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Over the Sliprails

New Year's Night
It was dark enough for anything in Dead Man's Gap -- a round, warm, close darkness, in
which retreating sounds seemed to be cut off suddenly at a distance of a hundred yards or
so, instead of growing faint and fainter, and dying away, to strike the ear once or twice
again -- and after minutes, it might seem -- with startling distinctness, before being finally
lost in the distance, as it is on clear, frosty nights. So with the sounds of horses' hoofs,
stumbling on the rough bridle-track through the "saddle", the clatter of hoof-clipped
stones and scrape of gravel down the hidden "siding", and the low sound of men's voices,
blurred and speaking in monosyllables and at intervals it seemed, and in hushed, awed
tones, as though they carried a corpse. To practical eyes, grown used to such a darkness,
and at the nearest point, the passing blurrs would have suggested two riders on bush
hacks leading a third with an empty saddle on its back -- a lady's or "side-saddle", if one
could have distinguished the horns. They may have struck a soft track or level, or
rounded the buttress of the hill higher up, but before they had time to reach or round the
foot of the spur, blurs, whispers, stumble and clatter of hoofs, jingle of bridle rings, and
the occasional clank together of stirrup irons, seemed shut off as suddenly and completely
as though a great sound-proof door had swung to behind them.
It was dark enough on the glaringest of days down in the lonely hollow or "pocket",
between two spurs, at the head of a blind gully behind Mount Buckaroo, where there was
a more or less dusty patch, barely defined even in broad daylight by a spidery dog-legged
fence on three sides, and a thin "two-rail" (dignified with the adjective "split-rail" --
though rails and posts were mostly of saplings split in halves) running along the frontage.
In about the middle of it a little slab hut, overshadowed by a big stringy-bark shed, was
pointed out as Johnny Mears's Farm.
"Black as -- as charcoal," said Johnny Mears. He had never seen coal, and was a cautious
man, whose ideas came slowly. He stooped, close by the fence, with his hands on his
knees, to "sky" the loom of his big shed and so get his bearings. He had been to have a
look at the penned calves, and see that all slip-rails were up and pegged, for the words of
John Mears junior, especially when delivered rapidly and shrilly and in injured tones,
were not to be relied upon in these matters.
"It's hot enough to melt the belly out of my fiddle," said Johnny Mears to his wife, who
sat on a three-legged stool by the rough table in the little whitewashed "end-room",
putting a patch of patches over the seat of a pair of moleskin knickerbockers. He lit his
pipe, moved a stool to the side of the great empty fireplace, where it looked cooler --
might have been cooler on account of a possible draught suggested by the presence of the
chimney, and where, therefore, he felt a breath cooler. He took his fiddle from a
convenient shelf, tuned it slowly and carefully, holding his pipe (in his mouth) well up
and to one side, as if the fiddle were an inquisitive and restless baby. He played "Little
Drops o' Brandy" three times, right through, without variations, blinking solemnly the
while; then he put the violin carefully back in its box, and started to cut up another
pipeful.
 
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