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ALBERT DORRINGTON

THE MAGIC MULE

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As published in
The Sydney Mail, Australia, 28 September 1927

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2020
Version Date: 2020-05-31
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Illustration

The headmen listened to Nofki's predictions in frozen silence.



KITTY ARDEN had bought the mule. It was tied in the schooner's forepart for the sea-birds to inspect and admire. Kitty's husband, Phil, had asked her to buy the mule. He needed it for his claim at Beetle Creek. Owing to the shortage of labour in New Guinea, and the unwillingness of the natives to work in a mine, Phil had been forced to haul up his wash-dirt single-handed. Now with a windlass properly rigged a mule can be made to haul up clay and rocks till the cows come home.

So Kitty Arden had bought Little Willy at a horse-bazaar in Brisbane. He was a small, blonde mule with slim, dainty feet that appealed to Kitty's aesthetic temperament. Little Willy had been auctioned from a mob of other mules, dark, sinister creatures with hoofs the size of pancakes. One of these hulking creatures had tried to bite Kitty when she leaned over the rail to pat Willy's neck.

Mary's father, Nick Tolliver, owned the schooner. Nick had a share in Phil's claim at Beetle Creek. He too was certain that a young, upstanding mule would prove a blessing to the overworked Phil. A woman could drive Little Willy, he averred, if she used him kindly and kept her hat-pin to herself.


DURING the long, slow voyage from Brisbane the mule's appetite had almost caused a famine on board the schooner. Little Willy ate all his fodder during the first week. After consuming a small cargo of beans in the forehold, the point arose in Tolliver's mind whether the mule would eat bananas or go on a hunger strike. The schooner's after-part was loaded with bananas. When a sailor lost his foothold aloft he fell on bananas.

In consideration of the mine at Beetle Creek, Nick didn't want the mule to die. In his best bedside manner he made offering of a big ripe bunch the size of a piano case. Little Willy accepted the bananas sadly and with ears flattened. But the next day and the next his attitude towards bananas sharpened, as the market reports are fond of saying. The crew admitted ruefully that Nick had a bedside manner with mules. At the end of the voyage not a scrap of anything eatable remained on hoard. It was discovered, on a rough calculation, that, if the bananas Little Willy had consumed had been placed end on end they would have reached halfway from Gulgong to Kilaloe.


PHIL ARDEN was waiting on the jetty at Beetle Creek when the schooner, with the mule on board, made fast. To the sunburnt Kitty Phil appeared drawn and nervous. His young eyes were full of trouble.

"How's the mine, dear?" Kitty asked, with her arms about his shoulders. "Hope your luck hasn't run away?"

Phil wiped his hot brow as he turned to greet Nick Tolliver. Crowds of natives swarmed over the beach, watching at a distance and sullenly expectant. A few carried spears, but the headmen and chiefs had come unarmed.

"A week ago," Phil staled hoarsely. "I was away in the bush cutting props for the workings. When I returned to the mine I found that some of these people had carried away nearly two hundred ounces of gold. I had hidden it in a tool chest under the reef. Confound these Kooma natives!"

Kitty's face paled at the news. Here was the price of their new home gone for ever.

"The mean, sneaking toads!" she quavered, holding Phil's trembling hand. "And what in the name of old hats can they do with gold dust, anyhow?"

"Sell it for rum," her father growled. Turning to his crestfallen son-in-law, he bade him cheer up and keep a stiff lip before the Kooma headmen. No use getting mad with them. Now that the mule had come and Kitty was here a better watch could be kept over the mine.


A GREAT commotion was happening on the beach. A crowd of warriors bearing a palm-lined litter approached the schooner. Reclining on the litter was a small fat native wearing a bundle of heron plumes and hornbill heads in his thick hair. In his right hand was a short spear.

"It's old Chuka, chief of the village," Phil told Nick Tolliver. "Sick, as usual, and wants medicine."

"Let him come aboard, dad," Kitty interrupted hastily. "It's a chance to make friends with him and his people."

