previous
next

In Pugga Milly Reach

I

BIG, burly Tom M‘Grundy, with the thirst of a sponge, features of a red, red nose, the heart of an angel, and the financial genius of a Wilkins Micawber—his I. O. U.s and P. N.s would have covered the Old Man Plain with a pavement of tesselated indebtedness—drove up to the boats as they were raising steam for the trip to Echuca. They had dropped down from the wharves overnight, and had tied up at the south bank of the Murrumbidgee, just below the bend in the stream where the one hundred and fifty acre police paddock runs into Mungadel Station. Both the steamers—the Jessie Jane and the Resolution—were under M‘Grundy's agency, and while there was no dodge that Mac could not work to steal a


  ― 2 ―
march upon an opposing firm—the rivers ring yet with the way he “did” McCulloch's Hay manager (Fehon, present N. S. W. Railway Commissioner, was boss of the big concern then) out of £2000 worth of wool freight—he was studiously just to the several owners he represented. He tapped them for loans and drinks with equal impartiality, and he gave the “little” men with the one cranky steamer and the solitary crazy barge the same show for cutting a plummy slice out of the rich cake of the season's wool-traffic, as he did the “bigger” men, who had half-a-dozen steamers and twice as many barges. No flunkeyish, kiss-his-hand favouritism to the well-in owner was ever shown by Tom M‘Grundy, and it would have been better for the small men on the rivers had all the agents and managers followed his lead.

The Jessie Jane was a small man's craft, skippered by its owner, and under the double disadvantage of carrying with its cargo an eternally-on-the-eve-of-going-to-blazes boiler and a tremendous mortgage; while the Resolution belonged to a man who was being helped literally by a bank, and who—though bound to go under some time like all bank-made creatures (some day I'll recite certain legends of a Riverina bank-sweating


  ― 3 ―
room)—would be “on the top” for five seasons or so. Therefore Tom M‘Grundy would, without doubt, have found it in the long run much more to his own profit had he favoured the Resolution. But that was not his way of doing business.

As he drew rein on the sandy hummock, he hailed the crafts which the freshet was jostling restlessly against one another. The gilded, brassy Resolution, with a barge lashed a-beam, lay astern of the beggarly Jessie Jane, which looked as if the current half-year's interest on the mortgage now just due would sink her to the bottom of the river; and the big boat now and then stuck her nose more viciously into her shabby rival, as though she would smash her from very contempt. The Resolution and her barge were carrying twelve hundred bales of “way back” clips, and the tarpaulined pile towered majestically above the four hundred which were all the Jessie and her barge were permitted by stern Tommy Freeman, the Echuca representative of the Melbourne Underwriters’ Association, to load up with.

The contrast between the two crafts was so forcible, that even unreflective Tom Mac was struck by it, and hesitated, after hailing, as to whether it would not, as a mere matter of business, be the better policy to give the commission


  ― 4 ―
direct to the Resolution, instead of making it a matter of competition. Before he could decide, however, slim Jim Barton, owner and master of the Jessie Jane, was clambering up the bank in answer to his call.

“Morning, Mr. Mac! What's up? Anything fresh?”

“Morning, Jim. Yes, there's a fresh freight offering, but I'm going to give you and the Resolution the chance of it. It will all depend on who can get to Echuca first, and back to Mungadel!”

“Oh, racing!” Jim's face, which had lit up with the agent's first words, lost its animation. “I'm not on. I can't race, and I'm not going to run risks of that sort.”

“Well,” said sympathetic Mac, “it isn't exactly a race, Jim. But look here, wait till that lazy lubber of a Linton comes. Damn. You'd think that chap was commodore of the Pacific squadron, he puts on so much side! Now, Linton—I say, Linton, Skipper Linton, hurry up, man!”

“Aye, aye, Mr. M‘Grundy, I'm coming!” and slowly, as became the master of the dashingest new boat on the rivers, not to mention his antecedents as an officer of Money-Wigrams line, he walked from his state-room—they were


  ― 5 ―
“state-rooms” on the Resolution, and “cabooses” on the Jessie Jane—to the gangway. There he stopped.

“Breakfasted, Mr. M‘Grundy?” he drawled.

“No,” growled the agent, losing patience. “But I'm just going to have a bite with Barton here. I want to see you first. Look sharp!”

And while the dandy of the boating was digesting the unceremonious speech in his slow walk, Mac turned to Barton and said—“Can't stand his damned nonsense, Jim, so I'll take a bit with you if you don't mind.”

