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Jim's Ghost.

A Queensland Mystery.

I WAS engaged to take charge of a thousand store bullocks from Nemo Downs, in Queensland, to Melbourne, in Victoria, and returning by sea, after a short spell in the southern capital, to a port on the north-eastern coast where I had friends, I had there purchased a couple of horses, and after a fortnight's steady ride had arrived at Nemo Downs ready for work again.

We were mustering on the outside of the run some twenty miles away from the head station. The great rolling plains, extending, as an old stockman said, into the “dim blooming distance,” were the dread of the unpractised bushman, and on a cloudy day without a compass it was no easy matter even for an old hand to make a bee-line across them. I knew the country pretty well, however, having assisted at a former muster,

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besides being sufficiently expert to take a new line going south the year before over almost unknown districts, so had no fear of being bushed. I was riding alone, having been directed to go to a certain bit of downs, where a small mob of cattle usually ran. I had just emerged from a patch of scrub which fringed the plain, and crossed a shallow, dried-up watercourse, when my horse gave a violent plunge, which, as I was thinking of nothing in particular at the moment, nearly unseated me. With a loud snort, ears stiff, and nostrils distended, he stood staring at something half hidden among the tussocks of grass at the edge of the gully. I looked and saw that some one had evidently been camping there quite recently, and wondering who could be in that extremely out-of-the-way place, I dismounted to make a closer inspection. Yes, there was the blanket with the fresh impression of a man's form still on it; the saddle at its head, saddle-cloth, pint and quart pots, ration bags, and the ashes of a fire. Everything usual to an ordinary camp was there, but the bridle and the owner were not. Now, who and what was the absent man? Was he a bushranger escaping from the districts where his bloodthirsty raids had struck terror into the hearts of all the settlers? Perhaps a cattle-stealer, spying out the best place for a good haul; possibly a horse-stealer. Anyhow, he was miles away from any known track, and Nemo Downs was the extreme

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outside station in those days. He couldn't be exploring for new country, otherwise he would have had a larger supply of rations and a pack. I was riding a splendid young horse, a temptation to any thief to possess, and furtively looked round, half expecting to find myself “covered,” and to hear a gruff voice ordering me to “Bail up!” No; all was perfectly quiet—a faint crack of a whip, and the distant murmur of cattle, the only sounds in the dead still air.

I can't explain why, but when a bushman finds himself near a fire, he instinctively takes out his pipe, gives the remnant of his last smoke (he always has a “draw” left) a ram down with his finger, takes up a fire stick and proceeds to light up. He will even go to the trouble of blowing on the stick for some time, or perhaps pick up a piece of red-hot charcoal and jam it down the bowl, notwithstanding that he may have plenty of matches in his pocket all the time. Such an inspiration seized me, and I drew a small stick from the ashes to light up, and ponder on the situation. The fire was out; moreover, the ashes then struck me as being old and flattened down. I took hold of the blanket,—possibly a valise or paper or some clue to the owner might be underneath; fresh and even warm as it looked, it crumbled away in my hand. I touched the saddle—it fell to pieces, exposing the rusted iron tree, like the blackened rib of a skeleton. I lifted the quart pot—the bottom remained on the

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ground, and the dust of what had once been tea leaves went up in a little puff. Saddle-cloth, ration bags, all were absolutely rotten! Where was the bridle, and where the owner?

It was a startling discovery, and a creepy, sick feeling came over me, as I slowly mounted my horse and rode off in the direction of the camp where we were to muster.

As I jogged along my thoughts wandered away for a possible solution to the mystery of this solitary camp. I had no doubt that the unfortunate man, whoever he was, had perished. He had evidently gone to look for his horse and never returned. Had he lost his way, and wandered over those limitless plains till reason forsook him, and rendered his death perhaps a happy release; or had he been suddenly and cruelly murdered by blacks? There was a township down the river about seventy or eighty miles away; perhaps he was one of the many victims to the greed of the bush publican. His cheque—the result of many a month's hard and honest labour—“knocked down” in a single night, and he, after two days of oblivion induced by doctored rum, glad to escape with his horse and blanket. In a semi-stupefied state he might have been trying to make Nemo Downs in search of work, got off the uncertain track, and perished uncared-for and unknown. It will be a heavy day's reckoning, I warrant, for some of those old scoundrels, who filled their kegs with bluestone and tobacco, when

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they are called upon to give an account of their stewardship!

I had no time for yarning when I reached the camp, as the hands were already at work cutting out the bullocks, and it was almost sundown when we got them safely into the yard. This had lately been erected for outside mustering, and was close to the “Long Waterhole,” in the Camara river, the western boundary of Nemo Downs.

The horses were hobbled and supper over; each man had selected his particular soft spot for the night, having first cut an armful of the long grass near the water's edge to serve as a “hipper.” We were smoking our post-prandial pipes, stretched in various attitudes round the fire, when I broached the subject which had haunted me all day, and described what I had found.

“By Jovey!” exclaimed Jim Lendhan, the head stockman, as he removed his pipe, expectorated unerringly into one particular bright hole in the fire, drew his knuckles across his bristling moustache, and brought his open hand down on his knee with a ringing smack, “that was the man!

