Jack Denver died at Talbragar when Christmas Eve began,|
And there was sorrow round the place, for Denver was a man;
Jack Denver’s wife bowed down her head—her daughter’s grief was wild,
And big Ben Duggan by the bed stood sobbing like a child.
But big Ben Duggan saddled up, and galloped fast and far,
To raise the longest funeral ever seen on Talbragar.
Jack Denver was reckoned the most popular man in the district (outside the principal township)—a white man and a straight man—a white boss and a straight sportsman. He was a squatter, though a small one; a real squatter who lived on his run and worked with his men—no dummy, super, manager for a bank, or swollen cockatoo about Jack Denver. He was on the committees at agricultural shows and sports, great at picnics and dances, beloved by school children at school feasts (I wonder if they call them feasts still), giver of extra or special prizes, mostly sovs. and half-sovs., for foot races, etc.; leading spirit for the scrub district in electioneering campaigns—they went as right as men could go in the politics of those days who watched and went the way Jack Denver went; header of subscription lists for burnt-out, flooded-out, sick, hurt, dead or killed or otherwise knocked-out selectors and others, or their families; barracker and agitator for new provisional schools, assister of his Reverence and little bush chapels, friend of all manner of wanderers—careless, good-hearted scamps in trouble, broken-hearted new chums, wrecks and failures and outcasts of any colour or creed, and especially of old King Jimmy and the swiftly vanishing remnant of his tribe. His big slab-and-shingle and brick-floored kitchen, with its skillions, built on more generous plans and specifications than even the house itself, was the wanderer’s goal and home in bad weather. And—yes, owner, on a small scale, of racehorses, and a keen sportsman.
Jack Denver and Big Ben Duggan were boys together on the old selections, and at the new provisional bark school at Pipeclay; they went into the Great North-West together “where all the rovers go”—stock-riding and droving and over-landing, and came back after a few years bronzed and seasoned and with wild yarns.
Jack married and settled down on a small run his father had bought near Talbragar, and his generous family of tall, straight bush boys and tall, straight bush girls grew up and had their sweethearts. But, when Jack married, Big Ben Duggan went back again, up into Queensland and the Great NorthWest, with a makeshift mate who had also lost his mate through marriage. Ever and again, after one, and two, and three years—the periods of absence lengthening as the years went on—Big Ben Duggan would come back home, and stay a while (till the Great North-West began to call insistently) at Denver’s, where he would be welcomed jubilantly by all—even the baby who had never seen him—for there was “something about the man.” And, until late on the night of his return, he and Jack would sit by the fire in winter, or outside on the woodheap in summer, and yarn long and fondly about the Wide Places, and strange things they knew and understood.
How sudden things are! Ben was back (just in time for the holidays and the Mudgee races) out of the level lands, where distance dwells in her halls of shimmering haze, after following her for five years.
They were riding home from the races, the women and children in carts and buggies, the men and boys on horseback—of course. They raced each other along the road, across short cuts, through scrub and timber, and back to the slow-coming overloaded vehicles again, some riding wildly and recklessly. Jack Denver was amongst them, his heart warmed with good luck at the races, good whisky to wet it, and the return of his old mate. “We’re as good as the best of the young ’uns yet, Ben!” he cried, as they swung through the trees. “Ain’t we, you old——?”
And then and there it happened.
A new chum suggested that Jack had more than he thought aboard and was thrown from his horse; but the new chum was repudiated with scorn and bad words and indignation by bushmen and bushwomen alike—as indeed he would be by any bushman who had seen a drunken rider ride.
“I learnt him to ride when he was a kiddy about so high,” said old Break-the-News Fosbery, resentfully gasping and gulping, “and Jack wasn’t thrown.” It was thought at first that his horse had shied and run him against a tree, or under an overhanging branch; but Ben Duggan had seen it, and explained the thing to the doctor with that strange calmness or quietness that comes to men in the midst of a life’s grief. Jack was riding loosely, and swung forward just as the filly, a fresh young thing, threw back her head; and it struck him with sledge-hammer force, full in the face.
