Pirates All



The Broadstream punt was grating gently on the pebbles at the South Side. Morning, gowned in silver grey, with trimmings of gold, still slept voluptuously on her divan in the Orient East. The mists were slowly lifting from the river, but hung yet lovingly along the creeks and upon the reedy lagoons.

Tom Pagdin, with his bare legs hanging over the rails of the punt, watched the cork floater of his fishing line sleepily. His bamboo rod cast a clear shadow in the water of the deep Broadstream. It was a new rod, cut some days before from the lower boundary of Henry Dobie’s garden. Old Tom Pagdin was not on speaking terms with Dobie, hence young Tom had taken that rod; at dusk, knowing that the particular commandment relating to the case was temporarily suspended.

Old Tom (cheerfully so-called by roystering fishermen) rented the Broadstream punt from the Government, which he regarded as his natural enemy. It was[2] only at election times that Pagdin, senior, got anything like even with the Government, exercising the right of secret ballot against the sitting member behind his back, while pretending absolute fealty to his face. On these occasions the puntman invariably came home to the little shanty by the riverside glorious, and next day young Tom was usually too sore to sit down with any degree of comfort.

But the life of a boy on the Broadstream could not possibly be dull for long, and the thrashings which Tom Pagdin so regularly received at the hands of the ‘old man’ possibly gave greater relish to his pleasures.

In the Northern streams the perch bite best in the early morning, but it happened that the fish were dainty, or shy, and even the black cricket still kicking on the hook did not draw them.

So, when a waterhen came out on the broad green leaves of the lilies, which were just opening their purple flowers to the rising sun, Tom Pagdin let his rod drop gently in the water, drew his catapult from the pocket of his frayed trousers, fitted a carefully-chosen pebble in the sling, and let fly.

“Hit ’m!” he shouted, triumphantly, flicked the line out of the water, sprang to the handle of the windlass, and commenced to work the punt with all speed to the opposite side.

He was about midway across when the wheels of a milk-cart, en route to the creamery with full cans, grated down the edge, to an accompaniment of complaining brake echoes.

A red-headed boy, with a heavy cartwhip in his hand,[3] was standing up in front throwing as much style into the driving as he knew.

“Ere!” he shouted, indignantly, “where y’ goin’ with that punt?”

Tom heard the hail, and looked back over his shoulder.

“Hold on a minute, can’t yer,” he howled. “I just peppered a coot; I’m goin’ acrost for him.”

The red-headed boy was interested immediately.

“Where is ’e, Tom?” he cried. “I can’t see ’im.”

“Can’t y’ see ’im kickin’?” shouted Tom, working vigorously at the handle; “’e’s in the lilies over ’ere.”

“Which side?” demanded the red-headed boy, excitedly. “Which side of the punt is he on?”

“Right-hand side. I’ve wounded him bad.”

“I spot ’im,” cried the boy in the cart. “I spot ’im. Hurry up, Tom; he’s goin’ to dive.”

“No he ain’t. He’s wounded too bad.”

“Yes he is. He’s going to dive. He’ll get away from yer.”

“’E can’t get away,” shouted Tom, perspiring violently.

The banks of the Broadstream at the crossing were not far apart, but the punt was heavy and slow.

“He will get away!” cried the red-headed boy in a pained voice. “You’ve only broke his leg.”

Whereat he jumped out of the cart, picked up a handful of pebbles, and began shying them across stream.

“Let up!” yelled Tom Pagdin. “Let ’im alone; ’e’s my coot!”

[4]

A hunter who has mortally wounded an old man lion with his last cartridge could not have claimed possession with greater emphasis.

“He’ll get away,” pleaded the red-headed boy in extenuation. “You’ve only broke his leg.”

“’E won’t get away,” shouted Tom. “’E’s mortal wounded. You let up, Dave Gibson, or I’ll punch yer ’ead when I get acrost.”

The punt swung in close to the bank. Tom Pagdin let go the handle, stripped off pants and shirt, and plunged in after his quarry.

