Picture the Great Sahara. The popular impression will do: it has the merit of simplicity: glaring desert, dark-blue sky, vertical sun, and there you are. Omit the mirage and the thirsty man; but, instead, mix sombre colours and work up the African desert into a fairly desirable piece of Australian sheep-country.
This, too, is a simple matter. You have only to cover the desert with pale-green saliferous bushes, no higher than a man’s knee; quite a scanty covering will do, so that in the thickest places plenty of sand may still be seen; and there should be barren patches to represent the low sand-hills and the smooth clay-pans. Then have a line of low-sized dark-green scrub at the horizon; but bite in one gleaming, steely speck upon this sombre rim.
Conceive this modification of the desert, and you have a fair notion of the tract of country — six miles by five — which was known on Bindarra Station as the ‘Yelkin Paddock,’ the largest paddock in the ‘C Block.’
Multiply this area by six; divide and subdivide the product by wire fences, such as those that enclose the Yelkin Paddock; water by means of excavations and wells and whims; stock with the pure merino and devastate with the accursed rabbit; and (without troubling about the homestead, which is some miles north of the Yelkin) you will have as good an idea of the Bindarra ‘run,’ as a whole, as of its sixth part, the paddock under notice.
The conspicuous mark upon the distant belt of dingy low-sized forest — the object that glitters in the strong sunlight, so that it can be seen across miles and miles of plain — is merely the galvanised-iron roof of a log-hut, the hut that has been the lodging of the boundary-rider of the Yelkin Paddock ever since the Yelkin Paddock was fenced.
A boundary-rider is not a ‘boss’ in the Bush, but he is an important personage, in his way. He sees that the sheep in his paddock ‘draw’ to the water, that there is water for them to draw to, and that the fences and gates are in order. He is paid fairly, and has a fine, free, solitary life. But no boundary-rider had ever stopped long at the Yelkin hut. The solitude was too intense. After a trial of a few weeks — sometimes days — the man invariably rolled up his blankets, walked in to the homestead, said that there was moderation in all things, even in solitude, and demanded his cheque. The longest recorded term of office in the Yelkin Paddock was six months; but that boundary-rider had his reasons: he was wanted by the police. When, after being captured in the hut, this man was tried and hanged for a peculiarly cold-blooded murder, the Yelkin post became even harder to fill than it had been before.
During the Australian summer following that other summer which witnessed the events of the previous chapters, this post was not only filled for many months by the same boundary-rider, but it was better filled than it had ever been before. Moreover, the boundary-rider was thoroughly satisfied, and even anxious to remain. The complete solitude had been far less appreciated by the gentleman with the rope round his neck; for him it had terrors. The present boundary-rider knew no terrors. The solitude was more than acceptable; the Crusoe-like existence was entirely congenial; the level breezy plains, the monotonous procession of brilliant, blazing days, and the life of the saddle and the hut, were little less than delightful, to the new boundary-rider in the Yelkin. They were the few pleasures left in a spoilt life.
There could have been no better cabin for ‘a life awry’ (not even in the Bush, the living sepulchre of so many such) than the Yelkin hut. But it was not the place to forget in. There are, however, strong natures that can never forget, and still live on. There are still stronger natures that do not seek to forget, yet retain some of the joy of living side by side with the full sorrow of remembrance. The boundary-rider’s was one of these.
The boundary-rider saw but few faces from the home-station; none from anywhere else. But, one glowing, hot-wind day, early in January, a mounted traveller entered the Yelkin Paddock by the gate in the south fence. He was following the main track to the homestead, and this track crossed a corner of the Yelkin Paddock, the corner most remote from the hut. He did not seem a stranger, for he glanced but carelessly at the diverging yet conterminous wheel-marks which are the puzzling feature of all Bush roads. He was a pallid, gaunt, black-bearded man: so gaunt and so pallid, indeed, that no one would have taken him at the first glance, or at the second either, for Alfred Bligh.
Yet it was Alfred — straight, virtually, from his sick-bed. As soon as he could stand (which was not for weeks) he had been taken on board the steamer. The voyage, it was hoped, would do him good, and he was bent on going — to find his wife. It did not do him much good; the eyes that swept at last the territory of his father-in-law were the sunken, wistful eyes of a shattered man.
