"Middleton's Peter" by Henry Lawson
I. The First Born
The struggling squatter is to be found in Australia as well as the
"struggling farmer". The Australian squatter is not always the mighty
wool king that English and American authors and other uninformed
people apparently imagine him to be. Squatting, at the best, is but a
game of chance. It depends mainly on the weather, and that, in New
South Wales at least, depends on nothing.
Joe Middleton was a struggling squatter, with a station some
distance to the westward of the furthest line reached by the ordinary
"new chum". His run, at the time of our story, was only about six
miles square, and his stock was limited in proportion. The hands on
Joe's run consisted of his brother Dave, a middle-aged man known only
as "Middleton's Peter" (who had been in the service of the Middleton
family ever since Joe Middleton could remember), and an old black
shepherd, with his gin and two boys.
It was in the first year of Joe's marriage. He had married a very
ordinary girl, as far as Australian girls go, but in his eyes she was
an angel. He really worshipped her.
One sultry afternoon in midsummer all the station hands, with the
exception of Dave Middleton, were congregated about the homestead
door, and it was evident from their solemn faces that something
unusual was the matter. They appeared to be watching for something or
someone across the flat, and the old black shepherd, who had been
listening intently with bent head, suddenly straightened himself up
"I can hear the cart. I can see it!"
You must bear in mind that our blackfellows do not always talk the
gibberish with which they are credited by story writers.
It was not until some time after Black Bill had spoken that the
white — or, rather, the brown — portion of the party could see or
even hear the approaching vehicle. At last, far out through the
trunks of the native apple-trees, the cart was seen approaching; and
as it came nearer it was evident that it was being driven at a
break-neck pace, the horses cantering all the way, while the motion of
the cart, as first one wheel and then the other sprang from a root or
a rut, bore a striking resemblance to the Highland Fling. There were
two persons in the cart. One was Mother Palmer, a stout, middle-aged
party (who sometimes did the duties of a midwife), and the other was
Dave Middleton, Joe's brother.
The cart was driven right up to the door with scarcely any
abatement of speed, and was stopped so suddenly that Mrs. Palmer was
sent sprawling on to the horse's rump. She was quickly helped down,
and, as soon as she had recovered sufficient breath, she followed
Black Mary into the bedroom where young Mrs. Middleton was lying,
looking very pale and frightened. The horse which had been driven so
cruelly had not done blowing before another cart appeared, also driven
very fast. It contained old Mr. and Mrs. Middleton, who lived
comfortably on a small farm not far from Palmer's place.
As soon as he had dumped Mrs. Palmer, Dave Middleton left the cart
and, mounting a fresh horse which stood ready saddled in the yard,
galloped off through the scrub in a different direction.
Half an hour afterwards Joe Middleton came home on a horse that
had been almost ridden to death. His mother came out at the sound of
his arrival, and he anxiously asked her:
"How is she?"
"Did you find Doc. Wild?" asked the mother.
"No, confound him!" exclaimed Joe bitterly. "He promised me
faithfully to come over on Wednesday and stay until Maggie was right
again. Now he has left Dean's and gone — Lord knows where. I suppose
he is drinking again. How is Maggie?"
"It's all over now — the child is born. It's a boy; but she is
very weak. Dave got Mrs. Palmer here just in time. I had better tell
you at once that Mrs. Palmer says if we don't get a doctor here
to-night poor Maggie won't live."
"Good God! and what am I to do?" cried Joe desperately.
"Is there any other doctor within reach?"
"No; there is only the one at B——; that's forty miles away, and
he is laid up with the broken leg he got in the buggy accident.
"Gone to Black's shanty. One of Mrs. Palmer's sons thought he
remembered someone saying that Doc. Wild was there last week. That's
fifteen miles away."
"But it is our only hope," said Joe dejectedly. "I wish to God
that I had taken Maggie to some civilised place a month ago."
Doc. Wild was a well-known character among the bushmen of New South
Wales, and although the profession did not recognise him, and
denounced him as an empiric, his skill was undoubted. Bushmen had
great faith in him, and would often ride incredible distances in order
to bring him to the bedside of a sick friend. He drank fearfully,
but was seldom incapable of treating a patient; he would, however,
sometimes be found in an obstinate mood and refuse to travel to the
side of a sick person, and then the devil himself could not make the
doctor budge. But for all this he was very generous — a fact that
could, no doubt, be testified to by many a grateful sojourner in the
II. The Only Hope
Night came on, and still there was no change in the condition of
the young wife, and no sign of the doctor. Several stockmen from the
neighbouring stations, hearing that there was trouble at Joe
Middleton's, had ridden over, and had galloped off on long, hopeless
rides in search of a doctor. Being generally free from sickness
themselves, these bushmen look upon it as a serious business even in
its mildest form; what is more, their sympathy is always practical
where it is possible for it to be so. One day, while out on the run
after an "outlaw", Joe Middleton was badly thrown from his horse, and
the break-neck riding that was done on that occasion from the time the
horse came home with empty saddle until the rider was safe in bed and
attended by a doctor was something extraordinary, even for the bush.
