Dave Regan, Jim Benley and Andy Page, bush mates, had taken a contract to clear and fence the ground for a new cemetery about three miles out of the thriving township of Mudgee-Budgee. Mudgee-Budgee had risen to the dignity of a three-pub town, and people were beginning to die. Up to now the casual and scarce corpses of Mudgee-Budgee or of Home Rule, a goldfield six miles to the west—the bushman who had been thrown from his horse or smashed against a tree while riding recklessly, as bushmen do, or the boozer who had died during a spree in hot weather—had to be taken to the cemetery belonging to the farming town of Buckaroo, about nine miles east of Mudgee-Budgee. This meant a nine-mile, or, in the case of Home Rule, a fifteen-mile drag, which was a long-drawn-out agony in blazing hot, dusty weather, or even in the rain when the roads were boggy. The Buckaroo undertaker could only be induced to bring his hearse out two miles along the road to meet the corpse, which was carried so far in a drag, spring cart, or wagonette. This so detracted from the dignity of Mudgee-Budgee and Home Rule, that they agreed to get a cemetery between them, and Dave Regan got the contract to prepare the ground for corpse planting.
Dave and his mates camped in an old deserted slab and bark hut which happened to stand on the ground. It was a lonely place, which stood in a dark stringy-bark bush, the nearest house being the hut of a timber-getter and his family, about two miles along the track on the Home Rule side.
It was the day after Anniversary Day. Dave and Jim were patriots, and therefore were feeling very repentant and shaky. They had spent the day at the Buckaroo races, half the night in Buckaroo, and the other half in Home Rule, where the early closing law as regarded public houses was not stringent. They had enjoyed a good time; had betted and shouted away all their cash, as well as an advance drawn on the contract, had run up scores at all the pubs, and had been in several rows, and at least three fights. They weren’t sure with whom, that was the trouble, but had a drink-lurid recollection of having got off their horses several times on the way home to fight each other. They were too sick to eat or to smoke yet; so they sat outside the hut with their nerves all unstrung and their imaginations therefore particularly active. Under these conditions, they so magnified the awful importance of the unknown and the nightmare portions of the prior night, that they felt very dismal and hopeless indeed. Dave had a haunting idea, which grew at last to be a sickening conviction, that he had insulted and had wanted to fight the big squatter of the district, from whom he had the promise of a big fencing contract. Jim had a smothering recollection of a row with the leading Mudgee-Budgee storekeeper, who gave them credit. And so they swore off drink—they were going to chuck it for good. Each was firmly resolved this time. But they said nothing about it to each other. They had sworn off mutually so often that the thing had become boresome. But the worst of it was that they had broken the bottle with the morning reviver, and had nothing to straighten up on, and their nerves were not in a fit state to allow of their going to Mudgee-Budgee at the risk of hearing some new and awful truths of last night’s doings, and they hadn’t the courage to ask Andy to go. They were very contrite and gentle towards him with their “Yes, Andy,” and “No, Andy,” and “No, thank you, Andy,” when he fried chops and made coffee for them. The day before they had both sworn to him—solemnly, affectionately, and at last impatiently, and even angrily—that they wouldn’t get drunk, that they wouldn’t bet, that they wouldn’t draw a penny on the contract, that they’d buy a week’s provisions first thing, that they’d bring the things home with them on their horses, and that they’d come home early. And now— they’d spent his money as well as their own! Andy made no remarks and asked no questions when they woke at midday; and they took his silence in a chastened spirit.
Andy Page was a patriot and a democrat, too, the most earnest of the three; but he was as obstinately teetotal as he was honest and truthful. Dave was the head of the party, but Andy was the father. Andy had, on several occasions, gone into town with Dave and Jim on pay nights—to look after them, to fight for them if necessary, and to get them home, if possible, when they’d had enough. It was a thankless job, but Andy was loved by his mates, who nevertheless, when drunk, even wanted to fight him when he stood out against “one more drink for the last.” He was as strong physically, as well as morally, as the two put together; and was respected even by the publican whom he abused for serving his mates when they’d had enough. But the last spree but one had disgusted Andy. He swore he’d never go into town with them again, and like most simple-minded, honest, good-natured fellows whose ideas come slowly, who are slow at arriving at decisions (and whose decisions are nearly invariably right), when he’d once made up his mind nothing short of a severe shock of earthquake could move him. So he stayed at home on Anniversary Day, and washed and mended his clothes.
