OLD Abel Albury had a genius for getting the bull by the tail with a tight grip, and holding on with both hands and an obstinacy born of ignorance—and not necessarily for the sake of selfpreservation or selfishness—while all the time the bull might be, so to speak, rooting up life-long friendships and neighbourly relations, and upsetting domestic customs and traditions with his horns.
Yes, Uncle Abel was always grasping the wrong end of things, and sticking to it with that human mulishness which is often stronger, and more often wearies and breaks down the opposition than an intelligent man’s arguments. He was—or professed to be, the family said—unable for a long time to distinguish between his two grand-nephews, one of whom was short and fat, while the other was tall and thin, the only points of resemblance between them being that each possessed the old family nose and eyes. When they were boys he used to lay the strap about one in mistake for the other. They had a saying that Uncle Abel saw with ten squinting eyes.
Also, he could never—or would not, as the family said—remember names. He referred to Mrs Porter, a thin, haggard selector’s wife, as “Mrs Stout” and he balanced matters by calling Mrs Southwick “Mrs Porterwicket”—when he didn’t address her as “Mrs What’s-the-woman’s-name”—and he succeeded in deeply offending both ladies.
Uncle Abel was Mrs Carey’s uncle. Down at the lower end of Carey’s selection at Rocky Rises, in the extreme corner of the lower or outer paddock, were sliprails opening into the main road, which ran down along the siding, round the foot of a spur from ridge, and out west. These sliprails were called “The Lower Sliprails” by the family, and it occurred to Uncle Abel to refer to them as “Buckolts’ Gate,” for no other reason apparently than that Buckolts’ farm lay in that direction. The farm was about a mile further on, on the other side of the creek, and the gate leading to it from the main road was round the spur, out of sight of Carey’s selection. It is quite possible that Uncle Abel reasoned the thing out for days, for of such material are some human brains. Sliprails, or a slip-panel, is a panel of fencing of which the rails are made to be slipped out of the mortise holes in the posts so as to give passage to horses, vehicles and cattle. I suppose Abel called it a gate, because he was always going to hang a proper gate there some day. The family were unaware of his new name for the Lower Sliprails, and after he had, on one or two occasions, informed the boys that they would find a missing cow or horse at the Buckolts’ Gate, and they had found it calmly camped at the Lower Sliprails, and after he had made several appointments to meet parties at Buckolts’ Gate, and had been found leaning obstinately on the fence by the Lower Sliprails with no explanation to offer other than that he was waiting at Buckolts’ Gate, they began to fear that he was becoming weak in his mind.
IT was New Year’s Eve at Rocky Rises. There was no need for fireworks nor bonfires, for the bush-fires were out all along the ranges to the east, and, as night came on, lines and curves of lights-clear lights, white lights, and, in the nearer distance, red lights and smoky lights-marked the sidings and ridges of a western spur of the Blue Mountain Range, and seemed suspended against a dark sky, for the stars and the loom of the hills were hidden by smoke and drought haze.
There was a dance at Careys’. Old Carey was a cheerful, broad-minded bushman, haunted at times by the memories of old days, when he was the beau of the bush balls, and so when he built his new slab-and-bark barn he had it properly floored with hard-wood, and the floor well-faced “to give the young people a show when they wanted a dance,” he said. The floor had a spring in it, and bush boys and girls often rode twenty miles and more to dance on that floor. The girls said it was a lovely floor.
On this occasion Carey had stacked his wheat outside until after the New Year. Spring-carts, and men and girls on horseback came in from miles round. “Sperm” candles had been cut up and thrown on the floor during the afternoon, and rubbed over by feet eased tightly in ’lastic-sides; and hoops were hung horizontally from the tie-beams, with candles stuck round them. There were fresh-faced girls, and sweet, freckled-faced girls, and jolly girls, and shy girls—all sorts of girls except sulky, “toney” girls—and lanky chaps, most of them sawney, and weird, whiskered agriculturists, who watched the dancers with old, old time-worn smiles, or stood, or sat on their heels yarning, with their pipes, outside, where two boilers were slung over a log-fire to boil water for tea; and there were leathery women, with complexions like dried apples, who gossiped—for the first time in months perhaps—and watched the young people, and thought at times, no doubt, of other days—of other days when they were girls. (And not so far distant either, in some cases, for women dry quickly in the bush.)
