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Title: Life in the Australian Backblocks Author: Edward S. Sorenson * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1305751h.html Language: English Date first posted: October 2013 Most recent update: October 2013 This eBook was produced by: Walter Moore Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia Licence which may be viewed online.
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A Dissertation On Travellers
The Cattle Muster
The Boundary Rider
Pioneer Life In Scrubland
Shearer And Rouseabout
Quart-Pot And Billy Can
Christmas In The Bush
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
The Camp Fire
The Mailman Brings A Pill Pamphlet
The Old Bark Hut
Vision In Satin Shoes
Kingston . . . Got At The Clothes-Line The Night Previous And Gorged Himself With A Baby's Flannelette Night-Dress
Going To School
Clever Knack Of Turning Pancakes
By The Darling River
Waiting For The Mail
Flourbags, Mounted On ''The Quietest Thing They've Got," Brings Up The Rear
A Pretty Tight Fix
He Wrote Poems In His Pocket-Book, And Recited Them To His Dog
The Sheep-Dog Requires A Nip Pretty Often
He Orated With Great Empressement
Being Menaced With A Waddy, And Further Instructed In Abusive Language, The Animal Started For Home
They Put The Cook Up A Tree
He Dismounted To Light His Pipe
He Laughed For A Week Over The New Chum's Misfortune
Hand-Clasps And Squeezes
An Awkward Place
Something Like An Earthquake Happening
The Travelling Storekeeper
Father Points Out Where The Henhouse And The Pigsty Are Going To Be
The Bush Cow
Nothing Riles The Cook More Than The Tactics Of These Gentry
One Type Of Cook
A Demand For Tar
The Pursuit Of The Glittering Speck
"That's The Key To All Th' Pleasures Of Earth"
"I'll Back My Billy To Boil First"
New Year's Eve
Whatever part of the bush you find him, you are sure of a welcome at his camp or hut; and the farther out you go the heartier is your reception. His doors are always open. The exception, who, as a disappointed caller related, "never asked him if he had a mouth on him," very quickly earns a reputation for meanness in the neighbourhood. It is not in the nature of the average bushman to be mean; and he is as ready with a helping hand to the stranger as to his nearest friend. His self-sacrifice in another's interest is one of his finest traits.
Wherever you meet him, too, he greets you cheerily, and will most likely haul up for a yarn, though you have never seen him in your life before. I remember my first trip to Sydney. I arrived late at night, and after breakfast next morning I set out for a stroll round. Being bush-bred, I said, "Good-morning" to every person I met. At first I met them singly, then I met them in a mob. Some eased up and peered at me; one stopped, after I had passed, and stared after me; but none of them spoke—except the crowd. It grinned expansively, and desired to know in a collective, loud voice when I had come down. Then I shrank up, I felt lost and lonely, and wished myself back in the bush. There no introductions are required, strangers mingle and converse like friends; there is no reserve or ceremony, but a pleasant, respectable familiarity. If one said "Good-morning" to you, and you didn't answer, he would not ask when you had come up, but he'd want to know in forcible language if you hadn't got a tongue in your head.
There is no friendship or mateship so complete and happy as exists among those whom accident has thrown together in numerous isolated camps of the backblocks. They live principally on damper and beef and black tea, and are strong, healthy, and happy. Tough, sinewy fellows, tempered against frost, sun, wind, and rain, patient, dogged fighters in the vanguard of civilisation, fighting ever against fires, floods, and droughts, against the torments and terrors of the wilderness, overcoming all obstacles, laughing at distance. They dress in dungarees or tweeds, in flannel or Crimean shirts, with a blue jumper in cold weather and a yellow oilskin in rain; heavy blucher boots, shod with hobnails, and broad felt hats. They seldom wear vests, and as often as not they go into town in their shirt-sleeves, the footman carrying his coat on his arm, the horseman bearing his strapped across the pommel of the saddle. They know each other's little failings and peculiarities; they know each other's careers, where he has been, and what his intentions are; their loves, disappointments, hopes, and fears are all laid bare. At the same time, their pedigrees may be so many secrets, not that there is anything in them to be ashamed of, but because the man himself, the knowledge of his individual worthiness or worthlessness, is all-sufficient for his companions, and no manner of family trimmings can alter their opinion of him. He is taken on his merits. Truth, frankness, and honesty in all things are expected of him; deceit, affectation, and pretence are abhorred.
They trust one another implicitly (note that bush people don't lock up their houses when they go out, and property left unguarded day and night in tents is not molested), and in field and camp their conduct in regard to one another is governed by the best impulses and the highest principles of "white" men. Everything they have is shared; one lends his trousers and shirt as readily as money or horses; and when it comes to the last "smoke" the pipe is passed round, for the least suggestion of selfishness or stiffness would be considered an unpardonable breach of faith. When one has been to town the others overhaul his purchases, and when he has counted the balance of his coin—if there is any—they reckon up what the trip has cost him. He tells them how many drinks he had, how he came to have them, who were his pot-companions, what he said to this one, and what that one said to him; how many times he fell off coming home, how he got on again, and all the rest of it.
Bushmen are accused of being heavy drinkers—called drunkards, in fact—yet what they drink in a year is but a fractional portion of the quantity consumed by many of the nabobs of society. Bill and Jim have lapses at long intervals; they go on a roaring bender for a week, or two weeks, after which they do not touch a drop of liquor for months. Some get drunk only once a year. Others can't pass a pub without a drink or go into town without getting drunk.
Every year resolutions are made in out-camps and huts to keep on the "strict Q.T." for twelve months, then go down and see the Melbourne Cup, the Mecca of the bushman. The "resolutions" are often well carried out till the long ride down begins, and the wayside pubs start a-callin'. They are hard places to negotiate. Localised grog, and frequently unscrupulous designs on the traveller's cheque, make them so. A man on the Paroo told me of two abortive trips. The first time he got as far as Brown's hostelry, ten miles from his starting-point, and went back a week later with a sore head. The next time he was fitted out with a pair of good horses, and was resolved to camp out every night, and give all the pubs a wide berth. But his hack lost a shoe when nearing the first town, and as it was tender-footed he had to make a call at the blacksmith's. While the latter was putting the shoe on an old chum strolled in and insisted on his going to the pub to have just one—which wouldn't hurt him. He had it, and forgot all about the Cup. Two weeks afterwards he carried his swag back to the station. Another man, before starting the first time, sent his money down to the bank. He pulled up at the first pub to have "just one nip," and there being convivial company present, he had several; thereafter the publican supplied him with blank cheques till the limit of his account was reached. On the next occasion he left his money at the station, with instructions to the boss to send it along when he wrote for it. He wrote for it three days after, and the only races he saw were run by blue snakes and green goannas through the mulga. He made a third attempt, again leaving his money with the boss, with strict injunctions not to send it to him, no matter how he asked, until he received a letter direct from Melbourne. But the publican had a friend named Jones in Melbourne. The letter was sent enclosed to Jones, who posted it back to the station manager. Then when Jones received the letter containing the cheque he returned it to the publican, and—there you are.
Therein lies his weakness. Another fault is that his expressive and picturesque vocabulary is redolent of the most horrifying expletives. Commonplace remarks are intermixed with profanity; even a favour is acknowledged with an oath. Yet in the presence of women he can speak with the tongue of a saint, and you would not think that the vile camp language ever polluted his lips. It is a habit that grows on him in his silent haunts, in which one follows the other like sheep; he becomes so inured to it that ordinary language seems tame to him, and he feels that he is losing in an argument if the other fellow is using ornamental qualifications and he is not.
Like all high-spirited animals, the bushman frets under restraint, and of authority he has a hatred that is liable at any moment to blaze into fierce rebellion. If he is ordered or commanded instead of asked respectfully to do things by his employer, the position becomes intolerable. Though he may not have a second shirt to his back at the time, he is likely to inform the boss to go and do it himself, or sarcastically inquire, "Are you talking to me or to the dog?" Neither can he tolerate the term "master." As I heard one say to a squatter: "You are my employer, not my master. If you think otherwise, take your coat off and prove it." For this reason he makes an unsatisfactory sailor. He won't go sailoring. In war he combines all the essentials of a fine soldier, a superb fighter, but he must be led by a fighter—and a shrewd, solid-thinking man, not by a gilded Johnny. Used to thinking and acting for himself in all manner of emergencies, and to doing things according to his own ideas and inclinations, he is not inclined to obey unquestioningly the command of one in authority, but will judge for himself and argue the point if the step appears unnecessary or unwise.
As before remarked, he is constant and persevering, but he is not a hustler. He tells you that the world was not made in a day, or "there are plenty more days," and will set to work to dig away a mountain with the utmost serenity. But he will do a big day's work, and can hustle to some account when it is necessary. He is "white when he's wanted." Being endowed with a stout heart and a philosophical mind, misfortune has to strike hard and often to crush him. I have seen the farmer on the eve of harvesting a splendid crop of grain, when corn was £1 a bag, lose every grain of it in a sudden flood; and as soon as the ground was dry enough he would begin all over again as hopefully as ever, clearing it and ploughing it, furrow by furrow—slow, hard work, with always the prospect of another flood before him. And I have known the crops of the wheat-grower to fail year after year through dry seasons; then, when he had got a crop going twenty-five bags to the acre ready to strip, or all threshed and bagged, a bush fire has come along and swept it all away—perhaps his barn, house, fences, and everything else with it. "By —, that's hard luck!" he says, gazing at the ruin. Then he builds it all up again, and puts in another crop. Look at him in the jungles of the Tweed and the Dorrigo, where the scrub is so dense that no sunlight ever penetrates. He has to clear that and sow grass to pasture his dairy cattle. And he faced this in the old days, when hordes of wild blacks were around him and blood tragedies were frequent.
He works and lives where there are no such conveniences as trains and steamers; his train is the slow-going bullock-dray—toiling over rough and heavy roads cleared by himself, crossing gullies, on bridges of his own building; his river craft the flat-bottomed punt, propelled by his own strong arms. He walks, rides, or drives wherever he wants to go, and he travels astonishing distances. My father, in the early days of the Richmond, walked from the head of that river to Grafton—seventy miles—to see the races. He wasn't a sportsman, either.
The mailman rides by once a week, or once a fortnight. The family watch for his coming as they would for some one near and dear to them. Sometimes he brings a pill pamphlet, and the excitement in the bark hut or the tin house is tremendous. They study the almanack, regulating the antediluvian clock when the moon rises or the sun sets; they read dreams and tell each other's fortunes, and the youngsters explain why father's back aches and his legs feel tired after working sixteen hours in the paddock. Father, enjoying his smoke-o in contemplative silence, smiles, and pretends to believe in it; or he gets annoyed with the diagnosis, and says "Shuh!" with much contempt.
The smoke-o is an honoured and long-established custom. Nothing is more suggestive of ease and comfort than the evening smoke-o, when the day's work is done, and supper is over, and dad sits on his favourite block in front of the humpy in summer and before a blazing log fire in winter, meditatively puffing at his pipe. That is the time he becomes reminiscent, and entertains all and sundry with his quaintly-embellished experiences of the old days. In the shearing-shed smoke-o is indulged once between breakfast and dinner and twice between dinner and knock-off time. At weekly work smoke-o occurs pretty well every hour, but at piecework it doesn't happen along nearly so often.
On an average the bushman is very wide-awake. Nothing in his native surroundings comes amiss to him; he can cook his dinner, wash his clothes, patch his pants, darn his socks, plait a whip, mend his own harness and boots, build his own house; he is musterer, drover, shearer, fencer, miner, bullock-driver, trapper, horse-breaker, hunter, what-not. He is good-tempered, good-natured, plain-spoken, witty, and humorous. He smokes heavily of strong tobacco, has a vigorous appetite, and laughs heartily—like the kookaburra. He is not religious, though I have heard him say grace before meat even in a shearing-shed. This is the grace:—
"One word's as good as ten,
Wire in. Amen."
He is a naturalist and botanist of the aboriginal class, well learned in the habits and characteristics of his native fauna and flora. He has acquired many of the traits of the aborigine, notably in bushcraft, and likewise he has developed a keenness of vision in tracking, beehunting, 'possum-shooting, and searching for distant objects. He requires no compass on a cloudy day, knowing the north and south side of plants; he points out the straight-grained and cross-grained trees by the bark; and the locale of water is indicated to him by the convergence of bird and animal tracks.
Like the aborigine, too, he is quick to notice the idiosyncrasies, eccentricities, and peculiarities of people, and he names them accordingly. Thus in conversations we hear of "Johnny All-sorts," "Jacky-Without-a-Shirt," "Long Bob," "Billy the Rooster," "Mick the Rager," "Day-light Mac," "Jimmy Short-breeches," "Boko," "The Splinter," "Shovellin' Archie," "Crayfish Dan," "Yorky," "Scotty," "Stumpy," "The Long 'Un," and a family comprising Big Angus, Little Angus, Red Angus, Black Angus, Pole Angus, Baldy Angus, Young Angus, Old Angus, Angus the First, and Angus-Come-Lately.
His grit and endurance under trying conditions are proverbial. We often hear of men and boys who, after being thrown, crawl after their horses with a broken leg, drag themselves into the saddle, and ride many miles home. Men, too, bind up their own broken limbs between bits of rough wood, and, using a forked stick for crutch, cover long journeys without food or water. I remember a teamster who fell under his wagon, and the wheels, passing over him, crushed a leg, arm, shoulder, and several ribs. He instructed his mate to lash the injured leg to the sound one, and to tie the arm to his side. Then he said, "Put me in the cart, and I'll ride as right as pie." There was no hope for him from the start, but he was cheerful and game to the end. In towns people get accustomed to depend on the ambulance and the hospital, and to look to the doctor being in attendance in five minutes. In the bush a man learns to depend on his own resources, and being seldom within reach of a doctor, he never looks for one except when his bones are broken, or when his home remedies have failed in other cases. Mere flesh wounds to him are nothing to trouble about; his only concern is to stop the bleeding. He never knows when he goes out alone into the bush what he may be called upon to endure before he gets back. The boundary-rider jogging along his fences, the shepherd, the stockman, the prospector, and the scrub-cutter, when unaccompanied by a mate, have always before them the risk of a lingering death.
But he loves his wild surroundings with the love of the true child of Nature; for the bush is bright, fragrant, invigorating, interesting; the leaves whisper symphonies to him, and the birds are brilliant and cheery. There all is health and vigour, music and gladness, beauty and laughter—a land of sunshine and happiness. To the old hand the bush is an open book; it is his Bible. Bird and animal life, botanical and physical characteristics are all so many chapters in it, read and studied, re-read and understood. Like Shakespeare's solitary, the bushman sees—
"Sermons in stones, books in running brooks,
And good in everything."
Often have I heard him say, in a burst of that poetic feeling that is peculiar to him, "Oh, if I could write a book!" His mind is full of books (an amazing jumble that he could never straighten into any semblance of sequence or order), stored up through years of wandering, studied out in lonely corners; books he would like to see written as they appear to him, true to life and environment; vivid pictures he can con over in the cloudy fragrance of tobacco smoke, while his life is in the making, and when his bustling days are done.
There is no keener critic when it comes to familiar details than the bushman; errors or palpable ignorance in matters of detail earn his contempt. His bullocky hero must talk learnedly of key-strings, coggles, pipe-bows; of near-side leaders and off-side polers, of pin-bullocks, of wagon-beds, naves, and felloes, and so on through the whole catalogue of the adjuncts of his calling, with a practised tongue. The cattleman spurns the hero who misnames or misplaces any part of his gear; or who conducts himself in his dealings with horses and cattle otherwise than as an experienced man should; and so with the miner, shearer, cocky, and the knockabout. Join a gathering of drovers, old shepherds, or battlers at a camp fire, and they will hold your attention better than any book. The subject may be personal experiences, and as the saga passes round the circle it becomes more exciting and sensational, and, when the inventive genius gets to work, with less regard to truth. But no strong point is missed, the vernacular is picturesque, and the yarn is drawn to an effective climax. A bushman's joke is seldom evident until the last word is spoken. It appears to be a serious narrative until the end comes, then it evokes a spontaneous burst of laughter. With many of these men yarn telling is an art, studied and practised from boyhood. Singers are not plentiful. Only occasionally one is found who can stand up and render a complete song.
His characteristic call is the world-famed "coo-ee," a word that comes from the aborigines, who use it, with slight variations, in nearly all parts of Australia. In a Report on the discovery and exploration of the Hawkesbury in 1789 by Captain Hunter this passage occurs: "In the woods we frequently saw fires, and sometimes heard the natives. . . . We called to them in their own manner by repeating the word 'cowee,' which signifies 'come here.'" Some oldtimers assert that, as used by the blacks, it was imitative of the call-howl of the dingo; while others say it was an imitation of the farsounding note of the wonga pigeon. There is certainly no call known in the bush, apart from the call of the wonga and the dingo's howl, that can equal the penetrative power of the coo-ee. Phonetically speaking, "coo-ee" is the call of the bushwoman; the male notes are more like "ca-aw-whey"—the first syllable lingering and comparatively low, the second loud, sharp, and abrupt—a deep liquid sound formed in the throat and forcibly ejected—which is the secret of its far-reaching quality.
He likes you to call him Bill, not Mr. Smith; but if you addressed his wife as Mary instead of Mrs. Smith, he would want to know what the everlasting fires you meant by it, and very likely your dignity and spruce appearance would be considerably wrecked in a strenuous argument with him. Bill is a hard-hitter. Cast your eyes over his broad, hairy chest, his huge, muscular arms, note his activity, his fine build, his quiet, keen eye, and his matchless physique, and you can appreciate his ability without a physical demonstration. He hates pride in any one, and has a whole-souled contempt for the person who considers him not good enough to drink with. A man of surging robustness, rugged as his native hills, rough of speech and manner, despising the silly conventionalities of modern society, he would be painfully conspicuous in a drawing-room. But he is one of Nature's gentlemen.
Slabs, bark, greenhide, and dog-leg fences were the leading features of the old bush home, and still are in many places; but in settled districts shingles and galvanised iron have taken the place of bark, and two-rail and wire fences succeed the dog-leg. Neat cottages gleam everywhere in the deep forests, and carts and buggies rattle in the wake of the primordial slide. Yet I doubt if the man in the modern cottage is happier than his progenitor in the little bark hut, whose saddle reposed on a peg in one corner, his bagbunk rigged up in another; who stepped out on a cowhide mat, stood his dampers on a packing-case, and slung his billy on a wire hooked to a blackened trace-chain.
Though a resourceful person in the main, the bushman's home does not always show to advantage. There is so much for him to do when he goes on his land, and housing being an urgent desideratum, he sticks up a temporary structure with the handiest material about him, the principal object aimed at being to make it keep out rain. A married man, with little or no capital, begins with a two-roomed hut—intended later for a kitchen—but any sort of jerry-built humpy suits the bachelor. When he can cook and eat and sleep comfortably in a one-roomed hut, he sees no reason why he should erect any more, while there is other and more pressing work to which to devote his time and energy. By limiting his domicile to one apartment, he makes a considerable saving in cleaning and general housekeeping. Behind many places there is a galley, or lean-to, where much of the cooking and baking is done.
The crudest habitations are found among the giant timber of Gippsland. The upper part of a big hollow tree is sawn off, and a roof put on. Sometimes the top is left intact, and there may be two or three floors built inside the trunk, with little windows cut out here and there. This tree-house makes a capital first residence, and may afterwards be turned into a kitchen, stable, store, or poultry-house. It is more roomy than a stranger might suppose. Commissary Hall, who lived at O'Brien's Bridge, Hobart, recorded of a tree on his property: "It is a trifle over 300 feet, and there are some 50 feet of the top blown off. I myself have seen fourteen men on horseback in the hollow of it. In 1854 Sir William Denison, the Governor, and seventy-eight of the Legislative Assembly and their friends, dined in the hollow of it."
In the early days many a settler's house was built of solid logs and pug. It was roofed with stringybark, the latter being hung with greenhide and held down with poles ("riders" and "jockeys") pegged together. This was, no doubt, a replica of the log cabins of Yankee backwoodsmen.
It was a formidable structure, more comfortable than elegant. Then there was the mud house. Many squatters in Western Queensland lived for years in this kind of dwelling, the walls being built of stiff clay, with grass for binding. Similar structures are still in use west of Windorah, the walls built of earth and tallow, and the floors of ashes and tallow, which set like cement. Currawilla Station, in this neighbourhood, is surrounded by a great wall, 8 feet high, built of the same material. The enclosure prevents the homestead being inundated when the flood comes down Farrar's Creek. It is a unique sight to see this place low and dry in the midst of miles of seething waters. The blending of tallow makes the walls waterproof, and also prevents erosion when subjected to a strong current.
Mention of the log-and-pug recalls that it was from this kind of building that our wattle-trees got their name. The earliest settlers around Port Jackson found these trees handiest for building purposes. The trunks were laid horizontally between uprights, and the interspaces filled with stiff mud, a process known as wattling. They were thus called wattle-houses.
Our backblock architectural styles and their periods have never been definitely named or classified. In the central parts the gradation from the canvas humpy and bough or cane-grass shed to the galvanised iron dwelling, and thence to the stone or brick house, is distinct. But along the coastal belt, with its wealth of bark and timber, there is such a heterogeneous mixture that it would take an architectural genius to sort them out. The bark hut is recognised as emblematic of the first period of settlement; it is walled with slabs, and roofed in the same way as the log-and-pug house; but nowadays many people begin on the land with a little capital, and start with a good house built of sawn timber and roofed with galvanised iron.
What may be taken as a typical settler's house, all considered, is that built of rough timber—with slab walls and shingle roof. There is usually a veranda in front and a skillion at the back. It is sometimes floored with slabs; often there is nothing but the bare earth, which requires frequent watering to keep it firm. Bags, kangaroo skins, and an occasional cowhide are thrown down here and there for mats. The gaps between the slabs are stuffed with bagging, or nailed over with strips of tin, and the walls inside covered with newspaper. The room is thus an open book, plentifully illustrated. It is not, however, a convenient book to read. One has to stand on a chair, or "the stool" to start at the top of the page, and go down on his hands and knees on the floor when he gets to the bottom.
The fireplace is one of the main features of the domicile. It would put to shame many of the rooms in city lodging-houses. When a couple of big logs have been put on the fire, there is room enough around them to accommodate a large family. It is a sitting-room in winter. The youngsters play with fire-sticks, see visions in the flames, and kill centipedes, scorpions, and other things that crawl out of hollow logs. The good housewife whitewashes the walls once a week with a solution of ashes.
Just outside the door is the water-cask, standing on a slide; another cask, or an iron tank, at the corner, under an assortment of homemade spouting, the roof being the catchment area; and by the step is a scraper, made of hoop-iron, supported by two stakes. Here, too, is a tin dish on a bench, or propped up on three stakes, with a sardine-tin nailed to the wall above it to hold soap. Here the family perform their ablutions. The towel, which serves for all hands, hangs on the inner side of the back-door. The bath is a hole in the creek—"down below where we dip our water." These little items are pointed out to you when you call, if you are staying for the night and look as if you hadn't had a wash for a week or so.
The furniture is of the sort that can take care of itself, scorns polish and varnish, and smiles serenely at rough usage. One notices that the table and cupboard legs stand in tins of water, or have bands of rabbit-skin round them to prevent ants from climbing. The family sit at table on stools, cases, blocks, oil-drums, and the sofa. A row of brightly-polished mustard, groats, and other tins invariably decorates the mantelshelf. They represent the family silver. The women often go about barefooted, and outside they wear the cast-off hats of the men.
Distributed about the place in the customary haphazard fashion are the sapling-yards and pens, gallows (with bullocks' heads and hoofs lying about), pig-sty, and hen-roost; and across a clear spot, where it is most likely to catch a horseman round the neck and half strangle him, if it doesn't drag him out of the saddle, is the inevitable clothes-line, stretched from tree to tree. Another ever-present item is the big stack of wood, with half an acre of chips around it, dumped down very often in front of the house.
The fences near the homestead show some variety of style. There is the dog-leg afore-mentioned; the chock-and-log, the log-and-stub, the brush, cockatoo, sapling-rail, and the zig-zag. All require a mass of timber and a lot of hard labour to construct; and they make a great blaze when a bush fire happens along.
The fowls hang about the place, following the shade, but never venture inside while there is any one about. They gather at the door at mealtimes, just behind the dogs, waiting for crumbs and scraps; and when it rains they range up on the veranda. They are an accidental breed—cunning, wiry, and self-reliant. They hunt for themselves, mostly living on grasshoppers and caterpillars. They lay anywhere in the grass and brush, consequently egg-hunting is a frequent diversion among the family. Stolen nests are hard to find in such places; the existence of many are not known until the hens appear with broods of chickens around them. Occasionally one rears her family in the scrub. These go wild, and later on the owner shoots them, as he does the scrub turkey and Wonga pigeon.
You will see the cart standing in one place, generally near the wood-heap—if somebody hasn't borrowed it; a plough in one corner of the cultivation patch, and a harrow in another, rusting and splintering in the sun. The maul and wedges are a mile away, where the last tree was split; also the cross-cut saw—jambed under the remains of the trunk. There is no particular place for anything. It is sufficient that they are on the premises—somewhere. It sometimes takes a week to find the axe, or the shovel, or the crowbar. "Where did we have it last?" is a common query when anything is wanted.
The bullock-dray is also a conspicuous detail in the picture of home. It stands near the yard. As a means of enjoying a drive this vehicle has pretty well gone out of fashion. One doesn't often see it going to the races with a load of Long Gully enthusiasts now as in former times. The carts which take the family to church on Sundays and wherever else it wants to go, with an over-tame horse in the shafts, are not much better. But there is less risk of dropping through the floor, or rolling out through the dilapidated railings. They are a trifle swifter, and much easier to steer; they look homely with the old man sitting near the front board, his legs dangling under the shaft, a part of a sapling in his hand to keep the horse awake, and his tobacco smoke keeping the flies and mosquitoes away from those near him; the mother, and as many olive branches as can find room, sitting in a row on a plank; the rest stowed behind, with the exception of the baby, who leans over the front and helps to drive.
The dogcart is the dream of the small settler, though many rise to the pre-eminence of a buggy or sulky. Any peregrinating bush worker may possess a "horse and trap" to travel about in; but the man who goes on the land is usually a long while getting past the dray-of-all-work. Once in a while you will see a family driving into a backblock town in an alleged spring cart, with the tyres wedged all round and lashed on with wire, the spokes rattling, the springs straightened; while one shaft has been broken off and a round stick bound on in its place. The harness is an object-lesson in emergency patchwork. There is some leather in it, curled and perished, likewise rope, hide, twine, hoop-iron, and dog-chains, besides a yard or two of blanket, some bagging, grass, and wool, which make up the collar.
Some curious turn-outs were those used by the early Richmond River farmers. They were mostly slides, though made in a variety of ways. The commonest was simply the fork of a tree, with a couple of pegs at each side. This is still much used for drawing water, the cask being stood on or laid across it, with a wet bag over it to keep the water from splashing out. One has to be careful in turning corners with it, as it always has an inclination to turn turtle, except when going straight ahead on level ground. This work is not infrequently left to the girls, many of whom can manage a horse or a pair of bullocks as well as their brothers. One of the prettiest girls I ever knew, the daughter of a well-to-do farmer, was an expert bullock-driver. A mounted constable married her afterwards while I was up-country.
The queerest habitation I have seen in the bush was built on four high stumps, which were sawn off eight feet from the ground. The owner, who was a "hatter," had to climb a ladder to get into it. The stumps had sprouted, and almost covered the bark roof with greenery. He said he built it so that he could see when the cockatoos were on his corn, and also to get away from snakes. This was near Tomki, on the Richmond River.
In and around Broken Hill many people live in houses built on wheels, and it is common to see cottages travelling about, leaving gaps in one street and filling vacancies in another. Removing in the Silver City means taking the house with you. They are sometimes drawn up to the auction-mart and sold. I saw only one selector in a habitation of this kind. He had been a travelling saddler and cobbler, and when he selected he simply drew his saddle and harness shop into position and settled down.
In the north-west of New South Wales the dug-out is common, only the low roof showing above ground. It is cool in summer and warm in winter, besides being free from flies. A fossicker and gardener lived for years in one of these in Mount Browne district. One night, during a heavy storm, a dam alongside burst, and the inrush of water washed him out of his bunk. He escaped through the roof, and spent the night watching the overflow to see that nothing got away. It took him two days to pump his house out, then he had to leave the roof off for a week to let it dry. To dive below like a wombat was his ideal of comfort. But most people look upon the dug-out with horror. As one remarked, "Let's keep on top while we can kick; we'll be underground long enough."
Woman's sphere in the bush is defined according to the size of the old man's purse. On squattages, and on the better-class selections, she has time to bang the piano into a tuneless horror, to play tennis—with a rabbit-proof fence across the centre of the "lawn"—to spin into town behind a pair of good trotters to get the mail, to attend the flower show, the hospital ball, or the grass-fed races, to discuss the latest books and the prevailing fashions. Among her less fortunate sisters the change of fashion means remodelling the old dress. The cream decoration that was a feature of last year's ball will be resurrected for this year's whirl as a beautiful blush-pink, or some delicate shade of blue, subsequently turning saffron for the races. Whatever her station, Bella is an adept at "making a do of things."
It is no novelty to come upon her in the deep forests and trackless hills of big runs at mustering times, well mounted, and her pretty sun-kissed face glowing through the tunnel of a plain bonnet or a big straw hat tied down over her ears with a pink ribbon. She slides down into steep gorges and leaps over gullies and logs with easy seat and graceful movement; and she shoots round the wings of half-wild cattle with stock-whip in full blast. Her whip is a pearl, being mostly presented by some admiring Greenhide Jack; and when Jack makes anything for the pet creation, you can bet your bottom Cobar he will put all his ingenuity into it.
At many backblock stations the mustering troupe, riding off in the early morning, is delightfully picturesque, being composed of white men and black men, of black girls and white girls. On some Bulloo River runs I have seen black girls wearing trousers and riding astraddle on men's saddles; but Bella Bush, though she may use a man's saddle, sits in conventional fashion when the opposite sex is present. Otherwise she is capable of throwing her leg over, and riding with the gay abandonment of her black sisters. If you meet her on the run, she will probably pass you in frigid silence, but with the steady scrutiny of a tracker. When the cattle are in the yards, Bella loves to perch on a cap and handle a drafting gate.
At one time in the bush it was the ambition of every girl and woman to have a horse and side-saddle. When Jim went to see the girl she expected to be taken for a ride, and if she didn't possess the means herself he had to bring it with him. He is still met on many tracks on Sunday, leading a saddled horse for the girl; and when they are engaged the riding outfit is one of the most cherished presents. They ride to the races, to the show, and to the dance; and occasionally one is reminded of old days by seeing mother on a horse, with baby on her knee. She goes shopping on horseback then, with a white pillow-slip strapped in front of her, and she takes Bill's dinner to him likewise when he is splitting or fencing two or three miles from the house.
Nowadays the desideratum is a horse and trap, and there is more driving than riding, except among the young folk in the backblocks. The incursion of town-bred people into the closer-settled areas has wrought many changes, including, with the concomitant shortening of distances, the decadence of the equestrienne. The town person regards the wild nature-moods of Bella Bush as improper; but Bella is more broad-minded, and though she may be as free in her speech as in her actions, she is likely to be a better girl than many of those who are shocked by her wanton wiles.
I was one morning waiting at a station store with some stockmen when a slip of a girl in a tweed cap and satin shoes, and some diaphanous material between, came out of the house with a double-barrelled breech-loader in her hands. A hundred hawks were circling overhead. Standing in the garden, she put the gun to her shoulder and brought down two in quick succession. I had seen many a smart girl behind a gun; one was a governess in the north-west, who used to go rabbit-shooting with me among the rocks, carrying her own artillery; and in many homes there is a special light gun hanging on the wall for Bella's use when hawks, crows, or goannas make a raid on the poultry and eggs; but the vision in satin shoes surprised me.
With the poorer classes life in the bush is generally a compound of hard work and isolation. Here Bella has to perform many tasks that a city woman would rebel against. Yet they are always cheerful, always ready for a joke. After a long day's work, in and out of doors, they will walk or ride miles to a dance at night, returning about daylight to set to work again. In places when Bella Bush has to walk to the dance she goes rough-shod, carrying her dancing shoes in a handkerchief, but she changes when near the place of entertainment, and leaves the rough footgear tucked under a log.
Once, in a drought-time, I saw a woman and two girls lopping trees to keep a few sheep alive, climbing aloft and straddling the limbs like men; while another was drawing water with slide and cask from a lagoon three miles away. Hard, wiry, sun-browned women are these, with the hearts of gold that surmount the barriers of lonely lands.
Many carry water for domestic use in buckets, sometimes using a yoke or an iron hoop to keep the buckets clear of their skirts. A part of their laundry is a small bench on the bank of the creek, whither the clothes are carried on washing day. They seldom have a washing-board, never a wringer; and they stand, barefooted, for hours on a sloppy bank. An ordinary boiler, or a kerosene tin, takes the place of the usual copper, and fuel is collected in the favourite haunt of snakes, scorpions, centipedes, and other inimical livestock. Most of the wardrobe is spread out on the grass and bushes, on logs, and along the fence. There is no mangling, there is no mangle, but Bella can tell you precisely the merits of different woods for heating flat-irons, and which is the best for baking; also the most suitable to burn a white ash for whitewashing the fireplace, the hearthstone, and the front doorstep. Likewise she is familiar with the composition of tea-trees, the soft-leaf one providing the gigantic broom with which she sweeps the bare patches round the domicile and assaults the poultry when they hang around.
She is doctor and nurse when sickness comes and accidents happen; many a long night journey she has ridden for the doctor; many a flooded stream she has swum to save the stock; and when the bush fire is threatening home and crops and fences you will find her, with skirts tied up behind, and not infrequently wearing pants for safety, half blinded with smoke, scorched and blackened, fighting the flames side by side with Bill and Jim. She can tell of floods that crept up in the night till the beds were awash, how they piled the furniture on the table, and mounted higher and higher, till ultimately they were driven out on to the roof; how one rode eighty miles in a night when sickness called, and of long tramps undertaken as light-heartedly as a city woman goes on a tram ride.
Neighbours live miles away, and when they call on one another they start away immediately after breakfast, driving or riding, and often walking, returning about sundown. Even mother, who has grown portly with years, thinks nothing of walking five or six miles to see her neighbour, and besides carrying a baby she has the care of half a dozen other progeny, who are excitedly chasing around her in the grass.
As wife of the poorer digger on small alluvial fields she does a good deal of hard graft with pick and shovel, turning at the windlass, and rocking the golden cradle or the dry-blower. Her sun-browned progeny who are too young to work amuse themselves meanwhile among the gullies and in the bush; or else they are tethered like poddy-calves near by the residence to keep them from rambling; and the baby is left to roll on a bag in the shade of a tree. At smoke-o time she gives baby a drink, while the old man pulls at his pipe. Her lot is a hard one, and yet she is happy in a way if there are a couple of "weights" to clean out of the black sand by the slush lamp at night. She has to sit there, too, long hours into the night, patching the children's clothes and doing other home duties that have been neglected in the interests of the more important work at the claim. She seldom has a sewing machine to lighten her labours; nearly all the clothing, including Bill's flannels, and sometimes the family head-gear—as cabbagetree hats, holland hats and bonnets—are laboriously made and mended by hand. In many instances the husband does the baking, and helps in other ways to equalise things.
At times, too, to supplement the inadequate earnings of the bread-winner, and to save the meat bill, she takes a hand at parrot-trapping, rabbit-catching, and 'possum-snaring; and, in her spare time—if she has any—she trudges off to favourite fishing-holes, carrying rod and line and pickle-bottle, and catching grasshoppers and crickets on the way for bait. It falls to her lot also, in dry times when the men are on the roads with teams, shearing, or rouseabouting on stations, to cut scrub for the stock, and to pull out bogged sheep and cattle. Once or twice a week she takes eggs and butter into town, carrying them in a bucket on horseback or in a two-wheeled trap that has strong claims to individuality.
In juxtaposition to this many farmers and selectors, as on the Richmond River, start on their new holdings in model houses that cost £400 and over, and are even provided with a callers' bell on the front door, and set in a garden plot as pretty as one could look upon. The callers' bell does not ring very often. In many parts of the bush there is a casual visitor once a week, or once a month, according to the state of remoteness, and his approach is announced by the familiar sound of the sliprails as they are let down or put up. If there are no sliprails to act as knocker, there is bound to be a canine bell lying about the veranda somewhere, which considers it his duty to bark at everybody who comes in sight. This brings the inmates to the door, but in many cases the stranger is studied through a telescope before he has got within coo-ee. By the time he arrives the place is ready for inspection. Bella Bush has hitched up her stockings and put on a clean apron, the ragged urchins have been called in and stowed away in the skillion, and the others have washed their faces.
Some of her travel about, and live in tents, as wives of tank-sinkers, fencers, and teamsters. She hasn't much to do beyond cooking—under difficulties; but she misses the companionship of her own sex, and at night, when the men foregather on the grass or before an open fire, she sits by, listening, with her chin resting on her palm, occasionally taking a modest part in the conversation.
When her lot is cast with drovers and shearers, who are absent for many months in the year, she bears the responsibility of homestead manager, and has a lonely time.
A woman on the Richmond River, many years ago, on opening the door one morning was horrified to see thirty or forty blacks standing still and silent before her. All were armed with boomerangs and spears and in a state of seminudity. They only wanted to be rowed across the river, knowing she had a punt moored to the bank below. To get rid of them, and fearing to give offence, she went down to the river and ferried them over in five trips. The last one to step ashore said, " Tank yer, mithus; you berry good woman. Mine get it yo' sugarbag byneby. Good day."
