Such is Life, by Tom Collins (Joseph Furphy) [chapter 5, part 2]

[Editor: This is the second part of Chapter Five of the novel Such is Life by Tom Collins (Joseph Furphy). A glossary has been provided to explain various words and phrases that may be unfamiliar to modern readers.]

“Same thought struck several of us, but it did n’t strike Bob,” replied Thompson. “Fact, the well-sinkers had brought a retriever with them in the buggy; a dog that would follow the scent of any game you could lay him on; but they could n’t get him to take any notice of the little girl’s track. Never been trained to track children — and how were they going to make him understand that a child was lost? However, while two of the well-sinkers were persevering with their retriever, the other fellow drove off like fury to fetch Dan’s sheep-dog; making sure that we would only have to follow him along the scent. In the meantime, I walked behind Bob, leading both our horses.

“Give him his due, he’s a great tracker. I compare tracking to reading a letter written in a good business hand. You must’nt look at what’s under your eye; you must see a lot at once, and keep a general grasp of what’s on ahead, besides spotting each track you pass. Otherwise, you’ll be always turning back for a fresh race at it. And you must no more confine yourself to actual tracks than you would expect to find each letter correctly formed. You must just lift the general meaning as you go. Of course, our everyday tracking is not tracking at all.

“However, Bob run this little track full walk, mile after mile, in places where I would ’n’t see a mark for fifty yards at a stretch, on account of rough grass, and dead leaves, and so forth. One thing in favour of Bob was that she kept a fairly straight course, except when she was blocked by porcupine or supple-jack; then she would swerve off, and keep another middling straight line. At last Bob stopped.

“‘Here’s where she slept last night,’ says he; and we could trace the marks right enough. We even found some crumbs of bread on the ground, and others that the ants were carrying away. She had made twelve or fourteen mile in the day’s walk.

“By this time, several chaps had come from about Dan’s place; and they were still joining us in twos and threes. As fast as they came, they scattered out in front, right and left, and one cove walked a bit behind Bob, with a frog-bell, shaking it now and then, to give the fellows their latitude. This would be about two in the afternoon, or half-past; and we pushed along the tracks she had made only a few hours before, with good hopes of overtaking her before dark. The thing that made us most uneasy was the weather. It was threatening for a thunderstorm. At this time we were in that unstocked country south-east of the station. Suddenly Bob rose up from his stoop, and looked round at me with a face on him like a ghost.

“‘God help us now, if we don’t get a blackfellow quick!’ says he, pointing at the ground before him. And, sure enough, there lay the child’s little coppertoed boots, where she had taken them off when her feet got sore, and walked on in her socks. It was just then that a tank-sinker drove up, with Dan and his dog in the buggy.”

“Poor old Rory!” I interposed. “Much excited?”

“Well — no. But there was a look of suspense in his face that was worse. And his dog — a dog that had run the scent of his horse for hundreds of miles, all put together — that dog would smell any plain track of the little stocking-foot, only a few hours old, and would wag his tail, and bark, to show that he knew whose track it was; and all the time showing the greatest distress to see Dan in trouble; but it was no use trying to start him on the scent. They tried three or four other dogs. with just the same success. But Bob never lost half-a-second over these attempts. He knew.

“Anyway, it was fearful work after that; with the thunderstorm hanging over us. Bob was continually losing the track; and us circling round and round in front, sometimes picking it up a little further ahead. But we only made another half-mile or three-quarters, at the outside — before night was on. I daresay there might be about twenty-five of us by this time, and eighteen or twenty horses, and two or three buggies and wagonettes. Some of the chaps took all the horses to a tank six or eight mile away, and some cleared-off in desperation to hunt for blackfellows, and the rest of us scattered out a mile or two ahead of the last track, to listen.

“They had been sending lots of tucker from the station; and before the morning was grey everyone had breakfast, and was out again. But, do what we would, it was slow, slow work; and Bob was the only one that could make any show at all in running the track. Friday morning, of course; and by this time the little girl had been out for forty-eight hours.

“At nine or ten in the forenoon, when Bob had made about half-amile, one of the Kulkaroo men came galloping through the scrub from the right, making for the sound of the bell.

“‘Here, Bob!’ says he. ‘We’ve found the little girl’s billy at the fence of Peter’s paddock, where she crossed. Take this horse. About two mile — straight out there.’

“I had my horse with me at the time, and I tailed-up Bob to the fence. He went full tilt, keeping the track that the horse had come, and this fetched us to where a couple of chaps were standing over a little billy, with a lump of bread beside it. She had laid them down to get through the fence, and then went on without them. The lid was still on the billy, and there was a drop of milk left. The ants had eaten the bread out of all shape.

“But Bob was through the fence, and bowling down a dusty sheeptrack, where a couple of fellows had gone before him, and where we could all see the marks of the little bare feet — for the stockings were off by this time. But in sixty or eighty yards this pad run into another, covered with fresh sheep-tracks since the little girl had passed. Nothing for it but to spread out, and examine the network of pads scattered over the country. All this time, the weather was holding-up, but there was a grumble of thunder now and then, and the air was fearfully close.

