A Pawned Kingdom
A PAWNED KINGDOM
JIM IVETT took up the land, and his brother Harry came up country to him later. For Jim clawed out east and west and south and into the unknown north, and took out block after block in a Government map of part of New South Wales which was barren of printer's ink except for the phrase, "No permanent water." On the south he was bounded by the stations on the meandering river Lachlan; on the north-west he almost reached the Darling; then he stretch d out east nearly to the Bogan. Cotton bush and salt bush he measured in tens of thousands of acres; he held sixty thousand square miles of what the unenterprising called "desert." But Jim was a speculator to the tips of his nails, and his head was screwed on right, if he did take long odds.
"We are bossing over thirty million acres," said Jim to his brother; and Harry gasped as he verified the arithmetic with a pencil on a stump.
The rent due to the Government as Landlord was two thousand pounds per annum, at sixty acres for a penny a year. They held enough money at command to pay this for two years, to get some store sheep and cattle on it, and to pay a few men's wages in cash and tucker.
At first they lived in tents near Bulligal, and afterwards moved up beyond Mossgiel, across the Willandra, where they built a "tin hut." Their few men occupied a tent on the sand dune under the biggest pine. The horses were hobbled at night till they got time to fence in a horse paddock. The sheep were shepherded, but the cattle ran free between the rivers; their brand sometimes turned up a thousand miles away.
"If we can put in five years we shall be golden kings," said Jim.
"We can't," cried Harry.
They were on horseback by the banks of the Willandra Billabong, up to the horses' withers in a cane-brake.
Jim was a long, thin, wire-built man, with a big hand, and he reached it out and clawed Harry by the shoulder-blade and clavicle. The youngster felt his bones crack, but he said nothing. Jim's mind was spread out over the plain, he was thinking at large in millions, and he never knew what a vice he set to work on the shoulder next him. His blue eyes dilated: the pupils darkened them, he pulled his big hat down against the sun.
"I see all this white with cotton-bush, and it shall be white with jumbucks to eat it down. My boy, look at the salt-bush! thick, oh! thick and fat, and what matters grass? We have all this and the world. It only means digging our nails in deep enough to hold on."
They were running the billabong up towards the river. A billabong is an outlet from a river, a creek from it, not into it. There are few or none elsewhere than in Australia. When the Lachlan flooded and roared "a banker" some of its waters ran three hundred miles into the Ivetts' county. But they had not seen it yet: they doubted the word of the Conoble black fellows. Perhaps it never came down.
A good season preceded their squatting, and the remains of past rain lay in some water-holes still. There was even bright green grass in patches in the billabong bed. Standing high in their stirrups they could see the dry creek's course snake it across the plain to the river two hundred miles away.
"Shall we ever see the Willandra full?" asked Harry.
He was not yet used to the great plain; and coming out of the Murray Hills, delicious with bright waters and the scent of wattles and big gums and messmates, was like tumbling adrift in a salt sea a thousand miles from land.
He believed nothing. Yet he believed Jim, who had burnt his skin black by ten years of the great plains. What Jim said ought to be true. But of a surety the plain and the barren bush and that staring sun were big things to work with and against. When the sun rose it rose at once, and shot level and hot over the flat earth; the day was full-born at sight, and no western mountains shortened the torrid hours. It took him a long time to come to his bearings; even yet Harry and his mountain-bred horses wondered at the almighty flattening of space.
"Yes, we'll see it full," cried Jim.
But even now he was holding on and sliding off; for digging his nails into a kingdom in a dry season with a mortgagee pulling behind was no easy task. He had hard work to hope sometimes; for he wanted it all, all—he felt he could not spare an acre. He was the first man to see the possibilities of the earth: they had called it a desert; he would breed the world's stock there.
Against the drought he dug wells with borrowed money. At eighty feet they struck brackish water that would support life but tasted foul. It held the ancient soakings of that world, and though sheep could drink it and the crows came for it, it sickened men. They began to dig huge tanks, and caught some sweet rain-water. Work hummed in the land: the track to Bulligal and Hay deepened and widened with Ivett's hired wagons. Far off [[w:swagman|swagsmen}] heard talk of work at Ivett's, and some faced the strange barren wilderness of One Tree Plain with courage; they even left the Lachlan, though many hearts failed at the waterless look ahead of them, and ran the long river up to Forbes.
