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A short story by Louis Becke

A Recluse Of The Bush

Title:     A Recluse Of The Bush
Author: Louis Becke [More Titles by Becke]

The bank of the tidal river was very, very quiet as I walked down to it through the tall spear grass and sat down upon the smooth, weather-worn bole of a great blackbutt tree, cast up by the river when in flood long years agone. Before me the water swirled and eddied and bubbled past on its way to mingle with the ocean waves, as they were sweeping in across the wide and shallow bar, two miles away.

The sun had dropped behind the rugged line of purple mountains to the west, and, as I watched by its after glow five black swans floating towards me upon the swiftly-flowing water, a footstep sounded near me, and a man with a gun and a bundle on his shoulder bade me "good-evening," and then asked me if I had come from Port ------ (a little township five miles away).

Yes, I replied, I had.

"Is the steamer in from Sydney?"

"No. I heard that she is not expected in for a couple of days yet. There has been bad weather on the coast."

The man uttered an exclamation of annoyance, and laying down his gun, sat beside me, pulled out and lit his pipe, and gazed meditatively across the darkening river. He was a tall, bearded fellow, and dressed in the usual style affected by the timber-getters and other bushmen of the district Presently he began to talk.

"Are you going back to Port ------ to-night, mister?" he asked, civilly.

"No," and I pointed to my gun, bag, and billy can, "I have just come from there. I am waiting here till the tide is low enough for me to cross to the other side. I am going to the Warra Swamp for a couple of days' shooting and fishing, and to-night I'll camp over there in the wild apple scrub," pointing to a dark line of timber on the opposite side.

"Do you mind my coming with you?"

"Certainly not--glad of your company. Where are you going?"

"Well, I was going to Port ------, to sell these platypus skins to the skipper of the steamer; but I don't want to loaf about the town for a couple o' days for the sake of getting two pounds five shillings for fifteen skins. So I'll get back to my humphy. It's four miles the other side o' Warra."

"Then by all means come and camp with me tonight," I said "I've plenty of tea and sugar and tucker, and after we get to the apple scrub over there we'll have supper. Then in the morning we'll make an early start It is only ten miles from there to Warra Swamp, and I'm in no hurry to get there."

The stranger nodded, and then, seeking out a suitable tree, tied his bundle of skins to a high branch, so that it should be out of the reach of dingoes, and said they would be safe enough until his return on his way to the Port Half an hour later, the tide being low enough, we crossed the river, and under the bright light of myriad stars made our way along the spit of sand to the scrub. Here we lit our camp fire under the trees, boiled our billy of tea, and ate our cold beef and bread. Then we lay down upon the soft, sweet-smelling carpet of dead leaves, and yarned for a couple of hours before sleeping.

By the light of the fire I saw that my companion was a man of about forty years of age, although he looked much older, his long untrimmed brown beard and un-kept hair being thickly streaked with grey. He was quiet in manner and speech, and the latter was entirely free from the Great Australian Adjective. His story, as far as he told it to me, was a simple one, yet with an element of tragedy in it.

Fifteen years before, he and his brother had taken up a selection on the Brunswick River, near the Queensland border, and were doing fairly well. One day they felled a big gum tree to split for fencing rails. As it crashed towards the ground, it struck a dead limb of another great tree, which was sent flying towards where the brothers stood; it struck the elder one on the head, and killed him instantly. There were no neighbours nearer than thirty miles, so alone the survivor buried his brother. Then came two months of utter loneliness, and Joyce abandoned his selection to the bush, selling his few head of cattle and horses to his nearest neighbour for a small sum, keeping only one horse for himself. Then for two or three years he worked as a "hatter" (i.e., single-handed) in various tin-mining districts of the New England district.

One day during his many solitary prospecting trips, he came across a long-abandoned selection and house, near the Warra Swamp (I knew the spot _well_). He took a fancy to the place, and settled down there, and for many years had lived there all alone, quite content.

Sometimes he would obtain a few weeks' work on the cattle stations in the district, when mustering and branding was going on, by which he would earn a few pounds, but he was always glad to get back to his lonely home again. He had made a little money also, he said, by trapping platypus, which were plentiful, and sometimes, too, he would prospect the head waters of the creeks, and get a little fine gold.

"I'm comfortable enough, you see," he added; "lots to eat and drink, and putting by a little cash as well. Then I haven't to depend upon the storekeepers at Port ------ for anything, except powder and shot, flour, salt, tea and sugar. There's lots of game and fish all about me, and when I want a bit of fresh beef and some more to salt down, I can get it without breaking the law, or paying for it."

