The Bars of Iron
“Fight? I’ll fight you with pleasure, but I shall probably kill you if I do. Do you want to be killed?” Brief and contemptuous the question fell. The speaker was a mere lad. He could not have been more than nineteen. But he held himself with the superb British assurance that has its root in the British public school and which, once planted, in certain soils is wholly ineradicable.
The man he faced was considerably his superior in height and build. He also was British, but he had none of the other’s careless ease of bearing. He stood like an angry bull, with glaring, bloodshot eyes.
He swore a terrific oath in answer to the scornful enquiry. “I’ll break every bone in your body!” he vowed. “You little, sneering bantam, I’ll smash your face in! I’ll thrash you to a pulp!”
The other threw up his head and laughed. He was sublimely unafraid. But his dark eyes shone red as he flung back the challenge. “All right, you drunken bully! Try!” he said.
They stood in the garish light of a Queensland bar, surrounded by an eager, gaping crowd of farmers, boundary-riders, sheep-shearers, who had come down to this township on the coast on business or pleasure at the end of the shearing season.
None of them knew how the young Englishman came to be among them. He seemed to have entered the drinking-saloon without any very definite object in view, unless he had been spurred thither by a spirit of adventure. And having entered, a boyish interest in the motley crowd, which was evidently new to him, had induced him to remain. He had sat in a corner, keenly observant but wholly unobtrusive, for the greater part of an hour, till in fact the attention of the great bully now confronting him had by some ill-chance been turned in his direction.
The man was three parts drunk, and for some reason, not very comprehensible, he had chosen to resent the presence of this clean-limbed, clean-featured English lad. Possibly he recognized in him a type which for its very cleanness he abhorred. Possibly his sodden brain was stirred by an envy which the Colonials round him were powerless to excite. For he also was British-born. And he still bore traces, albeit they were not very apparent at that moment, of the breed from which he had sprung.
Whatever the cause of his animosity, he had given it full and ready vent. A few coarse expressions aimed in the direction of the young stranger had done their work. The boy had risen to go, with disgust written openly upon his face, and instantly the action had been seized upon by the older man as a cause for offence.
He had not found his victim slow to respond. In fact his challenge had been flung back with an alacrity that had somewhat astonished the bystanders and rendered interference a matter of some difficulty.