Hopin’ [short story by E.S. Latimer, 3 March 1932]

[Editor: A short story by E.S. Latimer. Published in The Queenslander, 3 March 1932.]


Complete story by E.S. Latimer

“Hope,” said Billy Angus, “means the business of trying to convince yourself that you’ll find some way out of your difficulties when you know there isn’t any.”

“Meanin’ you keep on kiddin’ yourself you’ll be a millionaire some day?” inquired Jim Fraser.

“Something o’ that sort,” agreed Billy. “I used to do a lot of it meself, but when a man gets old he begins to think he might just as well take things as they come, and not keep tryin’ to persuade himself that fairy tales will happen these days.”

Jim Fraser laughed. “You’re not so terrible old, Billy. Why, I’m three years older’n you, an’ I’m only 38.”

“It ain’t the number of years, it’s the amount of experience,” said Angus, “and I gave up hopin’ for anything a long while back.”

“Girls?” asked his mate.

“No,” said Angus, “not girls — one girl only, and quite enough, thank you. . . . . Anyway, that’s got nothing to do with this prospecting trip of ours. I’m thinking mainly about myself this trip.”

For a while the two smoked silently, and then Fraser spoke again.

“D’you think there’s anything in those yarns of wild blacks hereabouts, Billy?”

Angus stretched his 6ft. of bone and muscle lazily. “I don’t think so, Jim. All the myalls went from this district years ago so far as I know, and if there are any round about they’d be too scared of white men to give us any trouble.”

“Anyway, we’ve got to push on now,” said his mate. “The water’s low now, and it’s too far to go back to Brown’s Well. We’ll have to keep going till we get to Cobbinjee Hole. Ought to reach it by sundown to-morrow.”

“That’s so,” agreed the other. “After that we’ll get down to business. I was out in this country years ago, and I reckon there’s good quartz not far south of Cobbinjee. I never had time to prospect it much when I was here before, but I’ve got an idea there’s a good vein to be found if a man looks hard enough. I would have come back and had a look before, only . . .”

“Only what?”

Angus frowned gloomily. “Oh, well, we’re pretty good pals, Jim, and I may as well tell you, I suppose. Because of that girl.”

“The one that made you give up hopin’?”

“Yes, confound her. . . . I met her when I was shearing up Queensland way, and went to Brisbane to break down my cheque. Nice little girl, with lovely eyes and bonzer hands — you know, little, finely shaped hands that looked as if they were never meant to work. I think it was her hands and her eyes that fascinated me. Wasn’t a silly flapper, either. Seemed a sensible sort o’ girl to me. Anyway, she was old enough to have sense, only three years younger than me.”

“How long ago was that, Billy?”

“Only a couple of years, Jim. Oh, yes, she was old enough to have sense, all right, and so was I, but it seems I hadn’t. Well, she hadn’t got any folks, father and mother dead years before, and she was living in a dull kind of a boarding-house and counting up her pennies every day to make sure she’d have enough to pay the landlady. Never wanted to go out much, or anything like that, but seemed content just to be in a fellow’s company and talk about books — she was fair mad on books, good books, too, judging by what she said to me. Well, I took her about a bit, and in no time I found I was liking her a whole lot, and she reckoned she felt the same about me.

“Then she was sick for a couple of days, and decided to change her boarding-house — said she didn’t think the locality was healthy. So I gave her a hand to get her things shifted, bought one or two little comforts to make her room seem a bit more like a real home, and generally tried to make her see what a real good fellow I was. But I must have overdone it or something, for just about then she began to talk about how dull life was, and how she had to refuse invitations to go to shows and so on because she had promised me she’d only go out with me. ‘But I’ll take you anywhere you want to go,’ I told her. ‘I don’t want you to waste your money,’ she said, and was quite contented again for a day or so, and then one day she let slip that a chap had asked her to go to a picture show with him. ‘Who is he?’ I asked her. ‘You wouldn’t know him,’ she said, ‘and, anyway, it’s nothing to do with you.’

“Well, that fair knocked me bandy. ‘Nothing to do with me?’ says I. ‘Why, you’re going to marry me some day, aren’t you?’ ‘You’ll never have enough money to get married on, Billy,’ she said, ‘and it’s not that, either; it’s just that I can’t stand being tied down and not being able to do just what I want to.’ ‘Why, you said you were quite content just to talk to me,’ I said. ‘So I was,’ she told me, ‘until you got so madly jealous.’ I’ll admit I had been pretty jealous when I heard about chaps who wanted her to go out with ’em, but any man would have been like that, and so I told her. ‘But if you cared for me you’d trust me,’ she says, ‘and a gentleman wouldn’t be madly jealous like you.’ ‘I’m no gentleman,’ I said, ‘but I’ve always played straight with you,’ ‘So have I with you,’ she says. ‘Then what do you want to go wit with any one else for?’ I asked her. ‘Because, as I told you, I hate being tied down by a lot of promises,’ she says; ‘just let’s be friends?’ ‘D’you mean to say you’re going to break your promises to me?’ I asked. ‘Not break them,’ she said, ‘I’m taking them back. Good-bye, Billy.’”