"How is that?" I inquired.

"There are any amount of wild cattle running in the ranges--all clean-skins" (unbranded), "and no one claims them. One squatter once tried to get some of them down into his run in the open country--he might as well have tried to yard a mob of dingoes."

"Then how do you manage to get a beast?"

"Easy enough. I have an old police rifle, and every three months or so, when my stock of beef is low, I saddle my old pack moke, and start off to the ranges. I know all the cattle tracks leading to the camping and drinking places, and generally manage to kill my beast at or near a waterhole. Then I cut off the best parts only, and leave the rest for the hawks and dingoes. I camp there for the night, and get back with my load of fresh beef the next day. Some I dry-salt, some I put in brine."

Early in the morning we started on our ten miles' tramp through the coastal scrub, or rather forest Our course led us away from the sea, and nearly parallel to the river, and I thoroughly enjoyed the walk, and my companion's interesting talk. He had a wonderful knowledge of the bush, and of the habits of wild animals and birds, much of which he had acquired from the aborigines of the Brunswick River district As we were walking along, I inquired how he managed to get platypus without shooting them. He hesitated, and half smiled, and I at once apologised, and said I didn't intend to be inquisitive. He nodded, and said no more; but he afterwards told me he caught them by netting sections of the river at night.

After we had made about five miles we came to the first crossing above the bar. This my acquaintance always used when he visited Port ------ (taking the track along the bank on the other side), for the bar was only crossable at especially low tides. Here, although the water was brackish, we saw swarms of "block-headed" mullet and grey bream swimming close in to the sandy bank, and, had we cared to do so, could have caught a bagful in a few minutes But we pushed on for another two miles, and on our way shot three "bronze wing" pigeons.

We reached the Warra Swamp at noon, and camped for dinner in a shady "bangalow" grove, so as not to disturb the ducks, whose delightful gabble and piping was plainly audible. We grilled our birds, and made our tea. Whilst we were having a smoke, a truly magnificent white-headed fish eagle lit on the top of a dead tree, three hundred yards away--a splendid shot for a rifle. It remained for some minutes, then rose and went off seaward. Joyce told me that the bird and its mate were very familiar to him for a year past, but that he "hadn't the heart to take a shot at them"--for which he deserved to be commended.

Presently, seeing me cutting some young supplejack vines, my new acquaintance asked me their purpose. I told him that I meant to make a light raft out of dead timber to save me from swimming after any ducks that I might shoot, and that the supplejack was for lashing. Then, to my surprise and pleasure, he proposed that I should go on to his "humphy," and camp there for the night, and he would return to the swamp with me in the morning, join me in a day's shooting and fishing, and then come on with me to the township on the following day.

Gladly accepting his offer, two hours' easy walking brought us to his home--a roughly-built slab shanty with a bark roof, enclosed in a good-sized paddock, in which his old pack horse, several goats and a cow and calf were feeding. At the side of the house was a small but well-tended vegetable garden, in which were also some huge water-melons--quite ripe, and just the very thing after our fourteen miles' walk. One-half of the house and roof was covered with scarlet runner bean plants, all in full bearing, and altogether the exterior of the place was very pleasing. Before we reached the door two dogs, which were inside, began a terrific din--they knew their master's step. The interior of the house--which was of two rooms--was clean and orderly, the walls of slabs being papered from top to bottom with pictures from illustrated papers, and the floor was of hardened clay. Two or three rough chairs, a bench and a table comprised the furniture, and yet the place had a home-like look.

My host asked me if I could "do" with a drink of bottled-beer; I suggested a slice of water-melon.

"Ah, you're right But those outside are too hot. Here's a cool one," and going into the other room he produced a monster. It was delicious!

After a bathe in the creek near by, we had a hearty supper, and then sat outside yarning and smoking till turn-in time.

Soon after a sunrise breakfast, we started for the swamp, taking the old packhorse with us, my host leaving food and water for the dogs, who howled disconsolately as we went off.

At the swamp we had a glorious day's sport, although there were altogether too many black snakes about for my taste. We camped there that night, and returned to the port next day with a heavy load of black duck, some "whistlers," and a few brace of pigeons.

I bade farewell to my good-natured host with a feeling of regret Some years later, on my next visit to Australia, I heard that he had returned to his boyhood's home--Gippsland in Victoria--and had married and settled down. He was one of the most contented men I ever met, and a good sportsman.

[The end]
Louis Becke's short story: A Recluse Of The Bush