"Oh, Chuka's welcome," Nick Tolliver grunted. "The old fellow's been a patient of mine for years," he told his daughter. "Cured the old wop of 'flu once. A most awful liar. Steals my empty medicine bottles, too. Still, it's just as well to keep friendly. He's been soaking Dutch arrak, by the look of him."

Chuka was borne to the gangway, his warriors indicating by their gestures that he wished to come aboard. Tolliver nodded briskly from above.

"Hullo. Chuka!" he greeted, scanning the old chief's gin-inflamed eyes. "Sins finding you out, eh? Come along; I'll put you right in no time."

Chuka's fat jowl expanded in a grin as they bore him up the gangway and placed him in a deck-chair under the awning.

Nick Tolliver waved the bearers back to the jetty, he did not want their pilfering fingers about his schooner.

"I'll send the old man ashore when he's oiled up," he told them. "Off with you, now! I'm busy."

Kitty had drawn a canvas hood over the mules box. The sun was hot and Little Willy objected to the swarms of big brown flies that had journeyed from the bush to tickle his ears.

Tolliver helped carry Chuka below to the cool little stateroom where he kept his medicine chest and clean whisky. After a dose of oil mixed with a comforting stimulant Chuka was soon snoring on the couch under the open port window. Kitty remained on deck with Phil. Both were interested in the crowds of natives collecting on the jetty. The women's shrill voices made known the fact that not a single yard of red twill had come ashore.

Nofki, Chuka's own medicine man and witch doctor, harangued a group of headmen on the folly of allowing their beloved chief to partake of the white man's mixtures.

A fiery-eyed little man with the neck of a rooster was Nofki. His soul was torn by jealousy at the thought of Nick Tolliver's usurpation of his own particular healing powers. With his bony fingers Nofki plucked the string of sharks' teeth about his wizened throat as he foretold of the dire calamity that would fall upon Chuka as the result of Tolliver taubadas' spells and incantations, his burning physics.

The headmen listened to Nofki's predictions in frozen silence. It was not by their wish that Chuka delivered himself periodically to the white man with the magic bottles that cured the arrak sickness. It was Chuka's wish. Te ko, na shon! The taubadas were full of magic! For had they not seen a white soldier man take off his right arm and hide it beneath his bed? Even Nofki could not equal that for magic.

Phil translated to Kitty the gist of the headmen's argument. Instantly her mind seized the point of the witch doctor's jealous fury. She had been more than angry at Phil's loss. It now occurred to her that the old chief in the stateroom might be used to bring pressure for the return of the lost gold. It was more than likely that Chuka had himself participated in the mine robbery. Neither Phil nor her father could use force against these hefty spearmen, she told herself. But it was possible to play on their superstitious fears. And Kitty Arden, who had experienced hard times in Sydney during Phil's struggle at the mine, was eager to use her wit and her last ace to bring back the lost gold to her husband.

Kitty tiptoed to the stairhead and addressed her father below. Her voice was no more than a whisper. "I want Chuka's ornaments, dad; I want to borrow them."

"Ornaments!" Tolliver repeated darkly. "What in thunder?"

"I want his spear, his snakeskin belt, and all his head plumes," she interrupted. "He will get them back when I've done with them. Be quick, dad; there's a kettle boiling in my little head," she added with a playful grimace.

Nick's experience of his daughter's humours was profound. He knew when the kettle was boiling and when to made haste. Moreover, she was not the woman to start skylarking at a time when Phil was in the dumps over his bad luck. There was always a reason for Kitty's boil-overs. Very gently he raised the chief's spear from where it lay beside the couch. Unclasping the snakeskin belt from the bulging waist was a task requiring skill and finesse. It was Kitty's fingers that liberated the gorgeous horn-billed heron plumes from the tangle of ornaments in the chief's mop of hair.

Nick followed his daughter on deck, scarce daring to ask a question as she approached the canvas-covered mule. Little Willy appeared interested in her movements. He looked at the gorgeous heron plumes with the eye of a dandy.

