The Living Skeleton, who had been drowsing on his chair, beat the flies off and groaned.
“So’m I.” he replied, “but what’s a cove t’ do?”
“Sneak my key out of the Professor’s tent, and let’s go and have a drop of something.”
“It ain’t t’ be thought of, Nickie,” said Matty Cann, “where’d my livin’ be? The Professor ud give me the run, an’ there’s the missus an’ the kids.”
“No fear, he can’t pick up Living Skeletons at every Street corner. Living Skeletons are rarer than you think. Why, a man of your physique could get a Living Skeleton billet almost anywhere. What you want is a little more impudence and self-respect Matty. An artist like you ought to be able to make his own terms, and not be tied up like a calculating dog or a two-headed calf.”
“D’yeh think so?” said Matty, eagerly.
“Of course I do. Now, you just pinch the key of my cage. We’ll trot out and have a drink. No one will be a penny the wiser.”
It was early in the afternoon of a midsummer day. Professor Thunder’s Museum of Marvels was on show at ’Tween Bridges. The show was open for any casual sixpence but business in agricultural centres is dead at this hour, and the Professor and his wife slept in the tent of the Egyptian Mystic, and Miss Letitia, who was doorkeeper at the outer tent, overcome by the heat and burden of the day dreamed of that splendid time when she was to be acclaimed queen of the bare-back riders of all nations and generations.
Nickie thirst had been nagging at him for two hours past. He always contended that the Missing Link’s skin was provocative of a great drought. He pleaded with Matty, the bone man, appealing artfully to his professional pride, for Bonypart loved to feel in exalted moments that his position as the living skeleton was not insignificant after all.
“We can slip on overcoats, trot over to the Bridge Inn, have a drink, and return before the Professor wakes.” whispered Nickie.
“I couldn’t trust meself near th’ counter-lunch. Nickie. I couldn’t,” Mat replied.
But in the end the Missing Link had his way. Bonypart pulled on trousers and coat over his tawdry tights, Nickie turned back the ingenious head-piece and mask of Mahdi, the man-monkey, so that it hung between his shoulders, donned an overcoat and a pair of the Professor’s knee boots, and the two slipped under the tent, and made for Peter’s Bridge Inn, on the outskirts of a dusty township.
An hour later the Missing Link and the Living Skeleton were sitting under the pile bridge a mile above the township, with a bottle of whisky between them. Bonypart was eating bread and cheese with an avidity which demonstrated the abandonment of all professional instincts. Nicholas Crips was drinking whisky slightly diluted with creek water. His drinking cup was a rusty sardine tin.
Two hours later the Living Skeleton and Mahdi, the man-monkey, snored side by side in the shade of the bridge, the creek rippled at their feet, the sun blazed on the bushland on the left and right, and the whisky bottle stood between them.
Meanwhile, Professor Thunder’s Museum of Marvels was decorated with a placard, reading:
“Closed on account of illness in the family.”
Professor Thunder himself was racing about the township and through the surrounding scrub, seeking his missing exhibits, fearing the worst, and promising himself the satisfaction of a terrible vengeance when he laid hands on the recreant pair. He knew that Nickie had gone off in his skin as the Missing Link, and realised the danger of a possible exposure. To communicate his loss to the people of ’Tween Bridge would practically mean giving the game away. At the inn he had been given a description of the two strangers who had refreshed themselves with three long beers, and then bought a bottle of whisky and certain edibles, and taken the road to One Tree Hill. Thunder recognised the description, and his language shocked Peters, the publican, who had once been a sinner and the champion bullock driver of the Western District.
“Bread and cheese!” groaned the Professor, as he thrashed about in the scrub. “That Living Skeleton ’ll be as fat as a pig.”
At about ten o’clock that night Dan Reynolds, riding from One Tree Hill to ’Tween Bridges, and thinking of Annie, the Cockie’s daughter, whom he had left at the slip-rails, was amazed at a terrible apparition that arose before him on the moon-lit road. It was a strange, shaggy creature, half monkey half-man, covered from the top of his head to the knees in thick, crisp, tufted hair.
