Triangles of Life, and other stories/The Strangers' Friend

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The Strangers' Friend

SOBER, honest, steady and kindly men have too little place in our short-story literature. They are not "romantic" enough—not humorous enough—they are not "pituresque." Yet the grandest of them all has lived for ages in one of the best short stories ever written, for longer than we know—in old Chinese Bibles perhaps—and he'll live till the end of human troubles. We do not know his station and condition; we do not know his religion, except it be the religion of mateship.

He was not a "Christian" as the name is understood by us, for Christ had not been born. We don't even know his name; I can't think of him as a fat or stout man, or a rich man; not even as a man who was moderately well off. Dickens thinks that he was lank and lean, and found it hard to live. I picture him as a silent, grave, earnest man, with very, very sad eyes. Perhaps he had dealt in myrrh and spicery from Gilead, and, being honest and unworldly, had fallen amongst thieves himself, and lost all he had. No doubt he had his troubles too. It is certain he was a sober and honest man, and it is equally certain that he was well known on the roads to Jericho, and known for more than one act of kindness, else the host of that old inn wouldn't have trusted him so readily, as it is inferred he did. For: "And whatsoe'er thou spendest more, when I return I will repay thee."

And there was a certain Nazarene about whom we know so much and so little, and Whose teaching we preach so widely and practise so narrowly, Who was so touched by this little story about the man from Samaria that He told it wherever He could, to the multitude and in high places; saying: "Go thou and do likewise." And certain men have been doing likewise ever since.

For a certain man from anywhere, call him Biljim, journeying out to Hungerford, leaves a sick mate at the Half-way Pub. (A man need only be sick, or a stranger in distress, to be a "mate" in this case.) And Biljim gives the boss of the shanty a couple of quid, and says: "You stick to the poor ——, an' fix him up; an' if it's anything more, I'll pay yer when I come back after shearin'."

And so they pass on: the man from Samaria, with his patched and dusty gown, his sand-worn sandals, and his patient ass, journeying down to Jericho; and the man from anywhere, with his hack and packhorse "trav'lin'" out to Hungerford and beyond; with but two thousand years between them, and little else in the matter of climate or character.

It may be heroic for a drunkard to do a brave deed, and save lives, as drunkards often do. It is certainly picturesque, but there is such a thing as Dutch age. It may be noble, and it is romantic and picturesque, for a scamp to do a deed of self-sacrifice, but there is generally little to lose, even with life, and there is vanity—and there is a character to be regained. It may be generous, even noble, for a drunkard to stick to another through thick and thin, but there is the bond, or the sympathy, of the craving for drink—and there is such a thing as maudlin sentiment. How much greater it is for a sober man to stick to a drunkard! But it is neither picturesque nor romantic. How much greater is it for an honest man to stick to a scamp! But it is not picturesque nor romantic enough for most writers.

One of the beauties of human nature is the fulfilment of its duty to the stranger. "The stranger within thy gates." In all civilized lands, and in many uncivilized ones, the stranger's presence is sacred. "The stranger's hand to the stranger yet" may be all very well, but there is the bond of the sympathy of exile—the sort of roving clannishness about it. Nowhere is the duty to the stranger more willingly and more eagerly performed, nor his presence held more sacred, than in places where the folk have never been fifty miles from their birthplace.

A humorous side of the stranger question appeared in California of half a century ago, when so many were strangers that all were familiar: "Now, look yar, stranger."

Australia is the land of strangers, as were the Western States of America. I met Out Back, once upon a time, a man they called the Strangers' Friend. I met him in Bourke last, and his name was, say, Jimmy Noland. He was a stout, nuggety man, in clean white "moles," crimson shirt, and red neck-handkerchief with white spots; and he wore belt and bowyangs. He had a square face of severe expression that might have been cut out of a block of wood. He had something of the appearance of a better-class and serious bricklayer's labourer; or, better still, a man in charge of the coaching stables of earlier days; or, still better, a man who, by sheer force of hard work and dogged honesty, had risen to be manager or foreman of a small station or something Out Back.

He used to come into the pub on the main road, or the township, for his half-yearly spree, and, though he seemed to drink level with everybody, he never got really drunk. He took the spree seriously, as he took everything else far too seriously to enjoy it, you'd think. The spree seemed a religious rite with him, and he, as a shouter, was something sacred to the drunks to whom drinking was religion all the time. First he'd shout (sternly) for all he found on the verandah and in the bar, and the drinks would be taken in solemn silence. Then he'd shout again, rounding-up any stragglers he might have missed (or who might have missed him) and any dead-drunks he could wake and get on their feet. Then he'd demand of the boss, or barman, in a tone that admitted of no nonsense or frivolity—

"Enny wimmin here?"

"Yes."

"Take ennythin'?"

"Yes. The cook, and ther's a washerwoman round at the back."

"Wotter they take?"

