Within a week we returned to the homestead, and for twenty-four hours Cheon gloated over us, preparing every delicacy that appealed to him as an antidote to an outbush course of beef and damper. Then a man rode into our lives who was to teach us the depth and breadth of the meaning of the word mate—a sturdy, thick-set man with haggard, tired eyes and deep lines about his firm strong mouth that told of recent and prolonged tension.
“Me mate’s sick; got a touch of fever,” he said simply dismounting near the verandah. “I’ve left him camped back there at the Warlochs”; and as the Maluka prepared remedies—making up the famous Gulf mixture—the man with grateful thanks, found room in his pockets and saddle-pouch for eggs, milk, and brandy, confident that “these’ll soon put him right,” adding, with the tense lines deepening about his mouth as he touched on what had brought them there: “He’s been real bad, ma’am. I’ve had a bit of a job to get him as far as this.” In the days to come we were to learn, little by little, that the “bit of a job” had meant keeping a sick man in his saddle for the greater part of the fifty-mile dry stage, with forty miles of “bad going” on top of that, and fighting for him every inch of the way that terrible symptom of malaria—that longing to “chuck it,” and lie down and die.
Bad water after that fifty-mile dry made men with a touch of fever only too common at the homestead, and knowing how much the comforts of the homestead could do, when the Maluka came out with the medicines he advised bringing the sick man on as soon as he had rested sufficiently. “You’ve only to ask for it and we’ll send the old station buck-board across,” he said, and the man began fumbling uneasily at his saddle-girths, and said something evasive about “giving trouble”; but when the Maluka—afraid that a man’s life might be the forfeit of another man’s shrinking fear of causing trouble—added that on second thoughts we would ride across as soon as horses could be brought in, he flushed hotly and stammered: “If you please, ma’am. If the boss’ll excuse me, me mate’s dead-set against a woman doing things for him. If you wouldn’t mind not coming. He’d rather have me. Me and him’s been mates this seven years. The boss ’ll understand.”
The boss did understand, and rode across to the Warlochs alone, to find a man as shy and reticent as a bushman can be, and full of dread lest the woman at the homestead would insist on visiting him. “You see, that’s why he wouldn’t come on,” the mate said. “He couldn’t bear the thought of a woman doing things for him “; and the Maluka explained that the missus understood all that. That lesson had been easily learned; for again and again men had come in “down with a touch of fever,” whose temperatures went up at the very thought of a woman doing things for them, and always the actual nursing was left to the Maluka or the Dandy, the woman seeing to egg-flips and such things, exchanging at first perhaps only an occasional greeting, and listening at times to strange life-histories later on.