week. If I chose to leave the K form with himself, it would be filled up and posted to our Central Office immediately on Mr. Smythe’s return. Which would save me the trouble of calling at the station again for some time. I gave him the K form, and he was moving away toward the barracks, when I asked him if he could let me have a bob’s worth of flour and a bob’s worth of tea and sugar. Without a word, he turned back to the store, and supplied the articles required, whilst I monologued pleasantly on the topics of the day. When I inquired where I would be likely to find a bit of grass, he glanced at my half-starved horses; and I honoured him for the evident accession of sympathy which dictated his ready reply. He informed me that the only available grass was to be found in the near end of Sam Young’s paddock, and proceeded to give me directions that a child might follow. Fixing these in my mind, I went round by the slaughter-yard, to solicit from the Tungusan butcher a pluck for Pup; and, altogether, by the time I reached Sam Young’s paddock, night had imperceptibly set-in. The atmosphere was charged with smoke — probably from some big fire among the spinifex, far away northward — and a nucleus of brighter light on the meridian showed the position of a gibbous moon. Yet the hazy, uniform light, disciplining the eye to its standard, seemed rather like a noonday dulled to the same shade. The temperature was perfect for comfort, so I fared well enough; whilst with respect to my horses, I could only hope that Bert had been unfaithful to his chief and clan.
Now for the record of Wednesday, the 9th:—
Just at sunrise, one glance round the vicinity brought me out of my possum-rug with an impression that there was nothing but roguery to be found in villainous man. The country on all sides was as bare as the palm of your hand; and my horses, a quarter of a mile away, were nibbling at the stumps of cotton-bush. Breakfast, however, was the first consideration, as I hadn’t bothered about supper on the previous night — though filling my water-bag at a tank on the way.
Whilst baking a johnny-cake of such inferior quality as to richly deserve its back-country designation, and meanwhile boiling my quart-pot on a separate handful of such semi-combustibles as the plain afforded, I found myself slowly approached by a Chinaman, on a roan horse. And though it is impossible to recognise any individual Chow, I fancied that this unit bore something more than a racial resemblance to the one from whom I had recovered Alf’s bullocks. Moreover, he was riding the same horse.
“Mornin’, John,” said I condescendingly. “You scoot-um long-a homestation big one hurry.”
“Lidee boundly,” replied the early bird, in his mechanical tone
“Borak this you paddock, John?”
“My plully paddock, all li.”
“You name Sam Young? ”
“Paul Sam Young,” corrected the boundary man. “You wantee glass you holse? — two-tlee day-goo’ glass? Me lay you on, all li.”
“It is the voice of a god, and not of a man!” I replied. “Have-um drink o’ tea, Paul? Have-um bit o’ du-pang? Where me find-um grass?”
“Tlinidad Paddock, all li-plully goo’ glass.”
“How me fetch-um that peller?”
Paul dismounted, and, declining my meagre hospitality, gave me copious information respecting the Trinidad. The nearest corner of this paddock was only eight miles away; but it would be expedient to go round by certain tracks, making the distance twelve or fourteen miles. It was a small paddock — five by two-being portion of a five by ten, recently divided. There was no water in it. It was crossed by a shallow billabong which had been dammed when the dividing fence was erected; but the first flood in the Lachlan had burst an opening in the embankment, so that even at the end of the previous winter there was no water in the paddock, except a drop of sludgy stuff in the excavation. Hence the grass. There was no stock in the Trinidad, and no one in charge. There were two station men, with a team of bullocks and scoop, cleaning out the dam and repairing the bank; but they would n’t see anything. Also, Mr. Smythe was away in Melbourne, and would n’t be back for another week. Of course, it took me about half-an-hour to Champollion all this information from the cryptical utterances of the friendly Asiatic.
“You allee same Christian,” I remarked, packing away my breakfast-service. “You go long-a good place bimeby.”
“Me Clistian allee same you,” he replied, not without dignity “Convelt plully long time. ‘Paul’ Clistian name. Splink’ wattel, all li.”
With this he bade me a civil good-bye, and went his way. Then I saddled-up and started for the Trinidad; mentally placing Mr. Smythe, Bert, and myself, in one dish of the moral scale, and this undesirable alien in the other, with an unflattering upshot to the superior race.
And this conclusion was more than verified when I reached my destination. The grass was something splendid. Any island or peninsula of plain among the tall lignum would do for a camp; and there was a good waterhole about a mile away, with only a low, slack fence to cross.
Between one thing and another, it might have been about three in the afternoon when, with Pup reposing by my side, I finally settled down to an after-dinner smoke from the sage meerschaum often deservedly noticed in these annals.
The two greatest supra-physical pleasures of life are antithetical in operation. One is to have something to do, and to know that you are doing it deftly and honestly. The other is to have nothing to do, and to know that you are carrying out your blank programme like a good and faithful menial. On this afternoon, the latter line of inaction seemed to be my path of duty — even to the extent of unharnessing my mind, so that when any difficulty did arise, I might be prepared to meet it as a bridegroom is supposed to meet his bride. Therefore whenever my reasoning faculties obtruded themselves, I knapp’d ’em o’ the coxcombs with a stick, and cry’d ‘Down, wantons, down.’ Briefly, I kept my ratiocinative gear strictly quiescent, with only the perceptive apparatus unrestrained, thus observing all things through the hallowed haze of a mental sabbath. There is a positive felicity in this attitude of soul, comparing most favorably with the negative happiness of Nirvana.
“Taking it easy, Tom?” conjectured a familiar voice.
“No, Steve,” I murmured, without even raising my eyes. “Tea in the quart-pot there. What are you after? Or is someone after you?”
“Prospecting for a bite of grass.”
“Well, you’ve bottomed on the wash. Thought you were out to Kulkaroo, with salt?”
“Just getting down again, with a half-load of pressed skins. Bullocks living on box-leaves and lignum. Rode over to get the geography of this place by daylight. Saunders, the fencer, told me about it this morning. He’s got a ten-mile contract away on Poolkija, and he’s going out with three horses and a dray-load of stores for himself. Dray stopped on the road for the last week, with his wife minding it. Horses supposed to be lost in the lignum on Yoongoolee, and him hunting them for all he’s worth. Keeps them planted all day, and tails them here at night. He would n’t have laid me on, only that he’s going to drop across them to-morrow morning, and shift.”
“Anyone coming with you to-night?”
“Baxter and Donovan. It’s a good step to travel — must be ten or twelve mile — but this grass is worth it. Safe, too, from what I hear. Might get two goes at it, by taking the bullocks out at daylight, and planting them till night. However, I must get back, to meet the other chaps with the mob.”
“Well, I’ll be here when you come.”
Thompson turned his horse, and disappeared round a promontory of lignum. By this time, the sun was dipping, dusky red, toward the smoky horizon; so I addressed myself to the duties of the evening, which consisted in taking my horses and Pup to the water, and bringing back a supply for myself. Also, as a concession to the new aspect of things, I took the bell off Cleopatra.
Daylight had now melted into soft, shadowless moonlight; and the place was no longer solitary. Dozens of cattle were scattered round, harvesting the fine crop of grass; and Thompson, with his two confederates, joined me. During daylight, I had made it my business to find a secluded place, bare of grass, where a fire could be kindled without offending the public eye; and to this spot the four of us repaired to see about some supper.
Before the first match was struck, a sound of subdued voices behind us notified the coming of two more interlopers.
One of these was Stevenson, a tank-sinker, now on his way northward with twenty-two fresh horses — fresh, by the way, only in respect of their new branch of industry, for the draft was made-up entirely of condemned coachers from Hay, and broken-down cab-horses from Victoria.
The other arrival was a Dutchman, who brought his two ten-horse teams. A thrifty, honest, sociable fellow he was; yet nothing but the integrity of narrative could possibly move me to repeat his name. It was Helsmok, with the ‘o’ sounded long. The first time I had addressed him by name — many years before — a sense of delicacy had impelled me to shorten the vowel, also to slur the first syllable, whilst placing a strong accent on the second. But he had corrected me, just as promptly as Mr. Smythe would have done if I had called him Smith, and far more civilly. He had even softened the admonition by explaining that his strictness arose from a justifiable family pride, several of his paternal ancestors having been man-o’-war captains, and one an admiral — in which cases, the name would certainly seem appropriate. But some Continental surnames are sad indeed. The roll-call of Germany furnishes, perhaps, the most unhappy examples. There are bonâ fide German names which no man of refinement cares about repeating, except in a shearers’ hut or a gentlemen’s smoking-room.
“Shadowed you chaps,” remarked Stevenson, replying to the bullock drivers’ look of inquiry. And he also applied himself to the kindling of a small fire.
“Jis’ missed my ole camp by about ten chain!” cheerfully observed Saunders, entering the arena with a billy in one hand and a small calico bag in the other. “I was makin’ for her when when I heard you (fellows) talkin’. More the merrier, I s’pose.” And he set about making a third little fire.
“Gittin’ out with loadin’, Helsmok?” asked Donovan, while we waited the boiling of the billies.
“Yoos gittin’ dan mit der las’ wool,” replied the Dutchman. “I make der slow yourney; but, by yingo, I mus’ save der horses.”
“Ought to change that name of yours, Jan,” remarked Thompson, with real sincerity. “It’s an infernal name for children to hear.”
“Literally so,” commented Stevenson.
“Alter it to John Sulphur–Burnin’,” suggested Baxter.
“How’d Jack Brimstone–Reek do?” asked Donovan.
“Give it the aristocratic touch,” proposed Stevenson. “Sign yourself Jean Fumée de l’Enfer.”
“Why not the scientific turn?” I asked. “Make it Professor John OxySulphuret, F.R.S. — Foreigner Rastling for Selebrity.”
“My idear’s Blue Blazes,” put in Saunders bluntly.
