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Title: On the Wallaby, The Diary of a Queensland Swagman Author: Edward S Sorenson * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1400721h.html Language: English Date first posted: February 2014 Most recent update: February 2014 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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CHAPTER I.—Setting out from Brisbane — Getting Directions.
CHAPTER II.—Rules of the Track—A Diverting Hour with a Veteran.
CHAPTER III.—The First Night Out—Travellers' Fires.
CHAPTER IV.—Matilda Breeze—Kenny Rye.
CHAPTER V.—Kenny's Old Friends—A Night Adventure—'Brumby' Bill Willet.
CHAPTER VI.—Nanango—Arty the Tinker—Bush Fires.
CHAPTER VII.—Mixed Drinks—A Pleasant Night at Taabinga—A Long Stage to Burrandowan.
CHAPTER VIII.—A Man From Aramac—Bush Cooks—"Shovelling Archie."
CHAPTER IX.—The Last Match—'Possums—Aboriginal Managers—The Traveller's Nut
CHAPTER X.—A Long "Short Cut"—The Bard of Juandah.
CHAPTER XI.—On the Dawson River—Leichardt's Track—Wool-O!
CHAPTER XII.—Eurombah—George Boyce—A Deal in Brumbies.
CHAPTER XIII.—Hornet Bank—Grim Memories of the Blacks.
CHAPTER XIV.—Night Duty—Cooking for Crows—George gets Bushed—Strathmore.
CHAPTER XV.—In a Scalper's Camp—A Night Attack—Westard-Ho.
The last serial story—"The Squatter King," from the pen of Edward S. Sorenson, which we published in the "Catholic Press," was an immense popular success. No one knows Australian bush life better than he, and among Australian writers he is, perhaps, the greatest favourite to-day.
We have been fortunate enough to secure the serial rights of his new story—"On the Wallaby: the Diary of a Queensland Swagman." This is a plain bush yarn, relating in humorous vein the experiences and adventures of a young man, who, finding himself stranded in Brisbane, where he knew no one, shouldered his swag and struck out into the bush to look for a job. His track from Breakfast Creek to beyond the Maranoa River, may be traced on the map, for he deals only with real places—and real people—and what he goes through is what the majority of swagmen go through. Always an optimist, he sees the humour of the situations, and his narrative is embellished with details of bushcraft, and with the yarns and the fun of camp fire and track.
From the status of an "esteemed citizen" in comparative affluence to the humble lot of a swagman was not an easy transition, though the drop was an abrupt one.
I remember how ashamed I was at the start, though there was really nothing to be ashamed of in a man going on the track to look for a job, and carrying his bed and his wardrobe with him. It showed independence and grit. Nobody knew me in Brisbane, yet I fancied that everybody in the streets was looking at me as though I were an oddity in the human throng. I had strapped my swag up into a short bundle, and I carried it under my arm so that it would look like a parcel.
It was the 6th day of August, 1895—a fresh, inspiriting morning, and grand weather for a walking tour. I was young, strong, and used to roughing it—good qualifications for the wallaby. Still, I felt very miserable that morning. I had been enjoying a long holiday—flying around and seeing life while the money lasted. The inevitable financial slump had left me stranded in Brisbane. Work was scarce; somehow it always is when I want a job. In any case, as a bushman born and bred, I had no chance in the city. The world of vast distances was my home; and having no other means of getting, there I pinned my faith to Blucher.
An old mate of mine, whom I had not seen for some years, was head-stockman on Colinton, a squattage on the Brisbane River, 80 miles from the city; so I decided to steer for Colinton to begin with, and from the outskirts of Brisbane I stopped every likely-looking person I met to get "directions." The man about town knew very little about outside; and though the occasional bushman I interviewed possessed some knowledge of almost every road one could mention, his instructions were not very easy to follow.
It not infrequently happens that a stranger is so befogged by the directions he receives that he has more trouble in keeping the right road by their aid than he would have had without them. The bushman, describing the road as he last saw it, which might be last week or last year, gives a rigmarole of details concerning the turns and hollows, the big tree, the dogleg fence, and the black stump; and while he is telling all this he is sketching out the map of it in the dust with a stick.
Loaded with this information you start, and perhaps you will notice something important which he missed, and that uncomfortable feeling of the lost one comes over you at once. If you don't see the bogged cow, or the dead tree (which has probably fallen down), the feeling increases. Presently all the little details get mixed up till you don't know anything, and you are in perpetual misery till you get to the end of those directions—or meet somebody who can relieve your anxiety in respect to turn-off roads and forked roads.
In giving directions nothing should be mentioned that is not absolutely necessary for the traveller to know, such as well traversed branch roads and striking landmarks. Bogged cows and dead horses are not landmarks except for the time being. Some bush men overlook the fact that many objects which most impress him change with the effluxion of time.
One person whom I approached with the stereotyped question was working on the road near Breakfast Creek; a big, jovial laughing-eyed man whose occupation suggested an intimate acquaintance with the thoroughfare.
"Want to go to Bindelby?" he repeated, leaning on his shovel. "Nothing easier. Keep straight along, and you won't miss it. Though what you want to go to Bindelby for I don't know, seein' it's only a house in a little square o' land that wouldn't keep more 'n a horse an' a cow or two, an there's no job there for a workin' man to-day or tomorrow, or any other day."
"It's just a stage on my way," I explained. "Are there any turn-offs?"
"Well, yes, a few. But stick to this road till you see it run into a gate. Go through that—you'd better open it first though. It swings to your right when you're pullin' it to you. Shut it. Then turn round an' keep along the road again. It wriggles a lot, in consequence o' dodgin' trees an' one thing an' another, but stick to it, an' you'll find it's a road to be depended on. Never mind the branch roads—keep off 'em, or they 'll take you astray."
"Well, are there any particular landmarks?"
"Lemme see. You'll cross a gully running like a stranded eel. There's a spotted bullock feedin' alongside it. That's five mile. Next, you'll see a kangaroo sittin' bolt upright on your left. That's eight mile. Then you'll see a big hole on your right. But don't bother about fillin' your billy there. There's no water in it. . . . That's half way. Next, you'll come to a lot of trees on a hill. There's some parrots on the outside one."
"When were you along there?" I inquired.
"Three years ago." He spoke quite seriously. "Byan'by you'll strike a big flat, with a dead dog on it. Three miles from that there's a house with two chimneys, an' smoke comin' out of one of 'em. That's Bindelby."
As I walked on I fell to thinking, not so much of the man with the shovel, as of old Tom Raglan, who lived in my own native district across the southern border. I had occasion one day to go to his place, of the exact location of which I was not certain, and on the way I asked a road-maintenance man where I must turn off the highway to reach it.
"D'yer know that track that turns off th' other side o' the tee-tree swamp?" he asked me.
"That's not it. There's a red hill a bit farther along with a stump on it. The stump's got a piece knocked off the side where a waggon hit. I think it was Dooley's waggon. I did hear there used to be a stone just beyond it, but I believe Dooley picked that up last time he was along to shy at Anderson's bull. He's an ugly brute, is Anderson's bull, an' he's nearly always about that red hill. I remember—"
"Yes; but about the road to Raglan's?" I reminded him.
"There's a track turns off just over the red hill," he said. "That goes to Denehy's selection."
"And where does Raglan's turn off?"
"Two miles past Denehy's road you'll see where Nolan was bogged with a load of timber last week. Nolan keeps a pub down at the junction. I've seen the time when Nolan—"
"I've known him since I was a boy," I hastily interrupted. "I'm in a hurry to get to Raglan's."
"I'm comin' to Raglan's. When you pass the mud-hole you'll see a road runnin' like this."
He squatted down and commenced to perplex me with a bushman's map, drawing a line with his finger to represent the main road, others to represent branch roads, parallel and intersecting lines for fences, dots for trees and squares for houses—some of them three miles off the road, and all hopelessly out of sight. Then he told me to turn off at an ironbark tree that had a limb sticking out like this (another map), and pass a log lying like this (another map), when the road takes a turn, and runs like that (more map). "You'll have all straight sailin' then," he concluded.
I rode off. It was 27 miles to the place. I found it and delivered my message to Mrs. Raglan, as "Tom was away workin' on the roads." I returned next day, and as I passed the maintenance man he asked "Did you find Raglan's?"
"Yes," I said; "Tom Raglan wasn't at home, though."
"Did you want to see him," he asked, with quickened interest.
"I did. I had an important letter for him. I left it with the missus."
"Hang it," said he. "I'm Tom Raglan!"
While having my mid-day meal at the foot of a hill beyond Breakfast Creek I was joined by a veteran whose very hide bore evidence of an extensive knowledge of western latitudes. Old and grizzly, unkempt and travel-stained, he was "goin' in." He strode jauntily up to where I sat, nibbling a blade of grass as he came.
"Well, young fellow," he said, unslinging his swag and depositing it carefully in the shade. "How goes it?"
"All right, so far," I answered.
He looked at me closely for a moment. "You don't seem unfamiliar to me," he said, thoughtfully. "What might your name be, if it's a fair question?"
"Edinbury Swan," I replied. He shook his head. "Never bumped that before. I'd certainly remember it if I had. Unusual name!—How long have you been at this?"—critically eyeing my hat. It was a black and white boater such as young fellows wear about town.
"To-day? Phugh! I said that myself 35 years ago. That's a tidy while before you left the dockyard. . . . 'Taint none o' my business what sent you adrift; but you ought to get another hat. You're right out of the fashion here."
From that he drifted into a dissertation on the ways and customs of those who tramp the long roads in search of work, and incidentally gave me much gratuitous advice. His name, as I learned from his habit of now and again using it himself, was Jack Blunt.
"Th' main problem you've got to solve," he continued, "is the grand art of livin' sumptuous on nothing a year. That isn't very difficult, as every squattage supplies swagmen with rations, exceptin' an odd hungry place that don't respect the honoured customs of the country. But don't be in a tearin' hurry rushin' up to the store. Do a quiet beat round, an' land yourself in the kitchen about meal time. You'll perhaps get a feed, an' some tucker to take with you. Then you want to go to the boss with your bags—big ones. No use thinkin' you'll get 'em filled if they're small ones. You won't, he's nearly sure to be into his last half bag o' flour. Never mind that. Half a bag's more 'n you want.
"By-an'-bye you'll want tobacco. Now, th' golden rule on th' track's this: Never cadge off a footman, or the one-horse bloke. The cove who has two nags is good game. So are drovers an' carriers, and anyone who's in a billet—particularly th' chap at th' store. Nail him. Don't wait till you want a smoke. Seize every chance you see till you get a supply in. Got a match on you? When you can't carry any more tobacco, accumulate matches. Bless me soul, safeties!"
After lighting his pipe, he resumed:
"You'll have to change the style of your clothes. Got any with patches on? Then keep an eye about you an' cop the first bit of stuff you see an' patch your oldest pair o' pants with it. No holes in 'em? What's that matter? The patches will cover the places where the holes ought to be. Those will be your ration pants. You only want two more pair—track pants an' Sunday pants. Sunday is the day you're in a town; if it isn't actually Sunday, it's Sunday-pants day, anyway.
"Lemme see, now. You've got tobacco and matches and tucker and rations. Well, now, young fellow, you want a job. Reach me that firestick, will you? You're a midlin' poor hand at makin' a fire. I can tell you that much. Would you mind shovin' my billy in a bit. Your best track is the stock route. You'll find it convenient to meet drovers even if they're full-handed. It's one of the beautiful customs of the bush for the drovers' cook, like the shearers' cook, the rouseabouts' cook, the cattle-musterers' cook, and the lamb-markers' cook, to receive the weary wayfarer with open arms, and send him away rejoicin'. Feel your way along, and make for places where there's a busy crowd; and if there's nothing for you to do, you'll find the scenery worth lookin' at wherever a lot o' men dine together. When you go to a squattage, find out from the men if an extra hand is wanted for any particular kind of work. Whatever the work may be, it's your profession. Been at it all your lifetime, though you can turn your hand to other things, besides."
At this point his billy boiled, and, laying his pipe aside, he made his tea, after which he unpacked an astonishing load of assorted provisions. These he laid out carefully on the grass to the accompaniment of an appropriate recitation:
Place side by side with johnny-cakes or damper
Three bags containing sugar, flour and tea,
A billy and some meat, and swaggie's hamper
Will, with a pannikin, completed be.
Then spread you out a blanket and some
And roll within a little dilly-bag,
A change of togs, a coat for Sunday meeting—
And there you have his ordinary swag.
Build you a fire beside some eucalyptus,
By No Man's Creek, and 'neath the starry dome,
Where dingoes wander whence their lonely crypt is—
And there you have his customary home.
Take you a man sunbrowned, with thews of iron,
A cheerful heart, stout as an ironclad,
And dress him like a wheel without a tire on—
And there you have the nomad on the pad.
Then give him but his health and strength for
And his condition labels him "for hire;"
Turn him adrift on hardy feet for walking,
And to complete him call him Long Maguire.
Mr. Blunt now commenced heartily on his meal, sitting on the ground with his legs crossed in an attitude of such elegant ease that made seats superfluous. He was in a happy frame of mind; he had a little hut on the bank of the river above Brisbane, where he intended to live comfortably, and rest till the end of summer. He did not look to be worth anything, but his bank book, greasy and crumpled and dog-eared, showed a credit balance of a thousand pounds.
"I'll try a lump o' that brownie of yours; it looks better 'n mine," he said, when he had got through his first course. "Woman made? I thought so. Lor' bless her doughy fivers." After a long pause he said: "I haven't been lookin' after myself too well the last few days; but I'm goin' to make some pancakes—with heggs—when I get home, an' to-morrow I'll have a knuckle-bone of ham, a plum puddin' and a bottle o' beer."
"You're going to enjoy yourself," I remarked.
"I always do when I'm at home. Why not?" He helped himself to another lump of my brownie, and while he ate it he rummaged amongst his assortment of small bags, one of which contained lumps of soap, and finally tossed one across to me.
"Help yourself to any kind you like," he said.
It contained pieces of tobacco, ranging from hard corners the size of a marble to half plugs, and broken sticks of twist, which had evidently been contributed by dozens of good-natured folk along the track.
Mr. Blunt then set about tidying up for town. Whilst thus employed he sang, softly, this fragment of a song of the road:
When your clothes are tattered,
Your boots are wearing out;
When your hat is battered.
An' there's no help about;
When everything looks blue, you may
Sling your pack
Upon your back,
And tramp, tramp away!
When the road is dusty,
Flies in millions by;
When the damper's musty,
And the holes are dry;
When to tarry means decay,
Nor ill nor well,
You cannot spell,
So tramp, tramp away!
Battling on forever.
Things are always bad,
Goal draws nearer never
When you're on the pad;
Dodgin' crows from day to day,
Till you lie
Alone to die,
And tramp, tramp away!
He gathered up his belongings again, and after lighting his pipe with a firestick, looked carefully about to see if he had missed anything.
"Well," he said, shouldering his swag, 'I'll be toddlin' home now."
It made me feel a little droopy watching him go, and hearing his joyful whistle; but I passed on with a quicker step than his, now swinging my small billy, fresh blackened from its first baptism of fire, and camped in the vicinity of Downfall Creek. Here I made some flapjacks on an old shovel-blade which I picked up near the water, first scouring it well with wet sand, and then I cooked them on it. At this early stage of my wandering career I possessed no utensils excepting my pannikin and a one quart billycan. The latter ere long had to do duty in the dual capacity of tea billy and meat pot. I had a few shilling left, which I hung on to with a tenacity that might have kept me from making a beast-of-burden of myself if it had developed a month or two earlier.
The first night camping out is often the longest remembered by those who go on the wallaby. Some are jolly and eager for the morrow, speculating where that morrow will land them, and what fortune it will bring; others are miserable, and squat like moody aborigines, staring at the glaring coals and weighing the prospects carefully; and there is in both a certain sense of loneliness engendered more by the altered conditions than by the new environment. The novice who has been used to a soft bed discovers as soon as he stretches himself on solid ground what an awkward thing his hip is. He fidgets from side to side, trying to get it into a comfortable position, and that point seems to be more prominent than he ever dreamed of before. Many travellers never get over the hip trouble, for which reason they make an excavation to accommodate the protuberance, or they carry a hipper—a piece of woolly sheepskin, a horsehair pad, or a small bag of feathers. A good many gather leaves or grass to form a mattress. Everything being strange, too, one lies for a long while looking at the stars, gazing into the great, aching silence of space, listening to the myriad sounds on his own dark plane, and thinking of home. He thinks of other things; many scenes of his past life are reviewed, his lost opportunities regretted, just as they are by the man going into exile in a distant land; knowing by the experience of hundreds before him that he may never again know a place that he can call his home.
It was a pleasant place, quiet, with nothing lonely about it; where I spent my first night on the track. Behind me was a sheltering clump of tee-trees, and a little way off in front was the northern road, running as straight as a dart across a green flat to low, wooded hills beyond. My bluey was spread on the grass and cheerfully blazing beside it my little camp-fire gave light enough to read by. I had a late copy of the "Queenslander," but I did not read much. My mind was wandering out west, where I knew a thousand other camp-fires burned to-night, and where I would light many another, marking my stages across the State. There is poetry and tragedy in the traveller's fire, in the early days, when the blacks were bad, diggers and others, striking across country to new fields and new runs, left their fires at sundown and went on for two or three miles before camping for the night. The blacks, attracted by the blaze, would often gather round the abandoned fires, and, perhaps, throw in a shower of spears.
The swagman makes at least two fires a day—one at noon and one at sundown. The first, the billy fire, is a midget, to boil water for tea. Even this is methodically built. He places a stick the thickness of his forearm on the ground, leans two lighter pieces on it the width of the billy apart; then, between and against the back piece, he places a handful of dry leaves, ferns, grass, or shredded bark, with twigs and sticks on top. The billy is stood close to it on two sticks, and the fire fed with light wood until the water boils. The johnny-cake fire requires a good armful of picked wood—ironbark, box, mulga, or gidgee for preference—which is burning while the dough is being worked up. The unburnt sticks are then put aside, the coals levelled by stamping them lightly, and the johnnies dropped on. A blaze of good red coals is kept going at one side, where the johnnies, as they stiffen, are stood to toast. The damper fire should burn all night, so as to leave a heap of clean hot ashes, not coals. A few coals are raked over the top to keep the heat in, but there must be enough ashes between to keep them from burning the damper. In a working camp a round excavation is made for the oven, to concentrate the heat and shield it from the wind. Game is roasted by travellers in these holes without an oven. A bird is placed on a piece of doubled wire a few inches above the coals, and a fire is made on a sheet of tin laid over the top. Another way is to wrap the dressed bird in a sheet of greased brown paper and roast it in the ashes. Cakes, eggs, chops, steak, &c., can be satisfactorily cooked in this camp-oven.
At sundown the bushman's camp-fire is lit—the most important of all, the fire that denotes home. For this he has a large back log, and sees that there is sufficient big wood on hand for the night. In summer he will be satisfied if the log keeps alight and makes coals for morning. To keep a fire in overnight, it is covered with ashes. Glowing red coals will be found under them in the morning, and it is only necessary to throw on a few dry sticks to set the fire going. The best woods for fire purposes are box, coolabah, grey gum, mulga, gidgee, forest oak, cypress pine, ironbark, sandalwood and blackbutt. On a summer's night mosquito fires are necessary adjuncts. They are lit at intervals with cowdung, corkwood, green bark and leaves.