Down in town men talked of Ivett; they envied, admired, abused, and ridiculed him. His chums told the truth, but not unadorned.
"Three good seasons and he'll have his teeth into it," they swore, "and in twenty years he'll buy out Melbourne."
There was enough truth in it to make a coward or a failure wince. He went Out Back alone, believing that grit, graft, and a lucky season would let him ride success to a finish. He sold a station in Victoria, and they said he was as silly as a "morepork." He sold a share in a Riverina station, and he was an obvious ass. But then they lent him money on his interest in the world beyond the Lachlan, for they saw wool come down, and his sheep thrived and were fat. Only water was needed, and with money man could wipe out that legend on the map and write another, printed in wells and tanks and dams.
Yet the good season passed and a bad one followed, and the tanks were unfinished for lack of money. The world was dust; dust devils danced and stalked across a fiery plain; the heat burnt up hope and courage. All the courage in that place was in Jim Ivett. He fought the seasons, and a thunderstorm saved him.
But now, after two bad seasons, a storm could not save him; it must be more than that. He was at his last fifty pounds, and the sky was brass and the forehead of the chief mortgagee was brass too.
The rainy season of the southern world had never come to Ivett; if it damped a dry skin on a fence it was all it did. Skins on dead sheep crackled; the live ones bored up against a hot breeze, nosing for water. But the tanks were empty and the wells about dried; the air was aflame; night was like day for incredible heat.
A month was yet to run before the mortgagees could foreclose, and Ivett had run it fine for his last chance. He called Harry up at midnight.
"Look you, my boy, I'm going to Melbourne," he said; "that greedy land-grabber shan't chase me out of this if I can help it. I leave you and Smith in charge. Save what you can. I shall be back in ten days."
He ran his horses up by moonlight, and saddled his favourite—a big brown.
"I'll be in Bulligal by sunrise," he cried; and facing south, he went in a canter towards the far little town sixty miles away.
The big western moon was like a lamp in a lucid sky, and her shadows were black on the silver sand and dust. The beaten road ran winding, and sometimes Jim cut straight across a long curve. The air was Still hot, though it was past midnight; it blew from the torrid north, but he made a southern wind as he went, dropping the long miles behind him.
He watered the brown at a tank twenty miles from his house, and taking off saddle and saddle-cloth he scraped away the sweat and foam from the blanket and the horse's back. He replaced the saddle and entered the second stage of his sixty miles. But now the moon verged on the horizon, and the western world was ghostly silver haze, while ihe low morning star gleamed like a rising steamer's headlight on the unseen tide of day.
Jim rode centaur-like, wrapped in dream, looking through the night into the whirl of town. His own greed for untouched land seemed natural, but the beasts of town, usurious, esurient, and spiderlike, were abhorrent lo him. He had borrowed so much and was behind with the interest, but he had proved the worth of a desert. Why not give a man some more time? he asked. A second mortgage had failed. No one would touch it, so his solicitors said. He would try that himself, he swore, as the star of dawn was blown out by the upper limb of the hot sun, biting the eastern rim of the world. The light tide swept across the plain, rare birds and plenteous cicala awoke as the breeze died in dust.
He rode into Bulligal at six and roused out the one inhabitant of what was one day to be a town. At seven he was on another horse, and the One Tree Plain lay before him, fifty miles of heat. The big tree showed baseless in the distance; he strove towards it under a burning sun; it rose and rose, and he saw its trunk—it was a tower, a tree, a shadow under which he pulled up for water, and then it stood behind him, over his shoulder, dwindling, dwindling still as he rode into Hay. The coach went at seven so he washed and ate, but evening the Old Man Plain was to the north of him and he was in Echuca. And at last he came to Melbourne after five years' absence.
He slept three hours, and was out in the world of little townsmen. He swept, a very tornado, into his lawyer's office and danced among the paper men like a whirlwind.
"Then if you can't and won't, tell me someone who might!" he roared, and his hand flattened a bag of pears that the junior partner had concealed on his desk for lunch time.
