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  ― 11 ―

Dead Man's Camp.

ONE lurid summer, in 1873, I was crossing over from Saint George's Bridge, on the Balonne, to Mitchell, on the Maranoa. I had been to a rush at Malawal, N.S.W., but as it proved a rank duffer, got up by the local storekeepers in a last effort to keep the township in existence, I made back again by ‘The Bridge’ on chance of getting a job of droving with some of the mobs of sheep or cattle always passing through the Border town, bound south from the Central and Gulf stations.

Queenslanders will remember that summer, on certain days of which men were stricken down in dozens, and birds fell dead off the trees in the fierce heat.

There is no drearier track in Australia than the one I speak of—all pine-scrub, too thick for a dog to bark in, and the rest sand and ant-hills.

There was nothing doing just then in ‘The Bridge,’ so I pushed on for the Maranoa. It was only the beginning of summer, and I reckoned on finding water twenty-five miles along the track, at a hole in the Wullumgudgeree Creek, known of aforetime.

It was a dismal ride, with nothing but walls of close-set scrub on each side, and sand, heavy underfoot, and glaring ahead. Even the horses seemed to feel its


  ― 12 ―
influence as they ploughed along, heads bent down, coats black with sweat, and big clusters of flies swarming thickly at their leather eye-guards. Even one's own close-knit veil was but poor protection, for the pests gathered on it in such numbers as to almost obscure the sight. The flies and mosquitos were a caution that summer. However, shogging steadily on, with a pull at the water-bag now and then, I at length reached the creek, dry as a bone where it crossed the road. But, following it down through the scrub, I found the hole, pretty muddy and fast diminishing. Nor was it improved by the dog and the pack-horse rushing into it and rolling before I could stop them.

The sun was setting, a big red ball, over the tops of the pines as I hobbled out, pitched the tent on one side of the round open space, lit a fire, and slung the billy. There was not bad picking for the horses, and as I belled the pack I fervently trusted they would not stray far in such a God-forsaken spot.

After supper—damper, mutton and sardines, washed down by tea, boiled, skimmed and strained three times before coming to table—I felt pretty comfortable, and lay down with my head on one of the swags to enjoy a smoke and fight the mosquitos, who were beginning to sample freely. The sun had set, but the moon, big, yellow and hot-looking, hung in a hazy sky.

But for the buzzing of the insects and the snoring of the dog, fast asleep in a deep hole scratched in the sand, everything was very quiet. The thick scrub into which the horses had retreated deadened the sound of the bell.




  ― 13 ―

Presently, however, evidently compassionating my lonely state, a little bird, after partaking of the remnants of my supper, came and perched on the ridge-pole of the tent, and piped forth at short intervals in a shrill monotone. ‘Sweet, pretty creature! Pretty, sweet, little creature! He was company of a sort, spite of his egoism. But there was other toward.

The flies had, ere this, gone to roost, but the mosquitoes were troublesome. They had also taken anticipatory possession of the tent. Burning some old rags, I cleared them out of that, fixed up the netting, and was preparing to turn in, when I heard the sound of hoofs coming thump, thump, down the dry creek bed. The dog, awaking, barked loudly, and in a minute or two a man and a woman rode into the bright firelight. They each had a big swag in front of them; and at a glance I saw that their horses were not only well-bred, but had come far and fast.

‘Water!’ exclaimed the man.

I gave him some; and he lifted the woman off and handed her the mug.

‘We're travellin', mate,’ said he, as I helped him to unsaddle. ‘Got bushed atween 'ere an' the Maranoa. A bit o' damned bad country!’

He had not come from that direction at all; but in such a scrub all directions were much alike. And, anyhow, it was no business of mine. They had plenty of tucker, and I put the billy on again.

As the woman stood at the fire, holding up her riding-dress with one hand and with the other hastily fastening


  ― 14 ―
some stray braids of long hair that had come adrift, I saw that she was a fresh-faced, pleasant-featured girl of about eighteen or nineteen. As she presently dropped her skirt, took off her hat, and used both hands to her hair, I noticed by the flickering light a red, angry-looking scar extending from the bridge of the nose up to and across the left eyebrow.

Her companion was a type I knew well. A cattleman all over, from the long, lean, curved legs of him to the sharp-eyed, tanned, resolute face. And from the swag I saw sticking out the curiously-carved handle of a stockwhip. They both seemed weary and thoughtful, and after supper I offered them the shelter of the tent. The man thanked me.

‘The missus,’ said he, ‘'ll be only too glad of the chance. She ain't much used to campin' out.’

So they lugged their belongings inside whilst, making up the fire, and throwing some green bushes on it to drive the skeeters away, I laid on my blankets, with the pack-saddle for a pillow, and the dog at my feet.

Awaking about midnight, as most bushmen do, I saw that big clouds were sailing fast across the moon. The air had become rather chilly, and, throwing more wood on the fire, I stood warming myself and filling my pipe. The dog, also getting up, yawned sleepily, and came and gazed into the blaze. The little bird from the ridge-pole still chirped its eulogistic call, but drowsily, and with effort, as of one who nods and winks. From the scrub came the faint tinkling of bells, showing that the horses were feeding steadily.




  ― 15 ―

Suddenly the silence was broken by the peculiar long, rumbling whinny with which a straggling horse greets the presence of others. Then I heard the hobble-chains clanking as our horses galloped up to inspect the newcomer. Then ensued a short pause, followed by the sound of a wild snorting stampede as they crashed away, their hobbles jingling and bells ringing furiously through the scrub.