In winter-time the single fire is not a luxury. Lying beside it you get uncomfortably hot on one side, while the other side is freezing—your body experiencing the rigours of summer and winter simultaneously. A fire at each side is better. Those who are troubled with cold feet light a third to keep them warm. Under such circumstances it does not do to be fidgety in one's sleep. Many a one has been wakened by a blaze among his blankets, and I saw a man kick one night till he got right down into his foot fire, and but for a timely billy of cold tea would have been incapacitated from walking for a week or two. A man should know his sleeping character before trusting himself among three fires. An ex-horse trainer, tramping out-back, was addicted to steeplechase riding in his sleep. The nights were cold, and he had to supplement his foot-fire with side warmers. At first he put two stakes at each side of him to keep himself in; but he rode his dream-horses over these and came a cropper in the fire. So he had to be content with one warmer, and to keep out of that he tethered himself to a tree on the opposite side. He always travelled alone. Any mate he picked up, as soon as bed-time came, would pack up hastily and leave with the observation that: "A fellow who ties himself up at night must be a bit crook in the upper storey."
The blackfellow's fire is the best. It is very small, permitting him to lie close to it all night, and to enjoy an even temperature. "White pfeller big fool," says Murri. "Him make um big fire—can't get close, bynbye fire go down an' white man catch um cold." When there are several members together, they make one big central fire, around which they squat, and one small fire at the back of each. The common method adopted by the aborigines to produce fire is by the friction of two sticks; though different styles obtain in different parts of the country. One method consists in twirling a hard-pointed stick in a shallow hole in a particular wood, the hole being filled with dry, powdered bark. The stick is held upright between the palms, and twirled rapidly by rubbing the palms together. A gin sometimes kneels before the operator and blows gently on the powdered stuff the moment it begins to smoke; at other times he works alone, and when the tinder begins to smoke he holds some finely-shredded bark on it and blows it gently, then swings the bark to and fro in his hand till it blazes. Another way of generating the required heat is by drawing a thin-edged piece of mulga, gidgee, or other hardwood rapidly backwards and forwards in a crack or splintered part of a dry log. Either means is not necessarily employed very often, for a firestick is commonly carried, swung gently in the hand to keep it alight. A sandalwood stick is the best for this purpose, for it will continue burning until the last bit is consumed. Many a white hunter is also seen on the track swinging his firestick from camp to camp. When he sits down for a spell he puts a few twigs on it to keep it burning.
Many travellers have a fatal habit of lighting fires at the butt of a tree. No one can judge how long it will take a tree to burn down. A small tree may burn for days, and a big one fall in a few hours. I once saw a burning tree rain streams of honey and melted wax. It was a small, dead ironbark, in a projecting limb of which there a was a bees' nest. As the fire roared up the hollow trunk and burnt into the limb, the bees were driven out and the honey began to pour down. We caught a lot in a billy, but it was so full of melted wax, bee bread and burnt bees as to be unusable. Another dangerous fire is the one built against a hollow log. Apart from the danger of setting the bush on fire, all manner of horrible things come crawling out as the fire eats its way into the hollows. A Barwon native, who dearly loved his log-fire, used to surround himself with newspaper pinned to the ground. Snakes, scorpions and centipedes make a great noise crawling over or under dry paper; and, being a light sleeper, he was always warned when danger approached. In ant country he made a little trench round his nap ground, asserting that no ant would cross it.
Bushmen are generally careful with fires; but there are some whose carelessness has caused enormous damage and loss of life. A few smouldering embers are left by the track side, a wind fans them up, carries a spark into dry grass, and the result is a disastrous bush fire. The culprit is frequently a newchum, or an immigrant from the Paroo country, where bush fires are unknown. There is seldom enough grass there to carry a fire, and a sojourn in such a place makes a man careless. Glass bottles, lying in dry grass with a hot sun shining upon them, have started many a bush fire for which innocent swagmen have been blamed. Note that bush fires are always plentiful on very hot days. South Australians are the most careful people in this respect. In their State the wax match is tapu, and anybody seen carrying a firestick there would be chased for a lunatic, or arrested by the nearest policeman for imperilling life and property. Nearly everybody uses safety matches, and no one is allowed to smoke an uncovered pipe in the august presence of a wheatfield.
Anyone who has crossed One-tree Plain, or travelled on the Darling Downs, knows what economical firing is. There he is fortunate if he has the posts of a wire fence from which to break splinters and little bits of bark. Failing this, he boils his billy with tufts of grass and the bones of dead sheep. There is generally a strong wind blowing; and the best way to light-up is to face the wind, holding the match low down, and striking it into the kindling material. Lighting a fire in wet weather, when the ground is soaked, and wood, leaves and everything else is sopping, is an art in itself. If there are any ironbark trees, blackbutts, or woolly-butts about, the task will be easy. Under the wet exterior there are layers of dry, crumpled, highly-combustible material. Dry bits of bark may be found on one side of gums and other trees; a few dry leaves and twigs in hollow logs; a bit of greased rag may be procurable, and, as a last resource, take a bit of bagging with which your coat or vest is padded. Splintered pine and mulga twigs are the quickest fire-lighters in the bush. A small fire in the tent is cosy on a cold or wet night. A heap of short sticks close by, a slush-lamp or a candle at your head, two or three late papers or a good novel to read, your dog coiled against the coals, your pipe in good going order—and not much is wanted to complete your happiness.
Lighting a fire with the last match is a serious task. No matter how careful you are, something is sure to go wrong. There is bound to be a strong breeze blowing without intermission, or else a whiff springs up just as you strike. Then it may only fiz and smoulder away, or the head will fly off. All creation seems to be against that one match. When you have a boxfull you can strike them as off-handedly as you like and nothing will go amiss. They will burn in a Townsville gale, especially when you are done with them. But what a little puff of wind puts the last one out! It snuffs out for no apparent reason whatever. You have your leaves, grass, bark and twigs all nicely and carefully nested; you get down on your knees, hold the bottom of the box close to the nest, grip the match close to the head with thumb and fingers, and strike gently off the box into the finest grass—and ten to one you will bump it against something and put it out. You can then sit down and meditate on the dullness and dreariness that broods over everything, and realise what a comforting friend and companion is the camp-fire.
Next day I passed through Bald Hills, crossed Pine River, and two hours later crossed the North Pine—on a narrow plank. Being thirsty, I dropped on my hands and knees to drink; but the water was as salt as the sea. A sturdily-built, middle-aged woman in a poke bonnet had stood watching me. As I rose disgustedly to my feet, she came forward.
"I was just wonderin' if you could drink Pine River water," she said, speaking slowly. "No one about here can."
"Then you observe I am not a walking freak, madam," I returned.
She appeared to harbour a doubt about that point. "You're not like an ordinary swagman," she said, musingly. "I know you haven't been long on the track, for your blanket's new an' your billy's new." Her eye lingered awhile on my hat. "Are you lookin' for work?"
"What else would I be looking for! Do you think I'm trudging about just for exercise, and to give the shoe-maker a turn?"
She looked me up and down. "I don't know," she said. "I thought you might only be going somewhere, or having what they call a walkin' tour. There was a newspaper man went through here last week, carryin' his swag and billy, and wearin' a Johnny-come-lately hat, the same as yourself. He was spendin' his holidays on a walkin' tour, he told me, and he was inquirin' if we had anything special around here in the way of scenery. I took particular notice of him because he tried to drink the river water, too. A very affable man; but I thought it was a queer way of enjoyin' himself. I don't suppose you're enjoyin' it?"
"No; with me it's compulsory. That makes all the difference."
A Chinaman here came jogging down the road towards the crossing plank. On his shoulder he carried the customary bamboo, from one end of which his swag dangled, and from the other his tucker-bag and campware. The sole of an old boot was lashed with greenhide and string to each brown foot. Putting his load down, he wiped his perspiring brow and inquired:
"You savee Blisbane?"
"Yes," I said.
"How muchee far—how long?"
"About thirty miles."
"O cli!" He picked up his load again, wobbled across the plank, and went on at a great pace.
"A queer lot you meet on the track," the woman remarked. "You won't lack for company when you get out a bit. But you want to be careful who you pick up with. Swagmen are generally good fellows, as straight and trusty as you could meet anywhere; but there's an odd bad one among them, as there is everywhere else, even in the highest society, as my husband says, and you can't ways tell good eggs from bad ones by their looks. I often wonder when I see a young fellow passin' out along here, what will become of him. So many travellers die of thirst; some get lost and perish, and now and again a poor unfortunate gets killed accidentally or otherwise. What might your name be, young man, if it isn't rude to ask?"
"Edinbury Swan," I informed her.
"I'll put it down in my traveller's book," She said. "It's a little hobby of mine. I've got pages of names down—of men I've talked with at this crossing or who've called at my house just up among the trees there. A few write to me when they get settled, and it's really wonderful where some of them do get to. There was the Trooper, as we call him now. He camped in our back room one wet night. Twelve months afterwards he wrote to me from McKinley, where he was stock-ridin', and he said he'd tramped three thousand miles before he unrolled his bluey there. I didn't get another word of him, good, bad or indifferent, for three years; and then one day he rode up to the house in uniform. Ah, and a fine man he was. He'd come down with cattle, and, meetin' a chum of his who was in the force, he went straight away and joined the mounted police.
"It's only an odd one I get tidings of, you know. Two of the nicest chaps I met here died of thirst out back. Seven more were advertised for by their anxious relatives, who'd never heard any more of them. One, it seemed, had left a wife to go to a job, and she was tellin' him wherever he might be to take notice that she intended to get married again. And there was Dr. Bunglo—a wanderin' specialist he made out to be. My husband bought some pills from him, and he reckoned they did him a lot of good, too. Imagination works wonders with some people. It seems, in his wanderings about the bush, this Dr. Bunglo saw the need of a mighty pill for station hands and rouseabouts, who are always complainin' about something or other, and imagining they've got half the ailments under the sun, when in reality there is nothing more wrong with them than that tired feeling. All work and no play will give any man that complaint, as my husband says. So Dr. Bunglo set to work; got an acre of ground in a quiet corner, and grew a ton or so of Indian shot. You've seen them, I suppose? Round black grains like pills, hard as nails, and grow in black pods. Then he got some thousands of boxes, packed and labelled his product, and travelled round with 'em in a light waggonette. His celebrated Indian pills was the only genuine remedy for 'shearer's back,' 'barcoo,' bad eyes and failin' memory. He was making a fortune—by degrees, till a doctor got hold of some, and let the cat out. He posted a camp of musterers ahead of Dr. Bunglo, and when the old fraud got among them with his Indian grain, they made a bonfire of his cargo, put the station brand on him so they would know him again, and flung him into the waterhole.
"Another who came into my book was big Jim Winton. He was very hard up, with scarcely a boot to his foot, poor man. He'd been engaged to a nice lookin' girl, the daughter of a publican, and she threw him over for a useless sort of a fellow who'd drawn a prize in Tattersalls' Sweep, an' set himself up as a general storekeeper. That business lasted about five years, and then he lost it all, and had to take to hawkin' for a livin'. Well, Jim Winton seemed to go to rack and ruin after bein' jilted, and he looked very weary and down-hearted when he went through here. But he got on all right. He's managin' a big sheep station now out west.
"And then there was Bert Mundy who was carryin' a fruit tin for a billy can when I registered him. A month before that he was makin' home to get married after two years' mining up north, and he lost his two horses, everything but what he stood in, crossin' a flooded creek. I felt real sorry for him, I did; but he said it couldn't be helped, and he went away whistlin' as if the girl was waitin' round the next corner, and everything ready for the weddin'. He's a boss drover now. I often see his name in the paper. If anything should happen to you, which I hope will be nothing calamitous; or if you should find a nugget of gold as big as your head, or ever do anything, out of the ordinary, I'm bound to read about it in the paper, and I'll remember the day when you stopped for a drink at the North Pine."
"I should like to remember you, too," I said, as a hint to her to complete the introduction. Her hobby, as strange a one surely as a person could take up, interested me.
"I'm Mrs. Matilda Breeze—Happy Valley, North Pine River. You might meet my husband on the road out from Caboolture. He's haulin' timber. Everybody knows Bob Breeze. He's a tall, thin man, with a wisp of black beard—which I often tell him he ought to shave off, seeing he'd improve his appearance by doin' so; and he wears a cabbage-tree hat with a snake skin band around it."
Curiously enough, though I did not have the honour of meeting her husband, who happened to be cutting timber at the time. I met his commissionaire while making a few small purchases at a store in Caboolture, which busy little town I reached shortly after I had said good-bye to Mrs. Breeze. The commissionaire was an aborigine, who came in with a slab of pine, three feet long by a foot wide, which he dumped on the counter with the explanation that it was a letter. On one side of it was written in charcoal:
Please send me one pound of tobacco and a tin o golden syrup. Money enclosed.—Yours truly, ROBERT BREEZE.
"Where's the money?" the bearer was asked.
"No money," was the answer.
"Your boss says 'money enclosed' here," said the storekeeper, tapping the charcoaled lines.
The blackfellow repeated that no money had been sent; nothing, in fact, had been said to him about money.
Surmising that the writer did not trust his henchman, I carefully examined the slab, and in one end discovered a plugged augur hole. The slab was then split with an axe, and the enclosed money, which was in shillings, was revealed to the utter amazement of the man who had brought it.
In Caboolture also I found a mate—a heavily-built man of middle age, with a dark-gingery beard, who was going to the Riggings near Xanango. He had been spelling for a week in Caboolture, mainly for the purpose of breaking the monotony of camp and track life by the enjoyment of civilised quarters. The longing to taste again the joys of home comes to most travellers after a lengthy experience of primitive conditions. The majority are far from their real homes; some of them have no homes at all, only the memory of a parental home they left long ago, perhaps in another State or in another land, and too often the public house is their only substitute.
My mate's name was Kenny Rye. He was a happy, improvident person, who made good money at times, and enjoyed it to the last cent during his periodical spells in town, he apparently had no other ambition than to drift simply down the river of life, and find a temporary, glorified harbour here and there.
He had made a good impression on the townsfolk during his brief stay in Caboolture, and it began with a little incident that happened shortly after his arrival there. He was lying on a settee on the hotel verandah with his hand closed tightly over the bottom of his pocket. Some bank notes protruded from the top, and when a deadbeat came along presently he gave a gentle but ineffectual tug at them. He went on a few paces and returned, giving the notes another pull in passing. Then he passed to and fro several times, making a more determined effort each time, but the notes would not shift. At the last tug Kenny showed signs of waking, and to make matters look right, the deadbeat shook him and said: "Hey! wake up. Someone will be goin' through you for that money directly. It's nearly out of yer pocket now" "Not much," said Kenny Rye, looking up at him with one eye; "I had a pretty tight grip of it all the time you were pullin' at it."
A day or two afterwards he took a hard-up swagman to the store, where he bought him a pair of boots and a new shirt, besides enough provisions to last him a week.
When Kenny joined me he was penniless, and was provisioned for two meals. The only effect the threatened famine had upon him was to make him walk fast to get as far on the road as possible before the sun went down. He was an optimist, whose spirits were constantly buoyed up by a wonderful confidence in to-morrow. When we left the first night camp we shared together there was only a yawning vacancy in his nosebag. I offered to share my rations with him, but after a casual inspection, he said: "Don't you worry about me, mate. I've got some friends along here who'll see me through to day; and to-morrow is bound to bring us something."
He walked on for a few paces, and then he asked; "Did you ever hear of a man dying of starvation on the track?"
"Don't think I have," I replied.
"Nobody has," he said, with conviction. "An' there's a legion like us tramping through all parts of the country. Always a legion on the march. Many of 'em haven't a cent for months at a stretch, an' they travel thousands of miles; through settled districts an' through regions where houses are 50 miles apart. Some never work; they dodge work, an' keep on wanderin' about year after year. They're sundowners, the proletariat of track society an' they keep in good condition without drawin' much on the country's natural resources. Plenty of travellers die for want of water, but nobody ever throws the seven for want of tucker. It says a lot, when you come to think of it, for the hospitality of the bush."
Kenny's experiences on the track dated from his 18th year, when he left home secretly, in the still hours of the night, to go to a gold rush. Since then he had wandered from diggings to diggings, prospecting along the way, seeking the buried wealth he had pictured in his youthful dreams, and determined never to go back without it. When hard up he took any kind of work he could get, but he never tramped about looking for it. Always his destination was a gold field, always his practised eye was on the lookout for indications of auriferous country. Some day he hoped to make a find that would stir humanity in its sleep. He was one of the patient, persistent heroes of the bush, as actively and hopefully bent on his quest then as when he stole away from home 20 years before.
"Look here, Swan," he said to me, his eyes dwelling on a wooded ridge as though he suspected it of being a Mount Morgan in disguise, "there are fields yet untapped as big as ever were discovered in the past. It's improbable that a few men should so quickly drop on the only great patches lyin' buried in an immense country. In spite of half a century's mining, Australia hasn't been very extensively prospected. Exceptin' in the neighbourhood of fields with a reputation, there 've been few deep shafts sunk. The surface has been scratched over in likely places, and that's all, for the prospector is seldom a man of unlimited means; he is mostly in search of alluvial, putting down a shallow shaft here and there, if the locality has a promisin' look about it. It's usually after the discovery of surface gold that deep sinkin' is undertaken. Some of the richest finds, you've noticed, have been the result of stumblin' accidentally across a small outcrop, but for which no one might have thought of sinkin' there for centuries to come. The fact that only an odd treasure trove hangs out a signboard of the kind to tell where it's doin' business, makes it feasible that many Baliarats and Bendigos are lurkin' underneath, an' perhaps with their caps only thinly covered."
He paused in the bed of a streamlet we had reached to root in the sand and pebbles with the toe of his boot.
"Some day," he said on resuming, "you might be able to say you walked over it in my company."
"Walked over what?" I asked.
"The biggest nugget the world has ever heard of."
Through the busy haunt of the timber getters we had a fine bush road, winding through a great forest that was enlivened with the chatter and song of birds and sweetened with the perfume of early flowers. Often afterwards I thought of that morning. The cheeriness that was everywhere infected us as we strode along with vigorous steps, happy and hopeful. We had no idea where the travel would ultimately end; yet in high spirits we trod side by side, always side by side, and hour after hour, joying in the scenic changes and looking with eager expectancy for the little surprises that await the traveller on woodland ways. To me that road had a thousand charms. I forgot at times that I was looking for such a prosaic thing as a job.
We came opposite a neat house standing a little way back from the road.
"Take a pull, mate." said Kenny; "I think there's an old friend of mine here." He went round to the back of the house, while I sat on a log and waited. In a few minutes he came back, looking rather glum.
"Made a mistake!" was all he said, and we went on. For a time we picked our way through the trees, whilst a dozen bullock teams, drawing pine to Caboolture, monopolised the road.
Then he made another effort to find the old friend, visiting a big, new house in a small clearing.
He returned shortly, looking a little ruffled.
"Drew another blank!" he said, curtly, and again we shouldered our swags.
Timber-getters' cottages, many of them newly-built, showed frequently through the dense forest. He called at two more places without success. I remarked innocently that the old fellow he was looking for had probably removed elsewhere.
"You must expect some disappointments in a new settlement," he said. "Half of these houses are new, some of them not finished, and in such places the people haven't got properly settled and acquainted with the Smiths over the hill and the Browns down the creek. They're not done borrowing the saucepan from next door yet, an' a lot of them are 'just goin' to bake' when you call. Only an odd one is prepared for unexpected visitors. So you draw more blanks than prizes."
Half-an-hour's walking brought us in juxtaposition to an old-looking place nestling in the bend of a creek. It was the only one in sight. Kenny was alternately half stopping with an air of uncertainty and swinging along with his gaze wandering in search of another homestead. Presently he looked up at the sun, which was nearing the zenith, and then back to the old place in the bend.
"He might be livin' there," he said, and dropped his swag.
While he was away I boiled the billy and got lunch ready. He returned with a satisfied smile, a paper parcel under his arm.
"I was nearly not goin' down there," he said, dropping down in the shade.
"Did you find him?" I asked.
"Aye," he answered, beaming. With the joy of a youngster who had been to a toy shop, he opened the parcel and disclosed a sumptuous repast of bread, meat, potatoes, pumpkin, and pudding. Then I understood who the old friend was. He lives in the bend of many a creek, on the crest of many a hill, by the side of a thousand roads.
