by Henry Lawson
While the Billy Boils (1896)
Under the Burden and Heat of the Day, 1890, Photographic Reproduction, David Davies (1864-1939)
We were tramping down in Canterbury, Maoriland, at the time, swagging it — me and Bill — looking for work on the new railway line. Well, one afternoon, after a long, hot tramp, we comes to Stiffner’s Hotel — between Christchurch and that other place — I forget the name of it — with throats on us like sunstruck bones, and not the price of a stick of tobacco.
We had to have a drink, anyway, so we chanced it. We walked right into the bar, handed over our swags, put up four drinks, and tried to look as if we’d just drawn our cheques and didn’t care a curse for any man. We looked solvent enough, as far as swagmen go. We were dirty and haggard and ragged and tired-looking, and that was all the more reason why we might have our cheques all right.
This Stiffner was a hard customer. He’d been a spieler, fighting man, bush parson, temperance preacher, and a policeman, and a commercial traveller, and everything else that was damnable; he’d been a journalist, and an editor; he’d been a lawyer, too. He was an ugly brute to look at, and uglier to have a row with — about six-foot-six, wide in proportion, and stronger than Donald Dinnie.
He was meaner than a gold-field Chinaman, and sharper than a sewer rat: he wouldn’t give his own father a feed, nor lend him a sprat — unless some safe person backed the old man’s I.O.U.
We knew that we needn’t expect any mercy from Stiffner; but something had to be done, so I said to Bill:
“Something’s got to be done, Bill! What do you think of it?”
Bill was mostly a quiet young chap, from Sydney, except when he got drunk — which was seldom — and then he was a customer, from all round. He was cracked on the subject of spielers. He held that the population of the world was divided into two classes — one was spielers and the other was the mugs. He reckoned that he wasn’t a mug. At first I thought he was a spieler, and afterwards I thought that he was a mug. He used to say that a man had to do it these times; that he was honest once and a fool, and was robbed and starved in consequences by his friends and relations; but now he intended to take all that he could get. He said that you either had to have or be had; that men were driven to be sharps, and there was no help for it.
“We’ll have to sharpen our teeth, that’s all, and chew somebody’s lug.”
“How?” I asked.
There was a lot of navvies at the pub, and I knew one or two by sight, so Bill says:
“You know one or two of these mugs. Bite one of their ears.
“So I took aside a chap that I knowed and bit his ear for ten bob, and gave it to Bill to mind, for I thought it would be safer with him than with me.
“Hang on to that,” I says, “and don’t lose it for your natural life’s sake, or Stiffner’ll stiffen us.”
We put up about nine bob’s worth of drinks that night — me and Bill — and Stiffner didn’t squeal: he was too sharp. He shouted once or twice.
By-and-by I left Bill and turned in, and in the morning when I woke up there was Bill sitting alongside of me, and looking about as lively as the fighting kangaroo in London in fog time. He had a black eye and eighteen pence. He’d been taking down some of the mugs.
“Well, what’s to be done now?” I asked. “Stiffner can smash us both with one hand, and if we don’t pay up he’ll pound our swags and cripple us. He’s just the man to do it. He loves a fight even more than he hates being had.”
“There’s only one thing to be done, Jim,” says Bill, in a tired, disinterested tone that made me mad.
“Well, what’s than” I said.
“Smoke be damned,” I snarled, losing my temper.
“You know dashed well that our swags are in the bar, and we can’t smoke without them.
“Well, then,” says Bill, “I’ll toss you to see who’s to face the landlord.”
“Well, I’ll be blessed!” I says. “I’ll see you further first. You have got a front. You mugged that stuff away, and you’ll have to get us out of the mess.”
It made him wild to be called a mug, and we swore and growled at each other for a while; but we daren’t speak loud enough to have a fight, so at last I agreed to toss up for it, and I lost.
Bill started to give me some of his points, but I shut him up quick.
“You’ve had your turn, and made a mess of it,” I said. “For God’s sake give me a show. Now, I’ll go into the bar and ask for the swags, and carry them out on to the veranda, and then go back to settle up. You keep him talking all the time. You dump the two swags together, and smoke like sheol. That’s all you’ve got to do.”
I went into the bar, got the swags front the missus, carried them out on to the veranda, and then went back.
