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  ― 226 ―

The Tramp.

SHE laid the stick and her baby on the grass while she untied the rope that tethered the calf. The length of the rope separated them. The cow was near the calf, and both were lying down. Every day she found a fresh place to tether it—since tether it she must, for there was no one to go after it but herself. She had plenty of time, but then there was baby; and if the cow turned on her out on the plains, and she with baby—— She was afraid of the cow; she had been a town girl, only she did not want the cow to know it. She used to run at first when the cow bellowed its protest against the penning-up of its calf. This suited the cow, also the calf, but the woman's husband was wroth, and called her—the noun was cur. It was he who forced her to run and meet the advancing cow, brandishing a stick and uttering threatening words till the enemy turned tail and ran “That's the way!” the man said, laughing at her white face. In many things he was worse than the cow, and she wondered if the same rule would apply to the man, but she was not one to provoke skirmishes, even with the cow.

It was early for the calf to go “to bed”—nearly an hour earlier than usual; but she felt so weirdly lonely. Partly because it was Monday, and her husband had been home for Saturday night and Sunday. He had gone off before daylight this morning; he was a shearer, and fifteen miles as the crow flies separated them. She knew of no one nearer, unless the tramp. Ah! that was why she had penned the calf up so early. She feared more from the look of his eyes, and the gleam of his teeth, as he watched her newly-awakened baby beat its impatient fists upon her covered breasts, than from the knife that was sheathed in the belt at his waist.




  ― 227 ―

Her husband, she had told him, was sick. She always said that when she was alone and a tramp came—and she had gone in from the kitchen to the bedroom and asked questions and replied to them in the best man's voice she could assume. But this tramp had walked round and round the house, and there were cracks in some places,—and after the last time he had asked for tobacco. She had none to give, and he had grinned, because there was a broken clay pipe near the wood-heap where he stood, and if there were a man inside there ought to have been tobacco. Then he asked for money, but women in the bush never have money.

At last he was gone, and she, watching through the cracks inside, saw him when about a quarter of a mile away turn and look back at the house. Then he went further in the direction that she would have him go; but he paused again, turned and looked behind him, and, apparently satisfied, moved to the left towards the creek. The creek made a bow round the house, and when he came to it she lost sight of him. Hours after, watching intently in that direction for signs of smoke, she saw the man's dog chasing some sheep that had gone to the creek for water, and saw it slink back suddenly, as if the man had called it.

More than once she thought of taking her baby and going to her husband, but as yet she had not set her will against his as with the cow, and so dared not. Long before nightfall she placed food in the kitchen, and a big brooch that had been her mother's she put upon the table, because, if the man did come back and robbery were his object, it was the only thing valuable that she had. And she left the kitchen door open—wide open; but this was not wise.

How she fastened the doors inside! Beside the bolt in the back one she drove in the steel and the scissors; against it she piled the stools and the table. Beside the lock on the front door she forced the handle of the spade, under the middle bar, and the blade between the cracks in the flooring boards. Then the prop-stick, cut into lengths, held the top as the spade held the middle. The windows were little more than port-holes; she had nothing to fear through them.




  ― 228 ―

She ate a few mouthfuls of food and drank a cup of cold milk, for she lighted no fire, and when night came no candle, but crept with her baby to bed.

What woke her? The wonder was that she had slept: she had not meant to, but she was young, very young. Perhaps the shrinking of the galvanised roof—yet hardly, that was too usual. Something had set her heart beating wildly, and the very air she breathed seemed fraught with terrible danger, but she lay quite still—only she put her other arm over her baby. Then she had both round it, and she prayed: “Little baby—little baby—don't wake!”

She saw one of the open cracks, quite close to where she lay, darken with a shadow—for the moon's rays shone on that side. Then a protesting growl reached her; and she could fancy she heard the man turn hastily: she plainly heard the thud of something striking the dog's ribs, and the long, flying strides of the animal as it howled and ran. Still watching, she saw the shadow darken every crack along the wall: she knew by the sounds that the man was trying every position that might help him to see in; but how much he saw she could not tell. She thought of doing many things that might deceive him into the idea that she was not alone, but the sound of her voice would wake baby, and, as though that were the only danger that threatened her, she dreaded it. If baby cried she felt as if she, in turn, must betray her weakness, and instinctively cry to her protector, fifteen miles away. So she prayed: “Little baby, don't wake! don't cry!”

