A TALE OF THE QUEENSLAND BUSH
G. FIRTH SCOTT
"THE TRACK OF MIDNIGHT," "THE ROMANCE OF AUSTRALIAN EXPLORING," "AT FRIENDLY POINT," ETC.
WITH SIX ILLUSTRATIONS BY PERCY F. S. SPENCE
LONDON SAMPSON LOW, MARSTON AND COMPANY LIMITED
THE ORIGINAL AILLEEN
I. THE ROMANCE OF TAYLOR'S FLAT 1
II. TWENTY YEARS AFTER 16
III. THE BELLE OF BIRRALONG 30
IV. THE ROUT OF BOULDER CREEK 40
V. THE SWAY OF GOLD 59
VI. THE LADY OF BARELLAN 80
VII. THE EVOLUTION OF SLAUGHTER 93
VIII. SKINNING THE WILD CAT 110
IX. CHORDS AND DISCORDS 128
X. THE RACE FOR GOLD 146
XI. BILLIARDS MADE EASY 161
XII. RIVAL ISSUES 180
XIII. TONY VISITS THE FLAT 193
XIV. THE FINDING OF PETERS'S REEF 204
XV. BLACK AND WHITE 219
XVI. TWO SIDES OF A STORY 233
XVII. A BUSHMAN'S BANKER 246
XVIII. A TANGLED SKEIN 260
XIX. STRANDS IN THE COIL 274
XX. THE LAST LOOP 293
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
TO FACE PAGE
THE HORSE AND ITS RIDER DASHED OUT OF THE SMOKE Frontispiece
"THANK YOU," SHE SAID 30
"THEN ROLL THE SWAG AND BLANKET UP, AND LET US HASTE AWAY" 56
"I AIN'T NO STRANGER, MISS" 100
CAPERED ROUND THE BOULDER 216
THROUGH THE BUSH IT WENT, RACING LIKE MAD 268
THE ROMANCE OF TAYLOR'S FLAT.
Where the road to the west from Birralong dips down to the valley of Boulder Creek, a selection stretches out on the left-hand side, well cleared and fenced, and with the selector's homestead standing back a couple of hundred yards from the main road. Slip-rails in the fence, serving as a gateway, open on to the half-worn track which runs from the roadway to the house; and on either side of it there are cultivation paddocks, the one verdant with lucerne, and the other picturesque with the grey sheen of iron-bark pumpkins showing from among the broad leaves of the still growing vines.
The house, unpretentious and substantial, has long since taken to itself the nondescript hue to which the Australian sun soon reduces the unpainted surface of hard-wood slabs and shingles. A square, heavy chimney, smoke-stained and clumsy at the base, rises above the sloping roof at one end, and a roughly fashioned verandah runs along the front of the house, the opposite end to where the chimney is situated being occupied by an odd collection of water-tanks. By the side of the door, and under shelter of the verandah, a saddle is standing on end, while a bridle hangs from a peg in the wall overhead. A heap of two-foot logs is near the water-tanks, with a short-handled axe stuck in an upturned stump which does duty for a chopping-block.
Behind the house a few gum trees in the paddocks lead the eye to where the untouched bush grows thick and sombre in the strength of crowded timber, the bleached trunks of the dead ring-barked trees, where the sunlight plays upon them, gleaming white against the dark purple-blue of the distant foliage. Towards the valley of the creek the land slopes away, and over the course of the stream a faint, blue, vapoury haze hangs in the hot air, beyond which the high table-land on the other side rises like a ridge, the deep tones of its shadows so strongly impressed against the clear transparency of the sky that it seems to be wonderfully near, until the stretch of vapoury haze below corrects the trick of vision. The roadway, as it passes the boundary fence of the selection, gleams yellow under the strong glare of the sun, until, winding behind the clustering trees and bushes, it disappears.
It is a scene fair to look upon, either to one in search of change and contrast, or to one whose perceptions are softened by the glamour and charm of Australian association; but especially to the man whose energy and toil made the bush yield at that one point to the needs of civilization. He, stolid, hard-working bushman, with no ambition for anything beyond what he termed "bush graft and square meals," leaned over his slip-rails and looked up and down the road, wondering what else a man wants for contentment beyond work, food, and sleep.
For years he had been a lonely man, living by himself in solitary bachelor simplicity, but withal contentedly, peacefully, happily. Fifteen miles down the creek there was a cattle station, but none of the station hands ever came round by the selection; and Taylor was never disposed, for the sake of a brief yarn, to ride the score of miles he would have to cover to get to the men's huts. A dozen miles to the east, over a stretch of timbered table-land, the nucleus of a bush township was struggling to assert itself, and thrive, in spite of the weighty handicap of the name of Birralong, and the fact that, after five years' existence, it had not succeeded in passing the preliminary stage of bush township life—the stage when a "pub," a store, a constable's cottage, and a post-office make up the official directory, the constable combining with his own the offices of postmaster, and another individual representing both the branches of distributing industry, or, in bush parlance, "running both the shanty and the store." There were other residents in the township besides these two; men who came along the road from the east to the west, some with business and some in search for it; some with a record they wanted to leave behind, and some with an empty past they hoped to turn into a well-filled future in the mighty plains of the rolling lands of the virgin western country; men of all qualities and shades of vice and virtue; stockmen, mailmen, and drovers; stray gold-seekers, fossickers, or prospectors; swagsmen who were bona-fide bushmen, and swagsmen who, as sundowners, only arrived at a station or a township too late in the day to be given work, but not too late to participate in the open hospitality of the bush; shepherds, selectors seeking land, and timber-getters moving on to the scrubs of the table-land beyond the creek; but men, always men, who brought the population of the township up to tens, but never yet to hundreds, and who in a few days had gone further west—mostly—and whose places were taken by others.
But to that township in the early days of its existence Taylor rarely went, for even amidst a floating population there are floating jests, and the man at whose expense they are made does not learn to appreciate them any the more by reason of new arrivals learning them and keeping them alive. To the men of the township his selection, which he had proudly named Taylor's Flat, was known as Taylor's Folly; and the owner of it, dull-witted and slow of speech, was loth to face the raillery his presence always called forth.
Away to the south, forty miles from the Flat, was another township, whither Taylor, when he first took up the land, was compelled to go to pay the instalments of the purchase money to the local Government official. On the occasion of the visit when the last instalment was paid, Taylor saw at the hotel, where he stayed the night, a fresh-faced immigrant girl. She had not been long enough in the country to lose the fresh, ruddy hue from her plump cheeks, but long enough to be wearied by the heat and the worry, of which, experience taught, the ideal life she had dreamed about was really composed.
Perhaps it was the colour on her cheeks; perhaps it was the winsome look which came into her eyes as he told her, in an unprecedented burst of confidence, of the quiet contentment of his life on the selection; but until he returned to it, in all the natural pride of actual proprietorship, Taylor was unaware that anything had occurred to interfere with the even tenor of his existence. As it was, everything seemed to have suddenly lost its charm; the steadily increasing bulk of the largest pumpkins no longer brought enthusiasm to him; the satisfaction of sitting, when the sun was nearing the horizon, with his pipe between his lips, and his legs stretched out in front of him, in well-earned rest, under the shelter of his verandah, was no longer manifest; his own society and the companionship of his stock brought no comfort into his life, now strangely restless and uneasy. It was not in the nature of the man to reason it out, but dimly into his mind there came a connection between the state of affairs and his visit to the southern township. There had been a light spring-cart in the place which had attracted his fancy and roused as much covetousness as his nature was capable of feeling, and to that he attributed his dissatisfaction, persuading himself that the possession of that spring-cart would bring back all the old lethargic content of his life.
He returned to the township, and peace came to his mind as he sat at the long, bare table which occupied the centre of the living-room of the hotel, munching the beef and damper the red-cheeked girl brought to him. Vaguely the idea came to him that the presence of such a girl at his homestead would be a decided improvement to the loneliness he had for the first time experienced on his return from his former visit to the township, and with characteristic brevity he made the suggestion to her that if she were in want of another place, he was prepared to offer her one at his selection, where she would have no mistress but herself, and none to attend to but him. She jumped at the chance of peace and quiet in the bush, and closed upon his offer there and then.
Two days later, Taylor, peaceful and contented, was returning to the selection, driving the spring-cart which had roused his fancy, and in which there also travelled his wife—the red-cheeked girl—and her few belongings.
For a time everything went well, and both yielded to the conviction that they had obtained all that was necessary to insure their earthly happiness. Then the life began to pall.
She was the first to feel it. Brisk and energetic, she was through with her house-work before the day was many hours old, and the time hung terribly on her hands, for the peace and calm she had so longed for at the bush hotel began to grow very monotonous and trying.
Taylor had enough to keep him going all the day out on his land, but she had nothing when the work round the house was done. He, moreover, had the chance of an occasional chat with a passing traveller along the road; but she never saw a woman's face during her first year at the Flat, and however much a woman may scorn the companionship of her sisters when she is surrounded by them, she finds her days unduly long when she is cut off from their society altogether.
As the months passed on into the year, and his wife commenced to develop undreamed-of resources of temper, Taylor began to wonder to himself whether he had not been "got at over the marriage business."
