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Title: With Cobb & Co. in Far Inland Australia Author: John Arthur Barry * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1302461h.html Language: English Date first posted: May 2013 Most recent update: May 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 of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
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'Come by boat to Rockport, then train to Miamia; and take Cobb & Co.'s coach as far as the first gate on Warrgeen, coming via Dingo Creek. I'd run over to Miamia with the buggy and meet you; but we're in the middle of shearing, and Union troubles are thick this year.' Thus ran a portion of a friend's letter containing an invitation to visit him on his sheep-station in the far Australian interior.
They are essentially a long-distance people, the Australians, and my friend spoke of a trip around the coast of one colony and through three parts of another, much as if he were asking me across the road to dinner. However, without seeking any more information as to my route, I started; and the farther I travelled, the more distant and elusive seemed that gate. The sea journey of eight hundred miles proved rough enough for anything; and the narrow gauge from Rockport to Miamia was so narrow that the train was more than once nearly blown bodily off the rails whilst crossing a long stretch of plain. But all this was mere play compared with what was before me.
Tired and shaken, I hailed with delight our arrival at the little bush township of Miamia, holding just then the coveted honour of terminus.
'Do you know,' I asked confidently of mine host that evening, 'how far it is to the first gate on Warrgeen, going by Dingo Creek?'
'Warrgeen—Warrgeen,' said he meditatively. 'Lessee; that's Percy's station, ain't it?'
'No,' I replied; 'it belongs to Mr Simpson. I thought it was close to the township here.'
'Oh, ah, Simpson's, o' course!' said he. 'Well, to begin, it's a 'underd an' twenty-five to the Crik; an' then— But here's the man as'll be able to tell you within a couple o' chain.— Bill, here's a gent as wants to know how far it is to Warrgeen—Simpson's place 'way back on the Raroaro.
'Good two 'underd an' fifty, boss,' said Bill, a tall, tow-haired, cabbage-tree hatted, lanky man, with a shrewd weather-beaten face, as he lounged into the bar and seemed at a loss what to do with his legs.
'Good gracious!' I exclaimed in dismay. 'I thought by my friend's mentioning a gate, that the place must be somewhere close to Miamia.'
The other grinned whitely out of his tanned face as he said: 'Well, you see, it's the big boundary gate o' the run. There ain't no missin' it, if you tried. Coach goes right through it; an' it's there the station buggy allus meets the mail. I useter drive that line myself oncest I only takes you 'bout half-ways now—Dingo Crik. You gets another coach there. If you're a-goin' with us, you'll be able to book over at the office in the mornin'—Cobb & Co., you know.'
'Full this trip, Bill?' asked the landlord, wiping some glasses suggestively.
'Big mail an' two insides,' replied Bill. 'Goin' to take the small coach—roads ain't none too good atween here an' the Crik.'
I had heard many travellers' tales of inland roads, and terrible shakings-up by coach upon them. But so far, having kept well within the limits of steam, I had never gone through such an experience. And I, even now, had a good mind to back out and go no farther. Between sea and rail, I thought I had come far enough, and felt aggrieved that Simpson hadn't been a little more circumstantial in his directions. Nor did I altogether fancy finding myself in the heart of a district where, apparently, the 'shearers' war' was just then in full swing. However, after a bath, supper, and a good night's sleep, I determined to find that boundary gate if it lay anywhere betwixt Miamia and the Indian Ocean. As it happened, I never did see it, but that was through no fault of mine.
Early next morning, wandering out into the inn-yard, I came across half-a-dozen of a curiously hybrid kind of vehicles, quite unlike anything I had ever seen before. They were mostly a cross between an omnibus, a buggy, and an American wagonette. The particular one I noticed was, I imagined, laid up for repairs. The long pole had been broken recently, but was spliced and 'fished' with a split pine sapling bound round with green hide. A spoke was also missing, and a felloe rattled loosely to the touch. From top to bottom the thing was thickly caked and splashed with mud. As I speculated idly in what fashion the mishap had occurred, a couple of men laid hold on the nondescript and pulled it away. 'Nearly time it went to the blacksmith's!' I remarked to them. But they only stared, and I re-entered the hotel for breakfast. Later, going across to the little office to book my seat, I saw, to my amazement, the damaged vehicle I had been inspecting dash past at the heels of four horses going almost at a gallop.
'Better take box seat, sir,' said the agent. 'She's pretty full inside. Heavy mail and lots of parcels. She's just gone up to the post-office for the bags.'
'What!' I exclaimed; 'do you mean to say that we have to travel in that thing? Why, it's not safe! One of the wheels is coming to pieces, and the pole's smashed!'