And there were one or two old soldiers and their wives, whose eyes glistened when Jim Bullock played “The Girl I Left Behind Me.”
Jim Bullock was there with his concertina. He sat on a stool in front of a bench, on which was a beer-keg, piles of teacups and saucers, several big tin teapots, and plates of sandwiches, sponge-cakes, and tarts. Jim sat in his shirt-sleeves, with his flat-brimmed, wire-bound, “hard-hitter” hat on, slanting over his weaker eye. He held one leg loosely and the other rigid, with the concertina on his knee, and swanked away at the instrument by the hour, staring straight in front of him with the expression of a cod-fish, and never moving a muscle except the muscles of his great hairy arms and big chapped and sunblotched hands; while chaps in tight “larstins” (elastic-side boots), slop suits of black, bound with braid, and with coats too short in the neck and arms, and trousers bell-mouthed at the bottoms, and some with paper collars, narrow red ribbon ties, or scarfs through walnut shells, held their partners rigidly, and went round the room with their eyes—most of them—cocked at the rafters in semi-idiotic ecstasy.
But there was tall, graceful, pink-and-white Bertha Buckoltt, blue-eyed and blue-black-haired, and little Mary Carey with the kind, grey eyes and red-gold hair; there was Mary’s wild brother Jim, with curly black hair and blue eyes and dimples of innocence; and there was Harry Dale, the drover, Jim’s shearing and droving mate, a tall, good-looking, brown-eyed and brown-haired young fellow, a “better-class” bushman and the best dancer in the district. Uncle Abel usurped the position of M.C., and roared “Now then! take yer partners!” and bawled instructions and interrupted and tangled up the dancers, until they got used to taking no notice of his bull voice. Mary Carey was too shy—because she loved him, and secretly and fondly hoped and doubted that he cared for her—to be seen dancing more than once with Harry Dale, so he shared Bertha Buckolt, the best girl dancer there, with Jim Carey, who danced with his sister when Harry was dancing with Bertha Buckolt, and who seemed, for some reason best known to himself, to be perfectly satisfied with the arrangement. Poor little Mary began to fret presently, and feel a little jealous of Bertha, her old schoolmate. She was little and couldn’t dance like Bertha, and she couldn’t help noticing how well Bertha looked to-night, and what a well-matched pair she and Harry made; and so, when twelve o’clock came and they all went outside to watch the Old Year out and the New Year in—with a big bonfire on the distant ridge where the grass fires had reached a stretch of dry scrub—and to join hands all round and sing “Auld Lang Syne,” little Mary was not to be found, for she was sitting on a log round behind the cow-yard, crying softly to herself.
And when about three o’clock they all started home, Mary gave Bertha her check to kiss instead of her mouth, and that hurt Bertha, who had her cry riding home, to the astonishment and irritation of her brother Jack, who rode home with her.
But when they were all gone Mary was missing again and when her mother called her, and, after a pause, the voice of Harry Dale said, respectfully, in the darkness, “She’s here, Mrs Carey, she’s all right,” the two were discovered sitting on a convenient log of the wood-heap, with an awkward and overacted interval of log between them.
Old Carey liked Harry Dale, and seemed very well satisfied with the way things appeared to be going. He pressed Harry to stay at the selection overnight. “The missus will make you a shake-down on the floor,” he said. Harry had no appointments, and stayed cheerfully, and old Carey, having had a whisky or two, insisted on Mary making the shake-down, and the old folks winked at each other behind the young folks’ backs to see how poor little Mary spread a spare mattress, with redhot, averted face, and found an extra pillow and a spare pair of ironed sheets for the shake-down.
At sunrise she stole out to milk the cows, which was her regular duty; there was no other way out from her room than through the dining-room, where Harry lay on his back, with his arms folded, resting peacefully. He seemed sound asleep and safe for a good two hours, so she ventured. As she passed out she paused a moment looking down on him with all the lovelight in her eyes, and, obeying a sudden impulse, she stooped softly and touched his forehead with her lips, then she slipped out. Harry stretched, opened his eyes, winked solemnly at the ceiling, and then, after a decent interval, he got up, dressed, and went out to help her to milk.
