By his paths through the parched desolation,|
Hot rides and the terrible tramps;
By the hunger, the thirst, the privation
Of his work in the furthermost camps;
By his worth in the light that shall search men
—The Christ of the Never.
I left home and drifted to Sydney, and “back into the Great North-West where all the rovers go,” and knocked about the country for six or seven years before I met Peter M‘Laughlan again. I was young yet, but felt old at times, and there were times, in the hot, rough, greasy shearing-shed on blazing days, or in the bare “men’s hut” by the flicker of the stinking slushlamp at night, or the wretched wayside shanty with its drinkmadness and blasphemy, or tramping along the dusty, endless track—there were times when I wished I could fall back with all the experience I’d got, and sit once more in the little slab-and-bark “chapel” on Ross’s Creek and hear Peter M‘Laughlan and the poor, struggling selectors sing “Shall We Gather at the River?” and then go out and start life afresh.
My old school chum and bush mate, Jack Barnes, had married pretty little Clara Southwick, who used to play the portable harmonium in chapel. I nearly broke my heart when they were married, but then I was a young fool. Clara was a year or so older than I, and I could never get away from a boyish feeling of reverence for her, as if she were something above and out of my world. And so, while I was worshipping her in chapel once a month, and at picnics and parties in between, and always at a distance, Jack used to ride up to Southwick’s place on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, and on other days, and hang his horse up outside, or turn it in the paddock, and argue with old Southwick, and agree with the old woman, and court Clara on the sly. And he got her.
It was at their wedding that I first got the worse for drink.
Jack was a blue-eyed, curly black-haired, careless, popular young scamp; as good-hearted as he was careless. He could ride like a circus monkey, do all kinds of bush work, add two columns of figures at once, and write like copper-plate.
Jack was given to drinking, gambling and roving. He steadied up when he got married and started on a small selection of his own; but within the year Clara was living in a back skillion of her father’s house and Jack was up-country shearing. He was “ringer” of the shed at Piora Station one season and made a decent cheque; and within a fortnight after the shed “cut out” he turned up at home in a very bad state from drink and with about thirty shillings in his pockets. He had fallen from his horse in the creek near Southwick’s, and altogether he was a nice sort of young husband to go home to poor, heart-broken Clara.
I remember that time well. She stopped me one day as I was riding past to ask me if I’d seen Jack, and I got off my horse. Her chin and mouth began to twitch and tremble and I saw her eyes filling with tears. She laid her hand on my arm and asked me to promise not to drink with Jack if I met him, but to try and persuade him to come home. And—well, have you, as a man, ever, with the one woman that you can’t have, and no matter at what time or place, felt a sudden mad longing to take her in your arms and kiss her—and damn the world? I got on my horse again. She must have thought me an ignorant brute, but I felt safer there. And when I thought how I had nearly made a fool of myself, and been a cowardly brute, and a rotten mate to my mate, I rode ten miles to find Jack and get him home.
He straightened up again after a bit and went out and got another shed, and they say that Peter M‘Laughlan got hold of him there. I don’t know what Peter did to him then—Jack never spoke of it, even to me, his old mate; but, anyway, at the end of the shearing season Jack’s cheque came home to Clara in a registered envelope, addressed in Peter’s hand-writing, and about a week later Jack turned up a changed man.
He got work as a temporary clerk in the branch government land office at Solong, a pretty little farming town in a circle of blue hills on the banks of a clear, willow-fringed river, where there were rich, black-soil, river-flat farms, and vineyards on the red soil slopes, and blue peaks in the distance. It was a great contrast to Ross’s Creek. Jack paid a deposit on an allotment of land, a bit out of town, on the river bank, and built a little weather-board box of a cottage in spare times, and planted roses and grape-vines to hide its ugliness by and by. It wasn’t much of a place, but Clara was mighty proud of it because it was “our house.” They were very happy, and she was beginning to feel sure of Jack. She seemed to believe that the miserable old time was all past and gone.
