He took a subpoena to serve on the old man as a last resource.
Charlie was emphatic. “Go up and get hold of the old vagrant, and find out all about it. Don’t make a mess of it, whatever you do. Remember the old lady, and Miss Grant, and the youngsters, and all of us depend on you in this business. Don’t come back beaten. Don’t let anything stop you. Get him drunk or get him sober—friendly or fighting—but get the truth, and get the proofs of it. Choke it out of the old hound somehow.”
Hugh said that he would, and departed, weighed down by responsibility, to execute his difficult mission. He had to go into an untravelled country to get the truth out of a man who did not want to tell it; and the time allowed was short, as the case could not be postponed much longer.
He travelled by sea to Port Faraway, a tropical sweltering township by the northern seas of Australia, and when he reached it felt like one of the heroes in Tennyson’s Lotus Eaters—he had come “into a land wherein it seemed always afternoon”.
Reeves, the buffalo shooter, was a well-known man, but to find his camp was another matter. No one seemed to have energy enough to take much interest in the quest.
Hugh interviewed a leading citizen at the hotel, and got very little satisfaction. He said, “I want to get out to Reeves’s camp. Do you know where it is, and how one gets there?”
“Well,” said the leading citizen, putting his feet up on the arms of his long chair and gasping for air, “Le’s see! Reeves’s camp—ah! Where is he camped now?”
“I don’t know,” said Hugh. “I wish I did. That’s what I want to find out.”
“Hopkins’d know. Hopkins, the storekeeper. He sends out the supplies. Did you ask him?”
“No,” said Hugh. “I didn’t. I’ll go and ask him now.”
“Too hot to bustle round now,” said the leading citizen lighting his pipe. “What’ll you have to drink? Have some square; it’s the best drink here.
Hugh thought it well to fall in with the customs of the inhabitants, so he had a stiff gin-and-water at nine in the morning, a thing he had never done, or even seen done, in his life before. Then he went over in the blazing sunlight to the storekeeper, and asked whether he knew where Reeves’s camp was.
“That I don’t,” said the storekeeper. “I sind out what they want by a Malay who sails a one-masted craft round the coast, and goes up the river to their camp, and brings the hides back. They send a blackfellow to let me know when they want any stuff, and where to send it.”
“Perhaps I could go out with the next lot of stuff,” said Hugh. “When will they want it, do you think?”
“Well, they mightn’t want any more. They might go on now till the wet season, and then they’ll come in.”
“When is the wet season, then?”
“Oh, a couple of months, likely. Perhaps three months. Perhaps there won’t be none at all to speak of. What’ll you have?”
“Oh, I have just had a drink, thanks. Fact is, I’m a bit anxious to get out to this camp. It’s a bit important. You don’t know where they are for certain?”
“Lord knows! Anywhere! Might be on one river, might be on another. They’ll come in in the wet season. Better have a drink, anyhow. You must have something. What’ll it be, square? Beer? Can’t stand beer in this climate, myself.”
“Oh, well,” said Hugh desperately, “I’ll have another square. Make it a light one. Do you think I can get anyone who knows where they are camped to go out with me?”
“Tommy Prince’d know, I expect. He was out in that country before. But he’s gone with a bullock-team, drawing quartz to the new battery at the Oriental. At least I saw him start out three weeks ago. Said he was in a hurry, too, as the battery couldn’t start until he got the quartz hauled.”
“Perhaps he didn’t start,” said Hugh; “perhaps he put it off till after the wet season?”
“Well,” said the storekeeper, meditatively, “he might, but I don’t think he would. There’s no one else, that I know of, can find them for you. Lord knows where they are. They camp in one place till the buffalo are all shot, and then they shift to new ground. Perhaps ten miles, perhaps thirty. Have another drink? What’ll you have?”
“No, not any more, thanks. About this Tommy Prince, now; if I can find him he might tell me where to go. Where can I find him?”
“Down at the Margaret is where he camps, but I think he’s gone to the Oriental by this time—sure to be. That’s about forty miles down past the Margaret. There was a fellow came in from the Margaret for supplies, and he’ll be going back tomorrow—if he can find his pack-horses.”
“And supposing he can’t?”
“Well, then, he’ll go out next week, I expect, unless he gets on the drink. He’s a terrible chap to drink.”
“And if he starts to drink, when will he go?”
“Lord knows. They’ll have to send in after him. His mates’ll be pretty starved by now, anyhow. He’s been in town, foolin’ round that girl at the Royal this three weeks. He’ll give you a lift out to the Margaret—that’s forty miles.”
“What is there out at the Margaret when I get there? Is it a town, or a station, or a mine? What is it?”
