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A short story by Louis Becke

"Ombre Chevalier"

Title:     "Ombre Chevalier"
Author: Louis Becke [More Titles by Becke]

Once, after many years' wanderings in the North and South Pacific as shore trader, supercargo and "recruiter" in the Kanaka labour trade, I became home-sick and returned to my native Australia, with a vague idea of settling down. I began the "settling down" by going to some newly opened gold-fields in North Queensland, wandering about from the Charters Towers "rush" to the Palmer River and Hodgkinson River rushes. The party of diggers I joined were good sterling fellows, and although we did not load ourselves with nuggets and gold dust, we did fairly well at times, especially in the far north of the colony where most of the alluvial gold-fields were rich, and new-comers especially had no trouble in getting on to a good show. I was the youngest of the party, and consequently the most inexperienced, but my mates good-naturedly overlooked my shortcomings as a prospector and digger, especially as I had constituted myself the "tucker" provider when our usual rations of salt beef ran out. I had brought with me a Winchester rifle, a shot gun and plenty of ammunition for both, and plenty of fishing tackle. So, at such times, instead of working at the claim, I would take my rifle or gun or fishing lines and sally forth at early dawn, and would generally succeed in bringing back something to the camp to serve instead of beef. In the summer months game, such as it was, was fairly plentiful, and nearly all the rivers of North Queensland abound in fish.

In the open country we sometimes shot more plain turkeys than we could eat. When on horseback one could approach within a few yards of a bird before it would take to flight, but on foot it was difficult to get within range of one, unless a rifle was used. In the rainy season all the water holes and lagoons literally teemed with black duck, wood-duck, the black and white Burdekin duck, teal, spur-winged plover, herons and other birds, and a single shot would account for a dozen. My mates, however, like all diggers, believed in and wanted beef--mutton we scarcely ever tasted, except when near a township where there was a butcher, for sheep do not thrive in that part of the colony and are generally brought over in mobs from the Peak Downs District or Southern Queensland.

Our party at first numbered four, but at Townsville (Cleveland Bay) one of our number left us to return to New Zealand on account of the death of his father. And we were a very happy party, and although at times I wearied of the bush and longed for a sight of the sea again, the gold-fever had taken possession of me entirely and I was content.

Once a party of three of us were prospecting in the vicinity of Scarr's (or Carr's) Creek, a tributary of the Upper Burdekin River. It was in June, and the nights were very cold, and so we were pleased to come across a well-sheltered little pocket, a few hundred yards from the creek, which at this part of its course ran very swiftly between high, broken walls of granite. Timber was abundant, and as we intended to thoroughly prospect the creek up to its head, we decided to camp at the pocket for two or three weeks, and put up a bark hut, instead of shivering at night under a tent without a fire. The first day we spent in stripping bark, piled it up, and then weighted it down heavily with logs. During the next few days, whilst my mates were building the hut, I had to scour the country in search of game, for our supply of meat had run out, and although there were plenty of cattle running in the vicinity, we did not care to shoot a beast, although we were pretty sure that C------, the owner of the nearest cattle station, would cheerfully have given us permission to do so had we been able to have communicated with him. But as his station was forty miles away, and all our horses were in poor condition from overwork, we had to content ourselves with a chance kangaroo, rock wallaby, and such birds as we could shoot, which latter were few and far between. The country was very rough, and although the granite ranges and boulder-covered spurs held plenty of fat rock wallabies, it was heart-breaking work to get within shot. Still, we managed to turn in at nights feeling satisfied with our supper, for we always managed to shoot something, and fortunately had plenty of flour, tea, sugar, and tobacco, and were very hopeful that we should get on to "something good" by careful prospecting.

On the day that we arrived at the pocket, I went down the steep bank of the creek to get water, and was highly pleased to see that it contained fish. At the foot of a waterfall there was a deep pool, and in it I saw numbers of fish, very like grayling, in fact some Queenslanders call them grayling. Hurrying back to the camp with the water, I got out my fishing tackle (last used in the Burdekin River for bream), and then arose the question of bait. Taking my gun I was starting off to look for a bird of some sort, when one of my mates told me that a bit of wallaby was as good as anything, and cut me off a piece from the ham of one I had shot the previous day. The flesh was of a very dark red hue, and looked right enough, and as I had often caught fish in both the Upper and Lower Burdekin with raw beef, I was very hopeful of getting a nice change of diet for our supper.

