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A Bush Publican's Lament by Henry Lawson

1901

    . . . For thirst is long and throats is short
    Among the sons o' men.
                     M. J. C.

I Wish I was spifflicated before I ever seen a pub!

You see, it's this way. Suppose a cove comes along on a blazin' hot day in the drought—an' you ought to know how hell-hot it can be out here—an' he dumps his swag in the corner of the bar; an' he turns round an' he ses ter me, “Look here boss, I ain't got a lonely steever on me, an' God knows when I'll git one. I've tramped ten mile this mornin', an' I'll have ter tramp another ten afore to-night. I'm expectin' ter git on shearin' with of Baldy Thompson at West-o'-Sunday nex' week. I got a thirst on me like a sun-struck bone, an', for God sake, put up a couple o' beers for me an' my mate, an' I'll fix it up with yer when I come back after shearin'.”

An' what's a feller ter do? I bin there meself, an—I put it to you! I've known what it is to have a thirst on me.

An' suppose a poor devil comes along in the jim-jams, with every inch on him jumpin' an' a look in his eyes like a man bein' murdered an' sent ter hell, an' a whine in his voice like a whipped cur, an' the snakes a-chasing of him; an' he hooks me with his finger ter the far end o' the bar—as if he was goin' ter tell me that the world was ended—an' he hangs over the bar an' chews me lug, an' tries to speak, an' breaks off inter a sort o' low shriek, like a terrified woman, an' he says, “For Mother o' Christ's sake, giv' me a drink!” An' what am I to do? I bin there meself. I knows what the horrors is. He mighter blued his cheque at the last shanty. But what am I ter do? I put it ter you. If I let him go he might hang hisself ter the nex' leanin' tree.

What's a drink? yer might arst—I don't mind a drink or two; but when it comes to half a dozen in a day it mounts up, I can tell yer. Drinks is sixpence here—I have to pay for it, an' pay carriage on it. It's all up ter me in the end. I used sometimes ter think it was lucky I wasn't west o' the sixpenny line, where I'd lose a shillin' on every drink I give away.

An' supposen a sundowner comes along smokin' tea-leaves, an' ses ter me, “Look her, boss! me an' my mate ain't had a smoke for three days!” What's a man ter do? I put it ter you! I'm a heavy smoker meself, an' I've known what it is to be without a smoke on the track. But “nail-rod” is ninepence a stick out here, an' I have ter pay carriage. It all mounts up, I can tell yer.

An' supposen Ole King Billy an' his ole black gin comes round at holiday time and squats on the verander, an' blarneys an' wheedles and whines and argues like a hundred Jews an' ole Irishwomen put tergether, an' accuses me o' takin' his blarsted country from him, an' makes me an' the missus laugh; an' we gives him a bottl'er rum an' a bag of grub ter get rid of him an' his rotten ole scarecrow tribe—It all tells up. I was allers soft on the blacks, an', beside, a ole gin nursed me an' me mother when I was born, an' saved me blessed life—not that that mounts to much. But it all tells up, an' I got me licence ter pay. An' some bloody skunk goes an' informs on me for supplyin' the haboriginalls with intossicatin' liquor, an' I have ter pay a fine an' risk me licence. But what's a man ter do?

An' three or four herrin'-gutted jackaroos comes along about dinner-time, when the table's set and the cookin' smellin' from the kichen, with their belts done up three holes, an' not the price of a feed on 'em. What's a man ter do? I've known what it is ter do a perish on the track meself. It's not the tucker I think on. I don't care a damn for that. When the shearers come every one is free to go inter the kitchin an' forage for hisself when he feels hungry—so long as he pays for his drink. But the jackaroos can't pay for drinks, an' I have ter pay carriage on the flour an' tea an' sugar an' groceries—an' it all tells up by the end o' the year.

