CHAPTER I UNEMPLOYED
CHAPTER II Tuesday, Oct. 9—GOOLUMBULLA; TO RORY'S
CHAPTER III Friday, Nov. 9—CHARLEY'S PADDOCK; BINNEY; CATASTROPHE
CHAPTER IV Sunday, Dec. 9—DEAD MAN'S BEND! WARRIGAL ALF DOWN; RESCUE TWICE; ENLISTED TERRIBLE TOMMY, ETC.
CHAPTER V Wednesday, Jan. 9—TRINIDAD PAD., PER SAM YOUNG; CONVLAVE
CHAPTER VI Saturday, Feb. 9—RUNNYMEDE; TO ALF JONES'S
CHAPTER VII Friday, March 28—WILCANNIA SHOWER; JACK THE SHELLBACK; Saturday, March 29—TO RUNNYMEDE; TOM ARMSTRONG AND MATE
Unemployed at last!
Scientifically, such a contingency can never have befallen of itself. According to one theory of the Universe, the momentum of Original Impress has been tending toward this far-off, divine event ever since a scrap of fire-mist flew from the solar centre to form our planet. Not this event alone, of course; but every occurrence, past and present, from the fall of captured Troy to the fall of a captured insect. According to another theory, I hold an independent diploma as one of the architects of our Social System, with a commission to use my own judgment, and take my own risks, like any other unit of humanity. This theory, unlike the first, entails frequent hitches and cross-purposes; and to some malign operation of these I should owe my present holiday.
Orthodoxly, we are reduced to one assumption: namely, that my indomitable old Adversary has suddenly called to mind Dr. Watts's friendly hint respecting the easy enlistment of idle hands.
Good. If either of the two first hypotheses be correct, my enforced furlough tacitly conveys the responsibility of extending a ray of information, however narrow and feeble, across the path of such fellow-pilgrims as have led lives more sedentary than my own—particularly as I have enough money to frank myself in a frugal way for some weeks, as well as to purchase the few requisites of authorship.
If, on the other hand, my supposed safeguard of drudgery has been cut off at the meter by that amusingly short-sighted old Conspirator, it will be only fair to notify him that his age and experience, even his captivating habits and well-known hospitality, will be treated with scorn, rather than respect, in the paragraphs which he virtually forces me to write; and he is hereby invited to view his own feather on the fatal dart.
Whilst a peculiar defect—which I scarcely like to call an oversight in mental construction—shuts me out from the flowery pathway of the romancer, a co-ordinate requital endows me, I trust, with the more sterling, if less ornamental qualities of the chronicler. This fairly equitable compensation embraces, I have been told, three distinct attributes: an intuition which reads men like sign-boards; a limpid veracity; and a memory which habitually stereotypes all impressions except those relating to personal injuries.
Submitting, then, to the constitutional interdict already glanced at, and availing myself of the implied license to utilise that homely talent of which I am the bailee, I purpose taking certain entries from my diary, and amplifying these to the minutest detail of occurrence or conversation. This will afford to the observant reader a fair picture of Life, as that engaging problem has presented itself to me.
Twenty-two consecutive editions of Lett's Pocket Diary, with one week in each opening, lie on the table before me; all filled up, and in a decent state of preservation. I think I shall undertake the annotation of a week's record. A man might, if he were of a fearful heart, stagger in this attempt; but I shut my eyes, and take up one of the little volumes. It proves to be the edition of 1883. Again I shut my eyes while I open the book at random. It is the week beginning with Sunday, the 9th of September.
SUN. SEPT. 9. Thomp. Coop. &c. 10-Mile Pines. Cleo. Duff. Selec.
The fore part of the day was altogether devoid of interest or event. Overhead, the sun blazing wastefully and thanklessly through a rarefied atmosphere; underfoot the hot, black clay, thirsting for spring rain, and bare except for inedible roley-poleys, coarse tussocks, and the woody stubble of close-eaten salt-bush; between sky and earth, a solitary wayfarer, wisely lapt in philosophic torpor. Ten yards behind the grey saddle-horse follows a black pack-horse, lightly loaded; and three yards behind the pack-horse ambles listlessly a tall, slate-coloured kangaroo dog, furnished with the usual poison muzzle—a light wire basket, worn after the manner of a nose-bag.
Mile after mile we go at a good walk, till the dark boundary of the scrub country disappears northward in the glassy haze, and in front, southward, the level black-soil plains of Riverina Proper mark a straight sky-line, broken here and there by a monumental clump or pine-ridge. And away beyond the horizon, southward still, the geodesic curve carries that monotony across the zone of salt-bush, myall, and swamp box; across the Lachlan and Murrumbidgee, and on to the Victorian border—say, two hundred and fifty miles.
Just about mid-day, the station track I was following intersected and joined the stock route; and against the background of a pine-ridge, a mile ahead, I saw some wool-teams. When I overtook them, they had stopped for dinner among the trees. One of the party was an intimate friend of mine, and three others were acquaintances; so, without any of the ceremony which prevails in more refined circles, I hooked Fancy's rein on a pine branch, pulled the pack-saddle off Bunyip, and sat down with the rest, to screen the tea through my teeth and flick the diligent little operatives out of the cold mutton with the point of my pocket-knife.
There were five bullock-teams altogether: Thompson's twenty; Cooper's eighteen; Dixon's eighteen; and Price's two teams of fourteen each. Three of the wagons, in accordance with a fashion of the day, bore names painted along the board inside the guard irons. Thompson's was the Wanderer; Cooper's, the Hawkesbury; and Dixon's, the Wombat. All were platform wagons, except Cooper's, which was the Sydney-side pattern.
To avoid the vulgarity of ushering this company into the presence of the punctilious reader without even the ceremony of a Bedouin introduction—(This is my friend, N or M; if he steals anything, I will be responsible for it): a form of introduction, by the way, too sweeping in its suretyship for prudent men to use in Riverina—I shall describe the group, severally, with such succinctness as may be compatible with my somewhat discursive style.
Steve Thompson was a Victorian. He was scarcely a typical bullock driver, since fifteen years of that occupation had not brutalised his temper, nor ensanguined his vocabulary, nor frayed the terminal "g" from his participles. I knew him well, for we had been partners in dogflesh and colleagues in larceny when we were, as poets feign, nearer to heaven than in maturer life. And, wide as Riverina is, we often encountered fortuitously, and were always glad to fraternise. Physically, Thompson was tall and lazy, as bullock drivers ought to be.
Cooper was an entire stranger to me, but as he stoutly contended that Hay and Deniliquin were in Port Phillip, I inferred him to be a citizen of the mother colony. Four months before, he had happened to strike the very first consignment of goods delivered at Nyngan by rail, for the Western country. He had chanced seven tons of this, for Kenilworth; had there met Thompson, delivering salt from Hay; and now the two, freighted with Kenilworth wool, were making the trip to Hay together. Kenilworth was on the commercial divide, having a choice of two evils—the long, uninviting track southward to the Murrumbidgee, and the badly watered route eastward to the Bogan. This was Cooper's first experience of Riverina, and he swore in no apprentice style that it would be his last. A correlative proof of the honest fellow's Eastern extraction lay in the fact that he was three inches taller, three stone heavier, and thirty degrees lazier, than Thompson.
I had known Dixon for many years. He was a magnificent specimen of crude humanity; strong, lithe, graceful, and not too big—just such a man as your novelist would picture as the nurse-swapped offspring of some rotund or ricketty aristocrat. But being, for my own part, as I plainly stated at the outset, incapable of such romancing, I must register Dixon as one whose ignoble blood had crept through scoundrels since the Flood. Though, when you come to look at it leisurely, this wouldn't interfere with aristocratic, or even regal, descent—rather the reverse.
Old Price had carted goods from Melbourne to Bendigo in '52; a hundred miles, for 100 per ton. He had had two teams at that time, and, being a man of prudence and sagacity, had two teams still, and was able to pay his way. I had known him since I was about the height of this table; he was Old Price then; he is Old Price still; and he will probably be Old Price when my head is dredged with the white flour of a blameless life, and I am pottering about with a stick, hating young fellows, and making myself generally disagreeable. Price's second team was driven by his son Mosey, a tight little fellow, whose body was about five-and-twenty, but whose head, according to the ancient adage, had worn out many a good pair of shoulders.
Willoughby, who was travelling loose with Thompson and Cooper, was a whaler. Not owing to any inherent incapacity, for he had taken his B.A. at an English university, and was, notwithstanding his rags and dirt, a remarkably fine-looking man; bearing a striking resemblance to Dixon, even in features. But as the wives of Napoleon's generals could never learn to walk on a carpet, so the aimless popinjay of adult age can never learn to take a man's place among rough-and-ready workers. Even in spite of Willoughby's personal resemblance to Dixon, there was a suggestion of latent physical force and leathery durability in the bullock driver, altogether lacking in the whaler, and equiponderated only by a certain air of refinement. How could it be otherwise? Willoughby, of course, had no horse—in fact, like Bassanio, all the wealth he had ran in his veins; he was a gentleman. Well for the world if all representatives of his Order were as harmless, as inexpensive, and as unobtrusive as this poor fellow, now situated like that most capricious poet, honest Ovid, among the Goths.
One generally feels a sort of diffidence in introducing one's self; but I may remark that I was at that time a Government official, of the ninth class; paid rather according to my grade than my merit, and not by any means in proportion to the loafing I had to do. Candidly, I was only a Deputy-Assistant-Sub-Inspector, but with the reversion of the Assistant-Sub-Inspectorship itself when it should please Atropos to snip the thread of my superior officer.
The repast being concluded, the drivers went into committee on the subject of grass—a vital question in '83, as you may remember.
"It's this way," said Mosey imperatively, and deftly weaving into his address the thin red line of puissant adjective; "You dunno what you're doin' when you're foolin' with this run. She's hair-trigger at the best o' times, an' she's on full cock this year. Best watched station on the track. It's risk whatever way you take it. We're middlin' safe to be collared in the selection, an' we're jist as safe to be collared in the ram-paddick. Choice between the divil an' the dam. An' there's too big a township o' wagons together. Two's enough, an' three's a glutton, for sich a season as this."
"I think Cooper and I had better push on to the ram-paddock," suggested Thompson. "You three can work on the selection. Division of labour's the secret of success, they say."
"Secret of England's greatness," mused Dixon. "I forgit what the (irrelevant expletive) that is."
