― 45 ―

The Last of the Wombat Barge


JIM KILLEN, the puntman, and his mate Tom had just swung back their pontoons after letting the old Pride of the Murray and her barges drop through from the wharf, when the exhaust of an incoming steamer was borne pantingly on the languid evening air. Jim put his hand to his ear to catch the sound more distinctly. Like most of the dwellers by the river-side he could distinguish the various boats by the tones of their escaping steam.

“It's the Little Lizzie,” he growled to his assistant; “s’pose I'll have to let her through!”

“’Taint the Lizzie, Jim. It's Maltby's Hero!

“Get alon' with you, you Sydney-side crow. Think I don't know every twist and turn of the little woman's steam-pipe? Listen there now—she's down by the Park, and she always speaks so when she's that far. ‘Open the bridge, Jim!

  ― 46 ―
open the bridge, Jim!’ that's what she says, and none but a derned fool of a cornstalk what don't know a side-saddle from a stern-wheeler would say dif'rent.”

“Lor’, Jim, don't get shirty, old man,” said Tom, who, being a Sydney-side native, was contemptuously regarded as a “colonial” by Killen (imported by Government at a cost of £20 3s. 4d. in the days of assisted immigration). “You know better ’n me, of course. But what are you goin' to do? You won't let her through to-night? It's after knock-off time!”

“W’en a cove as don't know a steamer from a barge wants to boss this bridge, I tells him to shut up straight. So now, Tom Hopwood, shut up. The Little Lizzie's a-goin' through if the skipper wants her!”

And though the dusk was fast settling down into the long, sweeping reach that was crossed by the bridge, and though the steam-whistle of the crane-engine had shrieked the knock-off signal full fifteen minutes before, Jim swung wide the crazy old pontoons into the muddy stream. They swayed on their hempen hinges sullenly and creakingly, as though, too, convinced that it was quite time to end their long day's work.

The men hauled in one rope, slacked the bight

  ― 47 ―
of the other, and waited for the steamer. Tom had shirked his pull somewhat, and Jim knew it. But he heeded his mate's ill-temper as much as he did the mutual grinding of the pontoons, or the vexed beat of the river-ripples as they wrestled with the crumbling bank. If the Lizzie wanted to go through she should, and if she didn't, well, it didn't matter. So Jim, surly and precise always, and surly and precise in a double degree when it was a case of swinging the bridge after hours, resolved. Jim, like many a better and many a worse man, was, as he himself described it, “a bit weak on the womanines.” That's what he used to say when accused of favouring the Lizzie by letting her pass the bridge at all sorts of unreasonable times and periods. But there was the Victoria, and the Emily Jane, and half-a-dozen other boats with feminine appellations, and the Alice, and he would never budge from the strict mark of duty and routine for them. And this circumstance—coupled with the fact that when flour was £70 a ton at Wilcannia and potatoes £15, and the great Cumberoona and the Little Lizzie, both loaded to the pilot-house with produce, were starting at the same moment for the drought-smitten Darling township, he had accidentally jammed a pontoon against the Cumberoona's starboard paddle (thereby

  ― 48 ―
smashing the box and several floats)—had tended rather to discredit his partiality for the sex.

“It isn't the Little Lizzie Jim favours,” said “Gus” Pierce, of the Undaunted, the satirist of the Riverine; “it's the Lizzie's mate!” Gus was right, though it scarcely needed his keen vision to have discerned as much. Any one with the proverbial half-an-eye could have perceived the true cause of Mr. Killen's willingness to oblige the Lizzie. Certainly no one who noticed how, on this September evening, the ruggedness of his face softened as the “mate” hailed him, could have failed to understand the motive for his favouritism. For, sure enough, it was the Lizzie and her consort, the Wombat, that with great animalish gaspings and pantings stemmed the strong river, and forged breathlessly round the willowy bend, through the pontoons, past the half-buried hull of Cadell's old Lady Augusta, to her berth under the wharf cranes.