Jim didn't apologise—but wiped his hand.
"Try Salmon," the young lawyer suggested, piping feebly.
"I might eat him with cucumber," said Jim, "but can I get money out of him?"
"He used to have enterprise, and he still loves twenty per cent."
"Is he in with Main at all?"
For Main was the mortgagee Jim wanted to escape from.
"Hates him, I should say."
Jim was about to strike the desk again, but the mess of squashed pears stayed him.
"Give me his address. Beg pardon about the pears. If I can hook this Jew fish I'll pay for them in golden pippins," said Jim laughing, as he ripped out into the glare of the street.
Salmon lived in a house facing the old Fitzroy Gardens, and was old enough to looutbve his ease, for he rounded wonderfully like a rock melon, and was as yellow as one. He was a fat spider with beady eyes.
Jim descended on him and explained with point and brevity what he wanted.
"I'm Jim Ivett, and I hold sixty thousand square miles in the Back Blocks and between the two rivers. They call it desert. I have proved it can run year in and year out a sheep to four acres. And what I hold is over thirty million acres. I borrowed ten thousand and another five to make wells and dams and tanks, but I'm behind with the interest and Main is to foreclose in a month. If it rains I could get what I wanted, but it looks like a long drought, and the summer's coming on again."
"If it rains," said Salmon, "ah, yes; but it won't rain."
"What do you want with me?" asked Salmon rather pettishly.
"I can make you a millionaire," said Jim.
"No," said Salmon, "but you might unmake me."
"Ah," cried Jim, "then I can double it. Main will boss New South Wales if he has the head to hold on. Why let him? Pay off this mortgage and the interest; lend me twice as much more, giving me ten years or to my death, and you can have what you like to ask."
Salmon took a new cigar and lighted it carefully, not letting the old one touch the new. He heated it up gradually by near contact. He saw Jim watching him.
"That's the right way to light a cigar," he said; "never spoil a good cigar with a match."
Ivett desired to kick Salmon and jump on his cigar too. But he had some policy.
"I never saw that done before. I'll try it."
"Try it now, Mr. Ivett," said the Jew, and he gave him a smoke. "I import 'em for myself and my friends."
"Am I in the crowd?" cried Jim quickly. "For if so, help me against mine enemy."
"Who are your lawyers?"
Ivett told him.
"Call on me to-morrow, and in the meantime I'll make some inquiries. But it's probable I shan't play," said Salmon.
"You never held such a hand. It's a hand for kings to hold."
He went into the street exhausted. Better far to light the sun with a drying river behind than to face these folks of finance, these dragons sitting on gold. He found a chum at the club and flopped into an arm-chair, and was comforted with a soda-and-whisky.
"How goes it?" asked an old friend.
Ivett whispered, "In a month I'm a swagsman, or I'll have a contempt for Croesus. Wasn't he the chap with a big pile?"
"Yes, he was a Jew millionaire," said his friend, "a German."
He was not chaffing, and Jim knew no better. Such knowledge was not his line. He was deep in the older classics of Earth lore, the circumventing of the sun and the stars, of heat and the influences of the moon. Such wisdom had the ancient shepherds under Canopus and the Dog Star.
He saw Salmon again the next day.
"I don't know about this, Mr. Ivett," said the old fellow. "Of course, I believe you're all right, and folks say you'll come out and be well in one of these days. But nobody knows the country up there."
"Main knows, and put fifteen thousand it it."
"Has he been up country to your place?"
"Do you think Billy Main scatters sugar as he ladles it, Mr. Salmon? Have you never had a turn up with him?"
Salmon's face darkened.
"I had Main up there," said Jim; "and he rode himself sore, and had the sheep up to feel their tails to see if they were fat. Come up yourself."
"I'm an old man, Mr. Ivett."
"None too old to make money and do your old enemy in the eye."
"So you knew we were against each other over that mine?"
"Who doesn't?" asked Ivett. "And I'll tell you another thing. Main is coming up on the fifteenth of October to say whether he'll foreclose or not. But he means to, anyway. Be up there before he comes. You'll never have so good a chance. He'll have an upper lip the length of his nose when he sees you."
And Salmon's eyes twinkled. He looked at Ivett almost comically. At last he lay back in his chair and fairly chuckled.