He was dead, even before they got him to Anderson’s Halfway Inn. There was wild racing back to town for doctors, and some accidents; one horse was killed and another ridden to death. Others went as a forlorn hope in search of Doc. Wild, eccentric Yankee bush “quack,” who had once saved one of Denver’s little girls from diphtheria; others, again, for Peter M‘Laughlan, bush missionary, to face the women—for they couldn’t.
Big Ben Duggan, blubbering unashamed by the bedside, put his hand on Mrs Denver’s shoulder, as she crouched there, wildeyed, like a hunted thing. “Nev—never mind, Mrs Denver!” he blurted out, with a note as of indignation and defiancejust for all the world as if Jack Denver had done a wrong thing and the district was down on him—“he’ll have the longest funeral ever seen in these parts! Leave that to me.” Then some of the women took her out to her daughter’s. Big Ben Duggan gave terse instructions to some of the young riders about, and then, taking the best and freshest horse, the crosscountry scrub swallowed him—west. The young men jumped on their horses and rode, fan-like, east.
They took Jack Denver home. They always took their dead home first, whenever possible, and no matter the distance, before taking them to their last long home; and they do it yet, I suppose. They are not always so particular about it in cities, from what I’ve seen.
But this was a strange funeral. They had arranged mattress and sheet in the bottom of a four-wheeler, and covered him with sheet, blanket, and quilt, though the weather was warm; and over the body, from side to side of the trap, they had stretched the big dark-green table-cloth from Anderson’s dining-room. The long, ghostly, white, cleared government road between the dark walls of timber in the moonlight. The buggies and carts behind, and the dead-white faces and glistening or despairingly staring eyes of the women—wife, daughters, and nieces, and those who had come to help and comfort. The men—sons and brothers, and few mates and chums and sweethearts—riding to right and left like a bodyguard, to comfort and be comforted who needed comfort.
Now and again a brother or son—mostly a brother—riding close to the wheel, would suddenly throw out his arm on the mud splasher of buggy or cart, and, laying his head on it, sob as he rode, careless of tyre and spokes, till a woman pushed him off gently:
“Take care of the wheel, Jim—mind the wheel.”
The eldest son held the most painful position, by his mother’s side in the first buggy, supported by an aunt on the other side, while somebody led his horse. In the next buggy, between two daughters, sat a young fellow who was engaged to one of them—they were to be married after the holidays. The poor girls were white and worn out; he had an arm round each, and now and again they rested their heads on his shoulders. The younger girl would sleep by fits and starts, the sleep of exhaustion, and start up half laughing and happy, to be stricken wild-eyed the next moment by terrible reality. Some couldn’t realize it at all—and to most of them all things were very dreamy, unreal and far away on that lonely, silent read in the moonlight—silent save for the slow, stumbling hoofs of tired horses, and the deliberate, half-hesitating clack-clack of wheel-boxes on the axles.
Ben Duggan rode hard, as grief-stricken men ride—and walk. At Cooyal he woke up the solitary storekeeper and told him the news; then along that little-used old road for some miles both ways, and back again, rousing prospectors and fossickers, the butcher of the neighbourhood, clearers, fencers, and timber-getters, in hut and tent.
“What’s the matter?”
“Ben Duggan! Jack Denyer’s dead! Killed ridin’ home from the races! Funeral’s to-morrow. Roll up at Talbragar or the nearest point you can get to on the government road. Tell the neighbours and folks.”
“Good God! How did it happen?”
But the hoofs of Ben’s horse would be clattering or thudding away into the distance.
He struck through to Dunne’s selection—his brother-in-law, who had not been to the races; then to Ross’s farm—Old Ross was against racing, but struck a match at once and said something to his auld wife about them black trousers that belonged to the black coat and vest.