“Oh, it’s not so bad. There’s a store there, and a few mines scattered about. Mostly Chinese mines. The storekeeper there’s a great soaker, nearly always on the drink. Name’s Sampson. He’ll tell you where to find Tommy Prince. Prince and his mates have a claim twelve miles out from there, and if Tommy ain’t gone to the Oriental, he might go down with you.”
“Supposing Tommy’s at his claim, twelve miles out,” said Hugh, “how do I get out?”
“I dunno,” said the storekeeper, who was getting tired of talking so long without a drink. “I dunno how you’ll get there. Better have a drink—what’ll you have?”
Hugh walked out of the store in despair. He found himself engaged in what appeared to be an endless chase after a phantom Considine, and the difficulties in his way seemed insuperable. Yet how could he go back and tell them all at home that he had failed? What would they think of him? The thought made him miserable; and he determined, if he failed, never to go back to the old station at all.
So he returned to his hotel, packed his valise, and set out to look for the packhorse man. He found him fairly sober; soon bargained to be allowed to ride one of the horses, and in due course was deposited at the Margaret—a city consisting of one galvanised-iron building, apparently unoccupied. His friend dismounted and had a drink with him out of his flask. They kicked at the door unavailingly; then his mate went on into the indefinite, leaving him face to face with general desolation.
The Margaret store was the only feature in the landscape—a small building with a heap of empty bottles in the immediate foreground, and all round it the grim bush, a vista of weird twisted trees and dull grey earth with scanty grass. At the back were a well, a windlass, and a trough for water, round which about a hundred goats were encamped. Hugh sat and smoked, and looked at the prospect. By-and-by out of the bush came two men, a Chinaman and a white man. The Chinaman was like all Chinamen; the white man was a fiery, red-faced, red-bearded, red-nosed little fellow. The Chinee was dragging a goat along by the horns, the goat hanging back and protesting loudly in semi-human screams; every now and again a black mongrel dog would make sudden fiendish dashes at the captive, and fasten its teeth in its neck. This made it bellow louder; but the Chinaman, with the impassibility of his race, dragged goat, dog, and all along, without the slightest show of interest.
The white man trudged ahead, staring fixedly in front; when they reached the store he stared at Hugh as if he were the Bunyip, but said no word. Then he unlocked the door, went in, and came out with a large knife, with which he proceeded to murder the goat scientifically. The Chinee meanwhile bailed up the rest of the animals, and caught and milked a couple of “nannies”, while a patriarchal old “billy” walked fragrantly round the yard, uttering hoarse “buukhs” of defiance.
It was a truly pastoral scene, but Hugh took little interest in it. He was engrossed with the task of getting out to the buffalo camp, finding Considine, and making him come forward and save the family. He approached the white, or rather red man, who cocked a suspicious eye at him, and went on tearing the hide off the goat. Hugh noticed that his hand trembled a good deal, and that a sort of foam gathered on his lips as he worked.
“Good day,” said Hugh.
The man glared at him, but said nothing.
“My name is Lambton,” said Hugh. “I want to go out to the buffalo camp. I want to find Tommy Prince, to see if he can go out with me. Do you know where he is?”
The man put the blade of the butcher’s knife between his teeth, and stared again at Hugh, apparently having some difficulty in focussing him. Then his lips moved, and he was evidently trying to frame speech. He said, “Boo, Boo, Boo,” for a few seconds; then he pulled himself together, and said, “Wha’ you want?”
“I want to get to the buffalo camp,” said Hugh. “You know Reeves’s camp.”
Here a twig fell to the ground just behind the man; he gave one blood-curdling yell, dropped the knife, and rushed past Hugh, screaming out, “Save me! Save me! They’re after me! Look at ’em; look at ’em!” His hair stood perfectly erect with fright, and, as he ran, he glanced over his shoulder with frightened eyes. He didn’t get far. In his panic he ran straight towards the well, banged his head against the windlass, and went thundering down the twenty or thirty feet of shaft souse into the water at the bottom, where he splashed and shrieked like a fiend, the noise reverberating up the long shaft.
Hugh and the Chinaman ran to the well-top, Hugh cursing under his breath. Every possible obstacle that could arise had arisen to block his journey; every man that could have helped him was away, or dead, or otherwise missing; and now, to crown all, after getting thus far, he had apparently struck a prize lunatic, and would have to stay in that awful desolation, perhaps for a week, with him and a Chinaman. Perhaps he would have to give evidence on the lunatic’s dead body, and even be accused of causing his death. All these thoughts flashed through his mind as he ran to the well-head. From the noise he made the man was evidently not dead yet, and, looking down, he saw his eyes glaring up as he splashed in the water.