Our way was now hilly and comparatively dry. All the afternoon we were climbing up hills and jolting down hills, so that by sundown we were fairly tired. Being unable to find water before the light failed us, we were compelled to feel our way along in the dark. No lights showed anywhere, except the glare of a bush fire somewhere among the wooded hills.
"I hope we're on the right road," said Kenny as we swung slowly round a black bank of trees. It's that blamed dark I can't see what I'm talking about."
We were within a mile of the little town of Woodford, as we discovered subsequently, when Kenny and I found water simultaneously. We stepped unexpectedly off a little ledge of bank and floundered into it. A match revealed that we were in a narrow gully and about three yards off our proper course, the ground thereabouts being all bare.
We unloaded at once, and shuffled around until we had kicked against enough wood to make a fire. While it was burning up, Kenny turned his face skywards and uttered a dismal dog-howl intended to be imitative of a lonely dingo. A bird, startled by the awful noise, darted out of a near tree, after which a temporary intense silence followed.
"No dogs about," he commented, and after a pause he assailed the welkin with a loud "Cock-a-doodle-doo!" In a little while there came faintly through the trees the answering crow of a rooster.
"Ah!" he said, moving off in the direction of the sound, "found poultry, anyway. Keep a blaze goin' while I investigate."
I stood drying myself at the fire. The sound of his heavy steps came to me clearly until he had reached the top of a low ridge. On the opposite slope he found a rough farm house. The back door, to which the light of a kerosene lamp had guided him, stood partly open. Inside, a thin, wiry-looking man sat on a stool, dancing a baby on his knee; a woman in bedraggled skirts stood over the fire frying something in a pan. When Kenny had made known his errand, she left it and went into the adjoining back room, returning presently with something bulky wrapped in newspaper and tied with twine.
As he trudged back to the blazing beacon by the gully he speculated with pleasant anticipations as to the nature of the largess. He was shivering with cold, for these August nights were yet wintry. He changed into dry clothes, hanging his wet ones round the fire, before he sat down. Then he cut the bindings of his parcel with his jack knife, and unwound the several sheets of paper with the air of a man who was going to enjoy himself.
The next instant his manner underwent a lightning change. The sight of the contents seemed to momentarily paralyse him. He sat motionless, his hands grasping the last folds of paper, his eyes fixed as if fascinated on seven raw potatoes. There was nothing else.
"Been doing a bit of farming?" I observed, as he seemed to have forgotten me. He did not speak; he was too intent on studying the potatoes.
"Better have some tea, Kenny," I said, after a five-minutes interval. "These spuds will go very well to-morrow with the bit of salt beef I've got."
Kenny reached for his pannikin. "I was wonderin' if that woman laughed," he said; and then he proceeded with his meal in thoughtful silence.
A little later we had spread our blankets, and were about to turn in when the bush fire, fanned by a gentle wind, came swooping over the northern hill. We did not notice till it got close to us that the grass, though short, was thick and dry; and we had to arm ourselves with bushes and fight it to save our camp.
From Woodford the country was more hilly, but better watered. Bush fires raged around us, and thick smoke curled up through the tall ironbarks, at times drifting in blinding clouds across the track.
We reached Kilkoy at dusk, and carefully deposited ourselves under an adjacent tree. In the grey dawn we were awakened by a belated selector returning home from a dance and card party. He was on his knees, with his bridle reins over his arm, scraping in with his hand all the leaves, twigs, and loose grass around our fire for a radius of 10 feet. He explained that many selectors had been burnt out by the prevailing grass fires, and he feared for the safety of his own place. He hoped we would put our inoffensive little fire very much out before leaving, and after it was out empty half of Sheep Station Creek on to it lest the wind should fan it up again. He hunted up a battered jam-tin and brought it to us for the purpose, saying that there was always a danger if the heated ground was not cooled with plentiful ablutions of water. He hoped also that we would leave no bottles lying about, as the sun had a way of lighting grass with them.
He talked enthusiastically of his little homestead selection, where he lived for short periods when not engaged at droving or other stock work. He was a small, withered-looking man, registered in his lovable infancy as William Willet, and popularly known in his declining age as "Brumby Bill."
Having warmed himself, he raked in another leaf, picked up a tiny blade of grass he had missed, gave us some more instructions how to put the fire out, mounted his horse, and galloped away.
Our road passed within stone-throw of his unpretentious little dwelling, and after a little more than an hour's walk we came upon him standing by some dead brush and watching a bush fire approaching it across a paddock. He asked us to stop until he burnt the brush, as it was dangerously near his hut and he wanted it clear before the big blaze got round him.
"I've been trying hard to save the grass for my stock," he said, "but most of it will have to go now. The whole country's alight!"
"Where's your stock?" I asked him.
"Tied up under the tree there, with the saddle on."
The burning-off occupied him an hour, after which he invited us to the privacy of his home. It was a one-roomed hut, with slab walls and shingle roof. Its only furniture was a stool, a rough table, and a stretcher made of saplings and bags. Outside was a tin dish on a block, and tacked on the wall above it was a sardine-tin containing soap. Everything was eloquent of the easy going nature and improvidence of "Brumby." But he was a genial host, and during dinner, which consisted of damper and meat and black tea, he related some wonderful feats, and episodes of his youthful days.
Mr. Willet was a stockman of ye olden time. Running brumbies one day with Charlie Flitt, he galloped into a clump of timber which was so thick that at one spot the only opening was through the fork of a tree.
"I could have pulled up," he said, "but no bloomin' brumby ever got away from me once I set him, an' that lot wasn't goin' to best me for no jumped-up vegetable in Queensland. Put Blue Streak at it, an' he went up like a rocket an' through as clean's a whistle. Just shaved a bit of loose bark oft' each side with me knees. Flitt followed on Dizzy Dick, but Dizzy was a bit fat an' jammed in the fork of the tree. I yarded the brumbies single handed, an' then went back an' levered Charlie out with a long pole. Dizzy 'ad 'urt himself struggling an' I 'ad to shoot 'im. People often wondered after how the skeleton came to be standin' away up in the tree. Stranded in a flood, they reckoned."
"Brumby," concluded with a laugh—a dry cackle that was like the rattle of a loose buggy-wheel.
Before we left, "Brumby" told us how to get to Colinton. "Keep this track till you hit a fence. Take that on your right shoulder an' carry it along to a crick. You leave the fence there an' put the crick on your back, an' by-an'-by you'll pick up a fence on your left shoulder, an' you'll run that into a hill. Leave it there, an' make a bee-line west-by-south till you strike the river. Just across that you'll drop on to a metalled road; leave the river there, an' take the road on to Colinton."
He was going back to his "stock," still patiently standing under the tree, and as we walked away he broke into an old bush melody:
Humping your drum
Is bad after rum
It's wearing your young life away!
It was a send-off that considerably dampened my spirits, for I felt at the time that my young life was being wasted, if I was not exactly wearing it out.
On and on we trudged, through richly grassed country where, here and there, great horned cattle ran rings around us as we passed along. Our road had dwindled into a faint bridle-track, which eventually gave out, leaving us only an old blazed-tree line. This led us over many beautiful hills and across many perennial streams. On the top of the last hill we halted awhile, admiring the beauty of the Arcadian view. Before us was a broad flat, dotted with a few ring barked trees that stood like gaunt sentinels over the feeding cattle. Around it coursed the Brisbane River, and beyond this, on a low ridge backed by a dark mass of foliage, was Colinton homestead.
Our admiration slumped a little when we got down to the ford, for the water was waist-deep and cold; and fording a cold river, dressed only in a bulky swag and a straw hat, and holding up a billy in one hand and a pair of boots in the other, was anything but a dignified proceeding.
In the friendly twilight, after scrambling painfully through a hedge of briar roses, we arrived at the humble residence of Billy Bland.
Here I said good-bye to Kenny Rye, who went to the men's hut, and next morning he continued on his way to Nanango.
Bland's place was an old three-roomed cottage, built of slabs and shingles. At one end was the family bedroom; at the other end was a lumber-room, where the milk, meat, harness, and saddles were kept. A speckly hen and a white pullet also laid there. The generally-useful room where we dined was in the centre. It was furnished with a table, carved all round with boundary riders' initials, two stools, and a sofa. A broom, which appeared to be used principally as a weapon against intruding fowls, stood in one corner, and a stockwhip, hanging on a nail, was the only wall decoration. I slept on the sofa, and as my host went to work early I had to get up earlier still to allow Mrs. Bland to come out to get his breakfast ready. I suggested that the lumber-room would be more convenient, but Billy said a bed couldn't be made there without shifting the nests, and, in any case, if I didn't get up early, my presence there would be disturbing to the hens.
Billy was a cynically-humorous person, a man who had seen better days, and had drifted into the rough and careless habits so common among men who knock about the bush. He was good company when he had nothing to read; but given a good novel or a book of verse, he would lie on his back for hours, his pipe in full blast, absorbing the literature. A chief characteristic of his was mimicking others; especially people with a peculiar style of speech. At times he would imitate one until he fell unconsciously into that person's way of speaking. His particular study at the time I was sharing his humble quarters was a superior overseer, and that overseer spoke to me so often through Billy's mouth that I began to catch the habit myself.
"On most squattages," he said, in reference to my sleeping apartment, "there's a lonely little place away by itself, like a dead-house or a quarantine depot, if you understand me, for the special accommodation of uncommercial travellers. As a rule, the squatter built it years ago, when men were scarce, and not so given to camping out. It kept strangers away from the sheds and stables, and aloof from the men's hut. The only difference between the two huts is that either of them is worse than the other to the respective occupants. Most travellers in the uncommercial line nowadays prefer to camp out. Given a tree, a bit of grass for a hipper, a waterhole and a fire, and they're at home. For a reasonably civilised and intellectual person, if you understand me, the average hut is an abomination. The occupants are good fellows, but some of them are awful bores. There's Bullocky Bill, blatherskiting for hours about what Strawberry and Rattler can do; and Sam, the blacksmith, lecturing on the mending of cracked saucepans; the boundary-rider gassing as to how long the water will last in the Spare-me-days' Tank. If there was a sheep bogged in the tank he will be a solid hour relating how he pulled it out.
'' 'Ever been to Brisbane?' I once asked a boundary hand, by way of a change.
'' 'Well, no,' he said, 'but I was dashed near goin' there once. Pulled up at Winkle's, and got paralytic.' That's some people's ambition, to get paralytic occasionally, and make history of it in the hut on Skeleton Creek or Dead Man's Hole. It's mostly vulgar 'shop' talk; nothing intellectual, if you understand me. There's always someone wanting to get a pitch on, or to sing 'The Old Bark Hut,' or the 'Old Homestead,' just as you're absorbed in Shelley or Rossetti. Some want the door shut; some want it open; and there's always a row over the slush-lamp. Some can't sleep with the light burning; others can't smoke in the dark. Someone blows it out; voices call him a cow; and then someone lights it again. It jars on one's finer senses, if you understand me.
"I've waltzed Matilda more than once myself," he went on. "We're all in the glue pot so far as that's concerned. One wet night found me with an old fellow under a lean-to. We were on a slope, and towards midnight he complained of water running in. 'Ain't you gettin' wet?' he asked, his teeth chattering. No; I was quite dry. 'Jumpin'' Jerusalem!' he gasped, 'the whole seethin' Murrumbidgee agin' me.' He raised himself, the water rushed through, and I in turn was swamped. 'That was unneighbourly. Jack.' I said to him. 'You couldn't have got any wetter, so what was the use of wetting me?' 'What are you givin' us?' he returned. 'Do you take me for a bloomin' dam?' We sat the rest of the night leaning against one another.
"It's an interesting business, taken all in all; but there's nothing of the supremely sublime in it, if you understand me."
On Monday, August 19, I set out alone from Colinton on my long tramp across the Queensland bush. Two lines of a song that Bland had sung the night before ran in my mind:
On the wild Barcoo, and the Flinders, too,
A thousand miles away!
It was for the Barcoo I shaped my course. Three little girls saw me to the first slip rails, a mile distant. One took my tucker bag, another found amusement in carrying my billycan. Then came the last good-byes, and the girls, climbing on to the fence, watched me until I had disappeared from their view among the wooded hills.
Though this was my first experience as a hatter on the track, I did not yet feel lonely, for the country was familiar. I had travelled from Mt. Lindsay to Taromeo two years earlier, and had thence ridden to New England across the bleak Darling Downs, where one had to hold up a saddle-cloth to prevent the flour blowing away while the other made johnny-cakes, and where we had to pull splinters off the wire-fence posts to make a fire. Across by the Condamine and Macintyre too was a hard journey; but on the Severn River we gave our horses a spell, and lived three weeks on bream and Murray cod.
My thoughts were so busy all the morning that I walked 13 miles before I stopped for lunch. By a little rippling stream, and under a clump of wattle, I rested for a couple of hours. From here to Taromeo was an easy jaunt—through the great blackbutt country, where stood in all its primeval glory undulating miles of magnificent scrub and forest. Suddenly there came a break, and I saw a lawn-like clearing. At the far side, on the bank of a rocky creek, with dark, lofty hills for a background, was the cosy homestead of Taromeo. All hands were away mustering; so I took possession of the men's hut and made myself comfortable.
I left it early next morning, and struck out on the Nanango road. It was a good road for walking, and I stepped along at a brisk pace for three hours. Then came stony, mountainous country, where one is everlastingly climbing up hills and climbing down again, hoping every one is the last one, and finds on gaining the top, another and yet another before him. The road that you can see a long way ahead, winding over long, grey hills, is a dreary road to travel. You look back and thank your stars that you have crossed so many steep ridges; then you look ahead, and the prospect nearly breaks your heart. I like that road which has many a turning through thick timber; you never know what might be waiting for you round the corner, and the expectation helps a man along. But in hilly country you know you have to climb that hill which you saw from the last one before you can expect anything else.
Out of the hills I came to Nanango, a little mining-grazing town on an off shoot of Barambah Creek, which is a tributary of the Burnett River. The Nanango diggings were in a scrub a mile out. There were also the Seven Mile diggings and the Cooyar Creek diggings. Gold had been found in several other localities about Nanango, and the more sanguine of the inhabitants were expectant of a boom time for their little town.
Having insufficient money to go prospecting with, and knowing no one from whom to get information, I left the various mines severely alone. I also left the town.
I took the Taabinga road, and towards sundown arrived at a small hut occupied by a grizzled hatter, a quaint individual known as Arty-the-Tinker. He was middle-aged, and had small fierce-looking eyes and a fuzzy beard that pointed in all directions except north. He told me that the nearest water was in a creek two miles ahead. I hurried away to find it before dark. When I had gone a mile I heard him cooeeing. Then I saw him beckoning, and went back.
"Where are you goin'?" he asked, leaning on the fence.
"To the creek," I answered.
"Ain't there another day to-morrer?" he demanded, fiercely.
I admitted that there would be for most of us.
"Well, hang it, what are yer in such a tearin' hurry for?"
He turned away as he spoke, and went into the hut. I sat down outside, a little puzzled.
Presently he came out again, looking fiercer than ever.
"Why the deuce don't you come in?"
"Thank you," I said, following him smartly. "I've walked 22 miles to-day, and feel a bit tired."
"Pooh!" he said. "That's a mere stroll. I'd think nothing of 40 miles even now, an' carry a big swag at that."
I did not doubt that he could do it for one day; but record tramps are not done every day. An old Warrego battler, known as the "Rainmaker," in one day trudged from Eulo to Cunnamulla, a good 50 miles; but he could not repeat the performance the second day. A little man named Sam Smith stepped the 45 miles from Deniliquin to Echuca in nine and a half hours, with a 28lb. swag, and a bottle of whisky for refreshments; and a digger, hurrying to Mt. Browse during rush time, in one day went from Hungerford to Hamilton's Hut, on the Queensland border, a hard 57 miles. His load was a digger's pick, a shovel, dish, billy, tucker, and a camp oven. But slower men passed him before the journey's end, and when he didn't turn up they sent a dray out for him, and brought him to the field in a pretty bad way.
I was ushered into a mean, low little shanty containing two rooms. The front one was no more than 6 feet wide, and had a fireplace at one end. Its only furniture was a narrow table affixed to the wall, a sitting-block, a stool, and a shelf. The other was a bedroom, which I was not invited to inspect; he carefully shut the door when he passed in or out, so that I could not peep into it. I sat on the block, while Arty poked up the fire and slung the billy.
In the course of conversation I learnt that his was a very small block of land, which he had taken up for the sake of having a home to go to when out of collar. He ran a fence around it to prevent other people's stock from purloining his grass. Having no cattle or horses of his own, and a great dread of snakes and casual fires, he had frequently to burn it off. His only live stock consisted of nine hens and two roosters. One hen—Cluckin' Biddy—had six chickens. She did have seven, but the little black chick with a white spot on its left ear died from cramp (so far as he could make out from the almanac).
When I remarked that there was something of the dog-in-the-manger principle about him in respect to his grass, he explained that he wanted it for fattening grasshoppers, as that was all his fowls had to live on. Cattle were destructive. Besides eating the juiciest grass, they squashed the best of his stud grasshoppers with their big hoofs, or overlaid them when they camped, and the black hen and the speckly rooster suffered in consequence.
"Why don't you keep pigs?" I asked.
"What will I feed 'em on?" he demanded.
"Make a garden and grow pumpkins."
"An' have 'em stole while I'm away! I've got to go out sometimes for months. This place won't keep me. It's only a 'ome. Last time I was away me door was smashed in, an' the place ransacked. Me brotherly neighbours did that. Where would the pumpkins be? Bust 'em! they'd shake the eye out of your head. They even steal me grasshoppers to fish with!"
"Where do they live?" I asked.
"In the grass. Dash it all?"
"I mean the neighbours," I hastened to explain.
"Up the creek about 10 mile."
His fierce little eyes fairly glittered as he slewed to the fire, and threw one leg across the other. Just then the billy boiled over.
The supper was put on the table, and the meal eaten in silence. I tried once or twice to start a conversation, but not one word would he utter. When he had washed up, however, he sat down by the fire and became more amiable.
The conversation drifted to the subject of matrimony, his lonely state having prompted me to make some tentative observations pertaining to it.
"I've known plenty o' women I could ha' married," he said, "but none of 'em was my equal."
"What do you call your equal?"
"I'll tell you what I call my equal," he said. Evidently he did not like the way I spoke. "I've got a bit o' ground an' some hens."
''And some chickens," I added.
"They'll be hens by-n'-bye, won't they?' he demanded.
"Certainly— if they don't be roosters, and nothing happens to their feet."
"An' what if anything 'appens to their feet?"
"In that case they wouldn't be able to run grasshoppers down."
His little eyes looked like glow-worms in the faint twilight, and he took several long pulls at his pipe before he resumed.
"Say I'm worth two 'undred pound. I look on marriage as a business partnership 'tween man an' woman. They're the firm. So if a man puts two 'undred quid into it the woman should put two 'undred quid into it. If she can't do that she ain't his equal."
"You forget that woman is man's helpmate." I protested.
"Isn't he her helpmate? Doesn't he help her a sight more 'n she helps him?"
"Not always. Her duties are hard and constant; her hours are half as long again as his; and is not the love of a good woman recompense enough for your paltry outlay?"
He turned on me furiously. "Hasn't she the love of a good man in return? Woman wants a man's love as much as, if not more than, man wants woman's. There's an old rhyme what says, 'Love is of man's life a part; 'tis woman's whole existence!' "
"Which shows that man possesses more of the brute, and that woman is, therefore, the superior being. That being so, it behoves man to bring something more than himself into the partnership to equalise things."
"If I'm a pauper," he said, "an' she's a pauper, we're equal. If I've two 'undred pound an' she's nothing, are we still equal?"
"Consequentially—no. She may still be your superior."
"Ugh! What's the use o' talkin'!" he cried, irritably. "Young fellers of your age think of nothing but beauty. If she's got a pretty face an' a neat ankle, an' a wasp-like waist, you reckon it's dowry enough. But beauty will never captivate me. I want me equal!"