Harry Dale and Jim Carey were going out to take charge of a mob of bullocks going north-west, away up in Queensland, and as they had lost a day and night to be at the dance, they decided to start in the cool of the evening and travel all night. Mary walked from the homestead to the Lower Sliprails between her brother, who rode—because he was her brother—and led a packhorse on the other side, and Harry, who walked and led his horse—because he was her sweetheart, avowed only since last night.
There were thunderstorms about, and Mary had repented sufficiently with regard to Bertha Buckolt to wear on her shoulders a cape which Bertha had left behind her last night.
When they reached the Lower Sliprails Jim said he’d go on and that Harry needn’t hurry: he stooped over his horse’s neck, kissed his sister, promised to keep away from the drink, not to touch a card, and to leave off fighting, and rode on. And when he rounded the Spur he saw a tall, graceful figure slipping through the trees from the creek towards Buckolts’ Gate.
Then came the critical time at the Lower Sliprails. The shadows from the setting sun lengthened quickly on the siding, and then the sun slipped out of sight over a “saddle” in the ridges, and all was soon dusk save the sunlit peaks of the Blue Mountains away to the east over the sweeps of blue-grey bush.
“Ah, well! Mary,” said Harry, “I must make a start now.”
“You’ll—you’ll look after Jim, won’t you, Harry?” said Mary.
“I will, Mary, for your sake.”
Her mouth began to twitch, her chin to tremble, and her eyes brimmed suddenly.
“You must cheer up, Mary,” he said with her in his arms. “I’ll be back before you know where you are, and then we’ll be married right off at once and settle down for life.”
She smiled bravely.
He led his horse through the rails and lifted them, with trembling hands, and shot them home. Another kiss across the top rail and he got on his horse. She mounted the lower rail, and he brought his horse close alongside the fence and stooped to kiss her again.
“Cheer up, Mary!” he said. “I’ll tell you what I’ll do—when I come back I’ll whistle when I reach the Spur and you be here to let the sliprails down for me. I’ll time myself to get here about sundown. I’ll whistle ‘Willie Riley,’ so you’ll know it’s me. Good-bye, little girl! I must go now. Don’t fret—the time will soon go by.”
He turned, swung his horse, and rode slowly down the track, turning now and again to wave his hand to her, with a farewell flourish of his hat as he rounded the Spur. His track, five hundred miles, or perhaps a thousand, into the great north-west; his time, six months, or perhaps a year. Hers a hundred yards or so back to the dusty, dreary drudgery of selection life.
The daylight faded into starlight, the sidings grew very dim, and a faint white figure blurred against the bars of the slippanel.
IT was the last day of the threshing—shortly after New Year—at Rocky Rises. The green boughs, which had been lashed to the veranda-posts on Christmas Eve, had withered and been used for firewood. The travelling steamer had gone with its gang of men, and the family sat down to tea, the men tired with hard work and heat, and with prickly heat and irritating wheaten chaff and dust under their clothes—and with smut (for the crop had been a smutty one) “up their brains” as Uncle Abel said—the women worn out with cooking for a big gang of shearers.
Good-humoured Aunt Emma—who was Uncle Abel’s niece—recovered first, and started the conversation. There were one or two neighbours’ wives who had lent crockery and had come over to help with the cooking in their turns. Jim Carey’s name came up incidentally, but was quickly dropped, for ill reports of Jim had come home. Then Aunt Emma mentioned Harry Dale, and glanced meaningly at Mary, whose face flamed as she bent over her plate.
“Never mind, Mary,” said Aunt Emma, “it’s nothing to be ashamed of. We were all girls once. There’s many a girl would jump at Harry.”
“Who says I’m ashamed?” said Mary, straightening up indignantly.
“Don’t tease her, Emma,” said Mrs Carey, mildly.
“I’ll tell yer what,” said young Tom Carey, frankly, “Mary got a letter from him to-day. I seen her reading it behind the house. “
Mary’s face flamed again and went down over her plate.
“Mary,” said her mother, with sudden interest, “did Harry say anything of Jim?”
“No, mother,” said Mary. “And that’s why I didn’t tell you about the letter.”
There was a pause. Then Tommy said, with that delightful tact which usually characterizes young Tommies:
“Well, Mary needn’t be so cocky about Harry Dale, anyhow. I seen him New Year’s Eve when we had the dance. I seen him after the dance liftin’ Bertha Buckolt onter her horse in the dark—as if she couldn’t get on herself—she’s big enough. I seen him lift her on, an’ he took her right up an’ lifted her right inter the saddle, ’stead of holdin’ his hand for her to tread on like that new-chum jackeroo we had. An’, what’s more, I seen him hug her an’ give her a kiss before he lifted her on. He told her he was as good as her brother.”
