Shooting the moon
We lay in camp in the fringe of the mulga, and watched the big red, smoky, rising moon out on the edge of the misty plain, and smoked and thought together sociably. Our nose-bags were nice and heavy, and we still had about a pound of nail-rod between us.
The moon reminded my mate, Jack Mitchell, of something — anything reminded him of something, in fact.
‘Did you ever notice,’ said Jack, in a lazy tone, just as if he didn’t want to tell a yarn — ‘Did you ever notice that people always shoot the moon when there’s no moon? Have you got the matches?’
He lit up; he was always lighting up when he was reminded of something.
‘This reminds me — Have you got the knife? My pipe’s stuffed up.’
He dug it out, loaded afresh, and lit up again.
‘I remember once, at a pub I was staying at, I had to leave without saying good-bye to the landlord. I didn’t know him very well at that time.
‘My room was upstairs at the back, with the window opening onto the backyard. I always carried a bit of clothes-line in my swag or portmanteau those times. I travelled along with a portmanteau those times. I carried the rope in case of accident, or in case of fire, to lower my things out of the window — or hang myself, maybe, if things got too bad. No, now I come to think of it, I carried a revolver for that, and it was the only thing I never pawned.’
“To hang yourself with?” asked the mate.
‘Yes — you’re very smart,’ snapped Mitchell; ‘never mind ——. This reminds me that I got a chap at a pub to pawn my last suit, while I stopped inside and waited for an old mate to send me a pound; but I kept the shooter, and if he hadn’t sent it I’d have been the late John Mitchell long ago.’
“And sometimes you lower’d out when there was’nt a fire.”
‘Yes, that will pass; you’re improving in the funny business. But about the yarn. There was two beds in my room at the pub, where I had to go away without shouting for the boss, and, as it happened, there was a strange chap sleeping in the other bed that night, and, just as I raised the window and was going to lower my bag out, he woke up.
‘Now, look here,’ I said, shaking my fist at him, like that, ‘If you say a word, I’ll stoush yer!’
“Well,” he said, “well, you needn’t be in such a sweat to jump down a man’s throat. I’ve got my swag under the bed, and I was just going to ask you for the loan of the rope when you’re done with it.”
‘Well, we chummed. His name was Tom — Tom — something, I forget the other name, but it doesn’t matter. Have you got the matches?’
He wasted three matches, and continued —
‘There was a lot of old galvanised iron lying about under the window, and I was frightened the swag would make a noise; anyway, I’d have to drop the rope, and that was sure to make a noise. So we agreed for one of us to go down and land the swag. If we were seen going down without the swag it didn’t matter, for we could say we wanted to go out in the yard for something.’
“If you had the swag you might pretend you were walking in your sleep,” I suggested, for the want of something funnier to say.
‘Bosh,’ said Jack, ‘and get woke up with a black eye. Bushies don’t generally carry their swags out of pubs in their sleep, or walk neither; it’s only city swells who do that. Where’s the blessed matches?
‘Well, Tom agreed to go, and presently I saw a shadow under the window, and lowered away.
‘All right?’ I asked in a whisper.
“All right!” whispered the shadow.
‘I lowered the other swag.
“All right!” said the shadow, and just then the moon came out.
“All right!” says the shadow.
‘But it wasn’t all right. It was the landlord himself!
‘It seems he got up and went out to the back in the night, and just happened to be coming in when my mate Tom was sneaking out of the back door. He saw Tom, and Tom saw him, and smoked through a hole in the palings into the scrub. The boss looked up at the window, and dropped to it. I went down, funky enough, I can tell you, and faced him. He said:
“Look here, mate, why didn’t you come straight to me, and tell me how you was fixed, instead of sneaking round the trouble in that fashion? There’s no occasion for it.”
‘I felt mean at once, but I said: ‘Well, you see, we didn’t know you, boss.’
“So it seems. Well, I didn’t think of that. Anyway, call up your mate and come and have a drink; we’ll talk over it afterwards.” So I called Tom. ‘Come on,’ I shouted. ‘It’s all right.’
‘And the boss kept us a couple of days, and then gave us as much tucker as we could carry, and a drop of stuff and a few bob to go on the track again with.’
“Well, he was white, any road.”
‘Yes. I knew him well after that, and only heard one man say a word against him.’
“And did you stoush him?”
‘No; I was going to, but Tom wouldn’t let me. He said he was frightened I might make a mess of it, and he did it himself.’
“Did what? Make a mess of it?”
‘He made a mess of the other man that slandered that publican. I’d be funny if I was you. Where’s the matches?’
“And could Tom fight?”
‘Yes. Tom could fight.’
“Did you travel long with him after that?”
“And where is he now?”
‘Dead. — Give us the matches.’
Henry Lawson, While the Billy Boils, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1896, pages 142-145
portmanteau = a large suitcase that opens into two compartments; from the French “porter”, to carry, and “manteau”, cloak or coat (can also refer to the combining of several items or qualities, especially to the combining of two existing words to form a new word)
shoot the moon = in the context of renting, to “shoot the moon” is to leave your premises whilst still owing rent; doing a “moonlight flit” (in other contexts, “shoot for the moon” refers to trying to do something ambitious; whilst “shoot the moon” in some card games, such as Hearts or Hoosier Bid Euchre, refers to an particular ambitious tactic in those games)
stoush = fight, brawl (stoush may also mean to hit or punch)
swag = a swagman’s bundle, being a number of personal belongings rolled up in a blanket, and hung from the shoulder; also known as a “bluey”, “drum”, or “Matilda”
Vernacular spelling in the original text: