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The Stranger’s Hut
by [?]

I had come a long journey across country with Glenn, the squatter, and now we were entering the homestead paddock of his sheep-station, Winnanbar. Afar to the left was a stone building, solitary in a waste of saltbush and dead-finish scrub. I asked Glenn what it was.

He answered, smilingly: “The Strangers’ Hut. Sundowners and that lot sleep there; there’s always some flour and tea in a hammock, under the roof, and there they are with a pub of their own. It’s a fashion we have in Australia.”

“It seems all right, Glenn,” I said with admiration. “It’s surer than Elijah’s ravens.”

“It saves us from their prowling about the barracks, and camping on the front veranda.”

“How many do you have of a week?”

“That depends. Sundowners are as uncertain as they are unknown quantities. After shearing-time they’re thickest; in the dead of summer fewest. This is the dead of summer,” and, for the hundredth time in our travel, Glenn shook his head sadly.

Sadness was ill-suited to his burly form and bronzed face, but it was there. He had some trouble, I thought, deeper than drought. It was too introspective to have its origin solely in the fact that sheep were dying by thousands, that the stock-routes were as dry of water as the hard sky above us, and that it was a toss-up whether many families in the West should not presently abandon their stations, driven out by a water-famine–and worse.

After a short silence Glenn stood up in the trap, and, following the circle of the horizon with his hand, said: “There’s not an honest blade of grass in all this wretched West. This whole business is gambling with God.”

“It is hard on women and children that they must live here,” I remarked, with my eyes on the Strangers’ Hut.

“It’s harder for men without them,” he mournfully replied; and at that moment I began to doubt whether Glenn, whom I had heard to be a bachelor, was not tired of that calm but chilly state. He followed up this speech immediately by this: “Look at that drinking-tank!”

The thing was not pleasant in the eye. Sheep were dying and dead by thousands round it, and the crows were feasting horribly. We became silent again.

The Strangers’ Hut, and its unique and, to me, awesome hospitality, was still in my mind. It remained with me until, impelled by curiosity, I wandered away towards it in the glow and silence of the evening. The walk was no brief matter, but at length I stood near the lonely public, where no name of guest is ever asked, and no bill ever paid. And then I fell to musing on how many life-histories these grey walls had sheltered for a fitful hour, how many stumbling wayfarers had eaten and drunken in this Hotel of Refuge. I dropped my glances on the ground; a bird, newly dead, lay at my feet, killed by the heat.

At that moment I heard a child’s crying. I started forward, then faltered. Why, I could not tell, save that the crying seemed so a part of the landscape that it might have come out of the sickly sunset, out of the yellow sky, out of the aching earth about me. To follow it might be like pursuing dreams. The crying ceased.

Thus for a moment, and then I walked round to the door of the hut. At the sound of slight moaning I paused again. Then I crossed the threshold resolutely.

A woman with a child in her arms sat on a rude couch. Her lips were clinging to the infant’s forehead. At the sound of my footsteps she raised her head.

“Ah!” she said, and, trembling, rose to her feet. She was fair-haired and strong, if sad, of face. Perhaps she never had been beautiful, but in health her face must have been persistent in its charm. Even now it was something noble.