Then Ben swung to the left and round behind the spurs to the school at Old Pipeclay, where he told the schoolmaster. Then west again to Morris’s and Schneider’s lonely farms in the deep estuary of Long Gully, and through the gully to the Mudgee-Gulgong road at New Pipeclay. The long, dark, sullenly-brooding gully through which he had gone to school in the glorious bush sunshine with Jack Denver, and his sweetheart—now but three hours his hopelessly-stricken widow; Bertha Lambert, Ben’s sweetheart—married now, and newly a grandmother; Harry Dale—drowned in the Lachlan; Lucy Brown—Harry’s school-day and boy-and-girl sweetheart—dead; and—and all the rest of them. Far away, far away—and near away: up in Queensland and out on the wastes of the Never-Never. Riding and camping, hardship and comfort, monotony and adventure, drought, flood, blacks, and fire; sprees and—the rest of it. Long dry stretches on Dead Man’s Track. Cutting across the country in No Man’s Land where there were no tracks into the Unknown. Chancing it and damning it. Ill luck and good luck. Laughing at it afterwards and joking at it always; he and Jack—always he and Jack—till Jack got married. The children used to say Long Gully was haunted, and always hurried through it after sunset. It was haunted enough now all right.
But, raising the gap at the head of the gully, he woke suddenly and came back from the hazy, lazy plains; the
Level lands where Distance hides in her halls of shimmering haze,|
And where her toiling dreamers ride towards her all their days;
where “these things” are ever far away, and Distance ever near—and whither he had drifted, the last hour, with Jack Denver, from the old Slab School.
“I wonder whether old Fosbery’s got through yet?” he muttered, with nervous anxiety, as he looked down on the cluster of farms and scattered fringe of selections in the broad moonlight. “I wonder if he’s got there yet?” Then, as if to reassure himself: “He must have started an hour before me, and the old man can ride yet.” He rode down towards a farm on Pipeclay Creek, about the centre of the cluster of farms, vineyards, and orchards.
Old Fosbery—otherwise Break-the-News—was a character round there. If he was handy and no woman to be had, he was always sent to break the news to the wife of a digger or bushman who had met with an accident. He was old, and world-wise, and had great tact—also great experience in such matters. Bad news had been broken to him so many times that he had become hardened to it, and he had broken bad news so often that he had come to take a decided sort of pleasure in it—just as some bushmen are great at funerals and will often travel miles to advise, and organize, and comfort, and potter round a burying and are welcomed. They had broken the news to old Fosbery when his boy went wrong and was “taken” (“when they took Jim”). They had broken the news to old Fosbery when his daughter, Rose, went wrong, and bolted with Flash Jack Redmond. They had broken the news to the old man when young Ted was thrown from his horse and killed. They had broken the news to the old man when the unexpected child of his old age and hopes was accidentally burnt to death. So the old man knew how it felt.
The farm was the home of one of Jack Denver’s married sisters, and, as there was no woman to go so far in the night, they had sent old Fosbery to tell her. Folks were most uneasy and anxious, by the way, when they saw old Fosbery coming unexpectedly, and sometimes some of them got a bad start—but it helped break the news.
“Well, if he ain’t there, I suppose I’ll have to do it,” thought Ben as he passed quietly through the upper sliprails and neared the house. “The old man might have knocked up or got drunk after all. Anyway, no one might come in the morning till it’s too late—it always happens that way—and—besides, the women’ll want time to look up their black things.”
