The First Born
THE STRUGGLING squatter is to be found in Australia as well as the “struggling farmer”. The Australian squatter is not always the mighty wool king that English and American authors and other uninformed people apparently imagine him to be. Squatting, at the best, is but a game of chance. It depends mainly on the weather, and that, in New South Wales at least, depends on nothing.
Joe Middleton was a struggling squatter, with a station some distance to the westward of the furthest line reached by the ordinary “new chum”. His run, at the time of our story, was only about six miles square, and his stock was limited in proportion. The hands on Joe’s run consisted of his brother Dave, a middle-aged man known only as “Middleton’s Peter” (who had been in the service of the Middleton family ever since Joe Middleton could remember), and an old black shepherd, with his gin and two boys.
It was in the first year of Joe’s marriage. He had married a very ordinary girl, as far as Australian girls go, but in his eyes she was an angel. He really worshipped her.
One sultry afternoon in midsummer all the station hands, with the exception of Dave Middleton, were congregated about the homestead door, and it was evident from their solemn faces that something unusual was the matter. They appeared to be watching for something or someone across the flat, and the old black shepherd, who had been listening intently with bent head, suddenly straightened himself up and cried:
“I can hear the cart. I can see it!”
You must bear in mind that our blackfellows do not always talk the gibberish with which they are credited by story writers.
It was not until some time after Black Bill had spoken that the white — or, rather, the brown — portion of the party could see or even hear the approaching vehicle. At last, far out through the trunks of the native apple-trees, the cart was seen approaching; and as it came nearer it was evident that it was being driven at a break-neck pace, the horses cantering all the way, while the motion of the cart, as first one wheel and then the other sprang from a root or a rut, bore a striking resemblance to the Highland Fling. There were two persons in the cart. One was Mother Palmer, a stout, middle-aged party (who sometimes did the duties of a midwife), and the other was Dave Middleton, Joe’s brother.
The cart was driven right up to the door with scarcely any abatement of speed, and was stopped so suddenly that Mrs. Palmer was sent sprawling on to the horse’s rump. She was quickly helped down, and, as soon as she had recovered sufficient breath, she followed Black Mary into the bedroom where young Mrs. Middleton was lying, looking very pale and frightened. The horse which had been driven so cruelly had not done blowing before another cart appeared, also driven very fast. It contained old Mr. and Mrs. Middleton, who lived comfortably on a small farm not far from Palmer’s place.
As soon as he had dumped Mrs. Palmer, Dave Middleton left the cart and, mounting a fresh horse which stood ready saddled in the yard, galloped off through the scrub in a different direction.
Half an hour afterwards Joe Middleton came home on a horse that had been almost ridden to death. His mother came out at the sound of his arrival, and he anxiously asked her:
“How is she?”
“Did you find Doc. Wild?” asked the mother.
“No, confound him!” exclaimed Joe bitterly. “He promised me faithfully to come over on Wednesday and stay until Maggie was right again. Now he has left Dean’s and gone — Lord knows where. I suppose he is drinking again. How is Maggie?”
“It’s all over now — the child is born. It’s a boy; but she is very weak. Dave got Mrs. Palmer here just in time. I had better tell you at once that Mrs. Palmer says if we don’t get a doctor here to-night poor Maggie won’t live.”
“Good God! and what am I to do?” cried Joe desperately.
“Is there any other doctor within reach?”
“No; there is only the one at B——; that’s forty miles away, and he is laid up with the broken leg he got in the buggy accident. Where’s Dave?”
“Gone to Black’s shanty. One of Mrs. Palmer’s sons thought he remembered someone saying that Doc. Wild was there last week. That’s fifteen miles away.”
“But it is our only hope,” said Joe dejectedly. “I wish to God that I had taken Maggie to some civilised place a month ago.”
Doc. Wild was a well-known character among the bushmen of New South Wales, and although the profession did not recognise him, and denounced him as an empiric, his skill was undoubted. Bushmen had great faith in him, and would often ride incredible distances in order to bring him to the bedside of a sick friend. He drank fearfully, but was seldom incapable of treating a patient; he would, however, sometimes be found in an obstinate mood and refuse to travel to the side of a sick person, and then the devil himself could not make the doctor budge. But for all this he was very generous — a fact that could, no doubt, be testified to by many a grateful sojourner in the lonely bush.
The Only Hope
Night came on, and still there was no change in the condition of the young wife, and no sign of the doctor. Several stockmen from the neighbouring stations, hearing that there was trouble at Joe Middleton’s, had ridden over, and had galloped off on long, hopeless rides in search of a doctor. Being generally free from sickness themselves, these bushmen look upon it as a serious business even in its mildest form; what is more, their sympathy is always practical where it is possible for it to be so. One day, while out on the run after an “outlaw”, Joe Middleton was badly thrown from his horse, and the break-neck riding that was done on that occasion from the time the horse came home with empty saddle until the rider was safe in bed and attended by a doctor was something extraordinary, even for the bush.
