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Strawberry: A Love Story.

JOCK CONDON was over forty as years count. He was grey in patches, and wrinkled and fat. His hands were swollen from hanging listlessly, and bad weather had distorted his face. By proper reckoning he was getting old, but, measured by the standard of experience, he was only a youth. And all because he was slow; other men had lived through their lives, had tasted of the world, the flesh and the devil, had married and given in marriage, and had even made their final bow while Jock was travelling to that point in existence whereat monumental marble ceases to be uninteresting.

But, having reached that point, Jock began as a matter of course to court the young girls of the district, instead of the mothers who had borne or the maiden aunts who had nursed them; and he met with ridicule. Even his experience with Maggie Johnston only acted as a temporary check. He went on grinning upon one after another in his amorous fashion, putting the inevitable question when chance offered, till there was not in the whole neighbourhood a single young woman unasked. Then Jock became miserable. He sat before the fire in his lonely hut and thought, and thought; and it seemed to him that life was blacker than the darkness that covered the earth. No mate was his, and years were going by. Fielding was dead, whom he remembered since they were boys together. Morton was dead; and Joyce. He, too, would be called upon some day, the dream within his heart unrealised.

Suddenly his face brightened. He stirred the fire nervously and rubbed his hands. “Take the sheep round that way tomorrow,” he muttered. And so the die was cast.

She was not an angel, this newest of Jock's chosen. Even he

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guessed that. Her history no man knew; and as for her name—they called her “Strawberry.” She came a stranger to that place, but whence or how no tongue ever told. This only the Dogwood people knew: she had possessed herself of a hut and strip of land in their midst; she wrought, and tilled, and delved as men do, and she lived somehow.

Now, Jock was vaguely conscious that Strawberry would not make an ideal wife, but he was desperate. So he bore up along the bank of the creek next day, stooping to keep under cover, and made his attack. Strawberry was hooing a row of potatoes near the fence. Jock could see the back of her head rising and falling with every stroke, and his heart thumped. He had often seen her thus, and he wished now that he had introduced himself before—it would have made the task so much easier. However, he crept up to the fence, and on hands and knees spent some time looking through a hole. Presently he stood up and whistled, but bobbed down again immediately, with his heart thumping louder than ever. Strawberry worked on. A pebble was lying at his hand. He picked it up and threw it over gently, so that it would not hurt. But the pebble fell short in the soft ground, and the hoe came down with its rhythmic beat.

Jock got another stone, and, standing up, put his best effort into the aim. This time it hit Strawberry on the ankle just where there was a big hole in her stocking, and she wheeled round in time to see a grinning face disappear behind the logs.

That was enough for Strawberry. Hoe in hand, she rushed to answer the challenge. But Jock made off backwards, grinning and showing all possible signs of peace. He wanted the lady to understand that this was merely his playful way of introducing himself, but he stammered badly, and she was forcing matters.

“You dashed gorilla!” she called out, climbing the fence; “I'll teach you!”

But just then Jock fell flat into the creek with a splash that startled the birds a hundred yards off. He struggled out on the

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other side dripping, with hat in hand, only to find his lady-love still brandishing the hoe.

“Will yer marry me?” he called out across the water.

The hoe was gradually lowered.

“Eh! what's that?”

Jock put the question again, adding, “That's what I came for.”

“Well, why didn't you say so, you grinning idiot?”

Jock looked pleased at the compliment.

“Who the devil are you, anyway?” she went on.

He told her.

“Well, come over here!”

He waded through and stood meekly on the bank. Then they sat on the fence for awhile, and later on Jock helped to carry her things to his hut.

There was not much romance about it as the world judges, but poor old Jock was satisfied at the time. And even afterwards, when Strawberry took command and upset all his household arrangements,—when she was spending his money freely on visits to the township, and bullying him of nights,—he was very patient. Throughout long days, while following the sheep, he discussed the matter with his dogs; but Rover showed plainly that he had no opinion whatever concerning marriage, and Laddie only wagged his tail.

At length, Jock came to regard his experience as natural, and this bred in him a kind of helpless pity for all married men. He began secretly to long for his lost solitude, and his face grew sullen. Then, one night, after yarding the sheep, he found a visitor at home A big, heavy-browed man it was, dark-looking as a Spaniard. He nodded carelessly as Jock entered, and took no further notice, while Jock sidled into a corner to sulk. All the evening, the stranger talked familiarly with Strawberry. They laughed and joked coarsely, and about ten o'clock the stranger turned abruptly to Jock: “About time you sloped, isn't it?” he said.

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Jock stared like an owl.

“About time you got!” repeated the stranger.

“Where to?” Jock asked, stupidly.

“To blazes—I don't care. Ain't room for three here, anyway.”

Jock had come to that conclusion also, yet he was inclined to protest.

“But——” he commenced.

“No ‘buts,’ ” the visitor interrupted, standing before the fire; “there's a hut down by the creek. Come on, now—get! This here's my missus.”

Jock turned pale, and his eyes rolled.

“Her?” he asked, jerking his thumb.

Strawberry went towards him and said, more softly than he had ever heard her speak before, “You'd better go. Take a blanket and some tucker with you.”

She made a bundle silently and opened the door, and when it closed again the shepherd realised that this had been his home for over thirty years.

The man within laughed harshly. “Strange old bloke, that!” he remarked.

The woman did not answer for a while, then she said, “He's not a bad sort, Bob.”

Next day Jock met the ration-cart near the main road. “You needn't go down to—to the hut to-day. I'll carry the stuff,” he said to the driver.

The bag was handed out. “How's the missus, Jock?” the young fellow asked with a grin.

“She—oh, she—the bag isn't heavy,” Jock answered, as he hurried away.

So Jock lived in the hut that used to be Strawberry's, and cooked his own meals again, and muttered, and stirred the fire just as in years gone by. And when about a month had gone a swagman passed towards the setting sun, and Jock knew that Strawberry, too, was alone.

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Then began a struggle. Should he go back to her? Should he claim his own hut? The dogs did not know; and while he was still pondering, and wearing himself to a skeleton, came a day when the sheep were not liberated. Another followed, and by noon Strawberry took his place. She let the hungry animals out and sought the shepherd by the creek. He was sick—was very sick. And she set to work to nurse him back to health. All day she watched his sheep, at night she yarded them, and came to sit beside the bed; and, while he lay thus unconscious in summer heat, a fire broke out. At sundown it seemed far away, but the north wind rose and urged it on, and by midnight the sky was red for miles, and the woman could hear the crackling grass and leaves. She thought of the penned-up sheep, and, single-handed, burned a strip around the yard. Then, with set face, she hurried back to the hut and stood on guard. And later, when the Dogwood people came, they saw against the broad front of the fire the solitary figure of a woman fighting as never woman fought before. So she worked and watched till Jock got well again, and together they went back to his hut. There she made a garden and planted fruit-trees; she helped him with the flock; she saved money. They even enlarged the hut in the course of years; and when sickness came again it was Jock who bore the burden of the toil and the watching; and he it was who was left to mourn.

He came home one day and found their visitor of years before waiting, his brows even more shaggy, his skin even darker.

“Gone?” the fellow asked laconically, pointing to the closed door.

“Dead!” Jock answered simply.

The stranger started. “No! … She was my wife,” he said quickly.

“The grave-stone says Missus J. Condon,” was the response; and there was a touch of pride in the old man's voice.