"What will you say of me when I foreclose ten years hence?" he asked.
"You'll get no chance, Mr. Salmon."
"Then what am I to have out of it?"
"You are to pay off about £18,000, and lend me as much more. If I fail at it you have the land and the stock. If I succeed ten per cent. on your money and an eighth share."
"No, no," said Salmon, "if I come in it will be after looking at it. With all that land you can do nothing with a few thousands, and well Main knew that. He thought it a good speculation to see if you could work it at all, but he knew you could not last at it. I'll stock the land with sheep and be your partner."
"I've a partner, my brother. You can have a third."
They fought and squabbled for an hour, and for two. Then Salmon sent for his clerk to draw out a rough basis for an agreement.
"But nothing goes till I come up," said Salmon. "And I'm an old man. Is it a very bad road?"
"You shall have it more comfortable than any man ever had it," swore Ivett, who was hugely delighted. "Start on the first of October; you can coach it up to Deniliquin; at Echuca I'll have a buggy and pair for you and a light wagon with a tent, and so on. I'll have you up to my desert dry and comfortable and sweet."
"Very well, Ivett," said Salmon, dropping the Mister, "I'll do it. But I dare say it'll be my death."
"It will finish Main," cried Jim. So they shook hands, and Ivett went to his lawyer's.
"If you pull through he'll be well paid," said the junior. "But if you don't——"
"He'll be paid much better. Come and have lunch. I'm off up country to-night."
And he swept the town between three and eight, and was a mad companion for that legal limb.
"I've got a character——"
"But not one to keep!" shouted Ivett. "But if you wish, come and see me off. And send me letters. Tell me that my dear old fish of finance is not hooked by death. Oh, if I could only insure his life for this fortnight!"
"You can," said the lawyer; "you have an obvious interest in his life. I'll find you someone to do it."
So Ivett bolted up country again, as happy as a wether in good grass. He could have jumped and bucked about as they do when their skins arc tight with food and their tails are fat. He faced the plains, and even the heat of them, with an equal mind. He saw with his mind's eye the mighty Main go out in a mean ebb with his little bit of principal and interest.
"And I shall proceed to wallow in gold," cried Jim.
He found them in perilous state in the camp when he got there. Grass there was none; the salt-bush and cotton-bush were but barren sticks; the sheep made a living there, but the water was almost done. There were no dews as compensation: the whole world was dry. It was then the twentieth of September, and summer followed hard on a rainless winter. Their one good well was threatening to stop supplies, and some of the timbering in it looked like giving way, for it had been put in not too well seasoned.
"Pluck up," said the elder man to his anxious brother, and he told him the story of Melbourne. "Pray only for rain—just a good shower to brighten things up and put guts into my Salmon. But rain or no rain, we must keep some sheep fat to show him."
But they had no water for all of them.
"We must," said Jim, and his heart ached. They killed and skinned five hundred too weak to travel, and all but three hundred he sent down to travel up the Lachlan. It was murder, grim and great and terrible: the most brutal of their hands flinched.
"There was no other way," said Jim, almost crying. He dreamt of the crime and laid it on the eager soul of the mortgagee, to whom he might have to account for it.
The weather showed no signs of a break; it assumed an air of inevitability; the days were an open furnace, the nights a close one. Night, indeed, seemed but an eclipse: the sun was hidden behind something that stopped its light but not its heat. Dust in a rut was like ashes from a fire; the leaves of trees, children of that soil, were withered untimely.
But, on the fifth of the month, three days after the buggy and wagon went down to Echuca, clouds rose and were dissipated; there seemed at least a possibility of a storm. They had no barometer at Ivett's, and the thermometer stayed at a hundred and ten in the shade. If it shifted it was to rise. But Ivett's heart was in his mouth: he sat watching the blurred horizon and the dancing heat mists. That night was a little hotter than ever before. He rose and found the thermometer standing at a hundred and fifteen.
The morning was clear, but clouds came again, and revolved and opened and shut and were no more. Noon was a brass cover over the cooking world. But again at night was a cloud dance and a breath of coolness.