“Tank you, yentlemen,” replied the genial Mynheer. “Mineself, I enyoy der yoke. Bot I am brout of my name. Mit mine forefadders, it have strock der yolly goot fear of Gott into der Spaniar’ und der English.”
“No wonder,” sighed Thompson, purposely misconstruing the honest vindication. “And it’ll have the same effect on anybody that considers it properly. But for that very reason, it’s not a decent name.”
“It is ein olt name, Domson,” argued the Dutchman.
“Old enough,” rejoined Thompson gloomily. “It was to the fore when Satan was slung out of heaven; and it’ll be going as strong as ever when we’re trying to give an account of ourselves. It won’t be a joking matter then.”
Nor was it any longer a joking-matter for our assembly. Soon, however, the billies were taken off the fires, and spiritual apprehension forthwith gave place to physical indulgence.
After supper, we adjourned to the open plain. The night was delicious; and for half-an-hour the congress was governed by that dignified silence which backcountry men appreciate so highly, yet so unconsciously. Then the contemplative quiet of our synod was broken by the vigorous barking of Saunders’ dog, at a solitary box tree, indicating a possum tree’d in full sight.
“Gostruth, that ‘on’t do!” muttered the fencer, hastily starting toward the dog. “That’s visible to the naked eye about three mile on a night like now.”
“Recalls the most perfect pun within my knowledge,” remarked Stevenson. “A lady, travelling by coach, had a pet dog, which annoyed her fellow-passengers till one of them remonstrated. ‘I’m surprised that you don’t like my dog,’ says the lady; ‘he’s a real Peruvian.’ ‘We don’t object to your Peruvian dog,’ says the passenger, ‘but we wish he would give us less of his Peruvian bark’.”
Before our company had recovered from the painful constraint induced by this unfathomable joke, Saunders resumed his place, holding the dog by a saddlestrap taken from his own equator.
“Dead spit of my poor old Monkey,” remarked Thompson sadly, as he caressed the dog. “Never felt the thing that’s on me more distinctly than when I lost poor Monkey.”
“Well, I offered you a fiver for him,” rejoined Donovan. “Never know’d a man to have luck with a thing that he’d refused a good bid for. Picked up a bait, I s’pose?”
“Monkey would never have stayed with you,” replied Thompson. “That dog would have broke his heart if he’d been parted from me. Tell you how I lost him. Last winter, when I was loaded-out for Kenilworth — where I met Cooper — you might remember it was dry, and frosty, and miserable, and the country as bare as a stockyard; and mostly everybody loafing on Kooltopa. Well, I dodged round by Yoongoolee, stealing a bite of grass here, and a bite there; and travelling by myself, so as not to be worth ordering-off the runs; and staying with the bullocks every night, and keeping them in decent fettle, considering.
“So, one evening, I left the wagon on that bit of red ground at the Fifteen-mile Gate, and tailed the bullocks down in the dark to sample the grass in Old Sollicker’s horse-paddock. About eleven at night, when the first of them began to lie-down, I shifted the lot to an open place, so as to have them all together when they got full. I was in bodily fear of losing some of them among the lignum, in the dark; for it’s a hanging-matter to duff in a horsepaddock on Yoongoolee. I knew Old Sollicker was as regular as clockwork, and I was safe till sunrise; so I intended to rouse-up the bullocks just before daylight, to lay in a fresh supply. In the meantime, I settled myself down for a sleep.”
“Where was the (adj.) dog?” asked Baxter.
“Rolled up in the blanket with me, I tell you; and we both slept like the dead”——
“Owing to having no fleas on you?” suggested Stevenson.
“Don’t know what was the cause; but the thing that woke me was the jingle of a Barwell horse-bell on one side, and the rattle of a bridle on the other. Sure enough, there was the sun half-an-hour high, and Old Sollicker about thirty yards off, and here on the other side was his two horses dodging away from him; and me in a belt of lignum, half-way between; and my twenty bullocks, as bold as brass, all feeding together in the open, a bit to the left of the horses. It was plain to be seen that the old fellow hadn’t caught sight of the bullocks on account of the belt of lignum where I was planted; but he was making for an openish place, not twenty yards ahead of him, and when he got there it would be all up. So I grabbed hold of Monkey, and fired him at the horses. He was there! He went like a boomerang when I let him rip, and in two seconds he had the blood flying out of those horses’ heels; and, of course, they streaked for the clear ground near the hut. As soon as I let the dog go, I turned my attention to Sollicker. At the first alarm, he stopped to consider; then, when the horses shot past him, with the dog eating their heels, he rubbed his chin for about two minutes — and me trusting Providence all I was able — then he gave a sort of snort, and said, ‘Well, I be dang!’ and with that he turned round and went toward his hut. That was the signal for me to clear; and in fifteen minutes I had all my stock in safety-bar poor Monkey; and I never saw him from that day to this.”
“You (adj.) fool! why did n’t you hunt for him?” asked Donovan.
“And did n’t I hunt for him till I was sick and tired? I spent half that day hunting for him; and next morning I went back seven mile, and called at the hut to ask Mrs. Sollicker if her old man had seen a magpie steer, with a bugle horn, anywhere among the lignum; and when I got clear of the hut, I whistled till I was black in the face; and still no dog. I hunted everywhere; and still no dog. Vanished out of the land of the living. That dog would never leave me while he had breath in his body; and when he did n’t come back, after he had chivied the horses, I might have”——
“Sh-sh-sh!” whispered Stevenson. And, following the direction of his look, we discerned the approaching figure of a man on horseback.
“Ben Cartwright,” observed Baxter, after a pause. “Anybody else comin’, I wonder? Seems like as if people couldn’t fine a bit o’ grass without the whole (adj.) country jumpin’ it.”
“I move that all trespassers ought to be prosecuted with the utmost vigour o’ the (adj.) law,” remarked Donovan aloud, as the new-comer dismounted and liberated his horse, a few yards away.
“We should certainly be justified in taking the opinion of the Court on a test case,” added Stevenson. “Suppose we make an example of Cartwright? Oh, I beg your pardon!” For the intended sacrifice was just collapsing into an easy position beside the speaker.
“Been scoutin’ for you (fellows) this last half-hour,” he remarked sociably, but in the suppressed tone befitting time and place. “Seen samples o’ your workin’ plant, an’ know’d who to expect. Heard the dog barkin’ jis’ now. Soft collar we got here — ain’t it?”
“How did you find it?” asked Thompson.
“Know Jack Ling — at the Boree Paddick, about four mile out there? Well, I worked on his horse-paddick las’ night, an’ he follered me up this mornin’, an’ talked summons. But I ain’t very fiery-tempered, the way things is jis’ now; an’ I got at the soft side o’ the (adj.) idolator; an’ he laid me on here. Reckoned I’d mos’ likely fine company.”
“One good point about a Chow boundary man,” observed Thompson. “So long as you don’t interfere with his own paddock, he never makes himself nasty.”
My own experience of the morning led me to endorse this judgment; wherefore, if John didn’t exactly rise in the estimation of the camp, he certainly reduced his soundings in its destestation.
“Comin’ down with wool?” asked Baxter.
“Comin’ down without wool, or wagon, or any (adj.) thing,” replied Cartwright. “Jist loafin’ loose. Bullocks dead-beat. Left the wagon tarpolined at the Jumpin’ Sandhill, a fortnit ago. Five gone out o’ eighteen since then, an’ three more dead if they on’y know’d it. Good for trade, I s’pose.”
“Had any supper?” asked Thompson.
“Well, no. Run out o’ tucker to-day, an’ reckoned I’d do till I foun’ time to go to Booligal to-morrow.”
While three or four of the fellows placed their eatables before Cartwright, Thompson remarked:
“You gave me a bit of a start. When I saw you coming, it reminded me of one time I got snapped by Barefooted Bob, on Wo–Winya, while M’Gregor owned the station. For all the world such a night as this-smoky moonlight, and as good as day. I’d had a fearful perisher coming down with the last wool, and I was making for the Murray, by myself; stealing a bite of grass every night, and getting caught, altogether, five times between Hay and Barmah. Well, I knew there was rough feed in the Tin Hut Paddock; so I crawled along quietly, and loosed-out after dark, in that timber where the coolaman hole is. Then I sneaked the bullocks through the fence, and out past that bit of a swamp; and they had just settled down to feed, when I saw some one riding toward me.
“‘I’ve got possession of some bullocks close handy here,’ says he ‘Do you own them?’
“‘Yes,’ says I; ‘and, by the same token, I have possession.’
“‘Right you are,’ says he. ‘Court job, if you like. Your name’s Stephen Thompson. Good night.’
“‘Hold-on!’ says I. ‘On second thoughts, I haven’t possession. But I think I know your voice. Are n’t you Barefooted Bob? Where’s Bat?’
“‘Laying for Potter’s horse-teams to-night,’ says Bob. ‘He’ll get them, right enough.’
“‘Come over to the wagon, and have a drink of tea,’ says I.
“‘No, no,’ says he; ‘none of your toe-rag business. I’ll just stop with these bullocks till it’s light enough to count them out of the paddock.’
“So we stayed there yarning all night, and in the morning we settled-up, and he saw me out of the paddock. Nicest, civilest fellow you’d meet; but no more conscience than that kangaroo-dog of Tom’s. He and Bat had been four or five years away north toward the Gulf, and had just come down. M’Gregor used to keep them up to their work. Sent them away somewhere about the Diamantina, shortly after this affair; and now Bob”——
“Speak o’ the divil,” growled Baxter. “You done it, you blatherin’ fool! Look behine you! Now there’s a bob a-head, or a summons, for every (individual) of us. Might ‘a’ had more sense!”