“At last there was a coo-ee out to the left. Young Broome had found three plain tracks, about half-a-mile away. We took these for a base, but we didn’t get beyond them. We were circling round for miles, without making any headway; and so the time passed till about three in the afternoon. Then up comes Spanker, with his hat lost, and his face cut and bleeding from the scrub, and his horses in a white lather, and a black lubra sitting in the back of the buggy, and the Mulppa stock-keeper tearing along in front, giving him our tracks.

“She was an old, grey-haired lubra, blind of one eye; but she knew her business, and she was on the job for life or death. She picked-up the track at a glance, and run it like a bloodhound. We found that the little girl had n’t kept the sheep-pads as we expected. Generally she went straight till something blocked her; then she’d go straight again, at another angle. Very rarely — hardly ever — we could see what signs the lubra was following; but she was all right. Uncivilised, even for an old lubra. Nobody could yabber with her but Bob; and he kept close to her all the time. She began to get uneasy as night came on, but there was no help for it. She went slower and slower, and at last she sat down where she was. We judged that the little girl had made about seventeen mile to the place where the lubra got on her track, and we had added something like four to that. Though, mind you, at this time we were only about twelve or fourteen mile from Dan’s place, and eight or ten mile from the home-station.

“Longest night I ever passed, though it was one of the shortest in the year. Eyes burning for want of sleep, and could n’t bear to lie down for a minute. Wandering about for miles; listening; hearing something in the scrub; and finding it was only one of the other chaps, or some sheep. Thunder and lightning, on and off, all night; even two or three drops of rain, toward morning. Once I heard the howl of a dingo, and I thought of the little girl, lying worn-out, half-asleep and half-fainting — far more helpless than a sheep — and I made up my mind that if she came out safe I would lead a better life for the future.

“However, between daylight and sunrise — being then about a mile, or a mile and a half, from the bell — I was riding at a slow walk, listening and dozing in the saddle, when I heard a far-away call that sounded like ‘Dad-dee!’. It seemed to be straight in front of me; and I went for it like mad. Had n’t gone far when Williamson, the narangy, was alongside me.

“‘Hear anything?’ says I.

“‘Yes,’ says he. ‘Sounded like ‘Daddy!’ I think it was out here.’

“‘I think it was more this way,’ says I; and each of us went his own way.

“When I got to where I thought was about the place, I listened again, and searched round everywhere. The bell was coming that way, and presently I went to meet it, leading my horse, and still listening. Then another call came through the stillness of the scrub, faint, but beyond mistake, ‘Dad-de-e-e!’. There was n’t a trace of terror in the tone; it was just the voice of a worn-out child, deliberately calling with all her might. Seemed to be something less than half-a-mile away, but I could n’t fix on the direction; and the scrub was very thick.

“I hurried down to the bell. Everyone there had heard the call, or fancied they had; but it was out to their right — not in front. Of course, the lubra would n’t leave the track, nor Bob, nor the chap with the bell; but everyone else was gone — Dan among the rest. The lubra said something to Bob.

“‘Picaninny tumble down here again,’ says Bob. ‘Getting very weak on her feet.’

“By-and-by, ‘Picaninny plenty tumble down.’ It was pitiful; but we knew that we were close on her at last. By this time, of course, she had been out for seventy-two hours.

“I stuck to the track, with the lubra and Bob. We could hear some of the chaps coo-eeing now and again, and calling ‘Mary!’” — —

“Bad line — bad line,” muttered Saunders impatiently.

“Seemed to confuse things, anyway,” replied Thompson. “And it was very doubtful whether the little girl was likely to answer a strange voice. At last, however, the lubra stopped, and pointed to a sun-bonnet, all dusty, lying under a spreading hop-bush. She spoke to Bob again.

“‘Picaninny sleep here last night,’ says Bob. And that was within a hundred yards of the spot I had made-for after hearing the first call. I knew it by three or four tall pines, among a mass of pine scrub. However, the lubra turned off at an angle to the right, and run the track — not an hour old — toward where we had heard the second call. We were crossing fresh horse-tracks every few yards; and never two minutes but what somebody turned-up to ask the news. But to show how little use anything was except fair tracking, the lubra herself never saw the child till she went right up to where she was lying between two thick, soft bushes that met over her, and hid her from sight “ — —

“Asleep?” I suggested, with a sinking heart.

“No. She had been walking along — less than half-an-hour before — and she had brushed through between these bushes, to avoid some prickly scrub on both sides; but there happened to be a bilby-hole close in front, and she fell in the sort of trough, with her head down the slope; and that was the end of her long journey. It would have taken a child in fair strength to get out of the place she was in; and she was played-out to the last ounce. So her face had sunk down on the loose mould, and she had died without a struggle.

“Bob snatched her up the instant he caught sight of her, but we all saw that it was too late. We coo-eed, and the chap with the bell kept it going steady. Then all hands reckoned that the search was over, and they were soon collected round the spot.

“Now, that little girl was only five years old; and she had walked nothing less than twenty-two miles — might be nearer twenty-five.”

There was a minute’s silence. Personal observation, or trustworthy report, had made every one of Thompson’s audience familiar with such episodes of new settlement; and, for that very reason, his last remark came as a confirmation rather than as an over-statement. Nothing is more astonishing than the distances lost children have been known to traverse.