“What man?” came at once from every tongue except that of Peter, one of the oldest hands on the station, who half turned towards Jim and muttered something about “that blooming ghost again!”

“Well,” said Jim, after a pause, “when I came

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here first with the B Z cattle, I was out one day on this very spot. I was after that old red poley's mob, you remember, Peter.” Peter nodded with a half-pitying smile, as if he'd heard all this before. “I struck the Long Waterhole,” Jim continued, “about half a mile up from here. It's pretty deep there, and wide, as you know, and there ain't any crossing for two miles above that again. It was a real blazing day, and I got off to get a drink. I was riding old Uncle Tom, and he was always mighty shy of water. He nearly got drowned in the Marauva on the trip up; Peter there and I had to swim in and cut the pack off the old brute; didn't we, Peter?”

Peter again smiled gently.

“Well, I was just hitching my whip to the end of the reins when I saw a big buck nigger coming along the opposite bank. He hadn't seen me, so I stood still and watched him. He struck into a cattle track leading to the water, right abreast of where I was, and came down it. By Jovey! boys, it wasn't a nigger at all, but a white man, as sure as I sit here and tell you. He hadn't a rag on him, and his body was brown with the sun. He was a real big chap, and his hair and beard were red. I waited a second or two, and then ‘cooee'd.’ Lord, how he jumped! He was up that bank in the twinkling of a mosquito's eye, and off across the plain like a real old moon-lighter. I hollered and yelled, but he never looked up or round, but simply went.

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“I couldn't follow across that water, but I wasn't long in getting the old moke away, and we came down here, round the end of the hole, and up the other bank at a pace which meant business, I tell you. I picked up his tracks at the water-side, guessed the line he had taken, and followed on. The old horse was as fresh as paint, and though the sweat was flying off him his wind was good, and I never drew rein till I struck that patch of brigalow about two miles from the river. I reckoned I ought to have caught him, but I didn't even sight him; and what's more, I couldn't find a trace of him going into the scrub, though I got off my horse and followed along the edge carefully for over a mile. Well, I went in that night and told the boss. That was the year before you came, sir” (this to Jack Raymond, the manager, who was out with us). “We had no black boys to track, and the ground was as dry and hard as an iron pot; besides, some cattle had been down the very place where I'd seen the man and destroyed all signs of footmarks.” Here Peter was observed to be suffering from suppressed emotion. “However, we all turned out to search, and searched for days, didn't we, Peter? But we never found anything, did we, Peter? And the chaps used to say always after that, that I'd seen a ghost, didn't they, Peter?”

Peter, thus repeatedly appealed to, grunted an assent, and again muttered something with a “blooming” in it.

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A grim silence fell upon all.

At length I said, “Well, there's no doubt that some one has been lost, and I'll show you the place to-morrow, Jim.”

Here I accidentally caught Peter's eye, and its expression was sarcastic, to say the least of it.

Presently all hands were rolled in their blankets, their saddles for pillows, and the bright star-lit sky forming the softest and loveliest canopy that nature could furnish.

Next morning at daylight we started the bullocks for the station, and after helping to steady them a mile or so on the way, Jack Raymond, Jim, the sceptical Peter, and I returned to visit the solitary camp I had discovered, and to pack up and bring home the remains of our own camp of the night before.

An hour's ride brought us to the ill-fated spot, where everything was as I had left it. We all got down and examined the things tenderly and minutely, but not a trace of anything by which to identify the owner could we discover.

Peter carefully picked up the rusty stirrup-irons and solemnly strapped them to the side of his saddle. Then he scratched his head in thought for a second and said, “Well, Jim, I always did think you'd had a touch of the blooming thingamies when you spun us that yarn; but blow me if you weren't right, and that was the man after all.”

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Jack Raymond and I hardly spoke all the way home as we rode along at a short distance behind Jim and Peter, who were driving the pack horses. Those two, however, kept up an animated discussion all the time, and when we dismounted at the stables Peter concluded by saying, “And if any man ever tells me, Jim, that you saw a ghost, blowed if I don't tell him he's a blooming liar!”

That night, as I gazed at the peaceful stars, my thoughts reverted again and again to the probable fate of that unfortunate man. Did he wander for days and nights before his reason left him, or did he succumb at once under the blazing sun across those seemingly never-ending plains? Those very stars had watched him when perhaps he was powerless to take advantage of their beacon lights to guide him to a haven. That he had water was evident from Jim's story; but it seemed also evident that instinct alone had led him to it; unless, indeed, he were some criminal flying from justice, to whom the advent of a white man would be only less terrible than an onslaught of blacks.

It is solely on this, or the mad theory, that one could account for the startling effects of Jim's “cooee,” or otherwise to the belated wanderer it would have been a revelation of joy and rescue, disclosing to him—unless, of course, he were the veriest of new chums—the lucky approach of a friend and deliverer. As it is, the fate of this

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unfortunate being adds but one more to the long catalogue of unsolved mysteries of the Bush. How long he lived, and after what pangs and complications of suffering he at length gave up the ghost, will never be known till those rolling plains and the treacherous sea alike give up their dead.