The bush undertaker.
The old man shaded his eyes and peered through the dazzling glow of that broiling Christmas Day. He stood just within the door of a slab-and-bark hut situated upon the bank of a barren creek; sheep-yards lay to the right, and a low line of bare brown ridges formed a suitable background to the scene.
“Five Bob!” shouted he again; and a dusty sheep-dog rose wearily from the shaded side of the hut and looked inquiringly at his master, as the latter pointed towards some sheep which were straggling from the flock.
“Fetch ’em back,” he said confidently.
The dog went off obediently, and his master returned to the interior of the hut.
“We’ll yard ’em early,” he said to himself; “the ‘super’ won’t know. We’ll yard ’em early, and have the afternoon to ourselves.”
“We’ll get dinner,” he added, glancing at some pots on the fire, “I cud do a bit of doughboy, an’ that theer boggabria ’ll eat like marrer along of the salt meat.” He rose and moved one of the black buckets from the blaze. “I likes to keep it jist on the sizzle,” he said in explanation to himself; “hard biling makes it tough — I’ll keep it jist a-simmerin’.”
Here his meditations were interrupted by the entrance of the dog.
“All right, Five Bob,” said the ‘hatter’; “dinner’ll be ready dreckly. Jist keep yer eye on the sheep till I calls yer; keep ’em well rounded up, ’n’ we’ll yard ’em afterwards and have a holiday.”
This speech was accompanied by a gesture evidently intelligible to the dog, who retired as though he understood English — and the cooking proceeded.
“I’ll take a pick an’ shovel with me an’ root up that old black fellow,” mused the shepherd, evidently following up an old train of thought; “I reckon it’ll do now. I’ll put in the spuds.”
The last sentence referred to the cooking, the first to a supposed black fellow’s grave about which he was curious.
“The sheep’s a-campin’,” said the soliloquiser, glancing through the door. “So me an’ Five Bob ’ll be able to get our dinner in peace. I wish I had just enough fat to make the pan siss; I’d treat myself to a leather-jacket; but it took three weeks’ skimmin’ to get enough for them there doughboys.”
In due time the dinner was dished up; and the old man seated himself on a block, with the lid of a gin-case across his knees for a table. Five Bob squatted opposite with the liveliest interest and appreciation depicted on his intelligent countenance.
Dinner proceeded very quietly, except when the carver paused to ask the dog how some tasty morsel went with him, and Five Bob’s tail declared that it went very well indeed.
“Here y’are, try this,” cried the old man, tossing the dog a large piece of “doughboy”. A click of Five Bob’s jaws and the dough was gone.
“Clean into his liver!” said the old man with a faint smile.
He “washed up” the tinware in the water in which the “duff” had boiled, and afterwards, with the assistance of the dog, yarded the sheep.
This accomplished, he took a pick and shovel and an old bag from a stick across the corner of the hut, and started out over the ridge, followed, of course, by his four-legged mate. After tramping some three miles, a “spur,” running out from the main ridge, was reached. At the extreme end of this, under some gum-trees, was a little mound of earth, barely defined in the grass, and indented in the centre as all blackfellows’ graves were. This was the supposed blackfellow’s grave, about which the old man had some doubts.
He set to work to dig it up, and, sure enough, in about half an hour, he bottomed on “payable dirt,” or, rather, a skeleton.
When he had raked up all the bones, he amused himself by putting them together on the grass and speculating as to whether they had belonged to black or white, male or female. Failing, however, to arrive at any satisfactory conclusion, he dusted the bones with great care, put them in the bag, and started for home.
He took a short cut this time, over the ridge and down a gully which was full of ring-barked trees and long white grass. He had nearly reached its mouth when a great greasy black “gohanna” (iguana) clambered up a sapling from under his feet and looked fightable.
“Dang the jumpt-up thing!” cried the old man. “It did give me a start!”
At the foot of this tree he then espied an object which he at first took to be the blackened carcass of a sheep, but on closer examination discovered to be the body of a man, which lay on its face with its forehead resting on its hands — dried to a mummy by the intense heat of the western summer.