“How did poor Rory take it?” I asked.

“Dan? Well he took it bad. When he saw her face, he gave one little cry, like a wounded animal; then he sat down on the bilby-heap, with her on his knees, wiping the mould out of her mouth, and talking baby to her.

“Not one of us could find a word to say; but in a few minutes we were brought to ourselves by thunder and lightning in earnest, and the storm was on us with a roar. And just at this moment Webster of Kulkaroo came up with the smartest blackfellow in that district.

“We cleared out one of the wagonettes, and filled it with pine leaves, and laid a blanket over it. And Spanker gently took the child from Dan, and laid her there, spreading the other half of the blanket over her. Then he thanked all hands, and made them welcome at the station, if they liked to come. I went, for one; but Bob went back to Kulkaroo direct, so I saw no more of him till to-night.

“Poor Dan! He walked behind the wagonette all the way, crying softly, like a child, and never taking his eyes from the little shape under the soaking wet blanket. Hard lines for him! He had heard her voice calling him, not an hour before; and now, if he lived till he was a hundred, he would never hear it again.

“As soon as we reached the station, I helped Andrews, the storekeeper, to make the little coffin. Dan would n’t have her buried in the station cemetery; she must be buried in consecrated ground, at Hay. So we boiled a pot of gas-tar to the quality of pitch, and dipped long strips of wool-bale in it, and wrapped them tight round the coffin, after the lid was on, till it was two ply all over, and as hard and close as sheet-iron. Ay, and by this time more than a dozen blackfellows had rallied-up to the station.

“Spanker arranged to send a man with the wagonette, to look after the horses for Dan. The child’s mother wanted to go with them, but Dan refused to allow it, and did so with a harshness that surprised me. In the end, Spanker sent Ward, one of the narangies. I happened to camp with them four nights ago, when I was coming down from Kulkaroo, and they were getting back to Goolumbulla. However,” added Thompson, with sublime lowliness of manner, “that’s what I meant by saying that, in some cases, a person’s all the better for being uncivilised. You see, we were nowhere beside Bob, and Bob was nowhere beside the old lubra.”

“Had you much of a yarn with the poor fellow when you met him?” I asked.

“Evening and morning only,” replied Thompson, maintaining the fine apathy due to himself under the circumstances. “I was away all night with the bullocks, in a certain paddock. Did n’t recognise me; but I told him I had been there; and then he would talk about nothing but the little girl. Catholic priest in Hay sympathised very strongly with him, he told me, but could n’t read the service over the child, on account of her not being baptised. So Ward read the service. His people are English Catholics. Most likely Spanker thought of this when he sent Ward. Dan didn’t seem to be as much cut-up as you’d expect. He was getting uneasy about his paddock; and he thought Spanker might be at some inconvenience. But that black beard of his is more than half white already. And — something like me — I never thought of mentioning this to Bob when he was here. Absence of mind. Bad habit.”

“This Dan has much to be thankful for,” remarked Stevenson, with strong feeling in his voice. “Suppose that thunderstorm had come on a few hours sooner — what then?”

There was a silence for some minutes.

“Tell you what made me interrupt you, Thompson, when I foun’ fault with singin’-out after lost kids,” observed Saunders, at length. “Instigation o’ many a pore little (child) perishin’ unknownst. Seen one instance when I was puttin’ up a bit o’ fence on Grundle — hundred an’ thirty-four chain an’ some links — forty-odd links, if I don’t disremember. Top rail an’ six wires. Jist cuttin’ off a bend o’ the river, to make a handy cattle-paddick. They’d had it fenced-off with dead-wood, twelve or fifteen years before; but when they got it purchased they naterally went-in for a proper fence. An’ you can’t lick a top rail an’ six wires, with nine-foot panels” ——

“You’re a bit of an authority on fencin’,” remarked Baxter drily.

“Well, as I was sayin’,” continued Saunders; “this kid belonged to a married man, name o’ Tom Bracy, that was workin’ mates with me. One night when his missus drafted the lot she made one short; an’ she hunted roun’, an’ called, an’ got excited; an’ you couldn’t blame the woman. Well, we hunted all night-me, an’ Tom, an’ Cunningham, the cove that was engaged to cart the stuff on-to the line. Decent, straight-forrid chap, Cunningham is, but a (sheol) of a liar when it shoots him. Course, some o’ you fellers knows him. Meejum-size man, but one o’ them hard, wiry, deepchested, deceivin’ fellers. See him slingin’ that heavy red-gum stuff about, as if it was broad palin’. Course, he was on’y three-an’ twenty; an’ fellers o’ that age don’t know their own strenth. His bullocks was fearful low at the time, on account of a trip he had out to Wilcanniar with flour; an’ that’s how he come to take this job “

“Never mind Cunningham; he’s dead now,” observed Donovan indifferently.

