― 105 ―

The Duke of Silversheen.

Quœ amissa, salva

THE parlour of the ‘Woolpack' was full of men in from their stations for ‘Land Court Day.’ A babel of talk was toward—mostly ‘shop.’ ‘Footrot!’ shouted a small energetic looking man, ‘I'll tell you how I cure my sheep! You boil vinegar, and arsenic, and bluestone up—No, Polly, I ordered lager. And then—’ ‘Worms,’ my dear fellow, another was saying, ‘You can't cure'em! Don't tell me! You go and make an infernal chemist's shop of your sheep's stomach, ruin the wool and constitution; and, after all your trouble, up bobs the little worm serenely as ever.’ ‘Strike,’ came from another corner of the big room. ‘No fear! No strike this year if we hang together like we mean to do. I think we're pretty right in this district, anyhow. Everybody's joined, bar M'Pherson, and he'll come-to presently. By jingo, here he is! Touch the bell, Bob, and let's have 'em again.’ As the speaker finished, a burly, grey-whiskered man entered with, in his wake, another person who had evidently been closely pressing his companion

  ― 106 ―
with argument and persuasion, for the latter was saying irritably,—

‘Once for a', I tell ye, no. I'll nae join. I'll just stan' on my ain bottom, an' employ wha I like. When I want my wool aff, aff it comes; an' wha takes it aff I dinna care a damn, so it's taken off to my satisfaction! Will that do ye?’

‘The gospel of selfishness according to M'Pherson,’ said a voice from out the smoke-clouds. ‘The assessment 'd drive him mad.’ ‘Bang went saxpence!’ sang out someone else, as the Scotch squatter turned angrily round with a dim idea that he was being baited.

But the older men quietened the youngsters who threatened to break bounds.

They still hoped—stubborn and untouchable, except by way of his pocket, though he was—to gain M'Pherson to the cause.

He was the largest sheepowner in the district, and that was saying a good deal when the smallest shore 40,000. Palkara shed was one of the shearing prizes of the colony, and the A.S.note Union officials viewed the defection of its owner with joy.

‘So I hear you bought the “Duke” down at the sales, Mac?’ said one presently, as the old man, his wrath subsiding, sipped his whisky and water.

‘Ay,’ responded he, ‘it was a stiff price to gie, but I'm no regrettin' it. He's a wonnerfu' fine beast.’

They were sitting with their backs to the open

  ― 107 ―
windows, which gave on to a many-seated crowded verandah, and from this came,—

‘That you may lose him before you've had him a week, unless you join the Association!’

‘If I do, I'll join, and ask it to help me find him,’ retorted M'Pherson angrily into the hot outside night, and would fain have risen and gone in search of the speaker, but that his friend, whose name was Park, a neighbouring squatter, pulled him back, saying,—

‘Never mind these youngsters, Mac. They're getting a bit sprung, I fancy. It's no use making a row. When'll the “Duke” be up?’

‘He's due here on Tuesday,’ replied the other, ‘an’, if ye'll be in, ye can see him. He's weel worth the lookin' at. He'll come by rail to Burrtown, an' then by coach on.

Two bachelor brothers, the Blakes, who owned a run not far from Palkara, were close to the window at which the pair sat.

The younger brother it was who had fired the remark inside about losing the great ram for which M'Pherson had just paid 700 guineas.

‘Well, Jack, what passengers to-night?’ asked the overseer of Blake's Tara Station, as Cobb & Co.'s coach drew slowly up in the pouring rain close to the homestead door.

‘Nary one, bar a cussed ole brute of a ram,’ replied the driver, as he stiffly dismounted, and handed out the mail. ‘I got him at the railway, and I've bin more cautious with him than if he'd bin a Lord Bishop.

  ― 108 ―
He's for M'Pherson up at Palkara. Hold the light please, Mr Brown, till I see if the beggar's all serene.’

‘He's right enough,’ said the overseer, after a glance at the aristocrat, resting luxuriously on pillows, half buried in hay, and with his legs tied by silk handkerchiefs. ‘Now,’ he continued, ‘slip inside and have a snack and a drop of hot grog. I'll stand by the horses.’

‘You're a Christian, Mr Brown,’ remarked the driver gratefully, as he pulled off his gloves and blew on his numbed fingers. ‘It's the coldest rain for this time o' the year as ever I felt.’

Scarcely had his dripping figure entered the open kitchen door, when, from behind a clump of bushes, came two figures bearing something between them. Lifting the ‘Duke' with scant ceremony out of his couch, they deposited their burden in his place, and after a few whispered words to Brown, still at the horses' heads, disappeared. Presently the driver returned, and, with a cheery ‘Good-night,’ started the coach rolling once more through the forty miles of mud and water between Tara and Combington.