“What did he mean by that, Tommy?” asked Mrs Porter, to break an awkward pause.
“How’m I ter know what he means?” said Tommy, politely.
“And, Tommy, I seen Harry Dale give young Tommy Carey a lick with a strap the day before New Year’s Eve for throwing his sister’s cat into the dam,” said Aunt Emma, coming to poor Mary’s rescue. “Never mind, Mary, my dear, he said goodbye to you last.”
“No, he didn’t!” roared Uncle Abel.
They were used to Uncle Abel’s sudden bellowing, but it startled them this time.
“Why, Uncle Abel,” cried both Aunt Emma and Mrs Carey, “whatever do you mean?”
“What I means is that I ain’t a-goin’ to have the feelin’s of a niece of mine trifled with. What I means is that I seen Harry Dale with Bertha Buckolt on New Year’s night after he left here. That’s what I means——”
“Don’t speak so loud, Abel, we’re not deaf,” interrupted Carey, as Mary started up white-faced. “What do you want to always shout for?”
“I speak loud because I want people to hear me!” roared Uncle Abel, turning on him.
“Go on, Uncle Abel,” said Mary, “tell me what you mean.”
“I mean,” said Uncle Abel, lowering his voice a little, “that I seen Harry Dale and Bertha Buckolt at Buckolts’ Gate that night—I seen it all——”
“At Buckolts’ Gate!” cried Mary.
“Yes! at Buckolts’ Gate! Ain’t I speakin’ loud enough?”
“And where were you?”
“Never mind wheers I was. I was comin’ home along the ridges, and I seen them. I seen them say good-bye; I seen them hug an’ kiss ”
“Uncle Abel!” exclaimed Aunt Emma.
“It’s no use Uncle Abelin’ me. What I sez I sez. I ain’t a-goin’ to have a niece of mine bungfoodled——”
“Uncle Abel,” cried Mary, staring at him wild-eyed, “do be careful what you say. You must have made a mistake. Are you sure it was Bertha and Harry?”
“Am I sure my head’s on me neck?” roared Uncle Abel. “Would I see ’em if I didn’t see ’em? I tell you——”
“Now wait a moment, Uncle Abel,” interrupted Mary, with dangerous calmness. “Listen to me. Harry Dale and I are engaged to be married, and——”
“Have you got the writin’s!” shouted Uncle Abel.
“The what?” said Mary.
“No, of course not.”
“Then that’s where you are,” said Uncle Abel, triumphantly. “If you had the writin’s you could sue him for breach of contract.”
Uncle Abel, who couldn’t read, had no faith whatever in verbal agreements (he wouldn’t sign one, he said), all others he referred to as “writings.”
“Now, listen to me, Uncle Abel,” said Mary, trembling now. “Are you sure you saw Harry Dale and Bertha Buckolt at Buckolts’ Gate after he left here that night?”
“Yes. An’ what’s more, I seen young Tommy there ridin’ on his pony along by the Spur a little while after, an’ he muster seen them too, if he’s got a tongue.”
Mary turned quickly to her brother.
“Well, all I can say,” said Tommy, quietened now, “is that I seen her at Buckolts’ Gate that night. I was comin’ home from Two-Mile Flat, and I met Jim with his packhorse about a mile the other side of Buckolts’, and while we was talkin’ Harry Dale caught up, so I jist said ‘So-long’ an’ left ’em. And when I got to Buckolt’s Gate I seen Bertha Buckolt. She was standin’ under a tree, and she looked as if she was cryin’ ”
But Mary got her bonnet and started out.
“Where are you going to, Mary?” asked her mother, starting up nervously.
“I’m going across to Buckolts’ to find out the truth,” said Mary, and she went out.
“Better let her go, Lizzie,” said Aunt Emma, detaining her sister. “You’ve done it now, Uncle Abel.”
“Well, why didn’t she get the writin’s?” retorted Uncle Abel.
Half-way to Buckolts’ Mary met Bertha Buckolt herself, coming over to the selection for the first time since the night of the party. Bertha started forward to kiss Mary, but stopped short as Mary stood stock-still and faced her, with her hands behind her back.