“Well as I was tellin’ you,” pursued Saunders, “we walked that bend the whole (adj.) night, singin’ out ‘Hen-ree! Hen-ree!’ an’ in the mornin’ we was jist as fur as when we started. Tom, he clears-off to the station before daylight, to git help; an’ by this time I’d come to the conclusion that the kid must be in the river, or out on the plains. I favoured the river a lot; but I bethought me o’ where this dead-wood fence had bin burnt, to git it out o’ our road, before the grass got dry. So I starts at one end to examine the line o’ soft ashes that divided the bend off o’ the plain — an’ har’ly a sign o’ traffic across it yet. Had n’t went, not fifteen chain, before I bumps up agen the kid’s tracks, plain as A B C, crossin’ out towards the plain. Coo-ees for Cunningham; shows him the tracks; an’ the two of us follers the line o’ ashes right to the other end, to see if the tracks come back. No (adj.) tracks. So we tells the missus; an’ she clears-out for the plain, an’ me after her. Cunningham, he collars his horse, an’ out for the plain too. Station chaps turns-up, in ones an’ twos; an’ when they seen the tracks, they scattered for the plain too. Mostly young fellers, on good horses — some o’ them good enough to be worth enterin’ for a saddle, or the like o’ that. Curious how horses was better an’ cheaper them days nor what they are now. I had a brown mare that time; got her off of a traveller for three notes; an’ you’d pass her by without lookin’ at her; but of all the deceivin’ goers you ever come across” — —

“No odds about the mare; she’s dead long ago,” interposed Thompson.

“About two o’clock,” continued Saunders cheerfully, “I was dead-beat an’ leg-tired; an’ I went back to the tent, to git a bite to eat; an’, comin’ back agen, I went roun’ to have another look at the tracks. Now, thinks I, what road would that little (wanderer) be likeliest to head from here? An’ I hitches myself up on a big ole black log that was layin’ about a chain past the tracks, an’ I set there for a minit, thinkin’ like (sheol). You would n’t call it a big log for the Murray, or the Lower Goulb’n, but it was a fair-size log for the Murrumbidgee. I seen some whoppin’ redgums in Gippsland too; but the biggest one I ever seen was on the Goulb’n. Course, when I say ‘big,’ I mean measurement; I ain’t thinkin’ about holler shells, with no timber in ’em. This tree I’m speakin’ about had eleven thousand two hundred an’ some odd feet o’ timber in her; an’ Jack Hargrave, the feller that cut her” — —

“His troubles is over too,” murmured Baxter.

“Well, as I was tellin’ you, I begun to fancy I could hear the whimper of a kid, far away. ’Magination, thinks I. Lis’ns fit to break my (adj.) neck. Hears it agen. Seemed to come from the bank o’ the river. Away I goes; hunts roun’; lis’ns; calls ‘Hen-ree!’; lis’ns agen. Not a sound. Couple o’ the station hands happened to come roun’, an’ I told ’em. Well, after an hour o’ searchin’ an’ lis’nin’, the three of us went back to where I heard the sound. I hitches myself up on-to the log agen, an’ says I:

“‘This is the very spot I was,’ says I, ‘when I heard it.’ An’ before the word was out o’ my mouth, (verb) me if I did n’t hear it agen!

“‘There you are!’ says I.

“‘What the (sheol) are you blatherin’ about?’ says they.

“‘Don’t you hear the (adj.) kid?’ says I.

“‘Oh, that ain’t the kid, you (adj.) fool!’ says they, lookin’ as wise as Solomon, an’ not lettin’-on they could n’t hear it. But for an’ all, they parted, an’ rode roun’ an’ roun’, as slow as they could crawl, stoppin’ every now an’ agen, an’ listening for all they was worth; an’ me settin’ on the log, puzzlin’ my brains. At last I hears another whimper.

“‘There you are again!’ says I.

“An’ one cove, he was stopped close in front o’ the butt end o’ the log at the time; an’ he jumps off his horse, an’ sticks his head in the holler o’ the log, an’ lets a oath out of him. Fearful feller to swear, he was. I disremember his name jis’ now; but he’d bin on Grundle ever since he bolted from his ole man’s place, in Bullarook Forest, on account of a lickin’ he got; an’ it was hard to best him among sheep; an’ now I rec’lect his name was Dick — Dick — it’s jist on the tip o’ my (adj.) tongue” ——

“No matter hees name,” interposed Helsmok; “he have yoined der graat mayority too.”

“Well, as I was sayin’,” continued the patient Saunders, “we lis’ned at the mouth o’ the holler, an’ heard the kid whinin’ inside; an’ when we sung-out to him, he was as quiet as a mouse. An’ we struck matches, an’ tried to see him, but he was too fur along, an’ the log was a bit crooked; an’ when you got in a couple o’ yards, the hole was so small you ’d wonder how he done it. Anyhow, the two station blokes rode out to pass the word; an’ the most o’ the crowd was there in half-an-hour. The kid was a good thirty foot up the log; an’ there was no satisfaction to be got out of him. He would n’t shift; an’ by-’n’-by we come to the impression that he could n’t shift; an’ at long an’ at last we had to chop him out, like a bees’ nest. Turned out after, that the little (stray) had foun’ himself out of his latitude when night come on; an’ he’d got gumption enough to set down where he was, an’ wait for mornin’. He’d always bin told to do that, if he got lost. But by-’n’-by he heard ‘Hen-ree! Hen-ree!’ boomin’ an’ bellerin’ back an’ forrid across the bend in the dark; an’ he thought the boody-man, an’ the bunyip, an’ the banshee, an’ (sheol) knows what all, was after him. So he foun’ this holler log, an’ he thought he could nt git fur enough into it. He was about seven year old then; an’ that was in ’71 — the year after the big flood — an’ the shearin’ was jist about over. How old would that make him now? Nineteen or twenty. He left his ole man three year ago, to travel with a sheep-drover, name o’ Sep Halliday, an’ he’s bin with the same bloke ever since. Mos’ likely some o’ you chaps knows this Sep? Stout butt of a feller, with a red baird. Used to mostly take flocks for truckin’ at Deniliquin; but that got too many at it — like everything else — an’ he went out back, Cooper’s Creek way, with three thousand Gunbar yowes, the beginnin’ o’ las’ winter, an’ I ain’t heard of him since he crossed at Wilcanniar” ——