When the work at the land’s office gave out, Jack did all sorts of jobs about town, and at last, one shearing season, when there was a heavy clip of wool, and shearers were getting £1. a hundred, he decided to go out back. I know that Clara was against it, but he argued that it was the only chance for him, and she persuaded herself that she could trust him. I was knocking about Solong at the time, and Jack and I decided to go out together and share his packhorse between us. He wrote to Beenaway Shed, about three hundred miles north-west in the Great Scrubs, and got pens for both of us.
It was a fine fresh morning when we started; it was in a good season and the country looked grand. When I rode up to Jack’s place I saw his horse and packhorse tied up outside the gate. He had wanted me to come up the evening before and have tea with them and camp at his place for the night. “Come up! man alive!” he said. “ We’ll make you a shake-down!” But I wouldn’t; I said I had to meet a chap. Jack wouldn’t have understood. I had been up before, but when I saw him and Clara so happy and comfortable, and thought of the past and my secret, and thought of myself, a useless, purposeless, restless, homeless sort of fellow, hanging out at a boarding-house, it nearly broke me up, and I had to have a drink or two afterwards. I often wonder if Clara guessed and understood. You never know how much a woman knows; but—ah, well!
Jack had taken my things home with him and he and Clara had packed them. I found afterwards that she had washed, dried and ironed some collars and handkerchiefs of mine during the night. Clara and Jack came out to the gate, and as I wouldn’t go in to have a cup of tea there was nothing for it but to say good-bye. She was dressed in a fresh-looking print blouse and dark skirt, and wore a white hood that fell back from her head; she was a little girl, with sweet, small, freckled features, and red-gold hair, and kind, sympathetic grey eyes. I thought her the freshest, and fairest, and daintiest little woman in the district.
I was Jack’s mate, so she always treated me as a sort of brother-in-law, and called me by my Christian name. Mates are closer than brothers in the bush.
I turned my back and pretended to tighten the straps and girths on the packhorse while she said good-bye to Jack. I heard her speaking earnestly to him, and once I heard her mention Peter M‘Laughlan’s name. I thought Jack answered rather impatiently. “Oh, that’s all right, Clara,” he said, “that’s all over—past and gone. I wish you would believe it. You promised never to speak of that any more.”
I know how it was. Jack never cared to hear about Peter; he was too ashamed of the past, perhaps; besides, deep down, we feel a sort of resentment towards any reference to a man who has helped or saved us in the past. It’s human nature.
Then they spoke in low tones for a while, and then Jack laughed, and kissed her, and said, “Oh, I’ll be back before the time’s up.” Then he ran into the house to say good-bye to Mary’s sister, who was staying with her, and who was laid up with a sprained ankle.
Then Clara stepped up to me and laid her fingers on my shoulder. I trembled from head to foot and hoped she didn’t notice it.
“Joe,” she said, looking at me with her big, searching grey eyes, “I believe I can trust you. I want you to look after Jack. You know why. Never let him have one drink if you can help it. One drink—the first drink will do it. I want you to promise me that you will never have a drink with Jack, no matter what happens or what he says.”
“I never will,” I said, and I meant it.
“It’s the first time he’s been away from me since he gave up drinking, and if he comes back all right this time I will be sure of him and contented. But, Joe, if he comes back wrong it will kill me; it will break my heart. I want you to promise that if anything happens you will ride or wire for Peter M‘Laughlan. I hear he’s wool-sorting this year at Beenaway Station. Promise me that if anything happens you will ride for Peter M‘Laughlan and tell him, no matter what Jack says.”
“I promise,” I said.
She half-held out her hand to me, but I kept both mine behind my back. I suppose she thought I didn’t notice that she wanted to shake hands on the bargain; but the truth was that my hands shook so, and I didn’t want her to notice that.
