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  ― 123 ―

‘Sojur Jim.’

BRIGHTLY blazed the watch-fires into the still night air, brightly from within the circle formed by them gleamed thousands of sparkling eyes, and fell on the ear a low, continuous sound, like the soft distant murmur of some summer sea on a shingly beach, as twelve thousand sheep peacefully chewed their cuds after the long day's travel.

The weather was close and sultry. So, feeling indisposed to sleep, I had left my hot tent and was walking round the whitish, indistinct mass of recumbent figures, when I nearly stumbled against the watchman, who, as one of the fires flared up, I saw was the eccentric individual known in the camp by the nickname of ‘Sojur Jim’; and, in pursuance of an idea I had long borne in mind, first assuring myself that all was right with my fleecy charges, I lit my pipe, stretched myself out on the short, thick grass and sand, and said, whilst looking at my watch,—

‘Now, Jim, spin us a yarn that will help to pass away the time.’

But my companion is well-deserving of a more particular description. ‘Sojur Jim’ was the only name by which he was called, and this he had gained by an


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extraordinary mania he possessed for destroying those small terrors of the Australian bush, familiar to all dwellers therein as ‘Soldier’ or ‘Bull-dog’ ants; insects fierce, intractable and venomous. These, then, seemed objects of especial aversion to Jim; and many a time, whilst travelling along, would one of the men sing out, ‘Jim, Jim, sojurs!’ The effect was electrical; Jim, leaving his flock, would bound away towards the nest, and, dexterously using the long stick, flattened at both ends in rude shovel shape, which was his constant companion, he would furiously, regardless of innumerable stings, uproot and turn over the ‘sojurs” stronghold, and, having exposed its inmost recesses, complete the work of destruction by lighting a great fire upon it, and all this he would do with a set stern expression on his grim face, as of one who avenges never-to-be-forgiven or forgotten injuries.

He was indeed a remarkable looking man, strong and athletic, and, in spite of his snow-white hair, probably not more than fifty years of age. Part of his nose, the lobes and cartilages of his ears, and one eye were wanting, whilst the rest of his face was scarred and seamed as if at one time a cross-cut saw had been roughly drawn to and fro over it. And as I watched him sitting there on a fallen log, the flickering blaze playing fitfully on the white hair and corrugated, mutilated features, I felt more than ever sure that the man had a story well worth the hearing could he but be induced to tell it.

Amongst his fellows in the camp he was taciturn and


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morose, never smiling, speaking rarely, apparently always lost in his own gloomy reflections. My request, therefore, was made with but faint hopes of success; but, to my surprise, after a few minutes silence, he replied,—

‘Very well, I'll tell you a story. I don't often tell it; but I will to-night. If at times you feel disinclined to believe it you have only to look at my face. I'm going now to tell you how I got all these pretty lumps and scars and ridges, and how I partly paid the men who made me what I am. “Sojur Jim” they call me, and think I am mad. God knows, I fancy so myself sometimes. Well,’ he went on, in language at times rude and unpolished, at others showing sings of more than average education, ‘Did you ever hear of Captain Jakes?’

‘Of course,’ I answered, for the notoriously cruel bushranger had, after his own fashion, helped to make minor Australian history.

‘Yes,’ muttered Jim abstractedly, ‘he's accounted for. So is his mate—the one who laughed the loudest of any. But there were three of them, and there's still another left somewhere. Not dead yet!’ he suddenly exclaimed in a loud voice. ‘Surely not! My God, no! After all these years of ceaseless search! That would be too hard!’ And here he stood up and gazed excitedly into the outer darkness.

‘But the story, Jim,’ I ventured to remark, after a long pause.

