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Steve Brown's Bunyip.

THE general opinion of those who felt called upon to give it was that Steve Brown, of the Scrubby Corner, ‘wasn't any chop.’

Not that, on the surface, there seemed much evidence confirmatory of such a verdict—rather, indeed, the contrary.

If a traveller, drover or teamster lost his stock, Steve, after a long and arduous search, was invariably the first man to come across the missing animals—provided the reward was high enough.

Yet, in spite of this useful gift of discovery, its owner was neither liked nor trusted. Uncharitable people— especially the ones whom he took such trouble to oblige—would persist in hinting that none knew so well where to find as those that hid.

All sorts of odds and ends, too, from an unbranded calf to a sheepskin, from a new tarpaulin to a pair of

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hobbles, had a curious knack of disappearing within a circuit of fifty miles of the Browns' residence.

In appearance, Steve was long, lathy, awkward and freckled, also utterly ignorant of all things good for man to know.

Suspicious, sly and unscrupulous, just able by a sort of instinct to decipher a brand on an animal, he was a thorough specimen of the very worst type of far inland Australian Bush Native, and only those who have met him can possibly imagine what that means.

Years ago, his parents, fresh from the wilds of Connemara, had squatted on this forest reserve of Scrubby Corner. How they managed to live was a mystery. But they were never disturbed; and in time they died, leaving Steve, then eighteen, to shift for himself, by virtue of acquired knowledge.

Shortly after the death of his mother, he took unto himself the daughter of an old shepherd on a run adjoining—a fit match in every way—and continued to keep house in the ramshackle shanty in the heart of the Corner.

He had never been known to do a day's work if he could possibly get out of it; much preferring to pick up a precarious living by ‘trading’ stock, ‘finding’ stragglers, and in other ways even less honest than the last, but which nobody, so far, had taken the trouble of bringing home to him.

It was Sunday, and the caravan was spelling for the day.

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Greg, having had his dinner—only a half ration, as feed was scarce—and feeling but little inclined for a chat with the tiger, or the lion, or the bear, or any other of the sulky, brooding creatures behind the iron bars, whom he saw every day, and of whose company he was heartily tired, took it into his great head to have a look at the country.

So, unperceived of Hassan Ali, who was fast asleep in the hot sunshine, or any of the rest dozing in the tents, Greg, plucking a wattle up by the roots to keep the flies off, sauntered quietly away. He was not impressed by inland Australia. In the first place it was hot and dusty, also the flies were even worse than in his native Ceylon. Nor, so far as he could discover, was there anything to chew— edible that is—no tender banana stems, no patches of young rice or succulent cane. All that he tried tasted bitter, tasted of gum, peppermint, or similar abominations. He spat them out with a grunt of disgust, and meandered on.

Presently the scrub grew thicker, and, heated more than ever by the exertion of pushing his huge body through an undergrowth of pine and wattle, he hailed with delight the sight of a big waterhole, still and dark, in the very heart of it. Descending the slope at the far side of the thickly-grassed, open glade, Steve Brown, driving a couple of ‘lost’ horses, paused in dismay and astonishment at sight of the immense beast, black, shining wetly, and sending up thick jets of water into the sunlight to an accompaniment of a continuous series of grunts and rumbling noises.

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Hrrmp! hrrmp!’ blared Greg, in friendly greeting, as he caught sight of the figure staring fascinated.

And then he laughed to himself as he saw how the loose horses, snorting with terror, galloped off one way, and the horseman another.

But it was getting late; so, coming out of the water, and striking a well-beaten pad, he followed it. Supper time was approaching, and he kept his ears open for the shrill cry of Hassan Ali.

Meanwhile Steve had made a bee-line on the spur for home, with some vague idea surging through his dull brain of having caught a glimpse of an Avenging Power. It is mostly in this way that anything of the sort strikes the uneducated conscience.

‘What's the matter now?’ asked his wife as he entered, pale, and with hurried steps. ‘You looks pretty badly scared. Did the traps spot yer a-plantin' them mokes, or what?’

