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- Children of the Bush - 40/48 -

was always considerably less swearing for a few feet round about where Peter M'Laughlan happened to be working in a shearing-shed. It seemed to be an understood thing with the men. He took no advantages, never volunteered to preach at a shed where he was working, and only spoke on union subjects when the men asked him to. He was "rep." (Shearers' Union representative) at this shed, but squatters and station managers respected him as much as the men did.

He seemed much greyer now, but still stood square and straight. And his eyes still looked one through.

When Peter came out and the crowd had cleared away he took Jack aside and spoke to him in a low voice for a few minutes. I heard Jack say, "Oh, that's all right, Peter! You have my word for it," and he got on his horse. I heard Peter say the one word, "Remember!" "Oh, that's all right," said Jack, and he shook hands with Peter, shouted, "Come on, Joe!" and started off with the packhorse after him.

"I wish I were going down with you, Joe," said Peter to me, "but I can't get away till to-morrow. I've got that sick rouseabout on my hands, and I'll have to see him fixed up somehow and started off to the hospital" (the nearest was a hundred miles away). "And, by the way, I've taken up a collection for him; I want a few shillings from you, Joe. I nearly forgot you. The poor fellow only got in about a fortnight's work, and there's a wife and youngsters in Sydney. I'll be down after you to-morrow. I promised to go to Comesomehow* and get the people together and start an agitation for a half-time school there. Anyway, I'll be there by the end of the week. Good-bye, Joe. I must get some more money for the rouser from some of those chaps before they start."

[ * There is a postal district in new South Wales called "Come-by-Chance"]

Comesomehow was a wretched cockatoo settlement, a bit off the track, about one hundred and fifty miles on our road home, where the settlers lived like savages and the children ran wild. I reckoned that Peter would have his work cut out to start a craving for education in that place.

By saying he'd be there I think he intended to give me a hint, in case anything happened. I believe now that Jack's wife had got anxious and had written to him.

We jogged along comfortably and happily for three or four days, and as we passed shanty after shanty, and town after town, without Jack showing the slightest inclination to pull up at any of them, I began to feel safe about him.

Then it happened, in the simplest way, as most things of this sort happen if you don't watch close.

The third night it rained, rained heavens-hard, and rainy nights can be mighty cold out on those plains, even in midsummer. Jack and I rigged up a strip of waterproof stuff we had to cover the swags on the packhorse, but the rain drove in, almost horizontally, and we got wet through, blankets, clothes and all. Jack got a bad cold and coughed fit to break himself; so about daylight, when the rain held up a bit, we packed up and rode on to the next pub, a wretched little weather-board place in the scrub.

Jack reckoned he'd get some stuff for his cold there. I didn't like to speak, but before we reached the place I said, "You won't touch a drink, Jack."

"Do you think I'm a blanky fool?" said Jack, and I shut up.

The shanty was kept by a man who went by the name of Thomas, a notorious lamber-down,* as I found out afterwards. He was a big, awkward bullock of a man, a selfish, ignorant brute, as anyone might have seen by his face; but he had a loud voice, and adopted a careless, rollicking, hail-fellow-well-met! come-in-and-sit-down-man-alive! clap-you-on-the-back style, which deceived a good many, or which a good many pretended to believe in. His "missus" was an animal of his own species, but she was duller and didn't bellow.

[ * "Lamber-down," a shanty keeper who entices cheque-men to drink. ]

He had a rather good-looking girl there--I don't know whether she was his daughter or not. They said that when he saw the shearers coming he'd say, "Run and titivate yourself, Mary; here comes the shearers!"

But what surprised me was that Jack Barnes didn't seem able to see through Thomas; he thought that he was all right, "a bit of a rough diamond." There are any amount of scoundrels and swindlers knocking about the world disguised as rough diamonds.

Jack had a fit of coughing when we came in.

"Why, Jack!" bellowed Thomas, "that's a regular churchyarder you've got. Go in to the kitchen fire and I'll mix you a stiff toddy."

"No, thank you, Thomas," said Jack, glancing at me rather sheepishly, I thought. "I'll have a hot cup of coffee presently, that'll do me more good."

"Why, man alive, one drink won't hurt you!" said Thomas. "I know you're on the straight, and you know I'm the last man that 'ud try to get you off it. But you want something for that cold. You don't want to die on the track, do you? What would your missus say? That cough of yours is enough to bust a bullock."