“Thank you, Jim,” shouted the mate from the pilot-house; “you're a good soul to let me through to-night. It's worth ten pounds to me.” And a flattered smile ironed out the furrows in Jim's countenance as he waved his hand in acknowledgment of the words. High-pitched was the majestic voice, but there was a note of mournful

  ― 49 ―
music in it which Jim, with his rude fancy, compared to a curlew's cry. No man's voice could claim that trill surely. The mate of the Lizzie was a woman.


There had been the very devil to pay on the rivers when Capt'n Kingsley—who, after running one season under McCulloch's flag and another under Whyte Counsel's—had, in the third year, purchased the Little Lizzie with her barge Wombat, and put his wife to the wheel. It was done as a joke at first, the mates and deck-hands thought, and they entered into the spirit of the freak. They cheered the little woman as she piloted the craft in and out of shoaling channels, by snaggy gullets, and over treacherous reefs. And they “put their money on her” and the Lizzie, when it came to racing the Princess or the stately Cumberoona, for what the more powerful boat gained in steaming, the little ’un more than won back by the deft way she was handled. And they worked with new vigour when wrought upon by the kindly criticism of her glance.

When, however, in the beginning of Capt'n

  ― 50 ―
Kingsley's fourth river-season it was made apparent that he was shipping no mate, but that his pretty, youthful wife, a mere slip of a girl she was then, was going to take turn and turn with her husband, the skipper, there was open rebellion on the part of the Lizzie's crew, and the deadly antagonism, covert and overt, from the hands of other boats. Men whom the event directly concerned, men whom by the widest stretch of imagination it could not be conceived to concern, joined in the row. The whole river population—from Albury to Goolwa, from Wakool Junction to Wagga, and from Wentworth to Wilcannia—were in agitation. The mate whom Mrs. Kingsley had displaced had almost as much to say on the matter as Sooty Bill the loafer, who never had a wash except when he was thrown into the river in a squabble, and who never did an honest day's work out of gaol.

Unto Captain Richard Kingsley came Captain Freeman, inspector for the Melbourne Underwriters.

“You're frightened of the insurances, are you, Mr. Freeman?” politely inquired the former. “Now, my wife doesn't get drunk. And tell me how many down cargoes come to grief and a river's bottom through a drunken mate at the wheel.”

  ― 51 ―

Captain Freeman walked away.

Unto the captain came a deputation of the skippers.

“Lookee here, gentlemen,” he said, “I've a little girl down in Melbourne. She can't live with us on the river in Echuca—the weather'd kill her. My wife does a mate's duty, saves a mate's wages, and we keep that child where she has a chance for life. It's my wife's own wish, not mine, and as I haven't paid for this boat and barge yet, I don't intend to cross her.”

Upon the heels of the skippers’ deputation there came a number of deck-hands.

“Men,” said Kingsley, “I'm skipper of my own boat!” They persisted. “Men,” he said, “if you don't like my service, clear!”

And they did so. Not that they were afraid of trusting themselves to the “mate's” skill, but the idea of being bossed by a woman galled their manhood. And, as no other men would fill the revolters’ billets, Kingsley filled up the vacancies with Chinese. He could not see that in enlisting nine or ten odorous Ah Fats, and Ah Leans, and Moy Sins on his wages sheet, he was placing the axe to the root of his life and his fortunes.

They served him and the “missie matie” admirably. Whatever the pagan was put regularly

  ― 52 ―
to do he did with the unerring instinct of imitation, in which consists his intelligence. As deck-hand and rouseabout, as stoker, as cook and steward, as lumper of wood-bales on river-banks, cutter-up of firewood and stower of cargo, John was active and untiring. But when initiative and readiness of wit were required he was almost as miserable a failure as a “new chum,” who berthed on a river-boat to earn tucker “till his remittances arrived.”

Capt'n Dick stuck a sounding-pole in Ah Ling's hands one afternoon on an up-river trip.

“Ah Ling, you put stick in water, and when water comes to this mark you call—‘By the mark—three. And to this mark—four, and to this mark—five, and to this mark—six. You savee?”

