“I’m sik. I’m goin’ to cleer.”
Sim swore a muffled oath under his abundant moustache, and looked around upon the unwonted disorder. The blue blanket and the rug had been stripped from their bunk; the spare, rough furniture of the big tent lay about in confusion; and amongst the grey ashes in the wide sod fireplace was a bunch of reddish hair. Peters fished this out, and examined it with as much astonishment as the phlegmatic, even-tempered navvy was capable of feeling. It was his wife’s hair, and had evidently been hacked off in a hurry, regardless of effect. Piled on the bush stool against the wall were Mrs. Peters’s clothes. Nothing of hers that Peters could recall was missing; even the big quondong ear-rings, of which she was so proud, were thrown upon the floor. Her hat was on the bed, and her boots were under the table.
Still clutching the mop of hair in his hand, Sim backed solemnly and soberly on to a seat, and sat for a few minutes gravely weighing the evidence. Obviously Fanny had gone off clad only in a blue blanket or a ’possum rug. This was most extraordinary, even for Fanny, but there was some satisfaction in it, since it should not be difficult to trace a white woman so attired.
Presently Peters arose and went forth to prosecute inquiries. On Saturday, before departing for Dunolly, he had asked Rolley’s wife to keep an eye on the missus. As he approached the gaffer’s tent, however, he heard a woman’s voice raised in shrill vituperation, and recognised Mrs. Rolley’s strident contralto.
“My poor mother that’s in heaven knew you, you——. She always said you was a——.”
And poor Rolley was inundated with a torrent of his own choice blasphemies. Simon Peters knew by experience that when Mrs. Rolley dragged her sainted mother into little domestic differences, she was at least two days gone in drink, and quite incapable of recollecting anything beyond Rolley’s shortcomings, so he turned away with a sigh, and carried his quest into the camp. Half an hour later he returned to his tent and resumed his thoughtful attitude on the stool. He had secured one piece of evidence that seemed to throw a good deal of light on the situation. Late on Saturday night someone had broken into Curly Hunter’s tent and stolen therefrom a grey tweed suit, a black felt hat, and a pair of light blucher boots. Peters, putting this and that together slowly and with great mental effort, concluded that Curly Hunter and Fanny were about the same height. He recollected, too, the explanation his wife offered when he discovered her back to be seamed and lined with scars.
“Dad done it,” said Fanny. “Poor old dad, he was always lickin’ me.”
“But,” gasped Peters, filled with a sudden itch to beat the throat of his deceased father-in-law, “you don’t mean to say the cowardly brute lashed you like that!”
“Didn’t he?” replied she, laughing lightly. “He used to rope me up to the cow-bail an’ hammer me with a horsewhip. Once when I set the grass on fire, an’ burned the stable an’ the dairy; another time when I broke Grasshopper’s neck, ridin’ him over Coleman’s chock-an’-log fence; an’ agen when I dressed up in Tom’s clothes, took a swag, and got a job pickin’-up in M‘Kinley’s shed.”
Early on Monday morning Peters had an interview with Curly Hunter. Hunter was sympathetic, and readily sold Sim the stolen things at a modest valuation, promising at the same time to observe a friendly reticence in the matter; but, for all that, two hours later everybody in the camp knew that Mrs. Peters had run off, and that “The Apostle” was away hunting for her. The general opinion, freely and profanely expressed, was that Simon Peters was a superlative idiot. It was agreed that Peters would have exhibited common-sense by sitting still under the bereavement, and casually thanking Providence for the “let off.” Since Mrs. Peters started a couple of ramshackle waggons down the gradient, and nearly smashed up Ryan’s gang, the camp had suddenly grown weary of her “monkey tricks.”