But, turning the corner of the cow-yard, he gave a sigh of relief as he saw old Fosbery’s horse tied up. They were up, and the big kitchen lighted; he caught a glimpse of a shock of white hair and bushy white eyebrows that could have belonged to no one except old Break-the-News. They were sitting at the table, the tearful wife pouring out tea, and by the tokens Ben knew that old Fosbery had been very successful. He rode quietly to the lower sliprails, let them down softly, led his horse carefully over them, put them up cautiously, and stood in a main road again. He paused to think, leaning one arm on his saddle and tickling the nape of his neck with his little finger; his jaw dropped, reflecting and grief forgotten in the business on hand, and the horse “gave” to him, thinking he was about to mount. He was tired—weary with that strange energetic weariness that cannot rest. It was five miles from Mudgee and the news was known there and must have spread a bit already; but the bulk of the Gulgong and Gulgong Road race-goers had passed here before the accident. Anyway, he thought he might as well go over and tell old Buckolts, of the big vineyard, across the creek, who was a great admirer of Jack Denver and had been drinking with him at the races that day. Old Buckolts was a man of weight in the district, and was always referred to by all from his old wife down, as “der boss,” and by no other term. The old slab farmhouse and skillions and out-houses, and the new square brick house built in front, were all asleep in the moonlight. The dogs woke the old man first (as was generally the case), as Ben opened the big white home gate and passed through without dismounting.
“Who’s dat? Who voss die [there]?” shouted the old man as the horse’s hoofs crunched on the white creek-bed gravel between the two houses.
“Vot voss der matter?”
“Jack Denver’s dead—killed riding home from the races.”
“Vot dat you say?”
“Go avay! Go home and go to sleep! You voss shoking—and trunk. Vat for you gum by my house mit a seely cock mit der bull shtory at dis hour of der night?”
“It’s only too true, Mr Buckolts,” said Ben. “I wish to God it wasn’t.”
“You’ve got der yoomps, Pen. Go to der poomp and poomp on your head and den turn in someveers till ter morning. I tells von of der pot’s to gif you a nip and show you a poonk. Vy! I trink mit Shack Denver not twelf hour ago!”
But Ben persisted: “I’m not drunk, Mr Buckolts, and I ain’t got the horrors—I wish to God I was an’ had. Poor Jack was killed near Anderson’s, riding home, about six o’clock.”
Though Ben couldn’t see him, he could feel and hear by his tones, that old Buckolts sat up in bed suddenly.
“Mein Gott! How did it happen, Pen?”
Ben told him.
“Ven and veer voss der funeral?”
Ben told him.
“Frett! Shonny! Villie! Sharley!” shouted the old man at the top of his voice to the boys sleeping in the old house. “Get up and pring all der light horses in from der patticks, and gif dem a goot feet mit plenty corn; and get der double-parrelled puggy ant der sinkle puggy and der three spring carts retty. Dere vill pe peoples vanting lifts to-morrow. Ant get der harnesses and sattles retty. Vake up, olt vomans!” (Mrs Buckolts must have been awake by this time.) “Call der girls ant see to dere plack tresses. Py Gott, ve moost do dis thing in style. Does his poor sister know over dere across the creeks, Pen? Durn out! you lazy, goot-for-noddings, or I will chain you up on an ants’ bed mit a rope like a tog; do you not hear that Shack Denver voss dett?”
“I vill sent some of der girls over dere first thing in der morning. Holt on, Pen, ant I vill sent you out some vine.”
Ben rode with the news to Lee’s farm where Maurice Lee—at feud with Buckolts and a silent man—was, for he had known Denver all his life, and had gone, in his young days, on a long droving trip with him and Ben Duggan.
A little later Ben returned to the main road on a fresh horse. He turned towards Gulgong, and rode hard, past the new bark provisional school and along the sidings. He left the news at Con O’Donnell’s lonely tin grocery and sly-grog shop, perched on the hillside—(“God forgive us all!” said Con O’Donnell). He left the news at the tumble-down public-house, among the huts and thistles and goats that were left of the Log Paddock Rush. There were goats on the veranda and the place seemed dead; but there were startled replies and inquiries and matches struck. He left the news at Newton’s selection, and Old Bones Farm, and at Foley’s at the foot of Lowe’s Peak, close under the gap between Peak and Granite Ridge. Then he turned west, at right angles to the main road, and took a track that was deserted except for one farm and on every alternate Sunday. He passed the lonely little slab bush “chapel” of the locality, that broke startlingly out of the scrub by the track side as he reached it; and left the news at Southwick’s farm at the end of the blind track. At more than one farm he left the bushwoman hurriedly looking up her “black things.” and at more than one, one of the boys getting his bridle to catch his horse and ride elsewhere with the news.
