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  ― 157 ―

A Lucky Meeting




  ― 159 ―

“WHAT do you make of it, Jim?”

“Looks remarkably like an E, but what can be the meaning of the extraordinary triangular thing that follows?”

“That's the puzzle. The first mark one could swear had been made by a white man; but the other is apparently one of those queer carvings which the blacks make. There, however, is the scar plain enough, where the bark was stripped, and from the shape of the piece removed I think it's like a white man's work.”

“Moreover,” added Jim, “it has been done with a steel tomahawk.”

The two men were standing in front of a dead coolibah tree of some size, on which the marks they were trying to decipher had been deeply cut. It was the shore of a


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broad, shallow lake surrounded by a forest of similar dead trees—white skeletons, lifting heavenwards their writhing, bare limbs. A stranger, set down there suddenly would say that the axe of the ring-barker had been at work; but the locality was away in the far interior, where the white man had only just intruded on the solitude. Round the lake, which at its deepest only averaged a few feet, was a border of green, luscious grass; back from that ring of verdure reigned desolation and sterility.

Loose, puffy soil, broken into mounds and hollows, seamed with gaping cracks. On these dusty mounds were heaped thousands of tiny shells; in the hollows drooped a few withered stalks of nardoo. On all sides the gaunt, lifeless trees. Two exceptionally wet years had, in some remote time, deluged the plain, and the long-standing, stagnant water destroyed the timber.

This state of things is not uncommon in many parts of the North Australian interior. In the deepest hollows of these dry lake-beds lie the bones of fish, which have escaped


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their feathered enemies, to perish slowly as their native element evaporated. On the broader expanse, bleached skeletons are mouldering; the grotesque-headed pelican and the dingo, with a wild-dog snarl on his fleshless jaws. Bird and beast have made for the lake after long, long flight, and hot, dusty tramp, only to find there drought, disappointment and death. To the north-west, where a bank has been formed by the action of the steady south-east monsoon, layer after layer of dead shells has been deposited by the constantly-lapping wavelets, weak forms of life that have lived and died in the waters of the ephemeral lake. Beyond and around these depressions wherein the overflow of a rarely heavy rainfall accumulates, are the great plains whose treeless edges meet the sky in an unbroken straight line. Where the tall columns of dust revolve in a wild waltz; where, in summer time, the air is so aglow with heat that it throbs like a living thing, and in this fierce atmosphere is born the treacherous mirage: a bush becomes a tree, a stone a


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rock, and the hard, baked clay-pan a blue lakelet. This is riverless Australia, the sun-god's realm, the region of short-lived creeks, lost for ever in these dead, dry lake-beds.

The elder of the brothers who had been regarding the tree copied the inscription in his note-book, and the two strolled back to their camp where a blackboy was watching the boiling of a piece of dried beef. They sat down and commenced smoking.

“How long do you suppose these trees have been dead?” said Sam Gilmore, the elder of the two.

“Impossible to say, for certain, but about ten or fifteen years.”

“Yes,” returned Sam, after some silent puffs, “that would be about it. There was a devil of a wet season all over the north in '72 and '73. That mark was made before then, when the tree was alive.”

“Certainly it was, and if you remember the Herbert was settled in the sixties. Some fellow from the tableland has been out here, that's about all it is.”




  ― 163 ―

Sam looked at his note-book. “I've got it!” he exclaimed. “ ‘E. triangle.’ It's a station-brand. Many fellows have a trick of cutting their brand on a tree instead of their initials.”

“That will be it,” replied his brother, “there were no registered brands, all of one pattern, in those days.”

The two thought little more about the matter, but were busily employed the next two days in examining the surrounding country, it being part of a large block they had taken up in the Northern Territory. One evening the blackboy, who had been left in camp to look after the spare horses and see that they did not get bogged, remarked with the laconic suddenness of the aboriginals: “Old man horse sit down,” indicating by a motion of his hand the far side of the lake.

“Which one horse?” said Sam, thinking he meant that one of their own had got bogged.

“Baal mine know. Long time that fellow sit down. Old man bone.”




  ― 164 ―

“A skeleton of a horse?” queried Jim, looking at his brother.

Sam nodded. “We will have a look at it to-morrow—too late to go all round there this evening.”

Next morning, guided by the blackboy, they were soon beside the bones of the animal, which lay in a patch of grass, almost concealed from view. Evidently the moist border of the lake had saved them from destruction by the bush fires that annually swept the surrounding country.

“A horse, but how the deceased came here, there is no evidence to show,” said Jim.

The blackboy was poking about with a stick. “That fellow bin carry saddle,” and from the mouldering rubbish he dragged out the corroded iron-work.

