― 51 ―


‘YES, I'm from out back,’ said a dark, wiry little man, as he dismounted from his horse at a Queensland frontier-township hotel, in answer to a question from one of a knot of bushmen and drovers assembled in the verandah. ‘Out back beyond the Warburton, an' a nice warm time I've had of it, too!’

‘My eye!’ exclaimed the first speaker. ‘Been right away in that new country we been hearin' of, eh? What like a shop is it, mate?’

‘Oh, the country's right enough; lots o' grass an water,’ replied the newcomer, as, giving his horse to the groom, he strode into the bar, ‘only the mopokes is so cussed bad an' thick in them parts that there's no livin for a quiet man. Roll up, lads, an' give it a name! It's a long time since I felt so dry!’

‘What did yer mean by “mopokes,” just now, mate?’ queried an elderly, grizzled overlander, as, lighting their pipes, the party sat down on the wide wooden bench. ‘Was it snakes?’

‘No, friend, it weren't snakes. Wusser—a heap’ Howsomever—I reckon it's a hour or more till supper, so I'll just tell you how it all happened. Gosh! he

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exclaimed emphatically, ‘what a comfort it is to git into a Chrischin place agin!’

‘Well, boys,’ commenced the stranger, ‘last April, I 'greed with ole Davies—him as owns “Tylunga,” not far from this—to go out an' herd cattle for him on his new Adelaide country. Wages was good, three notes a week—I reckoned it were worth thirty afore I left—but as for the tucker, well, a feller never knows what he can live on till he tries it.

‘Howsomever, out we goes—him an' me an three others; an' in time we gets there all right, an' musters the cattle, which was bein' tailed at the head station—as they calls 'arf-a-dozen bark humpies on a waterhole. Then we drafts 'em into four moos an' each on us takes one away out to blazes into the bush, where the old chap shows us our runs, which was about six or seven mile apart.

‘Us herders had each a little hut to himself; so you see, mates, a feller warn't likely to quarrel with his neighbours.

‘“Now, Wilson,” sez old Davies, as he gits ready to start, arter puttin' the things out o' the waggonette at my hut—sez he, “Now, Wilson, take good care of them cattle in your charge, an' mind none o' them black rascals corne sneakin' about 'em. If you sees any, pepper 'em well. You've got a gun, an' lots of ammunition.”

‘You'll obsarve, mates, that, like a good many more of his sort, he never thinks o' the man. It's only the dashed stock as troubles 'em.

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‘Howsomever, off he drives, an' presently I catches a horse, as it was gettin' close to sundown, an' roun's up the mob an' puts 'em on camp, ties the dog up, lights a fire, an' tries to make myself at home 's well 's I could.

‘So a week or two slips away quiet enough, an' I was gettin' awful tired of the game. The cattle didn't hardly want any lookin' after, an' all I could find to do was cuttin' up green-hide an' plaiting whips. I thought that the month 'd never go by till rations—such as they was —was due from the head station on Wild Horse Lagoon, nigh on thirty miles away.

‘Up to this I'd never heard a bird singin' out after dark. But one night, as I was just a-fallin' off to sleep, mopokes begins cryin' like anything in the scrub close to the clear patch where the hut was. Suddently the dog starts barkin' like mad, an' I gets up an' gives him a cut with the whip. Back I goes to the bunk, an' lies down a-listenin' to them birds, an' thinkin' to myself as all the mopokes in Australy had got roun' the hut that night. Well, I cussed an' swore at 'em no end for kickin' up such a shine; an' Towzer a-growlin', an' a-snappin', an' pullin' at his chain all the time. In a bit, up I gets agen, and catches hold of the ole gun, opens the door, an' lets her off, both barrels. It was a moonlight night, an' I could see the backs of a few of the cattle from where I stood, as, scared by the row, they gets off their camp, an' I hears the horse-bell just over in the scrub. No more mopokes that night. But the next, at it they goes agen. Now one'd call, it seemed like close to the

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chimbly, then another, right at the head o' my stretcher —outside, o' course—“mopoke!” “more-pork!” “mo-po!” till I'm blessed if I didn't get properly on my tail, an' takin' the gun, I lets Towzer off o' the chain, and runs out an' bangs away, as fast as I could load her, at the scrub, where I reckoned them blasted fowls was a-roostin'. An' Towzer, he tears away into the bushes, barkin' most furious. No more mopokin' that night, but Towzer he never comes back agen. Thinkin' he'd took arter a kangaroo-rat, I goes inside, makes up the fire, boils a quart o' tea, an' waits for daylight, which I know'd couldn't be long.

‘ “I never did hear yet,” I says to myself, “of a feller bein' harnted by a pack o' birds; but I'm blessed if this game don't 'pear somethin' like it.”

‘You see, mates, I never dropped to the meanin' o' the racket; for though I've been stock-keepin' an' drovin' pretty near five-an'-twenty year now, I never had no experience afore o' the kind o' gutter-snipes as was disturbin' me these last two nights.

‘At bird-twitter, out I goes, 'spectin' to see Towzer under his sheet o' bark. I seen no Towzer; an’, what's more, I seen no cattle neither. They never moved off camp afore sunrise; an', fearin' les' they'd made a clean break of it, I runs into the hut, collars my bridle, an' off after the mokes.

‘When I gets into the scrub, I hears the bell just ahead, an' I hears, too, a few o' them cussed birds a-strainin' their throats, callin' about, as if they hadn't done enough through the night.

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‘Well, I follers the bell back'ards an' for'ards, without seemin' to get any nearer to the horses, till I was nigh sick o' stumblin' over logs; an' o' swearin' what I wouldn't do to 'em when I gets 'em, an' o' singin' out for Towzer.