“Me luck’s in, and no mistake!” said the bushman, scratching the back of his head while he took stock of the remains. He picked up a stick and tapped the body on the shoulder; the flesh sounded like leather. He turned it over on its side; it fell flat on its back like a board, and the shrivelled eyes seemed to peer up at him from under the blackened wrists.
He stepped back involuntarily, but, recovering himself, he leaned on his stick and took in all the ghastly details.
There was nothing in the blackened features to tell aught of name or race, but the dress proclaimed the remains to be those of a European. Suddenly the old man caught sight of a black bottle in the grass close beside the corpse. This set him thinking. Presently he knelt down and examined the soles of the dead man’s Blucher boots, and then, rising with an air of conviction, exclaimed: “Brummy! by gosh! — busted up at last!”
“I tole yer so, Brummy;” he said impressively, addressing the corpse, “I allers told yer as how it ’ud be — an’ here y’are. You thundering jumpt-up cuss o’ God fool. Yer cud earn more’n any man in the colony, but yer’d lush it all away. I allers sed as how it ’ud end, an’ now yer kin see fur y’self.
“I ’spect yer was a comin’ ter me t’ get fixt up an’ set straight agin; then yer was agoin’ to swear off, same as yer allers did; an’ here y’ar, an’ now I expect I’ll have ter fix yer up for the last time an’ make yer decent, for ’twon’t do ter leave yer a-lyin’ out here like carrion.”
He picked up the corked bottle and examined it. To his great surprise it was more than half full of rum.
“Well, this gits me,” exclaimed the old man; “me luck’s in this Christmas, an’ no mistake. He must ’a’ got the jams early in his spree, or he wouldn’t be a-makin’ for me with near a bottleful left. Howsomenever, here goes.”
The old man looked round and his eyes lit up with satisfaction as he caught sight of some bits of bark which had been left on the ground by a party of strippers who had been getting bark there for the stations. He picked up two pieces, one about four and the other six feet long, and each about two feet wide, and brought them over to the body. He laid the longest strip by the side of the corpse, which he proceeded to lift on to it.
“Come on, Brummy,” he said, in a softer tone than usual. “Yer ain’t as bad as yer might be, considerin’ as it must be three good months since yer slipped yer wind. I ’spect it was the rum as preserved yer. It was the death of yer when yer was alive, an’ now yer dead, it preserves yer like — like a “mummy”.”
Then he placed the other sheet of bark on top, with the hollow side downwards, — thus sandwiching the defunct between the two pieces — removed the saddle strap which he wore in the place of a belt, and buckled it round one end of the elongated sandwich, while he tried to think of something to tie up the other end with.
“I can’t take any more strips off my shirt,” he said, critically examining the skirts of the old blue overshirt he wore. “I might get a strip or two more off, but it’s short enough already. Let’s see; how long have I been a-wearin’ of that shirt? Oh, I remember, I bought it jist two days afore Five Bob was pupped. I can’t afford a new shirt jist yet; howsomenever, seein’ it’s Brummy, I’ll jist borrow a couple more strips, and sew ’em on agen when I git home.”
He up-ended Brummy, and, placing his shoulder against the middle of the lower sheet of bark, lifted the corpse to a horizontal position, and then, taking the bag of bones in his hand, he started for home.
“I ain’t a-spendin’ sech a dull Christmas arter all,” he reflected as he plodded on; but he had not walked above a hundred yards when he suddenly saw a black “gohanna” sidling off into the grass by the side of the path.
“That’s another of them theer dang things!” he exclaimed. “That’s two I’ve seed this mornin’.”
Presently he remarked: “Yer don’t smell none too sweet, Brummy. It must ‘a’ been jist about the middle of shearin’ when yer pegged out. I wonder who got yer last cheque. Shoo! theer’s another black gohanna — theer must be a flock of ’em.”