In the far north and north-west blacks mingle much in her every-day life. The gins are requisitioned for scrubbing and washing; often there is no better hand in the neighbourhood at making a batch of bread or a sponge-cake than old "Mammy" from the camp. Mrs. Potts Point would turn up her nose at Mammy, but Bella likes to have her about the place. Lying back in a canvas chair, she has long talks at times with Mammy, who sits on the veranda floor, enveloped in a cloud of tobacco smoke; and when the sky pilot calls on his long round Mammy &. Co. form part of the congregation in the drawing-room. But Mammy is not permanent. She leaves the station with her followers pretty frequently for a "walk-about," for the call of the wild comes irresistibly, no matter how long she has mixed with the whites.
In her average home, which is neat, clean, and comfortable, Bella Bush is a full-bosomed, broad-hipped, plump specimen of femininity of the sort that make good mothers. She is plainly dressed, but her healthy surroundings have given her such a charm and beauty that anything becomes her. She is a little shy at first, perhaps, but she is more at ease with men than Bill is with women; and no one can take a rise out of a man quicker than Bella Bush. You see mischief in her eyes, humour in the smile on her kissable lips. She is jolly, big-hearted, and constant; and nowhere is she prettier than on the tablelands of New England and on the Richmond River.
About the first thing that impresses itself upon the stranger when he makes a casual call at a far-back bush home is the animal-like habits of the younger children. They cling to the skirts of the rough-shod, sunburnt woman, stealing timid glances from behind her, and nudging and whispering to one another between whiles. The bigger ones are inside, peeping through the cracks or round the door-post; and, looking round suddenly, the stranger might notice a smudgy face pop down behind a bush some twenty yards away, and another withdraw hurriedly behind the trunk of a tree. These are a couple who had been too far away when the alarm was given that "somebody's coming," and hadn't time to come in. They are often scattered about the bush along the creeks and water-holes, and particularly in scrubs, ever hunting like aborigines; but when the mother bangs a tin dish with a stick, or coo-ees for dinner, or the moment the alarm of "Somebody's coming!" is raised, they rush for the house as fowls run in for protection when menaced by hawks. This class is almost as wild as kangaroos; but others treat strangers and everything else with a stolid indifference.
Their clothing is of the scantiest, mostly ornamented with a host of patches, and ragged at that. "Anything does for the bush," the mother tells you. When you see them playing 'possum in the trees, and sliding down the straight poles, you quite agree with her that anything does. Hats, which have no longer any definite division between crown and brim, are worn till the head wears right through, and what remains drops round the neck; they are then patched with calico, bagging, or wallaby skin, and made "as good as new." Clothes last a long time in the bush. And boots? Look at the hard, blackened, prehensile-toed feet, scored with hundreds of lines and cracks that only the scrubbing brush can clean, and you will know they are strangers to boots. Indeed, some of them are twelve or fourteen years old before their feet are encased in their first leather coverings. You will notice one with a roll of dirty rag round the toe, tied on with a piece of twine or a wisp of kurrajong bark; another has a thorn in his foot, and limps on his heel; while a third has a daub of tar on his instep where there is a cracked sore. The soles of their feet are seldom pierced or bruised; they can race unflinchingly over rocks, and even walk over a bed of bindy-eyes. The sun never affects them, even though they are running about bareheaded in the heat of a midsummer's day; it only browns them. When naked, these children present a comical appearance, their bodies being white, while their legs, arms, necks, and faces are severely tanned.
Their food is plain, even rough, and very little varied. They augment it with much that grows around them; fruit they get occasionally in the scrubs, and, like the wild birds, they have a fine, discriminating sense of what is edible and what is poisonous. They hunt for birds' eggs, and they root turtle-eggs out of the sand and roast them in hot ashes. They climb to enormous heights after young birds and 'possums, and are skilled in all the native methods of catching fish. They bathe at all hours of the day; the dwellers along the rivers are almost amphibious.
In the great humming gum bush that is veined by coastal rivers, childhood is spent under the most pleasant and favourable conditions.
Winter is the hardest time for these little folk. At night they gather round the big fireplace, squatting in the ashes, and squabbling for choice places, while keeping a begrudging eye on the scanty wood pile. Their own little arms have to carry the sticks during the day; at best they have a horse and slide to draw it, or a box-cart drawn by a couple of goats. This, of course, is a boy's delight no matter where he is situated. Where goat races are held annually, their joy in training Billy and riding him in the Overland Cup is supreme. Here is a country paper's description of a billy-goat race which happened out Mackay (Queensland) way in July, 1903:—
"There were six entries—Barton, Kingston, Lyne, Deakin, Bamford, and Glassey. There was some trouble in getting a fair start. Barton, a fine, fat goat of the Angora type, appeared to require all the track. This Lyne resented, horns being freely used. Bamford, a jet-black animal, was hopelessly outclassed. Kingston, a fine grey goat, should have made the pace warmer, but he got at the clothes-line the night previous and gorged himself with a baby's flannelette nightdress. Glassey made a hard fight, but his horns appeared to be always in the way. A protest was lodged against Barton for wilful jostling, but after an exhaustive inquiry the committee disallowed it."
Hard-worked, horny-handed little mites they are, most of them, whose knowledge is of cattle and horses, of reptiles, beetles, birds, and animals, and their home and playground the trackless bush. They master the secrets and mysteries of life at an early age through constant association with the native fauna, flock, and herd, and hearing the talk of their elders. Their most admirable traits are their homeliness, courage, self-reliance, and mateship.
They can ride almost as soon as they can walk. You will see a little mite throw the bridle-rein over the neck of a big horse, and lead him thus to a log or stump, and there put on the bridle and mount; and presently you will see him cantering bare-back across the hills. I noticed a little fellow one day trying to mount a rogue. Time after time he brought him side-on to a log, and each time as he prepared to cross his back the old horse sidled away so that he stood at right angles to the log. At last the boy led him into a fork where he couldn't sidle away, and triumphantly mounted.
It is surprising how soon these children learn the bush, what clever little heads they have for working out the problems of their timbered world. I have met them, boys and girls, riding along mountain spurs, miles away from home, looking for cattle. And if you ask them at any time in what direction home lies, no matter how they have turned and twisted during the day, they will at once point to it like a compass. Fences do not stop them from going as straight as the crow flies either; they strap down the wires, with a stick across for the horse to see, and lead or ride him over. Rail fences give a little trouble; but when a loose top rail is found, they jump their cuddies over the bottom one. They can describe a beast minutely, even to a single white spot at the tip of its tail, or a tiny black streak on its off-side horn. They can recognise a beast or a horse at sight, though they may not have seen it for a couple of years or more; and they have a wonderful memory for brands and earmarks. Though they may be otherwise illiterate, they will squat on the road, and with a stick faultlessly portray the brands and earmarks of every station and selection for miles around them.
I was one day travelling towards Bourke with a mob of Queensland cattle when a boy rode up and asked me where they were from. I named a squattage south of the border. He grinned.
"You can't stuff me with that," he said. "Them's Queensland brands."
"How do you know a Queensland brand from a New South Wales brand?" I asked him.
"Why," he said, "a Queensland brand has letters an' a number; New South Wales brands ain't got no number."
Another day I was trying to catch up to a man who was riding a day in front of me, and asked a boy at a wayside hut if he had seen him pass. He didn't remember him according to my descriptions; but he had seen a person go by wearing a straw hat and riding a brown horse branded H.P., with a star on its forehead, off fetlock white, and carrying its tail a little aside as though it had been broken, and it had cast its near fore-shoe. This was correct in every particular; yet that boy had never seen the horse before in his life, and had just leaned lazily on a rail as it was ridden past him.
In regard to ordinary school tasks they are poor scholars, principally through lack of opportunity. The bush school is often a small, isolated building standing among the trees, with no fence around it and no house in sight of it. But little tracks, winding through the bush in many directions, show where the children come from. Some of them walk four or five miles to school, starting away at daylight on winter mornings, and returning in the twilight or after dark. When grass is white with frost or wet with dew, when rains have left pools and sheets of surface water along the track and set the creeks and gullies running, the bush kiddies carry their boots in their hands or over their shoulders to keep them dry, putting them on when they reach the school. In the dry interior regions, besides the usual dinner-bags and books, they carry bottles and water-bags. They get over rivers in flat-bottomed punts, and any creek that is too deep to ford is crossed on the trunk of a tree that has been felled across from bank to bank; they pass through mobs of half-wild cattle, and at times through miles of burnt and burning grass; but they very seldom come to any harm. Some drive to and fro in light traps; others ride—at times three and four on a horse—and have races, jumping contests over logs, humiliating busters, and all sorts of adventures along the road. Many a coat is peeled off on the school track, too, and many a punched nose goes bleeding to the waterhole. Frequently half a dozen are seen running through the bush, the big ones in front, the little ones, flushed and panting, in the rear. They have been playing on the road, or have started late, and are making up for it. Some have to run part of the way home, so as to be in time to put the calves up or to change their clothes and carry an armful of wood or a bucket of water for the morning; and if they live on a farm they have to join the parents after tea in the barn, husking corn. Preparing for examination under these circumstances is pretty stiff work for Bushman Junior.
Religious duties absorb little of his time. Many are grown up and married before they are christened. A good shepherd, missioning in the west of Queensland, related that he visited a secluded hut one day, after an accidental meeting with the owner of a neighbouring cattle station, and on informing the woman of his purpose was left standing for nearly half an hour while they discussed the problem inside. Then a youth about sixteen came out and reported progress: "Mother says I can hold th' moke for yer while yer christen father, an' then he'll hold him while you christen me." As he took the bridle a couple of hens started fighting behind the horse, and the animal nearly jumped on him. "Whey, yer cranky, church-bred mule, where yer jumpin' ter!" he cried. Then he turned to the horrified owner. "Better hit out an' fix th' ole feller up, mister—this wobbly-eyed cow's got the fidgets."
Like his elders, the budding bushman shows commendable grit and extraordinary endurance under trying circumstances. Out west of Broken Hill in October, 1902, a boy named Barraclough, aged twelve, while riding alone in the bush, was thrown from his horse and broke his leg. He dragged himself along the ground until he obtained a forked stick, and, using that as a crutch, he recovered his horse, which he mounted by pulling himself on by the mane. Then he rode twelve miles home, and was subsequently driven to White Cliffs, a long, rough journey, for medical treatment. Very young children sometimes wander away and get bushed, and these, too, show remarkable endurance. A little girl, named Evelyn Harris, two and a half years old, was lost in August, 1902, near Bollon (Queensland), and was found the following day walking along Mitchell Road, having covered a distance of twenty miles. A two-and-a-half-year-old son of Chris Connors, of Packsaddle Bore, between Broken Hill and Milparinka, wandered among the mulga and sandhills from Thursday afternoon till Sunday afternoon in the bitter cold weather of June, 1904. When discovered he was still trudging along, though pretty well done up from starvation and exposure. In August, 1901, Linden Culnane, aged nine, and Alfred Collins, aged seven, lost their way while rabbiting at Reno, near Gundagai, and wandered about the bush for thirty-six hours in bitterly cold and rainy weather. Eventually they reached a settler's hut on Cooba Creek, having travelled thirty miles. On the other hand, a little girl named Edith Liddle, aged two and a half years, was lost at Mulya, near Louth, some time in 1902, and no trace of her was ever found. Such a happening is among the most bitter experiences in bush life.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about bush children is that they are very rarely bitten by snakes. They roam the day long about creeks and billabongs with bare feet and bare legs, playing in scrubs, wading through long grass and ferns, turning over bark and logs, thrusting their hands into hollows and burrows, and almost invariably come off unscathed. When I was going to school we used to think it fun to kill a snake by jumping on it. If it was a green or whip snake, one of us would pick it up quickly by the tail, and, keeping it swinging around, chase the other children with it, finally cracking its head off with a sudden jerk. It is only in districts where snakes are rare that they are dreaded by children; where they are plentiful they are generally treated with contempt—except at night. The average bush youngster has a horror of darkness, and talks in awe-struck whispers of hairy men, ghosts, and bunyips. This fear is inculcated from babyhood. The mother can't always be watching in a playground that is boundless, and she knows the horrors that wait the bushed youngster. So she tells them there is a bunyip in the lagoon, and gigantic eels in the creek; and beyond that hill there, and in yonder scrub, there is a "bogey-man." Those fairy tales keep the children within bounds—until they are old enough to know better. Then they can take care of themselves.
Once the crack of the bullock-whip and the high-pitched voice of the bullocky were heard daily around Sydney; it was the wheels of his dray that marked out George Street, the early citizens building along on each side of his track. That accounts for the winds that are in it, showing where Bill had to gee off or come hither to avoid a stump or a tree. Now he belongs almost exclusively to Outback; the bullock has been ousted by the horse from "inside" roads. Horses are quicker and more easily handled than bullocks. They certainly require more care, more expensive gear, are less hardy, and cost more than the horned animal, but the time saved on the road makes up for all that.
The bullock was an adjunct that well fitted in with the ruggedness of pioneering, but advanced settlement has no use for him, and has driven him into remote regions to mark out more George Streets. Though much used everywhere by timber-getters, only an odd bullock team is found now in the carrying line, except far inland where time is of little consequence. Even on the dry roads where the horned beast has beaten the horse the camel has beaten him, and where the camel has not intruded the mule has become a formidable rival. The poor bullock has ever to plod the hard road, and with no hope of an old age pension at the end of it. When he has slaved for Bill till he is too old to work any longer, Bill kills him and eats him. Bullock-driving is not the sort of calling that the average man hankers after; the average man, in fact, considers it one of the worst that he could be asked to take up. But to the veteran ox-conductor there is no grander thing on earth than his wagon and a spanking team of sixteen bullocks. Henry Kendall sings of "Bullocky Bill":—
"What trouble has Bill for the ruin of lands,
Or the quarrels of temple and throne,
So long as the whip that he holds in his hands
And the team that he drives are his own?
He thrives like an Arab. Between the two wheels
Is his bedroom, where, lying upcurled.
He thinks for himself, like a Sultan, and feels
That his home is the best in the world.
Of course he must dream; but be sure that his dreams,
If happy, must compass, alas!
Fat bullocks at feed by improbable streams,
Knee-deep in improbable grass."
While smoking a pipe in a bullocky's camp one evening the conversation turned on Tattersail's sweeps, and I asked Come-Hither-Jack what he would do if he had the luck to draw a big prize. "I'd 'ave one glorious drunk," he said. "Only a month, though," he added quickly. "A month satisfies me at any time. Then I'd get a real spankin' new table-top, with broad tyres, that 'ud carry twenty ton. I'd 'ave it made to order. I've got it all specified, an' drawed out, an' it's runnin' beautiful—in my mind. I'll lay it 'ul take a bend outer some o' those carrion-choppers out 'ere."
"What would you do, Bill?" I asked, turning to another man.
"I'd 'ave the best bloomin' team this side o' Bourke," said Bill in an emphatic burst of confidence.
Punching is the mainspring of Bullocky Bill's existence, and he could hardly be happy if released from the thraldom of the yoke. In the team all his interests are centred; there his ambition begins and ends. To carry a bigger load than any one else or do a trip in record time is fame; to possess a bullock that can pull any other bullock on the road is to cover him with glory and to perpetuate his name and the name of Strawberry among the fraternity generation after generation. They will tell you where that quadruped was calved, how he was bought and broken in, what roads he worked on, how he died, and where his bones are resting.
Bill can talk bullock to you for a week at a stretch, dilating on the merits of Straggler and the skull-dragging propensities of old Brindle; and on the fashions of yokes, chains, bows, and other jewellery; on the respective merits of black myrtle and kindred woods for whip-handles, and the marvellous things that can be done with a whip. Greenhide Jack, for instance, never used an axe on barren roads, but fed his stock by whipping showers of leaves from the trees. He could pick up a sixpence nine times out of ten with a whipthong, and he flogged his name as neatly as a man could carve it on the trees in passing. He particularises his team from polers to leaders; how Rowdy and Ball stop dead, and will stand dragging at the call of "Whey," and would steady a wagon down any hill without chain or brake; how Spot handled the steer, shoving him off and lugging him to; and how Starlight was the devil's own for turning his yoke. He gives you novel ways of starting a sulky bullock—making a fire under him, pounding his ribs with a shovel, or rubbing a stick smartly backwards and forwards on his tail; and he has equally effective methods of dealing with the skull-dragger and the beast that is always getting his splaw foot over the chain.
I innocently gave my ear one day to Crooked Mick as he reclined lazily on a bale of wool, waiting for a load at a border station. He started at 9 a.m. to tell me his experiences down the track in yoking-up a refractory team. When we adjourned for lunch he had one bullock, named Bismarck, yoked, and was bringing back his mate Rattler across a mulga paddock for the forty-eleventh time. He got him bowed and keyed during the meal, but had forgotten the coggles. He was searching for them about the yard when I left the table. Mick always made for me afterwards while he remained at the shed, to edify me with the yoking of the other fourteen, but I remembered urgent engagements elsewhere.
It is a pet contention of the bullocky that, beast for beast, his team can shift a heavier load than the horse team. Bullocks go at their work with a steady pull, while horses mostly plunge and jerk, especially if there is any bulldog tenacity in the "hang" behind. But the horse-driver treats such statements with ridicule. At a gathering of mixed carriers this question will be argued with animation for a week, and some astonishing feats, real and imaginary, will be described.
Bullock camps were once plentiful along the main roads. Not infrequently there would be fifty or sixty men in camp, and, gathered round the blazing log fires, they would mix the yarns of the roads with songs and music. Two out of every three teams carried a concertina or a violin. Travellers joined them, and many a time bushrangers have shared their fires; more than once the lawless bands have helped themselves to the cargo. This, of course, was in the long ago, when bullock-driving had its thrills and possessed something of the picturesque features of the southern overlanders. A swagman was one evening chopping up an old yoke to boil his billy when ten or twelve sovereigns dropped out of it. They had been secreted in an auger hole, which had been neatly plugged and painted over. This was one of the devices adopted by the bullocky to defeat the ends of the robbers. The yoke had probably been lost or the plant forgotten.
Out in the far west, where there is a drought between each shower of rain and bush fires are unknown on account of the scarcity of grass, bullock-punching is an occupation calculated to deaden a man's soul. It is cruel; but men forget the cruelty when, at a pinch in the blistering sun, the way-worn brutes refuse to pull together. I have seen many a man, after tearing up and down like an escaped lunatic, gesticulating wildly, slashing left and right, and venting all the execrations at his command, throw himself down by the wagon exhausted and speechless. When he has cooled down, he looks remorsefully at the whip-streaked ribs of his beaten team, and his conscience pricks him, as one by one the dumb brutes turn their heads slowly towards him, their eyes full of suffering and mute appeal. He looks pityingly—and then curses himself.
Some men are naturally cruel, and even go to the extent of lighting a fire under a stubborn animal.
A peculiar instance of a bullock turning the tables on a driver occurred some years ago on a western track. One of the pin-bullocks had lain down, and all other means failing to shift him, the man with the whip lit a fire under his middle. When it began to burn well the jibber jumped up and put his shoulder to the yoke with great energy, and, assisted by his mate and the polers, pulled on just far enough to leave the wagon fairly over the fire. The smile that had momentarily played on the driver's face died suddenly; he rushed forward with dilating eyes, lashed with the whip, belted with the handle, yelled and howled; but the whole team had gone on strike. The wagon, loaded with inflammable material, caught fire, and was quickly reduced to cinders.
On the dry bush tracks, with their frequent intermissions of heavy sand and stony hills, between Bourke and the Queensland border the bullock-driver has a hard time. A long day through blistering heat, flies, and dust; then a ride back with tired bullocks, eight or ten miles, to the last water; and to-morrow a long night ride ahead to the next water. There he camps for the night, getting back to the wagons about sunrise next morning. There is often no grass or herbage, and after taking his cattle to water he has to cut scrub to feed them. One can hardly blame the poor bullocky if he helps himself to a nip from the tempting consignment of hotel goods he has on board. He has many ingenious ways of accomplishing this. One of the hoops on the beer-cask is knocked up the least bit, and a small hole bored through the side. This is afterwards plugged with deal, and concealed by replacing the hoop. The rum or brandy cask is managed in another way. A couple of quarts of boiling water are poured on top and left there all night. In the morning it is strong enough to make the hardiest of them drunk if they drink enough of it. Again, when the worn-out ox-persuader feels the need of a reviver in the shape of a glass of whisky, one feels inclined to excuse him when he lets some heavy weight drop—accidentally, of course—on the whisky-case and smashes a bottle. It is only natural, and in accordance with the laws of economics, that he should catch the flowing spirit in his billy and drink "better luck" to the rest of the consignment.
Many teamsters on the western tracks are bound to time, and in making up for some unforeseen delay the cattle suffer, and not infrequently several head are left by the roadside to die. There is a stiff penalty for dilatoriness, ranging up to one pound per day. Sometimes the drivers are docked so much per ton for every day over contract time. On these roads grass and water are precious, and very often a good night for the team is not to be had for love or money. Still, the team must eat and drink to get the load through; so the teamster has to battle for it; and the cunning begotten of long experience on the roads is set against the watchfulness of the landowner. The bullocks are taken quietly to the tanks at night—not to the one near which the teams may be camped, but to one several miles distant. Then the wires are strapped down, and the hungry animals are slipped in where the feed is best and left till nearly daylight, one of the men sleeping in the paddock with them. Perhaps only half the team will be thus treated at a time, the other half being left on neutral ground, carrying all the available bells to mislead the enemy.
I knew a teamster to camp one night in a lane where there was an excavated tank on each side of him. About midnight two boys, carrying a far-sounding bell in each hand, walked across to one tank, and the tolling of the bells soon brought out the owner and his assistant. The boys sought cover while the deluded pair rode round; and when they were leaving the neighourhood one bell rang out violently as when a bullock shakes its head. Back came the searchers, and another hour was wasted in beating about among the bushes. By this time the old man had watered the bullocks at the other tank, brought them back into the lane, and turned in with his face wreathed in smiles.
The bullocky takes as much pride in his wagon as a captain does in his ship, and, like the ship, the wagon is always "she." To quote Kendall again:—
"His dray is no living, responsible thing,
But he gives it the gender of life;
And, seeing his fancy is free in the wing,
It suits him as well as a wife."
Each wagon bears a name fancifully painted on the sides. Some I have met with are: "Margaret Catchpole," "Gipsy Queen," "Currency Lass," "The Never Get Stuck," "Dancing Girl," "Sarah Bernhardt," "Rose of Beauty," "Flirt," "Marie Corelli," "Mary Ah Foo," and "The Eulo Queen." There are "Freetraders," "Protectionists," "Democrats," "Republicans," and "Home Rules" wheeling about in dozens; also "Wombats," "Wallabys," "Brumbys," and other animals. One happens upon peculiarities at times in bullock nomenclature. One teamster called his pets Villain, Rascal, Vagabond, Scoundrel, Demon, Vampire, Monster, &c.; and another's team was named after prominent politicians, with Barton and Kingston in the pole and Reid and Lyne in the lead. Occasionally one meets a team composed of all Devons (red), or all Herefords, or all spotted bullocks. I saw one all-black team, which belonged to a farmer; but I never met an all-white turnout. White is an off-colour with Bullocky Bill.
The Queensland bullockies are generally in better fettle than those of New South Wales and Victoria, having the main roads yet very much in their own hands. There they take their families and their fowls and goats with them on their far-inland trips. I happened upon a camp of them once in a bend of the Ward River, spelling on good feed. There were eight teams; each man had his wife and children, his herd of goats, and his coop of poultry; and the place resembled a prosperous farmyard. The women clustered under trees in the cool of the evening, the men reclined by the wagons, all swopping yarns and experiences; whilst the bare-legged children yelled and gambolled about the billabongs. When travelling, the missus sat on top of the load or drove behind in a tilted cart; the children—some mounted, some walking—drove the goats and spare oxen; while the coops swung under the tails of the wagons. On reaching camp the fowls were let out, to chase the unwary grasshopper and disport themselves in the bush until all was ready to trek next morning. Under such circumstances the carrier gets much pleasure out of life. Every camp is home; and when the day's work is done the voices of his wife and little ones add cheeriness to the camp fire's blaze.
"And thus through the world, with a swing in his tread,
Bill Bullock self-satisfied goes.
With his cabbage-tree hat on the back of his head.
And the string of it under his nose."
The old battler can usually tell at a glance what State a man belongs to by the way he carries his swag. The swags, too, are different. Matilda, of Victoria, has the most taking figure. She is 5 feet or 6 feet long, neat and slim, and tapering at the ends. Her extremes are tied together, and she is worn over the right shoulder and under the left arm—much in the way a lubra wears a skirt. The Banana-lander's 1 pet is short and plump. She is carried perpendicularly between the shoulder-blades, and held in position by shoulder-straps. Getting into this, to a new chum, is like putting on a tight shirt. The Cornstalk 2 doesn't much care how he rolls his; he merely objects to bulk and weight. Generally it is borne on a slant from right shoulder to left hip, his towel doing duty for shoulder-strap. He chucks it down as though it was somebody else's luggage, and takes it up as if he would much rather leave it behind.
2 The young countryman in New South Wales
I was once shocked to see Matilda brutally assaulted by a Murrumbidgee whaler. Stopping at a camping spot, he pitched Billy aside with a growl, then took hold of Matilda by her tentacles, swung her high overhead, and banged her on the ground. Then he propelled her violently across the landscape with his boot, unstintedly cursing her in the meantime for not being able to travel on her own.
Neddy, the tucker-bag, or nose-bag, is of more importance than the blue one, and by way of precedence dangles in front, mostly hanging to Matilda's apron-strings. Billy sticks faithfully to the hand that claims him. The exact time when Swaggie, Bluey, Neddy, and Billy first entered into partnership would be hard to determine. Go where you will in the backblocks, and no matter how lonely, dry, and hopeless the track, you will not fail to meet the firm taking its usual walk and going to its customary picnic. Catechetical formula of such meetings: "How far's the next station?" "What's it like for tucker?" "Any one died there lately? No! Then it's no use askin' for work." And, as the firm moves on again, the manager mutters: "Hard lines—nobody won't die."
Nearly everywhere in country parts the term "traveller" is more often heard than "swagman." It is applied to the footman, as though he were the only genuine species of the order that has a habit of moving about. The man with horses, the man on the bike, and the men who trek per medium of vehicles are just as much travellers as the person who "pads the hoof"; but the bush doesn't recognise them in the same light at all. Track society has its castes and classes, its ramifications and complications, like any other society, and its lowest ebb is the sundowner. Too many people are prone to judge the fraternity by its low classes. The word "tramp" to them is almost a criminal suggestion; it came from the Old Country with a bad reputation, and is seldom used by the native-born. On the average, swagmen are as honest and straight-going and just as worthy of respect as their fellows who are in constant billets. They are shearers to-day, drovers to-morrow, and something else later on; and as these billets are not permanent, and good jobs are not in the habit of coming after a man, they must shift from one place to another, and carry their drums on their own backs or on pack-horses. But the man's a man for a' that.
There are all sorts and conditions of men on the track, from men of genius to harmless cranks. There are sons of lords and dukes, heirs to earldoms and vast estates in England—men who had renounced everything rather than marry in accordance with parental tastes and inclinations, as they tell you confidentially. Once on Mount Browne I met the Czar of Russia selling needlewood pipes. He was travelling incognito, and only revealed his identity to me because the inadequate postal service of the back country had temporarily left him without the means of confusing his enemies in vodka. The most amusing are the lonely gentry of Farther Out—men from other lands who have spent lonely years in shepherding, or who made their piles on the goldfields and lost them, having thus sustained the shock of sudden wealth and the more stunning shock of sudden reversion to poverty. I met one on the road to Eromanga, who was dragging his open blanket behind him. Being spread out, and loaded with his effects, it swept the road like a street sweeper. Now and again he would emit an echoing yell and spring into the air, upsetting everything. Slowly and methodically he would gather the properties up, take hold of the ends of the blanket behind him, and start on again. "I'm loaded for Kyabra" he told me, and I put him down for a broken-down teamster. On another track I encountered an excited-looking man, who was riding a brigalow stick, with a swag strapped in front of him, and using his bootlaces for bridle. He was driving an imaginary mob of sheep, and yelling to his dog to "get round them there." The dog couldn't understand, though occasionally he would make a vengeful rush at a flying grasshopper. Then the loony drover would dismount, tie the brigalow colt up to a tree, take off his belt, and chase the dog round and round for splitting up the sheep that weren't there. He cautioned me not to go too near that horse, as he was a terror to kick, having been mounted only for the first time yesterday; and he intimated that he was shorthanded. I wasn't looking for droving just then.
There was a well-known Murrumbidgee whaler in the Wagga district, who had been doing the one circuit—embracing Gundagai, Hay, and Wagga—for thirty odd years, and during the whole of that time had never done a tap of work. He went down one side of the river and up the other, the round occupying from twelve to fifteen months. "A man's a fool to work," he said, and he acted up to it by doing no other toil than carrying his swag.
There are men doing similar circuits in nearly all parts of settled Australia. I knew six who habitually worked a few stations in the lower Buloo and Paroo country. But these occasionally took work, and with the proceeds thereof had a holiday and a jamboree at the wayside pub. That is what they term "going home to mother's." They know every person and place, and every waterhole on the beat; they can tell you how old Spargo's baby is, who is running the show with the Jackson girls, what Anderson is doing now, and when Maloney's slut is likely to have pups. They generally have the promise of one.
The occasional swagman, thrown on the track by force of circumstances, is of a different stamp. He looks upon swagging as the hardest of graft, and the last and lowest calling on earth. He sees only the grim side of the battler's life; the gums whisper no symphonies to him, the birds only mock him, and the benighted bush is a horror that gets on his nerves. He is no companion for the old hand who looks up at his favourite stars and says, "It's time to turn in," and, making a pillow with his boots and spare suit, goes peacefully to sleep. He may tramp for months, tramp thousands of miles, through all weathers and seasons, before he gets work; but he never loses heart, and is just as cheerful at the end as when he set out.
All men who pad the hoof do not carry the swag on the back. Some years ago a fossicker gained some renown by wheeling his belongings in a wheelbarrow from an adjoining State across Westralia to Coolgardie. He had a mate, but the mate knocked up on the road, and he put him and his swag on top of his own dunnage, and pushed the lot on to the goldfield. On the Crows' Nest track (Queensland), I came up to a man pulling a brandy-box on four wooden wheels. He had a good load on, which was covered over with a bag, and on top of that was coiled a tender-footed dog.
"Goreny grease on yer, mate?" he asked. "Th' bloomin' squeak o' this fakus is enough to give a cove th' blues."
I regretted I wasn't doing anything in that line, and he deplored the scarcity of goannas.
" 'F I could only drop across a ole gwana," he said, looking round at the forest of blackbutts, "I'd get enough axle-grease out of him ter do a week. It's not th' wear-an'-tear o' th' axles alone, but it's a devil's own drag when yer wheels ain't greased. Have ter make a do of it though, I s'pose. S'long!"
Coming down once from Glen Innes to Grafton, I passed two new chums carrying the most awkward-looking load one could imagine. Their property was contained in a chaff-bag, and hung by the middle across a pole which they carried on their shoulders, walking one behind the other. A billy-can and a kerosene tin (for boiling meat) also hung under the pole; and, while one carried a gingham, the other flourished a walking-stick and smoked cigars. They looked as though their mothers had just let them out for an airing.
Two terms that are often confounded one with the other are swagman and bagman. The first is a footman, the other a mounted man who may have anything from one to half a dozen horses. Though both are looking for work, they move on very different planes; the latter is considered a cut above the former, and looks down with a mildly contemptuous eye on the slowly-plodding swagman. They are rarely found in the one camp. If they both make a halt for the night at the same waterhole, they camp apart from each other, and, though one may visit the other's fire for a yarn, it is not as the meeting of two bagmen or two swagmen. Apart from the perennial quest of a job, they have little in common.
The bagman's main concern is grass and water. He is not always fortunate in getting both together. When he finds water there may be no picking there, and after watering his horses he has to ride on to feed, carrying a supply of water for himself. This is what a swagman calls a dry camp. The swagman can get sufficient water for his own consumption where the horseman cannot, as by rooting in the bed of a creek, by fishing down a well or a bore pipe with a tin and a few yards of string, from station dams and tanks, and other private reservoirs. He has no eye for grass; he doesn't know whether the way he has come is barren or rich in feed. Again, what he would term good feed the other might consider insufficient for a bandicoot, and vice versâ. At times the bagman is led off a good road on to a starvation track by the misresentations of the swagman; his horses suffer consequence, and the gulf between them widens. On the other hand, a brother bagman can not only accurately locate the good patches, but describe the different kinds of grasses and herbage along the road. This is probably the most potent reason why the bagman dissociates himself from the swagman.
But there are many more differences between them. Apart from the fact that a horseman appears to greater advantage, can dress better, and can keep clean, he hasn't to work hard in looking for work, and can represent himself as a stockman or drover, or even a cattle-buyer, while there can be no mystery about a swagman; affect what airs he likes, he can't disguise what he obviously is—a hard-up worker. Though there is little difference on a long journey in the daily stages made by each, the horseman travels faster, and may not occupy more than half the time in going from camp to camp. But he always has a horse-hunt to do in the mornings, and if his horses are ramblers, he has often to walk the equivalent of a day's journey in search of them before he starts, whereas the swagman has simply to roll up and strike straight away for the next station. The bagman, also, is listening half the night for his bell, or he is troubling over a lame foot, a swelled fetlock, or a sore back, while the swagman has nothing to disturb his night's rest if he has not inadvertently spread out his blankets on an ant's nest.
At times one finds the bagman and the swagman merged in one, forming a link between the two classes. Two mates have a horse between them, upon which they pack their belongings. They walk themselves, either leading the loaded animal in turn or driving him before them. Sometimes he becomes cantankerous when being thus driven, and bolts, scattering the pack along the road. As a rule, he is a quiet old moke, rough and hardy, who plods resignedly along with halfshut eyes, and sometimes goes to sleep altogether, dreaming of the sweet, wild days before he was a slave horse—of evergreen runs and perennial springs. He is an excellent judge of distance, and when he considers he has done about the usual day's stage he begins to look about for a camping-place, turning off at a clump of trees or making a bee-line for any depression in the landscape that has the semblance of a waterhole. If his wishes are disregarded for long, he is likely to zigzag about, particularly where there is any growing timber where the limbs might bump the pack off him. His eyes show annoyance; he begins to sulk, and his lip seems to hang lower than usual. If he happens to be far in front, he will probably lie down and roll, crunching up the billy-cans and doing other damage before he can be reached; and another favourite trick of his, if not closely watched on reaching a waterhole, is to give the objectionable pack a mud-and-water bath. He has learnt many dodges in his travels.
Of one-horse men there are two classes. One packs his horse and walks himself, in the same fashion as the mates. His horse is mostly too tired to take liberties, being a cheap old screw that takes six months to fatten and gets dog poor in a week, and it is owned by a man who is more used to walking than riding, but who objects to making a beast of burden of himself. The other man packs his horse and rides him too. When he is mounted you can see little more than the head, legs, and tail of his animal. He has a small swag strapped in front, but most of his dunnage is carried in a wallet thrown across behind the saddle. His quart-pot and meatbilly hang at the sides, his water-bag is suspended against the horse's chest, and the bell and hobbles are strapped round its neck. The animal is often a sturdy half-draught, more common in a spring cart than on a cattle camp. It is never put out of a walk, and is almost as omnivorous as the goat of backblock towns. If grass, herbage, or other fodder is unprocurable, it shares the owner's damper; in fact, it would leave its natural food for a few mouthfuls of dry damper or bread, and it thrives well on the diet. The footman, when he has got his ration bag dusted, solicits scrag ends of meat for his dog, but the one-horse man asks for any pieces of stale bread that may be on hand as a treat for the moke.
The bagman proper has at least two horses; one he uses as a hack and the other as a packer. He may be a shearer, drover, rouseabout, or general bush worker, and has usually a very fair turnout. The bagman is mostly without pack-bags, and the pack-saddle is often an old riding saddle (sometimes an overlander), the pack being rolled into a long bundle, and laid across the seat, and strapped down to the sides. His billy-cans, which are mostly rugged, are strapped on top, and ordinary paraphernalia are distributed about on the encircling straps. His equipment comprises a yard or two of oilcloth as an outside covering for his pack and foundation for his nap, a small tent or fly, a tomahawk, a gun or rifle, and sometimes a dish. He shoes his own horses, and is provided with a good shoeing tackle for the purpose. In districts where flies are bad his horses are fitted with leather protectors or netted veils. One of these animals is sometimes a cutter—a racehorse in disguise; and at stations, wayside pubs, drovers' camps, and shearing sheds he occasionally pulls off a match for a pound or a fiver. His best fields are the little towns. The town swell ridicules the idea of his flash hack being put down by the "old pack-horse," so a match is easily made, and side wagers laid as well. The packer, looking his roughest for the occasion, and moving slowly and sleepily about, becomes suddenly electrified on facing the starter, and to the surprise of everybody streaks away to the front like a second Carbine. But the owner doesn't call him Carbine; he calls him Mulga Bill, or something equally appropriate.
He contrives to be handy for the grass-fed races, and having knocked about the neighbourhood for a while and got his harmless-looking pair known to the officials (who are publicans and storekeepers), and having entered them when apparently drunk, he is rewarded for his trouble by getting Mulga Bill light-weighted for the Kookooboorara Jockey Club Handicap. Then he goes a few miles out and assiduously trains Bill for the event. When the regulations require Bill to be imprisoned in the club's paddock for a week or two, he is trained by moonlight along the main stock route, and has the nosebag slipped on him in quiet corners. Bill is used to substitutes and rough preparations, and very often springs a surprise on the public when the races come off.
There is also the man with the spare horse, which might be anything from an encumbrance to a flyer—mostly an encumbrance. He either drives it and the pack-horse before him, or leads the packer and lets the spare nag follow. It is useful at times; it comes handy to ride up to town while the others are spelling, but it is, nevertheless, a nuisance. It is always running off the road to feed, or to get a drink; it turns down the creeks and gullies, and trots over to any strange horses that appear. When it is being driven it reaches the gates first, and turns down the fence, and when it is following it is usually a mile behind when the gate is reached, and there is either a long wait or the owner has to go after it. It is often a colt and is broken in on the road to carry a pack, and generally succeeds in breaking up the pack during the process. The man, if he has no money and desires to tap the stations for rations, takes the precaution to hide his stock, and goes up to the homestead on foot, perhaps carrying a readied-up swag and specially dressed for the occasion. When he has got his supply he makes a wide detour to escape observation, and turns out where his bells won't be heard by the station people.
