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- An Outback Marriage - 20/39 -
of it made him determined to get away as quickly as possible. Quietly he awoke his mother, and told her what had happened, and by dawn was well on his way to Tarrong to catch the train to Sydney.
THE ROAD TO NO MAN'S LAND.
Now we must follow for a time the adventures of Charlie Gordon and the new chum, whom we left just starting out for 'far back', Charlie to take over a cattle-station for Old Man Grant, and Carew to search for Patrick Henry Considine. After a short sea-journey they took train to a dusty back-blocks township, where Gordon picked up one of the many outfits which he had scattered over the country, and which in this case consisted of a vehicle, a dozen or so of horses, and a black boy named Frying Pan.
Thy drove four horses in a low, American-made buggy, and travelled about fifty miles a day. Frying Pan was invaluable. He seemed to have a natural affinity for horses. He could catch them anywhere, and track them if they got lost. Carew tried to talk to him, but could get little out of him, for he knew only the pidgin English, which is in use in those parts, and said "No more" to nearly every question. He rode along behind the loose horses, apparently quite satisfied with his own company. Every now and then he came alongside the vehicle, and said "Terbacker." Charlie threw him a stick of the blackest, rankest tobacco known to the trade, and off he went again.
Once they saw him get off his horse near a lagoon, plunge his arm into a hole, and pull out a mud-turtle, an evil-smelling beast; this he carried for several miles over his shoulder, holding its head, and letting the body swing at the end of the long neck--a proceeding which must have caused the turtle intense suffering. After a while his horse shied, and he dropped the turtle on the ground with a dull thud.
"Aren't you going to pick him up again?" cried Carew.
"No more," replied Frying Pan, carelessly. Then he grinned, and volunteered a remark. "Make that feller plenty tired walk home again," he said. And this was his only conversation during a two-hundred-mile journey.
At night they usually managed to reach a station, where the man in charge would greet them effusively, and beg them to turn their horses out and stay a week--or a year or two, just as long as they liked. They met all sorts at these stations, from English swells to bushmen of the roughest. Sometimes they camped out, putting hobbles on the horses, and spreading their blankets under the buggy on a bed of long grass gathered by Frying Pan.
As they got further out, the road became less and less defined, stations fewer, and everything rougher. They left the sheep-country behind them and got out into cattle-land, where "runs" are measured by the hundred square miles, and every man is a law unto himself. They left their buggy after a time, and pushed on with pack-horses; and after travelling about two hundred miles, came to the outer edge of the settled district, where they stayed with two young Englishmen, who were living under a dray, and building their cattle-yards themselves--the yards being a necessity, and the house, which was to come afterwards, a luxury. The diet was monotonous--meat "ad libitum," damper and tea. They had neighbours within sixty miles, and got letters once in two months by riding that distance. "Stay here a while," they said to the travellers, "and take up some of the country near by."
"We're to take over the country Redman took up," said Charlie. "It joins you doesn't it?"
"Yes. See those far blue ranges? Well, we run to them on this side, and Redman's block runs to them on the other."
"Don't your cattle make out that way?" asked Charlie.
"No fear," replied he, laughing. "We've some good boundary riders out there."
"What do you mean?"
"The wild blacks," answered the Englishman. "They're bad out on those hills. You'll find yourselves in a nice shop when you take that block over. There's a pretty fair humpy to live in, that's one thing. What do you call the place?"
"No Man's Land."
"Good name, too," said the other. "It's not fit for any man. I wish you'd stop with us a while, but I suppose we'll see you coming back."
"I suppose so," said Charlie. "We won't be there longer than we can help. Who's on the block now? Redman sold his rights in it after he'd mortgaged it to my uncle."
"There's old Paddy Keogh there now--greatest old character in the North. Lives there with his blacks and a Chinaman. Regular oldest-inhabitant sort of chap. Would have gone with Noah in the Ark, but he swore so badly they wouldn't have him on board. You'll find him great fun."
"I suppose he'll give us possession all right. We don't want any trouble."