‘Bother!’ thought I, as the noise grew fainter and fainter, ‘that means, most likely, a long walk in the morning. Hang all brombees!’

Preparing to lie down again, in not the best of tempers, I became aware of at least one horse steadily making towards the camp. As the steps approached, the dog, growling low, and with every hair bristling, backed towards the tent. A cold feeling of disquiet and nervousness took possession of me as I saw this.

Turning from watching the animal, my eye caught a dark mass between scrub and fire. Just then the moon shone out from behind a bank, and, not ten yards away, stood a horseman, his head drooping on his chest, his body rocking slightly in the saddle.

I gave a sigh of relief. Drunken riders are common enough in the Bush. And, with all trepidation vanished, I sang out gruffly enough,—

‘Better get off, mate, before you fall off! Come and have a drink of tea!’

He would be a nuisance, of course, with the inevitable bottle of rum in his swag, and in his person all the loathsome imbecility inseparable from the sobering-up


  ― 16 ―
process. But, as an institution, he had to be attended to.

And I repeated my invitation irritably to him, sitting there in the bright moonlight, one hand grasping the reins, the other resting on the wither, his chin on his breast, staring fixedly at me from under the broad-leafed hat.

‘Oh,’ I muttered, ‘you drunken brute! I ve got to lift you down, have I! About all you're fit for is to frighten people's horses away.’

The dog, only his head protruding from under the tent, kept up a long, snarling, choking growl, broken by gasps for fresh breath.

Advancing, I placed my hand upon the horseman's. It was like ice. Looking up, I saw a black-whiskered face, ashen-grey under the hat-leaf, and apparently leaning forward to gaze into mine out of wide-open, staring, glassy eyes.

Suddenly, realising the meaning of the thing, I ran to one side and shouted hurriedly—I know not what.

Then I heard someone in the tent cursing the dog, who yelped, as from a kick, and, presently, the stranger came out and walked up to the fire. Standing away, and in deep shadow, he did not see me. But, catching sight of that dread rider, sitting motionless, he went over and peered into its face.

Then with a tremendous oath he sprang back, and I could see his sharp-cut features working with emotion as he exclaimed, ‘George! What game's this?’

Advancing again he stroked the horse, and, as I had


  ― 17 ―
done, placed one of his hands on that other so cold one.

Apparently convinced, he ran into the tent, whence came in a minute an excited murmur of voices.

A heavy cloud was across the moon, but I could make out the pair fumbling for their bridles amongst a heap of saddlery at the foot of a sapling.

Meanwhile the horse was making ineffectual tugs at the bridle to get its head down to some dry tussocks growing near. But all its straining could not relax by one inch the steel like grip of those dead fingers. Only the corpse at each jerk nodded in a ghastly cordial sort of fashion.

Presently, moonlight filled the little plain again, and the horse, growing impatient, turned and made off towards the sound of the distant bells.

Taking heart of grace, I ran up and caught it. As I led it back I noticed that the rider's legs were bound tightly to the saddle by straps passed from the front D's over the thighs to the ones on the cantle.

As I began to undo them I saw the man slinging off into the scrub with the woman at his heels. I shouted to them. But they took no notice.

Working away at the knots and buckles, the chin-strap slipped, the jaw fell, and the gleaming teeth showed in such an awful grin that I involuntarily stepped back.

Now the hat tumbled off, revealing the features of a young man with coal-black hair and moustache, and beard flecked with spots of dry white foam.

Even at its best, I should have called it a hard, cruel face. It was simply hideous now.




  ― 18 ―

As I stood irresolutely staring, a voice behind me made me jump. It was the woman.

‘Here,’ she said, as with trembling fingers she essayed to loosen the dead grasp on the reins, ‘I'll help you. He was a real bad un! But he couldn't scare me when he were alive, an' I aint goin’ to let him do it now. See' (pointing to the cut on her forehead), ‘this is the last thing he done. Slip your knife through them reins,’ she continued. ‘He's had a fit, or a stroke o' the sun, an' he'll never slacken his grip, no more'n he would my throat if he could ha' got hold on it. He was my husband; an' jealous of his own shadder. But I never minded much till he took to knockin' me about. I couldn't stand that. So I cleared with Jim yonder.’

By this, we had undone the saddle and breast-plate straps with which the man, feeling himself mortally struck, and wishful to avoid falling off and lying there to rot in that wild scrub, had, in perhaps his last agony, tied himself to the saddle. And between us we let him slide gently down on to the sand, whilst the horse shook itself, sniffed unconcernedly at the body, and wandered away to the others.

For a while she stood gazing on the thing as it lay there with stiffly curved legs and upturned glassy eyes.

Then she smiled a little out of a white face, set hard with horror and detestation, saying,—

‘After all, perhaps, he thought a lot of me!’ And, going to the tent, she returned with a blanket, and carefully spread it over the corpse.




  ― 19 ―

Then, as the man came up with the horses and began to saddle them, she said, holding out her hand,—

‘So long! an' many thanks. You've bin a real right bower. We're a-goin' into the Bridge, an' we'll send the traps out, all square an' fair. So long! agen.’

‘So long, mate!’ shouted the man, with a tremor in his voice lacking in the woman's. And then they rode away, two dark shapes against the moonlit scrub.

‘Died by the visitation of God,’ said the Coroner's Jury.

‘Served him damned well right!’ said the district generally, who knew the story.

But travellers along the Maranoa track make a point of giving ‘Dead Man's Camp’ a very wide berth.

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