[Editor: A short story published in Aussie: The Australian Soldiers’ Magazine, no. 3, 8 March 1918.]
When a man has led the free and easy life of the bush for twenty or thirty years, it is not an easy matter for him to acquire the “outward and visible signs of sound military discipline.”
Some there are, indeed, who acquire them readily, but with most of them it is difficult. Usually, it is only by a considerable endeavour following long and arduous training, that a man from the wide spaces can manage to take his pipe out of his mouth and salute an officer, when his native instincts and life-long habits impel him to nod a casual good-day, and to suggest going for a drink to the nearest pub.
Such a man was “Bluegum.” He was one of two or three “Bluegums” in the camp.
He was from the cattle country on the Barclay Table lands, and had been up and down the Darling River and Cooper’s Creek scores of times and there were few places in the Northern Territory with which he was not familiar. He had been drover, cook’s offsider and well-borer, and had followed sundry other occupations, besides doing a bit of “cattle duffing” on his own account. He told me so one night as we lay in the open watching the stars.
He was a tall, lean man with broad, powerful shoulders, and he had a high, beaky nose and large, irregular teeth. His face was burned deeply red — the deepest red I have ever seen in the human countenance.
The first time I saw him was in Winton, in the yard of one of the hotels. He was engaged in a fight over the ownership of a dog, which viewed the conflict with lively interest. A couple of policemen intervened and took the combatants, after a desperate struggle, to the local gaol, the dog following at a respectable distance.
I saw him next in uniform. He was in one of the stalls used in the Exhibition Camp as a guardroom. He had been on a long spree. I learnt that he spent most of his time in the bird cage. Shortly afterwards he was shanghied into a reinforcement draft.
I saw him again during the Messines operations. I passed him on one of the winding tracks which curled around the shell holes. There was no mistaking his ruddy countenance.
“Things all right, Blue,” I suggested.
“My b——y oath!” he replied, as he passed along with his heavy burden. I observed that he wore the D.C.M. ribbon and learned that he had been decorated for gallantry and untiring devotion to duty on the Somme.
My next association with him was the last. It was in the fighting that preceded the capture of Passchendaele. We had reached our objective, but Fritz was developing a strong counter attack. He was using the ground well, and we only caught occasional glimpses of him. Rockets were sent up, but brought no response. Our machine guns were rattling and the men shooting well, but still the Germans kept pushing on. They were now well concealed in trenches and shell holes fifty yards away. The word came from the centre to charge, and the men were up immediately, shouting and yelling furiously. Some Germans stood and held up their hands, the rest bolted precipitately.
At this moment with a deafening roar, the barrage came down, and the earth seemed to rise and fall like broken waves in a strong sea. A couple of our men were caught in the deluge of shells. One we could see, preserved miraculously, creeping slowly back. But he soon stopped and lay helpless. Then a lanky figure walked out of our lines, strolled languidly into the veritable hell, picked up the wounded man as though he were a child, and strolled languidly back.
As he drew near I recognised the scarlet features and the beaky nose of Bluegum, and on his shoulder he carried his antagonist of yore: the identical man with whom he had fought in the hotel yard at Winton.
Bluegum himself had sustained a nasty wound and sat down beside the rescued man as he put him down. The light of recognition shone in each man’s eyes. Bluegum’s mouth opened as if it would never shut again. The other man grinned as he raised his head from the steel helmet which served as a pillow.
“Aint you the b——,” he said, “that stole my b——y dog up in Winton ten b——y years ago?”
“That was me,” said Bluegum, “and if you want the —— back, call at Tommy Walsh’s pub half way between Longreach and Charleville. I left the —— there when I —— well enlisted.”
I don’t think Bluegum will come back to the war, but perhaps some day, somewhere on the Flinders or the Dalby, I shall see his ruddy countenance glistening in the sunlight.
Aussie: The Australian Soldiers’ Magazine, no. 3, 8 March 1918, page 11