The sun hung low in the western sky when Fred brought his horse to a halt at the hitching rail in front of the saddle shed. Wearily he tipped his well worn Akubra towards the back of his head and wiped the sweat from his brow on the sleeve of his khaki shirt.
While he went about the business of unsaddling his mount and stowing the gear away in the shed, his mind dwelt on the fact that his well earned break away had been effectively reduced to a mere few hours.
“Fancy havin’ ta turn up an’ admit ya’ve been fleeced!” he muttered as he made his way across the flat to the stockmen’s quarters, cursing and kicking at any loose stones that happened in his path.
The blue heeler lying on the verandah watched him curiously and, catching the odour of ill-humour, rose and slunk off behind the building. The sight of the dog with its tail wedged between its legs served as further irritation. He aimed his boot at the animal’s feed dish, kicking it clattering and banging the length of the verandah.
Three pairs of eyes looked up questioningly when he slammed open the door to the quarters. Mick, his fellow ringer and young Tommy the Jackeroo, were playing poker while the station roustabout lounged comfortably with raised feet, reading a deadwood dick.
“Thought ya was gunna kick up yer heels down south fer a bit, Fred,” Tommy drawled as he selected three cards and placed them on the discard pile, “give us three will ya Mick?”
Fred scraped the Akubra off his head and with practised accuracy, flung it to land squarely on the hook behind the door. “Yeah, well I was until I went and lost me bloody dough.”
“Jeez mate! Howd’ya do that? Ya didn’t get fleeced playin’ poker did ya?” Mick asked, half turning in his chair and looking horrified. Mick didn’t play poker for stakes higher than matches.
Fred dragged out a chair, turned it and sat astride it with his elbows resting on the back. “Nah. Bought a coupla things from the store when I got t’Bunyip Creek ‘n Ted was clean outa change. He managed to scrape up a coupla quid but he ‘ad ta give me an IOU for the rest. Put the flamin’ thing in me top pocket ‘n went to the pub.”
Tommy had a knowing look on his face as he shook his head. “Yeah, ya went to the pub, had a skinful ‘n when ya woke up ya was skint,” he tossed his cards down on the deck. “Yer a lousy dealer Mick – that the story Fred?”
“Yeah, that’s about it Tommy. Owd ya know?”
“Same thing ‘appened ta me awhile back. Did thirty quid jest like that!” He snapped his fingers in the air and shook his head. “Funny thing that – never did work out ‘ow I come to lose it neither.”
The roustabout’s attention strayed from his book to the talk at the table. He’d been taken on the payroll only recently and although they were all friendly enough, he was very much aware he was an outsider. The feeling wasn’t new. He was an outsider because he never stayed in a place long enough to form any attachments.
Life’s experiences were many and varied for the roustabout and now the lost IOUs stirred interesting memories. Years ago when he was up in the Kimberleys there was a hullaballoo about a bloke issuing IOUs that vanished into thin air. A good many ringers lost their pay cheques before the bloke was rumbled, but there being no proof to hand over to the law, they simply ran him out of the area. The roustabout thought at the time that if he’d been a victim he’d have figured out a way of getting even.
“You blokes’ve been conned by an expert, I reckon,” he ventured as he joined them at the table.
“Ows that, mate?” Fred asked.
“Well, this Ted runs outa change, right?” Fred and Tommy both nod. “He writes out an IOU ‘n you put it in the old top pocket. In the mornin’ ya wake up after a hard night and ya pat the old pocket ‘n there’s nuthin’ in it. That is nuthin’ but a bit of confetti.”
Again Fred and Tommy not their heads in agreement.
“That confetti,” the roustabout said leaning in closer, “that confetti was yer IOU! Y’see, this Ted, he puts the paper in the oven fer a bit which make it kinda fragile like – it breaks up inta crumbs after awhile ‘n you …. well ya got no IOU so he don’t owe ya nuthin.”
There was a stunned silence for a few seconds as the three of them, eyes fixed on the roustabout’s face, digested his words. Then Fred slammed his fist on the table and yelled, “the bloody mongrel!”
Tommy emitted a long low whistle, “crikey, talk about cunnin’! Bloody Ted ‘as been gettin money for jam. Me thirty bloody quid he got ‘n all.
