Story type: Literature
We were camped on the edge of a billabong. Barlas was kneading a damper, Drysdale was tenderly packing coals about the billy to make the water boil, and I was cooking the chops. The hobbled horses were picking the grass and the old-man salt-bush near, and Bimbi, the black boy, was gathering twigs and bark for the fire. That is the order of merit–Barlas, Drysdale, myself, the horses and Bimbi. Then comes the Cadi all by himself. He is given an isolated and indolent position, because he was our guest and also because, in a way, he represented the Government. And though bushmen do not believe much in a far-off Government–even though they say when protesting against a bad Land Law, “And your Petitioners will ever Pray,” and all that kind of yabber-yabber–they give its representative the lazy side of the fire and a fig of the best tobacco when he bails up a camp as the Cadi did ours. Stewart Ruttan, the Cadi, was the new magistrate at Windowie and Gilgan, which stand for a huge section of the Carpentaria country. He was now on his way to Gilgan to try some cases there. He was a new chum, though he had lived in Australia for years. As Barlas said, he’d been kept in a cultivation-paddock in Sydney and Brisbane; and he was now going to take the business of justice out of the hands of Heaven and its trusted agents the bushmen, and reduce the land to the peace of the Beatitudes by the imposing reign of law and summary judgments. Barlas had just said as much, though in different language.
I knew by the way that Barlas dropped the damper on the hot ashes and swung round on his heel that he was in a bad temper. “And so you think, Cadi,” said he, “that we squatters and bushmen are a strong, murderous lot; that we hunt down the Myalls–[Aborigines]–like kangaroos or dingoes, and unrighteously take justice in our own hands instead of handing it over to you?”
“I think,” said the Cadi, “that individual and private revenge should not take the place of the Courts of Law. If the blacks commit depredations–“
“Depredations!” interjected Drysdale with sharp scorn.
“If they commit depredations and crimes,” the Cadi continued, “they should be captured as criminals are captured elsewhere and be brought in and tried. In that way respect would be shown to British law and–” here he hesitated slightly, for Barlas’s face was not pleasant to see–“and the statutes.”
But Barlas’s voice was almost compassionate as he said: “Cadi, every man to his trade, and you’ve got yours. But you haven’t learned yet that this isn’t Brisbane or Melbourne. You haven’t stopped to consider how many police would be necessary for this immense area of country if you are really to be of any use. And see here,”–his face grew grim and dark, “you don’t know what it is to wait for the law to set things right in this Never Never Land. There isn’t a man in the Carpentaria and Port Darwin country but has lost a friend by the cowardly crack of a waddy in the dead of night or a spear from behind a tree. Never any fair fighting, but red slaughter and murder–curse their black hearts!” Barlas gulped down what seemed very like a sob.
Drysdale and I knew how strongly Barlas felt. He had been engaged to be married to a girl on the Daly River, and a week before the wedding she and her mother and her two brothers were butchered by blacks whom they had often befriended and fed. We knew what had turned Barlas’s hair grey and spoiled his life.
Drysdale took up the strain: “Yes, Cadi, you’ve got the true missionary gospel, the kind of yabber they fire at each other over tea and buns at Darling Point and Toorak–all about the poor native and the bad, bad men who don’t put peas in their guns, and do sometimes get an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth…. Come here, Bimbi.” Bimbi came.
“Yes, master,” Bimbi said.
“You kill that black-fellow mother belonging to you?”
“Yes,” Drysdale continued, “Bimbi went out with a police expedition against his own tribe, and himself cut his own mother’s head off. As a race, as a family, the blacks have no loyalty. They will track their own brothers down for the whites as ruthlessly as they track down the whites. As a race they are treacherous and vile, though as individuals they may have good points.”