Dave and Jim were still moping wretchedly about the hut when, towards the middle of the afternoon, an angel came along on horseback. It was Jack Jones from Mudgee-Budgee, a drinking mate of theirs, a bush-telegraph joker, and the ne’er-do-well of the district. He hung up his shy, spidery filly under a shed at the back of the hut.
“I thought you chaps would be feeling shaky,” he said, “and I’ve been feeling as lonely and dismal as a bandicoot on a burnt ridge, so I thought I’d come out. I’ve brought a flask of whisky.”
Never were two souls more grateful. Bush mate-ship is a grand thing, drunk or sober.
Andy promptly took charge of the whisky, and proceeded to dole out judicious doses at decent intervals.
Jack, who was a sandy-complexioned young fellow with the expression of a born humorist, had some news.
“You know Corny George?” They had heard of him. He was an old Cornishman who split shingles and palings in the Black Range, and lived alone in a hut in a dark gully under the shadow of Dead Man’s Gap.
“He went in to Buckaroo to the police station yesterday,” said Jack Jones, “in a very bad state. He swore he’d seen the Hairy Man.”
“Yes, the Hairy Man. He swore that the Hairy Man had come down to his hut the night before last, just after dark, and tried to break in. The Hairy Man stayed about the hut all night, trying to pull the slabs off the walls, and get the bark off the roof, and didn’t go away till daylight. Corny says he fired at him two or three times, through the cracks, with his old shot gun, but the Hairy Man didn’t take any notice. The old chap was pretty shaky on it.”
“Drink, I s’pose,” grunted Andy contemptuously.
“No, it wasn’t drink. They reckoned he’d been ‘hatting’ it too long. They’ve got him at the police station.”
“What did he say the Hairy Man was like?” asked Jim Bentley.
“Oh, the usual thing,” said Jack. “’Bout as tall as a man and twice as broad, arms nearly as long as himself, big wide mouth with grinning teeth—and covered all over with red hair.”
“Why, that’s just what my uncle said he was like,” exclaimed Andy Page, suddenly taking great interest in the conversation. He was passing in with some firewood to stick under a pot in which he was boiling a piece of salt beef; but he stood stock still and stared at Jim Bentley, with the blank, breathless expression of a man who has just heard astounding news.
“Did your uncle see the Hairy Man, Andy?” inquired Dave Regan feebly. He felt too sick to take much interest.
“Yes,” said Andy, staring at Jack with great earnestness. “Didn’t I tell you? He was drivin’ home up the pass to Dead Man’s Gap, where he lived then, and he seen the Hairy Man, bundlin’ off among the rocks.”
Andy paused impressively, and stared at Jack.
“And what did your uncle do, Andy?” asked Jack, with a jerky little cough.
“He stood up in the cart and hammered into the horse, and galloped it all the way home, full-bat up to the door; then he jumped down, leaving the cart and horse standing there, and went in and lay down on the bed, and wouldn’t speak to anybody for two hours.”
“How long?” asked Jim, still feebly.
“Two hours,” said Andy earnestly, as he went in with the firewood.
Jack Jones proposed “a bit of a stroll” ; he said it would do them good. He felt an irresistible inclination to giggle, and wished to get out of the hearing of Andy, whom he respected. As they slouched along the track there was an incident which proved the state of their nerves. A big brown snake whipped across the dusty path into a heap of dead boughs. They stared at each other for a full minute, then Jack summoned courage to ask—
“Did you chaps see that snake?”
“Yes,” and so it was all right. Then they put a match to the boughs, and stood round with long sticks till the snake came out.
They went back to the hut, and managed a cup of coffee. Presently they got on to ghost and Hairy Man yarns again.