I got on my horse and felt steadier. Then, “Good-bye, Clara “—“Good-bye, Jack.” She bore up bravely, but I saw her eyes brimming. Jack got on his horse, and I bent over and shook hands with her. Jack bent down and kissed her while she stood on tiptoe. “Good-bye, little woman,” he said. “Cheer up, and I’ll be back before you know where you are! You mustn’t fret—you know why.”
“Good-bye, Jack!”—she was breaking down.
“Come on, Jack!” I said, and we rode off, turning and waving our hats to her as she stood by the gate, looking a desolate little thing, I thought, till we turned down a bend of the road into the river.
As we jogged along with the packhorse trotting behind us, and the quart-pots and hobble-chains jingling on the pack saddle, I pictured Clara running inside, to cry a while in her sister’s arms, and then to bustle round and cheer up, for Jack’s sake—and for the sake of something else.
“I’ll christen him after you, Joe,” said Jack, later on, when we’d got confidential over our pipes after tea in our first camp. It never seemed to enter his head that there was the ghost of a chance that it might be a girl. “I’m glad he didn’t come along when I was drinking,” he said.
And as we lay rolled in our blankets under the stars I swore a big oath to myself.
We got along comfortably and reached Beenaway Station in about a week, the day before the shearers’ roll-call. Jack never showed the slightest inclination to go into a shanty; and several times we talked about old times and what damned fools we’d been throwing away our money over shanty bars shouting for loafers and cadgers. “Isn’t this ever so much better, Joe?” said Jack, as we lay on our blankets smoking one moonlight night. “There’s nothing in boozing, Joe, you can take it from me. Just you sling it for a year and then look back; you won’t want to touch it again. You’ve been straight for a couple of months. Sling it for good, Joe, before it gets a hold on you, like it did on me.”
It was the morning after cut-out at Beenaway Shed, and we were glad. We were tired of the rush and roar and rattle and heat and grease and blasphemy of the big, hot, iron machine shed in that dusty patch in the barren scrubs. Swags were rolled up, saddle-bags packed, horses had been rounded up and driven in, the shearers’ cook and his mate had had their fight, and about a hundred men—shearers, rouseabouts, and wool-washers—were waiting round the little iron office to get their cheques.
We were about half through when one bushman said to another: “Stop your damned swearin’, Jim. Here’s Peter M‘Laughlan!” Peter walked up and the men made way for him and he went into the office. There was always considerably less swearing for a few feet round about where Peter M‘Laughlan happened to be working in a shearing-shed. It seemed to be an understood thing with the men. He took no advantages, never volunteered to preach at a shed where he was working, and only spoke on union subjects when the men asked him to. He was “rep.” (Shearers’ Union representative) at this shed, but squatters and station managers respected him as much as the men did.
He seemed much greyer now, but still stood square and straight. And his eyes still looked one through.
When Peter came out and the crowd had cleared away he took Jack aside and spoke to him in a low voice for a few minutes. I heard Jack say, “Oh, that’s all right, Peter! You have my word for it,” and he got on his horse. I heard Peter say the one word, “Remember!” “Oh, that’s all right,” said Jack, and he shook hands with Peter, shouted, “Come on, Joe!” and started off with the packhorse after him.
“I wish I were going down with you, Joe.” said Peter to me, “but I can’t get away till to-morrow. I’ve got that sick rouseabout on my hands, and I’ll have to see him fixed up somehow and started off to the hospital” (the nearest was a hundred miles away). “And, by the way, I’ve taken up a collection for him; I want a few shillings from you, Joe. I nearly forgot you. The poor fellow only got in about a fortnight’s work, and there’s a wife and youngsters in Sydney. I’ll be down after you to-morrow. I promised to go to Comesomehow* and get the people together and start an agitation for a half-time school there. Anyway, I’ll be there by the end of the week. Good-bye, Joe. I must get some more money for the rouser from some of those chaps before they start.”