"The difference between some men and mules is in front of the collar." she expounded philosophically as she adjusted Chuka's hornbill plumes between Little Willy's straight, listening ears.

"Mother of Moses!" Nick gasped, "the girl's gone dippy!"

He drew away with a groan of despair as she buckled the chief's snakeskin belt around the mule's ribs. Very dexterously she fastened the spear-handle between the belt and the animal's skin. Chuka's necklace of coral and sea-shells was fastened about his neck. The canvas hood had concealed Kitty's actions from the mob of natives on shore. She made a sign to her astounded husband.

"Little Willy's going to walk down the gangway alone." she announced. "It's his birthday, not ours!"

Phil scratched his head dubiously.

"All right, dear. But I don't quite grasp what's in your mind." he protested faintly.

Tolliver backed away from the plume-decked mule with the snakeskin belt and the spear. The difference in Chuka's appearance and the mule's was negligible. He confessed. It wasn't hard for some fellows to look like mules. All they had to do was to get inside the right collar.

Touched with a bamboo, Little Willy stepped to the gangway. With the plumes frisking his ears, the blood of Willy's Spanish ancestors responded to the magic thrill of so much finery. Also, there was wafted upon the breeze a smell of the green earth and the tender young shoots of the forest glade.

"Gee up!" Kitty hissed in his ear. "Gee up. Willy, and keep on geeing!"

The mule reached the jetty at the moment Nofki, the witch doctor, had concluded his final warning anent the magic of Tolliver's potions.

"Woe, children of Kooma!" he wailed. "My warning hath fallen on foolish ears. Harm will yet come to Chuka! There are devils on this ship ready to eat his body!"

The hoofs of the mule touched the jetty with a sounding bang. Already he sniffed some delicious shrubbery across the beach. Pawing the air in sheer lightness of heart, Little Willy cast himself heels first into space.


IN other countries, and among other people, the mule's gaiety and abandon might have proved startling enough. But to the headmen and warriors of a Papuan settlement a mule was a bolt from the blue. In their virgin remoteness within the Huon Gulf they were familiar enough with the glittering, flame-hued feathers of the paradise birds, the lyre-winged beauties of the forest. They knew the four-legged wallaby and the scarlet-crested parakeet. But they had never seen a Spanish mule wearing a chief's head plumes, his spear, and his snakeskin bell.

Little Willy pranced and shot his heels skyward, and then fetched up with a snort of surprise in front of the paralysed witch doctor. It was also Nofki's first mule. In the turn of a toe the beach had become a raving rabble of natives, all heading for the forest. Back to the village they ran, the witch doctor leading the way.


AFTER endless days aboard Tolliver's schooner Little Willy became infected with the spirit of motion that had seized the simple people of Kooma. He followed on the heels of the fast-moving witch doctor. They raced through gullies and over the scrub-covered ranges, the mule betraying a yearning for the companionship of the tufty-headed medicine man.

The village of Kooma came into view, with Nofki at the head of the stampeding natives. The witch doctor ran in the direction of his own palm-thatched dwelling, terror in his streaming hair and eyes.

"We are undone!" he panted to the few headmen who stayed near him. "Look and believe thine eyes!"

Little Willy had pulled up at the door of Chuka's big house that occupied the centre of the village square. The door was open, as Chuka's bearers had left it. The earth floors were covered with mats. On the rough slab walls hung a number of native weapons and trophies. Above a throne-like seat, where Chuka often held council with his followers, were clustered a dozen bunches of ripe guavas and bananas. With neck outstretched and breathing cautiously, Little Willy stepped into the deserted house and reached for an appetising bunch of green and yellow fruit.

Now, in spite of his sudden terror and surprise at seeing a mule, Nofki was no fool. All his life he had had fools for clients, and had grown wise on the folly of others. During the run home his monkey brain had been searching for the deep down meaning of the mule's make-up. By the time Little Willy had helped himself to his fifth banana the witch doctor had got his second wind. He stood in the shadow of Chuka's house and observed Little Willy, his ears and hoofs, his tail, and his hairy hide.