Despite our various differences, the old fellow took kindly to me, and suggested that I might do worse than stay a few days at his shanty. Something might turn up in the meantime. There was nothing to be gained by always rushing ahead; I might be running away from work instead of running into it.
Arty was a tinsmith by trade, and he had a tank to make for a neighbouring selector. To properly rivet this together required a man inside and a man outside; and as Arty could not be on both sides at once, he engaged me to assist him.
The contract was completed in one day. Between the dinning intervals of hammering we were talking of the squattages and roads out west, and I remarked that I might get a lift as far as Taabinga. He said I might wait till doomsday, as few vehicles traversed that road. Whilst we were at tea, however, I noticed a buggy passing towards Nanango.
"There's a trap going along there now," I informed him.
"Well," he snapped, "ain't there a road there?"
After that I made no further effort to converse with him at meal times. To talk then was apparently against his creed.
The next couple of days were spent splitting posts and rails and doing odd jobs about the place. My first task every morning before breakfast was carrying two big buckets of water from a gully outside his boundary, and nearly a mile from the hut. The track zig-zagged over two low hills and through half-a-mile of long grass. The last task, after we knocked off work in the paddock, was humping a log home for the evening fire.
About noon on Saturday we noticed dense clouds of smoke that encompassed the whole western horizon. Within an hour a line of flame crossed the nearest ridge, and soon swept the intervening flat. Arty gathered up some old bags.
"Are you going to muster the grasshoppers?" I asked.
"Lord help 'em!" he said. "Me poor fowls will starve."
He threw me a bag, and we went down to the back fence, the alignment of which was strewn with dry bark, logs, and small wood that had dropped from the ringbarked trees. For three hours we were raking away rubbish and protecting that precious fence. The fire got through, but as the grass was short around Arty's domicile he allowed it to burn. I reminded him of his grasshoppers. He said there would be enough food along the top for them till the grass grew. They would get fat and multiply on the young stuff.
"Supposing they get out of the paddock?" I suggested.
"Can't they get back again?" he snapped.
It was after sundown when we left off. And while the billy was boiling he paid me 15s for the four days' work I had done. After tea he brought out guns and invited me to an hour's ramble along the ridge. He wanted to get some possum-skins before the cold weather was over to make a rug.
The first possum we sighted was perched on a post of the back fence—a capital shot for a boy with a catapult. Arty stood about 10 yards off, and let fly. The possum sprang off the post, and ran up a tree, from a dark limb of which it purred mockingly at Arty.
"Fust thing I ever missed in me life!" he said, in a surprised sort of way. "A flamin' moth bobbed in me eye just as I pulled. They do be bobbin' about a lot to night," he added, apologetically.
He started to re-load under the tree while I mooned the possum. Catching it in a splendid position, without giving a thought to my mate, I let drive. Down it came thump on to the old fellow's head. It was mortally wounded, and for a few seconds clung desperately to his neck. Arty, bent double and pivoting round and round, roared lustily for help. I caught it by the tail and pulled it off, to the accompaniment of an ear-splitting yell.
Arty danced about for a bit, brushing his neck, and fuming and spluttering the while. Then he turned on to me ferociously.
"Gimme that gun, an' get out o' me paddock!"
Saying which, he snatched the weapon from my hand, and strode rapidly away in the direction of home.
When I reached the hut I found my swag and billy, lying outside, and the door shut, and bolted. I gathered them up, and in the moonlight went on to the creek, even though there was another day to-morrow.
I camped over Sunday by the creek; for though all days may seem alike on the track, very few swagmen travel on the Sabbath if they can help it. I had no tent, there was no house in sight; so I spent the long day under a tree.
On resuming, the first thing that enlivened my way was a roan cow with sunken eyes, and ribbed like a concertina, which charged me at Barker's Creek. I sprang aside, and she struck the ground with her horns, and turning over, broke her neck. Another attempted to turn sharp round to run away, but tripped over her own hoofs and fell. They had passed through a hard winter, and the spring had not yet worked much improvement. This condition of the pastoral industry thereabouts gave no promise of lucrative employment in the near future, for the evident losses would incline the economising squatter to shorten hands rather than to increase his wages account.
A sandy watercourse pulled me up for lunch. What little water it contained was covered with a yellow scum, and half-buried by the edge of the pool were some bovine bones. I strained and boiled and skimmed my drinking supply, not only as a precaution against the apparent unwholesomeness, but out of consideration for the probable variety and condition of my predecessors—dogs that lapped it and rolled in it; the old gin who bathed her tired feet in it; sheep with cancered lips, oxen with pleuro-pneumonia. crows and hawks with beaks freshly stained with some putrid carcase. I have seen them all at different holes, and there was nothing to prevent the lot visiting this one.
Considering the awful water he has frequently to drink in dry times, it is marvellous how the traveller outback remains immune from sickness, from hydatids and kindred diseases. He swallows all sorts of stagnant water, of various colours from lime-white to jet back, much of it teeming with insects. In hot weather, when pools are few and far between, he comes to each with a ravenous thirst, and not infrequently drops on all fours and drinks as his horse drinks. Each water has its own particular taste. One has such a decided cow-yard flavour that he tries to spit out the taste of it and hurries to get his pipe alight. Another is so impregnated with eucalyptus that it seems more like a dose of medicine than a plain drink; while a third is simply gidgee tea, a course of which gives him the barcoo. Then there are the mineral waters, each one asserting its own little peculiarity on a person who is not used to it.
About mid-afternoon I had the pleasure of drinking at a small running stream. It was spring water, clear as crystal, but of a rather sweetish taste. I attributed this to the presence of minerals. I also noticed some fibrous particles floating down, which I supposed to be the roots of herbs. Going towards the spring just afterwards, I discovered a dead cow lying lengthwise in the middle of the course. She was pretty well washed out, and the water was running through her—a sort of tunnel, as it were. What I had mistaken for herbage roots were being dislodged from the more ancient parts of her.
I reached Taabinga in time for tea, to which Mrs. Johnson, the cook, kindly invited me. We were joined by Mary, a buxom little housemaid, and Sam, a good-hearted, easy-going young man who "pottered about the place." They were the only three persons at the homestead, the others were away mustering on a distant part of the run.
We played cards till 9, and finished up with tea and cake. Sam and I then repaired to the men's hut, a domicile that might be mildly described as rough and unkempt; a food storehouse for bacteria, where one might contract any kind of disease without much trouble. The front room was allotted to me. Sam occupied the other. He advised me to move cautiously lest I should fall over the kerosene tin or the pack-saddle. They were somewhere about the floor. The horse-boy had left them there before he went mustering a week ago. He never saw such an untidy young imp.
Despite precautions I stumbled against something. A light revealed the withered hind leg of a foal, which had died at the back of the stockyard. The dog had dragged it in the day before yesterday. He would have to tie that dog up.
Sam lit the slush-lamp—a mustard tin on a tin plate. Both were covered with filthy black fat that had boiled over. Whilst it fizzled and spluttered I surveyed my apartment. It contained a bag bunk, the aforementioned kerosene tin and pack-saddle, and the foal's leg. That was all.
There being no back door, the dog came in several times to gnaw at the leg, and at last I had to get up and haul it outside. Then Sam got the nightmare, to remedy which I transferred the kerosene-tin into his apartment with a great clatter. Sleep was scarce, for in the dim dawn he made a fresh disturbance putting his boots on. They seemed to require a lot of stamping on the floor to fit his feet into them.
Acting on information received from Samuel at breakfast time, that a new selector living nine miles down the creek wanted a man, I propelled myself resolutely in pursuit of the billet, only to discover a tent, standing alone in the wilderness, which had not been inhabited for at least two days. I had therefore to retrace my steps; and after walking 18 miles—for nothing more than to get a tired feeling—I found myself back at the cross roads, camped in sight of Taabinga homestead.
Dingoes were plentiful, bold and inquisitive, coming at times into the firelight. 'Possums scampered up and down the tree at my head; koalas were snorting and snoring, the squirrels squealing over the flat by the creek; and along the ridge the curlews were crying with weird cadence. It was bitterly cold, too, and I spent a good part of the night stoking.
I was awakened at sunrise by crows and kurrawongs pecking at my feet. Looking up, I saw hundreds of birds around me, and in the tree above me, and from all directions more were flocking in with lusty carrion cries that call mates to feast upon a newly-discovered corpse. They had mistaken me for a dead man, and were having a preliminary corroboree over me. Luckily my face was covered. Those birds have a penchant for eyes. I have seen sheep wandering helplessly about with both eyes pecked out, the victims of crows, or properly ravens. These haunt a sick or starving beast, waiting for the animal to get down for the last time. They follow the dingoes, flying from tree to tree, knowing well they will come in for a feast when the canine has slain his prey and satisfied his own hunger. I shuddered as I saw the black scavengers hopping away, looking startled and surprised, and utterly unable to comprehend the situation. One sharp dig through the eyelid, and there would have been no need afterwards to shut that eye to see straight with the other.
The Burrandowan road was fair walking, but it wasn't cheerful by any means, for it is a lonely place where no one lives. Only thick forests of ironbark and wild apple trees to gaze upon, with an odd stone curlew trotting about to relieve the monotony.
I did not meet a soul all day, and began to fear there would be a tobacco famine in my vicinity if things did not improve; neither did I pass a house till sundown, and that stood a long way off the road. I ended my day's journey of 22 miles just beyond it. A heap of surplus wood, left by drovers, was a chuck-in, and a piece of curled bark which they had used for a baking board served me for a similar purpose. Afterwards I remembered that a man had been poisoned through using picked-up baking boards. Poisoners frequently use the same kind for making baits on. Which may account for many a mysterious death by the roadside.
August 19.—A couple of hours after starting from camp I lost the alleged road, and had to leave my swag under a tree while I looked around. It was a road but little used, and hard to follow. In places there was no road at all. The only thing to do in such cases is to go on blindly in the direction you think it runs till you pick it up again—or lose it altogether. It makes one feel uneasy, and after wasting a considerable amount of his daily allowance of energy, there is the annoying conviction that he has not done himself justice—that he ought to be many miles farther on. The veteran sundowner takes no account of time, but even he objects to walking "round a gum tree." He would rather lie under it.
However, after a lot of beating about I got on the road again. I had carried half a billy of cold tea from camp, and on returning to my swag found it being sampled by a big goanna. It was so big and ugly that one might be excused for mistaking it for a crocodile. Yet it seemed to have been somebody's pet, for it wore a strap, like a dog's collar, round its neck. I chased it up a tree, and threw the remains of the tea after it. Then I walked round and round the tree to see if I could beat it, but it kept pace with me, and with a quick side motion circumnavigated that tree in such a masterly manner that I could not see so much as a claw. Then I doubled back, and just caught a glimpse of it coming round. It poked its tongue out rapidly, as though resenting this trick, and skedaddled back the other way.
Towards noon I met Smith of the "Half-way House," and on my mentioning the incident to him he said:
"Just as well you didn't kill it; that goanna belongs to me."
"Belongs to you?" I repeated.
He nodded. "I lost three of them last week."
"What do you do with goannas?" I inquired.
"I use 'em for drawin' wood an' water. Usually drive a couple o' dozen, harnessed in pairs. Best team in creation for takin' a load up a pinch—they 'ave such splendid claws for gravel-scratching.
He may have been a liar, and he may not. There are some queer cranks in wide spaces. Some find amusement in capturing 'possums and branding them, after which they let them go again. Branded and ear-marked kangaroos and wallabies are often met with in the bush. Another practice is to pluck a crow, then send him adrift to act as a scare. The other crows will either immediately quit his neighbourhood, or fall upon and murder him.
The sight of Burrandowan was refreshing, and at 4 o'clock by the sun I arrived on the scene—with expectations, for the place was commodious, prosperous, and promising. There were many buildings, and the first I hit was the carpenter's shop. The carpenter was leaning against the doorpost looking out upon a ringbarked flat. At the end of the shop was a small horse yard. A boy was sitting in it holding a horse, whilst two men sat on the rails and talked about it. In the garden beyond was an old fellow leaning on a shovel and smoking a pipe.
My expectations at this juncture were completely reversed. It is generally a blue duck when you see everybody idle.
I had just said "good day" to the carpenter, and got a grunt from him, when the boss came out. The carpenter began to tap with his hammer, the men slipped off the rails, the boy jerked the halter and sang out "Wey" to the horse, and the old gardener spat on his hands and swung the shovel at a small clod. The boss was a ruddy-faced, corpulent old gentleman, with a snow-white beard, and a limp in his off-side leg. He moved very slowly, and used a walking stick.
"Good afternoon," I said. "Any chance of a job?"
"None what-ever!" There was a peculiar firmness about the set of his lips when he had said it, as though he were semi-conscious of some dramatic effect. "I've got too many men now."
At this point the yard became obscured in dust, the carpenter was making a great noise with his hammer, and the gardener was digging as if he meant to turn the earth upside down.
For a moment or two the old gentleman leaned on his stick and scratched his head.
"Which way have you come?" he asked me then.
"From Taabinga," I replied.
"Where did you light your last fire?"
"Near Smith's. I put it out before I left."
"How did you put it out?"
"Threw water on it."
"H'm. You think you put it out. Very often there are coals left. The first breeze fans them up, and away goes my grass. Do you see that smoke across the hills? That's my grass burning. The result of swagmen leaving fires behind them. I've got to suffer."
"I'm always very careful with fire," I protested.
"You can't be too careful," he said. "Bring your bags and I'll give you something. Not much, mind you—" turning half round. "Just enough to take you off my grass."
With all his grumpiness he was a good hearted man, and I liked him for his frankness and bluff manner. In the store he asked as an afterthought:
"What sort of work are you looking for?"
"Anything," I answered eagerly.
"Anything!" he repeated. "That means nothing—always!"
I regretted afterwards that I did not "argue the point." I might have convinced him that the services which I was so assiduously hawking about with a view to leasing at reasonable rates were really of marketable value. It seemed hard that a strong healthy young man should go begging about the country to be made use of, and no one could find a use for him. My only utility at present was to assist in preventing the roads from being overgrown with grass so that other travellers might not get lost.
From Burradowan I steered for Bundooma, an easy stage of 18 miles, by a fairly level track, winding through giant timber.
Midway I met an elderly one-eyed man, who was as dry and withered looking as a lambskin on a sun-baked plain. His clothes were a mass of patches, with a few holes here and there for ventilation. He had half a yard of tying-wire round one boot to keep it together, and a piece of line wire thrust through the toe of the other, and twitched to keep the boot from gaping. The rim of his hat was suspended from the crown with twine, "to keep it from floppin' about me ears," he explained. Also about 30 small corks, strung on thread, dangled all round under the rim. When a fly lit on his nose he shook his head, and the resultant swinging and bumping of the corks dispersed the pest.
"The best fly-veil yer can 'ave," he said, taking the hat off momentarily to admire his ingenuity.
He was driving a melancholy-looking horse, which was too poor to throw a respectable shadow. It carried the pack; a few odds and ends in a wallet, secured with a greenhide surcingle. The halter was made of hide, rope, twine, wire and bootlaces.
"I 'ad a week's work above Aramac," he informed me, "an' I got that through workin' a p'int on a skinflint. I wanted a trifle from the store to go on with, an' when I mentioned it to him, he says to me: 'There's a axe an' a heap o' wood over there. You apply one to the other, my man, an' apply to me after,' he says. I went ahead, an' slogged away till half the heap was chopped up. Then I hunted him up again. 'Got yer bags?' he says, quite pleased. 'Never mind the bags jes' now,' I says; 'pay me wages first.' 'Your wages!' says he. 'Jes' so,' says I. 'I s'pose you know something of the Masters and Servants' Act?' says I. 'But, man,' says he, 'I didn't put you on!' 'You ordered me to cut wood,' I says, 'an' I cut wood—which entitles me to a week's wages,' I says, 'or a week's notice in lieu thereof. Your sort's been gettin' at my sort too long with yer bloomin' woodheaps. Pay me a pound now, or keep me the week,' I says. He took a stroll round the woodheap, thinkin' it out. 'What's your name?' he says. 'Jimmy Nann,' says I. 'Well, Jimmy,' he says, 'I won't want you any more after this week.' 'All right, boss,' I says. 'What 'ill I busy meself at now?' 'Oh, cut some more d— wood,' he says, an' walked off.
"That was five months ago, an' I 'aven't done a tap since. I'm gettin' that way now that I feel ashamed to sight a boss at all, I've asked so often. An' you know how stale an' silly a question seems when you've' said it a lot' of times. I've got a new edition out now, though. I say, 'Anything doin?' or 'Any work goin' on?' Sounds a bit fresher.
"Meantime, a man's got to provide for himself. Sometimes the dinner he's lookin' forward to isn't on the estimates. I've known mine to be runnin' about when I wanted it, an' I've 'ad to pursue it diligently with a club. An' after pursuing it over much landscape, an' fatguin' meself an' sharpenin' my appetite unduly, it would scramble up a tree. There's few things that distress a man more than an animated dinner indulgin' in elusive tactics when he wants to eat it.
"But that don't 'appen often where the runs ain't no bigger than Siberia. I've 'ad no complaints to make about the rations comin' down from Aramac. More'n I wanted at places. I've seen some of 'em make for the store as soon as they sighted me. At one place the bloke was standin' over the flour bin, with a scoop in his hand. 'Fetch yer bags 'ere,' he says, without so much as 'good-day,' or anything else. I hands him me bags, an' he takes one an' chucks a scoop o' flour into it; takes another an' throws in a pannikin o' sugar; takes the third, an' drops in a handful o' tea. There was another bag—I mostly 'ave four empty ones tied up ready. He picks it up an' looks at it; puts it down agin, an' looks at me. 'What's this 'ere for?' says he. 'Currants,' says I. 'We don't give currants to travellers,' says he. 'I know it's not the rule,' says I, 'but it's a poor station as can't spare a few from the bottom o' the box,' says I. He give me a pannikinful. They'd a lot o' real estate about 'em; but that didn't matter. 'Meat?', says he. 'Thanks!' says I. He fished up a big junk from the bottom of a cask o' brine, 'Could yer spare me a bit o' tobacco?' says I, while he was wipin' his hands. He looked at me pretty hard; but he gave me a plug. 'I'm sorry to be so troublesome,' says I ; 'but I 'aven't a match on me,' I says; 'maybe you 'ave a few handy?' I says. He didn't say a word; he looked hard again—an' gave me a box. 'Could yer spare a bit o' dynamite now, if yer please,' I says. 'Dynamite?' says he. 'What d'yer want with dynamite?' says he. 'Well, bakin ' powder, then,' says I, 'to elevate me dampers an' make puffterlooners,' I says. 'No.' he says, an' he leans agin a cask o' dried apples, an' folds his arms. 'This, leprous spotted, spifflicated grocery emporium is part an' parcel or this double-busted squattage plant, an' can't be spared no bloomin' how at all.' 'Thanks,' says I; 'much obliged,' says I. 'Good mornin',' says I."
Jimmy laughed a dry, jolting laugh that set all the corks bobbing, flicked the shadow of the horse with his whip, and said, "Get along, there!" But she didn't get along. She switched her tail and sneezed. "The blamed flies torment her," he said, apologetically. He flicked the shadow again, and yelled at her to "get up." She switched her tail more spiritedly, and stamped her foot in protest, but didn't get up worth a cent. The man from Aramac was getting wild, and the 20 little corks were jumping with great violence. "Thing gets stiff standin'!" he snorted. "Orlright once she's warm. Goes like clockwork— Dang it! there's a insek in her eye. No wonder the animal wouldn't go." He hauled his sweat rag from his belt, folded it into a point, wet it with his tongue, and scooped out the meddlesome insect, and jumped on it. "Nough to send a man off his onion the things he's got to put up with in this dingo'd country!" he rasped, as he tucked the sweat-rag under his belt, he put his hand against her and shoved her over; then he went to the other side and shoved her back again, as though he were going to zig zag her to Taabinga. But he hit her with the whip and yelled "Get up!" and she got up. Then he nodded, "Good day," and passed down the road with the little corks dancing cotillions around him.