Angus fell silent, and sat sucking moodily at his pipe.

“But I don’t see anything in all that,” said Fraser. “It’s only just a bit of an argument, Billy, and we all squabble with our girls like that.”

Angus laughed without heartiness. “Yes, I know it sound idiotic to any one else, but you don’t understand just how much that girl meant to a fellow who hadn’t got a pal in the whole city, and who was fair mad on her. I tried my hardest to make her change her mind, but she seemed to have got into a new frame of thought altogether. If she wasn’t going to lunch or a show with some one she’d be tearing out for a motor trip, and I couldn’t compete with the motor cars. I think she suddenly got a longing to enjoy all the fun she’d never had — she’d been working for her living since she was 16 — and a quiet chap like me got left. I said a lot of hard things to her that I’ve regretted ever since, but she seemed to have got as hard as iron, and so I came away. But it finished me with girls. I’d had such faith in her, and I was hopin’ for the time when we’d be able to fix our little home up together. Oh, well, let’s sleep on it.”

He curled himself in his blanket beside the fire, and in a few minutes both men were asleep. The night wore on to the morning, and the fire died to a glow of red coals. The stars paled, and the eastern sky turned to grey. The clink of hobbles on the men’s horses suddenly developed into a mad jangle, hoofs thudded in the scrub, and then the noise of hobbles and hoofs faded into the distance.

Angus, disturbed by the sound of the horses, sat up suddenly, rubbing his eyes and glancing round him. His mouth opened and his gaze became fixed as he saw a black face regarding him curiously from behind one of the boulders around the little clearing where the men had camped.

“Wake up, Jim!” yelled Angus. “Here’s the myalls!”

The two men jumped to their feet, tearing at the revolver holsters at their belts, but the black face behind the boulder smiled, and its owner rose to his feet. “No shoot, boss,” he remarked; “me Sunshine.”

The white men grinned, ashamed of their excitement. “Maybe,” said Angus. “But what for you come longa bush?”

“Me stockman longa Doondjerrie Downs,” explained the visitor. “Go little walkabout. You gibbit ’baccy?”

Fraser was regarding the black curiously. “You ever work longa North Stratton?” he asked.

The black nodded vigorously. “Long time ago,” he said. “No good. Plenty tucker, plenty ’bacca, but too much boss pheller. Me leave.”

Fraser spoke in an aside to Angus. “I thought I knew him Billy. I was horsebreaker at Stratton when he was there. Tanned his hide for him for pinching a shirt of mine. He’s right about the boss, though. Nasty chap, old Custance was, and he made Sunshine here sit up all right.”

“Tell you what,” said Angus to the black, “You get horses, we gibbit ’baccy.”

Sunshine shook a tousled head. “Horses gone, boss. Myall he run ’em off bush.”

“What?” yelled the prospectors in unison.

The black nodded. “Plenty wild pheller, boss. You look out; him come bimeby, maybe spear you.”

In consternation the white men gazed at one another. It was a good 30 miles over hard country to Cobbinjee Hole, and without horses the task of getting there would be an appalling one. In addition there was the danger of attack by the myalls.

For a while they discussed the problem from every angle but always came back to the starting point. All they could do was to carry as many of their belongings as possible, and essay to reach the water on foot. When they were sure of a water supply it would be time to discuss what they should do next.

“How many pheller myall, Sunshine?” asked Angus as they started off through the trees.

“Six pheller, boss,” came the answer. “Bad pheller station blacks gone bush.”

“Eh?” said Angus, “Station blacks?”

“Yairs, boss. Him likeit better fun alonga bush. But not Sunshine. Good pheller, Sunshine.”

The black’s ugly face creased into what was meant for a conciliatory smile, and with a grunt Angus resumed the march, carefully loosening his revolver in the holster.

All through the morning, with a blazing sun climbing ever higher, the men tramped sturdily on. Sweat poured from them and flies buzzed about their faces, but they kept doggedly at their task, with ever and again a nervous glance into the trees fringing the barely perceptible track. Nothing could be seen, but both men knew instinctively that not far off in the leafy screen fierce black forms were keeping pace with them, awaiting the moment when an attack could be made with least danger. Sunshine, a waterbag in each hand, tramped flat-footedly alongside the white men.