“Very welcome, Mr. Mac, of course, but I can't give you ham-and-chicken and wine, you know. we've only salmon and tea.” And Jim laughed.

“ ‘Better,’ as Solomon says, ‘tinned fish and billy tea where no side is, than a French dinner with show and bounce,’ ” said Mr. M‘Grundy; and then, as Captain Linton drew near, he communicated his news.

“Look here, chaps, after you dropped down last night, Tom Lang of Mungadel came to me. He says by the time you get to Echuca, sixty tons of Ryland's wire ought to be there. Now, it's a matter of first importance that he should get it here within a fortnight. It's for his back country, and he can get teams now for next to


  ― 6 ―
nothing, and if he misses the chance it's all up with his back-country improvements for a year.”

“Well,” broke in Linton, as Mac stopped for breath, “McCullochs’ Lang's agents, they can run it down easily!”

“That's just it. They say they can't. They're rather cocky, and say wire loading must wait their boat's convenience, and there's a rush of higher-priced freight, and they won't take more wire than makes a fair proportion of dead-weight.”

“That's the case with everybody,” said Linton, “unless,” he added superciliously, “it suits Barton here.”

“All right, Dick Linton, if you turn up your nose at a good thing before you know what it is, that's your own look-out. If I hadn't promised Mr. Lang to put the proposal before you both, I'm blest if I wouldn't give it to Jim straight.”

Grundy was getting nettled.

“Well,” said Linton, now scenting something below the surface, “I don't see as there can be much in it for anybody when the big firm say no to it.”

“Ah, but the big firm haven't had the chance of saying no to what I offer you two. Lang's temper's up, and he'll give special terms to get this wire here in the time.”




  ― 7 ―

“What are they?”

“Double rates for the wire, thirty tons Ballarat chaff—must be Ballarat, if you can pick it up at Echuca while you are there, without waiting—at six ten,—that ought to give you a couple of pounds a ton profit—and——” He paused to give a rhetorical effect to his next sentence.

“Don't be all day, Mac; time's slipping along,” said Linton.

“All his lading down and up for this and the next season.”

“By George, those are grand terms, Mr. Mac,” said Barton. “He must want that wire badly.”

“He does. You see, he'll save about six pounds per ton in back-loading, and Heaven knows how much by getting his back-blocks fenced in before next year; besides, there's the dishing of McCulloch. That's worth something to a man like Lang, who makes something out of other people's necessities.”

“But, Mr. Mac, what have we to do? Do we get the loading between us?” questioned the Jessie Jane's skipper.

“No, that's not it. The first boat of you two ready to take it from the cranes at Echuca wharf has the whole contract. That's the offer!”




  ― 8 ―

The two skippers eyed each other. Barton, for the life of him, could not prevent the blood rushing into his cheeks at the thought that, if he could only pull off this job, what a tremendous difference it would make to his fortunes. Linton's personal interest in the prospective achievement was not so large as Barton's, but it was still great. It would not only mean a big commission, but it would be something to talk about. “How I did McCulloch's out of the Mungadel contract,” would be a tale that would tell well when conversing next time with the inspector of the Bank of Australia Felix, who was finding the capital for the new steamer-line to which the Resolution belonged. Linton did not care much for money, except as it enabled him to play “the swell,” but he was vain as a peacock or a poet—Lord! he would be somebody on the rivers if he could manage to snatch the Mungadel clip from the maw of the big firm. Who knows but that, perhaps, the bank inspector would suggest that Linton be made commodore of the new line, or perhaps build a boat—a regular clipper it should be—for him! And so, realizing in a flash of thought all the offer involved, he jumped at it.

“I'm on, Mr. M‘Grundy!” he said. “I'll do it if you'll give me the order.”

“No, Lang says I'm not to bind myself to either


  ― 9 ―
boat. A fair field, he says, and no tricks, and it's as open to the Jessie as to the Resolution.”

“Oh, but,” interjected Linton, “you're out of it from the start, Barton. Look at my haulage power over yours.”

“Look at your load to mine!” retorted Barton.

“You know what old Freeman said? It's the gossip of all the Riverine when he last surveyed you. He said that if you put pressure on the Jessie's boiler—and you survived—he'd get your licence cancelled. And without your licence you can't insure, and without insurance much freight you'd have!”

Linton showed his desire for the contract by the bitterness of his sneer.