Nofki drew a deep breath, and then with a sudden effort pulled the plank door of Chuka's house towards him, closing it almost without sound. Little Willy was now a prisoner!

The headmen, cowering at odd corners of the village square, followed the witch doctor's movements in superstitious honor. Unmindful of their shouted warnings, Nofki bent near a cranny in the plank door and registered each bite and mouthful on the part of the mule inside. Gaining courage, the headmen joined him one by one at his post of observation. Some were armed, and now craved the privilege of killing the strange devil creature.

"Let us strike with our spears when he cometh forth," the bearer of a shining weapon begged. "One touch on his long neck, O Nofki, just one touch!"

The witch doctor scowled at the spearman. "Fool!" he snarled. "It is no devil. It is but the magic of the sea captain on the little ship."

The headmen gaped at him. "Can you not see," Nofki went on, "that the white man, Tolliver, hath changed the body of our chief, Chuka, into this four-hoofed creature? See how he swalloweth the ripe nabanos! Look through this space in the door," he invited them blandly. "Look well at the creature's belly and his mouth, and thou will look upon our chief. No other man in the forest or the valley could swallow nabanos in such numbers as our beloved Chuka."

The headmen peeped, one by one, through the crevice in the door. The front hoof of Little Willy was resting on the throne-like seat in his effort to pull down the last of the bananas hanging above.

The headmen watched spellbound. Even the most critical was forced to admit that Tolliver had practised his magic on their beloved ruler. The position, they argued, was not without peril to their tribe. How could this four-footed animal, that most certainly contained the spirit of Chuka, rule in Kooma? Doubtless the great wisdom of Chuka was still embodied in this strange creature. Even the white man's magic could not destroy their ruler's spirit. Yet.... something must be done.

They appealed to the witch doctor. Where was his magic, his spells and potions distilled from alligators' blood and the fat of his own ancestors? The witch doctor knitted his brows as he faced the owner of the shining spear.

"Thou art right, Booda. By magic only can our chief be returned to his rightful shape. It can be done only with the help of the yellow dust thou stolest from the white man's mine. Bring hither the yellow iron!" he commanded with unexpected severity.

Booda of the shining spear was afflicted with a sudden shaking of the knees. Recovering himself under the scowling glances of the headmen, he loped hurriedly across the square and disappeared within a palm thatched hovel on their right. In a little while he was back with a heavy goat skin bundle on his shoulder. The witch doctor scanned it greedily, and dug his talon fingers into the shining heap of yellow riches critically.

"This is the medicine, good Booda, for stricken spirits," he intoned dreamfully, his fingers closing on the shining gold. "In my hands it will change the tail of a sheep into the wings of birds."

"Great is Nofki!" murmured the headmen.

"Into the wings of birds," the witch-doctor repealed in silent rapture as he gripped the bundle from Booda's shoulder. Staggering with his burden to the door of Chuka's house, he made a sign to the headmen.

"Go to thy homes," he ordered. "I alone must make offering to the spirits of Chuka's ancestors. In the dawn of to-morrow our chief will be with us at the council seat. Go, now."


THE first breath of night saw the witch doctor leading the mule from Chuka's house. They descended a rocky slope that led to the village of Momba in the north. Fastened with a rawhide thong on the back of the mule was the goatskin bundle. Once within the friendly stockades of the natives of Momba, Nofki could live at ease on the proceeds of the yellow dust stolen from Phil Eden's mine. He could become a chief among the simple villagers. The gold would make friends everywhere, even among the white settlers. He laughed at the trick he had played on the headmen. As for Tolliver, who held Chuka in his keeping, he would never see Nofki again!

How clever they had tried to be, he chuckled. It was Tolliver or the white woman who had dressed this four-fooled animal in Chuka's trappings. They had foreseen that the natives would leap to the conclusion that Chuka had been spirited into the body of this stupid animal. Almost he had believed it himself.

