The “lock-up” wood [short story by Jack Moses]

[Editor: This is a short story from Beyond the City Gates: Australian Story & Verse (1923) by Jack Moses.]

The “lock-up” wood

Sergeant Flanaghan was in charge of Lightning Ridge Station, which stood at the junction of many roads, winding in the West. The Ridge became a good watering-place for travellers of all nations and all characters, who periodically wandered that way and usually clung to the place for a short season.

There was something about the Ridge that attracted; it might have been the good-and-plenty meal that old Bogan of the Carriers’ Arms supplied.

The Sergeant was not a man who followed, in the extreme, the slogan of “move on!” He was approaching the period when his pension was due and he would become eligible for retirement from the force. But there was another reason why he did not want to hurry the birds of passage on, and that reason was created by the fact that there was always a decent pile of box and ironbark waiting the axe in the lock-up yard. This wood-chopping contest was always a source of trouble to him.

One night, during a periodical visit to the Ridge, I called at the little home of the Station. In the sitting-room there were many evidences of past services and labours in the early strenuous days, when, far away from the bigger folds, the black sheep strayed.

Friend Flanaghan was always generous to this class of man, and the trophies in the room reflected the appreciation of citizens for many acts of kindness in the districts he had left.

On the wall there were illuminated addresses; photographs of the family for three generations, pictures of boys who had grown up, served at the war, returned and married.

With his dear, silver-haired, blue-eyed, and kind-hearted wife he was living in peace, serving his last months in the police force, contented in the companionship of the woman who had been his life’s mate, had shared his setbacks and his promotions in the same spirit of splendid comradeship.

“I haven’t got a mark against me,” he said. “The only thing that worries me now-a-days is that I can’t get a bit of wood chopped.”

I was rather interested in this statement, and he continued, “every time I run a bloke in and he is about to take possession of the axe at the wood-heap, up someone comes, pays his fine, and gives him his freedom again.”

Flanaghan sighed at the thought of his bad luck in this matter.

“I’m not too rough on these coves,’ he continued. “I don’t see them short of a bit o’ tobacco, while they are here, but it doesn’t seem to make much difference. The other day I had a chap here, and after giving him warm meals, warn blankets, half a plug of Champion, and after gettin’ him pulled round a big bit, I tried the experiment of the axe.”

“Yes” I interrupted, interested.

“Well, he was getting along well and strong, when up hops a swaggie and seein’ my man swing the axe at the heap, called out over the fence. ‘What’s he in for?’”

“A bit of a chop,” I replied; “but, anyhow, what’s it to do with you?”

“Not much,” he said, “but I’d like to do the bloke a good turn. What’s his fine?”

“The prisoner stopped in the chopping process and called, ‘A quid.’”

“I tried to bluff ’em then, and said, ‘You can’t talk to him like that,’ but despite my protest, my man with the axe yelled out his name. and the chap over the fence replied, ‘Well, here’s the dough. Drop the sliprails and give him his head.’”

“It was bad luck,” ruminated the Sergeant. “The last I saw of them was them fadin’ away in the sunset line carrying their Matildas, and my wood-heap is still uncut; but I have hopes.”

At this stage I remarked, “I se McGuire the squatter has left the district.”

“Yes,” retorted Flanaghan, “and I tell you they’ll miss him on the track; he was not a bad sort and was never known to turn a man away with an empty tucker-bag.”

Suddenly Flanaghan laughed heartily, as he slapped my leg.

“Do you mind that yarn about McGuire’s horse-deal; the swap the commercial traveller made with him?”

I didn’t remember the incident.

“Well, it was like this,” said Flanaghan. “A tea traveller during his rounds of this district dropped in on McGuire one day, with his neddy running a bit sore, in search of a spell, and very tender in the feet.

“‘My horse,’ he said, ‘is not going too good lately, wants turning out; getting a bit proppy in the pins. Now, if you could give me a horse to do my work, in place of this one, I’ll be glad. You’ve got some good soft country around here, my horse will soon pick up and you’ll find him a very useful nag.

“‘Oh, yes,’ said McGuire, ‘I’ve got plenty of horses here I can exchange. Take him out of the harness.’

“When they stripped the tea-man’s horse, McGuire jumped on his back, drove his heels into his ribs, and off he went in quicksticks and ran in another animal.

“‘There you are, my friend, you can have this chap for yours.’

“McGuire’s exchange was attached to the traveller’s trap, and the tea-man was just about to drive off when suddenly he stopped, with a hope of taking a rise out of McGuire.

“‘Mr. McGuire,’ he said, ‘don’t you think you were a bit risky driving your heels into that horse of mine and galloping off without knowing a bit more about him. Now, look, I want to tell you, Mr. McGuire, that horse of mine falls.’

“‘I know damn well he do,’ said McGuirre, ‘but he have a better style of getting up again than my horse.’”

Flanaghan roared as he finished the horse story.