Some men travel with several horses, all of the average stamp of station hacks. There are usually one or two flighty ones among them, but the majority are quiet and staunch. These travellers are cattle-men, scalpers, brumby-hunters, buffalo-shooters, or prosperous diggers. They have first-class riding gear, perhaps a couple of pack-saddles each, with complete fittings. They pay their way wherever they go, and never stoop to cadging at stations. Some of them employ a black boy (or a black woman dressed as a boy) to look after the horses. This is common in the west and north-west of Queensland. Travelling to them is like a holiday, and when several meet in a camp they enjoy a merry evening. The packs will produce two or three different musical instruments, and music, songs, recitations, and yarning alternate till late at night, while a dozen horse-bells are jingling in the bush around them. Finally, there are those who travel about with buggy and pair, in wagonettes, light spring carts, tilted carts, spiders, sulkies, and other traps (not to mention the huge contingent spinning around on bikes). These are mostly big-gun shearers, shearers' cooks, drovers, and bush contractors. Most of them, as a rule, have a definite destination, while the other travellers seldom know where they are going to pull up. No notice is taken of even rouseabouts driving up to a shed in spanking turn-outs at shearing-time, and asking for a job in starched shirts and stand-up collars; but if one clattered up in his buggy at other times and asked for ordinary station work, he would be regarded as an escaped lunatic. So the buggy, like the bike and the horse, must be planted among the bushes.
The rough-and-ready cookery of the early days, when everybody lived in tents and bark huts, and the crude appliances that figured in every bush home are still very much in vogue in far-out parts of Australia, and probably will be until the whole country is cut up into small settlements and the aborigines have passed to their happy hunting-grounds or acquired the habits and tastes of the more civilised of the whites.
At many shearing-sheds the oven is simply a square iron tank, built in with mud and stones; at other places it is made of bad bricks by an amateur, the roof being "stayed" with iron bars or sheets of galvanised iron, and every batch of bread, cakes, pudding, &c., has to be covered with sheets of paper to keep off the falling dust. Stoves are unknown; iron pots, buckets, and billy-cans, hung on hooks over a blazing log-fire, take the place of saucepans, kettle, fountain, and other handy utensils of the better-settled and more modernised parts of the country. The dresser is another missing quantity, and as often as not the only safe is a bag, with a bit of deal board for bottom, or a suspended cask, with a bag drawn over it and tied. The water stands in a 200-gallon tank in the dray at the back of the hut; but if the creek or waterhole happens to be handy, the cook carries it up in buckets as required. He chops his own wood, and very often has to face the disagreeable task of killing his own sheep. Table-laying, clearing away, washing-up, and everything else connected with the mess are included in his duties.
In big sheds, where he is provided with a "slushy," or "off-sider," he enjoys comparative comfort. He bakes, gives orders, cheers the boys with a joke or a yarn at meal-times, reads the papers, and smokes fairly good tobacco between times. Slushy is made to do all the rest—on the principle that a man is a fool to keep a dog and do the barking himself. The chef gets four shillings per man per week, whilst slushy has to be satisfied with thirty shillings to forty shillings per week. Some of the cooks make big money, and follow the rounds of the sheds in a buggy and pair. Others swamp their earnings at the wayside rubby, and have themselves to blame that they are every year humping bluey.
Of bush cooks there are many classes, each following his own particular line, the shearers' cook, station cook, drovers;' cook, &c. Among the nondescripts, who treat all as fish that comes to their net, one encounters some hard characters. I made the acquaintance of one at a wayside hotel out west, an under-sized, wizened-faced man, who smoked prodigiously while kneading, and included tobacco-ashes and whatever else fell into the sponge as a matter of course. He had a clever knack of turning pancakes by tossing them into the air and catching them, cooked side up, in the pan. He was an economical worker, but the principle was carried a little too far. For instance, when he had soup to make and a plum-duff to cook at the same time, the duff was always boiled in the soup.
This class of cook is frequently met within mustering-camps on the big cattle stations of Western Queensland. He has a good time, for there are seldom more than two meals a day, and no table to lay. The two or three dishes—mostly big milk dishes—are set down on a bag, and everybody helps himself. His cooking, however, is done under difficulties, especially if there is any wind. His only shelter is a low, semicircular break of bushes round the fire; while for baking he has a circular hole a foot deep for the camp-oven to fit in. In wet weather he plods round up to his boot-tops in mud, performing the more particular duties on a sheet of bark laid flat on the ground in a small tent. An experienced hand manages very well whatever the circumstances; but a combination of botch cook and bad weather is simply Sheol to the hungry horsemen.
The "knights of the flour-bag" come in for a good deal of discussion at camp fires. A stockman one night related an experience with a "pick-up," who officiated during a mustering tour, being provided in this instance with a small hut:—
"First night for tea he put a cake on the table, an' when we cut through the shell of charcoal an' cinders th' inside run out an' spread per the table. It come crawlin' after us like boa-constrictor, an' old Flourbags set dishes the floor to ketch what went overboard. Next night he 'ad it dished up as a bread puddin'. Instead o' bein' steamed, it was smoke-dried; could smell it comin'. The overseer 'ad a go at it with the axe, but the axe gapped. Nobody touched it any further. Well, on Sunday he treated us to a plum-duff, which didn't go too bad. We were rather flabbergasted, though, when he told us afterwards that it was the old cake-cum-smoked-puddin' that 'ad haunted the table through the week. 'Never throw away what a Christian ken eat,' he told us. But he 'ad to throw away the remains o' that duff. None of us could tackle it again after discoverin' its identity. It was a puddin' with a past."
The drovers' cook, who travels per pack-horse, has the hardest time. He has few utensils, has to pack-up and unpack, travel a dozen miles or so, driving horses, and a fresh camp to make every day. Often he arrives in pouring rain, and has the pleasure of making a fire with wet wood on soppy ground, and cooking in oilskins and top-boots. Sometimes he has to build a bank, with trenches around it, and strip a sheet or two of bark to put over it, before he can boil the billy.
I remember one such camp on the Barcoo. A heavy storm bowled over the cook's tent during the night, and spoiled pretty near everything in it. We were on low ground, which was soon flooded. All hands bundled up their belongings and shifted to a rise some distance away. The cook remained, doing salvage duty, until the cattle, ringing on the wet flat and threatening to rush over him every minute, frightened him away. In the morning we found him puddling at a waterhole and panning off rice, the only eatable he was able to save from the mud for breakfast.
The pioneers were quick to grasp the aboriginal methods of cooking as being simple and easy, and entailing no carrying of heavy and cumbersome utensils. Men on horseback sometimes carry a frying-pan, but nothing more, excepting, of course, the inevitable billy-cans. The pan does duty for broiling, boiling, and frying, and also for baking a Johnny-cake. The footmen carry only a couple of billies, one inside the other, the smaller being used for tea and the other for boiling meat in. Some have only one, which fulfils the dual office of meat-pot and kettle. This economic person is no epicure in the matter of flavours. His main concern is to get sufficient to "fill," and as the ultimate fate of everything that goes to that end is to get mixed, a little previous mixing, as he puts it, is neither here nor there." In all other lines of cookery he follows pretty closely the primitive style of Murri—except when he feels inclined for a little pastry, when he boils a lump or two of dough in the same old billy. "Doughboys," he tells you," are very filling; you can feel them for a long time after."
There is very little he cannot cook, and cook well, given firewood and a match. He can turn out a brace of stuffed ducks as delicately browned and juicy as any woman could with her stoves and ovens. And the process is simple. He merely wraps the birds in a sheet of well-greased brown paper and buries them in hot ashes. His damper is mixed up on a sheet of bark or tin, or on the outside of a piece of oilcloth, if he happens to have such a thing round his swag, and when he has worked it to the required consistency he scoops a hole in the hot ashes, drops it in carefully, and covers it over, first with ashes, and then with red coals. When baked it is stood on end to cool. It has a sweet, delicious flavour that is peculiarly its own.
When bread is wanted for immediate use a few Johnnies are baked on the coals. In cooking a rich currant cake the batter is also wrapped in brown paper, and from its appearance no one could tell that it had not been cooked in a brick oven; but the brownie (which is simply a damper with currants and sugar added) is placed in the naked ashes. A pigeon-pie is baked in a casing of stiff clay, obtained round the margins of waterholes. When lifted out of the ashes the baked clay is broken off by tapping the top with a stick. Many a good pie is made in turtle-shells, and even in stones having a concave surface.
It is surprising what a lot of things can be cooked, and what excellent cooking can be done, in bare ashes and on coals. Steak and chops are thrown on the latter and grilled, but in fixed camps various appliances are used. A gridiron is made by zigzagging a piece of hoop-iron, which is stood on the coals; another is made by twisting and plaiting pieces of fencing-wire together. Shearers use a barrel-hoop, covered with wire netting and having a wire handle, so that it can be hung over a fire, in preference to any modern invention. Sufficient meat can be grilled on this at once to serve a dozen men. A traveller's duff is made by mixing the batter in a billy-can with a stick. It is then poured into a handkerchief or into the sleeve of a shirt or something equally convenient, tied with a bootlace, and boiled in the same vessel.
The implements and appliances of the bushwhacker are in keeping with his surroundings. His rolling-pin is a bottle; his toasting-fork is made out of fencing-wire; and his skimmer is a piece of perforated tin tacked on to a stick about two feet long. An old billy or pint-pot, with holes punched in the bottom, makes a serviceable colander; and the bread-knife and carving-knife are made from the broken blade of a hand-saw, with two flat pieces of wood riveted on one end for a handle. His dishcloth is a piece of moleskin tied on the end of a stick and cut in strips. It is an effective weapon in the hands of a cantankerous and pugnacious cook in silencing a complaint about the tucker. A sudden and unexpected swipe across the mouth with it (and it laps and clings beautifully) has a remarkably depressing effect on the average grumbler. It is a handy, useful instrument; with it Slushy can wash the tinware and pots without greasing or even wetting his hands.
Then, again, he has his own-made tongs—a piece of iron-hoop bent double. Iron-hoop and fencing-wire have a wonderful range in the matter of utility in the bush. So has greenhide. This triumvirate figures in every hut and camp in the back country, and in the home or in the paddock it is the settler's everlasting standby .
Despite all inconveniences, the average farback cook is generally a smiling, happy-go-lucky individual, who looks upon flies, dust, and smoky chimneys as part and parcel of his profession, with a cheery "Sit in, mate" to every chance traveller, and views everything with an optimistic eye.
Among the exceptions is the short-spoken, sour-tempered man, who not infrequently has a fighting reputation, built up on suppositional, accidental, or other lines. The notion was once prevalent that all wayback dough-bangers were pugilistic champions, and dozens, who were ignorant even of the rudiments of boxing, and lacked also the essential grit and stamina, traded on this reputation, going smilingly through camp and shed on the game of bluff, challenging any man to fight who found fault with the tucker. Ultimately the challenge is taken up, for the man who looks for fight will find it soon or late, and in time the reputation of the combative cook becomes a legend of the past. Dough-banging does not develop the muscles in the manner that bush-whackers used to imagine, and the profession, on the whole, rather tends to leave its followers with a lack of wind.
It is not to be wondered at that many cooks become crabby, for the cook, on the whole, has an unenviable time, having innumerable grievances to contend with, of which his city brother knows nothing. Take the man, for instance, who "dishes up" for station-hands. If he is allowed full and plenty from the store, and a regular supply of vegetables from the garden, he serves his boys well and wins a reputation that will get him into any shearing-shed within a radius of a hundred miles. On the other hand, if he is rationed out, as at many stations, and allowed none of the extras that help, as many bushmen say, to top off a meal, the table naturally suffers, and the best name the men can find for him is "poisoner."
His excuses and explanations are wasted; the men blame him, and him only. Besides this, he is unable, for want of material himself, to treat travellers, and is in consequence known by all the vilest names imaginable along the highways and byways of several contiguous counties. For this reason good shearers' cooks, unless very hard pushed, will seldom take a job at a station kitchen. They contend that, unless given practically the "run of the store, meathouse, and garden," no matter what they do or try to do, they are bound to lose their good characters.
I happened to be on a station where one, who was known as Jock, took such a job. The times were bad, and supplies had consequently been shortened. One would hardly credit the state of suspense and anxiety that Jock passed through during his sojourn there. He lived in dread of swagmen calling; he mostly shut the doors, and took his boots off to lay the table when he saw them coming. If one happened upon him unawares, he tendered some plausible excuse, saying that Jock, the cook, was in town, and he was merely a rouseabout, doing him a favour, and as such hadn't the run of the place, and he had no idea where anything was kept. Occasionally he encountered a persistent swagger, who called the next day, and the day after, and Jock would then have to be on the spree, and the unlucky rouseabout was doing him an enormous favour, and trying desperately to find out where Jock kept things. When circumstances were unfavourable for such thin excuses, Jock would lose several nights' sleep thinking of the dire consequences of what the swagman might say of him along the track.
When a gang of men, such as shearers, are engaging a cook, which is done by ballot, they do not look at references, as the squatters do; a good reference from a squatter has exactly the opposite bearing with shearers; they know his whole pedigree; his movements and doings have been regularly posted in every quarter from last shearing to date, and the ballot speaks accordingly. If he is a stranger, and none of their own party can put in a good word for him, he is considered worth leaving alone, on the principle that every man is a bad egg until he has proved himself otherwise; but if no other cook is available, he goes in on sufferance.
The regular station cook, who eschews shearers, drovers, and camps generally, is exactly opposite in his bearing and disposition to the class of which Jock was a worthy member. He depends on the squatter for a livelihood, and it is to his interests to serve that gentleman in every way with the utmost zeal. In pursuance of this step he considers it incumbent upon him to discourage travellers. These gentry, apart from causing a constant drain on the stores, entail additional work in the preparation and cooking of what they carry away from the larder.
Jack Fitzgerald, known far and wide as Jack-Without-a-Shirt, who died at Wilcannia in May, 1908, would cook anywhere and for anybody, but it was always understood before he started that he was to have a free hand in dispensing rations. He got his nickname in this way. A traveller came to him for rations and said he had no bags, having lost everything but what he stood up in while crossing a flooded creek. "Never mind," said Jack, pulling off his shirt, "this will do." He tore off the sleeves, and knotting them at the wrists, stuffed one with tea and the other with sugar, then filled the body of the shirt with flour. His only other shirt being at the time in the wash, for the rest of the day he went about his duties with only trousers and boots on.
Concerning fighting cooks the tales are legion. I remember one snag in a north-western (New South Wales) shed, who cooked abominably, but rendered his position tenable by punching the ringer, spreading out the shed pug, and knocking pieces off the wool-presser. After this he became more domineering than ever, and soddened doughboys took the place of the usual blancmange. In his own phraseology, he "knew his cake was dough"; he would never be elected in another shed in that or surrounding districts, and determined to make matters particularly warm while his reign lasted. His election there had been compulsory. Their own cook was on a jamboree when the shed started, and "Long Mick," a stranger, was the only emergency.
As it was impossible to approach "Long Mick" on the subject of his cooking without being knocked down, the shearers held a conference in the shed, with the result that £10 was subscribed and a rouseabout dispatched to a neighbouring station for a noted fighter of the bulldog breed, known as "Bandy Ike." He was only a dwarf compared to Mick, but he was hard as nails, and a big woodcutting contract had got his muscles up to the required pitch.
He arrived on a Saturday afternoon, and remained very passive during the evening; but at breakfast next morning he made a scurrilous remark on the chops. Long Mick bounced in with fire in his eye, and in one minute he had thrown off his cap and apron and said, "Come outside!"
All hands rushed out to see the battle, which was fought behind the woodheap. For the first three rounds Ike never struck a blow; he was dodging, feinting and running round, and taking headers between the long fellow's legs. The latter began to blow hard; then Ike went to work with his sledge-hammer fists, and at the end of five minutes we carried Long Michael in and laid him on his bunk. Every one knew how to beat him now, and several were willing to have a cut later on; but Long Mick rolled his swag two days later, and left without saying goodbye.
A rouseabout went on cooking. He proved the greatest poisoner that ever handled flour; but he had a civil tongue and a nice, taking way of apologising for all shortcomings; and if his bill of fare was monotonous, there was no lack of variety in his excuses. So they got on amicably together, and the shed cut out amidst general rejoicings.
There are hundreds of men in Australia who would not exchange the humble and diminutive tent for a tuck-pointed villa or a modern mansion; there are others, living discontentedly in houses, who would gladly exchange for the tent. To such men the camp fire is more homely and cheerful than a gas-stove; their beds of grass or gum-leaves, laid on the ground and covered with a rug, more comfortable than a spring mattress; and the tea made in the billy-can and drunk out of a pannikin is incomparable to any that is poured from a teapot into china cups.
I remember an old tent-dweller who once treated himself to a Melbourne Cup trip, and, getting into a fairly good hotel, discovered the first spring mattress he had ever seen. He had vegetated in the far-out bark and sapling architectural districts, and when he got back there he told his mates that they had given him a wire fence, laid flat, to sleep on, but he had pulled the clothes off the concern and slept on the floor.
Jimmy Tyson, the squatter king, though he hobnobbed with the best, loved his quart pot and his tent to the last. People called him mean because he would boil his quart on the bank of a creek within coo-ee of a wayside pub, but they did not understand the hold the bush gets on a man, and the fascination there is in tent life, especially to a millionaire, to whom a jaunt in the bush was a holiday, refreshing old experiences, recalling old-time memories.
Phil Moubray, widely known as a writer under the name of "Scotty the Wrinkler," was an inveterate camper. Scotty had sojourned in many lands, had travelled half the world, and filled many important posts, including that of Imperial officer, Royal engineer, surveyor, draughtsman, journalist, and tutor, and he was never so happy as when his tent was pitched in some quiet bend of an Australian river. To him the smell of gum-leaves was sweet, and there was a charm in the myriad bush voices and the wild environment that nothing could replace. He and his camp once figured as an exhibit at a Melbourne exhibition.
The tent is certainly clean, and there is no doubt about the life being healthy. It is the quickest and handiest sort of dwelling to erect; you can carry it about with you and put it up anywhere in a few minutes—unless you are a travelling circus. Further, you haven't to buy or lease the ground as you do when you build a house; you stick it up without so much as inquiring who owns the territory. There are many advantages about a tent. It was the castle of our forefathers; thousands of little Australians were born in it, and the early annals of many of our goldfield towns were written under its white roof.
Tent furniture is made on the spot. For stretcher, two poles are thrust through a couple of bags and laid on forked uprights a foot or so off the ground. Some merely lay the poles on the ground, filling the space between with leaves or grass. This is not a safe bunk in a snake country; it also harbours centipedes, scorpions, and other undesirables. Four stakes and a square piece of bark complete the table. The usual light is a slush lamp. When a candle is used it is held between three upright nails on one corner of the table, or in a slit at the top of a stake, or in a jam tin partly filled with sand. On windy nights the candle is covered with a glass bottle, the bottom of which has been evenly taken off. This is accomplished by first tying some kerosene-saturated twine round the bottle, then burning it and plunging the bottle into cold water.
Many tents are provided with mosquito netting, which is drawn over two looped wires to protect the face. Others are content to burn cowdung. This necessitates the gathering of supplies every evening, and the heap at the tent door is unsightly. I saw a tent on the Paroo which had a length of mosquito netting buttoning across the front, allowing the flaps to be turned back. This made the place cool in summer, besides excluding all troublesome insects. I never saw but one tent-dweller in a hammock, and very few bushmen who were encumbered with air mattresses and air pillows. The hammock is easily carried, and may, on a pinch, be used for a fishing-net; but it is not easily rigged, and it is anything but comfortable. A bed of gum-leaves is beneficial.
There is seldom a washhand-basin at a whaler's camp. In the morning he takes his soap and towel to the waterhole, performing his ablutions at a certain place; then he dips his water for drinking and cooking purposes at another place a few yards away, or else at another hole. If it is only a gilghi, or a small pothole, he washes on the bank with the aid of a pannikin. In the case of two mates, one pours the water as required into the hands of the other. When camping near running water, he washes downstream, and draws his supplies for camp use upstream.
Old stagers exercise considerable care in the choosing of a camp site. They never pitch a tent within reach of a dead tree or against a log. A swagman near Greenmount (Queensland), one evening in June, 1903, indiscreetly lit his fire at the root of a tree, and during the night the tree burnt down, pinning him under a limb. For hours he struggled and twisted to free himself, while the fire of the burning tree crept nearer and nearer. At dawn, when it had reached his legs, his agonised cries were heard by an old man, who at once brought assistance and rescued him from his awful predicament.
The old stagers note the lean of green trees, and scrutinise the limbs from which danger may be expected in stormy weather. Stumps and driftwood are also avoided, as they are favoured by snakes; so also is a dinted surface where water is likely to collect. A slight rise or an easy slope is the best ground, the trench round the tent ensuring a dry interior in the wettest weather. They choose, if possible, a low, bushy tree, or a space in a cluster of bushes, the latter acting as a serviceable break when strong winds are blowing. If the grass is dry, precaution is taken to burn a patch for a radius of several yards as a protection against bush fires, also to prevent a disastrous outbreak by sparks from the camp fire during a temporary absence. Water must be handy and food plentiful. Nor is this all. The troublesome black ant, the electrifying jumper, the blistering greenhead, and the pugnacious "bulldog" have to be considered. There are spots absolutely free from ants, whilst places within a few yards around are swarming; other spots, again, are traversed by highways and branch tracks regularly used by the ants in their comings and goings to and from the nest. In such places the camper is careful not to throw any scraps about that would draw them to the tent. These matters are quickly noticed by the experienced eye, and the site of the primitive habitation is chosen accordingly.
At many favoured spots little canvas villages spring up, mushroom-like, in a night, glisten like huge snowballs for a time in the sun, then disappear, leaving nothing but ash-heaps behind. Along the banks of the Darling, Murray, Murrumbidgee, Lachlan, Bogan, and Barwon Rivers, and westward along the Warrego and Maranoa, and on the shores of Bulloo Lake, the tent-dwellers make their home when out of work, and when the weather or condition of the country militates against travelling. Fish is plentiful, and game of many kinds fairly abundant. During the hot months they make a prolonged stay, for the most part leading a lazy life, until the craving for a change of diet drives them on to the wallaby again. The majority break camp periodically, as at shearing-time, and may be working or wandering for nine months in the year. On returning they make for the same spot, dig up their "home effects" that have been buried under a tree, and follow the old routine. Many of them never leave the rivers, except for short periods, and make a living by cutting out pipes, snobbing, tinkering, mending umbrellas, making water-bags, carving emu eggs, polishing bullocks' horns, and following many other trades that can be carried on under canvas. On the Paroo I encountered a well-educated Pole who tuned pianos. It was amusing to watch him dressing in his tent preparatory to going up to the homestead to inquire about the health of the family instrument. He came out in faultless style, and with a leather bag in his hand; when "moving" he was dressed like an ordinary battler, swinging a billycan in place of a hand-bag.
Between the tent and an average dwelling-house there is a long list of humpies and hovels, gunyahs, mi-mies, canvas and galvanised-iron habitations, and bark huts, in which the freedom and ruggedness of the tent life is observable, though, as a rule, they are not as clean and healthy. Any one of them is acceptable as a home to the majority of those who lead a rough and wandering life; but there are many, long used to camping out with only the star-studded sky for roof, who will not avail themselves of any such shelter when opportunity offers. Drovers, musterers, and swagmen may often be seen sleeping in the open around an empty hut. Others, again, with whom the cloister of white canvas has become second nature, eschew the huts as unclean. I have seen these men, when they have been working on stations, erect their customary six-by-eights by the side of the men's hut, though the latter was well built and comfortable. On one occasion I saw a man rig his tent inside a hut, though what he did it for only himself knew—unless, as I have said, the canvas had become inseparable from his idea of home.
I remember once, when doing a journey across Queensland from east to west, I camped every night for weeks at a waterhole, or by some watercourse, making my fire under a bushy tree. One night I was unable to reach any such place, and I felt lonely and miserable. Another night I had no matches to make a fire, and experienced the same feelings. A fire near a waterhole had become home to me—being the only home at the time available. And thus it is with the aborigines, who, though semi-civilised, prefer their primitive gunyahs to a white man's palace.
Camping out, however, is not all smooth sailing. The tentless swagman at times has to make queer shifts on wet nights. I once shared a hollow log with a dingo—but neither of us had any sleep; we were too interested in watching each other. On another night I slept in the hollow of a tree, and next morning I noticed a big black snake crawling out of the root to sun himself.
When once you have been scared by snakes you live in dread of them, for they wander on hot nights, and your fire attracts them. They travel for miles before a dust-storm; so when a dust-storm is coming you lie expectant. Every crooked stick resembles a snake, and if you look at it by the firelight it seems to dance and to wriggle. I travelled with one man who made it a rule to gather up every little stick before dark. Said he had killed two or three stick-snakes that summer and didn't want to be making a fool of himself any more—it lowered his dignity.
When a storm finds you in thick timber you are forced to take violent exercise, dodging falling branches. You become suddenly interested in various trees which you had not noticed before, and you speculate as to their powers of endurance, and where they are likely to fall should they blow down. You shrink from the lightning, wondering if this tree or that will be struck. You do not feel safe in your tent; you think every moment that something is going to fall on it.
One evening when I was on an out-of-the-way track I found a black-fellow trying to rig an old tent between two mulga-trees as a storm was coming on. I helped him, there being no other shelter. A short stump in the middle served as a partition. He snored on one side of it while I marked time on the other, and nine of his dogs scratched fleas between us. One dog had a lump in his throat and made you feel as if you wanted to cough to ease him. Another had no hair and whined continually with cold. But the worst of all was a wall-eyed brindle, which was everlastingly convulsed in some bristle-stirring nightmare. I never saw a living thing have so many nightmares on end. Every time he yelped all the others would start up and yelp too. Then one brute fossicked out a lizard, which the whole pack chased round and round the stump. They caught him at last, and worried him until, being a brittle lizard, he broke up badly, and presently the nine curs were wrestling with nine pieces all over old Murri. And such an eldritch row he made! After a while they got round to my side. Two serviceable bluchers met them and set them fighting in half a dozen places. Then down came the caboose. I left Murri buried under it, and stepped out through the slush and pelting rain. When the camp is situated near the foot-hills, rising gently into dark mountains, by a narrow stream coursing through luxuriant bush, where a thousand bird voices greet the ear, and every breeze is laden with a rich perfume, one lives in a state of simplicity that is pleasant and beneficial. Scores of Sydneysiders every year spend their summer vacation in tents, forming little communities in quiet spots where there is fishing, and perhaps shooting; even the smartest set regard it as the proper thing to go under canvas, and to sleep on the grass on fine, warm nights, with nothing overhead but a star-spangled sky.
Travellers who have been used to macadamised highways can't readily accommodate themselves to the altered conditions pertaining to the back country, where there are only little patches of made roads, mostly beside the wayside pubs (where the publicans don't want them), no bridges or culverts cross the creeks, and the distance from house to house ranges from twenty to fifty miles. The bush track winds like a serpent across the hills and through the forests of mulga and gidgee, whilst over the soft sandbeds the tracks are as manifold as the beds and billabongs of an inland river, showing the many deviations made by drivers in their desire to save their horses. The latter, fed mostly on scrub and saltbush, are not always in the pink of condition, and the long stages, ranging up to thirty-six miles, together with the immense loads that are piled on the vehicles, don't assist the animals in keeping their ribs hidden. A team is often made up of anything handy—little and big, light and heavy, and it may represent several owners. Settlers give the coach-driver their half-broken colts to quieten; and when a man has a horse that kicks, bolts, jibs, or displays other peculiarities that the owner objects to, the remedy is a few trips in the body of the coach team. These casual horses may also be one-eyed, near-sighted, or purblind, but the driver is glad to have their help.
I often heard admiring comments from visitors on the horses that came spanking into Broken Hill with heavy loads from north and west. These were the show horses. They had good roads to travel on, and had to cut out their stage in record time to make up for the deficiencies of relays farther out. Mail-time is reckoned by minutes in Broken Hill; but when you inquire at the little places towards the border as to what time last week's "Bulletin" will arrive, the answer is : "Some time this afternoon, or to-night, or to-morrow." A few points of rain on the track, though it would not stop a Chinaman from watering his cabbages, may delay the mail forty-eight hours. Tibooburra is advised by wire what time the coach leaves Milparinka, twenty-four miles distant; yet the people cannot tell within two or three hours, in average weather, when it will arrive. "Heavy load" means late arrival, "light load" early.
Sitting behind knocked-up horses on a hot summer's day, with dust and flies for an accompaniment to the creaking of wheels and the rocking of a crawling coach, is an experience that the far-back traveller can look forward to without fear of disappointment. Sometimes, to avoid being stuck up, he has to walk over the bad places, and even dig away the sand and mud with a shovel and spoke the wheels. One western line traversed many heavy sandbeds. On coming to one of these the driver would call out, "Now, then, out you get!" and women and all would have to step out and tramp until the horses were able to trot again. But the westerners are used to that sort of thing, and willingly walk and graft a lot of the way over which they've paid anything from sixpence to ninepence a mile for the luxury of riding.
The commercial traveller is an objectionable passenger to a coach-driver at such times. His tin trunks are numerous, and their weight would knock up a mule team. He is generally a heavy person, too, and he doesn't like stepping down into a quagmire. When it is necessary to open a gate or to hook a trace-chain that has come undone he takes a tighter grip of his cigar and holds out his hand for the reins. But the commercial is a good fellow. He has always a fund of anecdote, and is usually provided with something in a bottle to refresh the driver after a trying experience. He pays liberally for his ride, and he rides all the way.
On the two-hundred-mile journey between Tibooburra and Broken Hill I and others, after sitting cramped up, numbed and shivering, for hours on a winter's night, have got out and walked five or six miles to the mail change for a cup of tea, and have then enjoyed an hour or more's sleep before the coach turned up. By this I do not wish to infer that the general run of Out-back coaches are slow affairs; but over portions of the rough tracks it isn't possible for them to travel at full walk, much less at full trot. Though the casual passenger grumbles at having to get along by his own volition, the weary whip, tied to his worn-out team, envies him his freedom, and wishes that he could walk away likewise. The exigencies of his calling require him to be on the box for fifty hours at a stretch, with only a day or two and at one end only a night's rest between trips. Winter and summer, sunshine and rain, he works all day and all night, and all next day and right on through the night again, without a spell, stopping only at the changes for fresh horses and refreshments—and refreshments on this route vary from eight to eighteen hours apart.
Where there is a long interval between houses, the "change" may be simply a sapling yard and a bough shed. The groom is mostly a single man, living in a tent. His only work is to look after a few horses which run in the bush, groom them, and help the driver with the changing on mail days. The coach may pass only once or twice a week, up and down, and between whiles he has a pretty lonely time of it, seeing nobody but an odd swagman. Where a selector's hut is handy to the road the selector acts as groom, and his wife earns an honest penny by providing refreshments for driver and passengers. At one place we walked nearly a mile off the road to an old roughly-built hut, where the groom's wife supplied a substantial dinner for two shillings a head. The dining-room was a bough-covered skillion at the back, and you sat on long forms before a narrow table made of packing-cases that called up recollections of shearers' huts. There was no tablecloth, but we didn't mind little things like that, nor did we complain when the baby under the table amused itself by counting our legs and undoing our bootlaces. Everything was spotlessly clean, the women were homely and chatty, and though mine host carved in a short-sleeved flannel, open at the neck and bearing signs of recent hard graft, we felt very grateful as we climbed on board again.
Besides these stopping-places there are dozens of bush post-offices along the road. These are simply candle boxes, lolly tins, or kerosene tins, nailed to trees and gate-posts. Hollow trees are also used, a small piece being cut out of the trunk, and a tin awning nailed above it. Such receptacles are usually convenient enough for the driver to draw up alongside and drop the mail in, and take out anything that has been left for him. They occur in places where no sign of life is visible, in the heart of the scrub, on the edge of a plain, and on thickly-timbered hills. At other places a horseman, or a girl, or a black boy will be waiting, sometimes with parcels which may be anything from a cabbage to a box of eggs. At night-time the tired passenger, after sitting and rocking through hours of monotony, occasionally brightens up at the sight of a light ahead, and inquires the name of the place. The driver tells him the name of the squattage, or whatever may be adjacent. When they pull up the passenger is disappointed to find only a man standing by the roadside with a lantern, having ridden or walked down to ascertain the whereabouts of a certain bullock team and how it was getting on, while the place the driver had named is two miles or more off the road. Swagmen's fires, too, blaze out here and there, and sometimes the men have a message for the coachman, a letter to be posted, or they want to know something about the track, where water is to be found, the distance of places, when shearing starts at Boulka Lake, and if Bancannia has cut out yet. Maybe they only want a pipe of tobacco, which, in the swagman's opinion, is sufficient cause to hold up the Royal Mail.
There are receiving offices here and there—at a wayside store, hotel, or mining camp. On mail days people gather from all directions at these places, the arrival of the coach being the most important event of their lives. The orders and messages a driver receives from them are many and various. One man wants a pound of tobacco from the store, another wants a pair of boots or a pair of pants, a third hands him a bill with the amount and asks him to be good enough to get a receipt, and a fourth wants his dog registered. Mrs. Brown passes up a pair of ducks, and would be obliged if he would give them to Mrs. Smith, with her compliments, as he passes. Mrs. Publichouse wants him, like a good fellow, to get her a cook or a housemaid in town. Another lady has been making jam, and desires several jars of it distributed among her friends along the track. Also McPherson wishes him to ask Anderson for the loan of his bay colt, and to bring it up alongside his team when he is coming back. These are a few of the innumerable favours which every coach-driver on the Out-back roads is expected to do for nothing. If he forgets one of them, though it might be only a question concerning the health of Mrs. Jones's baby, he will be told with sarcasm that "he's got a head and so has a pin."
We had a new experience at Packsaddle Bore, where the road crosses a wide, sandy creek. There had been rain in the neighbourhood, so the roads were heavy and creeks running. The upcoach was met here—bogged in mid-stream. The driver and a passenger were wading knee-deep in water, one at the horses' heads and one spoking, while a Chinaman, bound for a border squattage, handled the ribbons and shouted instructions from the box, "Pullee gley orsee round more better!" he cried. "Hit um the black one; my wor', lazy brute! Gee up, 'orsee! Gortam, whaffor?" We halted on the bank, and our leaders were transferred to the bogged team. Our amiable whip also stepped bare-legged into the water, and with their combined efforts the Royal Mail was rescued from the bog.
Now came our turn. Paddy, the driver, rushed them in so as to take the stiff part at a run. Alas! the pole-hook pulled out, and the leaders dashed away with the reins, leaving us stranded in the middle of the creek. Luckily the damage was easily repaired, and, there being plenty of horses, we got out of our difficulties after about an hour's delay.
The coach-driver bears a great deal more responsibility than he is given credit for. Think of the many steep and nasty gullies crossed in the dead of night; the deep gutters, begotten of old-time wheel-tracks, that run parallel with the road on the down grades, where the least swerve might mean a capsize; the twistings through scrub, where the track swings sharply round a stump or tree, or round the foot of a rugged ridge with the steep bank of a creek in juxtaposition, and you get some idea of what you owe to his steady hand, his keen eye, and his memory of the road, as he bowls you on through the long night. Half your time you can see nothing but a black bank before you, for through the sandbeds, over the stony plains and the powdery, grassless flats the road is invisible. Yet the horses swing on with an unfaltering stride that instils within you a sense of security. People whose avocations take them over many roads know how to appreciate a good whip; they know what depends on the hand that holds the reins.
On very dark nights, when the skies are clouded, it occasionally happens that the road is missed. On a barren plain below Wonnaminta, where the track was hard to discern when starlit, we got astray one night, and were two hours searching with coach-lamps and matches for the track. Then there is always the dreaded north-west dust-storm to be reckoned with. Driving through one of these is worse than any night, for at times nothing can be seen, and the dust-blinded horses strive continually to turn from the blast. Once the Hungerford-Bourke coach was blown over and dragged across the driver, who, however, escaped without serious injury. During unusually heavy storms the team is turned tail to the wind, and a halt is made until the worst has blown over. Again, trees are blown across the road, and a way has to be picked slowly round through the timber.
Another danger which might at any time cause an accident is embodied in the simple-looking roley-poley, a huge white ball of burrs and grass. It is met with everywhere in the north-west, and rolls for miles across the plains, banking up against fences and filling up the cowals. These banks at night look like low hills, and the filled-up gutters resemble level strips of grassy ground. Horses are often frightened by the roley-poleys, which come spinning towards them, or suddenly roll across the track under their noses. They are weird-looking things in the moonlight, hundreds of them rolling along like scurrying sheep, bounding over the banked fences, and gambolling on again.
When it is mentioned that, besides drapery, spirits, and tobacco, such items as butter, fruit, bacon, hams, meat, vegetables, wool sheets, tents, tin dishes, and boots are sent through the parcels post, you can imagine what the non-postal matter is like. Every available inch of space is occupied, bags of chaff, buggy wheels, perambulators, and other bulky light stuff being piled on top to a height of several feet. Then there are the passengers, generally a mixed lot. Coming down, you might have a Chinaman beside you, and a couple of manacled prisoners, with a policeman on either side, on the opposite seat. And there is no room to stretch your legs or lean back; you are compelled to sit huddled in one position mile after mile, hour after hour. For this reason most people prefer the box seat. The inside is cooler on a hot day, warmer on a cold night, and drier in wet weather; but you are cramped, and there is bound to be some old party alongside who can't keep awake, and who persists in making a pillow of his companion and snoring into his ear, or who bumps him heavily with every roll of the coach.
It is a genuine pleasure to see the lights of a town suddenly blaze out from the crest of a distant hill. In the early morning the place looks asleep, and during the day it has the dull sameness of many other towns; but in the early night, when lights stream from everywhere, a little town looks big.