I had forgotten to inquire about the drink supplying capacity of this track, and when at noon I came to a broad, sandy creek, in which some miniature excavations were the only indications of water, I went down on my knees, and proceeded to burrow after it. The sand was so loose that it was continually slipping in from the sides, so that by the time I struck water I had a hole big enough to bury a bullock.
I was sitting on a shaded bank near by, viewing the wide, glittering-white channel, when two men rode up, driving some spare horses. One was a tall young fellow, whom his mate addressed as Paddy.
"When did you leave Nanango?" he asked.
"You're travelling nearly as fast as we are. We left on Tuesday."
"I daresay on a long journey I'll travel faster," I rejoined. I had never put that idea to a practical test; but I had heard other footmen say they could beat a horse, and had beaten that noble animal, so why shouldn't I?
"I doubt it," said Paddy, and smiled as though he pitied my innocence.
"Well, I'll tell you what, I'll do with you," I said. "I'll back myself against your horses on a journey to Winton for £10." I delivered the challenge boldly enough, and with every semblance of good faith, but felt a bit shaky as it occurred to me that he might ask me to put up the stakes. I had one pound.
"You'll walk all the way?" he said, considering.
"Every inch!" I replied, whilst my anxiety increased tenfold.
He scratched his chin, his eyes roving over me the while. His manner was more respectful, and his puzzled look, betraying a suspicion that I might be some marvellous pedestrian walking round the world for a wager, was flattering; still, I called myself several kinds of fool. I glanced at the horses, and they all looked Carbines and Darebins. I had never seen a traveller with such well-bred, powerful-looking horses before.
"You'll carry your swag, too?" he queried, his hand creeping down into his pocket.
"Of c-course!" I answered, and was so interested in the subject now that I let my pipe go out. Hearing the clink of money, I remarked that one of his horses looked as if it were going to get away. But he didn't notice; he slewed in his saddle, and conferred in undertones with his mate. I began to perspire like a bush fire-sprinkler.
The conference ended he treated my humiliated person to another scrutiny. "If the feed was good you'd loose," he said, slowly, as though reluctant to let the chance slip. "As it is," he continued, "it's too far out of our way, and would knock too much out of our horses."
I felt like a dog that had got a new tail.
"Otherwise," he concluded, "I'd give you a shot for it."
"You'd go down," I said, speaking with so much relief that I was afraid he'd notice it. "Any strong man can beat a horse on a long journey."
He smiled a superior smile and left my company, and, having given myself a severe lecture on the indiscretion of making fool wagers, I took my address into new territory.
After crossing a couple more channels, I came upon the Boyne River, properly the upper part of the Burnett. A little farther on, in a big bight, was Bundooma homestead. At the stables I found a little grey whiskered man answering to the name of Archie. He was sitting on a nailcan, waiting for sundown; but on my arrival he concluded to knock off early. He invited me to his hut, which stood on the opposite side of the bight, and gave me a spare bunk in his bedroom. A very welcome haven it was for a Saturday night.
Subsequently, he brought out a pair of shears, remarking that he had been waiting for a barber to come along until his crop had pretty well gone to seed. He stripped to the belt, and having seated himself comfortably on another nailcan outside the hut, I shore his bald head and trimmed his whiskers.
Archie was one of those men whom you take to at once and feel you have known a long time. He had been on the Cape River diggings in its palmy days, and had seen some lively times there. Once, while digging in a shallow hole, he was attacked by two men who wanted his claim. One caught him by the hair and beard and lifted him to the surface, where both fell on him with murderous intent. But Archie had some activity about him at that time, and, eluding his assailants, he picked up a short-handled shovel, which he used with such effect that in a few seconds one was racing across the field for his natural, whilst the other was crawling away with a battered face.
"You see, on a new diggings, or on any big field for the matter o' that," he went on, "there's all sorts an' breeds o' men you could think of. Some's on good gold, an' some's not gettin' a colour. An' those who get nothing brood over the other fellow's pile till their fingers clutch in their sleep—that is, if they've got the villainy in 'em. They begin to poke around and watch, an' if the bloke with the money ain't fly, he'll be cold meat in next to no time. Many a one's been done for an' stowed away in old shafts, an 'never heard of on those diggings again, Just a clout with a pick or a stone when he's below—by his own mate, perhaps—an' it's all over. Half an hour's shovellin' an' who's to know? In rush times, when nobody knows who's who, a hundred could be murdered an' none of 'em missed. I was followin' up a lead one day in ground that 'ad been a bit worked before. All of a sudden I came on to a hand—a man's hand—an' it was clutchin' a pick. I sings out to a chap who was workin' near, an' we roots him out. He was an old digger, who used to work with a Frenchman. No one knew where Frenchy 'ad gone; but it was plain enough he'd done for his mate an' cleared with the boodle."
In the good days Archie had gambled with the rest, when the usual stake at cards was a matchboxful of gold each. He was now groom and gardener at 15s a week. If he played cards at all, he never staked more than a box of matches at a time—and grumbled much if he lost. But he'd had the glorious experience that comes to few men now, and often went back in his dreams to the early adventures and excitement on the Cape and Palmer Rivers. Poor old Shovelling Archie—a name he had earned by his feverish haste to accumulate wealth—now content to sit on a nailcan, and wait till the sun goes down.
"Would you like some fritters for supper?" he asked, as he led the way into the skillion. I eagerly replied that I would.
"Well, there's utensils," he said, "an' here's flour an' eggs an' everything else you want. Let's see what sort of a cook you are."
So I rolled up my sleeves and set to work. Cooking is necessarily an accomplishment of every swagman, as it is of most men dwelling in the bush, though a great many of them are practised only in the preparation of the simplest fare. Their's is an art but little known in towns, for it must be remembered that even the settler in these inland parts has nothing like the conveniences of the city housewife.
Still, as tasty a dinner can be cooked in hut and camp as in a modern, well-furnished city kitchen. The man on the track, or a family temporarily camped in the bush, can call to his aid little more in the way of utensils and appliances than the simple aborigine, yet if he knows the art of cookery he can still serve you with an excellent meal.
Archie's hut had a capacious fireplace, which allowed room to move easily all round the pots and pans. In the midst of my fritter-making the Jondowaie-Gayndah mail came in, which called him back to the stables. He fossicked out my bags, without saying anything, and took them with him, together with the key of the store. When he returned them they were full. "Be a help for you on the road," he said then.
We yarned till late that night, he lying on one bunk, and I on the other, a kerosene lamp, made with a pickle bottle, lighting the apartment.
The sun was shining in at the window when he called me in the morning.
"Bout time to get up, isn't, it?"
"Getting on that, way," I admitted.
"How would you like bacon an' eggs for breakfast?" he asked. I replied that nothing would suit me better.
"Well," he said, "I've got no bacon, but there's plenty of eggs, an' there's a piece of smoked beef in soak." After a pause he enjoined; "Cut the slices thin."
I got up and cooked the breakfast. Later in the morning, he said: "I suppose you'd like a duff for Sunday dinner?"
I confessed that his supposition was correct.
"Well," he said, "there's utensils, an' here's flour an' all the ingredients that's wanted. Make a big one."
Towards evening he returned to the culinary subject once more.
"I always like a bit of cake for tea," he observed. "There's some eggs left yet, an' here's currants an' sugar an' drippin'. Make any sort you like."
That night I had a chat with a man who was repairing the mustering yards. He informed me that Archie always liked to get hold of a cook on Saturday evening. He had been known to sit for hours on a nailcan at the stables, whence he could see the road east and west, watching for a swagman to come along.
In what little spare time I had at Bundooma I washed the bulk of my serviceable property, and culled out such things as were no longer worthy of a wash; and with a much lighter swag to shoulder next morning, I stepped briskly along towards Cadargo.
At sunset I unrolled at a mi-mi that drovers had left. When I had carried a heap of wood, and had a bath in the waterhole, I made the startling discovery that I possessed only one match. Being numerous miles from everywhere, this was a serious matter to me. I gathered a quantity of fine bars and dry leaves, put some small twigs on top of them, and placed my hat behind the pile. Then I essayed to strike that match. The first swipe knocked part of the head off; but it didn't light. I got down on my knees and elbows, and, catching it close against the head, tried again. A spark of fire flew from it, and went out. I thought it was a hopeless case then. My spirits dropped, and I asked of the wilderness: What is camp without a fire? The fire was more than half my home; without it to-night I would lack the comforting influence of my only companion—the pipe.
There was still some head on the match, and I turned it about to ascertain the extent of its combustibility. That didn't amount to much. The remnant of head was mostly on one side, and needed gentle handling. I gripped it closer, with my thumbnail on the fragment, and struck it sharply against the box. It cracked . . . exploded . . . it lit . . . spit . . . fizzed . . . spluttered . . . and—bless the majestic bunyip!—it burned.
How carefully I fed the little flame! I tempted its delicate appetite with powdered bark and blades of grass. As it grew, I fed it with twigs and coarser bark; and when it had got fairly going, I hauled a big log over to keep it going through the night.
I didn't sleep much. A host of possums scampered about me, and tormented me for hours. They were the cheekiest I had ever encountered. They laid siege to my rations, showing a partiality for the sugar bag, which they tugged time after time from under my pillow, the only safe place I had to keep it.
I lay quietly watching a chance, and grabbing quickly whenever a tail came within reach. It was wonderful with what dexterity the thing eluded me. The tail would almost touch my hand, but ere I could grasp it the nimble bearer would spring round and look at me half indignantly, half-triumphantly.
Playful, frolicsome creatures were these bush denizens, which hardly yet had learned to fear man. They ate the crumbs of bread and meat between me and the fire; they played leapfrog over me; and they squatted on my legs and purred. Once, when I was dozing, one jumped from a few feet up the tree, and landed heavily on my epigastrium.
Then I put my boots on, and, armed with a long stick, I chased them up and down, round the fire and over the blankets, first one and then another, making desperate swipes at them as they reached the trees; but I only hit the tree each time, and broke my stick.
The little brutes would scamper up to a limb, then fix their round, bright eyes on me and pur-r-rr. I sat down at last, and threw firebrands at them till I had thrown away all my fire. Then I gathered it up again, spread some hot coals around, and returned to bed.
An early traveller, going the opposite way, found me still coiled up next morning. He unloaded, and at once started to talk possum, having been pestered himself further along the road.
"A man wants to travel at night here, an' sleep in the daytime, when the possums are sleepin'," he declared, lighting up with a coal. "If there was one doin' the light fantastic round me last night there was a hundred. Never got a wink till the mornin' star showed up."
"I hope they didn't clean you out of matches," I remarked. "Struck my final last night."
"Similar," he returned, tapping his chest with a grimy forefinger. "Thinkin' o' keepin' this fire goin' till someone comes with a few."
I left him at it, and hurried along a pad, winding through a myall forest, that scarcely boasted enough traffic to keep it visible.
About noon I fetched up at Cadargo, a sub-squattage nestling under a red, scrubby ridge. An old blackfellow (a poor relation or hanger-on) was dining alone at the kitchen table, while a black girl stood attentive in the corner. I called twice to the antiquity, but he did not turn his head. He was tussling with a shank bone, which he held in both hands. His knife and fork were on the floor.
I turned to the girl. She touched her ear, nodding towards the veteran.
"Could you oblige me with a few matches?" I asked.
"None in the house?"
"No; father took th' last this mornin'."
"On the run."
She looked at me a moment, then answered: "He won't bring it back; want it to light his pipe."
"Can I see the missus?" I asked.
She crossed from the kitchen and went into the house, and presently out came a fat, cleanly-dressed lubra, with a broom in her hand.
I repeated the request for matches.
"We haven't a match left on the station," she said. "The boss took the last with him this mornin'."
Then I understood that the boss and the black girl's father were one.
"That's a blue look-out," I said.
She came to the rescue. "Firestick?" she suggested.
She brought a smoking stick from the fire, and with this I departed, swinging it gently to and fro to keep it alight.
Night found me a mile off the road, by a running stream, surrounded by colossal gums, and with the usual multitude of possums in attendance. Once more I lay in wait, grabbing at the tails whenever a chance offered. At last I caught one, and thereafter I had no immediate company but the dead.
The carcase I roasted, and served cold for breakfast. It was done to a turn, and appreciating the change from salt junk, I ate half of it. The remains I stowed in the bag for dinner, conscious meanwhile of an embarrassing situation if a cosherman happened along and overhauled things.
I reached Condarah—another sub-squattage—at sundown, having walked 31 miles since breakfast. After a hot meal, which was brought to me by a beautiful girl, I felt that I could have done another ten miles without being knocked up. I began to feel an interest by this time in the distance I was putting behind me, and there were days together when I gave little thought to anything else but stepping over the miles, and feasting my eyes on the scenic beauties that were ever opening out before me. There came intermissions when I thought of a home of my own, and then these continuous day-long tramps seemed wasted time. The people at Coudarah were all whites—a married couple in the house, and two stockmen quartered in a shed near by. We played cards in the shed till bedtime, all sitting on the floor. One of the players was a teamster known as Barefooted Harry, who was bound for Auburn, the head squattage. He had never worn a pair of boots in his life, and his feet were so hard that he could strike matches on his heel. His mates were wont to make disrespectful remarks about the size of them, and allege that he couldn't find boots big enough to get them into. However, there was no doubt about their toughness. One evening he strolled up to another teamster's camp, and stood by the fire. Presently, one of the men said, sniffing: "What's burning? Smells like hide." "Why," answered another, "it's Harry's foot. He's standing on the oven lid that's just come off the fire. Better shift it, Harry. Might get cooked." Harry removed the invulnerable member, and felt the burning lid with his fingers. " 'Ot, all right," he agreed. The first speaker stared in awestruck wonder at Harry's naked ends. "Pretty good wearin' soles them!" he commented.
September 5.—The so-called road to Bungaban was as hard to follow as a homing bee, and soon after leaving Condarah I took a wrong turning down a broad lagoon. When I had gone a mile I put my swag down, and went back to look up the embyro track. Noting the trend of it, I returned and cut round the lagoon, striking the road after an hour's walking. To my chagrin I now discovered that had I kept on at first I would have hit it in about 15 minutes. Only a trifle this; but a trifle that torments a man for the rest of the day.
Towards sundown I sighted the Half-way Hut, standing on top of a steep hill, with a dense brigalow scrub close behind it. Seeing a buggy and cart, and a number of chance-bred poultry about, I reckoned I was in luck's way again, for these things suggested a white couple.
A pack of dogs rushed at me, barking and yelping, as I approached. Three black gins ran out and threw sticks, and the scrubbing brush at them; and a big fat gin, with a yearling infant toddling after her, chased them with a broom. She made a vicious swipe at the nearest mongrel, missed, and struck the toddler across the middle. With much concern she grabbed it up, and mingled condolences in two languages with its lusty squalls, while dancing a fandango round the discarded sweeper.
I accosted the eldest girl, a fine-made damsel, whose face was as black and glossy as coal tar. "Is the boss at home?"
"He's away ridin'," she answered. "Be home sundown."
"Is the missus at home?" She looked towards the big gin. That lady stepped forward.
"I'm the missus. You want ter see me?"
"Oh, not particularly!" I gasped, taken aback. "I wished to know if I could camp here?"
"No!"— seriously. "I don't think my 'usband would like it. You camp in the scrub. Plenty firewood there keep you warm."
"I would rather be nearer the water," I said. "Any harm to camp at the water hole?"
"Oh, no! My 'usband not objek you camp there."
I was turning away when a young black follow emerged from the brigalow, carrying a dead wallaby in his hand. I inquired if he was the boss.
"Oh, no!" she said. "Him only rouseabout. He work for my 'usband. We pay him the wages, an' he ketch his own tucker."
'What is your husband?"
"Him manager," she answered proudly. Her fat arm swung round the compass. "He manage all about this station. Plenty cow—plenty bull—plenty horse—he manage all them pfeller."
"I see! He doesn't want another rouseabout, I suppose?"
"Oh, tear, no; one plenty. Very slack time now."
About dusk the manager rode up. I had expected to see a white man, for mixed marriages were not uncommon in this part; but he was a full-blooded aborigine—a big, robust man, with a flowing, well-combed beard.
"Which way you come?"
"When you pull away?"
He nodded towards my little blaze.
"Mind the grass," he enjoined, and went on.
Other blacks came in on foot from various points, and squatted down in front of the hut. Little fires glowed among them, and soon there rose a corroboree chant, to the beating of clubs and the screeching of a concertina, while a hundred dingoes took up the chorus in the surrounding bush.
Here was the home of primitive man and the primordial beast; and I, the product of centuries of civilisation, squatting before my camp-fire, with ears trained to the cries of the living meat in the wild, was very close to both.
At Bungaban, which I reached early next day, I was instructed to put up at the travellers' hut on the creek. Here was a sheet of bark on two cross-pieces of wood doing duty for a bunk, and a bundle of straw for mattress. The door was also a sheet of bark, and there was a bumpy table of the same material. The furniture had doubtless been supplied by a comfort-loving wanderer, for usually a profound emptiness characterises
The Travellers' Hut.
Unwatched and unkempt in the bend of the
It stands, like a dead house, alone;
Unpainted, unfurnished, and gaping and bleak,
With a fire-place rough circled with stone.
Though none call it home, it is evidence plain
Of the goodness of Squatter McNutt,
Who, pained at the thought of tramps camped in the rain,
Erected the "Travellers ' Hut."
They come from all parts of the civilised
All sorts and conditions of men,
And each, with the stoical patience of Job,
Makes room in the limited den;
And they wash and they cook and stop gaps in their togs,
And blow of the tallies they've cut,
Of horses they've ridden, of wonderful dogs
That have camped in the Travellers' Hut.
According to treatment they scribble their
Of Squatter McNutt on the slabs;
And they read on the wall a queer budget of news
Pertaining to bosses and scabs;
While raddled and charcoaled, and cut out with knives,
On the ricketty door that wont shut,
Are legends denoting the want of good hives
By men in the Travellers' Hut.
* It has sheltered the artist who favours the
His creations unsettle the mind;
And the budding bush bard, whose effusions, though crude,
Are of a delectable kind;
Unhampered by aught in morality's code,
He follows no commonplace rut,
And produces a hair-raising, soul-stirring ode,
That staggers the Travellers' Hut.
'Tis a club where the wandering geniuses meet,
With the cream of bush liars in tow,
And they hold a smoke concert, or musical treat,
While the mopokes are calling below;
And they register all their cognomens ornate,
Which a sample is "Billy-the-Nut,"
With poetic allusions to loves out of date,
On the walls of the Travellers' Hut.
Their language is forceful, their manners
Their modesty's really sublime;
There's little their feelings will hurt or disturb,
But to 'mister' a man is a crime.
They sleep on the floor, and they fidget and snore,
These talented students of Smut,**
And at morn with Matilda they're padding once more
From the door of the Travellers' Hut.
*This verse was missing from The Catholic Press, but was printed in The Queenslander
**In the Catholic Press, the words "of Smut" were replaced by "a-glut."
September 7.— I had been told about a bridle-track and a dray road to Juandah. The former was shorter. Therefore, when I saw a track running straight into a dark scrub, and the road going round it, I took the track. It turned out to be a cattle-pad, and run to a mudhole in a deep gully. From there I made a bee-line through the scrub to cut the road. The thorns and twigs caught my swag, knocked my hat off, hooked on to my clothes, and either jerked me back or jerked the piece out. It was soon impressed upon me that my straw hat was not the proper thing to wear in a tangled scrub. Everything ground and rasped and gritted on it; its serrated edges sawed into vine and branch, and the band began to run out like chain stitches. The worst happened when the billycan was knocked out of my hand, and every drop of the precious cold tea I had been taking particular care of was spilt. I was thirsty, too, and had been saving it until I got thirstier. I got thirstier.