Being told, he'd presently go round to the back with a couple of glasses. But he was never known to stay and do any fooling round there. He'd arrange, though, to have an extra pair of moleskins, shirt, neckerchief, handkerchief and pair of socks washed against the end of his spree, and pay well for them. Not that he couldn't or wouldn't wash for himself, but he thought it his duty "to pay the wimmin for doin' what they was made for doin', an' pay 'em well."

Then, after another shout or two all round, he'd look up the stranger.

The stranger's only qualifications need be that he should be fairly decent, a stranger, and hard-up or sick.

"I'm the Strangers' Friend," said Jimmy, severely. "The fellers as knows can battle around for their bloomin' selves, but I'll look after the stranger."

If the stranger was ragged, Jimmy would shout him a new shirt, pair of trousers, and maybe a pair of boots, at the store; and he'd shout him drinks, but see that he didn't take too much. He'd arrange for the stranger's bed and tucker, and find out the stranger's name and where he came from and the places he'd been in, and he'd yarn with the stranger about those places, no matter where they were. And he'd talk to the stranger about the back-country, and its old times, and its future, or its chances—and the stranger's chances, too. And if the stranger got confidential or maudlin on the verandah after sunset, he'd comfort or check the stranger with some blunt philosophy which might sound brutal in cities. If he knew of a place where there was a chance of a job, on the back track, he'd fix up a swag, water-bag and tucker for the stranger, and start him on the track with full directions that sounded like a stiff lecture from a magistrate. And if he had a commission to take a new hand back to his station, he'd be happy; happier still if he had a commission to take two, for then he would look up a second likely stranger and fix him up, and take them both back with him at the end of his spree, when he would appear exactly the same as when he started it.

Jimmy's boss was one of the best-hearted squatters west the Darling. He was a small squatter, but he was a squatter, not a bank, syndicate nor manager. Jimmy was said to be the real boss, as far as station work went, by virtue of his long years of service, his capacity for hard work and his obstinate honesty. About sundown he'd come over to the "travellers' ' (strangers') hut, put his head in at the door, and demand, in the tone of a boss who would take no nonsense—

"Enny trav'ler here?"

One or two new chums or green hands might start to their feet, expecting to be ordered off the station; but some one would answer: "Yes."

"Then come up an' git yer tea."

After tea—

"You chaps got enny tobaccer?"

And he'd hand out a stick to be divided amongst them.

It was said that a great part of his wages went on strangers. But they said he was never so happy as when he caught a sick traveller at the hut. Jimmy would cross-examine him at length and with apparent severity—as if it were the stranger's fault—and then he'd get out his patent medicines. In the same tone, with a note of shocked decency, he'd ask a man if that was the only pair of trousers he had to go on the track with; and then he'd proceed to look him up an other pair.

But no one, not even his nearest friend, if he had one in the squatter, could accuse Jimmy of having the faintest streak of sentiment, poetry or romance in his soul. They said that the cult of the stranger was a mania with Jimmy—a curious branch of insanity. The stranger was to him something sacred, and his duty to the stranger was a religious rite, without a suggestion of reward, whether here or in the Hereafter. But, perhaps, long years ago, when women, or a woman, was to Jimmy something more than a being to be paid for doing what she was made for doing, he, a stranger himself, and sick in body, and heart-sick, in a strange land, had been found by another Strangers' Friend who stuck to him. And the memory of it had stuck to Jimmy all his life.

The only explanation he was ever reported to have given was that once—and it must have been in a weak moment when remonstrated with for squandering time and money over a "waster," he said—

"Ah, well, poor beggar, some day, when he's in a better fix, he might go and do something for s' mot her pore chap as he drops across."

It was in the drought of '91, that broke almost with the new year in '92. Jack Mitchell and I were "carrying swags" west from the Darling in hopes of "stragglers" to shear, and one morning we started from a place that begins with "G," making for a place that ought to begin with "Z," and, after an hour or so, we noticed, by the age of the wheel tracks, that we'd taken the wet weather and much longer track to the next Government tank. We decided to strike across the awful lignum flats, or dry marshes, to the right track, and got lost, of course; and it was late in the day when we struck the track—or rather when we didn't. We stumbled on a private tank in the lignum, where there were still a few buckets of water, and, under the alleged shade of three stunted mulga saplings, we found two green hands, slight young Sydney jackeroos, in the remains of tailor-made suits, with one small water-bag between them, and the smallest of "stage " swags. They had good lace-up boots, I noticed; but it takes a long time for boots to wear out on those soft, dusty tracks. One man was knocked up and very ill, and more sick with the horror of his condition in such a country; and his mate was nearly as bad, what with the scare of his mate's condition and out-back "stage fright." It was boiling hot, with a smoky, smothering drought-sky over the awful, dry lignum swamps.

"Now, this would be a job for Mark Tapley, Harry," said Mitchell. "But neither of us is built for the character, and I don't know what we can do just yet. We can't carry him on to the tank nor back to the shanty; besides, they're all drunk there, from the boss down, and the missus has got her hands full. Best camp and boil the billy, anyhow, and see how he gets on; and then one of us can go back and see what can be done. Some horsemen might come along in the meantime."

