― 60 ―

Keeping School at Dead Finish.’

A Reminiscence of ‘The Rivers.’

THE people at Dead Finish had never applied for such a thing, nor dreamt of, nor wished for it, neither they nor their children. These latter were mostly of an age now to be of use about the house or in the field. They had imagined themselves, these half-a-dozen or so of scattered families hidden in the gloomy recesses of coastal scrubs, quite secure from any officious interference with their offspring by the Government. And, without exception, they took it as a most uncalled-for act of tyranny, this proposed establishment of a school and a teacher in their midst, and well within the two-mile radius from all.

Here was the corn just ready to be pulled and husked, and got ready for Tuberville, and who was to do it with Tom, Jack and Bill wasting their time at a school?

‘If Mr Gov'ment was here,’ growled ‘Brombee’ O'Brien, the largest selector of the lot, ‘I'd give 'im a bit o' my mind. Wot bizness he got, comin' an' takin' the kids just as they're a-gittin' handy? Why didn't he come afore, when they was bits o' crawlers, an' no use to no one? Anyhow, me an' the missis niver 'ad no schoolin';

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an' why should they? Will learnin' cut through a two-foot log? Will 'rethmetic split palin's or shingles? Will readin' an' writin' run brombees, or drive a team o' bullocks, or 'elp to plough or 'arrer? No; it ain't likely: Then wot's the good of it? Garn? Wot they givin' us?’

Thus Mr O'Brien, at a meeting of neighbours specially convened to confront the unlooked-for emergency, and whose own ideas he voices to the letter.

And when, later, the Inspector (taken at first for the ‘Gov'ment’) puts in an appearance, the case is set before him precisely as above. But, instead of listening to reason, he only rated them, told them they ought to be ashamed of themselves, and dilated largely on the beauty and advantage of a Stage education at only three-pence per week each child, and one shilling for seven or over. A paternal Government, he said, had long mourned over their degraded and benighted condition; and, at last, having, after much trouble, and at great expense, secured a most accomplished gentleman as a teacher, resolved that one of his first tasks should be that of making Dead Finish an ornament, in place of a reproach, to the district.

This was, so the Inspector thought, putting the thing neatly indeed. But it was all of no avail. They not only unanimously refused to have anything to do with the erection of the school, but also to receive the teacher when he arrived. They swore, too, that their children should not leave work for education, and in the end, used language unrecordable here, and such as the Inspector had never in all his life heard before. But he

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persevered; and, bringing a couple of men from the township fifty miles away, set them to work.

Dead Finish was situated at the extreme head of one of those short Australian coastal rivers whose existence begins in boggy swamps and ends in a big sand-bar.

The country was mountainous and scrubby, abounding in ‘falls,’ springs, morasses, giant timber, dingoes, ticks, leeches, and creeks. The wonder was, not that anybody should ever have settled on it, but that, once there, they should ever manage to get out of it, as they did once in six months.

But for these few families on Dead Finish Creek, the district was totally uninhabited. It was hard to say where they came from originally. They were not a communicative people; but they were a hard-working, hard-living one, whose only wish was to be left at peace on the little patches they had hewn for themselves out of the mighty primeval forest that, dark and solemn, walled them in on every side. The spot chosen by the Inspector as the site of the new school was on the extreme edge of one of the lesser falls that ran sloping swiftly down three hundred feet or more into a small valley, generally full of mist and the noise of running waters.

A mile away lived a settler named Brown, who, after an infinity of coaxing and persuasion, and to the utter disgust of his neighbours, had consented to receive and board the teacher on trial. As with the rest of the Dead Finishers, ready money was so rare that the thoughts of that proffered twelve shillings a week tempted him, and he fell, and became a Judas to his fellows, and a mark

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for the finger of scorn—he and his wife and their ten children.

But the Inspector was jubilant; and after a last look around the little hut, smelling of fresh-cut wood, with its three forms, one stool, and bright, new blackboard, he departed, congratulating himself on the satisfactory finish of the campaign. Also he indited a minute and two memorandums to his Department with the intimation that ‘Provisional School No. 28,890, Parish of Dead Finish, County of Salamanca,’ was completed and ready for occupation. Whereupon, an animated correspondence took place, which, after lasting six months, was at last closed by the announcement that a teacher had been appointed. Then both sides rested from their labours, and the Inspector, feeling that his annual holiday had been well earned, took it.

Meanwhile, the little building perched on the brink of the gulf grew bleached and weather-beaten with wind and rain and fog, and the Dead Finishers derided ‘ole Gov'ment,’ and the Brown family emerged from coventry, and all was once more peace along the creek.