It must not be surmised that Sergeant Flanaghan’s duties were wholly confined to the supervision of the “lock-up” woodheap. As a matter of fact, the officer’s work was very versatile, and the various experiences he gained in administering the law at the Ridge would have qualified him for the Pooh Bah part had he resided in the land of plum-blossoms.

The duties of Flanaghan not only demanded a thorough knowledge of every Act of Parliament placed on the Statute Book, from the Dog Act to the hundreds covering land administration, but he was called upon to attend to the registration of births, deaths and marriages; it was his duty to see that every dog was duly registered; it fell to his lot to collect the census, distribute the old-age pensions and the maternity bonus, to see that every eligible voter in his district was well and truly enrolled to vote for some candidate as per instructions. He was compelled also to keep an eye on the youngster who erred from the straight path to school. There were the stock returns to be made up; there was the post mortem of the swaggie, found by the roadside, there was demanded of him a proper and vigilant control of the Liquor Act, the supervision of straying horses and cattle, the dealing with mining applications, the lodging of appeals; the opening of the Court, the dancing attendance upon His Honour when he came to town, and also the provision of a suitable escort for His Excellency and any stray Minister of the Crown. Then, again, it fell to Flanaghan’s duty to go to the local store and purchase a white pair of gloves when there was a clean sheet at the sessions. There was the swearing-in of the jury, the administering of the oath to the witnesses, and Flanaghan had on one occasion to provide a rooster from his own backyard for beheading purposes when swearing a Chinese witness. Truly there was little wonder that Flanaghan confided to me that a policeman’s lot was not a happy one, and while he confided, he recalled an incident that had happened during my former visit to the Ridge.

The visiting Magistrate — a very precise and proper personage, with bald head, mutton chop whiskers, and an abundance of dignity and judicial decorum, had reached the Ridge on his monthly round. Enquiring at the Police Station, which was only separated from the cells by a very thin partition, what the list of prosecutions included, the Sergeant informed him that the list was a light one. “In fact,” he said, “I’ve only three cases to be dealt with.”

“Very good,” returned the dispenser of justice. “What is the nature of the charges?”

“Oh, two of ’em,” said Flanaghan, “got a bit over the odds, and imbibed too long and free.”

“How long do you want them for?” smiled the Magistrate.

Larry thought a moment, and scratched his head.

“Well, there’s a bit of whitewashing required in the stable and outhouses. I could do with each of them for about three days.”

“Very well, three days it will be,” promised the P.M. “What’s the other chap in for?”

“Oh,” said the Sergeant, in a voice so loud that he could be heard all through the lock-up, “I could do with him for about a week. I want the well cleaned out.”

“Very well, I’ll fix it; bring them along,” said the visiting Magistrate.

The Court was duly opened, the P.M. took his seat, and the prisoners faced the music.

The severity of the presiding Magistrate, after blowing his nose, rubbing his glasses, fussing with official documents and looking periodically towards the dock, fully impressed the prisoners.

When the usual court-loungers had filed in, shuffling their feet and at times sneezing, which caused the Sergeant to bellow through the building, “Silence! Silence in the Court!” the clerk read the charges against the prisoners.

“How do you plead?” No. 1 was asked.

“Guilty, your Honour,” came the nervous response.

“You’re fined a pound or twenty-four hours.”

The Sergeant coughed, and the P.M. remembered. “I should say one pound or three days.”

A similar sentence was imposed on the second prisoner at the bar.

The accused charged with a violation of the Gaming Act, to wit, heading ’em in a public place, was next called up.

“How do you plead?” asked the Court.

“Guilty, your Honour, but strike me pink I can clean that well out in two days.”

Jack Moses, Beyond the City Gates: Australian Story & Verse, Sydney: Austral Publishing Co., 1923, pages 90-95

Editor’s notes:
cove = man, chap, fellow

Matilda = a swag

mind = (British dialect) remember

nag = horse

neddy = slang term for a horse (e.g. to have “a flutter on the neddies” is to have a bet on a horse race)

pins = legs

P.M. = Police Magistrate

Pooh Bah = an exalted person; a chief, head, leader, person in charge; an important person; someone who holds high office, or who has a large amount of influence or power; may also refer to a pompous and ostentatious holder of high office

quicksticks = fast, quickly; without delay (also spelt as two separate words, “quick sticks”)

quid = a pound or a dollar; originally “quid” referred to a pound, a unit of British-style currency used in Australia (until it was replaced by the dollar in 1966, when decimal currency was introduced); after the decimalisation of Australia’s currency, it referred to a dollar

spell = rest (“spell” refers to a period of time, but was also used to refer to a period of rest, due to the common phrase “to rest for a spell” and variations thereof)

strike me pink = an exclamatory oath which expresses astonishment, shock, or surprise

traveller = a commercial traveller, a travelling salesman

yarn = to have a talk or chat; can also refer to a story, especially an exiting and unusual story (e.g. a “ripping yarn”)

Vernacular spelling in the original text:
’em (them)
o’ (of)

Speak Your Mind