Old Brownbie, as he was usually called, was a squatter also, but a squatter of a class very different from that to which Heathcote belonged. He had begun his life in the colonies a little under a cloud, having been sent out from home after the perpetration of some peccadillo of which the law had disapproved.
In colonial phrase, he was a “lag”— having been transported; but this was many years ago, when he was quite young; and he had now been a free man for more than thirty years. It must be owned on his behalf that he had worked hard, had endeavored to rise, and had risen. But there still stuck to him the savor of his old life. Every one knew that he had been a convict; and even had he become a man of high principle — a condition which he certainly never achieved — he could hardly have escaped altogether from the thralldom of his degradation. He had been a butcher, a drover, part owner of stock, and had at last become possessed of a share of a cattle-run, and then of the entire property, such as it was. He had four or five sons, uneducated, ill-conditioned, drunken fellows, who had all their father’s faults without his energy, some of whom had been in prison, and all of whom were known as pests to the colony. Their place was called Boolabong, and was a cattle-run, as distinguished from a sheep-run; but it was a poor place, was sometimes altogether unstocked, and was supposed to be not unfrequently used as a receptable for stolen cattle.
The tricks which the Brownbies played with cattle were notorious throughout Queensland and New South Wales, and by a certain class of men were much admired. They would drive a few head of cattle, perhaps forty or fifty, for miles around the country, across one station and another, traveling many hundreds of miles, and here and there, as they passed along, they would sweep into their own herd the bullocks of the victims whose lands they passed. If detected on the spot, they gave up their prey. They were in the right in moving their own cattle, and were not responsible for the erratic tendencies of other animals. If successful, they either sold their stolen beasts to butchers on the road, or got them home to Boolabong. There were dangers, of course, and occasional penalties. But there was much success. It was supposed, also, that though they did not own sheep, they preferred mutton for their daily uses, and that they supplied themselves at a very cheap rate.
It may be imagined how such a family would be hated by the respectable squatters on whom they preyed. Still there were men, old stagers, who had know Moreton Bay before it was a colony — in the old days when convicts were common — who almost regarded the Brownbies as a part of the common order of things, and who were indisposed to persecute them. Men must live; and what were a few sheep? Of some such it might be said, that though they were above the arts by which the Brownbies lived, they were not very scrupulous themselves; and it perhaps served them to have within their ken neighbours whose morality was lower even than their own. But to such a one as Harry Heathcote the Brownbies were utterly abominable. He was for the law and justice at any cost. To his thinking, the Colonial Government was grossly at fault, because it did not weed out and extirpate not only the identical Brownbies, but all Brownbieism wherever it might be found. A dishonest workman was a great evil, but, to his thinking, a dishonest man in the position of master was the incarnation of evil. As to the difficulties of evidence, and obstacles of that nature, Harry Heathcote knew nothing. The Brownbies were rascals, and should therefore be exterminated.
And the Brownbies knew well the estimation in which their neighbour held them. Harry had made himself altogether disagreeable to them. They were squatters as well as he — or at least so they termed themselves; and though they would not have expected to be admitted to home intimacies, they thought that when they were met out-of-doors or in public places, they should be treated with some respect. On such occasions Harry treated them as though they were dirt beneath his feet. The Brownbies would be found, whenever a little money came among them, at the public billiard-rooms and race-courses within one hundred and fifty miles of Boolabong. At such places Harry Heathcote was never seen. It would have been as easy to seduce the Bishop of Brisbane into a bet as Harry Heathcote. He had never even drank a nobbler with one of the Brownbies. To their thinking, he was a proud, stuck-up, unsocial young cub, whom to rob was a pleasure, and to ruin would be a delight.
The old man at Boolabong was now almost obsolete. Property, that he could keep in his grasp, there was in truth none. He was the tenant of the run under the Crown, and his sons would not turn him out of the house. The cattle, when there were cattle, belonged to them. They were in no respect subject to his orders, and he would have had a bad life among them were it not that they quarreled among themselves, and that in such quarrels he could belong to one party or to the other. The house itself was a wretched place — out of order, with doors and windows and floors shattered, broken, and decayed. There were none of womankind belonging to the family, and in such a house a decent woman-servant would have been out of her place. Sometimes there was one hag there and sometimes another, and sometimes feminine aid less respectable than that of the hags. There had been six sons. One had disappeared utterly, so that nothing was known of him. One had been absolutely expelled by the brethren, and was now a vagabond in the country, turning up now and then at Boolabong and demanding food. Of the whole lot Georgie Brownbie, the vagabond, was the worst. The eldest son was at this time in prison at Brisbane, having on some late occasion been less successful than usual in regard to some acquired bullocks. The three youngest were at home — Jerry, Jack, and Joe. Tom, who was in prison, was the only stanch friend to the father, who consequently at this time was in a more than usually depressed condition.