"He'd fire at you just as soon as look at you, I think," said the other. "But I don't fancy he wants to stay there much. It's not the first time he's been broke, so I don't expect he'll take it very hard. Well, if you won't stay, good-bye and good luck! Give my best wishes to old Paddy."
They resumed the weary journey, and after another two days' riding sighted away over the plain a small iron house, gleaming in the setting sun. "Here we are!" said Charlie. "That's No Man's Land."
The arrival was not inspiriting. They rode their tired horses up to the low-roofed galvanised-iron house, that looked like a huge kerosene-tin laid on its side, with a hole cut for a door and two holes for windows. There was no garden and no fenced yard. It was stuck down in the middle of the wilderness, glaring forlornly out of its windows at a wide expanse of dry grass and dull-green bushes. Behind it was a small duplicate, which served as kitchen and store. A huge buffalo-head was nailed to a tree near by. In front was a rail on which were spread riding-saddles, pack-saddles, hobbles, surcingles, pannikins, bridles, empty bags, and all manner of horse-gear; and roundabout were a litter of chips, an assortment of empty tins, bits of bullock-hide, empty cartridge-cases, and the bare skulls of three or four bullocks, with neat bullet-holes between the eyes.
Amidst this congenial debris roamed a herd of gaunt pigs, fierce-eyed, quarrelsome pigs, that prowled restlessly about, and ever and again returned disconsolately to the stinking carcasses of some large birds of prey that had been thrown out in the sun. They were flat-sided, long-legged, long-nosed, and had large bristling manes--showed, in fact, every sign of reverting to the type of the original pig that yachted with Noah. Living with them, in a state of armed neutrality, were three or four savage-looking cattle dogs, who honoured the strangers with deep growls, not condescending to bark.
Charlie pulled up in front of the house, and cooeed. A Chinaman put his head out of the kitchen door, smiled blandly, said "'Ello!" and retired. Gordon and Carew unsaddled the horses, put the hobbles on, and carried all the gear into the house. By this time the Chinee had donned a dirty calico jacket, and began in silence to put some knives, forks, and pannikins on the table.
"Where's the old man?" roared Charlie, as if he thought the Chinee were deaf.
"No more," he replied.
"Don't understand any English, eh?"
"No more," said he.
Just then a tramping of hoofs was heard; and looking out of the back door they saw, about two hundred yards away, a large horse-yard, over which hung a cloud of dust. Under the dust were signs of a struggle.
"He's in the yard," said Charlie. "Let's go up."
The cloud of dust shifted from place to place, and out of it came a medley of weird oaths, the dull thudding of a waddy, and the heavy breathing of men and animals in combat. Suddenly a lithe, sinewy black boy, dressed in a short blue shirt, bounded like a squirrel to the top of the fence and perched there; and through the mist they saw a very tall old man, holding on like grim death to the end of a long rope, and being hauled about the yard in great jumps by a half-grown steer. Behind the steer another black boy dodged in and out, welting and prodding it from time to time with a bamboo pole. Maddened by the blows, the steer would dash forward and narrowly miss impaling the man on his horns; then, taking advantage of his impetus, the old man would try to haul him into a smaller yard. Every time he got to the gate the steer yanked him out again by a series of backward springs that would have hauled along a dromedary, and the struggle began all over again. The black boy on the fence dropped down with the agility of a panther, took up the rope behind the old man, and pulled for all he was worth.
"Hit him there, Billy! Whack him! Come on, you son of a cow! I'll pull you in if I have to pull your head off. Come on, now!" And once more the struggle raged furiously.
Charlie clambered up on the fence and sat there for a moment. The old man saw him, but evinced no surprise. He just said, "Here, Mister Who-ever-you-are, kitch hold of that rope." Their united forces were too much for the steer, and he was hauled in by main strength under a fusillade of bamboo on his stern. Once in the small yard, he abandoned the struggle, and charged wildly at his captors. The old man slipped nimbly to one side, Gordon darted up the nearest fence, while Carew and the black boy got tangled up with the rope.
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