‘Right you are,’ he replied, as he again sat down, and calmly resumed. ‘Well, it was the year of the big rush,


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the first one, to the Ovens. I was a strapping young fellow then, with all my life hopeful and bright before me, as I left the old mother and the girl I loved to try my luck on the diggings. Three years went by before I thought of returning to the little Victorian township on the Avoca, where we had long been settled; but then I struck it pretty rich, and made up my mind to go back and marry, and settle down alongside the old farm; for a pair of loving hearts were, I knew, growing weary of waiting for the return of the wanderer.

‘Like a fool, however, instead of sending down my last lot of gold by the escort, I all of a sudden got impatient, and, packing it in my saddle-bags, along with a tidy parcel of notes and sovereigns, I set off alone The third night out I camped on a good-sized creek, hobbled my horses, and after planting my saddle-bags a hollow log, I started to boil the billy for supper. Presently, up rides three chaps, and, before I could get to my swag, I was covered by as many revolvers; while one of the men says, “Come along, now, hand over the metal. We know you've got it, and if you don't give it quiet, why, we'll take it rough.”

‘ “You've got hold of the wrong party, this time, mates,” says I, as cool as I could. “I'm on the wallaby, looking for shearing, and, worse luck, hav'n't got no gold.”

‘ “Gammon,” says the first speaker. “Turn his swag over, mates.”

‘Well, they found nothing, of course. Then they searched all over the bush round about, and one fellow


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actually puts his hand up the hollow of the log in which lay hid my treasure; and I thought it was all up with it, when he lets a yell out of him and starts cutting all sorts of capers, with half-a-dozen big sojurs hanging to his fingers.

‘Jakes (for he was the leader of the gang) now got real savage, and putting a pistol to my head, swore that he would blow my brains out unless I told where the gold was. Well, I wouldn't let on, for I thought they were trying to bounce me, and that if I held out I might get clear off, so I still stuck to it that they'd mistaken their man.

‘Seeing I was pretty firm, they drew off for a while, and after a short talk, they began to laugh like madmen; and one, taking a tomahawk, cut down a couple of saplings, whilst another gets ready some stout cord; and Jakes himself goes poking about in the saltbush as if looking for something he'd lost. Before this they had tied my arms and legs together with saddle-straps and greenhide thongs; and there I lay, quite helpless, wondering greatly what they were up to.

‘Presently the three came up, and tying me tightly to the saplings—one along my back, and one cross-ways—they carried me away a short distance to where I had noticed Jakes searching around, and then laid me down face uppermost, partly stripping me at the same time. I lay there quietly enough, puzzling my brains to try and guess what it was all about, and those three devils standing laughing fit to split their sides.




  ― 128 ―

‘“Tell us now, will you,” said they, “where that gold's planted? How does your bed feel? Are you warm enough?” and such like chaff, till I began to think they must have gone suddenly cranky, for I felt nothing at all. Perceiving that was the case, one of them took a stick and thrust it under me into the ground; and then —oh, God! it was awful!’

Here Sojur Jim paused suddenly, and a baleful light gleamed from that solitary bright eye of his, whilst a spasm shook his whole frame, and his scarred features were contorted as if once more undergoing the agonies of that terrible torture.

The wind sighed with an eerie sound through the tall forest trees around us; the cry of some night-bird came mournfully through the darkness, whilst black clouds flitted across the young moon, filling the sombre Australian glade with weird shadows—making the scene, all at once, dismally in unison with the story, as with a shiver I stirred the fire, and patiently waited for its narrator to go on.

‘Yes,’ he continued at length, ‘I dropped down to it quickly enough then. I was tied on to a sojur-ants' nest, and they swarmed about me in thousands—into my nose, ears, eyes, mouth, everywhere—sting, sting, sting, and tear, tear, tear, till I shrieked and yelled for mercy.’

‘ “Tell us where the gold is planted,” said one of the laughing fiends—I heard him laugh again years afterward over the same story — “and we'll let you go.”