“That was God’s truth,” said Jack, “that yarn I told you about what happened to me going up Dead Man’s Pass. It was just as I told you. I was driving slowly up in that little old spring cart of mine, when something—I don’t know what it was—made me look behind, and there was a woman walking along behind the cart with her hands on the tail-board. It was just above the spot where the hawker’s wife was murdered. She was dressed in black, and had black hair, and her face was dead white. At first I thought that it was some woman who wanted a lift, or a chap in woman’s clothes playing the ghost, so I pulled up. And when I looked round again she was gone. I thought she’d crouched under the cart, so I whipped up the horse and then looked round again, but there was nothing there. Then I reckon I drove home as fast as Andy’s uncle did. You needn’t believe me unless you like.”
“Thunderstorm coming,” said Dave, sniffing and looking round the corner to the east. “I thought this weather would bring something.”
“My oath,” said Jim, “a regular old-man storm, too.”
The big, blue-black bank of storm cloud rose bodily from the east, and was right overhead and sweeping down the sunset in a very few minutes. Then the lightning blazed out, and swallowed up daylight as well as darkness. But it was not a rain storm—it was the biggest hail storm ever experienced in that district. Orchards and vineyards were stripped, and many were ruined. Some said there were stones as big as hen’s eggs; some said the storm lasted over an hour, and some said more—but the time was probably half or three-quarters of an hour. Hail lay feet deep in the old diggers’ holes for a fortnight after. The mates half expected the hail to come through the roof of the hut.
Just as the storm began to hold up a little, they heard a louder pattering outside, and a bang at the door. The door was of hardwood boards with wide cracks; Andy rose to open it, but squinted through a crack first. Then he snatched the big crowbar from the corner, dug the foot of it into the earth floor, and jammed the pointed head under a cross piece of the door; he did the same with a smaller crowbar, and looked wildly round for more material for a barricade.
“What are you doing? Who is it, Andy?” wildly cried the others.
“It’s the Hairy Man!” gasped Andy.
They quickly got to the door and squinted through the cracks. One squint was sufficient. It was the Hairy Man right enough. He was about as tall as an ordinary man, but seemed twice as broad across the shoulders. He had long arms, and was covered with hair, face and all. He had a big, ugly mouth, and wild, bloodshot eyes. So they helped Andy to barricade the door.
There was another bang at the door. A cart rattled past, a woman screamed, and the cart went on at an increased pace. There was a shot-gun hanging on the wall, loaded—Andy had left it loaded to save ammunition the last time he’d been out kangaroo shooting. Andy, like most slow-thinking men, often did desperate things in a crisis. He snatched down the gun, stepped back a pace or two, aimed at the door low down, and fired. He doesn’t know why he aimed low down—except that it “was too much like shooting at a man.” They heard a howl, and the thing, whatever it was, running off. Then they barricaded the door some more ere they scanned the door planking and found that about half the charge had gone through.
“The powder must have got damp,” said Andy. “I’ll put in a double charge to make sure,” and he reloaded the gun with trembling hands. The other three bumped their heads over the whisky. They can’t say for certain how they got through that night or what they said or did. The first idea was to get out of there and run to Mudgee-Budgee, but they were reluctant to leave their fort. “Who’d go out and reconnoitre?” “Besides,” said Jack Jones, “we’re safer here, and the thing’s gone, whatever it was. What would they think of us if we went into town with a yarn about a Hairy Man?” He had heard his horse breaking away, and didn’t care to take the chance of being chased on foot.
About an hour later they heard a horse galloping past, and, looking through the cracks, saw a boy riding towards Mudgee-Budgee.
“It’s young Foley,” said Jack, “the son of that old timber-getter that’s just taken up a selection along the road near Home Rule.”
“I wonder what’s up?” said Andy. “Perhaps the Hairy Man’s been there. We ought to go along and help.”
“They can take care of themselves,” said Jack hurriedly. “They’re close to Home Rule, and can get plenty of help. The boy wouldn’t ride to Mudgee-Budgee if there was anything wrong.”
The moon had risen full. Some two or three hours later they saw Mahoney, the mounted constable, and the young doctor from Buckaroo, ride past towards Home Rule.
