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I. THE FIRST BORN

The struggling squatter is to be found in Australia as well as the “struggling farmer”. The Australian squatter is not always the mighty wool king that English and American authors and other uninformed people apparently imagine him to be. Squatting, at the best, is but a game of chance. It depends mainly on the weather, and that, in New South Wales at least, depends on nothing.

Joe Middleton was a struggling squatter, with a station some distance to the westward of the furthest line reached by the ordinary “new chum”. His run, at the time of our story, was only about six miles square, and his stock was limited in proportion. The hands on Joe's run consisted of his brother Dave, a middle-aged man known only as “Middleton's Peter” (who had been in the service of the Middleton family ever since Joe Middleton could remember), and an old black shepherd, with his gin and two boys.

It was in the first year of Joe's marriage. He had married a very ordinary girl, as far as Australian girls go, but in his eyes she was an angel. He really worshipped her.




  ― 46 ―

One sultry afternoon in midsummer all the station hands, with the exception of Dave Middleton, were congregated about the homestead door, and it was evident from their solemn faces that something unusual was the matter. They appeared to be watching for something or someone across the flat, and the old black shepherd, who had been listening intently with bent head, suddenly straightened himself up and cried:

“I can hear the cart. I can see it!”

You must bear in mind that our blackfellows do not always talk the gibberish with which they are credited by story writers.

It was not until some time after Black Bill had spoken that the white — or, rather, the brown — portion of the party could see or even hear the approaching vehicle. At last, far out through the trunks of the native apple-trees, the cart was seen approaching; and as it came nearer it was evident that it was being driven at a break-neck pace, the horses cantering all the way, while the motion of the cart, as first one wheel and then the other sprang from a root or a rut, bore a striking resemblance to the Highland Fling. There were two persons in the cart. One was Mother Palmer, a stout, middle-aged party (who sometimes did the duties of a midwife), and the other was Dave Middleton, Joe's brother.

The cart was driven right up to the door with scarcely any abatement of speed, and was stopped so suddenly that Mrs. Palmer was sent sprawling on to the horse's rump. She was quickly helped down, and, as soon as she had recovered sufficient breath, she followed Black Mary into the bedroom where young


  ― 47 ―
Mrs. Middleton was lying, looking very pale and frightened. The horse which had been driven so cruelly had not done blowing before another cart appeared, also driven very fast. It contained old Mr. and Mrs. Middleton, who lived comfortably on a small farm not far from Palmer's place.

As soon as he had dumped Mrs. Palmer, Dave Middleton left the cart and, mounting a fresh horse which stood ready saddled in the yard, galloped off through the scrub in a different direction.

Half an hour afterwards Joe Middleton came home on a horse that had been almost ridden to death. His mother came out at the sound of his arrival, and he anxiously asked her:

“How is she?”

“Did you find Doc. Wild?” asked the mother.

“No, confound him!” exclaimed Joe bitterly. “He promised me faithfully to come over on Wednesday and stay until Maggie was right again. Now he has left Dean's and gone — Lord knows where. I suppose he is drinking again. How is Maggie?”

“It's all over now — the child is born. It's a boy; but she is very weak. Dave got Mrs. Palmer here just in time. I had better tell you at once that Mrs. Palmer says if we don't get a doctor here to-night poor Maggie won't live.”

“Good God! and what am I to do?” cried Joe desperately.

“Is there any other doctor within reach?”

“No; there is only the one at B——; that's forty miles away, and he is laid up with the broken leg he got in the buggy accident. Where's Dave?”




  ― 48 ―

“Gone to Black's shanty. One of Mrs. Palmer's sons thought he remembered someone saying that Doc. Wild was there last week. That's fifteen miles away.”

“But it is our only hope,” said Joe dejectedly. “I wish to God that I had taken Maggie to some civilised place a month ago.”

Doc. Wild was a well-known character among the bushmen of New South Wales, and although the profession did not recognise him, and denounced him as an empiric, his skill was undoubted. Bushmen had great faith in him, and would often ride incredible distances in order to bring him to the bedside of a sick friend. He drank fearfully, but was seldom incapable of treating a patient; he would, however, sometimes be found in an obstinate mood and refuse to travel to the side of a sick person, and then the devil himself could not make the doctor budge. But for all this he was very generous — a fact that could, no doubt, be testified to by many a grateful sojourner in the lonely bush.

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