previous
next



  ― 58 ―

The Brand Fakers.

The sun was nearing the zenith; a soft breeze sang in the branches of the newly-budded fruit-trees; a score of bees droned their busy song as they flitted from flower to flower in the rugged garden of the selector's home; while over the far-stretching paddocks was spread a verdant carpet of luscious grass, thickly bestudded with pink and white clover heads. Spring, beautiful spring, was on the land, by the creek, in the air. Everywhere you heard it sung—everywhere you inhaled its sweetness.

Jennie Benson, the selector's wife, stood at the door, and gazed out on the fair face of Nature. She had eyes for the picturesque, this busy, and perhaps not wholly happy, woman.

Beyond the sliprails, near the pig-stye, her husband was at work—hard, too; and yet he would not let her help him—would not have her near him, or allow her to steady the rail, hand him the axe or saw, or any other implement he might be using. This troubled Jennie more than her husband ever guessed. “Other women have had to learn,” she told herself, as she watched him delving away at the post-hole. “I wouldn't be long—I know I wouldn't; and it'd be jollier than staying in the house when I've got the dinner on. See, there! The post lops to one side when he starts to shovel in the earth. I could hold it, and do the ramming. He knows I can use the ramrod, and dig, too. My hands!” She looked down at them and sighed. “Too small and soft, he thinks—not fit for the wife of a selector. He doesn't know me, that's all; he can't understand what a hand might do when the heart is willing.”

Her gaze travelled along to the stockyard, where a fine fat beast was imprisoned. “Poor big, red bullock,” she murmured. “How calmly he stands there awaiting his end!” Her thoughts dwelt on the animal and his impending fate for a time, then she looked back at the husband so busy preparing the temporary slaughter-shed for the poor brute. “It'll be a good job if they pass an Act compelling people to get a license before killing their own bullocks,” she thought, meditatively. “It isn't worth the trouble for the little beef we use. I'm sure Bert could make as much by selling the cattle fat to the butchers. I'll tell him so—I'll propose it. He can't think me stupid or ignorant as to the way he strives to get on. Can he be of the opinion it's money a woman wants to make her happy?”

The big man, whose giant strength and grave demeanour had first attracted this fair, delicate girl, happened to glance towards the house at this moment, and there at the back door, framed in sunlight, he saw her standing gazing regretfully into the heart of the deep bush, as he thought. He set his teeth, and struck harder at the post he was morticing. “If she learns the truth


  ― 59 ―
she'll hate the place worse than ever,” he said; “hate it, and me, too!” He stopped for a moment, powerless at the thought, then he redoubled his efforts, and worked with a greater will than ever before. “She won't learn it! She sha'n't!” he vowed. “Two years at the outside, and I'll have paid him his share; the selection will be mine.”

“I—I thought I might help you with the posts, as Ted is away,” said a voice close beside him. “They're very wobbly. I could hold them till you filled the earth in.”

He straightened his back and looked at her.

“Found the house dull, and strolled across to break the monotony,” he thought. Well, he couldn't wonder; but his pride rose at the idea of what his neighbours would say if they saw or heard that she was seen helping him with the fencing. He tried to laugh, but his nerves were a bit out to-day, and the attempt was a failure. “Not with those hands, surely,” he returned, with a furtive glance towards the far-off hills. “Is dinner nearly ready?” he then inquired, with no thought at all of his appetite.

“Yes, very nearly,” replied Mrs. Benson, with mistaken comprehension. “I'll go and hasten it on.”

“Do, Jennie; I'll be home in about half-an-hour. Will that be all right?”

“That'll do,” she said, and retraced her steps.

“Didn't seem over-anxious to hold the post—satisfied to go back now that she's had the walk,” he murmured sadly, and picked up his spade again.

“If only he would not show me so plainly how useless he thinks me,” remarked Jennie to herself, spreading the cloth, and selecting the things for the table from a rough dresser in the kitchen. “We're not married twelve months yet—he ought to give me a chance. I think he's worse since Lucy Brown told him about Fred Thompson's wife doing all the burning-off and harrowing, and then the milking and separating in the evening, while he was laid up with the grip. I don't think I could plough or harrow, but I believe I'd learn to fence in time—and milk; and I'm sure separating's easy.”

“Ole Small's takin' a mob of clean-skins through to Barrabbong to-morrer mornin',” Ted informed his cousin, Bert Benson, next day, as both were busy about the slaughter-shed again. “They pass here about 8 o'clock.”

Bert frowned. “Well, what of it?”

“He's takin' 'em through.”

“I s'pose he can do as he likes with his own?”

“They're clean-skins,” repeated Ted.