At last I struck the road—in thick brigalow. Too thirsty to spell, I plodded along in a lather of sweat and dust. Crossed a flat and rounded two hills. No refreshments. Midday passed, and the dryness continued. I hung on to the road, though at times I was uncertain as to whether I was on it or not. One never feels comfortable on a thoroughfare of that sort, which requires the skill of a tracker to trace; under the present circumstances it was an aggravation.
Two hours after noon I reached a wet creek, and plunged straight into it. Never had I appreciated cold water so much as I did then.
The road was now visible to the naked eye, and remained so to Juandah. This place has some historic interest, for it was here, on the bank of Juandah Lagoon, that "Fraser's vengeance" was worked after the Hornet Bank massacre in 1857. The squattage was also noted for its horsemen, many of whom were reputed to be among the most daring riders that ever sat in a saddle. Situated in a beautiful spot, on a low hill overlooking a broad, reedy lagoon, Juandah at first sight looked like a village; there were so many workshops and huts, several of them standing in a row, facing the road. A married couple occupied the first hut, and I was permitted to occupy the next, which was in ruins.
The benedict was rather a good sort. After tea I smoked a pipe with him in his skillion. Two squattage hands were also there. One, whom they called Joe, was known in bush vernacular as a hard case; the other was a bush poet—a man who had an air of grave superiority, and wore ample locks and a ragged-pointed black beard. He stood with his back to the fire, and was unfolding a crumpled sheet of foolscap as I entered. He scanned me with disapproval in his ferret eyes, but Benedict set my doubts at rest.
"Sit down, mate," he said. Then he introduced me to the company. "A traveller from Thompson's Hut." The man with the paper coughed. "Go on, Harvey," Benedict continued, "let's hear this pome."
Harvey cleared his throat, stuck one thumb in the armhole of his vest, and holding the paper out with the other, announced, with evident pride: "Ode to a Slush lamp!" Joe nearly choked. Benedict smiled, and his teeth gripped his pipe hard. The poet paused, and glanced round suspiciously; but Joe was rooting desperately after a coal. He coughed again, and proceeded:
Ode To A Slush Lamp.
It fizzes and hisses and splutters,
It spits like a she-cat, and glares;
It staggers and wobbles and flutters,
And squirts boiling grease unawares;
Though bushmen may vote it a shiner,
It possesses a stench, as a rule,
That could beat the old stinkpots of China,
And paralyse Brannigan's mule.
When you light the dudeen at its flicker,
You'd think your tobacco was fat,
For its breath's penetrating, and thicker
Than the fumes from a soap-maker's vat.
When the table at supper it favours,
Though varied the dishes you call,
Its aroma still smothers and flavours
Till Slushy is tasted in all.
Its continual flutter would blind you,
As it boils on an upended case
By your bunk—just beside or behind you,
Casting flashes and shades on your face;
There are spots on the page you are reading,
Words tremble and shudder and dance,
Lines are twining and darting, receding,
And buckling from under your glance.
Ants, beetles and moths are cremated
In its seething and simmering grease,
And as the vile mixture's collated,
Its eruptions and bubblings increase.
You may blow out or douse the old glimmer,
But you cannot extinguish the stink;
It continues to smoke and to simmer
As you into oblivion sink.
"Not too bad at all," said Benedict, as the poet concluded. "I take an interest in Australian literature. Always did."
"The stink part's true to nature, any way," commented Joe. "What do you think of it, mate?" He glanced at me, then bobbed down quickly to lace his boot.
"It has one good point," I ventured; "it's original."
"It has to be polished yet," the poet told us. "I dashed it off in a few minutes the other day on the cattle camp."
Joe dashed after another coal.
"Beats me how you think it all out," mused Benedict. "Keepin' the sense, an' makin' it run even, so to speak, an' come in rhyme, an' all that. Darn if I could do it if I was to be shot."
"You aint a je-ne-ass," said Joe. The poet ran his fingers through his long hair—which gave Joe another idea. "You're nearly as bald as a claypan, too," he added.
"They say poets are born, not made," spoke Benedict. "Something like a freak o' nature, I suppose. . . . Have you any more like that, Harvey?"
Harvey, having carefully folded his manuscript, put it back in his pocket. "I commenced a lyric this morning," he said, reflectively. "It goes—
Oh, the little booming beetles,
That come banging in at night—
"Why, shiver me, them's dung beetles!" Joe exclaimed.
The poet scowled.
"Your ignorance of entomology, my dear fellow, is lamentable," he returned. ''Most lamentable."
"Never mind him," said Benedict, Go on with the poetry."
"I cannot, unfortunately," the poet replied. "I'm hampered by the deficiencies and inadequacy of the English language, and, in consequence, have not been able to complete the poem."
"What's missin'?" asked Joe.
"There's no rhyme for beetles," the poet informed him.
Joe scratched his head meditatively— and brought out an idea.
"Put it in German-English." he suggested. "Say 'peedles'—that will rhyme with needles—
Och, der liddle poomin' peedles,
Vot hafe mantiples like needles—
Why, strike me fat, that's real sublime."
The poet sniffed. "I wouldn't disgrace my pen by writing such rubbish," he declared. Then, turning on the abashed Joseph, "Did Milton murder his mother tongue in that way? Did Tennyson stoop to such hollow subterfuges? Did Shakespeare—?" Mr. Harvey made a gesture as if dismissing the subject in despair. "I'll say good-night."
"Put in some more boomin', and get over the beetle bog," Joe called after him. "Like this—
Oh, the boomin', boomin', boomin',
Of the beetles in the night —
That's po-hetical, anyway!"
But the bard of Juandah had gone.
I saw him again on the following day, which was Sunday. He called on me at Thompson's Hut, in the afternoon. Why he sought me out I do not know, except that he was not in sympathy with the other men on Juandah, and they were not in sympathy with him.
In these degenerate, prosaic days, the poor poet sits alone, musing over the golden days that were, and seeing no encouraging prospect in the future. He feels almost like an outcast, a relic of a bygone age, who has outlived his usefulness. The people around him are so deadly practical they have no time for dreamers. When he would carry them with him into the ethereal, they smile cynically and call him eccentric; when he would guide their steps along the amber ways, bid their souls go soaring with him among the stars, and breathe ambrosial air, they rudely tell him to go and get work; when he writes love stanzas to his best girl, spending hours in immortalising her endearing charms, she crumples the precious manuscript in her bejewelled hand, and wants to know what salary he gets. Still hopeful, he collects his poetical masterpieces and publishes them in book form—and the book falls flat. It doesn't earn him bread and butter. But he does not despair; in his loneliness and poverty he murmurs, "When I am dead I'll be famous."
We live, indeed, in practical times, in a commercial age that takes no stock of the sublime. The poet is regarded with a good-natured smile; his lofty profession has even been brought to the verge of ridicule. He is caricatured the world over as a wild looking person with long hair, and with spring poems growing out of his pocket. Except in literary circles, he is almost ashamed to admit that he writes poetry. He has given up calling his effusions "poems"; he calls them "verses" and "jingles." That is modern modesty; but it shows that Pegasus has dropped from his airy heights, and plods shamefacedly through the rude ways of the material world. Only here and there does he find a sympathetic heart; he meets with more scorn than appreciation—until he reaches the last post. "When I am dead I'll be famous." He has to die to make good. Then the sentimental, and the people of literary tastes will buy his books—and partly read them. Posthumous fame is his only reward.
Alas, poor poet! He sees the glory of the southern dawn; he feels the inspiration of the autumn sunset; but he realises that the public does not want that luminary to soar up and down on metric feet. So he sits apart, and dreams his dreams alone.
There was no seat in Thompson's Hut for a visitor to sit down on; so Mr. Harvey stood with his back to the big fireplace, his hands behind him, his heels tapping intermittently on the floor.
After awhile he drew some closely written sheets of note paper from his inside pocket, and deftly straightened out the folds and creases by using his thumb and forefinger for a mangle.
"This will interest you," he said. "It relates to three young fellows I used to know."
Then he read:
Tanglefoot, Larry, and I.
When the corn crop failed on the river farm,
Where we'd grafted for unknown years,
Through drought and flood, and through storm and calm,
Growing the golden ears—
We talked it over with dad and Jack,
Kissed mother and Sis "good-bye,"
Then shouldered the pack for the sheds out back,
Did Tanglefoot, Larry and I.
We tramped in file from the stack of hay,
And faced for a distant town;
While mother watched from the door that day
Till after the sun went down.
Oft now I laugh at the dreams we had
As we gazed at the starlit sky,
When, all so glad on the outward pad,
Were Tanglefoot, Larry and I.
Where the heat-haze gleams on the Paroo plains,
And dances o'er rift and rut,
O'er the blazing slopes where it never rains,
By many an empty hut;
Where the quiet of death ever reigns supreme,
Except when the flies make free,
This tramp doth seem like a hell-wrought dream
To Tanglefoot, Larry and me.
For the bush we're booked, and the nor'-west
Is lit by our nightly fires;
The swap's a lease of each bending back,
God knows when the lease expires!
To chuck the lot of the outcast band,
We follow the sheds and try,
But never a stand, or a job on hand,
Find Tanglefoot, Larry and I.
For a year we went—and it's three years
And we promised them all we'd write;
But we can't agree to a "post" somehow,
And your permanent job's a skite.
Our address just now is at Emu Peak,
And close by the track lie we;
But 'twill go next week down the Toompine Creek,
With Tanglefoot, Larry and me.
They'd like us home, but as hard-up men
Our chances of home are small;
If we can't go back with a pile— well, then,
We'll never go back at all!
We'll write next job, and we'll tell old dad
We're putting the money by,
For each roving lad's on a droving prad,
Say Tanglefoot, Larry and I.
There was a stab in almost every line of that screed for me—whose address just then was Thompson's Hat, and would go next week to the Dawson River. I said the harrowing thing was very good, and inquired if he had done anything more with the beetles. Before speaking he refolded the sheets of paper and returned them to his pocket. Then he said:
"A literary man hasn't much chance to do himself justice when he has to earn his living by manual labour. On a squattage he's going from sunrise to sunset. That doesn't allow him much time for writing. He hasn't much energy left either. . . . Ah, well! such is life."
With that he left me, and I saw him no more.
Joe had recommended Taroom way as worth prospecting for stray billets; but he did not mention that the road was as dry as Mount Browne.
A small place, which was planted well back from the main thoroughfare, he had particularised as one to be firmly excluded from the prospecting itinerary. The unwitting swagman who entered there did so to his disadvantage. The head of the run, who was known on the Dawson as "Daddy Pintpot," was strongly prejudiced against the unattached wanderer. One of the fraternity stuck him up for rations once in his more generous days, and gave him a surprise. Daddy was dipping the flour out of a bin with a pannikin, a few spoonfuls at a time, when the swaggy interrupted: ''Ere, you dunno how to dip up flour. Lemme show yer." Grabbing the pannikin, he dipped 20 lbs. into his bag in half a minute. "There,'' he said, "that's the way to dip up flour!" And, slinging the bag across his shoulder, he was gone before Daddy had got his breath back.
I had intended to camp just beyond the homestead; but could find no water. Went on and on till the day wore away, and nary a prospect of a wet. Night fell, and still water was an absent quantity. I thought of the man who said, "Let there be carrots," and there were carrots; and I said to the approaching darkness, "Let there be water!" Alas! I couldn't perform miracles worth a cent. I stumbled through two hours of night, finally camping by a dry reed-bed, athirst and weary.
September 10: The early bird catches the worm; so I got up early and exploited half an acre of grass on my hands and knees, licking the dew off the blades. Cut my tongue, got stung on the lip by a beastly insect, and sowed a grass-seed in my eye.
I tramped on till nearly noon, when I intersected a wet gully near Callabah. Here I had breakfast and a bath.
From Callabah into town the country was well supplied with lagoons—mostly fringed with bogged beasts. It was only at an occasional spot, inaccessible to stock, that I could obtain water that was fit to drink. Deep holes were plentiful; but the water was polluted with decaying carcases. Around one small lagoon, within a couple of miles of Taroom, I counted 196 beasts dead and dying. Both sides of the long lagoons were lined with bogged cattle for miles. They were in fair condition, but nobody bothered to pull them out. They were not valuable enough to be worth the trouble of saving until rain came to fill the holes and freshen the pastures. The waste was prodigious. Only where succour was within easy reach, and cost nothing, did owners shift their starving stock from a barren run. Similar waste and carelessness were to be seen on scores of runs that dry year, though nowhere to such a terrible extent as in the Dawson River district.
I reached Taroom just before sunset, and camped in a little gunyah on the bank of the river. This gunyah was about the size of a Myall's mi-mi, its material being a quantity of bushes leaned against a pole, which, in turn, leaned against a tree. It had previously been occupied for two weeks by a married couple.
I put on my other trousers after tea, and did the block in town. The centre of interest in the little place was Leichhardt's Tree, standing in the main street, on which was carved the letter "L." On looking up the baker I discovered that his name was Chong Fat Sue, and that his wife was a black gin, who assisted in the store and bakery. Ornamented with jewellery, and in a lownecked dress, she suggested to my mind a portly black duchess. She parcelled up some sugar for me very neatly, and snapped the string on her finger.
"Anything else, please?"
"I was hunting for the sixpence I thought I had."
"I have some, thank you."
"Where did you get it?" The jealousy of business rivalry was insistent.
"Oh, post-and-rail stuff"—disdainfully, "I wouldn't drink it." She reached down a packet from the shelf, whilst I stood with my hands buried in two empty pockets, trying to recollect where my money was. "This is a very good blend."
Here Fat Sue joined in. "Best tea in Taloom, Two shillings one pong. How much you want?"
I rounded up the bread and sugar. "I'll pay you to-morrow," I said. "I've left my money at home."
"All li," bland Sue agreed—and rescued the loaf of bread smartly.
"We'll send them for you," Mrs. Sue added graciously, and rescued the sugar. "You pay on delivery."
And, sure enough, before 8 o'clock next morning, a blackboy arrived at my camp with the goods.
I was so well satisfied with Taroom that I camped there for two weeks, during which time I spent my last sixpence. I had the good luck to drop in with a young fellow who was shepherding for a butcher, and who passed my gunyah daily with his flock. He brought a gun with him every day, and I shot ducks for him and for myself. Of course, he took his home and said he shot them.
I was camped on Leichhardt's track. Along this tranquil stream he and his party had passed on their way to Port Essington fifty years ago. Half a mile lower down, on a low hill on which Taroom stands, they had camped, looking out upon a beautiful open forest standing then in all its primeval glory. Rich and splendid was the Dawson region, inhabited by aboriginal tribes of fine stature and physique. Powerful and admirable native clans, they were at the same time the most blood-thirsty savages in Queensland. To the whites who followed later, and pioneered the Dawson, Comet, Nagoa, Mackenzie, Suttor, Burdekin, and other rivers, it was always a matter of wonder how Ludwig Leichhardt was allowed to pass through without being molested. It was not till he reached the Gulf country that he was attacked, in June 1845, when Gilbert, the naturalist, was killed, and two other members of the party were wounded.
The luck that attended the explorer on that trip deserted him on his last expedition in 1848, when he and his companions vanished for ever from the ken of men. Always it has remained a mystery how and when and where he met his death. A thousand and one theories have been published, and tracks and marks have been discovered, even far into the Northern Territory, believed to be Leichhardt's, but nothing definite has ever been brought to light. Though he disappeared so long ago—last heard of at Cogoon, on Fitzroy Downs—public interest in his fate has never died, and bushmen on "Leichhardt's Track" still look for traces. Old bushmen who have been among the blacks from childhood, and who speak the aboriginal language with fluency, have heard yarns of Leichhardt's fate from different blackfellows who could have seen Leichhardt, and the yarns varied. But there was no mention of a massacre; the general impression given was that Leichhardt perished with his party for want of water.
September 23. Left Taroom, going west. Met a girl and a boy driving a flock of turkeys to town. The ways of the feathered flock were not the ways of sheep or cattle. When they saw anything uncommon they stopped, dropped their wings, strutted about and gobbled. It took some shooing and a quantity of sticks and clods to start them on again. Then a grasshopper flew up, and away went the lot of them after it. The girl and the boy followed, pelting at them and shooing till they were breathless. Rounded up again, the flock went slowly on till several more grasshoppers flew up in several directions. There was an excited flutter of wings and a general split up. The girl ran one way leaping and waving her arms, and the boy dashed off in the opposite direction with his hat in his hand. There seemed to be a lot of excitement in turkey droving.
Fetched Kinnoul at midday. Shearing was in progress here, and the shearers and rouseabouts were just going to dinner in two little humpies. Going to the first, I inquired the way to Tambo. The men laughed, and somebody said it was 300 miles. Then one pointed to a track, and said that was the road to start on. I was starting when they called me back.
"Have you had your dinner?" asked one.
"I haven't," I replied.
"Well, come and have it. You're not in such a hurry to get to Tambo that you can't stop for meals, are you?"
Then a stout-built man named Stahmer came out from the table.
"There's a job waitin' here for someone," he informed me. "Want a job?"
I said I did.
"Chuck the pack then."
"What's the hook?"
"Wool-rollin'—21s 6d a week and rations. We're all batchin', and the three tanners are for cookin'. Ever do any wool-rollin'?"
"Not a roll."
"Ever seen it done?"
"Never been in a shed."
"Well, there's nothing to learn. I'll put you in the way of it before the boss comes down. He's generally a bit late after dinner."
I felt glad, though my chances of getting the billet depended on the boss being late. He was late. The picker-up, a doctor's son, rang the cow-bell, and the eight shearers started—leisurely.
They were a queer team. Two were selectors from Roma, and two were men of all work from Taroom. Of the other four, Stahmer was a colt-breaker; "Old Charlie" had been a schoolmaster, and had taken his degree at Oxford; the third was a miner, and the other had been a squatter. Anderson, the boss, a jovial old fellow of 60, and as white of hair and beard as a flour bag, came in and eyed me at the table. I was rolling up fleeces with a fine display of style. He drew nearer, his eye more critical. I developed more style.
"Are you working here?" he inquired softly.
"I'm the wool-roller," I said.
"Oh! All right; all right." And with that the old gentleman ambled down the board. Kinnoul was little better than a cocky's shed when compared with the big sheds of farther out, and it knew nothing of the rules and regulations of those places. Anderson superintended operations. He wasn't too fond of pacing the board; any one with a good yarn to tell could hold him through a full run.
The shearers were unionists from the start till the shed cut out. The principle of the union consisted of each man getting the boss by the ear in turns, whilst the others tomahawked the sheep and ran up big tallies. They also got the rosellas (sheep that had shed their coats), which Anderson pulled out of the pens when there were no yarns to hear.
Deaf Harry was an exceptionally rough shearer, and Anderson, in his leisure moments, had a habit of standing beside him with his back against the pen-rails. At such times Harry was "wired" pretty often, and as the words had to be shouted, the whole shed knew how he was getting on.
The union saved Harry from being "speared" the first week. When the situation was getting a bit too sultry for him, the man at the other end of the board would start on something peculiarly adapted to the tastes of the old gentleman. He would cock his ear, and move a step or two nearer. As the yarn got interesting, he would gradually draw down till he reached "the man with the flute;" and then till bell-o his fixity of tenure could be relied on, for he could tell a good yarn himself, and one yarn generally led to another. Sometimes a dead silence would be broken by a loud laugh. Mr. Anderson would approach briskly. "What's that? What's that?" he'd ask eagerly. Then one would start a yarn of which his co-laughers had no preconception.
A levy of 6d a week was made on members, the fund being augmented by sundry fines for neglect of duty to one another. Such cases were in regard to a "double chip," considered to have resulted from the culprit's non-deliverance of something interesting at the required moment. The cases were adjudged at night by a specially-constituted court. The fund was expended on luxuries for Sunday, when one big plum duff was made, and everybody dined together.
We had been at work a fortnight when a thunderstorm put an end to shearing, so far as it concerned myself and four others. Only four men were retained to finish the shed—the four who told the best yarns.