Inspired by this discovery a closer search was made. The plated buckles of a saddlepouch were found, a plated sandwich-case, such as hunting-men carry in England, and the blade of a large pocket-knife. Everything in the shape of leather had long vanished.




  ― 165 ―

They devoted all the morning to examining the vicinity, but no further relics were forthcoming, and, taking what they had found with them, the brothers returned to camp.

During the afternoon Sam set to work cleaning the old sandwich-case. By dint of hard rubbing he succeeded in restoring it to something like cleanliness, and although time and exposure had dealt hardly with the metal, a monogram became faintly visible on one side, and on the other was roughly scratched the mark they had found on the tree, “E and a triangle.”

“Now,” said Jim, after the examination, “let's have a look at the inside.” He inserted the point of his knife beneath the half-cover and, after some trouble, raised it. Inside were some papers, loose sheets, torn from a note-book, on which the pencil-writing was faint and illegible; but there was a larger sheet of blue letter-paper, on which the writing was in ink and, although slightly yellow, plain and distinct. The battered old case had been true to its


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trust and, despite all, had preserved the message confided to it.

The brothers perused their strange find and, at the conclusion, looked at each other in silence for a few moments.

“This is a strange document to drop across in such a howling wilderness,” said Sam at length.

Jim whistled in sympathy. “I suppose,” he remarked, “the writer came to grief, and his horse made back to the water, got bogged and died. Is that how you read it?”

“I think so. At any rate, it's too long ago for us to bother looking up tracks. The date on this — December 4th, 1870—coincides with the time we surmised.”

“I suppose you'll keep it?” queried Jim.

“Most carefully. It belongs to the man's children, and may be valuable, or, perhaps, only waste paper. Possibly we shall find out when we get back to civilisation; meanwhile I vote we make a start for home tomorrow. We are satisfied, I suppose, that this country is good enough.”




  ― 167 ―

“All right,” said the younger; and for the rest of the day they devoted themselves to preparations for an early departure on the morrow, dismissing the subject of their strange discovery from their minds.

II

Young Simpson propped himself up against the slabs and gazed disconsolately down the sunny road. He was suffering a bad recovery, his pockets were empty, and his credit exhausted. He had lately finished a job of horse-breaking, and had knocked his cheque down in orthodox style. Now, life was all dust and ashes, and everything a mockery and a delusion. He was only thirty-six, and had already managed to break every breakable bone in his body, and pull through several bad attacks of delirium tremens. He was the son of a well-to-do squatter, but ere he was twenty had managed to incense his father so bitterly that he had been cast forth without even the proverbial shilling, and a younger brother, a


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good and well-behaved youth, reigned in his stead. Since his expulsion from home he had steadily gone to the dogs, and it was a pity, for, however weak, he was a good-hearted young fellow. A strong, helping hand would have saved him, but he never got it, and now it was too late. At least so everybody thought and said.

Simpson had been dozing on a rude bench in the verandah, and had just got on to his feet, under the impression that somebody had ridden up and aroused him. Presumably this impression was correct, for a horse was hitched up to the rail outside, and voices could be heard in the bar. Possibly there was a drink on hand. He licked his dry lips with a still dryer tongue, and lurched inside.

A deeply sun-tanned man, with bright eyes, was talking to the landlord.

“Here, Joe,” said the latter to Simpson, “come and have a wet, you look sleepy.”

This was most astonishing; only that morning his credit had been peremptorily stopped, and now he was invited to refresh


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himself. The landlord shifted down the bar a bit and Simpson followed him.

“This gent,” said the publican in a subdued tone, “has got a mob of cattle going north, and wants another hand badly. I'll put in a good word for you, and, perhaps, he'll be right for a bit of an advance, so that you can square up with me before you go.”

Simpson “dropped” to the situation at once. He immediately poured out a drink so “long” that it made the landlord eager to clutch the bottle again. Refreshed by this, he accosted the stranger, and with few words a bargain was struck, and Joe Simpson went off to roll up his scanty belongings in his blanket.

“As good a man as ever crossed a horse,” said the effusive publican; “only keep him off the booze. Born a gentleman, too.”

Jim Gilmore, for it was he, on his way out with cattle to stock the country he and his brother had lately examined, looked curiously after the retreating form. He was


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warm-hearted, and something in the ne'er-do-well had appealed to him.

The long trip drew to an end, and tired men, leg-weary horses, and listless cattle all desired the arrival of that morning when they should mutually take leave of each other. Dry stages had been successfully crossed, wet, blustering nights experienced, and death in many forms had taken toll of the herd before Jim, with a sigh of relief, dismounted on the bank of a long serpentine lagoon, some twenty miles from the shallow lake where they had formerly camped. Leaning on his horse he watched the long string of cattle troop in to the water.

