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The Officer in Charge.

A Far Inland Sketch.

‘A RISING township of some four hundred inhabitants, situated on the Trickle Trickle River. Distance from Sydney north-west, six hundred and fifty miles.’

Thus the Australian Gazetteer, speaking of the far-inland village of Jillibeejee. For days you shall have ridden over bush roads, fetlock deep in dust, through monotonous open forest, or over still more monotonous plain, ere, far away on a dry brown ridge, you catch the glitter of something in the bright, hot sunshine. This proceeds from the first roof in Jillibeejee. Then, making your horse stride carefully over the Trickle Trickle, whose banks are apt to crumble, you breast the ridge and take a bird's-eye view of the township as it lies frying in the sun.

This ridge must be fully fifty feet above the level of the surrounding country, and is probably the ‘rising’ referred to by the jocular Gazetteer.

The first building is deserted; so is the second. As you ride along you come to others, dilapidated but, from

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sounds within, peopled. There are altogether forty houses in Jillibeejee, which, by the Gazetteer's reckoning, gives us an average of ten inmates to each one.

I am afraid the Gazetteer has never been to Jillibeejee.

In fact, very few people ever do seem to go there. Those that do, either depart again very shortly, or stay until theirs makes one amongst a collection of rudely-fenced enclosures on the banks of the Trickle Trickle, inside which sleep the pioneers of the place.

Perhaps the first emotion that arises in the visitor's mind is of wonder that any pioneer, no matter how hard up he may have been, should have thought it worth while to commence pioneering at Jillibeejee. The second, that any others should ever join him in such a speculation. Neither tree nor any other green thing meets the sight. All is brown, barren, desolate—apparently a ‘waste land where no one comes, or hath come since the making of the world,’ except that intrepid band in possession.

Why do people live here? How do they live? I must discover this, if possible, before leaving. Having no time to spare, I begin at once.

He is six feet in his stockings, broad, massive, hirsute, and tanned. The insignia of office in such a place would be an absurdity. Therefore his raiment is nondescript, and mostly slouch hat. This is the man who rules the official destinies of the settlement—the ‘Officer in Charge.’ To him I propound my conundrum.

‘Ah,’ replies he; ‘ye shud jist come aroun' whin ut's a wet saison, an' thin ye'd see the differ av ut.’

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Yes,' I remark. ‘And when may that time be due?’

‘God knows,’ says he piously, and with a sigh. ‘I've bin here four year, an' I've seen ut wanst. Ye cudn't see the counthry for a week bekase av the wather. Thin, afther, comes the grass an' the clover six feet high. Ut's a great counthry, them times, so it is, sorr.’

It is high noon as I and my friend stroll along the fiery, dusty track amongst the iron-roofed ovens large and small.

Everybody seems asleep, save that now and again we catch a glimpse of women, wan and prematurely old-looking.

In the sun's eye a man lies in the brown dust. He is on his back, his hat off, and snoring stertorously up at a cloud of mosquitoes, sandflies, and other abominations hovering and buzzing about his face.

With a look of solicitude my guide exclaims,—

‘Sure, now, that's Tim Healy, come in from Out Back, an' his cheque gone already! Lend a hand, will ye, sorr, wid the other ind av him. The poor devil 'll be sthruck intirely here, so he will.’

So, one at each ‘ind,’ we bear the man from Out Back into the comparative shade of a verandah, where the constable takes off his boots, loosens his shirt collar, and props his head up, saying,—

‘There, the cratur, mebbe he'll waken wid nothin' worse nor a sore head, an' a limekiln in the throttle av him.’

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A fit man and a proper, this one, I reflect, to be Officer in Charge of this half-forgotten fragment of a people.

So, presently, I am not surprised at hearing that, in addition to that title, he bears the important ones of Clerk of Petty Sessions, Registrar of Small Debts Court and Births, Land Bailiff, Inspector of Slaughterhouses, Curator's Agent, and others equally pertinent to his surroundings, but which I have forgotten.

