The Iron-Bark Chip by Henry Lawson
Dave Regan and party — bush-fencers, tank-sinkers, rough
carpenters, — were finishing the third and last culvert of their
contract on the last section of the new railway line, and had already
sent in their vouchers for the completed contract, so that there might
be no excuse for extra delay in connection with the cheque.
Now it had been expressly stipulated in the plans and
specifications that the timber for certain beams and girders was to be
iron-bark and no other, and Government inspectors were authorised to
order the removal from the ground of any timber or material they might
deem inferior, or not in accordance with the stipulations. The
railway contractor's foreman and inspector of sub-contractors was a
practical man and a bushman, but he had been a timber-getter himself;
his sympathies were bushy, and he was on winking terms with Dave
Regan. Besides, extended time was expiring, and the contractors were
in a hurry to complete the line. But the Government inspector was a
reserved man who poked round on his independent own and appeared in
lonely spots at unexpected times — with apparently no definite object
in life — like a grey kangaroo bothered by a new wire fence, but
unsuspicious of the presence of humans. He wore a grey suit, rode, or
mostly led, an ashen-grey horse; the grass was long and grey, so he
was seldom spotted until he was well within the horizon and bearing
leisurely down on a party of sub-contractors, leading his horse.
Now iron-bark was scarce and distant on those ridges, and another
timber, similar in appearance, but much inferior in grain and
"standing" quality, was plentiful and close at hand. Dave and party
were "about full of" the job and place, and wanted to get their cheque
and be gone to another "spec" they had in view. So they came to
reckon they'd get the last girder from a handy tree, and have it
squared, in place, and carefully and conscientiously tarred before the
inspector happened along, if he did. But they didn't. They got it
squared, and ready to be lifted into its place; the kindly darkness of
tar was ready to cover a fraud that took four strong men with crowbars
and levers to shift; and now (such is the regular cussedness of
things) as the fraudulent piece of timber lay its last hour on the
ground, looking and smelling, to their guilty imaginations like
anything but iron-bark, they were aware of the Government inspector
drifting down upon them obliquely, with something of the atmosphere of
a casual Bill or Jim who had dropped out of his easy-going track to
see how they were getting on, and borrow a match. They had more than
half hoped that, as he had visited them pretty frequently during the
progress of the work, and knew how near it was to completion, he
wouldn't bother coming any more. But it's the way with the Government.
You might move heaven and earth in vain endeavour to get the
"Guvermunt" to flutter an eyelash over something of the most momentous
importance to yourself and mates and the district — even to the
country; but just when you are leaving authority severely alone, and
have strong reasons for not wanting to worry or interrupt it, and not
desiring it to worry about you, it will take a fancy into its head to
come along and bother.
"It's always the way!" muttered Dave to his mates. "I knew the
beggar would turn up! . . . And the only cronk log we've had, too!"
he added, in an injured tone. "If this had 'a' been the only blessed
iron-bark in the whole contract, it would have been all right. . . .
Good-day, sir!" (to the inspector). "It's hot?"
The inspector nodded. He was not of an impulsive nature. He got
down from his horse and looked at the girder in an abstracted way; and
presently there came into his eyes a dreamy, far-away, sad sort of
expression, as if there had been a very sad and painful occurrence in
his family, way back in the past, and that piece of timber in some way
reminded him of it and brought the old sorrow home to him. He blinked
three times, and asked, in a subdued tone:
"Is that iron-bark?"
Jack Bentley, the fluent liar of the party, caught his breath with
a jerk and coughed, to cover the gasp and gain time. "I—iron-bark?
Of course it is! I thought you would know iron-bark, mister."
(Mister was silent.) "What else d'yer think it is?"
The dreamy, abstracted expression was back. The inspector,
by-the-way, didn't know much about timber, but he had a great deal of
instinct, and went by it when in doubt.
"L—look here, mister!" put in Dave Regan, in a tone of innocent
puzzlement and with a blank bucolic face. "B—but don't the plans and
specifications say iron-bark? Ours does, anyway. I—I'll git the
papers from the tent and show yer, if yer like."
It was not necessary. The inspector admitted the fact slowly. He
stooped, and with an absent air picked up a chip. He looked at it
abstractedly for a moment, blinked his threefold blink; then, seeming
to recollect an appointment, he woke up suddenly and asked briskly:
"Did this chip come off that girder?"
Blank silence. The inspector blinked six times, divided in threes,
rapidly, mounted his horse, said "Day," and rode off.
Regan and party stared at each other.
"Wha—what did he do that for?" asked Andy Page, the third in the
"Do what for, you fool?" enquired Dave.
"Ta—take that chip for?"
"He's taking it to the office!" snarled Jack Bentley.
"What—what for? What does he want to do that for?"
"To get it blanky well analysed! You ass! Now are yer satisfied?"