Now this was a dangerous thing to do, inasmuch as the water was not only deep enough to drown a boat’s crew, but the long brown stalks of the giant lilies growing up from the bottom in netted confusion might tangle the stoutest swimmer. Many a good swimmer, in sooth, has lost his life in that fashion by the banks of the Northern rivers.

But young Tom Pagdin thought not of depth nor danger; the wounded coot was a prize of as great importance at the moment as a kingdom to Alexander. All the primal instincts of the chase were aroused in him. He floundered and kicked and splashed among the flat leaves, turning up their red undersides, making many bubbles, and frightening the perch and eels from their feed. At last, puffing and almost exhausted he got within reach of his game, grabbed it triumphantly by the neck, and turned about to swim back. And just then old Tom Pagdin, with his pipe in his mouth, stepped on to the punt. The old man had been thrice wakened out of his sleep the previous night to go across[5] stream and bring late travellers over and even the solace of the extra sixpences over and above his legitimate toll had not soothed his anger.

The animosity of Pagdin, senior, to men and things was chronic. His grievance was general. The world was against him, as it is against all puntmen, and, like all puntmen, he was against the world.

In the first place he proclaimed loudly that the Government gave him no chance—the yearly rent exacted by the Department for the right of the crossing was too high; it was an imposition, an outrage, a robbery. The victim wailed cursefully at the windlass from morn to eve. The Member for the district had promised him that the yearly charge should be reduced. He was convinced in some indefinite way that the Member was in the conspiracy against him—that he personally pocketed some of the plunder. Then the tolls which the Department allowed him to exact from travellers were too low. Threepence a head for foot travellers, sixpence for horsemen, and ninepence for vehicles did not pay. Then he never got his proper night’s rest, mainly because the public house was on the North Side, and the fellows who went across in the evening never thought about him. They hardly ever thought about bringing him a toothful, either. They could come and hail angrily across the water at one and two o’clock in the morning for the punt, but they seldom remembered when they were leaving the Rising Sun that the puntman had a mouth on him.

The fishermen who came down to the Broadstream on Saturdays and Sundays were no better. The picnic[6] crowds were worse, and, as for the swagmen and fellows looking for work along the river, they were an utter abomination—a poor, struggling cove—to take them over for nothing, and sometimes even swimming the Broadstream to avoid paying toll—taking the bread directly out of a poor cove’s mouth.

When old Tom reached this climax he usually spat in the water and looked up and down the bank with a smouldering eye to see if young Tom was doing anything that merited punishment.

And as young Tom usually was, his dad would entertain the passing fare for the rest of the passage with a detailed account of the unregenerateness and general cussedness of that youth, to whom he was trying to be both father and mother, and bring up in the way he ought to go. The old man would explain wrathfully that whereas his only son and heir ought to be a blessing and a comfort to him, he was nothing but a trial, and generally before the fare had got to the top of the long, steep bank the yells of young Tom resounding through the bush indicated that the way of the evil-doer, if sometimes pleasurable, was also hard.

So Tom would rather have seen the devil step on the punt that morning than his father.

The latter seized the situation with angry gratitude. The Lord had set him a pleasant duty to perform. He set about it with the air of a Roman dictator who had been called upon to pass judgment on a conspirator after a bad night.

The old man looked in the water and saw Tom. Tom had already seen the old man, and was “treading[7] water”—and thinking. He still held the coot firmly by the neck.

“What you doin’ there, you whelp?” thundered the old man. “Come out ’ere at onct!”

He stooped and picked up the trousers and shirt which had been shed by his son and heir.

Young Tom realised that he was unarmoured, and that the full and unmitigated wrath of his parent would descend upon him as soon as he landed.

He took several quick strokes out into the clear deep stream, and trod water again, watching the old man.

“What you doin’ in there?” shouted the latter, with rising wrath. “Come out when I tell ye.”

“Are you goin’ to whale me?” demanded Tom.

For answer the swarthy captain of the punt unbuckled his belt. A despotic grin wrinkled his shrivelled countenance, and died out in ominous ripples among his scraggy beard. The red-headed boy got up on the seat of the milk-cart, and assumed an innocent air, an air of studied unconcern, an air which was intended to express complete and absolute neutrality in respect to impending hostilities.