Before the time arrived when Dave Middleton might reasonably have been expected to return, the station people were anxiously watching for him, all except the old blackfellow and the two boys, who had gone to yard the sheep.
The party had been increased by Jimmy Nowlett, the bullocky, who had just arrived with a load of fencing wire and provisions for Middleton. Jimmy was standing in the moonlight, whip in hand, looking as anxious as the husband himself, and endeavouring to calculate by mental arithmetic the exact time it ought to take Dave to complete his double journey, taking into consideration the distance, the obstacles in the way, and the chances of horse-flesh.
But the time which Jimmy fixed for the arrival came without Dave.
Old Peter (as he was generally called, though he was not really old) stood aside in his usual sullen manner, his hat drawn down over his brow and eyes, and nothing visible but a thick and very horizontal black beard, from the depth of which emerged large clouds of very strong tobacco smoke, the product of a short, black, clay pipe.
They had almost given up all hope of seeing Dave return that night, when Peter slowly and deliberately removed his pipe and grunted:
He then replaced the pipe, and smoked on as before.
All listened, but not one of them could hear a sound.
“Yer ears must be pretty sharp for yer age, Peter. We can’t hear him,” remarked Jimmy Nowlett.
“His dog ken,” said Peter.
The pipe was again removed and its abbreviated stem pointed in the direction of Dave’s cattle dog, who had risen beside his kennel with pointed ears, and was looking eagerly in the direction from which his master was expected to come.
Presently the sound of horse’s hoofs was distinctly heard.
“I can hear two horses,” cried Jimmy Nowlett excitedly.
“There’s only one,” said old Peter quietly.
A few moments passed, and a single horseman appeared on the far side of the flat.
“It’s Doc. Wild on Dave’s horse,” cried Jimmy Nowlett. “Dave don’t ride like that.”
“It’s Dave,” said Peter, replacing his pipe and looking more unsociable than ever.
Dave rode up and, throwing himself wearily from the saddle, stood ominously silent by the side of his horse.
Joe Middleton said nothing, but stood aside with an expression of utter hopelessness on his face.
“Not there?” asked Jimmy Nowlett at last, addressing Dave.
“Yes, he’s there,” answered Dave, impatiently.
This was not the answer they expected, but nobody seemed surprised.
“Drunk?” asked Jimmy.
Here old Peter removed his pipe, and pronounced the one word — “How?”
“What the hell do you mean by that?” muttered Dave, whose patience had evidently been severely tried by the clever but intemperate bush doctor.
“How drunk?” explained Peter, with great equanimity.
“Stubborn drunk, blind drunk, beastly drunk, dead drunk, and damned well drunk, if that’s what you want to know!”
“What did Doc. say?” asked Jimmy.
“Said he was sick — had lumbago — wouldn’t come for the Queen of England; said he wanted a course of treatment himself. Curse him! I have no patience to talk about him.”
“I’d give him a course of treatment,” muttered Jimmy viciously, trailing the long lash of his bullock-whip through the grass and spitting spitefully at the ground.
Dave turned away and joined Joe, who was talking earnestly to his mother by the kitchen door. He told them that he had spent an hour trying to persuade Doc. Wild to come, and, that before he had left the shanty, Black had promised him faithfully to bring the doctor over as soon as his obstinate mood wore off.
Just then a low moan was heard from the sick room, followed by the sound of Mother Palmer’s voice calling old Mrs. Middleton, who went inside immediately.
No one had noticed the disappearance of Peter, and when he presently returned from the stockyard, leading the only fresh horse that remained, Jimmy Nowlett began to regard him with some interest. Peter transferred the saddle from Dave’s horse to the other, and then went into a small room off the kitchen, which served him as a bedroom; from it he soon returned with a formidable-looking revolver, the chambers of which he examined in the moonlight in full view of all the company. They thought for a moment the man had gone mad. Old Middleton leaped quickly behind Nowlett, and Black Mary, who had come out to the cask at the corner for a dipper of water, dropped the dipper and was inside like a shot. One of the black boys came softly up at that moment; as soon as his sharp eye “spotted” the weapon, he disappeared as though the earth had swallowed him.
“What the mischief are yer goin’ ter do, Peter?” asked Jimmy.
“Goin’ to fetch him,” said Peter, and, after carefully emptying his pipe and replacing it in a leather pouch at his belt, he mounted and rode off at an easy canter.
Jimmy watched the horse until it disappeared at the edge of the flat, and then after coiling up the long lash of his bullock-whip in the dust until it looked like a sleeping snake, he prodded the small end of the long pine handle into the middle of the coil, as though driving home a point, and said in a tone of intense conviction:
“He’ll fetch him.”
Peter gradually increased his horse’s speed along the rough bush track until he was riding at a good pace. It was ten miles to the main road, and five from there to the shanty kept by Black.
