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  ― 93 ―

Red Mick and Benny.

This is one of many stories about an old bridge I once knew. Through them all, like a silver thread, shines the “Queen o' Sheba”—God-sent, like the sun and moon, for the good of all.

At present we have to deal with one small atom of her kingdom, who is lying down by the river bank in the purple dusk of twilight, his little sunburnt face upturned to the blue vault watching how quickly the stars come out as the night deepens and darkens down there by the river, where the reeds are playing a soft musical monotone, and the bullrushes are quivering near his bare brown feet, that are almost as hard as horses' hoofs, and sometimes nearly as swift.

The night winds are playing tricks with his pants and his ragged shirt that are in the last stages of decay. His hat, an old battered felt that he picked up one day on the outskirts of the “camp,” lies near him, as does also a black gallon billycan redolent of wine—dirty, cheap wine that intoxicates and then maddens. He gives a little acrobatic twist to leeward to count how many frogs are croaking at once in Bathsheba's lily-pond, where the ducks swim all day and lay their eggs, to the annoyance of their mistress. “Two, three, four, five, six, seven, nine. Oh! it's worse than counting stars.” And Ben, sympathetically known as Benny, and extra sympathetically as “poor Benny”—but that is only when the wine has madened—rolls back again, and in doing so collides with the empty can, the hollow sound of which strikes a chill of mortal fear to his little heart.

Benny Barnett's unworthy mother had sent him at the very first shade of dusk to fetch her half a gallon of wine. She had sent him so many times through the day that she did not wish Mrs. Riley across the river to see her send again. And now Barnett would be home, and not a drop of wine for his well-seasoned throat.

Well, stars would come out, frogs croak, and bandicoots call, and what were they for, if not for small boys to take an interest in! The “Queen o' Sheba” had told him down here one day by the river, when he helped her to carry water for her washing, that “God had sent all those things for our good.” Then why should he not love them all, and listen and count?

He scrambled to his feet, can in hand, and groped about for his hat, stepping nearer to the river. As he did so he felt the water surge softly round his ankles. Where was he? Had he slipped and rolled near the edge? Impossible! Great heavens! it was flood!

In one great tide it was rolling past him—noiseless and swift and deep. His little brown hands went down to his bare ankles; there was froth on


  ― 94 ―
them. Yes, it was flood, a big flood. Through the semi-darkness of the last pulsation of twilight he could dimly see the great body of water rolling by—not his first experience of a Finniss flood by many a one. It was not the sight of the flooded river that filled him with terror, but the thought of having to cross it. For a mile beyond, on the other side, lay Haley's wine shanty, and he must go, and return in haste, for had he not already wasted an hour counting stars and other vain things he had no right to think of? To dally by the way when there was wine to bring was a foolish thing to do; so, fixing the dilapidated hat on his head, he started a race with the flood, thinking he might reach the crossing-tree before the full force of the water hurled its strength against root and branch. For the bridge that is now old was then in course of erection, only two great iron girders over which the workmen spanning it from arch to arch went with careful step.

Not for all the wine in Haley's shanty would Benny venture on those awful girders. How often had he dreamt at night of clinging to them, while his little body hung suspended beneath, and above him glared the fearsome head and face of “Red Mick,” the reigning terror of all the children in the “camp.” How many times had they seen Mick scramble down from the scaffold as if it had been a haystack, throw down his mason's hod, and chase some terror-stricken child till its little legs gave way with fear. Mick was known to run a quarter of a mile for the flendish love of making a small boy or girl scream. It was also a well-known fact—amongst all the kiddies who were constantly comparing notes on this head—that “Red Mick.” on catching anyone, took them to his tent, put them in a box from which there was no escape, and fed them on potato peelings. Report did not say whether the peelings were raw or boiled.

So Benny sped on, his mind full of dreams he had had, in all of which “Red Mick” figured grimly; whackings he had had, mostly for being late with wine; and memories of great floods that had even found an inroad to the tent, that usually stood high and dry on the banks. He at last reached the tree—a great, crooked old gum that grew almost in the bed of the river. The immense limbs stretched from bank to bank, springing out from either side of the trunk and resting bow-shaped over the water; the leaves at ordinary tide swept the sides, and the great limbs made an easy footbridge. But to-night the swaying branches were submerged—even to yards beyond—though the waters were still shallow.

Benny, with the billy still clasped in his hand, stepped in, half-way up to his knees, and, with a sudden little gasp of his breath, stopped as he began to feel the strength of the water lift him.

How horrible if he were to get into the current and be swept on, as he had seen a great bullock swept away in one flood! It had gone like a flash, and was swept out of sight, never to be heard of again. And what was he compared to a bullock? Like a twig compared to a tree.

Ugh! What a noise the river made under the arches! How it roared. Higher and higher it was spreading and frothing around his bare legs. And he stepped back, as the rain began softly to fall on his poorly-clad body.

Benny got on to higher ground, as the majesty of the stream rolled on


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with ever-increasing volume, swirling and roaring between the new stone arches of the unfinished bridge, and making an impassable barrier between himself and Haley's wine shanty that night.

Across the river he could see the lights shining from the “Queen o' Sheba's” windows; and, in spite of the rain, the door still stood open, with its ever-ready hospitality. What would he not give for one sight of the dear face—one word of advice from the wise, kind lips. He knew she would say, “You must go home, Benny, dear; you can never cross the river to-night.”

But she was not near to say it, and he dared not go home with that empty can to face a drink-flushed mother and a brutal father.

Both had been at one time good members of society, but had become debased and unholy through drink. And at this time, bad wine, in all its maddening horror, was rampant amongst the navvies in the camp.