"The true secret of England's greatness lies in her dependencies, Mr. Dixon," replied Willoughby handsomely; and straightway the serene, appreciative expression of the bullock driver's face, rightly interpreted, showed that his mind was engaged in a Graeco-Roman conflict with the polysyllable, the latter being uppermost.
"Well, no," said Mosey, replying to Thompson; "no use separatin' now; it's on'y spreadin' the risk; we should 'a' separated yesterday. I would n't misdoubt the selection, on'y Cunningham told me the other day, Magomery's shiftin' somebody to live there. If that's so, it's up a tree, straight. The ram-paddick's always a risk—too near the station."
"The hut on the selection was empty a week ago," I remarked. "I know it, for I camped there one night."
"Good grass?" inquired a chorus of voices.
"About the best I've had this season."
"We'll chance the selection," said Mosey decidedly. "Somebody can ride on ahead, an' see the coast clear. But they won't watch a bit of a paddick in the thick o' the shearin', when there's nobody livin' in it."
"Squatters hed orter fine grass f'r wool teams, an' glad o' the chance," observed Price, with unprintable emphasis.
"Lot of sense in that remark," commented Mosey, with a similar potency of adjective.
"Well, this is about the last place God made," growled Cooper, the crimson thread of kinship running conspicuously through his observation, notwithstanding its narrow provinciality.
"Roll up, Port Phillipers! the Sydney man's goin' to strike a match!" retorted Mosey. "I wonder what fetched a feller like you on-to bad startin'-ground. I swear we did n't want no lessons."
Cooper was too lazy to reply; and we smoked dreamily, while my kangaroo dog silently abstracted a boiled leg of mutton from Price's tuckerbox, and carried it out of sight. By-and-by, all eyes converged on a shapeless streak which had moved into sight in the restless, glassy glitter of the plain, about a mile away.
"Warrigal Alf going out on the lower track," remarked Thompson, at length. "He was coming behind Baxter and Donovan yesterday, but he stopped opposite the station, talking to Montgomery and Martin, and the other fellows lost the run of him. I wonder where he camped last night? He ought to be able to tell us where the safest grass is, considering he's had a load in from the station. But to tell you the truth, I'm in favour of the ram-paddock. If we're caught there, we'll most likely only get insulted—and we can stand a lot of that—but if we're caught in the selection, it's about seven years. Then we can make the Lignum Swamp to-morrow from the ram-paddock, and we can't make it from the selection. So I think we better be moving; it'll be dark enough before we unyoke. I've worked on that ram-paddock so often that I seem to have a sort of title to it."
"But there's lots o' changes since you was here last," said Mosey. "Magomery he's beginnin' to think he's got a sort o' title to the ram-paddick now, considerin' it's all purchased. Tell you what I'll do: I'll slip over in two minits on Valiparaiser, an' consult with Alf. Me an' him's as thick as thieves."
"I'll go with you, Mosey," said I. "I've got some messages for him. Keep an eye on my dog, Steve."
Mosey untied the fine upstanding grey horse from the rear of his wagon; I hitched Bunyip to a tree, and mounted Fancy, and we cantered away together across the plain; the ponderous empty wagon—Sydney-side pattern—with eight bullocks in yoke and twelve travelling loose, coming more clearly into detail through the vibrating translucence of the lower atmosphere. Alf did n't deign to stop. I noticed a sinister smile on his sad, stern face as Mosey gaily accosted him.
"An' how's the world usin' you, Alf? Got red o' Pilot, I notice. Ever see sich a suck-in? Best at a distance, ain't he? Tell you what I come over for, Alf: They say things is middlin' hot here on Runnymede; an' we're in a (sheol) of a (adjective) stink about what to do with our frames to-night. Our wagons is over there on the other track, among the pines. Where did you stop las' night? Your carrion's as full as ticks."
"I had them in the selection; took them out this morning after they lay down."
"Why, I don't see how it concerns you."
"The selection's reasonable safe—ain't it?"
"Please yourself about that."
"Is the ram-paddick safe?".
"Is there enough water in the tank at the selection?"
"How do I know? There was enough for me."
"I say, Alf," said I: "Styles, of Karowra, told me to let you know, if possible, that you were right about the boring rods; and he'll settle with you any time you call. Also there's a letter for you at Lochleven Station. Two items."
"I'm very much obliged to you for your trouble, Collins," replied Alf, with a shade less of moroseness in his tone.
"Well, take care o' yourself, ole son; you ain't always got me to look after you," said Mosey pleasantly; and we turned our horses and rode away. "Evil-natured beggar, that," he continued. "He's floggin' the cat now, 'cos he laid us on to the selection in spite of his self. If that feller don't go to the bottomless for his disagreeableness, there's somethin' radic'ly wrong about Providence. I'm a great believer in Providence, myself, Tom; an' what's more, I try to live up to my (adj.) religion. I'm sure I don't want to see any pore (fellow) chained up in fire an' brimstone for millions o' millions o' years, an' a worm tormentin' him besides; but I don't see what the (adj. sheol) else they can do with Alf. Awful to think of it." Mosey sighed piously, then resumed, "Grand dog you got since I seen you last. Found the (animal), I s'pose?"
"No, Mosey. Bought him fair."
"Jist so, jist so. You ought to give him to me. He's bound to pick up a bait with you; you're sich a careless &c., &c." And so the conversation ran on the subject of dogs during the return ride.
On our reaching the wagons, it was unanimously resolved that the selection should be patronised. This being so, there was no hurry—rather the reverse— for the selection was not to be reached till dusk.
You will understand that the bullock drivers' choice of accommodation lay between the selection, the ram-paddock, and a perisher on the plain. The selection was four or five miles ahead; the near corner of the ram-paddock about two miles farther still; whilst a perisher on the plain is seldom hard to find in a bad season, when the country is stocked for good seasons. Runnymede home station—Mooney and Montgomery, owners; J. G. Montgomery, managing partner—was a mile or so beyond the further corner of the ram-paddock, and was the central source of danger.
Presently the tea leaves were thrown out of the billies; the tuckerboxes were packed on the pole-fetchels; and the teams got under way. Thompson pressed me to camp with him and Cooper for the night, and I readily consented; thus temporarily eluding a fatality which was in the habit of driving me from any given direction to Runnymede homestead— a fatality which, I trust, I shall have no farther occasion to notice in these pages.
We therefore tied Fancy beside Thompson's horse at the rear of his wagon, and disposed Bunyip's pack-saddle and load on the top of the wool; the horse, of course, following Fancy according to his daily habit.
A quarter of a mile of stiff pulling through the sand of the pine-ridge, and the plain opened out again. A short, dark, irregular line, cleanly separated from the horizon by the wavy glassiness of the lower air, indicated the clump of box on the selection, four miles ahead; and this comprised the landscape.
Soon we became aware of two teams coming to meet us; then three horsemen behind, emerging from the pine-ridge we had left. As the horsemen gradually decreased their distance, the teams met and passed us without salutation; sullenly drawing off the track, in the deference always conceded to wool. Victorian poverty spoke in every detail of the working plant; Victorian energy and greed in the unmerciful loads of salt and wire, for the scrub country out back. The Victorian carrier, formidable by his lack of professional etiquette and his extreme thrift, is neither admired nor caressed by the somewhat select practitioners of Riverina.
Then the three horsemen overtook Cooper, pausing a little, after the custom of the country, to gossip with him as they passed. According to another custom of the country, Thompson, Willoughby and I began to criticise them.
"I know the bloke with the linen coat," remarked Thompson. "His name's M'Nab; he's a contractor. That half-caste has been with him for years, tailing horses and so forth, for his tucker and rags. Mac's no great chop."
"He lets his man Friday have the best horse, at all events," said I. "Grand-looking beast, that black one the half-caste is riding."
"By Jove, yes," replied Willoughby. "Now, Thompson—referring to the discussion we had this morning—that is the class of horse we mount in our light cavalry."
"And that strapping red-headed galoot, riding the bag of bones beside him, is what you would call excellent war-material?" I suggested.
"Precisely, Mr. Collins," replied the whaler. "Nature produces such men expressly for rank and file; and I should imagine that their existence furnishes sufficient rejoinder to the levelling theory."
"Quite possible the chap's as good as either of you," remarked Thompson, seizing the opportunity for reproof. "Do you know anything against him?"
"Well, to quote Madame de Stal," replied Willoughby; "he abuses a man's privilege of being ugly."
"Moreover, he has left undone a thing that he ought to have done," I rejoined. "He ought to be taking a spell of carrying that mare. And pat he comes, like the catastrophe of the old comedy"...
"'Day, chaps," said Rufus, as he joined us. "Keep on your pins, you beggar"— and he drove both spurs into his mare's shrinking flanks. "Grey mare belongs to you, boss—don't she?—an' the black moke with the Roman nose follerin'? I was thinkin' we might manage to knock up some sort o' swap. Now this mare's a Patriarch, she is; and you might n't think it. I won this here saddle with her at a bit of a meetin' las' week, an' rode her my own self—an' that's oc'lar demonster. I tell you, if this here mare had a week spell, you could n't hold her; an' she'd go a hundred mile between sunrise an' sunset, at the same bat. Yes, boss; it's the breed does it. I seen some good horses about the King, but swelp me Gawd I never seen a patch on this mare; an' you might n't think it to look at her jist now. Fact is, boss, she wants a week or a fortnit spell. Could n't we work up some sort o' swap for that ole black moke o' yours, with the big head? If I got a trifle o' cash to boot, I would n't mind slingin' in this saddle, an' takin' yours. Now, boss, don't be a (adj.) fool."
"To tell you the truth," I replied, "that black horse has carried a pack so long that he's about cooked for saddle. But he does me right enough."
"Then I'll tell you what I'll do!" exclaimed Rufus impulsively. "Look here! At a word! I'll go you an even swap for that little weed of a grey mare! At a word, mind! I'm a reckless sort o' (person) when I take the notion! but without a word of exaggeration, I would n't do it on'y for being fixed the way I am. This here mare's got a fortune in her for a man like you."
"Now howl' yer tongue!" interposed M'Nab, who, with the half-caste—a lithe, active lad of eighteen—had joined us. "Is it swappin' ye want wi' decent men? Sure thon poor craytur iv a baste hes n't got the sthrenth fur till kerry it own hide, let alone a great gommeril on it back. An' thon's furnent ye! Hello, Tamson! begog A did n't know ye at wanst."