“Well!” retorted Barton, “if the Jessie does blow up she'll only kill six, not sixty!”

A mighty guffaw from M‘Grundy expressed his appreciation of Barton's remark, and the angry colour in Linton's cheek was other testimony to its force. Barton had referred to a grim river tradition, that Linton had had his mate's certificate cancelled by the Board of Trade, because of his running down in the English Channel a Greek vessel with sixty lives on board. There were, at this time, a score of “sea-going” officers engaged in the river-trade—two or three (including Linton)


  ― 10 ―
in command, and several more as mates, the most as deck-hands. One of two reasons—often the two combined — usually explained why these mariners had left the rolling wave for the river. Drink or disaster, if it were not drink and disaster—one or the other, or one and the other. And the suspicion of past failure being upon these sons of the salt sea, they were not beloved or admired by the Croweaters and Cornstalks and Gumsuckers, who, with an ex-Mississippian, bossed the river-craft fourteen to twenty years ago.

Men to the rivers born were never tired of relating how C——, of the Princess, whose certificates (in their uncancelled state) should have obtained for him command of an Atlantic liner, hauled up at midday at Pental Island. The river was shallowing rapidly,—five feet at Albury, fifteen at Echuca, and ten at Swan Hill,—and as every moment was precious the mate objected, “Wot d'yer want stopping here for, skipper?”

“Oh!” said C——, “I'm going to take an observation. There's no latitude nor longitude marked on the chart.”

“H—1!” cried the mate, “wot d'yer want latitood and longitood for? Ain't yer got that blawsted box there by the wood-pile to steer by?”


  ― 11 ―
And the roar with which the anecdote was ever welcomed, defined the precise degree of depreciation in which the “ocean-going” chaps were regarded by the river-men proper.

Now, Barton was a Croweater, had been born on the Lower Murray in the very year (′53) that Cadell had taken up the Lady Augusta; and he had grown up with the boat-trade. Consequently he was not predisposed to look upon Linton with the friendliest eye; and when he saw that Linton was resolved to achieve the Mungadel contract, the getting of which would alter his (Barton's) whole career materially for the better, he would have been more than human had he refrained from meeting taunt with taunt. But, to tell the truth, he felt for the moment that the prize was as good as lost when he saw how Linton writhed under his retort, for then he knew that neither fair nor foul means would be spared by the Resolution's skipper to get the job. To a man who would not fight fair there were lots of ways open of impeding a competitor for a cargo. A five-pound note pushed surreptitiously into a stevedore's hand had more than once led to the sinking of a barge as it lay loaded under the cranes at Echuca wharf. There was that Cumberoona episode, when Harry Clifton was 'Chuca


  ― 12 ―
manager for McCulloch's. But it must be a story for another time.

When M‘Grundy's laugh had exhausted itself, Linton, looking like a thunder-cloud, said—

“And what's to be your share of the bunce, M‘Grundy?”

The agent hesitated. Should it be a P.N. at three months?—Mac's P.N. at three days after doomsday would have been negotiable—or there was that bay pony Tom Palmer of Caroon had offered him for a song, cash. Which should it be? At last—

“Usual agency charges, boys—no more. But you know there's a nice little pony hack Tom Palmer has—I wouldn't refuse that from either of you as an unofficial present, boys——”

“All right, Mr. Mac, if I get the job, pony's yours,” said Barton, and Linton also acquiesced, but with sullenness. It was well enough for that fellow Barton to promise a bonus when he ran no risk of being called upon to pay it, but Linton thought he'd be dashed if he'd a-promised it if it had been left to himself, after the way M‘Grundy had laughed at him.

And so it was arranged. First under the 'Chuca cranes, ready to take in the wire, was to


  ― 13 ―
have the whole Mungadel business through the now just opening season and the following year as well. And when, after a hurried breakfast in the shabby little cabin of the Jessie Jane, he hurriedly shook hands with Barton, he fervently hoped the little one would take the game off.

“It'll make you, Jim, if you do,” he exclaimed.

II

Three days afterwards the boats were at Swan Hill together. What the big boat gained during the day she lost during the night.