I was not disappointed, for the fish literally jumped at the bait, and I had a delightful half-hour, catching enough in that time to provide us with breakfast as well as supper. None of my catch were over half a pound, many not half that weight, but hungry men are not particular about the size of fish. My mates were pleased enough, and whilst we were enjoying our supper before a blazing fire--for night was coming on--we heard a loud coo-e-e from down the creek, and presently C------, the owner of the cattle station, and two of his stockmen with a black boy, rode up and joined us. They had come to muster cattle in the ranges at the head of the creek, and had come to our "pocket" to camp for the night. C------ told us that we need never have hesitated about killing a beast. "It is to my interest to give prospecting parties all the beef they want," he said; "a payable gold-field about here would suit me very well--the more diggers that come, the more cattle I can sell, instead of sending them to Charters Towers and Townsville. So, when you run short of meat, knock over a beast. I won't grumble. I'll round up the first mob we come across to-morrow, and get you one and bring it here for you to kill, as your horses are knocked up."

The night turned out very cold, and although we were in a sheltered place, the wind was blowing half a gale, and so keen that we felt it through our blankets. However it soon died away, and we were just going comfortably to sleep, when a dingo began to howl near us, and was quickly answered by another somewhere down the creek. Although there were but two of them, they howled enough for a whole pack, and the detestable creatures kept us awake for the greater part of the night. As there was a cattle camp quite near, in a sandalwood scrub, and the cattle were very wild, we did not like to alarm them by firing a shot or two, which would have scared them as well as the dingoes. The latter, C------ told us, were a great nuisance in this part of the run, would not take a poisoned bait, and had an unpleasant trick of biting off the tails of very young calves, especially if the mother was separated with her calf from a mob of cattle.

At daylight I rose to boil a billy of tea. My feet were icy cold, and I saw that there had been a black frost in the night I also discovered that my string of fish for breakfast was gone. I had hung them up to a low branch not thirty yards from where I had slept. C------'s black boy told me with a grin that the dogs had taken them, and showed me the tracks of three or four through the frosty grass. _He_ had slept like a pig all night, and all the dingoes in Australia would not awaken a black fellow with a full stomach of beef, damper and tea. C------ laughed at my chagrin, and told me that native dogs, when game is scarce, will catch fish if they are hungry, and can get nothing else. He had once seen, he told me, two native dogs acting in a very curious manner in a waterhole on the Etheridge River. There had been a rather long drought, and for miles the bed of the river was dry, except for intermittent waterholes. These were all full of fish, many of which had died, owing to the water in the shallower pools becoming too hot for them to exist Dismounting, he laid himself down on the bank, and soon saw that the dogs were catching fish, which they chased to the edge of the pool, seized them and carried them up on the sand to devour. They made a full meal; then the pair trotted across the river bed, and lay down under a Leichhardt tree to sleep it off. The Etheridge and Gilbert Rivers aboriginals also assured C------ that their own dogs--bred from dingoes--were very keen on catching fish, and sometimes were badly wounded in their mouths by the serrated spur or back fin of catfish. C------ and his party went off after breakfast, and returned in the afternoon with a small mob of cattle, and my mates, picking out an eighteen months' old heifer, shot her, and set to work, and we soon had the animal skinned, cleaned and hung up, ready for cutting up and salting early on the following morning. We carefully burnt the offal, hide and head, on account of the dingoes, and finished up a good day's work by a necessary bathe in the clear, but too cold water of the creek. We turned in early, tired out, and scarcely had we rolled ourselves in our blankets when a dismal howl made us "say things," and in half an hour all the dingoes in North Queensland seemed to have gathered around the camp to distract us. The noise they made was something diabolical, coming from both sides of the creek, and from the ranges. In reality there were not more than five or six at the outside, but any one would imagine that there were droves of them. Not liking to discharge our guns on account of C------'s mustering, we could only curse our tormentors throughout the night. On the following evening, however, knowing that C------ had finished mustering in our vicinity, we hung a leg bone of the heifer from the branch of a tree on the opposite side of the creek, where we could see it plainly by daylight from our bank--about sixty yards distant Again we had a harrowing night, but stood it without firing a shot, though one brute came within a few yards of our camp fire, attracted by the smell of the salted meat, but he was off before any one of us could cover him. However, in the morning we were rewarded.

