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AIDAN DE BRUNE

JUST A WOOLLY

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First published in the Sydney Mail, NSW, 1 March 1922

First e-book editions:
Roy Glashan's Library & Project Gutenberg Australia, 2017
Version Date: 2017-10-16
Produced by Terry Walker and Roy Glashan.

The text of this book is in the public domain in Australia.
All original content added by RGL is protected by copyright.

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THIS book is a product of a collaborative effort undertaken by Project Gutenberg Australia, Roy Glashan's Library and the bibliophile Terry Walker to collect, edit and publish the works of Aidan de Brune, a colourful and prolific Australian writer whose opus is well worth saving from oblivion.



'Woolly' is a slang term applied to fettlers on the Australian Transcontinental Railway



THE midsummer sun beat down remorselessly on the Nullarbor Plain, covering the bare earth with a haze that quivered unceasingly. There was not a tree to be seen, and the distant horizon encircled the earth as the edge of a vast saucer. Here and there were stunted saltbushes, withered and gaunt, rising only a few inches from the soil. They were bushes in name only, resembling more bundles of dried twigs set on end.

Across the, centre of the greal circle ran the iron road of the Transcontinental Railway, the tie that binds East and West Australia. At intervals along the railway were the slender iron columns bearing on crosspieces half-a-dozen telegraph lines. They were the only things that stood definitely above this plain of desolation. So far as eye could see there was no living thing. There was no vegetation, not a blade of grass to keep life in a kangaroo, had one ventured so far from the bushlands.

On the western horizon appeared a tiny speck. As it advanced it came to resemble a dog trotting along the fettlers' track. When it had come nearer it proved to be a man. He carried no swag, no 'nap' of any kind. His clothes, torn and dusty, had been once a blue suit of fashionable cut, now changed by dust, rain, and sun to a reddish-brown in patches. One hand rested on a beer- bottle carried in a side pocket; the other he continually raised to mop the perspiration from his face with a dirty handkerchief.

Facing a mile-sign attached to one of the telegraph posts he halted and, after a moment's hesitation, sat down on a large block of limestone beside the track. For a time he shifted uneasily in his sun-heated seat, and then, as it became cooler, crossed his legs and drew from his pocket a battered pipe. Another search brought a small plug of tobacco. Carefully husbanding the flame of one of his two remaining matches, he sucked in the fragrant smoke with a sigh of satisfaction.

'Four hundred miles of straight railroad, without a curve.' He spoke aloud as if repeating a lesson. 'Lord! And they're proud of it! What's there to be proud of? Building railroads on a plain as flat as the bottom of a frying-pan. A frying-pan! That's just what this cursed plain is. And the heat—hell's cool to it!'

He looked around him moodily, and away back on the track over which he had come, his eyes fixed, as if counting the monotonous line of telegraph posts that alone broke the skyline. Unthinkingly, he drew the bottle from his pocket and raised it lo his lips. Then without drinking he held it up. 'More than half gone,' he said, with a reckless laugh. 'Half the water gone, and not halfway to O'Neill. Billy, boy, the drinks are off.'

There was a soft rustle in the air above. The man looked up, and then sprang to his feet, quivering with rage.

'Curse you!' He shook his fist angrily at a carrion crow which had alighted on an adjacent telegraph post. 'Curse you ! What are you following me for? Are you waiting for me to fall down and die, for you to pick out my eyes, to wrench the flesh from my bones! Ugh! the thought makes me ill. But I'll do you yet. Forward—forward! I must go forward.'

He staggered to his feet and plodded down the trail. The crow watched him. perched motionless on the post, until the man had travelled about fifty yards, and then, flying past him, perched on a pole some yards ahead. There it waited until the man had passed, and then flew on again. Hour after hour the bird silently attended the man. Sometimes the man looked up at the swish of wings above him and swore under his breath; yet he never ceased his dogged plod on towards the distant camp.


SLOWLY the sun declined towards the horizon, and it beat remorselessly on the back of the traveller. The man strode on mechanically, intent on the track ahead. As he walked he counted the posts he passed. At each mile he took a small mouthful of water from the bottle. He did not swallow it, but held it in his mouth, turning it over and over with his tongue, until, imperceptibly, he absorbed the liquid. Presently he held the bottle up. Only a bare half-inch of water remained at the bottom of the bottle.

