The Road to No Man’s Land

Now we must follow for a time the adventures of Charlie Gordon and the new chum, whom we left just starting out for “far back,” Charlie to take over a cattle-station for Old Man Grant, and Carew to search for Patrick Henry Considine. After a short sea-journey they took train to a dusty back-blocks township, where Gordon picked up one of the many outfits which he had scattered over the country, and which in this case consisted of a vehicle, a dozen or so of horses, and a black boy named Frying Pan.

They drove four horses in a low, American-made buggy, and travelled about fifty miles a day. Frying Pan was invaluable. He seemed to have a natural affinity for horses. He could catch them anywhere, and track them if they got lost. Carew tried to talk to him, but could get little out of him, for he knew only the pidgin English, which is in use in those parts, and said “No more” to nearly every question. He rode along behind the loose horses, apparently quite satisfied with his own company. Every now and then he came alongside the vehicle, and said “Terbacker.” Charlie threw him a stick of the blackest, rankest tobacco known to the trade, and off he went again.

Once they saw him get off his horse near a lagoon, plunge his arm into a hole, and pull out a mud-turtle, an evil-smelling beast; this he carried for several miles over his shoulder, holding its head, and letting the body swing at the end of the long neck⁠—a proceeding which must have caused the turtle intense suffering. After a while his horse shied, and he dropped the turtle on the ground with a dull thud.

“Aren’t you going to pick him up again?” cried Carew.

“No more,” replied Frying Pan, carelessly. Then he grinned, and volunteered a remark. “Make that feller plenty tired walk home again,” he said. And this was his only conversation during a two-hundred-mile journey.

At night they usually managed to reach a station, where the man in charge would greet them effusively, and beg them to turn their horses out and stay a week⁠—or a year or two, just as long as they liked. They met all sorts at these stations, from English swells to bushmen of the roughest. Sometimes they camped out, putting hobbles on the horses, and spreading their blankets under the buggy on a bed of long grass gathered by Frying Pan.

As they got further out, the road became less and less defined, stations fewer, and everything rougher. They left the sheep-country behind them and got out into cattle-land, where “runs” are measured by the hundred square miles, and every man is a law unto himself. They left their buggy after a time, and pushed on with packhorses; and after travelling about two hundred miles, came to the outer edge of the settled district, where they stayed with two young Englishmen, who were living under a dray, and building their cattle-yards themselves⁠—the yards being a necessity, and the house, which was to come afterwards, a luxury. The diet was monotonous⁠—meat “ad libitum,” damper and tea. They had neighbours within sixty miles, and got letters once in two months by riding that distance. “Stay here a while,” they said to the travellers, “and take up some of the country near by.”

“We’re to take over the country Redman took up,” said Charlie. “It joins you doesn’t it?”

“Yes. See those far blue ranges? Well, we run to them on this side, and Redman’s block runs to them on the other.”

“Don’t your cattle make out that way?” asked Charlie.

“No fear,” replied he, laughing. “We’ve some good boundary riders out there.”

“What do you mean?”

“The wild blacks,” answered the Englishman. “They’re bad out on those hills. You’ll find yourselves in a nice shop when you take that block over. There’s a pretty fair humpy to live in, that’s one thing. What do you call the place?”

“No Man’s Land.”

“Good name, too,” said the other. “It’s not fit for any man. I wish you’d stop with us a while, but I suppose we’ll see you coming back.”

“I suppose so,” said Charlie. “We won’t be there longer than we can help. Who’s on the block now? Redman sold his rights in it after he’d mortgaged it to my uncle.”

“There’s old Paddy Keogh there now⁠—greatest old character in the North. Lives there with his blacks and a Chinaman. Regular oldest-inhabitant sort of chap. Would have gone with Noah in the Ark, but he swore so badly they wouldn’t have him on board. You’ll find him great fun.”

“I suppose he’ll give us possession all right. We don’t want any trouble.”

“He’d fire at you just as soon as look at you, I think,” said the other. “But I don’t fancy he wants to stay there much. It’s not the first time he’s been broke, so I don’t expect he’ll take it very hard. Well, if you won’t stay, goodbye and good luck! Give my best wishes to old Paddy.”

They resumed the weary journey, and after another two days’ riding sighted away over the plain a small iron house, gleaming in the setting sun. “Here we are!” said Charlie. “That’s No Man’s Land.”

The arrival was not inspiriting. They rode their tired horses up to the low-roofed galvanised-iron house, that looked like a huge kerosene-tin laid on its side, with a hole cut for a door and two holes for windows. There was no garden and no fenced yard. It was stuck down in the middle of the wilderness, glaring forlornly out of its windows at a wide expanse of dry grass and dull-green bushes. Behind it was a small duplicate, which served as kitchen and store. A huge buffalo-head was nailed to a tree near by. In front was a rail on which were spread riding-saddles, packsaddles, hobbles, surcingles, pannikins, bridles, empty bags, and all manner of horse-gear; and roundabout were a litter of chips, an assortment of empty tins, bits of bullock-hide, empty cartridge-cases, and the bare skulls of three or four bullocks, with neat bullet-holes between the eyes.