Creeping to the bank of the creek at daylight we looked across, and saw three dogs sitting under the leg bone, which was purposely slung out of reach. We fired together, and the biggest of the three dropped--the other two vanished like a streak of lightning. The one we killed was a male and had a good coat--a rather unusual thing for a dingo, as the skin is often covered with sores. From that time, till we broke up camp, we were not often troubled by their howling near us--a gun shot would quickly silence their dismally infernal howls.

During July we got a little gold fifteen miles from the head of the creek, but not enough to pay us for our time and labour. However, it was a fine healthy occupation, and our little bark hut in the lonely ranges was a very comfortable home, especially during wet weather, and on cold nights. A good many birds came about towards the end of the month, and we twice rode to the Burdekin and had a couple of days with the bream, filling our pack bags with fish, which cured well with salt in the dry air. Although Scarr's creek was full of "grayling" they were too small for salting; but were delicious eating when fried. During our stay we got enough opossum skins to make a fine eight-feet square rug. Then early one morning we said good-bye to the pocket, and mounting our horses set our faces towards Cleveland Bay, where, with many regrets, I had to part with my mates who were going to try the Gulf country with other parties of diggers. They tried hard to induce me to go with them, but letters had come to me from old comrades in Samoa and the Caroline Islands, tempting me to return. And, of course, they did not tempt in vain; for to us old hands who have toiled by reef and palm the isles of the southern seas are for ever calling as the East called to Kipling's soldier man. But another six months passed before I left North Queensland and once more found myself sailing out of Sydney Heads on board one of my old ships and in my old berth as supercargo, though, alas! with a strange skipper who knew not Joseph, and with whom I and every one else on board was in constant friction. However, that is another story.

After bidding my mates farewell I returned to the Charters Towers district and picked up a new mate--an old and experienced digger who had found some patches of alluvial gold on the head waters of a tributary of the Burdekin River and was returning there. My new mate was named Gilfillan. He was a hardworking, blue-eyed Scotsman and had had many and strange experiences in all parts of the world--had been one of the civilian fighters in the Indian Mutiny, fur-seal hunting on the Pribiloff Islands in an American schooner, and shooting buffaloes for their hides in the Northern Territory of South Australia, where he had twice been speared by the blacks.

On reaching the head waters of the creek on which Gilfillan had washed out nearly a hundred ounces of gold some months previously, we found to our disgust over fifty diggers in possession of the ground, which they had practically worked out--some one had discovered Gilfillan's old workings and the place was at once "rushed". My mate took matters very philosophically--did not even swear--and we decided to make for the Don River in the Port Denison district, where, it was rumoured, some rich patches of alluvial gold had just been discovered.

We both had good horses and a pack horse, and as C------'s station lay on our route and I had a standing invitation to pay him a visit (given to me when he had met our party at Scares Creek), I suggested that we should go there and spell for a few days. So there we went and C------ made us heartily welcome; and he also told us that the new rush on the Don River had turned out a "rank duffer," and that we would only be wearing ourselves and our horse-flesh out by going there. He pressed us to stay for a week at least, and as we now had no fixed plans for the future we were glad to do so. He was expecting a party of visitors from Charters Towers, and as he wanted to give them something additional to the usual fare of beef and mutton, in the way of fish and game, he asked us to join him for a day's fishing in the Burdekin River.

The station was right on the bank of the river, but at a spot where neither game nor fish were at all plentiful; so long before sunrise on the following morning, under a bright moon and clear sky, we started, accompanied by a black boy, leading a pack horse, for the junction of the Kirk River with the Burdekin, where there was excellent fishing, and where also we were sure of getting teal and wood-duck.

A two hours' easy ride along the grassy, open timbered high banks of the great river brought us to the junction. The Kirk, when running along its course, is a wide, sandy-bottomed stream, with here and there deep rocky pools, and its whole course is fringed with the everlasting and ever-green sheoaks. We unsaddled in a delightfully picturesque spot, near the meeting of the waters, and in a few minutes, whilst the billy was boiling for tea, C------and I were looking to our short bamboo rods and lines, and our guns. Then, after hobbling out the horses, and eating a breakfast of cold beef and damper, we started to walk through the high, dew-soaked grass to a deep, boulder-margined pool in which the waters of both rivers mingled.

The black boy who was leading when we emerged on the water side of the fringe of sheoaks, suddenly halted and silently pointed ahead--a magnificent specimen of the "gigantic" crane was stalking sedately through a shallow pool--his brilliant black and orange plumage and scarlet legs glistening in the rays of the early sun as he scanned the sandy bottom for fish. We had no desire to shoot such a noble creature; and let him take flight in his slow, laboured manner. And, for our reward, the next moment "Peter," the black boy, brought down two out of three black duck, which came flying right for his gun from across the river.