'Another drink,' he muttered grimly. 'Drink! God! I could swallow a bottleful! A bottleful! A tank would not quench my burning throat.'

Without lowering the bottle he looked ahead to where the crow perched, awaiting him. Then, recklessly, he raised the bottle lo his lips and drank eagerly, holding the bottle to his mouth until the last drops of the tepid liquid had been drained from it.

'A health to you, you damned bird!' He laughed wildly. 'A health to you and to me! Now we are equal. Ten milest to go through the fires of hell! But I'll beat you—I know it! I cannot fail, whatever the odds against me.'

A new strength came to him, and he strode on boldly. As he passed the watching bird he waved his hat to it.

'Come on, you crow—come on! I'll beat you yet. I'll race you for my life.'

He laughed again as he went swiftly down the track. The spurt lasted for about half a mile, and then he fell into the old slouch that had brought him so many weary miles across the continent.


AS the day waned the heat grew more oppressive. Now his momentary exhilaration had passed, the traveller bitterly regretted the water he had squandered. His mouth was parched, and his tongue swelled until it filled his mouth. Quickly the tortures of thirst crept to his throat and through his body. His head throbbed: it was an effort to hold it upright. The sun concentrated on his back and darted a multitude of shooting pains, like pricks of needles, into his spine. It was an effort to move his feet, and his one overwhelming desire was to get away from the railway—somewhere out on the plain, and lie in the shade of a leafy tree.

He knew it was madness to leave those twin rails that formed the only trail across the Nullabor. He remembered tales he had heard in many railway camps of those who had wandered from this one safe guide, and had later been found, so peaceful and calm that it was almost impossible to believe they had passed through the purgatory of thirst before death brought peace.

There was something on the plan. Struggling on, he presently made out the details of a camp. It was a camp; yet reason told him there was no camp within many miles. Yet he could see it quite plainly. Surely it was but a figment of his disordered brain. But if not—if his eyes saw true! If there he could find water and rest!


Illustration

It was a camp; yet reason told him there was no camp within many miles.


As he drew nearer to the unknown camp the details grew plainer. He could distinguish the water-tanks set beside the railway lines. There was the trolly shed; there were the huts of the men, mostly of bags and canvas, with one of flattened kerosene tins. But—where were the men?

The truth struck him as a blow. This was one of the abandoned camps, cut out when the Commonwealth government replaced the hand-propelled trollies with motor-driven vehicles that would carry men and equipment from end to end of the thirty-mile sections well under the hour. On his road he had passed many abandoned camps, some more dilapidated than this, some a mere collection of bare poles, from which the sudden gales that sweep the Nullabor had torn the rotting cloth. The tank remained, however. Did it contain water?

Hope rose in his breast; yet cold reason told him there was none. At other deserted camps he had passed their had been tanks, but never had he found one containing water. Either the fettlers had drained them to prevent corrosion, or the few natives who ventured on the plain had taken what water had been left when the camp was abandoned. As he drew near he gave way to despair. The camp was deserted.

He looked curiously at the ruined huts. It had been a bachelors' camp, he thought. There was no signs that women had lived here. The tank stood upright in its place, and as he passed he lashed out viciously at it with his heel. Then he stopped suddenly. The iron had not rung hollow: there was something in it. Could it be water? The lid was on, and weighted down with heavy stones. With sudden risen hopes he wrenched it off.

There was water—nearly a foot of it at the bottom of the tank. Was it drinkable? He looked around for some utensil with which to raise it. There was nothing he could use. He tried to throw the tank on its side, knowing he would lose most of the precious contents, but hoping enough, would remain to slake, his thirst. His strength had left, him: he could not move it.

His hand touched the empty bottle in his pockel. If he could lower it into the water he could drink and fill it to carry with him on the five-mile tramp before him. He tried to reach down. His greatest stretch left him holding the bottle at least a foot above the coveted fluid. He searched his pockets for string, and found none.