“Why! whatever is the matter, Mary?” exclaimed Bertha.
“You know very well, Bertha.”
“Why! Whatever do you mean? What have I done?”
“What haven’t you done? You’ve—you’ve broken my heart.”
“Good gracious me! Whatever are you talking about? Tell me what it is, Mary?”
“You met him at your gate that night?”
“I know I did.”
“Oh, Bertha! How could you be so mean and deceitful?”
“Mean and deceitful! What do you mean by that? Whatever are you talking about? I suppose I’ve got as good a right to meet him as anyone else.”
“No, you haven’t,” retorted Mary, “you’re only stringing him on. You only did it to spite me. You helped him to deceive me. You ought to be ashamed to look me in the face.”
“Good gracious! Whatever are you talking about? Ain’t I good enough for him? I ought to be, God knows! I suppose he can marry who he likes, and if I’m poor fool enough to love him and marry him, what then? Mary, you ought to be the last to speak—speak to—to me like that.”
“Yes. He can marry all the girls in the country for all I care. I never want to see either him or you any more. You’re a cruel, deceitful, brazen-faced hussy, and he’s a heartless, deceiving blackguard.”
“Mary! I believe you’re mad,” said Bertha, firmly. “How dare you speak to me like that! And as for him being a blackguard. Why, you ought to be the last in the world to say such a thing; you ought to be the last to say a word against him. Why, I don’t believe you ever cared a rap for him in spite of all your pretence. He could go to the devil for all you cared.”
“That’s enough, Bertha Buckolt!” cried Mary. “You—you! Why, you’re a barefaced girl, that’s what you are! I don’t want to see your brazen face again.” With that she turned and stumbled blindly in the direction of home.
“Send back my cape,” cried Bertha as she too turned away.
Mary walked wildly home and fled to her room and locked the door. Bertha did likewise.
Mary let Aunt Emma in after a while, ceased sobbing and allowed. herself to be comforted a little. Next morning she was out milking at the usual time, but there were dark hollows under her eyes, and her little face was white and set. After breakfast she rolled the cape up very tight in a brown-paper parcel, addressed it severely to—
MISS BERTHA BUCKOLT,
and sent it home by one of the school-children.
She wrote to Harry Dale and told him that she knew all about it (not stating what), but she forgave him and hoped he’d be happy. She never wanted to see his face again, and enclosed his portrait.
Harry, who was as true and straight as a bushman could be, puzzled it out and decided that some one of his old love affairs must have come to Mary’s ears, and wrote demanding an explanation.
She never answered that letter.
IT was Christmas Day at Rocky Rises. The plum puddings had been made, as usual, weeks beforehand, and hung in rags to the tie-beams and taken down and boiled again. Poultry had been killed and plucked and cooked, and all the toil had been gone through, and every preparation made for a red-hot dinner on a blazing hot day—and for no other reason than that our great-grandmothers used to do it in a cold climate at Christmas-times that came in mid-winter. Merry men hadn’t gone forth to the wood to gather in the mistletoe (if they ever did in England, in the olden days, instead of sending shivering, wretched vassals in rags to do it); but Uncle Abel had gone gloomily up the ridge on Christmas Eve, with an axe on his shoulder (and Tommy unwillingly in tow, scowling and making faces behind his back), and had cut young pines and dragged them home and lashed them firmly to the veranda-posts, which was the custom out there.
There was little goodwill or peace between the three or four farms round Rocky Rises that Christmas Day, and Uncle Abel had been the cause of most of the ill-feeling, though they didn’t know, and he was least aware of it of any.
It all came about in this way.
Shortly after last New Year Ryan’s bull had broken loose and gone astray for two days and nights, breaking into neighbours’ paddocks and filling himself with hay and damaging other bulls, and making love by night and hiding in the scrub all day. On the second night he broke through and jumped over Reid’s fences, and destroyed about an acre of grape-vines and adulterated Reid’s stock, besides interfering with certain heifers which were not of a marriageable age. There was a £5 penalty on a stray bull. Reid impounded the bull and claimed heavy damages. Ryan, a small selector of little account, was always pulling some neighbour to court when he wasn’t being “pulled” himself, so he went to court over this case.
