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II. THE ONLY HOPE

Night came on, and still there was no change in the condition of the young wife, and no sign of the doctor. Several stockmen from the neighbouring stations, hearing that there was trouble at Joe Middleton's, had ridden over, and had galloped off on long, hopeless rides in search of a doctor. Being generally free from sickness themselves, these bushmen look upon it as a serious business even in its


  ― 49 ―
mildest form; what is more, their sympathy is always practical where it is possible for it to be so. One day, while out on the run after an “outlaw”, Joe Middleton was badly thrown from his horse, and the break-neck riding that was done on that occasion from the time the horse came home with empty saddle until the rider was safe in bed and attended by a doctor was something extraordinary, even for the bush.

Before the time arrived when Dave Middleton might reasonably have been expected to return, the station people were anxiously watching for him, all except the old blackfellow and the two boys, who had gone to yard the sheep.

The party had been increased by Jimmy Nowlett, the bullocky, who had just arrived with a load of fencing wire and provisions for Middleton. Jimmy was standing in the moonlight, whip in hand, looking as anxious as the husband himself, and endeavouring to calculate by mental arithmetic the exact time it ought to take Dave to complete his double journey, taking into consideration the distance, the obstacles in the way, and the chances of horse-flesh.

But the time which Jimmy fixed for the arrival came without Dave.

Old Peter (as he was generally called, though he was not really old) stood aside in his usual sullen manner, his hat drawn down over his brow and eyes, and nothing visible but a thick and very horizontal black beard, from the depth of which emerged large clouds of very strong tobacco smoke, the product of a short, black, clay pipe.

They had almost given up all hope of seeing Dave


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return that night, when Peter slowly and deliberately removed his pipe and grunted:

“He's a-comin'.”

He then replaced the pipe, and smoked on as before.

All listened, but not one of them could hear a sound.

“Yer ears must be pretty sharp for yer age, Peter. We can't hear him,” remarked Jimmy Nowlett.

“His dog ken,” said Peter.

The pipe was again removed and its abbreviated stem pointed in the direction of Dave's cattle dog, who had risen beside his kennel with pointed ears, and was looking eagerly in the direction from which his master was expected to come.

Presently the sound of horse's hoofs was distinctly heard.

“I can hear two horses,” cried Jimmy Nowlett excitedly.

“There's only one,” said old Peter quietly.

A few moments passed, and a single horseman appeared on the far side of the flat.

“It's Doc. Wild on Dave's horse,” cried Jimmy Nowlett. “Dave don't ride like that.”

“It's Dave,” said Peter, replacing his pipe and looking more unsociable than ever.

Dave rode up and, throwing himself wearily from the saddle, stood ominously silent by the side of his horse.

Joe Middleton said nothing, but stood aside with an expression of utter hopelessness on his face.

“Not there?” asked Jimmy Nowlett at last, addressing Dave.




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“Yes, he's there,” answered Dave, impatiently.

This was not the answer they expected, but nobody seemed surprised.

“Drunk?” asked Jimmy.

“Yes.”

Here old Peter removed his pipe, and pronounced the one word — “How?”

“What the hell do you mean by that?” muttered Dave, whose patience had evidently been severely tried by the clever but intemperate bush doctor.

“How drunk?” explained Peter, with great equanimity.

“Stubborn drunk, blind drunk, beastly drunk, dead drunk, and damned well drunk, if that's what you want to know!”

“What did Doc. say?” asked Jimmy.

“Said he was sick — had lumbago — wouldn't come for the Queen of England; said he wanted a course of treatment himself. Curse him! I have no patience to talk about him.”

“I'd give him a course of treatment,” muttered Jimmy viciously, trailing the long lash of his bullock-whip through the grass and spitting spitefully at the ground.

Dave turned away and joined Joe, who was talking earnestly to his mother by the kitchen door. He told them that he had spent an hour trying to persuade Doc. Wild to come, and, that before he had left the shanty, Black had promised him faithfully to bring the doctor over as soon as his obstinate mood wore off.

Just then a low moan was heard from the sick room, followed by the sound of Mother Palmer's voice


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calling old Mrs. Middleton, who went inside immediately.

No one had noticed the disappearance of Peter, and when he presently returned from the stockyard, leading the only fresh horse that remained, Jimmy Nowlett began to regard him with some interest. Peter transferred the saddle from Dave's horse to the other, and then went into a small room off the kitchen, which served him as a bedroom; from it he soon returned with a formidable-looking revolver, the chambers of which he examined in the moonlight in full view of all the company. They thought for a moment the man had gone mad. Old Middleton leaped quickly behind Nowlett, and Black Mary, who had come out to the cask at the corner for a dipper of water, dropped the dipper and was inside like a shot. One of the black boys came softly up at that moment; as soon as his sharp eye “spotted” the weapon, he disappeared as though the earth had swallowed him.

“What the mischief are yer goin' ter do, Peter?” asked Jimmy.

“Goin' to fetch him,” said Peter, and, after carefully emptying his pipe and replacing it in a leather pouch at his belt, he mounted and rode off at an easy canter.

Jimmy watched the horse until it disappeared at the edge of the flat, and then after coiling up the long lash of his bullock-whip in the dust until it looked like a sleeping snake, he prodded the small end of the long pine handle into the middle of the coil, as though driving home a point, and said in a tone of intense conviction:

“He'll fetch him.”

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