Part I.

THEY were all very sore at Barracaboo station. From manager to horse-boy, from jackaroo to boundary-rider, they felt aggrieved and vengeful. First it had been ‘Around the World by Sea and Land,’ copiously illustrated, and in monthly parts. This was dull—unutterably dull—and each instalment turned out duller and heavier than the last. Also, the pictures resembled those on the specimen sheets as nearly as a mule does a grindstone.

After this came ‘Diseases of All Known Domestic Animals,’ with gorgeously coloured pictures. As nothing could be found in the whole work relating to horses or cattle or dogs, except the illustrations, this was also voted a fraud. However, they cut out the plates, and stuck them upon the walls of the huts and cottages, so that it was not clear loss altogether.

But the last straw was ‘The Universal Biography of Eminent Men—Dead and Alive,’ with splendid portraits.

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When they discovered that the notices they had been led to expect of their own ‘Boss,’ ‘Hungry’ Parkes of Humpalong, the Mayor of Atlanta, etc., etc., were absent, and their places filled by paragraphs and wood-cuts relating to Nelson, Julius Cæsar, Pompey, Scipio Africanus, and such-like characters, they one and all bucked, and refused to pay on delivery. Then they were hauled to Quarter Sessions, confronted with their signatures, and made to pay.

In vain they swore that the thing had never been ordered; that it wasn't up to specification; that their handwriting was a palpable forgery. In vain they related how they had never touched it, but had left their copies lying on verandahs, stockyard posts, in mud, in dust, wherever, in fact, the agent had chanced to bail them up. All in vain; they had to pay—costs and all.

Therefore was it that Barracaboo had forsworn literature by sample, or in uncertain instalments, and vowed vengeance upon all shabby men with indelible pencils, and printed agreements with a space left for signature. More especially had they a ‘down’ on people who wore goatees and snuffled when they talked.

‘If you see one of 'em at the station,’ said the manager — a rough, tough old customer, and disappointed at being ousted by Julius Cæsar — ‘set the dogs on him. I'll pay damages. If he don't take that hint, touch him up with stockwhips. It'll only be justifiable homicide at the worst. I know the law: an' I don't mind a fiver in such a case!’

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‘Let us only get a chance, sorr,’ said the sheep-overseer, ‘an' we'll learn 'em betther manners wid our whups. Doggin's too good for the thrash!’

This state of affairs was pretty well known at Atlanta, the neighbouring township; and book-fiends, warned, generally gave Barracaboo a wide berth. Once, certainly, a new hand at the game, and one who fancied himself too much to bother about collecting local information, came boldly into the station-yard just as the bell was ringing for dinner, and produced the advance sheets of a sweet and lively work, entitled, ‘Hermits, Ancient and Modern: Illustrated with Forty-seven Choice Engravings.’

He had got to ‘Now, gentlemen,’ when, hearing the howl of execration that went up, he suddenly took in the situation and started back to Atlanta, pursued for half the distance with thunderous whip-crackings by the sheep-overseer and the butcher, who were the only two who happened to have their horses ready.

Chancing to have a capital mount, he distanced them and galloped into town, and up the main street, reins on his horse's neck, and trousers over his knees, half dead with fright, only to be promptly summoned and fined for furious riding within the municipality.

For weeks afterwards sheets of ‘Hermits’ strewed the cleared line,’ and he received a merciless chaffing from his fellow-fiends, who could have warned him what to expect had he confided his destination to them.

About this time came to Atlanta a small, ’cute-looking, clean-shaven, elderly man. He was unknown to any

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present, but modestly admitted that he was in the book trade, and had a consignment with him. And he listened with interest to the conversation in the ‘Commercial Room.’

‘The district's petered out,’ remarked a tall American gentleman, with the goatee and nasal voice abhorred of Barracaboo. ‘Clean petered out since that last “Universal Biography” business. They're kickin' everywhere. Darned if a feller didn't draw a bead on me yesterday afore I'd time almost to explain business. Then he got so mad that I left, not wantin' to become a lead mine.’

‘Been here a week and haven't cleared exes.,’ said another mournfully. ‘Off to-morrow. No use trying to work such a desert as this now.’

‘Big place, this station with the funny name, you're talkin' about?’ asked the newcomer, who had introduced himself as ‘Mr Potts, from London.’

‘Over a hundred men of one sort or another all the year round,’ was the reply. ‘Capital shop for us, once too. But it's sudden death to venture there now. I did real good biz at Barracaboo for the Shuffle Litho. Company. It wouldn't pay, though, to chance back again.’

‘Ah, that was the “Around the World” thing, wasn't it? Didn't come up to guarantee, eh?’

‘Well, hardly,’ replied the other. ‘However, that wasn't my fault, you know. All I had to do was to get the orders, which I did to the tune of a couple of hundred or thereabout.’

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‘That's the worst of those things,’ said Mr Potts. ‘Instalments always make a mess of it. Then the agent loses his character, if nothing else. I was out delivering in the Western District for Shuffle Litho., and was glad to get away by the skin of my teeth. But's it's not only the personal danger I object to,’ continued Mr Potts, after a pause. ‘It is the, ahem, the moral degradation involved in such a pursuit—you know what I mean, sir?’

‘Just so, just so,’ answered the other vaguely, with a hard stare at the round, red face looming through cigar smoke.