“You are goin’ to whale me!” said Tom, still holding the coot and treading water.

“You never spoke a truer word in your life, my son,” replied the old man, in apparent calm. “It ain’t often you tells the truth, Tom, but you’ve hit it this onct—accidental like.”

There was a pause—embarrassing to both.

“Come out!” cried the old man.

[8]

“I won’t,” replied Tom, firmly; “I’ll be hanged if I do.”

“What!” yelled the old man. “What’s this—You’re a-goin’ to defy me, are you?”

“I ain’t defying you, but I ain’t goin’ to be wolloped with the buckle of that there strap, bare, I ain’t, I’d rather be drowned.”

Pagdin, senior, drew a long breath.

“No, you won’t be drowned,” he said, “you won’t I’m convinced o’ that, but (leaning over the rail and glowing at his progeny in the water) you’ll be ’ung!”

“I’d rather be hung than whaled with that strap, bare.”

“If you don’t come out,” explained the father, in a tone intended to express sorrow rather than anger, “you’ll get a double allowance, an’ I’ll stop yer grub for a whole day!”

“You lemme off this time!” pleaded young Tom, “an’ I won’t do it any more.”

“You’ve said that afore,” retorted old Tom; “you ain’t to be trusted. It’s a ’orrible thing to think,” he added, “that a man’s only son should be a liar an’ a vagabond—a most owdacious an’ ’orrible thing!”

“Dave Gibson wants to come acrost,” said Tom, in the hope of creating a diversion.

“Are you coming out or are you not?” thundered the old man.

“No,” replied Tom, treading the water with greater resolution. “I’ll be hanged if I am!”

“All right,” cried old Tom, seizing the handle and[9] starting the punt; “you’ll get it double an’ treble for this.”

“Gimme me clothes,” shouted the youth in the water.

“You don’t want no clothes,” said the old man, in studied sarcasm; “you’re goin’ to live in the water. You don’t want no more clothes,” he added over his shoulder with fine irony, “no more clothes nor a conger eel.”

Tom waited until the punt was well over to the opposite side, and then he went hand-over-hand for shore, landing with the coot in record time.

He shook himself like a spaniel, and darted into the neighbouring scrub.

Old Tom Pagdin brought the milk-cart over in studied silence. Dave made one futile effort to open up a conversation, leading off with a honeyed remark about the weather, but the puntman took no more notice of him than the Suffete of ancient Carthage might have taken of a crippled slave.

As soon as the punt touched shore and the captain took the chain down, Dave gathered up his reins, and got away quickly, and the old man went up the bank to the house with his son’s raiment firmly gripped in one hand and the strap in the other.

“I’ll wait for ye,” he remarked loudly to the adjacent scenery; “I’ll wait for ye if I ’ave to wait till the Day of Jiniral Jidgmint!”

Meanwhile Tom had cut through the scrub and was waiting for Dave down the road, naked and unashamed.

The red-headed boy pulled up.

“My gosh!” he said, cheeringly, “the old man ’as[10] got his rag out. He’ll flay yer alive, he will, when he gets you.”

“He ain’t going to get me,” replied Tom.

“But he’s got yer clothes.”

“I don’t care,” cried the other boy, “if ’e ’as—’e ain’t got me.”

“But y’ can’t go about like that all day.”

“Yes I can,” said Tom. “I kin go about like this for a week—I kin go about like it altogether. I’d rather.”

“But you’ll get run in.”

“I don’t care,” cried Tom. “I’d rather be run in than whaled with the buckle end of that strap on me bare ’ide.”

“You’d better go back an’ ’ave it over,” urged Dave.

“No,” replied Tom; “I’ll be sawed in ’alf with a rusty cross-cut saw furst. I’m full of him. ’E’s always on to me. I got to get up furst thing in the mornin’ an’ work the punt. I got to fetch wood and water, an’ bile the beef, an’ wash the clothes, an’ milk the cow, an’ feed the hens, an’ go to school, an’ then in the evenin’s I got to read the noospaper for ’im. I got to work the garden an’ hoe the damn corn, and get whaled reg’lar. Flesh an’ blood,” he concluded, solemnly, “is flesh an’ blood, an’ it can’t be any more. I’m chock full up of it.”