  ― 129 ―

‘“Yes!” I screamed, “I'll tell you. But for God Almighty's sake take me out of this!” “Not much,” replied he. “Tell us first, and then you can jump into the creek and give your little friends a drink.” “Look in the big log,” I groaned at last. Then, one of them, remembering the sojurs, gets a stick and fossicks about till he felt the bags, when he shoves his arm up and drags them out.

‘ “A square thing, by G—d!” says Jakes, and turning to me, he said, “Mate, you've given us a lot of trouble, and as you look as if you were comfortably turned in for the night, it would be a pity to disturb you. So long, and pleasant dreams!” And, with that, away the three of them rode, laughing loudly at my screams for mercy. As you may think,’ went on Jim, ‘I was by this time nearly raving mad with pain. Thousands of those devil-ants were eating into my flesh, and me lying there like a log. Hell! hell will never be as bad as that was!

‘Six months afterward I came to my senses again. It was a sunshiny spring morning, and I heard the magpies whistling outside the old humpy on the Ovens, as I tried to get up and go down to the claim, thinking that I'd had the nightmare terrible bad. But when I got off my bunk I fainted clean away on the floor, and there my mates found me when they came home to dinner. Good lads they were true men, who had nursed me and tended me through all the long months of fever and madness that had passed since the Escort, for which I should have waited, had by the merest


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chance come across me and sent me back again to die, as everyone thought.

‘But,’ and here, for the first time, Jim's voice faltered and shook, ‘there was another and a gentler nurse who —God bless her—helped me back to life; the little girl who loved me came up—my mother was dead—and would have kept her word to me, too, and taken my half-eaten carcase into her keeping wholly, had I been mean enough to let her do it. But that was more than I could stand the thought of. So one morning I slipped quietly away to begin my man-hunting; for I had vowed a merciless retribution upon my undoers if I had to track them the wide world over. That's close on fifteen years ago. I can account for two, and live on in hopes of yet meeting with the third.

‘You've heard how Jakes pegged out?’ asked Jim abruptly.

‘Yes,’ I answered, ‘Sergeant O'Brien shot him in the Long Swamp.’

‘So most people think,’ was his reply. ‘But I know who was first in at the end; and when, crouching up to his neck in the mud and long reeds, with my fingers grasping his throat, I think, as he turned his bloodshot and protruding eyes on mine, I think, I say, that he knew me again, all changed as I was. He never spoke, though, and I let him die slowly, for I was sure that the sergeant was a long way behind. I held him there, I tell you, and watched him as he tried to blow the bubbles of blood and froth from out his pale lips, and at last I told him who I was, and how I had tracked him


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down, and was now about to send his vile soul to perdition. Then, as I heard the galloping tramp of the trooper's horse, I smothered him in the stagnant ooze of that foul swamp. Truly a dog's death, but one too good for him! O'Brien, coming up soon afterward, found the body, put a couple of pistol bullets into it, and received the Government reward and promotion, whilst I set off in search of the others.

‘One I came across four years afterwards on the Adelaide side. I had taken a job of shepherding up Port Augusta way, when, one night, who should come to the hut but Number Two, the one who laughed the longest and loudest of the three, as I lay in agony on the sojurs' nest. I knew him in a minute and heartily welcomed him to stop that night. “Just put those sheep in the yard, matey,” I says, “while I make some bread for our supper.”

‘Well, I makes two smallish johnnycakes, and we had our tea. Then we starts smoking and yarning, and at length I turned the talk on to ants, saying I couldn't keep nothing there because of them. With that he falls to laughing, and, says he, “My word, mate, I could tell you a yarn if I liked 'bout ants—sojurs—that'd make you laugh for a week, only you see it ain't always safe, even in the bush, to talk among strangers.”

‘All of a sudden he turned as white as a sheet, and drops off the stool, and twists and groans. Then he sings out, “I'm going to die.”