“Poor Joe!” he thought, as he caught sight of Simpson steadying the leaders, “he's got a bad touch of this northern fever. Glad we are here so that he can get a spell.”

The blatant publican's recommendation had turned out true. A better man than Joe Simpson had proved himself could scarce be found. Ever ready when the weather was bad and the cattle rowdy on


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camp; always alert during the long sleepless nights across the dry plains, and alas! never neglecting the opportunity of a short spree in the few townships they had passed, Joe had been young Gilmore's right hand throughout the tedious journey. Now, the malarial fever that the cattle seem to turn up with their hoofs from the virgin soil in new country had recognised his ill-used constitution and seized on him. The day after the herd was turned out Joe lay delirious under a bough shade.

Jim devoted all his spare time to him, and at last had the satisfaction of witnessing his return to reason. But Simpson was very weak—he had played too many tricks with his physique to be able to stand a severe attack of fever with impunity, and lay almost apathetic as regarded his chances of final recovery.

One morning Jim noticed that the patient had been idly tracing letters and signs on the dusty earth alongside his rude bed of dry grass. Amongst them he recognised with a start the E followed by a triangle.




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“What are you up to, Joe?” he said quietly.

“Just trying to remember a lot of brands,” returned Simpson, in his weak voice.

“Whose brand is that?” asked Gilmore, indicating the one he was interested in.

Simpson's wasted face flushed hotly. “When a fellow gets down in the world,” he said, after a pause, “he does not always stick to his right name. That brand was our old station brand on my father's place. There were three partners at first, Emerson, Unthorpe, and Charters, and, as their initials made the first syllable of Euclid, they took the triangle as a brand with my father's initial before it. Finally he bought them out, and my brother has the place now.”

“Then,” said Jim, staring hard at him, “your name is——?”

“Emerson.”

“Good God!”

“What is the matter? What do you know about me?” cried the invalid anxiously.




  ― 173 ―

“Nothing, nothing, go on. Tell me, where did your father die? How is it you were left so badly off?”

Joe Emerson looked at his questioner with some surprise, but answered quietly enough. “My father died in his bed on Bellbrook station, where I was born. He and I had quarrelled some years before and finally he disowned me. I was a bad lot, there's no denying.”

“Was your father ever up this way?”

“Yes. He had a share in a station in the north of Queensland, and took a trip out west, I know. In fact, it was through some terrible hardship he endured that he afterwards died. He was too old to stand it. I never heard the rights of it, but I believe through some stupid blunder of one of the men some of their horses got away from them on a dry stage with packs and saddles on. My father and the others managed to get into water, but the horses made back and probably perished.”

“Your brother then took your place in your father's will, and you were left out in


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the cold. Do you know the date of that will?”

“It was the time of our final row, in the beginning of '69.”

Jim strode outside and thought for a moment, then he returned. “This is the strangest thing I ever came across outside of a novel. I have good news for you. Your father must have been in a tight place before the horses were lost, and when he anticipated death he repented of his harshness to you, and wrote out another will. It commences: ‘I, George Henry Emerson, now expecting death, and being desirous of making amends to my dear son Joseph for my stern conduct.’ I do not remember any more, but it was duly witnessed by Isaac Wright and Thomas Peberdy. Do you know anything about them?”

Young Emerson was looking at Jim as though bewildered by what he heard, and answered slowly. “Peberdy was an old servant of my father's, and went north with him; he has a selection now, down south.


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Wright I don't know. But surely you remember the purport of this will?”

“Certainly. It left the whole of his property to you, subject to certain charges on it for your brother and sister.”

“But—but, Mr. Gilmore!” cried the sick man, impatiently, “how did you find it? Who has it now?”

“My brother has it now. We found it with the remains of your father's horse, preserved in an old-fashioned sandwich case. Do you remember it?”

“Yes, with his monogram on it; he brought it from England.”

“If the two witnesses are alive, it seems to me that the will cannot be disputed. My brother may be here at any time; he knows when we are due, and is bringing up supplies from Burketown, and will probably push ahead.”

There was silence for a short time; then Emerson reached out and felt for Gilmore's hand. He grasped it and sat upright. “Look here,” he said, “I'm going to do three things.”




  ― 176 ―

“Don't be in a hurry,” murmured Jim.

“I'm going to get well.”

“Hear, hear!”

“I'm going to knock off liquor.”

“Hear, hear, hear!” from Gilmore.

“And I'm going to get the skeleton of that old horse set up and mounted on a pedestal.”

“When the will is proved, I presume,” said his companion.

No need to tell much more. One witness was alive and able to swear to the signatures. Joe kept to his three resolutions. The skeleton of the old horse adorns the hall of Bellbrook station, and Jim Gilmore's wife was once Miss Emerson.

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