Then he thought of his bootlaces. In a moment he had them free and knotted together. His handkerchief attached to this line allowed the bottle to float easily on the water. A little manoeuvring and the mouth of Ihe bottle dipped below Ihe surface. His heart leapt as he heard the water gurgle in. Cautiously he pulled up his improvised line with its precious burden. A quick taste to test if it was pure, and then a long satisfying drink. Again and again he filled the bottle, pouring it over nis head and shoulders until his clothes and body were saturated. Then another long drink; and he sat down in the scant shade of the tank, refreshed and almost contented.

About an hour later the wanderer stirred. The sun was well down on the horizon, but the heat had not diminished. He felt refreshed and vigorous, and strode along the track at a good pace. Before him lay a low rise that cut off the view of the monotonous lines of iron that had all day stretched out in the distance. Whistling as he went, he breasted the rise, turning carelessly when halfway to shout cheerily at the crow, still patiently attending him.

Over the crest of the hill he looked again on the unvarying Nullabor view. Away eastward the Transcontinental Railway stretched its iron limbs. To the north and south were only fo be seen the bare plain, with its miniature dried saltbush. Quickly the man's eyes followed the railway, seeking the few dilapidated huts that marked the 'station' of O'Neill.

He soon found it, a toy village in the dislance. Quickening his pace, he passed down the small incline to the shelter and refreshment never refused to the traveller on the plain.


IT was a Sunday evening, and the fettlers' gang had gathered outside the trolly-house for the after-tea smoke. There were four men—Tom Joyce, the ganger, and his crew. Topics are few on the plain, and after some casual remarks the group smoked in silence. The sun was just dipping behind the crest of the low rise in the west when one of the men uttered a word of surprise and pointed along the track. The other men looked up.

Just over the top of the rise, sharply outlined by the strong sun rays, appeared the form of a man.

'Say, Tom,' drawled the man, 'this 'ere cove seems in a terrible hurry. 'E's a smart 'un to 'ave 'it it from Mitchell station at that gait. Why, it's a thirty-two-mile stretch.'

Joyce nodded, and pulled at his pipe without speaking. The other men had shifted their positions, so that they could watch the progress of the stranger.

'Blimey!' exclaimed another of the crew, ''e's moving a fair bat! I'd be dead meat to keep up with 'im—an' in this 'eat, too.'

The traveller had now come within hailing distance of the camp, and the gang stood up to welcome him.

'Good lor'!' exclaimed Joyce excitedly, catching the man next to him by the arm. 'Abe, who's he remind you of?'

The man looked startled: then a great awe came into his eyes. 'It's Bill—Bill Morris!' he whispered. But—but—Bill's—'

'Hush!' The ganger's fingers closed like a vice on the man's arm. The man had now come up to the group.

For an instant his eyes swept the men, and then he singled out Joyce. 'You're Joyce—Tom Joyce, the ganger,' he said abruptly, holding out his hand. 'Can you give me food and shelter for the night? I've money and will pay―'

'Keep your money, mate,' answered Joyce, taking the proffered hand. 'Wot we've got, you're heartily welcome to. Come to my ltnt, and I'll get, you some crib.'

The stranger ate sparingly, but drank deeply of the large billy of tea Joyce brewed. When he had satisfed his appetite the stranger filled his pipe from the plug thrust towards him by the ganger. For some minutes the man smoked in silence.

'The men outside—are they all your gang?' The stranger asked the question abruptly.

'Yes.'

Again there was a short silence.

'I was told the O'Neill gang consisted of four men and a ganger,' continued the stranger. He made the statement in the tone of a question.

'That is so,' replied Joyce. He rather resented the abruptness of the stranger's tone, and determined not to volunteer information without some reason.

'There are only three men outside?'

'Yes.'

'Have you not another man?'

'No.'

The man rose from his seat and walked agitatedly up and down the tiny tent. At length he came back to his seat opposite Joyce.

'Friend,' said the stranger, with suppressed emotion, 'you are wondering why I ask these questions. It is not from idle curiosity, but because I have reason to believe that in this camp I will reach the end of a search that has led me half-way across this continent.'