The suggestion seemed to irritate his cousin. “What if they are?”

“Oh, nothin'; they're clean-skins, that's all.”

“Well, let 'em remain clean; and you'd better keep clean hands where his mob's concerned,” returned the other, as though the information annoyed him.

“Oh, very well. I thought you'd be pleased.”

“Look here, Ted!” Bert swung round on him with sudden determination. “You know better than I can tell you how I first came to consent to this kind of thing. It was for her sake!” He jerked his head in the direction


  ― 60 ―
of the house. “You taunted me, so did lots of my mates, with the idea she'd never have married me only she believed this place was mine. We're partners in this selection. You want a certain sum to clear out—you'll get that sum honestly, or you won't get it at all.”

The other left off work and looked at him. “What the blazes are you talkin' about?”

“I'm done with everything crook from this out. I'm not going to see her head bowed in shame for my crime! There hangs the last of the game, and don't you forget it! I want to hear no more about clean-skins or brand-faking, either.”

Ted went on with his work. “By gosh! I don't know that I ain't glad to hear it, old man. It's deucedly risky, and——”

A dog that had been keeping watch over the dead bullock sprang up, barking noisily. Benson looked nervously about. Descending the hill near the boundary was a horseman. The cousins exchanged glances, then instinctively their eyes ran rapidly over the scene around them. Hanging from a cross-sapling was the fat bullock they had killed the evening before. On the grass, a little further down, lay the head and horns, while spread out close beside it was the hide, wrong side up. Another glance at the approaching rider and the men turned pale.

“By gosh! it's the trooper,” said Ted.

“The skin! My God! What—what——”

“Gimme the knife!”

“There's no time! To try and burn that now would be to——”

“Shut up!” and grasping the knife, with a quick movement of the blade Ted slashed a jagged corner out of the hide. As Bert observed where he hid it his colour returned, and he breathed more naturally.

“It's the young cove they're got up from Sydney to try and catch the brand-fakers,” went on Ted, with another side glance at the trooper, who was yet some distance off. “They say he's as smart as mustard, too, and twice as red-hot. You walk away round the shed there. I'll deal with him while you're recoverin' a bit.”

Bert obeyed, and the trooper rode up. “Good day,” he cried, pleasantly, as he drew rein before Ted.

“Gud day! Gud day!” returned Ted.

The trooper's eyes scanned the beast, then travelled to the hide upon the ground. “Doing a bit of killing, I see,” he remarked.

Ted commenced to laugh. “May's well get it off yer chest straight away, sergeant,” he said, carelessly. “You're on the track of Gibson's big red bullock, ain't yer now?”

The trooper eyed him, a little uncertain. “Well, I have something of that kind to do,” he replied, slowly; “but it's this brand business I'm seein' into more than anything. You don't mind? Duty's duty, you know; and I'd like to have a look round——”

“Among the dry stock, you mean?”

The other nodded. “That, too,” he said, and glanced again at the skin spread out before him.




  ― 61 ―

“I—I'll take you up and show yer our brand,” Ted volunteered, anxious to get him away from the spot.

“Do you brand in initials or figures?” asked the trooper, in no hurry to move.

“ 'Nitials.”

“What are they?”

“B.B.”

“Um! Not a hard matter, I should think. You must excuse me, but I'm going into this matter thoroughly. There's been a lot of bother out here lately about branding, and——”

“Yes, of course; but what is it you're gettin' at?” interrupted Ted. “Let's come to the point; and if you have a warrant to search the place for the fake, inspect the stock, or anything of that sort, let's set to work and get it over.”

“Yes. It's an ugly piece of business for a man of any fine feelings,” went on the trooper, dismounting and moving towards the hide. “I fell across a couple of old chums the other day, and I was under the painful necessity of treating them like the rest. You mustn't mind, Mr.——?”

“Benson.”

“Mr. Benson, I may be protecting you, even while I'm annoying you.”

“Quite true, quite true. See, here's the skin; It's red. I'm told Phil Baxter's beast was branded—this is clean, as you can see.” Ted turned over the hide as he spoke. “By the way, would you mind explainin' that little remark 'bout not bein' a hard matter? I don't want to be misunderstandin' anything.”

The trooper ran his eyes carefully over the bullock-skins, then replied to the question. “Well, there are some letters in the alphabet difficult to fake; B B is among them, but P B isn't. You see, Phil Baxter is very determined; and what I have to do, without casting suspicion on anyone, is to suspect everybody whose initial brand might fit his, and to find out the brands most likely to fake.”

“I don't understand,” said Ted.

The trooper took a book and pencil from his pocket.