Christmas-day would fall on a Tuesday, and on the Monday before it Jerry Brownbie, the eldest of those now at home, was sitting, with a pipe in his mouth, on a broken-down stool on the broken-down veranda of the house, and the old man was seated on a stuffy, worn-out sofa with three legs, which was propped against the wall of the house, and had not been moved for years. Old Brownbie was a man of gigantic frame, and had possessed immense personal power — a man, too, of will and energy; but he was now worn out and dropsical, and could not move beyond the confines of the home station. The veranda was attached to a big room which ran nearly the whole length of the house, and which was now used for all purposes. There was an exterior kitchen, in which certain processes were carried on — such as salting stolen mutton and boiling huge masses of meat, when such work was needed. But the cookery was generally done in the big room. And here also two or three of the sons slept on beds made upon stretchers along the wall. They were not probably very particular as to which owned each bed, enjoying a fraternal communism in that respect. At the end of this chamber the old man had a room of his own. Boolabong was certainly a miserable place; and yet, such as it was, it was frequented by many guests. The vagabondism of the colonies is proverbial. Vagabonds are taken in almost every where throughout the bush. But the welcome given to them varies. Sometimes they are made to work before they are fed — to their infinite disgust. But no such cruelty was exercised at Boolabong. Boolabong was a very Paradise for vagabonds. There was always flour and meat to be had, generally tobacco, and sometimes even the luxury of a nobbler. The Brownbies were wise enough to have learned that it was necessary for their very existence that they should have friends in the land. On the Sunday the father and Jerry Brownbie were sitting out in the veranda at about noon, and the other two sons, Jack and Joe, were lying asleep on the beds within.
The heat of the day was intense. There was a wind blowing, but it was that which is called there the hot wind, which comes dry, scorching, sometimes almost intolerable, over the burning central plain of the country. No one can understand without feeling it how much a wind can add to the sufferings inflicted by heat. The old man had on a dirty, wretched remnant of a dressing-gown, but Jerry was clothed simply in trowsers and an old shirt. Only that the mosquitoes would have flayed him, he would have dispensed probably with these. He had been quarreling with his father respecting a certain horse which he had sold, of the price of which the father demanded a share. Jerry had unblushingly declared that he himself had “shaken” the horse — Anglice, had stolen him — twelve months since on Darnley Downs, and was therefore clearly entitled to the entire plunder. The father had rejoined with animation that unless “half a quid”— or ten shillings — were given him as his contribution to the keep of the animal, he would inform against his son to the squatter on the Darnley Downs, and had shown him that he knew the very run from which the horse had been taken. Then the sons within had interfered from their beds, swearing that their father was the noisiest old “cuss” unhung, they having had their necessary slumbers disturbed.
At this moment the debate was interrupted by the appearance of a man outside the veranda. “Well, Mr. Jerry, how goes it?” asked the stranger. “What, Bos, is that you? What brings you up to Boolabong? I thought you was ringing trees for that young scut at Gangoil? I’ll be even with him some of these days! He had the impudence to send a man of his up here last week looking for sheep-skins.”
“He wasn’t that soft, Mr. Jerry, was he? Well, I’ve dropped working for him. — How are you, Mr. Brownbie? I hope I see you finely, Sir. It’s stiffish sort of weather, Mr. Brownbie, ain’t it, Sir?”
The old man grunted out some reply, and then asked Boscobel what he wanted.
“I’ll just hang about for the day, Mr. Brownbie, and get a little grub. You never begrudged a working-man that yet.”
Old Brownbie again grunted, but said no word of welcome. That, however, was to be taken for granted, without much expression of opinion.
“No, Mr. Jerry,” continued Boscobel, “I’ve done with that fellow.”
“And so has Nokes done with him.”
“Nokes is at work on Medlicot’s Mill. That sugar business wouldn’t suit me.”