“No, Cadi,” once more added Barlas, “we can get along very well without your consolidated statutes or High Courts or Low Courts just yet. They are too slow. Leave the black devils to us. You can never prove anything against them in a court of law. We’ve tried that. Tribal punishment is the only proper thing for individual crime. That is what the nations practise in the islands of the South Seas. A trader or a Government official is killed. Then a man-of-war sweeps a native village out of existence with Hotchkiss guns. Cadi, we like you; but we say to you, Go back to your cultivation-paddock at Brisbane, and marry a wife and beget children before the Lord, and feed on the Government, and let us work out our own salvation. We’ll preserve British justice and the statutes, too. … There, the damper, as Bimbi would say, is ‘corbon budgery’, and your chop is done to a turn, Cadi. And now let’s talk of something that doesn’t leave a bad taste in the mouth.”
The Cadi undoubtedly was more at home with reminiscences of nights at the Queensland Club and moonlight picnics at lovely Humpy Bong and champagne spreads in a Government launch than at dispensing law in the Carpentaria district. And he had eager listeners. Drysdale’s open-mouthed, admiring “My word!” as he puffed his pipe, his back against an ironbark tree, was most eloquent of long banishment from the delights of the “cultivation-paddock”; and Barlas nodded frequently his approval, and was less grim than usual. Yet, peaceful as we were, it might have puzzled a stranger to see that all of us were armed–armed in this tenantless, lonely wilderness! Lonely and tenantless enough it seemed. There was the range of the Copper-mine hills to the south, lighted by the wan moon; and between and to the west a rough scrub country, desolating beyond words, and where even edible snakes would be scarce; spots of dead-finish, gidya, and brigalow-bush to north and east, and in the trees by the billabong the cry of the cockatoo and the laughing-jackass. It was lonely, but surely it was safe. Yes, perhaps it was safe!
It was late when we turned in, our heads upon our saddles, for the Cadi had been more than amusing–he had been confidential, and some political characters were roughly overhauled for our benefit, while so-called Society did not escape flagellation. Next morning the Cadi left us. He gave us his camps–Bora Bora, Budgery-Gar, Wintelliga, and Gilgan–since we were to go in his direction also soon. He turned round in his saddle as he rode off, and said gaily: “Gentlemen, I hope you’ll always help to uphold the majesty of the law as nobly as you have sustained its envoy from your swags.”
Drysdale and I waved our hands to him, but Barlas muttered something between his teeth. We had two days of cattle-hunting in the Copper-mine hills, and then we started westward, in the tracks of the Cadi, to make for Barlas’s station. The second day we camped at Bora Bora Creek. We had just hobbled the horses, and were about to build a fire, when Bimbi came running to us. “Master, master,” he said to Drysdale, “that fellow Cadi yarraman mumkull over there. Plenty myall mandowie!”–(‘Master, master, the Cadi’s horse is dead over there, and there are plenty of black fellows’ tracks about.’)
We found the horse pierced with spears. The Cadi had evidently mounted and tried to get away. And soon, by a clump of the stay-a-while bush, we discovered, alas! the late companion of our camp-fire. He was gashed from head to foot, and naked.
We buried him beneath a rustling sandal-tree, and on its bark carved the words:
“Sacred to the memory of Stewart Ruttan.”
And beneath, Barlas added the following:
“The Cadi sleeps. The Law regards him not.”
In a pocket of the Cadi’s coat, which lay near, we found the picture of a pretty girl. On it was written:
“To dearest Stewart, from Alice.”
Barlas’s face was stern and drawn. He looked at us from under his shaggy brows.
“There’s a Court to be opened,” he said. “Do you stand for law or justice?”
“For justice,” we replied.
Four days later in a ravine at Budgery-Gar a big camp of blacks were feasting. With loathsome pantomime they were re-enacting the murders they had committed within the past few days; murders of innocent white women and children, and good men and true–among them the Cadi, God help him! Great fires were burning in the centre of the camp, and the bodies of the black devils writhed with hideous colour in the glare. Effigies of murdered whites were speared and mangled with brutal cries, and then black women of the camp were brought out, and mockeries of unnameable horrors were performed. Hell had emptied forth its carrion.
But twelve bitter white men looked down upon this scene from the scrub and rocks above, and their teeth were set. Barlas, their leader, turned to them and said: “This court is open. Are you ready?”
The click of twelve rifles was the reply.
When these twelve white jurymen rode away from the ravine there was not one but believed that justice had been done by the High Court of Budgery-Gar.