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   Chapter 4 No.4

Tom Gerrard By Louis Becke Characters: 12019

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


A few days after the return of the owner of Marumbah Downs, he, with Gerrard and the black stockman, Toby, were camped on the bank of a creek about thirty miles from the head station. They had started out at daylight to muster some of the outlying cattle camps, and now after a hard day's riding were stretching themselves out upon the grassy bank to rest, whilst Toby was lighting the fire in readiness for supper. On the top of the bank the three hardy stockhorses and a packmare, were grazing contentedly on the rich green grass, and lying at Westonley's feet were two beautiful black-and-tan cattle dogs, still panting with their exertions. The camp had been made in a grove of mimosa trees, within a hundred yards of the clear waters of the creek, which rippled musically over its rocky bed as it sped swiftly to the sea. It wanted an hour to sunset, and already the hum of insects was in the air, and a faint cool breeze which had been stirring the green graceful fronds of the mimosas, and wafting fleecy strips of white across the blue dome above, had died away.

In the thick foliage of a cedar tree on the opposite bank, a pheasant and his mate were hopping about, uttering their harsh, rude notes; then came a whir and whistle of wings and a quick passing shadow overhead as a flock of black duck sped over the tree tops to some sandy-banked, reed-margined pool near by.

Westonley, a big, bushy-bearded man, raised himself on one elbow, and watched them disappear; then he called to Toby to take the gun and follow.

"What's the use of 'em, Ted?" said Gerrard, as pipe in mouth, and with hands clasped under his head, he gazed upwards to the sky. "There's two scrub turkeys in the saddle-bags; don't be such a beastly glutton."

"You mind your own business, my little man. You like scrub turkey. I don't. Give me a black or a wood duck, freshly killed, before all scrub or 'plain' turkeys in Australia. And move yourself, you useless animal, and get one of your turkeys and pluck it while Toby is getting a duck or two. Wonderfully intelligent nigger is Toby. I've never yet known him to fail in getting me a duck if there was one within a mile. I say, Tommy, d'ye like crawfish? This creek here is full of 'em. We'll get some after supper."

"All right! I'm with you there," said Gerrard, as he pulled out two scrub turkeys from the saddle-bags, and then seizing one by the legs, he took aim at the broad back of his friend, and the fat, heavy bird struck him fairly in the middle of it. The big man never moved, except to carelessly put his hand out behind, and taking the turkey, began to pluck it.

"Tommy," he said, presently, "d'ye know how to make crawfish soup? It's grand!"

"Can make it as well as you can, sonny," replied Gerrard, as he sat down and began plucking the other bird.

"Fearful lot of cubs at the 'Union' now in Sydney," said the older man, meditatively. "Hate going into the place. Met the two young Arlingtons there the other day, and asked 'em if they were going home to the station. 'No jolly fear,' said one of the cubs-they have just come back from college in England-'we've had enough of Portland Downs and bullock punching, branding, and all the rest of the beastly thing.' 'But you'll go and see your father?' I asked. 'Well, I don't think so, you know, Mr Westonley,' drawled the elder cub, 'it's a beastly long way, and takes such a devil of a time to get there-fourteen hundred miles by steamer is no joke, and we have to be back in England in five months. So the governor is coming down here to have a palaver with us.' It hurt me, Tom, to hear these two youngsters talking like that, for Arlington is over seventy years of age. And they were good lads until he sent them to England to college with more money than was good for them. And it has done them harm-made cads of 'em," and he viciously tugged at the wing feathers of the bird he was plucking. "Your father used to say that Oxford and Cambridge turned out more good men, and more moneyed snobs into the world than all the other colleges in the universe."

"Daresay," said Tom Gerrard, carelessly, as he began a surgical operation on his turkey. "I have heard my father say that old Arlington, who was one of the best of the old time squatters, made a mistake in sending those two boys home with unlimited money and credit. I suppose they'll turn out rotters."

"Most likely. And Arlington-by thunder, can't that old fellow of seventy ride through scrub-thinks that they will take his place on Portland Downs when he dies, and be a credit to the colony. I wouldn't have 'em on Marumbah as jackeroos, at a pound a week. But yet there is good stuff in them, Tom, and good English blood-the best in the world. Hallo! this turkey has eggs; just the very thing for the crawfish soup to-morrow."

Presently two shots rang out in quick succession.

"Toby has got on to 'em," said Westonley; "how do you cook black duck, freshly-killed, sonny, when you're camping out?"

"Grill 'em."

"The whole carcass?"

"Yes."

"Well, you must have degrading, greedy customs up in Queensland. Why, the only part-but there, I'll show you presently when Toby comes back. Tommy!"

"Yes."

"This sort of thing is all right, isn't it?" and the big man waved his great arm vaguely around his head.

"Yes, it's as fine a bit of country as there is anywhere in Australia," replied the younger man, who knew how devoted his companion was to Marumbah. "In fact it is all good country on Marumbah. I wish my run was half as good. Still I've nothing to grumble at. There are five thousand cattle on Ocho Rios now, and it will carry another two thousand easily."