Dan’s horse snorted and, came back on his haunches, remaining so for an appreciable space of time, sitting up, glaring at the curious monster with dilated eyes and inflated nostrils, and Dan clung to the nag’s neck and glared too, even more astonished than his horse.
Never had Dan Reynolds beheld such an animal, never had he heard of its like, the horror of it out did all the fabled bunyips and Tantanoola tigers he had ever dreamed of. It was loathsome in its ugliness, capering there in the dust, brandishing a whisky bottle in the air, and uttering quaint, half-human yells and strangest feature of all, Reynolds noticed that it wore high, piratical hoots, coming well above the knee.
Dan uttered a yell of mortal fear, Dan’s horse gave a snort of terror, and bounding forward bolted at top speed down the track, rattled over the bridge, and dashed into Peter’s yard, tearing down a gate and upsetting a water-butt in his rash flight, and Dan clung to his neck all the way, to be brushed off when the terrified steed climbed into the stable over half the door.
The racket brought rush of men from Peter’s bar. They gathered Dan Reynolds out of the garbage, and carried him into the kitchen. After a long beer Dan was able to describe the bunyip he had seen in the moonlight on the One Tree Road.
Costello said it was a true jim-jam; he knew the breed well. He asked to be put on to the brand of whisky Reynolds had been drinking.
“Jim-jam, be jiggered!” cried Reynolds. “By ripes, I ought t’ kno a jim-jam when I see one, I’ve met plenty. Tell yeh, I’m ez sober ez a turtle, an’ I seen bin with me own naked eyes, not three yards off, jumpin’ round on th’ road, howlin’ somthin’ awful an’ shakin’ a bottle in the air.”
Peters thought it might be a bunyip. He had heard of a bunyip in Pig Creek.
Then Watkins had an inspiration “By gum,” he cried, “I know what!” He turned eagerly to Reynolds. “’Bout my height was it?” he said, “with reddish hair all ever him, an’ long arms reachin’ to his feet almost?”
Reynolds nodded, “Yes, yes,” he said, “it’s Perfessor Thunder’s Missin’ Link from the show up back o’ the school. I was in there—I seen him. He’s a terrible-lookin’ big monkey, next to a man. The show’s closed, an’ the Perfessor’s’ bin huntin’ all over th’ place after some-thin’. That’s what—it’s his Missini’ Link fer a quid.”
Reynolds gave further explanations, there was more excited talk, and then Watkins suggested an expedition to capture the monster.
“You can bet the showman ’ll be glad to pay a bit t’ have him back. He mus’ be scared about losin’ him, else he wouldn’t have kep’ it dark. It’ll be a lark, an’ it means drinks round at least.”
So it came about that a party, armed with guns and club and carrying strong ropes, started out from the Bridge Inn, under the guidance of Dan Reynolds, to capture the Missing Link, supposed to be at large in the vicinity of McCarthy’s paddock.
Nickie the Kid had awakened from his slumber under the bridge, had partaken further of the whisky, then divesting himself of his overcoat and replacing the mask and head-gear of Mahdi the man-monkey, had gone forth into the bush to proclaim his kingship to the trees, and awaken the echoes of the hills with Bacchic song. He was enjoying a song and dance near the spot where Reynolds came upon him, when the hunters discovered him. The sight filled them with proper awe and great discretion.
Mahdi looked a truly formidable brute, capering there in the shadow of the gums, and his cries, stifled and made animal-like by the mask, added to the qualms of the Party.
Nickie saw the hunters on the chock-and-log fence ready to retire precipitately should he advance with homicidal intentions, and a vague idea that he was performing professionally before an attentive audience took possession of his bleary mind. He capered fantastically, and made a foolish attempt to climb a tree. Then he jumped up and down like a monkey on a stick, throwing out his long arms, and growling ominously.
“By cripes, he’s er dangerous beggar,” said Scott. “He’d tear yer limb from limb. Better cripple him. I think.”
