Before leaving, the man sold five horses to Dad for £50. Horses were horses then; any old sketch was worth a £5-note, and Dad went among the neighbours boasting of the bargain he had made. Dad always let the neighbours know when he had made a profitable investment; it helped to keep their hearts up.
A brown mare among the five—by Butler, a blood horse, the man said—turned out to be worth more than £50 herself; not to Dad, though.
Dave fed her, and raced her at Pittsworth, and was promptly “taken up” on the course as soon as she won.
“Stolen from old Magnus, on the Barwon!” the policeman said; “been watchin’ six munch forrer.”
The other four were stolen also.
Dad cursed. Said he would never buy another (adj.) horse as long as he lived.
Then the neighbours chuckled. They always liked to remind Dad of any bad bargains he had made. It helped to keep his pride down.
Newspapers gave full accounts of the arrest of Palmer, alias “Whistler” Smith, on the Border.
“That’s the man,” Dad said. “That’s the d—n scoundrel—red whiskers, strapped trousers, bow-legged, finger missing—the daylight robber!” And he clenched his fists on the newspaper as though he held the delinquent in his grasp and walked up and down like a caged lion.
A constable from Toowoomba waited on Dad with a handful of legal documents and a cheque for fifteen pounds, to solicit his attendance at Maree Circuit Court as witness against Whistler Smith. He explained that the law couldn’t compel Dad to cross the Border, but if he could see his way to make the sacrifice he (the Law) was certain of a conviction.
“B’ heaven, then!” said Dad, “I’ve a mind to!”
He paced about, thinking the matter out. “If y’ do,” the Law observed, “call on the sergeant at Goondi, and he’ll fix you with a fresh horse and give you directions. An’ I’d advise y’, meself, to put a revolver in your pocket—it won’t be any load, an’ y’ might want it.”
“Pshaw!” Dad blurted out. “Pshaw, man! Wot wud I be doin’ with firearms? Haven’t I travelled the country long before you were born? An’ see”—(Dad paused before the constable, and raising his hands, punched his own left palm hard with his right fist)—“see here! An’ though I’m saying it meself, never yet did I see the man”—(Dad tapped his palm gently)—“never yet did I see the living man”—(Dad raised his right hand above his head)—“I was afeared”—(elevating his voice)—“to take me shirt off to!” Dad pounded his palm hard.
The constable smiled and said he quite believed it.
“Well, y’ better let it slide, an’ stay at home,” Dave said advisedly. “Y’r too old for that sort o’ thing now.”
Mother and Sarah, who were listening, agreed with Dave.
“Tut, tut,” Dad said, “not a bit of it—not a bit of it.”
Then his thoughts reverted to the £50 he had lost, and an angry, vindictive spirit rose within him.
“I’ll go; policeman!” he said, in a loud, decisive voice, “I’ll go!” And when Dad spoke in that tone persuasion was futile.
Mounted on his old brown mare, Dad started one Friday for Maree, and how anxious Mother became the moment he disappeared from view!
Maree was three hundred miles off on the New Couth Wales side, and most of the track and the country were new and unknown to Dad. Yet we were sanguine enough about him. Dad had always been a wonder and an object lesson to us in the way of courage and endurance. Floods, fires, droughts—nothing ever stopped him, and for anything the bush contained in the shape of beast or being he never held a dread.
But a drought was upon the land. Grass round Saddletop withered, stock poor, water scarce; and as Dad travelled on, covering mile upon mile, plain after plain, ridge after ridge, things got worse and worse. All was parched, perished; nothing but dust and desolation. The mighty bush was a vast sorrowful waste—cracked, burnt, baked. A horror?—It was hell!
Shapeless, blear-eyed, loony bullocks—grotesque caricatures, staggered pathetically by the way. All day a foul, fetid air filled his nostrils; hateful crows flocked from carcass to carcass, clamouring in fiendish exultation. And skeletons—skeletons and bones lay everywhere.
At intervals Dad met pairs of grim, sullen souls along this infernal avenue—mates on the terrible track—strong, able-bodied men—men with bright, clear intellects, not loafers, not liars—British men, Australian men—shouldering their swags, almost bootless in the blistering sand, plodding through sickening, thirst-provoking heat in search of a job.
Dad left Goondi with a fresh horse, a water-bag, tucker, a head full of directions, and a revolver.