“We'll say, for sake of argument, a Bill Brown has a brand, B.B., and Phil Baxter's is P.B.; then all Bill Brown has to do is to get a small U or pot-hook made, and with the aid of this flannel trick, brand it on to the side of the P, so, and he's got B.B., his own brand.”

“By gosh, he's a smart 'un!—the smartest we've ever had on this job,” thought Ted.

“Of course,” continued the trooper, “this flannel business has got them all beat, so far; but I'm going to search the mystery to the bottom. You can't make me believe that branding through thick flannel is going to make the letter, or part of the letter, resemble a brand of months' or years' standing. What do you think about it, Mr. Benson?” The trooper had just fixed Ted with his keen, steady grey eyes, when a shadow fell across the skin they were holding; and the next instant brands and hide were forgotten in a hearty greeting.




  ― 62 ―

“Bert! Great heavens alive! Who would dream of meeting you? When did you come out here? Why, I heard you were settled in Western Australia. Good Lord! what a surprise!” And Bert Benson and the trooper renewed their handshaking.

“You're not more surprised than I am, Jack,” Benson told him. “I could scarcely believe my own eyes. Where did you drop from? When did you join? How long have you been in the force?”

Ted moved away, breathing a sigh of relief, while brief explanations were gone into by the two old chums; then Bert called him up and introduced him.

“My cousin, Ted Benson,” he said. We took up this place between us. You've often heard me speak of Jack Lawler, Ted? Well, this is him; but, great Scot! I never expected to see him in them buttons. We were kids together—went to school—grew up, and——”

“He saved my life. Did he tell you that?” put in the trooper, in his frank and pleasant way. “Cut out the piece, sucked the poison, and did everything as brave and clever as a doctor, when I was bitten by a brown snake, once. Then, when I caved in from fright, he carried me nearly four miles on his back, dropping me every five minutes and lambasting the devil out of me to keep me from going to sleep. Dear, brave old Bert! And to think I came looking for Baxter's red bullock, and faked brands, here on his selection.” The trooper laughed, and slapped his old friend on the back again.

Ted went off and left them after a while.

“Look in at the house and ask Jennie to put the kettle on,” Bert called after him. “We'll be along directly.”

“Not married, Bert? Still the same free leg?”

A cloud seemed to cross the selector's brow for a second. He knew now that his next words would indeed be news to the young fellow. “Free! Not a bit of it; and I don't want to be. I've the best little wife on earth!”

“No! Newly wed, of course? But, my word, I'm glad! I hope you'll always think so, old man. No one I know, I s'pose?”

“Yes, you know her, Jack—Jennie Bryant, our old schoolmaster's daughter.” As he spoke he picked up a stick and flung it at a dog that was tearing and scraping at the head and windpipe of the red bullock.

The trooper's face became grave.

Bert knew his secret, but he could not tell he still remembered.

There was a brief silence.

“Come—come out of it, you brute!” the trooper cried, at length, and, walking round, he gave a kick to the dog. “Why, what the deuce is he after? He's not my property; he only followed me from a farm back there. Come out of that, you cuss! What's he after? What—what's this?” The trooper kicked the dark mass which the dog had dragged from the great throat at his feet, then he looked at the hide and finally back into Benson's face. No word was spoken. Bert's face became white and drawn; he stood convicted before his boyhood's and manhood's friend. Oh, that Ted had left the accursed brand where it was, he could have borne it better!




  ― 63 ―

The trooper turned away and stared hard at the ground.

At length Bert, unable to bear it any longer, took a step towards him. “Go on! do your duty, trooper!” he said, with quiet resignation.

The officer pulled himself up with a jerk. For one brief space they looked into each other's eyes, then he took the work-roughened hand hanging limply by the big man's side.

“There's a duty that the highest law impels,” he said, slowly. “A friendship that can't be put aside. May she never learn your secret!”

Three years later Jack Lawler visited that selection again, but this time as a farmer himself. He found his old friend a happy husband and father now—his one-time sweetheart the most devoted of wives and mothers.

The seasons had continued favourable, and Bert was fairly comfortable. Ted was still there, but there was sufficient for both.

“It was for her sake,” Bert told the ex-trooper, in a burst of shamefaced confidence, as they walked round the luscious paddocks together. “It was such a silly, awkward, great brute, and didn't understand her a bit. Bless her! She only wanted my affection and my confidence. Jack, are you happy, old son?”

Jack laughed joyously. “As happy as you are, I'll venture to vow, especially now I know that all is well with you. And what's brought me over more than anything is the determination that you must meet the wife. You're both to drive out to dinner on Sunday, and if it's too cold for baby they can stop the night. You'll manage the billy and a bit of tucker in the morning, eh?”

previous
next