After being paid off, we spent the afternoon fishing in a big lagoon near the homestead. Everyone was eager to catch a barramundi, a lung fish found only in Dawson waters and the Burnett River. It proved an elusive genius; but we extracted a fry of bony bream—a sweet fish which has more bones to the square inch than a cemetery. Toward sundown Stahmer missed a couple of bites, and was prepared to swear the biter was barramundi. He knew by the wriggle of it.
By-and-bye he got a third bite, and this time he hooked the animal. The spasm of violent activity with which he accomplished it lost him his hat, which blew into the lagoon. Nobody heeded it. The line swung towards the bank. There was a moment of breathless suspense. Then up came a snake like head, eight inches of much-stretched neck, a great circular shell, four kicking legs, and a little stumpy tail wriggling behind.
A roar of laughter greeted Stahmer as he disgustedly landed the turtle.
"Where's my hat?" was all he said, as he flung the shellback away into the grass.
"It's just sunk," said old Charlie.
Stahmer looked black. "One of you might a-fished it out for me," he growled. "Warn't much trouble."
"I knew that hat would sink," Deaf Harry put in as Stahmer turned away. "Could tell by the wriggle of it."
"Never mind, Stahmer," said Charlie, soothingly. "You didn't do as bad as McShaver and his two gentlemen pals, anyway."
"Who's McShaver?" sulkily from Stahmer.
"Squatter down country a bit. Cracks himself up to be a fine bushman and an expert angler. One night he and his two friends carted a net overland to the Burnett, and stretched it across a narrow neck. They had no boat, so they took it in turns to swim to and fro when they wanted to lift it, and likewise drop it again. They put in the night without getting so much as a scale. In the morning they found they were fishing a short, blind gully, in which a thunderstorm had left about four feet of water. The river was a stone's throw farther on.
On Monday morning Stahmer, Deaf Harry and I left for Eurombah, a squattage 12 miles distant, that was famed for its brumbies, barramundi and bunyip. The brumbies ran in big mobs in the brigalow scrubs; the barramundi grew to huge proportions in Eurombah Lagoon, which, according to the blacks, who had long shunned it, was also the home of the bunyip.
A thunderstorm the day before had left pools and sheets of water gleaming all over the flats. There was still a drizzling rain when we started, and as none of us had overcoats we substituted flour-sacks by cutting a hole in the bottom, and slitting the sides for arm-holes, and slipping them over our heads. Reaching below our knees, with our trousers tucked up, they kept us fairly dry. The idea was Harry's. He had a fondness for bags. The greater part of his pack consisted of Wagga rugs and Murrum bidgee blankets.
Harry led the way. He also led a short tailed chestnut horse, an attenuated and melancholy animal which carried our swags. He slipped down in the mud with them three times, and required our conjoint assistance to stagger up again. We walked one behind the other, through slush and water, scattered branches and driftwood. Each carried a billycan in one hand, and a pair of boots slung over the shoulder on the end of a stick. We were like three wandering advertisements, each bearing the name of a brand of flour, the trade mark, the miller's name, and the name of his factory, in big, red letters on the back.
In this fashion we trudged and slipped along to Eurombah, and had just got nicely ensconced in the harness room when another thunderstorm came on.
The homestead was perched on the end of a hill near the river, and overlooking a big lagoon. In the early years of its settlement this place was the scene of many bloody conflicts with the blacks. Nineteen shepherds and others were speared on the run, but of the number of aborigines shot in retalliation there was no record. We had heard a good deal about Eurombah brumbies, and intimated to Mr. Lord that we wished to buy some. I had two pounds sterling in my pocket. Mr. Lord promised to have several hundred horses in for our inspection on Wednesday. He offered to keep us in meat, and to lend us fishing lines—to save the meat; so my two mates promptly decided to wait. I would have gone on, as buying a horse meant buying riding gear; and when you take the price of a horse out of two pounds, you haven't much left to expend on the necessary accoutrements. But that evening I met a wandering ex-jockey, named George Boyce, who was going my way, and knew the road. The other two were bound for Roma. George, whose small, wrinkled face was ornamented with a sandy moustache, was a cheerful sort, who could joke and sing in the face of his own adversity. He was so near-sighted that he nearly had no sight at all. Deaf Harry, who had met him before, endeavoured to persuade him to go to Roma.
"You're blind, an' I'm deaf," he argued, "an' we'll only be a twin nuisance to the other fellows. I can't hear the horse-bells, an' you can't see the horses. They'll 'ave to horse-hunt for us. But if we go together, you'll be able to hear the bells' and show me the direction, an' I'll be able to see the horses."
This brilliant idea didn't come off. George had three horses, and had agreed if I bought a brumby to quieten and ride it for me whilst I rode one of his. When we reached the Maranoa he would give me another for it. This generous offer was induced by the fact that George had neither money nor tobacco, and badly wanted a financial mate. I agreed to his proposal, while desperately calculating, how much I could apportion to the various items I had to purchase out of my two pounds.
Tuesday was mainly spent on the banks of the lagoon, fishing for barramundi, the excitement of which saved me a lot of suspense.
Everybody was astir early on Wednesday, Harry and Stahmer talking horse and cracking jokes about riding. They were also displaying a lively interest in all such things as saddle-straps, buckles and stirrup-irons. Lots of these articles were going to ruin in out-of-the-way corners, and it was marvellous how quickly an energetic man could amalgamate them into something of utility.
A great muster of brumbies were run in from the paddock during the morning, and after lunch Mr. Lord took us up to the stockyards. He was a big, hearty man, clean shaven, with a ruddy and happy cast of countenance.
We clustered at a little drafting yard, through which the horses were passed. There seemed to me to be enough of them to supply the Indian market—the majority of them well-set and attractive animals. They were worked through the yards by two stockmen and two brumby-shooters—for thousands of the horses were trapped and shot every summer for their hides.
The first eight were snorters, and the buyers stood off. Then a wild, black colt took Stahmer's fancy. He was a handsome beast, with great neck and quarters, and an ebony coat that shone like silk.
"What's the figure?"
"Thirty bob. Dirt cheap to anyone who can ride."
As Stahmer had been blowing about his riding, this sounded like a challenge. George, who wanted to see some fun, offered to give a hand with the breaking-in as an extra inducement. Stahmer hunted the colt round the yard several times, and could find no fault with him. He was certainly cheap; I would have bought him myself if he had been cheaper.
"I'll take him," said Stahmer.
Three more went through; then a big, bay colt was blocked. Deaf Harry got down off the rails to look at him. He was a handy sort of horse, suitable for saddle, pack or harness. The owner highly recommended him, and on this recommendation Harry became the purchaser. I was the only buyer left. A splendid-looking chestnut was the first blocked for my inspection. Five pounds! I searched it desperately for a fault, and concluded that it was too fiery about the heels. Another chestnut followed. Three pounds. This one was easier for a buyer of limited means to judge; it was too clumsy. Two beautiful bays were the next, at 50s each. Too wild. They sent in the fifth, and the sixth—they sent in 75, and the 75 were rejected as being defective in 75 different ways. Mr. Lord was beginning to talk to himself, and to wonder what he had fetched the horses in for. The drafters were using uncomplimentary language; and this unfortunate buyer began to wish himself several miles and a furlong up a dry gully.
Only a few remained of the first yard for me to inspect. I continued to inspect. Presently along came a weedy brown galloway—slab-sided and lop-eared like a donkey. Its mane was long and matted, its tail trailed on the ground. It had one good point—it looked quiet.
"There you are—25 bob!"
"What's his breeding?" I asked. Somebody giggled. "He was got by Drought, out of Trapyard," said Lord.
I looked the animal over from his hoofs to his back, while I wondered what the seller would be asking for an old saddle. I drove the quadruped round, and scrutinised him fore and aft, while I mentally fumbled about for a bridle to put on the brute. At last I made a desperate plunge.
"I'll give you a pound for him," T said.
"Take him, take him!" said Lord, and as he walked across the yard he lifted his hat, and brushed his hair back with his hand. Boyce came into the yard, and examined the bargain at close quarters. Boyce was considered a judge.
"A trifle small," he commented; "but he'll fill out, an' grow a bit, too. Only a colt yet."
Lord came to the gate.
"What's his age, Mr. Lord?" I asked.
"I don't know exactly," he replied; "but I don't think he's much over nine."
"I knew he wasn't very old," said Boyce. "A 'orse is just in his prime at nine. I reckon he's well worth a pound."
We commenced breaking in at once, that is, we captured our purchases with ropes, indulged in some weird and whirling exercises behind them for a time, and left them in tackle for the night. Next day the civilising process was continued with mixed results. Lord Brumby—by Drought, out of Trapyard—turned out a very docile animal, and I had the satisfaction of riding him bareback round the yard in the afternoon. Such is the benefit of inspecting well before buying. When we had pulled his superabundant tail, and combed out his superfluous mane, he did not look at all bad. With his ears stiffened a little, and his sides inflated, Lord Brumby, in fact, would have looked twice his cost price anywhere.
The black colt sulked from the beginning, and by this time he looked a most deplorable quadruped. His mouth was cut and bleeding, his lips swollen to the size of six; he had two black eyes, and there were lumps on him and lumps knocked off him. He leaned back in the corner, with his forelegs spread out and his head down. Stahmer pulled his head this way, and he pulled it that way; but nothing else of him would come with it—barring a grunt.
"Calls himself a horse-breaker!" said Lord, aside. "He wants three months!"
Harry's big bay was a different character. He was a defiant animal, and had Harry thoroughly cowed. He did not allow the deaf gentleman in the same yard with him, his vicious proclivities being distressfully evident. Harry walked round outside with a bag on the end of a long stick with which he bashed the rebel whenever he got a chance. Harry was a good-tempered, patient person, and persistence eventually wore the outlaw into submission.
On Friday the horses were considered quiet enough to go on the track, and arrangements were made to start after dinner. I still wanted a saddle to complete my equipment. Lord brought out several from a lumber room, and the groom swept the dust and cobwebs off them. They ranged from 30s down to 5s. I examined the 5s article.
"Will you take three bob for it?" I asked. It was in an advanced state of disrepair.
Lord made a gesture of impatience. "If it's not worth five bob it's worth nothing," he said. "It's not worth arguing over."
George, who was mooching around with some straps and pieces of bridle rein in one hand, and a rusty bit in the other, signalled approval, and intimated, that I wouldn't have to buy a bridle, as he was seeing to that. So the deal was completed. After all, a horse saddle and bridle for 25s wasn't excessive.
All hands on the place, including several ladies, assembled to see the start. Harry and Stahmer packed their colts, and led them round as a preliminary. There was very little life left in the black one. He rolled from side to side, with his head down; now and again he spread out his front legs and groaned in protest. The ladies said "poor brute," severally and unanimously, whilst Mr. Lord remarked that the other brute ought to get six months.
Harry mounted his old chestnut, and essayed to start. The colt pulled back, and dragged him off. Then he heaved the pack into a pile of raw horse-hides that had just been unloaded, smashed through a gate, and bolted to the bottom corner of the home paddock. When we had brought him back, Lord claimed him for damages. While interest centred in the argument, Stahmer pulled the black colt down the track, as one would drag a log, Boyce actively assisting in the rear. Harry spent half an hour trying to mend the gate; then he paid 10s in requital. He got on again with an injured air, requesting me to form a rearguard, to prevent further damage and to accelerate his departure, and we left Eurombah.
Lord Brumby, tractable and pacing in fine style, gave George an expression of beaming satisfaction. The little brown hack, he said, was a credit to my judgment.
Our road hugged the Dawson, and while passing along the edge of a steep bank, the black colt pulled back and tumbled over, he turned a dozen somersaults, and landed on his back in a muddy hole, where he lay half covered with water.
When we had recovered from this shock, we found Harry spread out in the grass, and the bay colt bucking into the bush, scattering bags, old shirts, pants, tinware, and blankets as he went. Harry scrambled to his feet, clawed some dry herbage from his hair, and collected his pipe and hat.
"See my horse anywhere." he inquired dejectedly. The rebel had got into a hollow.
"I can hear him," said Boyce; "can't you see him?"
Harry rubbed several parts of his anatomy. " 'S a strong 'orse that," he reflected.
I went in pursuit of the runaway, whilst the others unpacked the black colt, and lifted him up. Between shoving and dragging and belting, they got him to the top. Harry did some more collecting, and we camped.
It was the last camp for the black colt. During the night he caught his hobbles against a stump, and turning over, broke his stiff neck.
From here we had a short ride to Hornet Bank. We must have been something unusual in the way of travellers, for half a dozen women gathered on the verandah and stared at us.
Boyce and I endeavoured to pass on; but the pack-horse and the spare one objected. They split up and ran back. Lord Brumby had no idea of stockwork, so the onus of blocking and driving devolved upon me. I raced towards the fence to block the pack-horse. The old mare I bestrode propped at the fence, and slewed sharply. The girth broke, and I and the saddle dropped on to the fence, and then straggled on to the ground. A boisterous laugh from Harry—who was holding confab with Stahmer back at the gate—was the precursor to a merry ripple from the women.
While we were repairing the breakages, we became suddenly aware of something like a tornado rushing along. It was Harry's mutinous bay. He went flying through the timber, leaving bits of the pack hanging to branches. When we saw the last of him on a far ridge he was stripped of his burden; Harry was riding hard on the old chestnut to keep the outlaw in sight; and Stahmer was running laboriously behind him to gather up the pieces.
George and I were half an hour fixing things up, and then we started again. The pack-horse turned into a little pen at the side of a cottage, to the accompaniment of shrieks from the audience. I dismounted and dragged the cantankerous thing out, and Boyce flung a sliprail at it. which turned its head in the right direction. We passed through the yards, and came to a waterhole. There we provided more entertainment free of charge. That pack-horse seemed to think his only mission in the world was to circumnavigate that waterhole, and he circumnavigated it half a dozen times. Then Boyer met him with a sapling, which changed his opinions, and he went well till we reached the river crossing. Right in the middle of it he lay down and rolled with the pack. We stopped on the other side to unroll our drenched swags, and spread the contents over the landscape.
We were a mile from Hornet Bank, a place famous in Australian history. The buildings are clustered on the end of a ridge, around which sweeps a long lagoon, and but a short distance from the river. Fronted by a luxuriant forest, there was excellent cover all round it for an attack; and, as it was a splendid camping ground, the occupation of it by the whites was naturally resented. It was one of the choice spots in the towri of the local blacks, and that, with subsequent pinpricks and brushes, led up to the murder of the Frasers on October 29, 1857. There was a little cemetery, containing the remains of the victims, about 300 yards from the front of the house, with a stone at the head of each grave. There were also many other graves within the enclosure, in some of which lay buried unfortunates who were murdered at other times. These did not complete the number killed on the run, for the sub-squattages had their lonely grass-covered mounds, and here and there by various tracks a small square marked the resting-place of an unwary shepherd. In some instances bush fires had almost obliterated them, leaving only the butts of the posts showing black above the ground.
The old house was pulled down six months previous to this, but the woolshed was still standing. The blacks broke into the house at daylight. Whilst they were at their awful work one of the girls escaped, and ran to the woolshed. The blacks followed, and dragged her out by the hair, and killed her. Jimmy Fraser, then about 14, and a brother were sleeping in the one bed. The brother was killed with a nulla, and Jimmy was stunned. He rolled out and under the bed, where he lay till the blacks had left the house. Then, snatching up a bridle, he ran down to a horse which was grazing in a paddock at the foot of the hill. The blacks, who had been waiting about, went in pursuit. No one had ever succeeded in catching this horse outside of a yard; and on the bridling of the doubtful beast without the loss of a moment the fugitive's life depended.
Strange to say, the horse stood as quiet as a lamb. Fraser sprang on to his back, and galloped him at a three-railed fence. The horse smashed through the top rail, and landed on his nose. Though barebacked, the boy stuck to his seat, and, quickly pulling his mount together, galloped away and escaped. He was the only survivor out of eleven persons. Billy, another brother, was at Ipswich at the time with a team. The victims were the mother, four daughters, three sons, the tutor, and two male employees. The survivor, hatless and bootless, first rode to a squattage 12 miles away; afterwards he went on to Ipswich, 320 miles, covering the distance, with only two changes of horses, in three days. With his brother, Billy, who was loading his team at George Wilson's store, he started back almost immediately, the return journey being completed in the same time with three changes of horses.
Standing at the graveside of his mother and sisters, with an uplifted tomahawk in his hand, Billy swore that he would never rest until he had sunk it in the head of the blackfellow who was the cause of the murder. And he did it, He lived to be nearly 83, being still alive at this time, and living on a selection near Mitchell; but he had many narrow escapes. Once, whilst riding through the bush, a spear, hurled down from the branches of a tree, plunked through the rim of his cabbage-tree hat, grazed his shoulder-blades, and stuck into his saddle.
In revenge for the terrible crimes, Fraser received permission from the Queensland Government to shoot aborigines at sight for a term of twelve months. For many years afterwards the name of the avenger inspired terror in the Queensland blacks.
Though now stocked with cattle, Hornet Bank was once a sheep run. In those days the shepherds had much trouble with the blacks. Many were speared in the bush. On one occasion, when the shepherd had been killed and the sheep driven away, Scott, the then owner of the squattage, and a strong party followed the tribe. They found them among the ranges, a few miles from the homestead. The sheep were held in an enclosure made of boughs, and the blacks were having a corroboree over the spoil. A volley was the first intimation they received of the presence of the enemy. Many of them were shot before they could leave the camp. One old fellow climbed a tree. He had the leaf of a book in his hands, and whenever Scott put up the gun to fire, the black held the leaf up between his face and the muzzle to stop the bullet. When he was shot the trackers laughed to see him "double up and tumble down." The callousness and inhumanity of the black trackers towards their own race was one of the remarkable phases of the period. They would shield their own tribes, but in dealing with others the whites had often much difficulty in staying their ferocity.
There is a memorable spot between Hornet Bank and Barunda, noted for its connection with the Fraser murders. It is a large flat rock on the edge of a precipice, surrounded by brigalow scrubs, deep rocky gorges, and wild mountains. On this rock the blacks made damper with the flour they had stolen from the store immediately after the raid.
This reminds me of an incident which occurred near Walloon in later times. The dusky nomads had readily acquired the white man's habits of smoking and gambling, and they stopped at nothing to obtain the means of indulgence. They robbed a local store of a quantity of tobacco and some packs of playing cards, and repaired with their booty to a hill at the back of the post-office. Here they squatted, and coolly played cards among themselves for the plunder. Among the notorious characters still living at this time were "Old Andrew" and "Lieutenant Billy," alias "Sandy," who were supposed to have been the ringleaders of the murderous attack on Hornet Bank. No doubt if one could have sat at their little camp fires, and talked with them in their own lingo, these veterans could have accounted for many a lost shepherd, of whom no trace was ever found by the whites. Another well-known character was "Wild Toby," whose first authenticated crime was the murder of his own gin. Sergeant McGuire and a constable attempted to arrest him. Toby was squatted, with his heels doubled under him in the usual native fashion, when the troopers came upon him. He allowed them to approach closely, then suddenly sprang up and split the constable's head open with his tomahawk.
Many attempts were made afterwards by squattage people to "do him in" with poisoned meat. But Toby was too cunning. He made his gin eat different portions of any suspicious meat he got hold of, and if it didn't agree with her Toby would have none of it. Toby was thus widowed pretty often, and mourned many beloved ones in the course of his career. He was at last shot by Sergeant Wright, afterwards stationed at Toowoomba, and his skull was for a long while exhibited at Juandah.
Conflicts between whites and blacks were frequent for years after the first settlement of the wild regions of the upper Dawson. In a little clump of wattle close to Hornet Bank I was shown a heap of decayed skulls and bones of slaughtered blacks. They had bleached there through forgotten years as a grim memento of the early days, and in evidence of the deep vengeance of the white settlers.