“There’s something up, right enough,” said Jim Bentley.
Later on, about daybreak, Andy was sitting obstinately on guard, with the gun across his knees and the others dozing on the bunks (and waking now and then with jerks), when Constable Mahoney rode up to the door and knocked a business knock that brought them all to their feet.
Andy asked him to come in, and placed a stool for him, but he didn’t see it. He looked round the hut.
“Whose fowlin’ piece is that?” he asked.
“It’s—it’s mine,” said Andy.
Mahoney took the gun up and examined it.
“Is this fowlin’ piece loaded?” he asked
“Yes,” said Andy, “it is.”
“Now, listen to me, boys,” said the constable. “Was the fowlin’ piece discharged last night?”
“Yes,” said Andy, “it was.”
“What’s up? What have we done?” asked Jim Bentley, desperately.
“Done?” shouted Mahoney. “Done? Why, you’ve filled old Foley’s legs with kangaroo shot. That’s what you’ve done! Do you know what that is?”
“No,” said Jack Jones. He was thinking hard.
“It’s manslaughter!” roared Mahoney. “That’s the meanin’ of it!”
They explained what had happened as far as they were able. Now, Mahoney had a weakness for the boys, and a keen sense of humour—outside himself.
“Best come along with me,” he said.
Andy had a stiff Sunday sac suit, of chocolate colour, and a starched white shirt and collar, which he kept in a gin case. He always put them all on when anything happened. On this occasion he fastened his braces over his waistcoat, and didn’t notice it until he had gone some distance along the road.
There was great excitement at Foley’s shanty—women and children crying, and neighbours hanging round.
Foley was lying on his face on a stretcher, while the young doctor was taking shot from the hairiest leg that Regan and Co. had ever seen on man or beast. The doctor said, afterwards, that some of the shot had only flattened inside the outer skin, and that others had a covering of hair twisted round them. When Foley was turned round to give his “dispositions,” as Mahoney called them, they saw that he had enough hair on his chest to stuff a set of buggy cushions. He had red whiskers all over his face, rusty-red, spikey hair all over his head, and a big mouth and bloodshot eyes. He was the hairiest and ugliest man in the district.
His language was hardly understandable, partly because of the excitement he was still labouring under, and partly because of his peculiar shade of brogue. Where Mahoney said “shtone” Foley would say “stawn”—a brogue with a drawl which sounded ridiculous in an angry man. He drawled most over his oaths.
It seems that he was splitting fencing timber down “beyant the new cimitry,” when the storm came on. He thought it would be the usual warm thunderstorm, and it was too far to run home. He didn’t want to get wet, so he took his clothes off, and put them in a hollow log till the storm should be past. Then the lightning played round his tools—the cross-cut saw, axe, wedges, etc.—and he had to get away from there. He didn’t bargain for “thim blanky hail-sta-w-ns.” “It’s a wonder I wasn’t scalped and drilled full of hawls.” He thought of the hut, and made for it, but they wouldn’t let him in. Then he suddenly saw some women in a tilt cart comin’ round a bend in the road, and saw no chance of getting out of sight—there was a clearing round the hut, and so he banged at the door again. “I thawt the wimmin would stop.”
“Whoy did ye think that?” asked Mahoney. “What would they shtop for?”
“How th’ hell was I to know?—curiosity, I suppose. They welted into their old hawse, an’, as I turned to look after thim, the murderin’ villains inside shot a gun at me. I got back to me clawthes, an’ dressed somehow. Some one will have to pay for it. I’ll be laid up on me back for six weeks.”
The young doctor excused himself, and went out for a few minutes. Mahoney winked at Regan and party—a wink you could hear—and it comforted them mightily. When they went out they saw the doctor hanging to a sapling, some distance from the hut. He swung with his back to the sapling, and slid to the ground, his legs stretched out in front of him, He said he would be all right presently. The thing was fixed up, but the young doctor wanted badly to have the case brought into court. He said it would cheer up the district for years, and add ten years to the life of the oldest inhabitant.