And Jack sat down hard on the timber, jerked out his pipe, and said to
Dave, in a sharp, toothache tone:
"We—well! what are we to do now?" enquired Andy, who was the
hardest grafter, but altogether helpless, hopeless, and useless in a
crisis like this.
"Grain and varnish the bloomin' culvert!" snapped Bentley.
But Dave's eyes, that had been ruefully following the inspector,
suddenly dilated. The inspector had ridden a short distance along the
line, dismounted, thrown the bridle over a post, laid the chip (which
was too big to go in his pocket) on top of it, got through the fence,
and was now walking back at an angle across the line in the direction
of the fencing party, who had worked up on the other side, a little
more than opposite the culvert.
Dave took in the lay of the country at a glance and thought
"Gimme an iron-bark chip!" he said suddenly.
Bentley, who was quick-witted when the track was shown him, as is
a kangaroo dog (Jack ran by sight, not scent), glanced in the line of
Dave's eyes, jumped up, and got a chip about the same size as that
which the inspector had taken.
Now the "lay of the country" sloped generally to the line from both
sides, and the angle between the inspector's horse, the fencing party,
and the culvert was well within a clear concave space; but a couple
of hundred yards back from the line and parallel to it (on the side on
which Dave's party worked their timber) a fringe of scrub ran to
within a few yards of a point which would be about in line with a
single tree on the cleared slope, the horse, and the fencing party.
Dave took the iron-bark chip, ran along the bed of the water-course
into the scrub, raced up the siding behind the bushes, got safely,
though without breathing, across the exposed space, and brought the
tree into line between him and the inspector, who was talking to the
fencers. Then he began to work quickly down the slope towards the tree
(which was a thin one), keeping it in line, his arms close to his
sides, and working, as it were, down the trunk of the tree, as if the
fencing party were kangaroos and Dave was trying to get a shot at
them. The inspector, by-the-bye, had a habit of glancing now and then
in the direction of his horse, as though under the impression that it
was flighty and restless and inclined to bolt on opportunity. It was
an anxious moment for all parties concerned — except the inspector.
They didn't want HIM to be perturbed. And, just as Dave reached the
foot of the tree, the inspector finished what he had to say to the
fencers, turned, and started to walk briskly back to his horse. There
was a thunderstorm coming. Now was the critical moment — there were
certain prearranged signals between Dave's party and the fencers which
might have interested the inspector, but none to meet a case like this.
Jack Bentley gasped, and started forward with an idea of
intercepting the inspector and holding him for a few minutes in bogus
conversation. Inspirations come to one at a critical moment, and it
flashed on Jack's mind to send Andy instead. Andy looked as innocent
and guileless as he was, but was uncomfortable in the vicinity of
"funny business", and must have an honest excuse. "Not that that
mattered," commented Jack afterwards; "it would have taken the
inspector ten minutes to get at what Andy was driving at, whatever it
"Run, Andy! Tell him there's a heavy thunderstorm coming and he'd
better stay in our humpy till it's over. Run! Don't stand staring
like a blanky fool. He'll be gone!"
Andy started. But just then, as luck would have it, one of the
fencers started after the inspector, hailing him as "Hi, mister!" He
wanted to be set right about the survey or something — or to pretend
to want to be set right — from motives of policy which I haven't time
to explain here.
That fencer explained afterwards to Dave's party that he "seen what
you coves was up to," and that's why he called the inspector back.
But he told them that after they had told their yarn — which was a
"Come back, Andy!" cried Jack Bentley.
Dave Regan slipped round the tree, down on his hands and knees,
and made quick time through the grass which, luckily, grew pretty tall
on the thirty or forty yards of slope between the tree and the horse.
Close to the horse, a thought struck Dave that pulled him up, and
sent a shiver along his spine and a hungry feeling under it. The horse
would break away and bolt! But the case was desperate. Dave ventured
an interrogatory "Cope, cope, cope?" The horse turned its head
wearily and regarded him with a mild eye, as if he'd expected him to
come, and come on all fours, and wondered what had kept him so long;
then he went on thinking. Dave reached the foot of the post; the horse
obligingly leaning over on the other leg. Dave reared head and
shoulders cautiously behind the post, like a snake; his hand went up
twice, swiftly — the first time he grabbed the inspector's chip, and
the second time he put the iron-bark one in its place. He drew down
and back, and scuttled off for the tree like a gigantic tailless
A few minutes later he walked up to the culvert from along the
creek, smoking hard to settle his nerves.
The sky seemed to darken suddenly; the first great drops of the
thunderstorm came pelting down. The inspector hurried to his horse,
and cantered off along the line in the direction of the fettlers'
He had forgotten all about the chip, and left it on top of the
Dave Regan sat down on the beam in the rain and swore