‘That's what made me throw the line up,’ went on Mr Potts, ‘more than anything else. The money's not clean, sir! I'd rather carry about a ton of print, and risk selling for cash at a fractional advance upon cost price.’

‘That's all right,’ replied his companion with a grin. ‘Only take my advice, and don't trouble Barracaboo with your ton of print, or you'll be very apt to leave it there. They won't give you time to open your mouth. Ask “The Hermit,” if you don't believe me.’

For a whole day Mr Potts drove around and about with a selection from his stock.

But he never was allowed even a chance to exhibit a sample. Farmers, selectors, squatters, townsfolk, had all apparently quite made up their minds.

Times out of number he was threatened with personal violence, and greeted with language quite unprintable here. Once sticks were thrown at him; and once an

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old copy of the ‘Biography’ was hurled into the buggy, whilst cattle-dogs were heeling his horses. Clearly it was useless to persist. The district was fairly demoralised; and with a sigh, Mr Potts drove home to receive the ‘What did I tell you's’ of the other ‘gents.’

But he was a resourceful man was Mr Potts, and he determined, before leaving the district for ever, to have one more attempt under conditions which should, at all events, give him an opportunity of displaying a specimen of his goods. Besides, he thirsted for vengeance on the community, and knew that if he could but get an opening it was his, full and complete.

No objection to my camping here to-night, I s'pose?' asked a rather forlorn-looking traveller of the cook at Barracaboo, shortly after the events related above.

‘Chop that heap o' wood up, an' you gets your supper an' breakfus',’ said the cook, laconically.

The traveller worked hard for an hour, and finished his task, handling the axe as if born to it, and provoking the cook's admiration to such an extent that he went one better than his promise, and proffered a pint of tea and a lump of ‘brownie.’

Presently, lighting his pipe, and undoing his swag, the new-comer, remarking that there was nothing like a read for passing the time away, took out a gorgeously bound volume, sat down at the table, and was soon so interested that he let his pipe go out. Save for the cook, the long kitchen was empty, all the men being away on the run.

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For a time, busy with a batch of bread, the former took no notice of the stranger. Then, his work done, he came and looked over his shoulder, saying, ‘What you got there, mate?’

‘Finest thing ever you read,’ said the other, carelessly turning over some vivid pictures. “The Life and Adventures of Dick Turpin, Claude Duval, and Other Eminent Outlaws.” Something like a book this is,’ he continued. ‘Six hundred pages full of love and murder; and that excitin' you can't bear to put it down!’

This was charming; and the cook, and the butcher, and a couple of boundary riders dropped in for a yarn, at once became inquisitive, and anxious to have a look.

‘See here,’ said the owner of the wonderful volume, pointing to an outrageous effort in coloured process, ‘this is the bold Dick Turpin on his wonderful mare, Black Bess, taking the ten-foot gate on the road to York. See, he's got the reins in his teeth and a pistol in each hand.’

‘By gum, she's a flyer!’ ‘Twig the long-necked spurs.’ ‘No knee-pads to the saddle either!’ ‘Ten foot! there ain't a horse in Hostralia as could do it!’—exclaimed his audience, becoming excited.

‘And here you have,’ went on the traveller, the gentle highwayman, Claude Duval, stickin' up the Duke of York's coach on 'Oundslow 'Eath. And here he is again, dancing under the moon with the Duchess.’ And so he continued, setting forth in tempting sequence the

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glories of the work, pausing at intervals to read aloud thrilling bits, and comment upon them.

‘Where did you get it, mate?’ at length asked the cook.

‘Bought it in Atlanta,’ replied the other. ‘Fellow there's got lots of 'em, and only thirty bob apiece. Cheap at double the price, I reckon, considerin' the amoun' of readin' in it.’

‘Ain't no deliv'rin' numbers, or signin' 'greements, or any o' that game?’ asked one suspiciously. ‘'Cause if there is, we're full.’

‘No,’ was the reply; ‘you pays your money and you takes your bargain. But I don't think you fellows 'll ever get the chance. I heard him say he'd as soon face a mad bull as come to this station.’

The men, of whom the hut was now full, laughed; and said one,—

‘The chap as sells, out an' out, an honest article like that un needn't be scared. It's them coves as gets you to sign things, and keeps sendin' a lot o' rotten trash, not a bit like what you seen furst; an' then comes, as flash as you please, summonsin' of you an' a-gettin' of you bullyragged in Court—them's the coves as we've got a derry on. Let's have another squint at that pitcher o' Dick Turpin an' Black Bess, mates.’

‘Give you five bob on your bargain!’ shouted a tall stockman, presently, from the outer edge of the circle, where he had been impatiently waiting for a look.

‘Couldn't part with it,’ said the owner decidedly.

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‘But I'll tell you what I will do. I'm going back to the township to-morrow. If the chap ain't gone, I'll let him know he can sell a few here. He might venture if you'll all give your word not to go for him when he does come. He's got lots of others, too. There's “The Bloody Robber of the Blue Mountains,” and “The Pirate's Bride,” and “The Boundin' Out-laws of the Backwoods,” and plenty more—all same price, and all pictures and covers same as this one is.’

‘Right! Tell him to come! It was pay-day yesterday,’ yelled the crowd unanimously.

‘Not a bad night's work, I do believe,’ muttered the traveller to himself, as he reluctantly stretched out on the hard bunk-boards. ‘I hope, though, this confounded beard and moustache won't come off while ‘I'm asleep, if I ever do get any on such a bed.’