Jim knew the river intimately, while the skipper of the Resolution had to find his course by the rude charts of the river-men, and not being backed by a life-acquaintance with the characteristics of the stream, he was often in a tangle. When he found himself—as frequently happened—gingerly steering through deep water where the chart showed a sand-spit, he had always a fear that he might find a sand-spit calmly embracing a snag where the paper marked ten or twelve feet of water. He was under the necessity, therefore, of tying up at nightfall. Jim, on the other hand, ran as long as he could at night, without breaking his


  ― 14 ―
engineer and fireman, while the man who (assuming his certificates were all right) could have taken a Cunarder to Sandy Hook, or brought out a P. and O. boat from Southampton to Melbourne, was compelled to grin and bear the sting as best he might, when the Jessie, whom he had passed hours before, returned the compliment after nightfall. The three sharp whistles with which the Jessie would greet him sounded saucily, and her exhaust, he could have sworn, checked him. And, if those mechanical taunts were not sufficient, he was compelled to hear wordy insults that incurably hurt his vanity.

“Skipper!” would sing out all the barge-men, as the Jessie Jane came abreast of the Resolution, “blest if that ain't Toff Linton's boat. Wot's he waitin' for?”

Jim would maintain a decent silence, then the barge-man would answer himself.

“He's hopin', surely, as the moon 'll rise soon, so's he can take the long'tood.”

Then the deck-hands would join in: “No, that 'tain't it. He's waitin' for the dew to fall, so's he can get some way on her.”

“You're wrong, all o' you,” would now interject the mate. “His crew's struck. He war pilotin' the boat up the billabong backwater.”




  ― 15 ―

“Ga—arn,” another rouseabout would sneer. “He's an appointment with Black Nell at the Melool wood-pile, and he carn't wax his moustache while the boat's a-steamin', so he ties up.”

So the jokers of the river would dash their humours against the sides of his cabin. Their joking had the additional bitterness for Linton, that it was never answered by his own men. An impressive characteristic of the river was, that the men of a boat were loyal to their skipper, as a rule. Let the skipper be trying to make a point in a trip or to score off a rival—either by coarse chaff or by sheer rapid steaming—and they would help him with lung and limb, forfeit for him their sleep and meal-time, or even effect that most precious of sacrifices, the abandonment of their “between-trip sprees.” And when his men did not champion a skipper through good report and through evil report, and back him up in straight river reaches, and over the moral snags, generally of the feminine order, that were always on the shore in readiness to wreck any “boat chap,” you may safely depend that the skipper wasn't “white.” Now Linton's crew never “jawed back” when the Jessie Jane's fellows hurled their jibes at the Resolution's chief, and Linton had been long enough in the trade to take that as an emphatic


  ― 16 ―
condemnation in advance of anything he might do. And therefore, being full of human nature, and not being a saint out of the missionary books, he grew as venomous and tyrannical as he dared. Certainly he did not dare greatly, democracy was too substantial a thing on the rivers twenty years ago to be assailed with impunity by a little tinselled god. It is flabbier now; boat-hands deputationize the deity of the pilot-house now, where in the seventies they would have seen whether the Murray a’ Bidgee water wouldn't have taken some of the lace-frilled nonsense out of him.

When the boats, then, were at Swan Hill, it was an even chance which should get through first at 'Chuca, and so gain the first shot at the cranes.

The Resolution would, without doubt, with her superior power, beat the Jessie by four hours if there was clear daylight running all the way, and it would be a remarkable thing indeed if, with that advantage, she could not win the Mungadel job. But the four hours were just the difference the Jessie could make up by nightfall, in the twenty-four to thirty-hour run from Castle Donnington (Swan Hill) to Echuca. Thus honours were easy.

Linton and Barton met at Echuca, just as the


  ― 17 ―
latter had dispatched the wire most boat-masters send thence to Echuca.

Barton cheerily nodded a “Morning,” which Linton surlily acknowledged.

“It'll be nose and nose work, Captain Linton,” said the Jessie's skipper.

“Bosh! you're out of it. I'm not going to race either!”

“Nor I; fair heel-and-toe running—that's what I'm going to make of it.”

“I'd not bother if I were you. Save your fuel and the risk of a blow-up.”

“Not a bit of it, old man. See the ‘state’ at Albury last Saturday?” And he pointed as he spoke to a bit of blue paper posted at the post-office, which recorded the state of the Murray, “above summer-level.”

“Yes, twenty feet. What of that?”

“That means, old man, you're not going to get past Pugga Milly till that water comes down. I know you scraped getting over the Bitch and Pups.”

“How the devil do you know that? By George! if any of my men have been blabbing!”