Amidst this congenial debris roamed a herd of gaunt pigs, fierce-eyed, quarrelsome pigs, that prowled restlessly about, and ever and again returned disconsolately to the stinking carcasses of some large birds of prey that had been thrown out in the sun. They were flat-sided, long-legged, long-nosed, and had large bristling manes⁠—showed, in fact, every sign of reverting to the type of the original pig that yachted with Noah. Living with them, in a state of armed neutrality, were three or four savage-looking cattle dogs, who honoured the strangers with deep growls, not condescending to bark.

Charlie pulled up in front of the house, and cooeed. A Chinaman put his head out of the kitchen door, smiled blandly, said “ ’Ello!” and retired. Gordon and Carew unsaddled the horses, put the hobbles on, and carried all the gear into the house. By this time the Chinee had donned a dirty calico jacket, and began in silence to put some knives, forks, and pannikins on the table.

“Where’s the old man?” roared Charlie, as if he thought the Chinee were deaf.

“No more,” he replied.

“Don’t understand any English, eh?”

“No more,” said he.

Just then a tramping of hoofs was heard; and looking out of the back door they saw, about two hundred yards away, a large horse-yard, over which hung a cloud of dust. Under the dust were signs of a struggle.

“He’s in the yard,” said Charlie. “Let’s go up.”

The cloud of dust shifted from place to place, and out of it came a medley of weird oaths, the dull thudding of a waddy, and the heavy breathing of men and animals in combat. Suddenly a lithe, sinewy black boy, dressed in a short blue shirt, bounded like a squirrel to the top of the fence and perched there; and through the mist they saw a very tall old man, holding on like grim death to the end of a long rope, and being hauled about the yard in great jumps by a half-grown steer. Behind the steer another black boy dodged in and out, welting and prodding it from time to time with a bamboo pole. Maddened by the blows, the steer would dash forward and narrowly miss impaling the man on his horns; then, taking advantage of his impetus, the old man would try to haul him into a smaller yard. Every time he got to the gate the steer yanked him out again by a series of backward springs that would have hauled along a dromedary, and the struggle began all over again. The black boy on the fence dropped down with the agility of a panther, took up the rope behind the old man, and pulled for all he was worth.

“Hit him there, Billy! Whack him! Come on, you son of a cow! I’ll pull you in if I have to pull your head off. Come on, now!” And once more the struggle raged furiously.

Charlie clambered up on the fence and sat there for a moment. The old man saw him, but evinced no surprise. He just said, “Here, Mister Who-ever-you-are, kitch hold of that rope.” Their united forces were too much for the steer, and he was hauled in by main strength under a fusillade of bamboo on his stern. Once in the small yard, he abandoned the struggle, and charged wildly at his captors. The old man slipped nimbly to one side, Gordon darted up the nearest fence, while Carew and the black boy got tangled up with the rope.

In the sauve qui peut which ensued, Carew pushed the black down on the ground right in front of the steer, which immediately fell over him, and tangled him up more than ever. Then it turned on him with a roar of rage, butted him violently, rolled him over and over in the dirt, knelt on him, bellowed in his ear, and slobbered on him. It looked as if the boy must be killed. His mate dashed in with a bamboo, and welted and whacked away without making any impression, till the animal of its own accord withdrew gloomily to a corner of the yard, dragging the rope after it. Carew watched the prostrate boy in agonised suspense, hardly daring to hope that he was alive. With a gasp of satisfaction he saw him rise to his feet, rub some of the dirt off his face, and look round at the steer. Then he gave his shirt a shake and began to brush himself with his hands, saying in an indignant tone, “Flamin’ bullock! Spoil my new chirt!”

Now all hands seized the rope again; in a trice the bullock was hauled up against the fence, thrown to the ground, and held there while the old man sawed off the point of one horn, which was growing into the animal’s eye. When the job was done he straightened himself up, and through the covering grime and dust they had a good look at him.

He had a long, red nose, a pair of bright hazel eyes, and a bushy, grizzled beard and moustache hiding all the lower part of his face. On his head was a shapeless felt hat, from which a string passed under his nose. His arms were hairy and baboon-like; his long thin legs seemed intended by Nature to fit the sides of a horse. He wore tweed pants, green with age, and strapped on the inside with a lighter-coloured and newer material; also a very dirty coloured cotton shirt, open in front, and showing a large expanse of hairy chest. His voice was husky from much swearing at profligate cattle, and there was a curious nasal twang in his tone, a sort of affectation of Americanism that was a departure from the ordinary bush drawl.