Presently Toby appeared carrying three ducks, which he handed to his master, who felt them approvingly. "They're all right, Toby. Go and look to your fire. Now, Tom, my son, I'll show you the only way to fix up a black duck quickly, and correctly as well." Plucking the thick coating of feathers off the underneath half of a bird fro

m the lower part of the neck down, he made a deep, sweeping curve with his sheath knife, removed the entire breast denuded of plumage, and then threw the rest to the dogs. A second bird was done the same way, and the two portions were then skewered through with a piece of hard, green wood, sprinkled with salt, and handed to the black boy, who soon had them frizzling merrily over a glowing fire.

Gerrard nodded approval. "Quick, but wasteful, old man. You would never do for a cook in a well-regulated household." Then cutting off a large piece of the turkey, he skewered it in the same manner, and hung up the rest for Toby to eat.

Night came swiftly, and, as the two friends ate their supper, and drank their strong "billy" tea, the stars came out, and the heavy dew began to fall upon the grass. Spreading their blankets under the mimosas, they lit their pipes, and with their saddles for pillows, began to discuss various matters-the past day's work, the price of fat cattle in Melbourne, the late drought in South Australia, and such other all-important subjects to Australian pastoralists.

Then Gerrard, after describing some of his experiences and troubles with the wild blacks on Cape York Peninsula where his station, "Ocho Rios," was situated, said:

"By the way, Ted. That was a curious thing that you should come across that youngster Jimmy, just through having a yarn with a sailor on board the Balclutha."

"Very curious; no-it's something more than that Tom. It was as if the Power above had directed it. This man Coll was one of the quartermasters, and only mentioned the Cassowary in the most casual manner to me as we were passing the place where she went ashore. 'I was in her, sir,' he said in the most simple, matter-of-fact manner, 'and me and a poor little boy about four, was the only ones as was saved.'

"'Good heavens!' I said, 'you are the one man in the world I wanted particularly to meet I went especially to Sydney, but could not find any trace of you except your name in the shipping office where you had been on the Cassowary as an A.B. And I advertised in all the Australian papers for you and the boy, but you seemed to have vanished off the face of the earth.'

"'It's very easy to explain, sir,' he said. 'As soon as I got to Sydney, I went to the Sailors' Home, taking the boy with me. There was hundreds of people wanted to take him, but I was too fond of the kid to give him up to anyone. I suppose it was wrong of me, seeing as I have a big family of my own, which was then living at Newcastle. But I knew the old woman wouldn't make too many bones about another mouth to feed.'

"Then he went on to say that being afraid the boy would be taken from him by some of the many people who wanted to adopt him, he slipped away with him one night from the Sailors' Home, and took him on board a collier schooner, whose captain he knew, and who was leaving Sydney on the following morning for Wellington, New Zealand. The skipper of the vessel consented to take Jimmy away with him, and then bring him to Newcastle on the return voyage-the collier belonged to, and always loaded at Newcastle-and hand him over to Mrs Coll. This was done, and in a few months, although Coll was continually asked by people what had become of the youngster, he always told the same story-the boy had been adopted by a family with plenty of money, whose name he was not at liberty to reveal, etc.

"Then, of course, I told him that I was the son-in-law of Captain Gerrard, whom he remembered perfectly well, as also your mother and poor Rayner. We had quite a long talk, and in the end I succeeded in wresting a promise from him that if 'the old woman' was agreeable to parting with Jimmy, he would also consent.

"I went to Newcastle with him and saw his wife, who brought the boy to me. He was quite decently dressed, and got into my heart right away... And I thought that Lizzie would like him too." His voice dropped, and he ceased speaking for a few minutes.

"Well, I had a hard struggle to induce the worthy woman to give him up, but in the end she consented. Then I talked about little Mary, and how happy the two would be together, and that it would not be natural for two children who had been rendered orphans by the same dreadful calamity to be separated. The poor creature's face was streaming with tears when she at last consented. 'It's no for the sake o' the money I pairt wi' the bairn. It's little he costs me, an' my own children will be sore at heart for many a lang day after he goes!'.. But she recognised that it would be wrong of her to refuse-and so the matter was fixed up."

"Good old Ted!"

"Well-keep this dark from Lizzie, old man-I gave 'em a cheque for two hundred and fifty pounds."

Gerrard's clear laugh. "Poor Lizzie! She thinks you gave them fifty pounds only."

"Just so, just so-you see, old man, Lizzie isn't a bit mean-and she doesn't know that I am as well in as I am, so I told her a fifth of the truth. I said that fifty pounds was a great help to a hard-working man with a large family."

"Cunning beggar!"

"Then, as Coll struck me as being a downright, straightforward man, who had a pretty stiff pull of it to bring up and educate his children decently on seven pounds a month-seaman's wages.-I got him a berth as wharfinger to a steamship company at twelve pounds, and he was made as happy as a sandboy, I can tell you: Lizzie knows that much, for I told her. And she lets the youngster write to the Colls now and then."

"Does she?" said Gerrard, dryly. He could not help it. Then he sat up, and re-filled his pipe.

"Ted, old chap, I like that youngster. Let me have him and take him to Ocho Rios with me. I want little Mary most, but know you won't part with her, and even if you would, a cattle station in the Far North is no place for a girl. But let me have the boy. I'll be good to him."

Westonley made no answer at first. Then he said slowly, "I'll tell you in the morning, Tom. Good-night."

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