'Safe as a church, sir,' replied the agent impressively; 'that little thing'll stand twice as much as a big one. She's a regular tearer over a rough road. Of course, we'd have had her fixed up, only the blacksmith's been on the spree this last fortnight.'
'Is there a life-assurance office anywhere handy?' I ask desperately, as I watch the 'machine' come rattling back rolling, shaking, and quivering over ruts, lumps, and stumps in the primeval street.
'I'm afraid there ain't,' says the agent, laughing.—'Will you take the box? It's an extra five bob.
Repressing a strong desire to take nothing at all, I measure the altitude with my eye and reply: 'No; I'm blowed if I do! It's too far to fall. One will be safer inside amongst all that lumber. Five shillings is an extortion for the privilege of having one's neck broken at the first capsize.'
'All aboard!' yells Bill at this moment; and I scramble in to where the other passengers have already taken their seats, or rather perches, amongst the big leather mail-bags and packages of every description which overflow on to the tailboard, only prevented from falling out altogether by stout rope lashings. One of my companions is a pale-faced young man with a semi-clerical look; the other is an unmistakable 'commercial,' who exclaims sarcastically, as he squeezes back amongst the cargo and tries to make a little space for me: 'Ain't there any more coming, driver? Lots more room! Believe now I'm sitting on a coil of barbed wire, by the feel of it. If I lose any skin this trip, I'll sue the company!'
Crack goes the whip as the grooms run from the leaders' heads, the coach gives a lurch to each side and a pitch forward, the long traces tighten sharply with a clatter of stout leather against flanks brown and bay, and we are off.
In two minutes the straggling hamlet is lost to sight in the box forest, and we are careering between dense walls of brigalow and pine scrub. Far ahead as we can see stretches a two-chain cleared road, running straight as a dart into the western sky. We sit doubled up, and facing 'aft! along the way we came. The track has been lately 'cleared,' and stumps of all sizes grow thickly. Over one of these, at intervals, a wheel climbs, and comes down again with a thump into a rut that takes it to the hub, and shakes and grinds us and our lading into a common mixture. Now we are in red clay; then into a stretch of heavy sand; then across a patch of black soil, which hangs round the wheels until they are solid revolving blocks of sticky mud; then we dash into a wet swamp, which cleans them, and where tall bulrushes with soft brown heads nod to us gravely in at the open sides. And all the while the driver whistles to his team and stares straight ahead.
Suddenly, as the horses, fresh and hot-headed yet, come down from their swinging canter to a smart trot, the pale-faced young man turns paler and shouts: 'Stop! stop the coach! The wheel is broken!' He is staring at the vacant space where the spoke should be, and at the loose felloe wobbling as if about to come off and leave a naked section of tire. 'All right,' replies the driver without turning his head. 'It'll last our time.—Git up!' and away we spin again, the horses black with sweat, and tossing dabs of foam into the air.
All at once we dart off at a tangent through the scrub, which flogs in on each side across our faces and bodies, now willowy young pines, now sharp twigged brigalow, covering us with leaves and scratches. We roar at the driver, the commercial putting the matter strongly. But he takes no notice. This, it appears, is a short-cut, saves two miles, and rubs all the old mud and a good deal of the fresh off the coach.
'Don't bother 'bout keeping your eye on that wheel, Mister,' says the commercial to the pale young man; 'Bill, there, knows what the thing'll stand. So does the agent, back yonder. They're too 'cute, these people, to run risks foolish. These coaches ain't just slapped together anyhow—built by the mile cut off to order. They're hickory, whalebone, steel, an' the best of English leather; an' they'll shake the bones out of your skin, leavin' only the skeleton, before they'll smash. —Going right through, Mister?'
'I am proceeding,' says the pale young man, 'to the Aboriginal Mission Station at Balooga, to act as assistant to the Rev. Mr Scroggs.'
'Phew!' exclaims the commercial. 'Over four hundred mile! My word, Mister, you've got a picnic in front of you!'
The pale young man smiles faintly, but makes no reply.
Presently the walls of high scrub seem to suddenly fall away, disclosing a grassy open space, a large slab hut, a water-hole, a stockyard full of horses, some black-fellows and their gins, and a couple of white grooms.
'The Reedy Lagoon! Twenty minutes for a snack!' sings out the driver as he pulls up his steaming team and jumps down; whilst the men take the horses out and prepare to harness a fresh lot, and we passengers stretch our cramped limbs and tenderly feel bumps and abrasions. This is the first stage, twenty miles from Miamia. The fare is plain, and the charge half-a-crown. Damper, tea, cold beef and pickles, and a good pudding. Everything is clean and neat, and a pleasant-faced, smiling little woman, wife to the stage-keeper, waits at table. I notice three Winchester rifles in a rack, and some revolvers hanging on the walls.