Comesomehow was a wretched cockatoo settlement, a bit off the track, about one hundred and fifty miles on our road home, where the settlers lived like savages and the children ran wild. I reckoned that Peter would have his work cut out to start a craving for education in that place.
By saying he’d be there I think he intended to give me a hint, in case anything happened. I believe now that Jack’s wife had got anxious and had written to him.
We jogged along comfortably and happily for three or four days, and as we passed shanty after shanty, and town after town, without Jack showing the slightest inclination to pull up at any of them, I began to feel safe about him.
Then it happened, in the simplest way, as most things of this sort happen if you don’t watch close.
The third night it rained, rained heavens-hard, and rainy nights can be mighty cold out on those plains, even in mid-summer. Jack and I rigged up a strip of waterproof stuff we had to cover the swags on the packhorse, but the rain drove in, almost horizontally, and we got wet through, blankets, clothes and all. Jack got a bad cold and coughed fit to break himself; so about daylight, when the rain held up a bit, we packed up and rode on to the next pub, a wretched little weather board place in the scrub.
Jack reckoned he’d get some stuff for his cold there. I didn’t like to speak, but before we reached the place I said, “You won’t touch a drink, Jack.”
“Do you think I’m a blanky fool?” said Jack, and I shut up.
The shanty was kept by a man who went by the name of Thomas, a notorious lamber-down, as I found out afterwards. He was a big, awkward bullock of a man, a selfish, ignorant brute, as anyone might have seen by his face; but he had a loud voice, and adopted a careless, rollicking, hail-fellow-well-met! come-in-and-sit-down-man-alive! clap-you-on-the-back style, which deceived a good many, or which a good many pretended to believe in. His “missus” was an animal of his own species, but she was duller and didn’t bellow.
He had a rather good-looking girl there—I don’t know whether she was his daughter or not. They said that when he saw the shearers coming he’d say, “Run and titivate yourself, Mary; here comes the shearers!”
But what surprised me was that Jack Barnes didn’t seem able to see through Thomas; he thought that he was all right, “a bit of a rough diamond.” There are any amount of scoundrels and swindlers knocking about the world disguised as rough diamonds.
Jack had a fit of coughing when we came in.
“Why, Jack!” bellowed Thomas, “that’s a regular churchyarder you’ve got. Go in to the kitchen fire and I’ll mix you a stiff toddy.”
“No, thank you, Thomas,” said Jack, glancing at me rather sheepishly, I thought. “I’ll have a hot cup of coffee presently, that’ll do me more good.”
“Why, man alive, one drink won’t hurt you!” said Thomas. “I know you’re on the straight, and you know I’m the last man that ’ud try to get you off it. But you want something for that cold. You don’t want to die on the track, do you? What would your missus say? That cough of yours is enough to bust a bullock.”
“Jack isn’t drinking, Thomas,” I said rather shortly, “and neither am I.”
“I’ll have a cup of coffee at breakfast,” said Jack; “thank you all the same, Thomas.”
“Right you are, Jack!” said Thomas. “Mary!” he roared at the girl, “chuck yerself about and get breakfast, and make a strong cup of coffee; and I say, missus” (to his wife), “git some honey and vinegar in a cup, will yer? or see if there’s any of that cough stuff left in the bottle. Go into the kitchen, you chaps, and dry yourselves at the fire, you’re wringing wet.” Jack went through into the kitchen.
I stepped out to see if the horses were all right, and as I came in again through the bar, Thomas, who had slipped behind the counter, crooked his finger at me and poured out a stiff whisky. “I thought you might like to have it on the quiet,” he whispered, with a wink.