“No wonder,” I observed; “he’s gone aloft, like the rest.”

There was a pause, broken by Stevenson, in a voice that brought constraint on us all:

“Bad enough to lose a youngster for a day or two, and find him alive and well; worse, beyond comparison, when he’s found dead; but the most fearful thing of all is for a youngster to be lost in the bush, and never found, alive or dead. That’s what happened to my brother Eddie, when he was about eight year old. You must remember it, Thompson?”

“Was n’t my father out on the search?” replied Thompson. “Tom’s father, too. You were living on the Upper Campaspe.”

“Yes,” continued Stevenson, clearing his throat; “I’ve been thinking over it every night for these five-and-twenty years, and it seems to me the most likely thing that could have happened to him was to get jammed in a log, like that other little chap. Then after five years, or ten years, or twenty years, the log gets burned, and nobody notices a few little bones, crumbled among the ashes.

“I was three or four years older than Eddie,” he resumed hoarsely “and he just worshipped me. I had been staying with my uncle in Kyneton for three months, going to school; and Eddie was lost the day after I came home. We were out, gathering gum — four of us altogether — about a mile and a half from home; and I got cross with the poor little fellow, and gave him two or three hits; and he started home by himself, crying. He turned round and looked at me, just before he got out of sight among the trees; and that was the last that was ever seen of him alive or dead. My God! When I think of that look, it makes me thankful to remember that every day brings me nearer to the end. The spot where he turned round is in the middle of a cultivation-paddock now, but I could walk straight to it in the middle of the darkest night.

“Yes; he started off home, crying. We all went the same way so soon afterward that I expected every minute to see him on ahead. At last we thought we must have passed him on the way. No alarm yet, of course; but I was choking with grief, to think how I’d treated the little chap; so I gave Maggie and Billy the slip, and went back to meet him. I knew from experience how glad he would be.

“Ah well! the time that followed is like some horrible dream. He was lost at about four in the afternoon; and there would be about a dozen people looking for him, and calling his name, all night. Next day, I daresay there would be about thirty. Next morning, my father offered £100 reward for him, dead or alive; and five other men guaranteed £10 each. Next day, my father’s reward was doubled; and five other men put down their names for another £50. Next day, Government offered £200. So between genuine sympathy and the chance of making £500, the bush was fairly alive with people; and everyone within thirty miles was keeping a look-out.

“No use. The search was gradually dropped, till no one was left but my father. Month after month, he was out every day, wet or dry, and my mother waiting at home, with a look on her face that frightened us — waiting for the news he might bring. And, time after time, he took stray bones to the doctor; but they always turned out to belong to sheep, or kangaroos, or some other animal. Of course, he neglected the place altogether, and it went to wreck; and our cattle got lost; and he was always meeting with people that sympathised with him, and asked him to have a drink — and you can hardly call him responsible for the rest.

However, on the anniversary of the day that Eddie got lost, my mother took a dose of laudanum; and that brought things to a head. My father had borrowed every shilling that the place would carry, to keep up the search; and there was neither interest nor principal forthcoming, so the mortgagee — Wesleyan minister, I’m sorry to say — had to sell us off to get his money. We had three uncles; each of them took one of us youngsters; but they could do nothing for my father. He hung about the public-houses, getting lower and lower, till he was found dead in a stable, one cold winter morning. That was about four years after Eddie was lost.”

Stevenson paused, and restlessly changed his position, then muttered, in evident torture of mind:

“Think of it! While he was going away, crying, he looked back over his shoulder at me, without a word of anger; and he walked up against a sapling, and staggered — and I laughed! — Great God! — I laughed!”

That was the end of the tank-sinker’s story; and silence fell on our camp. Doubtless each one of us recalled actions of petty tyranny toward leal, loving, helpless dependents, or inferiors in strength — actions which now seemed to rise from the irrevocable past, proclaiming their exemption from that moral statute of limitations which brings self-forgiveness in course of time. For an innate Jehovah sets His mark upon the Cain guilty merely of bullying or terrifying any brother whose keeper he is by virtue of superior strength; and that brand will burn while life endures. (Conversely — does such remorse ever follow disdain of authority, or defiance of power? I, for one, have never experienced it).

