We Of The Never-Never
By Jeanie "Mrs. Aeneas" Gunn
"The Bush Folk OF THE NEVER-NEVER"
We—are just some of the bush-folk of the Never-Never.
Distinct in the foreground stand:
The Maluka, The Little Missus, The Sanguine Scot, The Head Stockman, The Dandy, The Quiet Stockman, The Fizzer, Mine Host, The Wag, Some of our Guests, A few black "boys" and lubras, A dog or two, Tam-o'-Shanter, Happy Dick, Sam Lee, and last, but by no means least, Cheon—the ever-mirthful, ever-helpful, irrepressible Cheon, who was crudely recorded on the station books as cook and gardener.
The background is filled in with an ever-moving company—a strange medley of Whites, Blacks, and Chinese; of travellers, overlanders, and billabongers, who passed in and out of our lives, leaving behind them sometimes bright memories, sometimes sad, and sometimes little memory at all.
And All of Us, and many of this company, shared each other's lives for one bright, sunny year, away Behind the Back of Beyond, in the Land of the Never-Never; in that elusive land with an elusive name—a land of dangers and hardships and privations yet loved as few lands are loved—a land that bewitches her people with strange spells and mysteries, until they call sweet bitter, and bitter sweet. Called the Never-Never, the Maluka loved to say, because they, who have lived in it and loved it Never-Never voluntarily leave it. Sadly enough, there are too many who Never-Never do leave it. Others—the unfitted—will tell you that it is so called because they who succeed in getting out of it swear they will Never-Never return to it. But we who have lived in it, and loved it, and left it, know that our hearts can Never-Never rest away from it.
WE OF THE NEVER-NEVER
To begin somewhere near the beginning, the Maluka—better known at that time as the new Boss for the Elsey—and I, his "missus," were at Darwin, in the Northern Territory, waiting for the train that was to take us just as far as it could—one hundred and fifty miles—on our way to the Never-Never. It was out of town just then, up-country somewhere, billabonging in true bush-whacker style, but was expected to return in a day or two, when it would be at our service.
Jack, the Quiet Stockman, was out at the homestead, "seeing to things" there. The Sanguine Scot, the Head Stockman, and the Dandy, were in at the Katherine, marking time, as it were, awaiting instructions by wire from the Maluka, while some of the Company "put finishing touches" to their New Year celebrations. And every one, with, of course, the exception of those in Darwin, was blissfully unconscious of even the existence of the Maluka's missus. Knowing the Maluka by repute, however, every one was agreed that the "Elsey had struck it lucky," until the telegraph wire, whispering the gossip of Darwin to the Katherine, whispered that the "new Boss for the Elsey had been and gone and married a missus just before leaving the South, and was bringing her along with him." Then the Sanguine Scot was filled with wrath, the Company with compassion, while the Dandy's consternation found relief in a dismayed "Heavens above!" (The Dandy, by the way, was only a dandy in his love of sweet, clean clothes and orderly surroundings. The heart of the man had not a touch of dandyism in it.) The Head Stockman was absent in his camp. Had he been present, much might have been said on the "advantages of having a woman about the place." The Wag, however, retained his usual flow of speech and spirits.
"Buck up, chaps!" he chuckled encouraging! "They're not all snorters, you know. You might have the luck to strike one of the "ministering angel variety."
But the Sanguine Scot had been thinking rapidly, and with characteristic hopefulness, felt he had the bull by the horns. "We'll just have to block her, chaps; that's all," he said. "A wire or two should do it"; and, inviting the Dandy "to come and lend a hand," led the way to the telegraph office; and presently there quivered into Darwin the first hint that a missus was not wanted at the Elsey.
"Would advise leaving wife behind till homestead can be repaired," it said; and, still confident of success, Mac felt that "ought to do the trick." "If it doesn't," he added, "we'll give her something stronger."
We in Darwin, having exhausted the sight-seeing resources of the little town, were wishing "something interesting would happen," when the message was handed to the Maluka.
"This may do as a stopgap," he said, opening it, adding as he read it, "It looks brimful of possibilities for interested onlookers, seeing it advises leaving the wife behind." The Maluka spoke from experience, having been himself an interested onlooker "down south," when it had been suggested there that the wife should be left behind while he spied out the land; for although the Maluka knew most of the Territory, he had not yet been to the Elsey Cattle Station.
Preferring to be "the interested onlooker" myself this time, when we went to the telegraph office it was the Maluka who wired: "Wife coming, secure buggy", and in an incredibly short space of time the answer was back: "No buggy obtainable."
Darwin looked interested. "Mac hasn't wasted much time in making inquiries," it said.
"Or in apologies or explanations," the Maluka added shortly, and sent in reply: "Wife can ride, secure suitable mount."
But the Sanguine Scot's fighting blood was up, and almost immediately the wire rapped out: "No side-saddle obtainable. Stock horses all flash"; and the onlookers stared in astonishment.
"Mac's in deadly earnest this time," they said, and the Maluka, with a quiet "So am I," went back to the telegraph.
Now, in the Territory everybody knows everybody else, but particularly the telegraph people; and it often happens that when telegrams of general interest are passing through, they are accompanied by confidential asides—little scraps of harmless gossip not intended for the departmental books; therefore it was whispered in the tail of the last message that the Katherine was watching the fight with interest was inclined to "reckon the missus a goer," and that public sympathy was with the stockman—the Katherine had its women-folk and was thankful; but the Katherine knew that although a woman in a settlement only rules her husband's home, the wife of a station-manager holds the peace and comfort of the stockmen in the hollow of her hand.
"Stock horses all flash," the Sanguine Scot said, and then went out and apologised to an old bay horse. "We had to settle her hash somehow, Roper, old chap," he said, stroking the beautiful neck, adding tenderly as the grand old head nosed into him: "You silly old fool! You'd carry her like a lamb if I let you."
Then the Maluka's reply came, and Mac whistled in amazement. "By George!" he said to those near him, "she IS a goer, a regular goer"; and after much careful thought wired an inane suggestion about waiting until after the Wet.
Darwin laughed outright, and an emphatic: "Wife determined, coming Tuesday's train," from the Maluka was followed by a complete breakdown at the Katherine.
Then Darwin came in twos and threes to discuss the situation, and while the men offered every form of service and encouragement, the women-folk spoke of a woman "going bush" as "sheer madness." "Besides, no woman travels during the Wet," they said, and the Maluka "hoped she would prove the exception."
"But she'll be bored to death if she does reach the homestead alive," they prophesied; and I told them they were not very complimentary to the Maluka.
"You don't understand," they hastened to explain. "He'll be camping out most of his time, miles away from the homestead," and I said, "So will I."
"So you think," they corrected. "But you'll find that a woman alone in a camp of men is decidedly out of place"; and I felt severely snubbed.
The Maluka suggested that he might yet succeed in persuading some suitable woman to come out with us, as maid or companion; but the opposition, wagging wise heads, pursed incredulous lips, as it declared that "no one but a fool would go out there for either love or money." A prophecy that came true, for eventually we went "bush" womanless.
The Maluka's eyes twinkled as he listened. "Does the cap fit, little 'un?" he asked; but the women-folk told him that it was not a matter for joking.
"Do you know there is not another white woman within a hundred-mile radius ?" they asked; and the Maluka pointed out that it was not all disadvantage for a woman to be alone in a world of men. "The men who form her world are generally better and truer men, because the woman in their midst is dependent on them alone, for companionship, and love, and protecting care," he assured them.
"Men are selfish brutes," the opposition declared, rather irrelevantly, looking pointedly at the Maluka.
He smiled with as much deference as he could command. "Also," he said, "a woman alone in a world of men rarely complains of their selfishness"; and I hastened to his assistance. "Particularly when those men are chivalrous bushmen," I began, then hesitated, for, since reading the telegrams, my ideas of bush chivalry needed readjustment.
"Particularly when those men are chivalrous bushmen," the Maluka agreed, with the merry twinkle in his eyes; for he perfectly understood the cause of the sudden breakdown. Then he added gravely: "For the average bushman will face fire, and flood, hunger, and even death itself, to help the frail or weak ones who come into his life; although he'll strive to the utmost to keep the Unknown Woman out of his environments particularly when those environments are a hundred miles from anywhere."
The opposition looked incredulous. "Hunger and death!" it said. "Fiddlesticks!" It would just serve them right if she went; and the men folk pointed out that this was, now, hardly flattering to the missus.
The Maluka passed the interruption by without comment. "The Unknown Woman is brimful of possibilities to a bushman," he went on; "for although she MAY be all womanly strength and tenderness, she may also be anything, from a weak timid fool to a self-righteous shrew, bristling with virtue and indignation. Still," he added earnestly, as the opposition began to murmur, "when a woman does come into our lives, whatever type she may be, she lacks nothing in the way of chivalry, and it rests with herself whether she remains an outsider or becomes just One of Us. Just One of Us," he repeated, unconsciously pleading hard for the bushman and his greatest need—"not a goddess on a pedestal, but just a comrade to share our joys and sorrows with."
The opposition wavered. "If it wasn't for those telegrams," it said. But Darwin, seeing the telegrams in a new light, took up the cudgels for the bushmen.
"Poor beggars," it said, "you can't blame them. When you come to think of it, the Unknown Woman is brimful of possibilities." Even then, at the Katherine, the possibilities of the Unknown Woman were being tersely summed up by the Wag.
"You'll sometimes get ten different sorts rolled into one," he said finally, after a long dissertation. "But, generally speaking, there's just three sorts of 'em. There's Snorters—the goers, you know—the sort that go rampaging round, looking for insults, and naturally finding them; and then there's fools; and they're mostly screeching when they're not smirking—the uncertain-coy-and-hard-to-please variety, you know," he chuckled, "and then," he added seriously, "there's the right sort, the sort you tell things to. They're A1 all through the piece."
