A COLD, cloudy morning on the Condamine. There was no intermingling of “light” and “shade” on the landscape; no agreeable odours in the air; no buds; no animals about; nothing to soothe the ear, nothing to gratify the sight. The surroundings were hopeless, vile, sorrowful—the land was an endless, unconquerable mass of accursed prickly pear, through which the waterless river lay gaping like a crack in a brick wall.
The overseer, the day before, had taken Merton to task for blaspheming the pear and “talking in the ranks.”
“I wouldn’t take any notice of him, Magnus,” Ferguson said, referring to the incident, as they left the tents together with their hoes on their shoulders to begin again on the wretched pear.
“It’s all very fine, Freddy,” Merton answered, “but how can a fellow help himself? He’s always cocking his slant eye round to see what I’m up to, and nagging about something or other. Damn him, I do as much work for my seven shillings a day as anyone in camp, and a good deal more than some of them.”
“Still, I’d simply do it, and wouldn’t argue with any of them,” Ferguson replied kindly.
“I’d go balmy, Freddy,” Merton said. “You might just as well put me in St. Helena straight away.”
The men took their places; the hoes moved again; and scraps of leaf and pulp, and sprays of juice from the bruised pear, began to fly about in showers.
The overseer strolled here and there with watchful eyes, and for an hour nothing but the chop, chop, of the hoes, and a smothered oath from the men when the prickles pierced their skin, was to be heard.
Now and again Merton would glance round and catch the eye of the overseer turned in his direction.
“Look at him! His lamps are on me again!” he would mutter to Ferguson; but Ferguson would treat the matter lightly.
“He’s got to look somewhere, Magnus,” he would say, “and his eye is on the rest of us as often as it’s on you.”
“I’d like to hit him in it with this!” Merton growled viciously, uprooting a bunch of pear weighing about one hundredweight.
Ferguson smiled, and for a long while the work went on smoothly.
Merton began to get fidgety and irritable. Merton was never happy when he wasn’t talking or arguing with somebody.
Suddenly a mangy-looking kangaroo-rat, with most of the hair missing from its back, sprang out of the pear right in the teeth of a useless old dog that had been discarded by some of the selectors on the River, and had taken up its quarters with the pearcutters.
“Woh-h! Shoo-h!” Merton shouted, pointing his hoe at the marsupial. “A piebald!”
All the men looked round. The overseer, standing fifty yards off, turned and moved towards Merton.
The old dog, acting on the impulse of the moment, started up, and, on three legs, feebly pursued the vermin, yelping hard and hopefully in its tracks.
“Go it, you cripple!” Merton yelled satirically to the humorous mongrel.
The other men laughed.
“Didn ‘t I tell you Rover had some foot, Dinny?” Merton called to a sympathetic old Irishman with whom the dog had made friends.
“You did then, be gob!” Dinny answered, following the canine’s lame efforts, with admiration in his eye.
The overseer approached, and Ferguson, in an undertone, counselled Merton to get on with his work.
Merton lifted his hoe and made several savage slashes at the pear. Merton was a determined worker when the fit came on him. It took a good while for the fit to come on him, though; and it always went off quickly.
“Merton!” the overseer said sharply.
Merton looked round.
“I’ve spoken to you two or——
The piebald rat, pursued closely by a reinforcement of noisy canines that had mysteriously risen from some place or other, was racing back to the pear.
“Hoh-h! Look out for the piebald!” Merton yelled excitedly, ignoring the overseer, and charging forward.
Every man in the pear “looked out.” Being mostly British, a chase stirred their dull blood, and a desire to be in at the death took possession of them.
“Yooh-h!” they shouted, and brought their hoes and pitchforks to the “present.”
The rat was making a straight line for Dinny.
Dinny lost control of himself. He jumped forward, and heaved his hoe at it. The vermin veered off and headed for the overseer. More hoes flew after it, and the dog pressing hardest suddenly stopped and howled and dropped out of the hunt, lame.
“Men!” the overseer called angrily. He didn’t approve of their turn for sport. He didn’t attempt to kick the vermin when it was right at his feet, either.
“Look out!” Merton shouted warningly, and swung his hoe at the rat, and hit the overseer on the shins with the handle.