This wild and magnificent stretch of country embracing the upper half of the Dawson River district, and reaching across the upper parts of the Maranoa and Warrego, may be set down as the bloodiest tract in Queensland. There may be individual spots here and there where more blood was spilt in the establishing of settlements; but this is a red, red tract from end to end—where white women, girls and children were among the hosts hurried into premature graves. You cannot travel any part of it without meeting grim evidences of the raids and dispersals that marked that epoch of terror, when every tree was regarded with suspicion, and it was not safe to go out unarmed to catch a horse, or to pick up a stick of wood. I saw a long grave near the Maranoa—later on—heaped over with a pile of wood, that contained the remains of 150 blacks, whom the whites, in revenge, had shot down at that spot. In a similar grave, on a sandhill near Caroline Crossing, on the Warrego, 67 had been buried together. A man who was working in the vicinity one evening boiled his billy with sticks from this wood pile. Some blacks saw him, and ever afterwards he was shunned by them. They called him Wokka-atchie—a native name of the crow; and no blackfellow would knowingly approach within coo-ee of him.
The blacks in this part were very numerous, the country throughout being rich in game. They were tall—many of the women reaching six feet—well-built in proportion, muscular and athletic. But they were treacherous, of a cruel and savage disposition—the most warlike and the most daring in Australia.
While we were spelling on the river bank there came to our camp a wayworn and haggard blackboy—like a ghost from the abyss of the past. A drover had taken him from his native district above Normanton, down to Murrurundi, on the Page River, N.S.W. There they left him, without food or money, to find his way back to the Gulf country as best he could. He was tramping barefooted, half his time starving. This was his second attempt to leave the Dawson. He had passed Kinnoul a fortnight before; but the blacks intercepted him, stole his blanket, and drove him back. He dreaded the Dawson blacks, averring that they would kill him. He was now attempting a route across the Carnarvon Range to Springsure, and thence to the far-off Flinders. We gave him some tobacco and matches, and he set out like a child going into the dark.
We had already dropped into our special places, as mates generally do on the track. George Boyce was horse-hunter. I was cook. At each new camp George made the fire; I filled the billies and put them on. When mosquitoes were bad, each gathered cowdung or corkwood for his own side; and whenever either woke up at night it was his duty to go round the fires quietly and to notice which way the bells were. Some mates shirk this duty on cold nights. When he has been chilled—or stung—into wakefullness, the shirker surreptitiously rouses the other fellow, and pretends to be dead asleep himself.
I had not suspected George of any tricks like that until we were close to Barundah. It was Saturday night, and we were camped by the river, on a low, narrow level between the water and a precipitous ridge. We had collected a good supply of firing before turning in. As a rule, we had to attend to the fires about twice each during the night; but on this occasion I got up five times, and each time I noticed that the heaps had not changed since my previous visit. On one or two occasions I had a feeling that I had been disturbed by something more than the kick of a mosquito; but the reproachful tone of George's matutinal greeting disarmed me. "By cripes," he said, "you slept good last night; I was up half a dozen times."
A shortage of provisions compelled us on Sunday morning to push on to Barundah, which had a well-supplied store. I made a damper with our last bit of flour while George was away looking for the horses. When it was baked I stood it against a stone to cool, and as there was yet no sign of George I strolled along the river bank to see if the horses had crossed back. Returning to camp, I disturbed a flock of ravens that had been having a feast in my absence. All that was left of my damper was a thin shell. George came back shortly afterwards. When he learned what had happened, the expression of his wizened face positively hurt me.
"A beauty to mind a camp you are!" he reproached. "Don't you know there's crows in this country?"
"I didn't know they'd eat hot damper," I replied.
George chuckled disdainfully.
"If you don't keep a better look-out they'll eat you," he rejoined. "Cookin' for crows. . . . Ugh!"
He looked round carefully, after we had strapped the packs on, to see if anything had been missed.
"Crows are always watchin' a traveller," he said, tightening his girths. "On a dry track they follow him for miles. An' 'tain't a cheerful prospect when the crows start to follow yer; makes yer feel 's if yer goin' to your own funeral." Pause. "I was havin' a doss one hot day under a tree. Pretty soon there was half a dozen crows in the branches, squintin' down at me an' discussin' my condition. They shifted lower an' lower, an' by-an'-bye one got a dry stick an' dropped it down on me to see if I was dead." Another pause. "Always cover your head up when you're havin' a daylight nap in the open, unless you want to go about with a signboard in front of yer notifyin' the gen'ral public that you can't see where you're goin'."
He lit his pipe, and pressed the glowing tobacco down with a nicotine-stained finger.
"Cover your damper up, too," he concluded, as we turned the pack-horses on to the track.
It was a stiff climb up a stony ridge to begin with. The road, which was hardly discernible in places, wound through dense scrubs, over rocks and stones and beds of spinifex. "Only two miles to Barundah," George had said when we started. He knew every inch of that country.
When we had ridden about seven miles we descended into a narrow valley, leading our horses. There was a steep, rocky hill on the other side, with a broad track to the top. George said that was a roundabout way to Roma; the place we were looking for was down the flat.
In about an hour we came to the river, which was wide and deep. Along the bank the grass brushed our knees on horseback. We rode up the river, here and there leading our horses down into deep ravines, and scrambling out again; taking sheer drops down precipitous banks; climbing round jutting rocks, high above the water, and reefing through brush and bramble, till we came to a rugged cliff that rose abruptly from the water. Further progress was impossible.
We turned back, and in attempting a difficult descent we had a mishap. The horses slid down the bank in a bunch—into the river. They were not hurt; but they got out on the other side! We swam over in a hurry, and pursued the runaways to Barundah horse-paddock, where we caught them. Our packs were sopping wet, so we made clothes-lines with our reins and straps, and hung everything out to dry. Meantime we made camp in sight of Barundah, which was a sub-squattage, belonging to Hornet Bank, and dated back to the days of massacres and dispersals.
A big hill, just across the river, took my attention. On inquiring, we learnt that we had turned off on the other side of that hill—just one mile away. Which shows how easily a man may go astray if he thinks he is lost when he isn't. Sometimes it is better not to know a road at all than to only half know it.
October 14. — We crossed the Dawson for the last time above Barundah. It was all but a swim, and we got out in a damp condition. Passed between steep, rocky hills to Expedition Creek, which we crossed half a dozen times, and turned out for lunch at Murdering Gully. A man named Sullivan settled on this gully at the time when pioneering was interesting. According to local report, he had a family of 22 sons. One night the blacks attacked the place, and killed 21 of them, from which circumstance the gully derived its name.
We had strapped part of the pack on the spare nag, and about 4 o'clock she knocked up. We then put it all on the grey mare. Our pack-saddle was an overlander—made with crossed sticks, kangaroo skin, bags and grass. It rolled on the grey's round back, and once, going down a hill, it got under her belly. She danced and pranced the rest of the way down, and so seriously damaged the concern that we had to make a halt to effect repairs.
Camped on Spring Gully at dusk, dead tired from driving knocked-up horses. While the billy boiled we treated ourselves to a shower bath. This we accomplished by standing near the hole and pouring the water over ourselves with a pannikin.
From here we rode next day through thick forests of cypress pine to Strathmore—a deserted hut, which, like a lot more bush huts, had the reputation of being haunted. A swagman was camping there one night when a man in a long white shirt dropped in and asked for a pipe of tobacco. There was nothing unusual in this request; but when night falls on a lonely place and gets mixed up with long white shirts, the situation is not quite satisfactory. The swagman said he had left his tobacco on a stump outside, and would go and get it. When he got outside he started running, and did not stop till he reached Mount Huxton. A stockman brought in the abandoned swag a day or two later, and reported that the ghost had been seen at different stages farther on. It was a married ghost, travelling with its wife in a tilted cart. It mostly donned a nightgown of Betty's after dark, because the garment, being long, protected the spectre's legs from mosquitoes.
"I saw a real ghost once," said George, musingly—''one night when I was camped by the mailman's track on the side of Mount Lindsay. I was out of tobacco. I s'pose yer know what a lovely plight that is when you're on your ace, an' nothin' ter do but sit an' look at the fire? I was wishin' someone would turn up, when all at once I hears the rattle of dray-wheels down through the timber; an' after a while I sees a dray comin' up the track. There was an old joker sittin' in it, moody like, with one hand proppin' his chin, an' the other holdin' the reins. I reckoned I was in luck's way at last, an' waits till he comes close by. Then I gets up an' sings out, 'Good night!' The chock-clock of the wheels stopped, an' the horse, dray an' driver disappeared like a whiff of smoke. I went to the road, an' looks about; but there warn't a sign of anything. An' yet I'd seen the whole turn-out as plain as daylight! It was so mighty queer that I couldn't sleep after for thinkin' an' listenin'. Fust thing in the mornin' I ups an' searches all round very careful; but hang me if there was a wheel track of any sort, high or low. I got a move on quick an' lively, an' when I gets to Unumgar they tells me about a murder what 'appened on the mountain years ago. It was the time of the Taloom diggin's, an' a rough shanty was opened on the road between Noogara an' Koreelah Creek. An old bloke with a horse an' cart stopped there one night; an' it leaked out somehow that he 'ad near a 'undred quid on him. He left next mornin', an' hours afterwards the horse came back with the cart—but no driver. They found him dead on the range—fleeced of every bean. Well, after the shanty was deserted, coves used ter see a ghost there pretty often, but it mostly took the form of an old chap sittin' on a log, patchin' his pants. I s'pose the loss of his money left him hard up, an' he had ter come down to that or go naked; an' naked ghosts somehow don't seem ter be in the fashion."
A cup of tea at Merrivale put George in good spirits, and he sang bits of song and told yarns by turns as we rode out to the Three-Mile-Waterholes, where a scalper was camped, doing big business among the wallabies that abounded in neighbouring brigalow scrubs. The camp was George's home—or the nearest approach to such that this lone wight of the bush could lay claim to.
The managing-director of the scalping industry was a big middle-aged man named Whistle. He did no wallaby hunting or scalping himself; that was done by a tribe of blacks, who received opium and rations in return. Some got tobacco also—if they earned it. The rations were munificent. Night and morning a kerosene-tin of water was boiled, into which was thrown a handful of post-and-rail tea and a pannikin of brown sugar. One pannikin of this mixture and a smoke of tobacco, or its equivalent in damper was each one's breakfast; and the same quantity of tea and a small slice of damper were doled out at night. They received also a nightcap of opium.
The camp consisted of four gunyahs, two tents and a galley. One tent contained the boss and the rations; in the other the skins and scalps were stored. The tribe were camped three miles farther out, and only four gins were here, two of whom were stringing scalps on wires and stretching them between trees to dry.
We were invited to spell our horses there; it transpired that the tribe was getting a little out of hand, and Whistle was feeling uncomfortable.
One afternoon I went with him to the outcamp. He expected trouble over the rations, and took me for protection. It was sunset, when we got to the camp. There were many small fires, but no gunyahs. About 60 blackfellows, more gins, and many more piccaninnies were mixed up among 490 dogs. All were naked, male and female. They gathered round us, clamouring for meeta (opium charcoal) and mookine (opium). Whistle handed me his revolver, with instructions to stand back behind him. Then he commenced to dole out the rations, and simultaneously the hunters began to grumble. Quickly the grumbling and dissatisfaction spread. Some returned their allowances with scorn, and in ten minutes the whole camp had struck. There was a tremendous uproar, many approaching menacingly. Whistle held up his hand, and the clamour ceased. Then he spoke:
"You blackfellow all about come longa my camp to-night. Bring um gun, blanket—everything. You sit down every day my camp, and hunt wallaby longa 'nother scrub."
A big blackfellow stepped forward.
"You gib it plenty mookine, plenty damper, longa camp?"
"You get um plenty wallaby, mine give it plenty ration, plenty mookine," Whistle replied.
Another blackfellow interviewed him. "You gib it me old pfeller trouser?" he solicited.
"What do you want trousers for?"
"Me want to see station sometimes. Yarri want to see um; Sandy want to see um—all about blackfeller want to see um."
"And you want trousers for everybody?" said Whistle, deprecatingly.
"Baal. Only one pfeller. Me go station fust time; by-n'-by Yarri go station; Yarri come back, Sandy go station; Sandy come back—"
"All right," Whistle conceded; "I'll look up the visiting pants."
Then a gin stepped up. "You gib it pfrock?" she inquired.
"Don't wear that one."
"You got um tchirt—long pheller?"
"What do you want a shirt for?"
"Me go station look about. By-n'-by Lucy go station; Lucy come back, Nanny go station; Nanny come back—"
The shirt was another company concern.
"All right," said Whistle; "I'll look up shirt."
This settled the dispute, and we rode back to the depot. The tribe came in soon after us, and camped on the opposite side of the water. In good scrubs these blacks killed from 100 to 200 wallabies a day. The pay was one penny per pair. Poor Murri was often hunting all day to earn his evening smoke and his pint of weak tea. Some at times failed to make that, and these borrowed scalps from their more lucky compatriots. An account of such dealings was kept by them on a stick.
One night the Queen Dowager came to Whistle and said: "Baal you sleep to-night, boss. Blackfeller all about come up—rush um camp. Boss big pfeller tumble down. Baal gammon!"
We prepared to receive them. When all was quiet, Whistle and I lay down, one on each side of the tent, armed respectively with a rifle and a revolver. Boyce was posted inside to watch the entrance, his weapon being an old-time gun, which he had loaded himself.
It was a starlit night, but dark under the trees. We were watching an opening towards the main camp, expecting they would come direct. But they crept round the lagoon, and came in a body towards the front. The first intimation we received of their presence was in the form of a thunderous report from the gun, followed by several half-suppressed yells and a general stampede through the darkness.
When these had died away a series of groans and sighs came from the interior of the tent. We hurried in and found George lying on his back behind the flour bag, and the antique weapon sticking through the side of the tent. George had rammed half a pound of shot into it, and the old thing retaliated.
In the morning the ringleaders were hunted out of camp, and the others submitted sulkily to the terms of the scalp-hunter.
"I'll 'ave ter stay on with Whistle," George announced at this stage. 'Those devils might mutiny again, and he might get murdered if I ain't here."
* * * * * *
I left Merrivale on October 25, and set out alone for the Warrego. At first I strapped my swag in front of me, but Brownie, the plodding old moke I now bestrode, was so long, and there was so much superfluous space behind, that a pack in front made us ridiculous. So I stuffed everything into a wallet (a bag sewn at both ends, with a slit in the middle) and threw it across his loins. I had been compelled to swop my brumby hack—which had gone lame and got low in condition—for him at the scalper's camp. He was a big, brown animal, with a tremendous hollow in the back of him. He had the head and hoofs of a cart-horse, and had been young in the days when I was going to school. He looked sorry, as though he had some great family affliction on his mind. He wasn't a quadruped that one could take a pride in, or become fond of. He was too ill-shapen for that; and no amount of grooming would make him look even decently dressed. The only way to improve an angular beast like him was with a squaring axe. There was nothing vicious about him; he was so quiet that it was impossible to frighten him. He was a great horse to meditate; he would stand under a tree and meditate for hours. He had two good points—according to George, his last owner—inasmuch as he was a weight-carrier and a good camper.
A hard week on a dry track brought me to the Hoganthulla, a tributary of the Warrego, where Brownie knocked up. We had crossed a lot of grassless country, and a perish or two had not improved matters; but five miles ahead there were splendid grass and flowing waters. I took the bridle and pulled him, with the reins over my shoulder, till he wouldn't come any more; pushed and zig-zagged him; then got on him by way of a change. By dint of hard riding, driving and dragging, I got him within a mile of Killarney, and there let him go. He didn't go far, though he fed about for awhile as if he was enjoying himself.
At dusk a cold drizzle set in, and this affecting his weakened constitution, he took shelter under a tree. He was still there in the morning, only he was lying down with a straight neck. When I approached him with the bridle a goanna crawled leisurely away from his legs, and overhead the crows were gathering. He was theirs.
I took the hobbles and bell off him, and hung them, with my saddle and bridle, on the tree that stood for his monument. As I collected my remaining property I thought of the manager of a western squattage who, when asked by the owners to report as to how the place had come through a recent drought, made up a parcel of sundries: a piece of hide containing the squattage brand, three hoofs, a greenhide girth, a pair of horns, the skin of the cattle dog, and a rotten water-bag. This he forwarded, with the addendum: "Gentlemen, these are the assets."
In "Matilda's" loving embrace I stepped out for Augathella. Hereabouts, on the Tambo mail track, I caught up a swagman and chummed in with him. He was an old man, with a short, scraggy beard, a sharp, wizened face, and a scalded nose. He had bandy legs, and wore boyangs. A part of his name was Jack.
Three or four miles out of Augathella there was a big scrub. We were half-way through this when Jack suddenly called out, pointing ahead: "That's mine! I seen it first." It was a new water-bag, which someone had dropped from a vehicle. "The very thing I wanted," he remarked, with much pleasure; and while he strapped it to his swag I walked on slowly, thinking I might see another one. I didn't; but immediately after Jack drew level with me he called out again: "That's mine!"
It was a good saddle-strap this time, which was another item he happened to want. I admit I was a little exasperated at this point, and became as circumspective as a white hawk.
We walked on for a long while, too watchful to speak; and when at last I spied something far ahead I fairly yelled—"That's mine!" Jack gave a nervous jump, and dropped his billy. "Dash it all," he growled, "yer needn't frighten a man, if it is your'n."
He was sulky for a bit, but when we drew near to the object he looked more pleased than ever. "Mine" was a dead cat.
That night we put up at Biddenham, a sheep squattage on the Nive River, where shearing was in full swing. From here we travelled by way of the Ward River, and across wearying, wide, grey plains to Tambo, and after a couple of days' rest there we started down the Barcoo.
Boyangs was an eccentric character. He was never talkative, but always suspicious and pessimistic. He slept apart, and boiled his own billy at his own fire. Once, after he had spread his things out, being dissatisfied with my first choice, I dumped my swag down under the same tree. When I started to unroll he found fault with the ground, and shifted. The approach of a drover seemed to electrify his otherwise lagging legs. He stepped out briskly to precede me, lest I, being younger, should step into the probable vacancy.
Late in the afternoon I met a man driving a small mob of bullocks. They were poor, lame, and knocked up, and he was flogging them along—a few at a time. They belonged to a mob of Kihee cattle, which were feeding along behind. These would not feed; they would only stand under trees. They were continually striking off for trees, and if there were no trees in sight they lagged behind, and the others had to be held till they were fetched along. So this man was put in charge of the culls, and his duty was to dodge them along to camp as best he could.
"It would break your heart," he said. "It's all day like this. Thank God, my week's up to-night. If you want a job, you sight old Swiker; he'll be coming along directly. He's a corpulent man, with a flowing beard."
"What sort 'of a boss is he?"
"Oh, a fair cow. I'll give you one week with him."
Boyangs had come up, and, hearing of the possible billet, he lit out for Swiker with remarkable energy. I lit out, too, and for a mile it was a fair ding-dong walking match. Boyangs by this time was puffing like a locomotive, and the sweat was running down through the dust in little streams, making his face look like a tattooed Maori's.
"I'll toss you for it!" he panted.
My sling came undone, and I lost two minutes fixing it. Boyangs was in front again, and the tossing was postponed. Then Swiker cantered up on a big, grey horse.
"Good day!" said Boyangs, throwing his hand up. "Any chance of a job!"
Swiker looked him up and down. "Can you ride?"
"Ride!" Boyangs repeated. "I was reared on horses, went to school on 'em, earned me livin' on 'em—drovin'. That's what makes me bandy-legged. 'S a wonder to me I don't whinny in me sleep, for I jes' grew on a 'orse."
"You're not the sort of drover I'm looking for," Mr. Swiker interrupted, turning away.
"An' when I come to look at yer, I'm danged if you're the sort of drover I'm lookin' for!" Boyangs retorted, and passed on. I turned back with Swiker; and there, on Greendale boundary, on the bank of the Barcoo, ended my jaunt on the wallaby.
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