Both rivers had long been low, and although the streams were running in the centre of the beds of each, there were countless isolated pools covered with blue-flowered water-lilies, in which teal and other water-birds were feeding. But for the time we gave them no heed.

From one of the pools we took our bait--small fish the size of white-bait, with big, staring eyes, and bodies of a transparent pink with silvery scales. They were easily caught by running one's hand through the weedy edges, and in ten minutes we had secured a quart-pot full.

"Peter," who regarded our rods with contempt, was the first to reach the boulders at the edge of the big pool, which in the centre had a fair current; at the sides, the water, although deep, was quiet. Squatting down on a rock, he cast in his baited hand-line, and in ten seconds he was nonchalantly pulling in a fine two pound bream. He leisurely unhooked it, dropped it into a small hole in the rocks, and then began to cut up a pipeful of tobacco, before rebaiting!

The water was literally alive with fish, feeding on the bottom. There were two kinds of bream--one a rather slow-moving fish, with large, dark brown scales, a perch-like mouth, and wide tail, and with the sides and belly a dull white; the other a very active game fellow, of a more graceful shape, with a small mouth, and very hard, bony gill plates. These latter fought splendidly, and their mouths being so strong they would often break the hooks and get away--as our rods were very primitive, without reels, and only had about twenty feet of line. Then there were the very handsome and beautifully marked fish, like an English grayling (some of which I had caught at Scan's Creek); they took the hook freely. The largest I have ever seen would not weigh more than three-quarters of a pound, but their lack of size is compensated for by their extra delicate flavour. (In some of the North Queensland inland rivers I have seen the aborigines net these fish in hundreds in shallow pools.) Some bushmen persisted, so Gilfillan told me, in calling these fish "fresh water mullet," or "speckled mullet".

The first species of bream inhabit both clear and muddy water; but the second I have never seen caught anywhere but in clear or running water, when the river was low.

But undoubtedly the best eating fresh-water fish in the Burdekin and other Australian rivers is the cat-fish, or as some people call it, the Jew-fish. It is scaleless, and almost finless, with a dangerously barbed dorsal spine, which, if it inflicts a wound on the hand, causes days of intense suffering. Its flesh is delicate and firm, and with the exception of the vertebrae, has no long bones. Rarely caught (except when small) in clear water, it abounds when the water is muddy, and disturbed through floods, and when a river becomes a "banker," cat-fish can always be caught where the water has reached its highest. They then come to feed literally upon the land--that is grass land, then under flood water. A fish bait they will not take--as a rule--but are fond of earthworms, frogs, crickets, or locusts, etc.

Another very beautiful but almost useless fish met with in the Upper Burdekin and its tributaries is the silvery bream, or as it is more generally called, the "bony" bream. They swim about in companies of some hundreds, and frequent the still water of deep pools, will not take a bait, and are only seen when the water is clear. Then it is a delightful sight for any one to lie upon the bank of some ti-tree-fringed creek or pool, when the sun illumines the water and reveals the bottom, and watch a school of these fish swimming closely and very slowly together, passing over submerged logs, roots of trees or rocks, their scales of pure silver gleaming in the sunlight as they make a simultaneous side movement. I tried every possible bait for these fish, but never succeeded in getting a bite, but have netted them frequently. Their flesh, though delicate, can hardly be eaten, owing to the thousands of tiny bones which run through it, interlacing in the most extraordinary manner. The blacks, however "make no bones" about devouring them.

By 11 A.M. we had caught all the fish our pack-bags could hold--bream, alleged grayling, and half a dozen "gars"--the latter a beautifully shaped fish like the sea-water garfish, but with a much flatter-sided body of shining silver with a green back, the tail and fins tipped with yellow.

We shot but few duck, but on our way home in the afternoon "Peter" and Gilfillan each got a fine plain turkey--shooting from the saddle--and almost as we reached the station slip-rails "Peter," who had a wonderful eye, got a third just as it rose out of the long dry grass in the paddock.

And on the following day, when C------'s guests arrived (and after we had congratulated ourselves upon having plenty for them to eat), they produced from their buggies eleven turkeys, seven wood-duck, and a string of "squatter" pigeons!