At the end of the first year, on his visit to the southern township for his stores, he took his wife with him in the spring-cart, and they spent a few days at the hotel where she had previously been employed. It had changed hands in the mean time, and the newcomer had with him a family of children. During the stay, and on the return journey, there was no sign of the acrid temper his wife had displayed at the selection; but as soon as they were home again it broke out. When he was in the house she railed at him, and if he stayed away among his fences and his stock, she grumbled, as soon as he returned, at his absence.
He left the house before a furious outburst which he was quite unable to understand, and, passing down the track to the slip-rails, leaned upon them in the hopes of solving the riddle. An old sundowner, chancing to pass along the road, stopped in the hopes of a yarn. But Taylor was in no mood to talk on any other subject than that which was worrying him. He accordingly poured out his tale to the old man, who, having heard it, suggested that perhaps the cause of it all lay in the worry and trouble of the children, or, as he termed them, kids. "There ain't no kids," Taylor retorted in irritation; and the old man, looking at him quizzically, observed, "Oh, there ain't no kids, ain't there? Well, then, there y'are."
This new factor in the problem worried Taylor still more when the old man, with an uncomplimentary allusion to the sagacity of the owner of Taylor's Folly, continued his way. But time was kind, and he grew more learned when premonitory symptoms of the approach of a light from another world were manifest, and peace lay on his wife's tongue and sweetness ruled her temper.
Then there came the light which made the mother glad and the father bewildered, for, as he explained to the neighbour who came from forty miles away to lend her aid, he knew "nothin' about the rearin' of that sort of stock."
He left his fences alone that day and spent the hours hanging round the house, taking periodical trips into the room where the mother and the child lay, and retiring with a serious shake of the head and a muttered explanation of his want of knowledge on the subject. Then he was startled by being suddenly called into the room, where he stood, strangely abashed and helpless, while the light flickered and went back to its own world. The mother wailed and sorrowed, and Taylor moped and wondered, until, between them, the neighbour was severely taxed to keep things going.
The next night he wandered away from the house to the little railed-in mound in a corner of the paddock where he had put all that remained of the stock he did not know how to rear. He stood with his arms resting on the slim fence and his eyes looking away into the evening's mists, trying, with the aid of a pipe, to drive away the disquietening effect the expression in his wife's eyes had upon him, and to understand something of the emptiness that had somehow come into his life since he had lain, as tenderly as his rough hands could, the fragile little form in its simple grave.
As he stood, as nearly dreaming as it was possible for him to be, he became conscious of the figure of a man running hastily towards him from the direction of the roadway.
"Mate! For the love of God! Is there any women about?" the man exclaimed as he came near.
"Women?" Taylor repeated vacantly.
"Yes, women," the man replied. "My missus's been took bad down there by the dray, and if there ain't——"
"Here! Come on!" Taylor shouted, his own recent experience sharpening his wits. "Follow me, quick."
A few seconds later and the neighbour was speeding away through the bush, and Taylor was sitting by his wife's side, ill at ease and silent as he tried to decide whether it would do any harm to any one if he re-lit the pipe he had allowed to go out in the excitement of the moment. His wife, catching something of the message so hastily delivered, lay still with wide-open eyes and straining ears.
"Bill! I 'eard it cry, I 'eard it cry," she exclaimed suddenly. "There 'tis again, only louder," she added, as she essayed to sit up in bed just as the neighbour hurried into the room.
"He said she'd gone, poor thing, before I got there; but we must try to save this," she said, as she placed in the lonely mother's arms the tiny morsel of humanity.
"I will, I will," the other cried as she clutched at the babe, clasping it to her breast as she rocked to and fro and crooned over it.
Taylor looked at her vaguely for a moment, and into his mind there stole a new and strange impulse. The emptiness that had been manifest to him as he stood leaning over the slim rail across the paddock seemed to fill up until his throat grew tight and his eyes moist, and for the first time in his life he experienced a satisfaction that had to do with neither eating nor working. He put one hand for a moment on his wife's shoulder, and with the extended forefinger of the other touched the small chubby hand that lay against her breast. Withdrawing it, he stood for a moment undecided whether to repeat the experiment, when the neighbour bustled up, and Taylor shuffled out of the room and into the cool air of the night. There he remembered the man who was in a worse plight than he had been, and he went to seek him.
He found him standing by a horse on the roadside, just beyond the boundary fence.
"You had better camp at the house for to-night," Taylor began, as he leaned over the fence and strained his eyes in an endeavour to make out where the dray the man had mentioned was standing.
"No; thanks all the same," the man answered. "I've fixed up everything, and can shove along."
"But there's the little 'un; and what about the—the other?" Taylor asked, as he put his foot on one rail and made as though to climb over the fence.
The man came up to him from the shadow.
"I've fixed all that up. She'll come along with me, while I leave the little 'un here, if you don't mind, till I've time to come back for it. This is Taylor's Flat, ain't it?"
"Yes," Taylor answered. "And I am Taylor."
"I guessed as much," the other replied; "they told me back along the road I should reach here about dark."
"Which way did you come?" Taylor asked.
"West," the other answered briefly.
"Far back?" Taylor inquired, somewhat puzzled at the arrival of a woman from the lonely wilderness of the west.
"Fairish," the other replied evasively; and Taylor grew suspicious.
"What were you doing, coming from the west with a woman like that in the dray?" he asked. "Seems to me it's a bit queer."
"Does it, mate? Well, I'm sorry, but I can't help that. I've enough to do without going into private matters. Do you mind keeping the youngster for a time? He wouldn't have much of a chance if I take him with me."
Taylor's mind, never very active, reverted to the scene he had witnessed before he left his wife and the orphan babe.
"You couldn't take him if you wanted to," he exclaimed. "My missus only lost hers yesterday, and she'd never give this one up now."
"Then you've had a bit of bad luck yourself?" the stranger said quickly. "Well, you know what it is, just as I do, and you'll know why I want to shove along. Good-bye, mate. You've done a real kind act to me. And see, if I don't get back in time, call him Tony, will you?"
"Tony?" Taylor repeated.
"That's it; after me, that is. But I hope I'm back. Anyhow, so long," the man said, as he turned away and proceeded to mount his horse.
"Here, hold on," Taylor exclaimed.
But the man did not seem to hear, and Taylor was halfway over the fence when the sound of a woman's voice, calling him, came from the direction of the hut. He paused and listened. It was the neighbour calling him.
The man had started his horse, and in a few minutes would be well on his way. He could soon overtake the man now and learn something more definite as to the parentage of the child he was practically adopting. He felt that more was due to him than the scant information that had been supplied; that the man who had called for his help, and received it, ought to be more explicit than he had been, and ought to show more confidence in him than to go off, as soon as the child was disposed of, in silence and mystery.
"Here, hold on," he repeated, as he climbed over the fence; but as he reached the ground on the other side he heard the cry repeated from the direction of the hut, and he paused, irresolute.
There might be a repetition of the scene that had occurred when he was called the previous day; the life of this second little creature might be going out like that of the other, and Taylor felt uneasy when he remembered the anguish in the mother's eyes and the wailing sorrow of her voice. If he ran after the man he would escape all that, for it would be over by the time that he returned; but even as the thought passed through his brain he resented it. Something of the feeling he had experienced when he saw his wife clutch at the child came to him, and without further heed for the stranger, he scrambled back over his fence and ran to the hut.
At the door he met the neighbour.
"She wouldn't rest till I called you," she said, jerking her head towards the interior. "Where's the other chap?"
"He's gone on," Taylor answered, as he went into the room and over to the bed where his wife lay.
She looked at him with a soft smile on her face.
"Look at him, Bill," she said, as she lifted the rough coverlet sufficiently to show where the little head was nestled on her arm. "He's come back to me from the other world."
* * * * *
For days Taylor waited, expecting that the man would come back or send word; but as nothing was seen or heard of him, he took counsel with his wife and the neighbour.
"Seems queer, that chap not doing anything," he said one evening, shortly before the neighbour left for her own home. "How will we name him?" he went on, glancing over at the sleeping infant his wife was holding in her arms. "He ain't ours really."
"He is ours. He is mine, mine," his wife answered quickly, as she held the baby tighter to her, and looked at her husband with a savage jealousy in her eyes.
"But there was that chap——" Taylor began.
"I don't care. I won't give him up. He's mine," she interrupted. "No one's going to have him; no one—never," she continued, as she rose to her feet and walked up and down the room, with her face bent over the child she held so closely to her.
The neighbour caught Taylor's eye and signed him to be quiet.
"Of course no one will have him but you," she said quietly. "I'd like to see who'd take him when Taylor's here. Why, he hasn't been round his boundary fences even, he's so took up with him."
Mrs. Taylor stopped in her walk, and turned to her husband with the jealous gleam still flickering in her eyes.
"Would you give him up, Bill?" she asked.
"Not me," he answered.
"Then we'll talk about his name," she interposed, before he could say more. "He's going to be called Richard Taylor."
"But that chap asked me—he said, 'Call him Tony, after me.' That's what he said, and I said——"
"I don't care what you said or what he said," she interrupted. "He should have stayed and looked after him, and not sneaked off in the dark, if he wanted to name him. Mrs. Garry says so too; don't you, Mrs. Garry?"
Mrs. Garry, directly appealed to, had to sustain the opinion she had already expressed in private.