He rested Brummy on the ground while he had another pull at the bottle, and, before going on, packed the bag of bones on his shoulder under the body, and he soon stopped again.
“The thunderin’ jumpt-up bones is all skew-whift,” he said. “’Ole on, Brummy, ’n’ I’ll fix ’em;” — and he leaned the dead man against a tree while he settled the bones on his shoulder, and took another pull at the bottle.
About a mile further on he heard a rustling in the grass to the right, and, looking round, saw another “gohanna” gliding off sideways, with its long snaky neck turned towards him.
This puzzled the shepherd considerably, the strangest part of it being that Five Bob wouldn’t touch the reptile, even when ordered to “sick ’em,” but slunk off with his tail down.
“Theer’s sothin’ comic about them theer gohannas,” said the old man at last. “I’ve seed swarms of grasshoppers ’n’ big mobs of kangaroos, but dang me if ever I seed a flock of black gohannas afore!”
On reaching the hut the old man dumped the corpse over his shoulder against the wall, wrong end up, and stood scratching his head while he endeavored to collect his muddled thoughts; but he had not placed Brummy at the correct angle, and, consequently, that individual fell forward and struck him a violent blow on the shoulder with the iron toes of his Blucher boots.
The shock sobered him. He sprang a good yard, instinctively hitching up his moleskins in preparation for flight, but a backward glance revealed to him the true cause of this supposed attack from the rear. Then he lifted the body, stood it on its feet against the chimney, and ruminated as to where he should lodge his mate for the night, not noticing that the shorter sheet of bark had slipped down on the boots and left the face exposed.
“I ’spect I’ll have ter put yer into the chimney-trough for the night, Brummy,” said he, turning round to confront the corpse. “Yer can’t expect me to take yer into the hut, though I did it when yer was in a worse state than — Lord!”
The shepherd was not prepared for the awful scrutiny (if so it might be named) that gleamed on him from those empty sockets; his nerves received a shock, and it was some time before he recovered himself sufficiently to speak.
“Now, look a-here, Brummy,” said he, shaking his finger severely at the delinquent, “I don’t want to pick a row with yer; I’d do as much for yer an’ more than any other man, an’ well yer knows it; but if yer starts playin’ any of yer jumpt-up pranktical jokes on me, and a-scarin’ of me after a-humpin’ of yer ’ome, by the ’oly frost (’n that’s a-swearin’ to it) I’ll kick yer to jim-rags, so I will!”
This admonition delivered, he hoisted Brummy into the chimney-trough, and with a last glance towards the sheep-yards, he retired to his bunk to have, as he said, a “snooze.”
He had more than a “snooze” however, for when he woke, it was dark, and the bushman’s instinct told him it must be nearly nine o’clock.
He lit a slush-lamp and poured the remainder of the rum into a pannikin; but, just as he was about to lift the draught to his lips, he heard a peculiar rustling sound over his head, and put the pot down on the table with a slam that made some of the precious liquor jump out.
The dog crept close to his master, and whimpered; the old shepherd, used, as one living alone in the bush must necessarily be, to all that is weird and dismal, felt, for once at least, the icy breath of fear at his heart.
He reached hastily for his old single-barrel shot-gun, and went out to investigate. He walked round the hut several times and examined the roof on all sides, but saw nothing; the corpse appeared to be in the same position.
At last, persuading himself that the noise was caused by ’possums or the wind, the old man went inside, boiled his billy, and, after composing his nerves somewhat with a light supper and a meditative smoke, retired for the night. He was aroused several times before midnight by the same mysterious sound above his head, and, though he rose and examined the roof on each occasion by the light of the moon, which had risen, he discovered nothing.
At last he determined to sit up and watch until daybreak, and for this purpose took up a position on a log a little distance from the hut, with his gun laid in readiness across his knee.
About an hour later he saw a black object coming over the ridge-pole, and he grabbed the gun and fired. The thing disappeared. He ran round to the other side of the hut, and there was a great black “gohanna” in violent convulsions on the ground.