“What’s up with him?” roared Hugh to the Chinaman.
“Him, dlink, dlink—all-a-time dlink, him catchee hollows.”
They had started to lower the bucket, when suddenly the yells ceased, a loud bubbling was heard, and looking down they saw only a dim, round object above the water. Without an instant’s delay Hugh put his foot in the bucket and signed to the Chinee to lower him. Swiftly and silently he descended the well, jumped out of the bucket, and grabbed the floating body of the drunkard with one hand, holding on to the rope with the other. The man had collapsed, and was as limp as a rag. Hugh made the rope fast under his armpits, and gave the old mining cry, “On top there, haul away.”
Heavily the windlass creaked. Mightily the Chinee strained. The unconscious figure was drawn out of the water and up the shaft, inch by inch. The weight of a man in wet clothes is considerably more than that of a bucket of water, and it seemed a certainty that either the old windlass would break or the Chinaman’s arms give out. Slowly, slowly, the limp figure ascended the shaft, while Hugh supported himself in the water, by gripping the logs at the side of the well, praying that the tackle would hold. The creaking of the windlass ceased, and the ascending body stopped—evidently the Chinee was pausing to get his breath.
“Go on!” screamed Hugh. “Keep at it, John! Don’t let it beat you! Wind away!”
Faintly came the gasped reply, “No can! No can do!”
He lowered himself in the water as far as he could, to deaden the blow in case of the fellow falling back on him, and screamed encouragement, threats, and promises up the well. Suddenly from above came a new voice altogether, a white man’s voice.
“Right oh, boss! We’ve got him.”
The windlass recommenced its creaking, and the figure at the end of the rope continued its slow, upward journey. Hugh saw the body hauled slowly to the top and grabbed by a strong hand; then it disappeared, and the sunlight once more streamed, uninterrupted, down the shaft. The bucket came down again, and Hugh clutched it and yelled out, “Haul away!” He could hear the men grunting above as they turned the handle.
When he had been hauled about fifteen feet there was a crack; the old windlass had collapsed, and he went souse, feet first, into the water. He sank till he touched the bottom, then rose gasping to the surface. A head appeared, framed in the circle of the well, and a slow, drawling colonial voice said:
“Gord! boss, are you hurt? The windlass is broke.”
“No, I’m not hurt. Can’t you fix that windlass?” roared Hugh.
“No!” came the answer sepulchrally down the well. “She’s cooked.”
“Well, hold on,” said Hugh. “I believe I can get up.” He braced his feet against one side of the well, and his shoulders against the other, and so, working them alternately, he raised himself inch by inch. It is a feat that requires a good man to perform, and the strain was very great. Grimly he kept at it, and drew nearer and nearer to the top. Then, at last, a hand seized him; half-sick with over-exertion, he struggled out and fell gasping to the ground. For a minute or two the universe was turning round with him. The Chinee and the strange white man moved in a kind of flicker, unreal as the figures in a cinematograph. Then all was blank for a while.
When he came to, he was lying by the well with a bag under his head, and the strange white man was trying to pour some spirits down his throat.
“I’m—all right—thanks!” gasped Hugh.
“By Gord, Mister, it’s lucky I happened to come along,” said the stranger. “You an’ Sampson’d ha’ both been drownded. That Chow couldn’t haul him up. Dead beat the Chow was when I came. I jis’ come ridin’ up, thinkin’ to get a few pounds of onions to take out to the camp, and I see the Chow a-haulin’ and a-haulin’ at that windlass like as if he was tryin’ to pull the bottom out of the well. I rides up and sings out “What ho! Chaney, what yer got?” And he says, “Ketch hold,” he says, and that was all he could say; he was fair beat. And then I heard you singing out, and I says to meself, “Is the whole popperlation of the Northern Territory down this here well? How many more is there, Chaney?” I says. And then bung goes the old windlass, and lucky it ketched in the top of the well; if it had fell down on the top of you, it’d ha’ stiffened you all right. And how you got up that well beats me. By Cripes, it does.”
“How’s the—man that—was down with me?” said Hugh slowly.
“What, Sampson? ‘E’s all right. Couldn’t kill’m with a meat-axe. He must ha’ swallowed very near all the water in that well. Me an’ the Chow emptied very near two buckets out of him. He’s dead to the world jes’ now. How do you feel, boss?”
“I’ll be all right in a minute,” said Hugh. “What’s your name?”
“I’m Tommy Prince,” said the stranger. “I jist kem in from my camp today for them onions.”
Hugh drew a long breath. The luck had turned at last.