[Editor: This story by Henry Lawson was published in While the Billy Boils (1896).]
On the edge of a plain
‘I’d been away from home for eight years,’ said Mitchell to his mate, as they dropped their swags in the mulga shade and sat down. ‘I hadn’t written a letter — kept putting it off, and a blundering fool of a fellow that got down the day before me told the old folks that he’d heard I was dead.’
Here he took a pull at his water-bag.
‘When I got home they were all in mourning for me. It was night, and the girl that opened the door screamed and fainted away like a shot.’
He lit his pipe.
‘Mother was upstairs howling and moaning in a chair, with all the girls boo-hooing round her for company. The old man was sitting in the back kitchen crying to himself.’
He put his hat down on the ground, dinted in the crown, and poured some water into the hollow for his cattle-pup.
‘The girls came rushing down. Mother was so pumped out that she couldn’t get up. They thought at first I was a ghost, and then they all tried to get holt of me at once — nearly smothered me. Look at that pup! You want to carry a tank of water on a dry stretch when you’ve got a pup that drinks as much as two men.’
He poured a drop more water into the top of his hat.
‘Well, mother screamed and nearly fainted when she saw me. Such a picnic you never saw. They kept it up all night. I thought the old cove was gone off his chump. The old woman wouldn’t let go my hand for three mortal hours. Have you got the knife?’
He cut up some more tobacco.
‘All next day the house was full of neighbours, and the first to come was an old sweetheart of mine; I never thought she cared for me till then. Mother and the girls made me swear never to go away any more; and they kept watching me, and hardly let me go outside for fear I’d’ ——
‘No, — you’re smart — for fear I’d clear. At last I swore on the Bible that I’d never leave home while the old folks were alive; and then mother seemed easier in her mind.’
He rolled the pup over and examined its feet. ‘I expect I’ll have to carry him a bit — his feet are very sore. Well, he’s done pretty well this morning, and anyway he won’t drink so much when he’s carried.’
‘You broke your promise about leaving home,’ said his mate.
Mitchell stood up, stretched himself, and looked dolefully from his heavy swag to the wide, hot, shadeless cotton-bush plain ahead.
‘Oh, yes,’ he yawned, ‘I stopped at home for a week, and then they began to growl because I couldn’t get any work to do.’
The mate guffawed and Mitchell grinned. They, shouldered the swags, with the pup on top of Mitchell’s, took up their billies and water-bags, turned their unshaven faces to the wide, hazy, distance, and left the timber behind them.
Henry Lawson, While the Billy Boils, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1896, pages 98-100
chump = head (such as used in the phrase “off his chump”); may also refer to a foolish or stupid person, especially one who is easily deceived or fooled
clear = clear out (depart, leave, move)
Vernacular spelling in the original text:
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