Salmon was due on the tenth if he made no particular hurry. He was to camp at the Halfway House on the Old Man Plain, and to stay a night in Hay. He might cross the One Tree Plain in a single drive or not. Then the road being bad up to Ivett's, he would have to camp once between there and Bulligal. That would bring him up on the tenth or eleventh. And Main was coming on the ninth, so his last letter said. He wanted a good look round before making his decision. But Ivett made no preparation for him.
He turned up on the tenth. A plain business man he was. He told the world so, and the world saw no reason to doubt him. He was plain and was a business man. He got his first start by accident: he saw a chance to do his partner, and he took it without hesitation. But he was not generally disliked by any means.
He found Ivett at the hut, and was treated with common civility.
"Things look bad," he said crossly.
"Damn bad," Jim answered, and he called a rouseabout to take Main's horses. Main looked at the Billabong bed he had just come over.
"I thought you said water came down here?"
"It will one day."
"Next century," grumbled Main, following his host into the shanty. "You've no comfort here yet."
"When I'm rich, come again," said Ivett satirically.
Harry came in, and they ate mutton and bread and tea on a bare table. After grubbing, they talked.
"I suppose you can't pay up?" Main asked.
"This season has done me," answered Tim. "Unless a man I've been negotiating with comes up with the sugar, you'll have to take it over."
"Little chance of his turning up, I should say."
"If it rained would you give me time?"
"I'd rather do it as it stands," said Main. "It doesn't look as if I should ever see anything back."
Jim shrugged his shoulders.
"You know better than that, Main."
Main did know better, but he would not acknowledge it.
"I shall split it up and let my boy have the best blocks; I'll hold on myself to the rest."
"Humph," said Jim, and he went out to stare at the weather quarter.
"To-morrow, Salmon should be up. How will Main like it?"
He burst into laughter just as Main came out.
"What's the joke?" he asked suspiciously.
"I was thinking what your face would be like if I could pay up after all."
The man's jaw dropped.
"I shouldn't give a damn!" he swore, and stuck to it. But he changed the talk.
"Will it rain, or shall we have to face the summer without any?"
"I pray for rain," said Jim.
"That's good of you," sneered Main.
But Jim fired up.
"If it rains you'll have to go, Main. You'll get the cash and your walking ticket. Oh no, it's not good of me. I'm not praying for you."
"What's up? what game's on?" asked Main.
"Find out," cried Jim sullenly. "’Tis I have proved the Back Block's worth money, and you want to grab it. Bah!"
But the next night passed and Salmon did not come. On the morning of the eleventh Jim sent Harry down to Bulligal.
"Go through to Hay and wire if he's not there," he said. "If he's not here before noon on the fifteenth—that's Thursday—we're done. And by the Lord, I feel as if I could make mutton of Main."
So Harry went the same road as Jim had done, but being lighter he rode faster, and came to Bulligal like a bird on the wing.
At the station Main and Jim spoke but little. For Jim told the stockrider to show him round. He wouldn't do it himself.
"Show him the worst," said Jim. And that Gregson did, but without much effect on Main, who knew a hawk from a hand-saw, whichever way the wind blew.
The weather was still in its devil's dance. It sometimes splattered a pearl or two of fizzling rain in the whipped dust, but again the lurid sky cracked into blue gaps and dark and silver clouds melted in the sun's crucible. The nights were cooler and the wind was uncertain, sometimes east and sometimes west, but it was never more than a breeze; it hardly stirred the dust, a leaf hanging by a thread might have a long spell there before it flew.
The twelfth passed, and Jim spent it frying on a fence looking south. Main chuckled to see him, but dared not chuckle openly, for the elder Ivett was getting tortured, and the weight of heavy expectation lay on him. Only once did he make any remark that Jim could lake crookedly, and it was after sundown, when they were at supper.
"I'll give you a job if you like, Ivett!" said he. And as Jim leant on the table his hands were a tangle of sinew, they were ready to clutch Main of themselves. But Jim recovered himself and walked to the door. He called Main in a thick voice.
"Look across the Billabong."
And looking, Main saw many small eyes of fire.
"There's a corrobboree on, and the black fellows are a bit wild. Yet they'd do anything I asked them. I've half a mind to give one of them a hint to spear you, Main."