The Sanguine Scot was confident, though, that they were all alike, and none of 'em were wanted; but one of the Company suggested "If she was little, she'd do. The little 'uns are all right," he said.
But public opinion deciding that "the sort that go messing round where they know they're not wanted are always big and muscular and snorters," the Sanguine Scot was encouraged in his determination to "block her somehow."
"I'll block her yet; see if I don't," he said confidently. "After all these years on their own, the boys don't want a woman messing round the place." And when he set out for the railway along the north track, to face the "escorting trick," he repeated his assurances. "I'll block her, chaps, never fear," he said; and glowering at a "quiet" horse that had been sent by the lady at the Telegraph, added savagely, "and I'll begin by losing that brute first turn out."
From sun-up to sun-down on Tuesday, the train glided quietly forward on its way towards the Never-Never; and from sun-up to sun-down the Maluka and I experienced the kindly consideration that it always shows to travellers: it boiled a billy for us at its furnace; loitered through the pleasantest valleys; smiled indulgently, and slackened speed whenever we made merry with blacks, by pelting them with chunks of water-melon; and generally waited on us hand and foot, the Man-in-Charge pointing out the beauty spots and places of interest, and making tea for us at frequent intervals.
It was a delightful train—just a simple-hearted, chivalrous, weather-beaten old bush-whacker, at the service of the entire Territory. "There's nothing the least bit officious or standoffish about it," I was saying, when the Man-in-Charge came in with the first billy of tea.
"Of course not!" he said, unhooking cups from various crooked-up fingers. "It's a Territorian, you see."
"And had all the false veneer of civilisation peeled off long ago," the Maluka said, adding, with a sly look at my discarded gloves and gossamer, "It's wonderful how quietly the Territory does its work."
The Man-in-Charge smiled openly as he poured out the tea, proving thereby his kinship with all other Territorians; and as the train came to a standstill, swung off and slipped some letters into a box nailed to an old tree-trunk.
At the far end of the train, away from the engine, the passengers' car had been placed, and as in front of it a long, long line of low-stacked sinuous trucks slipped along in the rear of the engine, all was open view before us; and all day long, as the engine trudged onwards—hands in pockets, so to speak, and whistling merrily as it trudged—I stood beside the Maluka on the little platform in front of the passengers' car, drinking in my first deep, intoxicating draught of the glories of the tropical bush.
There were no fences to shut us in; and as the train zig-zagged through jungle and forest and river-valley—stopping now and then to drink deeply at magnificent rivers ablaze with water-lilies—it almost seemed as though it were some kindly Mammoth creature, wandering at will through the bush.
Here and there, kangaroos and other wild creatures of the bush hopped out of our way, and sitting up, looked curiously after us; again and again little groups of blacks hailed us, and scrambled after water-melon and tobacco, with shouts of delight, and, invariably, on nearing the tiny settlements along the railway, we drove before us white fleeing flocks of goats.
At every settlement we stopped and passed the time of day and, giving out mail-bags, moved on again into the forest. Now and again, stockmen rode out of the timber and received mail-bags, and once a great burly bushman, a staunch old friend of the Maluka's, boarded the train, and greeted him with a hearty hand-shake.
"Hullo! old chap!" he called in welcome, as he mounted the steps of the little platform, "I've come to inspect your latest investment"; but catching sight of the "latest investment" he broke into a deafening roar.
"Good Lord!" he shouted, looking down upon me from his great height, "is that all there is of her? They're expecting one of the prize-fighting variety down there," and he jerked his head towards the Never-Never. Then he congratulated the Maluka on the size of his missus.
"Gimme the little 'uns," he said, nearly wringing my hand off in his approval. "You can't beat 'em for pluck. My missus is one of 'em, and she went bush with me when I'd nothing but a skeeto net and a quart-pot to share with her." Then, slapping the Maluka vigorously on the back, he told him he'd got some sense left. "You can't beat the little 'uns," he declared. "They're just the very thing."
The Maluka agreed with him, and after some comical quizzing, they decided, to their own complete satisfaction, that although the bushman's "missus" was the "littlest of all little 'uns, straight up and down," the Maluka's "knocked spots off her sideways."
But although the Territory train does not need to bend its neck to the galling yoke of a minute time-table, yet, like all bush-whackers, it prefers to strike its supper camp before night-fall, and after allowing us a good ten minutes' chat, it blew a deferential "Ahem" from its engine, as a hint that it would like to be "getting along." The bushman took the hint, and after a hearty "Good luck, missus!" and a "chin, chin, old man," left us, with assurances that "her size 'ud do the trick."
Until sundown we jogged quietly on, meandering through further pleasant places and meetings; drinking tea and chatting with the Man-in-Charge between whiles, extracting a maximum of pleasure from a minimum rate of speed: for travelling in the Territory has not yet passed that ideal stage where the travelling itself—the actual going—is all pleasantness.
As we approached Pine Creek I confided to the men-folk that I was feeling a little nervous. "Supposing that telegraphing bush-whacker decides to shoot me off-hand on my arrival," I said; and the Man-in-Charge said amiably: "It'll be brought in as justifiable homicide; that's all." Then reconnoitring the enemy from the platform, he "feared" we were "about to be boycotted."
There certainly were very few men on the station, and the Man-in-Charge recognising one of them as the landlord of the Playford, assured us there was nothing to fear from that quarter. "You see, you represent business to him," he explained.
Every one but the landlord seemed to have urgent business in the office or at the far end of the platform, but it was quickly evident that there was nothing to fear from him; for, finding himself left alone to do the honours of the Creek, he greeted us with an amused: "She doesn't look up to sample sent by telegram"; and I felt every meeting would be, at least, unconventional. Then we heard that as Mac had "only just arrived from the Katherine, he couldn't leave his horses until they were fixed up"; but the landlord's eyes having wandered back to the "Goer," he winked deliberately at the Maluka before inviting us to "step across to the Pub."
The Pub seemed utterly deserted, and with another wink the landlord explained the silence by saying that "a cyclone of some sort" had swept most of his "regulars" away; and then he went shouting through the echoing passages for a "boy" to "fetch along tea."
Before the tea appeared, an angry Scotch voice crept to us through thin partitions, saying: "It's not a fit place for a woman, and, besides, nobody wants her!" And in a little while we heard the same voice inquiring for "the Boss."
"The telegraphing bush-whacker," I said, and invited the Maluka to come and see me defy him. But when I found myself face to face with over six feet of brawny quizzing, wrathful-looking Scotchman, all my courage slipped away, and edging closer to the Maluka, I held out my hand to the bushman, murmuring lamely: "How do you do?"
Instantly a change came over the rugged, bearded face. At the sight of the "Goer" reduced to a meek five feet, all the wrath died out of it, and with twitching lips and twinkling eyes Mac answered mechanically, "Quite well thank you," and then coughed in embarrassment.
That was all: no fierce blocking, no defying. And with the cough, the absurdity of the whole affair, striking us simultaneously, left us grinning like a trio of Cheshire cats.
It was a most eloquent grinning, making all spoken apology or explanation unnecessary; and by the time it had faded away we thoroughly understood each other, being drawn together by a mutual love of the ridiculous. Only a mutual love of the ridiculous, yet not so slender a basis for a lifelong friendship as appears, and by no means an uncommon one "out bush."
"Does the station pay for the telegrams, or the loser?" the landlord asked in an aside, as we went in to supper and after supper the preparations began for the morrow's start.
The Sanguine Scot, anxious to make amends for the telegrams, was full of suggestions for smoothing out the difficulties of the road. Like many men of his type, whatever he did he did it with all his heart and soul—hating, loving, avenging, or forgiving with equal energy; and he now applied himself to helping the Maluka "make things easy for her," as zealously as he had striven to "block her somehow."
Sorting out pack-bags, he put one aside, with a "We'll have to spare that for her duds. It won't do for her to be short. She'll have enough to put up with, without that." But when I thanked him, and said I could manage nicely with only one, as I would not need much on the road, he and the Maluka sat down and stared at each other in dismay. "That's for everything you'll need till the waggons come," they explained; "your road kit goes in your swag."
The waggons went "inside" once a year—"after the Wet," and would arrive at the homestead early in June. As it was then only the middle of January, I too sat down, and stared in dismay from the solitary pack-bag to the great, heaped-up pile that had been sorted out as indispensable. "You'll have to cull your herd a bit, that's all," Mac said; and needlework was pointed out as a luxury. Then books were "cut out," after that the house linen was looked to, and as I hesitated over the number of pillow-cases we could manage with, Mac cried triumphantly: "You won't need these anyway, for there's no pillows."
The Maluka thought he had prepared me for everything in the way of roughness; but in a flash we knew that I had yet to learn what a bushman means by rough.
As the pillow-cases fell to the ground, Mac was at a loss to account for my consternation. "What's gone wrong?" he exclaimed in concern. Mac was often an unconscious humorist.
But the Maluka came with his ever-ready sympathy. "Poor little coon," he said gently, "there's little else but chivalry and a bite of tucker for a woman out bush."
Then a light broke in on Mac. "Is it only the pillows?" he said. "I thought something had gone wrong." Then his eyes began to twinkle. "There's stacks of pillows in Darwin," he said meaningly.
It was exactly the moral fillip needed, and in another minute we were cheerfully "culling our herd" again.
Exposed to Mac's scorn, the simplest comforts became foolish luxuries. "A couple of changes of everything is stacks," he said encouragingly, clearing a space for packing. "There's heaps of soap and water at the station, and things dry here before you can waltz round twice."