The coach often travels through miles of burning bush, enveloped in smoke and cinders, and running a hot race with long lines of flames that are closing in on the road. On the Glen Wills line (Victoria), in February, 1905, the mailcoach and contents were destroyed, and three horses and a swagman—who had been picked up two miles back—were burnt to death. The coach had been traversing a cutting on the side of a hill, on which a fire was burning, when the wind sprang up suddenly and the flames leaped over the road in a broad sheet and completely enveloped it. The driver, who was knocked overboard and severely injured, escaped by crawling into Lightning Creek.
In February, 1902, while the mail-coach was travelling between Albury and Howlong, a goanna suddenly ran up the legs of one of the horses and perched on its back. The team became wildly excited, bolted, and smashed the vehicle against a tree. The goanna was about the only thing concerned that escaped injury.
Probably the worst disaster in the annals of backblocks coaching was that which overtook the Powell's Creek and Anthony's Lagoon (N.T.) mail, when the driver, passengers, and horses perished on a dry stage for want of water.
On the roads trending west from Bourke and north from Broken Hill it often happens in midsummer that horses drop dead in harness from the excessive heat, and the driver, if unable to proceed with his weakened team, rides off to nearest squattage or to the next mail change for fresh horses, while the passengers guard the coach and mails, and beguile the time the best way they can. While coming into Tibooburra one night a horse dropped from exhaustion, and the coach was pulled on to it before the team could be stopped. The coo-ees of the driver attracted a dozen of us to the scene, and after lifting the coach off the prostrate animal, and disentangling the others from the broken pole, we took hold fore and aft and rolled her on to the post-office. This, however, might be considered a good finish, when compared with the experience of a North Queensland mailman, who, when his horses caved in forty miles from Winton, carried the mailbags the rest of the way on his back, the journey occupying him two days.
These are some of the experiences of coaching in the tame times of the present. They were more exhilarating in the pioneering days of Cobb Co., when the intrepid whips had to run the gauntlet of armed bushrangers, and often submit to being lined up with their passengers by the roadside while the coach was being ransacked. One of the famous whips of those days was Edward Devine, commonly known as Cabbagetree Ned. From 1853 (when he was only seventeen) to 1862 Ned drove a six-in-hand between Geelong and Ballarat. During the first two years his wage was £16 a week, and his tips from lucky diggers, for whom he conveyed gold to the banks, averaged even more than that. The roads at the time were frequented by Captain Melville, Black Douglass, and other bushrangers.
Ned had many narrow escapes, and on one occasion his coach was stuck up and his passengers robbed of £800 by the notorious Ned Jordan, afterwards hanged for the murder of Squatter Rutherford. Devine got his sobriquet from the fact that he usually sported a wide-brimmed cabbage-tree hat, made in Parramatta for the London International Exhibition held in 1851, and subsequently presented to him. It was a conspicuous part of his dress for fifty years.
"'Twas merry 'mid the blackwoods when we spied the station roofs,
To wheel the wild scrub cattle at the yard,
With a running fire of stockwhips, and a fiery run of hoofs—
Oh! the hardest day was never then too hard."
Adam Lindsay Gordon.
The stockman holds the same place in Australia as the cowboy in the western plains of America, and in Old World eyes no picture of Australia is complete without him. He is every whit as wild and reckless, as daring among wild horses and cattle, as his cousin of the ranch, and has proved himself a more skilled artist in buckjump riding. He has never adopted the lasso, the bowie-knife, or the six-shooter (except when scrub-running and buffalo-hunting), though in the early days, when the black-fellow's spear and boomerang waited for him on his bush rides, he was seldom without the necessary equipment for a battle royal; but with the stockwhip and tomahawk he is a master. One of his pastimes when waiting on a cattle camp is tomahawk-throwing at a small mark on a tree. The mark is about three inches in diameter, and the object is to bury the blade in it from a distance of twenty to forty feet while galloping. Another and more dangerous feat is for two to stand a few yards apart and engage in a tomahawk duel, each catching the weapon by the handle as it revolves rapidly towards him. A slight slip would mean a nasty cut, and a miss would probably result in his head being split open. One of his favourite feats with the stockwhip is the whipping of a sixpence into the air and catching it while riding along. At times stockmen have been known to stand in front of a tree and cut out their names or the station brand on the smooth bark with their whipthongs. I have heard of the man, too, who could cut the eye out of a flying mosquito without touching his eyelash, but I never met him.
Like the drover, the stockman is a prominent feature in country life, and the most important in the personnel of the cattle station. He is a happy-go-lucky, devil-may-care individual. His god is his horse; without that noble animal he is like the domestic duck that has no waterhole. He may be unemployed and penniless, but as long as he has a horse and saddle—and he'll have them somehow—he won't lose any sleep through worry. Having grown up and lived most of his waking life in the pigskin, he considers himself disgraced if compelled to travel on foot; if he has to go to a place half a mile away, he will walk a mile to catch a horse to ride there. More than that, if the horse is a hard one to catch, he is likely to spend half a day chasing him round the paddock, and with running and walking and dodging cover a good twenty miles in the time. I remember asking a stockman, who was idling at a wayside hotel, if he was going to the sports—a grass-fed meeting that was being held in the locality. "I wanted to go badly," he said, "but blessed if I can rake up a prad anywhere. I humped my bridle and saddle over to Murphy's this morning, thinking to get one of his young uns, but they were all turned out. So I'm stuck." Murphy's was two miles away, the racecourse was one mile. But it wasn't etiquette for a well-known stockman like him to go to the meeting on foot.
The finest riders and the wildest spirits are found in the backblocks. Their most favoured rig-out consists of snow-white, tight-fitting mole-skins, coloured shirt, black coat, light cossacks, and a gaudily-coloured silk neckerchief. Leggings, once universally worn, have pretty well gone out of fashion, but the long-necked spurs are inseparable from the stockman's heels. They jingle him to dinner, and they keep time to his pirouetting in the dance-room. When he removes his boots at night the spurs are still strapped on them; if he is camping out, he very often sleeps in them. The thinking end of him is decked with an expansive cabbage-tree or a broad-leafed felt hat, something like the sombrero of the cowboy. He is a picturesque fellow, and not a bad sort, with all his whims and fancies. He is good-hearted and hospitable, and, though he has a mild contempt for a man who cannot ride a bucking horse down a precipice, he is at all times generous enough to give assistance and advice to a novice, especially to lads who are beginning a station career.
On many of the big cattle stations half the stockmen are aborigines. They make good horse-men, are marvellously quick in a yard, keen-sighted, and are at home in any part of the bush. These supple-jointed, nimble-fingered gentry can pick up the smallest objects from the ground while riding at full speed. They fraternise like brothers with the whites, though at the head station they have separate quarters.
The first thing one hears at daylight in the morning on any big cattle station is the thundering clatter of hoofs as the horse-boy comes racing in with the big mob of horses. Immediately after breakfast the boss and the head stockman appear, and the men follow to the yard, each with a bridle on his arm. Every man has six or eight horses, which are practically his own property for the time being. No man may put a bridle on another man's horse without permission, and this applies to all, from the overseer down to the horse-boy. They swop among themselves, often giving something to boot, which may take the form of money, a pair of spurs, tobacco, or other commodity. Some peculiarity in the action of a horse may be distasteful to one rider, while being appreciated by another, and so the exchange is agreeable to both. In the case of a slow, a rough-paced, or a nasty-tempered horse, the temporary owner has considerable difficulty in trading it for a more satisfactory animal. He may, however, possess a good stockwhip, fancy pipe, pocket-knife, patent spurs, or even a nice-shaped cabbage-tree hat, which has taken the other's fancy, and by throwing in one or more of these items the deal is brought about. The inclusion of bridles or saddles in the deal also at times bridges the gulf between the values of two horses. I have known new chums, learning to ride, pay away a good portion of their wages to get rid of bucking horses, or in tobacco, as fees to good riders to take the rough edge off their mounts in the mornings by giving them a rooting round the yard.
When a draft of lately-broken colts is brought in from the spelling paddock they are distributed among the men, and are schooled in slack times and ridden on "short days." The catching and mounting in the mornings is at all times attractive to the stranger. The horse-yards are generally two large squares, connected by a little catching-yard, which has a gate at each end. The horses are run through it from one square to the other, while the stockmen stand by with their bridles. Each one calls out "Block" as the particular horse he wants is run in, and both gates are closed. Even the little black boy, whose head shows just above the bottom rail, has the privilege of choosing for himself, so far as his own batch of horses is concerned. As the horses are ridden in turn and spelled in batches for three or four months every year, they are always fresh. Consequently a morning seldom passes without two or three brisk sets-to at the stables. Some of them are vicious brutes, and can be depended on to buck into the days of their old age, having a fly every time a saddle is put on them. Quiet old stagers are rare. Every year a fresh batch of young ones is broken in, and the old, slow, and defective animals are fattened and sold off; so the station always has a supply of rough mounts on hand that require skilled riders to deal with.
Between the general musterings the work at the head station is not hard. Though the stockmen start out early in the mornings, they are often back early in the afternoon, and can then amuse themselves as they please till next day. It is common to see the whole troop, blacks and whites, marching down to the river with towels for a bogey after their day's ride. The home run is subdivided into many paddocks—as the house-paddock, horse-paddock, bull-paddock, and stud-paddock; and there are separate paddocks for heifers, weaners, bullocks, fats, and pig-meaters or culls. There is always something to do among these different herds, and in summer-time the creeks, lagoons, and waterholes have to be watched, and bogged cattle pulled out. With the fences, or any job not connected with stock, they have nothing to do; there are men kept specially for that purpose. The personnel of the average station comprises, apart from stockmen, a gardener, cook, bullock-driver, carpenter, blacksmith, ploughman, groom, and a couple of fencers. But the stockmen have to join forces when bush fires break out, which occur pretty frequently in summer. For days and nights, for a week at a stretch, these fires are sometimes fought, every available hand doing battle against the annual foe of the pastures. You will see fifty men retreating before a long line of flame, belting at it with bags and bushes whenever a chance offers in short grass; boys follow with the horses, or ride to and fro with buckets and bags of water for the men; whilst others follow the fences, chopping burning portions off posts and rails and removing lighted timber.
The head station presents an animated appearance on the morning the cavalcade starts out on a mustering tour. Swags are being rolled in all directions, two or three pack-horses are loaded at the store, blacks and whites, in spotlessly clean clothes, pass in and out for tobacco and matches, new boots, bridles, saddle-cloths, spurs, or other gear; a score of horses are ready saddled, and sixty to a hundred spare ones await in the yard. Then the rails are thrown down, and the big mob trots away towards the bush, with a man or two in front to steady them, A merry troop follows in a bunch at their heels, while "Flourbags," the musterers' cook, mounted on "the quietest thing they've got," brings up the rear and talks unlearnedly of horses and cattle.
There may be several outcamps or sub-stations, and the musterers go from one to the other. Often there is only a small hut, deserted between times, and a stockyard and horse-paddock marking these places, though on some of the inside runs they are respectable homesteads in themselves, and are in charge of married couples. Here there are a whites' hut and a blacks' hut, and conditions vary but little from those existing at the head station. At the primitive outcamps which obtain in the far-back country the cook usually monopolises the hut and the men spread out on the grass. When it rains in the night they pack up hurriedly and crowd wherever they can. For scores of miles in every direction around them stretches virgin bush, where one may ride days and never see a fence, and where lines of rugged hills or scrubby mountain ranges are the only boundaries between one squatter's run and another's. Stragglers cross from their own runs occasionally, and a couple of men come from neighbouring places to pick them out at mustering times.
On many big runs, especially in the western parts of Queensland, there are vast herds of wild and unbranded cattle in these divisional ranges. In slack times men go out and camp among the mountains, and attempts are made to drive the cattle from their fastnesses. When success attends the venture the young stock are brought in to the home paddocks, but the old cattle are shot down wherever sighted. The men are armed with rifles, revolvers, and sheath-knives. Big cattle are often hand-thrown on horseback. The stockman catches the tail, and with a sudden twist throws the animal. He then jumps off quickly and ties it up before it has time to recover from the buster. There is plenty of excitement in this life—riding full speed through gorges and ravines, sliding down rugged spurs, tearing and reefing through scrubs, and plunging through broad morasses, to the constant crack of rifles, strewing the way with dead and wounded. Now and again a man is unhorsed, as when a wounded beast turns suddenly and charges or a mob breaks through from a tight corner, and he has to scramble into a tree in quick order. Then he finds his horse attacked, and is lucky if he doesn't lose him altogether.
In some parts moonlighting is adopted. A few quiet cattle are pastured in the open, near where the scrubbers water, to act as decoys. The scrubbers come out at night. As soon as they espy the strangers they go over to interview them; then the waiting stockmen dash between them and their scrubby home and drive them off, at the same time shooting down the bulls.
Two or three weeks are spent in rounding up and shooting these wild cattle, skinning the carcasses, and packing the hides to the stations. On other places there are large mobs of brumbies, which are also rounded up at certain times or caught in trapyards. I saw six hundred caught in one night on Eurombar, Dawson River, in 1895. A few of the best colts and fillies are kept for breaking in, but 90 per cent, are shot for their skins. Some of them are hard to quieten, but as a rule they don't buck any more than ordinary station stock. The latter on some runs are as free, and pretty near as wild, as brumbies. Hundreds of horses in Queensland are only seen once a year or so, their runs having scarcely any specified bounds. When wanted they are mustered by contract, so many pounds for the first five hundred yarded, a higher rate for the next complement, and so on. In such places they soon go wild, and it is not easy to draw the line between brumbies and station horses.
Around the outcamps the runs are worked in sections and the cattle drafted in the bush. The men spread soon after leaving the yard, going off in ones and twos, and meeting again hours afterwards on some far-off cattle-camp, converging from various points with little mobs, which come down the deep-grassed valleys and rugged hills at a swinging bat.
A black-fellow was one day pulling up, after wheeling his cattle on to camp, when the bit parted in the horse's mouth. Finding itself free, the animal bucked furiously for a while, then bolted through the bush. The darkey, while dodging limbs and trees, drew the throat lash, and, buckling it round the horse's neck, hung on until he had choked the animal to a standstill, which didn't take very long. I knew another man, finding himself in a similar predicament, to draw his stirrup-iron and knock the horse down with a blow between the ears. It was a quick way of stopping him, but he very narrowly escaped breaking his own neck.
The camps are merely clear spots in the bush, low sandy mounds or a clump of trees by a waterhole. As soon as all the musterers have come in the drafting commences. The head stockman and one or two others, mounted on good camp horses, do the cutting out, the other men being posted at intervals round the mob to keep them together. The drafted cattle are gathered and held some distance away by a couple of boys. The work is lively and spirited all through; the cattle are continually breaking and ringing and horsemen flashing through the trees, crossing and re-crossing each other, while the lowing and bellowing of cattle, the cracking of whips, and the shouting of men keep up a continual din. It is much more exciting than drafting in yards—at times it is a little too exciting. Cattle often charge, a girth breaks, horses fall, or something starts them bucking at a critical moment,
I saw a clever horseman one day attempt to turn back a long-horned bullock that had broken away. The bullock charged, striking the horse on the hind-quarters. The latter sprang forward and jumped over the huge butt of a fallen tree. It landed with its head between its forelegs, and with two sudden bucks unseated its rider. The bullock followed, but, fortunately, struck the log and turned a somersault over it, which gave the man time to get up a tree. Another day a cutter-out was galloping round the closely-packed mob to cut off a cow, when she suddenly turned across his path, with the result that the horse struck her and knocked her over. One of the outside men had been following behind, and not being able to turn in the space on account of a tree, he spurred his horse at the prostrate beast. She sprang up under him, throwing the horse violently on its head and breaking its neck. The rider, however, fell clear and escaped unhurt. Accidents of a more serious nature occasionally occur, but on the whole the stockman can be trusted nine times out of ten to come off uninjured. Quick of hand and eye, and trained from his boyhood to act at an instant's notice while riding at full gallop, he is seldom caught under a falling horse, and to spring away on to his feet from one that is rearing over is as simple to him as lighting his pipe.
When all the cattle wanted have been cut out the rejected are left to pick their way back to their own feeding-grounds, and a few men take the drafted lot on to the next camp, while the others spread again to gather up the stragglers from the surrounding bush.
Towards sundown they reach the yards, hungry and tired. If there is any daylight left, after a hurried meal, a start on the final drafting through the yards is made. All are now on foot, and the tumult is greater than on the cattle camps. Accidents often happen, too, in the yards. When driving them in lots from one yard to another a beast will often break back and charge. Most stockmen spring on to the fence, but there are some reckless spirits who will stand, with a short stick in hand, and face anything with horns. As the beast comes almost within touch the man springs nimbly aside, at the same time tapping the animal on the nose with the stick, and with a plunge and a snort it goes trotting away. But in a small yard a beast will return to the attack time and again.
One day, on a Clarence River station, a man, who was standing against a fence, made an attempt to spring on the rail from a wide-horned bullock and missed his footing. Next instant the long horns crashed against the rails at each side of him, one snapping off. Only the huge bovine face hit the man; and, though he was little hurt, he was in a pretty tight fix for a moment or two. Fortunately, the other horn got caught between two rails, and, in twisting his head to free himself, the beast gave his intended victim a quickly-availed-of chance to get away.
Though there are thousands of men engaged in these pursuits who have the working and handling of the wildest cattle, one seldom hears of one being gored. They appear to move among cattle with indifference, but are very rarely caught napping. It doesn't pay to be absent-minded while in company of a lot of pugnacious scrubbers in a small enclosure. For all that, hairbreadth escapes frequently occur, and now and again a man, in a slippery or dust-clouded yard, is knocked over or tossed, but he generally manages get away with no more damage than a slight bruise or a scratch. It is the constant risk attending the work that makes it so acceptable and fascinating to most men. Sheep work is dull and monotonous; there is no danger about it to excite the brain, no stirring incidents ever recurring to thrill the fibres and quicken the pulse as among cattle. Thus a cattle-man will never work on a sheep station if he can help it. In this respect the stockman and the drover are of the one frame of mind.
There are several yards to be negotiated, diminishing in size from the large receiving-yard to the centre of operations. This is the little drafting-yard, which is a scene of continual activity. It is no more than a dozen or fifteen feet square, with gates opening into a branding shed and three or four squares. A man sits on the cap in charge of each gate. The boss, with book in hand, is also perched on the capping, and to his calls of "bush," "bullock," "calf," "weaner," &c., the gates are kept almost continually swinging. A couple of men are in the yard, each armed with a stick to turn and hunt up stubborn and refractory animals, and as their eyes are on the gates, and cattle are pouring in from the yards behind, their position is anything but a sinecure. I remember well when I was first put into that yard. I was so busy looking after myself that I hadn't time to do any work. At the end of half an hour I landed heavily in the next yard, having sprung on to the rails from a charging beast with so much celerity that the impetus carried me over the capping. Another day I attempted to drive a single cow, with a young calf, out of the receiving-yard. She charged, and, being a long way from a fence, I lodged my hat in front of her and ran. She impaled that hat on her horn, and as she broke out immediately afterwards and escaped, I had to buy a new one.
The branding of the calves is done each day as soon as the drafting is finished. Some of the calves, or "clean-skins," have horns six inches long, and when strong and fat give the men a tough tussle to throw them. Ropes are not used on anything that can be hand-thrown; roping takes too much time. Two men handle each animal, one at the head and one at the tail, the latter having the worst of it. As soon as the calf is flung on to its side the man has to sit down quickly, plant his feet against the under leg, and hold the other back in his hands. The struggling of a strong calf under a burning brand makes his teeth rattle. It is fine warming exercise on a winter's morning.
When the drafting has been completed the night before it is usual to see the fires burning, the brands hot, and the men waiting at the pen for daylight. There are perhaps two hundred or three hundred calves to be branded before breakfast, and these are rattled through in a couple of hours. Two or three pairs are throwing, two more operate on each calf with brands and knife, and three or four boys are outside attending to the fires and passing brands to and fro.
Breakfast is waiting when the job is over. Then into the saddle again and out for more cattle; drafting again till dark, branding again at daylight. There is no stopping, no pause in the whole round, till mustering is over and the drafted mobs are paddocked, and the cavalcade returns to the head station.
One who has been used to the brisk, stirring life on a cattle station does not easily adapt himself to the tame, commonplace routine of sheep. The first is poetry, the other prose; yet the prosaic existence is responsible for three parts of the bush doggerel that is written. It affords more time to dream. For all that, sheep-farming is not a lazy man's job. Even on the tablelands of New England, the river-lands of Riverina, and the prairie-lands of the Darling Downs, it is the hardest of all stock work; while on the runs of the Western Division, in dry times, it is one of the short cuts to constitutional ruin. It is significant that very few aborigines will work constantly among sheep, while they will live their lives out among cattle. Nevertheless, sheep life has its gleams, and at least twice a year it presents attractive features—when the fleeces are falling, and when the lambs are losing their tails. Once all sheep were shepherded, and penned at night. Occasionally some are still shepherded in the trans-Darling country. Men follow in the wake of thunderstorms in quest of a liquid deposit where a flock may be pastured for a week or so; or flocks are removed from dried-out paddocks to a distant bore, or into the open country—which in good seasons is no man's land, but in the time of want is traversed by myriad flocks. Here the old shepherding days are revived—the days of small flocks and unfenced runs that gave employment to thousands of greybeards and others who were unfitted for hard work, but who, with the help of a dog, and carrying a gum-stick in lieu of a crook, could still follow quiet jumbucks across hill and flat. Then the presence of hostile natives—whose weakness was mutton and long pig—made shepherding necessary and likewise interesting. Now a million miles of wire fencing do the work, and an odd boundary rider keeps them in repair.
Old fellows, following flocks from place to place, travelling for feed, talk of those days as the "good old times," agitate their pale locks sorrowfully, sigh for the degeneration of the age, and tell of their glorious experiences. I have met them coming in from the north, and I have seen some resting on the Darling Downs, pitiable wrecks who were still vibrating from fever and ague, whose eyes were dim and lids aflame from sandy blight. But the good times are always at the back of yesterday. We who feed our dried-out flocks to-day on the open country, who dodge among the lignum of the Bulloo floodwater, anathematising our neighbours for coming too near, and thus making more work; who foregather at evening by the drains and channels diverging from Tinneroo Bore, and on the fringes of Thurloo Downs, raising one unanimous voice that everything is as bad with us as it can be, will be talking fifty years hence of the good times we spent there. What a mellowing hand old Time has! what a glamour of romance he throws over our woes in the course of a few decades! The good times of the past are the days when we were boys—and wished we were men.
But the era of the shepherd is gone. Australia is too big for shepherds, and no peregrinating unemployed thinks of inquiring if such an expert is wanted at the stations he passes. Selectors here and there shepherd a flock, but the work is done by the children, often by one or two girls, who follow the woollies all day and yard them at night. The little barefooted shepherdess, bringing her flock to the fold, is a touch of old-world romance that has been sadly neglected by the Australian poet and artist; yet the environment of the Australienne is more picturesque, with the great gums and ironbarks towering over her, millions of brilliant-hued parrots screeching and chirruping in their tops, the magpie warbling its good-night song, the crow of evil memory watching the sick, and the skreel of the curlew and the plaintive call of the mopoke ringing from hill and scrub as the sun goes down.
The old man, who finds the usual avenues of employment closed against him on account of his age, yet is too proud to live on charity, sometimes gets a little flock to tend for a month or so. Then he resumes his wandering, regretting the good times when his sort were wanted as shepherds everywhere.
I spent some days with one in the neighbourhood of Tinneroo. It was not a time when homesteads are abandoned, and families migrate and follow the vanishing reservoirs like birds; but "Old Jack" shepherded a flock every summer in this particular quarter. He was a tall man, with a long grey beard, and must have been quite sixty, but he was still wiry and active. He was not an old-timer at this work; he had been a drover and stockman, and had pioneered on more than one run. He lived in a tent, and had a temporary brush yard to hold his sheep at night. Dingoes troubled him, and the ominous rumble of rushing hoofs and the barking of his canine assistant would rouse him out more than once between dusk and dawn. When the dry time lasted longer than his main pasture, and compelled him to shift, he had calico hurdles with which to make an enclosure.
His was a lonely life—dawdling after the sheep all day through the bush, looking now and again at the sun to note the time, and anon sitting under a tree to smoke a pipe, while crows cawed around him, and the eagle-hawk, with a critical eye for fat lamb, preened itself overhead. He wrote poems in his pocket-book, and recited them to his dog. When that patient animal went to his happy hunting grounds, the ancient "In Memoriam" doggerel would find a fitting place on his monument: "Affliction sore long time he bore." At night, when the sheep were shut up, Jack would repair to his tent to boil his quart-pot and refresh himself with salt-junk and damper. For an hour or two after he would talk to himself by the camp fire. Then he would stretch himself, have a look round, and turn in, "all standing."
One day, while shearing was in progress, a rouseabout was sent out to tell Jack to bring his flock in on the following day. The flock was found scattered about the bush, but the shepherd had disappeared. In dodging about after the sheep he had lost his bearings, having shifted to new quarters, and during the first night out had also lost the flock. When found, four days later, he was standing on the brink of a claypan, which had been filled by a passing thunderstorm, holding a long rod in his hands. Now and again he would swing it through the air, and call excitedly to his dog, "Block him, Bluey!" He explained that his sheep had all dived into the claypan, and he was fishing them out. Later, he ascribed his strange behaviour to a touch of the sun, coupled with exposure, starvation, and scare. They took him to the homestead, and after a week's spell he went back to his lonely camp and told the quart-pot what a qualified old fool he had been.
There were thousands like old Jack in the ante-fencing days, and some not only lost their sheep but their lives also; and there were those of them whose fate has for ever remained unknown. Jack was not one who regretted the passing of the shepherd. He finally joined the fossickers, chasing the elusive speck on the sun-baked fields of Mount Browne.
Exclusive of tank-sinkers and fencers, who mostly work under the contract system, the average western sheep station employs about half a dozen hands—a blacksmith, a rough-carpenter, a bullock-driver, a couple of boundary-riders, and a general rouseabout or "wood and water joey." The cook and the Chinese gardener are not included among "station hands." Neither is the manager's principal factotum, who may be store-keeper and book-keeper, or overseer. In any case he's another boss.
When there is a day's mustering to do, you will see the blacksmith mounted on a sorry-looking crock, and armed with a lump of wood to induce him to hurry occasionally; the carpenter, wearing one rusty spur; and the bullock-driver in heavy bluchers, which are thrust with difficulty into the largest-sized stirrup-irons, and carrying the bullock-whip fastened to a short stick with tying wire. These are "sheep-station stockmen," and they are brilliant riders—some of them. I was once riding with one of them when he challenged me to a jump over a two-foot log. I accepted, and he went a hundred yards back and rode hard, but not necessarily fast, at the obstacle. The horse cleared it with several inches to spare, and though the rider received a rough shaking and a slight shock to the system, he was able to remount and ride home.
Besides riding and following their special avocations, the three tradesmen mentioned have to repair fences, yards, and the woolshed, pump water from the well, and water sheep in the troughs in summer, trap and poison rabbits and dingoes, cut scrub, pull out bogged sheep and skin dead ones, cut stacks of grass for hay with reaping-hooks, and do many other things. They are the handy-men.
At lamb-marking time the number of men is doubled, and a special cook is put on for the out-camp. He takes the swags, tents, rations, and cooking utensils out in a spring-cart or wagonette, while the new men, engaged for yard work, walk along behind. If the horses are in good condition, they ride with the cook. The outcamp may be only six miles away, and it may be twenty. Each man has a water-bag, either carried in the hand or swung under the vehicle, and when the camp is far out a halt is made for lunch by the roadside. They look like a mining syndicate going to the rush.
The mounted men carry their bags strapped under the necks of their horses. They leave early in the morning for the first paddock. Here they spread, keeping in sight of one another from end to end of the paddock, and driving all stock towards the centre men. It is slow work, the mustering of a paddock four miles square occupying the greater part of the day. As the mob increases, progress becomes slower, and good dogs are much in requisition. But dogs soon tire on a hot day, and if pushed too much they strike, and take the shortest cut for camp. While a good cattle-dog is required to bite and not bark, the sheep-dog must "speak up" but never bite. So the sheep-dog gets hoarse and dry-throated, and requires a nip pretty often. This the owner gives him by pouring a pint of water from the bag into the dumped-in crown of his hat. The less barking the dogs do, the more shouting the men have to do, and it is not uncommon to see an unfortunate dog being kicked and belted on the way for not making enough noise. The owner objects to keeping a dog and barking himself. The men are often on foot, leading their horses, and bashing the packed sheep with bushes. Sometimes a man having a slow-starting horse will jump off and run after breaking sheep, that course being much the quicker.
As they come in sight of the brush yards the men of the camp contingent go out on foot and meet them, some armed with bushes, and some with old tins, which they bang with stones and waddies; and each one dances the "shepherd's hornpipe" with great energy. They are useful at the yard gates, being able to turn quickly, and block a running string of sheep, while the black-smith is pulling up or the carpenter is hauling his horse round.
The work in the yard is the merriest. There is more barking and shouting, to the accompaniment of swinging bags and bushes and the whacking of tins, while the whole yard is obscured with blinding dust, and the sheep are continually ringing and stubbornly refusing to go through the gates of the inner yards that lead to the race. At last a few are rushed in, and a man crouches behind the brush and stubs to hold them there until the main mob is brought back to the gate. Then the men jump and "shoo" and yell and bang tins, and swing the jute goods and shrubbery for another half-hour. By that time the first yard is full, and when the dust has cleared sufficiently for them to see where they are, the whole performance is gone through again until the two or three smaller yards are packed. Then the sheep are jammed and shoved and poked and prodded through the race, at the end of which a man stands with a gate in each hand, opening into three pens, and drafts the running string by earmarks and faces. The least stoppage in the race sets the corroboree going again in full blast. When the pens are full there is a blessed respite while the lambs are marked.
The men are dressed in all manner of overalls. Some wear chaff and bran bags, with head and armholes cut in the bottom and sides; others don old shirts, back to front, and hanging loosely to their knees. The markers are ranged on the outside of the pen, and operate on the lambs as they are dumped on the rail by the catchers, who hold a foreleg and a hindleg in each hand. Knives and teeth are used alternately by the operators. Splashed with blood and covered with dust, they are as good as a turn in a circus when, the pen emptied and the tails counted, they scramble over fences in their fancy costumes and resume their wild fandango down the yards. It is the shepherds' fancy-dress corroboree.
At dusk the worn-out men file down to the camp, coated with dust from head to foot, hoarse with shouting, and their eyes inflamed and half-blinded. Then tents are pitched among the trees by the side of a waterhole or on the bank of a creek. They are used only on wet or cold nights. The men sleep under trees, using green leaves for mattresses, and with mosquito fires smoking around them. Supper is served on a bag spread out on the ground, and the men sit on logs around the fire, which is their only light, with tin plates on their knees and pannikins of black tea beside them.
At daylight in the morning the work begins again, and sore throats from dust and shouting are now evidenced on all sides. When the yardful is put through, the horses, belled and hobbled, are run up on foot, and another paddock is mustered. The camp men meanwhile shepherd drafted sheep, repair the damaged yard, and build brakes.
Lamb-marking, like shearing, comes but once a year; but sheep are mustered and drafted scores of times for other purposes. Then, when the wethers, ewes, hoggets, &c., have been separated and put into different paddocks, they have to be daily driven off the fences to tanks, until they become accustomed to their new conditions. With a mob of stubborn old ewes, you travel at the rate of one mile in two hours, and when you feel that you cannot yell any more without doing yourself some serious injury, you get off and push and shove and kick them along. Your dog has long ago knocked up, and is lying somewhere in the shade; your horse follows suit and, tying the reins to the stirrup-iron, you finish the heart-breaking task on foot. Your track is strewn with knocked-up sheep, and I have seen the manager driving behind with drums of water, and a rouseabout pouring the refreshment down the throats of the perishing animals to revive them sufficiently to get them to the tank. The year 1902 was a perisher. Jupiter Pluvius had been napping a long time, and the stock were on their last legs. At some places the shearers had to go to the sheep on the run, and shear them on tarpaulins; at other places rouseabouts carted them to the sheds in drays. Those that didn't die on the shears were carted back again after the operation. Fortunately, mustering with a horse and cart is a rare experience, or even the veteran shepherd would get him to a cattle ranch.
The bush claims many lonely lives, none lonelier perhaps than that of the boundary rider, who is posted on the outskirts of a run to look after the stock, to watch the tanks and waterholes, and keep the boundary and intermediate fences in repair. To some temperaments the life offers advantages; only the flies by day and the mosquitoes by night disturb the peace, only the cries of the birds and the rustling of leaves break the quietude. To the "hatter" by temperament this is an ideal state of existence, and a man who loves to talk, but likes to do all the talking himself, is suited by a dog listener as well as any. Still, the average boundary rider is a "hatter" more by compulsion than preference.
Sometimes he has a hut to live in; more often, outside the coastal divisions, he has only a six by eight tent, pitched in a lonely spot, where wood and water are close at hand. The site is mostly chosen by the manager, and he takes care that it is out of view of frequented roads, since, on the one hand, the property must be left unguarded through the greater part of the day, and, on the other, it is not desirable that his frugal board should be taxed and his meditations disturbed by passing travellers. When the waterhole dries up or the feed gets scarce he shifts his residence to another quarter.
One of the fraternity, whom I came to know in the great central depression, was known as Jack-the-Rager. Most of his life was cast in monotonous places, yet he was a very entertaining old chap when he came in from his hatterage, and spent an evening with the men in the station hut. He could tell a good yarn. He could recite, too; but his best efforts were delivered when standing alone at his camp fire. Having a strident voice and a somewhat extravagant sense of dramatic attitudes, he once in a while astonished a benighted wanderer bearing down on the inviting blaze, and caused him to sheer off with cautious and accelerated step.
He told me how the boss had ridden on to him one night when he was more than ordinarily wound up. He had not been long on the run then, and as yet was only plain Jack Smith. It was election-time, and Jack was putting up for No Man's Land. Standing beside a gidgee-stump, on which stood a quart pot of water and a pannikin, he orated with great empressement, punctuating with hand clappings and "hear hears," interjecting and making sarcastic remarks, and wheeling this way and that way to reply thereto. Now and again he would point a thumb at the wilga-bush on his left, and tell the mulga-tree on his right that a gentleman wanted to know what he was going to do about the deceased's wife's sister; then, having put in a general laugh, would inform the audience how he intended to dispose of that troublesome lady. He had closed a successful meeting, carried a vote of confidence in himself, and thanked the chairman, when he was suddenly semi-paralysed by hearing a real clap and a real "hear hear" in the darkness beyond. It was the boss. After that the candidate was known as Jack-the-Rager.
Jack was a good example of his kind, performing his duties with unfaltering regularity, very exact, and scrupulously clean. He had one way of doing each little job, never altering his hand. He took particular care of his two or three horses, which were consequently in good condition all the year round. He put his saddle always in one place, and when he brought his horse up in the morning he led him under the same tree, and hitched the bridle to the same limb, though there were twenty others equally as good and quite as accessible. You saw his mop for washing up hanging here, his tea-towel hanging there; and if you called six months after you would find them hanging in precisely the same places.
His bunk was simply a couple of bags with two poles, resting on forks, run through them; his safe was also a bag, suspended lengthwise from the limb of a tree, with a piece of board laid in for bottom. His washstand consisted of three stakes driven in the ground to hold a tin dish, and nailed to the tree-trunk alongside was a sardine tin, with perforated bottom, for soap. If a chance visitor happened to use it, he was told to cover it up when he had done, so that the crows could not see it. Crows and ants were two persistent items that Jack had always to keep in mind. He cooked in the open, wet and dry, his fireplace being merely a couple of forks, with a pole across them, from which dangled a few wire hooks.
Before riding away in the morning, if no one was left in charge, Jack would carefully sweep over the bare patches around the domicile with a brush broom. He departed backwards, sweeping out his own tracks as he went. On returning he dismounted several yards away and approached his door slowly, examining the ground for evidence of callers. Having entered and found everything right, he went back by a circuitous route round the camp to his horse and let him go. If some one had called during his absence, the amount of tracking he did would seem a waste of time and energy to any but a bushman. He studied closely the man's tracks, the shape and size of the horse's hoofs, and, having ascertained that he came from the direction of the stony rise, that he dismounted near the broken stump, stood at the door for a while and looked round, and finally rode away in the direction of Thompson's Tank, he worried his brain for hours trying to solve the mystery of the person's identity. And he mostly wound up with "a good idea who he was."
Sometimes, as cranks of the bush often do, he amused himself for hours at a time, trying to match the spiral columns on the lids and bottom parts of wax-match boxes, by playing peg-knife and other "silly" games. If you came quietly on to his camp at night, it was not unusual to hear a heated discussion going on between him and the fat-lamp. He spoke in one tone and voice for himself, and in another for the fat-lamp. As he tersely put it when surprised, "Just a little argyment between me an' Slushy." Sometimes they had a row, and an imaginary fight, and Slushy was kicked out of the tent. At other times he sulked, as a result of the pigheadedness of the other fellow, and wouldn't speak to the fat-lamp for a week. He would even "see him farther" before he would light him. Yet no one who knew this man would say that he had a mental kink in his composition. Many men, and women too, in the bush talk to themselves, and have excited arguments with people who are not present, expressing their opinions in a loud voice, and saying in return what they think the absent party would be likely to reply. I can recall one good old woman who indulged in this way every washing-day over her tubs, beginning with "Good-day, Mrs. ——," and going at the rate of knots until the final "Goodbye"—not forgetting the invitation to call again; and she would drop down and laugh till her face was aflame, and the tears ran down her cheeks, when surprised. Yet no one would call these people eccentric. It is the craving for conversation, for some one to talk to.