And Main's spine was melting ice. He apologised and went to his bunk.
On the night of the thirteenth there was still no Salmon, and now Jim wished he had gone after the man himself. Harry was probably wasting time at Hay.
"I should have had time to go down and grab him, and carry him up here," moaned Jim. "I'm done, I'm done!"
He yearned for Main to be insolent now that he was meek: he grew sullen.
He turned into his bunk that night hopeless for his man, hopeless of rain. The clouds had filled the sky, but before sundown they melted again; and the heat grew like a gourd. He lay fretting, and could not rest; at any moment he might hear the tramp of horses and Harry's voice. He lay naked and broiling.
But at midnight, without knowing it, he pulled the blankets over him. Then he dreamed of being on a seashore. A gale was blowing, and the sound of the sea was without pause, wind and the fall of waves were one. He was deafened and overwhelmed.
He woke suddenly and cried out. But the sound of his voice was nothing in the elemental uproar, and the plunge of the rain on his iron roof. He sprang to the door, and his bare feet dipped into puddles, encroaching on the beaten earth inside. The sky was utterly black, and the wind in the south-west. It seemed as though it might rain for ever.
Then Main woke.
"Ah, rain!" he said joyfully.
"Yes!" cried Jim. "But it mayn't please you yet!"
They could hardly hear themselves speak, and their voices jarred in the great tone of the fall of the rain. Jim lighted a lamp, and the flame wavered: the air was suddenly so chilly that he flung a handful of leaves and sticks in the big fireplace and set them blazing. A flood soaked the chimney and caked the old white ashes.
"Was this good or not?" Jim wondered, and could not tell. If Salmon had not left town he was too late. If he had left it, where was he now, and what was the old money-grubber's endurance when a tent must be a vain thing, and the thickest blanket but a wet pack?
He sat open-eyed through the night wondering whether to curse or bless the open heavens. But his stockman's heart could not but rejoice at the full prospect of sweet water and grass. Had he been but free his voice would have been a part in Nature's hymn that hour.
When the dawn came the sky was grey, and the land was a flood. Great deep pools stood in the Billabong bed, and the clay pans among the salt-bush were shallow lakes. Jim wondered whether this was universal. Was it to the east, among the head waters of the Lachlan? And if so, would the Wallandra come down and show the white men that the blacks knew what they talked about? Oh, what fat years the next would be!
Jim almost spoke to threaten Main then. But he did not, for he feared losing his self-control and committing murder. He was torn and jagged with anxiety: he was not safe to be with. But Main saw nothing, he sat on a bench and fidgetted all the day; he smoked, and suggested cribbage.
"Cribbage!" said Ivett, and he walked into the flood.
He saddled his horse and rode south.
It was obvious that no buggy could make its way far in such soil after so great a downpour. Much of the land was that strange red land of the Australian plains that turns into a bog after rain, though before it is solid and firm. Once or twice Jim found his horse plunging in it over the knees. A buggy would be bogged at once, even in the grey soil.
It was ten o'clock when Jim started. It was eight when he came to the heavier timber about the creeks nine miles north of Bulligal. He had been ten hours doing fifty miles, and his horse was almost done. It was now dark, and the rain lost nothing of its fervour; he wondered whether he could pass the creeks and get into Bulligal. He doubted it much; even by day the creeks running full must be dangerous. And just then his horse whinnied, and he saw a fire leap redly through some thin pine scrub. In two minutes he was shaking hands with Harry. But where was Salmon, or had the buggy returned empty?
"He is in the tent," said Harry.
"Where did you find him?"
"I went to Echuca and wired time after time," said Harry. "Then he came, and it was fine till we reached the One Tree. We came from there to-day."
"How did you cross the creeks?" asked Jim, exultant.
"I nearly drowned him and myself."
"Good boy. By the Lord, you're among the chosen, and—my brother. Let's see him."
They went to the tent. It was covered with a fly, and over the fly was a macintosh cloth. Salmon was laid out on a pile of carriage cushions, some sacks half full of grain, and some rugs. The floor of the tent was mud; the walls dropped and ran down.
"How are you, Mr. Salmon?" asked Jim.