Thompson (as you will remember) had heard of Bob’s decease, but had since learned the fallacy of the report. I was therefore, probably, the only person present who took for granted that M’Gregor’s obnoxious familiar was so removed from further opportunity of mischief as to leave him a safe subject of conversation among people situated as we were. Hence the well-concealed disquietude of the company was nothing in comparison with my own perplexity — which, I trust, was no less successfully disguised. For it was Bob himself who had just ridden round a contiguous cape of lignum, and now, dismounting and throwing his reins on the ground, joined our unappreciative group. After folding his interminable legs in two places, and clasping his hands round his shins, this excrescence on society remarked, in basso profundo:
“Evenin’,” came in sullen, but general, response. Then Baxter queried indifferently:
“Same ole lay?”
“Not me,” replied the deep, low voice. “Every man to his work. My work’s mullockin’ in a reservoy, with a new-chum weaver from Leeds for a mate, an’ a scoop that’s nyther make nor form, an’ the ten worst bullocks ever was yoked.”
“Well, Bob,” said I; “though you gave me a fright, I must congratulate you. I heard you were dead.”
“Would n’t mind if I was dead, Collins.”
“Where’s Bat?” I asked.
“Gone to a better billet”— and the leonine voice deepened to hoarseness. “Restin’ in the shadder of a lonely rock, as the Bible says. I buried him by my own self, way out back, eight or ten months ago. Many’s the time I wish I was with him, for I’m dog-tired of everything goin’. Best-hearted feller ever broke bread, Bat was; an’ the prittiest rider ever I seen on a horse. Yes; pore ole chap’s gone. You’d ‘a’ thought he was on’y asleep when “——
No further word was spoken for a couple of minutes. Then Stevenson asked:
“How long since you came down?”
“Five months since I left the Diamantinar. Grand grass there, an’ most o’ the road down. I come with some fats as fur as Wilcannia; an’ a drover took charge o’ them there; an’ my orders was to come on to Mondunbarra. I been here goin’ on for three weeks, rasslin’ with that reservoy, an’ cursin’ M’Gregor an’ Smythe for bein’ man-eaters, an’ myself for bein’ a born fool.”
“Then why don’t you leave?” asked Thompson.
“How can I leave without a settlin’-up?”
“An’ why the (sheol) don’t you git a settlin’-up?” asked Donovan.
“How’m I goin’ to git a settlin’-up, when M’Gregor don’t know me from a crow, an’ says Smythe’ll represent him in the meantime; an’ Smythe says his hands is tied on account o’ M’Gregor, or else he’d dem soon give me the run. Nice way for a man to be fixed, after me breakin’ my neck since I was fifteen, to make M’Gregor what he is. Eighteen solid years clean throwed away!”
“How did you fine us here, unless you was (adv.) well after somebody?” asked Baxter, still suspicious of the dog with a bad name.
“Well, I am after somebody. I’m after ole M’Gregor — at least, I’ll be after him as soon ‘s I git this reservoy off o’ my mind. Daresay I’ll git you to understand by-‘n’-by. See: Jist when Smythe wanted this job fixed-up, he got a slant o’ fourteen bullocks, sold at a gift, for debt; an’ he thought that would be the cheapest way to git the work done; for he did n’t want to engage any o’ your sort, knowin’ you’d loaf on the grass, an’ most likely make a song about it, an’ be the instigation of no end o’ trouble watchin’ the place. Well, them fourteen was put in Sling Ho’s paddick for a fortnit before I come; an’ I could on’y muster ten; an’ me an’ this mate o’ mine we made a start with that lot — not knowin’ which was nearsiders, nor off-siders, nor leaders, nor nothing. Nice contract. Anyway, jist before dark this evenin’, I seen two o’ the missin’ ones in the ‘joinin’ paddock, so I rooted-up one o’ my horses, an’ fetched them in here. Then I heard a dog barkin’ out this way, an’ I thought I’d come across to kill time, an’ then I happened to hear a lot o’ laughin’ where them other blokes is camped”——
“Which other blokes?” asked Saunders.
“Dan Lister an’ three Vic. chaps. Be about half-a-mile out there. Dan’s as sulky as a pig with these coves for foxin’ him; an’ they’re laughin’ at him like three overgrown kids. They got twelve bullocks each. Dan tells me he dropped two out of his eighteen, comin’ down from Mooltunya. Says one o’ the Chinks laid him on to this bit o’ grass. Two other fellers I met in the plain-strangers to me — they had the very same yarn. Them heathens think I’m in charge here; an’ they’re workin’ a point to make me nasty with the chaps on the track. An’ if I was in charge, that’s jist the sort o’ thing would put a hump on me. Sort o’ off-sider for a gang o’ Chinks! My word!”
“Bin many people workin’ on this paddick lately?” asked Saunders innocently.
“Well, besides your three horses, there’s been an odd team now an’ agen for the fortnit or three weeks I been here. Good many last night. Rallyin’-up to-night. No business o’ mine. Too busy shiftin’ mullock to know what’s goin’ on. Way o’ the world, I s’pose. Anyway, Smythe’s gittin’ a slant to come to an understandin’ with M’Gregor about me; an’ if it ain’t satisfactory, there’ll be bad feelin’ between us. I want to be kep’ at my own proper work, or else sacked an’ squared-up with — not shoved into a job like this the minit I show my face; with that young pup cheekin’ me for callin’ him ‘Bert.’ ‘Mr. Smythe, if you please,’ says he! Hope I’ll live to see him with bluey on his back.”
“Well-matched pair — M’Gregor an’ Smythe,” remarked Donovan thoughtfully. “Wonder which of the two (individuals) is worst in the sight o’ God?”
“Toss-up,” replied Bob. “Same time, there’s a lot o’ difference in people, accordin’ to the shape o’ their head. There’s Stewart of Kooltopa; he don’t demean his self with little things; he goes in for big things, an’ gits there; an’ he’s got the heart to make a proper use o’ what money travels his road. Comes-out a Christian. Then there’s Smythe: his mind’s so much took-up with the tuppenny-thruppenny things that he can’t see the big thing when it’s starin’ him in the face. Can’t afford to come-out anything but a pis-ant. Then there’s M’Gregor: he goes-in for big things an’ little things, an’ he goes-in to win, an’ he wins; an’ all he wins is Donal’ M’Gregor’s. Comes-out a bow constructor.”
“Do you think he’ll shift Smythe from Mondunbarra, as he did Pratt from Boolka?” I asked.
“Ain’t he doin’ it all the time?” replied Bob. “He’s got Smythe frightened of him now, an’ beginnin’ to hate him like fury, besides. That’s M’Gregor’s lay. By-‘n’-by, Smythe’ll be dreamin’ about him all night, an’ wishin’ he was game to poison him all day; an’ when he feels enough haunted, M’Gregor’ll make him an offer, an’ he’ll sell-out like a bird.”
“I should be inclined to reverse the situation,” remarked Stevenson. “I should make him glad to sell-out to me.”
“My word, you’d do a lot,” replied Bob. “I seen smarter men nor you took-down through tryin’ to work points on the same ole M’Gregor. Tell you what I seen on Wo–Winya, about three year ago — jist before me an’ pore Bat was put on the Diamantinar Feller name o’ Tregarvis, from Bendigo, he selected a lot o’ land on Wo–Winya, an’ made-up his mind he’d straighten M’Gregor. Bit of a Berryite, he was. Well-off for a selector, too; an’ he done a big business back an’ forrid to Vic. with cattle. Mixed lots, of course, with stags an’ ole cows that no fence would hold. North of Ireland feller, name o’ Moore, was managin’ Wo–Winya at the time; an’ M’Gregor was a good deal about the station, takin’ a sort o’ interest in this Tregarvis. Well, things was so arranged that the Cousin Jack’s cattle was always gittin’ into our paddicks; an’ the rule was that his people had to come to the home-station to get leaf to hunt ’em; an’ a man was sent along o’ them as a percaution. An’ generally, by the time they foun’ the cattle, there was one or two o’ the fattest o’ them short.”
“Remedy for that game,” remarked Stevenson. “I should have laid a trap.”
“Jist what Tregarvis done,” rejoined Bob. “One day there was a stranger among our cattle — a fine big white bullock, an’ Tregarvis’s brand on him. We run this mob into the yard before dinner, to git a beast to kill, an’ turned ’em all out agen, bar the white one; but he was in the killin’-yard all the afternoon. Dusk in the evenin’, the white bullock was shot; an’ jist in the nick o’ time, when the head was slung in the pigsty, an’ the hide was hangin’ on the fence, raw side up, who should pounce on us but ole Tregarvis, an’ Young Tregarvis, an’ a trooper. No mistake, Moore looked a bit gallied on it; an’ he hum’d an’ ha’d, an’ threatened to brain Tregarvis if he laid a hand on the hide. Anyhow, the trooper took charge o’ the hide; an’ both the Tregarvises struck matches an’ examined the head in the pig-sty. Next mornin’, a warrant was served on Moore; but, of course, he was bailed. Then the Court-day come on; an’ Tregarvis swore to a knowledge that a white bullock of his was among the Wo–Winya cattle; an’ he give evidence about the findin’ o’ the skin, an’ swore to the head he seen in the pig-sty. An’ young Tregarvis, he swore he was watchin’ with a telescope, an’ seen a white bullock o’ theirs yarded with some more, an’ all the rest turnedout; an’ he kep’ his eye on that white bullock all the afternoon; an’ he heard the shot, an’ went up with his ole man an’ the trooper; an’ he seen the raw hide hangin’ on the fence, an’ the head in the pig-sty, an’ a couple o’ fellers hoistin’ the carkidge on the gallus. When the magistrate asked Moore if he wanted to make a statement, he said he was quite bewildered about it. He allowed he had picked the white bullock for killin’, an’ he had give the order; but he’d swear the beast belonged to the station. So the hide was spread out on a bit o’ tarpolin in the floor o’ the Court; an’ there was on’y one brand on it, an’ that brand was M’Gregor’s — DMG off-rump. Mind you, this is on’y what I was told. My orders was to keep clear till the case was over; an’ it was on’y a day or two follerin’ that me an’ pore Bat got our orders for the Diamantinar. Anyhow, Moore whanged it on to Tregarvis for malicious prosecution; an’ it cost the Cousin Jack a good many hundred before he was done with it. As for young Dick Tregarvis, he got four years for perjury; so they’ll be jist about lettin’ him out now, if he’s got the good-conduct remission.
