Maggie was a sort of adopted daughter at Wall’s, and took a great fancy to Mary, my wife, as all the girls and most of the women did. She used to ride over to our place two or three times on weekdays and always on Sunday afternoon. Mary and Maggie were great chums. Maggie was a big, fine-looking Bush girl—a rare lump of a girl. A regular tomboy, she used to be, they said, and chummy with every one, and they said she used to tuck her petticoats under her when she thought she was alone, and gallop through the Bush, riding man fashion. In fact, they said she never got used to the side-saddle.
Even Mary, a woman, and Maggie’s friend, and James’ sister, was never quite sure that there was anything between him and Maggie, though she joked about it and chaffed Maggie sometimes. She didn’t chaff James, because she was his sister, and he was too sulky and short-tempered. If Maggie knew, she kept it to herself. She kept James’ secret, and her own if she had one. She was very quick and witty, and could turn off anything with a laugh and a joke. Perhaps it was because Mary was James’ sister that she didn’t see the truth. Sisters don’t know everything, any more than mothers do, or wives for that matter.
But I had my own opinions—suspicions first, and then certainties. “Take notice,” my father used to say, “take notice of little things”: and I inherited the faculty from him, and took notice. Maybe, as I grew up, and in after life, I took more notice of little things than was good for my comfort or peace of mind—but that’s got nothing to do with it. I took notice of James. I noticed that when I happened to ride up to the homestead at an odd hour of the day, when James ought to be out on the run, and saw his horse in the yard and him pottering round—patching up hurdles or doing something that ought to be done by one of the men in the cool of the evening—it was a pretty sure sign that Maggie Charlesworth was down at the house. I noticed later on that James always had a new shed or bit of fencing on the way about the homestead; and when he stayed at home, and took a few hours’ spell at the shed or fence, I felt pretty certain that Maggie would be down to see Mary during the day. Mary would call him in to have a cup of tea, when she made one for herself and Maggie, and James would drink it grumpily and never say a word to Maggie, except “’Ello, Maggie!” when he saw her, unless she spoke to him. She’d chaff him a bit sometimes, and he’d take it quietly—or sulkily, rather. He’d only talk about the drought and the rain, and station and Bush things, and only when he was asked about them. I’ve seen him squat and loll about the verandah all Sunday afternoon and for hours in the cool of a weekday evening, and never say a word to Maggie Charlesworth, or seem to take the slightest interest in her or what she was saying. James was one of these men who listen, or seem to listen, a great deal and think, or seem to think, a mighty lot.
And if I happened to pass Wall’s and see James’ horse hanging up there, and him squatting on his heels or leaning on a fence, smoking and yarning to young Billy Wall or one of the men, I’d know that Maggie Charlesworth was at home. But Billy Wall told me that he never heard James say a dozen words to Maggie, nor saw the slightest sign of spooning between them. James’ idea of courting seemed to be to hover round and be within coo-ee, in case the girl made up her mind suddenly that she wanted him. But I noticed at home that he stuck about the verandah pretty close when Maggie was there and there happened to be another likely man hanging round.
But, Lord! with a character like James and a character like Maggie Charlesworth, you could never tell. They might have been courting all the time and meeting every other night or so, and kissing and hugging each other for hours, and no one any the wiser. You might as well watch, and try to fox an old hen to her nest in the bushes; though she cackles enough when the egg is laid and she’s safe off the nest.
Well, it all came out by accident, as most things do. James was never much of a rider, but he managed to hold his own with the others—his obstinacy or pig-headedness helped him in that. He broke in his own horses, but he always did it when there was no one about the place, or else he took ’em away. There were other yards about the run, and James was at home at all the little out-of-the-way huts and selections about the district. Like most young fellows of his sort, he was touchy about his riding and one or two other little things. Some of the chaps used to make a joke about it, and say that James went away and got some one else to break in his horses, but I knew James, and didn’t believe that for a moment. So when we saw him riding away, leading or driving a young horse, we didn’t take any notice; but Mary was always relieved when he turned up without a broken neck or his shoulder put out.