Hopefulness is always infectious, and before Mac's cheery optimism the pile of necessities grew rapidly smaller. Indeed, with such visions of soap and water and waltzing washerwomen, a couple of changes of everything appeared absurd luxury. But even optimism can have disadvantages; for in our enthusiasm we forgot that a couple of cambric blouses, a cotton dress or two, and a change of skirts, are hardly equal to the strain of nearly five months constant wear and washing.
The pillow-cases went in, however. Mac settled that difficulty by saying that "all hands could be put on to pluck birds. The place is stiff with 'em," he explained, showing what a simple matter it would be, after all. The Maluka turning out two cushions, a large and a smaller one, simplified matters even more. "A bird in the hand you know," he said, finding room for them in the swag.
Before all the arrangements were completed, others of the Creek had begun to thaw, and were "lending a hand," here and there. The question of horses coming up, I confided in the helpers, that I was relieved to hear that the Telegraph had sent a quiet horse. "I am really afraid of buck-jumpers, you know," I said, and the Creek looking sideways at Mac, he became incoherent.
"Oh, look here!" he spluttered, "I say! Oh, look here! It really was too bad!" Then, after an awkward pause, he blurted out, "I don't know what you'll think, but the brute strayed first camp, and—he's lost, saddle and all."
The Maluka shot him a swift, questioning glance; but poor Mac looked so unhappy that we assured him "we'd manage somehow." Perhaps we could tame one of the flash buck-jumpers, the Maluka suggested. But Mac said it "wouldn't be as bad as that," and, making full confession, placed old Roper at our service.
By morning, however, a magnificent chestnut "Flash," well-broken into the side-saddle, had been conjured up from somewhere by the Creek. But two of the pack-horses had strayed, and by the time they were found the morning had slipped away, and it was too late to start until after dinner. Then after dinner a terrific thunderstorm broke over the settlement, and as the rain fell in torrents, Mac thought it looked "like a case of to-morrow all right."
Naturally I felt impatient at the delay, but was told by the Creek that "there was no hurry!" "To-morrow's still untouched," Mac explained. "This is the Land of Plenty of Time; Plenty of Time and Wait a While. You'll be doing a bit of waiting before you've done with it."
"If this rain goes on, she'll be doing a bit of waiting at the Fergusson; unless she learns the horse's-tail trick," the Creek put in. On inquiry, it proved that the "horse's-tail trick" meant swimming a horse through the flood, and hanging on to its tail until it fought a way across; and I felt I would prefer "waiting a bit."
The rain did go on, and, roaring over the roof, made conversation difficult. The bushmen called it a "bit of a storm"; but every square inch of the heavens seemed occupied by lightning and thunder-bolts.
"Nothing to what we can do sometimes," every one agreed. "WE do things in style up here—often run half-a-dozen storms at once. You see, when you are weather-bound, you might as well have something worth looking at."
The storm lasted nearly three hours, and when it cleared Mac went over to the Telegraph, where some confidential chatting must have taken place, for when he returned he told us that the Dandy was starting out for the homestead next day to "fix things up a bit." The Head Stockman however, waited back for orders.
The morning dawned bright and clear, and Mac advised "making a dash for the Fergusson." "We might just get through before this rain comes down the valley," he said.
The Creek was most enthusiastic with its help, bustling about with packbags and surcingles, and generally "mixing things."
When the time came to say good-bye it showed signs of breaking down; but mastering its grief with a mightily audible effort, it wished us "good luck," and stood watching as we rode out of the little settlement.
Every time we looked back it raised its hat, and as we rode at the head of our orderly little cavalcade of pack horses, with Jackeroo the black "boy" bringing up the rear, we flattered ourselves on the dignity of our departure. Mac called it "style," and the Maluka was hoping that the Creek was properly impressed, when Flash, unexpectedly heading off for his late home, an exciting scrimmage ensued and the procession was broken into fragments.
The Creek flew to the rescue, and, when order was finally restored, the woman who had defied the Sanguine Scot and his telegrams, entered the forest that fringes the Never-Never, sitting meekly upon a led horse.
Bush chivalry demanding that a woman's discomfiture should be ignored, Mac kept his eyes on the horizon for the first quarter of a mile, and talked volubly of the prospects of the Wet and the resources of the Territory; but when Flash was released, and after a short tussle settled down into a free, swinging amble, he offered congratulations in his own whimsical way.
"He's like the rest of us," he said, with a sly, sidelong look at the Maluka, "perfectly reconciled to his fate."
Although it was only sixty-five miles to the Katherine it took us exactly three days to travel the distance. Mac called it a "tip-top record for the Wet," and the Maluka agreed with him; for in the Territory it is not the number of miles that counts, but what is met with in those miles.
During the first afternoon we met so many amiable-looking watercourses, that the Sanguine Scot grew more and hopeful about crossing the Fergusson that night. "We'll just do it if we push on," he said, after a critical look at the Cullen, then little more than a sweet, shady stream. "Our luck's dead in. She's only just moving. Yesterday's rain hasn't come down the valleys yet."
We pushed on in the moonlight; but when we reached the Fergusson, two hours later, we found our luck was "dead out," for "she" was up and running a banker.
Mac's hopes sank below zero. "Now we've done it," he said ruefully, looking down at the swirling torrent, "It's a case of 'wait-a-while' after all."
But the Maluka's hopes always died hard. "There's still the Government yacht," he said, going to a huge iron punt that lay far above high-water mark. Mac called it a forlorn hope, and it looked it, as it lay deeply sunk in the muddy bank.
It was an immense affair, weighing over half a ton, and provided by a thoughtful Government for the transit of travellers "stuck up" by the river when in flood. An army of roughriders might have launched it, but as bushmen generally travel in single file, it lay a silent reproach to the wisdom of Governments.
Some jester had chalked on its sides "H.M.S. Immovable"; and after tugging valiantly at it for nearly half an hour, the Maluka and Mac and Jackeroo proved the truth of the bushman's irony.
There was no choice but a camp on the wrong side of the river, and after "dratting things" in general, and the Cullen in particular, Mac bowed to the inevitable and began to unpack the team, stacking packbags and saddles up on the rocks off the wet grass.
By the time the billy was boiling he was trying hard to be cheerful, but without much success. "Oh, well," he said, as we settled down round the fire, "this is the Land of Plenty of Time, that's one comfort. Another whole week starts next Sunday"; then relapsing altogether he added gloomily; "We'll be spending it here, too, by the look of things."
"Unless the missus feels equal to the horse's-tail trick" the Maluka suggested.
The missus felt equal to anything BUT the tail trick and said so; and conversation flagged for a while as each tried to hit upon some way out of the difficulty.
Suddenly Mac gave his thigh a prodigious slap. "I've struck it!" he shouted, and pointing to a thick wire rope just visible in the moonlight as it stretched across the river from flood bank to flood bank, added hesitatingly: "We send mail-bags—and—valuables over on that when the river's up."
It was impossible to mistake his meaning, or the Maluka's exclamation of relief, or that neither man doubted for moment that the woman was willing to be flung across deep, swirling river on a swaying wire; and as many a man has appeared brave because he has lacked the courage to own to his cowardice, so I said airily that "anything better than going back," and found the men exchanging glances.
"No one's going back," the Maluka said quietly: and then I learned that the Wet does not "do things by half." Once they began to move the flood waters must have come down the valleys in tidal waves, the Maluka explained. "The Cullen we've just left will probably be a roaring torrent by now."
"We're stuck between two rivers: that's what's happened," Mac added savagely. "Might have guessed that miserable little Cullen was up to her old sneaking ways." And to explain Mac's former "dratting," the Maluka said: "It's a way the rivers have up here. They entice travellers over with smiles and promises, and before they can get back, call down the flood waters and shut them in."
"I'm glad I thought of the wire," Mac added cheerfully, and slipped into reminiscences of the Wet, drawing the Maluka also into experiences. And as they drifted from one experience to another, forced camps for days on stony outcrops in the midst of seas of water were touched on lightly as hardly worth mentioning; while "eating yourself out of tucker, and getting down to water-rats and bandicoots," compared favourably with a day or two spent in trees or on stockyard fences. As for crossing a river on a stout wire rope! After the first few reminiscences, and an incident or two in connection with "doing the horse's-tail trick," that appeared an exceedingly safe and pleasant way of overcoming the difficulty, and it became very evident why women do not travel "during the Wet."
It was a singularly beautiful night, shimmering with warm tropical moonlight, and hoarse with the shouting of frogs and the roar of the river—a night that demanded attention; and, gradually losing interest in hair-breadth escapes from drowning, Mac joined in the song of the frogs.
"Quar-r-rt pot! Quar-r-rt pot!" he sang in hoarse, strident minims, mimicking to perfection the shouts of the leaders, leaning with them on the "quar-r-rt" in harsh gutturals, and spitting out the "pot" in short, deep staccatos. Quicker and quicker the song ran, as the full chorus of frogs joined in. From minims to crotchets, and from crotchets to quavers it flowed, and Mac, running with it, gurgled with a new refrain at the quavers. "More-water, more-water, hot-water, hot-water," he sang rapidly in tireless reiteration, until he seemed the leader and the frogs the followers, singing the words he put into their mouths. Lower and lower the chorus sank, but just before it died away, an old bull-frog started every one afresh with a slow, booming "quar-r-rt pot!" and Mac stopped for breath. "Now you know the song of the frogs," he laughed. "We'll teach you all the songs of the Never-Never in time; listen!" and listening, it was hard to believe that this was our one-time telegraphing bush-whacker. Dropping his voice to a soft, sobbing moan, as a pheasant called from the shadows, he lamented with it for "Puss! Puss! Puss! Puss! Poor Puss! Poor Puss!"