"Good day, Mr. M'Nab. Alterations since I delivered you that wire at Poondoo. Been in the wars?" For M'Nab was leaning forward and sideways in his saddle, evidently in pain.
"Yis," replied the contractor frankly. "There was some Irish rascals at the pub. thonder, where we stapped las' night; an' wan word brung on another, an' at long an' at last we fell to, so we did; on' A'm dam but they got the betther o' me, being three agin wan. A b'lee some o' me ribs is bruk."
"I'm sorry to hear that," said Thompson, straining a point for courtesy.
"Are you an Orangeman too, sonny?" I asked the half-caste aside; for the young fellow had a bunged eye, and a flake of skin off his cheek-bone.
"No, by Cripes!" responded my countryman emphatically. "Not me. That cove's a (adj.) liar. He don't give a dam, s'posin' a feller's soul gits bashed out. Best sight I seen for many a day was seein' him gittin' kicked. If the mean beggar'd on'y square up with me, I'd let summedy else do his"——
"Thon's a brave wee shilty, sur-thon grey wan o' yours," broke in the contractor, who had been conversing with Thompson, whilst looking enviously at Fancy, hitched behind the wagon. "Boys o' dear," he added reflectively, "she's jist sich another as may wee Dolly; an' A've been luckin' fur a match fur Dolly this menny's the day. How oul' is she, sur?"
"Six, this spring."
"Ay—that! Ye wud n't be fur partin' we her, sur? A'm mortial covetious fur till git thon baste. Houl' an"—he pondered a moment, glancing first at the honest-looking hack he was riding, then at the magnificent animal which carried the half-caste. "Houl' an. Gimme a thrifle fur luck, an' take ether wan o' them two. A'll thrust ye till do the leck fur me some time afther."
He had been travelling with the red-headed fellow, and the fascination of swapping was upon him, poorly backed by his suicidal candour. The utter simplicity of his bracketing his own two horses—worth, respectively, to all appearance, 8 and 30—and the frank confession of his desire to have my mare at any price, made me feel honestly compunctious.
"Now thon's a brave loose lump iv a baste," he continued, following my eye as I glanced over the half-caste's splendid mount. "Aisy till ketch, an' as quite as ye plaze."
"How old is he, Mr. M'Nab?"
"He must be purty oul', he's so quite and thractable. Ye kin luck at his mouth. A don't ondherstand the marks myself."
I opened the horse's mouth. He was just five. I regret to record that I shook my head gravely, and observed:
"You've had him a long time, Mr. M'Nab?"
"Divil a long. A got him in a swap, as it might be this time yistherday. There's the resate. An' here's the resate the man got when he bought him out o' Hillston poun'. Ye can't go beyant a poun' resate."
"Why do you want to get rid of the horse, Mr. M'Nab?"
"Begog, A don't want till git red iv the baste, sich as he is," replied M'Nab resentfully. "But A want thon wee shilty, an' A evened a swap till ye, fur it's a prodistaner thing nor lavin' a man on his feet, so it is."
"See anything wrong with the horse, Steve?" I asked in an undertone.
"Perfect to the eye," murmured Thompson. "Try him a mile, full tilt."
I made the proposal to M'Nab, and he eagerly agreed. At my suggestion, the half-caste unhitched and tried Fancy, while I mounted the black horse, and turned him across the plain. I tried him at all paces; but never before had I met with anything to equal that elastic step and long, easy, powerful stride. To ride that horse was to feel free, exultant, invincible. His gallop was like Marching Through Georgia, vigorously rendered by a good brass band. All that has been written of man's noblest friend— from the dim, uncertain time when some unknown hand, in a leisure moment, dashed off the Thirty-ninth chapter of the Book of Job, to the yesterday when Long Gordon translated into ringing verse the rhythmic clatter of the hoof-beats he loved so well—all might find fulfilment in this unvalued beast, now providentially owned by the softest of foreigners.
"Well?" interrogated M'Nab, as I rejoined him.
"Don't you think he's a bit chest-foundered?" I asked in reply.
"Divil a wan o' me knows. Mebbe he is, begog. Sure A hed n't him long enough fur till fine out."
"And how much boot are you going to give me?" I asked, with a feeling of shame which did honour to my heart.
"Och, now, lave this! Boot! is it? Sure A cud kerry thon wee shilty ondher may oxther! Ye have a right till be givin' me a thrifle fur luck. A'll let ye aff we two notes."
But after five minutes' more palaver, M'Nab agreed to an even swap. I had pen and ink in my pocket; my note-book supplied paper; and receipts were soon exchanged. Then the saddles were shifted, and we cantered ahead till we rejoined Thompson. I tied my new acquisition behind the wagon, where, for the first five minutes, he severely tested the inch rope which secured him.
"Now, Mr. M'Nab," said I, "I'll give you my word that the mare is just what you see. You may as well tell me what's wrong with the horse?"
"Ax Billy about thon. Mebbe he's foun' out some thricks, or somethin'."
"Well, look here," said Billy devoutly—"I hope Gord'll strike me stark, stiff, stone dead off o' this saddle if the horse has any tricks, or anythin' wrong with him, no more nor the man in the moon. Onna bright. There! I've swore it."
"Well, the mare is as good as gold," I reiterated. "She's one among a hundred. Call her Fancy."
"The horse's name's Clayopathra," rejoined M'Nab; "an' by gog ye'll fine him wan out iv a thousan'. A chris'ned him Clayopathra, fur A thought till run him."
"A very good name too," I replied affably. "I should be sorry to change it."
And I never did change it, though, often afterward, men of clerkly attainments took me aside and kindly pointed out what they conceived to be a blunder. I have dwelt, perhaps tediously, upon this swap; my excuses are—first, that, having made few such good bargains during the days of my vanity, the memory is a pleasant one; and, second, that the horse will necessarily play a certain part in these memoirs.
"Well, we'll be pushin' an, Billy," said M'Nab; "the sun's gittin' low. An' you needn't tail me up enny fardher," he added, turning to Rufus. "Loaf an these people the night. A man thravellin' his lone, an' nat a shillin' in his pocket!"
"O, go an' bark up a tree, you mongrel!" replied the war-material, with profusion of adjective. "Fat lot o' good tailin' you up! A man that sets down to his dinner without askin' another man whether he's got a mouth on him or not! Polite sort o' (person) you are! Gerrout! you bin dragged up on the cheap!"
"Come! A'll bate ye fifty poun' A'm betther rairt nor you! Houl' an'!— A'll bate ye a hundher'—two hundher', if ye lek, an' stake the money down this minit"——
"Stiddy, now! draw it mild, you fellers there!" thundered Cooper from behind. "Must n't have no quarrellin' while I'm knockin' round."
"Ye'll be late gittin' to the ram-paddock, Tamson," remarked M'Nab, treating Cooper with the silent contempt usually lavished upon men of his physique. "Axpect thon's where ye're makin' fur?"
"I say—you better camp with us to-night," suggested Thompson, evading the implied inquiry.
Without replying, the contractor put his horse into a canter, and, accompanied by his esquire, went on his way, pausing only to speak to Mosey for a few minutes as he passed the foremost team.
"Curious sample o' (folks) you drop across on the track sometimes," remarked Rufus, who remained with us.
"No end to the variety," I replied. Then lowering my voice and glancing furtively round, I asked experimentally, "Haven't I seen you before, somewhere?"
"Queensland, most likely," he conjectured, whilst finding something of interest on the horizon, at the side farthest from me. "Native o' that district, I am. Jist comin' across for the fust time. What's that bloke's name with the nex' team ahead—if it's a fair question?"
"Gosh, I'm in luck!" He spurred his mare forward, and attached himself to Dixon for the rest of the afternoon.
But time, according to its deplorable habit, had been passing, and the glitter had died off the plain as the sun went on its way to make a futile attempt at purifying the microbe-laden atmosphere of Europe.
At last we reached the spot selected as a camp. Close on our left was the clump of swamp box which covered about fifty acres of the nearer portion of the selection, leaving a few scattered trees outside the fence. On our right, the bare plain extended indefinitely.
I ought to explain that this selection was a mile-square block, which had been taken up, four years previously, by a business man of Melbourne, whose aim was to show the public how to graze scientifically on a small area. Now Runnymede owned the selection, whilst its former occupier was vending sixpenny parcels of inferior fruit on a railway platform. The fence—erected by the experimentalist—was of the best kind; two rails and four wires; sheep-proof and cattle-proof.
The wagons drew off the track, and stopped beside the fence in the deepening twilight. The bullocks were unyoked with all speed, and stood around waiting to see what provision would be made for the night.
"Look 'ere," said Mosey, taking a dead pine sapling from the stock of firewood under his wagon, and, of course, emphasising his address by an easy and not ungraceful clatter of the adjective used so largely by poets in denunciation of war—"we ain't goin' to travel these carrion a mile to the gate, an' most likely fine it locked when we git there. Hold on till I git my internal machine to work on the fence. Dad! Where's that ole morepoke? O, you're there, are you? Fetch the jack off o' your wagon—come! fly roun'! you're (very) slow for a young fellow. Bum," (abbreviation of "bummer," and applied to the red-headed fellow) "you surround them carrion, or we'll be losin' the run o' them two steers."
A low groan from Bum's mare followed the heavy stroke of the ruffian's spurs. "Some o' you other (fellows) keep roun' that side," said he; "I'll go this road. Up! you Red Roverite! "—No use... The mare had had enough for one day; she stumbled, and fell, rolling heavily over her rider. "What the (quadruple expletive)'s the matter with her?" he continued, extricating himself, and kicking the beast till she staggered to her feet. "Come on agen, an' don't gimme no more o' your religiousness." He remounted, and the mare, under the strong stimulus of his spurs, cantered laboriously out into the dark.
Meanwhile, Mosey had taken a hand-saw from its receptacle on his wagon, and had cut the pine spar to a length of about eighteen inches less than a panel of the fence. "Lash this 'ere saplin' hard down on the top rail," he now commanded. Price and Dixon obeyed, and Mosey laid his powerful bottlejack on the rail, filling up the space, and began to turn it with a long bolt, by way of lever. "You see, Tom," he remarked to me; "this fixter'll put the crooked maginnis on any fence from ere to 'ell. It's got to come. No matter how tight rails is shouldered, they'll spring some; an' if every post'll give on'y half a inch, why then, ten posts makes five or six inches; an' that's about all you want. Then in the mornin', you can fix the fence so's the ole-man divil his self could n't ball you out. Ah!——! That's what comes o' blowin'." For the post, being wild and free in the grain, had burst along the two mortices; one half running completely off, just above the ground. "Serve people right for puttin' in rails when wire would do," he continued, removing the screwjack. "Accidents will happen— best reg'lated famblies. 'Tain't our business, anyhow. Now, chaps, round up yer carrion, an' shove 'em in."