“An axe in your hand is what you’re fit for, Bos.”
“There’s a many things I can turn my hand to, Mr. Jerry. You couldn’t give a fellow such a thing as a nobbler, Mr. Jerry, could you? I’d offer money for it, only I know it would be taken amiss. It’s that hot that a fellow’s very in’ards get parched up.”
Upon this Jerry slowly rose, and going to a cupboard, brought forth a modicum of spirits, which he called Battle-Axe, but which was supposed to be brandy. This Boscobel swallowed at a gulp, and then washed it down with a little water.
“Come, Jerry,” said the old man, somewhat relenting in his wrath, “you might as well give us a drop, as it’s going about.” The two brothers, who had now been thoroughly aroused from their sleep, and who had heard the enticing sound of the spirit bottle, joined the party, and so they drank all round.
“Heathcote’s in an awful state about them fires, ain’t he?” asked Jerry.
Boscobel, who had squatted down on the veranda, and was now lighting his pipe, bobbed his head.
“I wish he was clean burned out — over head and ears,” said Jerry.
Boscobel bobbed his head again, sucking with great energy at the closely staffed pipe.
“If he treated me like he does you fellows,” continued Jerry, “he shouldn’t have a yard of fencing or a blade of grass left — nor a ewe, nor a lamb, nor a hogget. I do hate fellows who come here and want to be better than any one about ’em — young chaps especially. Sending up here to look for sheep-skins, cuss his impudence! I sent that German fellow of his away with a flea in his ear.”
“It’s some such name as that.”
“He’s all in all with the young squire,” said Boscobel. “And there’s a chap there called Jacko — he’s another. He gets ’em down there to Gangoil, and the ladies talks to ’em, and then they’d go through fire and water for him. There’s Mickey — he’s another, jist the same way. I don’t like them ways, myself.”
“Too much of master and man about it, ain’t there, Bos?”
“Just that, Mr. Jerry. That ain’t my idea of a free country. I can work as well as another, but I ain’t going to be told that I’m a swindler because I’m making the most of my time.”
“He turned Nokes out by the scruff of his neck?” said Jerry. Boscobel again bobbed his head. “I didn’t think Nokes was the sort of fellow to stand that.”
“No more he ain’t,” said Boscobel.
“Heathcote’s a good plucked un all the same,” said Joe.
“It’s like you to speak up for such a fellow is that,” said Jerry.
“I say he’s a good plucked un. I’m not standing up for him. Nokes is half a stone heavier than him, and ought to have knocked him over. That’s what you’d’ve done, wouldn’t you, Bos? I know I would.”
“He’d ‘ve had my axe at his head,” said Boscobel.
“We all know Joe’s game to the backbone,” said Jerry.
“I’m game enough for you, anyway,” said the brother. “And you can try it out any time you like.”
“That’s right; fight like dogs, do,” said the old man.
The quarrel at this point was interrupted by the arrival of another man, who crept up round the corner on to the veranda exactly as Boscobel had done. This was Nokes, of whom they had that moment been speaking. There was silence for a few moments among them, as though they feared that he might have heard them, and Nokes stood hanging his head as though half ashamed of himself. Then they gave him the same kind of greeting as the other men had received. Nobody told him that he was welcome, but the spirit jar was again brought into use, Jerry measuring out the liquor, and it was understood that Nokes was to stay there and get his food. He too gave some account of himself, which was supposed to suffice, but which they all knew to be false. It was Sunday, and they were off work at the sugar-mill. He had come across Gangoil run, intending to take back with him things of his own which he had left as Bender’s hut, and having come so far, had thought that he would come on and get his dinner at Boolabong. As this was being told, a good deal was said of Harry Heathcote. Nokes declared that he had come right across Gangoil, and explained that he would not have been at all sorry to meet Master Heathcote in the bush. Master Heathcote had had his own way up at the station when he was backed by a lot of his own hands; but a good time was coming, perhaps. Then Nokes gave it to be understood very plainly that it was the settled practice of his life to give Harry Heathcote a thrashing. During all this there was an immense amount of bad language, and a large portion of the art which in the colony is called “blowing.” Jerry, Boscobel, and Nokes all boasted, each that on the first occasion he would give Harry Heathcote such a beating that a whole bone should hardly be left in the man’s skin.
“There isn’t one of you man enough to touch him,” said Joe, who was known as the freest fighter of the Brownbie family.
