WHEN Watson sacked me at Clune’s Crossing, I left the cattle and was making back through the Carnarvon Ranges to Chinchilla. I covered about eighty miles that day, and was camped on the edge of a scrubby gully near a large water-hole. ’Twas just dusk. My two horses were grazing close by. The fire sent up a column of thin smoke, and I was sitting on my haunches staring into it, half reproaching myself for having quarrelled with Watson, and wondering how the wife would take it, when I felt a slight touch on the shoulder. I started to my feet and found a woman standing before me.
“You seem surprised to see me,” she said.
“You gave me a bit of a start,” I answered, fighting for composure. “I didn’t expect to find a man within a hundred miles of here, to say nothing about a woman.”
“We live just up there,” she continued, pointing through the timber, “not a quarter of a mile away. I saw your fire smoking from the house, and thought I would come and ask you up for supper—come along.” And she turned and beckoned me away.
Endeavouring to utter some kind of thanks, I followed.
We soon reached the house. It was an ordinary bush hut, comprised of two rooms and a skillion. An irregular paling fence surrounded it, and at the back of the building was an old shed, a wood-heap, and a solitary peach tree. A pall hung over the place, and I noticed there was not a dog of any kind about. The woman shoved open the door and walked inside, removed her hat, and set about readying the table.
“Sit over here,” she said, placing a box at the head of the table for me, and I sat down to a good meal.
While I ate, the woman hummed, and engaged herself tidying the room and replenishing the fire.
I finished, and was reaching for my hat, when she turned and said,
“What I wanted you here for more than anything else, was to tell you that my husband died at three o’clock today and——”
“Died!” I said, clutching my hat and staring hard at her.
“Yes, poor old Jim,” she went on. “He’s in on the bed; and I would like you to stay in the house while I run across and tell his old mate about it. He lives over in the scrub.”
“Mad!” I said to myself; and, as an excuse to leave the place, I offered to run the errand and break the news to the man in the scrub, if she would direct me to the place.
“No,” she answered, fastening the strings of her hat, “I would rather go myself. But step in and see poor old Jim before I start.”
I couldn’t account for the feeling that came over me, but I placed my hand in my shirt, where I carried a revolver, and followed her into the bedroom. There on the bed was a dead man covered to the chin with a white sheet. I thought it ghastly.
“Just about three he went off,” the woman said, gazing into the face of the corpse.
I had seen enough, and returned to the front room.
“Well, if you’ll remain till I come back, I’ll be obliged,” the woman said. Then she opened the door, closed it quietly behind her, and hurried into the night.
Intending to leave the gruesome place as soon as she would be well away, I sat by the fire and reflected. Outside the wind moaned, and night birds whooped at intervals; inside, an old-fashioned clock, standing on the mantelpiece above my head, ticked, ticked, ticked. All else was silence.
“Strange!” I muttered, and rose to go, when the door of the death chamber opened, and the dead man, with the white sheet hanging loosely about him, walked out. I staggered back, and my head struck the clock. It toppled over and fell to the floor with a crash. The same moment my hand sought the revolver again.
“By God!” I said, pointing the weapon at the corpse or the living man, or whatever he was, “I’ll drop you if yon don’t tell me what all this means!” And, keeping him covered, I sidled for the door.
“Wait awhile,” he said calmly. “Don’t be afraid. And take a pull at this.” He drew a bottle from the folds of the sheet. “Your nerves have got a bit of a shock.” And he grinned and showed his teeth. I lowered the revolver an inch or two.
“I’m not dead,” he went on. “My wife believes I died today, though, and God, wasn’t she pleased!”
He sat down and commenced to explain.
“She’s not been faithful,” he whispered hoarsely, “and the fellow she’s gone to fetch here to-night is the cause of it. I’m going back to that bed again, and don’t you leave this room till they come. If you do, there’s a bullet in there waiting for you. Now take a pull.”
The bottle he proffered contained rum, and I put it to my head and drank.
The corpse returned to the bed and drew the sheet over itself.
I had just lifted the fallen clock from the floor and replaced it on the mantelpiece, when I heard a footstep outside. The door opened, and the woman, followed by a tall young fellow, entered. Scarcely noticing my presence, they passed into the bedroom. I glanced through the door, and saw them, side by side, peering at the form on the bed. After a while I heard the woman say, “If the old dog gets his dues his soul will never go to heaven.” The door then closed. A few moments more, and I heard the man gasp as if surprised. Then a gun went off. The woman screamed. The door flew open, and she rushed out. The “corpse” followed.
“Stop her!” he said calmly.
I felt dazed. The woman screamed again, and stood, pale and panting, beneath the clock. The husband raised the gun, took aim—God! such a report! I put my hands to my head. I reeled. I daren’t look round.
The husband went out and returned with a piece of tarpaulin.
“Give me a hand to put them in this,” he said.
I obeyed, and together we carried the burden out and placed it on the wood-heap. The next moment there was a blaze that threw a light for forty yards around.
“Never mention this to a soul,” the man said to me. “You promise?”
“Here’s five pounds to help you along. Now leave.”
Five weeks later I had taken a job of mustering fat cattle at —— Station, and, the work being finished, was continuing my journey to Chinchilla. I was jogging leisurely along the road, watching the sinking sun, when a mounted policeman overtook me.
“I’ve been looking for you,” he said.
I thought of that awful business. My brain whirled, but I strived to appear composed. Before I could make any answer he covered me with his revolver.
“Hands up!” he cried.
“Now then,” he said, fixing his eyes upon me, “what about that murder at Flannigan’s?”
“A murder?” I answered, and a terrible lump rose in my throat.
“Out with it!” he demanded firmly, “or out you go. While I count three. One—two—three!”
I couldn’t speak.
He lowered the revolver.
“You’ll do,” he said, “and thank your stars you didn’t squeak.”
Then he snatched the disguise from his face, and I stared at Flannigan.