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PAGE 2

Stragglers
by [?]

The Exception is an outcast amongst bush outcasts, and looks better fitted for Sydney Domain. He lies on the bottom of a galvanized-iron case, with a piece of blue blanket for a pillow. He is dressed in a blue cotton jumper, a pair of very old and ragged tweed trousers, and one boot and one slipper. He found the slipper in the last shed, and the boot in the rubbish-heap here. When his own boots gave out he walked a hundred and fifty miles with his feet roughly sewn up in pieces of sacking from an old wool-bale. No sign of a patch, or an attempt at mending anywhere about his clothes, and that is a bad sign; when a swagman leaves off mending or patching his garments, his case is about hopeless. The Exception’s swag consists of the aforesaid bit of blanket rolled up and tied with pieces of rag. He has no water- bag; carries his water in a billy; and how he manages without a bag is known only to himself. He has read every scrap of print within reach, and now lies on his side, with his face to the wall and one arm thrown up over his head; the jumper is twisted back, and leaves his skin bare from hip to arm-pit. His lower face is brutal, his eyes small and shifty, and ugly straight lines run across his low forehead. He says very little, but scowls most of the time–poor devil. He might be, or at least seem, a totally different man under more favourable conditions. He is probably a free labourer.

A very sick jackaroo lies in one of the bunks. A sandy, sawney-looking Bourke native takes great interest in this wreck; watches his every movement as though he never saw a sick man before. The men lie about in the bunks, or the shade of the hut, and rest, and read all the soiled and mutilated scraps of literature they can rake out of the rubbish, and sleep, and wake up swimming in perspiration, and growl about the heat.

It is hot, and two shearers’ cats–a black and a white one–sit in one of the upper bunks with their little red tongues out, panting like dogs. These cats live well during shearing, and take their chances the rest of the year–just as shed rouseabouts have to do. They seem glad to see the traveller come; he makes things more homelike. They curl and sidle affectionately round the table-legs, and the legs of the men, and purr, and carry their masts up, and regard the cooking with feline interest and approval, and look as cheerful as cats can–and as contented. God knows how many tired, dusty, and sockless ankles they rub against in their time.

Now and then a man takes his tucker-bags and goes down to the station for a bit of flour, or meat, or tea, or sugar, choosing the time when the manager is likely to be out on the run. The cook here is a “good cook,” from a traveller’s point of view; too good to keep his place long.

Occasionally someone gets some water in an old kerosene-tin and washes a shirt or pair of trousers, and a pair or two of socks–or foot-rags–(Prince Alfreds they call them). That is, he soaks some of the stiffness out of these articles.

Three times a day the black billies and cloudy nose-bags are placed on the table. The men eat in a casual kind of way, as though it were only a custom of theirs, a matter of form–a habit which could be left off if it were worth while.

The Exception is heard to remark to no one in particular that he’ll give all he has for a square meal.

“An’ ye’d get it cheap, begod!” says a big Irish shearer. “Come and have dinner with us; there’s plenty there.”

But the Exception only eats a few mouthfuls, and his appetite is gone; his stomach has become contracted, perhaps.