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  ― 169 ―

Every Bullet Has Its Billet.

In the early sixties there was no man more popular in the Lachlan district than Dr. Robinson. He was a fine specimen of manhood, handsome of face, stalwart of figure. He stood six feet in his stockings, and was proportionately built, but with hands small and shapely. He wore a long cutaway coat, with a waistcoat buttoned up to the throat. This waistcoat was single-breasted, and carried a row of bright steel buttons, so that at a distance he might have been taken for a trooper, especially as he invariably wore riding breeches and high Wellington boots. This costume more than once nearly cost him his life.

The life of a country doctor in Australia is an arduous and a trying one, even nowadays; but at the date of this story it was much more so. Railways there were none to speak of; long rides had to be undertaken at all hours, day and night, and the roads and bush tracks were terrorised over by lawless men, who were too often screened by sympathisers. The genial doctor, however, was never molested.

One night, about ten o'clock, in the year 1863, Dr. Robinson was in his library, and on the point of retiring. He had had a busy day, and had not long returned from visiting a patient ten miles from the town of Forbes, where he resided. He was congratulating himself that he would have a good night's rest, when there came a loud knocking at his front door, followed by a vigorous pull at the bell.

“Humph! Just my luck,” he muttered. “Another false alarm on the part of Mrs. Nooburn. Hang it! why can't women keep their dates properly?” His household having retired, he answered the door himself.

“Hello!” he exclaimed, as he recognised Jim Stubbs, a stock rider from Hopover station, “what's the matter at the station, Jim?”

“Well, sir,” said the man, touching his hat, “there's been a bit of an accident. Jack Banks has been and gone and shot hisself.”

Bidding the man enter and follow him into his room, the doctor said: “Shot himself, eh? Well, I suppose he is not dead, or you would not have come for me. What made him do that? Drinking?”

“Oh, no, sir. He didn't go for to shoot hisself o' purpose. He and a couple o' shearers were out kangarooing, and—and—well, I don't know exactly how it happened, sir.”

“Whereabouts is he shot?”

“Somewhere about here, sir,” replied Jim, passing his hand round an area of his person from the inside of his left thigh, and indefinitely over the groin. “The boss packed me off for you, sir.”




  ― 170 ―

“I can't understand how any man could shoot himself with a gun in that part of his body. What time did this accident happen?”

“About 3 o'clock, sir.”

“And—the station is ten miles away from here—you never thought of coming for me till this time of night,” exclaimed the doctor, looking with suspicion upon the man's story.

“Well, sir, we didn't think it were very serious.”

“You have no right to think. Did the bullet make an exit?”

“Make a—beg pardon, sir——”

“Did it come out?”

“No, sir.”

“Do you mean to tell me that Mr. Riddleton thought that a bullet in a man's groin was not a serious matter, and that he put off sending for me till this time of night?”

The man muttered something to the effect that the “boss” wasn't told. The doctor decided to go at once, for the squatter was one of his best patrons, and a good friend.

“Your horse, of course, is fresh enough?” said he, as he left the room without waiting for a reply, and went to call his ever-wakeful groom to saddle “J.P.,” a horse he always used for night journeys. Then, after apprising his wife of his sudden call, the doctor returned.

“The moon, in her last quarter, has not long risen; and from appearances at present we are likely to have heavy rain. A drop of good whisky won't hurt you, I suppose?” said the doctor, with a searching glance at the man, as he poured out a glass. Jim Stubbs supposed it would not after his ride, and would gladly have helped himself to another, but the doctor quietly removed the bottle, and told him to go to his horse, for “J.P.” was being brought round. Putting a small case of instruments into one of his capacious pockets (at the same time depositing a small though deadly instrument in an inner breast pocket), he left the house, sprang into the saddle, and started off at a brisk trot, followed by Jim Stubbs. The groom looked after them for a moment, and muttering: “I do reckon the doctor's made o' iron; he don't never seem to sleep, neither,” he made his way back to the harness-room to continue his slumbers from their last broken point.

