Highly Commended in the Stringybark Short Story contest 2018, and published in Timber!
The trouble with Western Australia, mused Harry Mason, is the distance that lies between towns.
He held the reins loosely and stared ahead, not really seeing the horse in front of him, as the gelding stepped along the two ruts which passed for a road here, 15 miles west of Katanning, and about 10 miles east of Kojonup on this route. His sulky was reasonably comfortable, and his horse knew its job, so Harry relaxed, drowsy in the afternoon sun.
50 delicious guineas, made up of the Queen’s pennies and shillings and seven nuggets of Kalgoorlie gold with two silver dollars from the wreck of the Rapid were locked in the safe-box snug beneath his seat, safe, he hoped, from any opportunistic thief on the road. This far south of Perth he was unlikely to meet any bushrangers. In fact, he was unlikely to meet anyone, and he desperately needed an accomplice for his next show. Despite the indignity of being driven out of Katanning to the shouts of “Fraud!” he calculated that he could stay ahead of any trouble in Kojonup.
He pushed back his black bowler hat and wiped his forehead with an outsized white handkerchief. His shabby three-piece suit was hot and discommodious. He longed for the cool breezes of evening and a camp near a creek. His stiff stand-up collar and striped frock coat for show-time were neatly folded in a trunk tied behind the seat, but thankfully he wouldn’t be needing those for some days.
The trunk had the words “Harry Mason, World Famous Mesmerist” stencilled in large yellow letters and announcing his profession to anyone coming up behind the sulky. In the heat, he continued his reverie, fantasizing nights playing the big stages in Perth, perhaps even taking the boat to the metropolises of Melbourne and Sydney, nights where people would believe the healings he could perform while audience-members were in a somnambulist state. The ignorant country people of Western Australia had caused him pain: they did not know what was real when they saw the genuine act before them.
The ruts in the road were reducing in size, and the sulky bounced gently on a sandy stretch of track. The rocking motion made the great mesmerist close his eyes and sway with the cart.
“Howdy, Harry Mason, world famous mesmerist!” Harry jerked awake and turned in his seat in the direction of the voice. The sand must have muffled the horse’s footsteps, so the rider had been able to creep up behind him, Harold thought. On a spotted Appaloosa mare sat a man with tan-coloured trousers with leathers sewn on the inside, the side where human flesh gripped horse-flank. He wore a cream shirt without a collar. Over this unconventional outfit sat a black ten-gallon hat with wide brims, and a sun-browned face with a broad open smile.
“G’day,” Harry replied. He slid down from the sulky and allowed the horse to stop at his own pace. “I’ll boil the billy.” The stranger dismounted, and Harry shook his hand.
“Pleased to meet you, Harry Mason, world famous mesmerist. Cassidy Rider at your service,” said the American, “returned from the goldfields.”
The two men were silent as they gathered kindling and boughs for a fire. They didn’t speak until the water had boiled, and each man held one of Harry’s battered enamel pannikins, steam curling up into the leafy branches of a large she-oak.
Harry Mason prided himself on his ability to read a person. In the silence, he inspected his guest. The clothes which seemed to make the American even more of a Yankee had seen many years of hard wear. The leathers had been re-sewn several times onto the trousers, leaving tell-tale marks on the khaki. The shirt was worn, soft and tending to brown. Harry’s eyes looked to the horse: he noted the thickness of new burnished horse-shoes and the Appaloosa’s shining coat, signs of a cherished and tended horse. But the harness was just slightly loose, indicating sagging – old – leather.
“Do well in the goldfields, Mr Rider?” he asked conversationally.
“Middling well, Mr Harry Mason,” the man replied.
“What did you do?”
“A little of this, and then a little of that.”
Harry raised his eyebrows and stayed quiet.
“Some dredgin’ for gold, though them’s not the place for much water, is there? A little riding in the ro-dee-os. A little totin’ for the big miners, carrying bags of gold and bags of legal papers to and fro.”
Harry imagined he would not have come away with much profit from these activities, but did not say so.
“Do you think you might be of use to me, Mr Rider?”
“How so?” Cassidy replied.
“I need someone to help me in my show in Kojonup. It’s vital that no-one there knows who you are.”
“Would this be difficult?”
“Not at all,” said Harry. He leaned across the coals of the small billy fire. “You just volunteer for a bit of dental work on the stage.”
Cassidy jumped. “But sir, I … I don’t need no dental work.”
Harry smiled. He could smell Cassidy’s fear – and his fascination.
“No? Well, everyone in my experience needs a bit of work on their teeth.” Harry continued. “You would still need the dental work after the show, if you see what I mean. But then you’d be able to afford a real dentist with three guineas.”
“Three guineas?” Harry saw the eagerness in Cassidy’s earnest face.
“A guinea each show, Mr Rider; and we might do three shows in Kojonup.”
“Do we have a deal, Mr Rider?”
Cassidy replied by reaching out his hand to Harry and shaking it firmly.
“Tie your horse to my sulky,” Harry commanded, “and sit up front with me.”
Harry Mason, World Famous Mesmerist, languidly flipped the reins and smiled to himself as his gelding plodded across the sand.
The good thing about Western Australia, he thought to himself, is the distance between towns, and the opportunities it brings.