‘Traps be hanged!’ replied Steve. ‘I seen somethin' wuss nor traps. I seen the bunyip down at the big waterhole.’

‘Garn, yer fool!’ exclaimed his wife, who was tall, thin, sharp-faced, and freckled, like himself. ‘What are you a-givin' us now? Why, yer gittin' wuss nor a black fellow wi' yer bunyips!’

‘Well,’ said Steve, fanning himself with his old cabbagetree hat, and glancing nervously out of the door, ‘I'll tell yer how it was. Ye knows as how I dropped acrost that darkey's mokes when he was camped at the Ten Mile. Well, o' course, I takes 'em to the water in the

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scrub—you knows the shop—intendin' to hobble 'em out till such time as inquiries come this road. Well, jist as I gets in sight o' the water I seen, right in the middle of it, I seen—I seen—’ but here he paused dead for want of a vocabulary.

‘Well, thick-head, an' wot was it ye seed—yer own hugly shadder, I s'pose?’ said Mrs Brown, as she caught up and slapped the baby playing with a pumpkin on the floor. ‘Look better on yer, it would, to wind me up a turn o' water, an' it washin' day to-morrer, 'stead o' comin' pitchin' fairy stories.’

‘It warn't,’ replied Steve, taking no notice of the latter part of her speech. ‘But it was as big—ay, an' a lot bigger'n this hut. All black, an' no hair it was; an' 't'ad two white tushes's, long as my leg, only crookt, an' a snout like a big snake, an' it were a-spoutin' water forty foot high, and soon's it seen me it bellered agin and agin.’

‘You bin over to Walmsley's shanty to-day?’ asked his wife, looking hard at his pale face and staring eyes.

‘No, s'elp me!’ replied Steve; ‘not fer a month or more! An' yer knows, Mariar, as it aint very often I touches a drop o' ennythin' when I does go over.’ Which was strictly true, for Steve was an abstemious rogue.

‘Well, then, you've got a stroke o' the sun,’ said his better-half, dogmatically, ‘an' you'd best take a dose of salts at oncest, afore ye goes off yer 'ead wuss.’

Hrrmp! hrrmp! hrrmp!’ trumpeted Greg cheerfully, as at this moment, interposing his huge bulk before

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the setting sun, he looked in at the back door with twinkling eyes.

With a scream the woman, snatching up her child, bolted into the bedroom, leaving Steve quaking in an ecstasy of terror, as Greg, spying the pumpkin, deftly reached in with his trunk and asked for it with an insinuating grunt.

But Steve, pretty certain that it was himself who was wanted, and that his time had come at last, tumbled off the stool and grovelled before the Unknown Terror.

Without coming in further, Greg could not get within a foot of the coveted article. To come in further would be to lift the house on his shoulders, so Greg hesitated.

For ten years—long ago in the days of his youth—he had been a member of the Ceylon Civil Service, and had learnt discipline and respect for the constituted authorities. Also, besides being chief constable of his fellows, he had been a favourite at headquarters, had borne royalty itself, and was even named after Governor Gregory. Therefore, hungry as he was, Greg hesitated about demolishing a house for the sake of a pumpkin; but Steve, now on his knees in the middle of the floor, with that curling, snake-like thing twisting and twitching before his eyes, knew less than nothing of all this.

Had he been able, he would doubtless have prayed in an orthodox manner to be delivered out of the clutches of the Evil One. Being unable to pray, he did the best he could, which was indifferent.

‘Oh good Mister Bunyip,’ he quavered, ‘let's off this oncest, an' I'll takes them mokes back to the nigger.

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I'll give up them two unbranded foals as I shook off the carrier larst week, likewise the bag o' flour off his waggin. If yer'll go away, Mr Bunyip, I'll never plant nor shake nothin' no more. I wont—s'elp me! An' if yer'll go back quiet’—here the wall-plate began to crack, and Steve's voice to rise into a howl—‘I'll promise faithful never to come next anigh yer waterhole over yonder to plant hosses.’

As he concluded, Greg, having at length jammed his big head in far enough to just reach the pumpkin with his trunk, withdrew, taking both doorposts with him.

