The swim being beyond the horses, they were left hobbled out on the north banks, to wait for the river to fall, and after another swift race down and across stream, Mine Host landed every one safely on the south side of the flood, and soon we were clambering up the steep track that led from the river to the “Pub.”
Coming up from the river, the Katherine Settlement appeared to consist solely of the “Pub” and its accompanying store; but beyond the “Pub,” which, by the way, seemed to be hanging on to its own verandah posts for support, we found an elongated, three-roomed building, nestling under deep verandahs, and half-hidden beneath a grove of lofty scarlet flowering ponchianas.
“The Cottage is always set apart for distinguished visitors,” Mine Host said, bidding us welcome with another smile, but never a hint that he was placing his own private quarters at our disposal. Like all bushmen, he could be delicately reticent when conferring a favour; but a forgotten razor-strop betrayed him later on.
In the meantime we discovered the remainder of the Settlement from the Cottage verandahs, spying out the Police Station as it lurked in ambush just round the first bend in a winding bush track—apparently keeping one eye on the “Pub”; and then we caught a gleam of white roofs away beyond further bends in the track, where the Overland Telegraph “Department” stood on a little rise, aloof from the “Pub” and the Police, shut away from the world, yet attending to its affairs, and, incidentally, to those of the bush-folk: a tiny Settlement, with a tiny permanent population of four men and two women—women who found their own homes all-sufficient, and rarely left them, although the men-folk were here, there, and everywhere.
All around and within the Settlement was bush: and beyond the bush, stretching away and away on every side of it, those hundreds of thousands of square miles that constitute the Never-Never—miles sending out and absorbing again from day to day the floating population of the Katherine.
Before supper the Telegraph Department and the Police Station called on the Cottage to present compliments. Then the Wag came with his welcome. “Didn’t expect you to-day,” he drawled, with unmistakable double meaning in his drawl. “You’re come sooner than we expected. Must have had luck with the rivers “; and Mac became enthusiastic. “Luck!” he cried. “Luck! She’s got the luck of the Auld Yin himself—skinned through everything by the skin of our teeth. No one else’ll get through those rivers under a week.” And they didn’t.
Remembering the telegrams, the Wag shot a swift quizzing glance at him; but it took more than a glance to disconcert Mac once his mind was made up, and he met it unmoved, and entered into a vivid description of the “passage of the Fergusson,” which filled in our time until supper.