Before the time arrived when Dave Middleton might reasonably have
been expected to return, the station people were anxiously watching
for him, all except the old blackfellow and the two boys, who had gone
to yard the sheep.
The party had been increased by Jimmy Nowlett, the bullocky, who
had just arrived with a load of fencing wire and provisions for
Middleton. Jimmy was standing in the moonlight, whip in hand, looking
as anxious as the husband himself, and endeavouring to calculate by
mental arithmetic the exact time it ought to take Dave to complete his
double journey, taking into consideration the distance, the obstacles
in the way, and the chances of horse-flesh.
But the time which Jimmy fixed for the arrival came without Dave.
Old Peter (as he was generally called, though he was not really
old) stood aside in his usual sullen manner, his hat drawn down over
his brow and eyes, and nothing visible but a thick and very horizontal
black beard, from the depth of which emerged large clouds of very
strong tobacco smoke, the product of a short, black, clay pipe.
They had almost given up all hope of seeing Dave return that night,
when Peter slowly and deliberately removed his pipe and grunted:
He then replaced the pipe, and smoked on as before.
All listened, but not one of them could hear a sound.
"Yer ears must be pretty sharp for yer age, Peter. We can't hear
him," remarked Jimmy Nowlett.
"His dog ken," said Peter.
The pipe was again removed and its abbreviated stem pointed in the
direction of Dave's cattle dog, who had risen beside his kennel with
pointed ears, and was looking eagerly in the direction from which his
master was expected to come.
Presently the sound of horse's hoofs was distinctly heard.
"I can hear two horses," cried Jimmy Nowlett excitedly.
"There's only one," said old Peter quietly.
A few moments passed, and a single horseman appeared on the far
side of the flat.
"It's Doc. Wild on Dave's horse," cried Jimmy Nowlett. "Dave don't
ride like that."
"It's Dave," said Peter, replacing his pipe and looking more
unsociable than ever.
Dave rode up and, throwing himself wearily from the saddle, stood
ominously silent by the side of his horse.
Joe Middleton said nothing, but stood aside with an expression of
utter hopelessness on his face.
"Not there?" asked Jimmy Nowlett at last, addressing Dave.
"Yes, he's there," answered Dave, impatiently.
This was not the answer they expected, but nobody seemed surprised.
"Drunk?" asked Jimmy.
Here old Peter removed his pipe, and pronounced the one word —
"What the hell do you mean by that?" muttered Dave, whose patience
had evidently been severely tried by the clever but intemperate bush
"How drunk?" explained Peter, with great equanimity.
"Stubborn drunk, blind drunk, beastly drunk, dead drunk, and
damned well drunk, if that's what you want to know!"
"What did Doc. say?" asked Jimmy.
"Said he was sick — had lumbago — wouldn't come for the Queen of
England; said he wanted a course of treatment himself. Curse him! I
have no patience to talk about him."
"I'd give him a course of treatment," muttered Jimmy viciously,
trailing the long lash of his bullock-whip through the grass and
spitting spitefully at the ground.
Dave turned away and joined Joe, who was talking earnestly to his
mother by the kitchen door. He told them that he had spent an hour
trying to persuade Doc. Wild to come, and, that before he had left the
shanty, Black had promised him faithfully to bring the doctor over as
soon as his obstinate mood wore off.
Just then a low moan was heard from the sick room, followed by the
sound of Mother Palmer's voice calling old Mrs. Middleton, who went
No one had noticed the disappearance of Peter, and when he
presently returned from the stockyard, leading the only fresh horse
that remained, Jimmy Nowlett began to regard him with some interest.
Peter transferred the saddle from Dave's horse to the other, and then
went into a small room off the kitchen, which served him as a bedroom;
from it he soon returned with a formidable-looking revolver, the
chambers of which he examined in the moonlight in full view of all the
company. They thought for a moment the man had gone mad. Old
Middleton leaped quickly behind Nowlett, and Black Mary, who had come
out to the cask at the corner for a dipper of water, dropped the
dipper and was inside like a shot. One of the black boys came softly
up at that moment; as soon as his sharp eye "spotted" the weapon, he
disappeared as though the earth had swallowed him.
"What the mischief are yer goin' ter do, Peter?" asked Jimmy.
"Goin' to fetch him," said Peter, and, after carefully emptying his
pipe and replacing it in a leather pouch at his belt, he mounted and
rode off at an easy canter.
Jimmy watched the horse until it disappeared at the edge of the
flat, and then after coiling up the long lash of his bullock-whip in
the dust until it looked like a sleeping snake, he prodded the small
end of the long pine handle into the middle of the coil, as though
driving home a point, and said in a tone of intense conviction:
"He'll fetch him."
III. Doc. Wild
Peter gradually increased his horse's speed along the rough bush
track until he was riding at a good pace. It was ten miles to the
main road, and five from there to the shanty kept by Black.
For some time before Peter started the atmosphere had been very
close and oppressive. The great black edge of a storm-cloud had risen
in the east, and everything indicated the approach of a thunderstorm.