‘All of a suddent, the bell sounds not ten yards away in a patch o' thick dogwood scrub, an' as I makes off full trot, I nearly falls over somethin' soft. Lookin' down, I sees poor ole Towzer lyin' there with his head caved in, and a bit o' broken spear stickin' in him.

‘My Colonial, mates! I tumbles fast enough then, when it were too late. Jumpin' through the scrub to where I last heard the bell. I runs slap up agen six ugly black beasts o' niggers, an' one on 'em was just a-startin' to shake the dashed bell, which was hangin' roun' his neck. Close to 'em lies my best horse, ole “Cossack,” dead's a herrin'.

‘I takes it all in in a flash; an' afore you could say “knife” I'd slung the bridle in their faces, and was makin' tracks for the hut at the rate o' sixty miles a hour —leastways it seemed so to me.

‘Whizz, whizz! come the spears; but the scrub was too thick, and ne'er a one touches me. Yellin' like ole Nick, after me they tears, full split, but I show's 'em good foot for it till I comes in sight o' the hut, a-standin' there so quiet-like, with the chimbly smokin' away, an' the door wide open.

‘Now, mates, what should make me, insted o' rushin' in an' gettin' the gun, an' lettin' the darkies know what

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o'clock it was, rip right past the hut an' shin up a big gum tree about twenty yards away? I can't make out what come over me to do sich a thing. But so it were. An' up I swarms to nearly the top limb as the murderin' willians comes out on to the open. In another minute eight or nine others tumbles out o' the hut, where they'd been waitin' on chance I might git away from the fust gang, an' they all gathers roun' the ole gum, a-lookin' up, for all the world like a lot o' hungry dogs at a 'possum.

‘ “Mo-poke, mo-poke!” sings out one, an' another lot comes runnin' up from the back scrub, just about where I should ha' hit if the Lord hadn't put it into my mind to take the tree for it.

‘But this pitchin's terrible dry work, lads,’ suddenly broke off the narrator. ‘Come inside, an' let's have another long-sleever apiece, an' then I'll finish the yarn. Spite o' them “mopokes” I've got a bit o' stuff left yet.

‘Well, mates,’ went on Wilson, as the party resumed their seats, ‘the darkies throwed their spears, an' slings their bommerangs, but it weren't no use, I was too high up for 'em, and the nighest spear as come out of a couple o' dozen, sticks in a good six foot below my limb. Seein' this, one beggar gets the axe from the wood-heap. But she were old an' blunt like her owner, ole Davies, an' I soon see by the way they shapes as it'd take 'em a couple o' years to fall me. For a while they niggles away at the big butt, turn an' turn about, then jacks the contract, gruntin' like a lot o' pigs.

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‘Next move were, one gets the gun out o' the hut, an' I scwoushes down into a six-inch heap, till I remembers she weren't loaded; an' I didn't give 'em credit for knowin' how to do that.

‘The mopoke as got her points her most careful, with the stock agen his belly, an' with a grin at his mates, as much as to reckon, “You watch me pot him,” he shouts “Bung!” an' as true's I'm sittin' here, I bursts out larfin' to see them black fools a-starin' up so hard, and wonderin' why I didn't fall down dead man.

‘Presen'ly, 'bout half way up my tree, they spots a good-sized pipe, an' bringin' a fire-stick from the hut, up one comes like a lamplighter. I knowed the ole gum was sound an' green enough at the butt, but I sees by the pipe that some of the top limbs must be holler, an' I didn't fancy this last move a little bit. So, as he's busy straddled-out, a-blowin' and a-puffin' to raise the flame, I nips down, pulls out the spear, an' lets drive at him 's hard 's I could. You never see such a thing in your lives! It hit him just acrost the loins, an' goes more'n half way through him. He just gives a wriggle or two and twists over into a fork and lies there, a proper stiff 'un.

‘You bet, lads, I was proud's a dog with a tin tail; an' sez I, “One for poor Towzer, you pot-bellied willian!” By gosh! didn't they yell, an' dance, an' carry on when they sees this, an' me safe agen back in the ole perch.

‘Runnin' to the hut, they tears out the slabs in a

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wink, piles 'em up at the butt of the ole gum, and sets fire to 'em.

‘In a minute or two, I couldn't see a stem for smoke; but, as they was green belar, not a blaze could they get out of 'em.

‘Well, I was squattin' up there, a-peepin' down through the smoke for the next feller as wanted to show off his climbin' abilities, when I hears a noise of horses gallopin', an' men shoutin', an' shots a-poppin' off like Billy-ho.

‘Down I comes through the smoke, an' just clear o' the tree was five darkies a-lyin stretched out as would never cry “mo-poke!” no more. Not another soul, dead or alive, could I see. But presen'ly back canters ole Davies, an' says he, cool as you like, “Hello, Wilson,” says he, “is that you? Where's the rest o' the cattle? There's eight head short yet!” Darn his ole skin, an' all bosses like him, as thinks more of a few head o' stock than a man's life!

‘You see, lads, when the cattle, disturbed by poor Towzer a-barkin', and me a-firin', moves quietly off afore daybreak, one lot of nigs follers 'em up, an' one lot stops to 'tend on me.

‘Them with the cattle, after they'd gone a little way, starts a-spearin' 'em, an' the mob breaks, an' never stops till they gets to the fust seven-mile hut, where the other lot was; and the chap there, seein' some with spears stickin' in 'em, gallops off to the head station, and out comes ole Davies an' all hands.

‘No; no more new country for me—not if I knows it!

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I'm a-gettin' too old now for such a little game as they played on me out there. Is that the supper-bell a-ringin'? Well, it's the finest sound I've heard for five 'underd miles an' more.’