The four wires in the lower part of the fence rung like harp strings as the cattle stepped into or over them, and in a few minutes the whole live stock of the caravan-eighty-four bullocks and seven horses— were in the selection, but too thirsty to feed. Then whilst Thompson, Mosey, Willoughby and I tailed them toward the tank, Dixon hurried on ahead with his five-gallon oil-drum, in order to replenish it before the water was disturbed; and Price, by Mosey's orders, accompanied him on the same business. We steadied the bullocks at the tank till all were satisfied, then headed them back to within fifty yards of the wagons, where we hobbled all the horses, except Bum's mare.
"Steve," said I to my old schoolmate: "of course, you and I are seized of the true inwardness of duffing; but to those who live cleanly, as noblemen should, this would appear a dirty transaction."
"The world's full of dirty transactions, Tom," replied the bullock driver wearily. "It's a dirty transaction to round up a man's team in a ten-mile paddock, and stick a bob a head on them, but that's a thing that I'm very familiar with; it's a dirty transaction to refuse water to perishing beasts, but I've been refused times out of number, and will be to the end of the chapter; it's a dirty transaction to persecute men for having no occupation but carting, yet that's what nine-tenths of the squatters do, and this Montgomery is one of the nine. You're a bit sarcastic. How long is it since you were one of the cheekiest grass-stealers on the track?"
"Never, Steve. You've been drinking."
"Anyway, you need n't be more of a hypocrite than you can help," grumbled Thompson. "If you want a problem to work out, just consider that God constructed cattle for living on grass, and the grass for them to live on, and that, last night, and to-night, and to-morrow night, and mostly every night, we've a choice between two dirty transactions— one is, to let the bullocks starve, and the other is to steal grass for them. For my own part, I'm sick and tired of studying why some people should be in a position where they have to go out of their way to do wrong, and other people are cornered to that extent that they can't live without doing wrong, and can't suicide without jumping out of the frying-pan into the fire. Wonder if any allowance is made for bullock drivers?— or are they supposed to be able to make enough money to retire into some decent life before they die? Well, thank God for one good camp, at all events."
"How's the water?" asked Cooper, meeting us at the fence.
"Enough for to-night," replied Thompson; "but very little left for posterity."
"After us, the Deluge," observed Willoughby.
"I hope so," replied Cooper devoutly. "Lord knows, it's badly wanted; and I'm sure we don't grudge nobody the benefit. Turnin' out nice an' cool, ain't it? The bullocks'll be able to do their selves some sort o' justice."
It was a clear but moonless night; the dark blue canopy spangled with myriad stars—grandeur, peace, and purity above; squalor, worry, and profanity below. Fit basis for many an ancient system of Theology— unscientific, if you will, but by no means contemptible.
Price and Cooper, being cooks, had kindled an unobtrusive fire in a crabhole, where three billies were soon boiling. And the tea, when cool enough, needed no light to escort a due proportion of simple provender into that mysterious laboratory which should never be considered too curiously.
After supper, we lay around, resting ourselves; everyone smoking tranquilly except Willoughby. Dixon and Bum were evidently old friends; they reclined with their heads together, occasionally laughing and whispering—a piece of bad manners silently but strongly resented by the rest of the company.
"I'll jist go an' have a squint at the carrion," remarked Mosey, at length, with the inevitable adjective; and, passing through the broken fence, he disappeared in the timber and old-man salt-bush.
"Wants some o' the flashness took outen him," remarked Price, in arrogant assertion of parental authority, yet glancing apprehensively after Mosey as he spoke.
"Should 'a' thought about that before," observed Cooper gravely. "Too late now. You ain't good enough."
A few minutes silence ensued, while each member of the company thought the matter over in his own way. Then Mosey returned.
"Grass up over yer boots, an' the carrion goin' into it lemons," he remarked. "I do like to give this Runnymede the benefit o' the act. 'On't ole Martin be ropeable when he sees that fence! Magomery's as hard as nails, his own self; but he ain't the class o' feller that watches from behine a tree—keeps curs like Martin to do his dirty work. But he'd like to nip every divil of us if he got half a slant. I notice, the more swellisher a man is, the more miserabler he is about a bite o' grass for a team, or a feed for a traveller. Magomery's got an edge on you, Thompson—you an' Cunningham—for workin' on Nosey Alf's horse-paddick, an' for leavin' some gates open. Moriarty, the storekeeper, he told me about it."
"Well, we did n't work on Alf's horse-paddock, and we did n't leave any gates open," replied Thompson. "We lost the steers from the ram-paddock, here, and we found them away in the Sedan paddock. Certainly, we camped them all night in the Connelly paddock, but we never touched Alf's grass, and we left no gates open."
"Chorus, boys!" said Mosey flippantly.
"O, what a (adj.) lie!" echoed Dixon, Bum, and the precentor himself. Thompson sighed; Cooper growled; and Willoughby coughed deprecatingly.
"I don't blame ole Martin to have a bit of a nose on me," continued Mosey laughingly. "Lord! didn't I git the loan of him cheap las' summer! Me an' the ole man was comin' down from Karowra with the last o' the clip; an' these paddicks was as bare as the palm o' your hand; so we goes on past here, an' camps half-ways between the fur corner o' the ram-paddick an' the station gate; an' looses out about an hour after sundown. It was sort o' cloudy moonlight that night; an' I takes the carrion straight on, an' shoves 'em in the horse-paddick, an' shuts the gate. Then I fetches 'em into a sort of a holler, where the best grass was, an' I takes the saddle an' bridle off o' the horse, an' lays down, an' watches the carrion wirin' in. Well, you know, ole Martin, the head boundary man, he's about as nice a varmin as Warrigal Alf; an' the young fellers at the barracks they 'on't corroborate with him, no road; an' he thinks his self a cut above the hut, so he lives with Daddy Montague, in Latham's ole place, down at the fur corner o' the horse-paddick. Well, this ole beggar he's buckin' up to Miss King, the governess, an' Moriarty, the storekeeper, he's buckin' up to her too"——
"Clever feller, that Moriarty," interposed Price, in pathetic sycophancy. "Rummest young (fellow) goin', when he likes to come out. Ain't he, Mosey?" He paused and laughed heartily. "Las' time I unloaded at Runnymede—an' it was on'y one ton lebm; for we was goin' out emp'y for wool, on account o' them two Vic. chaps snappin' our loads. I disremember if I tole you the yarn when I pulled you at the Willandra. Anyhow it was raining like (incongruous comparison) when I drawed up at the store; an' Moriarty he fetches me inter the office, an' gives me a stiffener o' brandy. Or whisky? Now, (hair-raising imprecation) if I don't disremember which. But I think it was brandy. Yes, it was brandy."
"Well?" interrogated Mosey, after a pause.
"On'y jist showin' how one idear sort o' fetches up another," replied the old man, with simulated ease of manner.
"Well, you are a (adj.) fool. But as I was telling you chaps: About eleven o'clock, who should come dodgin' down the paddick but ole Martin. Bin pokin' roun' after Miss King, I s'pose. He walks right bang through the carrion, thinkin' they was the station bullicks; an' me layin' there, laughin' in to myself. By-'n'-by he stops an' consithers, an' then he goes roun' examinin' them, an' smellin' about, an' then he has a long squint at Valiparaiser; an' in the heel o' the hunt he rounds up the lot, an' sails off to the yard with 'em; an' me follerin' ready to collar 'em when the coast was clear. By-'n'-by I sees him leavin' the yard, an' I goes to it, an' lo an' behold you! there was a padlock on the gate as big as a sardine-box."
" Well, we had a bunch o' keys at the camp. I had snavelled 'em at the railway station, las' time we was at Deniliquin, thinkin' they might come in useful. So I heads for the camp at the rate o' knots. Collars the keys, an' gits a drink o' tea, an' takes a bit o' brownie in my fist, an' back I goes, doin' the trip in about an hour. Providential, one o' the keys fits the lock, so I whips out the carrion, an' shoves 'em down to where the ole sinner took 'em from. Well, there was two station teams in the paddick—I s'pose they wanted 'em very early for somethin'— so I saddles Valiparaiser an' scoots across to where I seen these bullicks when I was goin' for the keys; an' I shoves 'em into the yard; an' I rakes up a ole grey horse, lame o' four legs, an' shoves him in along o' the carrion, an' locks the gate, an' goes back to our lot, an' keeps an eye on 'em till they laid down, fit to bust. Lord! how I laughed that night! I seen Martin watchin us nex' mornin', after we started. He's got a set on me for that, among other things."
"Hasn't Warrigal Alf got a set on you too?" asked Thompson coldly. "Strikes me, you're not the safest man in the world to travel with."
"Yes, Alf gives me the prayers o' the Church now an' agen," replied Mosey complacently. "It was this way: The winter afore last, we got a leader in a swap at Deniliquin. Same time I made the keys. Yaller, hoop-horned bullick—I dunno if you seen him with us? Well, this Pilot, you could n't pack him"—Here Cooper slowly rose, and walked across to his wagon—"Lazy mountain o' mullick, that."
"Burden to his own self," assented Price obsequiously.
"Thick-headed galoot, appearingly," suggested Bum.
"Ought to be hunted back to the Sydney side," contributed Dixon.
——"You could n't pack him for a near side leader," resumed Mosey; "but there was nothin' for it but shepherd all night. You might bet yer soul agen five bob, Pilot was off. Whenever he seen a fence, he'd go through it, an' whenever he seen a river, he'd swim it; an' the whole fraternity stringin' after, thinkin' he was on for somethin' worth while. Grand leader, but a beggar to clear. Well, las' year, when we went up emp'y to Bargoona— same trip the ole man got that wonderful drink off Moriarty—who should we fine there but this Alf, waitin' for wool, an' due for the fust load. No fear o' him goin' up emp'y nyther. He'd manage to collar six ton"——
"Don't mention that name if you can help it, Mosey," interrupted Cooper, as he returned to the group, carrying a blanket and the little bag of dead grass which he used as a pillow. "I'm a good-tempered man," he continued, in sullen apology; "but it gives me the wilds and the melancholies, does that name."