Then the old man saw it all. “The thunderin’ jumpt-up thing has been a-havin’ o’ me,” he exclaimed. “The same cuss o’ God wretch has a-follered me ’ome, an’ has been a-gnawin’ o’ Brummy, an’ a-hauntin’ o’ me, the jumpt-up tinker!”
* * *
As there was no one by whom he could send a message to the station, and the old man dared not leave the sheep and go himself, he determined to bury the body the next afternoon, reflecting that the authorities could disinter it for inquest if they pleased.
So he brought the sheep home early, and made arrangements for the burial by measuring the outer casing of Brummy both ways, and digging a hole according to those dimensions.
“That ’minds me,” he said. “I never rightly knowed Brummy’s ’ligion, blest if ever I did. Howsomenever, there’s one thing sartin — none o’ them theer pianer-fingered parsons is a-goin’ ter take the trouble ter travel out inter this God-forgotten part to ’old sarvice over him, seein’ as how his last cheque’s blued. But, as I’ve got the fun’ral arrangements all in me own ’ands, I’ll do jestice to it, and see that Brummy has a good comfortable buryin’ — and more’s unpossible.”
“It’s time yer turned in, Brum,” he said, lifting the body down.
He carried it to the grave and lowered it down into one corner, end first, like a post. “I’ll put him in end ways an’ chance it,” he said. He arranged the bark so as to cover the face, and, by means of a piece of line, lowered the body to a horizontal position. Then he threw in an armful of gum leaves, and then, very reluctantly, took the shovel and dropped in a few shovelsful of earth; then he paused.
“An’ this is the last of Brummy,” he said, leaning on his spade and looking away over the tops of the gaunt gums on the distant range.
This reflection seemed to engender a flood of memories, in which the old man became absorbed. He leaned heavily upon his spade and thought.
“Arter all,” he murmured sadly, “Arter all — it were Brummy.”
“Brummy,” he said at last, “It’s all over now; nothin’ matters now — nothin’ didn’t ever matter, nor — nor don’t. You uster say as how it ’ud be all right termorrer” (pause); “termorrer’s come, Brummy — come fur you — it ain’t come tur me yet, but — it’s a-comin’.”
He threw in some more earth.
“Yer don’t remember, Brummy, an’ mebbe yer don’t want to remember — I don’t want to remember but — but — well, yer see that’s where yer got the pull on me.”
He shovelled in some more earth and paused again.
The dog rose, with ears erect, and looked anxiously first at his master and then into the grave.
“Theer oughter be somethin’ sed,” muttered the old man; “‘tain’t right to put ’im under like a dog. Theer oughter be some sort o’ sarmin’.” He sighed heavily in the listening silence that followed this remark, and, proceeded with his work. He filled the grave to the brim this time, and fashioned the mound carefully with his spade. Once or twice he muttered the words, “I am the rassaraction.” He was evidently trying to remember the something that “oughter be said.” He laid the tools quietly aside, and stood at the head of the grave. He removed his hat, placed it carefully on the grass, held his hands out from his sides and a little to the front, drew a long deep breath, and said with a solemnity that greatly disturbed Five Bob, “Hashes ter hashes, dus ter dus, Brummy, — an’ — an’ in hopes of a great an’ gerlorious rassaraction!”
He sat down on a log near by, rested his elbows on his knees and passed his hand wearily over his forehead — but only as one who was tired and felt the heat; and presently he rose, took up the tools, and walked back to the hut.
And the sun sank again on the grand Australian bush — the nurse and tutor of eccentric minds, the home of the weird, and much that is different from things in other lands.
Henry Lawson. Short Stories in Prose and Verse, L. Lawson, Sydney, , page 55-71
line = presumably referring to a clothes line
[Editor: Corrected “none to sweet” to “none too sweet”; “them theer got hannas” to “them theer gohannas”; “w’ere yer got” to “where yer got”. Added opening quotation mark to the start of “hard biling”; added closing quotation mark to the end of “mummy”. Deleted second comma after “go himself,”.]