"But I said I would," Taylor asserted. "I said I'd call him Tony."
"Well, call him Tony. Name him as Richard Taylor, and call him Tony for short," Mrs. Garry suggested.
"Tony!" Mrs. Taylor exclaimed scornfully. "What sort of a name do you call that? Why, it's only fit for a black-fellow."
"It'll do for short," Taylor said. "We'll name him Richard Taylor, and call him Tony for short."
TWENTY YEARS AFTER.
Marmot's store stood at the end of Birralong, at the top of the township road, which was, in reality, the main road, along the sides of which Birralong had sprung up. It stood on the summit of a rise which sloped upwards through the town, so that it occupied a commanding position such as became the local post-office—for Marmot had the distinction of being postmaster as well as monopolist storekeeper of the district. One advantage of the site was that from the verandah which graced the front of the building a view could be obtained from end to end of the township to the east, and away along the road to the west—the road which went, via Taylor's Flat, over Boulder Creek, away to the great expanse of the West.
The store was a long, weather-board structure of four walls, and a sloping roof of corrugated iron, unadorned save by an array of cylindrical tanks—also of corrugated iron—at each corner, for being on the top of a rise, there was no chance of possessing a well or a waterhole; and upon the contents of the tanks, saved from the rain, the residents depended for their water supply. The interior of the structure was as simple as the exterior. A passage-way ran down the centre between two counters, which extended the entire length of the building, and upon which Marmot displayed some of the varied assortment of articles he stocked for the benefit of his customers. Their range being somewhat wide, the counters could not hold all the samples, and upon shelves running along the walls behind the counters, upon the floor on the passage in front of the counters, round the doorway and out on the verandah, as well as from the cross-beams of the roof, other articles were displayed. A man might not be able to buy anything from a tin-tack to a sheet anchor on demand, but Marmot was quite prepared to furnish him with tin ware and lamp-glasses, saddlery or axe heads and handles, wool bales, sacking, pipes and tobacco, wax vestas and dress materials, flannel, hardware and soft goods, canned provisions and patent medicines, cotton for tents, boots, hats, flour, galvanized iron for roofs and water-tanks, barbed wire, kerosene oil, "reach-me-downers" or ready-made tweed suits, moleskins and Crimean shirts, sheath knives, cartridges and firearms, fire and life assurance proposals, postal notes, postage stamps, and money orders, as well as a few other minor details which might from time to time be called for. Behind the main building was another, which served as a store for the produce obtained either by purchase or in payment for outstanding "tallies" of goods supplied, a small annexe to the main building giving sleeping accommodation to Marmot, who, being a man of frugal habits and simple mind, "ran the store on his own," as they said in Birralong. His customers, as a general rule, were neither too proud nor too busy to mind lending him a hand at making up their orders, for when a man went to the store at Birralong, he went in a spring-cart or dray, if he were going to buy, and as often as not accompanied by any female attachment he might have about his selection, so that he was never pushed for time.
Facing the store, and along the side of the road, a row of posts fitted with ring-bolts stood for the convenience of customers who came in riding or driving, and chose to hitch up their horses. A verandah, ten feet wide, and with a roof resting on square, hard-wood posts, ornamented the front of the building, and formed, to the majority of the Birralong folk, its chief attraction—for it was here that men gathered to smoke a friendly pipe with one another, and discuss such items of news as are likely to be met with in a bush township. As a general rule, these related to the domestic and private affairs of neighbours, and it was said that if any one had a doubt as to the course which events and circumstances were taking with him, he had only to ascertain what was said on Marmot's verandah; every one's business was known better there than to the persons whom it mostly concerned.
The number of houses which made up the township was not large. A hundred yards back from the roadway the local saw-mill made the air melodious, all the working hours of the day, with the ringing song and whirr of the buzz-saws—a pleasant sound to listen to from the cool shade of a verandah on the hot, drowsy days of summer, when the clear, dry air was redolent with the scent from the neighbouring gums. Farther down the township stood the local smithy, where, bush horses rarely being shod, the work of the smith was combined with that of wheelwright and the making of galvanized iron water-tanks. An occasional job of repairing some farming implement necessitated the blowing up of the forge and the swinging of the anvil hammers, the sounds of which, mingling with those of the buzz-saws, would have led a chance visitor to regard Birralong as a thriving, busy centre.
Beyond the smithy were the school-house and the local constable's cottage, a few more cottages occupied by the schoolmaster, the smith, the saw-miller, and some unofficial residents, and, at the end of all, the Carrier's Rest, the township hotel. The roadway through the town was very dusty, and the dust, in the long, hot, dry seasons, lay upon the iron roofs of the houses—tin, it was locally called—and clung to the verandah posts and walls. A passing traveller on horseback, or in a dray, raised clouds of it, which drifted over everything and covered everything with a light film, but yet did not drive the inhabitants into the Carrier's Rest, for the Birralong people were sober, as they usually are in bush townships—sober, that is, as things are understood in the Southern Land of sunshine and freedom. Occasionally a man would come down the road who perhaps had not seen so much civilization for years before; who had, perhaps for years, been away in some outlying portion of the outlying West, boundary riding round a paddock or stock riding on a station; or, perchance, fossicking up and down the gullies of broken country under the mistaken idea that the specks and grains of gold he found, and which just kept him in "tucker," would lead him some day to a mighty reef which would make him a millionaire in a night; but who, in all those years, had drunk nothing but tea or water, and eaten nothing but beef and damper, living a glorious, free, untrammelled life, with the scent of the eucalypt ever in his nostrils and the pure, clear air of the bush ever in his lungs. And such a man, entering upon a new world, as it were, in his return to civilization, would greet that civilization—with a nip.
In an hour he would be "on a bender;" in three he would be "on the bust;" in six the "town would be red;" and soon afterwards the man himself would be stretched out across the door of the Carrier's Rest, senseless, helpless, "blind." Any one entering or leaving the bar stepped over him as he lay, so as not to disturb him while he was "sleeping it off" in the cool; and possibly some looked down on him with pity, and some with contempt, while yet others were moved to envy and exultant admiration. But generally the township went to Marmot's rather than to the Rest—generally.
There were occasions—such as when a Queensland horse won the Melbourne Cup, or when a drought broke up, or produce values took a leap, or the resident constable was transferred—when the township, speaking figuratively, migrated from one end of the town to the other, and Marmot's was deserted for the good of the Rest. There was a breezy freshness in the neighbourhood then, a wave of primitive goodfellowship, as it were, with a period of hazy indistinctness separating it from the time when the rising sun brought with it a succeeding wave of virtuous antagonism and a distressing dryness of the throat.
But such occasions were rare—too rare, some thought—and, as a general thing, Birralong had a reputation for sobriety, and maintained it with dignity.
A few days before, there had arrived at the Carrier's Rest a party of three men, who were on their way to the West, where, according to the story they told, they had found a wonderfully rich gold-field. Many a story of that kind had already been told in Birralong, both at the Rest and on Marmot's verandah, and the Birralong folk were sceptical, especially those who on former occasions had been induced, on the strength of the story, to furnish stores on credit, or take a contributing interest in the newly found claim; in either case receiving in return only the knowledge that, even in matters connected with gold-mining, humanity is sometimes frail. They had not been averse, however, to pay visits to the Rest and give their support to the proposals the strangers had made, with the characteristic open-handedness of miners, to toast success and thumping returns from the new field. But beyond that their enthusiasm had not gone, except in one instance, and he had thrown in his lot with the three and had journeyed away in their company.
It was that which was puzzling Birralong. The last man in the district whom they expected to be carried away by the glib tales of nuggets by the bucketful and gravel running two ounces to the dish, was Tony Taylor; still less did they expect that he would leave his selection home, to say nothing of the charms of Birralong and Marmot's verandah, for a wild-cat yarn of travelling fossickers. He was one of the brightest lights in the district, handsome, dare-devil Tony. There was not a horse he could not ride, and his rivals had brought some pretty tough buckjumpers to test him at different times—"fair holy terrors," they called them—but Tony sat them, even when girth and crupper had carried away. He was the only individual who had been able to solve the mysteries of the form of the balls and the bumps in the cushions of the alleged billiard table which the owner of the Rest had bought many years before in a coastal town, and which had not been improved by a five-weeks' journey inland on a bullock-dray. He had always held the proud position of "ringer" in the shearing-sheds of the stations round Birralong, beating all comers by never having a tally of less than a hundred sheep shorn a day, and that with the old-fashioned hand-shears. The winner of the local races had always been ridden by Tony, and he had been known to lose the whole of his shearing earnings at euchre and win them back, together with all the money on the board, by wagering his next year's cheque. The feminine portion of the population for miles round had a bright eye for Tony whenever he appeared; but only one did he seriously fancy, according to the authority of Marmot's verandah, and she, by the same token, fully reciprocated his feelings, and was, moreover, the admitted beauty of the district. And yet Tony, not apparently on the spur of the moment, but calmly and with his eyes open, had thrown in his lot with the three fossickers, and had gone off without scarcely a word to any one. Why, Birralong collectively did not know, for there had not been time as yet for an assemblage to take place on the verandah of Marmot's store. The riddle would not long remain unsolved when it had.
The hour of the evening meal had come and gone; the buzz-saws had ceased to whirr and sing and the anvil hammers to ring through the still, hot air. The sun had left his perch overhead, and was sinking slowly towards the horizon, making the trees and houses throw long streaks and patches of shadow of soft purple-blue, which is so peculiarly Australian, across the yellow dust of the roadway. The mosquitoes were beginning to leave their shelters, and occasionally, within the shadows, the ping-zing of their high-toned note could be heard as one drifted by the ear. The wood-fire smoke rose straight and steadily from kitchen chimneys, as the sticks, set alight to boil the billy for tea, gradually went out, and the aromatic scent of it floated through the air, seeming to fit in with the chromatic whistle of the magpies from the gum trees in the paddocks. But the men who were gathered round Marmot's verandah noted nothing of these things. Marmot himself, with his shirt-sleeves rolled up, sat on a box of Barret twist tobacco in the doorway, where he had the benefit of any draught there might be, and the majority of the adult male members of the population were sitting or standing around.
"It gets me. That's what it does, gets me clean," Marmot exclaimed. "Why Tony——well, there, he's the one lad I'd have taken into the store here to lend me a hand."
The immensity of the admiration and confidence implied by the remark for the moment silenced every one. No higher compliment could be paid by Marmot.
"It's a darned rum go," Smart, the saw-miller, observed solemnly. "He, who came as a kid and wanted to see if my band-saw 'ud take his head off in one swish—he, Tony Taylor, who knew enough at ten to spot the winner of the Cup, to go and get landed by a fossicker's yarn. There's a darned rum go."
"Yes; and where's the cause of it all?" Marmot asked. "There must be a cause. We'd all be black-fellows and earth-worms if it wasn't for a cause. There must be a cause, if we could only find it. Look for the cause, says I, in a case that's a bit mixed. But there ain't no cause in this, as I can see."
"Ain't there?" a man leaning against the end post of the verandah exclaimed. "Ain't there no cause? That's just your blooming error."
"Well, I'm no bush lawyer," Marmot replied, with a glance round the gathering. "It's more nor I can reason out."
"Look here," exclaimed the man, a selector who lived a couple of miles out from the township in solitary grandeur, and had an opinion, which might be right or wrong but was always strong, on every conceivable subject under the sun, especially the opposite sex, whom he cordially detested; "I'll tell you what's up. You believe me, a woman's to blame in this."
"Good iron, Slaughter," some one replied. "They're always the trouble."
"Yes, they are," Slaughter went on. "Anywhere they're the trouble, but in the bush——well, they're real daisies in the bush; that's what they are, real daisies."
"But you don't mean——hullo, here's Cullen coming. He'll know what's in the wind," Marmot exclaimed, as he caught sight of the blacksmith coming along the road.
As Cullen reached them a cloud of dust appeared on the road to the west, and he had stepped on to the verandah and exchanged greetings, and had been asked to explain the problem which was occupying their minds, before the cause of the dust-cloud went by at a hand-gallop in the form of two saddle-horses, one ridden by a long-legged, wiry, sandy-haired youth, and the other by a girl. She turned in her saddle as she rode past, and waved her hand to those on the verandah, and even on Slaughter's face there came the suspicion of a smile.
"That's it," Cullen said, as he jerked his head in the direction of the two riders.
"Wha—at?" every one but Slaughter exclaimed; and he, with the smile growing grim on his face, remarked—
"I told yer."
"It's so," Cullen went on. "Sam Nuggan was in to-day with a chipped cog off his reaper, and he says, 'Cullen,' he says, 'I've got it.' 'No!' says I. 'Yes!' says he. 'It's all along of that yaller head and young Dickson of Barellan.'"
The smith paused to push the glowing tobacco farther into the bowl of his pipe; and his audience, listening intently, almost started at the resounding smack Slaughter gave his thigh as he exclaimed—
"I told yer! Bli'me! I told yer."
"Go on, Bill," Marmot said impatiently. "Never mind the pipe. Let's have the yarn."
"You've got it," Cullen answered, as he squatted down with his back against one of the verandah posts, and puffed with almost aggressive deliberation at his strong, coarse tobacco.
"Go on, go on," Marmot repeated. "That ain't no cause, the yaller head and that cornstalk from the station. Tony ain't the lad to be put off with that. Don't you believe it. There's more about the yarn. Give us what Nuggan said."
The remainder of the expectant townsmen repeated the request loudly, volubly, and picturesquely.
"Well, it's like this," Cullen at last went on. "Nuggan told me as man to man, and now I tell you as man to man, too, and that's square."
"Oh, that's square," Marmot chimed in; and the others repeated the formula.
"Well, you see, there's something that shouldn't be but is somehow about Tony which no one quite knows what it is though they knows it shouldn't be, and that's what Nuggan said," Cullen observed fluently but obscurely.
"But what's that?" Marmot began as Cullen paused.
He held up his hand, with his pipe between the finger and thumb, impressively, and Marmot stopped.
"You mean to say you ain't noticed it?" he asked, pointing his pipe-stem at Marmot. "Nor you? Nor you? Nor you?" he continued slowly, as he swept his arm round and covered each man in turn.
Slaughter was the only man who answered. He said—
"Yes; her yaller head's made all of you fools. I told 'em it was a woman."
"It ain't that," Cullen went on seriously. "It's the likeness, the likeness that ain't there. You understand?"
No one pleaded ignorance, and the smith pulled at his pipe to make sure it had not gone out before resuming.
"Taylor—the old chap, I mean—has sort of ginger hair. His misses—well, she runs mousey. The young 'uns is mostly ginger, and them that ain't is mousey. Tony—you know same as I do, Tony's as black in the hair as a black-fellow, and blacker."
"That's so," Smart observed from the corner post where he was leaning.
"Now, I'll allow there's not much of old Taylor about the look of Tony. There's a bit of the misses—about the eyes somehow, that makes him like her."
"That's so," Smart repeated; and every one else was silent, being interested, for Cullen generally had information, albeit he did sometimes tie it up in words that neither his hearers nor himself could understand.
"Then there's the cause," he exclaimed impressively. "There's the fust cause."
"Where?" Marmot inquired wonderingly. A cause was too great an attraction for him to permit his missing one voluntarily.
"Why, there," Cullen responded. "Tony's not a bit like Taylor; he is a bit like the misses, and he's different to all the rest."
"That's it. The woman," Slaughter snarled. "They're always the trouble in this world. I'd yard 'em up like——"
"Dry up," Marmot exclaimed sharply. He was too involved over the cause to want to hear Slaughter's well-worn theories on the management of the other sex. "Where's the cause?" he asked.
"Well, put it plainer. Tony's like his mother, but how d'ye know he ain't more like his——"
"Smoke!" Marmot cried. "I get it. And yaller head found it out?"
"I don't go after for to say that," Cullen said ponderously. "And Sam Nuggan, he don't go after for to say that. But he heard him and her one night as they were riding in, him bringing her back from some moonlight ride they was always getting up—he heard her say to him, 'But who do you take after, Tony?' And next day, so Sam Nuggan says, Taylor and his misses was talkin' a lot and Tony was watchin' a lot, and then he ups and comes into the township, and the next he hears he'd gone off with them gully-rakers."
"But it do seem to me——" Smart began.
"That's as clear as I can put it," Cullen interrupted quickly. "There it is, all in front of you. Tony said he'd come back and report what the field was in a week or so, and when he comes back, watch him and yaller head. The yaller head's the cause of it, you take my tip."
THE BELLE OF BIRRALONG.
The two riders who had passed Marmot's store amid a cloud of dust, drew rein at the school-house gate, the girl turning her horse off the road and alongside the gate so that she could lean down and pull back the catch. As the gate swung open, she looked over her shoulder to where her long, thin-limbed companion sat still in the saddle.
"Thank you," she said. "You have come a long distance out of your way, but it is your own fault."
"That's nothing," he replied. "Only—I say—mayn't I come in?"
She walked her horse through the gateway as he spoke, and, wheeling it, swung to the gate before she looked up and answered him.
"You said as far as the gate—and you are as far as the gate," she said, with a mischievous smile on her face.
"Yes; but——here, hold on," he exclaimed as, with a wave of her hand, just as she had waved it to the group on Marmot's verandah, the girl started her horse up the narrow pathway that led past the school-house into the paddock behind the cottage where she and her father, the schoolmaster, lived.
The youth looked after her, with something of a glitter in his watery blue eyes. As her horse entered the narrow space between the school-house wall and the yard fence, the girl looked back again and laughed, and the youth dug his spurs unnecessarily hard into his horse's sides as he resumed his ride down the road. He felt that he ought to have followed her through the gate—and he dared not.
The girl meanwhile rode past the cottage, which stood back from the school-house, and into the paddock beyond, giving a soft coo-ee as she passed. The horse found its own way to the shed where the bridle and saddle were kept, and the girl lightly slipped from its back and took off both. Having put them inside the shed, she roughly groomed the horse—which stood so still, it seemed to be proud of the attention—before returning to the cottage, the horse following her as far as it could, with its nose rubbing against her shoulder.
Inside the cottage a pale, delicate-looking man sat in a chair in front of a wood fire, on which a kettle was boiling and steaming. He put down the book he was reading as she came in.