“Beast changed?” suggested Thompson.
“Yes. That was the idear. Some different dodge next time. Changed jist at dusk, an’ shot the minit after. I had the station bullock all ready, before ever Tregarvis’s one was yarded. Dead spit o’ one another, down to the shape o’ their horns — bar the brands, of course; Treganis’s beast havin’ NT near-shoulder, an’ JH conjoined under halfcircle off-ribs. I had him half-ways back to the paddick agen when Tregarvis thought he was identifyin’ him in the killin’-yard. So he fell-in, simple enough. An’ between one thing an’ another, an’ bein’ follered-up like the last dingo on a sheep station, ole Tregarvis was glad to sell-out to M’Gregor, before all was over. Yes, Stevenson; Lord ‘a’ mercy on M’Gregor if you got a holt of him! My word! ”
“Where the (adj. sheol) do you reckon on bein’ shoved into when you croak, Bob?” asked Donovan, with a touch of human solicitude.
“Well,” replied Bob pointedly, as he unfolded his long angles to a perpendicular right line —“I got good hopes o’ goin’ to a place where there’s no admittance for swearers. Ain’t ashamed to say I repented eight or ten months ago. Guarantee you fellers ain’t heard no language out o’ my mouth since I set down here. Nor ‘on’t — never again. Well, take care o’ yourselves, chaps.” And, without further farewell, Bob removed his lonely individuality from our convention.
“Anointed (adj.) savage,” remarked Donovan, as the subject of his comment receded into the hazy half-light of the plain, where his horse was feeding.
“Uncivilised (person),” added Baxter.
“Well — yes,” conceded Thompson. “Same time, he’s got the profit of his unprofitableness, so to speak. Hard to beat him in the back country. You’d have to be more uncivilised than he is. And I saw that very thing happen to him, four or five weeks ago, out on Goolumbulla.” Thompson paused experimentally, then continued, “Yes, I saw him put-through, till he must have felt a lot too tall in proportion to his cleverness.” Another tentative pause. “But it took the very pick of uncivilisation to do it.” A prolonged pause, while Thompson languidly filled and lit his pipe. Still the dignified indifference of the camp remained unruffled. Thompson might tell his yarn, or keep it to himself. Once already during the evening his tongue had run too freely. “What I’m thinking about,” he continued, in a tone of audible musing, “is that I forgot to tell Bob, when he was here, that I had a long pitch with Dan O’Connell, three or four nights ago.”
“Boundary man on Goolumbulla,” I suggested apathetically. “Got acquainted with Bob years ago, when he was making himself useful on Moogoojinna, and Bob was making himself obnoxious on Wo–Winya, or Boolka.”
“No; they never met till four or five weeks ago,” replied Thompson, with inimitable indifference, though now licensed to proceed without damage to his own dignity. “Dan’s an old acquaintance of yours — is n’t he? I heard your name mentioned over the finding of a dead man — George something — had been fencing on Mooltunya — George Murdock. Yes.”
Thompson told a story well. I verily believe he used to practise the accomplishment mentally, as he sauntered along beside his team. He knew his own superiority here; his acquaintances knew it too, and they also knew that he knew it. Hence they were reluctant to minister occasion to his egotism.
“Speaking of Bob,” he continued listlessly; “I met him in the hut, at Kulkaroo, on the evening I got there with the load. He was on his way down from that new place of M’Gregor’s, where he’s been; and he had come round by Kulkaroo to see one of the very few friends he has in the world; but he lost his labour, for this cove had left the station more than a year before.
“However, we had been yarning for hours, and the station chaps were about turning-in, when we heard someone coming in a hurry. No less than Webster himself — first time he had been in the hut since it was built, the chaps told me afterward. He had a leaf of a memorandum-book in his hand; and says he:
“‘Child lost in the scrub on Goolumbulla. Dan O’Connell’s little girl — five or six years old. Anybody know where there’s any blackfellows?’
“‘Well, raise horses wherever you can, and clear at once,’ says he. ‘One man, for the next couple of days, will be worth a regiment very shortly. As for you, Thompson,’ says he; ‘you’re your own master.’
“Of course, I was only too glad of any chance to help in such a case, so I went for my horse at once. Bob had duffed his two horses into the ration paddock, on his way to the hut, and had put them along with my mare, so that he could find them at daylight by the sound of her bell. This started me and him together. He lent his second horse to one of the station chaps; and the three of us got to Goolumbulla just after sunrise — first of the crowd. Twenty-five mile. There was tucker on the table, and chaff for our horses; and, during the twenty minutes or so that we stayed, they gave us the outline of the mishap.
“Seems that, for some reason or other — valuation for mortgage, I’m thinking — the classer had come round a few days before; and Spanker had called in every man on the station, to muster the ewes. You know how thick the scrub is on Goolumbulla? Dan came in along with the rest, leaving his own place before daylight on the first morning. They swept the paddock the first day for about three parts of the ewes; the second day they got most of what was left; but Spanker wanted every hoof, if possible, and he kept all hands on for the third day.
“Seems, the little girl did n’t trouble herself the first day, though she had n’t seen Dan in the morning; but the second day there was something peculiar about her — not fretful, but dreaming, and asking her mother strange questions. It appears that, up to this time, she had never said a word about the man that was found dead near their place, a couple of months before. She saw that her parents did n’t want to tell her anything about it, so she had never showed any curiosity; but now her mother was startled to find that she knew all the particulars.
“It appears that she was very fond of her father; and this affair of the man perishing in the scrub was working on her mind. All the second day she did nothing but watch; and during the night she got up several times to ask her mother questions that frightened the woman. The child did n’t understand her father going away before she was awake, and not coming back. Still, the curious thing was that she never took her mother into her confidence, and never seemed to fret.
“Anyway, on the third morning, after breakfast, her mother went out to milk the goats, leaving her in the house. When the woman came back, she found the child gone. She looked round the place, and called, and listened, and prospected everywhere, for an hour; then she went into the house, and examined. She found that the little girl had taken about a pint of milk, in a small billy with a lid, and half a loaf of bread. Then, putting everything together, the mother decided that she had gone into the scrub to look for her father. There was no help to be had nearer than the home-station, for the only other boundary man on that part of the run was away at the muster. So she cleared for the station — twelve mile — and got there about three in the afternoon, not able to stand. There was nobody about the station but Mrs. Spanker, and the servant-girl, and the cook, and the Chow slushy; and Mrs. Spanker was the only one that knew the track to the ewe-paddock. However, they got a horse in, and off went Mrs. Spanker to give the alarm. Fine woman. Daughter of old Walsh, storekeeper at Moogoojinna, on the Deniliquin side.
“It would be about five when Mrs. Spanker struck the ewe-paddock, and met Broome and another fellow. Then the three split out to catch whoever they could, and pass the word round. Dan got the news just before sundown. He only remarked that she might have found her own way back; then he went for home as hard as his horse could lick.
“As the fellows turned-up, one after another, Spanker sent the smartest of them — one to Kulkaroo, and one to Mulppa, and two or three others to different fencers’ and tank-sinkers’ camps. But the main thing was blackfellows. Did anybody know where to find a blackfellow, now that he was wanted?
“Seems, there had been about a dozen of them camped near the tank in the cattle-paddock for a month past, but they were just gone, nobody knew where. And there had been an old lubra and a young one camped within a mile of the station, and an old fellow and his lubra near one of the boundary men’s places; but they all happened to have shifted; and no one had the slightest idea where they could be found. However, in a sense, everyone was after them.
“But, as I was telling you, we had some breakfast at the station, and, then started for Dan’s place. Seven of us by this time, for another of the Kulkaroo men had come up, and there were three well-sinkers in a buggy. This was on a Thursday morning; and the little girl had been out twenty-four hours.
“Well, we had gone about seven mile, with crowds of fresh horsetracks to guide us; and we happened to be going at a fast shog, and Bob riding a couple or three yards to the right, when he suddenly wheeled his horse round, and jumped off.
“‘How far is it yet to Dan’s place?’ says he.
“‘Five mile,’ says one of the well-sinkers. ‘We’re just on the corner of his paddock. Got tracks?’
“‘Yes,’ says Bob. ‘I’ll run them up, while you fetch the other fellows. Somebody look after my horse.’ And by the time the last word was out of his mouth, he was twenty yards away along the little track. No trouble in following it, for she was running the track of somebody that had rode out that way a few days before — thinking it was her father’s horse, poor little thing!
“Apparently she had kept along the inside of Dan’s fence — the way she had generally seen him going out — till she came to the corner, where there was a gate. Then she had noticed this solitary horse’s track striking away from the gate, out to the left; and she had followed it. However, half-a-mile brought us to a patch of hardish ground, where she had lost the horse’s track; and there Bob lost hers. Presently he picked it up again; but now there was only her little bootmarks to follow.”
“A goot dog would be wort vivty men dere, I tink,” suggested Helsmok.
“Same thought struck several of us, but it did n’t strike Bob,” replied Thompson. “Fact, the well-sinkers had brought a retriever with them in the buggy; a dog that would follow the scent of any game you could lay him on; but they could n’t get him to take any notice of the little girl’s track. Never been trained to track children — and how were they going to make him understand that a child was lost? However, while two of the well-sinkers were persevering with their retriever, the other fellow drove off like fury to fetch Dan’s sheep-dog; making sure that we would only have to follow him along the scent. In the meantime, I walked behind Bob, leading both our horses.