Entering the parlour of the one public-house, silent and deserted but for clouds of humming flies, a drowsy landlord, booted and spurred for riding, answers our knock.

‘I was goin' over the river an hour ago,’ he explains, rubbing his bleary eyes, ‘to run a peast in; but two or three of the boys wos here larst night, an' they kep' it up; so I lays down on the sofy an' drops right off. What 'll ye have, gents?’

I ask for beer. My companion smiles and ‘takes’ rum.

‘Lor bless yer!’ exclaims the landlord, ‘there ain't bin no beer here this twelvemonth or more! I got some, somewheres, on the teams. But, the way things is, it'll be another twelvemonth afore they show up. Dry time, ye see, sir.’

‘Well, then,’ I say, ‘have you any whisky?’

‘There was a bottle or two, but the boys—’ he commenced, when,—

‘What's the use av batin' about the bush that way?’ puts in my companion. ‘Why don't ye tell the gint at

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wanst that sorra a dhrop 'll he get in Jillibeejee, bar the rum utself. I've dhrunk worse in Port Mackay. Ut's a wholesome dhrink, in moderation, an' wid jist a suspicion o' Trickle Trickle at the bottom av the tumbler.’

So rum it is. The Officer in Charge takes his, I notice, very nearly pure, and without winking. We help ourselves, and the price is one shilling each.

It is still terribly hot.

‘It must be a long way over one hundred degrees in the shade,’ I remark.

‘Come acrost to the station,’ says the Officer in Charge, ‘an' we'll see. There's no shade whatever in Jillibeejee. But there's the best that is. Sure, ut's weatherboard an' lined—the only wan in the town. There's a thermomether there as tells how big a hate's on.’

So we go over. The place is like a furnace, and the glass registers one hundred and twenty-seven degrees.

‘And you've been here some years!’ I gasp, sliding off my chair, a wet, limp heap, on to the floor, and staying there.

‘I have, indade, sorr,’ replies he. ‘The first summer I was minded to blow me head off wid me pistol. The second was near as bad; but I don't fale 'em so much now. Whin the wet do come, ut's almost as thryin'; for the san'-flies an' miskitties bangs Banagher. Ay, ut's dull an' lonesome like, sure enough, till the b'ys comes in for a change; an' thin, if ye'll belave ut, Jillibeejee is as ructious a towneen as is on God's earth.’

‘Come in from where? Where the deuce can anybody come in from? And who in the world would come

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to such a hole as this ‘for a change?’ I ask irritably, whilst wringing my pocket handkerchief, as the heat proves too trying.

‘Whisht!’ replies my host placidly. ‘Ye'll mebbe have noticed that there's not many min in Jillibeejee, knockin' aroun' like?’

‘Only the fellow,’ I answer, ‘that we put in the verandah.’

‘Ay, he's iver wan o' the fust, is Tim Healy,’ says the Officer in Charge. ‘Whin the others are comin' in, he'll be afther going back, stone bruk, so he will, poor divil!’

‘In from where? Back to where?’ I cry impatiently.

‘To an' fro the big stations on the border, over yander,’ replies he, with a wave of his hand westward. ‘To the back av beyant, where they digs dams, an' sinks wells, an' fences an' fights wid the naygurs, an' herds cattle, an' gathers up a cheque, and thin comes back like pilicans to their women and children on the edge o' the wiltherness here. Good b'ys, in the main,’ he continues; ‘just a little rough, perhaps, when the rum's in. Ye see, sorr, ye can't expeck much else from the craturs, for, iv this is bad, ut's Hell utself out yander in the new counthry, where there's no law, no polis, no nothin'. D'ye wander at the b'ys, now, wantin' a change out av ut wanst an' agin?’

‘Well, perhaps not. But what must that other life be like?’

So, in the gloaming, hot and close, with a hot-looking moon hanging in a hazy sky, I depart from Jillibeejee,

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leaving its Officer in Charge—strong man, and a very fit — stroking a great black beard meditatively, and possessing his soul in patience for the stirring times which herald the advent of his charges from the ‘Back av Beyant.’