Now, there was this difference between Jack and me. When I was on the track, and healthy and contented, I could take a drink, or two drinks, and then leave it; or at other times I could drink all day, or all night, and be as happy as a lord, and be mighty sick and repentant all next day, and then not touch drink for a week; but if Jack once started, he was a lost man for days, for weeks, for months—as long as his cash or credit lasted. I felt a cold coming on me this morning, and wanted a whisky, so I had a drink with Thomas. Then, of course, I shouted in my turn, keeping an eye out in case Jack should come in. I went into the kitchen and steamed with Jack for a while in front of a big log fire, taking care to keep my breath away from him. Then we went in to breakfast. Those two drinks were all I meant to have, and we were going right on after breakfast.
It was a good breakfast, ham and eggs, and we enjoyed it. The two whiskies had got to work. I hadn’t touched drink for a long time. I shouldn’t like to say that Thomas put anything in the drink he gave me. Before we started breakfast he put a glass down in front of me and said
“There’s a good ginger-ale, it will warm you up.”
I tasted it; it was rum, hot. I said nothing. What could I say?
There was some joke about Jack being married and settled and steadied down, and me, his old mate, still on the wallaby; and Mrs Thomas said that I ought to follow Jack’s example. And just then I felt a touch of that loneliness that some men feel when an old drinking mate turns teetotaller.
Jack started coughing again, like an old cow with the pleuro.
“That cough will kill you, Jack.” said Thomas. “Let’s put a drop of brandy in your coffee, that won’t start you, anyhow; it’s real ‘Three Star.’ “ And he reached a bottle from the side-table.
I should have stood up then, for my manhood, for my mate, and for little Clara, but I half rose from my chair, and Jack laughed and said, “Sit down, Joe, you old fool, you’re tanked. I know all about your seeing about the horses and your ginger ales. It’s all right, old man. Do you think I’m going on the booze? Why, I’ll have to hold you on the horse all day.” I sat down and took up my glass.
“Here’s luck, Joe!” said Jack, laughing, and lifting up his cup of coffee with the brandy in it. “Here’s luck, Joe.”
Then suddenly, and as clearly as I ever heard it, came Clara’s voice to my ear: “Promise me, whatever you do, that you will never have a drink with Jack.” And I felt cold and sick to the stomach.
I got up and went out. They thought that the drink had made me sick, but if I’d stayed there another minute I would have tackled Thomas; and I knew that I needed a clear head to tackle a bullock like him. I walked about a bit, and when I came in again Jack and Thomas were in the bar, and Jack had a glass before him.
“Come on, Joe, you old bounder,” said Jack, “come and have a whisky-and-soda; it will straighten you up.”
“What’s that you’re drinking, Jack?” I asked.
“Oh, don’t be a fool!” said Jack. “One drink won’t hurt me. Do you think I’m going on the booze? Have a soda and straighten up; we must make a start directly.”
I remember we had two or three whiskies, and then suddenly I tackled Thomas, and Jack was holding me back, and laughing and swearing at me at the same time, and I had a tussle with him; and then I was suddenly calmer and sensible, and we were shaking hands all round, and Jack was talking about just one more spree for the sake of old times.
“A bit of a booze won’t hurt me. Joe, you old fool,” he said. “We’ll have one more night of it, for the sake of Auld Lang Syne, and start at daylight in the morning. You go and see to the horses, it will straighten you up. Take the saddle off and hobble ’em out.”
But I insisted on starting at once, and Jack promised he would. We were gloriously happy for an hour or so, and then I went to sleep.
When I woke it was late in the afternoon. I was very giddy and shaky; the girl brought me a whisky-and-soda, and that steadied me. Some more shearers had arrived, and Jack was playing cards with two of them on top of a cask in the bar. Thomas was dead drunk on the floor, or pretending to be so, and his wife was behind the bar. I went out to see to the horses; I found them in a bush yard at the back. The packhorse was rolling in the mud with the pack-saddle and saddlebags on. One of the chaps helped me take off the saddles and put them in the harness-room behind the kitchen.
I’ll pass over that night. It wouldn’t be very edifying to the great, steady-living, sober majority, and the others, the ne’er-do-wells, the rovers, wrecks and failures, will understand only too well without being told—only too well, God help them!