Soon a disquietude from another source set my mind at work in troubled calculation of probabilities. At last I said:

“Would you suppose, Steve, that the finding of George Murdoch’s body was a necessary incitement among the causes that led to the little girl’s getting lost?”

“Domson’s ascleep,” murmured Helsmok. “I tink dey all ascleep. I wass yoos dropp’n off mineself.”

And in two minutes, his relaxed pose and regular breathing affirmed a kind of fellowship with the rest, in spite of his alien birth and objectionable name. But I could n’t sleep. Dear innocent, angel-faced Mary! perishing alone in the bush! Nature’s precious link between a squalid Past and a nobler Future, broken, snatched away from her allotted place in the long chain of the ages! Heiress of infinite hope, and dowered with latent fitness to fulfil her part, now so suddenly fallen by the wayside! That quaint dialect silent so soon! and for ever vanished from this earth that keen, eager perception, that fathomless love and devotion! But such is life.

Yet it is well with her. And it is well with her father, since he, throughout her transitory life, spoke no word to hurt or grieve her. Poor old Rory! Reaching Goolumbulla, after his sorrowful journey, his soft heart would be stabbed afresh by the sight of two picture-books, which I had posted a fortnight before. And how many memories and associations would confront him when he returned to his daily round of life! How many reminders that the irremediable loss is a reality, from which there can be no awakening! How many relics to be contemplated with that morbid fascination for the re-quickening of a slumbering and intolerable sense of bereavement! But the saddest and most precious of memorials will be those little copper-toed boots that she left along the way. Deepest pathos lies only in homely things, since the frailness of mortality is the pathetic centre, and mortality is nothing but homely.

Hence, no relic is so affecting as the half-worn boots of the dead. Thus in the funeral of that gold-escort trooper, when I was but little older than poor Mary. The armed procession — the Dead March — the cap and sword on the coffin — seemed so imposing that I forthwith resolved to be a trooper myself. That ambition passed away; but the pathos of the empty boots, reversed in the stirrups of the led horse, has remained with me ever since.

From sad reflections, I seemed to be thus drifting into philosophic musing, when Helsmok shook me gently by the shoulder. A glance at the setting moon showed that I had been asleep, and that it was long past midnight. Here, therefore, ends the record of December the 9th; and you might imagine this chapter of life fitly concluded.

But sometimes an under-current of plot, running parallel with the main action, emerges from its murky depths, and causes a transient eddy in the interminable stream of events. Something of this kind occurred on the morning of the 10th.

“Collince,” said the Dutchman softly. “Don’ wake op der odder vellers — do no goot yoos now. I gone ’way roun’ der liknum, und der bullock und der horse not dere. Notteen cronk, I hope. Mi’s well com anodder trip?”

I left my lair, and we walked out across the plain, followed by the faithful Pup. When we had ranged for an hour, in half-mile zig-zags, day began to break; and nothing had turned-up, except four of Stevenson’s horses. But we heard, through the stillness of the dawn, a faint, far-away trampling of hoofs. We headed for the sound, and presently found ourselves meeting three or four dozen of mixed bullocks and horses convoyed by five mounted Chinamen. We stood aside to let them pass. By this time, an advancing daylight enabled me to recognise the roan horse of Sam Young (also called Paul) with a rider who was more likely to be that proselyte than anyone else. At all events, he turned upon me the light of a countenance, broad, yellow, and effulgent as the harvest moon of pastoral poetry; and, like a silver clarion, rung the accents of that unknown tongue:

“Ah-pang-sen-lo! Missa Collin! sen-lo! Tlee-po’ week, me plully liah, all li; nek time, you plully liah, all li! Missa Smyte talkee you bimeby! Hak-i-long-see-ho! You lescue Walligal Alp bullock — eh? You killee me, by cli! Whe’ you holse? Ling-tang-hon-me! My wuld, Tlinidad plully goo’ glass, no feah! Hi-lung-sing-i-lo-i-lo!”

“Goo’ molnin’, Missa Helsmok!” chanted another yellow agony. “Nicee molnin’, Missa Helsmok! Whaffoh you tellee me lah wintel you sclew my plully neck? Lak-no-ha-long-lee! Missa Smyte wakee you up — tyillin’-a-head you holse! Man-di-sling-lo-he!”

“Donder und blitzen!” retorted the Dutchman, striding toward the escort, which scattered at his approach. “Yomp off dem olt crocks, every man yack of you, und swelp mine Gott! I weel ponch der het of der vive of you altogedder mit, ef so moch der yudge seegs mons pot me into der yail bot!”

“Helsmok,” said I, restraining him; “upon the heat and flame of thy distemper sprinkle cool patience. Let us accept the situation with dignity. Let us pit the honest frankness of the played-out Caucasian against the cunning of the successful Mongol.” Then, addressing the Turanian horde, and adapting my speech to the understanding of our lowest types: “My word!” I exclaimed admiringly, “you take-um budgeree rise out-a whitepeller, John! Merrijig you! Borak you shift-um that peller bullock; borak you shift-um that peller yarraman. Whitepeller gib-it you fi’ bob, buy-it opium. You savvy? Bale whitepeller tell-um boss. Bimeby whitepeller yabber like-it, ‘Chinaman berry good’ — yabber like-it, ‘Comenavadrink, John’ — yabber like-it, ‘Chinaman brother b’long-a whitepeller.’ You savvy, John?”