There was again silence. Joyce continued to smoke, but the stranger put down his pipe and leaned forward, his hands on the table.

'I will tell you my story, Joyce. Perhaps then you will help me, for God knows I need help badly.' He paused, and looked past Joyce out on to the barrenness of the Nullarbor. 'I came here from Fremantle, walking from camp to camp in the steps of a man I have to find. Yes, I have to find him—I must. On him depends my life, my happiness, my all.'

The man paused, fighting his emotion. 'I must, go back some months. It happened that in a small town in Western Australia I met a young lady. I fell in love with her, and she loved me. I thought life had nothing more to offer me. Life was a paradise.'

Joyce nodded abruptly. In his life a woman had played a part and on the Nullabor one does not forget—one remembers.

'Sometimes I looked back on the years in which I had wandered alone over the face of the world and wondered at my loneliness. But enough of that!

'Myra had grown up in close association with the son of intimate friends of her parents. There was some intangible understanding that when he was in a position to keep a wife they were to he married. My advent put an end to that.

'This youth bore me a grudge. I could laugh at that, as I laughed at his inquiries into my past when I heard of them. I had nothing to conceal; there was nothing of which I need be ashamed.

'Chance placed a weapon against me in his hands. In Perth lived a man with the same name as myself. He was not criminal— only weak, and prone to take the easy way out of his difficulties. My enemy heard of this man, and traced his history. He found this man had deserted his wife in England. More, he learned this man had recently disappeared from Perth. It was easy to couple his history on to mine. Rumour, all too ready to repeat evil, was started; perverted facts were fed to the gossips of the district.

'I had laughed when first the tales were brought to me. Later, when I found I had to combat and refute these lies, their volume was too great. Then so-called proof was produced. Myra and her parents were convinced of my baseness. I was condemned unheard.

'Well, I fought, almost despairingly. I traced the rumours In their source. Then I discovered the identity of my namesake. Could I produce him, I should triumph over my enemies. I determined to follow him, even round the world, and bring him back, a living witness in my truth.

'From Perth In Kalgoorlie I traced my namesake, and on the way I made a fresh discovery. Not only did this man bear my name, but in figure and face he had a strong resemblance to me. At Kalgoolie I learned he had become a fettler on the Transcontinental Railway. I followed, walking from camp to camp, hoping, praying to soon meet him face to face. At Mitchell I learned he worked at O'Neill.'

The stranger's voice had deepened, had become more powerful as he drew to the end of his story. As he spoke the concluding words he rose to his feet.

'I was told he was at O'Neill,' he repeated. 'Joyce, where is William Morris, the fourth man of your gang?'


THE ganger sat silent for a minute: then he rose to bis feet and beckoned the stranger to follow him. He led the way out of the camp, on to the plain, followed by the stranger. The men of the gang, curious at the action of their ganger, followed at a little distance.

About a hundred yards from the. camp the ganger stopped before a small enclosure set about with poles. A mound rose in the centre, and at one end stood a cross of rough wood. Resting his hand on the paling, Joyce turned to the stranger.

'William Morris,'' he said in a strange, resonant voice, 'here lies your namesake, William Morris!'

The stranger leaned forward, gazing at the mound with incredulous eyes.

'Dead!' he whispered. 'I—I'll not believe it. No, no; it cannot—it must not—be true!'

His body shook with the emotion he could not restrain as he turned, almost pleadingly to the ganger. Joyce bowed his head and, turning, walked some paces towards the camp. There he waited for the stranger.

The living Morris stood beside the grave of his dead namesake, the man who had unwittingly injured him. For a long time he remained motionless. His mission had failed at the moment he had anticipated success. The hopes that had sustained him over many weary miles of bush and desert had flown, and with those hopes all the happiness he had come to know and cherish.

The swift twilight had passed, and the star-spangled sky threw a faint light on the Nullabor and the waiting men.


PRESENTLY Morris moved slowly from the graveside. A few steps, and he hesitated; then, turning eastward, he plodded out into the night, unheeding the call of the ganger. As he passed from sight a winged bird passed over the heads of the watching group and followed the stranger into the desert darkness.


THE END



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