"I wasn't long, Dad, was I?" she asked, as she came across the room to his side and bent down with her hand on his.
"No, child," he answered softly. "What news had the Murrays?"
"Oh, it was all the same old tune," she answered, as she stood up and took off the mushroom straw hat she was wearing, revealing as she did so the wealth of golden hair, twined round the top of her head in a heavy coiled plait, to which she owed the name of "yaller head" among the frequenters of Marmot's verandah. "It was all Tony Taylor, Tony Taylor, Tony Taylor. Heavens! why can't the man go gold-digging if he wants to? The way people talk——"
"Who came with you down the road?" her father interrupted to ask.
"Oh, that fool of a Dickson," she replied, with a short laugh. "He was hanging around the place, so I told Nellie Murray to go out and see what he wanted; and she, big fool that she is, brought him in, and then nothing would do him but he must ride home with me."
"Well, he didn't talk Tony Taylor all the time," her father said, laughing.
"That's just what he did," she retorted. "It was Tony Taylor all the way, until I told him to shut up. They make me tired. Now, what are you laughing at?" she broke off to ask, as she looked up and caught her father's glance.
"Oh, nothing," he answered. "I was only wondering what Dickson had to say about him."
"About Tony? Well, he said—you remember what I told you he said the other night about his mother? Now he says that she would like to see some of us, or have some of us go over to the station some day. How can the poor thing see us when she is as blind as a flying fox?"
"But that's not what Dickson said about Tony. I asked——"
"Oh, chut, chut, chut!" the girl exclaimed, as she waved her hands quickly to and fro in front of his face. "Do please let the dear man rest while I get tea ready. Don't I tell you it makes me tired? Willy Dickson was bad enough all the way home, without having more of it here. People would think I care what happens to Tony Taylor;" and she stood looking down at her father with wide-opened blue eyes that were as innocent of deception as a babe's.
"I wish you did," her father said quickly. "He's one of the——"
"Now, you're not going to begin again?" she asked; and, without waiting for an answer, she turned away and began preparing the table for the evening meal.
Her father sat watching her as she moved about, not speaking again, for in turning away and busying herself with something, she had shown as much temper as ever she showed over anything, and her father understood the symptom. It was one of her peculiarities that she only evinced the fact that she had a temper when she was reminded that certain of the young men in the district had lost their hearts to her, and had left the neighbourhood because of their inability to repair that loss. Not that she objected to the first part of the indictment; it was rather pleasant, from her point of view, to have the command of the entire youth of the district. What she objected to was the going away of individual units from Birralong, just because she did not see fit to deny herself the pleasure of the society of all the other youths in exchange for that of just one. It always happened in that manner; always the departure of some youth for the western stations, the northern gold-fields, the coastal towns, or the droving routes, had been preceded by one, sometimes two, and sometimes more, interviews with her, in which, as she usually told them, they made her "feel tired." Always except once. Tony Taylor had gone off and had hardly wished her good-bye, and Tony and she had been as brother and sister, only more so, since the day when they first met and began to climb through all the standards of the State-school education, beginning at the very lowest of the grades, together.
Tony used to ride in to the school in those days, for Birralong was in its infancy and the school was only just opened. Taylor's Flat, the selection where he lived, was a dozen miles away, and Tony used to come and have dinner with her and her mother and father. He used to ride in bare-back on a big old splodgy dray-horse named Tom, which had been worked in the dray and at the plough until there was only jog-trot servility left in him. But Tony—clad in a pair of knickerbockers cut down from a pair of Taylor's moleskins, a flannel shirt with the sleeves rolled up and the neck innocent of a button, with neither shoes nor stockings on his brown little feet and legs, and with an old soft felt hat, discarded by the elder Taylor, and consequently as many sizes too big for Tony as his knickerbockers were—was a proud boy as he rode through the township every day to and from school, his little legs barely reaching across the broad back of the old dray-horse. He was the only one who rode in, and that, together with his eight years and quick wits, made him a hero in the mind of the Irish-named, Saxon-haired daughter of the schoolmaster.
There had been a community of interests between them from those days of irresponsible childhood; and when, in later days, Ailleen lost her mother, and her father developed the state of health which made him more and more delicate every year, the community of interests grew, for whatever her troubles were, Tony was always ready to share them; and he was the only boy who made no protests about her being friends with all the others, and treating them all on a level when circumstances were kind enough to put some entertainment in her way. He had always seemed to understand her, for he had never talked as some of the others had, particularly those who had suddenly made up their minds to leave Birralong, and for that reason alone she was satisfied with him.
But there came a time when this sense of satisfaction was disturbed. Very slight indeed was the first indication of the disturbance—so slight, in fact, that it had not been apparent to Ailleen herself until it had gained considerable strength; enough, at all events, to make itself distinctly and unpleasantly manifest.
She had, one day, been amused at the remarks Dickson had passed on Tony's appearance. There was a touch of malice in the remarks, for Tony, in the old school-days they all had shared together, had thrashed Dickson with a bridle, and she had laughed at the one and smiled upon the other. Dickson had never forgotten the chastisement he received from a boy younger and a head shorter than himself; and as the years passed he still nursed his enmity, giving vent to it in vindictive and malicious remarks about the absent Tony, for he remembered the boyish thrashing too well to speak his opinions in his rival's presence. So it was that when Ailleen heard Dickson denouncing Tony's appearance, she had been amused, until a chance remark struck her and set her thinking; and as she thought, the conviction grew upon her that the very subject of the remark which had struck her so forcibly had been in her mind, unconsciously, for years. Now that she had had it brought face to face with her, as it were, its significance was so pronounced she wondered how it had escaped her all the years she had known Tony and the rest of the Taylor family.
The fact was that Tony was absolutely different, in manner, face, and figure, from every member of the family of Taylor's Flat.
The next time she met him she had teased him about it, asking who it was he took after, and such-like questions; and Tony had replied with an abruptness which was so unusual in him that she had at first felt amused, until it began to rankle. Then she resented it, and when they met again, she was equally abrupt to him as he had been to her, and had, moreover, given a great deal of attention to what Dickson, who was present, said and did, while ignoring, as far as she could, the very existence of Tony. Then the three lucky diggers had come to the Carrier's Rest, and every one was talking of gold-mining to such an extent that she saddled her horse and rode out to see and chat with her bosom friend, Nellie Murray.
When she returned, her father told her that Tony had been in during the day to bid him good-bye, as he was off in the morning for the new field. And from that moment it seemed to her that every one she met could talk or think of nothing but Tony going gold-mining. It was getting monotonous, and, to relieve her feelings, she put down the plate she had in her hands with unnecessary force.
Her father looked up from his book.
"Is it necessary to break it?" he asked quietly.
She laughed lightly.
"I was doing the very thing I blame in the others," she answered. "But there, tea's ready now, so we'll say no more about it—or him," she added.
Throughout the meal Godson watched his daughter, and after it was over, and she sat near the lamp sewing with deft fingers, he kept his eyes on her. She was a handsome girl, and there was plenty of excuse for the male youth of Birralong losing their hearts to her. She was both tall and well formed, with a figure that made her look like a Venus posing as a bush-bred girl. The wealth of glorious hair surmounted a shapely head, and although her features were not of classical regularity, there was character in every one, and character that was pleasing to the masculine eye, albeit it savoured strongly of independence and self-reliance.
It would have been a satisfaction to her father to know that her future was in some measure provided for by the plighted affection of such a man as Tony, for he shared the general admiration for the boy he had educated, and who, dare-devil as he was in many ways, had in him the makings of a sturdy, useful member of society. Taylor's Flat was a good selection, and even if it did not descend to Tony, there was plenty more good land in the colony, and Ailleen was versed enough in the methods of the bush to prove a useful helpmate to a hard-working selector.
But a man is not much use as a matchmaker, and whenever he did try to suggest anything of the kind to Ailleen, she had nothing but laughter and raillery for him in reply. And yet, the pay he received from the Education Department was not very much, and would die with him, and Ailleen had no relative in the world but himself, while there were very few ways for a girl to earn her living in the bush, save that of domestic service, and that meant drudgery. He knew the frailness of the bond which kept his body and soul together. At any moment almost it might snap, and then——he always turned with a shudder away from the thought.
"What are you thinking of, Dad?" Ailleen asked suddenly.
"I was thinking——" Godson began.
"So was I," she interrupted, with a laugh. "I was thinking of—Mrs. Dickson."
"What about her?"
"Well," she said, as she put the article she had been sewing on the table in front of her, and pushed it away to the full length of her arms, looking at it with her head on one side and her eyebrows raised, "I was thinking what a lonely thing it must be to be blind. Fancy the poor creature all alone all day in the dark—because it must be dark to her. Nellie Murray says there are some funny things said about her, but she doesn't believe they are true. That's why I should like to see her, just to see what she is like. Willy says she's awful scotty."
"I should not be surprised at it—with him," Godson answered.
"Oh, he's——" she gathered up her work instead of finishing the sentence. "But I would like to go over to the station and see Mrs. Dickson," she added brightly. "It's the first time she has agreed even to let us go near the house, so Willy says, and both Nellie and I want to go. Do you think we ought?"
"Would it keep you away if I said no?" Godson asked, with a twinkle in his eyes.
"Of course it would," she replied, looking at him quickly.