“Oo-h-h! Damn it! “ the overseer said, suddenly flopping into a sitting position on the ground. He suddenly rose again, and bounded about, clutching at the slack of his pants, as though the pain from his shins had suddenly shifted there.
“Aisy, sir, aisy I” Dinny said, coming to the overseer ‘s rescue. “’Tis the divvle’s own piece of pear yiz have picked up! “ And Dinny proceeded cautiously to remove a broad prickly leaf from behind the overseer.
The overseer trembled and twitched and flinched and whined: “E-ee!” And when Dinny cautiously fingered the leaf he yelled:
“Don’t! Don’t weigh down on it!. . . . Ee-e! . . . Pull straight, man!”
“By damn, sir! “ Dinny exclaimed, when the leaf refused to come away at the first pull, “but it have a dog’s grip iv you!”
A half-dozen other men gathered round to lend a hand, each of them suggesting a different method of operation.
“Let one do it! “ the overseer cried, and twitched some more, and whined again.
“Come out of the way,” Dinny said, and brushed the others aside.
With both hands inside his slouch hat he seized the prickly leaf firmly, and wrenched it away.
The overseer jumped in the air like a kangaroo shot in the tail, and made ugly faces, and placed his hand on the part to make sure the operation had been performed.
“’Tis off! ’tis off!” Dinny said with cheerful assurance. “’Tis there, see!” and he pointed to the leaf now on the ground.
Then the pain in the wounded shins re-asserted itself, and the overseer swore and limped about, and sat carefully down where there was no pear, and nursed his limbs and groaned.
“What th’ diwle did become iv th’ varmint?” Dinny asked, thinking of the piebald rat.
The others started discussing him.
“Get on with, th’ work . . . th’ whole damned lot of you!” the overseer broke out, recovering himself a little.
The men separated, and searched for their hoes, and disputed the ownership of them, and after swapping and changing about, commenced again.
The overseer crawled to his feet, and limped towards Merton. Merton was stabbing a pitch-fork into loose leaves lying about the ground, and throwing them on a heap.
“You’re to blame for all this,” the overseer began bitterly.
Merton leaned on the fork, and looked at the overseer with a clear, humorous eye.
The other men stopped working and stared.
“I’m not talking to any of you,” the overseer said, snapping his hand at them. They took the hint and began working again.
“It’s not the first time nor the fifth I have had to speak to you, Merton.”
Merton gazed thoughtfully at a bunch of pear that Ferguson was slashing at.
“An’ if there’s any more—”
A large black snake glided silently from under Ferguson’s hoe.
“Loo’ out, Freddy!” Merton shouted; “near your feet!”
Ferguson sprang back—so did the overseer. And all the men stopped again and stared. Some of them laughed. They all thought there was another rat.
Ferguson aimed blows at the reptile with his hoe, and made holes in the earth.
“Hit him!” the overseer shouted, springing further out of reach.
Merton stabbed at the snake with his pitch-fork, and buried the prongs in the ground.
“Another one!” the man working next to Ferguson cried out excitedly, dancing about and raining blows all round himself.
The other men rushed over.
Merton stabbed at his snake again, and it wriggled across the prongs of the fork.
“Look out!” he shouted wildly, and tossed the reptile high in the air above their heads. The men swore, and dropped their hoes, and scattered. The overseer, who was directly under the falling serpent, jumped backwards, and fell across a bed of pear, and gasped “Hell!” He seemed to think the snake was falling on him, too, and lashed out with his feet and hands, and covered himself from top to bottom with prickles. But the snake didn’t fall on the overseer. Merton dexterously caught it on the fork, and, with a cheerful shout, heaved it after the men, who scattered again, and swore more. Then one of them attacked it in the open with a hoe, and put an end to it.
“God bless my soul!” Merton said sympathetically, taking charge of the unhappy overseer, and becoming his benefactor, “you’re covered with the d—— things! They’re in your eyes! All over you, man! Come down to the river.”
“B-last you!” the overseer spluttered angrily. “Clear out! Get out of here!”
Merton retired, and started chopping. Then, along with Dinny, the overseer limped off to the bed of the river, where he took off his clothes, and lay shivering, while Dinny greased him all over with fistfuls of wet sand and mud, and rubbed it into his skin to kill the prickles.
The overseer didn’t dismiss Merton. He called the men together in the evening, and told them that pear-cutting was a black’s game, and went away himself.