Moondyne/The Teamsters' Tavern
"Curse that fellow!" hissed Lame Scotty through his clenched teeth; "I hate him." The word was emphasized by a blow on the rickety table that made the glasses jump.
The scene was a public-house in the little mahogany town of Bunbury, West Australia; the time, six months after Will Sheridan had assumed the sandalwood agency. The speaker was a ticket-of-leave man, a wiry, red-eyed fellow of middle age, whose face had the cunning ferocity of a ferret. His auditors were a shaggy crowd of woodcutters and ex-convict teamsters, the latter group sitting, with him at a long table.
"Don't talk so loud, Scotty," said a rough-looking man of immense stature, with an axe strapped on his back, who leant smoking against the fireplace; "don't shout so, my friend, or Agent Sheridan will hear it, and kick you out of the team he gave you for charity."
"Kick me out!" retorted Scotty, with an oath; "he daren't touch me. Curse his charity; he gave me a team for his own interest."
"Bah!" said the big woodcutter, without moving, "you were always a brag. He gave work and wages to you and a lot of your ugly gang there, for downright charity; and, like the hounds you always were, you have no thanks in you."
Though the gang so broadly referred to were at the table with Scotty, no one resented the woodcutter's epithet, though dark looks were flung at him.
"This agent has ruined the sandalwood trade," said Scotty, addressing himself to the aroused woodcutters. "Before he came here, a poor man could earn a few pounds; but now we ain't any better than chain-gang men."
A murmur of approval from the teamsters followed the remark, and Scotty felt that he had struck a popular note. Even one or two of the woodcutters at another table struck the board in approval.
"No, you ain't any better than chain-gang men, that's true," said the brawny bearer of the axe, still quietly smoking; it nor you never were. There's where the whole boiling lot of you ought to be still. You talk of ruining poor men," he continued, slightly shifting his position, so as to face Scotty, "you darned fox! I know you-and these men know you," pointing to the group of woodcutters. "Before this new system came with this new agent, you and your rats there had the whole trade in your hands. You bought from the cutters at your own price, and you paid them in rum. You cheated the woodcutters and swindled the dealers, till the wonder was that some day you weren't found chopped to pieces for our villainy."
"That's true as Gospel," said one of the woodcutters who had lately applauded Scotty. You're an infernal set of vampires, you are."
Scotty and his ill-looking crew realized that the woodcutter had got the drop on them, dead sure."
A stamping and tramping in the outer room or store suggested new arrivals, as the place was a kind of inn. All eyes were turned on the door, where entered, one after another, about a dozen powerful fellows, in the picturesque garb of stockriders, who noisily but good-humouredly sat them down to the large central table, and called for something to eat and drink.
The interrupted discussion was not resumed but a whispered and earnest comment on the new-comers began among Scotty's gang.
"Where do you fellows hail from?" asked the big woodcutter, after waiting a while, and in a friendly tone.
"From Dardanup," said one of the stockriders. The whispering between Scotty and his friends ceased, the last word passed round being strongly emphasized, "Dardanup Irish."
There was a colony of Irish settlers at Dardanup, free men, who had emigrated there forty years before, when the Western colony was free from the criminal taint. The families were all related to each other by intermarriage; and the men of the whole settlement, who had been born and reared in the bush, were famous throughout the colony for strength, horsemanship, good-fellowship, and hard fighting qualities.
"From Dardanup-eh?" said the big woodcutter, with a mischievous smile at Scotty's group. Then you be Agent Sheridan's new teamsters, maybe?"
"Ay, we're going to take those teams up to-morrow," said a strong fellow; and then, to call the waiter, he hammered the table with his enormous fist.
"Why," said the woodcutter, in his bland way, "it might be as you're the Maguire boys from Dardanup?"
"Only eight Maguires in this crowd," said the table-hammerer, with a pleasant look round the circle.
Scotty and one or two of his friends here gently left their seats, and sauntered towards the door.
"Don't go," said the woodcutter pressingly; "don't be in a hurry, Scotty, man; why, it isn't ten minutes ago since you wanted to chaw up that d—d Sheridan and his teamsters."
Scotty scowled at the woodcutter. "A man can come and go as he pleases, can't he?" he growled.
"O, ay; but don't leave the friends as you wanted to meet, just now. Here, you Dardanup fellows, this is your ganger in the teams; this is your 'boss,' as Yankee Sullivan says. This is the fellow that says Agent Sheridan darsn't order him, and that the agent went down on his knees and begged him to drive his black ox team."
"He'll never drive it again," said one of the Dardanup men.
"Why won't he?" demanded one of Scotty's friends.
"Because I'm going to drive that team," said the six-foot Australian, wheeling his seat with an ominous velocity.