After half-an-hour's patient instruction, Ah Ling “saveed,” and the skipper relieved his wife at the wheel. They were in a long, deep reach where the ten-foot pole should not touch bottom. Dick thought he'd test his pupil.

“Sound, Ah Ling!” shouted the captain. “Sound!”

With a coolness that indicated a mastery of his business, the Chow dropped in the pole and boldly sent forth the awe-inspiring cry of “By-y’-mark—Fwee!”

  ― 53 ―

“Three! Heaven!” There was no shallow ridge or bottom thereabouts, but a great snag must have shifted into the boat's course—and the Wombat was down with produce seven feet! In a second the skipper had his wheel hard down, and the engine-room telegraph had been signalled “full speed astern,” and the bargeman shriekingly ordered to “stop way.” Dick recovered from the fear of seeing his crafts snagged in mid-stream just in time to hear Ah Ling repeat the last words of his lesson—“By-y’-mark—six”—and to hear his mate, Nell, who had rushed forward, laugh, with a laugh that was half a sob—“Go ahead, Dick, it's over the pole. This gaudy old parrot doesn't know any better!”

Another day Andy McBean, the Lizzie's engineer, and the only white man who had remained on board after the Chinese invasion, told his stoker, Sun Lee, to watch the steam-gauge, while he, Mac, made up, by a short nap, for the loss of sleep during the night when they had been running during the small hours.

“Water get down here, Sun,” said Mac, pointing to a safe point on the tube, “you come and shake me.”

Mac coiled himself in the shade of his woodpile, and slept the sleep of the just man and the

  ― 54 ―
tired engineer for a couple of hours. Then he was awakened by the hiss and the bite of scalding steam. Sun Lee had been relieved on the night-watch, but if his boss slept in the day-time why shouldn't he? So he allowed his silky eyelids to droop over the almond orifices through which his soul looked out on the world, and he too slumbered sweetly while the steamer plodded along the Twenty-mile Reach, and the water in the boiler evaporated, and the tell-tale in the gauge got lower and lower. Sun Lee and his brother heathens were nearer heaven at the moment Mac woke up than they were ever likely to be again, unless some other steamer's boiler blew up. “The closest shave I ever knew,” breathed Andy to himself, as he flung open valves and cocks with trembling fingers, which did not lose their tremulousness until they had encircled Sun Lee's dreamy eyes with grimy rings of puffy flesh.

A close shave indeed! So close a shave that the skipper and mate henceforth had to do double duty because they could not trust any single pagan further than they could see him. For the mechanical routine which an educated donkey would have gone through with ease John was invaluable, but as to all else he wasn't worth his

  ― 55 ―
ration of rice. Kingsley would have thrown the individual and collective Chinese overboard but for the “missie matie.”


She stuck to the Chows when Kingsley's better judgment would have sent them adrift.

“Dick, there's Katie, and I don't like to be beaten, dear. I'll work double, but go back to the old plan I won't. I'll not confess we're beaten. We save forty pounds a month by having them aboard. That'll buy us a new barge next season. And, Dick how the rivers ’ud laugh at us having to own up we're wrong.”

So six-foot Dick, with the broad shoulders and the bronzed face, was wheedled by his fatherly love, and his wife's cooing, and his skipper's pride into continuing a foolish policy. He was manly enough to face a crowd of drunken deck-hands when they rushed from the wharf-side on to the Lizzie's deck to avenge the insult to their class implied in the engagement of the Chinese; manly enough to face them and strong enough to thrash them. Nevertheless, his love and his pride made him weak, and he kept to his plan. He worked