It was not long coming. Before Peter had completed six miles of his
journey, the clouds rolled over, obscuring the moon, and an Australian
thunderstorm came on with its mighty downpour, its blinding lightning,
and its earth-shaking thunder. Peter rode steadily on, only pausing
now and then until a flash revealed the track in front of him.
Black's shanty — or, rather, as the sign had it, "Post Office and
General Store" — was, as we have said, five miles along the main road
from the point where Middleton's track joined it. The building was
of the usual style of bush architecture. About two hundred yards
nearer the creek, which crossed the road further on, stood a large
bark and slab stable, large enough to have met the requirements of a
legitimate bush "public".
The reader may doubt that a "sly grog shop" could openly carry on
business on a main Government road along which mounted troopers were
continually passing. But then, you see, mounted troopers get thirsty
like other men; moreover, they could always get their thirst quenched
`gratis' at these places; so the reader will be prepared to hear that
on this very night two troopers' horses were stowed snugly away in the
stable, and two troopers were stowed snugly away in the back room of
the shanty, sleeping off the effects of their cheap but strong
There were two rooms, of a sort, attached to the stables — one at
each end. One was occupied by a man who was "generally useful", and
the other was the surgery, office, and bedroom `pro tem.' of Doc.
Doc. Wild was a tall man, of spare proportions. He had a
cadaverous face, black hair, bushy black eyebrows, eagle nose, and
eagle eyes. He never slept while he was drinking. On this occasion
he sat in front of the fire on a low three-legged stool. His knees
were drawn up, his toes hooked round the front legs of the stool, one
hand resting on one knee, and one elbow (the hand supporting the chin)
resting on the other. He was staring intently into the fire, on
which an old black saucepan was boiling and sending forth a pungent
odour of herbs. There seemed something uncanny about the doctor as
the red light of the fire fell on his hawk-like face and gleaming eyes.
He might have been Mephistopheles watching some infernal brew.
He had sat there some time without stirring a finger, when the door
suddenly burst open and Middleton's Peter stood within, dripping wet.
The doctor turned his black, piercing eyes upon the intruder (who
regarded him silently) for a moment, and then asked quietly:
"What the hell do you want?"
"I want you," said Peter.
"And what do you want me for?"
"I want you to come to Joe Middleton's wife. She's bad," said
"I won't come," shouted the doctor. "I've brought enough
horse-stealers into the world already. If any more want to come they
can go to blazes for me. Now, you get out of this!"
"Don't get yer rag out," said Peter quietly. "The hoss-stealer's
come, an' nearly killed his mother ter begin with; an' if yer don't
get yer physic-box an' come wi' me, by the great God I'll ——"
Here the revolver was produced and pointed at Doc. Wild's head.
The sight of the weapon had a sobering effect upon the doctor. He
rose, looked at Peter critically for a moment, knocked the weapon out
of his hand, and said slowly and deliberately:
"Wall, ef the case es as serious as that, I (hic) reckon I'd better
Peter was still of the same opinion, so Doc. Wild proceeded to get
his medicine chest ready. He explained afterwards, in one of his
softer moments, that the shooter didn't frighten him so much as it
touched his memory — "sorter put him in mind of the old days in
California, and made him think of the man he might have been," he'd
say, — "kinder touched his heart and slid the durned old panorama in
front of him like a flash; made him think of the time when he slipped
three leaden pills into `Blue Shirt' for winking at a new chum behind
his (the Doc.'s) back when he was telling a truthful yarn, and charged
the said `Blue Shirt' a hundred dollars for extracting the said
Joe Middleton's wife is a grandmother now.
Peter passed after the manner of his sort; he was found dead in his
Poor Doc. Wild died in a shepherd's hut at the Dry Creeks. The
shepherds (white men) found him, "naked as he was born and with the
hide half burned off him with the sun," rounding up imaginary snakes
on a dusty clearing, one blazing hot day. The hut-keeper had some
"quare" (queer) experiences with the doctor during the next three days
and used, in after years, to tell of them, between the puffs of his
pipe, calmly and solemnly and as if the story was rather to the
doctor's credit than otherwise. The shepherds sent for the police and
a doctor, and sent word to Joe Middleton. Doc. Wild was sensible
towards the end. His interview with the other doctor was
characteristic. "And, now you see how far I am," he said in
conclusion — "have you brought the brandy?" The other doctor had.
Joe Middleton came with his waggonette, and in it the softest
mattress and pillows the station afforded. He also, in his innocence,
brought a dozen of soda-water. Doc. Wild took Joe's hand feebly, and,
a little later, he "passed out" (as he would have said) murmuring
"something that sounded like poetry", in an unknown tongue. Joe took
the body to the home station. "Who's the boss bringin'?" asked the
shearers, seeing the waggonette coming very slowly and the boss
walking by the horses' heads. "Doc. Wild," said a station hand. "Take
yer hats off."
They buried him with bush honours, and chiselled his name on a
slab of bluegum — a wood that lasts.