― 16 ―

How He Died.

“Take my horse,” cried the squatter to Nabbage—“ 'Tis forty long miles at the least;
Ride as if you were heeled by the devil, and don't spare yourself or the beast:
And just mark me, my man, if I find that you stop for as much as a nip,
I will hide you while I've got the strength, and then pass Curly Johnson the whip.

“Give the doctor this letter, and tell him to get his best horses and drive
As he never has driven before, if he wants to find Freddy alive:
Say I'll pay him a dozen times over—he can flog them until they drop dead—
And be there in two hours, or by”——(there is no need to add what he said).

There was no need of threats to urge Nabbage; one instant, and firm on the back
Of the boss's blood mare, he was racing away down the dimly-marked track;
Far away in the thickening night, with the hand of an awful despair
On his soul, for the help that was hopeless for a life that was past even prayer.

Not a man on the station liked Nabbage—he held himself coldly aloof
From the boys in the hut, and his eyes always dwelt on the floor or the roof;

  ― 17 ―
He was pock-marked and wrinkled and stooped, and at meal-times sat ever apart,
As though nursing some scorn untranslated that grew in the shade of his heart.

For a time all his mates thought him sulky, and said he was “putting it on;”
Then the sense of the hut being taken, decided him just “a bit gone;”
But Old Stumpy, the cook, held the view that the man was a “natural skunk”
Who (thus heightening public disfavour) oft-times went alone and got drunk.

Curly Johnson, the super., despised him, and never neglected a chance
To annoy and degrade the poor wretch, who replied not with even a glance:
He was general drudge at the homestead, and slaved in a spiritless way
At whatever they told him to do, for whatever they fancied to pay.

Strange that Freddie, the master's one darling, the golden-haired, impudent boy,
With the slang of the bush on his lips, and the great eyes of Helen of Troy.
He, the eager imperious young master, whose talk was of yearlings and brands,
Should pick out this strange slouch for a chum, and ignore the more sociable hands.

But it was so, and often and often from daybreak till set of the sun
Rode the two through the light of the summer far out on the limitless run;
Freddie riding his favourite pony, and Nabbage—I think you can guess
That the steed Curly Johnson let him have was not of the build of Black Bess.

  ― 18 ―
And everyone noticed that Nabbage grew gentle and sweet with the child,
And a rumour spread wildly abroad that one night in the hut he had smiled
As a man might whose thoughts were away in the grave of one cherished and kissed,
While his comrades grew heated at euchre, or smoked their unspeakable twist.

And like this things went on till one day when the gum-leaves hung lifelessly down
In the haze of a ring of bush-fires that by night made each hill seem a town—
They had yarded some steers to be branded, a wild-looking, dangerous lot,
And young Freddie had kindled his fire, and the iron was just getting hot,

When Joe Smith, the new boundary-rider, whose conduct was painfully “flash,”
Passed along down the side of the fence, hitching in his red silk-woven sash,
All at once came a rush, as of water, and Joe made one spring past the gate
Which withstood for a minute, then crashed with the strain of the multiplied weight.

Whereat Freddie, poor Freddie, looked up, with a laugh, to see what had gone wrong,
When a score of mad steers burst upon him, and trampled and tossed him along.
Every man rushed at once to his help, and they lifted him, silent and white,
And a little while afterwards Nabbage was riding away through the night.

Every light on the hills out of view, in the dim solemn glens not a light,

  ― 19 ―
Not a sound nor a stir in the depths of the marvellous hush of the night,
Not a pulse or a heart-beat of Nature, no break in the infinite rest,
Every star with the eyelight of God, lidded down in the east and the west.

Half a mile from a town wrapped in midnight, a broken-necked horse at a creek.
And a man with death's dew on his forehead and blood on his coat and his cheek:
“I am dying—I feel death upon me, but yet, even yet, if God wills
I may crawl on my knees to the doctor's—yes, this is the last of the hills.

“To the left is the way, I am certain—Heaven grant that it be not too late—
Heaven grant that my life may be paid for the life of my poor little mate!
Darling child of the woman I loved in the days when—O, God! is it vain?
No!—for your sake, my lost angel's boy, I can fight yet awhile with this pain.

“Years ago, when the curse overtook me, when drink flung its chain round my lot,
She recoiled with a shudder of loathing and scorn from the pitiful sot;
But to-night may be large with atonement—Yes! to-night, if her spirit may know
How and why I am wrestling with Death, may redeem the love lost long ago!

“Not two hundred yards now! If I reach it, though even to die at the door,
Here's the letter to tell him—O. Heaven! the thought never struck me before;

  ― 20 ―
Doctor Thompson will see I am injured, and stop to attend me. What way
Can I think of in time to prevent half a moment of needless delay?

“Ha! I have it. He knows, like the rest, that one-half of my time I am ‘tight;’
I'll pretend that I stopped out at Brown's, and got drunk—for the last time—to-night;
I can muffle this handkerchief well round my face, and he'll not see the mark
Of the rock on my head where I fell with the mare when we jumped in the dark.”

So the man, like a serpent disabled, writhes on with low, agonised groans,
And here and there tinges with blood fallen logs and twigs and sharp stones,
Till he wearily drags round a corner, and finds a warm light in the gloom,
And crawls further and beats with his hand on the door of the young doctor's room.

A strange man, most decidedly drunk, with a letter held out in his hand!
Doctor Thompson can't quite make it out, and proceeds in stern words to demand
What he wants? Who he is? But the drunkard, half-rolling away from the door.
Curls up, where the light can't come near him, and calmly commences to snore.

Then the doctor tears open the letter, and yells to the stable-boy: “Dick,
Fix up Starlight and Fan in the buggy, and fetch 'em around pretty quick;”
Then angrily kicks the fallen drunkard, and seizing the drugs he may need,

  ― 21 ―
Drives away up the street with the greys at the uttermost reach of their speed.

Then the drunkard half-rises and listens, a wistful, strange smile on his face,
As he mutters, “Thank God, I deceived him!—in three hours they'll be at the place;
And alike if he lives, or has wandered to dwell with his mother above,
I have triumphed an hour over Death for the boy with the eyes of my love.”