Ben rode back, through the moonlight and the moon-shadow haunted paddocks, and the naked, white, ringbarked trees, along Snakes Creek, parallel with the main road he had recently travelled till he struck Pipeclay Creek again lower down. He turned down the track towards the river, and at the junction left word at Lowe’s—one of the old land-grant families. The dogs woke an old handy man (who had been “sent out” in past ages for “knocking a donkey off a hen-roost”—as most of them were) and Ben told him to tell the family.
At Belinfante’s Bridge across the Cudgegong Ben struck a big camp of bullock-drivers, some going down with wool and some going back for more.
“Hold on, Ben,” cried Jimmy Nowlett, from his hammock under his wagon as Ben was riding off—“Hold on a minute! I want to look at yer.”
Jimmy got his head out of his bunk very cautiously and carefully. and his body after it—there were nut ends of bolts, a heavy axle, and extremely hard projections, points, and corners within a very few short inches of his chaff-filled sugar-bag pillow. Slipping cannily on to his hands, and knees, he crawled out under the tail-board, dragging his “moles” after him, and stood outside in the moonlight shaking himself into his trousers.
Jimmy was a little man who always wore a large size in moleskins—for some reason best known to himself—or more probably for no reason at all; or because of a habit he’d got into accidentally years ago—or because of the motherly trousers his mother used to build for him when he was a boy. And he always shook himself into his pants after the manner of a woman shaking a pillow into a clean slip; his chin down on his chest and his jaw dropped, as if he’d take himself in his teeth, after the manner of the woman with a pillow, were he not prevented by sound anatomical reasons.
“You look reg’lerly tuckered out, Ben,” he said, “an’ yer horse could do with a spell too. Git down, man, and have a pint er tea and a bite.”
Ben got down wearily and knew at once how knocked up he was. He sat right down on the hard ground, embracing and drawing up his knees, and felt as if he’d like never to get up again: while Jimmy shook some chaff and corn that he carried for his riding hack into a box for the horse, and his travelling mate, Billy Grimshaw, lifted his big namesake half full of cold tea, on to the glowing coals by the burning log-looking just like an orang-outang in a Crimean shirt.
Ben got a fresh horse at Alfred Gentle’s farm under the shadow of Granite Ridge, and then on to Canadian (th’ Canadian Lead of the roaring days), which had been saved from the usual fate by becoming a farming township. Here he roused and told the storekeeper. Then up the creek to Home Rule, dreariest of deserted diggings.
He struck across the ages-haunted bush, and up Chinaman’s Creek, past “the Chinamen’s Graves,” and through the scrub and over the ridges for the Talbragar Road. For he had to see Jack Denver home from start to finish.
Glaring, hot and dusty, lay the long, white road; coated with dust that felt greasy to the touch and taste. The coffin was in a four-wheeled trap, for the solitary hearse that Mudgee boasted then was to meet them some three miles out of town—at the racecourse, as it happened, by one of those eternal ironies of fate. (Jones, the undertaker, had had another job that morning.) The long string of buggies and carts and horsemen; other buggies and carts and horsemen drawn respectfully back amongst the trees here and there along the route; male hats off and held rigidly vertical with right ears as the coffin passed; and drivers waiting for a chance to draw into the line.