‘Coach in, Edwards?’ asked M'Pherson the next afternoon as he drove up to the ‘Woolpack,’ accompanied by his friend Park.

‘Yes, sir. It's a bit late, though,’ replied the landlord. ‘Roads terrible heavy after the rain. I had the ram untied an' put in the stable, an' gave him some green stuff.’

  ― 109 ―

‘That's right, Edwards,’ said the squatter. ‘How does he look after the trip—pretty well?’

The other hesitated before answering,—

‘Why, yes, sir; he seems hearty enough. But I'm no judge of sheep.’

‘S'pose ye wouldna care about givin' 700 guineas for him, eh, Edwards?’ chuckled M'Pherson.

‘No, sir,’ replied the landlord with emphasis, ‘I'm damned if I would.’

‘Ha, ha!’ laughed the other, as he drove into the yard, ‘and yet, mon, I wouldna swap him for the auld “Woolpack.” Come,’ he added impatiently, ‘unlock the door an' let us hae a look at His Grace.’

By this time there was quite a crowd on the scene. A couple of stock and station agents, a bank manager, the P.M., some drovers, everybody, in fact, who thought they knew a sheep from a goat, had assembled to have a look at ‘the big ram.’

‘Keep awa' frae the door,’ quoth M'Pherson. ‘Ye'll all be able to hae a good sight o' him presently. Let him come right out into the yaird, Edwards.’

As he finished, up the lane of spectators stalked a nondescript kind of animal, at which M'Pherson just glanced, and then sang out to Edwards, appearing in the doorway,—

‘Ye never tauld me there was twa. Whaur's the ither?’

‘There's only the one, sir,’ answered the landlord. ‘That's he.’

‘What!’ and M'Pherson fairly gasped as he stared at

  ― 110 ―
the brute, which—from the muleish head, down the sparsely ‘broken woolled' back, and slab-sided flanks, to the bare, kangaroo-like legs—bore the impress all over of ‘rank cull.’

Then turning to the grinning landlord, and with accent intensified by excitement, he shouted, ‘What's yon thing? Whaur's my ram? D'ye think I ped my money for sic a brute as that? What ha' ye done wi' the “Duke”? If this is a wee bit joke o' yer ain, Mister Edwards, time's up, I do assure ye, sir.’ And he advanced threateningly towards the publican, who nimbly retreated into the crowd, whilst protesting,—

‘I can swear to you, sir, that's the very same sheep Jack Burns brought in the coach this mornin'. I helped to take him out, an' I sez to Jack, “Well, he ain't much to look at, Jack;” and Jack, he sez, “No, that he ain't. I think the trip must have haffected him; he seems to have felled away sence we put him in at the railway.” ’

‘Tak' me to the villain,’ groaned M'Pherson, ‘till I get to the bottom of this de'il's cantrip!’

Followed by quite a procession, they passed to a little room, where the driver lay sleeping off the fatigues of the previous night.

‘Hi!’ yelled the squatter, shaking him. ‘What ha' ye done wi' my ram, ye rascal?’

Jack, sitting up, half awake, replied sulkily,—

‘Damn your ram! He's in the stable. What d'ye want, rousin' people like this for?’

‘I'll rouse ye, ye scamp!’ roared the other. ‘Whaur's

  ― 111 ―
my ram—my “Duke,” I say? D'ye think that I dinna ken a coo frae a cuddy; an' that I'm to be imposed on wi' a blasted auld cull in place o' the “Duke o' Silversheen” that I ped 700 guineas guid cash for? D'ye imagine I'm daft, ye coach-drivin' fule, ye? If ye dinna confess wha's led ye astray, I'll give ye in chairge this vera meenit. I'll let ye ken that I'm Jock M'Pherson o' Palkara; an' I'm goin' to mak' it het for ye for this wee jobbie!’

This tirade effectually awakened the driver, and said he, with an earnestness there was no mistaking,—

‘By G—d, Mr M'Pherson, I'm on the square. I never took much notice o' the ram at the railway. It was dusk, too, when the agent put him in. I seen him two or three times along the road, an' thought he looked fust class. Nobody could ha' touched him without me knowin' of it. But, at the best o' times, I can't tell one sheep from t'other, never havin' had any truck with 'em Anyhow, if there's cross work 'bout this un, all I can say is, as I ain't in it: An' now you can send for the traps if you likes.’

The man's manner carried conviction with it, and for a few minutes M'Pherson was silent.

At last he said,—

‘Come awa', some o' ye, an' catch the creature till I have a look at him.’

But when caught, nothing was ascertainable beyond the one patent fact that he was a broken-mouthed, miserable old cull, who ought to have gone to market as a wether years ago. Earmarks, out of their own district,

  ― 112 ―
are of precious little use as a means of identification now-a-days.