The sound roused a dove in the branches above us, and as she stirred in her sleep and cooed softly, Mac murmured drowsily: "Move-over-dear, Move-over dear"; and the dove, taking up the refrain, crooned it again and again to its mate.
The words of the songs were not Mac's. They belong to the lore of the bushmen; but he sang or crooned them with such perfect mimicry of tone or cadence, that never again was it possible to hear these songs of the Never-Never without associating the words with the songs.
The night was full of sounds, and one by one Mac caught them up, and the bush appeared to echo him; and leaning half drowsily, against the pack-saddles and swags, we listened until we slipped into one of those quiet reveries that come so naturally to bush-folk. Shut in on all sides by bush and tall timber, with the rushing river as sentinel, we seemed in a world all our own—a tiny human world, with a camp fire for its hub; and as we dreamed on, half conscious of the moonlight and shoutings, the deep inner beauty of the night stole upon us. A mystical, elusive beauty. difficult to define, that lay underneath and around, and within the moonlight—a beauty of deep nestling shadows, crooning whispers, and soft rustling movement.
For a while we dreamed on, and then the Maluka broke the silence. "The wizard of the Never-Never has not forgotten how to weave his spells while I've been south," he said. "It won't be long before he has the missus in his toils. The false veneer of civilisation is peeling off at a great rate."
I roused as from a trance; and Mac threw a sharp, searching glance at me, as I sat curled up against a swag. "You're right," he laughed; "there's not a trace of the towney left." And rising to "see about fixing up camp," he added: "You'd better look out, missus! Once caught, you'll never get free again. We're all tethered goats here. Every time we make up our minds to clear out, something pulls us back with a jerk."
"Tethered goats!" Mac called us, and the world must apply the simile as it thinks fit. The wizard of the Never-Never weaves his spells, until hardships, and dangers, and privations, seem all that make life worth living; and then holds us "tethered goats"; and every time the town calls us with promises of gaiety, and comfort, and security, "something pulls us back with a jerk" to our beloved bush.
There was no sign of rain; and as bushmen only pitch tent when a deluge is expected, our camp was very simple: just camp sleeping mosquito-nets, with calico tops and cheese net for curtains—hanging by cords between stout stakes driven into the ground. "Mosquito pegs," the bushmen call these stakes.
Jackeroo, the unpoetical, was even then sound asleep in his net; and in ten minutes everything was "fixed up." In another ten minutes we had also "turned in," and soon after I was sound asleep, rolled up in a "bluey," and had to be wakened at dawn.
"The river's still rising," Mac announced by way of good-morning. "We'll have to bustle up and get across, or the water'll be over the wire, and then we'll be done for."
Bustle as we would, however "getting across" was a tedious business. It took nearly an hour's hustling and urging and galloping before the horses could be persuaded to attempt the swim, and then only after old Roper had been partly dragged and partly hauled through the back-wash by the amphibious Jackeroo.
Another half-hour slipped by in sending the horses' hobbles across on the pulley that ran on the wire, and in the hobbling out of the horses. Then, with Jackeroo on one side of the river, and the Maluka and Mac on the other, swags, saddles, packbags, and camp baggage went over one by one; and it was well past mid-day before all was finished.
Then my turn came. A surcingle—one of the long thick straps that keep all firm on a pack-horse—was buckled through the pulley, and the Maluka crossed first, just to test its safety. It was safe enough; but as he was dragged through the water most of the way, the pleasantness of "getting across" on the wire proved a myth.
Mac shortened the strap, and then sat me in it, like a child in a swing. "Your lighter weight will run clear of the water," he said, with his usual optimism. "It's only a matter of holding on and keeping cool"; and as the Maluka began to haul he added final instructions. "Hang on like grim death, and keep cool, whatever happens," he said.
I promised to obey, and all went well until I reached mid-stream. Then, the wire beginning to sag threateningly towards the water, Mac flung his whole weight on to his end of it, and, to his horror, I shot up into the air like a sky-rocket.
"Hang on! Keep cool!" Mac yelled, in a frenzy of apprehension, as he swung on his end of the wire. Jackeroo became convulsed with laughter, but the Maluka pulled hard, and I was soon on the right side of the river, declaring that I preferred experiences when they were over. Later Mac accounted for his terror with another unconscious flash of humour. "You never can count on a woman keeping cool when the unexpected happens," he said.
We offered to haul him over. "It's only a matter of holding on and keeping cool," we said; but he preferred to swim.
"It's a pity you didn't think of telegraphing this performance," I shouted across the floods; but, in his relief, Mac was equal to the occasion.
"I'm glad I didn't," he shouted back gallantly, with a sweeping flourish of his hat; "it might have blocked you coming." The bushman was learning a new accomplishment.
As his clothes were to come across on the wire, I was given a hint to "make myself scarce"; so retired over the bank, and helped Jackeroo with the dinner camp—an arrangement that exactly suited his ideas of the eternal fitness of things.
During the morning he had expressed great disapproval that a woman should be idle, while men dragged heavy weights about. "White fellow, big-fellow-fool all right," he said contemptuously, when Mac explained that it was generally so in the white man's country. A Briton of the Billingsgate type would have appealed to Jackeroo as a man of sound common sense.
By the time the men-folk appeared, he had decided that with a little management I would be quite an ornament to society. "Missus bin help ME all right," he told the Sanguine Scot, with comical self-satisfaction.
Mac roared with delight, and the passage of the Fergusson having swept away the last lingering torch of restraint he called to the Maluka; "Jackeroo reckons he's tamed the shrew for us." Mac had been a reader of Shakespeare in his time.
All afternoon we were supposed to be "making a dash" for the Edith, a river twelve miles farther on; but there was nothing very dashing about our pace. The air was stiflingly, swelteringly hot, and the flies maddening in their persistence. The horses developed puffs, and when we were not being half-drowned in torrents of rain we were being parboiled in steamy atmosphere. The track was as tracks usually are "during the Wet," and for four hours we laboured on, slipping and slithering over the greasy track, varying the monotony now and then with a floundering scramble through a boggy creek crossing. Our appearance was about as dashing as our pace; and draggled, wet through, and perspiring, and out of conceit with primitive travelling—having spent the afternoon combining a minimum rate of travelling with a maximum of discomfort—we arrived at the Edith an hour after sundown to find her a wide eddying stream.
"Won't be more than a ducking," Mac said cheerfully. "Couldn't be much wetter than we are," and the Maluka taking the reins from my hands, we rode into the stream Mac keeping behind, "to pick her up in case she floats off," he said, thinking he was putting courage into me.
It wasn't as bad as it looked; and after a little stumbling and plunging and drifting the horses were clambering out up the opposite bank, and by next sundown—after scrambling through a few more rivers—we found ourselves looking down at the flooded Katherine, flowing below in the valley of a rocky gorge.
Sixty-five miles in three days, against sixty miles an hour of the express trains of the world. "Speed's the thing," cries the world, and speeds on, gaining little but speed; and we bush-folk travel our sixty miles and gain all that is worth gaining—excepting speed.
"Hand-over-hand this time!" Mac said, looking up at the telegraph wire that stretched far overhead. "There's no pulley here. Hand-over-hand, or the horse's-tail trick."
But Mine Host of the "Pub" had seen us, and running down the opposite side of the gorge, launched a boat at the river's brink; then pulling up-stream for a hundred yards or so in the backwash, faced about, and raced down and across the swift-flowing current with long, sweeping strokes; and as we rode down the steep winding track to meet him, Mac became jocular, and reminding us that the gauntlet of the Katherine had yet to be run, also reminded us that the sympathies of the Katherine were with the stockmen; adding with a chuckle, as Mine Host bore down upon us. "You don't even represent business here; no woman ever does."
Then the boat grounded, and Mine Host sprang ashore—another burly six-foot bushman—and greeted us with a flashing smile and a laughing "There's not much of her left." And then, stepping with quiet unconcern into over two feet of water, pushed the boat against a jutting ledge for my convenience. "Wet feet don't count," he laughed with another of his flashing smiles, when remonstrated with, and Mac chuckled in an aside, "Didn't I tell you a woman doesn't represent business here?"
The swim being beyond the horses, they were left hobbled out on the north banks, to wait for the river to fall, and after another swift race down and across stream, Mine Host landed every one safely on the south side of the flood, and soon we were clambering up the steep track that led from the river to the "Pub."
Coming up from the river, the Katherine Settlement appeared to consist solely of the "Pub" and its accompanying store; but beyond the "Pub," which, by the way, seemed to be hanging on to its own verandah posts for support, we found an elongated, three-roomed building, nestling under deep verandahs, and half-hidden beneath a grove of lofty scarlet flowering ponchianas.
"The Cottage is always set apart for distinguished visitors," Mine Host said, bidding us welcome with another smile, but never a hint that he was placing his own private quarters at our disposal. Like all bushmen, he could be delicately reticent when conferring a favour; but a forgotten razor-strop betrayed him later on.
In the meantime we discovered the remainder of the Settlement from the Cottage verandahs, spying out the Police Station as it lurked in ambush just round the first bend in a winding bush track—apparently keeping one eye on the "Pub"; and then we caught a gleam of white roofs away beyond further bends in the track, where the Overland Telegraph "Department" stood on a little rise, aloof from the "Pub" and the Police, shut away from the world, yet attending to its affairs, and, incidentally, to those of the bush-folk: a tiny Settlement, with a tiny permanent population of four men and two women—women who found their own homes all-sufficient, and rarely left them, although the men-folk were here, there, and everywhere.
All around and within the Settlement was bush: and beyond the bush, stretching away and away on every side of it, those hundreds of thousands of square miles that constitute the Never-Never—miles sending out and absorbing again from day to day the floating population of the Katherine.