The winter passed, and a young man with thin legs and body, red hair, and freckled face, appeared in Tuberville and remarked to the residents generally that he would like to get to Dead Finish. He also added that he was the ‘new teacher’ for that place. He at once became an object of interest. People stared at him in much the same way as did those others, of whom we read, at Martin Chuzzlewit and the faithful Mark Tapley on their departure for Eden.

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The Tuberville people—the majority of them at least —knew of the Dead Finishers only by repute. These latter came in but twice a year to exchange corn and hardwood for stores, potatoes, and a little cash. At these times the programme was invariably the same. Their business done, the long-haired, touzly-bearded men drove their teams outside the town, and, leaving the bullocks in charge of the wild, bare-footed, half-clad boys, returned, and, clubbing their money, drank solidly as long as it lasted—generally two days.

They kept well together, and no one molested or interfered with them. It was not worth while. Their especial house was a short distance out, and when, borne up on the wind, came the roar of bush revelry, strange and uncouth, the townspeople merely remarked one to the other that ‘Them Dead Finishers must be in again down at Duffy's.’

Hence the interest taken in Mr Cruppy.

The Dead Finishers all drank ‘rum straight,’ and about two gallons was their respective allowance. That safely stowed away, they took their long whips out of the corner of the bar, called their rough cattle-dogs, lying beside them, and made off to the wilderness again for another fight with fire and axe against the stubborn forest, and to raise corn enough for the next trip to market.

That half-yearly or so excursion was their one treat, such as it was; and the toiling, hard-featured women at home, who never got away, acquiesced tacitly in the liquid wind-up of it. They never looked for any money on their men's return. What was the good of money at

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Dead Finish? No wonder the people laughed when the Inspector talked to them of ‘school fees.’

At last Mr Cruppy drifted into the ‘Bushman's Home’ in search of information. Could Mr Duffy tell him how to get to a place called Dead Finish? No; Mr Duffy was sorry, but he really couldn't. All he knew about it was that it was up in the mountains, and a rough, long road to travel. The new teacher, was he? Well, he was pleased to hear it, but opined that he'd find some pretty hard cases amongst the kids up there. Did he know Mr Brown at Dead Finish? Yes, he thought he did, and a very strong cup of tea he was. Going to stay there, was he? Well, he hoped that Mr Brown would make him comfortable. But, somehow, he was doubtful. As to getting there, he would have to trust to Providence. After a little more talk however, Mr Cruppy discovered that Providence, in this case, meant the sum of £4 sterling, for which the publican expressed his willingness to do his best to find the Dead Finish.

They were four days on the road, got bogged twice, capsized twice, and broke the pole of the buggy before they found Brown, who received them with more surprise than cordiality. Foreseeing ostracism again, he wished to go back from his agreement, and was surly to a degree.

He said he should get his head caved in. If no one else did it, ‘Brombee’ O'Brien would. A week's payment in advance mollified him somewhat. But, if Mr Cruppy had not been an orphan, friendless, and on his first appointment, he would have returned with Mr

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Duffy, who, very much to his surprise, had by the time he reached home, fairly earned his money.

The teacher's bedroom was a bark lean-to; his bed sacks stuffed with corn husks—and cobs. The food was hominy and pork, washed down with coffee made from corn roasted and ground. He ventured to remark that the accommodation was rough.

‘It are,’ replied Mr Brown. ‘We's rough. Take it or leave it. We niver arst fer no schoolin'. I'll get stoushed over this job yet. Brombee's got it in for me. So's the Simmses, an' all the rest ov 'em.’

With much difficulty the teacher got one of the boys to show him the way to the school. They had to cross Dead Finish Creek fourteen times to get there. Regarding the youngster as his first scholar, Mr Cruppy endeavoured to detain him, but with a yell he fled down the mountain; and, figuratively, the fiery cross was sent round.

Each day the teacher went up and waited in vain. No one came near the school. Then he essayed a journey of remonstrance from farm to farm, got bushed, was out for two nights, and would have been left out altogether only that Mandy Brown, who pitied him, went away and brought him in after running his tracks for a whole day. Then he simply sat down and waited despairingly. Then the Inspector came back from his holiday and visited Dead Finish, expecting to find everything in full swing. In his wrath he took out summonses against the whole settlement. No notice was taken of these until four troopers paid it a visit. Then it went into Tuber

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ville in a body, and was promptly fined and admonished. Returning, it sent its children to school—a horde of young barbarians, unkempt, unwashed, almost unclad, but stout and sturdy. And it was the time of the pulling of the corn! Therefore the elders had to work double tides to make up for the lost labour of their offspring, stolidly glaring at poor Cruppy as he tried to beat into their shock heads the mystery of A B C.