“Give him his due, he’s a great tracker. I compare tracking to reading a letter written in a good business hand. You must’nt look at what’s under your eye; you must see a lot at once, and keep a general grasp of what’s on ahead, besides spotting each track you pass. Otherwise, you’ll be always turning back for a fresh race at it. And you must no more confine yourself to actual tracks than you would expect to find each letter correctly formed. You must just lift the general meaning as you go. Of course, our everyday tracking is not tracking at all.
“However, Bob run this little track full walk, mile after mile, in places where I would ‘n’t see a mark for fifty yards at a stretch, on account of rough grass, and dead leaves, and so forth. One thing in favour of Bob was that she kept a fairly straight course, except when she was blocked by porcupine or supple-jack; then she would swerve off, and keep another middling straight line. At last Bob stopped.
“‘Here’s where she slept last night,’ says he; and we could trace the marks right enough. We even found some crumbs of bread on the ground, and others that the ants were carrying away. She had made twelve or fourteen mile in the day’s walk.
“By this time, several chaps had come from about Dan’s place; and they were still joining us in twos and threes. As fast as they came, they scattered out in front, right and left, and one cove walked a bit behind Bob, with a frog-bell, shaking it now and then, to give the fellows their latitude. This would be about two in the afternoon, or half-past; and we pushed along the tracks she had made only a few hours before, with good hopes of overtaking her before dark. The thing that made us most uneasy was the weather. It was threatening for a thunderstorm. At this time we were in that unstocked country south-east of the station. Suddenly Bob rose up from his stoop, and looked round at me with a face on him like a ghost.
“‘God help us now, if we don’t get a blackfellow quick!’ says he, pointing at the ground before him. And, sure enough, there lay the child’s little coppertoed boots, where she had taken them off when her feet got sore, and walked on in her socks. It was just then that a tank-sinker drove up, with Dan and his dog in the buggy.”
“Poor old Rory!” I interposed. “Much excited?”
“Well — no. But there was a look of suspense in his face that was worse. And his dog — a dog that had run the scent of his horse for hundreds of miles, all put together — that dog would smell any plain track of the little stocking-foot, only a few hours old, and would wag his tail, and bark, to show that he knew whose track it was; and all the time showing the greatest distress to see Dan in trouble; but it was no use trying to start him on the scent. They tried three or four other dogs. with just the same success. But Bob never lost half-a-second over these attempts. He knew.
“Anyway, it was fearful work after that; with the thunderstorm hanging over us. Bob was continually losing the track; and us circling round and round in front, sometimes picking it up a little further ahead. But we only made another half-mile or three-quarters, at the outside — before night was on. I daresay there might be about twenty-five of us by this time, and eighteen or twenty horses, and two or three buggies and wagonettes. Some of the chaps took all the horses to a tank six or eight mile away, and some cleared-off in desperation to hunt for blackfellows, and the rest of us scattered out a mile or two ahead of the last track, to listen.
“They had been sending lots of tucker from the station; and before the morning was grey everyone had breakfast, and was out again. But, do what we would, it was slow, slow work; and Bob was the only one that could make any show at all in running the track. Friday morning, of course; and by this time the little girl had been out for forty-eight hours.
“At nine or ten in the forenoon, when Bob had made about half-amile, one of the Kulkaroo men came galloping through the scrub from the right, making for the sound of the bell.
“‘Here, Bob!’ says he. ‘We’ve found the little girl’s billy at the fence of Peter’s paddock, where she crossed. Take this horse. About two mile — straight out there.’
“I had my horse with me at the time, and I tailed-up Bob to the fence. He went full tilt, keeping the track that the horse had come, and this fetched us to where a couple of chaps were standing over a little billy, with a lump of bread beside it. She had laid them down to get through the fence, and then went on without them. The lid was still on the billy, and there was a drop of milk left. The ants had eaten the bread out of all shape.
“But Bob was through the fence, and bowling down a dusty sheeptrack, where a couple of fellows had gone before him, and where we could all see the marks of the little bare feet — for the stockings were off by this time. But in sixty or eighty yards this pad run into another, covered with fresh sheep-tracks since the little girl had passed. Nothing for it but to spread out, and examine the network of pads scattered over the country. All this time, the weather was holding-up, but there was a grumble of thunder now and then, and the air was fearfully close.
“At last there was a coo-ee out to the left. Young Broome had found three plain tracks, about half-a-mile away. We took these for a base, but we didn’t get beyond them. We were circling round for miles, without making any headway; and so the time passed till about three in the afternoon. Then up comes Spanker, with his hat lost, and his face cut and bleeding from the scrub, and his horses in a white lather, and a black lubra sitting in the back of the buggy, and the Mulppa stock-keeper tearing along in front, giving him our tracks.
“She was an old, grey-haired lubra, blind of one eye; but she knew her business, and she was on the job for life or death. She picked-up the track at a glance, and run it like a bloodhound. We found that the little girl had n’t kept the sheep-pads as we expected. Generally she went straight till something blocked her; then she’d go straight again, at another angle. Very rarely — hardly ever — we could see what signs the lubra was following; but she was all right. Uncivilised, even for an old lubra. Nobody could yabber with her but Bob; and he kept close to her all the time. She began to get uneasy as night came on, but there was no help for it. She went slower and slower, and at last she sat down where she was. We judged that the little girl had made about seventeen mile to the place where the lubra got on her track, and we had added something like four to that. Though, mind you, at this time we were only about twelve or fourteen mile from Dan’s place, and eight or ten mile from the home-station.
“Longest night I ever passed, though it was one of the shortest in the year. Eyes burning for want of sleep, and could n’t bear to lie down for a minute. Wandering about for miles; listening; hearing something in the scrub; and finding it was only one of the other chaps, or some sheep. Thunder and lightning, on and off, all night; even two or three drops of rain, toward morning. Once I heard the howl of a dingo, and I thought of the little girl, lying worn-out, half-asleep and half-fainting — far more helpless than a sheep — and I made up my mind that if she came out safe I would lead a better life for the future.
“However, between daylight and sunrise — being then about a mile, or a mile and a half, from the bell — I was riding at a slow walk, listening and dozing in the saddle, when I heard a far-away call that sounded like ‘Dad-dee!’. It seemed to be straight in front of me; and I went for it like mad. Had n’t gone far when Williamson, the narangy, was alongside me.
“‘Hear anything?’ says I.
“‘Yes,’ says he. ‘Sounded like ‘Daddy!’ I think it was out here.’
“‘I think it was more this way,’ says I; and each of us went his own way.
“When I got to where I thought was about the place, I listened again, and searched round everywhere. The bell was coming that way, and presently I went to meet it, leading my horse, and still listening. Then another call came through the stillness of the scrub, faint, but beyond mistake, ‘Dad-de-e-e!’. There was n’t a trace of terror in the tone; it was just the voice of a worn-out child, deliberately calling with all her might. Seemed to be something less than half-a-mile away, but I could n’t fix on the direction; and the scrub was very thick.
“I hurried down to the bell. Everyone there had heard the call, or fancied they had; but it was out to their right — not in front. Of course, the lubra would n’t leave the track, nor Bob, nor the chap with the bell; but everyone else was gone — Dan among the rest. The lubra said something to Bob.
“‘Picaninny tumble down here again,’ says Bob. ‘Getting very weak on her feet.’
“By-and-by, ‘Picaninny plenty tumble down.’ It was pitiful; but we knew that we were close on her at last. By this time, of course, she had been out for seventy-two hours.
“I stuck to the track, with the lubra and Bob. We could hear some of the chaps coo-eeing now and again, and calling ‘Mary!’"——
“Bad line — bad line,” muttered Saunders impatiently.
“Seemed to confuse things, anyway,” replied Thompson. “And it was very doubtful whether the little girl was likely to answer a strange voice. At last, however, the lubra stopped, and pointed to a sun-bonnet, all dusty, lying under a spreading hop-bush. She spoke to Bob again.
“‘Picaninny sleep here last night,’ says Bob. And that was within a hundred yards of the spot I had made-for after hearing the first call. I knew it by three or four tall pines, among a mass of pine scrub. However, the lubra turned off at an angle to the right, and run the track — not an hour old — toward where we had heard the second call. We were crossing fresh horse-tracks every few yards; and never two minutes but what somebody turned-up to ask the news. But to show how little use anything was except fair tracking, the lubra herself never saw the child till she went right up to where she was lying between two thick, soft bushes that met over her, and hid her from sight “——
“Asleep?” I suggested, with a sinking heart.
“No. She had been walking along — less than half-an-hour before — and she had brushed through between these bushes, to avoid some prickly scrub on both sides; but there happened to be a bilby-hole close in front, and she fell in the sort of trough, with her head down the slope; and that was the end of her long journey. It would have taken a child in fair strength to get out of the place she was in; and she was played-out to the last ounce. So her face had sunk down on the loose mould, and she had died without a struggle.
“Bob snatched her up the instant he caught sight of her, but we all saw that it was too late. We coo-eed, and the chap with the bell kept it going steady. Then all hands reckoned that the search was over, and they were soon collected round the spot.
“Now, that little girl was only five years old; and she had walked nothing less than twenty-two miles — might be nearer twenty-five.”
There was a minute’s silence. Personal observation, or trustworthy report, had made every one of Thompson’s audience familiar with such episodes of new settlement; and, for that very reason, his last remark came as a confirmation rather than as an over-statement. Nothing is more astonishing than the distances lost children have been known to traverse.
“How did poor Rory take it?” I asked.
“Dan? Well he took it bad. When he saw her face, he gave one little cry, like a wounded animal; then he sat down on the bilby-heap, with her on his knees, wiping the mould out of her mouth, and talking baby to her.
“Not one of us could find a word to say; but in a few minutes we were brought to ourselves by thunder and lightning in earnest, and the storm was on us with a roar. And just at this moment Webster of Kulkaroo came up with the smartest blackfellow in that district.
“We cleared out one of the wagonettes, and filled it with pine leaves, and laid a blanket over it. And Spanker gently took the child from Dan, and laid her there, spreading the other half of the blanket over her. Then he thanked all hands, and made them welcome at the station, if they liked to come. I went, for one; but Bob went back to Kulkaroo direct, so I saw no more of him till to-night.