Before supper the Telegraph Department and the Police Station called on the Cottage to present compliments. Then the Wag came with his welcome. "Didn't expect you to-day," he drawled, with unmistakable double meaning in his drawl. "You're come sooner than we expected. Must have had luck with the rivers "; and Mac became enthusiastic. "Luck!" he cried. "Luck! She's got the luck of the Auld Yin himself—skinned through everything by the skin of our teeth. No one else'll get through those rivers under a week." And they didn't.
Remembering the telegrams, the Wag shot a swift quizzing glance at him; but it took more than a glance to disconcert Mac once his mind was made up, and he met it unmoved, and entered into a vivid description of the "passage of the Fergusson," which filled in our time until supper.
After supper the Cottage returned the calls, and then, rain coming down in torrents, the Telegraph, the Police, the Cottage and the "Pub" retired to rest, wondering what the morrow would bring forth.
The morrow brought forth more rain, and the certainty that, as the river was still rising, the swim would be beyond the horses for several days yet; and because of this uncertainty, the Katherine bestirred itself to honour its tethered guests.
The Telegraph and the Police Station issued invitations for dinner, and the "Pub" that had already issued a hint that "the boys could refrain from knocking down cheques as long as a woman was staying in the place" now issued an edict limiting the number of daily drinks per man.
The invitations were accepted with pleasure, and the edict was attended to with a murmur of approval in which, however, there was one dissenting voice: a little bearded bushman "thought the Katherine was overdoing it a bit," and suggested as an amendment that "drunks could make themselves scarce when she's about." But Mine Host easily silenced him by offering to "see what the missus thought about it."
Then for a day the Katherine "took its bearings," and keen, scrutinising glances summed up the Unknown Woman, looking her through and through until she was no longer an Unknown Woman, while the Maluka looked on interested. He knew the bush-folk well, and that their instinct would be unerring, and left the missus to slip into whichever niche in their lives they thought fit to place her. And as she slipped into a niche built up of strong, staunch comradeship, the black community considered that they, too, had fathomed the missus; and it became history in the camp that the Maluka had stolen her from a powerful Chief of the Whites, and, deeming it wise to disappear with her until the affair had blown over, had put many flooded rivers between him and his pursuers. "Would any woman have flung herself across rivers on wires, speeding on without rest or pause, unless afraid of pursuit?" the camp asked in committee, and the most sceptical were silenced.
Then followed other days full of pleasant intercourse; for once sure of its welcome, bushmen are lavish with their friendship. And as we roamed about the tiny Settlement, the Wag and others vied with the Maluka, Mine Host, and Mac in "making things pleasant for the missus": relating experiences for her entertainment; showing all there was to be shown, and obeying the edict with cheerful, unquestioning chivalry.
Neither the Head Stockman nor the little bushman, however, had made any offers of friendship, Dan having gone out to the station immediately after interviewing the Maluka, while the little bushman spent most of his time getting out of the way of the missus whenever she appeared on his horizon.
"A Tam-o-Shanter fleeing from the furies of a too fertile imagination," the Maluka laughed after a particularly comical dash to cover.
Poor Tam! Those days must live in his memory like a hideous nightmare! I, of course, knew nothing of the edict at the time—for bushmen do not advertise their chivalry—and wandered round the straggling Settlement vaguely surprised at its sobriety, and turning up in such unexpected places that the little bushman was constantly on the verge of apoplexy.
But experience teaches quickly. On the first day, after running into me several times, he learned the wisdom of spying out the land before turning a corner. On the second day, after we had come on him while thus engaged several other times, he learned the foolishness of placing too much confidence in corners, and deciding by the law of averages that the bar was the only safe place in the Settlement, availed himself of its sanctuary in times of danger. On the third day he learned that the law of averages is a weak reed to lean on; for on slipping round a corner, and mistaking a warning signal from the Wag, he whisked into the bar to whisk out again with a clatter of hobnailed boots, for I was in there examining some native curios. "She's in THERE next," he gasped as he passed the Wag on his way to the cover of the nearest corner.
"Poor Tam!" How he must have hated women as he lurked in the doubtful ambush of that corner.
"HOW he did skoot!" the Wag chuckled later on when recounting with glee, to the Maluka and Mac, the story of Tam's dash for cover.
Pitying Tam, I took his part, and said he seemed a sober, decent little man and couldn't help being shy; then paused, wondering at the queer expression on the men's faces.
Mac coughed in embarrassment, and the Maluka and the Wag seemed pre-occupied, and, fearing I had been misunderstood, I added hastily: "So is everyone in the Settlement, for that matter," thereby causing further embarrassment.
After a short intense silence the Wag "thought he'd be getting along," and as he moved off the Maluka laughed. "Oh, missus, missus!" and Mac blurted out the whole tale of the edict—concluding rather ambiguously by saying: "Don't you go thinking it's made any difference to any of us, because it hasn't. We're not saints, but we're not pigs, and, besides, it was a pleasure."
I doubted if it was much pleasure to Tam-o-Shanter; but forgetting he was sober by compulsion, even he had begun to feel virtuous; and when he heard he had been called a "sober, decent little man," he positively swaggered; and on the fourth morning walked jauntily past the Cottage and ventured a quiet good-morning—a simple enough little incident in itself; but it proved Tam's kinship with his fellowmen. For is it not the knowledge that some one thinks well of us that makes us feel at ease in that person's company?
Later in the same day, the flood having fallen, it was decided that it would be well to cross the horses in the rear of a boat, and we were all at the river discussing preparations, when Tam electrified the community by joining the group.
In the awkward pause that followed his arrival he passed a general remark about dogs—there were several with us—and every one plunged into dog yarns, until Tam, losing his head over the success of his maiden speech, became so communicative on the subject of a dog-fight that he had to be surreptitiously kicked into silence.
"Looks like more rain," Mac said abruptly, hoping to draw public attention from the pantomime. "Ought to get off as soon as possible, or we'll be blocked at the King."
The Katherine seized on the new topic of conversation, and advised "getting out to the five-mile overnight," declaring it would "take all day to get away from the Settlement in the morning." Then came another awkward pause, while every one kept one eye on Tam, until the Maluka saved the situation by calling for volunteers to help with the horses, and, Tam being pressed into the service, the boat was launched, and he was soon safe over the far side of the river.
Once among the horses, the little man was transformed. In the quiet, confident horseman that rode down the gorge a few minutes later it would have been difficult to recognise the shy, timid bushman. The saddle had given him backbone, and it soon appeared he was right-hand man, and, at times, even organiser in the difficult task of crossing horses through a deep, swift-running current.
As the flood was three or four hundred yards wide and many feet deep, a swim was impossible without help, and every horse was to be supported or guided, or dragged over in the rear of the boat, with a halter held by a man in the stern.
It was no child's play. Every inch of the way had its difficulties. The poor brutes knew the swim was beyond them; and as the boat, pulling steadily on, dragged them from the shallows into the deeper water, they plunged and snorted in fear, until they found themselves swimming, and were obliged to give all their attention to keeping themselves afloat.
Some required little assistance when once off their feet; just a slow, steady pull from the oars, and a taut enough halter to lean on in the tight places. But others rolled over like logs when the full force of the current struck them, threatening to drag the boat under, as it and the horse raced away down stream with the oarsmen straining their utmost.
It was hard enough work for the oarsmen; but the seat of honour was in the stern of the boat, and no man filled it better than the transformed Tam. Alert and full of resource, with one hand on the tiller, he leaned over the boat, lengthening or shortening rope for the halter, and regulating the speed of the oarsmen with unerring judgment; giving a staunch swimmer time and a short rope to lean on, or literally dragging the faint-hearted across at full speed; careful then only of one thing: to keep the head above water. Never again would I judge a man by one of his failings.
There were ten horses in all to cross, and at the end of two hours' hard pulling there was only one left to come—old Roper.
Mac took the halter into his own hands there was no one else worthy— and, slipping into the stern of the boat, spoke first to the horse and then to the oarsmen; and as the boat glided forward, the noble, trusting old horse—confident that his long-tried human friend would set him no impossible task—came quietly through the shallows, sniffing questions at the half-submerged bushes.
"Give him time!" Mac called. "Let him think it out," as step by step Roper followed, the halter running slack on the water. When almost out of his depth, he paused just a moment, then, obeying the tightening rope, lifted himself to the flood and struck firmly and bravely out.
Staunchly he and Mac dealt with the current: taking time and approaching it quietly, meeting it with taut rope and unflinching nerve, drifting for a few breaths to judge its force; then, nothing daunted, they battled forward, stroke after stroke, and won across without once pulling the boat out of its course.
Only Roper could have done it; and when the splendid neck and shoulders appeared above water as he touched bottom, on the submerged track, he was greeted with a cheer and a hearty, unanimous "Bravo! old chap!" Then Mac returned thanks with a grateful look, and, leaping ashore, looked over the beautiful, wet, shining limbs, declaring he could have "done it on his own," if required.
Once assured that we were anxious for a start, the Katherine set about speeding the parting guests with gifts of farewell. The Wag brought fresh tomatoes and a cucumber; the Telegraph sent eggs; the Police a freshly baked cake; the Chinese cook baked bread, and Mine Host came with a few potatoes and a flat-iron. To the surprise of the Katherine, I received the potatoes without enthusiasm, not having been long enough in the Territory to know their rare value, and, besides, I was puzzling over the flat iron.
"What's it for?" I asked, and the Wag shouted in mock amazement: "For! To iron duds with, of course," as Mine Host assured us it was of no use to him beyond keeping a door open.
Still puzzled, I said I thought there would not be any need to iron duds until we reached the homestead, and the Maluka said quietly: "It's FOR the homestead. There will be nothing like that there."