Think of it; up early on the first morning, a long day at the races, a long journey home, awake and up all night with grief and sympathy. Some of the men had ridden till daylight; the women, worn out and exhausted, had perhaps an hour or so of sleep towards morning—yet they were all there, except Ben Duggan, on the long, hot, dusty road back, heads swimming in the heat and faces and hands coated with perspiration and dust—and never, never once breaking out of a slow walk. It would have been the same had it been pouring with rain. I have seen funerals trotting fast in London, and they are trotting more and more in Australian cities, with only “the time” for an excuse. But in the bush I have never seen a funeral faster than the slowest of walks no matter who or what might wait, or what might happen or be lost. They stood by their dead well out there. Maybe some of the big, simple souls had a sort of vague idea that the departed would stand a better show if accompanied as far as possible by the greatest possible number of friends—“barrackers,” so to speak.
Here all the shallow and involuntary sham of it, the shirking of a dull and irksome duty—a bore, though the route be only a mile or so. The satisfied undertaker, and the hard-up professional mutes and mourners in seedy, mouldy, greenyblack, and with boozers’ faces and noses and a constant craving for beer to help them bear up against their grief and keep their mock solemn faces. Out there you were carried to the hearse or trap from your home, and from the hearse or trap to your grave—and with infinite carefulness and gentleness—on the shoulders of men, and of men who had known and loved you.
There had been wonder and waiting in the morning for Ben Duggan; and the women especially, on the way home, when free from restraint, were greatly indignant against him. To think that he should break out and go on the drunk on this day of all days, when his oldest mate and friend was being carried to his grave. The men, knowing how he had ridden all night, found great excuses; bat later on some grew anxious and wondered what could have become of him.
Some, returning home by a short cut, passed over Dead’ Man’s Gap beyond Lowe’s Peak.
“Wonder what could have become of Ben Duggan,” mused one, as they rode down.
There and then their wonders ceased.
A party of road-clearers had been at work along the bottom, and there was much smoke from the burning-off, which must have made the track dim and vague and uncertain at night. Just at the foot of the gap, clear of the rough going, a newly-fallen tree lay across the track. It was stripped—had been stripped late the previous afternoon, in fact; and, well, you won’t know what a log like that is when the sap is well up until you have stepped casually on to it to take a look round. A confident skip, with your boot soles well greased, on to the ice in a glaciarium for the first time would be nothing to it in its results, I fancy. (I remember we children used to scrape the sap off, and eat it with satisfaction, if not with relish—white box I think the trees were.)
Ben must have broken into a canter as he reached the level, as indeed his horse’s tracks showed he did, and the horse must have blundered in the smoke, or jumped too long or too short; anyway, his long slithering shoe marks were in the sap on the log, and he lay there with a broken leg and shoulder. He had struck it near the stump and the sharp edge of an outcrop of rock.
There was more breakneck riding, and they got a cart and some bedding and carried Ben to Anderson’s, which was handiest, if not nearest, and there was more wild and reckless riding for the doctor.
One got a gun, and rode back to shoot the horse.
Ben’s case was hopeless from the first. He was hurt close to that big heart of his, as well as having a fractured skull. He talked a lot of the selections and old John Tierney, of the old bark school, and the Never-Never country with Jack—and, later on, of the present. “What’s Ben sayin’ now, Jim?” asked one young bushman as another came out of the room with an awestruck face.
“He’s sayin’ that Jack Denver’s dead, killed ridin’ home from the races, an’ that the funeral’s to-morrow, an’ we’re to roll up at Talbragar!” answered the other, with wide eyes, a blank face and in an awed voice. “He’s thinkin’ to-day’s yisterday.”
But towards the end, under the ministrations of the doctor, Ben became conscious. He rolled his head a little on the pillow after he woke, and then, seeming to remember all that happened up to his stunning fall, he asked quietly:
“What sort of a funeral did Jack have?”
They told him it was the biggest ever seen in the district.
“Muster bin more ’n a mile long,” said one.
“Watcher talkin’ about, Jim?” put in another. “Yer talkin’ through yer socks. It was more’n a mile an’ a half, Ben, if it was er inch. Some of the chaps timed it an’ measured it an’ compared notes as well as they could. Why, the head was at the Racecourse when the tail was at Old——”
Ben sank back satisfied and a little later took the track that Jack Denver had taken.