"Jack isn't drinking, Thomas," I said rather shortly, "and neither am I."

"I'll have a cup of coffee at breakfast," said Jack; "thank you all the same, Thomas."

"Right you are, Jack!" said Thomas. "Mary!" he roared at the girl, "chuck yerself about and get breakfast, and make a strong cup of coffee; and I say, missus" (to his wife), "git some honey and vinegar in a cup, will yer? or see if there's any of that cough stuff left in the bottle. Go into the kitchen, you chaps, and dry yourselves at the fire, you're wringing wet."

Jack went through into the kitchen. I stepped out to see if the horses were all right, and as I came in again through the bar, Thomas, who had slipped behind the counter, crooked his finger at me and poured out a stiff whisky. "I thought you might like to have it on the quiet," he whispered, with a wink.

Now, there was this difference between Jack and me. When I was on the track, and healthy and contented, I could take a drink, or two drinks, and then leave it; or at other times I could drink all day, or all night, and be as happy as a lord, and be mighty sick and repentant all next day, and then not touch drink for a week; but if Jack once started, he was a lost man for days, for weeks, for, months--as long as his cash or credit lasted. I felt a cold coming on me this morning, and wanted a whisky, so I had a drink with Thomas. Then, of course, I shouted in my turn, keeping an eye out in case Jack should come in. I went into the kitchen and steamed with Jack for a while in front of a big log fire, taking care to keep my breath away from him. Then we went in to breakfast. Those two drinks were all I meant to have, and we were going right on after breakfast.

It was a good breakfast, ham and eggs, and we enjoyed it. The two whiskies had got to work. I hadn't touched drink for a long time. I shouldn't like to say that Thomas put anything in the drink he gave me. Before we started breakfast he put a glass down in front of me and said:

"There's a good ginger-ale, it will warm you up."

I tasted it; it was rum, hot. I said nothing. What could I say?

There was some joke about Jack being married and settled and steadied down, and me, his old mate, still on the wallaby; and Mrs Thomas said that I ought to follow Jack's example. And just then I felt a touch of that loneliness that some men feel when an old drinking mate turns teetotaller.

Jack started coughing again, like an old cow with the pleuro.

"That cough will kill you, Jack," said Thomas. "Let's put a drop of brandy in your coffee, that won't start you, anyhow; it's real `Three Star.'" And he reached a bottle from the side-table.

I should have stood up then, for my manhood, for my mate, and for little Clara, but I half rose from my chair, and Jack laughed and said, "Sit down, Joe, you old fool, you're tanked. I know all about your seeing about the horses and your ginger-ales. It's all right, old man. Do you think I'm going on the booze? Why, I'll have to hold you on the horse all day."

"Here's luck, Joe!" said Jack, laughing, and lifting up his cup of coffee with the brandy in it. "Here's luck, Joe."

Then suddenly, and as clearly as I ever heard it, came Clara's voice to my ear: "Promise me, whatever you do, that you will never have a drink with Jack." And I felt cold and sick to the stomach.

I got up and went out. They thought that the drink had made me sick, but if I'd stayed there another minute I would have tackled Thomas; and I knew that I needed a clear head to tackle a bullock like him. I walked about a bit, and when I came in again Jack and Thomas were in the bar, and Jack had a glass before him.

"Come on, Joe, you old bounder," said Jack, "come and have a whisky-and-soda; it will straighten you up."

"What's that you're drinking, Jack?" I asked.

"Oh, don't be a fool!" said Jack. "One drink won't hurt me. Do you think I'm going on the booze? Have a soda and straighten up; we must make a start directly."

I remember we had two or three whiskies, and then suddenly I tackled Thomas, and Jack was holding me back, and laughing and swearing at me at the same time, and I had a tussle with him; and then I was suddenly calmer and sensible, and we were shaking hands all round, and Jack was talking about just one more spree for the sake of old times.

"A bit of a booze won't hurt me, Joe, you old fool," he said. "We'll have one more night of it, for the sake of Auld Lang Syne, and start at daylight in the morning. You go and see to the horses, it will straighten you up. Take the saddle off and hobble 'em out."

But I insisted on starting at once, and Jack promised he would. We were gloriously happy for an hour or so, and then I went to sleep.

Children of the Bush - 40/48

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