"No; the other name. You've got Nosey Alf, an' Warrigal Alf, an' (sheol) knows how many other Alfs. I got reason to hate that name."
"Well," resumed Mosey, after a pause, "as I was tellin' you, this cove he was there; an' it so happened his near side leader had got bit with a snake, an' died; an' as luck would have it, he'd sold the pick of his bullicks to a tank-sinker, an' bought steers in theyre place; an' he had n't another bullick fit to shove in the near side lead to tackle sich a road as he'd got in front of him. Well, this cove he makes fistfuls o' money, but he's always dog-poor, so he"——
"Which cove makes fistfuls o' money?" demanded Price, roused from a reverie by the magic dissyllable.
"Fine out, you (adj.) ole fool. So he was flyblowed as usual in regard o' cash; an' he was badly in want of a near side leader; an' I kep' showin' off this Pilot, shifting wagons from the door o' the shed, an' tinkerin' about; an' he offered us two good bullicks for the counterfit; an' me an' the ole man we hum'd and ha'd, an' let on we did n't want to part with him; an' me as thin as a whippin'-post with watchin' the yaller-hided dodger every night, to keep him from goin' overland to the bounds o' creation. Well, at long an' at last we swapped level for Valiparaiser. I seen the workin' o' Providence in it from fust to last. The horse he's worth twenty notes, all out; an' Pilot he was dear at a gift. I say, Tom; that's a grand horse you got off o' the Far-downer. Goes like a greyhound. Gosh, you had that bloke to rights. He's whippin' the cat now like fury. I was chiackin' him about the deal, when he told me you swapped level; an' he wanted to change the subject. 'I'm frightened you'll be short o' grass to-night,' says he. 'Where you goin' to camp?' says he. The (adj.) fool!"
"What did you tell him?" asked Thompson.
"Ram-paddick, of course. You don't ketch me tellin' the truth about where I'm goin' to camp. But you got a rakin' horse, Tom; an' I give you credit for gittin' at the blind side o' the turf-cutter."
"He'll do me well enough for poking about," I replied modestly. "But how did the other fellow get on with Pilot?"
"It was the fun o' the world," resumed Mosey. "The other feller he left the shed three days ahead of us; an' when we drawed out, an' camped at the Four-mile Tank, this feller's wagon was standin' there yet; an' no sign o' him nor his carrion. I was thinkin' he'd have some fun with Pilot, 'specially on account of havin' to do his bullick-huntin' on foot; for he could n't afford to git another horse till he delivered. Well, I never seen him agen till to-day when we stopped for dinner; but the feller at the Bilby Well he told me about it when we was goin' back to Bargoona, nex' trip."
"Seems, the other feller he goes out in the mornin' on foot, thinkin' to fine his carrion among that mulgar in the corner to yer left; an' when he got to the corner, there was a hole in the fence, an' the tracks through. Course, he runs the tracks; he runs 'em all day, an' at night he lays down, an' I s'pose he swears his self to sleep. Nex' mornin', off he scoots agen, an' jist before sundown he hears the bells, an' he pipes the tail end o' the string ahead; an' the front end was jist at the Bilby Well—sixty good mile, if it's an inch, an' scrub all the road. Pilot he had n't thought worth while to go roun' by the Boundary Tank, to git on the wool track; he jist went ahead like a surveyor, an' the fences was like spiders' webs to him. It was blazing hot weather; and the other fellow he never seen tucker nor water all the trip, for he wouldn't leave the track. Laugh? Lord! I thought I'd 'a' busted when the bloke at the well told me. I noticed the other feller was a bit narked when he seen me on the horse to-day. He's got red o' Pilot."
"Look here, Mosey," said Thompson slowly: "I'd rather—so help me God— I'd rather cut my own throat than do a trick like that. Are n't you frightened of bringing a curse on yourself?"
"I ain't (adj.) fool enough to believe in curses," replied Mosey— his altered tone nevertheless belying his bravado.
"Simply because you don't keep your eyes open," retorted Thompson. "Is n't it well known that a grog-seller's money never gets to his children? Is n't it well known that if you mislead a woman, a curse'll follow you like your shadow? Isn't it well known that if you're disobedient to your parents, something'll happen to you? Is n't it well known that Sabbath-breaking brings a curse on a man that he can't shake off till he reforms? Now you stole that horse in the dirtiest way; and stealing—well, anything except grass or water—brings as heavy a curse as anything you can do. Mark my words."
"The Jackdaw of Rheims is a case in point," remarked Willoughby aside to me.
"Well," said Price emphatically, and qualifying every word that would bear qualification, "so fur as workin' on Sundays goes, I'm well sure I allus worked on Sundays, an' I'm well sure I allus will; an' I'm well sure 'ere ain't no cuss on me. Why, I dunno what the (complicated expletive) a cuss is! I'll get a blanket fer to lay on," he added; "this ground's sorter damp." And he went across to his wagon.
"He's got a curse on him as big as Mount Macedon, and he does n't know it," muttered Thompson.
"Bearing out the prophecy," said I aside to Willoughby, "that the sinner, being a hundred years old, shall be accursed."
"You ought to show him a bit more respect, Mosey," remarked Cooper gravely.
"Well, to tell you the truth," replied Mosey frankly, "I got no patience with the ole bunyip. Can't suffer fools, no road."
"Well, I don't want to be shovin' in my jor, but I'd take him to be more rogue than fool," suggested Bum.
"Time he was thinkin' about repentin', anyhow," observed Dixon.
"Now, really Thompson—do you believe in these special malisons?" asked Willoughby, as Price rejoined the company. "Are you so superstitious? I should n't have thought it."
"I've good reason to believe in them," replied Thompson. "You asked me this morning why I did n't have two teams. Now I'll tell you the reason. It's because I'm not allowed to keep two teams. I've got a curse on me. Many a long year ago, when I finished my second season, I found myself at Moama, with a hundred and ten notes to the good, and the prospect of going straight ahead, like the cube root—or the square of the hypotenuse, is it? I forget the exact term, but no matter. Well, the curse came on me in this way: Charley Webber, the young fellow I was travelling with, got a letter from some relations in New Zealand, advising him to settle there; so he offered me his plant for two-thirds of its value—fifty notes down and fifty more when he would send for it. Sheer good-nature of him, for he knew he could have the lot if he liked. But there's not many fellows of Charley's stamp. So I paid him the fifty notes and we parted. He was to send me his address as soon as he reached New Zealand; but he never got there. The vessel was wrecked on some place they call the North Spit; and Charley was one of the missing. Never heard of him from that day to this."
"Good (ensanguined) shot!" remarked Mosey. "I wish that same specie of a curse would come on me."
"My (ensanguined) colonial!" assented Dixon and Bum, with one accord.
"Well, nobody knows anything about the geography of New Zealand," continued Thompson, "and I purposely forgot the address of Charley's people. Any honest man would have hunted them up, but that was n't my style; I was n't a wheat-sample; I was a tare. Compromised with my conscience. Thought there was no time to lose in making an independence—making haste to be rich, and considering not that's there's many a slip between the cup and the lip, as Solomon puts it. I said to myself, 'That's all right; I'll pay it some time.' Now see the consequence——"
"Just two years after I bid the poor fellow good-bye-two years to the very day, and not very lucky years neither—I found myself in the middle of the Death Track, with flour for Wilcannia; one wagon left behind, and the bullocks dropping off like fish out of water; bullocks worth ten notes going as if they were n't worth half-a-crown. It was like the retreat from Moscow. Finally, I lost fourteen on the trip—exactly the number I had got dishonestly. As for the second wagon, I gave it to Baxter for fetching the load the last fifty mile. I thought this might clear away the curse, so I didn't fret over it. I felt as if Charley had got satisfaction. But I wasn't going to get off so cheap. Two years afterward—you remember, Dixon?—I bought that thin team and the Melbourne wagon from Pribble, the contractor. Dixon, here, was driving for Pribble at that very time, and he can tell you how Dick the Devil cleaned me out of my fine old picked team and the new wagon, leaving me to begin afresh with the remains of Pribble's skeletons and my own old wagon. Then a year or two afterward, I went in debt to buy that plant of Mulligan's—him that was killed off the colt at Mossgiel— and that same winter the pleuro broke out in my lot, and they went like rotten sheep till fourteen were gone; and then, of course, the plague was stopped. Not having any use for Mulligan's wagon, I swapped her for a new thirty-by-twenty-four wool-rag, and a Wagga pot, good for eight or ten mile on a still night; and, within a month, Ramsay's punt went down with my wagon; she's in the bottom of the Murrumbidgee now, with eight ton of bricks to steady her, and the tarpaulin and bell to keep her company. She'll be fetching the most critical planks out of a steamer some of these times, and I'll get seven years for leaving her there. Afterward, when I was hauling logs for pontooning, on the Goulburn, I kept buying up steers and breaking them in, till I had two twelves; and one day I left sixteen of them standing in yoke while I went looking round for a good log; and suddenly I heard a crash that rattled back and forward across the river for a quarter of an hour. I had a presentiment that Providence was on the job again, and I wasn't disappointed. One of the fallers had left a tree nearly through when he went to dinner; and a gust of wind sent it over, and it carried a couple of other trees before it, right on the spot where my team was folded up in the shade. Eight of them went that trip, between killed and crippled, leaving me with sixteen. My next piece of luck was to lose that new Yankee wagon in the Eight-mile Mallee, on Birrawong. Then I could see plain enough that Providence had taken up Charley's case, and was prepared to block me of keeping two teams; so I determined to have one good one. Now, I've always stood pretty well with the agents and squatters, and I know my way round Riverina, so I can turn over as much money as any single-team man on the track, bar Warrigal Alf (I beg your pardon, Cooper; I forgot)—but what's the use of money to me? Only vanity and vexation of spirit, as Shakespear says. I get up to a certain point, and then I'm knocked stiff. Mind, I've only given you a small, insignificant sample of the misfortunes I've had since I cheated that dead man; but if they don't prove there's a curse on me, then there's no such thing as proof in this world."
Price cleared his throat. "Them misforcunes was invidiously owin' to yer own (adj.) misjudgment," he said dogmatically.
"Serve you right for not havin' better luck," added Dixon.
"Learn you sense, anyhow," remarked Mosey.
