DAVE REGAN and party—bush-fencers, tank-sinkers, rough carpenters, &c.— were finishing the third and last culvert of their contract on the last section of the new railway line, and had already sent in their vouchers for the completed contract, so that there might be no excuse for extra delay in connection with the cheque. Now it had been expressly stipulated in the plans and specifications that the timber for certain beams and girders was to be iron-bark and no other, and Government inspectors were authorised to order the removal from the ground of any timber or material they might deem inferior, or not in accordance with the stipulations. The railway contractor’s foreman and inspector of sub-contractors was a practical man and a bushman, but he had been a timber-getter himself; his sympathies were bushy, and he was on winking terms with Dave Regan. Besides, extended time was expiring, and the contractors were in a hurry to complete the line. But the Government inspector was a reserved man who poked round on his independent own and appeared in lonely spots at unexpected times —with apparently no definite object in life—like a grey kangaroo bothered by a new wire fence, but unsuspicious of the presence of humans. He wore a grey suit, rode, or mostly led, an ashen-grey horse; the grass was long and grey, so he was seldom spotted until he was well within the horizon and bearing leisurely down on a party of sub-contractors, leading his horse.
Now iron-bark was scarce and distant on those ridges, and another timber, similar in appearance, but much inferior in grain and “standing” quality, was plentiful and close at hand. Dave and party were “about full of” the job and place, and wanted to get their cheque and be gone to another “spec” they had in view. So they came to reckon they’d get the last girder from a handy tree, and have it squared, in place, and carefully and conscientiously tarred before the inspector happened along, if he did. But they didn’t. They got it squared, and ready to be lifted into its place; the kindly darkness of tar was ready to cover a fraud that took four strong men with crowbars and levers to shift; and now (such is the regular cussedness of things) as the fraudulent piece of timber lay its last hour on the ground, looking and smelling, to their guilty imaginations like anything but iron-bark, they were aware of the Government inspector drifting down upon them obliquely, with something of the atmosphere of a casual Bill or Jim who had dropped out of his easy-going track to see how they were getting on, and borrow a match. They had more than half hoped that, as he had visited them pretty frequently during the progress of the work, and knew how near it was to completion, he wouldn’t bother coming any more. But it’s the way with the Government. You might move heaven and earth in vain endeavour to get the “Guvermunt” to flutter an eyelash over something of the most momentous importance to yourself and mates and the district— even to the country; but just when you are leaving authority severely alone, and have strong reasons for not wanting to worry or interrupt it, and not desiring it to worry about you, it will take a fancy into its head to come along and bother.
“It’s always the way!” muttered Dave to his mates. “I knew the beggar would turn up! . . . And the only cronk log we’ve had, too!” he added, in an injured tone. “If this had ’a’ been the only blessed iron-bark in the whole contract, it would have been all right. . . . Good-day, sir!” (to the inspector). “It’s hot?”
The inspector nodded. He was not of an impulsive nature. He got down from his horse and looked at the girder in an abstracted way; and presently there came into his eyes a dreamy, far-away, sad sort of expression, as if there had been a very sad and painful occurrence in his family, way back in the past, and that piece of timber in some way reminded him of it and brought the old sorrow home to him. He blinked three times, and asked, in a subdued tone:
“Is that iron-bark?”
Jack Bentley, the fluent liar of the party, caught his breath with a jerk and coughed, to cover the gasp and gain time. “I—iron-bark? Of course it is! I thought you would know iron-bark, mister.” (Mister was silent.) “What else d’yer think it is?”
The dreamy, abstracted expression was back. The inspector, by-the-way, didn’t know much about timber, but he had a great deal of instinct, and went by it when in doubt.
“L—look here, mister!” put in Dave Regan, in a tone of innocent puzzlement and with a blank bucolic face. “B—but don’t the plans and specifications say iron-bark? Ours does, anyway. I—I’ll git the papers from the tent and show yer, if yer like.”
It was not necessary. The inspector admitted the fact slowly. He stooped, and with an absent air picked up a chip. He looked at it abstractedly for a moment, blinked his threefold blink; then, seeming to recollect an appointment, he woke up suddenly and asked briskly:
“Did this chip come off that girder?”
Blank silence. The inspector blinked six times, divided in threes, rapidly, mounted his horse, said “Day,” and rode off.
Regan and party stared at each other.
“Wha—what did he do that for?” asked Andy Page, the third in the party.
“Do what for, you fool?” enquired Dave.
“Ta—take that chip for?”
“He’s taking it to the office!” snarled Jack Bentley.
“What—what for? What does he want to do that for?”