"Hurry, thou beast of the bone feet! Hurry!"

He struck Little Willy a sounding blow with a short bamboo he carried. The mule had halted to nip the sweet herbage on the range side. The blow from the bamboo sent it at a fast gait down the track.

At the foot of the range they came to the beach. Here a narrow inlet separated them from the good Government road to Momba and safely. The channel gleamed darkly in the starlight. A high tide had flushed it, and the sound of lapping water gave pause to the hurrying witch-doctor. Mixed with arrak, water was good: but under a man's feet it was sometimes a death snake. Yet he must go forward. In a couple of hours the headmen of Kooma would be scouring the forest and beach for him and the mule. Scant mercy would be shown him once his trickery was discovered. Visions of their slim bamboo head-knives startled him into action.

"On, beast that hath no name! Lift thy legs!"

The bamboo slammed and cut at the quivering ribs. Little Willy did not approve of bubbling, tree-shadowed inlets. With the tide water swirling about his legs he saw the reflection of things that startled his nerves. He saw a shadow, topped by a livid smear of light, not twenty yards away. From the crest of this smear of phosphorescence protruded a sabre-edged fin.

Nofki was staring at the bush-flanked road that led to safely. Almost he could hear the whizz of the bamboo head-knives in his rear. Again he struck at the mule's ribs, as he had often struck at men and women who sometimes jibbed at his orders. Little Willy moved forward under the slashing cane-strokes until the tide water reached his girth. Beside him, the sinnet halter twisted round his wrist, the witch doctor led the way. In mid-channel his eye fell on the livid wedge of sea fire streaming in his direction.

Nofki was no warrior. All his life he had lived on the superstitious fears of the villagers. In the bat of an eye he saw that a twenty-fool reef shark had found its way into the channel.

The hairs of Little Willy's neck stiffened in terror. Nofki obeyed a lightning impulse to reach the opposite bank of the channel. The mule hung back, rearing and pounding the floor of the channel with its hoofs. A squeal of rage came from the witch doctor as the shark flashed in. For one smothering instant man, mule, and shark thrashed together in a blinding smother of foam and outlashing hoofs.

Little Willy's panic fear did not blind him to the folly of getting his slim legs mixed up in the scythe-like jaws of the reef monster. Willy knew razors from jazz bands; he knew also that if he remained still he would become mule pie for the shark. So Willy danced like the little devil he really was, his sledding hoofs reaching the soft white throat and belly beneath him.

Considered as a side-show it was enough for any self-respecting shark. So the mule was allowed a flying chance to return to the bank. In the triangular scramble Nofki had let go the halter or he would have been jerked to safety by Little Willy's shoreward rush. He turned to the opposite bank with a despairing yelp. But the shark had gained its second wind in the deepening flood, although the hoofs of the mule had bent its steering gear.

There was some consolation, however, in the sight of the two-legged figure yelping and kicking in the neck-high water. He caught Nofki, as the cricket reporters say, at point, and held him firmly.


CAPTAIN NICK TOLLIVER threw himself into the only deck-chair the schooner possessed. Kitty sat on the port rail, breathing the soft night air, while Phil sprawled at her feel, a touch of fever in his blood brought on by the worries of his mule and his mine.

"I like a good mystery," Tolliver growled, "but this mule act is worse than anything Shakespeare ever put up. We've simply paid our money to get slung."

"That's a fact," Phil agreed gloomily. "And don't forget we've still got Chuka on our hands. Poor fellow snored all the sea-birds away this afternoon. At first the silly things didn't mind it. Then, after deciding the noise was something to do with gun-cotton or a non-stop-native sermon, they flapped off, like that blessed mule."

"And the things that blessed mule could eat, lad," Tolliver related mournfully. "With my own eyes I've seen him lick up a plate of fried eggs from the galley. "And them derned deck hands used to give him beer," Nick lamented, "Anyway, it wasn't my fault he fell a victim to bananas."