“Poor Dan! He walked behind the wagonette all the way, crying softly, like a child, and never taking his eyes from the little shape under the soaking wet blanket. Hard lines for him! He had heard her voice calling him, not an hour before; and now, if he lived till he was a hundred, he would never hear it again.
“As soon as we reached the station, I helped Andrews, the storekeeper, to make the little coffin. Dan would n’t have her buried in the station cemetery; she must be buried in consecrated ground, at Hay. So we boiled a pot of gas-tar to the quality of pitch, and dipped long strips of wool-bale in it, and wrapped them tight round the coffin, after the lid was on, till it was two ply all over, and as hard and close as sheet-iron. Ay, and by this time more than a dozen blackfellows had rallied-up to the station.
“Spanker arranged to send a man with the wagonette, to look after the horses for Dan. The child’s mother wanted to go with them, but Dan refused to allow it, and did so with a harshness that surprised me. In the end, Spanker sent Ward, one of the narangies. I happened to camp with them four nights ago, when I was coming down from Kulkaroo, and they were getting back to Goolumbulla. However,” added Thompson, with sublime lowliness of manner, “that’s what I meant by saying that, in some cases, a person’s all the better for being uncivilised. You see, we were nowhere beside Bob, and Bob was nowhere beside the old lubra.”
“Had you much of a yarn with the poor fellow when you met him?” I asked.
“Evening and morning only,” replied Thompson, maintaining the fine apathy due to himself under the circumstances. “I was away all night with the bullocks, in a certain paddock. Did n’t recognise me; but I told him I had been there; and then he would talk about nothing but the little girl. Catholic priest in Hay sympathised very strongly with him, he told me, but could n’t read the service over the child, on account of her not being baptised. So Ward read the service. His people are English Catholics. Most likely Spanker thought of this when he sent Ward. Dan didn’t seem to be as much cut-up as you’d expect. He was getting uneasy about his paddock; and he thought Spanker might be at some inconvenience. But that black beard of his is more than half white already. And — something like me — I never thought of mentioning this to Bob when he was here. Absence of mind. Bad habit.”
“This Dan has much to be thankful for,” remarked Stevenson, with strong feeling in his voice. “Suppose that thunderstorm had come on a few hours sooner — what then?”
There was a silence for some minutes.
“Tell you what made me interrupt you, Thompson, when I foun’ fault with singin’-out after lost kids,” observed Saunders, at length. “Instigation o’ many a pore little (child) perishin’ unknownst. Seen one instance when I was puttin’ up a bit o’ fence on Grundle — hundred an’ thirty-four chain an’ some links — forty-odd links, if I don’t disremember. Top rail an’ six wires. Jist cuttin’ off a bend o’ the river, to make a handy cattle-paddick. They’d had it fenced-off with dead-wood, twelve or fifteen years before; but when they got it purchased they naterally went-in for a proper fence. An’ you can’t lick a top rail an’ six wires, with nine-foot panels “——
“You’re a bit of an authority on fencin’,” remarked Baxter drily.
“Well, as I was sayin’,” continued Saunders; “this kid belonged to a married man, name o’ Tom Bracy, that was workin’ mates with me. One night when his missus drafted the lot she made one short; an’ she hunted roun’, an’ called, an’ got excited; an’ you couldn’t blame the woman. Well, we hunted all night-me, an’ Tom, an’ Cunningham, the cove that was engaged to cart the stuff on-to the line. Decent, straight-forrid chap, Cunningham is, but a (sheol) of a liar when it shoots him. Course, some o’ you fellers knows him. Meejum-size man, but one o’ them hard, wiry, deepchested, deceivin’ fellers. See him slingin’ that heavy red-gum stuff about, as if it was broad palin’. Course, he was on’y three-an’ twenty; an’ fellers o’ that age don’t know their own strenth. His bullocks was fearful low at the time, on account of a trip he had out to Wilcanniar with flour; an’ that’s how he come to take this job ”
“Never mind Cunningham; he’s dead now,” observed Donovan indifferently.
“Well as I was tellin’ you,” pursued Saunders, “we walked that bend the whole (adj.) night, singin’ out ‘Hen-ree! Hen-ree!’ an’ in the mornin’ we was jist as fur as when we started. Tom, he clears-off to the station before daylight, to git help; an’ by this time I’d come to the conclusion that the kid must be in the river, or out on the plains. I favoured the river a lot; but I bethought me o’ where this dead-wood fence had bin burnt, to git it out o’ our road, before the grass got dry. So I starts at one end to examine the line o’ soft ashes that divided the bend off o’ the plain — an’ har’ly a sign o’ traffic across it yet. Had n’t went, not fifteen chain, before I bumps up agen the kid’s tracks, plain as A B C, crossin’ out towards the plain. Coo-ees for Cunningham; shows him the tracks; an’ the two of us follers the line o’ ashes right to the other end, to see if the tracks come back. No (adj.) tracks. So we tells the missus; an’ she clears-out for the plain, an’ me after her. Cunningham, he collars his horse, an’ out for the plain too. Station chaps turns-up, in ones an’ twos; an’ when they seen the tracks, they scattered for the plain too. Mostly young fellers, on good horses — some o’ them good enough to be worth enterin’ for a saddle, or the like o’ that. Curious how horses was better an’ cheaper them days nor what they are now. I had a brown mare that time; got her off of a traveller for three notes; an’ you’d pass her by without lookin’ at her; but of all the deceivin’ goers you ever come across”——
“No odds about the mare; she’s dead long ago,” interposed Thompson.
“About two o’clock,” continued Saunders cheerfully, “I was dead-beat an’ leg-tired; an’ I went back to the tent, to git a bite to eat; an’, comin’ back agen, I went roun’ to have another look at the tracks. Now, thinks I, what road would that little (wanderer) be likeliest to head from here? An’ I hitches myself up on a big ole black log that was layin’ about a chain past the tracks, an’ I set there for a minit, thinkin’ like (sheol). You would n’t call it a big log for the Murray, or the Lower Goulb’n, but it was a fair-size log for the Murrumbidgee. I seen some whoppin’ redgums in Gippsland too; but the biggest one I ever seen was on the Goulb’n. Course, when I say ‘big,’ I mean measurement; I ain’t thinkin’ about holler shells, with no timber in ’em. This tree I’m speakin’ about had eleven thousand two hundred an’ some odd feet o’ timber in her; an’ Jack Hargrave, the feller that cut her”——
“His troubles is over too,” murmured Baxter.
“Well, as I was tellin’ you, I begun to fancy I could hear the whimper of a kid, far away. ‘Magination, thinks I. Lis’ns fit to break my (adj.) neck. Hears it agen. Seemed to come from the bank o’ the river. Away I goes; hunts roun’; lis’ns; calls ‘Hen-ree!’; lis’ns agen. Not a sound. Couple o’ the station hands happened to come roun’, an’ I told ’em. Well, after an hour o’ searchin’ an’ lis’nin’, the three of us went back to where I heard the sound. I hitches myself up on-to the log agen, an’ says I:
“‘This is the very spot I was,’ says I, ‘when I heard it.’ An’ before the word was out o’ my mouth, (verb) me if I did n’t hear it agen!
“‘There you are!’ says I.
“‘What the (sheol) are you blatherin’ about?’ says they.
“‘Don’t you hear the (adj.) kid?’ says I.
“‘Oh, that ain’t the kid, you (adj.) fool!’ says they, lookin’ as wise as Solomon, an’ not lettin’-on they could n’t hear it. But for an’ all, they parted, an’ rode roun’ an’ roun’, as slow as they could crawl, stoppin’ every now an’ agen, an’ listening for all they was worth; an’ me settin’ on the log, puzzlin’ my brains. At last I hears another whimper.
“‘There you are again!’ says I.
“An’ one cove, he was stopped close in front o’ the butt end o’ the log at the time; an’ he jumps off his horse, an’ sticks his head in the holler o’ the log, an’ lets a oath out of him. Fearful feller to swear, he was. I disremember his name jis’ now; but he’d bin on Grundle ever since he bolted from his ole man’s place, in Bullarook Forest, on account of a lickin’ he got; an’ it was hard to best him among sheep; an’ now I rec’lect his name was Dick — Dick — it’s jist on the tip o’ my (adj.) tongue”——
“No matter hees name,” interposed Helsmok; “he have yoined der graat mayority too.”
“Well, as I was sayin’,” continued the patient Saunders, “we lis’ned at the mouth o’ the holler, an’ heard the kid whinin’ inside; an’ when we sung-out to him, he was as quiet as a mouse. An’ we struck matches, an’ tried to see him, but he was too fur along, an’ the log was a bit crooked; an’ when you got in a couple o’ yards, the hole was so small you ‘d wonder how he done it. Anyhow, the two station blokes rode out to pass the word; an’ the most o’ the crowd was there in half-an-hour. The kid was a good thirty foot up the log; an’ there was no satisfaction to be got out of him. He would n’t shift; an’ by-‘n’-by we come to the impression that he could n’t shift; an’ at long an’ at last we had to chop him out, like a bees’ nest. Turned out after, that the little (stray) had foun’ himself out of his latitude when night come on; an’ he’d got gumption enough to set down where he was, an’ wait for mornin’. He’d always bin told to do that, if he got lost. But by-‘n’-by he heard ‘Hen-ree! Hen-ree!’ boomin’ an’ bellerin’ back an’ forrid across the bend in the dark; an’ he thought the boody-man, an’ the bunyip, an’ the banshee, an’ (sheol) knows what all, was after him. So he foun’ this holler log, an’ he thought he could nt git fur enough into it. He was about seven year old then; an’ that was in ‘71 — the year after the big flood — an’ the shearin’ was jist about over. How old would that make him now? Nineteen or twenty. He left his ole man three year ago, to travel with a sheep-drover, name o’ Sep Halliday, an’ he’s bin with the same bloke ever since. Mos’ likely some o’ you chaps knows this Sep? Stout butt of a feller, with a red baird. Used to mostly take flocks for truckin’ at Deniliquin; but that got too many at it — like everything else — an’ he went out back, Cooper’s Creek way, with three thousand Gunbar yowes, the beginnin’ o’ las’ winter, an’ I ain’t heard of him since he crossed at Wilcanniar”——
“No wonder,” I observed; “he’s gone aloft, like the rest.”