Well, one day he picked up a filly cheap in the pound at Gulgong—a likely-looking young thing, with blood in her, we could all see that. She was one of those spidery horses, with a hollow back, and looked as if she’d sag down if a big man got on her, till his feet rested on the ground. She was one of those shy, jumpy young things that suddenly sheer off sideways when they shy at anything, nearly as fast as they go ahead.
James let it drop that he didn’t buy the filly for himself, but for some one else, but he wouldn’t say who. You see, James was one of the sort that keep things to themselves. He’d make a mystery of little, unimportant things, and he often got me wild that way. I reckoned it was a sign of ignorance and a shallow, narrow mind.
Anyway, he wouldn’t tell me whom he bought the filly for. He took her away once or twice, and perhaps he broke her in a bit early in the morning before any one was up and about. Well, one quiet Sunday morning he started down the creek, riding his own horse and leading the filly. He had a little black bundle, like a coat, strapped to the pommel of his saddle, and Mary’s quick eye spotted it at once. “Why, what’s that you’ve got there on your saddle, James?” she said.
“Can’t you mind your own business?” snarled James in a brotherly way. “Can’t yer see it’s me coat? You’re always asking nonsensical questions.”
“But you haven’t got a black coat, James,” said Mary, trying to get a close look. “When did you buy——”
But James swung off and rode away.
It puzzled Mary. Women do bother a lot about little things—and worry their husbands, too.
“That’s funny,” she said. “He could not have wanted one of my old skirts for anything! Why, I do believe he’s had the infernal cheek to take my riding skirt to lend to some one. Did you ever hear of such a thing? Whoever in this world could he——”
She ran to see, but her riding skirt was safe.
“What are you raving about now?” I said. “He’s bought a new coat, and he’s making a bushranging mystery about it as usual—that’s all it is.”
“It wasn’t a coat,” said Mary, obstinately. “It was a dress.”
I didn’t bother arguing with her.
Everybody turned up that Sunday to dinner, or an hour or so afterwards—except James, and I supposed he had stayed to dinner somewhere. It was Bush fashion to drop into Sunday dinner anywhere—there was always plenty, rough as it was, and the women could wash a plate for a newcomer when somebody else was done. There was Dave Regan, the drover, and my old mate, Jack Barnes, and Andy Maculloch, an old droving chum of mine; and old Jim Bullock and Old Peter, station hands from Wall’s; and little Jimmy Nowlett, the bullock-driver—he’s just brought up a load of fencing wire for Wall; and Ryan, the horse-breaker; and some women and girls who had driven over in spring carts.
We were all camped on the verandah after dinner, smoking and yarning, and some snoozing, others draining the big canvas water-bag dry while getting through the heat and over the dinner. Some one spoke of James and asked where he was, and that reminded Ryan of his buck-jumping experience, and he told it again. It was about a horse he broke in once for a Mrs. Murphy at Talbragar.
“I was passin’ down by Mrs. Murphy’s place one mornin’,” said Ryan, “whin she says, ‘Good mornin’, Mr. Ryan.’ ‘Good mornin’, Mrs. Murphy,’ says I. ‘Would you ride the mare for me this mornin’, Mr. Ryan,’ she says. ‘I’ll ride the tail off her,’ I says. ‘All right,’ she says, ‘will you come in an’ have a cup o’ tay, an’ ride the tail off her afterwards?’ ‘All right,’ I says, ‘I’ll come in and have a cup o’ tay, an’ ride the tail off her afterwards.’ So I had the cup o’ tay, an’ thin I started down for the yard; I had a new pair of brogues on—nicely greased. So I got on the mare, an’ she made three consecutive bucks. An’ I made as many revolutions in the air. An’ the last time I went up, I happened to look down, an’ I saw the mare a quarter of a mile away. ‘Go it, you——!’ I says. ‘An’ now for a wallop!’” (Long pause.) “I remembered no more till I woke up three days after in the Gulgong hospital.”