“Keep your temper—none of them's been blabbing. But, man, you needn't tell me you didn't


  ― 18 ―
scrape. When you're down eight feet, and the water on the reef is eight feet also, you've got to scrape to get over. And you can't warp over Pugga Milly. I can if I need to!—but I won't!”

“Very well,” and Linton turned to go. “Pugga Milly or no Pugga Milly I'm going to run Mungadel stores up and down for two seasons.”

“Perhaps you may, Linton, if I give you a billet on the new barge I shall build, as soon as I finger the cash for the freight on the Mungadel wire now waiting for me at Echuca wharf.”

Having fired this shot, Jim Barton prepared to send his telegram to the Echuca agents that he was just clearing from the “Hill.” As he handed it in, and threw down the shilling, the operator, who had heard part of his conversation with Linton, asked him if he were racing the Resolution. In a few hurried words Jim related the conditions of the trip.

“Wish you luck, Jim, I'm sure,” said the operator, as he pulled down the glass slides of the pigeon-hole. “If you get the Mungadel work it will be the making of you.”

The words stuck persistently to Jim. Tom M‘Grundy had said exactly the same thing. His mate kept on saying it. And now the E. T. O. man, who knew everybody's concerns on the


  ― 19 ―
river, and whom everybody knew, repeated it. Since he had started, he had been trying to forget how much depended on the trip up to now. Doing his best to win, he had yet freed himself of thinking of the prize. But the blessed words stuck, and do what he would he could not forget them.

It would be the making of him indeed! And as the Resolution dropped into the stream, and the Jessie Jane followed her after a five minutes’ interval, Jim, answering the former's horn with his shrill whistle, felt, as he turned the whistle-cock, that he was defying fortune as well as Linton's boat. The one thing that saves commerce from infecting with leprous taint all that she touches, is her alliance with the genius of home and the spirits of the household. Where this is absent, how contemptible is trade, how degrading is the whole system of barter and speculation!

Now Jim thirsted for gold, not to gratify his vanity or the mere lust of getting, but in order to obtain the means of enriching his own individual life with the good things that life in general offers to man. He wanted gold to win and keep a wife, and to rear “an independent shed.” He wanted the means to enjoy honourable leisure, and for books, travel, anything that would make him a


  ― 20 ―
stronger and more fruitful man. He had ambitions, had this mallee river-bred man, that were not bounded by the mallee-rim on the south side of the Murray, or by the box and gums on the north bank. Inch by inch he had carved a path upward. Inch by inch he would mount higher—if the Fates pleased. If a man's sinews and a man's thoughts could turn the sparse opportunities which offered into gold, they should be his. And here, right here, was the biggest chance yet within his grasp. Fail now, and he would run a mortgaged boat till Providence pleased that the boiler should blow up, with himself on board. Get the Mungadel contract, and through the long vista of coming years he saw himself moving on from success to success, and from triumph to triumph—first in the commercial world, and then—the ambition was so sacred as to be no more than half uttered to his own heart—in the political world. Jim, ordinarily clear-headed enough, was yet so simple as to believe that politics had some use for clean-souled men.




  ― 21 ―

III

Every steamer's exhaust, to all river people, had its own message. Hitherto the Jessie Jane's escaping steam had but one reading—“Kiss Jessie—Jim! Kiss Jessie—Jim! Kiss Jessie—Jim!” That was the mode of it. But this morning there was a distinctly audible change. Whether it was the rotten old boiler had taken a new lease of life, or that some part of the engine had gone wrong, or, having previously gone wrong, was now determining to go right, or something still more recondite and unexplainable, but certainly the sibilation was no longer heard. Jim noticed it as soon as he got into a fair way. He called down the speaking-tube to the engineer.

“Something wrong with the exhaust, Charlie?” Charlie came up on the main deck.

“Yes, skipper, she's changed her tune. Steam-pipe's got a bit choked, I expect. What does she say? Breakin' somethin', it sounds like.”

“ ‘Make you, break you—Jim! Make you, break you—Jim!’ that's what it is, skipper,” called out the mate. “Well, that's dashed funny, isn't it?”

“Very,” replied Jim, who was leaning over the


  ― 22 ―
half-door of the pilot-house. And his heart throbbed painfully as the alternative to being “made” was voiced by the steam. Of course that was nonsense. If he did not get the Mungadel contract he would be no worse off than before. And if he did—well, he'd be made. Mortgage paid off, and open credit for a round thousand over-draft at the bank. Then he would build a new barge for next season, and with the prestige of one of the big frontage station contracts behind him, he would not be dependent on agencies’ mercies, but would tackle half-a-dozen of the big back-blocks stations himself. Pull off Mungadel, and he would not change places with McCullochs! The next season would see him worth three thousand, and all squarely earned, clean money. How many of the river-men would be able to say the same? By Heavens, he would have the contract! And, to cheer him, came another tune on the exhaust, “Make you, make you—Jim.”