There was a pause, broken by Stevenson, in a voice that brought constraint on us all:
“Bad enough to lose a youngster for a day or two, and find him alive and well; worse, beyond comparison, when he’s found dead; but the most fearful thing of all is for a youngster to be lost in the bush, and never found, alive or dead. That’s what happened to my brother Eddie, when he was about eight year old. You must remember it, Thompson?”
“Was n’t my father out on the search?” replied Thompson. “Tom’s father, too. You were living on the Upper Campaspe.”
“Yes,” continued Stevenson, clearing his throat; “I’ve been thinking over it every night for these five-and-twenty years, and it seems to me the most likely thing that could have happened to him was to get jammed in a log, like that other little chap. Then after five years, or ten years, or twenty years, the log gets burned, and nobody notices a few little bones, crumbled among the ashes.
“I was three or four years older than Eddie,” he resumed hoarsely “and he just worshipped me. I had been staying with my uncle in Kyneton for three months, going to school; and Eddie was lost the day after I came home. We were out, gathering gum — four of us altogether — about a mile and a half from home; and I got cross with the poor little fellow, and gave him two or three hits; and he started home by himself, crying. He turned round and looked at me, just before he got out of sight among the trees; and that was the last that was ever seen of him alive or dead. My God! When I think of that look, it makes me thankful to remember that every day brings me nearer to the end. The spot where he turned round is in the middle of a cultivation-paddock now, but I could walk straight to it in the middle of the darkest night.
“Yes; he started off home, crying. We all went the same way so soon afterward that I expected every minute to see him on ahead. At last we thought we must have passed him on the way. No alarm yet, of course; but I was choking with grief, to think how I’d treated the little chap; so I gave Maggie and Billy the slip, and went back to meet him. I knew from experience how glad he would be.
“Ah well! the time that followed is like some horrible dream. He was lost at about four in the afternoon; and there would be about a dozen people looking for him, and calling his name, all night. Next day, I daresay there would be about thirty. Next morning, my father offered £100 reward for him, dead or alive; and five other men guaranteed £10 each. Next day, my father’s reward was doubled; and five other men put down their names for another £50. Next day, Government offered £200. So between genuine sympathy and the chance of making £500, the bush was fairly alive with people; and everyone within thirty miles was keeping a look-out.
“No use. The search was gradually dropped, till no one was left but my father. Month after month, he was out every day, wet or dry, and my mother waiting at home, with a look on her face that frightened us — waiting for the news he might bring. And, time after time, he took stray bones to the doctor; but they always turned out to belong to sheep, or kangaroos, or some other animal. Of course, he neglected the place altogether, and it went to wreck; and our cattle got lost; and he was always meeting with people that sympathised with him, and asked him to have a drink — and you can hardly call him responsible for the rest.
However, on the anniversary of the day that Eddie got lost, my mother took a dose of laudanum; and that brought things to a head. My father had borrowed every shilling that the place would carry, to keep up the search; and there was neither interest nor principal forthcoming, so the mortgagee — Wesleyan minister, I’m sorry to say — had to sell us off to get his money. We had three uncles; each of them took one of us youngsters; but they could do nothing for my father. He hung about the public-houses, getting lower and lower, till he was found dead in a stable, one cold winter morning. That was about four years after Eddie was lost.”
Stevenson paused, and restlessly changed his position, then muttered, in evident torture of mind:
“Think of it! While he was going away, crying, he looked back over his shoulder at me, without a word of anger; and he walked up against a sapling, and staggered — and I laughed! — Great God! — I laughed!”
That was the end of the tank-sinker’s story; and silence fell on our camp. Doubtless each one of us recalled actions of petty tyranny toward leal, loving, helpless dependents, or inferiors in strength — actions which now seemed to rise from the irrevocable past, proclaiming their exemption from that moral statute of limitations which brings self-forgiveness in course of time. For an innate Jehovah sets His mark upon the Cain guilty merely of bullying or terrifying any brother whose keeper he is by virtue of superior strength; and that brand will burn while life endures. (Conversely — does such remorse ever follow disdain of authority, or defiance of power? I, for one, have never experienced it).
Soon a disquietude from another source set my mind at work in troubled calculation of probabilities. At last I said:
“Would you suppose, Steve, that the finding of George Murdoch’s body was a necessary incitement among the causes that led to the little girl’s getting lost?”
“Domson’s ascleep,” murmured Helsmok. “I tink dey all ascleep. I wass yoos dropp’n off mineself.”
And in two minutes, his relaxed pose and regular breathing affirmed a kind of fellowship with the rest, in spite of his alien birth and objectionable name. But I could n’t sleep. Dear innocent, angel-faced Mary! perishing alone in the bush! Nature’s precious link between a squalid Past and a nobler Future, broken, snatched away from her allotted place in the long chain of the ages! Heiress of infinite hope, and dowered with latent fitness to fulfil her part, now so suddenly fallen by the wayside! That quaint dialect silent so soon! and for ever vanished from this earth that keen, eager perception, that fathomless love and devotion! But such is life.
Yet it is well with her. And it is well with her father, since he, throughout her transitory life, spoke no word to hurt or grieve her. Poor old Rory! Reaching Goolumbulla, after his sorrowful journey, his soft heart would be stabbed afresh by the sight of two picture-books, which I had posted a fortnight before. And how many memories and associations would confront him when he returned to his daily round of life! How many reminders that the irremediable loss is a reality, from which there can be no awakening! How many relics to be contemplated with that morbid fascination for the re-quickening of a slumbering and intolerable sense of bereavement! But the saddest and most precious of memorials will be those little copper-toed boots that she left along the way. Deepest pathos lies only in homely things, since the frailness of mortality is the pathetic centre, and mortality is nothing but homely.
Hence, no relic is so affecting as the half-worn boots of the dead. Thus in the funeral of that gold-escort trooper, when I was but little older than poor Mary. The armed procession — the Dead March — the cap and sword on the coffin — seemed so imposing that I forthwith resolved to be a trooper myself. That ambition passed away; but the pathos of the empty boots, reversed in the stirrups of the led horse, has remained with me ever since.
From sad reflections, I seemed to be thus drifting into philosophic musing, when Helsmok shook me gently by the shoulder. A glance at the setting moon showed that I had been asleep, and that it was long past midnight. Here, therefore, ends the record of December the 9th; and you might imagine this chapter of life fitly concluded.
But sometimes an under-current of plot, running parallel with the main action, emerges from its murky depths, and causes a transient eddy in the interminable stream of events. Something of this kind occurred on the morning of the 10th.
“Collince,” said the Dutchman softly. “Don’ wake op der odder vellers — do no goot yoos now. I gone ‘way roun’ der liknum, und der bullock und der horse not dere. Notteen cronk, I hope. Mi’s well com anodder trip?”
I left my lair, and we walked out across the plain, followed by the faithful Pup. When we had ranged for an hour, in half-mile zig-zags, day began to break; and nothing had turned-up, except four of Stevenson’s horses. But we heard, through the stillness of the dawn, a faint, far-away trampling of hoofs. We headed for the sound, and presently found ourselves meeting three or four dozen of mixed bullocks and horses convoyed by five mounted Chinamen. We stood aside to let them pass. By this time, an advancing daylight enabled me to recognise the roan horse of Sam Young (also called Paul) with a rider who was more likely to be that proselyte than anyone else. At all events, he turned upon me the light of a countenance, broad, yellow, and effulgent as the harvest moon of pastoral poetry; and, like a silver clarion, rung the accents of that unknown tongue:
“Ah-pang-sen-lo! Missa Collin! sen-lo! Tlee-po’ week, me plully liah, all li; nek time, you plully liah, all li! Missa Smyte talkee you bimeby! Hak-i-long-see-ho! You lescue Walligal Alp bullock — eh? You killee me, by cli! Whe’ you holse? Ling-tang-hon-me! My wuld, Tlinidad plully goo’ glass, no feah! Hi-lung-sing-i-lo-i-lo!”
“Goo’ molnin’, Missa Helsmok!” chanted another yellow agony. “Nicee molnin’, Missa Helsmok! Whaffoh you tellee me lah wintel you sclew my plully neck? Lak-no-ha-long-lee! Missa Smyte wakee you up — tyillin’-a-head you holse! Man-di-sling-lo-he!”
“Donder und blitzen!” retorted the Dutchman, striding toward the escort, which scattered at his approach. “Yomp off dem olt crocks, every man yack of you, und swelp mine Gott! I weel ponch der het of der vive of you altogedder mit, ef so moch der yudge seegs mons pot me into der yail bot!”
“Helsmok,” said I, restraining him; “upon the heat and flame of thy distemper sprinkle cool patience. Let us accept the situation with dignity. Let us pit the honest frankness of the played-out Caucasian against the cunning of the successful Mongol.” Then, addressing the Turanian horde, and adapting my speech to the understanding of our lowest types: “My word!” I exclaimed admiringly, “you take-um budgeree rise out-a whitepeller, John! Merrijig you! Borak you shift-um that peller bullock; borak you shift-um that peller yarraman. Whitepeller gib-it you fi’ bob, buy-it opium. You savvy? Bale whitepeller tell-um boss. Bimeby whitepeller yabber like-it, ‘Chinaman berry good’-yabber likeit, ‘Comenavadrink, John’— yabber like-it, ‘Chinaman brother b’long-a whitepeller.’ You savvy, John?”
