The Ghost of Blengfell Falls.
By Chris Dahl.
It was the day before Christmas Eve, 18—, and we were on the road from Blank’s station in the Gulf country, riding behind a mob of 800 bullocks — Billy Brown and I and a black-boy who went by the euphonious title of Nigger Jim.
It was a blinding hot day. The sun shone with heated fervour, and the sweat rolled down our faces and dripped on our flannel shirts, which were already soaked. The horses were all streaked, although we had had no occasion to extend them beyond a walk. The dry road shimmered with a fierce white glare, and the cattle raised clouds of dust which well-nigh choked us, and at times we almost lost sight of half of them. We were all sucking at our pipes, and I’ll swear that except when our lips had cleaned the dust off you would have taken our good old blocks for new-shaped clays.
Along each side of the road was the same old scene that we had viewed for days and days — the long lank gums with their miserable foliage that seemed to throw no shadow, and here and then a patch of tea-tree swamp with its skeleton-like sentinels standing in the slimy mud. And save in the early morn, when the freshness had hardly departed, every bush bird seemed dumb and too lazy to fly, hiding away somewhere till the sun had nearly gone down.
The “dull gray” of the bush is monotonous — nay, weird and melancholy. I verily think a man would go mad if he had not a mate near him on a drive like that, with the muffled shuffle of the bullocks’ feet in the dust ahead of him, and naught but his horse’s steady walk to keep him from dreaming. You don’t feel inclined to talk much. You feel too lazy, and if you open your mouth you can grind your teeth the next second on the grit that floats in, and no chance to spit it out when you’re as dry as a bone. As for drinking, you might empty your water-bag before you’d gone a couple of miles, and then have to do without for perhaps the next twenty-eight or thirty.
Billy Brown was good company. When it came to sundown, and the cattle were “on camp,” he could tell many a yarn or crack a good joke after the junk and damper of the evening meal. But he was a devil for drink. Every penny he earned went in a razzle, and the blue-devils were as familiar to him as the saddle he hoisted on his horse every morning at daylight. Sometimes he would be all of a tremble for a week after he had come back from a “soak,” and his voice would get a pipe in it that had caused many a laugh. But I believe he was good at heart. Many a night, when we had lain down with our heads on our saddles and our blankets over us to keep off the dew, though it was beastly hot, he would talk away of the hopes he had for a happy future, when he would give up the drink and settle down somewhere. Poor Billy ! Born in a cocky’s humpy down South, he had left home quite early and gone North, his knowledge of humanity confined mostly to swearing bushies and half-naked niggers. He would have made a fine fellow if he had had a chance, for there ran beneath his rough exterior a vein of sympathy and tenderness that flashed out occasionally like a bit of quartz glinting in the sunlight from out of the dirt around it.
We pushed on as fast as possible that day, for by the next evening we wanted to camp at Blengfell Falls, when we could get a bit of good feed and a shady rest for a few hours on the day following — Christmas Day — and have a bath in the lagoon that was always full of the clear, cold water that fell from fifty feet above on to a big, flat rock, and then dribbled down into the pool beyond.
It was about 5 o’clock in the afternoon of the next day when we left the road for the Falls, and half an hour later the tired beasts were thrusting their noses into the water, wading in it, splashing in it, and shoving each other about till all had had a fill.
The old black billy was hung on a stick over the fire as usual, and just as the bubbling of the water indicated the time for tea-making my attention was attracted to Nigger Jim. He seemed dreadfully uneasy. He would squat down for a bit and then get up with a jerk, and all the while his big bloodshot eyes were turned in the direction of the lagoon, which was fast getting dim as the eventide drew apace.
“What’s the matter, Jim?” I asked him.
“Ghost ’long lagoon, boss,” he made answer; “Skinny Dick (one of Blank’s station hands) tell me long time ghost live there.”
“Go on!” I replied. “Don’t talk tommyrot, you black heathen.”
Billy Brown was lying stretched out near by. “Did you never hear about the ghost?” he said to me.
“Not much,” I answered; “don’t believe in them.”
“Well,” he said, “ I don’t know that I do either. But the yarn goes that some poor bloke was speared out here by the blacks many years ago on a — on a Christmas Eve, I believe it was, and it’s said that every time a nigger shows his face here the ghost appears and causes bad luck to him and any fellows that he’s with.”
“Oh, well,” I said with a laugh, “I don’t give a blow for spooks. We’ll have to tell the chaps when we get back that we camped here with a nigger and got on all right.”
Billy sat up.
“Don’t crow awhile yet,” he said solemnly. “We ain’t camped here afore on a Christmas Eve. Wait till to-morrow.”
I laughed, but Billy was as solemn as a crow. It was the first time, I think, I had ever seen him looking so glum, except after a “bender.”