'How's the missis an' the kids, Billy?' asks the hostess.
'Nice an' lively, thank 'ee,' replies the driver. —'All O. K. here?'
'Pretty fair,' says she, 'only for them rippin', rantin' Unioners. When the men's all away after the horses, an' me alone with the kids, I feels a bit lonesome. Most on 'em's right enough. But there's some flash customers among 'em as I'd as soon put a bullet into as a dingo;' and she instinctively glances at the arms with a look on her face that makes one believe her thoroughly.
As we finish our meal, a couple of troopers and a black tracker ride up. The Unionist shearers have, it appears, only the preceding night fired a wool-shed and shot a number of valuable horses on a station in the neighbourhood. About five miles from here, the shearers—so the police say—have formed a camp a thousand strong, from which they sally out to shoot, burn, and destroy.
'There's the Fire Brigade at work on Aranca Run now!—see!' says one, pointing to where, far away on our right, rises into the sky a thick volume of smoke, tawny coloured in the sunlight.
As they ride off at full gallop for the scene of the mischief, 'All aboard, gents!' falls on our ears, and we clamber once more into the torture cell on wheels.
'Look out for the young uns, Bill!' shouts some one.
'Right O!' says Bill, pulling on his gloves and signalling to let go.
As they get their heads, the 'young uns,' on their first trip, rear wildly, and snort and kick, and do their best to tie themselves into knots with the traces, and drag the swaying coach hither and thither about the place; whilst all the while the whip rains down upon them, until at last they fairly bolt, and with such a furious plunge as sends the three of us ramming against each other as if shot from a catapult.
The walls of scrub have disappeared, and the country is improving; but prickly-pear grows luxuriantly—acres broad.
Although no houses are to be seen, there is evidently settlement somewhere around; for at intervals the coach is checked with its wheels just grazing the bark of some conspicuous tree, to which is nailed a box at the level of the driver's seat. Here Bill deposits the incoming, and removes the outgoing mail. Everything is done up in small parcels ready to hand, so that there is no delay. At times, too, a mailing horseman appears ahead, and to him is thrown a bag. This is a station mail. Perhaps it is a twenty-mile ride to the homestead. Presently, we whirl across a broad black belt which crosses the road, and from which rise ashes and cinders under the wheels.
'Bad work! bad work!' exclaims the commercial, shaking his head. 'Hundreds of pounds' worth of fencing burnt, and thousands of pounds' worth of grass! The working-men must be going mad!'
Perhaps they are. But, by-and-by, emerging from a belt of thick timber, and crossing another band of ashes, charred wood, and burnt wire, we meet the universal corrective to such lunacy. Along the track—strange sight, indeed, on these far inland pastures!—comes at full trot, with waving plumes and accoutrements sparkling and jingling, a large body of cavalry, who, at sight of that other servant of Her Majesty Queen Victoria, wheel off by sections on each side to let us pass, their chargers' hoofs raising clouds of black grass-dust thickly into the air. Evidently the royal mail, begrimed and scarred though it be, is of some importance yet; and as Bill keeps up the sense of responsibility by sending his horses at a gallop through the armed ranks, we passengers feel a little proud and self-conscious. These troops have travelled a thousand miles from the far south, and are on their way to beat up the Union camp.
At the next stage, a wild spot in the heart of a scrub, things look forlorn. The presiding genius is a snuffy, enormously stout old woman; there is no table-cloth, and the fare is sodden damper and scraggy mutton. But the charge is just the same as before. The starting scene is also similar, only the horses are even less broken-in than at the last stage.
Presently, a mob of kangaroos, headed by a grand 'old man,' come hopping leisurely out of a patch of wild cherries and wattle, right across the noses of our team. Pausing for a moment, they turn their deer-like heads and stare, and in that moment we are amongst them. The startled horses go off with a rush; there is an awful concussion, and before I can grab my strap, I find myself lying on the broad of my back in a big clump of prickly-pears. Rising, I see the coach, a black speck, far ahead, and close beside me my fellow-travellers. Luckily, beyond a skinful of prickles, no one is hurt. Intently watching the kangaroos, we had for the moment neglected the so essential hold-on, and suffered accordingly.
As we inspect the cause of our mishap—a jagged stump, broad and high, to which even Bill would have, we think, given the pass, but for the animals hiding it from sight—it is agreed that if the coach has not received further damage, it is indeed wonderful. Few, if any, wheeled vehicles are constructed to jump a good two feet six of forked hardwood, with a drop into a deep channel worn by rain on the further side.