“What do you think of the chances, Jim,” asked Angus when they lit a fire at noon and boiled a billy of tea.

“I dunno,” said his mate. “I s’pose all we can do is to keep hopin’ for the best.”

“Pick another word,” said Angus. “You know what I think about hope. Let’s say well just plug along.”

Fraser laughed. “All right, Billy, but don’t be a pessimist. We’ve walked a pretty fair bit of the way now, and I don’t think those myalls are going to worry us after all. I imagine ——”

His voice died suddenly in a grunt, and Angus, looking up from his pannikin of tea, saw his mate lying in a huddled heap, a red stream from his head spreading on the dry grass. Crashing through the undergrowth, nulla nulla firmly gripped in his hand, went the figure of Sunshine.

A shot from the white man’s revolver went harmlessly after the fleeing aboriginal, and then Angus was on his knees beside his mate. Fraser’s heart was beating feebly, and, after Angus had used most of their scanty supply of water in bathing his temples, his eyes opened, and his lips moved.

“He — remembered — Billy,” came a faint whisper. “Remembered the time — I — tanned — his hide. Just waited — till — he got — good — chance. So long — Billy — you’ll get through — I hope —”

Fraser’s head fell back with a jerk, and his mate, sombre-eyed, rose to his feet.

“Hope,” he muttered between clenched teeth. “It never did you much good, old boy. Hope!”

For the next hour, with an anxious eye on the trees all the time, Angus was occupied in building a cairn of stones over the body of the man who had been his mate for the past six months, and as he did so he muttered curses on the treacherous Sunshine. He understood now who had instigated the myalls to run off the horses.

At last, with a heavy heart, he shouldered his swag, took a waterbag in his hand, and resumed his tramp. He had been walking for about half an hour, when a spear whizzed through the air and stuck quivering in the track in front of him.

Angus whirled in the direction whence the spear had come, and as he did so another spear struck the ground at his feet, and then a shower of them came fast from all sides.

Cursing furiously, the white man sought to gain a glimpse of his enemies amongst the trees, but after the first wild flight everything became quiet again, and Angus, with tormented nerves, resumed his walk.

After a mile or so the same thing occurred again, and again after another half-hour or so, and Angus began to realise that his foes were playing with him. With the coming of this idea his nerves quietened, and a grim spirit of fatalism filled him.

The sun was sinking low in the west by this time, so in a clear space he collected sticks, put his billy on to boil, and sat beside it chewing a piece of day-old damper.

Again spears sped through the air, and this time they evidently meant business, for one went through the calf of Angus’s leg, drawing a yell from him! Wild screams from the scrub answered, and then a fresh flight of spears showered upon him and with one in his left shoulder the white man sprang to his feet and then huddled up in a heap.

The sun sank lower, the untended fire died, and still he lay there. Black forms, hideously striped with clay, appeared from the trees and moved cautiously towards him, but Angus did not move.

Four, five, six — the blacks drew nearer, relaxing their vigilance as they noted the lifelessness of their victim; and then with a rush Angus was on his feet and in action.

The revolver spat again and again and four of the attackers went down, but Angus weakened as blood poured from spear wounds in thigh and chest. He smashed the empty revolver into the mouth of one of his enemies, dodged the spear of the last one, and then, tearing the weapon from him, with a final effort sent it deep into the blackfellow’s chest. Then, a dreadful figure, he sank down quietly in a heap.

Again quiet descended on the bush. An aboriginal groaned, and then was still, but the white man made no sign. His outstretched arms formed a great cross, and beneath his right hand lay the revolver, still with one cartridge left.

Night came, and with it a brilliant moon, casting silver light over the quiet figures lying in the clearing, and from the trees came the figure of Sunshine, treading cautiously.

Slowly he approached the huddled bodies and cautiously bent over Angus. Even as he did so the white man’s hand came up weakly, grasping the revolver, and as the startled Sunshine sent his spear thudding through the white man’s chest the revolver spoke. The black, with a tiny hole in his forehead, went crashing to earth, and with a great effort Angus rose to his feet and stood looking triumphantly on the dead.

“— Six — seven,” he counted. “And this time, Nancy dear, it’s good-bye all right. I’d meant to do so much if this trip went well — I never stopped hopin’. . .”

His voice ceased as he fell forward, and once more the bush was silent.

The Queenslander (Brisbane, Qld.), 3 March 1932, p. 6

[Editor: Corrected “slepe on” to “sleep on”. The word “no” in “made no sign” has been inserted as it is estimated to be the obscured word in the article.]

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