Now, it appears that the bull, on his holiday, had spent a part of the first night in Carey’s lower paddock, and Uncle Abel (who was out mooching about the bush at all hours, “havin’ a look at some timber” or some “indercations” [of gold], or on some mysterious business or fad, the mystery of which was of his own making)—Uncle Abel saw the bull in the paddock at daylight and turned it out the sliprails, and talked about it afterwards, referring to the sliprails as “Buckolts’ Gate,” of course, and spoke mysteriously of the case, and put on an appearance of great importance, and allowed people to get an idea that he knew a lot if be only liked to speak; and finally he got himself “brought up” as a witness for Ryan.
He had a lot of beer in town before he went to the courthouse. All he knew would have been of no use to either party, but he swore that he had seen Ryan’s bull inside Buckolts’ Gate at daylight (on the day which wasn’t in question) and had turned him out. Uncle Abel mixed up the court a good deal, and roared like the bull, and became more obstinate the more he was cross-examined, and narrowly escaped being committed for contempt of court.
Ryan, who had a high opinion of the breed of his bull, got an idea that the Buckolts had enticed or driven the bull into their paddock for stock-raising purposes, instead of borrowing it honestly or offering to pay for the use of it. Then Ryan wanted to know why Abel had driven his bull out of Buckolts’ Gate, and the Buckolts wanted to know what business Abel Albury had to drive Ryan’s bull out of their paddock, if the bull had really ever been there. And so it went on till Rocky Rises was ripe for a tragedy.
The breach between the Careys and the Buckolts was widened, the quarrel between Ryan and Reid intensified. Ryan got a down on the Careys because he reckoned that Uncle Abel had deliberately spoilt his case with his evidence; and the Reids and Careys were no longer on speaking terms, because nothing would convince old Reid that Abel hadn’t tried to prove that Ryan’s bull had never been in Reid’s paddock at all.
Well, it was Christmas Day, and the Carey family and Aunt Emma sat down to dinner. Jim was present, having arrived overnight, with no money, as usual, and suffering a recovery. The elder brother, Bob (who had a selection up-country), and his wife were there. Mrs Carey moved round with watchful eyes and jealous ears, lest there should be a word or a look which might hurt the feelings of her wild son—for of such are mothers.
Dinner went on very moodily, in spite of Aunt Emma, until at last Jim spoke—almost for the first time, save for a long-whispered and, on his part, repentant conversation with his mother.
“Look here, Mary!” said Jim. “What did you throw Harry Dale over for?”
“Don’t ask me, Jim.”
“Rot! What did he do to you? I’m your brother” (with a glance at Bob), “and I ought to know.”
“Well, then, ask Bertha Buckolt. She saw him last.”
“What!” cried Jim.
“Hold your tongue, Jim! You’ll make her cry,” said Aunt Emma.
“Well, what’s it all about, anyway?” demanded Jim. “All I know is that Mary wrote to Harry and threw him over, and he ain’t been the same man since. He swears he’ll never come near the district again.”
“Tell Jim, Aunt Emma,” said Mary. And Aunt Emma started to tell the story as far as she knew.
“Saw her at Buckolt’s sliprails!” cried Jim, starting up. “Well, he couldn’t have had time to more than say good-bye to her, for I was with her there myself, and Harry caught up to me within a mile of the gate—and I rode pretty fast.”
“He had a jolly long good-bye with her,” shouted Uncle Abel. “Look here, Jim! I ain’t goin’ to stand by and see a nephew of mine bungfoodled by no girl; an’, I tell you I seen ’em huggin’ and kissin’ and canoodlin’ for half an hour at Buckolts’ Gate!”
“It’s a—a—— Look here, Uncle Abel, be careful what you say. You’ve got the bull by the tail again, that’s what it is!” Jim’s face grew whiter—and it had been white enough on account of the drink. “How did you know it was them? You’re always mistaking people. It might have been someone else.”
“I know Harry Dale on horseback two miles off!” roared Uncle Abel. “And I knowed her by her cape.”
It was Mary’s turn to gasp and stare at Uncle Abel.
“Uncle Abel,” she managed to say, “Uncle Abel! Wasn’t it at our Lower Sliprails you saw them and not Buckolts’ Gate?”
“Well!” bellowed Uncle Abel. “You might call ’em the ‘Lower Sliprails,’ but I calls ’em Buckolts’ Gate! They lead to’r’ds Buckolts’, don’t they? Hey? Them other sliprails”—jerking his arms in the direction of the upper paddock—“them theer other sliprails that leads outer Reid’s lane I calls Reid’s Sliprails. I don’t know nothing about no upper or lower, or easter or wester, or any other la-di-dah names you like to call ’em.”