He’d scarcely finished when Mary jumped to her feet, and stared down the creek through the trees on the other side.
“Joe! Joe!” she screamed, “there’s a horse bolting! There’s a horse running away with a woman on the other side of the creek! Look! Look! There she is! Quick, Joe, quick, for God’s sake! My God, she’ll be thrown!”
We all jumped to our feet as if we’d been sitting on snakes, Mary singing out: “She’ll be thrown! She’ll be thrown!” all the-time. Sure enough there was a horse, with a woman on its back, galloping through the timber down on the other side of the creek; and she rode as if she’d go off at any moment. Dave Regan and Andy Maculloch were on their horses and across the creek in a jiffy, to cut the other horse off from the heavy scrub, and I started to run, but the woman’s horse swerved and ran down into the creek.
“Joe, Joe!” Mary screamed after me. “Run! Run! She’ll be down in the creek! She’ll be thrown in the creek! She’s thr-o-wn!”
But she wasn’t. The horse struggled up the steep bank on our side—the woman still clinging to the saddle—and made for the yard on the rise at the back of the house. Then she propped, and the woman went sprawling in the dust. We were all there in no time. It was James, with a riding skirt on; he had been riding the filly with a side-saddle. James was winded, but, by the holy frost, he was wild! He didn’t wait to unlock the waistband of his riding skirt; he tore hooks and eyes out, and got out of the skirt.
“Why, whatever have you been doing, James?” said Mary, as soon as she saw he wasn’t hurt. “Why, that’s Maggie Charlesworth’s side-saddle—and that’s her skirt! Where is she? Where did you leave her?”
James said: “Damn Maggie Charlesworth!” and then he went inside the house.
Maggie told us all about it afterwards. You see, when we broke a horse in to side-saddle, we used to hang a riding skirt from our belt or from a ring in the saddle, so that the horse would get used to the flapping of the skirt. Maggie lent James a skirt, and he hid it about the place. She wanted to ride the filly to the races at Coborrah on New Year’s Day, and she met James by appointment at the old branding yard down the creek that Sunday to see if she could manage the filly. James shifted the sidesaddle from Maggie’s horse to the filly, and Maggie persuaded him to put the skirt on and get on the filly. Women will get commonsensible, practical men to make fools of themselves all over the world.
They were in the old yard, but James hadn’t put up the rails yet, and the filly bolted with him. Now, as I told you, James wasn’t used to side-saddle, and the skirt handicapped him a lot, so all he could do was to hold on like grim death and swear.
Oh, but he was wild that Sunday. He sat inside and sulked, till he could stand the three-cornered conversation of the chaps no longer; then he jumped up and came out on the verandah.
“Look here, Dave Regan,” he said, “I suppose you think it was all very funny?”
“Yes, James,” drawled Dave, “I do—an’ that’s a fact.”
“You’re a —— fool,” said James, “and I wouldn’t mind taking a fall out of you now!”
The other fellows shifted their grins inside of themselves quick, but Mary went for James red-hot and cooled him a bit. While he was getting it from her, some one sings out—
“Why, here comes Maggie Charlesworth!”
She was riding James’ horse, on his saddle, but sideways, of course, and leading her own. As soon as she saw James she made for him, and held out both her hands, but he just scowled at her and jumped on his horse and rode away into the Bush.
“He’ll come round,” says Dave Regan.
Mary took Maggie inside, and, after a bit, I went in, grinning, to share the laugh with them, but Mary grabbed me, and twisted me round, and ran me out.
“Get out, you great fool,” she hissed.
Maggie was crying, fit to break her heart.
Ah, well, but it’s time to turn in. Some other time I’ll tell you about how Mary fixed up things between James and Maggie; how we put on Dave Regan to pretend to make love to her, and how Dave got an unexpected black eye.