So, with the river rushing past him in its new-born fury, Benny stood on the bank, a pathetic little figure of indecision and childish misery. He would make no further attempt to cross. No—not even “Red Mick” could frighten him over. And with this decision arrived at he took a step homeward, with the can a-swing in his hand, when some awful apparition rose up before him.

It was only the other day that he had heard the story of “Jack and the Beanstalk.” That was the first time he had heard of a giant—this must be one. From his knees downward his legs lost power of locomotion, and his tongue forebore to utter the smallest cry that a noisy boy could make.

A thick voice out of the darkness said:

“Ye little divil of a spalpeen, fat are ye doin' here in the rain—an' the river in flood—an' ye wid that woine can wid ye? Faix, it's woine they'll drink, till it bubbles out of their eyes an' ears!” At the same time a match was struck, showing up a great fiery-red head and beard, and a pair of eyes that looked like great fireballs in the matchlight.

The sight of that only too well-known red head and beard brought back activity to Benny's limbs. He would not have been half so terrified if it had been the giant who used to say “Fee-fi-fo-fum.”

No; it was Red Mick!

With one ear-splitting scream that reached across to the very doors of the “Queen o' Sheba,” Benny turned and fled up the rain-soaked embankment of the bridge, closely pursued by the ogre, who was calling to him in the wildest brogue.

Benny's bootless feet sank into the red clay soil, and his faithful little hand still clung to the can that was, alas! lidless, as he was hatless.

“Will ye stop, will ye? Ah, faix, he'll be over! Shure, the divvil's in him. Ye murtherin' little spalpeen, I'll kill ye if ye don't stop. It's dhrounded he'll be before me eyes, an' me to blame. Will ye stop, ye little ommadahan? Arrah, shure, Benny, will ye stop!” the big navvy cried, as coaxingly as his great rough voice would let him.

By this time they were both labouring hard and blown, for the embankment was steep and heavy. Fear, now, instead of weighting the boy's limbs, seemed to lend him speed. Nearer and nearer he could hear the panting,


  ― 96 ―
quick-drawn breaths of the great red Irishman, who was almost bursting his lungs in his effort to save the terrified boy. But no word of coaxing or persuasion had the slightest effect. It was too late at the eleventh hour for this child tormentor to try to persuade one of his victims that he could really be kind or human. So on and on up that cruel, muddy bank panted boy and man, while under them swirled and raged the river in full flood.

At last, panting and breathless, Benny stood on the top, but only for an instant. Beneath him loomed the great bulk of the Irishman, almost within reach, within grasp.

“Be aisy now, Benny, an' come home wid me. Fat are ye afeard of?”

Before Benny's miniature mind loomed up a spotless little white tent he knew, though a kind Providence so far had kept him from seeing the interior, which for one thing he believed contained a strong box into which potato peelings were daily put with which to feed unfortunate little boys like himself.

“Arrah, now, Benny, it's nearly dead I am; shure, I thought I'd never get ye. Come on home wid me.”

Once more a wild, unearthly yell came from the parapet of the unfinished bridge. Above the wild flood waters it echoed far and wide, and then, with one mad leap, the distracted child had sprung on to the big iron girder that spanned the new-made arches. At the same instant a cry of despair echoed from the lips of the man, who now saw too late what his love of tormenting the camp children had brought about.

Treading lightly as a cat, the child started to run across the bolt-studded girder, whilst far below the river foamed and rushed against the piers, whose masonry as yet had scarcely hardened.

Dumb and helpless, Mick stood on the newly-made railway line that in a short time would be continued across the bridge, waiting to see the last of the tragedy which his own stupidity had brought about. The billy had fallen from Benny's hands, and Mick was distractedly waiting to see the boy follow. He was now half-way across. Only a miracle could save him from the flood that poured its boiling torrents beneath.

It came at last, but in a different way to that which Mick had anticipated.

With one tremendous whirling crash the whole structure gave before his eyes—the two great girders upended and heaved into the water, and, as near as he could see, the newly-built piers went with them. Through the inky darkness not a vestige of bridge could he see. Like a flash Benny had passed from the land of the living.

Mick put his hand up reverentially with the sign of the cross.

“May the saints rist his sowl—an' all the holy angels. Faith, he was the divil to run—so he was—an' the runnin's bin the death av him, so it has.”

And Mick went sadly forth to the camp of Macnamara to tell his sorrowful tale, and to acquaint the contractor with the disaster to his bridge.

But that was not the end of Benny. Not by any means. Some boys have more lives than a cat.

When the morning broke, grey and murky, over a hundred men were gathered round to see what was left of the bridge, and the first thing that


  ― 97 ―
greeted their eyes was Benny, perched safely in the hollow of a broken arch, patiently awaiting deliverance, and bitterly lamenting the loss of his hat, which he mourned as “the only one he had to his name.”

But that and many other things were supplied him by the “Queen o' Sheba,” from whose side of the river he was rescued. From this time forth Benny was Bathsheba's sworn ally, her faithful henchman, ever ready at her beck and call to do her lightest bidding. Wet or dry, light or dark, he was ever at her service.

But all her wise counsel and gentle reasoning failed to lessen in him the fear of Red Mick, who more than ever, after Benny's adventure, became the terror of the kiddies at Macnamara's camp. Boys or girls, white or black, they had all been alike to Mick, before this night, food for his heartless amusement.

And many a story was handed from one to another of the hairbreadth escapes they had had at different times; of narrow escapes of capture and imprisonment. Still, none of them came up to the awful experience of Benny Barnett, when, as the children told with awe in the gloaming, Red Mick tipped up the great iron girders in trying to get at him!

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