I tried to start a conversation on something else, but Billy was strangely silent. After a while I began to feel a bit queer, too, and that yarn seemed to stick in my memory as a bit of half-cooked damper sticks in one’s gizzard when swallowed suddenly.
We turned in fairly early that night. Billy took the first watch over the cattle, and saddled up his horse to have a ride round them just as I lay down for a sleep. The night was pretty dark, though the stars, shining from an unclouded sky, were bright enough to dimly show everything close around as well as the misty lagoon in the distance.
I fell asleep quickly and slept soundly. Once Nigger Jim woke me walking about nervously. I gruffly told him to be quiet, and had just dozed off when I heard Billy riding back. He stopped, and I guessed he must have been unsaddling his horse before coming to wake me for my watch.
I heard his steps coming towards me for a while, then they stopped. A second after Nigger Jim gave a scream of horror, and I heard Billy sing out:
“Great heavens! the ghost!”
My heart gave a sudden jump, and a sick feeling came over me all in a moment. I bounded to my feet, but before I could walk over to where I thought Billy was standing I heard a sound that made me jump for my nag, which was hobbled and near at hand, and slip the hobbles off his fast and the bridle over his head like lightning. The cattle were “rushing.” I jumped on his back without waiting to saddle up — there was no time, for that matter — and then ——
Straight for me I could see the mob of bullocks heading, and sticking my heels in my horse’s sides I made a dash for a bit of scrub a little way off from the lagoon, and right in front of that rushing mob, in hopes that the close timber would divert them and enable me to escape.
I forced my nag into it, amongst a tangle of creepers. I hardly knew what I did, unnerved as I was by hearing Nigger Jim’s screech and Billy’s shout. If I had stayed where I was at first I should have been knocked down and trampled, and I knew it was useless to attempt to stop the rush.
Fortunately the frightened animals went wide of the edge of the scrub, and I was safe. When I rode back I shouted for Billy and Nigger Jim, but got no answer. I got off and hunted around in the dark for my saddle, thinking that Billy and Jim, experienced as they both were at the game, had gone after the mob to round them up if they could. I searched about in the dark for a while without finding anything. Then just ahead of me I saw something dark on the ground. A little closer, and there I found Billy, motionless.
I struck a match. Heavens! What a state he was in ! The cattle had been over him and pounded him to death. Another figure lay a little way off, and when I want over, there was Nigger Jim with his clothes torn almost off him, and his head trampled to a jelly.
I reeled and nearly fell. Then the horror of the thing swept over me, and I made a run for my horse.
And then — I don’t know what prompted me — I looked over towards the lagoon. Floating over the water was a Shape — a something that glowered huge and misty and white — that looked like a great human form. There was an awfulness about it that caused a cold-sweat to ooze out of my pores, and sent a cold chill through me such as I had never experienced before. A lump came in my throat up that felt bigger than a cocoanut, and I could not swallow it.
I turned away suddenly, with that momentary view burned into my mind deeper than the newly-burned brand on an unbroken colt, and springing on my nag I rode like mad towards the road. Galloping wildly, and urging my horse with heels and voice, I went like a whirlwind through the bush, sometimes just missing a tree trunk, and then getting a swipe across the face from a low-down branch. Once on the open road I went faster still. The dust rose in a white cloud behind — for I saw it once when I glanced back, fearful lest something was following — and soon the foam flecks from the horse’s mouth bespattered my moleskins.
I hardly dared look to either side, for every tree seemed a grinning shadow with a mist behind, and once when a curlew, startled by the horse’s gallop, rose suddenly and crossed the road in front with a weird cry I nearly yelled in my terror.
I don’t remember much more of the ride, or what I told the fellows at the township when I got there. For nearly a fortnight I had brain fever, or something of that kind, and the fellows all swore I had been on the burst.
The local J.P. told me I was cracked when I spun the yarn to him on my recovery, and spitting on the floor he left suddenly to soothe his feelings at a neighbouring bar.
Of course they found Billy and Nigger Jim, and put it all down to a cattle rush. As for what started the cattle going — such things often happened, they said, and not a few reckoned that if we had all been sober Billy and Nigger Jim would have got away all right.
Sometimes I fancy that the Shape I saw was manufactured by my excited brain out of a lump of fog, but then I am puzzled to know what my mate and Nigger Jim yelled for.
At any rate this I do know — there’s not a drover betwixt Melbourne and the Gulf that would camp at Blengfell Falls on a Christmas Eve, ghost or no ghost.
The Queenslander (Brisbane, Qld.), Saturday 16 December 1899, page 12 of the “Queenslander Illustrated Xmas Supplement”
cocky = a cocky, or “cockie”, is a farmer (used to refer to poor bush farmers, from having land so poor that they were jokingly said to only be able to farm cockies, i.e. cockatoos, a type of bird; however, it is was then later used to refer to farmers in general)
euphonious = pleasing in sound; pleasing to the ear
[Editor: Added closing quotation mark after “on all right”.]