Amanda Brown was eighteen, buxom, bare-footed, curly-haired, red-cheeked, could ride as she put it ‘anythin' with hair on,’ use an axe like a Canadian, and was reckoned the best hand at breaking in a young bullock to the team of anyone about. And she, since her finding of Cruppy in the ranges, leech-infested and draggled, had taken him under her protection. But even she was powerless to influence the feeling of public indignation, daily growing stronger, against the Inspector, the teacher, and the ‘Gov'ment,’ and which ended in Cruppy being requested to clear out from Brown's. As the latter put it, ‘Mister,’ said he, ‘it ain't no good shenaneckin!’ I dussent keep you no longer. It's as much 's our lives is wuth. Brombee an' them's gittin' madder an' madder. Ef you won't slither complete, you'll 'ave to go an' camp in the schoolhouse up yonder. We'll sell you a pot an' a bit o' ration, an' ye'll have to do the best ye can.’ So Cruppy went, seeing nothing else for it, and Mr Brown once more held up his head amongst his fellows.

Despite his lack of physique, Cruppy had a certain amount of stubborn resistance and endurance within

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him, often observable in red-headed people. He was, in short, plucky, and unwilling to give in. And Mandy, out of the largeness of her heart, helped him all she knew how.

For instance, when Tom O'Brien (eldest son of ‘Brombee’) made his intention known of scaring the teacher out of Dead Finish, from Mandy came the few words of warning and the present of the old gun and some ammunition. Thus it happened that one night, when awakened by eerie yells from his lonely slumber, the teacher looked out and saw a wild figure clad in skins, and with a pair of bullock's horns spreading from its head, he felt no whit dismayed. Capering and shouting round the hut under the dim moonlight went the weird thing, enough in that desolate spot to make even a brave man shudder with the uncanny grotesqueness of it.

But presently there was a report—a cloud of smoke, and a flash out of the little window, and with a scream the thing dropped, then got up again, and ran swiftly out of sight.

‘Caught him fair smack, ye did,’ said Mandy, afterwards. ‘Them pellets o' coarse salt touched 'im up properly. He don't set down now without lookin' fer pillers. Tom won't try no more gammonin' to be a yahoo. He's full 's a tick ov sich sport, he is.’

Other attempts were from time to time made to frighten Cruppy out of the district, but they were of no avail. The holidays were approaching, and he had made

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up his mind to hold out at least until then in hopes of getting a shift from Dead Finish.

But one night, in melancholy mood, watching a piece of salt beef boil, and leaning over every now and again to take the scum off the pot, he heard the tramp of horses outside. Opening the door cautiously, he saw Mandy riding her own pony en cavalier, and leading another one ready saddled.

‘Come along,’ she said, without dismounting. ‘They're on their tails proper now. Wanter git the corn shelled for Tuberville. No more schoolin' fer the kids. They're a-goin' to put the set on ye to-night, hut an' all. Pap, and Brombee, an' the Simmses, an' Pringles, an' the whole push is out. They got four teams o' bullocks an' all the opes an' chains in the country, an' they're a-goin' to hyste school an' you over the sidin'. It'll be just one! two! three! an' wallop ye all goes! Roll up yer swag slippy an' come along.’

Cruppy, seeing at once that a crisis, not altogether unexpected, had arrived, did as he was told.

‘Now,’ said Mandy, leading the way into a dense clump of peppermint suckers, ‘le's wait an' see the fun. They reckoned as how, sleepin' so sound, you wouldn't know nothin' till you struck bottom in the crik. But they're euchred agin.’

As the night wore on noises broke its stillness, and dark forms moved athwart the little open space, whilst from far below in the gully came the faint clank of chains and the muffled tramp of cattle.

‘Look,’ whispered Mandy admiringly, ‘ain't they

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cunnin'? There's Pap, an' ole Brombee, an' young Tom, a-sneakin' the big rope roun' the hut. You'd niver ha' woke, sleepin' sound as ye does.’

Even as she spoke a shrill whistle was heard. Then from below came a tremendous volleying of whips, accompanied by hoarse yells of ‘Gee, Brusher! Darling up! Wah Rowdy! Spanker! Redman!’ As the noose tightened, the school first cracked, then toppled. The din below redoubled, and with a crash the building disappeared bodily over the brow of the hill.

‘That's domino!’ remarked Mandy calmly. ‘There won't be no more schoolin' at Dead Finish. Come along; I'll set ye on the track. Ye kin leave the horse an' saddle at Duffy's when you gits to the township. I shook 'em from ole Brombee. Won't he bite when he finds it out. But you,’ she went on, ‘needn't be scared. You seen him to-night doin' his best to break your neck. Well, so long! Give us a cheeker afore ye goes; an' don't forget Mandy Brown o' Dead Finish.’