Nothing had been heard of Gladys. Granville, indeed, had written to Bindarra, but there had been no reply. Of this Alfred had not been informed. From the first moments of returning consciousness he had expressed himself strongly against writing at all.
So, as he crossed the corner of the Yelkin Paddock, all he knew was that Gladys had sailed for Australia six months before.
‘If she is here, she is here,’ he muttered a hundred times; ‘and there will have been no warning of my coming to frighten her away. If she is not here — if she were dead ——’
His eyes dropped upon the bony hand holding the reins.
‘Well, it would be an easier matter to follow her there than here. It would take less time!’
But, as often as this contingency presented itself, his thin hand involuntarily tightened the reins. Indeed, the nearer he got to the homestead the slower he rode. Many a thousand times he had ridden in fancy this last stage of his long, long journey, and always at a hand-gallop; but, now that he was riding it in fact, he had not the courage to press on. He let his tired horse make the speed, and even that snail’s pace was, at moments, too quick for him.
At the hour wherein he needed his utmost nerve to meet his fate — his nerve, and the stout heart that had brought him, weak as he was, from the opposite end of the earth, were failing him.
The gate in the west fence was in sight, when Alfred, awaking from a fit of absence, became aware that a man with a cylinder of rolled blankets upon his back (his ‘swag’) was tramping along the track to meet him. For a moment Alfred’s heart thumped; he would know his fate now; this man, who was evidently from the home-station, would tell him. Then he recognised the man. It was Daft Larry, the witless stockman, who, being also stone deaf, was incapable of answering questions.
Larry was a short man, strongly built though elderly, and probably less old than he looked. He had a fresh complexion, a short gray beard, and eyes as blue (and as expressionless) as the flawless southern sky. He recognised Alfred, stood in his path, threw down his swag, put his hands in his pockets, and smiled delightedly; not in surprise; in mere idiotic delight. On beholding Alfred, this had been his invariable behaviour. They had beheld one another last a year ago; but last year and yesterday were much the same date to Larry.
‘I like a man that is well-bred!’ exclaimed Larry, with a seraphic smile, his head critically on one side. On beholding Alfred, this had been his invariable formula.
Alfred stopped his horse.
Daft Larry cocked his head on the other side. ‘You’re not one of the low sort!’ he went on.
‘You’re well-bred,’ continued Larry, in the tone of a connoisseur. Then, wagging his head gravely: ‘I like a man that’s not one of the low sort; I like a man that is well-bred!’
That was the end, as it always had been. Larry picked up his swag with the air of a man who has proved his case.
Alfred had ridden on some yards, when a call from the idiot made him stop.
‘Look there!’ shouted Larry, with an ungainly sweep of the arm. ‘Dust-storm coming up — bad dust-storm. Don’t get catched, mister — you aren’t one of the low sort — not you!’
Daft Larry had been known to give gratuitous information before, though he could not answer questions. Alfred, instead of riding on, now looked about him. There was sense enough in the warning; though Larry, apparently, did not mind being ‘catched’ himself, since he was plodding steadily on, leaving the station, probably for good, as he periodically did leave it. There was every indication of a dust-storm, though the sun still shone brilliantly. The hot-wind had become wild and rampant. It was whipping up the sandy coating of the plain in every direction. High in the air were seen whirling spires and cones of sand — a curious effect against the deep-blue sky. Below, puffs of sand were breaking out of the plain in every direction, as though the plain were alive with invisible horsemen. These sandy cloudlets were instantly dissipated by the wind; it was the larger clouds that were lifted whole into the air, and the larger clouds of sand were becoming more and more the rule.
Alfred’s eye, quickly scanning the horizon, descried the roof of the boundary-rider’s hut still gleaming in the sunlight. He remembered the hut well. It could not be farther than four miles, if as much as that, from this point of the track; but it was twelve miles at least from this to the homestead. He also knew these dust-storms of old; Bindarra was notorious for them. Without thinking twice, Alfred put spurs to his horse and headed for the hut. Before he had ridden half the distance, the detached clouds of sand banded together in one dense whirlwind; and it was only owing to his horse’s instinct that he did not ride wide of the hut altogether; for, during the last half mile, he never saw the hut until its outline loomed suddenly over his horse’s ears; and by then the sun was invisible.
‘I never saw one come on quicker!’ gasped Alfred, as he jumped off and tethered his quivering horse in the lee of the hut.