Jack was also given to card-playing—left hand against right. When it was right hand's deal, left passed or ordered it up. If right was weak, he turned it round and left made it. The old man was careful to hold the cards back to back, so that right wouldn't see what left had got, overlooking the fact that one head was super-intending both hands. He got awfully interested in the contest, too, which was mostly for the championship of Burton's Tank or Gidgee Creek, or probably for "the new girl down at Barney's." He had a peculiar sundial, though what he had constructed it for I don't know, for he was seldom there when its services would be required. It consisted of stout pegs stuck in the ground, at a radius of ten feet, round a tree. There were ten of them, standing exactly one hour apart, so that the shade, lying across the first at 8 a.m. would be on the last at 5 p.m. A traveller with a watch had camped with him one Sunday, and between them they had evolved this crude timekeeper. He complained, however, that it required a lot of regulating, as it didn't accommodate itself to the changing of seasons. Once when miles away from the clock I asked him the time. Taking a small twig, he broke it into two pieces about three inches long, and, holding his left hand palm upwards, he stood one piece between the second and third fingers, and the other between the third and fourth. Then, facing due north, he held his hand straight out before him, and I noticed that the shadows of the twigs were just a trifle east of a direct north and south line. "'Bout 'alf-past twelve," he said.
His almanack was equally as curious, consisting of two jam tins and seven pebbles. One tin was marked "This week" and the other "Last week." On Monday morning he would take a pebble from "Last week" and drop it into "This week," and one every subsequent morning till "This week" had swallowed the seven. They were then returned to "Last week," and the old fellow would wash himself and change his clothes. It was Sunday—and, it might be remarked, his usual recreation on Sunday was washing last week's wearing apparel and making a brownie.
A neighbouring shepherd, who had rusticated in the back country for thirty consecutive years, used a piece of deal board and a bit of charcoal, making a stroke on the former every morning till Sunday was reached. The "slate" was then wiped clean in readiness for Monday. A third man used a circular board divided by grooves into seven sections. A piece of deal, pivoting from a nail in the centre, was shifted one section each day. But the owner of this contrivance was absent-minded and often forgot to shift it in the mornings, and never knew at night whether he had shifted it or not. Having made several mistakes in the date, he tried a new idea. He made a big damper on Sunday night and marked it into seven sections, each section being a day's allowance. He wouldn't forget to eat, and every time he picked the damper up the grooves would remind him of the day. Unfortunately, on the first Tuesday there came a visitor with a ravenous appetite. The host stinted himself that the hungry one might be satisfied with the day's section. But he wasn't. There were no houses in that part, and he had come a long way since breakfast, and didn't lose sight of the fact that he had equally as far to go to supper. With bulging eyes the host saw the knife cleaving the boundary line. He fidgeted and coughed and made several irrelevant remarks. Still the hungry man carved into the almanack. At last he could stand it no longer.
"Stop, stop, for God's sake!" he cried, leaning across the bark table and speaking in an agitated, rasping voice. He grabbed the damper and glared at it. "Hang you!" he said. "You've eaten Toosday an' We'n'sday, an' now yer wanter slice the best o' the mornin' off o' Thursday!"
The traveller left with unusual briskness, and the host sat down to reconstruct his almanack.
The boundary rider's bill of fare is less changeable than that of a "hash-house." He gets little in the way of luxuries (a tin of jam or golden syrup, perhaps, once in a while), nor has he any vegetables, except just after rain, when he may gather the young pig-weed along the creek. For breakfast he has damper, mutton, and brownie; for dinner he has damper, mutton and brownie; for supper he has damper, mutton, and brownie; and for Sunday dinner, having spent the morning cooking, he has fresh damper, hot mutton, and new brownie.
With his tools (a tomahawk, straining fork, wire key, plug, and a length of coiled wire), and a well-filled waterbag under his horse's neck, he starts out soon after sunrise on his day's round, and frequently rides forty or fifty miles before he returns to camp. He rides one fence to-day, driving the sheep off it and out of corners, brushing the creeks, and splicing and straining broken wires. To-morrow he has a look at the tanks and waterholes, pulls out bogged sheep, and skins the dead ones. If he comes upon a carcass that is too far gone to skin, he plucks the dead wool and carries it to camp in a bag. The next day he rides another line of fence, and so on, doing a little dingo-poisoning and scalp-hunting at the same time. Now and again he pilots a travelling mob through his part of the run, which is about the only relief he has from the dull monotony of his lonely rides, where "the creaking of the saddle is a dreary sound to hear." For this he gets from fifteen shillings to twenty-five shillings a week.
As a rule he has no literary matter by him to beguile the tardy hours, and, consequently, knows nothing more of the world's news than what he gleans from passing travellers. He lives in a world of his own, a world of sand and stones and stunted trees, learning the tracks of different animals and studying out better methods of trapping dingoes. His conversation bristles with grass and sheep and wire fences. Sometimes he keeps one well-worn book to swop with, or gets a bundle of stale papers from the homestead. There are exceptions, of course, but the boundary rider who is fond of reading is not favoured by the squatters, it being argued that an interest in books and papers induces carelessness and neglect of duty. Lacking the mental stimulant of a book or paper in his companionless evenings, he is impelled to discourse to inanimate things, to play patience, or commit doggerel.
There is a tragic side to the boundary rider's life, which renders his hermit-like existence objectionable to most men. He may be a fort-night or a month without seeing a soul; or, if illness overtakes him, or he meets with an accident, he has no one to nurse him or even to cook for him. He must shift for himself and trust to Providence. One who is every day of his life in the saddle, particularly in country riddled with rabbit-burrows, may get a leg or an arm broken at any moment. On some runs the main camps are connected by telephones, carried on wire fences, with the homestead, by which the boundary rider reports and receives orders and may summon assistance at any time when needed.
I think it was in October, 1898, that a man named M'Dermott, who was boundary riding on Mount Wood, North-West New South Wales, nearly lost his life through being left too long unvisited. He had gone out for his horse on a Friday morning, and was riding it in bareback, when it stumbled in a rabbit-burrow, within half a mile of the camp. M'Dermott was thrown, his hip striking a dry, knotty root of a mulga-tree. He was severely injured, and lay there suffering agonies till Monday evening. He fastened a message to his dog's neck and tried to drive it away, but the dog would not leave him. Now and again through the hot days it trotted to the creek for water, but, though hungry enough, it never once went near the hut for food. In the meantime a traveller had come to the camp, and, thinking M'Dermott had gone to the homestead for rations, remained there waiting, with the patience of the faithful dog, until he should return. Mac had coo-eed at intervals through the long days and nights, but no sound came to the traveller's ears. On Monday a boy came out with meat, and the appearance of the place, and the traveller's assurance that he had seen nothing of M'Dermott, at once indicated that something was amiss. No fire had been lit for some time, and the man's saddle was in the hut. Moreover, the hut was untidy, and as Mac never went out for the day without putting things shipshape, it was at once apparent to the bush boy that Mac had left with the intention of returning shortly, and that something serious had happened to him not far from camp. His first act was to look to the horses, to see if any were missing.
He found the mare with the broken bridle and the hobbles round her neck. That told its tale, and he rode post haste to the homestead for assistance. Picking up the tracks, the rescue party followed to where he had caught the mare; then they tracked the mare to the rabbit-burrow, where they found M'Dermott all but dead, the hungry dog lying by his side, with the undelivered message still tied to its neck.
A boundary rider on Gobbagumbalin run, near Wagga, in January, 1902, was better served by his brute companion. His leg was broken by a fall from his horse when a long distance from camp. Like M'Dermott, he wrote a message and tied it round his dog's neck. His course being indicated to him, and being menaced with a waddy, and further instructed in abusive language, the animal at once started for home, and the required aid was thus promptly secured.
Another man, named Frank Dacey, in February, 1904, was making his way across Bonnie Doon run when he was taken seriously ill. His small supply of provisions soon ran out, but he managed to make one billy of water last him three weeks. He was able to crawl about near his tent, which had been temporarily pitched, and kept himself alive by eating pigweed. When the water gave out he gradually became weaker, and at last was unable to move. When discovered by a black boy he was in a dying condition, but subsequently recovered in hospital.
There is little in the grim experiences of lone humanity to equal that of the man who, some years ago, while camping by himself, attempted to split a log with maul and wedges. When he had burst it along the top he double-banked the middle wedge, which caused another to drop into the crack. He thrust his hand in to get it, when the banked wedges flew out, and the half-burst log snapped together, crushing his hand and holding him as in a vice. How long he lingered, with his hand thus gripped, no one could tell; he was long dead when found. His axe lay a few inches from his feet, and he had rooted a semi-circular hole in his efforts to reach it, with the intention evidently of cutting off the imprisoned hand.
The annals of the Australian bush are replete with such experiences, with instances of dogged grit and patience, and of long-suffering martyrdom.
From the memorable time when those enterprising and picturesquely-garbed men, whose arrival created more excitement than the local earthquake, steered the first mobs of cattle into Adelaide the overlanders have left their tracks across the pages of Australian history and have passed on to the Big Muster under a halo woven of song and story. From the Gulf and the northern peninsula, from Arnheim's Land and no-man's-land, and from other regions of broad, wild runs the mobs still come teeming down, over hundreds of miles of unfenced country, under conditions very similar to those of early times. When they reach the zone of the small settler, the modern squattages and townships, then the conditions are different. They are hemmed in on all sides, and where once only King Murri was concerned about their movements they are now closely watched by boundary riders, mounted troopers, and stock inspectors. Every drover must carry a passport, giving date and place of delivery, destination, and the number and description of the cattle and horses. Sheep on the road must bear the travelling brand "T" on the rump. Then the stations ahead have to be notified of their coming on to the runs.
This is usually done by the horse-boy, who, having to report twenty-four hours in advance, has many a long ride through rain and shine, and through light and shadow, to perform.
Taking a mob of cattle overland is not as simple as it looks. To the uninitiated it appears to be merely a matter of driving the animals along during the day and camping them at night; but driving and droving are very different as understood by cattle-men. Some drovers certainly drive them steadily from the night camp, thus getting over half the day's stage during the cool morning hours; then they feed them on to the next night camp. Others keep the mob moving ahead from the night camp, feeding the while, to the midday camp, and thence again till late in the afternoon, when, if the next camp is still far ahead, they move with lifted heads and regular step to the day's end. They are never hustled out of the customary walking pace of cattle. The methods of travelling and the stages depend on the condition of the country and the state of the weather. When there is a long, dry stage to cross in summer many drovers reverse the usual order by travelling at night and camping through the day.
Under fair conditions there is no work in the back country as pleasant as droving—that is, given good cattle, good horses, plenty of grass and water, and a first-class man in charge. One might go on the road a hundred times, however, and not find this happy combination in actual working. Feed is seldom good all through a long trip in the best of seasons, as mob after mob travel over the same routes, and boundary riders shepherd them sedulously through the runs to see that they do not encroach on the station preserves. They have only a narrow strip along the unfenced roads to feed on, and this is not exclusively theirs, as station stock are continually on it. When they strike a good patch they are not permitted to spell on it. The limit is twelve miles a day, and that distance must be placed between camp and camp. Still, they can hurry over the bad patches and dawdle over the good places.
A man must have his wits about him, and use his opportunities to the best advantage when taking cattle over bad country, if he wishes to deliver them in good marketable condition—which, of course, is the ambition of every good drover. Many start with poor cattle, and, though numerous barren and waterless tracts are crossed on the way, they land them in the saleyards, months later, in the pink of condition. Some years ago a mob was taken from the Bulloo (Queensland) to Adelaide, where a pen of them was immediately shown at the exhibition as fats and took the prize.
Again, in February, 1904, a mob of fourteen thousand wethers from Manuka (Queensland) were delivered at Killarney Station, Narrabri (New South Wales ), by Drover Harrison without the loss of a single head. The trip of nine hundred miles occupied six months, an average of six and a half miles a day (half a mile over the regulation). Harrison had with him six shepherds, and though many difficulties were met with in the early stages, such as want of water, prevalence of burrs, long grass, scrub, and grass seeds, the mob was delivered in the "best order and condition."
Water is the most troublesome item to a drover. In the central parts of the country there are no permanent rivers or creeks, and the holes where stock can water are often a long way apart. A sixty-mile stage to water is common. Then the cattle are restless at night, especially when a light storm passes over, and the smell of rain maddens the thirsty animals, and the watch has to be continually on the move. The first water will probably be only in small potholes, and the cattle have to be taken to them in small detachments. This is not always an easy undertaking. They smell water at a long distance. You may be moving along quietly, your charges steady but sullen, when suddenly a puff of wind comes from the direction of the potholes. You notice an electric-like movement pass through the mob; every head is raised, and a thousand throats announce the proximity of a drink. Thenceforth they are noisy and restless, and take a lot of holding. Often the whole mob breaks away with little or no warning, and makes a maddened rush for the holes, particularly when they have been brought too near before being broken up into little lots. These holes are usually boggy, and frequently encompassed by steep banks, over which the cattle sweep in a huddled mass, crowding and tumbling on top of one another in the mud and water, with the result that many are smothered, dozens are bogged, and the others have puddled up the water to such an extent as to make it undrinkable. He would be a stoic indeed who could look unmoved upon a boggy waterhole, strewn with its dead and dying, after being charged by a frenzied mob. Hundreds of crows, drawn by natural instinct, come flocking from all directions to the scene of disaster, and tear out the eyes of unfortunate beasts still struggling and plunging in the mud. The survivors go ringing and lowing around them, maddened more than ever by the splash and smell of the puddle and the odour of blood, unable to satisfy their craving.
Some cattle-men carry you back to scenes of twenty years ago that occurred at some insignificant little waterhole that a traveller would not otherwise notice. In other places there are piles of bones in evidence of some big disaster, as at Wonnamitta Waterhole (North-West New South Wales), where six hundred out of thirteen hundred bullocks were smothered one night in 1883. On the Wanaaring Road, towards the Paroo, a single bullock's skull stuck on a mulga limb marks one of the most thrilling incidents in droving annals. It was in the dry summer of 1899 that a mob of five hundred Kooroongoola bullocks were hard pressed for water on the way to Bourke. At one camp the cook was taking some water out of the bags when the cattle smelt it and rushed the camp. They overturned the wagonette, doing considerable damage to the camp ware, and put the cook up a tree. A day or so later they met a bullock team. The cattle got a sniff of the water in the teamster's cask, and, breaking away from the drovers, rushed the wagon. The men had a hard fight to get them under control again, in the course of which two of the yoked animals were killed, and the teamster, from the top of the wagon, killed one of the travelling mob with an axe.
When well mounted it is not a difficult matter to turn the lead, though there are times when nothing will stop them, and it is dangerous, even on a good horse, to get directly in front of a stampeding herd. An old-time overlander once met with a thrilling experience while crossing a dry tract of country in South Australia. When nearing the Murray River the cattle rushed a waterhole, carrying three of the drovers into it with them. The three horses and two of the men were trampled into the mud and smothered. But "the old man" escaped by clambering somehow on to the back of a bogged bullock, and thence across the backs of the compact mass.
When water is obtainable daily there is no trouble in this respect; and at other times, when there is a considerable body of water in front, as a lagoon or a shallow river, no precautions are necessary, beyond steadying the lead. The worst of the dry roads is that the cattle won't feed while the craving is on them, and there is continual hard work day and night keeping them in hand; while the presence of station dams and tanks just off the road, either fenced off or closely guarded by a boundary rider, is further aggravation. It is pitiful to see the poor brutes turn lowing towards the forbidden water, to force them on to where there is none, and to hold them and listen to them as they move restlessly on the camp at night. On some routes artesian bores are the source of supply; in other places, where Government wells and tanks are leased, the cattle are watered at troughs at a small sum per head. This is a slow process.
Fodder is rarely purchased on the road—there is seldom any to purchase out-back; but here and there a paddock is leased for short periods to spell in, and occasionally men have to set to work with axes to cut scrub for the starving stock. This generally occurs when the strong cattle have to be held back for the stragglers or crawlers (as the weak ones, doddering miles behind, are called) to catch up. Dodging the crawlers along is the most disheartening of all stock work. If you try to put them out of their own pace, they will turn and charge. They can always do that. So you have just to potter along after them, and leave them to make headway at their own convenience.
Most drovers are familiar with the facts concerning the mob of cattle that left Mornie Plains, in Northern Queensland, some years ago for a southern market. They were about two years on the roads, and only a remnant of the once splendid mob reached their destination. The trip, under ordinary conditions, should not have occupied more than six months.
There have been many sensational smash-ups on backblock roads. In December, 1899, 600 out of a mob of 870 stores, in charge of Drover Dargin, perished on the main stock route near Hungerford (Queensland), The road was thickly strewn with carcasses. During the same month, at Gilgandra (New South Wales), 800 out of a mob of 2,500 fat sheep, after journeying forty-five miles, died from want of water. Also, in the same month, a mob of 9,000 sheep, travelling from Narromine to Brewarrina (New South Wales), camped one night near Dundullimal. In the morning 700 were lying dead on the camp. This abnormally heavy loss at one swoop was attributed to poison weed. This may or may not have been the case. Experienced drovers know that sheep, when overheated on a hot afternoon, will die by the score during the night. Camping them too closely together on a hot night, when the ground retains much of the fierce heat of the day, is frequently the cause of heavy loss on camp. Again, over-gorging after coming suddenly on to green feed will result in a heavy mortality.
In 1899 a drover left Evesham Station for Rockhampton, a short trip, with fourteen thousand sheep, and reached the Government tank, twenty miles from town, with less than three thousand, the rest having perished on the way. Sheep, unlike cattle, are stubborn brutes to handle when perishing for water. They have to be literally shoved along, and the chances are, on reaching water, they will either over-gorge themselves and die or stand by the water perishing, too stupid to drink. I have had to hold them by the tanks, after bringing them off a dry run, and pour the water down their throats with a pannikin. I have ridden back with bags of water, and driven with drums and kegs of it, to succour the stragglers dropped along the track during the day, and have spent half the night coaxing the best of them on to camp.
When there is a driving, pelting rain, as when a strong wind is blowing, the cattle have to be continually forced against it. I have seen them turn and drive the men back until brought to a standstill. When in that mood, with lowered heads and their tails to the wind, it requires some force and determination to compel them to face the music. At night you splash round and round the camp, shivering in your stirrups, and trusting more to your horse than to your own eyesight. You are worn out with the long day and the long watch, and could go to sleep in the saddle, even while the rain beats about your ears. The man who sleeps on watch is regarded with scorn by drovers; but the sin is committed at times when conditions are favourable.
The cook, who has charge of the camp-ware and drives the wagonette, has an unenviable time in wet weather. The roads are boggy, banks slippery, and gullies and creeks flooded. It takes him pretty well all day to zigzag his team along, and now and again he has to dig himself out. Horses knock up, a breakdown occurs, or he is left stranded in a sea of water. When he gets to camp he has to make a fire with sodden wood, and cook supper in the wet, up to his boot-tops in mud. On the black-soil plains I have seen him come in after dark and make a pile of wet earth to build his fire on, with a drain round it to run the water away. The tents are pitched near the fire, and the men spread bags on the ground where they make their naps to keep out some of the damp. In the morning the blankets are wet and muddy, and if it is still raining they are rolled up in that condition; yet, though the men may get drenched through the day, their clothes may dry on them and get drenched again, and they sleep in them on wet ground, they seem to suffer no effects from it. Summer and winter they go through it, and are nearly always free from colds—which in itself is evidence in favour of open-air life.
Crossing flooded streams is at times attended with considerable risk. A drover, in 1904, lost 300 out of 1,470 head while crossing the Georgina. The cattle, instead of going straight across, started to ring in mid-stream, and simply drowned one another. The usual course is to take a few to the opposite bank first, then the others swim to them. At many well-known crossings there are decoys—quiet old cows, that have been borrowed for a small consideration time after time to lead the way for the travelling mob. Where these are not available, or are not used when they are, and the cattle turn in the water, the drovers ride in and swim with them, a couple on each side, marshalling them through as on land. You will see a horseman swimming in one place and cracking his whip over his head or flipping a contrary beast with the thong; whilst another, leaning over, grasps a bullock by the horn to slew him round. This work, of course, is only necessary at the start; once the leaders have landed there is no more trouble. When crossing sheep a narrow race is often built across the stream with saplings and bushes, the deck being covered with bags strewn with sand and leaves. Then men have to cling on to the side of the bridge here and there, concealed among the bushes, to poke them up whenever a block occurs. This has to be done with care, for if one sheep is startled, and makes a leap, the whole string will act similarly, and some are bound to go overboard.
In 1906 Drover Stuart Field built a bridge over the Koopa, 140 yards across, with deep water and a strong current. It was completed in fourteen days, at a cost of £43, and in two days twenty-two thousand sheep crossed it. The bridge saved two months' delay.
I travelled with one drover under these conditions from Tambo to Mungindi. It was a dry time, and we had a lot of bare country to cross. A good many of the cattle were poor and weak, and delayed us considerably by straggling behind. It was a case of dropping them or sacrificing the good cattle. About sixty of them were shot and the brands cut out; many more got bogged, and these had to be killed also to get the brands. In fact, the cook had so many bits of branded hide packed in the wagonette that an extra pair of horses had to be put on to pull it. Still, we got them all down.
As a set-off against this. Drover Jerry Connolly, in 1904, started from the Northern Territory with 1,224 fats, and after travelling 1,900 miles, delivered 1,220 head at Muswellbrook (New South Wales) in first-class condition, the four missing bullocks having been lost while crossing a flooded river.
Cattle from some stations are very quiet on the roads and may go through a long trip without a single stampede. From other places come timid, half-wild herds that are ever restless and fretful of their own runs. The least thing startles them at night, and they often rush without any apparent reason. But cattle have their fancies and prejudices respecting camping-grounds, just as they have in regard to mateships among themselves. On some spots they rest contentedly, while on others they are fidgety and uncomfortable all night. At such times it requires very little to cause them to break camp. A slight rise, as a sandy mound or a small clump on a flat, is favoured by drovers, while depressions are avoided. Sheltered spots are picked on cold nights, but it does not follow that they will remain quietly there. They are just as liable to rush, too, on an open plain on a clear night as in thick timber on a dark night. They may be all lying down and the camp as quiet as possible. Suddenly they spring up almost as one beast, and the next instant there is only a cloud of dust to mark where they had been, while the roar of pounding hoofs, the crash of timber, and the shouts of the man on watch tell the way they have gone. There are times when the nights are so dark in the timber that a horseman has difficulty in distinguishing objects close in front of him; but still he rides at a gallop through thick and thin, leaning forward to escape overhanging limbs, and trusting to his horse.
A good camp-horse knows his business, and will quickly take his rider to the side, and race for the lead. I found myself one night directly in front of a mob as they rushed off camp. The drovers' dictum is "keep to the side," because the pressure behind and the desperate anxiety of each panic-stricken beast to keep clear gives the leaders little chance of turning at short notice off a straight course. I aimed to get clear by riding anglewise across the course, but my mount wanted to go straight out across the front of the cattle, and he had his way despite a tussle on my part to pull him out. We had only just got clear when the mob crashed into a wire fence, levelling about sixty panels of it. Had the horse allowed me to steer him, I must have come to grief in that fence and been trampled under the mob.
I was six weeks with this lot, and during that time they passed two whole nights without rushing—the first and the last. We spent half one night up a tree. A couple of beasts had been crippled in a rush during the first watch, and lay on the camp unnoticed. It was a dark night and the country was thickly timbered. Just as the mob would be brought back and rounded up, one of the cripples would kick and moan in its agony, and in a second the whole herd would be crashing through the timber again in a wild panic. Twice they scattered the camp fire, and I believe if it had not been for the rattle of the tea bucket, as they bowled it over, they would have carried the tents and wagonette with them. Several were killed in stampedes during that trip, many more were crippled, and something like 150 horns were broken off.
A mob, travelling down country from the neighbourhood of Moree, was camped one night in thin forest, with a few small fires burning around it. The first watch had passed without a stir. The second watchman had ridden a dozen rounds under similar conditions, when he dismounted to light his pipe. While doing this the cattle rushed towards him, and were on him even before he had time to get into his saddle. Both man and horse were killed. Sometimes cattle, through not getting up quick enough, or being knocked over while in the act of rising, are crippled or trampled to death on camp. As a rule they get through timber without smashing against big trees, though dozens of horns are broken off, and an odd shoulder is put out in getting round the trunks.
The duration of a rush is not long, though occasionally a mob will continue in full flight for three or four miles. Once the leaders are turned the rush is practically over, for then they ring, and soon quieten down, when they can be brought back to camp with little trouble. During the stampede one hears no sound from them but the pounding of hoofs and crashing of timber, but when they turn and ring a multitudinous lowing and bellowing breaks on the night air. They are crying for their mates, from whom they have become separated in the inevitable jumble.
Cattle, like human beings, have their fancies and friendships, and no one knows this better than the seasoned drover. When he lifts a mob of bullocks from a squattage he notices that some are more anxious to get back than others, and for several days are looking and calling, like cows that have lost their calves. Their mates have been left on the run, and it takes them a long while to forget their old associates, and form new ones among their fellow-travellers. Some bullocks fret and lose flesh, and are particularly restless at night, when parted from their pet companions—like a young man who has lost his girl. They travel along dejectedly for days, "lost and lone in the midst of crowds," until constant association, which they can't avoid, turns them in sympathy to one another.
Certain bullocks in a travelling mob, remarkable for some peculiarity, soon impress themselves upon the drover's notice. These are the first he comes to know individually, and they are often named. As time goes on his knowledge of the units of his mob extends. He knows their mates, their positions in the mob, and can often tell, by simply riding round them, if any escaped off camp the previous night; for cattle do not intermix promiscuously, and take up chance positions, when going their own pace. When they have "dropped into their places" you will notice certain ones always in the lead, certain ones at the tail, and the same on the left and right sides; and if you watch the known ones carefully, you will notice that each one has always the same mate near him. Thus a drover can tell at once, when he sees a marked bullock without its usual mate, that something is wrong. Often the bullock attracts his notice by occasionally lowing. Then a search takes place, a count, and probably there is a ride back after lost cattle.
A drover once dropped a well-marked bullock when two hundred miles on the road. He described the animal on returning to the station where the cattle were lifted, and it happened that a boundary rider knew him. "I can soon tell if he's come back," he said, "I know where his mate runs." He rode out specially next day, and, sure enough, the lost bullock was there, in company with his old mate.
On the night camp, no matter how much cattle have been hustled and jumbled-up in getting there, they soon sort themselves out, and lie down in their accustomed order. In one mob I travelled with was a spotted bullock, which always camped three or four yards out from the mob on one side. Several times during the first week I drove it in, but it always went back, and wouldn't lie down anywhere else. Its mate was a roan bullock, and could be seen regularly lying opposite, but close in against the mob.
Drovers themselves, and most bushmen, in fact, have this same animal peculiarity. Almost every night you will find them ranged in the same order round the camp fire, and at table, in hut and camp, occupying the same seats and places, and warmly disputing with any new-comer who innocently jumps the claim. I have travelled with men who would invariably locate the points of the compass before spreading out. "Where's the north?" was the usual query of one man. He explained that he couldn't sleep if he lay down with his head to the north. Perhaps my spotted bullock couldn't sleep if he lay down anywhere but four yards from the side.
Again, put a strange beast into a small mob, and it will attract the aggressive notice of every animal there, and be horned and butted and rooted all over the premises. It has an uncomfortable time until the mob get used to it, and eventually, if kept together, it chums up with one of them and becomes a recognised member of the community.
Cattle are very rarely yarded or paddocked while on the road, whereas the sheep-man takes advantage of any chance that offers of a night off. The average sheep-man doesn't like cattle, and the cattle-man scorns sheep while he can get the mobs to which he has been accustomed. For one thing skilled stockmen are not necessary to manage woollies; old, grey-bearded men follow them on foot, though a trained dog is an essential. In fact, a sheep-dog commands a good wage, and is often equal to two horsemen. His owner just mooches along behind, directing operations, and carrying a bag of water, from which, in hot weather, he refreshes his canine worker at intervals by pouring a little into the crown of his hat. With cattle the dog is tapu.
As a rule, one man takes the cattle off camp in the morning, moving off in the grey dawn, or earlier, while the others are having breakfast. They are rounded up again about dusk, and the first watch begins almost immediately. If fixed watches are the rule, the same man takes first watch every night; but if shift watches prevail, he takes first watch to-night, the second tomorrow night, and so on. Some hold that this is the fairest method, whilst others object to the shift system, on the ground that, turning in at a different hour every night, they don't get to sleep as easily as when accustomed to regular hours.
On cold nights the men sleep two and three, and sometimes four, in a tent, or in a circle round the fire, a chain or two away from the camping cattle. A common practice is for two men to make one bed with their blankets, and sleep together. The nap of the man on watch is generally "borrowed" by his scantily-covered mates. Men without overcoats, gloves, &c., use those of their mates, and timepieces are often passed round in the same way. One horse does duty all night, but with bad cattle another is kept ready saddled at the tents for emergencies, and when a stampede occurs the first man out mounts it and goes to the assistance of the man on watch. Some mobs, however, make little starts so often that no one in camp takes any notice of them, and the watchman has to manage them the best way he can.
Some drovers like to have fires burning at intervals round the camping cattle at night, but the majority object to them. Besides entailing much more work in carrying wood and lighting, and replenishing from time to time, the flitting of the horseman from shadow to light as he rides round has a tendency to scare cattle. Very often there is a sudden flare, or a shower of sparks, or an explosion of gas, that is apt to cause a stampede. One drover tried the experiment of hanging lamps here and there on trees, and declared it a great success. It is a good plan with sheep, if lights are needed at all. They are better campers, and can be shut up every night by running calico hurdles round them. Then one man can watch them from the cook's fire. The cattle-man has to keep moving, and it is customary for him also to keep whistling or singing while doing so. He has, further, to keep a sharp look-out for bush cattle, which come in if not driven away from the vicinity, or whose presence entice the cattle off camp. Then there is either a box-up, necessitating a lot of drafting next day, or some are lost and not missed until the next count, when it is probably too late to find them.
Cattle string off camp very quietly at night. There are always a few standing up, even during the most restful periods, and seldom is there a mob that does not include one or two beasts whose habit it is to get up frequently to feed about. If the watchman is negligent, or tardy in completing the circuit, these draw off, and others follow, stringing quietly away into the dark bush, till the call of one on camp or the cry of a distant leader gives warning.
The mob is counted once or twice a week. A few drovers make it a rule to count off camp every morning, a practice that involves a considerable loss of time. The mob is allowed to draw off to a point, then the horsemen form a lane, through which they pass in a continuous string. The man in charge sits on his horse a little in advance, and at every hundred calls out "tally," while the man next him, provided with a stick and a knife, cuts a notch to correspond. Cattle soon get used to this procedure, and give little trouble in breaking round the horsemen.
Killing-day on the track is not one that is enjoyed by drovers, although it affords them a pleasant change from salt junk. It interferes with the regular work, upsets the whole camp, and keeps the wagonette back several hours, to the inconvenience of all hands. Some drovers make a short stage on killing-day, but, as a general rule, the plant has to cover the same distance after butchering as on other days. With several hundredweight more to carry on the old wagonette, with rough roads, up and down hills, in and out of gullies and creeks, through sand-beds and quagmires, and with a team never famous for quality and efficiency, the cook has by far the worst time of any on the day that the "harness cask" is replenished.
On one trip out Hungerford way I stayed behind to help the cook and horse-boy with the butchering and to see them a few miles on the road. It was four days before I saw the cattle again, and when the cook caught up he had only two small pieces of meat left. It was very hot weather, and the flies were so thick that they could not fly half the time without getting their wings tangled together. The beast had dropped near a bull ants' nest, and we had to burn them out before we could get a start on the carcass. Thus the butchering took longer than usual, and we were hurrying the old chef until we got him flurried. We had gone only a mile when he fouled a tree and broke the trap. A thunder-storm came up while we were repairing it, and soon after starting again we got bogged on a flat and spent the night there. Next morning a wheel broke, and another day was lost taking the wagonette to town and bringing out a spring-cart. This trap had stood in the blacksmith's backyard for a couple of years or more. It collapsed almost immediately. The horse-boy now went on with the horses and some rations for the drovers, and I watched the wreckage while the cook went back for his own vehicle. All our meat, except two or three pieces, went bad in the meantime and had to be thrown away, and when the cook overtook the cattle there was another killing-day—and more trouble.
Morning is generally chosen for killing, and the mob is held back on camp till a beast is shot. This is not always a matter of a few minutes. I saw some drovers one morning occupy two hours in shooting a beast. One man rode into the mob and fired at it, but the shot was not effective. After that it was difficult to get near the wounded bullock or to get a shot at him among the others. They were spread out, strung it, and rung round by turns, but he always bored in between two or three others, with his head down. A second bullet was put into his neck over the back of another animal, and a third struck him in the ribs. Finally they rushed him out, and brought him down with the fourth shot. Half that meat went bad, too.
The flaying and cutting up takes only a few minutes. The hide is stripped down each side, and the meat is then stripped off the bones, leaving the frame intact. The meat is roughly salted on a bag or in a dish and stacked at the back of the wagonette. It drains along the road as the cook drives to the next camp. There is usually enough meat left on the bones to last an average family a week, and in most cases the hide is left with it. No water is used, and the butchers have to be smart to beat the flies and ants. In sandy country ants are always plentiful, and they quickly swarm on to fresh meat, while crows and hawks gather in the trees, waiting for the rich pickings.
I travelled once with a West Queensland drover, who always killed in the evening. Just before sunset he would post a man in a tree with a gun, and let the cattle feed towards him. Gradually he would manœuvre the one he wanted until he got it under the tree, when the man above would shoot it behind the horns. The hide, head, and legs would then be taken off, and the paunch taken out, and all hands would haul the carcass up under the limb with a rope. There it hung all night. The hide was thrown over the wagonette pole and washed. Before daylight a big fire was made close by, and the carcass lowered on to the hide and cut up. After salting the meat was allowed three hours or so to drain, and was not put into the wagonette until the horses were harnessed and all ready to start away. At the next camp it was again taken out, and in the morning was lightly rubbed over and put into bags.
Drovers sometimes make use of bogged cattle. I helped on different occasions to butcher two that we could not pull out and which were considered too good to leave. These were pole-axed, and the hide stripped down each side from the backbone. We stood up to our belts in mud and water at this job. When we had taken the meat off to the water-line one held the hide up while the other dug a little farther down. The meat got rough usage, being hacked off anyhow, and tossed out on to the bank as one would throw bricks. It was a peculiar-looking bogged beast when we were done with it.
Cattle that get their legs broken or are otherwise crippled in a rush are also butchered when meat is wanted—and often in very awkward places. Swagmen fare well at these times, helping themselves liberally from the carcass. There was a little mutiny in one camp on the Balonne over the meat. Two fine bullocks had been struck dead by lightning, and the drover in charge wanted to use them for meat. He stuck both with a long knife, but neither would bleed. We jibbed, and there was trouble. But the electrocuted animals remained for the crows.
They were men of grit and stamina who first faced the jungles of the north, when there were no steamers or railways to carry off their produce, and the wild tribes that flourished everywhere in the neighbourhood added a strong flavour of danger to the enterprise.
Time was when one could ride from sunrise to sunset on the Richmond and Tweed Rivers and never see a fence where now swing-gates and painted homesteads meet him on every hand; and vast forests, where the bell-bird's note and the coo of the pigeons resounded, have given place to waving fields of corn and cane. Macadamised roads cross and recross each other where only an odd cattle-pad guided us a few years ago; and bridges span the creeks and gullies where our bullock teams were bogged, and we rode up to the saddle-flaps through mud and slush. One teamster I remember "corduroyed" a bog on the Tatham Road with smothered bullocks. The leaders turned when the wagon had sunk up to the bed, and getting entangled, were buried and smothered before they could be released. At another place, where a bush bridge made of rough logs spanned the high banks of a creek, a teamster was crossing when his leaders swung round and went over. The whole team were dragged down, and more than half of them were drowned in the deep water, many of them huddled under the wrecked wagon. It was no uncommon thing either to have to ride through several miles of mud and water on the main roads, and that within sight of the now flourishing towns of Casino, Coraki, and Lismore. The struggling farmer, in want of a few shillings, had often to battle through it with a slide-load of pigs, potatoes, or corn, wading barefooted alongside his team, and now and again hanging on to the side of his inelegant conveyance to readjust its equilibrium, or frantically poking up his livestock when the water rushed in and threatened to drown them.
The farm that didn't make our fortunes was let, like a good many others, rent free by the station for the sake of having it cleared. A rough two-roomed house, with walls of split slabs, earth floor, and a shingle roof, was the first improvement. A fence across the bight, enclosing part of the scrub, followed months later. Timber was plentiful, but farmers built sparingly in those days, being content with the roughest habitations imaginable. Doors were made of split pine palings, having plenty of daylight over the top; shutters of the same material; both being fastened with wooden pegs, which, when not in use, hung to the doorpost by a strip of hide or a piece of cord. Beds were also made of pine battens. Some of the more fastidious settlers went in for spring mattresses—made of round timber and fencing wire. Chairs were unknown, the universal seats being rough stools, made with a slab and four round legs. A couple of sawn blocks stood by the fireside, and there the "Old Man" smoked his evening pipe and told yarns of the blacks and the goldfields, intermixed with sundry reminiscences of the "Old Days."
Saturday was a busy day—for me. There was the cask to fill, with buckets of water carried from the river up a bank three hundred yards from top to bottom. It was a sort of fatigue duty; it fatigued me anyway. And there was an armful of tea-tree bush to get from the One-mile Swamp to make the new broom with. These brooms were about six feet in circumference, with a young sapling thrust through the centre for handle, and with care they lasted a whole week. By that time the leaves had died and were easily broken off, so that they left more litter behind than they swept before them.
Sunday morning was generally spent in shooting around the swamps and lagoons. Occasionally we all walked down to the next farm, five miles distant. None of us kept carriages at this time. On the following Sunday our neighbour and his wife, followed by half a dozen bare-legged children and three or four dogs, would return the visit. It was in this way we kept some sort of grip on civilisation. We also had a neighbour some miles above us. He came down occasionally at night-time to play cards—when there was no husking to do; and "Harry" would return the visit the following week, plodding home somewhere about midnight. They were not gamblers; they played only for the honour of "Lone Man's Land."