For a mile or so the doctor rode at a rapid trot, so rapid, indeed, that Jim, well mounted as he was, was obliged to put his horse to a canter to keep up with him. Soon, however, the country became rougher, and the pace had to be reduced. Great masses of black clouds came rolling up from the south east, and obscured the little light the moon gave forth. The night became black as Erebus. Big drops, scouts of the coming storm, began to fall, and very soon were succeeded by torrents of rain. None but a man like the doctor or his companion could have travelled on such a night in the black shadows of the bush at much beyond a walking pace. Like sailors accustomed to peer far into the night over the interminable sea for the faint glimmer of a tiny light, they could distinguish objects that would have been invisible to a


  ― 171 ―
city-bred man. Moreover, their horses, practically left to themselves, instinctively avoided every obstacle.

They had covered about eight miles—the storm had passed away to the north—when they came to a spot where the road forked. The doctor rode on straight ahead, but Jim halted and called after him: “This road, doctor.”

The doctor pulled up and shouted back: “This is the road to the station.”

“That's so,” replied the man; “but he—he's not at the station.”

Dr. Robinson walked his horse back to where the road branched off. His anger was apparent from his tone.

“You told me the man was at the station. I abominate a lie. Why can't you speak the truth? Where is this wounded man?”

“He's at the Billy Can pub., sir. If I'd ha' told you he wasn't at the station, mebbe you wouldn't ha' come,” replied the man, abashed.

“And that is a good five miles from here, and a wretched road, too,” exclaimed the doctor. “It would serve you right if I turned back.”

“Don't do that, doctor. You'll be paid all right, sir.”

“Confound you, I wasn't thinking of that,” retorted the doctor, angrily, as he took the new road. Having come so far, he concluded that he might as well “see it out.”

The Billy Can Hotel was a roadside publichouse, where the coach changed horses three times a week. The proprietor, Robert Manson—“Ratty Bob,” he was known to the country round—did not bear an over-good reputation, and was strongly suspected by the police of being an active sympathiser with the outlaws who scoured the bush. The doctor was a fearless man, however, and could use that little weapon he carried in his breast pocket with deadly effect if called upon to act on the defensive. He also reasoned that his services were evidently required by whom he knew not, and that therefore his person would be unmolested. He pushed ahead regardless of the broken nature of the country, till he came to the brow of a steep hill, at the foot of which the light from the windows of the Billy Can twinkled. He was a good forty yards in front of Jim, when a man stepped out of the bush, and the doctor saw the feeble rays of the moon glint along the barrel of a gun levelled point-blank at him. He pulled up his horse and quickly put his hand into his breast pocket, when Jim dashed up and shouted: “It's all right! It's the doctor.” Instantly the threatening weapon was lowered. The doctor smiled—he began to see the reason for his midnight visit—and with a “Humph!” he rode on.

“Gosh!” said the stranger to Jim, as he drew up, “I took him for a trooper.”

Jim nodded, and rode on after the doctor.

Arrived at the Billy Can, the doctor and Jim rode into the small stockyard, at one end and side of which were some stables and outbuildings. Giving his horse to Jim, who promised to rub him down and look after him, the doctor advanced towards the house. He noticed three or four men of rough aspect, and all unknown to him in the darkness, at different parts of the premises, each carrying a gun. “The kangaroo-shooters,” said the doctor to himself with an incredulous smile. “They seem unwilling to relinquish their weapons.”

Here a man stepped forward and said: “Your patient is in here, sir,” indicating a small room used for stowing away old harness, odds and ends,


  ― 172 ―
and lumber. On a stretcher in this place lay extended a brown-bearded man of a little over 30 years of age.

“You've been long enough coming, doctor,” said this man.

“Twelve miles on a night like this, and over such country, in an hour and ten minutes is not such bad work,” replied the doctor, looking at his watch. “Hold the lantern here and let me see the wound.” This was addressed to the man who had directed him to the room.

The wounded man was divested of his riding breeches. The doctor produced his instrument case, and began probing for the bullet. He found that the bullet had struck the inside of the thigh, having evidently been deflected, and, missing the bone and important arteries in a miraculous manner, had lodged just beneath the true skin at the back of the thigh. Turning the patient over, he made a couple of incisions, and presently drew forth the leaden messenger. A single glance told him at once that the bullet had come from a police carbine. There was also a slight dent in it. “You've had a narrow escape. How did you manage to shoot yourself?” queried the doctor, with a peculiar smile.

