‘We couldn’t get a job on the home track, and we spent most of our money, like a pair of fools, at a pub. at a town way up over the border, where they had a flash barmaid from Brisbane. We sold our pack-horses and pack-saddles, and rode out of that town with our swags on our riding-horses in front of us. We had another spree at another place, and by the time we got near New South Wales we were pretty well stumped.
‘Just the other side of Mulgatown, near the border, we came on a big mob of cattle in a paddock, and a party of drovers camped on the creek. They had brought the cattle down from the north and were going no farther with them; their boss had ridden on into Mulgatown to get the cheques to pay them off, and they were waiting for him.
‘“And Poisonous Jimmy is waiting for us,” said one of them.
‘Poisonous Jimmy kept a shanty a piece along the road from their camp towards Mulgatown. He was called “Poisonous Jimmy” perhaps on account of his liquor, or perhaps because he had a job of poisoning dingoes on a station in the Bogan scrubs at one time. He was a sharp publican. He had a girl, and they said that whenever a shearing-shed cut-out on his side and he saw the shearers coming along the road, he’d say to the girl, “Run and get your best frock on, Mary! Here’s the shearers comin’.” And if a chequeman wouldn’t drink he’d try to get him into his bar and shout for him till he was too drunk to keep his hands out of his pockets.
‘“But he won’t get us,” said another of the drovers. “I’m going to ride straight into Mulgatown and send my money home by the post as soon as I get it.”
‘“You’ve always said that, Jack,” said the first drover.
‘We yarned a while, and had some tea, and then me and Jim got on our horses and rode on. We were burned to bricks and ragged and dusty and parched up enough, and so were our horses. We only had a few shillings to carry us four or five hundred miles home, but it was mighty hot and dusty, and we felt that we must have a drink at the shanty. This was west of the sixpenny-line at that time— all drinks were a shilling along here.
‘Just before we reached the shanty I got an idea.
‘“We’ll plant our swags in the scrub,” I said to Jim.
‘“What for?” said Jim.
‘“Never mind—you’ll see,” I said.
‘So we unstrapped our swags and hid them in the mulga scrub by the side of the road; then we rode on to the shanty, got down, and hung our horses to the verandah posts.
‘“Poisonous” came out at once, with a smile on him that would have made anybody home-sick.
‘He was a short nuggety man, and could use his hands, they said; he looked as if he’d be a nasty, vicious, cool customer in a fight— he wasn’t the sort of man you’d care to try and swindle a second time. He had a monkey shave when he shaved, but now it was all frill and stubble— like a bush fence round a stubble-field. He had a broken nose, and a cunning, sharp, suspicious eye that squinted, and a cold stony eye that seemed fixed. If you didn’t know him well you might talk to him for five minutes, looking at him in the cold stony eye, and then discover that it was the sharp cunning little eye that was watching you all the time. It was awful embarrassing. It must have made him awkward to deal with in a fight.
‘“Good day, mates,” he said.
‘“Good day,” we said.
‘We went into the bar, and Poisonous got behind the counter.
‘“What are you going to have?” he asked, rubbing up his glasses with a rag.
‘We had two long-beers.
‘“Never mind that,” said Poisonous, seeing me put my hand in my pocket; “it’s my shout. I don’t suppose your boss is back yet? I saw him go in to Mulgatown this morning.”
‘“No, he ain’t back,” I said; “I wish he was. We’re getting tired of waiting for him. We’ll give him another hour, and then some of us will have to ride in to see whether he’s got on the boose, and get hold of him if he has.”
‘“I suppose you’re waiting for your cheques?” he said, turning to fix some bottles on the shelf.
‘“Yes,” I said, “we are;” and I winked at Jim, and Jim winked back as solemn as an owl.
‘Poisonous asked us all about the trip, and how long we’d been on the track, and what sort of a boss we had, dropping the questions offhand now an’ then, as for the sake of conversation. We could see that he was trying to get at the size of our supposed cheques, so we answered accordingly.
‘“Have another drink,” he said, and he filled the pewters up again. “It’s up to me,” and he set to work boring out the glasses with his rag, as if he was short-handed and the bar was crowded with customers, and screwing up his face into what I suppose he considered an innocent or unconscious expression. The girl began to sidle in and out with a smart frock and a see-you-after-dark smirk on.
‘“Have you had dinner?” she asked. We could have done with a good meal, but it was too risky—the drovers’ boss might come along while we were at dinner and get into conversation with Poisonous. So we said we’d had dinner.
‘Poisonous filled our pewters again in an offhand way.
‘“I wish the boss would come,” said Jim with a yawn. “I want to get into Mulgatown to-night, and I want to get some shirts and things before I go in. I ain’t got a decent rag to me back. I don’t suppose there’s ten bob amongst the lot of us.”
‘There was a general store back on the creek, near the drovers’ camp.
‘“Oh, go to the store and get what you want,” said Poisonous, taking a sovereign from the till and tossing it on to the counter. “You can fix it up with me when your boss comes. Bring your mates along.”
‘“Thank you,” said Jim, taking up the sovereign carelessly and dropping it into his pocket.
‘“Well, Jim,” I said, “suppose we get back to camp and see how the chaps are getting on?”
‘“All right,” said Jim.
‘“Tell them to come down and get a drink,” said Poisonous; “or, wait, you can take some beer along to them if you like,” and he gave us half a gallon of beer in a billy-can. He knew what the first drink meant with Bushmen back from a long dry trip.
‘We got on our horses, I holding the billy very carefully, and rode back to where our swags were.
‘“I say,” said Jim, when we’d strapped the swags to the saddles, “suppose we take the beer back to those chaps: it’s meant for them, and it’s only a fair thing, anyway—we’ve got as much as we can hold till we get into Mulgatown.”
‘“It might get them into a row,” I said, “and they seem decent chaps. Let’s hang the billy on a twig, and that old swagman that’s coming along will think there’s angels in the Bush.”
‘“Oh! what’s a row?” said Jim. “They can take care of themselves; they’ll have the beer anyway and a lark with Poisonous when they take the can back and it comes to explanations. I’ll ride back to them.”
‘So Jim rode back to the drovers’ camp with the beer, and when he came back to me he said that the drovers seemed surprised, but they drank good luck to him.
‘We rode round through the mulga behind the shanty and came out on the road again on the Mulgatown side: we only stayed at Mulgatown to buy some tucker and tobacco, then we pushed on and camped for the night about seven miles on the safe side of the town.’