Scott raised his gun and fired. Fortunately, Scott was nervous, and missed, but the miss was a narrow thing, and Nickie heard the ping of the bullet and the plunk as it buried it in the bark of the tree behind him.
Suddenly a spasm of comprehension came to Nickie, despite the whisky, and he made a leap the gum-butt, and hastily entrenched himself. He was being fired at, and it was neither pleasant nor healthy to be fired at, that much he realised. He peered, monkey-like, from behind the tree, and made an effort to grasp the situation. Scott was taking aim again.
“No no,” said Watkins, “we mustn’t kill him unless it’s necessary. He’s very valuable. The Professor says he’s worth a matter o’ four thousand pounds. Let’s scatter an’ surround him, come up on him from all points, an’ knock him out with the sticks. Scott and Peters holdin’ their guns ready t’ pot him if he gets hold of anyone.”
This plan was adopted after some argument, and the party of hunters scattered, and commenced to close in towards Mahdi, the man-monkey, going very warily. Nickie had forgotten everything by this, however, and sitting with his back to the tree was drowsing, and faintly asserting that he was a king, the most mighty and dazzling’ of all monarchs known to man, when the valiant hunters fell upon him.
The rush came suddenly, and in a twinkling half-a-dozen clubs were battering at Mahdi’s unhappy head and thumping on his unfortunate ribs. Every man wanted to get a lick at the monster, and every man got it. Luckily, Nickie’s skull was thick, and the Mahdi head-dress offered it some protection, otherwise there would have been an instantaneous and fatal termination to the artistic career of Nicholas Crips.
As it was, Nickie’s senses were battered out of him, and within a few minutes, he was so bound round with rope that he looked like a huge Cocoon. Two saplings were cut, and suspended between these, and borne on the shoulders of eight men, the Missing Link was carried back through the township of ’Tween Bridges. The hunters shouted jubilantly, fired their guns, and yelled triumphant songs as they went, and the whole of the inhabitants turned out and made a triumphal march of it, pressing forward to see the monstrous ape dangling between the saplings.
So Mahdi, the Missing Link, was brought home to the Museum of Marvels. When Nickie was dumped on the floor of the tent, Madame Marve screamed believing he was dead.
“We shot him first,” Watkins explained, “an’ then we got at him with our sticks.”
“Great heavens!” gasped the Professor, thought of manslaughter flashing upon him. “You might have murdered him.”
“He might ’ave murdered us,” replied the veracious Watkins, “Why, his struggles was somethin’ awful, an’ he roared like a lion an’ bit an’ tore. It took ten of us t’ down him, an’ then he bit through Orton’s leg, an’ knocked Billy Tett sick and ’epless. I reckon it’s worth a flyer, mister.”
“But if he’s killed—if he’s killed!” cried the tremulous Professor.
Thunder and Madame Marve carried Nickie into he Mystic’s tent; the cut away the ropes that were choking him, and discovered that although gory and bruised, he still lived and breathed, and then the Professor, always quick to seize, an opportunity, stood the hunters a whole barrel of beer, and till well on to daylight ’Tween Bridges was agitated by drink and reiterations of the sensational story of the capture of the man-eating Missing Link.
At sunrise, Bonypart returned to the show, contrite and trembling for his billet, and by this time Nickie the Kid, his bruises painted with iodine, and his battered head liberally patched with court plaster, was sleeping off the effects of his overdose of whisky.
The truants had to be on duty early that day, for the story of the escape of the man-monkey and, his capture by the heroes of ’Tween Bridges brought people from all over the district to inspect the marvel, but Madhi remained on his straw in the dark recesses of his cage, stiff, sore and filled with bitterness, while Professor Thunder explained to his awed patrons the animal’s amazingly human viciousness, his love for drink, and his utterly depraved nature.
“D’yeh think I’m fallin’ into fat. Nickie?” whispered the Living Skeleton, from his pedestal that evening. “I ate an awful lot o’ cheese.”
The Missing Link shook his head and groaned. “Next time I get tight I won’t do it in character,” he said, “my realisation of the part is too convincing.”