“So am I,” said the red-headed boy, developing a grievance also. “I’m chock full o’ mine, too. He’s worse nor yours, because he’s only a stepfather. I got to get up in the mornin’ afore daylight an’ round up the cows, an’ help milk, an’ fetch the cans into the[11] factory, an’ I get whaled if I ain’t back in time. Then I got to go and cut sorghum an’ pull pumpkins. Then I got to get the cows up again in the evenin’s and milk an’ ’ump cans, an’ round up the calves, an’ light fires to keep the mosquitoes off ’em, an’ the ole man ’e whales me, an’ the ole woman she’s worse, an’,” he concluded, emphatically, “there ain’t nothin’ in it, hanged if there is.”

“I’m goin’ to run away,” said Tom Pagdin.

“Where’ll y’ run to?” asked the other boy, curiously.

“Somewhere,” replied Tom, mysteriously, “I know a place.”

“Where is it?” asked Dave, with interest. “What sort of a place—a job?”

“No” retorted Tom, with scorn. “Work be ’anged! No job fer me; I’m goin’ to take a ’oliday—I’ve urned it.”

The red-headed boy thought awhile.

“He’ll put the police on ter yer,” he said.

“Let ’im,” replied Tom, with great contempt; “the p’leese won’t find me where I’m goin’.”

“Where are y’ goin’ then?”

“Down the river a piece,” said Tom. “I know a place.”

“Down on the main river?” asked Dave.

“That’s my business. I ain’t goin’ to tell you—you might put a cove away.”

“Me!” replied Dave; “not me. I ain’t built that way.”

“Say,” cried Tom, suddenly, “let us both run away.[12] We’ll go mates. We’ll have an all right time, I promise yer.”

The red-headed boy’s face lit up. It was a strong temptation.

“Look ’ere,” cried Tom, leaning his bare arm on the muddy wheel of the milk-cart; “look ’ere, Dave, if you promise not to put me away I’ll let you into it.”

“I promise,” gasped Dave.

“On your oath?”

“Yes, on me oath.”

Tom glanced up and down the road.

“Look,” he said in a hushed, important voice, “I’ve got a boat.”

“A boat?”

“Yes.”

“Where did you get her?” asked Dave, leaning over the wheel.

“She came up with the tide one mornin’ lately—about a week ago.”

“What is she—a flat-bottom?” queried the other boy, leaning over still further.

“No, she’s a keel boat—a spanker.”

“Je-rusalem,” gasped Dave. “I wonder where she came from?”

“I reckon,” replied Tom, in a portentious whisper, “that she came off a wreck. She’s a ship’s boat.”

“Where is she, Tom?” demanded Dave. “Kin I have a look at her?”

“I’ve got her planted,” said Tom, swelling with importance.

“Where—where did you plant ’er, Tom?”

[13]

“I ain’t goin’ to tell you,” replied Tom, firmly.

“Ah, Tom, don’t be mean.”

“I ain’t goin’ to tell you—not yet,” repeated Tom.

“Are you goin’ to run away in ’er?” asked Dave.

“I might, an’ I might not.”

“But are you?”

“You never can tell,” replied Tom, “until the numbers go up. I say, give us that bag you’re sittin’ on.”

“What do you want the bag for?”

“I want to make a pair o’ trousers out of it,” said Tom.

“It ain’t mine to give,” said Dave, with sudden honesty; “it belongs to the old man.”

“Couldn’t you say you dropped it outer the cart?” asked Tom. “A nice sorter mate you are.”

“I’ll give it to yer,” said Dave, “if you tell me where the boat is.”

“Gimme the bag first.”

“All right, here you are.”

Tom took the bag, and, after spreading it out on the buffalo grass by the roadside, regarded it with a quizzical air from one unclosed eye.