The excitement, and the gallop, had made Alfred’s blood tingle in his veins. It was a novel sensation. He stepped briskly into the hut.
Almost his first sight on entering was the reflection of his own face in a little mirror, which was neatly nailed to the wall, close to the door. Alfred had never been vain, but he did pause to gaze at himself then; for his face was covered with a thin veneer of sand, as a wall becomes coated with driven snow. He dashed off the sand, and smiled; and for the moment, with some colour in his cheeks and a healthy light in his eyes, Alfred scarcely knew himself. Then he turned his back upon the glass, merely noting that it was a queer thing to find in a boundary-rider’s hut, and that it had not been there a year ago.
The door had been ajar, and the window was blocked up. The sand, however, had found free entry through the crevices between the ill-fitting pine-logs of the walls, and already the yellow coating lay an eighth of an inch thick all over the boarded floor and upon the rude bench and table.
Alfred sat down and watched the whirling sand outside slowly deepen in tint. He had left the door open, because otherwise the interior of the hut would have been in complete darkness. As it was, it was difficult to distinguish objects; but Alfred, glancing round, was struck with the scrupulous tidiness of everything.
‘Ration-bags all hung up; nothing left about; fireplace cleaned out — daily, I should say; pannikins bright as silver; bunk made up. All this is most irregular!’ exclaimed Alfred. ‘This boundary-rider must be a curiosity. I never saw anything half so neat during all the months I was in the Bush before. One might almost suspect a woman’s hand in it — especially in that mirror. Which reminds me, Gladys told me she was once out here for a week, alone, riding the boundaries, when they were short-handed. My darling! What nerve! Would to Heaven you had had less nerve!’
The thick sand rattled in continuous assault upon the iron roof. It was becoming a difficult matter to see across the hut. But the storm, and the gallop, had had a curiously exhilarating effect upon Alfred. His spirits had risen.
‘I wish that boundary-rider would come in; but the storm’s bound to fetch him. I want a pannikin of tea badly, to lay the dust inside; there’s as much there as there was outside, I’ll be bound. Besides, he will have news for me. Poor Larry! — the same old drivel! And to think that I was something like that in my delirium — that I might have been left like Larry!’
His attention was here attracted by the illustrated prints pasted upon a strip of sackcloth nailed to the pine-logs over the bunk: a feature, this, of every bushman’s hut. He went over to look at them, and, the better to do so, leant with one knee upon the bed — the rudely-framed bed that was so wonderfully well ‘made.’
‘Ah!’ remarked Alfred, ‘some of them are the old lot; I remember them. But some are new, and — why, that’s a cabinet photograph down there by the pillow; and’— bending down to examine it —‘good Heavens! it’s of me!’
It was a fact. The photograph, fixed so close to the pillow, was an extremely life-like one of Alfred Bligh. But how had it got there? Of what interest or value could it be to the boundary-rider of the Yelkin Paddock? It had been taken last summer, at Richmond; and — oh, yes, he remembered now — Gladys had sent one out to her father. That was it, of course. The boundary-man had found it lying about the veranda or the yard at the homestead (Alfred knew his father-in-law), and had rescued it for the wall of his hut. No matter (to the boundary-man) who it was, it was a picture, and one that would rather set off the strip of sackcloth. That was it, of course; a simple explanation.
Yet Alfred trembled. The photograph was in a far from conspicuous position; nor did it look as if it had been left lying about. What if it belonged to Gladys? What if Gladys had fastened it there with her own hands? What if she came sometimes to the hut — this hut in which he stood? What if she had spent another week here riding the boundaries, when her father was short of men?
All at once he felt very near to her; and the feeling made him dizzy. His eyes roved once again round the place, noting the abnormal neatness and order that had struck him at first; a look of wild inquiry came into his haggard face; and even then, as the agony of surmise tightened every nerve — a sound broke plainly upon his ears. It was heard above the tinkle of the sand upon the roof: a horse’s canter, muffled in the heavy sand outside.
Alfred sprang to the door. At the same instant a rider drew rein in front of him. They were not five paces apart, but such was the density of the flying sand and dust that he could see no more than the faint outline of the horse and its rider. Then the rider leapt lightly to the ground. It was the boundary-rider of the Yelkin Paddock; but the boundary-rider was a woman.
Alfred reeled forward, and clasped her to his heart.
He had found her.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09