Walking along, we pick up a mail-bag, then another.
'It's all right,' says the commercial. 'He mightn't come back for passengers; but he's bound to for the mails.' Sure enough, we presently see that the coach has turned, and is approaching us at a full gallop.
'Never missed you, gents,' remarks the driver sarcastically, 'till, wantin' a match, I happens to turn round. P'raps nex' time as you wants to git out an' have a quiet yarn, you'll let me know. If people won't hold on, I'd like to know how it's possible as a feller can drive to time.—All aboard, please!—Stump? Shoo! That's nothin'. I've druv over miles o' bigger'n that un an' never lost no passengers. Git up! Bolivar! Henchman! you bay colt!—s-s-s-sh!'
Remonstrance is evidently out of the question; and refastening the bags, and clutching each man his strap, we roll off, the coach seemingly no worse than it was before, and its driver fully prepared to put it at a house if necessary.
More stages are halted at and passed, the last ones in the darkness. Then, as a moon is rising and shining whitely on the galvanised iron roofs, we rattle into Dingo Creek township. Here we change drivers, and, by rights, coaches also. But it seems that the mail from the Lower Tarlee is not yet in. If it does not arrive before four A.M., our starting hour, we shall have to go on in the same one. But we are stiff and sore, and smarting all over, and strongly object.
'Well, gentlemen,' at last says the agent blandly as we stand and argue the point, 'I can't help it. She leaves here at four sharp. I have an idea that the other coach is stuck up at the Raroaro—a flood most likely—and that the other driver'll be here through the night with the mails on horseback.'
'But what shall we do if this river you speak of is actually in a state of flood?' asked the pale young man.
'Oh, it'll be lowering by the time you get there,' replies the agent; 'and Jack Pritchard'll put you through all right—most careful driver on the road, Jack, you know.'
We groan at this, and retire to the hotel over the way for refreshments and a brief sleep.
It is pitch dark when there comes a knocking at the door with 'Breakfast for the coach passengers!'
The new driver, who came in last night after swimming the river with the mails packed on horseback, is at the table. He is a square-set, red-whiskered, determined-looking customer, who, when asked about the river, replies laconically: 'Fallin'. 'Bout a fair swim for the little coach when we gits there.'
At this, the pale young man promptly announces his intention of waiting for the next mail, and at once goes back to bed again. I am about to follow his example, when the driver hands me a note, quite wet, but legible. It is from my friend Simpson, saying that he will meet me with his buggy at the Raroaro crossing-place. This news revives my flagging courage, and, with the commercial and a heavier load than ever of miscellaneous parcels, we make another start.
The moon is down, and it is very dark. The country seems open, and the road rough as ever. We are sitting facing due east. Presently, a faint ghostly light is visible on the horizon. As I gaze, it broadens and deepens to a well-defined gray, which flushes presently into a sea of palest yellow, streaked here and there with long streamers and patches of vivid crimson. Then up shoot great bars of glowing flame into the still darkling sky, and in a few minutes the sun himself rises majestically, throwing the glory of his light across a beautiful, thickly-grassed land, interspersed with clumps and belts of trees, from around whose trunks long strings of sheep are moving off to begin the day's feeding. Here and there we come across the work of the Union firestick—blackness and desolation.
As, late in the afternoon, we neared the Raroaro, we saw the abandoned coach on the other bank, but no buggy.
At the last stage, a team of quiet powerful horses had been put in, and without a moment's pause the driver sent them at the river. It was only partly a swim, though the yellow water swirled and eddied over the floor of the coach, and the horses had as much as they could do to pull it up the steep and slippery bank.
There was smoke, thick and black, rising ahead on our track; and in half an hour from leaving the river we dashed into a crowd of men congregated around a buggy, in which sat Simpson dispensing refreshments.
Close by, the familiar broad black belt, hot and smoking now, stretched across the road into a sea of black and green patches.
'The beggars stole a march on me after all!' exclaimed my friend as he shook hands. 'But we've got the fire out pretty well. You've come too late, though, to see the Warrgeen boundary gate, old man. There's all that's left of it now. —Come along; jump in, and let's get home. Had a pretty rough trip, I see.'
'How do you know?' I ask, as, bidding farewell to my commercial, I am driven off at right angles to the coach-track.
'Easily enough,' replies my friend, laughing. 'The back of your coat's all worn to rags by the friction. But that's nothing. Cobb & Co. 'll always pull a fellow through somehow.'
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