Mac exploded with an impetuous "Good Heavens! What does she expect? First pillows and now irons!"
Gradually realising that down South we have little idea of what "rough" means to a bushman, I had from day to day been modifying my ideas of a station home from a mansion to a commodious wooden cottage, plainly but comfortably furnished. The Cottage had confirmed this idea, but Mac soon settled the question beyond all doubt.
"Look here!" he said emphatically. "Before she leaves this place she'll just have to grasp things a bit better," and sitting down on a swag he talked rapidly for ten minutes, taking a queer delight in making everything sound as bad as possible, "knocking the stiffening out of the missus," as he phrased it, and certainly bringing the "commodious station home" about her ears, which was just as well, perhaps.
After a few scathing remarks on the homestead in general, which he called "One of those down-at-the-heels, anything-'ll-do sort of places," he described The House. "It's mostly verandahs and promises," he said; "but one room is finished. We call it The House, but you'll probably call it a Hut, even though it has got doors and calico windows framed and on hinges."
Then followed an inventory of the furniture. "There's one fairly steady, good-sized table at least it doesn't fall over, unless some one leans on it; then there's a bed with a wire mattress, but nothing else on it; and there's a chair or two up to your weight (the boss'll either have to stand up or lie down), and I don't know that there's much else excepting plenty of cups and plates—they're enamel, fortunately, so you won't have much trouble with the servants breaking things. Of course there's a Christmas card and a few works of art on the walls for you to look at when you're tired of looking at yourself in the glass. Yes! There's a looking-glass—goodness knows how it got there! You ought to be thankful for that and the wire-mattress. You won't find many of them out bush ."
I humbly acknowledged thankfulness, and felt deeply grateful to Mine Host, when, with ready thoughtfulness he brought a couple of china cups and stood them among the baggage—the heart of Mine Host was as warm and sincere as his flashing smiles. I learned, in time, to be indifferent to china cups, but that flat-iron became one of my most cherished possessions—how it got to the Katherine is a long, long story, touching on three continents, a man, a woman, and a baby.
The commodious station home destroyed, the Katherine bestirred itself further in the speeding of its guests. The Telegraph came with the offer of their buggy, and then the Police offered theirs; but Mine Host, harnessing two nuggety little horses into his buck-board, drove round to the store, declaring a buck-board was the "only thing for the road." "You won't feel the journey at all in it," he said, and drove us round the Settlement to prove how pleasant and easy travelling could be in the Wet.
"No buggy obtainable," murmured the Maluka, reviewing the three offers. But the Sanguine Scot was quite unabashed, and answered coolly: "You forget those telegrams were sent to that other woman—the Goer, you know—there WAS no buggy obtainable for HER. By George! Wasn't she a snorter? I knew I'd block her somehow," and then he added with a gallant bow and a flourish: "You can see for yourselves, chaps, that she didn't come."
The Wag mimicked the bow and the flourish, and then suggested accepting all three vehicles and having a procession "a triumphal exit that'll knock spots off Pine Creek."
"There'd be one apiece," he said, "and with Jackeroo as outrider, and loose horses to fill in with, we could make a real good thing of it if we tried. There's Tam, now; he's had a fair amount of practice lately, dodging round corners, and if he and I stood on opposite sides of the track, and dodged round bushes directly the procession passed coming out farther along, we could line the track for miles with cheering crowds."
The buck-board only being decided on, he expressed himself bitterly disappointed, but promised to do his best with that and the horses; until hearing that Mac was to go out to the "five-mile" overnight with the pack-team and loose horses, leaving us to follow at sun-up, he became disconsolate and refused even to witness the departure.
"I'd 'av willingly bust meself cheering a procession and lining the track with frantic crowds," he said, "but I'm too fat to work up any enthusiasm over two people in a buck-board."
A little before sundown Mac set out, after instructing the Katherine to "get the buck-board off early," and just before the Katherine "turned in" for the night, the Maluka went to the office to settle accounts with Mine Host.
In five minutes he was back, standing among the ponchianas, and then after a little while of silence he said gently: "Mac was right. A woman does not represent business here." Mine Host had indignantly refused payment for a woman's board and lodging.
"I had to pay, though," the Maluka laughed, with one of his quick changes of humour. "But, then, I'm only a man."
When we arrived at the five-mile in the morning we found Mac "packed up" and ready for the start, and, passing the reins to him, the Maluka said, "You know the road best "; and Mac, being what he called a "bit of a Jehu," we set off in great style across country, apparently missing trees by a hair's breadth, and bumping over the ant-hills, boulders, and broken boughs that lay half-hidden in the long grass.
After being nearly bumped out of the buck-board several times, I asked if there wasn't any track anywhere; and Mac once again exploded with astonishment.
"We're on the track," he shouted. "Good Heavens I do you mean to say you can't see it on ahead there?" and he pointed towards what looked like thickly timbered country, plentifully strewn with further boulders and boughs and ant-hills; and as I shook my head, he shrugged his shoulders hopelessly. "And we're on the main transcontinental route from Adelaide to Port Darwin," he said.
"Any track anywhere!" he mimicked presently, as we lurched, and heaved, and bumped along. "What'll she say when we get into the long-grass country?"
"Long here!" he ejaculated, when I thought the grass we were driving through was fairly long (it was about three feet). "Just you wait!"
I waited submissively, if bouncing about a buck-board over thirty miles of obstacles can be called waiting, and next day we "got into the long-grass country", miles of grass, waving level with and above our heads—grass ten feet high and more, shutting out everything but grass.
The Maluka was riding a little behind, at the head of the pack-team, but we could see neither him nor the team, and Mac looked triumphantly round as the staunch little horses pushed on through the forest of grass that swirled and bent and swished and reeled all about the buck-board.
"Didn't I tell you?" he said. "This is what we call long grass"; and he asked if I could "see any track now." "It's as plain as a pikestaff," he declared, trying to show what he called a "clear break all the way." "Oh I'm a dead homer all right," he shouted after further going as we came out at the "King" crossing.
"Now for it! Hang on!" he warned, and we went down the steep bank at a hand gallop; and as the horses rushed into the swift-flowing stream, he said unconcernedly: "I wonder how deep this is," adding, as the buck-board lifted and swerved when the current struck it: "By George! They're off their feet," and leaning over the splashboard, lashed at the undaunted little beasts until they raced up the opposite bank.
"That's the style!" he shouted in triumph, as they drew up, panting and dripping well over the rise from the crossing. "Close thing, though! Did you get your feet wet?"
"Did you get your feet wet!" That was all, when I was expecting every form of concern imaginable. For a moment I felt indignant at Mac's recklessness and lack of concern, and said severely, "You shouldn't take such risks."
But Mac was blissfully unconscious of the severity. "Risks!" he said. "Why, it wasn't wide enough for anything to happen, bar a ducking. If you rush it, the horses are pushed across before they know they're off their feet."
"Bar a ducking, indeed!" But Mac was out of the buck-board, shouting back, "Hold hard there! It's a swim," and continued shouting directions until the horses were across with comparatively dry pack-bags. Then he and the Maluka shook hands and congratulated each other on being the right side of everything.
"No more rivers!" the Maluka said.
"Clear run home, bar a deluge," Mac added, gathering up the reins. "We'll strike the front gate to-night."
All afternoon we followed the telegraph line, and there the track was really well-defined; then at sundown Mac drew up, and with a flourish of hats he and the Maluka bade the missus "Welcome Home!" All around and about was bush, and only bush, that, and the telegraph line, and Mac, touching on one of the slender galvanized iron poles, explained the welcome. "This is the front gate." he said; "another forty-five miles and we'll be knocking at the front door." And they called the Elsey "a nice little place." Perhaps it was when compared with runs of six million acres.
The camp was pitched just inside the "front gate," near a wide-spreading sheet of water, "Easter's Billabong," and at supper-time the conversation turned on bush cookery.
"Never tasted Johnny cakes!!" Mac said. "Your education hasn't begun yet. We'll have some for breakfast; I'm real slap-up at Johnny cakes!" and rummaging in a pack-bag, he produced flour, cream-of-tartar, soda, and a mixing-dish, and set to work at once.
"I'm real slap-up at Johnny cakes! No mistake!" he assured us, as he knelt on the ground, big and burly in front of the mixing-dish, kneading enthusiastically at his mixture. "Look at that!" as air-bubbles appeared all over the light, spongy dough. "Didn't I tell you I knew a thing or two about cooking?" and cutting off nuggety-looking chunks, he buried them in the hot ashes.
When they were cooked, crisp and brown, he displayed them with just pride. "Well!" he said. "Who's slap-up at Johnny cakes?" and standing them on end in the mixing-dish he rigged up tents—a deluge being expected—and carried them into his own for safety.
During the night the deluge came, and the billabong, walking up its flood banks, ran about the borders of our camp, sending so many exploring little rivulets through Mac's tent, that he was obliged to pass most of the night perched on a pyramid of pack bags and saddles.
Unfortunately, in the confusion and darkness, the dish of Johnny cakes became the base of the pyramid, and was consequently missing at breakfast time. After a long hunt Mac recovered it and stood looking dejectedly at the ruins of his cookery—a heap of flat, stodgy-looking slabs. "Must have been sitting on 'em all night," he said, "and there's no other bread for breakfast."
There was no doubt that we must eat them or go without bread of any kind; but as we sat tugging at the gluey guttapercha-like substance, Mac's sense of humour revived. "Didn't I tell you I was slap-up at Johnny cakes?" he chuckled, adding with further infinitely more humorous chuckles: "You mightn't think it; but I really am." Then he pointed to Jackeroo, who was watching in bewilderment while the Maluka hunted for the crispest crust, not for himself, but the woman. "White fellow big fellow fool all right! eh, Jackeroo?" he asked, and Jackeroo openly agreed with us.