“Who said I'd shot myself? D'ye think I'm a blooming kid?”

“The bullet must have struck something before entering your body, to take the direction it did.”

“Yes; it hit a buckle on the saddle.”

“Then you may thank the buckle that sent it down instead of up.”

“Give me the bullet, doctor.” This was done, and the man took his pocket-knife and cut a notch in the lead. Meanwhile the doctor plugged up the hole, stitched, and did all that was necessary to make his patient comfortable.

“Are they all on the look-out, Jack?”

“All right; there's no fear. Their horses knocked up twenty miles back, and this heavy rain has been all in our favour.”

“The wound is not so serious, as it happens; you will be able to get about in a few days. Meantime, you had better have a good rest, or inflammation and other symptoms might set in, when I would not answer for the consequences.” Thus the doctor.

A great laugh from the patient greeted this advice. “Rest! A few days! Me! Not much! I rode forty miles with that bullet in my leg. Hang me if I can't ride twice that distance now it's out.” Here he held up the piece of lead between his finger and thumb. “See here, doctor, I'll send this bullet back to him that sent it. You'll know it again! So the next time you look for it, you'll pick it out of a trooper's skull.

The doctor left the room, and went to see how his horse J.P. fared. One of the men was leaning over the half-door gazing at it. “That's a bit of good horseflesh, sir. Will you part with him?”

“He is not for sale,” said the doctor, curtly.

“I wouldn't ask your leave if I wanted him, but that would be too mean,” muttered the man, as the doctor left and entered the house. Satisfied with a glass of the Billy Can's best whisky (and Ratty Bob kept a good article for certain customers) and a biscuit, the doctor removed his wet overcoat, and,


  ― 173 ―
intending after an hour or so's rest to make a start for home, he flung himself upon a sofa, and, in contradiction of his groom's opinion, fell into a sound slumber.

It was breaking day when he awoke. The landlord had thrown an opossum rug over him. He rose hastily, and his first thought was of his horse. He hurried to the stable. J.P. whinnied a note of greeting as he left off feeding. Jim had looked after him. The strange men and their horses were nowhere to be seen. The patient, too, was gone. An inquiry from the landlord elicited the information that they had all left “hours ago,” but, added Ratty Bob, “You'll be paid all right, doctor,” which incensed the latter, who was singularly (or seemed to be) indifferent to whether fees were paid or not. After partaking of a light breakfast, he mounted J.P., and returned to Forbes.

A month later the doctor received by post a bank draft for fifty guineas, accompanied by a handsome gold watch, on which were engraved his own initials, with the date of his attendance on his unknown patient. The watch was brand new, and had been purchased in Forbes. He kept it, but, having his suspicions as to the methods adopted to furnish the bank draft, he distributed the proceeds in charity.

Some six months after this Dr. Robinson decided upon removing his practice to Wagga' Wagga, and conveyed his furniture and effects there. This latter was no light undertaking, as there were no railways, and all his goods had to be carried by teams, etc., of which he employed several. Among the men engaged in the job was one Dick Dapton—he begged the doctor to let him accompany him to Wagga. It was suspected that this man had given certain information about the outlaws to the police. This had come to the knowledge of the gang, who swore vengeance against him. The man was in fear for his life.

The doctor and his baggage had got about half-way on their journey, and were in rough country, when a man rode out of the bush, carrying a gun, and demanded of the man in charge of the leading waggon:

“Whose goods are these?”

“Dr. Robinson's, of Forbes,” replied the man.

The doctor, who was at the rear, perceiving the stranger, galloped up.

“It's all right, doctor,” said the horseman, with a smile, as he put spurs to his horse and disappeared in the bush. In that brief moment he had recognised his patient of the “Billy Can.”

Then the doctor heard: “Hist! hist! doctor,” and a white face appeared from underneath a tarpaulin. “Don't you know who that was?” It was Dick Dapton who spoke.

“No.”

“That was Ben Hall. It 'ud ha' been all up wi' me if he 'ad spotted me.”

The worthy doctor never had to perform the unpleasant task of picking the bullet from the skull of a trooper, for Ben Hall was himself riddled by over thirty bullets shortly afterwards.

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