‘You see,’ remarked Jim, with the cold impassiveness which had, almost throughout, characterised his manner,


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‘the strychnine in the johnnycake that had fallen to his share was beginning to work him, and as I laughingly reminded him of old times, and asked him to go on with his story about the sojur ants, he also knew me, and shrieked and prayed for the mercy that I had once so unavailingly implored at his hands. He was very soon, however, too far gone to say much. A few more struggles and it was all over, and then I dragged the dead carrion out of my hut and buried it eight feet deep under the sheep-dung in the yard, where, likely enough, it is yet. So much for Number Two!’ exclaimed Jim, as I sat looking rather doubtfully at him. Not that I questioned the truthfulness of his story—that was stamped on every word he uttered—but that I began to think him rather a dangerous kind of monomaniac to have in a drover's camp. ‘And now, sir,’ he went on presently, ‘you've had the story you asked me for, and if ever we meet again after this trip, maybe I'll have something to tell you about Number Three; that business it is that brought me down about these parts, for I heard he was working at some of the stations on the river. And as God made me!’ he exclaimed, with a subdued sort of gloomy ferocity in his voice, ‘when we do meet, he shall feel the vengeance of the man whose life and love and fortune he helped to ruin so utterly. I could pick him out of a thousand, with his great nose all of a skew, and his one leg shorter than the other.’

The watch-fires were glimmering dimly. The cool air


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which heralds the Australian dawn was blowing, and the sheep were moving silently out of their camp in long strings as I rose to my feet. In the white tents all was silence. Thanks to Sojur Jim, their occupants had passed an undisturbed night. Absorbed in his gruesome story—that dark tale of torture and retribution, with just that one little trait of woman's constancy and devotion shining out like some bright star from a murky sky—the time had slipped away unheeded. Sending him to call the cook, I put the sheep together, wondering mightily to myself, as the man, with his bent-down head and slouching gait, moved away, whether he really could be the same creature who through the silent watches of the night had unfolded to my view such a concentrated, tireless, and as yet unsatiated thirst for revenge, such a fixed and relentless purpose of retaliation, unweakened through the years, but burning freshly and fiercely to-day, as, when with the scarcely healed scars still smarting, disfigured, ruined, hopeless, forsaking all, he went forth alone into the world to hunt down his persecutors.

A few days after Sojur Jim had related to me the story told above, one evening, at dusk, a swagman entered the camp and asked the cook for a piece of meat and some bread. Instead of eating it at once with the accompanying offered drink of tea, he turned away, and, a few minutes later, we saw his fire burning brightly a little further along the lagoon, the banks of which formed our resting-place for the night. Evidently, as


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the men remarked amongst themselves, our visitor was a ‘hatter.’

Next morning, when Sojur Jim was called out to take his flock, he was missing. His blankets and few belongings still lay as he had arranged them in the tent the night before, ready for turning in; and I at once ordered a search to be made.

It was of very short duration. Just in front of the swagman's fire, in the shallow water of the lagoon, we found the two bodies. The stranger's throat was grasped by Jim's fingers in a vice-like clutch, that, even in death, we long strove in vain to sunder. When parted at last, and we had washed the slimy mud from the features of the dead traveller, a truly villainous countenance was disclosed to view; the huge mouth, low, retreating forehead, and heavy, thick-set jaws, all betokened their owner to have belonged to the very lowest order of humanity But what struck me at once was that the nose, which was of great size, had, at one time, been knocked completely over to the left side of the face, and as we straightened the body out, it could plainly be seen that one leg was much shorter than its fellow.

Was this, then, indeed ‘Number Three,’ and had Sojur Jim's vengeful quest, his vow of bitter retaliation, ended at last? I believed so. But, as I gazed down upon the poor, scarred dead clay of a wasted and ruined life lying there, now so calm and still, all its fierce desires and useless repinings, all its feverish passions


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and longings for dread retribution at rest, forcibly came to my mind the words of the sacred and solemn injunction—‘Vengeance is Mine, saith the Lord; I will repay.’

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