Finding the black soil flats impassable after the deluge, Mac left the track, having decided to stick to the ridges all day; and all that had gone before was smoothness itself in comparison to what was in store.
All day the buck-board rocked and bumped through the timber, and the Maluka, riding behind, from time to time pointed out the advantages of travelling across country, as we bounced about the buck-board like rubber balls: "There's so little chance of getting stiff with sitting still."
Every time we tried to answer him we bit our tongues as the buck-board leapt over the tussocks of grass. Once we managed to call back, "You won't feel the journey in a buck-board." Then an overhanging bough threatening to wipe us out of our seats, Mac shouted, "Duck!" and as we "ducked" the buck-board skimmed between two trees, with barely an inch to spare.
"I'm a bit of a Jehu all right!" Mac shouted triumphantly. "It takes judgment to do the thing in style"; and the next moment, swinging round a patch of scrub, we flew off at a tangent to avoid a fallen tree, crashing through its branches and grinding over an out-crop of ironstone to miss a big boulder just beyond the tree. It undoubtedly took judgment this "travelling across country along the ridges"; but the keen, alert bushman never hesitated as he swung in and out and about the timber, only once miscalculating the distance between trees, when he was obliged to back out again. Of course we barked trees constantly, but Mac called that "blazing a track for the next travellers," and everywhere the bush creatures scurried out of our way; and when I expressed fears for the springs, Mac reassured me by saying a buck-board had none, excepting those under the seat.
If Mac was a "bit of a Jehu," he certainly was a "dead homer," for after miles of scrub and grass and timber, we came out at our evening camp at the Bitter Springs, to find the Head Stockman there, with his faithful, tawny-coloured shadow, "Old Sool em," beside him.
Dog and man greeted us sedately, and soon Dan had a billy boiling for us, and a blazing fire, and accepted an invitation to join us at supper and "bring something in the way of bread along with him."
With a commonplace remark about the trip out, he placed a crisp, newly baked damper on the tea-towel that acted as supper cloth; but when we all agreed that he was "real slap-up at damper making," he scented a joke and shot a quick, questioning glance around; then deciding that it was wiser not to laugh at all than to laugh in the wrong place, he only said, he was "not a bad hand at the damper trick." Dan liked his jokes well labelled when dealing with the unknown Woman.
He was a bushman of the old type, one of the men of the droving days; full of old theories, old faiths, and old prejudices, and clinging always to old habits and methods. Year by year as the bush had receded and shrunk before the railways, he had receded with it, keeping always just behind the Back of Beyond, droving, bullock-punching, stock-keeping, and unconsciously opening up the way for that very civilisation that was driving him farther and farther back. In the forty years since his boyhood railways had driven him out of Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland, and were now threatening even the Never-Never, and Dan was beginning to fear that they would not leave "enough bush to bury a man in."
Enough bush to bury a man in! That's all these men of the droving days have ever asked of their nation and yet without them the pioneers would have been tied hand and foot, and because of them Australia is what it is.
"Had a good trip out?" Dan asked, feeling safe on that subject, and appeared to listen to the details of the road with interest; but all the time the shrewd hazel eyes were upon me, drawing rapid conclusions, and I began to feel absurdly anxious to know their verdict. That was not to come before bedtime; and only those who knew the life of the stations in the Never-Never know how much was depending on the stockmen's verdict.
Dan had his own methods of dealing with the Unknown Woman. Forty years out-bush had convinced him that "most of 'em were the right sort," but it had also convinced him that "you had to take 'em all differently," and he always felt his way carefully, watching and waiting, ready to open out at the first touch of fellowship and understanding, but just as ready to withdraw into himself at the faintest approach to a snub.
By the time supper was over he had risked a joke or two, and taking heart by their reception, launched boldly into the conversation, chuckling with delight as the Maluka and Mac amused themselves by examining the missus on bushcraft.
"She'll need a deal of educating before we let her out alone," he said, after a particularly bad failure, with the first touch of that air of proprietorship that was to become his favourite attitude towards his missus.
"It's only common sense; you'll soon get used to it," Mac said in encouragement, giving us one of his delightful backhanders. Then in all seriousness Dan suggested teaching her some of the signs of water at hand, right off, "in case she does get lost any time," and also seriously, the Maluka and Mac "thought it would be as well, perhaps."
Then the townswoman's self-satisfied arrogance came to the surface. "You needn't bother about me," I said, confident I had as much common sense as any bushman. "If ever I do get lost, I'll just catch a cow and milk it."
Knowing nothing of the wild, scared cattle of the fenceless runs of the Never-Never, I was prepared for anything rather than the roar of delight that greeted that example of town "common sense."
"Missus! missus!" the Maluka cried, as soon as he could speak, "you'll need a deal of educating "; and while Mac gasped, "Oh I say! Look here!" Dan, with tears in his eyes, chuckled: "She'll have a drouth on by the time she runs one down." Dan always called a thirst a drouth. "Oh Lord!" he said, picturing the scene in his mind's eye, "'I'll catch a cow and milk it,' she says."
Then, dancing with fun, the hazel eyes looked round the company, and as Dan rose, preparatory to turning in, we felt we were about to hear their verdict. When it came it was characteristic of the man in uniqueness of wording:
"She's the dead finish!" he said, wiping his eyes on his shirt sleeve. "Reckoned she was the minute I heard her talking about slap-up dampers"; and in some indescribable way we knew he had paid the woman who was just entering his life the highest compliment in his power. Then he added, "Told the chaps the little 'uns were generally all right." It is the helplessness of little women that makes them appear "all right" in the eyes of bushmen, helplessness being foreign to snorters.
At breakfast Dan expressed surprise because there was no milk, and the pleasantry being well received, he considered the moment ripe for one of his pet theories.
"She'll do for this place!" he said, wagging his head wisely. "I've been forty years out-bush, and I've known eight or ten women in that time, so I ought to know something about it. Anyway, the ones that could see jokes suited best. There was Mrs. Bob out Victoria way. She'd see a joke a mile off; sighted 'em as soon as they got within cooee. Never knew her miss one, and never knew anybody suit the bush like she did." And, as we packed up and set out for the last lap of our journey he was still ambling about his theory. "Yes," he said, "you can dodge most things out bush; but you can't dodge jokes for long. They'll run you down sooner or later"; adding with a chuckle, "Never heard of one running Mrs. Bob down, though. She always tripped 'em up before they could get to her." Then finding the missus had thrown away a "good cup of tea just because a few flies had got into it," he became grave. "Never heard of Mrs. Bob getting up to those tricks," he said, and doubted whether "the missus'ld do after all," until reassured by the Maluka that "she'll be fishing them out with the indifference of a Stoic in a week or two"; and I was.
When within a few miles of the homestead, the buckboard took a sharp turn round a patch of scrub, and before any one realised what was happening we were in the midst of a mob of pack horses, and face to face with the Quiet Stockman a strong, erect, young Scot, who carried his six foot two of bone and muscle with the lithe ease of a bushman.
"Hallo" Mac shouted, pulling up. Then, with the air of a showman introducing some rare exhibit, added: "This is the missus, Jack."
Jack touched his hat and moved uneasily in his saddle, answering Mac's questions in monosyllables. Then the Maluka came up, and Mac, taking pity on the embarrassed bushman, suggested "getting along," and we left him sitting rigidly on his horse, trying to collect his scattered senses.
"That was unrehearsed," Mac chuckled, as we drove on. "He's clearing out! Reckon he didn't set out exactly hoping to meet us, though. Tam's a lady's man in comparison," but loyal to his comrade above his amusement, he added warmly: "You can't beat Jack by much, though, when it comes to sticking to a pal," unconscious that he was prophesying of the years to come, when the missus had become one of those pals.
"There's only the Dandy left now," Mac went on, as we spun along an ever more definite track, "and he'll be all right as soon as he gets used to it. Never knew such a chap for finding something decent in everybody he strikes." Naturally I hoped he would "find something decent in me," having learned what it meant to the stockmen to have a woman pitchforked into their daily lives, when those lives were to be lived side by side, in camp, or in saddle, or at the homestead.
Mac hesitated a moment, and then out flashed one of his happy inspirations. "Don't you bother about the Dandy," he said; "bushmen have a sixth sense, and know a pal when they see one."
Just a bushman's pretty speech, aimed straight at the heart of a woman, where all the pretty speeches of the bushfolk are aimed; for it is by the heart that they judge us. "Only a pal," they will say, towering strong and protecting; and the woman feels uplifted, even though in the same breath they have honestly agreed with her, after careful scrutiny, that it is not her fault that she was born into the plain sisterhood. Bushmen will risk their lives for a woman pal or otherwise but leave her to pick up her own handkerchief.
"Of course!" Mac added, as an afterthought. "It's not often they find a pal in a woman"; and I add to-day that when they do, that woman is to be envied her friends.
"Eyes front!" Mac shouted suddenly, and in a moment the homestead was in sight, and the front gate forty-five miles behind us. "If ever you DO reach the homestead alive," the Darwin ladies had said; and now they were three hundred miles away from us to the north-west.
"Sam's spotted us!" Mac smiled as we skimmed on, and a slim little Chinaman ran across between the buildings. "We'd better do the thing in style," and whipping up the horses, he whirled them through the open slip-rails, past the stockyards, away across the grassy homestead enclosure, and pulled up with a rattle of hoofs and wheels at the head of a little avenue of buildings.
The Dandy, fresh and spotless, appeared in a doorway; black boys sprang up like a crop of mushrooms and took charge of the buck-board; Dan rattled in with the pack-teams, and horses were jangling hobbles and rattling harness all about us, as I found myself standing in the shadow of a queer, unfinished building, with the Maluka and Mac surrounded by a mob of leaping, bounding dogs, flourishing, as best they could, another "Welcome home!"
