Death at sundown [by P. R. Stephensen]

[Editor: This is a short story from The Bushwhackers: Sketches of Life in the Australian Outback (1929) by P. R. Stephensen.]

Death at sundown

When the Rawlinson twins, Frankie and Harry, asked their father if they could go fishing along Deep Creek, their father said:

“Yes, but see you stick together, you never know what will happen in the Bush.”

So the two youngsters, bare-legged, freckled, happy, went dangling their feet over the steep banks of Deep Creek, watching the bobbing corks, hoping to catch perch, or a dew-fish with wide slobbering jaw, or an eel, or a turtle perhaps, victims of the writhing, death-concealing worm at the end of their lines. Mullet jumped, impertinent silver streaks, to defy Frankie and Harry, because mullet you must shoot, they will not take worms; and under the deep clean water weeds swayed, like trees in a wind, but where there is no wind, only the rhythm of glassy water moving through a pool to bubble over stones in the shallows at the bottom end; and in the weeds were fish.

But the twins chattered together, and caught nothing; and at last Frankie thought it would be better to move downstream to the lower lagoon, and Harry thought it would be better to move upstream to the top lagoon; so they quarrelled and separated, further argument either way being unpersuasive, and they told one another to go to blazes; and both began to catch fish in silence.

It was probably an hour later that Harry heard Frankie’s coo-ee shrilling along between the she-oaks at the water’s edge, but having a promising bite just then, didn’t answer, unforgivable sin in the Bush. Then the coo-ee shrilled more insistently, and Harry answered, and lost his bite, and wound in his lines with haste, and began to run towards Frankie’s voice. He was in at the death.

In the long brown grass by the water’s edge, Frankie was belabouring, with sounding thwacks, a great snake. Its squirming back was already broken in a dozen places, and its nasty flat brown head gleamed undying malice while the blows fell. Both boys joined in the attack, Harry, too, grabbing a stick, and together they belaboured the reptile, smashing it back into the brown earth which had bred it, then at last crushing its venemous head, sobbing as they whacked; sobbing with the emotional as well as the physical effort, sobbing with a hatred of crawlers; sobbing with the death-lust, they exulted together, thumping the earth-thing. Then they picked up the battered snake on their two sticks, and placed it, with loathing, on a near antheap, to be cleaned of its flesh, squirming in reflexes of agony.

“They die at sundown,” said Frankie, no matter when you kill them.”

Together the twins glanced at the hot mid-afternoon sun, and calculated the snake’s limit of expiring time. Already the little ant-colonists, in millions, were swarming over the miraculous provender; but snake consciousness would not leave the snake until the sun went down, this much everybody knew, so the twins trembled and watched.

“A tiger snake, too!” said Frankie.

The most venomous snake!

Then he sat down on a log, weakly.

“I don’t think he bit me,” he added wearily. “But have a look will you, Harry?”

He pulled up his shirt and exposed his bare back.

“The first stick I took to him broke,” he explained, “and he made a kind of jump at me when I bent down to pick up another waddy.”

Beneath Frankie’s shirt, over the lump of his kidneys, there two little, slightly blue, punctures.

“He’s bit you, the bastard!” screamed Harry in panic. But Frankie had already pitched forward on his face, the virus entering his vitals.

Kneeling, the other twin slashed cuts in the place with his knife, deep cuts, hysterical cuts, till the blood came. Then he sucked at the wound, to draw back the venom from that quivering body; but it was too late. Already Frankie’s limbs were twitching. At that place no intercepting ligatures could be applied.

Black fear swam across Harry’s eyes. It was two miles to the township. Frankie’s face was greenish, he rolled the whites of his eyes. Two miles to the township, across paddocks. The youngster lifted his brother in his arms, and began to run. They fell, sprawling, after a dozen steps.

Then Harry cut a green switch, and raised his brother, and flogged him like a beast to make him jog, flogged him moaning in terror and pain and agony across the paddocks in a shambling run. Often they both fell, and Harry would curse God and the snake and Frankie, and flog his brother again to keep him alive and moving, for torpor is death; and Harry’s blood was colder than cave-water on that hot day till at last they reached the road, and Bill Keegan, who was passing, took both the twins in his springcart at a rattling gallop to the doctor’s.

But Frankie died at sundown, like his slayer, the snake; and Old Man Rawlinson said to Harry: “Always stick together when you go into the bush, because you never know what might happen.”

P. R. Stephensen, The Bushwhackers: Sketches of Life in the Australian Outback, Mandrake Press, London, [1929], pp. 20-26

Editor’s notes:
waddy = (also known as a “nulla nulla”) a wooden club used by Australian Aborigines

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