For some time before Peter started the atmosphere had been very close and oppressive. The great black edge of a storm-cloud had risen in the east, and everything indicated the approach of a thunderstorm. It was not long coming. Before Peter had completed six miles of his journey, the clouds rolled over, obscuring the moon, and an Australian thunderstorm came on with its mighty downpour, its blinding lightning, and its earth-shaking thunder. Peter rode steadily on, only pausing now and then until a flash revealed the track in front of him.
Black’s shanty — or, rather, as the sign had it, “Post Office and General Store” — was, as we have said, five miles along the main road from the point where Middleton’s track joined it. The building was of the usual style of bush architecture. About two hundred yards nearer the creek, which crossed the road further on, stood a large bark and slab stable, large enough to have met the requirements of a legitimate bush “public”.
The reader may doubt that a “sly grog shop” could openly carry on business on a main Government road along which mounted troopers were continually passing. But then, you see, mounted troopers get thirsty like other men; moreover, they could always get their thirst quenched ‘gratis’ at these places; so the reader will be prepared to hear that on this very night two troopers’ horses were stowed snugly away in the stable, and two troopers were stowed snugly away in the back room of the shanty, sleeping off the effects of their cheap but strong potations.
There were two rooms, of a sort, attached to the stables — one at each end. One was occupied by a man who was “generally useful”, and the other was the surgery, office, and bedroom pro tem. of Doc. Wild.
Doc. Wild was a tall man, of spare proportions. He had a cadaverous face, black hair, bushy black eyebrows, eagle nose, and eagle eyes. He never slept while he was drinking. On this occasion he sat in front of the fire on a low three-legged stool. His knees were drawn up, his toes hooked round the front legs of the stool, one hand resting on one knee, and one elbow (the hand supporting the chin) resting on the other. He was staring intently into the fire, on which an old black saucepan was boiling and sending forth a pungent odour of herbs. There seemed something uncanny about the doctor as the red light of the fire fell on his hawk-like face and gleaming eyes. He might have been Mephistopheles watching some infernal brew.
He had sat there some time without stirring a finger, when the door suddenly burst open and Middleton’s Peter stood within, dripping wet. The doctor turned his black, piercing eyes upon the intruder (who regarded him silently) for a moment, and then asked quietly:
“What the hell do you want?”
“I want you,” said Peter.
“And what do you want me for?”
“I want you to come to Joe Middleton’s wife. She’s bad,” said Peter calmly.
“I won’t come,” shouted the doctor. “I’ve brought enough horse-stealers into the world already. If any more want to come they can go to blazes for me. Now, you get out of this!”
“Don’t get yer rag out,” said Peter quietly. “The hoss-stealer’s come, an’ nearly killed his mother ter begin with; an’ if yer don’t get yer physic-box an’ come wi’ me, by the great God I’ll ——”
Here the revolver was produced and pointed at Doc. Wild’s head. The sight of the weapon had a sobering effect upon the doctor. He rose, looked at Peter critically for a moment, knocked the weapon out of his hand, and said slowly and deliberately:
“Wall, ef the case es as serious as that, I (hic) reckon I’d better come.”
Peter was still of the same opinion, so Doc. Wild proceeded to get his medicine chest ready. He explained afterwards, in one of his softer moments, that the shooter didn’t frighten him so much as it touched his memory — “sorter put him in mind of the old days in California, and made him think of the man he might have been,” he’d say, — “kinder touched his heart and slid the durned old panorama in front of him like a flash; made him think of the time when he slipped three leaden pills into ‘Blue Shirt’ for winking at a new chum behind his (the Doc.’s) back when he was telling a truthful yarn, and charged the said ‘Blue Shirt’ a hundred dollars for extracting the said pills.”
Joe Middleton’s wife is a grandmother now.
Peter passed after the manner of his sort; he was found dead in his bunk.
Poor Doc. Wild died in a shepherd’s hut at the Dry Creeks. The shepherds (white men) found him, “naked as he was born and with the hide half burned off him with the sun,” rounding up imaginary snakes on a dusty clearing, one blazing hot day. The hut-keeper had some “quare” (queer) experiences with the doctor during the next three days and used, in after years, to tell of them, between the puffs of his pipe, calmly and solemnly and as if the story was rather to the doctor’s credit than otherwise. The shepherds sent for the police and a doctor, and sent word to Joe Middleton. Doc. Wild was sensible towards the end. His interview with the other doctor was characteristic. “And, now you see how far I am,” he said in conclusion — “have you brought the brandy?” The other doctor had. Joe Middleton came with his waggonette, and in it the softest mattress and pillows the station afforded. He also, in his innocence, brought a dozen of soda-water. Doc. Wild took Joe’s hand feebly, and, a little later, he “passed out” (as he would have said) murmuring “something that sounded like poetry”, in an unknown tongue. Joe took the body to the home station. “Who’s the boss bringin’?” asked the shearers, seeing the waggonette coming very slowly and the boss walking by the horses’ heads. “Doc. Wild,” said a station hand. “Take yer hats off.”
They buried him with bush honours, and chiselled his name on a slab of bluegum — a wood that lasts.