"Misforcunes does some people good," hazarded Bum.
"Yes," replied Thompson gently. "I've had my turn. I hope I take it like a man. Your turns will come sooner or later, as sure as you've got heads on your bodies—perhaps next year; perhaps next week; perhaps to-morrow. Let's see how you'll take it. Mind, there's a curse on every one of us. And look here—we had no business to travel to-day; there was a bite of feed in the Patagonia Swamp, if it came to the worst. Now we're in for it. I've got a presentiment that something'll happen before to-morrow night. Just mark my words."
A constrained silence fell on the grown-up children, till Willoughby politely sought to restore ease by contributing his quota to the evening's feast of reason—
"There occurs to my mind a capital thing," he said; "a capital thing, indeed, though apropos of nothing in particular. A student, returning from a stroll, encountered a countryman, carrying a hare in his hand. 'Friend,' said the student quietly, 'is that thine own hare or a wig?' The joke, of course, lies in the play on the word 'hare'."
Willoughby's courteous effort was worse than wasted, for the general depression deepened.
"You're right, Thompson," said Cooper, at length. "Mostly everybody's got a curse on them. I got a curse on me. I got it through swearin' and Sabbath-breakin'. I've tried to knock off swearin' fifty dozen times, but I might as well try to fly. Last time I tried to knock it off was when I left Nyngan for Kenilworth, four months ago; but there happened to be a two-hundredweight bag o' rice in the bottom o' the load; an' something tore her, an' she started leakin' through the cracks in the floor o' the wagon; an' I could n't git at her no road, for there was seven ton on top of her; an' the blasted stuff it kep' dribble-dribble till you could 'a' tracked me at a gallop for over a hundred mile; an' me swearin' at it till I was black in the face; an' it always stopped dribblin' at night, like as if it was to aggravate a man. If it had n't been for that rice, I'd 'a' kep' from swearin' that trip; an' then, comin' down from Kenilworth with Thompson, I'd 'a' kep' from it easy; for Thompson he never swears. I give him credit for that much."
"I don't claim any credit," remarked Thompson, with the unconscious spiritual swagger which so often antecedes, and possibly generates, lapse. "I never could see that swearing did any good; so I just say to myself, 'You'd like to come out, would you?—well, then, once for all, you won't.'"
"You're a happy man, curse and all," replied the giant gloomily. "For my own part, I was brought up careful, but I've turned out a (adj.) failure. Nobody would think, seeing me so brisk an' cheerful, that I got more worry nor anybody on'y myself could stand. I got more trouble nor all you fellers put together." He paused, evidently battling feebly with that impulse which bids us ease the loaded breast, even when discovery's pain. His voice was even lower and sadder as he resumed:
"My father he was well off, with a comfortable place of his own on the Hawkesbury; an' there was on'y me an' my sister Molly; for my mother died of a cold she caught when I was about twelve or fourteen, and Molly she was hardly so old. If you was to travel the country, you wouldn't meet another man like my ole dad. He was what you might call"——
"My farther he was a sojer," interposed Dixon. "He could whack any man of his weight in the 40th. Las' word he says to me: 'Bob,' says he; 'be a man—an' keep Injun ink off o' yer arms, for you never know,' says he, 'what you might do.' "
"Not many men like my ole dad," pursued Cooper. "Fetch up your youngsters in the natur' an' admiration o' the Lord, an' don't be frightened to dress the knots off o' them. That was his idear, an' he went through with it straight. 'William,' says he to me; 'if I catch a oath out o' your mouth, I'll welt the (adj.) hide off o' you ;' an' many's the time he done it. 'Always show respect to an ole man or an ole woman,' says he; 'an' never kick up a row with nobody; an' when you see a row startin', you strike in an' squash it, for blessed be the peacemakers; an' never you git drunk, nor yet laugh at a drunk man; an' never take your Maker's name in vain, or by (sheol) He'll make it hot for you.' That was my father's style with me. Same with my sister. He used to lay a bit of a buggy-trace on the table, after supper: 'There, Molly,' says he; 'that's for girls as goes gallivantin' about after night ;' an' many's the dose of it Molly got for flyin' round in the moonlight. Consequently, as you might say, she growed up to be the best girl, an' the cleverest, in the district. The other girls was weeds aside of her; she stood inches higher nor any o' them, an' she was a picter' to look at. Strong as whalebone, she was, an' not a lazy bone in her body. She was different from me in regard o' learnin', for she always liked to have her nose in a book, an' she went a lot to school. An' as for singin' or playin' anything in the shape o' music—why, there was nobody about could hold a candle to her. She was fair mad on it; an' my ole dad he sent her to Sydney for over a year o' purpose to fetch her out. Peanner, or flute, or fiddle, or the curliest instrument out of a brass band, it was all one to her; it come sort o' natural to her to fetch music out of anything. Pore Molly!" Cooper paused awhile before he resumed——
"She never took up with none o' the fellers. I knowed fellers try to kiss her; but her style was to stiffen them with a clip under the ear, an' they sort o' took the hint, an' never come back. But by-'n'-by a man from the Queensland border, he bought the place next ours but one; an' our two fam'lies got acquainted. Wonderful clever ole feller he was, in regard o' findin' out new gases, an' smells, an' cures for snake-bites, an' stuff that would go off like a cannon if you looked at it. This cove had got one son an' two daughters, an' his missis was sickly. Well, the son he was a young chap, about my own age at the time"——
"An' how old was you then?" demanded Mosey.
"About two-an'-twenty. He seemed to be a fine, off-handed, straightforrid, well-edicated young feller; an' me an' him we soon got great cronies; an' by-'n'-by I seen he was collared on Molly, an' she was collared on him. Well, thank God! he's got a curse on him that he won't get rid of in a hurry. Thank God for that much!"
"Ruined her?" queried Mosey briskly.
Cooper passed the question with unconscious dignity, and resumed. "Things went on this way for a couple o' year; an' this feller's people was agreeable; an', to make a long story short, the time was fixed for two months on ahead."
"Your father was agreeable, of course?" said Thompson.
"He was dead," replied Cooper reverently. "Gone to eternity, I hope. He deserved to go there if ever any livin' man did. He died about a year after these people come to settle near our place."
"What was the young feller's name?" queried Mosey.
"Never you mind. Well, to make a long story short, one day pore Molly wanted to go somewhere, an' she jumped on-to a horse I'd just left in the yard, an' she shoved her foot in the stirrup-leather; an' the horse he was a reg'lar devil; an' he played up with her in the yard; an' her heel went through the loop o' the leather, an' she come off an' hung by her ankle; an' the horse he was shod all round, an' he kicked her in the face"—Cooper paused.
"Killed her?" suggested Mosey.
"I caught the horse, an' got her clear, an' carried her into the house, all covered with blood, an' just like a corp; an' I left her there with the married woman we had, while I went for the doctor. Well, there she laid for weeks, half-ways between dead an' alive, an' me like a feller in a dream, thinkin' an' thinkin', an' not able to rec'lect anything but the hammerin's I used to give her, an' the things I used to take off of her, an' set her cryin'. I would n't go through that lot agen, not if I got a pension for it. Well, by-'n'-by she got her senses complete; an' this young feller he had been hangin' about the house every day, sayin' nothing to nobody; but when she begun to come round, he begun to-keep away. At last she was all right in regard o' health, but she was disfigured for life; she had to wear a crape veil down to her mouth. Then the young feller he used to come sometimes an' just shake hands with her, but otherways he would n't touch her with a forty-foot pole. Then he begun to stop away altogether; an' by-'n'-by he suddenly got married to a girl out o' the lowest pub. for ten mile round; an' his father—real decent ole bloke he was—he told him never to show his face about the place agen. But there was no end o' go in him. He had an uncle in Sydney, middlin' rich, a ship-chandler, an' this"—
"What's a ship-chandler?" demanded Mosey.
"A man that supplies candles to ships," I replied.
"This uncle he'd had a saw-mill left on his hands, out somewhere south; an' he give the saw-mill to the young feller on sort o' time-payment; an' I believe he got on splendid for a couple or three year; an' his wife had one picaninny—so we come to hear—an' suddenly he balled her out with some other feller. I on'y got hearsay for it, mind, but I know it's true; for it's just what ought to happen. Anyhow, the hand of God was on him, an' he got it hot an' heavy. Accordin' to accounts, he sold out, an' give her the bulk o' the cash, an' then he travelled. Last year, out on the Namoi, a man told me he seen him bullock drivin' in the Bland country, seven year ago. It might be him, or it might n't. I don't know, an' I don't want to know; for he's done all the harm he could. I got to thank him for all my troubles. On'y for him, I'd 'a' been livin' comfortable in the ole spot still. I don't mention these things not once every three year on a average; but sometimes when you think I'm pleasant an' cheerful, I'm fair wild with thinkin' about that blasted cur; an' you chaps fetched him up fresh in my mind to-night."
"And the poor girl—is she still at home?" asked Thompson.
"No," replied Cooper hoarsely; "she's somewhere at the bottom o' the Hawkesbury river; an' there's no more home. About three or four year after her accident, I was away in Sydney one time, on some business about shares; an' when I come home, Molly was gone. She'd left a letter for me, sayin' she'd nothing to live for; an' we'd meet on the other side o' the grave; an' I must always think kind of her; an' to remember ole times, when there was on'y the two of us; an' prayin' God to bless me for always bein' good to her—Why it knocked me stiff, for I'd always been a selfish, unfeelin'"——He stopped abruptly; he had uttered the last sentences only by a strong effort.
Presently Dixon, pitying his emotion, remarked to Thompson in a gratuitously lively tone, and with diction too florid for exact reproduction,
"Say—was I tellin' you I seen that white bullock you swapped to Cartwright las' year? I think he's gittin' a cancer; mebbe it's on'y blight; I would n't say. An' that lyin' (individual), Ike Cunningham, told me he busted his self with trefile jist after Cartwright got him."
"Ah!" replied Thompson absently.
"What become o' yer place?" asked Mosey, turning to Cooper.