"I'm an old man and I'm dying," said Salmon, who was in a rage with Nature and men. "That young blackguard has dragged me through rivers and driven me through mud as if I hadn't a penny in the world. I want to go back."
"You can't," said Jim. "It's impossible. The creeks are roaring. Hear them!"
"I shall have rheumatism," said Salmon. "Oh, Mr. Ivett, take me in out of the wet."
Jim could have roared with laughter, but he held himself in.
"It's fifty miles to shelter; but you must get there by morning."
"Why did I come?" he asked.
"To make money."
"But I shall die."
"No, no," cried Jim. "This rain is worth tens of thousands of pounds to us. Every drop is a shilling. Main is up at my place chuckling. He knows what it's worth."
Salmon perked up, his eyes lost their utter misery, and even sparkled.
"Does he know I'm coming?"
"No. I've not told him."
Salmon sat up and reached out for his boots.
"Can we get there in time?"
"Not in the dark, Mr. Salmon." said Jim. "But will you start at dawn? We should do it."
"Yes," said Salmon, and he tried to cover himself up. Jim tucked him in, and he lay like a Dutch cheese under a duster—rotund and bulging.
They harnessed up before dawn and waited only for the faintest light.
"Empty the buggy of everything but a cushion and a rug for Mr. Salmon," said Jim, and they dumped all unnecessary truck under a tree. "This rain will pay us for waste."
It was nearly six when they left the camp, and to do it they must go more than eight miles an hour. The first hour they did no more than seven, but then the road was a little better and the horses were warm.
At ten o'clock they were still nearly eighteen miles from the hut the other side of the Willandra.
"Can you ride?" said Jim.
"What, me?" asked Salmon.
"No, no," cried the financier.
"You must," said Jim desperately, "or it will all be for nothing, and Main will tell it in town."
Salmon swore and kicked, but at last was persuaded. They hoisted him on Jim's big horse, and Jim and Harry rode the buggy horses bareback.
"I shall fall off!" shrieked Salmon.
"If you do I'll kill you," said Jim.
And they plunged through the wet earth till they saw the distant roof of their mean house. Jim rode on ahead and suddenly stopped and threw up his arms.
"Great God, the Willandra's down, and we can't get there!"
For between them and the hut was a silver band of slow-moving foam. The river had sent its gift into the heart of the land. The black fellows were right, but their prophecy, too soon fulfilled, looked like destroying Jim Ivett at the end of the eleventh hour.
They stayed at the verge.
"We must get across. Can he swim it on horseback?"
"No, he can't," said Salmon; and then a man came out of the hut.
"That's Main! that's Main! d'ye see him?" cried Jim. "Will you let him do you? Give me the cash and I'll swim over.
Salmon looked pale, but shook his head.
"I'll not part with it! Isn't there a ford?"
Harry spoke. "More than a mile away——"
"And there's not time," said Jim. "I can swim, Mr. Salmon, and if you fall off I'll save you."
"Come," said Salmon, and he drove at the water, leading the way.
"Tie your bag to the saddle first, you old fool," cried Harry, and he did it for him. Then Salmon took to the Billabong, and the horse sank with him till the poor old boy was up to his neck.
"Oh!" he said. And once he went under. But as he choked the horse touched bottom, and with a flounder got all feet on the earth, throwing him off. The others were with him, and Main came out to meet them as they dragged their man ashore.
"Too late," said he.
"No," cried Jim. And Salmon rose to his feet.
"You!" said Main.
"Yes," cried Salmon, "deal with me. And I've done you this time."
They were in the hut before the time was up, and Salmon paid Main in silence.
"Perhaps you'd like to go now," said Jim, as he tore the mortgage in two.
"When you wanted money I was welcome," said Main. "Now I can go, I suppose."
"Wait till it dries up," said Harry.
"Do," said Salmon; "we're square now, Mr. Main." So Main stayed.
"I told you the Willandra would come down," said Jim. And Harry made some idiotic remark about Salmon-fishing.
"Young man," said the old boy, "you treated me very badly yesterday. But I'll forgive you nearly drowning me if you'll leave my name alone."
"Yes, dry up, Harry!" said his brother, who had been lost in a reverie of countless sheep feeding on an endless plain.