When I woke in the morning I couldn’t have touched a drink to save my life. I was fearfully shaky, and swimming about the head, but I put my head over a tub under the pump and got the girl to pump for a while, and then I drank a pint of tea and managed to keep it down, and felt better.
All through the last half of the night I’d kept saying, in a sort of drink nightmare, “I’ll go for Peter M‘Laughlan in the morning. I’ll go for Peter as soon as I can stand! “ and repeating Clara Barnes’s words, “Ride for Peter if anything happens. Ride for Peter M‘Laughlan.”
There were drunken shearers, horsemen and swagmen sleeping all over the place, and in all sorts of odd positions; some on the veranda with their heads on their swags, one sitting back against the wall, and one on the broad of his back with his head on the bare boards and his mouth open. There was another horse rolling in its saddle, and I took the saddle off. The horse belonged to an English University man.
I went in to see how Jack was. He was lying in the parlour on a little, worn-out, horse-hair sofa, that might have seen better days in some clean home in the woman-and-girl world. He had been drinking and playing cards till early that morning, and he looked awful—he looked as if he’d been boozing for a month.
“See what you’ve done!” he said, sitting up and glaring at me; then he said, “Bring me a whisky-and-soda, Joe, for God’s sake!”
I got a whisky-and-soda from the girl and took it to him.
I talked to him for a while, and at last he said, “Well, go and get the horses and we’ll start.”
I got the horses ready and brought them round to the front, but by that time he’d had more drink, and he said he wanted to sleep before he started. Next he was playing cards with one of the chaps, and asked me to wait till he’d finished that game. I knew he’d keep promising and humbugging me till there was a row, so at last I got him aside and said:
“Look here, Jack, I’m going for Peter M‘Laughlan——”
“Go to hell!” said Jack.
I put the other horses back in the yard, the saddles in the skillion, got on my horse and rode off. Thomas and the others asked me no questions, they took no notice. In a place like that a man could almost do anything, short of hanging himself, without anyone interfering or being surprised. And probably, if he did hang himself, they’d let him swing for a while to get a taste of it.
Comesomehow was about fifteen miles back on a track off the main road. I reckoned that I could find Peter and bring him on by the afternoon, and I rode hard, sick as I was. I was too sick to smoke.
As it happened, Peter had started early from his last camp and I caught him just as he was turning off into Comesomehow track.
“What’s up, Joe?” he asked as I rode up to him—but he could see.
“Jack Barnes is on the booze at Thomas’s,” I said.
Peter just looked right through me. Then he turned his horse’s head without a word, and rode back with me. And, after a while, he said, as if to himself:
“Poor Clara! Poor little lassie!”
By the time we reached the shanty it was well on in the afternoon. A fight was stopped in the first round and voices lowered when the chaps caught sight of us. As Peter walked into the bar one or two drunks straightened themselves and took off their hats with drunken sentiment.
“Where is Jack Barnes, Thomas?” asked Peter, quietly.
“He’s in there if you want to see him,” said Thomas, jerking his head towards the parlour.
We went in, and when Peter saw Jack lying there I noticed that swift, haunted look came into his eyes, as if he’d seen a ghost of the past.
He sat down by the sofa to wait until Jack woke. I thought as he sat there that his eyes were like a woman’s for sympathy and like a dog’s for faithfulness. I was very shaky.
Presently Thomas looked in. “Is there anything I can do for you, M‘Laughlan?” he asked in as civil a tone as he could get to.
“Yes,” said Peter, “bring me a flask of your best whisky—your own, mind—and a glass.
“We shall need the whisky for him on the track, Joe,” said Peter, when the flask came. “Get another glass and a bottle of soda; you want a nip.” He poured out a drink for himself.
“The first thing we’ve got to do is to get him away; then I’ll soon put him on his feet. But we’ll let him sleep a while longer. I find I’ve got business near Solong, and I’m going down with you.”