“Lak-hi-lo-hen-slung!” carolled a third Chow disdainfully. “You go hellee shut up! Eulopean allee sem plully whool! Lum-la-no-sunhi-me!” And the raiders went on their way, warbling remarks to each other in their native tongue, while the discomfited foreign devils hurried toward their camp, to give the alarm.

But Baxter, Donovan, Thompson, and Saunders had already gone out to feast their eyes on the change which such a night would make in the appearance of their stock. Stevenson was just getting on his feet, and feeling for his pipe. Cartwright was still asleep. It seemed a pity to disturb him. Sharply whetted to this form of self-indulgence by hardship that would have finished any civilised man, he had gently dozed off as the last bite of a copious and indigestible supper reached his emu-stomach, and had never moved since.

“Now who’d’a’thought them Chinks was so suddent?” he mused, as I woke him with the tidings. “Trapped! Gosh, what a slant I’d ’a’ had at that (fellow)’s horsepaddick, if I’d on’y knowed! Cut-an’-dried, I be boun’. No good chewin’ over it now, anyhow. After you with them matches, Stevenson; mine’s all done.”

“Barefooted Bob’s mixed-up in this,” remarked Stevenson, handing the matches. “Now, who would have suspected it, from his manner last night? But no one is to be trusted. Better take our saddles and bridles with us.”

“In respect of imbecility and ignorance, I grant you,” I replied. “But in respect of deliberate deceit, most men are to be trusted. By-the-way, there’s four of your frames left — out near those coolibahs.”

“Stake the question on Bob,” he suggested. “May as well catch them, and ride.”

“So be it — to both proposals.”

The sun was now above the indefinable horizon, looming blood-red through the smoky haze. All objects, even in the middle distance, showed vague and shadowy; but, knowing which way the marauders had taken their prey, we went after them, making a slight detour to secure the four horses. But we were just in time to discern a Chinese patrol tailing the same beasts toward a larger detachment, which was moving in the direction taken by the earlier draft. We followed; and, for my own part, even if I had not been personally interested, I should have judged it well worth going a mile to witness the strong situation which supplied a sequel to our homely little drama.

Precise and faithful execution, co-operating with masterly strategy had realised one of the most magnificent hauls of assorted trespassers that I have been privileged to survey. I jotted down a memo. of the numbers. There were 254 head of overworked and underfed beasts — 173 bullocks and 81 horses. These were in the custody of nine Mongolians, two Young-Australians, and two gentlemen — the latter being Mr. Smythe and Bert. Also, 7 bullocks and 3 horses left their bones in the paddock, as evidence of the bitter necessity which had prompted this illegal invasion of pastoral leasehold. There were (including myself) 23 claimants, present in person, or arriving by twos or threes. A few of these were ludicrously abashed; others were insolent; but the large majority observed a fine nonchalance, shading down to apathy. And Mr. Smythe, true to his order of mind, treated the first with outrageous contumely, the second with silent contempt, and the third with a respect born of vague disquietude and anxiety for the morrow. A squatter — just or unjust, generous or avaricious, hearty or exclusive, debonair or harsh — should be a strong man; this was a weakling; and my soul went forth in genuine compassion for him.

The three hours occupied in sorting-out and settling-up, furnished, perhaps, as varied and interesting experiences to me as to anyone else in the cast: first, a thrill of dismay, altogether apart from the drama; and afterward, the fortuitous cognisance of a bit of by-play in the main action.

My horses, of course, were among the captives; each of them with both hobble-straps buckled round the same leg. Early in the reception, whilst treating for them, I was fairly disconcerting Mr. Smythe with my affability, when that sudden consternation came over me. Where was Pup?

I put the two pairs of hobbles round Bunyip’s neck, and saddled Cleopatra without delay. The gallant beast, as if he knew the need for despatch, bucked straight ahead till he merged into an easy gallop. A few minutes brought me to the camp; and my anxiety was dispelled. The chaps had hung their tucker-bags on some adjacent lignum, out of reach of the wild pigs, but at a height accessible to Pup. The absence of the owners, though desirable, would not have been absolutely necessary to the performance which followed, for a kangaroo-dog can abstract food with a motion more silent — and certainly more swift — than that of a gnomon’s shadow on a sun-dial.

So I returned to the scene of interest, accompanied by Bunyip and Pup. Twelve or fifteen of the outlaws, having secured their saddle-horses, were sternly ordering the Chinamen to refrain from crowding the stock. The grass in this corner of the paddock was especially good; and these unshamed delinquents rode slowly through and through the mob, each vainly trying to identify and count his own; while now and then one would pass out to overbear some encroaching pagan by loud-spoken interrogations respecting a bay mare with a switch tail, or a strawberry bullock with wide horns — such ostentatious inquiry being accompanied by a furtive and vicious jabbing of evidence’s horse, or evidence himself, with some suitable instrument. Yet batch after batch was withdrawn and paid for; while the red sun rose higher, and Mr. Smythe became impatient and crusty, by reason of the transparent dallying.