The tank was just off the dry weather track, with a little track of its own, and the jackeroos had struck it more by new chum luck (which is akin to the drunk's luck) than by directions. We kept an ear out for the sound of wheels or of horses' feet, and now and then one of us would go out of the lignum on to the track, and look up and down it; and, at last, just as Mitchell and I were deciding that one of us should leave his swag and walk right back to the shanty, we suddenly heard the click-clack of wheel-hubs quite close, and saw two horses' heads and the head and shoulders of the driver over a corner of the dry lignum. I started forward, and was about to call out when Mitchell said: "Never mind, Harry, he's coming into the tank." As the turn-out came round I saw it was a four-wheeled trap, with a spring stretcher on the load, and a mattress rolled up in sackcloth on top of it. I glanced at Mitchell, and saw one of his strange, faint grins on his face.

"What is it, Jack?" I asked.

"It's Jimmy Noland," he said, "and without a stranger. Jimmy's in luck to-day" (and with a cluck, as if it were a mild sort of joke), "and he don't know it yet."

It was Jimmy, and he'd been into the "township" for a temporary supply of necessaries for the station. (By the mattress we reckoned that a kid, or a death, was expected out there.)

Jimmy got down, took a bucket that was slung under the tailboard, and, seeing something peculiar about us, he came over.

"What's up here?" he demanded, in the tone of a boss whose men have gone on strike, or left off work without warning.

We told him as much as we knew, and that the man seemed very bad. Then, for the first time, I saw what might be likened to the shadow of a smile of satisfaction on Jimmy Noland's face. But the next instant his face was severe, and I thought I was mistaken.

"Here!" he said to me, as if I were one of his hands, and he had an urgent appointment elsewhere. "Here!" he said, handing me the bucket, "water my horses while I go and see what's up with the man."

He went over and squatted down by the sick man's side.

I'd finished watering the horses when he came back.

"That's right," he said. "Now, help me shift some of these boxes over, and get the mattresses out in the side of the trap. I'll cover the soft 'un with the baggin', and you'd best roll a swag out on it, for it's for some one at the station and it mustn't get dirty. … Now come and help us lift the man on. … Not that way, I tell yer. Lift him this way—I never seed such orkard men in me life."

And so we got the sick man on to the mattress in the trap.

"Chuck up yer swags," he said to us, "and jab yer trotters (step out), for it's too hot an' heavy for the horses to take all on yer."

We tramped on ahead, or beside the trap, to escape the dust. It was a long, smothering, hot stretch, and we had to stop now and again to attend to the sick man; and at last we struck one of the long gutters that ran the water into the Government tank, and presently, round a bend in the track, the tank-heap loomed before us on the open plain like a mountain against the afterglow.

While Jimmy was watering his horses at the long troughs, Mitchell went, with the billy, into the little galvanized iron pumping- engine room, where the tank-keeper (an old sailor) was, and when he came out I saw, by the half -moon, a decided grin on his face.

"What now, Jack?" I asked.

"Jimmy's luck's in for the day, Harry, and no mistake," said Mitchell. "There's a man there with a bad leg!"

"Wot's that about a bad leg?" demanded Jimmy, whose sharp ears caught the last words. Jack told him.

"Where's his mate?" growled Jimmy.

"Left him at the border Saturday week, and he's been crawling back ever since," said Mitchell. "Making for the hospital at Bourke. Says he was bit by a dog a couple of years ago. His leg looks a sight."

The station was not far away, but on a branch track of its own, an anabranch track, in fact; and Jimmy had told us we'd better come on to the station and have a good tuck-out, and one of us, at least, would get a cut at the "stragglers." So presently we started again, the man with the leg sitting on the trap's seat beside Jimmy, and Jimmy smoking, and with a look of stolid satisfaction on his face, talking to the man with the leg about the various bad legs he had known, and now and then grunting an inquiry over his shoulder to his other patient in the body of the trap.

Mitchell asked Jimmy who the fancy mattresses were for, and he said they were for a stranger. "Man or woman?" asked Mitchell.

"Dunno yit," grunted Jimmy. "It ain't come yet."

They said at the station that four strangers at one time was Jimmy's record, but one or two said it wasn't.

I think that that old Jericho track, where so many men fell amongst thieves and were left sore, hurt, and like to die, would have been right into Jimmy's hands.

And, come to think of it, none of them "rightly knew" Jimmy's real name, or where he came from. Jimmy said "Somewheres."

But when he dies the boys will have a good headstone, if they have to bring it all the way from Sydney, and on it they'll have chiselled the words—

SACRED
to the memory of
JIMMY NOLAND
The Strangers' Friend.

And underneath, if the advice of one prevails—

"Go thou and do likewise."

And men shall do likewise until the Great Strangers' Friend calls them.