It will be noticed that Jack forgot all about his twenty minutes' stay and chat with the cook in Tara kitchen. The coach had been very much overdue.

‘Surely you're not going to take the thing home, Mac?’ said his friend, as the former lugged the ‘Duke's’ locum tenens towards the buggy. ‘He's only fit to have his throat cut.’

‘Never mind,’ replied M'Pherson moodily, ‘he'll mebbe turn out o' some use yet.’

Not that the old Scotchman was at all inclined to sit down quietly and suffer his loss. Very far from it. But he was no favourite, and public sympathy was absent. Unfeeling people averred that, at the time of the sale, he had been under the influence of hypnotism, etc., etc.; in fact, laughed at, and enjoyed the thing as a good joke. Therefore he was disinclined to blazon his misadventure throughout the Colonies. Also, he thought it would be bad policy to make too much noise.

Nevertheless, he quietly strained every nerve, and spent money freely in endeavours to discover the missing animal. Private detectives and the local police took the matter in hand, and with exactly the same amount of success.

Meanwhile the ‘Duke’ was thriving. At Tara a big underground cellar, lit by skylights, had recently been excavated. This was his home. There, waited upon by the only three in the secret, the great merino lived on

  ― 113 ―
the fat of the land. Some nights the Blakes would let him out into the garden for a pick, themselves or Brown securing him in his quarters again before they turned in.

It was a lot of bother, doubtless. But what of that, if they could only ‘bring old Mac to his bearings,’ and secure Palkara for their Association!

As for the risk of discovery, they laughed at it. From the minute the agent (who was ready to swear to the ‘Duke's’ identity) put him in the coach at the Burrtown terminus, everything seemed vague and exceedingly doubtful respecting the spot at which the transfer could possibly have been effected.

The coach stopped at some half-dozen stations along the road, besides mail stages, and at none of these places could the slightest clue be obtained. In common with the rest, Tara was subjected to official visits.

‘Certainly, Sergeant, happy to show you through all the paddocks. Like to see the rams? Yes, of course. We've got some very fine Havilahs you'll be pleased with, I'm sure. Yes; terrible affair about poor M'Pherson's “Duke”! Have another nip before we start?’

So, sheep galore did the unhappy police inspect, and carefully did they compare, stags, wethers, and ancient ‘horny’ ewes with photos of the ‘Duke’ until, at length, quite dazed with the apparently endless quest, to say nothing of the whisky, they audibly cursed the whole ovine race back to the days of the first breeders.

Only once did the brothers feel a doubt. Driving into town, they met M'Pherson and a black-fellow following

  ― 114 ―
the old cull, who was steadily tramping along the road Tara-ward.

‘What's all this about, M'Pherson?’ asked one, as they pulled up. ‘Have you taken a droving contract?’

‘Ay,’ replied the old fellow, glaring suspiciously at the pair. ‘Just thet. I'm wantin' to see whaur Beelzebub, here, gangs. If he's gotten a hame, which I muckle doot, mebbe he'll mek back.’

But a couple of miles on, Beelzebub struck a patch of clover, and stuck to it.

The darkey watched him for three days, and, after he had finished every vestige, the old ram paused irresolutely, scratched his ear with his hind foot, and meandered calmly back to the township.

So M'Pherson returned with him to Palkara. A bit of the garden was fenced off, and here he used to sit and smoke and stare for hours at Beelzebub, until his friends began to think his loss had affected his brain.

Like many of his countrymen, M'Pherson was superstitious, and, deep down in his heart, was a lurking suspicion of diablerie that would not be exorcised.

‘It's no earthly use watching that beast, Mac,’ said Park, riding up one day, and finding his neighbour at his usual occupation. ‘Look as hard as you like, and that won't turn him into the Duke. Now, take my advice, and I think you stand a show of getting him back again. You remember you said that night at the Woolpack, that, if you lost him, you'd join the Association and trust it to recover him for you, or something to that effect.

  ― 115 ―
Well, my notion is that some of the boys have had a finger in the pie. And I solemnly believe that, if you don't soon make your mind up, you'll never see the Duke any more. Come, now's the time! Shearing will start presently. Besides, I know you want him badly for those Coonong stud ewes.’

Park, himself a prominent member, used all his powers of persuasion, and to such good purpose, that in the next issue of the local paper appeared the announcement,—

‘Palkara will start shearing on —— under Conference rules.’

A morning or so afterwards, M'Pherson going out for his before-breakfast smoke and usual look at Beelzebub, to his astonishment saw him not. He had gone. But in his stead stood a stately, almost perfect animal, the beau ideal of what a ‘Champion’ should be. Around his neck he bore a card, on which the old squatter presently read,—

‘I am a fully paid-up member of the Pastoralists’ Association of Australasia.

  ‘(Signed) SILVERSHEEN.’