"Well?" Mac asked, beating off dogs at every turn. "Is it a House or a Hut?"
"A Betwixt and Between," we decided; and then the Dandy was presented, And the steady grey eyes apparently finding "something decent" in the missus, with a welcoming smile and ready tact he said: "I'm sure we're all real glad to see you." Just the tiniest emphasis on the word "you"; but that, and the quick, bright look that accompanied the emphasis, told, as nothing else could, that it was "that other woman" that had not been wanted. Unconventional, of course; but when a welcome is conventional out-bush, it is unworthy of the name of welcome.
The Maluka, knew this well, but before he could speak, Mac had seized a little half-grown dog—the most persistent of all the leaping dogs—by her tightly curled-up tail, and, setting her down at my feet, said: "And this is Tiddle'ums," adding, with another flourishing bow, "A present from a Brither Scot," while Tiddle'ums in no way resented the dignity. Having a tail that curled tightly over her back like a cup handle, she expected to be lifted up by it.
Then one after the other Mac presented the station dogs: Quart-Pot, Drover, Tuppence, Misery, Buller, and a dozen others; and as I bowed gravely to each in turn Dan chuckled in appreciation: "She'll do! Told you she was the dead finish."
Then the introductions over, the Maluka said: "Ann, now I suppose she may consider herself just 'One of Us.'"
The homestead, standing half-way up the slope that rose from the billabong, had, after all, little of that "down-at-heels, anything'll-do" appearance that Mac had so scathingly described. No one could call it a "commodious station home," and it was even patched up and shabby; but, for all that, neat and cared for. An orderly little array of one-roomed buildings, mostly built of sawn slabs, and ranged round a broad oblong space with a precision that suggested the idea of a section of a street cut out from some neat compact little village.
The cook's quarters, kitchens, men's quarters, store, meat-house, and waggon-house, facing each other on either side of this oblong space, formed a short avenue-the main thoroughfare of the homestead—the centre of which was occupied by an immense wood-heap, the favourite gossiping place of some of the old black fellows, while across the western end of it, and looking down it, but a little aloof from the rest of the buildings, stood the house, or, rather, as much of it as had been rebuilt after the cyclone of 1897. As befitted their social positions the forge and black boys' "humpy" kept a respectful distance well round the south-eastern corner of this thoroughfare; but, for some unknown reason, the fowl-roosts had been erected over Sam Lee's sleeping-quarters. That comprised this tiny homestead of a million and a quarter acres, with the Katherine Settlement a hundred miles to the north of it, one neighbour ninety miles to the east, another, a hundred and five to the south, and others about two hundred to the west.
Unfortunately, Mac's description of the House had been only too correct. With the exception of the one roughly finished room at its eastern end, it was "mostly verandahs and promises."
After the cyclone had wrecked the building, scattering timber and sheets of iron in all directions, everything had lain exactly where it had fallen for some weeks, at the mercy of the wind and weather. At the end of those weeks a travelling Chinese carpenter arrived at the station with such excellent common-sense ideas of what a bush homestead should be, that he had been engaged to rebuild it.
His plans showed a wide-roofed building, built upon two-foot piles, with two large centre rooms opening into each other and surrounded by a deep verandah on every side; while two small rooms, a bathroom and an office, were to nestle each under one of the eastern corners of this deep twelve-foot verandah. Without a doubt excellent common-sense ideas; but, unfortunately, much larger than the supply of timber. Rough-hewn posts for the two-foot piles and verandah supports could be had for the cutting, and therefore did not give out; but the man used joists and uprights with such reckless extravagance, that by the time the skeleton of the building was up, the completion of the contract was impossible. With philosophical indifference, however, he finished one room completely; left a second a mere outline of uprights and tye-beams; apparently forgot all about the bathroom and office; covered the whole roof, including verandahs, with corrugated iron; surveyed his work with a certain amount of stolid satisfaction; then announcing that "wood bin finissem," applied for his cheque and departed; and from that day nothing further has been done to the House, which stood before us "mostly verandahs and promises."
Although Mac's description of the House had been apt, he had sadly underrated the furniture. There were FOUR chairs, all "up" to my weight, while two of them were up to the Maluka's. The cane was all gone, certainly, but had been replaced with green-hide seats (not green in colour, of course, only green in experience, never having seen a tan-pit). In addition to the chairs, the dining-table, the four-poster bed, the wire mattress, and the looking glass, there was a solid deal side table, made from the side of a packing-case, with four solid legs and a solid shelf underneath, also a remarkably steady washstand that had no ware of any description, and a remarkably unsteady chest of four drawers, one of which refused to open, while the other three refused to shut. Further, the dining-table was more than "fairly" steady, three of the legs being perfectly sound, and it therefore only threatened to fall over when leaned upon. And lastly, although most of the plates and all the cups were enamel ware, there was almost a complete dinner service in china. The teapot, however, was tin, and, as Mac said, as "big as a house."
As for the walls, not only were the "works of art" there, but they themselves were uniquely dotted from ceiling to floor with the muddy imprints of dogs' feet—not left there by a Pegasus breed of winged dogs, but made by the muddy feet of the station dogs, as the, pattered over the timber, when it lay awaiting the carpenter, and no one had seen any necessity to remove them. Outside the verandahs, and all around the house, was what was to be known later as the garden, a grassy stretch of hillocky ground, well scratched and beaten down by dogs, goats, and fowls; fenceless itself, being part of the grassy acres which were themselves fenced round to form the homestead enclosures. Just inside this enclosure, forming, in fact, the south-western barrier of it, stood the "billabong," then a spreading sheet of water; along its banks flourished the vegetable garden; outside the enclosure, towards the south-east, lay a grassy plain a mile across, and to the north-west were the stock-yards and house paddock—a paddock of five square miles, and the only fenced area on the run; while everywhere to the northwards, and all through the paddock, were dotted "white-ant" hills, all shapes and sizes, forming brick-red turrets among the green scrub and timber.
"Well!" Mac said, after we had completed a survey. "I said it wasn't a fit place for a woman, didn't I?"
But the Head-stockman was in one of his argumentative moods. "Any place is a fit place for a woman," he said, "provided the woman is fitted for the place. The right man in the right place, you know. Square people shouldn't try to get into round holes."
"The woman's SQUARE enough!" the Maluka interrupted; and Mac added, "And so is the HOLE," with a scornful emphasis on the word "hole."
Dan chuckled, and surveyed the queer-looking building with new interest.
"It reminds me of a banyan tree with corrugated-iron foliage," he said, adding as he went into details, "In a dim light the finished room would pass for the trunk of the tree and the uprights for the supports of the branches."
But the Maluka thought it looked more like a section of a mangrove swamp, piles and all.
"It looks very like a house nearly finished," I said severely; for, because of the verandah and many promises, I was again hopeful for something approaching that commodious station home. "A few able-bodied men could finish the dining-room in a couple of clays, and make a mansion of the rest of the building in a week or so."
But the able-bodied men had a different tale to tell.
"Steady! Go slow, missus!" they cried. "It may look like a house very nearly finished, but out-bush, we have to catch our hares before we cook them."
"WE begin at the very beginning of things in the Never-Never," the Maluka explained. "Timber grows in trees in these parts, and has to be coaxed out with a saw."
"It's a bad habit it's got into," Dan chuckled; then pointing vaguely towards the thickly wooded long Reach, that lay a mile to the south of the homestead, beyond the grassy plain, he "supposed the dining-room was down there just now, with the rest of the House."
With fast-ebbing hopes I looked in dismay at the distant forest undulating along the skyline, and the Maluka said sympathetically, "It's only too true, little un'."
But Dan disapproved of spoken sympathy under trying circumstances. "It keeps 'em from toeing the line" he believed; and fearing I was on the point of showing the white feather he broke in with: "We'll have to keep her toeing the line, Boss," and then pointed out that "things might be worse." "In some countries there are no trees to cut down," he said.
"That's the style," he added, when I began to laugh in spite of my disappointment, "We'll soon get you educated up to it."
But already the Sanguine Scot had found the bright side of the situation, and reminded us that we were in the Land of Plenty of Time. "There's time enough for everything in the Never-Never," he said. "She'll have many a pleasant ride along the Reach choosing trees for timber. Catching the hare's often the best part of the fun."
Mac's cheery optimism always carried all before it. Pleasant rides through shady forest-ways seemed a fair recompense for a little delay; and my spirits went up with a bound, to be dashed down again the next moment by Dan.
"We haven't got to the beginning of things yet," he interrupted, following up the line of thought the Maluka had at first suggested. "Before any trees are cut down, we'll have to dig a saw-pit and find a pit-sawyer." Dan was not a pessimist; he only liked to dig down to the very root of things, besides objecting to sugar-coated pills as being a hindrance to education.
But the Dandy had joined the group, and being practical, suggested "trying to get hold of little Johnny," declaring that "he would make things hum in no time."
Mac happened to know that Johnny was "inside" somewhere on a job, and it was arranged that Dan should go in to the Katherine at once for nails and "things," and to see if the telegraph people could find out Johnny's whereabouts down the line, and send him along.
But preparations for a week's journey take time, outbush, owing to that necessity of beginning at the beginning of things. Fresh horses were mustered, a mob of bullocks rounded up for a killer, swags and pack-bags packed; and just as all was in readiness for the start, the Quiet Stockman came in, bringing a small mob of colts with him.
"I'm leaving," he announced in the Quarters; then, feeling some explanation was necessary, added, "I WAS thinking of it before this happened." Strictly speaking, this may be true, although he omitted to say that he had abandoned the idea for some little time.