“Lak-hi-lo-hen-slung!” carolled a third Chow disdainfully. “You go hellee shut up! Eulopean allee sem plully whool! Lum-la-no-sunhi-me!” And the raiders went on their way, warbling remarks to each other in their native tongue, while the discomfited foreign devils hurried toward their camp, to give the alarm.
But Baxter, Donovan, Thompson, and Saunders had already gone out to feast their eyes on the change which such a night would make in the appearance of their stock. Stevenson was just getting on his feet, and feeling for his pipe. Cartwright was still asleep. It seemed a pity to disturb him. Sharply whetted to this form of self-indulgence by hardship that would have finished any civilised man, he had gently dozed off as the last bite of a copious and indigestible supper reached his emu-stomach, and had never moved since.
“Now who’d’a’thought them Chinks was so suddent?” he mused, as I woke him with the tidings. “Trapped! Gosh, what a slant I’d ‘a’ had at that (fellow)‘s horsepaddick, if I’d on’y knowed! Cut-an’-dried, I be boun’. No good chewin’ over it now, anyhow. After you with them matches, Stevenson; mine’s all done.”
“Barefooted Bob’s mixed-up in this,” remarked Stevenson, handing the matches. “Now, who would have suspected it, from his manner last night? But no one is to be trusted. Better take our saddles and bridles with us.”
“In respect of imbecility and ignorance, I grant you,” I replied. “But in respect of deliberate deceit, most men are to be trusted. By-the-way, there’s four of your frames left — out near those coolibahs.”
“Stake the question on Bob,” he suggested. “May as well catch them, and ride.”
“So be it — to both proposals.”
The sun was now above the indefinable horizon, looming blood-red through the smoky haze. All objects, even in the middle distance, showed vague and shadowy; but, knowing which way the marauders had taken their prey, we went after them, making a slight detour to secure the four horses. But we were just in time to discern a Chinese patrol tailing the same beasts toward a larger detachment, which was moving in the direction taken by the earlier draft. We followed; and, for my own part, even if I had not been personally interested, I should have judged it well worth going a mile to witness the strong situation which supplied a sequel to our homely little drama.
Precise and faithful execution, co-operating with masterly strategy had realised one of the most magnificent hauls of assorted trespassers that I have been privileged to survey. I jotted down a memo. of the numbers. There were 254 head of overworked and underfed beasts — 173 bullocks and 81 horses. These were in the custody of nine Mongolians, two Young–Australians, and two gentlemen — the latter being Mr. Smythe and Bert. Also, 7 bullocks and 3 horses left their bones in the paddock, as evidence of the bitter necessity which had prompted this illegal invasion of pastoral leasehold. There were (including myself) 23 claimants, present in person, or arriving by twos or threes. A few of these were ludicrously abashed; others were insolent; but the large majority observed a fine nonchalance, shading down to apathy. And Mr. Smythe, true to his order of mind, treated the first with outrageous contumely, the second with silent contempt, and the third with a respect born of vague disquietude and anxiety for the morrow. A squatter — just or unjust, generous or avaricious, hearty or exclusive, debonair or harsh — should be a strong man; this was a weakling; and my soul went forth in genuine compassion for him.
The three hours occupied in sorting-out and settling-up, furnished, perhaps, as varied and interesting experiences to me as to anyone else in the cast: first, a thrill of dismay, altogether apart from the drama; and afterward, the fortuitous cognisance of a bit of by-play in the main action.
My horses, of course, were among the captives; each of them with both hobble-straps buckled round the same leg. Early in the reception, whilst treating for them, I was fairly disconcerting Mr. Smythe with my affability, when that sudden consternation came over me. Where was Pup?
I put the two pairs of hobbles round Bunyip’s neck, and saddled Cleopatra without delay. The gallant beast, as if he knew the need for despatch, bucked straight ahead till he merged into an easy gallop. A few minutes brought me to the camp; and my anxiety was dispelled. The chaps had hung their tucker-bags on some adjacent lignum, out of reach of the wild pigs, but at a height accessible to Pup. The absence of the owners, though desirable, would not have been absolutely necessary to the performance which followed, for a kangaroo-dog can abstract food with a motion more silent — and certainly more swift — than that of a gnomon’s shadow on a sun-dial.
So I returned to the scene of interest, accompanied by Bunyip and Pup. Twelve or fifteen of the outlaws, having secured their saddle-horses, were sternly ordering the Chinamen to refrain from crowding the stock. The grass in this corner of the paddock was especially good; and these unshamed delinquents rode slowly through and through the mob, each vainly trying to identify and count his own; while now and then one would pass out to overbear some encroaching pagan by loud-spoken interrogations respecting a bay mare with a switch tail, or a strawberry bullock with wide horns — such ostentatious inquiry being accompanied by a furtive and vicious jabbing of evidence’s horse, or evidence himself, with some suitable instrument. Yet batch after batch was withdrawn and paid for; while the red sun rose higher, and Mr. Smythe became impatient and crusty, by reason of the transparent dallying.
Helsmok, after protracted and patient sorting, brought out nineteen of his horses, and paid for twenty, besides his hack. He said he would have to borrow a whip from someone, to “dost der yacket” of the impracticable animal that remained in the mob. Relevantly, one of the Chows had a stockwhip, the handle of which represented about six months’ untiring work on a well-selected piece of myall. Helsmok had all along been pained by the incongruity of such a gem in such keeping; and now having discharged his trespass-liability, the iron-wristed Hollander politely borrowed this jewel from its clinging owner, and so recovered his horse without difficulty. Then, when the bereaved boundary man followed him across the plain, intoning psalms of remonstrance, Helsmok, making a playful clip at a locust, awkwardly allowed the lash to curl once-and-a-half round the body of John’s horse; close in front of the hind-legs. The cheap and reliable rider saved himself by the mane; but he let the stockwhip go at that.
Smythe — high-strung and delicate, in spite of his stockkeeper’s rig-out — was taking little interest in anything except the shillings he collected. At last, with a heart-drawn sigh, he beckoned to his brother.
“You must meet me with the buggy, Bert, when this is over. I have a splitting headache. We can do without you now.” Alas! what doth a station manager with splitting headaches? Answer, ye pastoralists!
Stevenson had just drafted and paid for his batch, when Barefooted Bob stalked up, bearing an unmistakable scowl on his frank face, and a saddle on his shoulder.
“Did you receive my message last night, Bob?” demanded Smythe.
“Well,” drawled Bob, “I couldn’t say whether it was las’ night or this mornin’— but I got your message right enough.”
“And why didn’t you turn-up?”
“Why did n’t I turn-up,” repeated Bob thoughtfully. “P’r’aps you’ll be so good as to inform me if my work’s cleanin’ out reservoys or mindin’ paddicks?”
“But you should be loyal to your employ,” replied Smythe severely.
“Meanin’ I shouldn’t turn dog?” conjectured Bob. “No more I don’t. I ain’t turnin’ dog on anybody when I stick to my own work, an’ keep off of goin’ partners with opium an’ leprosy. Same time, mind you, I’d be turnin’ dog on the station if I took advantage o’ your message, to go round warnin’ the chaps that was workin’ on the paddick. Way I was situated, the clean thing was to stand out. An’ that’s what I done.”
Meanwhile, Stevenson had lingered to feel his pockets, sort his papers, examine his horse’s legs, and so forth, while his draft spread out over the grass.
“You were right, and I was wrong,” he remarked, aside to me. “Bob is trustworthy — ruthlessly so.”
“Only in respect of conscience, which is mere moral punctilio, and may co-exist with any degree of ignorance or error,” I replied. “I would n’t chance sixpence on his moral sense — nor on yours, either.”
“Thank-you, both for the lesson and the compliment. Don’t forget to call round at my camp, any time you’re crossing Koolybooka. Goodbye.”
“Are your bullocks here, Bob?” demanded Smythe.
“Horses too,” replied Bob. “Ain’t you lookin’ at ’em?” But Smythe did n’t know half-a-dozen beasts on the station; and Bob (as he afterward told me) was aware of his boss’s weakness in Individuality.
“Take them and get to work then,” retorted Smythe. “How many bullocks are you working?” he added, with sudden suspicion — his idea evidently being that Bob might wish to do a good turn to some of the bullock drivers.
“Well, I’m workin’ ten, but”——
“‘But!’—— I’ll have no ‘but’ about it!” snapped Smythe. “Take your ten, and GO!”
“Right,” drawled Bob, and he slowly strode toward one of his own horses.
“And look-sharp, you fellows!” vociferated Smythe. “This paddock must be cleared within fifteen minutes, or I shall proceed to more extreme measures.”
Whereupon Thompson withdrew his lot, deliberately followed by four other culprits, whose names are immaterial. Meanwhile, Bob had some trouble in sorting out his ten — often slowly crossing and re-crossing the paths of Donovan and Baxter, in their still more arduous and long-drawn task. At last the eagle-eye of the squatter counted Bob’s ten, accompanied by his spare horse, as he tailed the lot toward his camp; and the same aquiline optic tallied-off an aggregate of thirty-six to Baxter and Donovan — who, to my own private knowledge, had entered the paddock with thirty-four. This disposed of the whole muster.
Months afterward, when the two Mondunbarra bullocks had been swapped-away into a team from the Sydney side, I camped one night with Baxter and Donovan, who discussed, in the most matter-of-fact way, their own tranquil appropriation of the beasts. Each of these useful scoundrels had the answer of a good conscience touching the transaction. They maintained, with manifest sincerity, that Smythe’s repudiation of the bullocks, and his subsequent levy of damages upon them as strangers and trespassers, gave themselves a certain right of trover, which prerogative they had duly developed into a title containing nine points of the law. Not equal to a pound-receipt, of course; but good enough for the track. And throughout the discussion, Bob’s name was never mentioned, nor his complicity hinted at. Such is life.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:50