“Oh, uncle,” cried Mary, trembling like a leaf, “why didn’t you explain this before? Why didn’t you tell us?”
“What cause have I got to tell any of you everything I sez or does or thinks? It ’ud take me all me time. Ain’t you got any more brains than Ryan’s bull, any of you? Hey!—You’ve got heads, but so has cabbages. Explain! Why, if the world wasn’t stuffed so full of jumped-up fools there’d be never no need for explainin’.”
Mary left the table.
“What is it, Mary?” cried Aunt Emma.
“I’m going across to Bertha,” said Mary, putting on her hat with trembling hands. “It was me Uncle Abel saw. I had Bertha’s cape on that night.”
“Oh, Uncle Abel,” cried Aunt Emma, “whatever have you done?”
“Well,” said Uncle Abel, “why didn’t she get the writin’s as I told her? It’s to be hoped she won’t make such a fool of herself next time.”
Half an hour later, or thereabouts, Mary sat on Bertha Buckolt’s bed, with Bertha beside her and Bertha’s arm round her, and they were crying and laughing by turns.
“But—but—why didn’t you tell me it was Jim?” said Mary.
“Why didn’t you tell me it was Harry, Mary?” asked Bertha. “It would have saved all this year of misery.
“I didn’t see Harry Dale at all that night,” said Bertha. “I was—I was crying when Jim left me, and when Harry came along I slipped behind a tree until he was past. And now, look here, Mary, I can’t marry Jim until he steadies down, but I’ll give him another chance. But, Mary, I’d sooner lose him than you.”
Bertha walked home with Mary, and during the afternoon she took Jim aside and said:
“Look here, Jim, I’ll give you another chance—for a year. Now I want you to ride into town and send a telegram to Harry Dale. How long would it take him to get here?”
“He couldn’t get here before New Year,” said Jim.
“That will do,” said Bertha, and Jim went to catch his horse.
Next day Harry’s reply came: “Coming.”
NEW Year’s Eve. The dance was at Buckolts’ this year, but Bertha didn’t dance much; she was down by the gate most of the time with little Mary Carey, waiting, and watching the long, white road, and listening for horses’ feet, and disappointed often as other horsemen rode by or turned up to the farm.
And in the hot sunrise that morning, within a hundred miles of Rocky Rises, a tired, dusty drover camped in the edge of a scrub, boiled his quart-pot, broiled a piece of mutton on the coals, and lay down on the sand to rest an hour or so before pushing on to a cattle station he knew to try and borrow fresh horses. He had ridden all night.
Old Buckolt and Carey and Reid smoked socially under the grape-vines, with bottles of whisky and glasses, and nudged each other and coughed when they wanted to laugh at Old Abel Albury, who was, for about the first time in his life, condescending to explain. He was explaining to them what thund’rin’ fools they had been.
Later on they sent a boy on horseback with a bottle of whisky and a message to Ryan, who turned up in time to see the New Year in with them and contradict certain slanders concerning the breed of his bull.
Meanwhile Bertha comforted Mary, and at last persuaded her to go home. “He’s sure to be here to-morrow, Mary,” she said, “and you need to look fresh and happy.”
But Mary didn’t sleep that night; she was up before daylight, had the kettle on and some chops ready to fry, and at daybreak she was down by the sliprails again. She was turning away for the second time when she heard a clear whistle round the Spur—then the tune of “Willie Riley,” and the hobblechains and camp-ware on the packhorse jingling to the tune.
She pulled out the rails with eager, trembling hands and leaned against the tree.
An hour later a tired drover lay on his back, in his ragged, track-worn clothes and dusty leggings, on Mary’s own little bed in the skillion off the living-room, and rested. Mary bustled round getting breakfast ready, and singing softly to herself; once she slipped in, bent over Harry and kissed him gently on the lips, and ran out as he stirred.
“Why, who’s that?” exclaimed Uncle Abel, poking round early and catching a glimpse of Harry through the open door.
“It’s only Harry, Uncle Abel,” said Mary.
Uncle Abel peered in again to make sure.
“Well, be sure you git the writin’s this time,” he said.