An Incident at Stiffner's
by Henry Lawson
An Extract from,
Over the Sliprails
They called him "Stiffner" because he used, long before, to get a
living by poisoning wild dogs near the Queensland border. The name
stuck to him closer than misfortune did, for when he rose to the proud
and independent position of landlord and sole proprietor of an
out-back pub he was Stiffner still, and his place was "Stiffner's" —
They do say that the name ceased not to be applicable — that it
fitted even better than in the old dingo days, but — well, they do
say so. All we can say is that when a shearer arrived with a cheque,
and had a drink or two, he was almost invariably seized with a desire
to camp on the premises for good, spend his cheque in the shortest
possible time, and forcibly shout for everything within hail —
including the Chinaman cook and Stiffner's disreputable old ram.
The shanty was of the usual kind, and the scenery is as easily
disposed of. There was a great grey plain stretching away from the
door in front, and a mulga scrub from the rear; and in that scrub, not
fifty yards from the kitchen door, were half a dozen nameless graves.
Stiffner was always drunk, and Stiffner's wife — a hard-featured
Amazon — was boss. The children were brought up in a detached
cottage, under the care of a "governess".
Stiffner had a barmaid as a bait for chequemen. She came from
Sydney, they said, and her name was Alice. She was tall, boyishly
handsome, and characterless; her figure might be described as "fine"
or "strapping", but her face was very cold — nearly colourless. She
was one of those selfishly sensual women — thin lips, and hard,
almost vacant grey eyes; no thought of anything but her own pleasures,
none for the man's. Some shearers would roughly call her "a squatter's
girl". But she "drew"; she was handsome where women are scarce — very
handsome, thought a tall, melancholy-looking jackeroo, whose evil
spirit had drawn him to Stiffner's and the last shilling out of his
Over the great grey plain, about a fortnight before, had come "Old
Danny", a station hand, for his semi-annual spree, and one "Yankee
Jack" and his mate, shearers with horses, travelling for grass; and,
about a week later, the Sydney jackeroo. There was also a sprinkling
of assorted swagmen, who came in through the scrub and went out across
the plain, or came in over the plain and went away through the scrub,
according to which way their noses led them for the time being.
There was also, for one day, a tall, freckled native (son of a
neighbouring "cocky"), without a thought beyond the narrow horizon
within which he lived. He had a very big opinion of himself in a
very small mind. He swaggered into the breakfast-room and round the
table to his place with an expression of ignorant contempt on his
phiz, his snub nose in the air and his under lip out. But during the
meal he condescended to ask the landlord if he'd noticed that there
horse that chap was ridin' yesterday; and Stiffner having intimated
that he had, the native entertained the company with his opinion of
that horse, and of a certain "youngster" he was breaking in at home,
and divers other horses, mostly his or his father's, and of a certain
cattle slut, . . . He spoke at the landlord, but to the company, most
of the time. After breakfast he swaggered round some more, but
condescended to "shove" his hand into his trousers, "pull" out a "bob"
and "chuck" it into the (blanky) hat for a pool. Those words express
the thing better than any others we can think of. Finally, he said he
must be off; and, there being no opposition to his departure, he
chucked his saddle on to his horse, chucked himself into the saddle,
said "s'long," and slithered off. And no one missed him.
Danny had been there a fortnight, and consequently his personal
appearance was not now worth describing — it was better left alone,
for the honour of the bush. His hobby was that he was the
"stranger's friend", as he put it. He'd welcome "the stranger" and
chum with him, and shout for him to an unlimited extent, and
sympathise with him, hear of jobs or a "show" for him, assure him
twenty times a day that he was his friend, give him hints and advice
more or less worthless, make him drunk if possible, and keep him so
while the cheque lasted; in short, Danny would do almost anything for
the stranger except lend him a shilling, or give him some rations to
carry him on. He'd promise that many times a day, but he'd sooner
spend five pounds on drink for a man than give him a farthing.