  ― 56 ―
double-tides himself; was skipper, deck-hand, mate, and bargeman in turns. And worked his wife, too, double-tides. The rougher work she could not, of course, manage, but her little hands grasped the wheel almost continually when steam was up. She would stand in the pilot-house for nine and ten-hour watches, clad in neat blue serge with bright brass buttons. Beat the sun ever so hotly, or blew the wind ever so blastingly, she kept her post. In her long spells of duty she learnt the river so well that no other mate possessed an equal knowledge. She knew all the landmarks and guiding points, and where the water shoaled, and where the current would lodge the snags. She threaded with delicacy of touch the boat's way under overhanging gums to dangerous landing-places, and up shallow channels to wood-piles, and when she was at the wheel, the boat seemed to steal from her something of womanly felicity of movement, and went in and out of the pinches and bends with a more graceful swaying of her stem and a softer beat of her paddles. By the close of Kingsley's fourth season, his mate Nell was the most accomplished steering hand, bar Bill Davies and Ted Barnes, on the three rivers. Even the river-men who hated Kingsley for his alliance with Celestials

  ― 57 ―
admitted as much. When six steamers and nine barges were stuck up by the falling water at Campbell's Island, Kingsley's mate put the nose of the Lizzie right up the channel, and with swift nervous balancing of the wheel, drove her through devious cross-cuts and over treacherous spits of sand that masked ghastly snags beneath their glittering whiteness into deep water.

“D——d if she war't take the craft over wet grass nex’!” cried the Riverina's mate, Jim Morris, with an honest chord of admiration ringing in his rough voice.

And if you think anybody on the rivers desired greater praise than that, you don't know the Murray boating trade!

The close of the fourth season brought them, though Capt'n and Mate Kingsley knew it not, the beginning of the end. Fate had dealt out to them some first-class cards, but she had made the shuffle with her hand covered with a poisonous glove.

During the summer off-season when the rivers were down, and the boats laid up, the Kingsleys visited Melbourne to taste the rare joys of a sweet home life for a few months. After one happy day spent on the St. Kilda beach beneath

  ― 58 ―
the ti-tree clumps, in and out of which the father and mother played hide-and-seek with their laughing child, the captain strolled into the baths. He rolled himself luxuriously in the pungent waves, as was his wont in the greenish Murrumbidgee after a warm day's work on Hay wharf, and showed the other bathers a trick or two of fancy swimming. But they looked strangely at him as he leapt out of the water, with a curious shrinking made visible in their glance. For upon his head, and limbs, and body, like miniature moons surrounded by rose-flushed halos, were white spots encircled by pinkish aureoles. All over him, from the broad forehead that he had held aloft as a frontlet of manly pride in the face of all men, to the curving ankle which it would have defied the skill of Phidias to mould in marble, the horrid blotches appeared.

He saw the things himself. As he gazed upon them, scarcely alarmed as yet, and with no dawning of the horrible truth glimmering its way into his brain, his strength went from him—the strength that had nurtured the copious hairiness of the massive chest whereon the spots clustered more closely—and he fell, a log, on the deck of the bathing platform. One only of the bathers drew near him—a young doctor. “Keep back

  ― 59 ―
all!” the latter cried, and then ordered blankets to be brought. With careful touch he covered Kingsley up, and then, striving vainly to overcome a natural repugnance, whispered to the barely conscious man: “Where do you live?” Dick told him, muttering with a feeble discordance, and prayed: “What is—the matter with me?”

The doctor rose up, and motioned the staring bathers and attendants away. They obeyed the gesture—some who were half-attired gathering up their garments and dressing as they went. The doctor knelt again by Dick's side. “Are you a man?” he said. “Can you take—a blow?”

“Yes,” answered Dick, “if you—don't hit—my wife—and child—as well.”

“The blow will hit all you care for.”

He paused, and the air was heavy with the respirations of the two men before he went on.

“You are a white leper—and a dead man.”


The old order of things partially resumed its sway on the steamer Lizzie and her consort, the barge Wombat, with the beginning of the Kingsleys’

  ― 60 ―
fifth season. A white-man crew superseded the spawn of the lazar-house. But Jim Morris, late of the Riverina, was skipper, while Mate Nell retained her post. The rivers did not object to that arrangement when they were told that Capt'n Dick had been smitten by a mortal sickness and would never finger wheel-spokes again. Upon the news, the great heart of the river manhood gave one sharp, short beat of gladness, and then another of shame at itself, and then went on pulsing regularly in sympathy with the little woman.