"Umph," he said. "Wait till Tony comes back, and ask his opinion."
"Oh, bother Tony!" she exclaimed sharply. "Nellie and I said we would go over on Thursday. Nellie said she would make Bobby come as well. Do you see the idea? He and I can ride together, and that leaves——"
"Oh, that's it, is it?" Godson asked, with a smile.
Ailleen nodded, and the smile grew on Godson's face. It pleased him better than if it had been the other way about.
THE ROUT OF BOULDER CREEK.
Cudlip's Rest originally owed its existence to a small rush that set in on Boulder Creek in the early sixties, that period in Australian history when the gold fever was badly abroad, and men were leaving everything—hearth, home, kith, kin, and often life as well—to join in the mad scurry after the will-o'-the-wisp which they were pleased to call fortune. Boulder Creek, a small stream—when rain fell—full of big stones, and with here and there a patch of yellow sandy gravel lying in corners and crevices, wound its way through country which was equally rocky, but with just enough soil above the rock to sparsely nourish the gnarled, scraggy gums which waged with the spear-grass a constant struggle for existence.
The road to the west from Birralong crossed Boulder Creek, running along the summit of a dwarfed ridge, parallel with the valley of the stream, until it took a sudden turn downwards towards a spot where the stones were less numerous, and which was locally known as the Ford. Halfway down from the top of the ridge to the level of the creek, about an acre spread out flat on the left-hand side, and here Cudlip's Rest was built.
There was gold in the creek at the time, tradition said, and men trooped down to it from all parts, camping along the ridge, and climbing down with the dawn to the bed of the creek and digging where they could in the sandy gravel, or picking at the boulders and dollying the fragments in the hopes of discovering some of the gold which report said was to be found in the creek. As the sun went down at the end of each day, the men climbed back to their tents on the ridge, cursing their luck—or the want of it—to satisfy their hunger. Then they wandered with one accord to the flat where Cudlip's Rest was situated, and assisted in making the only "pile" which was ever amassed on the diggings of Boulder Creek.
Most of the men who first came out from civilization to make their piles on Boulder Creek wandered back again, their piles still to make—with that one exception; but the reputation of his success, though he never rocked a cradle nor bumped a dolly in the whole course of his stay on the field, hung about the place, growing in magnitude as the years passed on, and inspiring many a simple heart with that blind faith and patience necessary to spend one's life chipping at rocks well nigh innocent of pyrites, and sluicing gravel which sometimes carries a grain to the dish—for, after the first-comers had gone back to civilization, there were many who came to take their places.
With the departure of its founder, the Rest lost a good deal of its glory. The men who were camped along the ridge had no more money to spend, and only an occasional traveller, passing along the road from the east to the west, kept the place going as a solvent concern. Now and again some prospectors, who had heard tales round distant camp-fires of the hidden riches of Boulder Creek, journeyed down its course, scrambling over the rough, tumbled boulders, and venting their opinions in hot, scorching words as they remembered the tellers of the tales, till they saw on the flat, halfway up the ridge, the symbol of civilization in the form of Cudlip's Rest. Then the occupier for the time being had some chance of making a profit on the year's occupation; but otherwise, no one but a new chum would grant credit for drinks against such payment in kind as cut timber and split rails for a whole settlement of fossickers.
So the years went on, the men along the ridge dreaming of the leads and pockets they one day might discover, and the owner of Cudlip's Rest trying to persuade himself that there was a future in the field—until one day a whisper went abroad. It ran from tent to tent and from shaft to shaft, travelling up and down the gullies and the ridges by the creek; bringing men to the surface from the bottom of the holes they had been digging for months, and drawing them out of the drives and cross-cuts they had been developing for years, and making them stand with wide-open eyes gleaming in the sunlight, as they tried to reach back through the profitless years for the mislaid energy of youth. It travelled far and wide, wherever a man lived and toiled; and wherever it sounded, men's eyes grew bright, and hope came again to faces that had long since lost it, and to hearts that had long since grown numb.
No one knew who had spread it; no man heard another tell him that it was true; but in the air it quivered, and every man heard it, and left his work and his tent and his tools where they lay, whilst he hastened to Cudlip's Rest for further news of the rumour that had reached him as he laboured in his loneliness—that gold had been found; gold in payable, ay, in richly payable, quantities.
Like the remnants of a routed army they came upon the old hotel, some up the road, some down it, and others through the bush. A few had stopped to get their coats, but most of them wore nothing over their soil-and toil-stained shirts and moleskins. But as they came up to the house, and stamped on to the verandah and through into the long, bare room that once had been festive with many a merry gathering, they all had one expression on their faces and one inquiry on their tongues.
Round the bar, which stretched across the end of the room, they found four men standing, with pipes in their mouths and filled glasses in front of them, and only a glance was needed to reveal to every one as he entered that not one of the four was a new chum or a sundowner. They stood smoking in silence, like men who have known one another's society for many days, and had no need for words to express the enjoyment they felt in a smoke and a nip. Occasionally one would glance towards the door as man after man trudged into the room, toil-stained and unkempt, and stood covertly watching the four with hungry eyes.
Cudlip—all the keepers of the Rest took the name with the house—was behind the bar, glancing suspiciously from the new arrivals to the incoming residents.
"And you say it's payable?" he said at length; and every ear in the room was strained and every eye turned upon the silent four.
"You take your colonial," one of the four answered.
"And a poor man's field? Good alluvial?" Cudlip added.
The man who had answered before looked round at him.
"Ain't we going there?" he said.
The crowd round the door and along the walls of the room surged forward. Good alluvial and a poor man's field? And four men going there? The questions were in every mind and the answer as well. For years the gully-rakers round Boulder Creek had been living and longing to hear such things, and the hungry eyes grew more hungry and the faces more alert. If four, why not forty? Why not——
"Where's the lay?" one of the Creekers asked sharply and shortly; and the room was silent till the answer came.
"Over the ridge," the man answered, nodding towards the west.
"How far?" some one inquired.
"Twenty mile or so."
"And you've been there?"
"You and your mates?"
"Not the four of us."
"How do you know it's a boomer?"
The man looked round slowly on the still gathering crowd.
"I found it," he said.
For a moment every man in the room held his breath. They had had faith in the creek for years without seeing more than specks of gold—faith so great that they would all have scorned to leave their shafts and drives for the sake of fossicking neighbouring streams and gullies. But—payable alluvial and plenty of it only twenty miles away! They needed time to take that in all at once.
"I found it a month ago—I and some mates. I left them working on it while I went and proclaimed it and got our reward claims registered. Now we're safe we don't care who knows of it. There's men in hundreds coming out along the road behind us, though we have got two days' start. But what is that to us? There will be thousands soon—thousands all seeking our gold-field, for there's gold across the ridge, boys—gold for the lot of us."
The sun-dried walls and roof of the room shivered and cracked at the reverberation of the mighty shout that went up from the throats of the assembled men. The wild fever that had sent them roaming years and years before in search of the fortune of yellow metal they had never yet found, broke out in all its former vigour in their blood. There was gold only twenty miles away! Gold to be had for the digging; gold in sand and gravel that only needed washing and sluicing; gold that would give them all their youth back again, and enable them once more to journey to the homes they had left so long ago—it dazzled and maddened them, wiping out their disappointments and blotting out their miseries. All the furies of unmeasured imagination that had swept them off their mental balance when first they had sought the bubble fortune came again upon them anew, and in their shouting, capering frenzy they surged round the four strangers and round and over Cudlip's bar. What liquor there was to be seized was taken and swallowed before its owner could raise a protest; but a dozen promises to pay ten times over for every nobbler was made on all sides, and, like a wise man, Cudlip hesitated before he opposed overwhelming odds.
The shout with which the news was greeted spread far beyond the Rest—as far as the barren rocks and spear-grass covered patches of sandy soil over which the outlying fossickers were hurrying for corroboration of the news—and the sound of the mighty shout made their pulses tingle and their blood run free.
Only one thing could make the men of the Boulder Creek dirt-holes shout like that. Gold, more than specks and grains, had been found somewhere, and the outlying stragglers quickened their pace in their haste to reach the place before all the good fortune had gone round. When they reached the house there was a babel of sounds in the bar-room, for round the four strangers the entire population of the field was crowding, every man firing off his questions as fast as he could utter them, with no one answering him, and no one heeding him in the general noise and excitement. The four were trying to reach the door so as to get on the way to their El Dorado, but a solid wall of perspiring humanity surrounded them, through which they were helpless to make their escape.
The late arrivals, gathering a word here and there, managed to understand that there was a great field of alluvial discovered just over the ridge, and seeing that every one in the room was fairly well occupied for the time being, the idea found favour among them that it would be a useful application of the knowledge to start out at once and peg out a few claims ahead of the others. The man to whom the idea came whispered it to his neighbour, who happened to be the owner of the next hole to his on the Creek, and from whom he had, at times, borrowed some flour for his damper, when his stores had run out.
"Jim," he said, leaning his head forward and executing a portentous wink, "git."
Jim looked at him for a moment before he realized the significance of the tip.
"Good for you," he answered. "We'll best these——" and he used a mining term which signified the others.