“And you’d eat him, I suppose,” said Jerry.
“He’s not likely to come in my way,” said Joe; “but if he does, he’ll get as good as he brings. That’s all.”
This was unpleasant to the visitors, who, of course, felt themselves to be snubbed. Boscobel affected to hear the slight put upon his courage with good humor, but Nokes laid himself down in a corner and sulked. They were soon all asleep, and remained dozing, snoring, changing their uncomfortable positions, and cursing the mosquitoes, till about four in the afternoon, when Boscobel got up, shook himself, and made some observation about “grub.” The meal of the day was then prepared. A certain quantity of flour and raw meat, ample for their immediate wants, was given to the two strangers, with which they retired into the outer kitchen, prepared it for themselves, and there ate their dinner, and each of the brothers did the same for himself in the big room — Joe, the fighting brother, providing for his father’s wants as well as his own. One of them had half a leg of cold mutton, so that he was saved the trouble of cooking, but he did not offer to share this comfort with the others. An enormous kettle of tea was made, and that was common among them. While this was being consumed, Boscobel put his head into the room, and suggested that he and his mate wanted a drink. Whereupon Jerry, without a word, pointed to the kettle, and Boscobel was allowed to fill two pannikins. Such was the welcome which was always accorded to strangers in Boolabong.
After their meal the men came back on to the veranda, and there were more smoking and sleeping, more boasting and snarling. Different allusions were made to the spirit jar, especially by the old man; but they were made in vain. The “Battle-Axe” was Jerry’s own property, and he felt that he had already been almost foolishly liberal. But he had an object in view. He was quite sure that Boscobel and Nokes had not come to Boolabong on the same Sunday by any chance coincidence. The men had something to propose, and in their own way they would make the proposition before they left, and would make it probably to him. Boscobel intended to sleep at Boolabong, but Nokes had explained that it was his purpose to return that night to Medlicot’s Mill. The proposition no doubt would be made soon — a little after seven, when the day was preparing to give way suddenly to night. Nokes first walked off, sloping out from the veranda in a half-shy, half-cunning manner, looking nowhither, and saying a word to no one. Quickly after him Boscobel jumped up suddenly, hitched up his trowsers, and followed the first man. At about a similar interval Jerry passed out through the big room to the yard at the back, and from the yard to a shed that was used as a shambles. Here he found the other two men, and no doubt the proposition was made.
“There’s something up,” said the old man, as soon as Jerry was gone.
“Of course there’s something up,” said Joe. “Those fellows didn’t come all the way to Boolabong for nothing.”
“It’s something about young Heathcote,” suggested the father.
“If it is,” said Jack, “what’s that to you?”
“They’ll get themselves hanged, that’s all about it.”
“That be blowed,” said Jack; “you go easy and hold your tongue. If you know nothing, nobody can hurt you.”
“I know nothing,” said Joe, “and don’t mean. If I had scores to quit with a fellow like Harry Heathcote, I should do it after my own fashion. I shouldn’t get Boscobel to help me, nor yet such a fellow as Nokes. But it’s no business of mine. Heathcote’s made the place too hot to hold him. That’s all about it.” There was no more said, and in an hour’s time Jerry returned, to the family. Neither the father nor brother asked him any questions, nor did he volunteer any information.
Boolabong was about fourteen miles from Medlicot’s Mill. Nokes had walked this distance in the morning, and now retraced it at night — not going right across Gangoil, as he had falsely boasted of doing early in the day, but skirting it, and keeping on the outside of the fence nearly the whole distance. At about two in the morning he reached his cottage outside the mill on the river-bank; but he was unable to skulk in unheard. Some dogs made a noise, and presently he heard a voice calling him from the house. “Is that you, Nokes, at this time of night?” asked Mr. Medlicot. Nokes grunted out some reply, intending to avoid any further question. But his master came up to the hut door and asked him where he had been.
“Just amusing myself,” said Nokes.
“It’s very late.”
“It’s not later for me than for you, Mr. Medlicot.”
“That’s true. I’ve just ridden home from
“From Gangoil? I didn’t know you were so friendly there, Mr. Medlicot.”
“And where have you been?”
“Not to Gangoil, anyway. Good-night, Mr. Medlicot.” Then the man took himself into his hut, and was safe from further questioning that night.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01