Charlie introduced himself. “My name’s Gordon,” he said, “and this is a friend of mine. We’ve come to take this block over.”

“You’re welcome to it, Mister,” said the old man promptly. “It’s about broke me, and if you don’t look out it’ll break you. Any man that gits this place will hump his swag from it in five years, mark me! Come on down to the house,” he continued, picking up the rope and other gear lying about the fence. “Now, you boys, let that steer out, and then go and help the gins bring the cattle in. Look lively now, you tallow-faced crawlers. Come on, Mister. Did you bring any square-face with you?”

“We brought a drop o’ rum,” replied Charlie.

“Ha! That’ll do. That’s the real Mackay,” said the veteran, slouching along at a perceptibly quicker gait.

“But, look, see here now, Mister!” he continued, anxiously, “you didn’t let Ah Loy get hold of it, did you? He’s a real terror, that Chow of mine. Did you see him when you came in?”

“Yes, we saw him. He couldn’t speak any English, seemingly.”

“That’s him,” said the old man. “That’s him! He don’t savvy much English. He knows all he wants, though. He can lower the rum with any Christian ever I see. It don’t do to let him get his hands on a bottle of anythink in the spirit line. It’ll come back half-empty. Now then, cook,” he roared, seating himself at the rough slab table, and drumming on it with a knife, “let’s have some grub, quick, and you’ll get a nip of rum. This new boss b’long you, you savvy. All about station b’long him. I go buffalo-shooting. Me stony broke. Poor fellow me! Been fifteen years in this God-forgotten country, too,” he said reminiscently, placing his elbows on the table, and gazing at the wall in front of him. “Fifteen years livin’ mostly with the blacks and the Chineyman, and livin’ like a black or a Chineyman, too. And what have I got to show for it? I’ve got to hump my bluey out of this, and take to the road like any other broken-down old swagman.”

“It’s a bit rough,” said Charlie. “How did you come to grief?”

“Oh, I came out here with a big mob of cattle,” said the old man, filling his pipe, as Ah Loy placed some tin plates, a tin dish, and a bottle of Worcester sauce on the table, and withdrew to the kitchen for the provender. “I lived here, and I spent nothing, and I let ’em breed. I just looked on, and let ’em breed. Oh, there was no waste about my management. I hadn’t an overseer at two pounds ten a week, to boss a lot of flash stockmen at two pounds. I jest got my own two gins and three good black boys, and I watched them cattle like a blessed father. I never saw a stranger’s face from year’s end to year’s end. I rode all over the face of the earth, keepin’ track of ’em. I kep’ the wild blacks from scarin’ ’em to death, and spearin’ of ’em, as is their nature to, and I got speared myself in one or two little shootin’ excursions I had.”

“Shooting the blacks?” interpolated Gordon.

“Somethin’ like that, Mister. I did let off a rifle a few times, and I dessay one or two poor, ignorant black feller-countrymen that had been fun’ my cattle as full of spears as so many hedgehogs⁠—I dessay they got in the road of a bullet or two. They’re always gettin’ in the road of things. But we don’t talk of shootin’ blacks nowadays These parts is too civilised⁠—it’s risky. Anyhow, I made them blacks let my cattle alone. And I slaved like a driven nigger, day in and day out, brandin’ calves all day long in the dust, with the sun that hot, the brandin’ iron ’ud mark without puttin’ it in the fire at all. And then down comes the tick, and kills my cattle by the hundred, dyin’ and perishin’ all over the place. And what lived through it I couldn’t sell anywhere, because they won’t let tick-infested cattle go south, and the Dutch won’t let us ship ’em north to Java, the wretches! And then Mr. Grant’s debt was over everything; and at last I had to chuck it up. That’s how I got broke, Mister. I hope you’ll have better luck.”

While he was delivering this harangue, Carew had been taking notes of the establishment. There was just a rough table, three boxes to sit on, a meat safe, a few buckets, and a rough set of shelves, supporting a dipper and a few tin plates, and tins of jam, while in the corner stood some rifles and a double-barrelled gun. Saddlery of all sorts was scattered about the floor promiscuously.

Certainly the owner of No Man’s Land had not lived luxuriously. A low galvanised-iron partition divided the house into two rooms, and through the doorway could be seen a rough bunk made of bags stretched on saplings.

As the old man finished speaking, Ah Loy brought in the evening meal⁠—about a dozen beautifully tender roast ducks in a large tin dish, a tin plate full of light, delicately-browned cakes of the sort known as “puftalooners,” and a huge billy of tea. There were no vegetables; pepper and salt were in plenty, and Worcester sauce. They ate silently, as hungry men do, while the pigs and cattle-dogs marched in at the open-door, and hustled each other for the scraps that were thrown to them.