That was it, then. Even the crazy old boat and boiler were bent on winning. Listen again! “Make you, make you—Jim!” Nothing more about “Break you!”

And he went to his bunk with a lighter spirit to gain a few hours' sleep. He was going to run


  ― 23 ―
all night and take the wheel himself. The “Make you, make you—Jim!” was a lullaby to him.

But as the dusk was rapidly filling the gap between the clumps of gums on the banks, and the only light on the stream was from the great reflecting lamps already ablaze, the mate sent the half-fledged hobbledehoy, who acted as cabin-boy for his keep, down to wake his skipper. And as Jim ran up-stairs to the pilot-deck, he heard once more the fateful murmur, “Make you, break you—Jim.” No mistake this time. There was the “break you” quite distinct, and with a threatening accent too. So fancied the fevered brain of the captain.

“Say, skipper,” said the mate, “I woke you a little sooner than you said, but there's some one on Pugga Milly signallin'.”

Pugga Milly Island, formed by a branch and the main stream, was in shadow, but across the great reach which forms the river there were broad flashes of light. They were not from the Resolution and her barge. The great steamer and her consort were tying up for the night on the south bank, Linton having gone as far as he dared that day. He hoped that the fresh water from the Upper Murray would be down by daybreak to carry him over the shoal at the head of the reach,


  ― 24 ―
and so avoid the necessity for warping the craft up by means of lines from the trees. If he was not compelled to warp he could (by putting on another 10 lbs. of steam) overtake the Jessie Jane, and beat her through the Echuca port.

And as he put out his regulations, he cursed the regulations which compelled him to aid in the illumination of the stream. The more light in so stiff a part of the river the better for his rival.

But the broad flashes Jim noticed were not the steady fanlight beams of the Resolution's lamps. They were intermittent, now wavered by the breeze, now blown into vivid lightning-like zig-zags that shivered and darted into the interstices of the timber, and startled ducks and curlews and native companions from the lagoons. And a figure was now seen in the blaze, and now hidden by it.

“Yes,” said Jim, “that's a signal or else a dodge. P’r’aps the Resolution has sent a man there to trick us. Anyhow, if it's a passenger we're not going to take him.”

For of course if it were a passenger, and would-be passengers emerged from most unlikely places on the rivers, it must be a male. None but a crank would have supposed a woman would be there.




  ― 25 ―

IV

Yet when the Jessie came abreast of the lower point of Pugga Milly—she took the inner channel, because of lighter draught—Skipper Barton saw that it was a woman who was standing by the signal fire, a woman holding something in her arms, even when she stooped to throw another branch of sapling on the flames.

“Jupiter!” cried the mate. “It's a petticoat.”

Jim, prescient of trouble, was silent. And the infernal exhaust was now humming another and more sardonic tune, “Break you, break you—Jim!” Nothing about “making” him now, only “breaking.”

“Slow her down!” Jim ordered at last. And the craft trembled reluctantly to half speed.

“Oh!” the woman cried, “oh, stop—for God's sake, stop!” And the Jessie Jane, with much inward and outward cursing from her officers, was eased down about twenty yards from the island bank.

“What is it, ma'am?” Jim spoke with marvellous distinctness considering his throat was full of maledictions. “Going to Echuca?”

“No; Swan Hill!” She stopped, choking.




  ― 26 ―

Jim gave a sigh of relief before he spoke again. “But we're going to Echuca.”

“Oh!” It was a long wail this time. “O—oh, Echuca's too far—my child is dyin'—dyin', and I must have a doctor. Oh, take me to Swan Hill!”

“Impossible, ma'am. I'll take you to Echuca—there are better doctors there.”

“But Swan Hill's nearer—three hours, and—Echuca, oh God, is twenty or thirty. And my child is dyin'—is dyin'!”

Jim and the mate looked at one another. Then the mate uttered an inquiry as to whether she had asked another boat.

“Yes,” she wailed, “but they would not listen. Said you were comin'. Oh, for God's sake, take me! I have a pound—it is all I have. I'll give you that!”