Danny's cheque was nearly gone, and it was time he was gone too; in
fact, he had received, and was still receiving, various hints to that
effect, some of them decidedly pointed, especially the more recent
ones. But Danny was of late becoming foolishly obstinate in his
sprees, and less disposed to "git" when a landlord had done with him.
He saw the hints plainly enough, but had evidently made up his mind
to be doggedly irresponsive. It is a mistake to think that drink
always dulls a man's feelings. Some natures are all the more keenly
sensitive when alcoholically poisoned.
Danny was always front man at the shanty while his cheque was fresh
— at least, so he was given to understand, and so he apparently
understood. He was then allowed to say and do what he liked almost,
even to mauling the barmaid about. There was scarcely any limit to
the free and easy manner in which you could treat her, so long as your
money lasted. She wouldn't be offended; it wasn't business to be so
— "didn't pay." But, as soon as your title to the cheque could be
decently shelved, you had to treat her like a lady. Danny knew this
— none better; but he had been treated with too much latitude, and
rushed to his destruction.
It was Sunday afternoon, but that made no difference in things at
the shanty. Dinner was just over. The men were in the mean little
parlour off the bar, interested in a game of cards, and Alice sat in
one corner sewing. Danny was "acting the goat" round the fireplace; as
ill-luck would have it, his attention was drawn to a basket of clean
linen which stood on the side table, and from it, with sundry winks
and grimaces, he gingerly lifted a certain garment of ladies'
underwear — to put the matter decently. He held it up between his
forefingers and thumbs, and cracked a rough, foolish joke — no matter
what it was. The laugh didn't last long. Alice sprang to her feet,
flinging her work aside, and struck a stage attitude — her right arm
thrown out and the forefinger pointing rigidly, and rather crookedly,
towards the door.
"Leave the room!" she snapped at Danny. "Leave the room! How dare
you talk like that before me-e-ee!"
Danny made a step and paused irresolutely. He was sober enough to
feel the humiliation of his position, and having once been a man of
spirit, and having still the remnants of manhood about him, he did
feel it. He gave one pitiful, appealing look at her face, but saw no
mercy there. She stamped her foot again, jabbed her forefinger at the
door, and said, "Go-o-o!" in a tone that startled the majority of the
company nearly as much as it did Danny. Then Yankee Jack threw down
his cards, rose from the table, laid his strong, shapely right hand —
not roughly — on Danny's ragged shoulder, and engineered the drunk
gently through the door.
"You's better go out for a while, Danny," he said; "there wasn't
much harm in what you said, but your cheque's gone, and that makes all
the difference. It's time you went back to the station. You've got to
be careful what you say now."
When Jack returned to the parlour the barmaid had a smile for him;
but he didn't take it. He went and stood before the fire, with his
foot resting on the fender and his elbow on the mantelshelf, and
looked blackly at a print against the wall before his face.
"The old beast!" said Alice, referring to Danny. "He ought to be
kicked off the place!"
"HE'S AS GOOD AS YOU!"
The voice was Jack's; he flung the stab over his shoulder, and
with it a look that carried all the contempt he felt.
She gasped, looked blankly from face to face, and witheringly at
the back of Jack's head; but that didn't change colour or curl the
least trifle less closely.
"Did you hear that?" she cried, appealing to anyone. "You're a
nice lot o' men, you are, to sit there and hear a woman insulted, and
not one of you man enough to take her part — cowards!"
The Sydney jackeroo rose impulsively, but Jack glanced at him, and
he sat down again. She covered her face with her hands and ran
hysterically to her room.
That afternoon another bushman arrived with a cheque, and shouted
five times running at a pound a shout, and at intervals during the
rest of the day when they weren't fighting or gambling.
Alice had "got over her temper" seemingly, and was even kind to
the humble and contrite Danny, who became painfully particular with
his "Thanky, Alice" — and afterwards offensive with his unnecessarily
frequent threats to smash the first man who insulted her.