An' a straight chap that knows me gets a job to take a flock o' sheep or a mob o' cattle ter the bloomin' Gulf, or South Australia, or somewheers—an' loses one of his horses goin' out ter take charge, an' borrers eight quid from me ter buy another. He'll turn up agen in a year or two an' most likely want ter make me take twenty quid for that eight—an' make everybody about the place blind drunk—but I've got ter wait, an' the wine an' sperit merchants an' the brewery won't. They know I can't do without liquor in the place.

An' lars' rains Jimmy Nowlett, the bullick-driver, gets bogged over his axle-trees back there on the Blacksoil Plains between two flooded billerbongs, an' prays till the country steams an' his soul's busted, an' his throat like a lime-kiln. He taps a keg o' rum or beer ter keep his throat in workin' order. I don't mind that at all, but him an' his mates git flood-bound for near a week, an' broach more kegs, an' go on a howlin' spree in ther mud, an' spill mor'n they swipe, an' leave a tarpaulin off a load, an' the flour gets wet, an' the sugar runs out of the bags like syrup, an'—What's a feller ter do? Do yer expect me to set the law onter Jimmy? I've knowed him all my life, an' he knowed my father afore I was born. He's been on the roads this forty year, till he's as thin as a rat, and as poor as a myall black; an' he's got a family ter keep back there in Bourke. No, I have ter pay for it in the end, an' it all mounts up, I can tell yer.

An' suppose some poor devil of a new-chum black sheep comes along, staggerin' from one side of the track to the other, and spoutin' poetry; dyin' o' heat or fever, or heartbreak an' home-sickness, or a life o' disserpation he'd led in England, an' without a sprat on him, an' no claim on the bush; an' I ketches: him in me arms as he stumbles inter the bar, an' he wants me ter hold him up while he turns English inter Greek for me. An' I put him ter bed, an' he gits worse, an' I have ter send the buggy twenty mile for a doctor—an' pay him. An' the jackaroo gits worse, an' has ter be watched an' nursed an' held down sometimes; an' he raves about his home an' mother in England, an' the blarsted University that he was eddicated at—an' a woman—an' somethin' that sounds like poetry in French; an' he upsets my missus a lot, an' makes her blubber. An' he dies, an' I have ter pay a man ter bury him (an' knock up a sort o' fence round the grave arterwards ter keep the stock out), an' send the buggy agen for a parson, an'—Well, what's a man ter do? I couldn't let him wander away an' die like a dog in the scrub, an' be shoved underground like a dog, too, if his body was ever found. The Government might pay ter bury him, but there ain't never been a pauper funeral from my house yet, an' there won't be one if I can help it—except it be meself.

An' then there's the bother goin' through his papers to try an' find out who he was an' where his friends is. An' I have ter get the missus to write a letter to his people, an' we have ter make up lies about how he died ter make it easier for 'em. An' goin' through his letters, the missus comes across a portrait an' a locket of hair, an' letters from his mother an' sisters an' girl; an' they upset her, an' she blubbers agin, an' gits sentimental—like she useter long ago when we was first married.

There was one bit of poetry—I forgit it now—that that there jackaroo kep' sayin' over an' over agen till it buzzed in me head; an', weeks after, I'd ketch the missus mutterin' it to herself in the kitchen till I thought she was goin' ratty.

An' we gets a letter from the jackaroo's friends that puts us to a lot more bother. I hate havin' anythin' to do with letters. An' someone's sure to say he was lambed down an' cleaned out an' poisoned with bad bush liquor at my place. It's almost enough ter make a man wish there was a recorin' angel.

An' what's the end of it? I got the blazin' bailiff in the place now! I can't shot him out because he's a decent, hard-up, poor devil from Bourke, with consumption or somethin', an' he's been talkin' to the missus about his missus an' kids; an' I see no chance of gittin' rid of him, unless the shearers come along with their cheques from West-o'-Sunday nex' week and act straight by me. Like as not I'll have ter roll up me swag an' take the track meself in the end. They say publicans are damned, an' I think so, too; an' I wish I'd bin operated on before ever I seen a pub.

 
 
 

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