"Thought we'd better bring you some fresh tucker, old man," said one of them to C-----. "And we have brought you a case of Tennant's ale." "The world is very beautiful," said C------, stroking his grey beard, and speaking in solemn tones, "and this is a thirsty day. Come in, boys. We'll put the Tennant's in the water-barrels to cool."


The first occasion on which I ever saw and caught one of the beautiful fish herein described as grayling was on a day many months previous to our former party camping on Scarr's Creek. We had camped on a creek running into the Herbert River, near the foot of a range of wild, jagged and distorted peaks and crags of granite. Then there were several other parties of prospectors camped near us, and, it being a Sunday, we were amusing ourselves in various ways. Some had gone shooting, others were washing clothes or bathing in the creek, and one of my mates (a Scotsman named Alick Longmuir) came fishing with me. Like Gilfillan, he was a quiet, somewhat taciturn man. He had been twenty-two years in Australia, sometimes mining, at others following his profession of surveyor. He had received his education in France and Germany, and not only spoke the languages of those countries fluently, but was well-read in their literature. Consequently we all stood in a certain awe of him as a man of parts; for besides being a scholar he was a splendid bushman and rider and had a great reputation as the best wrestler in Queensland. Even-tempered, good-natured and possessed of a fund of caustic humour, he was a great favourite with the diggers, and when he sometimes "broke loose" and went on a terrific "spree" (his only fault) he made matters remarkably lively, poured out his hard-earned money like water for a week or so--then stopped suddenly, pulled himself together in an extraordinary manner, and went about his work again as usual, with a face as solemn as that of an owl.

A little distance from the camp we made our way down through rugged, creeper-covered boulders to the creek, to a fairly open stretch of water which ran over its rocky bed into a series of small but deep pools. We baited our lines with small grey grasshoppers, and cast together.

"I wonder what we shall get here, Alick," I began, and then came a tug and then the sweet, delightful thrill of a game fish making a run. There is nothing like it in all the world--the joy of it transcends the first kiss of young lovers.

I landed my fish--a gleaming shaft of mottled grey and silver with specks of iridescent blue on its head, back and sides, and as I grasped its quivering form and held it up to view my heart beat fast with delight.

"_Ombre chevalier!_" I murmured to myself.

Vanished the monotony of the Bush and the long, weary rides over the sun-baked plains and the sound of the pick and shovel on the gravel in the deep gullies amid the stark, desolate ranges, and I am standing in the doorway of a peaceful Mission House on a fair island in the far South Seas--standing with a string of fish in my hand, and before me dear old Pere Grandseigne with his flowing beard of snowy white and his kindly blue eyes smiling into mine as he extends his brown sun-burnt hand.

"Ah, my dear young friend! and so thou hast brought me these fish--_ombres chevaliers_, we call them in France. Are they not beautiful! What do you call them in England?"

"I have never been in England, Father; so I cannot tell you. And never before have I seen fish like these. They are new to me."

"Ah, indeed, my son," and the old Marist smiles as he motions me to a seat, "new to you. So?... Here, on this island, my sainted colleague Channel, who gave up his life for Christ forty years ago under the clubs of the savages, fished, as thou hast fished in that same mountain stream; and his blood has sanctified its waters. For upon its bank, as he cast his line one eve he was slain by the poor savages to whom he had come bearing the love of Christ and salvation. After we have supped to-night, I shall tell thee the story."

And after the Angelus bells had called, and as the cocos swayed and rustled to the night breeze and the surf beat upon the reef in Singavi Bay, we sat together on the verandah of the quiet Mission House on the hill above, which the martyred Channel had named "Calvary," and I listened to the old man's story of his beloved comrade's death.

As Longmuir and I lay on our blankets under the starlit sky of the far north of Queensland that night, and the horse-bells tinkled and our mates slept, we talked.

"Aye, lad," he said, sleepily, "the auld _padre_ gave them the Breton name--_ombre chevalier_. In Scotland and England--if ever ye hae the good luck to go there--ye will hear talk of graylin'. Aye, the bonny graylin'... an' the purple heather... an' the cry o' the whaups.... Lad, ye hae much to see an' hear yet, for all the cruising ye hae done.... Aye, the graylin', an' the white mantle o' the mountain mist... an' the voices o' the night... Lad, it's just gran'."

Sleep, and then again the tinkle of the horse-bells at dawn.

[The end]
Louis Becke's short story: "Ombre Chevalier"