“We’ll turn off into the scrub and strike the track the other side of the shanty and come back to it,” said Steelman. “You see, if they see us coming into Bourke they’ll say to themselves, ‘Oh, we’re never likely to see these chaps again,’ and they won’t give us anything, or, perhaps, only a pinch of tea or sugar in a big lump of paper. There’s some women that, can never see a tucker-bag, even if you hold it right under their noses. But if they see us going out back they’ll reckon that we’ll get a shed likely as not, and we’ll be sure to call there with our cheques coming back. I hope the old man’s got the lumbago, or sciatica, or something.”
“Why?” asked Smith.
“Because whenever I see an old man poking round the place on a stick I always make for him straight and inquire about his trouble; and no matter what complaint he’s got, my old man suffered from it for years. It’s pretty hard graft listening to an old man with a pet leg, but I find it pays; and I always finish up by advising him to try St Jacob’s oil. Perhaps he’s been trying it for years, but that doesn’t matter; the consultation works out all right all the same, and there’s never been a remedy tried yet but I’ve got another.
“I’ve got a lot of Maori and blackfellow remedies in my mind, and when they fail I can fall back on the Chinese; and if that isn’t enough I’ve got a list of my grandmother’s remedies that she wrote down for me when I was leaving home, and I kept it for a curiosity. It took her three days to write them, and I reckon they’ll fill the bill.
“You don’t want a shave. You look better with that stubble on. You needn’t say anything; just stand by and wear your usual expression, and if they ask me what’s the matter with my mate I’ll fix up a disease for you to have, and get something extra on your account, poor beggar!
“I wish we had a chap with us that could sing a bit and run the gamut on a fiddle or something. With a sickly-looking fish like you to stand by and look interesting and die slowly of consumption all the time, and me to do the talking, we’d be able to travel from one end of the bush to the other and live on the fat of the land. I wouldn’t cure you for a hundred pounds.”
They reached the shanty, and there, sure enough, was an old man pottering round with a list to starboard. He was working with a hoe inside a low paling fence round a sort of garden. Steelman and Smith stopped outside the fence. “Good day, boss!”
So far it was satisfactory.
He was a little man, with a wiry, red beard. He might have been a Scandinavian.
“You seem to be a bit lame,” said Steelman. “Hurt your foot?”
“Naw,” said the old man. “It’s an old thing.”
“Ah!” said Steelman, “lumbago, I suppose? My father suffered cruel from it for years.”
“Naw,” said the old man, moving closer to the fence. “It ain’t in me back; the trouble’s with me leg.”
“Oh!” said Steelman. “One a bit shorter than the other?”
“ Well, yes. It seems to be wearin’ a bit shorter. I must see to it. “
“Hip disease, perhaps?” said Steelman. “A brother o’ mine had——”
“Naw, it’s not in the hip,” said the old man. “My leg’s gone at the knee.”
“Oh! stiff joint; I know what that is. Had a touch of it once myself. An uncle of mine was nearly crippled with it. He used to use St Jacob’s oil. Ever try St Jacob’s oil?”
“Naw,” said the old man, “not that I know of. I’ve used linseed oil though.”
“Linseed oil!” said Steelman; “I’ve never heard of that for stiff knee. How do you use it?”
“Use it raw,” said the old man. “Raw linseed oil; I’ve rubbed it in, and I’ve soaked me leg in it.”
“Soaked your leg in it!” said Steelman. “And did it do it any good?”
“Well, it seems to preserve it—keeps it from warping, and it wears better—and it makes it heavier. It seemed a bit too light before.”
Steelman nudged Smith under cover of the palings. The old man was evidently a bit ratty.
“Well I hope your leg will soon be all right, boss,” said Steelman.
“Thank you,” said the old man, “but I don’t think there’s much hope. I suppose you want some tucker?”
“Well, yes,” said Steelman, rather taken aback by the old man’s sudden way of putting it. “We’re hard up.”
“Well, come along to the house and I’ll see if I can get yer something,” said the old man; and they walked along outside the fence, and he hobbled along inside, till he came to a little gate at the corner. He opened the gate and stumped out. He had a wooden leg. He wore his trouser-leg down over it, and the palings had hidden the bottom from Steelman and Smith.
He wanted them to stay to dinner, but Steelman didn’t feel comfortable, and thanked him, and said they’d rather be getting on (Steelman always spoke for Smith); so the old man gave them some cooked meat, bread, and a supply of tea and sugar. Steelman watched his face very close, but he never moved a muscle. But when they looked back he was leaning on his hoe, and seemed to be shaking.
“Took you back a bit, Steely, didn’t it?” suggested Smith.
“How do you make that out?” snorted Steelman, turning on him suddenly. “I knew a carpenter who used to soak his planes in raw linseed oil to preserve them and give them weight. There’s nothing funny about that.”
Smith rubbed his head.