The rivers did not know how awful was the doom that had overtaken their erstwhile enemy. Nebulous popular belief shaped itself at last into the notion that Dick's masterful brain was thrown out of gear by a sunstroke; and it was good for Mate Nell that nothing of the ghastly truth penetrated to the quick intelligence of the boatmen. Deck-hands would have fled the Lizzie as a thing accursed, and stevedores would have refused to handle freight. For the river-men would have concluded—and justly—that had Capt'n Dick kept himself from contact with the leprous brood the hideous canker would not have rotted his splendid virility. When a white man clutched poles, and ropes, and fenders after Chinese paws had slimed them over, what could

  ― 61 ―
he expect but that some of the slime would stick?

That is what they would have said had they known. Fortunately, they knew next to nothing. Fate was so far merciful.

Only of all Riverina did Jim Killen, the puntman, know. A worthless son of Jim's had died in Wentworth Hospital while the Lizzie lay at the wharf at the junction township. Nell had nursed the scamp in his last hours with sisterly tenderness. Thereupon Jim had vowed that what he could do for the mate he would do.

“The mate, she loosed my Ned's warp-lines gently, an' he hadn't to let go with a thud,” he had said when he spoke of the incident.

Up to the coming upon them of Kingsley's doom Killen had done no more than throw an occasional ten-pound note into the captain's way, by dropping the Lizzie through the pontoons after hours, so that the boat might have first chance with the disengaged crane. But in the hour of her extremity Mate Nell thought of the puntman. Dick craved to return to the riverside; he would live in a bark humpy or a tent, he said—anywhere, in anything, so long as it was in sight of a river, and within the sound of a

  ― 62 ―
steamer's whistle and exhaust, and where he could sometimes see his wife. And Nell took the puntman into her confidence.

He helped her.

“So Capt'n Dick is goin' with the stream, is he?” he said. “I never liked that Chow bus’ness, but I'll help you for Ned's sake, Mrs. Kingsley. You let Ned's warps drop quietly into the current, ma'am, an' the Capt'n shan't go with a rush, if I can help it.”

He built a rough humpy on a thickly-wooded twenty-acre block he had purchased on the Moama side, and there Dick was brought by night-stages from Melbourne. In the late autumn this happened, in the early winter the rivers were “up.”

The season promised to be a long one. The Hay, Balranald, and Wentworth wharves still were burdened with back-block wool left over from last season. Every station on the river and out back was crying out for produce, and stores and sawn timber and the late wool would give return cargoes till the new clip was hurried down. These bright prospects made Dick desperate. He moaned in his gunyah tomb and fretted his heart away quicker than the scaly patches ate into his flesh. The next seven

  ― 63 ―
months should have given him fortune, and instead he was being offered death!

Every sound of Nature or of man pained him with a sharper than physical pain. The steam-saws at Macintosh's mills on the opposite bank tore him with their teeth; and again and again he suffered the throes of dissolution as he pictured himself being crushed between the gigantic logs that fed their steel saws. That was all he was fit for—to throw himself beneath the logs. Other men could carve the timber into shiny, golden sovereigns, each of which would melt into some joy or buy some happiness—but for him, the only timber he needed was six pine planks for a shell!

Then the laughing-jackass would stop in his work of snake-hunting to cast a sneer at him from the crown of unstripped gums, and the young cicadæ would join the taunting chorus from the teeming grass. And he would deride himself for being their revengeful sport.

Then the rippling stream, on which he dared not look in the day-time save between the interstices of thick foliage, stung him with its jesting whispers. It asked him why he did not drag money from its bosom, and when he did not answer, itself answered for him. It flaunted an

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iridescent bubble on its surface that momentarily mirrored his dreadful features.