Stiffner came in.
“Good morning, sir,” says Stiffner.
“It’ll be a nice day, I think?”
“Yes, I think so. I suppose you are going on?”
“Yes, we’ll have to make a move to-day.”
Then I hooked carelessly on to the counter with one elbow, and looked dreamy-like out across the clearing, and presently I gave a sort of sigh and said: “Ah, well! I think I’ll have a beer.”
“Right you are! Where’s your mate?”
“Oh, he’s round at the back. He’ll be round directly; but he ain’t drinking this morning.”
Stiffner laughed that nasty empty laugh of his. He thought Bill was whipping the cat.
“What’s yours, boss?” I said.
“Thankee! . . . Here’s luck!”
The country was pretty open round there — the nearest timber was better than a mile away, and I wanted to give Bill a good start across the flat before the go-as-you-can commenced; so I talked for a while, and while we were talking I thought I might as well go the whole hog — I might as well die for a pound as a penny, if I had to die; and if I hadn’t I’d have the pound to the good, anyway, so to speak. Anyhow, the risk would be about the same, or less, for I might have the spirit to run harder the more I had to run for — the more spirits I had to run for, in fact, as it turned out — so I says:
“I think I’ll take one of them there flasks of whisky to last us on the road.”
“Right y’are,” says Stiffner. “What’ll ye have — a small one or a big one?”
“Oh, a big one, I think — if I can get it into my pocket.”
“It’ll be a tight squeeze,” he said, and he laughed.
“I’ll try,” I said. “Bet you two drinks I’ll get it in.”
“Done!” he says. “The top inside coat-pocket, and no tearing.”
It was a big bottle, and all my pockets were small; but I got it into the pocket he’d betted against. It was a tight squeeze, but I got it in.
Then we both laughed, but his laugh was nastier than usual, because it was meant to be pleasant, and he’d lost two drinks; and my laugh wasn’t easy — I was anxious as to which of us would laugh next.
Just then I noticed something, and an idea struck me — about the most up-to-date idea that ever struck me in my life. I noticed that Stiffner was limping on his right foot this morning, so I said to him:
“What’s up with your foot?” putting my hand in my pocket. “Oh, it’s a crimson nail in my boot,” he said. “I thought I got the blanky thing out this morning; but I didn’t.”
There just happened to be an old bag of shoemaker’s tools in the bar, belonging to an old cobbler who was lying dead drunk on the veranda. So I said, taking my hand out of my pocket again:
“Lend us the boot, and I’ll fix it in a minute. That’s my old trade.”
“Oh, so you’re a shoemaker,” he said. “I’d never have thought it.”
He laughs one of his useless laughs that wasn’t wanted, and slips off the boot — he hadn’t laced it up — and hands it across the bar to me. It was an ugly brute — a great thick, iron-bound, boiler-plated navvy’s boot. It made me feel sore when I looked at it.
I got the bag and pretended to fix the nail; but I didn’t.
“There’s a couple of nails gone from the sole,” I said. “I’ll put ’em in if I can find any hobnails, and it’ll save the sole,” and I rooted in the bag and found a good long nail, and shoved it right through the sole on the sly. He’d been a bit of a sprinter in his time, and I thought it might be better for me in the near future if the spikes of his running-shoes were inside.
“There, you’ll find that better, I fancy,” I said, standing the boot on the bar counter, but keeping my hand on it in an absent-minded kind of way. Presently I yawned and stretched myself, and said in a careless way:
“Ah, well! How’s the slate?” He scratched the back of his head and pretended to think.
“Oh, well, we’ll call it thirty bob.”
Perhaps he thought I’d slap down two quid.
“Well,” I says, “and what will you do supposing we don’t pay you?”
He looked blank for a moment. Then he fired up and gasped and choked once or twice; and then he cooled down suddenly and laughed his nastiest laugh — he was one of those men who always laugh when they’re wild — and said in a nasty, quiet tone:
“You thundering, jumped-up crawlers! If you don’t (something) well part up I’ll take your swags and (something) well kick your gory pants so you won’t be able to sit down for a month — or stand up either!”
“Well, the sooner you begin the better,” I said; and I chucked the boot into a corner and bolted.