By and by Jack woke up and glared round, and when he caught sight of Peter he just reached for his hands and said, “Peter! Thank God you’ve come!” Then he said, “But I must have a drink first, Peter.”
“All right, Jack, you shall have a drink,” said Peter; and he gave him a stiff nobbler. It steadied Jack a bit.
“Now listen to me, Jack,” said Peter. “How much money have you got left?”
“I—I can’t think,” said Jack. “I’ve got a cheque for twenty pounds here, sewn inside my shirt.”
“Yes; but you drew thirty-six in three cheques. Where’s the rest?”
“Thomas has ten,” said Jack, “and the six-well, the six is gone. I was playing cards last night.”
Peter stepped out into the bar.
“Look here, Thomas,” he said quietly, “you’ve got a. ten-pound cheque from Barnes.”
“I know I have.”
“Well, how much of it does he owe you?”
“The whole, and more.”
“Do you mean to tell me that? He has only been here since yesterday morning.”
“Yes; but he’s been shoutin’ all round. Look at all these chaps here.”
“They only came yesterday afternoon,” said Peter. “Here, you had best take this and give me the cheque;” and Peter laid a five-pound note on the bar. Thomas bucked at first, but in the end he handed over the cheque—he had had several warnings from the police. Then he suddenly lost all control over himself; he came round from behind the bar and faced Peter.
“Now, look here, you mongrel parson!” he said. “What the —— do you mean by coming into my bar and interfering with me. Who the —— are you anyway? A ——!” He used the worst oaths that were used in the bush. “Take off —— your coat!” he roared at last, shaping up to Peter.
Peter stepped back a pace and buttoned his coat and threw back his head.
“No need to take off my coat, Thomas,” he said, “I am ready.” He said it very quietly, but there was a danger-signal—a red light in his eyes. He was quiet-voiced but hard-knuckled, as some had reason to know.
Thomas balked like a bull at a spread umbrella. Jack lurched past me as I stood in the parlour door, but I caught him and held him back; and almost at the same moment a wretched old boozer that we called “Awful Example,” who had been sitting huddled, a dirty bundle of rags and beard and hair, in the corner of the bar, struggled to his feet, staggered forward and faced Thomas, looking once again like something that might have been a man. He snatched a thick glass bottle from the counter and held it by the neck in his right hand.
“Stand back, Thomas!” he shouted. “Lay a hand—lay a finger on Peter M‘Laughlan, and I’ll smash your head, as sure as there’s a God above us and I’m a ruined man!”
Peter took “Awful” gently by the shoulders and sat him down. “You keep quiet, old man,” he said; “nothing is going to happen.” Thomas went round behind the bar muttering something about it not being worth his while to, etc.
“You go and get the horses ready, Joe,” said Peter to me; “and you sit down, Jack, and keep quiet.”
“He can get the horses,” growled Thomas, from behind the bar, “but I’m damned if he gets the saddles. I’ve got them locked up, and I’ll something well keep them till Barnes is sober enough to pay me what he owes me.”
Just then a tall, good-looking chap, with dark-blue eyes and a long, light-coloured moustache, stepped into the bar from the crowd on the veranda.
“What’s all this, Thomas?” he asked.
“What’s that got to do with you, Gentleman Once?” shouted Thomas.
“I think it’s got something to do with me,” said Gentleman Once. “Now, look here, Thomas; you can do pretty well what you like with us poor devils, and you know it, but we draw the line at Peter M‘Laughlan. If you really itch for the thrashing you deserve you must tempt someone else to give it to you. “
“What the —— are you talking about?” snorted Thomas. “You’re drunk or ratty!”
“What’s the trouble, M‘Laughlan?” asked Gentleman Once, turning to Peter.
“No trouble at all, Gentleman Once,” said Peter; “thank you all the same. I’ve managed worse men than our friend Thomas. Now, Thomas, don’t you think it would pay you best to hand over the key of the harness-room and have done with this nonsense? I’m a patient man—a very patient man—but I’ve not always been so, and the old blood comes up sometimes, you know.”