So with everything. The monotone of the curlew was the wail of his despair; the steam-whistle spoke to him defiantly and dared him ever to disturb the forest glades with its shriek again; the fluff of the wattle showered upon him the jingle of the gold whose hue it had stolen. The distant hoarseness of the men as they called the soundings and the screech of plumaged parrots made him shiver, for they reminded him of Ah Ling—and he knew now the significance of the tiny spot on Ah Ling's neck! And the sky, whether it glared in brassy brilliancy or opened its storm-fountains, tortured him, for the one aspect told him that the hot sun would draw down the mountain-snows, and the other bade him reflect how the swollen tributaries would pour their wealth into the main streams and give the boats another month of activity, when every hour would be worth a yellow coin. Life mocked him at every turn.

So, in effect, he said on the slate, which, his sole means of communication with the living world in his wife's absence with the boat, he was accustomed to leave on the border of his woody prison; and Jim Killen, reading the chalked

  ― 65 ―
words with laborious eyes, muttered, “He's a-goin' looney.” And when, on the September night in which we saw Jim first, he waited at the head of the cutting after throwing the bridge across the stream for Mrs. Kingsley, in order to escort her through the darkness to the leper's home, he recalled the words so that he might break to her the frenzy of her husband.

“What news, Mr. Killen?” she said, shaking his hand.

“Bad, I'm afraid, ma'am. He's losing his lines in a way I don't like. He's a-goin' looney.”

“Oh, God!” She could say no more, but fell trembling; a wattle that, shaken by the pressure, dropped a golden shower on her head.

“Oh, God! That is too much!”

“He put on the slate two days ago, as near as I can remember, these words—‘I have cursed God, and yet He lets me live. The very snakes laugh at me when I want them to bite me. I took a tiger-snake to bed with me last night, and I am alive still. Say the word, Nell, and I shall kill myself. I won't do it till then because I promised you. But say the word, darling.’ ”

“Oh, Mr. Killen, oh, Jim, what shall I do?” wept Mate Nell.

Jim knit his brows painfully.

  ― 66 ―

“You won't be vexed, ma'am?” he muttered at last.

“Vexed, Jim, my friend! How could I be vexed?”

“Well, I'd say the word, ma'am. It ’ud be most merciful to you, an' him, an' the little daughter!”

“Never, Jim, never! Better be a leper's wife than the widow of a suicide!”

“It'll be that in any case, ma'am. But if you won't say the word, you'll jest have to stop with him.”

“He won't allow me!” moaned Mate Nell. “I did not want to start this season—I wished to stop with him. But he said we would be robbed if I did not go, and no one could watch the rivers as I would!”

To watch the rivers was necessary to play the game of speculation successfully. An exact calculation which would get a boat and barge loaded with produce down the “summer-level” Murray in time to meet the first freshets of the Murrumbidgee or Darling, might win a couple of thousand pounds, while an error of a few hours would entail the loss of hundreds. And it took the owner's eye always to note the fall and rise of the stream, so Dick thought.

  ― 67 ―

They moved on—the man wondering how it was all going to end; the woman stupefied and as in a dream, the dilated pupils of her eyes alone showing that she was awake to the horror that awaited her.


The next down-stream trip from Echuca, Mate Nell was mate of the Lizzie no longer. She was “bargeman” of the Lizzie's barge, Wombat, and the old bargeman had taken her place on the steamer. And aft on the barge, in a newly-built compartment, went—a passenger.

Nell wouldn't say the word that would have released Dick from his fate, and he wouldn't let her remain with him. To leave him alone was to leave him to madness. So in the dead of the night, before the Lizzie next cleared the Customs for Hay, a tottering spectre, sheeted in greyish cloths, stole from out of the shadows down by the path through George Air's shipyard on to the punt, and thence to the Wombat's cabin.

The men wondered at first that they had not

  ― 68 ―
seen Capt'n Dick come aboard, but their delicacy forbade a syllable of surprise to reach the ears of Mate Nell. And then Killen dropped a word here and there in mysterious accents, how he had seen Capt'n Dick, “An' he'd take his oath Dick was a gone looney.”