Kitty peered over the rail into the darkness of the forest, a feeling of hopeless inertia closing about her. She had lost their mule, and Phil had lost the results of a year's hard toil. Always her little plans miscarried. Phil slept feverishly on the hard deck. In spite of his joke about the sea-birds, she felt that his spirit was crushed by suffering and disaster.

"Never mind, girl," her father whispered at her elbow. "The best of plans go wrong. In a week or two Phil will be fit for another go at the mine."

Kitty sobbed quietly, her cheek resting on the schooner's rail.

"Always Phil must have another go at the mine," she answered passionately. "Never a rest for sick boys in this country. They're worse off than mules!"


ACROSS the spreading dawn a ghostly outline that was like a mule bulged on the skyline. Very slowly the mule outline approached the schooner, limping, halting at times to sniff the air. Like a homing spirit he came to the beach, looked up with flattened ears at the silent schooner, and then hung his head dejectedly. The scramble at the inlet with a razor-jawed fish had temporarily unsettled Little Willy. For the moment he was inclined to take his amusements sadly.

"Dad! Here's Willy! He's come back!"


Illustration

"Dad! Here's Willy! He's come back!"


Before Nick Tolliver could restrain her Kitty was down the gangway and cleaving across the beach to where a lame, wet animal was standing on its halter dejectedly. The mule blinked at Kitty in the dawn light, ears slightly bent in token of recognition. To Willy it seemed a cold, cheerless world with long, long intervals between bananas.

Kitty hugged his head and his ears in the sheer delight of his return. After all, they could get along at the mine now that Willy was here to give a pull. Her glance fell suddenly on the ugly goatskin bundle, fastened with rawhide thongs to his back. Chuka's spear and snakeskin belt were still in place.

Her busy fingers plunged instinctively into the ugly goatskin bundle. The swift contact with the cold, wet dust inside was like a shock from the outer spirit world.

"Daddy," she called out softly, "you can send Chuka home. I've got another patient there—a cut leg, but nothing serious. There's two hundred ounces of red gold in this parcel!"


AN hour after dawn Chuka came on deck, smiling sleepily. He was much better, he declared to Tolliver, he could now return to his people with a firmer step. Real was the magic of the white man's medicines! The old chief halted on the gangway to say that none of his warriors would ever again put their fingers into the yellow sand within the mine.

The sight of his gold put Phil on his feel quickly. Kitty was the best girl in the world. But if all the gold in Papua were offered him he could not explain how the fool mule had gone among the natives and recovered the stolen metal. Having no immediate explanation on hand, Kitty wisely held her tongue. There was a ghost of a suspicion in her mind that the witch doctor had tried to lead Little Willy astray. If only mules could tell!

When Kitty sent the dressed-up mule down the gangway she knew Nofki would accuse her father of changing the shape of their sick chief. There had been an idea at the back of her head that the natives in their superstitious fear might be led to return Phil's stolen gold. She had been prepared to bargain with Nofki and the headmen for the safe delivery of Chuka in his natural state, and not as a mule. And as Chuka was on board the schooner she had fell determined to keep the old chief until her husband's hard-won earnings were replaced. But mules and witch-doctors have ideas of their own. And Kitty Arden was glad to let it go at that.


A WEEK later, when the natives of Kooma beheld Little Willy hauling up buckets of wash dirt from the while man's mine, they knew that the spirit of the witch doctor had passed into his body. Even a native could see that the mule had Nofki's eyes and appetite. To a man the villagers felt that Nofki was now well employed and kindly treated by the busy little white lady who shared her husband's camp in the far hills. The spirits, they inferred, arranged these things very well in Kooma.


THE END


Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
Go to Home Page
This work is out of copyright in countries with a copyright
period of 70 years or less, after the year of the author's death.
If it is under copyright in your country of residence,
do not download or redistribute this file.
Original content added by RGL (e.g., introductions, notes,
RGL covers) is proprietary and protected by copyright.