"I'll answer that question, but not to satisfy you," replied Cooper coldly. "Well, chaps, when pore Molly's day was fixed, I scraped up a hundred notes, an' borrered two hundred on the place, to give her a start when the thing took place. My ole dad he left everything to me, with strict orders to see Molly through. He did n't want to make her a bait for loafers. Well, when the thing was squashed—me, like a fool, I was advised to lay the money out in minin' shares for Molly; an' then I kep' risin' more money, an' buyin' more shares; an' I got sort o' muddled somehow; an' to make a long story short, the whole (adj.) thing went to (sheol). It was goin' that road when I seen the last o' pore Molly; an' when I lost her, I jist roused round an' got a team together, an' signed everything the lyin', cheatin' (financiers) told me to sign; an' then I cleared off. Must be gittin' on for—let's see—Molly was twenty-three when she got her accident, an' it was three year after when she made away with herself. That was nine year ago, so she'd be thirty-five if she was alive now. She need n't 'a' done it! O, she should n't 'a' done it!— for she'd the satisfaction o' knowin' the curse that come on that blasted dog! I told her all the particulars I got, thinkin' to satisfy her; but I believe it on'y done her harm, for the end come a week or ten days after. Seems strange, lookin' back at it, to think how simple our fam'ly's been broke up, an' my gran'father's old home gone into the hands o' strangers."
"Never got a trace of your sister?" asked Thompson.
"Not a trace. Some people would have it she was gone to America, or California, or somewhere—but why would she go? Me an' the Ryans— that was the married couple we had—we knowed most about it, an' we cared most; an' we was sure from the first, though we done everything that could be done. She went away at night, an' took nothing with her—not a single item o' clothes, but jist as she stood. Ah! I'd give what little I got, an' walk a thousand mile on to the back of it, to see her pore bones buried safe, an' then I'd be satisfied."
Cooper sighed deeply, and lit his pipe; then, for a time, the utter stillness of the bright starlight was broken only by the faint jingle of the horses' hobble-chains, and the sound of some of the nearer bullocks cropping the luxuriant grass.
"The ram-paddick's a fool to this spot," remarked Mosey, at length. "Mind you, it was friendly of Number Two to lay us on. On'y decent thing I ever knowed him to do. He ain't the clean spud."
"He's ill-natured, certainly," observed Thompson; "but I can't help taking an interest in him. As a general rule, the more uncivilised a man is, till you come right down to the level of the blackfellow, the better bushman he is; but I must say this of Thingamybob, that he comes as near the blackfellow"——
"Hold on," interrupted Dixon, whose private conversation with Bum had caused him to lose step in the march of conversation—"Who the (sheol) is this Thingamybob—bar sells?"
"I wish somebody would fetch me a drink of water," replied Thompson, dropping his subject in pointed rebuke of Dixon's behaviour. "I'd rather perish than go for it myself; and I won't live two hours if I don't get it. It's Cooper's fault. When he keeps the meat fresh, it walks away; and when he packs it in salt, and then roasts it in the pan— like this evening—you can see the salt all over it like frost. Grand remedy for scurvy, and Barcoo rot, and the hundreds of natural diseases that flesh is subject to, as the poet says."
"Lis'n that (adj.) liar," growled Cooper, with a fairly successful attempt at easy good-nature. "An' I'm as bad off as him; an' there ain't a whimper out o' me."
"I'll bring a drink for you both," said I, rising and taking two pannikins from the lid of the tucker-box. "I would n't do it only that I'm famishing, myself; and I'm tired of waiting for some one else to give in."
Then, whilst helping myself to a drink from the water-bag under the rear of Thompson's wagon, and filling the pannikins for my friends, I couldn't possibly avoid overhearing the conversation which sprang into life the moment my back was turned——
"My lord Billy-be-damd," remarked Mosey. "Wonder why the (sheol) he ain't at Runnymede to-night, doin' the amiable with Mother Bodysark. Bright pair, them two."
"Would n't trust him as fur's I could sling him," said Dixon. "Too thick with the (adj.) squatters for my fancy. A man never knows what game that bloke's up to."
"Can't make him out no road," confessed Cooper. "Seems a decent, easy-goin', God-send-Sunday sort o' feller; but I'll swear there's more in his head nor a comb'll take out."
"He calls himself a philosopher," murmured Thompson; "but his philosophy mostly consists in thinking he knows everything, and other people know nothing. That's the principal point I've seen in him; and we've been acquainted since we were about that high. It was always his way."
"Who's this Mother Bodysark—if it's a fair question?" asked Cooper.
"Mrs. Beaudesart," corrected Thompson. "She's a widow woman— sort of forty-second cousin to Mrs. Montgomery, and housekeeper at the station. I never heard of anybody grudging her to Collins."
"Between ourselves, Thompson," remarked Willoughby, "his conversation this afternoon rather amused me. It recalled to my mind an excellent and most characteristic pleasantry, which you may not have heard. The story goes that Coleridge once asked Lamb, 'Did you ever hear me preach?' 'Preach!' said Lamb; 'Gad, I never heard you do anything else!' And yet, if Mr. Collins had enjoyed the advantages accruing from even the rudiments of a liberal ed"——
"He's got summick to do with Gub'ment lately," said Price cunningly. "My 'pinion, he's shadderin' summedy."
"He ain't a gurl o' that sort," interposed Bum hastily. "My 'pinion, he's a spieler. No more a detective nor I am."
I returned to the group. My friends drained their pannikins; Thompson threw his at the tucker-box, and Cooper was just aiming his, when Willoughby, who had shared the frosted mutton, interposed——
"If you please, Cooper."
"Seen better days, pore (fellow)," observed Cooper sympathetically, as the ripple of the water into the pannikin indicated that the whaler was at the tap.
"Can't see much worse," mused Thompson.
"My (adj.) oath—can't he?" chuckled Mosey. "Hold on till he gits old."
"People seem to think Gawd made these here colonies for a rubbage-heap," said Bum. "That's the English idear of"——
"Stiddy, Charley," interrupted Dixon. "Everybody's got a right to live, an' that pore (fellow)'s got jist as much right as me or you. A man ought to show respect to misforcune, Charley."
"Shall I bring a pannikin of water for any of you gentlemen?" asked Willoughby, without a trace of ironical emphasis on the last word.
"Fetch me one while yer hand's in," replied Bum
Willoughby brought the drink. I fancied even an accession to the subdued suavity of his manner as he picked up and replaced on the tuckerbox the empty pannikin which Bum had thanklessly tossed on the ground at his feet. Then he resumed his place; and Thompson, palpably turning his back on Dixon and Bum, selected him as chief hearer of his recommenced discourse——
"Comes as near the blackfellow as it's possible for a white man to get. And you couldn't kill him with an axe. Then start him at any civilised work— such as splicing a loop on a wool rope, or making a yoke, or wedging a loose box in a wheel—and he has the best hands in the country. At the same time, it's plain to be seen that he has been brought up in the class of society that sticks a napkin, in a bone ring, alongside your plate at dinner." Here Thompson paused, and the recurrence of some distressing memory elicited a half-suppressed sigh.
"There is nothing unreasonable in that phenomenon," remarked Willoughby— "rather the reverse. Probably the person you speak of is a gentleman. Now, the man who is a gentleman by birth and culture—by which I mean a man of good family, who has not only gone through the curriculum of a university, but has graduated, so to speak, in society—such a one has every advantage in any conceivable situation. The records of military enterprise, exploration, pioneering, and so forth, furnish abundant evidence of this very obvious fact. You will find, I think, that high breeding and training are conditions of superiority in the human as well as in the equine and canine races; pedigree being, of course, the primary desideratum. Non generant aquilae columbas, we say."
"Don't run away with the idear that nobody knows who Columbus was," retorted Bum. "He discovered America—or else my readin's did me (adj.) little good."
"More power to yer (adj.) elbow, Bum," said Mosey approvingly. "But, gentleman or no gentleman, if a feller ain't propped up with cash, this country'll (adj.) quick fetch him to his proper (adj.) level."
"Pardon me if I differ from you, Mosey," replied Willoughby blandly. "A few months ago, I travelled the Lachlan with a man fitted by birth and culture to be a leader of society; one whose rightful place would be at least in the front rank of your Australian aristocracy. How do you account for such a man being reduced to solicit the demd pannikin of flour?"
"Easy," retorted the sansculotte: "the duke had jist settled down to his proper (adj.) level—like the bloke you'll see in the bottom of a new pannikin when you're drinkin' out of it."
"Mosey," said Cooper impressively; "if I git up off o' this blanket, I'll kick"—(I did n't catch the rest of the sentence). "Give us none o' your (adj.) Port Phillip ignorance here."
"You can git a drink o' good water in ole Vic., anyhow," sneered Mosey, with the usual flowers of speech.
"An' that's about all you can git," muttered Cooper, faithfully following the same ornate style of diction.
"Now, Mosey," said Willoughby, courteously but tenaciously, "will you permit me to enumerate a few gentlemen—gentlemen, remember— who have exhibited in a marked degree the qualities of the pioneer. Let us begin with those men of whom you Victorians are so justly proud,— Burke and Wills. Then you have——"
"Hold on, hold on," interrupted Mosey. "Don't go no furder, for Gossake. Yer knockin' yerself bad, an' you don't know it. Wills was a pore harmless weed, so he kin pass; but look'ere—there ain't a drover, nor yet a bullock driver, nor yet a stock-keeper, from 'ere to 'ell that could n't 'a' bossed that expegition straight through to the Gulf, an' back agen, an' never turned a hair—with sich a season as Burke had. Don't sicken a man with yer Burke. He burked that expegition, right enough. ''Howlt! Dis-MOUNT!' Grand style o' man for sich a contract! I tell you, that (explorer) died for want of his sherry an' biscakes. Why, the ole man, here, seen him out beyond Menindie, with his——"
"Pardon me, Mosey—was Mr. Price connected with the expedition?"
"No (adj.) fear!" growled Price resentfully. "Jist happened to be there with the (adj.) teams. Went up with stores, an' come down with wool."
Willoughby, who probably had wept over the sufferings of Burke's party on their way to Menindie, seemed badly nonplussed. He murmured acquiescence in Price's authority; and Mosey continued,
"Well, the ole man, here, seen him camped, with his carpet, an' his bedsteed, an' (sheol) knows what paravinalia; an' a man nothin' to do but wait on him; an'—look here!—a cubbard made to fit one o' the camels, with compartments for his swell toggery, an'—as true as I'm a livin' sinner!— one o' the compartments made distinctly o' purpose to hold his belltopper!"