A pound! Jim's throat blistered. And fifteen hundred pounds clear profit hanging on that trip! A pound! The joke of it! And so he said “No,” and in the same breath sent the telegraph call to the engine-room—“Full speed ahead!”

When the woman saw the Jessie's steam curving towards mid-stream, she shrieked with a horrible acuteness of sound. Over the exhaust was plainly audible—“Oh, are you men? Fiends you are. May God blight your homes—your wives—your


  ― 27 ―
children! May you have your little ones dyin' for the sake of a doctor some one else could reach, but wouldn't! Oh, devils!”

Now in Jim's dream that day, of what might be if he pulled off the Mungadel job, was included a home and a wife and babies clinging around. There was no wife as yet, not even a sweetheart. But he had always thought that the glory of his manhood would never be achieved until he held wife and child in the sway of his strong arm. And the woman's unreasoning cry pierced him with a superstitious fear.

He signalled the engineer to slow down. “But,” he asked the mate, “is there a man aboard who'd take that woman in a dingy to Swan Hill?”

“A forty-mile pull! You're drunk, boss.”

“No, Bill, not drunk—only mad! I'm going to take that woman to the Hill. Damn her!—and damn Tom Lang of Mungadel!”

V

Less for the sake of that poor selector's wife than for his own dream of wife and child, he tied up his barge and turned his steamer's head towards the Hill township.




  ― 28 ―

The woman's only intelligence lay in her mother love. She was one of those half-souled creatures that drift through life in the Australian bush, going through most of the acts of the great drama of existence in a tadpolish fashion, but who suddenly rise in the crisis of an episode to something of the stature of a civilized woman.

When her child was seized with convulsions, she had waded through the scrub, and waded through lagoons, ten miles from her husband's selection—he was away shearing—to the river-bank, with the dim hope of getting a doctor somehow. It was really Linton who had put it into her head to ask Barton to take her to Swan Hill. With the ignorant woman's inability to look at more than one thing at a time, she became convinced that in going to Swan Hill lay hope for her child; and in the tragic moment when she had made her last and successful appeal to Jim, she had struck the one chord of his nature to which his will would respond.

Half-way to the lower township the infant must have died. But the men did not know it, and the woman did not apparently realize it. She had fallen into a stupor of exhaustion, only rousing herself once when engineer Charlie, a father himself,


  ― 29 ―
had endeavoured to take the child from her and put it into a hot bath. Then she defied him to touch it. It was eleven o'clock when the puntman at the Hill was roused, and begged by Jim to take the woman to a doctor. She had to be lifted over the boat-side, and then it was that, as the mate forced the child from her, so that she herself might be carried to the shore, he discovered it was dead.

“Dead!” he exclaimed. “Dead and cold.”

“Dead!” she shrieked, “dead! Oh, you devils! you've killed it. If you'd come when I asked you first it would not ha’ died!” And that was Jim's thanks and reward.

At least all that fell within human ken. “All-judging Jove” may, however, have viewed the issues differently.

The Jessie Jane was still breathing her fatal exhaust, “Break you, break you—Jim!” when she reached Pugga Milly again. By that time twenty-four hours' steaming had done its work on the engineer and fireman. She was hauling in the tow-rope of the barge, and the latter craft was just beginning to cut the stream, when——

The Jessie Jane, and her skipper, and mate, and engineer, and one deck-hand, and the hopes


  ― 30 ―
of the Mungadel contract, and the mortgage went skywards (and literally on to Pugga Milly Island) at the instance of the Jessie Jane's boiler. The pressure-gauge had registered more and more as the eyes of engineer Charlie and his fireman had become heavier, and ten minutes after the eyelids had closed entirely, the index-hand of the gauge had reached what old Freeman called “explosion point.” Charlie had been roused by the skipper hailing the barge when the Jessie reached Pugga Milly, but, still drowsy, had not noticed the gauge, till the sudden hiss of the enfranchised steam merged and thundered into a roar like the trumpet of doom. And that was the end of everything for the Jessie Jane and her crew.

When the Echuca Steam Navigation Board investigated the circumstances, sufficient came out, in the evidence of his own men, to take some of the gilding from the glory of Skipper Linton's achievement. And he received a round-robin from the boat-skippers one day that suggested that he should return to the ocean-going trade, and run down some more Greeks. They wanted “white” men on the rivers, so the note said. Tom M‘Grundy did not get his pony—then.

previous
next