“It won’t fit like a tailor-made suit,” he said, “but it’ll do.”

“Are you going to wear that sugar bag?” asked Dave, with something like admiration on his face. “How are you goin’ to wear it?”

“You’ll see,” answered Tom. “Lend me yer knife.”

“Don’t blunt it,” admonished the youth in the cart; “it’s got a razor edge on.”

[14]

Tom felt the alleged razor edge critically with his thumb.

“It’s more like the back of a axe,” he said, kneeling down and stabbing the blade into the right-hand corner of the bag. He split about six inches there, then performed a similar operation on the left-hand corner, and holding the mouth of the bag up inserted his legs into the splits.

“Gimme a bit of string for the waistband,” he said. “How does she fit be’ind?”

“She fits like ole Harry,” said Dave. “By gosh! she fits you all over and don’t touch you nowhere.”

Tom twisted his neck over his shoulder and caught sight of the bulge behind.

Then the humour of the thing seized both boys, and they laughed. Dave sprawled all over the seat of the cart laughing, and Tom rolled on the buffalo grass kicking his heels in the air and laughing. Then he got up and capered round like a clown in a circus to make Dave laugh more. Next he stood on his head against a bean tree and gave Dave still another lease of joy.

They were as happy and as merry as any two boys of thirteen summers on the face of the Australian continent. But the sun was getting high, and presently Dave remembered.

“By gosh!” he cried, seizing the reins, “I’ll get into it.”

“Never mind,” said Tom, improvising a war dance round the milk-cart; “you might as well be hung for a cow as a calf.”

[15]

“Say,” demanded Dave, “where is the boat planted—I got to go. I’ll get into an awful row, I will!”

“I’m in a wuss row,” observed Tom, “an’ I don’t care.”

“Where’s the boat, Tom?” pleaded Dave. “You promised to tell.”

“I can’t tell you now,” explained Tom, ceasing his dance, and coming close enough to unbuckle the horse’s girth on the sly, “I’ll tell you to-night.”

“To-night?” queried Dave.

“Yes; you meet me down under that big tamarind tree just inside Dobie’s fence in the scrub, an’ I’ll tell you.”

“But,” said Dave, with arising qualms, “I ain’t goin’ to run away with you.”

“Well, you are a cur,” retorted Tom with magnificent contempt.

“But I never said I would,” hesitated Dave.

“Oh, didn’t you.”

“Leastwise I don’t remember——”

“Don’t do it if you don’t want to. Don’t do it if yer afraid, you know. Oh, I wouldn’t like you to come if yer afraid—fact, you’d only be in the road and spile the fun.”

“I ain’t afraid,” cried Dave, indignantly.

No Australian bush boy likes to have his courage called into question.

“Well, if you ain’t afraid, why don’t you come?” demanded Tom with Jesuitical cunning.

“All right,” said Dave, throwing prudence to the winds, “I’ll come.”

[16]

“Be there at dark, then,” ordered Tom, “an’ bring yer clothes an’ as much tucker as you can git an’ we’ll fix things.”

“But what are we goin’ to do?” asked Dave.

“We’re going,” said Tom, “to be pirates.”

“Pirates!”

“Yes. You leave me alone; I’ve a plan in my head, Dave—I’ve got a dead, all right plan. You’ll see.”

“But,” hesitated Dave, “we can’t really be pirates and rob ships and all that sort of thing. You can’t do that now, the time’s gone by.”

“You leave me alone,” said Tom, importantly; “I’ll fix that. If anybody’s got to be killed or made to walk a plank, I’ll attend to that. I’ll be captain and you’ll be first mate. The captain takes all the responsibility, and the first mate does what he’s told. You get some bread and beef, an’ a blanket an’ any little odds and ends you can lay hands on. I’ve got a tommyhawk an’ a billy can an’ a lot of things I’ve been gettin’ ready for a week—ever since that boat drifted up the Broadstream at daylight that mornin’.”

“I’ll be there,” cried Dave, with new resolution.

“On your oath?” demanded Tom.

“On me oath.”