The latter the sergeant had pressed on him, and Dad finally took it, saying, “Perhaps it’ll be company.” He carried it projecting from his coat pocket like a cob of corn.
The fourth day Dad penetrated a dense scrub, emerged on the bank of a creek, watered his horse, and, throwing the reins on the ground as with his own old mare, left him standing on the bank while he filled the water-bag. The brute made off. Dad tried to catch him, but the old moke was as knowing as a detective. He trotted when Dad ran and walked when Dad pulled up.
Dad was in a mess. Determined not to lose sight of the horse, he followed at its heels, sweating, swearing, tripping over ruts and sticks—followed till it got dark and he could see the fugitive no longer.
Weary and hungry, Dad rested at the foot of a gum-tree and thought of home and Mother and us, and called himself a darned fool, and wondered if, after all, convicting horse thieves was worth the candle.
In the morning Dad’s horse was only a few hundred yards away, standing, its hind-leg fast in the bridle. Joy! Dad’s heart thumped till he placed his hands on the brute and was in the saddle again. He was never so proud of a horse before. He leant over and patted it on the neck. Any other time Dad would have tugged its mouth and belted its ribs with a waddy.
A stifling day. The sky a great flaming oven. A hot wind blowing. Sandy, wretched, waste land to the right, the same to the left. Never a soul had Dad seen for forty miles but one solitary horseman, and he, at the sight of Dad’s revolver, had galloped away.
The sun went down a ball of fire. A swamp with water and ducks in it showed itself, then off the road a public-house—a dusty, tumble-down old rookery. A couple of saddle-horses outside, fastened to trees. Four persons lounged on the veranda, two with beards, strapped trousers, and spurs, the other two scarcely more than youths—one a half-caste.
“G’ day,” Dad said.
And when Dad dismounted every eye there was on his horse.
Behind the bar, hurriedly scrubbing a glass with a dirty towel in anticipation of trade, stood a lame, one-eyed warrior with scars on his head.
Dad called for a beer, then glanced back at the horse. Dad remembered the sergeant’s warning.
Dad took the beer and drank it at the door.
“Come far?” the publican said, eyeing Dad closely.
“Two hundred and fifty miles, I dare say,” Dad answered.
Dad was wondering whether he would answer or not when a horseman of the flash bush type reined up at the door. He spoke to those outside, then called out—“Riley!”
Riley crept under the counter and limped to the door.
“Th’ traps passed Bingiloo yesterday with the Queenslander,” the horseman shouted.
Riley didn’t understand. “With who?” he asked. “The witness to fix ‘Whistler’; they’re fetchin’ him in irons.”
The half-caste sniggered ironically. Riley looked grave.
Dad stepped out, and, clearing his throat, fixed the man on horseback with both eyes. “It’s a d—n lie!” he roared.
Every eye was upon Dad in an instant. For a moment a dead silence. Dad squared himself and stood up to it, hasty, haughty-looking.
“It’s a d—n lie!” he roared again. “F’r I’m th’ man, an’ where ‘re me irons?” He stepped aside, displaying his big feet for inspection.
The horseman scowled, but something he read in a glance from Riley changed his expression.
He dismounted and approached Dad, smiling. “You’re Mr Rudd, then,” he said, “from the head of the Condamine?”
“I am,” Dad answered, never changing a muscle. The man said he had been to Dad’s several times. He spoke well of it and told Dad he was a nephew of old Gray’s.
Dad forgot the sergeant’s warning. He seized Gray’s “nephew” by the hand and shook it.
“Wull, wull,” he said, “an’ I took y’ for a horse stealer”—and Dad chuckled by way of apology. Gray’s “nephew” chuckled also.
The publican proposed a drink. Dad drank and returned the shout. That was at seven o’clock.
Midnight. The moon shone fitfully and lit up the belt of cabbage gums; from the swamp came the trumpet note of wild geese; owls on noiseless wing were hunting round; a dim, sickly light flickered at the pub. Two horsemen rode away from it through the trees, leading a horse with a saddle on. From a back room a voice kept calling, “Dorgsh!—Robbersh!—P-ubli’an!—P-ubli’an!—wher’sh me—hic—r’holver?”
The voice was Dad’s.
The principal witness for the Crown failed to attend, and the case against Palmer, alias Smith, broke down.