Helsmok, after protracted and patient sorting, brought out nineteen of his horses, and paid for twenty, besides his hack. He said he would have to borrow a whip from someone, to “dost der yacket” of the impracticable animal that remained in the mob. Relevantly, one of the Chows had a stockwhip, the handle of which represented about six months’ untiring work on a well-selected piece of myall. Helsmok had all along been pained by the incongruity of such a gem in such keeping; and now having discharged his trespass-liability, the iron-wristed Hollander politely borrowed this jewel from its clinging owner, and so recovered his horse without difficulty. Then, when the bereaved boundary man followed him across the plain, intoning psalms of remonstrance, Helsmok, making a playful clip at a locust, awkwardly allowed the lash to curl once-and-a-half round the body of John’s horse; close in front of the hind-legs. The cheap and reliable rider saved himself by the mane; but he let the stockwhip go at that.

Smythe — high-strung and delicate, in spite of his stockkeeper’s rig-out — was taking little interest in anything except the shillings he collected. At last, with a heart-drawn sigh, he beckoned to his brother.

“You must meet me with the buggy, Bert, when this is over. I have a splitting headache. We can do without you now.” Alas! what doth a station manager with splitting headaches? Answer, ye pastoralists!

Stevenson had just drafted and paid for his batch, when Barefooted Bob stalked up, bearing an unmistakable scowl on his frank face, and a saddle on his shoulder.

“Did you receive my message last night, Bob?” demanded Smythe.

“Well,” drawled Bob, “I couldn’t say whether it was las’ night or this mornin’ — but I got your message right enough.”

“And why didn’t you turn-up?”

“Why did n’t I turn-up,” repeated Bob thoughtfully. “P’r’aps you’ll be so good as to inform me if my work’s cleanin’ out reservoys or mindin’ paddicks?”

“But you should be loyal to your employ,” replied Smythe severely.

“Meanin’ I shouldn’t turn dog?” conjectured Bob. “No more I don’t. I ain’t turnin’ dog on anybody when I stick to my own work, an’ keep off of goin’ partners with opium an’ leprosy. Same time, mind you, I’d be turnin’ dog on the station if I took advantage o’ your message, to go round warnin’ the chaps that was workin’ on the paddick. Way I was situated, the clean thing was to stand out. An’ that’s what I done.”

Meanwhile, Stevenson had lingered to feel his pockets, sort his papers, examine his horse’s legs, and so forth, while his draft spread out over the grass.

“You were right, and I was wrong,” he remarked, aside to me. “Bob is trustworthy — ruthlessly so.”

“Only in respect of conscience, which is mere moral punctilio, and may co-exist with any degree of ignorance or error,” I replied. “I would n’t chance sixpence on his moral sense — nor on yours, either.”

“Thank-you, both for the lesson and the compliment. Don’t forget to call round at my camp, any time you’re crossing Koolybooka. Goodbye.”

“Are your bullocks here, Bob?” demanded Smythe.

“Horses too,” replied Bob. “Ain’t you lookin’ at ’em?” But Smythe did n’t know half-a-dozen beasts on the station; and Bob (as he afterward told me) was aware of his boss’s weakness in Individuality.

“Take them and get to work then,” retorted Smythe. “How many bullocks are you working?” he added, with sudden suspicion — his idea evidently being that Bob might wish to do a good turn to some of the bullock drivers.

“Well, I’m workin’ ten, but” ——

“‘But!’ —— I’ll have no ‘but’ about it!” snapped Smythe. “Take your ten, and GO!”

“Right,” drawled Bob, and he slowly strode toward one of his own horses.

“And look-sharp, you fellows!” vociferated Smythe. “This paddock must be cleared within fifteen minutes, or I shall proceed to more extreme measures.”

Whereupon Thompson withdrew his lot, deliberately followed by four other culprits, whose names are immaterial. Meanwhile, Bob had some trouble in sorting out his ten — often slowly crossing and re-crossing the paths of Donovan and Baxter, in their still more arduous and long-drawn task. At last the eagle-eye of the squatter counted Bob’s ten, accompanied by his spare horse, as he tailed the lot toward his camp; and the same aquiline optic tallied-off an aggregate of thirty-six to Baxter and Donovan — who, to my own private knowledge, had entered the paddock with thirty-four. This disposed of the whole muster.

Months afterward, when the two Mondunbarra bullocks had been swapped-away into a team from the Sydney side, I camped one night with Baxter and Donovan, who discussed, in the most matter-of-fact way, their own tranquil appropriation of the beasts. Each of these useful scoundrels had the answer of a good conscience touching the transaction. They maintained, with manifest sincerity, that Smythe’s repudiation of the bullocks, and his subsequent levy of damages upon them as strangers and trespassers, gave themselves a certain right of trover, which prerogative they had duly developed into a title containing nine points of the law. Not equal to a pound-receipt, of course; but good enough for the track. And throughout the discussion, Bob’s name was never mentioned, nor his complicity hinted at. Such is life.



Published in:
Tom Collins [Joseph Furphy]. Such is Life, The Bulletin Newspaper Company, Sydney, 1903

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