“Well he aint gunn git off scot free with my dough,” Fred declared.
“’Ow ya gunna git it back mate? He aint gunna part up with it jest cos ya ask.”
“What say we go in tomorra ‘n front ‘im eh? When ‘e knows we’ll blow ‘is scheme to the whole bloody bush e’ll pay up with interest.” Fred turned to the roustabout. “Wadda ya reckon, Jim?”
The roustabout shrugged his shoulders. “Well, if it was me in your boots, I reckon I’d want to get me dough back before makin’ any broadcast. ‘E aint goin’ nowhere so jest bide yer time till ya come up with a plan ta git even.”
There was complete silence for the minute it took for the roustabout’s words to sink in. Fred stopped chewing the match and nodded his head. “Yeah!” he exclaimed as though enlightened, “that sorta makes sense.”
Bunyip Creek staged its annual picnic race meeting on the easter weekend regardless of what the weather chose to do. It was a fund-raiser for the Royal Flying Doctor Service so it was an event no self-respecting bushie would miss.
They came from properties near and far, tossing down their swags in a convenient spot not too great a distance from the pub verandah. The racetrack itself had been carved out of the bush to run past the pub on the eastern side, making it totally unnecessary for anyone to venture further than the verandah.
Fred produced the stone in the crowded bar-room after the last race. You could have heard a pin drop in the sudden hush. He leaned his elbows on the bar and turned it over and over in his hands, admiring the colours that flashed in the lamplight.
“Where’d ya come by a chunk like that?” breathed a ringer from Anna Creek, “ya didn’t git it around ‘ere, did ya?”
Fred’s eyes slid from the object in his hands to the man behind the bar, “what’ll ya lend me against this lil bewdy, Ted?”
Ted made no move to inspect the stone but there was a sparkle of interest in his eyes. “Where’d ya get it, Fred? I gotta be sure it aint stolen property, ya know.”
“Oh, it’s mine orright,” Fred told him, “me ol’ man dug it out of Coober Pedy. Nice bit o’ opal that, Ted. It’s been me sinka fund like; fer a rainy day y’see.” He put it reverently on the bar.
Ted picked it up and slowly turned it in his hands. “I’ll give ya one fifty for it.”
“Nah, I reckon that’s a bit light,” Fred said, “it’s gotta be worth a coupla ‘undred.” He held it above his head. “Any ‘o you blokes interested in gettin’ a opal, cheap like?”
“I’ll give ya a ‘undred ‘n seventy, mate,” answered a stockman from Lizard Downs, who was holding up the bar at the far end.
His mate downed the contents of his glass and slammed it down noisily to indicate his need for a refill. “A ‘undred an’ seventy-five,” he yelled.
Ted shot an exasperated look towards the bidders, “If ya want it y’ll ‘ave to top two hundred,” he said.
“Y’kin ‘ave it. “C’mon, give a man a drink, will ya?”
When Fred left the bar a short time later, Tommy and Mick followed. “Y’gunna let us in on it, Fred?” Tommy asked curiously.
Fred slapped the verandah post with the flat of his hand and whooped for joy. “I bloody done it, Tommy me lad. I bloody well got me dough back,” he slapped Tommy on the back, “and yours and a little bit fer me trouble as well.”
Mick and Tommy both slapped him on the back, “good on yer, mate,” Mick laughed, “the opal – is it a dud then?”
“Its real enough – what there is of it y’know,” Fred grinned widely, “I guess y’could say it’s more a pretty piece of quartz. Me ol’ man found it at Coober Pedy orright, but if Ted ‘ad known me ol’ man, he’d a known it wouldn’t be worth much; me ol’ man was one of those blokes who’d sell the gold filling outa ‘is mother’s teeth.”
“Jeez Fred, when Ted finds out he’ll come gunnin’ fer ya.” Tommy warned and then whistled, “Two ‘undred lovely smackers. Phew!”
“Yep, ol’ Ted’ll be as mad as a mallee bull but he won’t do nuthin’,” Fred grinned, “ I reckon ‘e might keep good an’ quiet when he knows we tumbled to ‘is little scheme. ‘E won’t be bakin’ any more paper in a ‘urry, neither.”