Mrs. Simon Peters was a woman of twenty-six, ten or twelve years younger than her husband, more comely, more decent, and more presentable in every way than the other wives of the camp. She did not get drunk in the bedroom end of Wingy Lee’s shanty on pay nights, did not use the picturesque idiom of the gangers in ordinary conversation, and in some respects had been a good mate to Peters. But it must be admitted that the camp had further justification in doubting the complete sanity of Simon Peters’s wife. She had an eerie expression that was quaintly accented by keen, twinkling, black eyes in combination with light red hair and rather pale brows; and she was possessed of a spirit of mischief that led her into the wildest extravagances. Her devilment was that of an ungovernable school-boy, without his preposterous sense of humour. An uncontrollable yearning for excitement impelled her to the strangest actions. She had another peculiar characteristic, not unknown to the camp, in her apparent insensibility to physical pain. Peters had been astounded by the fact that a burn, a cut, a scald, or a blow provoked no complainings from his wife and scarcely any regard. This indifference extended to the sufferings of others. After the blasting accident in the North cutting, Fanny, of all the women in the camp, was the only one who had the nerve to approach the mangled body of poor M‘Intyre, and she placidly worked over the shocking mass, still instinct with life, when the strongest men turned sick at the sight of it.
Sim made no effort to understand his wife, which was well, as he was only an average man, and she was past finding out. He concluded that her extraordinary conduct was just the natural unreasonableness and contrariness of women “coming out strong,” and made the best of the situation in which he found himself. Being an average man, Sim was a superior navvy; he only got drunk on big occasions, and, drunk or sober, treated his wife with indulgent fondness, and occasionally Fanny seemed fond of him in return; but then she had been very warmly attached to that father who used to bail her up in the cowshed and lash her with a horsewhip in the hope of converting her to sweet reasonableness.
On the Monday morning Peters first went up the road, seeking his wife, but no one at White’s had seen a slim young fellow in a grey suit pass that way, so he tried down the road, with better success. Clark, at the Travellers’ Rest, had seen “just sich a feller” as Sim described.
“They had a drink here Sunday, an’ left, making for Moliagul, it seemed t’ me,” said Clark.
“They?” queried Peters.
“Yes. There was two of ’em. The big feller shouted. A brown-faced chap, with a black moustache, an’ a deep cut in his chin, here.”
Simon’s grip made a dent in the pewter he held, and a grey hue crept over his cheeks and into his lips. Never before had he doubted his wife in this way; never through all her mad escapades had he had reason to question her fealty as a wife till now. Peters remembered the man distinctly; he had seen him about the camp, looking for work. The peculiar cleft chin would serve to identify him amongst ten thousand. Striding along the road the fugitives had taken, the navvy recollected hearing Fanny speaking enthusiastically of the tall, brown stranger as a fine man, and the grey in his cheek deepened to the colour of ashes, and his jaw hardened meaningly. His quest had suddenly assumed a terrible significance, and that fierce pallor and grim rigidity of the jaw never left him until its end.
Peters heard of them again in the afternoon, but got off the trail towards evening, and it was not till late on the following day that he picked up the scent. Then he talked with a farmer who had seen them.
“They slep’ in an old hut up in my grass paddock las’ night,” said the man, “an’ went up the road at about seven this mornin’.”
“Did both men sleep in the hut?” asked Peters.
“To be sure!”
Sim continued his journey, steadily, and with apparent unconcern, but cherishing an immovable determination to kill the brown-faced man the moment they met.
Early on the Wednesday morning Peters came up with the runaway. An old man watering a horse at a small creek told him, in answer to his inquiries:
“A tall chap, with a divided chin—name of Sandler, ain’t it? He’s here. I let him a bit of ringin’. That’s his axe you hear up the paddock.”
Following the ring of the axe, Peters soon came upon his man. Sandler stopped working as he approached, and turned towards him, resting on the handle of his axe. Sim walked to within a couple of yards of the stranger, and threw off the light swag he carried.
“You infernal hound!” he said; “where is my wife?”
Sandler started up in extreme amazement. “Keep off!” he cried. “What the devil do I know about your wife?”
Peters rushed at him with the fury of a brute, and the two men exchanged heavy blows. Then they closed, and wrestled for a moment, but Simon’s rage lent him a strength that was irresistible, and presently the other man was sent down with stunning force. As he attempted to rise, shaken and almost breathless, Peters, who had seized the axe, struck him once with the head of it, and Sandler fell back again and lay perfectly still, with a long, gaping wound over his left eye, from which the blood poured through his hair upon the new chips and the yellow grass. When Peters looked up his wife stood facing him. She wore blucher boots, a pair of grey trousers, and a man’s shirt, and carried an axe. She gazed composedly at the fallen man.
“What have you done, Sim? ” she asked.
“You ran away with that man?” He pointed at Sandler.
She nodded her head.
“He did not know I was a woman,” she said.