The loneliness of that place is with me yet; the distant ring of the axe and the peculiar cry of the cat-bird gave it an impressiveness of its own. The scrub began within a few yards of the door, growing thicker and darker as it extended into the bight. The first work was to clear the undergrowth and vines with brush-hooks. All the small growth is brushed in the jungle, low branches are lopped, the vines that twine into the tops and lace the trees together are cut at the root and severed where they cross near the ground. These include the tenacious lawyer vines, that cling like tiger's claws to anything that touches them. Thousands of little hooks and needle-points wait for the slightest contact of the unwary, tearing the clothes to ribbons, and lacerating hands and arms. Thorns and stinging trees, myriads of mosquitoes, and hordes of leeches help the lawyer vine to make the work interesting. Enveloped in deep gloom, the pioneer clears the way steadily into the heart of the jungle, while the startled wallabies bound over the decaying leaves, and a thousand scrub birds call to him from the tree-tops, till enough is cleared to commence felling. The brushing is about the easiest part of the work. It is clean and light, though subject to many annoyances. When it is done one can walk comfortably through the scrub, and the way is clear for the swing of the axe.
Felling the scrub is slow and laborious work, and at times attended with considerable risk. The small trees are merely nicked, the larger ones are cut partly through. Perhaps half an acre or more will be done like this, then a big tree is cut down and carries the lot crashing to earth in one tangled mass. Trees beyond the boundaries of the axeman's operations are torn and broken also by the far-reaching tentacles that hold them, branches tumble down in showers, and vines snap and recoil with a vicious swing. The axeman runs for safe ground as soon as his giant begins to sway, and thence till the cracking ceases he watches the tree-tops around him, for he never knows in a vine-bound jungle whence a limb might come. Half-dazed 'possums scramble from the wreck, the squeaking of young birds is heard, and broken nests and eggs are everywhere. Here and there, perhaps, a stripped trunk will be left standing or a small, tough sapling bending over the mass of greenery. These take some trouble to reach before they can be cut down. Then another patch is commenced, and so he goes on till ten or twenty acres are down. This has to remain a long while to dry, and in the meantime he works in some other quarter of the scrub so that there will be a green wall between the two when the first is dry enough to burn. The very look of that huge patch drying in the sun is encouraging to the new settler, and he works harder than ever on the next.
Very little of the big timber is consumed in the first burning off, and the blackened logs lie thickly across each other all over the ground. A road is cut down the centre, wide enough for a dray to pass through when the time comes to bring in the crop. Cross-cutting the huge, black logs, and levering them aside is heavy work, and takes weeks to accomplish.
Then the crop is put in. With a bucket of seed soaking on the road, and a bag-pouchful in front of him, and a long, narrow-bladed hoe, the farmer starts along his first row, running it as straight as possible from road to river, digging the hoe in at every stride, and dropping four grains behind it so that the earth will drop back. Only about half the ground is thus planted the first year, the other half being covered with timber, over which he climbs all day, finishing at night as black as a chimney-sweep. His rows are usually as straight as were those of the new chum hand who steered for the brindle cow that was feeding along on the outside of the field. Still, corn grows as well in a crooked row as in a straight one, and if his neighbours didn't laugh at him and pass uncomplimentary remarks about his eyes, and ask if he was sober at the time, the farmer wouldn't mind. A drill that has the least tendency to wobble is a thing to engender mirth among farmers, so each one aims to go as straight as the proverbial arrow.
They had heroic hearts, those early farmers, to face the prodigious pioneering work that confronted them on every side. They were unconventional people for the most part. So much so were some of them that I have seen men dressed in pants of soojee-bag, and shirts made of flour-bags, the brand in broad letters still visible across the back in cases where it could not be hidden conveniently on the tail. Hats were home-made, cabbage-tree and calico forming the principal material. As for boots, one member of the family wore them regularly—the "Old Man"—and his clod-squashers were patched with hide and wire as long as anything remained to hold by. The overcoat was a bag, having a head-hole at the top and arm-holes at the sides.
From daylight to twilight was the common working day. A coo-ee was the signal for breakfast or for dinner. Some used cow-bells. We had one at the start, but a wall-eyed cow we bought lost it in the big paddock. If the work were at the bottom of the farm dinner was brought down to save time. Sometimes a bit of sheeting or an old shirt was hoisted on the clothes-prop when the planter was beyond coo-ee. It was a time of happy relief when the flag went up, or "mother called to dinner."
Weeds grew quickly after the burning off, and when the corn came up it was a race between it and the wild growth for supremacy. Then every row had to be chipped. Occasionally when there was much rain a second chipping was necessary. Then the farmer had a respite until the corn was ripe, albeit he had to protect it from the attacks of paddymelons, parrots, and cockatoos. That, however, is part and parcel of the industry.
Then came the pulling, of which the "missus" had to do her share. The husking was done at night in the winter months, when the cold compelled one to work hard to keep the blood in circulation.
Shipping the bags of corn was a pleasant diversion, and not infrequently provided a good deal of fun. Our wharf was half a mile from the barn, where the bank was short and steep. Two long skids were fixed from the top to the landing, down which the bags were run. These became so slippery in time as to require a man on guard at the bottom to steady the bags. One day a new chum deck-hand, on his first trip up the river, stood in front of his skids waiting his turn to carry a bag on board. He allowed the bag to come down full force against the crosspiece at the bottom, with the result that it broke away, and the new chum stopped the flying bag with his stomach, and immediately after took a header backwards into the river. Another day the engineer, stepping unsteadily on to the gangway, toppled into the river, bag and all. There was a tremendous difference between these two accidents from the farmer's point of view; he laughed for a week over the new chum's misfortune, but he always swore when he thought of the engineer—he had lost him a bag of corn. However, once the corn was shipped, there was much satisfaction to be derived from a trip to town for the settling. I accompanied "Harry" on those trips—to show him the way back, and to catch his horse and hold it when he fell off.
Harvest-time only came once a year, and the liquidation of the accumulated debts had to be commemorated somehow. It was no uncommon thing to be without money for several months at a stretch on a farm. Luckily, an order sent up or down by the steamer was always honoured. The captains were courteous; a flag hung out on a stick was the only signal they wanted to come in to the wharf; and if an empty kerosene tin was suspended over the water on a pole, they knew what was meant; they boat-hooked it aboard, and brought it back full of treacle next day.
The dealer's boat, which was fitted with lockers, and sometimes with a light awning over the after part, was another convenience. It was well laden at the start with groceries, clothing material, &c., which were exchanged for eggs, butter, and even poultry.
If the farmers of those early days had to toil harder than the men on the same ground do to-day, they lived proportionately well, and yet at little cost. Ground corn made good porridge for breakfast, and boiled green corn gave a flavour to the salt meat. Vegetables were plentiful, once the scrub was down; and fish and game were to be had in sight of the hut any day in the week. Wild fruits grew there in abundance, and we made pies and puddings with tomatoes, gooseberries, passion-fruit, black-berries, &c., and there was always plenty of fresh milk and butter, wild honey, and bacon and eggs.
After the demolition of the scrub the axe figured no more in the farm work. Our only implements were brush-hooks and hoes. Weeds grew thickly and luxuriantly after the corn was pulled, reaching a height of seven or eight feet. These were cut down with the brush-hooks and fired when dry. Occasionally, in dry seasons, we had to suspend operations until the weeds grew sufficiently for a good burn-off, without which we could not plant. It is here that the ploughman has the draw on the man with the hoe.
No one appreciates the comfort and pleasure of a winter's evening spent by the fireside so much as the corn-grower and his family. This is because they seldom know that luxury through the coldest months; for several weeks at a stretch there is only Sunday off, and it passes all too quickly. To those who combine agriculture with dairying there is little relaxation even on Sunday, but they have the evening to themselves, a short, blissful evening, spent for the most part in a spacious fireplace, squatting round the blazing logs.
June and July is about the time the corn is being carted into the barn. Every night as soon as supper is over the whole family (except the little toddlers who are too young to work), wrapped up in coats, jackets, bags, shawls, and comforters, go shivering to the barn to husk corn till eleven o'clock—perhaps till midnight. The front of the average barn, where the carts back in, is open, and when the wind blows in that direction it acts as a spur to lagging fingers. You notice the young ones working hard and piling the husks up behind them for warmth. When there is a big heap right across they feel more comfortable, and begin to get drowsy; the interval between falling cobs in the straddles gradually lengthens; some fall short, and perhaps one catches the old man on the ear. The latter concludes that it is time to "shove the husks out of the way." Then the wind comes keener than ever, and, like coral workers, they slowly build up their protecting ridge again.
At the commencement there is a cone-shaped pile of white cobs between the straddles, which the eyes of the tired huskers magnify to the semblance of a mountain. They sit down in a row in front of it, each on a wooden block, with a folded sack on top of it for a cushion. A slush lamp hangs by a wire from a beam in front of them, and is fed from time to time with fragrant tallow. One by one the cobs are husked: a strip down one side, a turn and a twist with each, and thrown into the straddles to left and right. Fingers get sore, backs ache, feet "go to sleep," legs grow stiff, and eyes become painful from the ever-flickering light. But the work is easy, though fatiguing and monotonous.
The farmer seeks from time to time to instil renewed energy and a little enthusiasm into his flagging co-workers by starting husking races—a hundred cobs up. There is no prize, unless it is a promise of something extra at Christmastime to the fastest husker. He starts off himself at a great pace, and cobs fly thick and fast. He reaches the hundred when the boys and girls are not much past eighty—and the "missus" has lost count. She never could count, somehow. They have another go, and this time they are about ninety when he reaches the century.
This is encouraging; they believe they can beat father yet. They work harder than ever in the next race, and get to about ninety-five. There is a little excitement among them now; they think they are improving, while the old fellow is getting tired. They don't notice that he is keeping tally of their cobs and husking anyhow himself, as though he didn't care whether he got there to-night or to-morrow.
They try again. This time he counts nothing, but is working prodigiously when one of them calls out "hundred." He looks surprised. He's only ninety-one, he says; the winner must have skipped ten somehow. There's a little argument—not much, arguments take time—and it is decided to husk that race over again. He doesn't bother about counting, of course; and when the young one again calls "hundred" he is not quite sure "whether this cob's ninety-seven or ninety-eight." The cold night air is unnoticed in the jubilation of having beaten father. Then another aspirant for championship honours is backed to run the winner. There is jealousy among the young ones, and the cobs and husks literally fly. Not a word is spoken during these contests (it would interfere with the counting), and a big hole is made in the stack in consequence. Father smokes his pipe while he works, and there is contentment on his face. He was a youngster himself once.
These competitions are more exciting (to farmers) at the corn-husking concerts, or parties. A farmer takes his family to a neighbour's tonight, and spends the evening (a farmer's evening runs to midnight) husking his corn. Next night the neighbour and his family return the visit, and on the following night, probably, some other farmer's barn is visited. This is the farmer's "at home" night, and for entertainment all the gossip of the district is ventilated, yarns are told, and songs are sung—while working; Sarah Jones's engagement with Jim Smith is announced, and all the remarkable and unremarkable incidents in the lives of the old people are aired—an interesting jumble of gold-digging, blacks, and bushrangers. The young folks enjoy these parties; the work is much more pleasant, and time doesn't drag. But the system is not followed to any great extent. There is too much talking for the average farmer (a lot of people can't work and talk, and some can't work and listen), and too much time is lost tramping to and fro, while the young people get playing and giggling. Many a courtship has started at those husking parties, and many a union could be traced back to the sly hand-clasps and squeezes when fumbling for cobs. In that respect a husking party offers many advantages over the bush dance.
Many freaks and novelties turn up during a winter's husking—five-fingered cobs, corkscrews, cobs of jet black, blood red, snow white, and black and white (magpies). These are put by, with the husk stripped back but not broken off, and are afterwards placed on the mantelshelf or hung on the walls of the living-room—with the 'possum skins and emu eggs. The seed corn is also picked out at husking-time. The biggest and weightiest cobs with straight, even rows and full grain are chosen. They must also have red cores. Many farmers will not plant a grain that comes off a white core, though white and red cores are about equal in every stack, and there is no apparent difference in the grain.
Sometimes there is a little exciting diversion that enlivens the sleepy huskers. The Richmond has always been a great place for carpet snakes. I remember one night we were husking late to finish a stack. The straddle was half full, and we were grouped under it, half-buried in husks. Suddenly a ten-foot carpet snake that had probably been pounded with cobs at the back of the straddle slipped down off the sloping corn and dropped on top of us. There was consternation for a moment, and in the hurry and confusion the slush-lamp was knocked off the swing, and it set fire to the husks. We managed to bash out the fire with bags, and then there was a hunt for the snake. A fire was made with the outside husks to light up the surroundings, and then the heap was carefully raked back until the intruder was discovered. Other times 'possums and native cats got into the barn and formed a target for many a flying cob.
There is joy when the huskers turn out for the burning. The air is crisp, the landscape shows white, and even the stars have a frosty look. The huge pile of husks is forced back with wooden forks, and the heap is lighted in three or four places. All hands stand round, enjoying a delicious warm, and occasionally poking up the fire, until it burns out. The "missus" has already gone to the house, and she has the kettle boiled, and hot coffee and doughnuts ready when the others arrive. Then to roost.
Our farm was in a big bight. Round us, on the opposite side of the river, were half a dozen farms about an equal distance away. We could see the glare of their fires at night as we stood round our own. For a long while our fire was the signal for the others to light up. Then one got a bullock's horn, and blew it regularly at about eleven o'clock. This came to be recognised as the knock-off call, and the husks would be forked back as expeditiously as possible, and all the fires would blaze up at about the same time. But it didn't last long. Others got horns, and they blew them in the mornings. Among these farmers early rising was a virtue. Each tried to be earlier than his neighbour, and to beat him in the day's work. A good many fairy stories had been told in connection with this early rising business. One man had boasted of being up at 3.30 every morning through the harvest. A neighbour watched him (neighbours are suspicious people), and discovered that he "didn't crawl out till eight o'clock."
When the "bugles" were introduced it was thought that all deceit was at an end. The first man up would blow his horn and go to work. This led to a deal of rivalry, and horns blew earlier and earlier every morning. One sounded one morning at two o'clock; but it was discovered afterwards that this man merely leaned out of his bedroom window, and having announced with a blast that he was up, chuckled to himself and went to sleep again. That night a neighbour husked corn till twelve o'clock, had his coffee and a smoke, then blew a terrific blast and went to bed. Several of the others got up and went to work. They worked long, dark hours, and when they saw the morning star rising they left off and said things. That was the end of the "fog-horns," and afterwards, if any one happened to mention the time he got up in the morning he was looked upon with suspicion, and his word was treated with scorn.
There was a time when the native-born who could not mount a brumby and stick to him like wax to a blanket was an exception, who was not only chaffed and scoffed at by his fellows, but was viewed with surprise by visitors from other countries. His fame had travelled early. Even now the typical Australian, to foreign pens and brushes, is a horseman whirling several yards of stock-whip around while racing after long-horned cattle, just as the cowboy is considered typically American. But the horseman is merely one of a hundred types. He is more picturesque than the general run; the thrill of romance and adventure runs through his career, which appeals to the untamable blood that courses under the veneer of civilisation in the Anglo-Saxon; and he is seized upon with so much zest as to overshadow all other types, if not to entirely obliterate them in far-off places. The miner is grudgingly permitted to step on to the stage occasionally, and the shearer is briefly noticed in season; but the horseman is an evergreen.
At one time everybody rode, but closer settlement, railways, coaches, and steamers have so limited the usefulness of the hack that thousands of people in every State are as much out of place in a saddle as a Jack Tar, while the majority in big towns have never been on a horse's back in their lives.
On agricultural and dairy farms little riding is necessary. The farmer may ride to and from work, bareback, on the plough-horse, and his sons and daughters ride about the paddock or farm on quiet old mokes, but send them after half-wild cattle or brumbies on a scrubby run, put them on a cutting-out camp, or on a buck-jumper, and most of them would be hopelessly at sea.
Selectors, as a rule, shape much better, many of them being smart cattle-men and rough-riders. They work intermittently on neighbouring stations, and occasionally go droving. Girls ride bareback or in a man's saddle round the selection fences, muster their stock from the bush, riding at times full gallop through thick and thin. This was a simple matter to all of them in the days when the bush was wide. Marsupials and dingoes were plentiful, and so were wild horses in many places, and men and girls trooped forth on Sundays and holidays to hunt them, and the greater part of the day would be spent riding hard through thick timber and over rough country. On the road home they jumped their horses over logs and fences just for sport, or to see who had the best horse. Kangarooing was a fashionable pastime then.
The tactics of the town breaker make the old hand and the backblocker tired to look at. In their way a horse would be caught and driven round a few times with the mouthing reins, then ridden without loss of time. Of course they bucked, bucked hard and often; but the men were like sticking-plasters on their backs. The town breaker shuts his colt up for two or three days, with its head strapped back to its chest; then he pulls and twists it about for a week with clothes-lines, after which it is led around half the universe beside another horse, often with a dummy flopping and wobbling on its back. A bag on the end of a long stick is banged about its back and legs and drawn over its head to cure it of nervousness; dry cow-hides that make a great clatter are thrown against its heels, and every night it is turned out short-hobbled. When it is too dead to look round at an earthquake the breaker mounts it in a very small yard, or perhaps he will take it on to a sandhill or a boggy flat, where it would be extra hard to buck and a fall wouldn't hurt. It takes the unfortunate animal about two years to recover from the ordeal.
When the runs everywhere were wild and broad, with never a fence to block the movements of the half-wild cattle, every station had its coterie of brilliant horsemen. Horses were many, always fresh and ready for a set-to, and men had to ride. When one applied for a billet he was given a noted buckjumper to test his ability in the pigskin, and if he failed to sit him he was turned away with contempt. No other credentials were asked of him.
Australia can lay claim to the cleverest horsemen in the world, but you must go back on to the big cattle runs to find them in numbers. The riders have drifted farther out, passing and on with the march of civilisation. The Richmond and Clarence Rivers have always been noted for good horsemen, and likewise the Monaro country. When competing for buckjumping prizes at country shows it is common to see riders, seeking to excel one another, sitting bucking horses without bridle or saddle, having first thrown off the latter and then the former without dismounting.
As men run so they ride—in all shapes and sizes. A good many people contend that long-legged men should be able to stick better than the short-legged variety. But this is not borne out by practical results. My experience teaches me that length of limb is no essential. A little, proppy-legged boy may sit with ease a horse that would throw the long one sky-high. Some of the best buckjump riders I have seen were short-legged men. In any case it is not requisite to grip with the legs to sit a bucking horse. Balance riders, the prettiest of horsemen, do not grip, nor hold any more than when riding an ordinary horse at a hand gallop. In the latter case there is no exertion or effort on the rider's part to keep an easy, even seat; the limbs are at ease, there is no rigidity of any muscle; he sits carelessly, yet gracefully, his body following involuntarily the motion of the horse. In the same manner it is possible for any rider with practice to adapt himself to the movements of a bucking horse.
For all that, the majority of riders grip the saddle with some part of the legs when the horse sets to. Beginners grip with the knees—the hardest and most weakening of all. And they lean forward, their heads nodding and jerking fit to dislocate their necks. Formerly they were told to sit back; now they are told to sit straight. A straight sitter can balance and follow the movements of his animated foundation with greater ease; when the animal is rearing his body swings forward almost of its own accord, and when the quadruped hoists its tail end his body swings back automatically to meet it. The thigh grip is the most commonly used, but causes a considerable strain on the muscles. The best of all is the calf grip, and the hardest to learn. It is here where the long fellow has the advantage over the mannikin. This grip is much favoured by aborigines.
But grip of any kind makes hard work of riding. It concentrates the whole force and power necessary to counteract the efforts of the horse on one set of muscles, whereas the needful exertion should be distributed throughout the body, as when riding at a gentle canter. This does not apply to new chums; they bring everything into play—arms, legs, and head are exercised in a manner that amounts almost to violence. But watch the balance rider. I have seen him on a rough-bucking horse lighting his pipe, with the reins swinging over his arm, and "sitting loosely in the saddle all the while."
Some rough-riders are like fish out of water if not jammed in a saddle that fits like a tight boot—made to order—with stiff, seven-inch knee-pads. Others will ride anything in a hunting or poley saddle, and without a crupper. A good surcingle, however, is indispensable. Breast-plates, martingales, &c., are merely superfluous leather. Novices and others who lack proficiency use a kid (a bundle of green sticks rolled in a bag and strapped across the pommel), or a swag or a monkey (a strap looped between the D's for the right hand to grip). The crupper is another favourite hold, and many, when "slewed," grip the side of the saddle and pull themselves straight again.
The best men riders become broken up after a few years. Nearly every organ in the body is affected, and scores of good horsemen become physical wrecks at middle age through continual hard riding. I have seen men vomit blood after a rough set-to, and others sitting in the saddle with blood running from the nose. About one rider in fifty between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-five has steady nerves; over that age the proportion is about one in five hundred.
There are experts among women as well as among men. I remember two sisters on the Richmond who could handle and ride a colt as well as the best—and though they used any kind of saddle, they mostly rode in the approved feminine fashion. Some men believe that a woman, jammed behind the horns of a side-saddle, should have less difficulty in sitting a buck than a man has in his saddle. But a little reflection will show that a woman, sitting comparatively on one side of the horse, hasn't the same advantage to follow its movements as the man has, who sits equilaterally and centrally over the animal. The sisters referred to rode bucks in either saddle.
Out-back there are plenty of men who can ride anything ever foaled, whom no horse can throw from its back—and there are some terrific buckjumpers on the big cattle stations. The cowboys who came out one time from Arizona or thereabouts with a Wild West Show, and who were said to represent America's best, met their Waterloo on many occasions on the Australian tour. Even Bathurst horses rolled them in the dirt. And there was always some bystander ready to mount the outlaw, and ride him to a standstill.
Horses have been known to buck out of saddle and bridle without breaking or unbuckling a strap or girth. Some buck straight ahead, propping with forelegs out—they're easy; others buck round and round till trees and grass are aswim, and some stand on their heads and throw somersaults; but the hardest of all to sit is the brute that takes a flying leap forward, then bucks backward in the twinkle of an eye, slews round like greased lightning, and then takes off again with an electrifying side spring—going in two directions at once. I rode one of him once for two seconds. Something like an earthquake happened, and the ground jumped up and hit me on the back of the head.
Some horses never buck, even when first saddled. A few are quite docile and tractable at first asking, and later on, when you have ceased to expect an argument, they suddenly treat you to the trick-work of a genius; and others are outlaws for the term of their natural lives.
I have found little horses harder to sit than big ones, especially if they are round in the barrel. When the midget is doubled up like a Catherine-wheel, you see nothing but the pommel of the saddle, with a little wisp of hair in front of it. You are sitting on a pin-point, as it were. On a big horse you have plenty of room, and its movements are more communicable; you could ride him with your eyes shut in comparison.
One hears a good deal of rot talked at times even among horsemen anent the staying powers of a determined rooter. An experienced rider said in rebuttal of some exaggerations of this kind: "Some will buck off and on all day, but no horse can buck more than thirty seconds without a spell. I'll answer for that statement against the world. A horse is not bucking that does not buck twice a second, and no horse can buck sixty times without having a wind. I've put a watch on them, and he's a daisy that goes fifteen seconds." Many horses buck slowly, taking long, high leaps, but probably these would be classed with the pigjumpers.
Lauri, the bushranger, was a noted horseman. He was in a yard one day among a lot of unbroken colts when the police suddenly appeared. His own horse was out of reach, as the police closed up from different directions. The yard gates were open, and the mob of colts were stringing out into the bush. Lauri sprang on to the capping, ran along it to the gate-post, and thence dropped on to the back of a big bay colt as it was running through. The terrified animal sped into the bush, kicking, striking, and bucking at a furious rate. But he served Lauri's purpose. He was nimble enough, when out of danger, to spring clear of the frantic animal.
My first taste of selection life was on Myrtle Creek, a narrow, sinuous stream that is fed by a thousand perennial springs in Wyan Mountain, and empties into Bungawalbyn Creek, the south arm of the Richmond River. We moved from Grafton, Ben Buckle and I, being among the foremost of the settlers who flocked there about 1890. It is a populous and prosperous part now, with a railway through it, and there are sawmills and stores and schools, and progress committees strewn about it, but at the time we trekked it was all virgin forest.
The rain started soon after we did, and before sundown we had left the macadamised road, and got well on into difficulties. We had two teams, with a combined muster of ten bullocks. Ben had charge of six and a small wagon, while I endeavoured to make the other four pull an old dray. We were loaded only with household effects, tools, rations, and a coop of fowls, and with fair weather we might have got through our fifty-mile journey comfortably in a week; but the fates were against us.
Neither of us knew much about bullock driving, and the bullocks were a bad lot. They took very little notice of what we said, and when we laid the whip on to the leaders they would run off and tangle the whole team up. Once Ben's team ran right off the road, knocked down part of an old two-railed fence, and bolted down a paddock. We both ran after it, one on each side, shouting "Whey!" till the off front wheel caught against a small spotted gum and stopped them. It was hard work cutting that tree down from behind the wheel, and when it fell, it nearly crippled two bullocks, and set them going again. We "shooed" them towards the road, and got back at the expense of another panel of fence. Another hour was lost repairing the damage; then we got into heavy ground. At the foot of a hill my off leader jibbed, and when we proceeded to infuse some energy into him with a waddy he lay down and sulked. We left the team there while we took the wagon to the top of the hill, where we intended to camp. Then we returned with the six bullocks for the dray. Spot, the sulker, still refused to get up, and, finally, we had to unyoke him and "spare-chain" him out of the way. He got up later on, and followed us to camp.
There was a drizzling rain all the time, and, as we couldn't take the tarpaulin off the furniture, we had to make a camp under the wagon, crawling in and out on hands and knees. A cowhide and a sheet of tin served us for mattresses on the wet ground, and, with a lot of patience, we managed to get a good log fire going under a sheet of bark, behind the wagon. It wasn't a safe place to sleep, and we thought of the teamster who, years ago, slept under his dray on rain-softened ground, and during the night the wheels sank till the bed of the dray pinned him to the earth. But our wagon did not play us any scurvy trick of that kind. We were stoking, however, most of the night, and also lost much rest driving 'possums away from the rations.
We had only gone about a mile next day when Spot jibbed, and had to be dragged off the road again. He followed us for the rest of the day. He was a great bullock to follow. He got to like being a spare bullock so well that, as soon as the yoke was put on him in the morning, he would lie down with an injured expression on his face, and we had to unyoke him again, and shift out of his way. This left us with a workable team of eight, which necessitated a change in our mode of progression. We would draw the wagon along for a mile or two, then return with the team for the dray. Ben drove the near side bullocks while I looked after their mates on the off side. This enabled us to keep on the road much more than usual, but still we got bogged pretty often. We managed to dig our way out in most cases, but occasionally we had to unload as well, and load up again on firm ground.
Our greatest causes of annoyance were the registered gates on the road. They were not wide enough, and though we took every precaution, the posts still evinced a desire to come with us. Generally we only pulled down one, but now and again the team would become obstreperous, and we would be considerably put out on seeing the wagon knock down one post and the dray bowl over the other. It cost us a lot of time and hard labour putting in gate-posts on the way over.
Old teamsters will tell you that a bullock-whip is a formidable weapon when you know how to use it, and most effective in "putting the come hither" on the off-siders. We had got down to one whip, made of remnants. It looked formidable enough, but in its wet and flabby state it was as awkward as it was useless. The thing would cling to the handle, get fast round the yokes and chains, or encircle one's neck like a wet dishcloth, just when it was wanted to get the "come-hither" on Snider at a critical moment.
Crossing Myall Creek our coop fell off and broke, and half the fowls got out. We tried to catch them with damper crumbs, but they seemed to prefer grasshoppers. So we had to run them down, in which process we left half our clothes hanging on tenacious myall twigs. That same afternoon the dray brushed a dead iron-bark tree, and a sheet of loose bark, about forty feet long, came down on top of the bullock horse, completely covering him. He hung back so prodigiously that the greenhide halter snapped, and, with head and tail erect, and snorting like a locomotive, he started back for Grafton at full gallop. Luckily we had made a secure job of the last gate we passed through, and there we got him after a two-mile walk.
To us the primitive life we entered upon had many charms. There were deep waterholes, lagoons, and broad swamps and marshes everywhere. Game simply swarmed over this country, and we stored salt and pickled duck by the hundredweight. In wet weather ducks walked about the flats and perched on the logs we had cut for splitting, preening themselves within range of the tents. There, too, we could watch the stately jabiru, the dance of the brolgas, the gathering of pelicans, and study the inquisitive emus as they marched closely past our camps. From the fireside in the evenings we have shot kangaroos, wallabies, and dingoes, as they passed along the creek.
We had many feathered pets—little bush birds in endless variety; magpies and butcher-birds shared our meals, picking up the crumbs we threw to them; kookaburras kept us company at work, watching for grubs; parrots swarmed in thousands among the gum-blossoms. At night the curlews screamed around us, and mopokes called from the scrub. When the black cockatoos paid us a visit, flying low and with shrill cries from tree to tree, we looked for rain, and when we heard the Australian cuckoo we expected fine weather.
But there were other aspects of the situation that were not quite so enchanting. Most of our neighbours were married men, and many of them brought their wives and families with them on horseback, in buggies and carts, and on top of the dunnage. One man came with a loaded dray, drawn by one horse. His wife, with a child in her arms, accompanied him. They had a hard passage over, and when they left the main road the woman had to walk every inch of the way, in a drizzling rain, across melon-hole flats and through sheets of surface water, her skirts dragging through long grass and catching on sticks and bushes. When she reached our camp she set the baby down in a horse-collar, and greeted us with a tragic gesture. "My God, look at me!" she cried. We looked—and laughed. She laughed, too, while she wrung the water from her dripping skirts and shook them out. She was a rosy-cheeked, cheerful little soul, and I have often since noticed her name mentioned in the paper in connection with socials, presentations, and such functions. She is a leading light in the community, as she deserves to be.
In some instances the houses had been built before the family appeared, but mostly only a rough hut, used afterwards as a kitchen, was there to receive them. In a few cases not even the site for the camp had been picked, and when the dray pulled up on a rise and all got down, there was an inspection of the ground, and much discussion and walking about. The woman wanted to be as near as possible to the water, but the man was afraid of floods and preferred the high ground. She was tired, night was coming on, the dray had to be unloaded, supper cooked, tents pitched, and beds made, so he had his way—which accounts for so many selectors' huts being a mile away from water.
The first evening on a new selection under such circumstances is not as cheerful as one could wish. It is the beginning of a new life—a hard one, with nothing done and everything to do. There is no house in sight, no sign of life but that of wild birds and animals, and the freed horses feeding out into the wilderness of trees. Boxes, furniture, tools, and camp-ware are strewn about the dray, a fire burns under a tree, and a tent or two is erected near by. This is home. The children enjoy it; it is new and strange and novel, and they race about, climbing trees, gathering wild flowers, rooting hollow logs, and hunting goanas and 'possums. Every day they learn a little more of their new world, venturing farther and farther afield, and making new disoveries, naming hills and swamps and lagoons for future reference, until they are thoroughly acquainted with the local geography, and know where to find their cows and horses, where the wildfowl are most abundant, and the holes where fish are to be caught. To the mother, seated on the ground by the fire, and watching the sun go down as she eats her first meal, and listening to the croaking of frogs and chirruping of crickets, the groaning of interlocked trees, and the wailing of curlews, it is a wretchedness that brings tears to her eyes.
Her husband is full of hope, and fairly bristles with ideas and schemes. He walks over his "capital site," and points out to his patient spouse and his admiring progeny (who have wonderful faith in father) where the henhouse and the pigsty are going to be, where the grindstone will stand, and the way the fence will run. He takes his hat off and squints up trees, pointing out the way they will fall, showing them the good splitting ones, and estimating how many slabs or posts and rails they will produce. What he plans that first night usually takes him about ten years to carry out.
Timber was so plentiful in our neighbourhood that we could almost follow our boundary round, splitting the posts and rails, and throwing them on to the line from the stump. There was very little hauling. But many shallow waterholes and gilghies to cross made fencing at times unpleasant. Posts would be pointed on dry land, and rails adzed to fit. Then both of us would wade in, one with the post and the other with a heavy maul, drive the post into the soft ground and place the rails in position, then hurry out to brush off a horde of leeches that would be clinging to our legs. They were ugly, ravenous brutes. If you plunged a stick into the water, you would see the long-striped monstrosities streaking for it from all sides. Yet we would wade into any swamp, and swim into any lagoon, to bring out ducks we had shot.
Ringbarking was considered an "improvement" at this time, so we had several hundred acres to ring. This was light work, and enabled us to find dozens of sugar-bags (bees' nests). We had always a good supply of honey on hand. A few months after the ringing process the selection begins to look bedraggled, lonely, and miserable. Trees are bare and ghostly white, long strips of bark swing in the wind, and dead limbs and bark encumber the ground in all directions. It saddens one to look at the dead white trunks, and to see nothing but crows and eaglehawks perched in the leafless tops that erstwhile diffused the sweetest perfume over the land, and called brilliant-hued parrots in millions to feast among the honey-laden blossoms. And the sawmills are calling for that timber now.
We carried our own wood as we wanted it; there was plenty of it handy. Likewise we carried our water in kerosene-tins. Mosquitoes came in swarms from the holes at night, necessitating the burning of cowdung in our bedrooms; 'possums were other nocturnal visitors. They scampered about the roof of our house, purred down the chimney, and sometimes got inside. Snakes, centipedes, and scorpions were the only things we had to fear, and a careful inspection of our bedding was made every night before turning in.
Our camps were pretty close together, and at night one would visit the other for a yarn. One night a young fellow, approaching the camp of two new chums, imitated the howl of a dingo. The chummies were sitting at their fire, but instantly sprang up and shouted, "Sool him, Pincher! Catch him. Snapper!" The dogs plunged into the darkness, and presently a frantic voice was heard yelling out to call them off. Snapper had caught him. The joker escaped with only slight damage to skin and garments; but he never "played dingo" again.
Everybody had cows, of course, and in the mornings you would see a man milking at one side of a sapling-yard and another yoking bullocks or harnessing horses at the other side. Sometimes the calves were tethered to trees to keep the cows near; and very often the latter were milked in a bail fixed up against a big log, or in the fork of a log which did duty for bail, yard, and calf-pen. With milk, butter, eggs, fish, game, and honey in abundance, and later, when little cultivation patches were got going, any amount of vegetables, there wasn't much left to purchase. Still, there was nothing coming in, as grazing alone on a small area was a slow process, so the majority took contracts to keep the pot boiling—working on the roads and squattages, droving, horse-breaking, and making a little occasionally at horse and cattle dealing, and between whiles clearing, improving, and building up substantial and comfortable homesteads.
One thrifty old man, who looked after a selection for his two sons while they were away working, saved up all his eggs for market. He was a Scotchman, and a very indifferent horseman. It was four miles down to the main road, where he met the coach every mail-day. He carried the eggs in a bucket on horseback, which was not a very easy task, considering the creeks and gullies he had to cross, and it became more difficult as the fences went up, as he had then to dismount several times on the way to let down sliprails. Still, he managed very well till one afternoon, when a catastrophe happened. He was riding along at a brisk walk, balancing his bucket of eggs on the pommel. Suddenly a rat-kangaroo leaped from its nest close under-the horse's nose, and with a snort the animal sprang from under the old man. As he speared into the grass the bucket, toppling over from the pommel, shot the eggs in a deluge over him. No candidate for parliamentary honours could dream of being so thoroughly plastered with eggs as he was. The disaster, however, did not kill the budding industry, though for a couple of weeks the old fellow carried his precious load down on foot.
On Sundays the settlers went farther afield, to deep holes for fishing, or to take note of the progress being made on distant selections, riding over the "runs," and inspecting each other's cattle. There was plenty of room for riding, for kangarooing, and for dingo-hunting through leagues of bush, scrub, and mountains, where bell-birds made melody overhead, and Wonga pigeons and brush turkeys were flushed from under graceful cabbage-trees, the leaves of which we used for making hats; by groves of kurrajong, from the bark of which the blacks made fishing-nets and dillybags; through fields of cunjevoi, that provided them with pungent cake; over beds of delicious yams and sarsaparilla-vines, so much sought by bushmen for summer drinks.
As women increased, Sunday visiting took a new phase, the whole family trooping through the bush, father leading the way—with an eye on the look-out for splitting trees and bees' nests, the children hunting for 'possums, and mother warning them to look out for snakes. There was a "warming," too, as each house was completed; in fact, dancing was pretty frequent at one place and another. Sometimes we danced on the grass, as when several families were out picnicking.
They travelled in carts and on horseback, starting away before sunrise. When the last contingent had been picked up the procession at times was rather astonishing to a stranger. You would see a man sitting in a cart playing a fiddle, and another performing on horseback with a concertina, while two or three cartloads of joyous humanity would be singing gaily in chorus. They foregathered, too, for card-playing; they had shooting and fishing excursions, and got up bush races occasionally. These are the happy days of selection life, though we don't always think so at the time, days we like to look back upon and talk over, days that are never forgotten—
"When gum-trees whispered o'er the camp fire's blaze."
Shearing is the most important event of the year on a sheep station. For weeks beforehand preparations are made for it, whilst any other work can be done at little notice. The shearers' hut has to be patched up, the gaps in the shed repaired, gates, fences, and yards fixed up, wool tables cleaned and put in place, the press erected (where it is not permanently housed in a modern shed), machinery and a hundred and one other items attended to. Stacks of wood have to be cut in the neighbouring bush and drawn in to huts and homestead; the iron tanks are replenished, or arrangements otherwise made for a water-supply. It is the busiest time of the year, a time of bustle and excitement, that seems to accentuate the loneliness and quietness of the surroundings for the rest of the year. For three or four weeks, or months, you hear the constant click of the shears, the shouting of men, the bleating of sheep, and the barking of dogs; you see the flashing of snowy fleeces, the ringing and rushing of huge flocks, galloping horsemen, and clouds of dust. Then one morning the whole busy scene has vanished; there is silence about the huts and shed, and the only living things to be seen are the crows feasting on dead sheep outside the yard.