But let us draw the curtain close before that Sunday afternoon at
Stiffner's, and hold it tight. Behind it the great curse of the West
is in evidence, the chief trouble of unionism — drink, in its most
selfish, barren, and useless form.
All was quiet at Stiffner's. It was after midnight, and Stiffner
lay dead-drunk on the broad of his back on the long moonlit verandah,
with all his patrons asleep around him in various grotesque positions.
Stiffner's ragged grey head was on a cushion, and a broad maudlin
smile on his red, drink-sodden face, the lower half of which was
bordered by a dirty grey beard, like that of a frilled lizard. The
red handkerchief twisted round his neck had a ghastly effect in the
bright moonlight, making him look as if his throat was cut. The smile
was the one he went to sleep with when his wife slipped the cushion
under his head and thoughtfully removed the loose change from about
his person. Near him lay a heap that was Danny, and spread over the
bare boards were the others, some with heads pillowed on their swags,
and every man about as drunk as his neighbour. Yankee Jack lay across
the door of the barmaid's bedroom, with one arm bent under his head,
the other lying limp on the doorstep, his handsome face turned out to
the bright moonlight. The "family" were sound asleep in the detached
cottage, and Alice — the only capable person on the premises — was
left to put out the lamps and "shut up" for the night. She
extinguished the light in the bar, came out, locked the door, and
picked her way among and over the drunkards to the end of the verandah.
She clasped her hands behind her head, stretched herself, and yawned,
and then stood for a few moments looking out into the night, which
softened the ragged line of mulga to right and left, and veiled the
awful horizon of that great plain with which the "traveller"
commenced, or ended, the thirty-mile "dry stretch". Then she moved
towards her own door; before it she halted and stood, with folded
arms, looking down at the drunken Adonis at her feet.
She breathed a long breath with a sigh in it, went round to the
back, and presently returned with a buggy-cushion, which she slipped
under his head — her face close to his — very close. Then she moved
his arms gently off the threshold, stepped across him into her room,
and locked the door behind her.
There was an uneasy movement in the heap that stood, or lay, for
Danny. It stretched out, turned over, struggled to its hands and
knees, and became an object. Then it crawled to the wall, against
which it slowly and painfully up-ended itself, and stood blinking
round for the water-bag, which hung from the verandah rafters in a
line with its shapeless red nose. It staggered forward, held on by
the cords, felt round the edge of the bag for the tot, and drank about
a quart of water. Then it staggered back against the wall, stood for
a moment muttering and passing its hand aimlessly over its poor ruined
head, and finally collapsed into a shapeless rum-smelling heap and
slept once more.
The jackeroo at the end of the verandah had awakened from his
drunken sleep, but had not moved. He lay huddled on his side, with
his head on the swag; the whole length of the verandah was before him;
his eyes were wide open, but his face was in the shade. Now he rose
painfully and stood on the ground outside, with his hands in his
pockets, and gazed out over the open for a while. He breathed a long
breath, too — with a groan in it. Then he lifted his swag quietly
from the end of the floor, shouldered it, took up his water-bag and
billy, and sneaked over the road, away from the place, like a thief.
He struck across the plain, and tramped on, hour after hour, mile
after mile, till the bright moon went down with a bright star in
attendance and the other bright stars waned, and he entered the timber
and tramped through it to the "cleared road", which stretched far and
wide for twenty miles before him, with ghostly little dust-clouds at
short intervals ahead, where the frightened rabbits crossed it. And
still he went doggedly on, with the ghastly daylight on him — like a
swagman's ghost out late. And a mongrel followed faithfully all the
time unnoticed, and wondering, perhaps, at his master.
"What was yer doin' to that girl yesterday?" asked Danny of Yankee
Jack next evening, as they camped on the far side of the plain. "What
was you chaps sayin' to Alice? I heerd her cryin' in her room last
But they reckoned that he had been too drunk to hear anything
except an invitation to come and have another drink; and so it passed.