The men nearest to him, all striving to catch something of what was going on, grasped the proposal by the tenor of his reply, and as the two left the room, so did the half-dozen who were nearest. Then the men who were nearest the half-dozen saw and understood and also moved, and the motion, once set going, spread and continued until the four were only attended by an equal number. The rest of the population of the field were disappearing through the bush.
"Here there, hold on," one of the remaining four exclaimed, as he started at a run for the door.
"Hell for leather," cried a second, as he set after the first.
"My——" the third began, but left the sentence unfinished as he also started.
The fourth said nothing. He had too much handicap to make up.
When they had all gone, the four strangers stood and looked at one another in silence.
"Better have another nip and then move on," the man who had had the conversation with Cudlip remarked.
The host, who had gone to the door to watch the last of the residents disappear, turned back at the mention of business.
"They've swallowed everything bar the bottles," he exclaimed.
"Then we'll move on without the nip," the man said quietly.
As they started towards the door Cudlip interposed before them.
"Say, Misters, before you go," he said. "It's all square about that there alloovial, I take it?"
"Square?" one of the men replied. "Well, you needn't believe it. It's twenty miles over the ridge to the west, the place I mean, but don't you go there. You'll make your pile here, if you stop."
Cudlip vouchsafed no reply, and the four passed out and round to the back of the house where they had left their horses. When they were out of earshot of the bar, two of them exchanged glances and grim smiles.
"What did I tell you?" one said. "There's no bigger fools in creation than a mob of gully-rakers."
"Keep your tongue quiet, Gleeson," the other replied. "They haven't all started yet. Besides——" he glanced towards their two companions, who were loosening the horses from the fence where they had been hitched.
"Oh, Peters is fly, and the youngster has grit," Gleeson said, adding in a louder tone to the others, "We'll walk all the way till we camp. You needn't tighten the girths for that."
They rode slowly until within an hour of sunset, when, after climbing a long steep ridge, they drew rein at a spot where a small, clear stream rippled across the track, and the timber, growing thick elsewhere, left an open space sloping down to the creek.
"This will do for the night; and I reckon the bush is thick enough round here to prevent our fire being seen by any of the mob behind," Gleeson observed, glancing round as his horse strained at the bridle to sniff the cool water at its feet.
"It's good enough," Peters replied, as, urging his horse across the creek and on to the open space, he swung himself from the saddle. "Now then, Tony, my lad," he added, turning to his nearest companion, "shake yourself up. You're off for the diggings now; no more cattle-duffing or wool-pressing for you. In a month's time you'll be going back with a pack-horse team loaded with nuggets to buy a station of your own, if you want one."
"Or going to Melbourne for a fly round," Tony answered with a laugh, as he followed the example, and swung from the saddle.
"Don't you do that, my lad," Peters observed seriously. "Never you leave the bush. A township is not bad once in a way, but a place like Melbourne—for a young chap like you, it's perdition, so far as your money goes," he continued.
"Stow your yarning till the pipes are lit," Gleeson called out; and Peters winked at Tony as, having hobbled his horse, he took off the saddle and bridle, and smacked it on the flank, exclaiming—
"Now, my beauty, don't spare the grass because it's Government property, and don't go far away."
The horses being unsaddled, the four men placed their swags and saddles together, and while one started a fire, another filled the smoke-begrimed billy at the stream, and set it to boil by the blazing twigs, another unrolled the "tucker-bags," and spread the contents of beef and damper on a blanket, and the fourth, Gleeson, sat on a log and filled his pipe.
"It isn't every one who finds a payable rush," Peters remarked solemnly, as he stood by the fire after his share of the work was done. "Tony, my lad, you will observe that; and consequently the man who finds the payable rush don't do no cooking at the camp."
"There's three for one man's work. What's the need of crowding?" Gleeson asked, as he came over to the fire to get a light for his pipe.
"None. Nor jawing either. He's all jaw," the fourth man, who was overhauling the tucker-bag, exclaimed, with a snarl in his voice.
"Now then, Samuel Walker, don't you make the sugar sour," Peters rejoined. "Your taste in——hullo!" he broke off, as the sound of a coo-ee away down the track came to his ears. "They're right on our heels. The whole mob will be here an hour after sunset."
"Of course they will. We ought to have stayed at the pub, or kept the find dark," Walker said.
"There's no pleasing you," Peters replied. "Our claims are pegged out by Government, so why should we grumble at others having a look in on their own."
"The billy's boiling," Tony interrupted.
"Then make the tea," Peters retorted, adding, as he watched the operation being carried out, "You've the makings of a digger about you, Tony, if you stick at it long enough."
As soon as the tea was ready, the four men gathered round the blanket on which Walker had spread the eatables, and set to on the meal with healthy appetites. As they sat eating, the sun went down, and fresh logs were thrown on the fire, lighting up the open space with a warm, bright light. They had finished, and were starting their pipes, when, on the other side of the creek where the firelight streamed across the track, the figures of two men with swags on their backs and diggers' picks and shovels over their shoulders, came in sight.
They greeted the camp with a shout, and splashed through the creek and up to the fire, where they threw down their swags and sat on them, like men who had tramped a long, wearying journey, and at the end of it preferred rest to either food or converse.
"Done a record, haven't you?" Gleeson asked, looking round at them.
"Don't know about a record, mate; but it's been a teaser coming up the ridge," one of the men answered.
"Many more behind?" Peters asked.
The men laughed.
"The whole of Boulder Creek," one answered.
"Don't you want a feed?" Gleeson asked.
"Don't mind if I do," each man answered, as he rose from his swag, and moved over to the place where the "tucker" was.
They were busily engaged—too busy to talk—in two minutes, and they kept at it steadily till the billy was empty and the beef and damper low.
"You can keep the billy going all night, if you're going to ask all them that's coming up the track if they want a feed," one of the two at length managed to say.
"That's why we shoved along," observed the other, meditatively, as he pulled an empty pipe out of his pocket, and pushed a finger in and out of the bowl.
"Tucker a bit scarce along the creek, eh?" Peters asked.
"Scarce?" the man replied, "Scarce ain't in it. It's as scarce as gold—or 'baccy;" and he put the stem of his pipe between his lips, and made a sound through it to indicate its emptiness.
"Do you smoke?" Peters asked innocently.
The man grinned. He would have replied freely and forcibly to the self-evident attempt to take a rise out of him but for the fact that he had just had one good meal, and breakfast-time was coming.
"Why don't you give him a fill?" Walker snapped out.
"My mate asks if you want a fill—of his plug," Peters said quietly.
"Oh, tea-leaves is good enough for me, if you ain't going to use them. I haven't had a smoke of tea-leaves for weeks; stores wouldn't run to it, and gum-leaves don't smoke cool. Thanks, young fellow, don't mind if I do," he broke off, as Tony reached out half a plug of tobacco towards him.
When he had filled his own pipe, he passed the plug to his mate, who helped himself before passing back to Tony the little that remained. Meanwhile the others were stowing away the remnants of the meal in the "tucker-bag," and they and the two new arrivals were only comfortably settled round the fire with their pipes going when another shout from beyond the creek announced the arrival of more travellers.
This time a dozen men straggled into the camp, but it was evident by the size of their swags that they were not quite so down on their luck as the first-comers.
They straggled up to the fire, each man with a brief crisp remark, and swung their swags from their shoulders, loosening their billy-cans, which they filled at the creek before setting them beside the fire to boil. Every man had his own store of provisions with him, and as they prepared their meal there was a constant buzz of conversation. Question after question was asked as to the quality of the gold at the new find; whether there was plenty of timber on the field; how about the supply of water, and the depth of the payable dirt. Gleeson, as the discoverer, was the man to whom most of the inquiries were addressed, and if he had not done much work in preparing camp, he had to do more than his share now, a fact upon which Peters was not slow to remark.
The cross-fire of questions would probably have lasted as long as Gleeson cared to furnish answers, but another delight was suddenly introduced by one of the new arrivals producing an accordion from his swag, and sounding a couple of chords. At once the attention of the men was taken off the topic of the new field; there was a want of alcohol in the camp wherewith to rouse their spirits to the full enjoyment of their new good fortune, but the melody of accordion and song made an excellent substitute.
"Good boy, Palmer Billy," one of the men cried as soon as he heard the sound. "Give us the good old Palmer stave."
There was a burst of approval from all the men as they came nearer the fire, forming themselves into a ring round the blazing pile, some sitting, some standing, some stretched out on the ground, but all smoking. Palmer Billy, a middle-aged man with a face lined and tanned by many a summer's sun, and without a spare ounce of flesh on his sinewy frame, stood a bit apart with the accordion in his hands, his hat pushed back, and his head on one side as he looked round the assembly. Palmer Billy was the musician and vocalist of Boulder Creek, without a rival, equal, or superior, albeit his musical prowess was limited to the five chords which the key arrangement of the accordion automatically provided for, and his vocal repertoire to one song, sung to the American melody of "Marching through Georgia," and celebrating the glories of the great Palmer Goldfield—whence came Palmer Billy's pseudonym. His voice was neither cultivated nor melodious—from a musical point of view; but it was loud, and of the peculiar penetrating timbre which is invaluable for the use of that language which alone serves in inducing a bullock team to pull well, or for sending the stanzas of a bush song hurtling round a camp fire.