“To get it blanky well analysed! You ass! Now are yer satisfied?” And Jack sat down hard on the timber, jerked out his pipe, and said to Dave, in a sharp, toothache tone:
“We—well! what are we to do now?” enquired Andy, who was the hardest grafter, but altogether helpless, hopeless, and useless in a crisis like this.
“Grain and varnish the bloomin’ culvert!” snapped Bentley.
But Dave’s eyes, that had been ruefully following the inspector, suddenly dilated. The inspector had ridden a short distance along the line, dismounted, thrown the bridle over a post, laid the chip (which was too big to go in his pocket) on top of it, got through the fence, and was now walking back at an angle across the line in the direction of the fencing party, who had worked up on the other side, a little more than opposite the culvert.
Dave took in the lay of the country at a glance and thought rapidly.
“Gimme an iron-bark chip!” he said suddenly.
Bentley, who was quick-witted when the track was shown him, as is a kangaroo dog (Jack ran by sight, not scent), glanced in the line of Dave’s eyes, jumped up, and got a chip about the same size as that which the inspector had taken.
Now the “lay of the country” sloped generally to the line from both sides, and the angle between the inspector’s horse, the fencing party, and the culvert was well within a clear concave space; but a couple of hundred yards back from the line and parallel to it (on the side on which Dave’s party worked their timber) a fringe of scrub ran to within a few yards of a point which would be about in line with a single tree on the cleared slope, the horse, and the fencing party.
Dave took the iron-bark chip, ran along the bed of the water-course into the scrub, raced up the siding behind the bushes, got safely, though without breathing, across the exposed space, and brought the tree into line between him and the inspector, who was talking to the fencers. Then he began to work quickly down the slope towards the tree (which was a thin one), keeping it in line, his arms close to his sides, and working, as it were, down the trunk of the tree, as if the fencing party were kangaroos and Dave was trying to get a shot at them. The inspector, by-the-bye, had a habit of glancing now and then in the direction of his horse, as though under the impression that it was flighty and restless and inclined to bolt on opportunity. It was an anxious moment for all parties concerned—except the inspector. They didn’t want him to be perturbed. And, just as Dave reached the foot of the tree, the inspector finished what he had to say to the fencers, turned, and started to walk briskly back to his horse. There was a thunderstorm coming. Now was the critical moment— there were certain prearranged signals between Dave’s party and the fencers which might have interested the inspector, but none to meet a case like this.
Jack Bentley gasped, and started forward with an idea of intercepting the inspector and holding him for a few minutes in bogus conversation. Inspirations come to one at a critical moment, and it flashed on Jack’s mind to send Andy instead. Andy looked as innocent and guileless as he was, but was uncomfortable in the vicinity of “funny business”, and must have an honest excuse. “Not that that mattered,” commented Jack afterwards; “it would have taken the inspector ten minutes to get at what Andy was driving at, whatever it was.”
“Run, Andy! Tell him there’s a heavy thunderstorm coming and he’d better stay in our humpy till it’s over. Run! Don’t stand staring like a blanky fool. He’ll be gone!”
Andy started. But just then, as luck would have it, one of the fencers started after the inspector, hailing him as “Hi, mister!” He wanted to be set right about the survey or something —or to pretend to want to be set right—from motives of policy which I haven’t time to explain here.
That fencer explained afterwards to Dave’s party that he “seen what you coves was up to,” and that’s why he called the inspector back. But he told them that after they had told their yarn—which was a mistake.
“Come back, Andy!” cried Jack Bentley.
Dave Regan slipped round the tree, down on his hands and knees, and made quick time through the grass which, luckily, grew pretty tall on the thirty or forty yards of slope between the tree and the horse. Close to the horse, a thought struck Dave that pulled him up, and sent a shiver along his spine and a hungry feeling under it. The horse would break away and bolt! But the case was desperate. Dave ventured an interrogatory “Cope, cope, cope?” The horse turned its head wearily and regarded him with a mild eye, as if he’d expected him to come, and come on all fours, and wondered what had kept him so long; then he went on thinking. Dave reached the foot of the post; the horse obligingly leaning over on the other leg. Dave reared head and shoulders cautiously behind the post, like a snake; his hand went up twice, swiftly—the first time he grabbed the inspector’s chip, and the second time he put the iron-bark one in its place. He drew down and back, and scuttled off for the tree like a gigantic tailless “goanna”.
A few minutes later he walked up to the culvert from along the creek, smoking hard to settle his nerves.
The sky seemed to darken suddenly; the first great drops of the thunderstorm came pelting down. The inspector hurried to his horse, and cantered off along the line in the direction of the fettlers’ camp.
He had forgotten all about the chip, and left it on top of the post!
Dave Regan sat down on the beam in the rain and swore comprehensively.