"Ho, ho! ha, ha!" roared the big woodcutter, enjoying the fallen crest of the braggart; "but you can't have that team Maguire; Scotty will make ribbons of you."
And the man with the axe heavily stamped on the floor in his boisterous enjoyment of Scotty's discomfiture.
The Dardanup man rose and walked toward Scotty, who sank back with so sudden a dismay that he stumbled and fell headlong, while a waiter, entering with a tray of plates and glasses, tumbled across the prostrate bully.
At this there was a loud laugh, and the six-footer from Dardanup sat down again. Scotty, too, was wise enough to profit by the hilarity. He picked himself up, laughing with the rest.
"Come," he cried in a jolly tone, but with a humiliated aspect, as if he feared his offer would be refused, "let us have a drink and shake hands, no matter who has the teams."
"Bravo!" cried the Dardanup men, who were just as ready to drink as to fight.
The bottle was passed round, and every man drank with Scotty, except the big woodcutter.
Scotty handed him the bottle and a glass, noticing that he had not tasted.
"No, thank you," said the big man, with a shake of the head, "none of that for me."
A few moments afterwards one of the Dardanup men held up his glass to the big man of the axe. "Drink with me," he said.
"Ay, lad," said the woodcutter, "pass your bottle. I'll drink with you all night."
Scotty pretended not to have noted nor heard; but as soon as he could he escaped from the room with his associates. The Dardanup men ate a mighty supper, and afterwards had a wild time, in which the woodcutter was a partaker.
Powerful and hearty fellows, full of good-nature, but dangerous men to rouse, these young Australians, and their strong blood was excited by the new enterprise they had undertaken.
A combination had been made among the ticket-of-leave teamsters and buyers against the new agent of the sandalwood trade, who had revolutionized the old system. It had come to a serious pass with the business, and Agent Sheridan, knowing that a weak front would invite ruin, had resolved to test the opposition at once rather than wait for its bursting.
He rode to Dardanup, and called a meeting of the stockriders, who, though every one born in Australia and bred to the bush from infancy, had a warm feeling for Sheridan, perhaps because of his Irish name. He laid the case before them without hiding the danger.
The ticket-of-leave teamsters were resolved to destroy the Sandalwood teams of the Company by rolling great rocks on them as they passed through the Blackwood Gorge.
The Blackwood Gorge was the narrow bed of a stream that wound among the Iron-stone Hills. In the rainy season it was filled with a violent flood; but for six months of the year its bed was quite dry, and was used as a road to reach the sandalwood districts. For more than thirty miles the patient oxen followed this rugged bridle path; and for the whole distance the way zigzagged between the feet of precipices and steep mountains.
It would be an easy matter to block up or destroy a slow moving train in such a gully. And that the discharged ticket-of-leave teamsters had determined on this desperate revenge, the fullest proof was in the hands of Agent Sheridan.
He had considered the matter well, and he was resolved on a plan of action. He told the Dardanup bushmen that he wanted twenty-four men, twelve to act as teamsters and twelve as a reserve. In a few minutes he had booked the names and settled the conditions with two dozen of the strongest and boldest men in West Australia.
The meeting in the tavern was the first intimation the ticket-of-leave men had that their plan had been discovered.
Next morning the teams passed peacefully through the little town, while the discomfited Scotty and his friends looked on from their skulking-places, and never stirred a finger.
That evening, in the tavern, Scotty and his men were moodily drinking, and at another table sat half-a-dozen Dardanup stockriders. The woodcutter with the axe was smoking, as he lounged against the fireplace.
Why didn't you Dardanup boys go alone, with the others? he asked the stockriders.
Scotty and his ill-looking group turned their heads to hear the reply.
"We staid behind to watch the wind!" answered one, with a laugh.
"To watch the wind?" queried the big woodcutter.
"Ay," said the Dardanup man, very slowly, and looking squarely at the ticket-of-leave teamsters; "if the wind blows a stone as big as a turtle's egg down the Blackwood Gorge to-morrow, we'll put a swinging ornament on every one of those twenty gum trees on the square. The rope is ready, and someone ought to pray for fine weather. Just one stone," continued the giant, who had risen to light his pipe; and as he passed he laid a heavy hand on Scotty's shoulder, as if by chance; "just one stone, as big as a turtle's egg, and we begin to reeve that rope."
"Ha, ha! ho, ho!" roared the woodcutter, and the shanty shook with his tremendous merriment. When his derision had exhausted itself, he sat with the Dardanup men, and drank and sang in great hilarity over the routing of Scotty's gang.
From that day, the new agent of the sandalwood trade was treated with marked respect by all classes in West Australia.