Very stealthily the man crept about. She knew he had his boots off, because of the vibration that his feet caused as he walked along the verandah, gauging the width of the little window in her room and the resistance of the front door. Then he went to the other end, and the uncertainty of what he might be doing was fearful: she had felt safer, far safer, while he was close, and she could watch and listen. But now! Oh, God! it was terrible. She felt she must watch, and again the great fear of wakening baby assailed her. And there was another thing: on that side of the house one


  ― 229 ―
of the slabs had shrunk in length as well as in width, and had once fallen out. It was held in position only by a wedge of wood underneath. What if he should discover that! The uncertainty increased her terror. She felt she must rise: and now, how she prayed as she gently raised herself with her little one in her arms, held tightly to her breast!

The vital parts in her child's body she tried to shield with her hands and arms as she thought of the knife: even its little feet she covered with its white gown, and baby never murmured—it liked to be held so. Noiselessly she crossed to the other side, and stood where she could see and hear, but not be seen. He was trying every slab, and was very near to that with the wedge under it. Then, even while hoping, she saw him find it; and heard the sound of the knife as bit by bit he began to cut away the wooden barrier.

She waited still, with her baby pressed tightly to her; though she knew that in another few minutes this man with the cruel eyes, lascivious mouth and gleaming knife would be able to enter. One side of the slab tilted; there was nothing to do now but cut away the remaining little end, when the slab, unless he held it, would fall inside or out; and then——

She heard his jerked breathing as it kept time with the cuts of the knife, and heard the brush of his clothes as they rubbed the walls with his movements, for she was so still and quiet that she did not even tremble. And she knew when he ceased, and wondered why. She stood well concealed; she knew he could not see her and that he would not fear if he did; yet she heard him move cautiously away. Perhaps he expected the slab to fall. Still, his motive puzzled her; his retreat was a pretence, she felt sure; and she moved even closer and bent her body the better to listen. Ah! what sound was that? “Listen! Listen!” she bade her heart—her heart that had kept so still hitherto, but now bounded with tumultuous throbs that dulled her ears. Nearer and nearer came the sounds, till the welcome thud of horse's hoofs rang out clearly.

“Oh, God! Oh, God! Oh, God!” she cried; for they were very close before she could make sure, and then there was the door


  ― 230 ―
so locked and barred with many bars. The age it took to tear away its fastenings!

Out she darted at last, and, tearing madly along, saw the horseman far beyond her in the distance. She called to him in Christ's name, in her babe's name, still flying like the wind with the speed that deadly peril sends; but the distance grew greater and greater between them, and when she reached the creek her prayers turned to wild shrieks, for there crouched the man she feared, with out-stretched hands that had caught her ere she saw him. She knew he was offering terms if she ceased to struggle and cry for help, though louder and louder did she cry for it; but it was only when the man's hand gripped her throat that the cry of “Murder!” came from her lips; and when she fell the startled curlews took up the awful sound, and flew over the horseman's head shrieking “M-u-r-d-e-r! M-u-r-d-e-r! M-u-r-d-e-r!”

“By God!” said the boundary-rider, “it's been a dingo right enough. Eight killed up here, and there's more down in the creek —a ewe and lamb, I'll bet; and the lamb's alive.” And he shut out the sky with his hand and watched the crows that were circling round and round, nearing the earth one moment and the next shooting skyward. By that he knew the lamb must be alive. Even a dingo will spare a lamb sometimes.

Yes, the lamb was alive, and after the manner of lambs of its age did not know its mother when the light came. It had sucked the still-warm breasts and laid its little head on her bosom and slept till morn; then, when the wee one looked at the swollen, disfigured face with the starting eyes, and clenched teeth that had bitten through the tongue and stained the bodice crimson, it wept and would have crept away but for the hand that still clutched its little gown. Sleep was nodding its golden head and swaying its small body, and the crows were close, so close, to the other's wide-open eyes, when the boundary-rider galloped down. He reeled in his saddle when he saw the two, and, covering his eyes, cried, “Jesus Christ!” And he told afterwards how the little child held


  ― 231 ―
out its arms to him, and how he was forced to cut the portion of its gown that the dead hand held.

A few miles further down the creek a man kept throwing an old cap into the water. The dog would bring it out and lay it on the opposite side from where the man stood, but would not allow the man to catch him, though it was only to wash the blood of the sheep from his mouth and throat, for the sight of blood made the man tremble.

But the dog also was guilty.

BARBARA BAYNTON.

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