The time of starting at any shed is seldom advertised. Such news is carried in the bush by mulga wire—in other words, by travellers passing from place to place. Then, again, a number of sheds will follow in rotation, the shearers and shed hands going from one to the other. Most squatters prefer men fresh from a shed to those who have not recently had a cut, as with the latter there is frequently much delay during the first week with knocked-up wrists. But when men are plentiful, and there is a market to catch, or other considerations make it convenient or urgent, there is no waiting for anybody's cut-out, and a dozen adjoining stations may be in full swing at the one time. The general cut-out then means a merry time at "Mother's" (the wayside hostelry), where a shearers' race meeting and other attractions are held to wind up the season.
Stands are sometimes booked weeks and months prior to date of shearing, applications being accompanied in many cases with a sovereign as a guarantee of good faith, the amount being refunded at the settling up, or donated to the local hospital if forfeited by non-appearance. Many men after sending their pounds along find as the time draws near that something more pressing, or some unlooked-for circumstance, will prevent their filling their engagement. This difficulty is easily surmounted if the shearer is not well known. He sells his stand to a mate, or wires one at the place to sell it for him, and thus saves his deposit. Of course, the purchaser must take the name of the man who originally engaged. Dozens of men in this way impersonate others, and are known by certain names on one district and by different names in other parts. A shearer whose cognomen, say, is Bill Brown will one year be a big, freckled-faced man, with red hair and beard, and next year he will be a little, dark man. Sometimes a Bill Brown is discovered to be Jim Smith, and trouble ensues; but generally the culprits make pretty sure of their ground beforehand. Again, scores of men changed their names after the '91 strike. Tom Jones, the non-unionist, would efface himself in a far-back locality, and appear long afterwards among the unionists as Bill Smith. Wherever he shore he would hear the vilest epithets hurled at the memory of Tom Jones, and many a threat of vengeance avowed, and the pseudo Bill Smith, to keep up appearances, would do likewise, and express the most caustic opinion of all on his own self. Squatters, as a rule, soon forget the faces of men who have been temporary employees. They are familiar with the names in their books, but they are, year after year, being hoodwinked by Bill Smiths who are in reality Tom Joneses.
On the morning of the roll-call you will see two or three hundred men gathered about the hut. The majority are horsemen or bikemen. Some drive up in spiders, sulkies, tilted carts, and other traps; the rest are footmen, who come in tired and footsore, carrying heavy swags. Gleaming white tents spring up like mushrooms among the bush clumps and along the creek, thin wreaths of smoke curl up from all manner of places, and the jingling of horse-bells makes music everywhere, mingled with the yowling and ferocious scrimmages that result from the meeting of many strange dogs. These out-campers look on the hut with loathing; some of them, long inured to a gipsy life, would not camp under a roof under any consideration. Others have an equal dislike to the open. One of the latter, on reaching the hut, will first of all examine the vacant bunks, pick the most suitable, and put his swag on it. Everybody recognises that bunk then as reserved, and if the owner of the swag gets on, he remains in possession till the shed cuts out; but if his name is not called he has to vacate it pretty quickly, or he will find his dunnage thrown on the floor.
The roll-call is an interesting function. The big crowd of men and boys line up near the hut. A pretty mixed lot they look; they are all shapes and sizes, and as various in their colours and nationalities. Many are joking or laughing; some show absolute indifference—their names are not down, and all they can hope for is a supply of rations when the cook gets his stores; others stand with folded arms, or arms akimbo, watching and waiting with anxious faces, thinking, perhaps, of wives and little ones, miles away, who are waiting for their first pound. No two are dressed alike.
There are men in rags, there are many in silk, or starched white shirts, collars and ties, and with polished boots, gold rings and diamond pins, and nuggets of gold dangling from their watch-chains. Gentlemen they look, with soft white skin, men whom you would think had never done a day's hard work. These are some of the big guns, who can do their 150 to 200 a day, who travel from State to State, and are probably shearing nine months out of the twelve. There are battered-looking derelicts, who are also ringers but are heavy drinkers. There are here University graduates, lost heirs to fortunes, sons of big men in England, broken-down school-masters, lawyers, ex-policemen, poets, artists, journalists, cheek by jowl with horny-handed navvies, and a few who put a cross for their signatures, all waiting with varying degrees of interest to hear the verdict of the wool king.
Having checked the names of his men, the manager reads out the terms of agreement. If the shearing is to be conducted under the rules of the P.U. or A.W.U., a good deal of time is occupied in signing; but under verbal agreement, which seems to give the most satisfaction, the business is quickly disposed of. The shed hands are then engaged, a few questions asked by the men, and the price list of station stores is produced. This is compared with the list of the town grocer, but the station usually obtains the custom, and expects to, unless the charges are comparatively heavy. Then the cook is chosen.
The shearing rate in most parts is 24s. per hundred, with variations according to locality and class of sheep. The rouseabout's usual pay is from 25s. a week and tucker, and in small sheds the station pays the cook the customary 4s. per man per week, and all hands are boxed together. Where the rouseabout receives 7s. per day and finds himself he pays his share of the bill; when he has a separate hut he puts on his own cook, and is expected to feed all travelling rouseabouts who call, while shearers feed shearers. Under this system the rouseabout loses, as he gets no pay for wet days. Wet days, too, prevent the traveller going on, and he hangs around. Odd ones are occasionally given the word to move on by the cook. But these are regular loafers, who would, if permitted, put in an appearance at every meal as long as the shed lasted, and then expect to have their bags filled for the road. Nothing riles a cook more than the tactics of these gentry; his good name and chances of election on future occasions depend largely on keeping down the mess account.
The men also choose a representative, who becomes responsible head of the mess department, and through whom all negotiations take place as between employer and men, and to whom all disputes are referred. He accompanies the cook to the station immediately after election, and orders stores, utensils, tinware, cutlery, &c. The cook takes immediate charge of these, but the rep. is the responsible party. He must be a financial unionist in a union shed; it is his office to receive the union delegates, distribute tickets, &c.
The shearers in twos and threes file to the store, returning each with a pair or two of shears,* a bottle of salad oil, and an oil-stone. The rest of the day is spent variously in arranging bunks, hunting up wool-packs and sheepskins for mattresses, turning at the grindstone, fixing up water-tins and oil-stone boards on the stands, and rigging the shears. The blades are pulled back and the knockers filed down, so that the shears will take a bigger blow. This is called "putting Kinchler on them," from the fact that it was first adopted by John Kinsella, who died in Armidale about August, 1902. The shears are also fitted with a strap, which passes over the hand. Putting this on requires an expert, one man's services being often requisitioned by half a dozen of his confrères. Many bind basil or sheepskin round the grip, and those who are not endowed with powerful wrists cut strips off the bow with cold chisels, to weaken the spring. It is common for a shearer to spend a whole day in preparing his blades for work.
* Since this sketch was written machine-shearing has become general in Australia. Rates and wages vary from time to time; in recent years they have substantially improved in favour of the men. The housing accommodation is now much better than a few years ago, and is under the supervision of the Government.
A typical backblock hut, where these men are temporarily housed, is a long, narrow structure built of galvanised iron. Bunks are ranged in tiers along the sides, usually two tiers, though sometimes there are three. There is always a rush for bottom bunks. They are just long enough for the average man to stretch in. The men, for obvious reasons, sleep feet to feet and head to head. The dining-table runs down the centre. It is made of casing, or sheet iron, tacked on to a rough frame, the legs sunk in the ground, while the seats are simply round saplings, or narrow scantling, laid on rough forks, or spiked on to low posts. There is just enough room for a man to walk between them and the bunks. At night two or three evil-smelling slush lamps flicker and splutter and fizzle along the table, and these, with the odour of drugs, liquor, soiled shed clothes, stale boots, and unaired blankets, have not exactly an improving effect on the meal. One doesn't need to be fastidious. The men seldom all sit down together. Some are sitting on the bunks, with feet on the stools, puffing fragrant tobacco smoke over the table while others are eating; some are shaving or dressing, others are shaking out blankets and making beds. And there is the everlasting smell of saddles and packs and eucalyptus. Then the late rouseabouts, who have been cleaning up, and benighted musterers come rushing in, hungry and anxious-looking, wondering if there's any blancmange left. They hustle into their places, and one calls out, "Sling th' poisoned baker this way, Texas!" Another shouts, "Chuck us a bun, will yer!" or "Jerk that spottified brownie this way, Snoozer!" while some hardened sinner demands, "What d'yer call this, cook? Goat, or a hunk of a cart-'orse? Dog scratch me, it's as tough as Mother Lord Harry!" Tea over, they smoke and yarn, or play cards till ten o'clock. All lights must be out at ten "by the cook's orders." He has to get up early. To a quiet man, or one who is fond of reading, the shearers' hut is a den of horror. There are men whose tongues are never still, and, as might be expected, these are the ones who seldom say anything worth hearing. There is the rattling of dice and the shuffling and chatter of card-players; the repetition of "Fifteen two, fifteen four"; and the euchre-players' everlasting "Pass!" "I'm away!" "She's down!" "By me!" and so forth. The man who bangs his fist on the table with every winning card he plays is particularly obnoxious. Occasionally he gets his deserts in the form of a flying boot. There are draught-players, domino enthusiasts, noughts-and-crosses cranks, and fox-and-goose lunatics; there are loud discussions, arguments—mostly about dogs and horses—yarning, singing, and whistling, to the accompaniment of half a dozen mouth-organs, tin whistles, Jews' harps, and a cracked concertina. It's hard to follow the adventures of Reginald de Clancy through the jungles of the Punjab under such disturbing conditions; it is harder still to compose a soulful epistle to your best girl, pining for her shearer boy down south, or to dash off a fetching little ode to the entrancing beauty of her eyes.
At ten o'clock a bucket of tea and another of coffee are placed on the floor, and there is a rush for pannikins and buns. You feel glad that there will soon be peace; but it is not unadulterated. When the lights are out you learn the sleeping characters of your shed mates. There are several asthmatical nuisances who cough intermittently; about a dozen go pighunting, and are pursuing the spotted one nearly all night; others fidget and kick and roll, have nightmares and other nocturnal visitations, and yell blue murder in their sleep; a few are troubled with insomnia, and get up at frequent intervals to fill and light their pipes. And there are the town-goers, who come stumbling in about midnight, with noise enough to awaken the next man. When that row has subsided the thirty or forty dogs tied up outside begin to corroboree in dismal and melancholy tones. Somebody yells at them to lie down, and one or two get up to throw firewood and jam-tins at them. The nights are pretty near all alike, so you don't wonder at the number of tents and bush gunyahs there are scattered about the neighbourhood.
On many of the big stations there is separate accommodation for shearers and rouseabouts—detached kitchens and special dining-rooms for each. The sleeping apartments are partitioned off, having two or four bunks in each. There are sitting-rooms, card-rooms, and reading-rooms. There is no piano yet, but probably that will come along in the near future. These good sheds are often systematically worked by one band of men year after year. Now and again a couple drop out, and strangers fill their places. Otherwise a stranger has little chance against the old hands, who are booked for the following year as soon as the shed cuts out. Under this long-range system New Zealanders, after finishing the season in their own country, often complete the year with a run of sheds through Victoria, New South Wales, and Queensland.
The day starts early. The cook's bell, soon after daylight, is the first summons—to "awake and arise." There is more tea and brownie, and the men file to the shed. Stands have been drawn for, water-tins fixed up to dip shears in, oil-bottles hung, and boards nailed conveniently for oil-stones, pipe and tobacco, &c., and each man goes to his place. On one side of the board are narrow pens, one for each man, for the shorn sheep; on the other side a wide catch-pen for every two men. These pairs are called penmates, and they turn the grindstone for each other. They are not always boon companions; they are sometimes deadly enemies. In many sheds there is a double board; in others the catch-pens are in the centre, and there is a board on each side. The big machine-sheds, as a rule, are roomy and substantial structures, though mostly built of galvanised iron. Some of the cocky sheds of old time, with the huge gumlog press, are still standing, covered with bark and walled with slabs. The common backblock shed is not walled, except in part with the low stubs that form the pens. The gap between this fence and the roof, in hot or dusty places, is screened with bagging or hessian. Everything is pretty rough and slipshod about these sheds. The yards and pens are built of logs, rails, stubs, and boughs; the shed is covered with bushes or cane grass, occasionally further protected with hessian blinds. It is low and flat, so low that a tall man often bumps his head against the cross-beams; and dust, leaves, and twigs are continually falling on the board and getting mixed up with the wool. There is not much comfort. It is often many miles away from the station homestead, and being used for but a short time once a year, and having no caretaker between whiles, it is too risky to build an elaborate and expensive shed. In any case, as shearing can only be done in dry weather, it answers the purpose as well as the best. The galvanised iron shed is cleaner, but in summer the heat is terrific. For working purposes, and for the sheep, the cane grass or the bough shed is the better.
Thursday and Friday are the most favoured days on which to start shearing. The first couple of days are the hardest on backs and wrists, and commencing near the end of the week provides a break of a day and a half, and the operators are consequently in good trim when they toe the scratch on Monday morning. The first mob of sheep in is closely examined and criticised, and when the pens are full hands play among the backs and shoulders to ascertain the quality and density of the wool. When there is good show of yolk and the fleeces are free of burrs, sand, and grass seed, the knights of the blades are jubilant.
As the overseer, or "man-over-the-board," comes in, the men rise expectantly, and at the first jingle of the bell there is a wild rush into the catch-pens and a scramble for sheep. Struggling animals are dragged out and dumped on to each stand, and at once the shears are clicking from end to end, every man striving for the honour of first fleece. The belly wool is the first part taken off, the sheep being sat on the board between the operator's legs, its forelegs held back under his left arm. The fleece is opened up along the neck, from the brisket to the left ear, and shorn down the left side, well over the spine, to the tail; then the animal is turned, shorn down the offside, finishing off the thigh, and half pitched through the open gate. Then another is grabbed, dragged on to the board, and dumped on its rear extremity with its heart palpitating like a wounded bird's. But they seldom kick, except when a junk of skin is taken off. Then there is a demand for tar. The breathless hurry of every man, the apparent desperate desire to separate fleece and sheep in a certain time, is the first thing that strikes the stranger in a shearing shed. The ringer, or fastest shearer, soon singles out when hands are in. There are two or three jigging very close to him, and these keep up a perpetual race, whilst the others try to keep as near as possible, or are running one another. The drummer, or slowest shearer, is about the only man who doesn't seem to care when supper-time comes. But his position is not conspicuous at the start.
A shearer who answered to the name of Dick gained a little notoriety during the first week in a northern shed. Only a couple then had their hands in, and Dick had third highest tally. Swelling with pride and magnanimity, he said to his penmate: "Cut in, Mac, you can lick lots of these coves here. You'll be fourth, anyway." Next day "Mac" was ahead, and said he to Dick: "Cut in, Dick, you can lick lots of these coves here. You'll be fifth, anyway." The yarn went round, and every man-Jack was doing his level best. One after another, the others passed Dick's tally, till finally one shouted across the board: "Cut in, Dick, you'll be last, anyway." And Dick was.
In most sheds where pinking is desirable the ringer, no matter how good or fast he may be, is restricted to a certain limit, and no one is allowed to go beyond him. This prevents tomahawking, and it explains why a man will make a phenomenal record in one shed and cut only an ordinary tally in another. Of course, the quality and weight of the fleeces, and the size and condition of the sheep, have also a lot to do with the fluctuations of tallies. The easiest of all to cut are lambs and hoggets, and the next best are the ewes. Breed, condition, and weight of sheep, density of wool, and the season just passed through have a big influence on the tally barometer. There is a sudden drop when the shears get to work on the wethers, whilst the hardest and slowest work is done on the rams and ram stags. Each of these latter is counted as two sheep.
A run is anything from seventy-five to ninety minutes, when the bell rings for smoke-o, lunch, afternoon tea, or knock off. Shearers drink tea all day, a bucket of it being kept continually hung in the shed, replenished from time to time as required. One or two pannikins only are used, and everybody dips them into the bucket. The sheep are counted out at the end of each run, and the tallies are posted on a board in a conspicuous place every morning. These morning bulletins command a good deal of notice and interest; they are scanned by visitors and swagmen; even the little tarboy, between runs, derives a lot of satisfaction from comparing one man's tally with another's, and computing the daily earnings of the big guns. If the boss is not particular about the sheep being pinked (shorn so closely and even that the skin shows plainly), the tallies are at times remarkable. At Barenya station, for instance, on September 19, 1895, 26 men averaged 172 each; on the same day eight men averaged 236 each; and on the 20th 26 men averaged 175 each. The record for hand-shearing is held by Jack Howe, who shore 327 ewes in 7 hours 20 minutes at Alice Downs (Queensland), in October, 1892. His tallies for the last 11 days at the shed were 149, 264, 131, 249, 257, 258, 262, 267, 321, and 190 lambs and 30 wethers. On July 16, 1904, he shore 337 sheep in 8 hours with the machine.
The following unique records belong to an earlier date: At Belalie, on the Warrego, in 1884, Sid Ross shore 9 lambs in 9 minutes, and at Evesham, in 1886, Jimmy Fisher shore 50 lambs in one run before breakfast (about 75 minutes). At Charlotte Plains, Warrego River, in 1885, Alex. Miller shore 4,362 sheep in three weeks and three days, an average of 203 per day throughout the shed. "Long" Maloney shore 22,000 in one season in South Australia, Victoria, and New South Wales. In 1876 Angus M'Innes shore against Jack Gunn, at Parratoo, South Australia, for £50, when the former shore 180 sandback wethers in one day, and but for a timely interference would have exterminated two boundary riders because they had no more sheep in. At Fowler's Bay, in 1874, the lengthy Maloney shore 11 big wethers in 11 minutes, using a pair of Ward and Payne's 38's. At a shed on the Paroo, in 1884, seven—namely, Allan M'Callam, Bamphil (the "Warbler"), Jack Lynch, Jimmy Donaldson ("Maorilander"), "Warrigal Jack," M'Donald (the "Barrier Ringer"), "Long Bob" Hobbs, and Jack Reid (the "Victorian")—shore 1,540 sheep in one day, an average of 220 per man. At Parelli, in 1885, another Jack M'Donald, who weighed only 6 st. 9 lb., shore 187 full-fleeced wethers in 7½ hours.
A shearer who used the tongs all over the Commonwealth during the squabble between pastoralists and shearers in 1902, gave the following particulars of his earnings: In 1899 he shore 23,538 sheep, receiving £235 7s. 7d.; in 1900, 22,976 for £229 15s. 2½d.; in 1901, 23,142 for £231 9s. 5d.; and during the first half of 1902 he shore 10,379, his cheque being £103 15s. l0d. This man was a long way below being a champion. A fair team of 30 men can average 100 per day. But bad weather, much travelling, and long breaks between sheds, prevent the majority of fairly smart shearers making enough to carry them through the year. Jimmy Power, who was the champion machine shearer, and whose record is 315 sheep in 7 hours 40 minutes, made at Barenya in 1904, shore 40,000 in one season. His bones are now resting in South Africa. As a rule, better money is made with machines than by hand. The tallies are higher in the aggregate, the work is lighter and cleaner, and the operator has to find neither shears, stone, nor oil, and never loses any of his rest-time at the grindstone. His only expense, so far as the actual work is concerned, is for combs and cutters, which amounts to merely a few pence per hundred sheep.
Harry Livingstone, the Queenslander, in successive days in 1910, shore 223, 225, 237, 237, and 221. The pay was 24s. per 100. The same season 38 men at Cambridge Downs in one day averaged 198½ sheep per man, Harrison, who rung the shed, being top with 265.
Bigger tallies are made in Queensland than in New South Wales, the sheep of the mother State being noted for greater density of wool. Smaller tallies, however, are cut nowadays all round than formerly, on account of the improved breed of sheep, which carry more wool. Merinos in good country are fine sheep to shear, while the introduction of the Vermont strain makes the work more arduous in any locality. The Shropshires and crossbreds also make heavy work; they are big, whereas the merinos are small, compact animals.
The sheep in the catch-pens are not taken as they come, but are carefully picked by the penmates right through. A glance at the back is sufficient to decide which of the penned animals will cut best. The lightest and thinnest-woolled sheep are always grabbed, providing they are clean, and a desperate race ensues when it comes to the last two in the pen. This enclosure is not refilled until the last sheep, called the cobbler, is caught, and each of the mates shows his generosity by trying hard to let go first, so as to leave him for the other. It does not follow that when a slow and a fast shearer are penmates the former will get all the cobblers; he can shear as a stiff horse races—only he sprints when the third last is caught. There is also hard cutting among greedy persons for a bell sheep (the one caught just as the bell is about to ring off). It is against the rules to lay hands on a sheep after the bell has rung to knock off, but the men time themselves to a minute, and put on an extra spurt to beat the bell. By this means they shear many sheep in smoke-o and mealtimes, while the majority of blades are idle.
Every shed in the country, one might say, has had its squabbles over the wetness or non-wetness of sheep. No shearer cares to handle wet sheep—except near the cut-out, when he wants to finish and get to another shed. It is often an excellent excuse for a camp in the hut, when the work has been hard, or broken weather has caused an outbreak of that epidemic known as tired feeling. If there has been a slight shower the previous day or night, they go to work in the morning with speculations as to the condition of the wool. One or two sheep are shorn, and the verdict is "wet." The manager feels the sheep in the pens, and votes "dry," and there's a wrangle.
The dampness or otherwise of wool is not easy to judge on a sheep's back, or when it is freshly cut. A moist atmosphere gives a clammy, wettish feeling to yolky wool. In one shed the classer took a piece of wool from an alleged wet fleece and a piece from the bins, shorn the day before, and asked the rep. which was the wet one. He tested both, and picked the one that came from the bins. At another shed, when a shower of rain had damped things a little during the night, the manager, having a shrewd idea as to the temper of his team, hurried down early in the morning and let out the sheep that had been penned overnight, filling their places with damp sheep from the yard. The men shore them till breakfast-time without protest. The pens were cut out in the second run; then the dry sheep were put in. Each man shore one and each man proclaimed his fleece wet. One fellow asserted that his particular hogget was sopping, and he'd be pick-axed if he was going to continue on sheep like that, to get rheumatism and other abominable complaints for the sake of a few bob. The sheep were turned out, and they remained out for two days. There was no dampness about them when they came back.
While the work is in full swing it is one of the principal sights of the district, and the board is often graced with the presence of ladies from town, their gay dresses contrasting markedly with the rough and rugged surroundings. The sheds attract visitors even from towns that have grown up within a stone's-throw of them, who find much to interest them in the various operations going on. In many parts it takes the place of the annual shows of thickly-populated centres. The board is narrow. There is barely room for the skirts to pass along without brushing against the long row of stooping shearers; and their presence interferes with the pickers-up, who have no time for dallying, but have to whip up the fleeces and run, and many a muttered commentary is passed on them in consequence. The shearers resent their presence, and try desperately to hide their bare feet, or bag moccasins, and the gaps in their shearing togs, any kind of clothing being worn at the greasy work on the board. They are not seen to the best advantage, and they don't like it, especially those who "act the swell" in town. They are covered with grease and blood, and reeking with perspiration. Particularly unpleasant is it to the man by whom they happen to stand, criticising the cut and his operations generally, and saying "Poor thing!" when the nervously-held blades nip the skin. Some hard case is bound to "throw-off" at him at such times, and he sees apoplectic faces both sides of him. He takes off more skin, and the man-over-the-board remarks, "I'd leave him enough skin to start another coat with, Tom," or, when the tar-boy is waiting assiduously on the nervous person, "Best way would be to dip that sheep in the tarpot, Jack." The ladies laugh merrily, and say "Poor thing!" with emphasis, while they go away with the idea that "Tom" is the worst shearer in that shed, though, in reality, he may be one of the best. A chip at such a time is poignant in its effect, and the victim feels fit to drop through the floor. Afterwards he is chaffed unmercifully by his mates, and the board becomes uproarious with laughter.
Talking of this reminds me of a youthful picker-up in a backblock shed who was an excellent mimic. When occasion offered he would walk slowly and heavily down the board, and stopping opposite one who was cutting hard for a tally, say, in imitation of the man-over-the-board, "That tomahawking won't do. You'll have to shear better than that, M'Nab." M'Nab's shears would give a nervous jump with the shock, and he would commence with some humble apology or explanation, when his eye would suddenly alight on his tormentor's boots. The next instant there would be a hurry-scurry up the board, and the wild scamper of a released sheep, with half a fleece hanging off it, among the men, and wild yells, laughter, and angry protestations along the stands. The mimic was mostly cornered in the hut at night, when he would have to pay forfeit of some kind. This did not trouble him, as the wags of the shed secretly recouped him for any loss.
A good captain has no trouble with his men. He may "chip" them often, but while his chips are effective, they leave no bitterness. For instance: "You needn't be afraid to take the stockings off them. Jack" (referring to the leg wool); "there's no snakes about here."
The work in and about the shed is under sectional heads. The man-over-the-board, for instance, merely superintends the actual shearing and keeps time. Occasionally he may brand a few bales as they come from the press. The wool-classer has charge of the men at the tables, such as the wool-rollers, who skirt, divide, and roll the fleeces as they are thrown out by the pickers-up; the piece-pickers, who sort out the first and second pieces, stains, dags, and locks. He also keeps an eye to the pressers as they fill the press-boxes from the bins. These classers hail generally from the metropolis, travelling thousands of miles in a season, going from shed to shed, classing the clips at a pound per thousand fleeces, and very often taking wool-scouring contracts as well. There are plenty of good classers among bush workers, who class the clips at a few stations in the neighbourhood where they are known, and take any other work offering between shearing, including boundary-riding, tank-sinking, and fencing. The mustering and drafting are usually under the supervision of the manager himself, or his station overseer. In machine-sheds there is an extra boss ("boss" is the common term applied to any man who is over other men), the expert who has charge of the machinery.
On an ordinary single board there are two pickers-up, one to each half. They are smart youths, and often command men's pay. They are ever darting to and fro, picking up the belly wool, to prevent it mixing with the fleeces, and throwing it into bales, which are hung in convenient positions along by the side of the board, sweeping the stands as soon as a sheep is let go and while another is being caught, and picking up the fleeces and throwing them out on the table. The latter is done quickly and dexterously. It is so picked up that with a single light throw it spreads right out over the table like a blanket, not a wrinkle or turned-over corner showing, and without severing any portion of it. A bad picker-up makes double work for the men at the table, in straightening out fleeces and lapping breaks. When the fleeces are falling rapidly along the board, or when several let go simultaneously to the cry of "Wool away!" these youths are kept on the run, their canvas shoes or big moccasins making much "wop-wop" (one of their pet designations) as they bound to and fro. Besides keeping the stands clear of wool, they attend to the calls for tar. The pots stand in juxtaposition, each containing tar or sheep-dip, and a stick with a piece of rag or wool bunched on the end of it. Where the Wolseley clippers are used the tar-boy's services are seldom required. Only novices and very clumsy hands tear the skin with these nicely-adjusted implements. The pickers-up are under everybody's thumb. They are ordered about by the man-over-the-board, and the moment they cross out of his kingdom to the wool tables they are subject to the ruling of the classer. Then they are hustled by the shearers, have to clean up when everybody else has left off, and carry out the locks and bellies to the press.
Australia owes much to the prospector for the advance of inland settlement and the placing of many of her notable towns. Early squatters figured largely in the exploration and opening up of wild and hitherto unknown regions; but the prospector and his kin had led the way, and in some instances had gone days and weeks of travel beyond the stockman's farthest point. We have little or no record of these exploits, for the gold-hunter is not the sort of person who wants the limelight kept on him and the public following his movements; but old diggers tell of lonely wanderings far out into mountain gorges and along hills and creeks and gullies where no white man had ever been. Here and there traces of these prospecting tours remained for years, but mostly they were obliterated or unnoticed when the shepherd pushed out with his flocks; in some cases the first knowledge was received from the blacks, who told of white men digging for yellow metal long before there was any thought of settlement in that part of the country, whence they had come and whither they had gone, or where they had "tumbled down."
Some of the best goldfields were discovered by blacks and shepherds, the former without knowing the metal had any value, the latter, perhaps, after prospectors had been many times over the scene. In Westralia a miner's track passed close by a rich quartz outcrop, and though that track went a hundred miles or more farther out, and perhaps thousands of miners passed to and fro, often camping alongside that partly-exposed wealth, nobody noticed it, and it was only discovered accidentally long, long afterwards. Again, how many men had climbed over the bleak and stony regions of Broken Hill before the world's greatest silver-mine was hit upon by Charles Rasp, a boundary-rider. They were riding two hundred miles farther north in the quest of gold in what was then called Death's Corner—the droughty, dust-ridden Mount Browne. Even that was found by two horsemen who were bound still farther out. They stopped to get a drink on a flat just after rain, and while drinking saw specks of gold in the clear water and glittering in the washed earth.
There are also many lost reefs, and many rich alluvial deposits dropped upon accidentally, which the finders could never again locate. A well-authenticated story is told of some surveyors' men who dug up what were supposed to be huge lumps of brass. They did not carry any of it away, but long afterwards, having learnt something about gold in the meantime, and realised that their brass was worth an independence, they made many but fruitless efforts to rediscover the treasure-trove. There is little in the experiences of man that can compare with the bitter chagrin of one who has mislaid his goldmine. A man may make several fortunes in a lifetime, and go through them all like water through a sieve, and die poor as a Sydney 'bus horse; still, it wouldn't worry him half as much as a bad mother-in-law; but the ghost of that wealth which his waking eyes have seen, and which is his, and his only, if he can find the spot again, will walk with him and sleep with him through the rest of his days.
The prospector is a sturdy, independent man, guided only by the auriferous aspect of the country, daring alike the desert and the mountain fastness, making his home temporarily, and plying his pick and shovel where the earth promises to give up something of its hoarded treasures. He is equipped with tools, tent, and plenty of provisions, and has two or three horses for shifting about. He may be here to-day and a hundred miles away in a week's time. Therefore no search parties go out for him if he does not come back in a reasonable time; nobody bothers if he never comes back. He may die in his tent or perish on a dry stage, and none know until some one, long after, perhaps, chances to come upon his bleaching skeleton. Many have been so found, their rusted tools only telling their avocation; and they have been buried in the lonely wilds, their names unknown.
Domiciled far from the madding crowd, shut in by frowning hills, hidden in deep glens and gullies, amid the silence of range and mountain, the fascinating pursuit of the glittering speck keeps him from feeling lonely. He scarcely gives a thought to the solitude of his environment. Only when his quest has long been in vain, his supplies are short, and his clothes are worn does the canker-worm of melancholy creep into his heart, as the great brooding night comes upon him sitting over his solitary fire. Then the howls of the dingoes and the cries of the night-birds call back the ghosts of other years and make him wish again for the joys of home.
The old diggers were a venturesome lot—whence came our hardy, gritty, self-reliant bush-men. That irresistible magnet, gold, attracting alike the kid-gloved and the horny-handed, had drawn the strong and adventurous from all parts of the civilised world, a mixture of many nations that is slowly blending into a race peculiarly Australian. They chanced the blacks and all the perils of an uninhabited bush of a land unknown. There is little, not excepting fever, blight, thirst, and hunger, that will stop the peregrinating digger in his hurrying, feverish search for gold.
It is a good life, a happy life, though perhaps one of the hardest that can be lived. The digger gives little attention to personal comfort, and is hardly ever housed in anything more substantial than a light tent. Fossickers, who settle on what they term "played-out fields," build more lasting homes; and, of course, the thousands of miners who find employment in the big permanent mines, as Mount Morgan and Bendigo, have all the conveniences of a comfortable town residence. But these are altogether apart from the wandering digger and prospector, the pioneers of the fields, who are often for weeks and months cut off from all intercourse with the rest of their kind, and wholly dependent on themselves for everything; such men carried pick and shovel over trackless hills and flats where fine towns like Ballarat, Stawell, and Ararat are now standing as a result of their stout-heartedness and enterprise. These were among the earliest discovered fields. Tents still gleam whitely along flat and hill around those towns, the train runs through miles of country that is literally honeycombed with miners' shafts. Pick your tent at random, and smoke an evening pipe there, and you will hear enough yarns of the old days to fill a book—especially from the greybeards who saw the exciting whirl of early rushes, and who have flitted like restless butterflies from place to place over nearly all Australia since, and drifted back, poor as crows, after handling many fortunes, to make their last home on the old historic fields. They are all Eureka veterans, of course. When one takes into account all the survivors of that shindy who are still surviving, he is inclined to doubt the accuracy of Peter Lalor's war-office statistics; but it would be rude to doubt the old veteran.
Bendigo is a mammoth that has held its head up since the discovery of gold—a mine probably unequalled in the world's history. In 1903 it yielded seven tons of gold, after being worked continuously for fifty-three years. Though the field covers only a few hundred acres of ground, during that time it produced over £70,000,000 worth of gold. Here, too, we find the deepest shafts—between four thousand and five thousand feet. The heat is sometimes so great at these depths that the men work almost naked under a spray of water. At times, instead of a spray, blocks of ice are lowered to keep down the temperature.
Nothing attracts like gold, and one lucky swing of a digger's pick may cause a mushroom town to spring up in the wilderness in a night. Progress is then rapid, and if the field peters out, the non-diggers seem to get along well enough. Sometimes the place drops back to the position of a wayside pub and store, but not often.
Eurowie, above Broken Hill, is a cluster of mud and stone walls that was once a lively little township. It was my first experience of an abandoned town, and passing through it in the early morning, after being rocked about in a coach all night, I thought it was a melancholy spectacle. In this instance the permanent mines of Broken Hill had drawn the population.
A prospector "striking it lucky" nowadays can rejoice to his heart's content. I struck a rejoicing camp one afternoon on the Solferino Road. A red shirt, blue blanket, and a white sheet were stuck up on poles, proudly representing the old-song tricolour—red, white, and blue. Bottles, pannikins, and the remains of a banquet were strewn about, but the miners were too "happy" to give reliable information. That sort of thing wouldn't do in the old days, nor would it be safe in lonely places now. Experienced diggers usually "crack hard-up," and the big find is only reported when the responsibility has been passed on to the bank, perhaps not till long after that. Sensations of this sort bring crowds about the workings, and diggers don't like to be watched, especially as there is always a sprinkling of that undesirable class following the rushes who prefer to profit by the toil of others, either in direct spoliation or jumping, rather than share the hard work and disappointments of the prospector.
In West Australia it was customary for gold-bearers to plant their pile on the road if they suspected an ambuscade, or had reason to believe they would be followed in the night, or a breakdown happened, or want of water or some other cause made it inconvenient to go right through with the precious metal. A hole resembling a grave would be dug by the roadside and heaped up; perhaps it would be railed in—certainly it would have a cross, and some such inscription as this:—
BILL SMITH, Prospector.
The passing traveller, reading that, would mutter, "Poor fellow!" and pass on. A good many Bill Smiths died that way on West Australian tracks. When Sam Napier dug up the Blanch Barkly nugget at the Kingower diggings (Victoria) in 1857 he and his brother took it out secretly and buried it at midnight in a deep hole sunk in the middle of the tent. They considered that their lives depended on keeping the matter quiet, and for three months they left it there, working meanwhile at the claim. It was twenty-eight inches long by ten inches wide, and from half to three-quarters of an inch thick, weighing 1,743 oz. 13 dwt., and was valued at £7,000. Finally they took it to Melbourne alone in a one-horse cart, and armed with a shotgun and a revolver. Subsequently it was shipped to England and smelted. Napier, after being lionised in London, received by the Queen and Prince of Wales, and becoming a Member of Parliament in Canada, dropped into the ranks of the back-woodsmen, and died a lonely death at a lumber camp's supply depot in the wilds of Ontario. The body was found days afterwards sitting at a table, and partly eaten by rats. This occurred somewhere about the end of 1902.
Among the most important nuggets found during the golden area may be mentioned the Welcome Stranger and the Sarah Sands, the respective weights being 2,268 oz. 10 dwt. 14 gr. and 2,796 oz. The Welcome Stranger was found at Moliagul (Victoria) on February 9, 1869, by John Deacon and Richard Gates, who sold it for £9,600. In November of the same year a specimen weighing 350 lb., two-thirds pure gold, was found near Braidwood, New South Wales.
The Welcome Nugget, which weighed 2,169 oz., and was valued at £9,325, was found by two new chum sailors at Bakery Hill, Ballarat, in 1858. Beyers and Holterman's slab, cut out of a reef at Hawkin's Hill, was worth £29,600. It was 4 feet 9 inches long, 3 feet 3 inches wide, with an average thickness of 4 inches. Many huge cakes, which looked well in jewellers' windows in the palmy days when nuggets were "fashionable," were made at the smelters'. A digger named Krohman obtained a nice lump of 24,879 oz. of gold from 466½ tons of quartz.
It is a lamentable fact that very few of the numerous diggers who discovered big nuggets, or otherwise made sensational finds, were benefited to any extent by their good fortune. A few thrifty ones made good use of their suddenly-acquired wealth, but the majority appear to die poor, or are hard up within a few years after having handled thousands. Rich to-day and poor to-morrow, easily got and quickly spent, summed up the devil-may-care diggers when gold was more plentiful than it is now. Louis Michel, who first discovered gold in Victoria (a few weeks after Hargreaves reported the find at Bathurst, New South Wales, in 1851), was a wealthy man when he gave up digging at Ballarat for an hotel business. He made another fortune over the bar, his takings often reaching as high as £20 before breakfast. He lost it all, and died (1904) a poor man. Louis Beyers (Holterman's mate) died at Morgan's Goldfield (West Australia) in June, 1910. A weary old man he was then, straining his dim eyes to the last for "a bit of the colour." I have myself followed the lead with old Bendigonians on a fossickers' field who had made enough money to last me half a dozen lifetimes (on the basis of what I can make fossicking in an ink-bottle), yet found it hard now to pay a monthly bill of £2 at the store. But they don't worry over it. I never met one who showed any keen regret that he had not taken care of his pile when he had it. While he still can pan off a few specks he seems contented. But don't take him away from the diggings. Let him live and die on the alluring vein of gold. His only bitter memory, as before mentioned, is the fact of his having narrowly missed a big find, or mislaid one that he had found. Had he succeeded there, and become a millionaire in a week, and a pauper again in a month, he would be comparatively a happy person.