Thomas couldn’t stand this sort of language, because he couldn’t understand it. He threw the key on the bar and told us to clear out.
We were all three very quiet riding along the track that evening. Peter gave Jack a nip now and again from the flask, and before we turned in in camp he gave him what he called a soothing draught from a little medicine chest that he carried in his saddle-bag. Jack seemed to have got rid of his cough; he slept all night, and in the morning, after he’d drunk a pint of mutton-broth that Peter had made in one of the billies, he was all right—except that he was quiet and ashamed. I had never known him to be so quiet, and for such a length of time, since we were boys together. He had learned his own weakness; he’d lost all his cocksureness. I know now just exactly how he felt. He felt as if his sober year had been lost and he would have to live it all over again.
Peter didn’t preach. He just jogged along and camped with us as if he were an ordinary, every-day mate. He yarned about all sorts of things. He could tell good yarns, and when he was fairly on you could listen to him all night. He seemed to have been nearly all over the world. Peter never preached except when he was asked to hold service in some bush pub, station-homestead or bush church. But in a case like ours he had a way of telling a little life story, with something in it that hit the young man he wanted to reform, and hit him hard. He’d generally begin quietly, when we were comfortable with our pipes in camp after tea, with “I once knew a young man—” or “That reminds me of a young fellow I knew—” and so on. You never knew when he was going to begin, or when he was going to hit you. In our last camp, before we reached Solong, he told two of his time-fuse yarns. I haven’t time to tell them now, but one stuffed up my pipe for a while, and made Jack’s hand tremble when he tried to light his. I’m glad it was too dark to see our faces. We lay a good while afterwards, rolled in our blankets, and couldn’t get to sleep for thinking; but Peter seemed to fall asleep as soon as he turned in.
Next day he told Jack not to tell Clara that he’d come down with us. He said he wouldn’t go right into Solong with us; he was going back along another road to stay a day or two with an old friend of his.
When we reached Solong we stopped on the river-bank just out of sight of Jack’s house. Peter took the ten-pound cheque from his pocket and gave it to Jack. Jack hadn’t seen Peter give the shanty-keeper the five-pound note.
“But I owed Thomas something,” said Jack, staring. “However did you manage to get the cheque out of him?”
“Never mind, Jack, I managed,” said Peter.
Jack sat silent for a while, then he began to breathe hard.
“I don’t know what to say, Peter.”
“Say nothing, Jack. Only promise me that you will give Clara the cheques as soon as you go home, and let her take care of the cash for a while.”
“I will,” said Jack.
Jack looked down at the ground for a while, then he lifted his head and looked Peter in the eyes.
“Peter,” he said, “I can’t speak. I’m ashamed to make a promise; I’ve broken so many. I’ll try to thank you in a year’s time from now.”
“I ask for no promises,” said Peter, and he held out his hand. Jack gripped it.
“Aren’t you coming home with me, Joe?” he asked.
“No,” I said; “I’ll go into town. See you in the morning.”
Jack rode on. When he got along a piece Peter left his horse and moved up to the head of the lane to watch Jack, and I followed. As Jack neared the cottage we saw a little figure in a cloak run out to the front gate. She had heard the horses and the jingle of the camp-ware on the pack-saddle. We saw Jack jump down and take her in his arms. I looked at Peter, and as he watched them, something, that might have been a strange look of the old days, came into his eyes.
He shook hands with me. “Good-bye, Joe.”
He rode across the river again. He took the track that ran along the foot of the spurs by the river, and up over a gap in the curve of blue hills, and down and out west towards the Big Scrubs. And as he rounded the last spur, with his packhorse trotting after him, I thought he must have felt very lonely. And I felt lonely too.
|* There is a postal town in New South Wales called “Come-by-Chance.” [back]|