‘He's gone, Mariar,’ said Steve, after a pause, wiping his wet face; ‘but it wor the narriest squeak you ever seed. Took nothin', he didn't, only that punkin as was on the floor. Tell you wot,’ as his wife came trembling out of the other room, ‘we're a-goin' to shift camp. Neighbours o' that sort ain't ter be played with. Ain't it a wonder, bein' so handy like, as he never come afore? I knows how it was, now!’ he exclaimed, a happy inspiration seizing him. ‘It were all through them two larst cussed mokes! The feller as owns 'em's a flash blackfeller shearer. I had a pitch with him the night afore an' he reckons as how he'd just cut out ov a big shed on the Marthaguy. So I sez to myself, “You're good enough, ole chap, fer a fiver, ennyhow.” ’

‘What's that got to do with it?’ asked his wife softly, regarding the crushed doorway with affrighted face.

‘Don't yer see? The bunyip's the blackfeller's Devil. Ole Billy Barlow tell'd me oncest as he seen the head ov

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one rise up out of a lagoon. I'll have to fossick up them mokes, Mariar, an' take 'em to that darkey straight away, afore wuss 'appens. S-sh, sh-sh! Wot's that?’

It was Greg, who wanted his supper badly, and was soliloquising at the other end of the hut. He had been down to a little fenced-in paling paddock on the flat, and, looking over, to his delight had seen a crop of maize, sweet and juicy and not too ripe, also more pumpkins.

But with the love of the law and the memory of discipline still strong in him, he had returned to ask permission of the owner—the stupid white man who sat in his hut and talked nonsense. And now he was holding council with himself how best to make the fool understand that he was hungry, and wanted for his supper something more than a solitary pumpkin.

Hassan Ali, he knew, had but dried hay and the rinds of melons to give him. Here, indeed, was a delectable change, and Greg's mouth watered as he gurgled gently in at the opening which did duty for a window, and close to which the family crouched in terror.

Why could not the stupid fellow understand? Could it be that he and his were deaf? A bright idea, and one to be acted upon, this last!

Therefore, carefully lifting up and displacing half the bark roof, Greg looked benignly down and trumpeted mightily until the hut shook as with an earthquake, and the whole land seemed to vibrate, whilst his audience grovelled speechless. Then, finding no resulting effect, and secure in the sense of having done his uttermost to

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make himself understood, he went off with a clear conscience to the corn-patch and luxuriated.

‘It ain't no bunyip, Steve,’ wailed his wife, as they heard the retreating steps; ‘it's the “Destryin' Hangel” as I heerd a parson talk on oncest when I was a kid, an' that wor the “Last Tramp”—the noise wot shows as the world is comin' to an ind. It ain't no use o' runnin'. We're all agoin' to git burnt up wi' fire an' bremston! Look out, Steve, an' see if there's a big light ennywheres.’

‘Sha'n't,’ replied Steve. ‘Wot's the good? If it's the end o' the world, wot's the use o' lookin'? An' I b'lieve 'ere's yer blasted Hangel a-comin' agen!’

Sure enough, Greg, having had a snack, was returning just to assure the folk that he was doing well; that his belly was half full, and that he was enjoying himself immensely.

So he hrrmped softly round about in the darkness, and scratched his sides against the rough stone fireplace, and took off one of the rafters for a toothpick, and rumbled and gurgled meditatively, feeling that if he could only drop across a couple of quarts of toddy, as in the old Island days, his would be perfect bliss.

All through the hot summer night he passed at intervals from the paddock to the house and back, and all the night those others lay and shivered, and waited for the horror of the Unknown.

Then, a little after sunrise, a long, loud, shrill call was heard, answered on the instant by a sustained hoarse blare. as Greg recognised the cry of his mahout and keeper.

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And presently Steve, plucking up courage in the light, arose, and, looking out, shouted to his wife triumphantly,—

‘Now, then, Mariar, who's right about the bunyip! There he goes off home to the waterhole with a black nigger on his back!’