Most miners who have followed the calling for years can look back on some big mine or recall some lucky hit that they had been within a pickthrust of hitting themselves. Many a shaft that had been abandoned as a duffer has turned up trumps after all. A digger told me that he went into a deep shaft on a Victorian field and discovered a nugget nearly as big as his head sticking out of the side where the sinkers had left off work. Rain had washed the dirt off the face of it and left it glittering. Those who sank the shaft had worked there for weeks, and scarcely got a colour for their trouble. Others have gone into abandoned shafts, and after carrying them down perhaps hundreds of feet farther bottomed on good gold. Such experiences were common on the early Victorian fields before deep sinking was attempted.
The discovery of Mount Morgan is ascribed to the man after whom it is named, but old residents in the locality give the credit to William McKinlay. The latter's widow said one day to a local pressman: "We missed being possessors of the mountain, but why should my dead husband not have the credit of being the discoverer of Mount Morgan?" William McKinlay was a stockman on Culliungal Station from 1861, and frequently prospected along the Dee and on Mundic Creek. He first found gold at Mount Morgan in 1877, but delayed taking it up on account of the ironstone, against which there was then a strong prejudice amongst miners, and the matter was for a long time a family secret. Eventually a relative let the cat out of the bag, and Morgan at once became a world-wide celebrity.
It may be mentioned that the first discovery of gold, for which Hargreaves' name is honoured, was disputed by George Hunt, of Merrylands, New South Wales, who passed out in February, 1902. He first prospected around Lewis Ponds, near Bathurst, and washed 17 dwt. of gold on February 5, 1851—his birthday. He met Hargreaves shortly afterwards, and it was some days subsequently, according to his version, that the Californian made his first find. While Hunt walked to Orange for rations Hargreaves went into Sydney and reported the discovery of gold. He received a Government reward of £10,000 in 1853, and on January 1, 1877, he was granted an annuity of £250 for life. He died in 1891. Hunt worked on the diggings without, as he put it, making anything of a splash. He was a hardy old fellow, and in his youth had served in the Royal Engineers. On one occasion, when seventy-nine years of age, he carried his swag from Orange to Sydney (192 miles) in a fortnight.
I met an old digger, known as "Shovelling Archie," on the Boyne River, Queensland, who had been one of the pioneers on the Gympie and Palmer River diggings. What the prospectors faced in those regions may be gauged from the fact that in the subsequent rush from settled parts the ways were literally lined with human bones. Scores went under to fever and ague, many got bushed and perished, and untold numbers were murdered by blacks. It was good country for the aborigine; he waxed fat and strong and numerous, and, being an extremely hostile person, was worthy of first place in a long category of risks. Chinese, who jogged to the fields in droves, were his special mark. Archie had earned an independence several times over on those rushes; he had gambled with the rest, when a common stake at cards was a match-boxful of gold; and when I saw him he was groom and gardener on a station at fifteen shillings a week. He still played cards at times, but the stake was only a box of matches, and he "whipped the cat" when he lost that. He was looking forward to the time when he should have enough money saved up (at fifteen shillings a week) to equip him for a six months' prospecting expedition. I think he must have been nearly seventy years of age then.
It was not uncommon to see diggers lighting their pipes with five-pound notes in the Roaring Fifties. This has been done also in later times, not alone by purse-proud diggers, but by flash station hands. I have seen it done more than once in a public-house bar, but in such cases the burning was mostly trickery, the note being first treated with spirit. A successful prospector, while on his way from Albany to Adelaide, amused himself by throwing sovereigns at a gull hovering astern. Somewhere about a hundred coins had plunked into the sea when the exasperated skipper rushed him and had him locked up for safety. Five months later the Sovereign Fool bolted back to West Australia, leaving a destitute wife behind him, and soon afterwards he was seen washing up dishes in a coffee-stall.
Speaking of the prodigality of diggers brings me to the yarn of the golden horseshoes. The affair was generally credited to John Johnson, who pegged out for the last time at Kymoola, near Stanthorpe (Queensland), about the end of 1902. Johnson, however, was merely one of many diggers who contributed the gold from which the shoes were made. He was known as "the rich digger of Beechworth," from the fact that he struck a very rich claim in the bed of Woolshed Creek, and, after getting a quantity of gold from it, employed fifty men to strip and raise wash-dirt at £9 per week each, which was the rate of wages then ruling for shovelmen. Besides these, he paid day sluicers £12 per week and night sluicers £15 per week, his wages bill amounting altogether to about £500 per week. After taking about £60,000 clear from the claim, he handed it over to twenty-five of his employees, who worked it out with good results. Johnson went into tin-mining in the Stanthorpe district in 1872, and followed various mining pursuits there until his death, thirty years later, expending pretty well the whole of his fortune in search of the rich lead that never materialised.
About the beginning of 1856, when Beechworth was wallowing in wealth, the first travelling show, known as Tinker Brown's Circus, arrived on the field, and it was announced that a piebald trick horse, called Castor, would appear in the ring shod with gold. During the performance, however, Raynor, the ring master, stated that through an unforeseen circumstance the shoes had not been put on, but as a guarantee of good faith they were handed round the ring for inspection. The shoes weighed 32 oz. About this time the first election for the Ovens took place, and a woolshed storekeeper, named Cameron, was elected. He being the diggers' nominee, in commemoration of the event the shoes were then tacked on the piebald, and the new member rode him through Beechworth town and back, the shoes losing three ounces in weight on the journey.
Upon the return of Cameron, Johnson shouted twelve dozen of champagne, which, at twenty shillings a bottle, cost him £144. The heads were knocked off the bottles, the champagne poured into buckets, and served out to the electors in pint pots. This was but one of the many big champagne shouts that night, one of hundreds in that golden era when nuggets and sovereigns went over the hotel bars in glittering streams.
There is always hope for the gold-digger, always the fascinating prospect of speedy affluence. Even the ragged fossicker, permanently cooped in a miserable little humpy, is buoyed up by the digger's dream, living in hopes, till his last claim is pegged out in Necropolis.
"It's short commons just now," said one to me at Nanango; "but a single thrust of the pick to-morrow may give me a fortune. That's the best o' diggin'. You've got the possible of a big lift every day of your life—which you never have workin' for wages. You own the marvellous wealth that's in the earth, if you can find it. An' big junks of it have been found thousands o' times over. Why not again? Why not me? There was Bill Brown," he went on, "used to camp under the rise there—livin' on the smell of an oil rag for years. An' where is he now? Keepin' a pub and store on the Burdekin. Doin' well! An' how did he strike it lucky? He was sittin' under a tree, broodin' over his troubles an' his poverty an' playing mumbly-peg in an idle sort o' way, when th' point o' th' knife hit a seventy-ounce slug. Just about an inch below the surface it was—an' not another anywhere about. Seven 'und'ed men proved that by tearin' up the neighbourhood. They only got tired. That's wot made me take to mumbly-peg. Ken play any man in the district now. Got into the habit so I can't scarce sit down a minute without playin'. Ain't ever hit anything valuable, though."
Unlike the prospector, who explores new country and is the precursor of nearly all rushes, the fossicker comes in at the tail end, remaining on the diggings when the more ambitious miners have adjudged the place worked out, and have passed on to better-paying quarters. They come to pick the bones of the torn-up field as crows flock to a carcass that drovers have butchered on the road. There is always a big percentage of old men among them, and a good sprinkling of Chinese. These old men have probably been the pioneers of many a field; have been hardy, vigorous, eager miners in the forefront of many a rush, and followed the illusive glamour of gold from the Werriwee to the Cloncurry, from Tambaroora to Coolgardie, but at last dropped out of the ranks, and settled on the "poor man's diggings," there to potter about for the rest of their days.
There are others who fossick all over the country, never making a home, but ever moving on from place to place, carrying a limited kit of light tools. After a long run of bad luck, one of these will take a job for a while on a station to earn clothes. His swag contains many little parcels of stones and gems, carefully tied up in pieces of rag in pockets and old socks. He displays them on the road when you meet him, and talks grandly of big mines he is going to astonish you with as soon as the man of faith and capital to back him materialises. In a general way he is known as a prospector, and likes to call himself such; but a man who merely hen-scratches about the country, and, being mostly a hatter, hasn't the means or ability to sink a shaft deeper than shovel-throw—and only an odd one has tools to do that—is a rather superficial sort of prospector. Fossicker fits him better, notwithstanding he makes at times some sensational finds, as when he strikes the outcrop of a big reef, or hits on a shallow corner of a rich alluvial flat.
The true prospector is accoutred with a somewhat cumbersome plant for deep sinking, tents, cooking utensils, &c., and at times spends weeks putting down a single shaft; but whether he bottoms a duffer or strikes it rich doesn't disturb his equanimity much, for he is generally supported by tributors, often by a syndicate of working men, and, after he has descended a certain depth, by Government. I once spent a little while with two prospectors who were sinking on the side of a stony ridge between Leyburn and Texas, Queensland. These men had been supported for two years by four station hands. Though nothing payable had been struck during that time, the latter were still daily expecting the long-delayed summons to throw up their billets and go mining. Scores of men have bettered themselves by this kind of enterprise.
The Albert Goldfield, better known as Mount Browne, is a good example of the fossicker's happy hunting-ground. It is dotted with conical piles of gibbers, and surrounded by treeless, stony hills, resembling the kopjes of South Africa. I sampled it in 1896. I struck gold the second day, and at the end of a fortnight I had amassed the neat little sum of £250. I had not exhausted the field. There was still a lot of gold there. But I wasn't of an avaricious nature. I was satisfied. I left the rest for the poor fossickers, and departed for new fields and pastures fresh.
A stranger riding or driving into the township of Tilbooburra at this time ran a risk of breaking his neck through the broken ground. Yawning holes and earth heaps menaced him on all sides, reaching to the backyards of the hotels; the one quarter-mile street ended abruptly on a honeycombed flat, across which ran a zigzag path, in places only a foot wide, and shaving private soakage holes. A man had to be sober to walk that street at night or he was likely to fall off it.
Hidden in all manner of nooks and corners among the piles of gibbers were some of the most primitive and peculiar habitations to be found anywhere in the Commonwealth. Every advantage was taken of depressions, pockets, and other adaptable formations in the rock heaps; so that it often happened that two or three of the four walls of a house consisted of rough rock in irregular position as Nature placed them, being roofed over with stones, tin, iron, or tarpaulin. Family residences were built of canvas or hessian, a fireplace made of all shaped stones and pug filling one end, and the whole surrounded with a brush wall to break the wind. Often the sleeping-room was merely a large tent, sheltered in among the rocks, with a living-room in front built of bushes. Every man was his own architect and builder. Many houses were built with no other tools than a crowbar, shovel, and tomahawk.
The majority of the fossickers only got sufficient gold for a bare living. At lamb-marking and shearing-time many of them were glad of the change afforded for a few weeks on the stations. In the meantime, in the case of married men, the women practically kept themselves and children by fossicking. Some of these women could use the pick and shovel and the cradle, and pan off and clean gold, as well as any miner. One man, who was a blacksmith by trade, and frequently went out on the stations to "change his luck," credited his wife with being a better miner than himself, and said that she could strike a run of gold in half the time that it would take him to find it. Like most old miners, he believed that luck favoured particular persons, while it persistently refused to assimilate with others. You will hear one say, "My luck is dead out," or "I have had rotten luck," and he will probably go and get dead drunk, or do something equally foolish, to break the spell. John Chinaman, when his luck persists in running the wrong way, goes home and wallops his joss; and between the fetish of John Chinaman and that of the old fossicker there does not seem to be much difference.
The fossicker mostly worked in proximity to his home. Occasionally when the ground petered out he took his pick and shovel and went away among the hills. Here he fossicked about till he struck a likely spot; then he filled his billy or handkerchief or his hat with wash-dirt, and carried it home to try it. If the prospect was good, he went to work in earnest, bringing the dirt to water in a barrow, or in two kerosene-tins, on a yoke across his shoulders. Dirt was carried long distances in this way. Each man had his own soakage, but soakages were not to be had anywhere. It was common to see two holes sunk side by side, and while a good supply of water was obtainable from one the other was dry. Again, one soakage would contain good drinking water, another within arm's length of it would be quite brackish. A good soakage was the fossicker's principal asset.
Some, instead of carrying the dirt to the soakage, made a little dam at the claim, where puddling tubs and cradle were fixed, and in various ways conveyed water to it. Some carried it in cans, others filled a cask, and rolled it along as one would a barrel of beer. A few had a small iron axle screwed on to each end of the cask, to which shafts were fixed, and the cask was pulled along like a hand roller. Strolling about among the rock cones one would meet here a team of youngsters drawing one of these casks of water to "father's claim," and there a team of goats similarly engaged, or drawing a load of wood on a cart, made out of a gin-case and the wheels of a perambulator.
The big man among the gold-seekers there was the puddler. He owned horses, drays, a dam, and a jinny-wheel. Though the claim and the dam might be a mile apart, the horses were trained to bring in the loads of dirt and take back the empty drays alone. One which had the Government stroke badly was accompanied to and fro by a steady dog, who would give him a nip on the heel when his "tired feeling" became too pronounced. When the dams dried up the puddlers joined the fossickers and dry-blowers. The drier the weather the better for the latter, for they only required a little water for cleaning the gold, which was amply supplied by a small soakage. Those who did not have machines did their dry-blowing with two dishes, pouring the earth from one into the other in a gentle wind. This was slow work, each dishful requiring several operations to reduce it. One needed strong arms and an inexhaustible stock of patience.
A good downfall of rain brought out the speckers. The little nippers were the best at specking. They roamed the hills and flats, following every gully, rut, and watercourse with eyes ever searching the wet ground for a glittering speck, which was eagerly transferred to a small bottle half filled with water. All classes participated, and the children of the business people made good pocket-money by this means. To the untrained eye specks are not always what they seem. I did my first mining under the directorship of an old Bendigonian, and one day I sunk a shaft that fairly scintillated with specks. I had often read of shafts on rich fields that glittered like a jeweller's shop. This was evidently one of them. I stood and admired it. I made a rough mental calculation of the wealth around me, and thought what I would buy with it. I bought several cattle stations and a couple of townships in five minutes to keep up with my income. Then I rushed over to the mining director with the good news. He rubbed his nose with a grimy finger, and smiled broadly.
"Glitters all round, you say?"
"Fr'm top to bottom?"
He shook his head slowly.
"Fool's gold, boy! Fool's gold!"
"What's fool's gold?"
He went across to the hole, his face beaming all the time. He was an old man, who had often laughed at the new chums fifty years ago. He brought a cynical eye to bear on the glitter as he moved round, but didn't say anything. I thought he looked puzzled. My hopes revived. I pointed to a big glittering, sparkling flake near the bottom. He slid down and picked it out. He placed it carefully in the palm of one hand, and crushed it to powder with the thumb of the other hand. He picked out some more of the jewellery, and in the same cold, methodical way crumbled my castles to dust. Then he scooped up a shovelful of wash-dirt from the bottom, carried it to the water, and having washed and panned it off, showed a few bright specks in his hand. These he rubbed and rubbed, spat on, and rubbed again, without making any impression on them, except to impart a brighter shine.
"You can't crumble that, boy," he concluded. "That's the stuff you're lookin' for—that's the key to all th' pleasures of earth—th' key that will unlock anything but the gates of heaven."
No utensil is so generally used in the bush as the billy-can; none is more widely distributed, none better known in Australia. It is cheap, light, useful, and a burden to no man. It goes with every traveller, it figures in comedy and tragedy, and has been the repository of the last words of many a perished swagman. Often it is found with the grim message scratched on the bottom, beside the dead owner.
Billy is famous. Story-writers and poets have immortalised him; he figures proudly in a hundred tales, in a thousand poems.
He seems to have originated on the Victorian goldfields. The early miners consumed great quantities of French tinned soup, called bouilli; and the empty bouilli-cans were used for the same purposes as are now the specially made "billy-cans." Quart-pots, jackshays, pannikins, and other relatives followed as a matter of course.
For a horseman or cyclist on a short journey, who has no cooking to do, the quart-pot is the handier. But where there is one quart-pot in the bush there are ten billy-cans. The billy is carried in all manner of hands—black, white, yellow, and brindle. Shearers, miners, drovers, knockabouts, and even the poorest deadbeats on the track, carry it a-swing at their sides. It is swung under wagons, bullock-drays, hawkers' vans—every kind of vehicle that traverses the bush; and it jingles a tune to the Afghan from the back of his camel. The dainty housewife in town not infrequently sets it on her polished stove, and it often takes the place of the kettle in the cooky's home. Go into any aboriginal camp in the bush, and you will see billy-cans there, but seldom any other utensils. All classes of people, whether city dwellers or backblockers, take it along with them when they go picnicking. There is scarcely a camp or hut in Australia without one, and some have a dozen. And what an array they would make if they were all stood in line! There would be a hundred miles of billy-cans! And the quarts and pannikins that are carried about would build a mountain.
Every traveller has a pannikin or two and one or two billies. Some have three—of varying sizes to fit one in the other. The tea-billy and meat-billy are the most common; the third is an auxiliary. Some swagmen have a special water-billy, carried in the hand, with a tightly-fitting bag drawn over it to keep it cool. The bag also prevents the footman's trousers being blackened from contact and the horseman's pack from being soiled. This is called a rugged billy.
A simple way of keeping liquid cool in a billy-can is to put the lid on upside down and fill it with water.
Billies are of all sizes—from one to six quarts. The most favoured are the two-quart for tea, and four-quart for meat; while the general all-round billy is the three-quart size. I have seen many a hard-up swagman with an improvised billy made from a fruit-tin, with a bit of fencing wire for handle. This is known as a "Whitely King," from the fact that the Secretary of the Pastoralists' Union, during a shearers' strike, sent out a band of non-unionists furnished with this kind of utensil. They are therefore despised by bushmen.
Most travellers are particular as to how they boil their billies, for carelessness means waste of time and injury to the billy. The old style was to put a fork at each side of the fire, with a pole across to hang the billy from. The tripod answered the same purpose. Another method was to put two logs closely together so that the billy would stand on them—which left very little room for the fire. Some used a long pole resting on a fork, with the small end over the fire and the butt weighted on the ground. In using this the traveller had to be careful to keep his blaze down, or the pole would burn through.
No such clumsy, time-wasting methods are employed to-day—except at fixed camps, where the forks and cross-piece are put up, and a chain or looped wire for hooks hung therefrom. The traveller places two small sticks on the ground with the ends in the fire, or rakes out a few coals and stands the billy on them, close to the fire. He doesn't build a fire round it or jam it against the wood. The new chum does that, and his billy has a bright, shiny glow. This is caused by hot, vapoury smoke, the result of leaving insufficient air-space, One notices, too, that the old hand fills his billy to the brim, while the inexperienced man often puts his billy to the fire only partially filled, and consequently the rim, being unprotected, is very soon burnt off. A half-filled billy should never be placed against a fire, but stood or hung over it. The old hand, again, lifts his quart from the fire, and can carry it a long distance, with two sticks thrust crosswise through the handle so that the ends grip the sides like a pair of tongs. It looks simple, but it requires practice. When he has a smoky fire he lays two sticks across the top of the can to keep out the smoke.
An old whaler was once camped on the Severn River, living on fish. He had only one billy. He first made his tea in it, which he poured into a pannikin, then boiled his fish in it. He also had a small block of wood the same size as the billy, on which he sat and smoked. One evening at dusk he came up from the river with a tomahawk in his hand, and making for what he took to be the block, stuck the tommy into it. A yell of dismay escaped the old fellow when he found he had driven it through the bottom of his billy. Yet, with a piece of calico through the gap, and the edges battered down, he used it for months after. Another member of the battling band found a rusty billy, half embedded in mud, at the edge of a waterhole. It was full of water, and on forcing the lid off, he found a fish, about a pound weight, scurrying around in it. It was shaped like a boomerang, and had undoubtedly got in through a small aperture in the lid when very young. That billy, probably, performed its last duty when it boiled its life-long prisoner.
Among some travellers billy-boiling takes the form of a competition. The man of experience, looking over an array of well-used billies, says: "I'll back my billy to boil first." Interest being thus awakened, the others then put fiery spurs to their own utensils, each waiting, with tea-bag in hand, for the first ripple. Of course, some are specially adapted for quick boiling, whilst others are "naturally slow." A man with a quick boiler is always ready to back it against any other. He understands it, and can judge its boiling-time to within a few seconds. An old billy will boil quicker than a new one. The water is also worth considering. River-water will boil quicker than rain-water, stagnant water quicker than running water, whilst water that has once been boiled and cooled will boil again quicker than any other.
Yet, there is many a tedious wait for the billy to boil, and rejoicing of hungry ones when it begins to bubble. The old diggers on Ballarat and Bendigo used to sing, "Oh, what would you do if the billy boiled over?" when it was time to make the tea. And what legends are wrapped around the billy! Yarns are always being told, and bush songs are always being sung around a million camp fires while the billy boils.
There is one thing about the inlander that favourably impresses itself upon those who have to look after a city's water supply, and that is his careful use of the liquid. If he sees a tap dripping in the street he will try to turn it off, because his teaching through life has been against waste of the wet element. The most hateful tasks of his boyhood were carrying water and carrying wood. The majority of inland youngsters have to go through that mill in some form or other, no matter whether they dwell in the solitude of the bush or in a town; and they are not always free in the more potential city—as Broken Hill.
Here the carrying is much diversified. The big silver city is set in a dust-blown region where there are no rivers or creeks. When the reservoir fails, water is conveyed by train from South Australia, and every afternoon crowds of women and children congregate at the station with buckets, tubs, and other vessels, while a few men mingle among them with casks and small tanks. The water is portioned out, and as the supply is seldom equal to the demand, there is much rushing and crushing and clatter of tinware as soon as the train slows up, and no little acrimony among poor old dames when the josting causes a drop to be spilt. There are few who don't hump water through the streets these days, and it is a sloppy, bustling station they hump it from. The gardens go to ruin, a bath is a luxury, clothes are worn much longer than usual, and it is nearly as cheap to have a glass of beer as a glass of water. In fact, that is not a rare excuse with some of the miners when they find the footpaths too narrow going home.
"Been economisin' with th' water. Mush save water, y'know. . . . 'Spensive."
In the bush every man has to tussle with the problem for himself. He is his own water and sewerage board. He is also something of a meteorologist, born of long study of atmospheric conditions and the habit of looking around him frequently for signs of rain. One of his pet indicators is the moon. He likes to see a "wet moon" come in—that is, when the moon has a hazy circle round it. The smoke from the chimney, the salt on the table, and the frog in the cask, are infallible barometers. He notes also the flight and cries of birds, the appearance of insects, and specially the conduct of ants. His rheumatic leg and his corns, too, warn him of approaching dampness, and cause him to notice more particularly the direction of the wind, and to watch the horizon for looming clouds. Standing out in the night, with the wind blowing in his face, he can smell the coming rain like a cow, and you see him hold his head back and sniff very much in the same manner as that docile quadruped.
Throughout the large areas drained by coastal rivers there is seldom a lack of water. Still, you don't get it in the kitchen by simply turning on a tap. Here and there a squattage home or a town house will have water laid on from square iron tanks standing on a high stage. These are sometimes filled by steam power; mostly they are filled by means of a hand-pump. In summer this water would pretty well scald a pig, and in winter it would freeze a frog. Thus it is necessary to have in addition an underground tank, bricked and cemented. Town people, who have not got this to tide them over dry times, purchase water at 6d. to 1s. a cask. The drier the weather the better for the water-carriers. It is their harvest-time.
At many selections you will see an iron tank in a cart or bullock-dray, drawn up alongside the house. There is no tap to the tank as a rule. When the women want water they climb on to the dray and dip the water out with a dipper, pouring it into a bucket on the ground. At the waterhole these tanks are filled with buckets, the process often requiring two men, one to dip up the water and the other to empty it. Some have a stage and a home-made pump.
Another feature of these places is the cask and slide with which young Hopeful, who is the wood and water "joey" on most selections, keeps the home supplied from the creek. Often the water for washing and cooking is drawn from a contiguous hole with the cask and slide, and the drinking supply conveyed long distances in drums on a pack-horse. This is emptied as required into canvas bags, mostly hung under the veranda. Under conditions such as these, a plunge bath in the creek or a swim in the water-hole—with a quiet horse as fun-contributor—is perforce superseded by more restricted methods of bathing. A common practice is to make a shower-bath with a kerosene-tin, which is run up and down on pulleys. A rough-and-ready shower is a tin with a perforated bottom, hung to a limb near the waterhole. While one stands under it, another pours the water in with a bucket. It is less of a deluge than when poured over one directly from the bucket. Some pour the water over themselves with a pannikin, or hold a colander over their heads to spray it, or use the watering-can. The latter is mother's method when shower-bathing the children.
On small mining fields I have seen men fill a cask and roll it along the ground as one would a barrel of beer. Others had a small iron axle screwed on to each end of the cask, to which shafts were affixed, and the cask was pulled along like a hand roller. Usually boys did the hauling, though occasionally the locomotive power was a horse or a team of goats. The low trolly forms a link between this style and the slide.
The whim and tip-buckets are common on sheep-runs, and the bucket and windlass where-ever wells are used. Windmills are everywhere; riding across the Darling Downs you may see twenty to thirty windmills at one time. On the rivers many other methods are adopted. Some have a force pump rigged at the water's edge. This requires some one on top to watch the receiver and yell out when it is full. A stout wire stretched tightly from the top of the bank to a post in the water is a labour-saving device much in use. Along the wire a bucket runs on a ring, being drawn up with a windlass. Many carry the water in two buckets, using a yoke across the shoulders or an iron hoop between the vessels. The latter is mostly used by women, upon whom much of this drudgery falls in busy times, especially in the rugged days of home-making. Walking inside the hoop, the buckets are kept away from the skirt, and the arms at the same time are relieved of the strain of holding them out. A thin piece of deal about three inches square floats in each bucket to keep the water from splashing. Sometimes mother and daughter take a big bucket between them on the potstick, or use the wash-tub for carrying. Water is not carried up for washing: the washing is carried down to the water.
Black gins are largely employed by bushwomen for washing and carrying water. They carry the buckets on their heads, and can climb steep banks, negotiate logs, and even stoop to pick up small objects from the ground without putting a hand to the bucket. I remember one old gin whom we used to employ every Saturday to fill a big water-butt from the river. She kept a nail on the wall-plate, and as each bucketful was poured in she made a mark level with the water-line. If, on returning with the next load, she found the tide low, she would fling the empty bucket from her, and there would be angry inquiries for "Missus." At such times Biddy would only complete her contract on the original price being; supplemented with a "tuck-out" or a smoke. One day I went to get a drink from the cask with a pannikin as Biddy was returning to the river. She happened to look back, and seeing me at the cask, dropped her bucket and ran up, yelling as though the house was on fire. She chased me through the place with a waddy, threatening to break my several kinds of neck, and had another angry altercation with the "Missus." Then she sat by the cask until I had gone, when she carefully marked the waterline again and resumed operations. Once the cask was full, however, we could splash it about as much as we liked; indeed, the sooner it was emptied the better pleased was Biddy.
When the rain begins to patter down, or as the storm-clouds come rolling up, in most country places there is a rush to put out the tubs and buckets to supplement the casks and galvanised tanks that stand at the back corners. The roof of the house is the catchment area, and spouting, made by folding strips of tin or by nailing two boards together, is run round to catch every drop that falls on it. Here Brown has often to hustle in the wet, stopping leaks in the spouting, and propping it up when strong winds twist it out of position. After a dry spell, if the cask has not been kept full, the staves are shrunken, and the water runs out as fast as it runs in. With a bag made into a hood over his head, an iron wedge in one hand and an axe in the other, he goes round and round it, tapping down the hoops and here and there caulking big leaks with pieces of rag. Even the milk-dishes and the dipper and the boiler are doing their share in catching the precious fluid. Rain-water is a desideratum everywhere. Consequently when a good downpour is anticipated the vessels are all emptied in readiness. Now and again Brown makes a mistake. Big black clouds and a general appearance of heavy rain induce him to tip over half a cask of river or dam water, so as not to have it mixed when he can have it all of the first quality. Then a mere sprinkle rewards him, and a yawning barrel gapes after the passing storm. The boys, who have to fill it up again, pass some stringent remarks about father at this juncture, and a vote of no confidence in him as a weather prophet is carried unanimously.
In the interior the waterbag is indispensable. It is an Australian invention, and there is nothing to beat it. Besides being convenient to carry, it keeps the water cool in hot weather. The travellers' bag is rarely seen in coastal parts, but out-back nearly every storekeeper stocks it. A squatter used to carry one that had a long tube-like bottle let in at the bottom, the mouth being hidden under a small flap. He had many a good swig of whisky out of that on the road, when onlookers thought he was drinking water. There are bags, too, that have a partition down the middle, with a neck at each top corner, so that one half may be filled with water and the other half with lemonade. When the thermometer has climbed over the century, there is nothing more delicious than a pull from each side of this bag. The only objection is that some travellers pull too much at one side, and then they lose their hats, or get "a touch of the sun"—or both.
Though lacking the attractions, variety of sights and entertainments, the festivities and general gaiety that the cities offer, Christmastide brings good cheer to the denizens of the ranges and forests, and is looked forward to and enjoyed in the humblest places.
It is a time when the scattered flocks foregather from far and wide under the old rooftree. There are innumerable homes from which many have gone out to battle with the world, as shearers, drovers, carriers, fencers, tank-sinkers, station hands, prospectors and miners, stockmen, and bush rouseabouts, leaving only the old couple, and probably one or two of the youngest members of the family. The boys may be working within easy reach, and they may be hundreds of miles away. In either case "mother" expects them home.
Preparations are made weeks beforehand; Willie and Jim and Bob are daily discussed, and surprises are planned for them. Their rooms are done up and readied, and the old paddock is made doubly secure for their horses, which, being strange, "are sure to try to make back." The chips and bones, leaves, and pieces of paper are raked up and burnt in little heaps; the garden is trimmed up, the house is painted or whitewashed outside, the steps and fireplace receive similar attention, and the inside walls are papered, if only with newspapers.
The sentiments and predilections of the old people in this respect are shared to a great extent by the young, whose thoughts turn now to home and kindred ties more than at any other time of the year, and some will bridge the gulf that lies between them in spite of all obstacles.
One Christmas Eve a girl who had been at service in Winton (Queensland) started by coach for Boulia, where her parents lived. There had been heavy rains on the way, and on reaching Caddie Creek it was found impossible to cross the flood by vehicle, and the horses were taken out. But the girl was determined not to turn back, and she was equally resolved not to remain on the bank. She won the sympathy of the driver and a male passenger by telling them that she had never missed a Christmas dinner at home, and she did not want to miss this one. The men then fastened a strap round their bodies, and, with the girl clinging to it between them, successfully negotiated a seventy yards' swim. At Middleton, some miles farther on, she swam another flooded creek on horseback, and, drenched and mud-covered, she eventually reached Boulia in time to participate in the all-important function.
One of the principal features of the time is the gay array of bushes that deck the veranda-posts of the houses. In towns men go round with drayloads of green bushes, selling them for sixpence or a shilling a bundle; but outside they are cut and dragged home by the children. A big armful is lashed to each post till the veranda is hidden behind a wall of greenery. Even the selector's hut, standing alone in a wilderness of trees, is annually decorated in this way, and the prospectors' camp, pitched where no one passes, and where the usual greetings are exchanged only between the two mates, sports an emerald cluster on the pole for "auld lang syne."
Another custom favoured by those who still cling to Old World associations is the hanging of the mistletoe from the centre of the ceiling. Any bush does for a mistletoe in Australia; but the shy young bushman seldom takes advantage of the privilege it gives him when some pretty little creature he admires stands defiantly under it. He knows nothing of the old traditions that enshrine the bough; in his home it is suspended mainly to minimise the annoyance caused by flies settling on the table.
More important than the mistletoe to him and his sister is the Christmas mail, which brings the pictorial annuals, seasonable presents, cards, and letters from far-off friends and relatives. The arrival of the mailman, jogging along lonely tracks, is at all times welcome, but now he comes under the halo of a bushified Santa Claus. The annuals are more appreciated by bush people than by city folk; the whole family will gather round, with heads clustered together, peering over one another's shoulders, while one turns the pages.
On the goldfields the miners take delight in surreptitiously introducing a few small nuggets into the plum-duff—and they do not go round the table after dinner collecting them as some women do the coins. The gold becomes the property of whoever finds it, and it is made into pins, rings, and brooches. This habit of salting the pudding induces a good deal of prospecting, and as the prospectors have to eat up the tailings, it is probably the reason that so many people don't feel very well after the Christmas gorge.
Hop-beer, ginger-beer, and honeymead are also made, and stored away in kegs and bottles. "Sugarbags" are plentiful in many parts of the bush, and a good nest or two is usually left for December, when the trees are felled and the bees robbed. The beer is made from the comb after the honey has been drained out of it. Sarsaparilla is another extensively-made drink, the vines growing plentifully among the ranges. The women and children are fond of these home-made drinks, but father is not always so enthusiastic.
A day or two before Christmas the wanderers return. First comes Jim, cantering up the track with a valise strapped in front of him and a smoke-cloud trailing behind, while the old folks and the little ones are watching with glad faces from the veranda. Towards sundown Bill appears on the hill in another direction, and comes jogging along quietly with a well-loaded pack-horse, and quart-pots, bells, and hobble-chains rattling and jingling to every stride. The children run shouting to meet him, and some ride back behind him and some perch on the pack. They help him to unsaddle and carry his pack-bags in; they take his tired horses to water, and lead them through the slip-rails, and let them go in the paddock with a gentle pat on the neck. The sun is down, perhaps, when Bob comes plodding slowly along through the trees, carrying his swag, and swinging a billy in one hand, while he shakes a little bush before his face with the other to keep the flies away.
"Poor old Bob!" says mother, "still walking!" The youngsters race down the road again, and they carry his billy and tucker-bag for him and hang on to his hands as though helping the tired traveller home. They all talk to him at once, their eyes dancing with excitement, telling him that Jim and Willie are home, and that Strawberry has a young calf and the speckly hen has ten chickens. Bob listens with a dry smile as he plods along, recalling when he, too, was interested in Strawberry and the hens. When he reaches the door the smile broadens, and he says, "Merry Christmas!" and throws his swag down against the wall. They crowd round him, wringing his hands till he feels tired, and ask him how he's been getting on.
"Orlright," says Bob simply.
Though Bob has "humped bluey" home, he has probably as many pound notes in his pockets as those who come in creaking saddles, and he feels well repaid for his long tramp and his many months of hard work and battling in the backblocks when he observes the pleased look on his mother's face as he hands her the bulk of his savings.
The brothers swop yarns till late at night, telling of their experiences and adventures by flood and field; and each has some curiosity to show, brought home as a token or keepsake from strange and far-off parts of the bush. The old home, which has so long been dull and quiet, now rings with merry laughter and glad voices, and when Bob does a jig in his clod-smashers the very roof shakes and the crockery rattles loudly on the dresser. There is an hour or two's dancing, maybe, to the strains of the violin. Then somebody goes off for the Jackson girls, and the Maloneys, and the Andersons, and old acquaintances are renewed—likewise the dancing.
On Christmas Eve the boys go out with guns for scrub turkeys, pigeons, and ducks. Often they spend the whole day shooting in the scrubs, and round the swamps and lagoons; and they come home well laden with game. All hands and the cook turn to after tea and pluck the birds. The bushman's table is very rarely without game at this time.
Christmas Day is quiet, and generally dull—a day of rest; but Boxing Day makes up for it with a quantum of sport and excitement. There are usually horse-races somewhere in the vicinity, or a cricket match between Wombat Hill and Emu Creek. A cricket match isn't very sensational, except when the ball lodges in the hollow spout of a tree or gets lost down a rabbit-burrow and has to be dug out. A kangaroo hunt is more exhilarating. A dozen girls and young men ride out in the morning, and when the game is sighted the whole cavalcade starts off at a gallop, with the dogs in the lead. The mob breaks right and left, and when the dogs separate there is often a split in the pursuing party, many of whom do not meet again until they return home.
Sometimes a horse comes down, or a lady rider, more enthusiastic than prudent, parts company with her mount in the thick timber, or loses her seat in jumping logs and water-courses. Sometimes a dingo is brought to bay in a reedy swamp, or he darts into a hollow log, and has to be smoked, prodded, or chopped out. The kangaroo, too, after a long run, will occasionally spring into a waterhole and fight his assailants. When the whole party have gathered round him with sticks, however, he has but a small chance of victory.
There are many persons in the bush every year to whom the festive season is only a memory. These are men camped in lonely parts, batching at station out-camps or boundary-riders' huts. Some of them have been so long alone that, though they know that Christmas is somewhere near, they could not tell you whether it is two days ahead or two days past. I have often found men keeping up Saturday or Monday for the Sabbath, even within a few miles of a town. The majority of bush workers who have no homes of their own, and no kith or kin within reach, spend their Christmas at an hotel, mostly drinking. I remember one man who rode into a western town to enjoy himself, and got drunk the first night; and it was nearly a fortnight afterwards before he properly recovered his senses. Then he asked the publican how many days it was to Christmas.
"About three hundred and fifty-seven," said the publican. "Yesterday was New Year's Day."
The man from Farther-Out thought hard for some seconds; then he said, still hopefully, "Did I keep up Christmas?"
"You did," said the publican. "You had a roaring time."
"That's orlright, then," was the rejoinder. S'long's I kep' up Christmas, 'm satisfied. Let's 'ave a drink—and a 'Appy New Year to yer, an' many of 'em."
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