“How is it the pigs have no tails?” asked Carew.

“Bit off, Mister. The dogs bit them off. They’ve got the ears pretty well chawed off ’em too.”

Just then a pig and a dog made a simultaneous rush for a bone, and the pig secured it. The dog, by way of revenge, fastened on to the pig, and made him squeal like a locomotive engine whistling. The old man kicked at large under the table, and restored order.

“You ain’t eatin’, Mister,” he said, forking a duck on to Carew’s plate with his own fork. “These ducks is all right. They’re thick on the lagoon. The Chow only had two cartridges, but he got about a dozen. He lays down and fires along the water, and they’re floatin’ very near solid on it. But here’s the cattle comin’ up.”

Looking out of the door, they saw about two hundred cattle coming in a long, stringing mob up the plain, driven by four black figures on horseback. As they drew near the yards, several cattle seemed inclined to bolt away; but the sharp fusillade of terrific whips kept them up to the mark, and, after a sudden halt for a few minutes, the mob streamed in through the gates. A number of rails were put in the posts, and made fast with pegs. The riders then remounted, and came cantering and laughing down to the homestead. All four were aboriginals, two were the boys that had been seen at the yard. The two new boys were dressed in moleskins, cotton shirts, and soft felt hats, and each had a gaudy handkerchief tied round his throat.

One was light, wiry, and graceful as a gazelle⁠—a very handsome boy, the embodiment of lightness and activity. The other was short and squat, with a broad face. Both grinned lightheartedly as they rode up, let their horses go, and carried their saddles on to the verandah, without bothering about the strangers.

“Those are nice-looking boys,” said Carew. “I mean the two new boys just coming in.”

“New boys!” said the old man. “Them! They’re my two gins. And see here, Mister, you’ll have to keep off hangin’ round them while you’re camped here. I can’t stand anyone interferin’ with them. If you kick my dorg, or go after my gin, then you rouse all the monkey in me. Those two do all my cattle work. Come here, Maggie,” he called, and the slight “boy” walked over with a graceful, easy swing.

“This is new feller?” he said, introducing Carew, who bowed gracefully. “He b’long Sydney. You think him plenty nice feller, eh?”

“Yowi,” said the girl laughing. “He nice feller. You got ’em matches?” she said, beaming on Carew, and pulling a black pipe out of her trousers’ pocket. “Big fool that Lucy, drop ’em matches.”

Carew handed over his matchbox in speechless amazement.

“They’ve been out all day with the cattle,” said the old man. “I’ve got a lot of wild cattle in that there mob. I go out with a few quiet ones in the moonlight, and when the wild cattle come out of the scrubs to look at ’em we rush the whole lot out into the plain. Great hands these gins are⁠—just as good as the boys.”

“Good Lord!” said Carew, looking at the two little figures, who had now a couple of ducks each, a puftalooner or two, and a big pannikin of tea, and were sitting on the edge of the verandah eating away with great enjoyment; “what have they been doing with the cattle today?”

“Minding them lest the wild ones should clear out. They dropped their matches somehow; that’s what fetched ’em home early. They’ll have to sleep on the verandah tonight. We’ll make that their boodore, as they say in France.”

The dark was now falling; the sunlight had left long, faint, crimson streaks in the sky. The air was perceptibly cooler, and flights of waterfowl hurried overhead, making their way to the river. The Chinaman lighted a slush-lamp, by whose flickering light Charlie produced from his swag a small bundle of papers, and threw them on the table.

“We might as well get our business over, Keogh,” he said. “I’ve got the paper here for you to sign, making over your interest in the block and the cattle, and all that.”

He pored over the document, muttering as he read it. “Your name’ll have to be filled in, and there’s a blank for the name of the person it’s transferred to.”

“That’ll be Mr. Grant’s name,” suggested Carew.

“I don’t know so much about that,” said Charlie. “I don’t think, if a man has a mortgage over a place, that he can take it in his own name. That fool Pinnock didn’t tell me. He was too anxious to know how we got on with the larrikins to give me any useful information. Anyhow, I’ll fill in my own name⁠—for all the block is worth I ain’t likely to steal it. I can transfer it to Mr. Grant afterwards.”

“I don’t care,” said the old man indifferently, “I’ll transfer my interest to anyone you like. I’m done with it. I’m signing away fifteen of the best years of my life. But my name ain’t Keogh, you know, though I always went by that. My father died when I was a kiddy, and my mother married again, so I got called by my stepfather’s name all my life. This is my right name, and it’s a poor man’s name today.” And as the two men bent over him in the light of the flickering slush-lamp, he wrote, with stiff, uncertain fingers, “Patrick Henry Considine.”