He jumped the bar counter, got his boot, and came after me. He paused to slip the boot on — but he only made one step, and then gave a howl and slung the boot off and rushed back. When I looked round again he’d got a slipper on, and was coming — and gaining on me, too. I shifted scenery pretty quick the next five minutes. But I was soon pumped. My heart began to beat against the ceiling of my head, and my lungs all choked up in my throat. When I guessed he was getting within kicking distance I glanced round so’s to dodge the kick. He let out; but I shied just in time. He missed fire, and the slipper went about twenty feet up in the air and fell in a waterhole.
He was done then, for the ground was stubbly and stony. I seen Bill on ahead pegging out for the horizon, and I took after him and reached for the timber for all I was worth, for I’d seen Stiffner’s missus coming with a shovel — to bury the remains, I suppose; and those two were a good match — Stiffner and his missus, I mean.
Bill looked round once, and melted into the bush pretty soon after that. When I caught up he was about done; but I grabbed my swag and we pushed on, for I told Bill that I’d seen Stiffner making for the stables when I’d last looked round; and Bill thought that we’d better get lost in the bush as soon as ever we could, and stay lost, too, for Stiffner was a man that couldn’t stand being had.
The first thing that Bill said when we got safe into camp was: “I told you that we’d pull through all right. You need never be frightened when you’re travelling with me. Just take my advice and leave things to me, and we’ll hang out all right. Now-.”
But I shut him up. He made me mad.
“Why, you —! What the sheol did you do?”
“Do?” he says. “I got away with the swags, didn’t I? Where’d they be now if it wasn’t for me?”
Then I sat on him pretty hard for his pretensions, and paid him out for all the patronage he’d worked off on me, and called him a mug straight, and walked round him, so to speak, and blowed, and told him never to pretend to me again that he was a battler.
Then, when I thought I’d licked him into form, I cooled down and soaped him up a bit; but I never thought that he had three climaxes and a crisis in store for me.
He took it all pretty cool; he let me have my fling, and gave me time to get breath; then he leaned languidly over on his right side, shoved his left hand down into his left trouser pocket, and brought up a boot-lace, a box of matches, and nine-and-six.
As soon as I got the focus of it I gasped:
“Where the deuce did you get that?”
“I had it all along,” he said, “but I seen at the pub that you had the show to chew a lug, so I thought we’d save it — nine-and-sixpences ain’t picked up every day.”
Then he leaned over on his left, went down into the other pocket, and came up with a piece of tobacco and half-a-sovereign.
My eyes bulged out.
“Where the blazes did you get that from?” I yelled.
“That,” he said, “was the half-quid you give me last night. Half-quids ain’t to be thrown away these times; and, besides, I had a down on Stiffner, and meant to pay him out; I reckoned that if we wasn’t sharp enough to take him down we hadn’t any business to be supposed to be alive. Anyway, I guessed we’d do it; and so we did — and got a bottle of whisky into the bargain.”
Then he leaned back, tired-like, against the log, and dredged his upper left-hand waistcoat-pocket, and brought up a sovereign wrapped in a pound note. Then he waited for me to speak; but I couldn’t. I got my mouth open, but couldn’t get it shut again.
“I got that out of the mugs last night, but I thought that we’d want it, and might as well keep it. Quids ain’t so easily picked up, nowadays; and, besides, we need stuff more’n Stiffner does, and so —”
“And did he know you had the stuff?” I gasped.
“Oh, yes, that’s the fun of it. That’s what made him so excited. He was in the parlour all the time I was playing. But we might as well have a drink!
“We did. I wanted it.”
Bill turned in by-and-by, and looked like a sleeping innocent in the moonlight. I sat up late, and smoked, and thought hard, and watched Bill, and turned in, and thought till near daylight, and then went to sleep, and had a nightmare about it. I dreamed I chased Stiffner forty miles to buy his pub, and that Bill turned out to be his nephew.
Bill divvied up all right, and gave me half a crown over, but I didn’t travel with him long after that. He was a decent young fellow as far as chaps go, and a good mate as far as mates go; but he was too far ahead for a peaceful, easy-going chap like me. It would have worn me out in a year to keep up to him.
P.S. — The name of this should have been: ‘Bill and Stiffner (thirdly, Jim)’.