"Quite so," replied Willoughby approvingly. "We must bear in mind that Burke had a position to uphold in the party; and that, to maintain subordination, a commander must differentiate himself by"—
"It's Gord's truth, anyhow," remarked Price, rousing his mind from a retrospect of its extensive past. And, no doubt, the old man was right; for a relic, answering to Mosey's description, was sold by auction in Melbourne, with other assets of the expedition, upon Brahe's return.
"They give him a lot o' credit for dyin' in the open," continued the practical little wretch, with masterly handling of expletive— "but I want to know what else a feller like him could do, when there was no git out? An' you'll see in Melb'n', there, a statue of him, made o' cast steel, or concrete, or somethin', standin' as bold as brass in the middle o' the street! My word! An' all the thousands o' pore beggars that's died o' thirst an' hardship in the back country—all o' them a dash sight better men nor Burke knowed how to be—where's theyre statutes? Don't talk rubbage to me. Why, there was no end to that feller's childishness. Before he leaves Bray at Cooper's Creek, he drors out—what do you think?— well, he drors out a plan o' forti—(adj.)—fications, like they got in ole wore-out countries; an' Bray had to keep his fellers workin' an' cursin' at this thing till the time come for them to clear. An' mind you, this was among the tamest blackfellers in the world. Why, Burke was dotin'. Wants a young feller, with some life in him, for to boss a expegition; an' on top o' Burke's swellishness an' uselessness, dash me if he wasn't forty!"
"Well, no; he war n't too old, Mosey," interposed Price deprecatingly. "Wants a experienced man fer sich work. Same time, you could n't best Burke fer a counterfit."
"Sing'lar thing, you'll never hear one good word o' that man," observed Cooper. "Different from all the other explorers. Can't account for it, no road."
"Another singular thing is that you'll never read a word against him," added Thompson. "In conversation, you'll always learn that Burke never did a thing worth doing or said a thing worth saying; and that his management of that expedition would have disgraced a new-chum schoolboy; and old Victorian policemen will tell you that he left the force with the name of a bully and a snob, and a man of the smallest brains. Wonder why these things never get into print."
"De mortuis nil nisi bonum is an excellent maxim, Thompson," remarked Willoughby.
"It is that," retorted Mosey. "Divil a fear but they'll nicely bone anythin' in the shape o' credit. Toffs is no slouches at barrickin' for theyre own push. An' I'll tell you another dash good maximum,— it's to keep off of weltin' a dyin' man."
"Did you ever read Burke's Diary, Willoughby?" asked Thompson. "It's just two or three pages of the foolishest trash that any man ever lost time in writing; and I'm afraid it's about a fair sample of Burke. I wish you could talk to some fellows that I know—Barefooted Bob, for instance. Now, there's a man that was never known to say a thing that he was n't sure of; and he's been all over the country that Burke was over, and heard all that is to be known of the expedition. And Bob's a man that goes with his eyes open. I wish you could talk to him. Lots of information in the back country that never gets down here into civilisation ."
"There is a certain justice in Mosey's contention," I remarked, addressing Willoughby. "He argues that, as Burke, by dying of hardship, earned himself a statue, so Brown, Jones, and Robinson—whose souls, we trust, are in a less torrid climate than their unburied bones—should, in bare justice, have similar post-obituary recognition. For Burke's sake, of course, the comparison in value of service had better not be entered on. Mosey would have our cities resemble ancient Athens in respect of having more public statues than living citizens."
"Your allusion to Athens is singularly happy," replied the whaler; "but you will remember that the Athenians were, in many respects, as exclusive as ourselves. The impassable chasm which separates your illustrious explorer from Brown, Jones, and Robinson, existed also in Athens, though, perhaps, not so jealously guarded. But let us change the subject."
"Yes; do," said Cooper cordially. "I hate argyin'. Fust go off, it's all friendly;—'Yes, my good man.'—'No, my dear feller.'—'Don't run away with that idear.'—'You're puttin' the boot on the wrong foot.'— 'You got the wrong pig by the tail.'—an' so on, as sweet as sugar. But by-'n'-by it's, 'To (sheol) with you for a (adj.) fool!'— 'You're a (adj.) liar!'—'Who the (adj. sheol) do you think you're talking to?'—an' one word fetchin' on another till it grows into a sort o' unpleasantness."
"Hear anything of Bob and Bat lately?" asked Thompson, after a pause.
"Both gone to have a confab with Burke; an' good enough for the likes o' them," replied Mosey. "Them sort o' varmin's the curse o' the country. I ain't a very honorable sort, myself, but I'd go on one feed every two days before I'd come as low as them. Well, couple or three year ago, you know, ole M'Gregor he sent the (adj.) skunks out with cattle to some new country, a hundred mile beyond (sheol); an' between hardship, an' bad tucker, an' bad conscience, they both pegged out. So a feller from the Diamantinar told me a fortnit ago."
"Smart fellows in their way," remarked Thompson. "I don't bear them any malice, though they rounded me up twice, and made me fork out each time."
"Boolka horse-paddick?" suggested Mosey. "They grabbed us there once, an' it was touch-an'-go another time. But the place is worth a bit o' risk."
"No; both times it was on Wo-Winya, on the Deniliquin side," replied Thompson. "First time was about nine years ago. Bob and Bat were dummying on the station at the time, and looking after the Skeleton paddock. Flash young fellers they were then. Cunningham and I worked on that paddock one night, as usual, coming up empty from the Murray. Of course, we were out in the morning at grey daylight, but it was a bit foggy, and instead of finding the bullocks, we found Bob and Bat cantering round, looking for them. Cunningham and I separated, and so did the other two; and the four of us spent the liveliest half-hour you could wish for; chasing, and crossing, and meeting one another in all directions, and not a word spoken, and not a hoof to be seen. At last the fog lifted a bit, and Cunningham spotted cattle in a timbered swamp, but Bat was between him and them; so he circled round gently, and was edging up to get a good start when Bat took the alarm, and saw the cattle; then it was neck-or-nothing with them for possession. Bob and I happened to be in sight and when we saw our mates go off on the jump, we both went for the same spot. Cunningham beat Bat by a few lengths, and got possession; but when I got within a quarter of a mile, I saw there was only part of our lot there. Just then I saw Bob turn his horse, and race straight toward me; and when I looked in the direction he was going, I saw more cattle. I went for them with a clear start of a hundred yards, and would have won easy, only that I saw they were station cattle; and at the same time I caught sight of another little lot in a hollow to the left, and Bat travelling for them. I slewed round, and gave him a gallop for it, but he won by fifty yards. However, there was only five of our lot in the little mob. There was thirteen wanted still; and Bob had possession of them among the station cattle. So they got eighteen altogether, and we only got sixteen, after running the legs off our horses."
"Port Phillip," observed Cooper pointedly.
"Another time, going on for three years ago," continued Thompson, "Bob had me as cheap as dirt for the whole twenty, while Bat snapped Potter's horses the same night. That was on Wo-Winya again—shortly before M'Gregor sold the station to Stoddart, and just before the two of them were sent out to the Diamantina"——
"M'Gregor and Stoddart, of course?" I gently suggested.
"Yes, Tom; I thought I made that clear."
"So you did, Steve. I beg pardon."
"Don't mention it, Tom."
True friendship lay underneath this severity, for when Thompson got started on his reminiscences, he was apt to continue indefinitely, to the ruin of his own dignity.
"But why this solicitude and panic over being detected in trifling trespass?" asked Willoughby. "Like most things in this country, it appears to be purely a matter of s. d. Now, I have taken the liberty of totting up, in my own mind, some of your earnings. Will Thompson permit me to take his case as an illustration? I find, Thompson, that the tariff of your wool is exactly sevenpence half-penny per ton per mile. You have eight tons on your wagon at the present time. This will give you five shillings for each mile you travel. You have travelled ten miles to-day"——
"Sabbath day's journey," sighed Thompson.
——"that is two pounds ten. Now,—all things considered—an occasional penalty of, say, one pound, appears to me by no means ruinous. It is not to be mentioned in comparison with other losses which you have been unfortunate enough to sustain, yet it appears to be your chief grievance."
"Yes; that's one way of looking at it," muttered Thompson, after a pause. The other fellows were silently and futilely wrestling with the apparent anomaly. A metaphysical question keeps slipping away from the grasp of the bullock driver's mind like a wet melon-seed.
[Yet the solution is simple. The up-country man is decidedly openhanded; he will submit to crushing losses with cheerfulness, tempered, of course, by humility in those cases where he recognises the operation of an overhanging curse; he will subscribe to any good or bad cause with a liberality excelled only by the digger; he will pay gambling debts with the easy, careless grace which makes every P. of W. so popular in English sporting circles—in a word, the smallest of his many sins is parsimony. But the penal suggestiveness of trespass— penalty touches the sullen dignity of his nature; and the vague, but well-grounded fear of a law made and administered solely by his natural enemies makes him feel about as apprehensive as John Bunyan, though certainly more dangerous. Of course, Willoughby, born and bred a member of the governing class, could n't easily conceive the dismay with which these outlaws regarded legal seizure for trespass— or possibly prosecution in courts dominated by squatters.]
"I knows wun respectable man with two teams wot's seed the time he'd emp'y a double-barr'll gun on them two fellers jis' same's if they was wild dogs," remarked Price ominously. "I happen ter mind me o' wun time this man hed ter fetch hees las' wool right on ter Deniliquin, f'm Hay, f'r two-five hextry, 'count o' there bein' no river that season. An' that man 'e war shaddered hevery day acrost Wo-Winyar, an' hees bullicks collared hevery night with Bob or Bat; an' them bullicks har'ly fit ter crawl with fair poverty. Dirty! W'y, Chows ain't in it with them varmin f'r dirtiness." Here followed a steady torrent of red vituperation, showing that Price took a strong personal interest in the respectable man with the two teams.
"To my (adj.) knowledge, they dummied land for ole M'Gregor, an' never got a cent for it," remarked Dixon. "Same time, I got nothin' to say agen 'em, for they never got a slant to snavel my lot. Brothers—ain't they?"
"No (adj.) fear," replied Mosey. "You never seen brothers hangin' together like them chaps. I know some drovers that's been prayin' for theyre (adj.) souls every night for years, on account o' the way they used to rush travellin' stock across M'Gregor's runs. Whenever there was dirty work to be did, them two blokes was on hand to do it. An' I got it on good authority that they chanced three years chokey for perjury, when they was dummyin' for M'Gregor; an' all they got for it was the fright hangin' over them. A man should n't make a dog of his self without he's well paid for it. That's my (adj.) religion."