Down to Hay, and then to stations below for late wool; up to Echuca again; up to Tocumwal for a short timber trip, and back to the port once more to fill up with stores and wire for which the big ’Bidgee stations were ravenous, went the Lizzie and the Wombat. Another quick run would have followed with the first-clipping of the new wool, and back again to race the Victoria for the Burrabogie and Hunthawang clips. First come first to load, was the rule of the two crack stations, and their freight carried an extra pound per ton of “greasy,” and thirty shillings for “washed,” for balance of the Lusitania's cargo-room was booked for their wool, and, filled or not, the ocean freight would have to be paid. Up to Burrabogie, beating McCulloch's boat by half-a-day, and back to Hay, there to top up with Hunthawang bales, and thence home for Christmas. This was the plan.

Golden trips in golden weather, all these passages! Every hundred revolutions of the Lizzie's

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paddles minted a sovereign as the leper calculated on his slate. If the water would hold up till January or February they could then sell the crafts, and, with the proceeds added to the season's earnings, bid the rivers farewell. They would seek thereafter some distant home—and wait calmly for the end! This was Capt'n Dick's notion, for once back on the rivers the swish of the floats as they carried the water, and the throbbings of the pistons, imparted something of their restless vigour to his enfeebled system, and thoughts were struck out of him as masterful and bold as in the old days.

“We shall have a happy Christmas after all, Nell,” he wrote on his slate, and passed it through the partition to his wife's hands, just before they left Pollard's wharf, at Hay, on the last trip of the year.

“God grant it, dear!” she whispered as she went out to trim her barge.

The wharf-loungers cheered the little woman as the barge drew by, and wished her the best of good-luck, and the happiest of Christmases, and the speediest of recoveries to the old man. For a moment the cloud lifted, and against hope she hoped and believed their hearty wishes would come true. As Skipper Jim sounded the last

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whistle, she turned and kissed her finger-tips to the throng. It became a tradition, that kiss. The glory of the river-trade has departed, but the memory of Mate Nell's farewell lingers yet in nooks and corners of the Riverine country.

For Hay never welcomed Mate Nell again.

The craft had reached Canoon when the river fell suddenly. That very morn the sun had risen fiery red, and as he ran his course he trailed behind him scorching blasts and steaming mists that wanted only a solitary spark to link the heavens to earth in a chain of flame.

And the spark fell!

In the great reach, fifteen miles below Canoon, Morris found he had to run a gauntlet of fire. Magnificent eucalypti bordered the sorrowing stream with spires of flame, and the tangled undergrowth spread the lurid contagion from clump to clump with an unquenchable rapidity. For miles in their front, miles on either side, and miles to their rear, the torrent of fire rolled on, roasting boat-hands with its heat, barring return with mammoth trunks that fell hissing into the stream, and threatening to stop their egress from the furnace with like impediments.

  ― 71 ―

Every eye on the steamer was strained with a forward gaze, and none noticed that the piles of wool on the barge ignited. The bales had not been tarpaulined, and a fiery shower from a thicket of ti-trees had set the packs ablaze. Nell was the first to see the fire from the barge-bridge, where she held the wheel, and she cried for help.

Some of the steamer hands rushed to save her, but at the moment the Wombat reeled and shuddered as she struck bottom. Drawing two feet more than the steamer, she was aground.

Morris put full towage-way on the Lizzie. The paddles lashed the cindery current into foam, and the great shaft seemed as though it would burst from its bearings with its Titanic strokes. But this effort had the most fatal of results, for it severed the tow-rope. As a bird freed from a cage, the Lizzie sprang forward and left the Wombat aground and wrapt in her cerements of smoke and flame.

There was no returning. The shoaling water threatened the Lizzie with the same fate if she delayed her advance. Morris lingered until death had nearly completed his leaguer around him and his men also, and then, then, went on—leaving

  ― 72 ―
Capt'n Dick and his Mate Nell on their funeral pyre.

Perhaps it was fancy, perhaps not, but Morris, looking back, thought he saw a woman's hand project itself from the smoke as if waving a kiss. “For little Kate,” Morris whispered. “For little Kate!”