As he raised his accordion to strike the preliminary canter of the five automatic chords, every voice was silenced, and all eyes were turned upon him, for Palmer Billy was always ready to oblige a camp with his vocal entertainment, though in return he demanded, on the part of his audience, silence (except when the chorus-time came) and attention. Failing either, or both, Palmer Billy yielded to the sense of outraged artistic sensibility and lapsed into silence himself, and when men are living a more or less lonely life a hundred miles from anywhere, they are inclined to look leniently upon the eccentricities of such genius as fate casts in their way.
Palmer Billy, casting his eye round the firelit circle of bearded and bronzed faces, and seeing every mouth closed and every eye fixed on his, was satisfied, and completed the five automatic chords. Then he lifted up his raucous, stridulating voice and sang, with the accentuation of an artistic drawl which no one but himself ever knew where it was likely to come, the opening verse of his song—
"Then roll the swag and blanket up, And let us haste away To the Golden Palmer, boys, Where every one, they say, Can get his ounce of gold, or It may be more, a day, In the Golden Gullies of the Palmer."
At the conclusion of the last word, which the vocalist sang as "Par-her-mur," with a graceful little flourish on the "her," he swept his eye round his audience, swung the accordion up to the full extent of his arms over his left shoulder, and shouting, "Chorus, boys," opened his mouth and his chest in the full glory of his stridulating notes as he yelled, the others lustily joining—
"Hurrah! Hurrah! We'll sound the jubilee. Hurrah! Hurrah! And we will merry be, When we reach the diggings, boys, There the nuggets see, In the Golden Gullies of the Palmer."
The force of the chorus pleased him, and his eyes twinkled; for even if every one of his audience had not caught the exact rhythm of the melody, there could be no question as to their endeavours being in earnest, and good soul-stirring noise, Palmer Billy, as a musician, maintained, was miles ahead of a mere ordinary tune.
The second verse afforded the opportunity, in Palmer Billy's mind, for the exercise of expressive pathos; and when the chorus after the first verse was given with a will, and the audience thus testified its capacity for appreciation, he was as generous with his expression as he was with his force. Two portentous sniffs and a whine were blended with the word he considered the most appropriate for pathetic accentuation, the word following being bawled in full vigour with a prolonged quiver in the voice by way of contrast. Thus with alternate sniffs, whines, and bawls, he sang—
"Kick at troubles when they come, boys, The motto be for all; And if you've missed the ladder In climbing Fortune's wall, Depend upon it, boys, You'll recover from the fall, In the Golden Gullies of the Palmer."
The chorus was again taken up with an energy amounting to enthusiasm, and at the third verse, delivered with a declamatory power that carried moral conviction in every syllable, Palmer Billy introduced his special accomplishment by reversing the order in which he played the accompaniment of the five automatic chords. The declamation and the accompaniment always made the third verse a triumph.
"Then work with willing hands, boys, Be steady, and be wise; For no one need despair there, If honestly he tries, Perhaps to make a fortune, At all events a rise, In the Golden Gullies of the Palmer."
The chorus was so lustily given that the soloist called for the audience to join him in the last verse, a most unusual compliment, and so well did they respond that the sound of their voices travelled far through the silent bush, farther than they intended, farther than they knew, as they yelled—
"Then sound the chorus once again And give it with a roar, And let its echoes ring, boys, Upon the sea and shore, Until it reach the mountains, Where gold is in galore, In the Golden Gullies of the Palmer."
"Hurrah! Hurrah! We'll sound the jubilee. Hurrah! Hurrah! And we will merry be, When we reach the diggings, boys, There the nuggets see, In the Golden Gullies of the Palmer."
THE SWAY OF GOLD.
The sounds of the eighteen voices, joined in the Palmer song, travelled through the silent bush, back towards Boulder Creek, along the route where many a camp-fire twinkled in the darkness as the marching army of miners formed their bivouacs in twos and threes. And where it echoed, men turned their heads to listen, and ceased even to smoke for the moment, as they strove to gauge the distance the main camp was ahead, and wondered if it were "good enough to shove along" in the dark. On either side of the main camp, and all around, the sounds reverberated amidst the tall, gaunt, scanty-leaved gums, till the 'possums scratched and chattered as they danced along the boughs, and the slow-witted bears sniffed the cool-scented air of the night to find some reason for the unusual flood of melody. Farther ahead still it travelled, till the lonely dingo heard it as he prowled, and, sitting on his haunches, raised his throat towards the skies and poured forth a melancholy howl in unison, rousing the suspicions of the night curlew that everything was not as it should be, and inducing him in turn to give utterance to his cry, mournful and weird as the wail of an outcast soul, to warn his fellows to be on the alert, and to add to the unspeakably awe-inspiring solemnity of the bush at night.
Farther still it travelled, until, little more than a faint echo, it reached another camp-fire far ahead of the main camp, a fire beside which two men sat. A blanket was spread between them, and upon it lay a pile of small nuggets of gold, and, on a tin plate, a heap of gold-dust.
One of the two, a man whose eyebrows formed a black heavy band across the forehead, held up his hand as the sound came to him. Then he laughed.
"Hear that?" he asked, looking at his companion. "If we'd waited till to-morrow where would our chance have been? They're barely two miles away, and there's a mob of them, by the sound. The news of the great find is out, Tap, my son, and the rush has begun. They'll be swarming over the place to-morrow, swarming—and swearing," he added, as he again laughed loudly.
His companion, a slim, long-limbed man, with a sharp-featured face and shifty eyes, sat listening intently to the faint echo of the refrain of Palmer Billy's song.
"They're less than two miles, less than one mile away," he said, with a fleeting glance at the dark, heavy face of the other. "Look here—what if some of them push on in the dark?"
"Well, what if they do? Do you think the first-comers will know where to look? You're as weak in the nerves as ever, Tap, my son."
"The new-comers might not, but what about Gleeson and Walker? Are they such new chums as to let the others get in ahead, do you think?" Tap answered.
"I don't know either of them, and don't want to."
"Well, you'll find they're a bit too tough to handle——"
"See here, Tap," the other interrupted. "Ten years down yonder ain't changed me for the better, and don't you forget it. I don't give a damn for you nor your mates. See? I don't care if it's five or fifty, I'll face the lot of you. Two words and your interest in this is——" he pointed to the gold, and then snapped his fingers in the other man's face. The black brows were lower over the eyes and the eyes flashed brighter in the firelight, and Tap did what most men of his type do before danger, real or imagined—shifted his ground and cringed.
"I didn't mean to say anything——"
"Then dry up," the other retorted quickly. "We'll finish dividing this first, and then make the next move."
"But—some of them are bound to have horses—Gleeson will, if he's there—and then they'll be on the ground before we are ten miles away, and he'll track us as easy as a black-fellow."
"Will he? And you think——here," the man broke off impatiently, "what's the use of talking to a soft-brain like you? If it weren't that I wanted a mate, I'd have no shift with you. I've said we're square for old times, and square it is—you take the dust and I take the nuggets."
"The dust ain't——"
"You'll take it or leave it," the other exclaimed in a bullying tone; and Tap quietly reached for the tin plate, and proceeded to push the dust into a small bag he produced from his pocket. The other man stripped a coarse canvas belt from his waist, and stuffed the nuggets into it through a small opening at the end.
"Now, Tap, my son," he said, when the last nugget was out of sight and the belt was again round his waist, "we're ready for the next move. Pick up the swags. We're going down to the next camp to look after their horses, if they've got any."
He started as soon as the other man had the two swags slung over his shoulder, walking away from the fire and into the bush in the direction from whence the sound of the song had come. There was just light enough from the stars to make the pale bark of the gums show against the sombre shade of distance, and to reveal the presence of shrubs by a darker loom on the black shadow. The heavy, brutal-shaped head turned from side to side as the man walked, as though he were noting the lay of the land as he passed; but in reality the eyes always looked back to see that Tap, with the two swags on his shoulder, was still following. Neither exchanged a word as they walked on, carefully and quietly, through the gloomy mystery of the silent bush. The howl of a dingo in the distance, the wail of a curlew, or the hum of a mosquito, were the only sounds beyond the occasional crackle of a twig trodden under foot, or the swish of a bent shrub swinging back to its original position.
A faint, ruddy gleam, which was reflected on the pale, smooth surface of a white gum on his right, made the leader stop in his stride, with arms held out like a semaphore—a danger-signal his follower saw just in time to avoid colliding with him.
"There's the glow of their fire," he whispered, as Tap came beside him. "Their camp's just to the left. If I haven't forgotten the country, there's a creek runs that way through a belt of wattle, and beyond it the ridge slopes down."
"That's right," Tap answered. "You didn't lose your memory in——"
"Dry up," the other exclaimed.
Then he stood silent for a few moments before he turned and laid his hand on Tap's shoulder.
"There's the sound of a horse—hobbled—there," he whispered, pointing. "We'll get round beyond that white gum and plant the swags. Then we'll round up their horses and clear."
"But look here—hold on, Barber," Tap exclaimed, as the leader turned away.
"What?" he said, as he came back.
"Walker's a man we'll want. He's just after your own heart. He's as fly as they make 'em. It's better than trusting to luck to pick one up after. Why not wake him?—he won't say a word, and he's an edge on Gleeson. I know he's a lay of his own somewhere, and it might suit us to chip in."