Book 3, chapter 8 [The Yellow Wave, by Kenneth Mackay, 1895]

[Editor: This is a chapter from The Yellow Wave: A Romance of the Asiatic Invasion of Australia (1895) by Kenneth Mackay.]

Chapter VIII.

The horse-muster.

Recognising the hopeless deterioration of Australian horse-breeding, the owners of Afton Downs early determined to try and get back to that weight-carrying, stout-hearted strain which had of late become replaced by the weedy, slab-sided flyer. In most parts of the colonies the old stock-horse, unequalled for both intelligence and endurance, was rapidly growing extinct. Wholesale racing, with its attendant evils of big handicaps and light-weights, had brought into existence a miserable class of weeds, admirable as a medium for betting, but ruinous as regards the future of the breed. With direct communication opened up to the East, the demand for horses suitable for remounts became intensified; the only trouble was where to find them. Determined to make capital out of the insane folly which permitted brutes only fit for pigs’ food to be used as stud-horses after their miserable legs had broken down under burdens of six stone, Musgrave had collected after infinite trouble a select band of mares, and as mates for these a couple of Arab stallions were imported. This nucleus of a stud was turned out on a part of the run joining Isis Downs.

As the paddock in which they ran contained over twenty thousand acres, they were practically as free as the early squatters’ herds. Still, the ring-fence formed a more satisfactory boundary than the blazed tree-line or dividing-range of past days, and offered less inducements to neighbouring stockmen to brand a few clean-skins who had wandered in among their ‘bosses’’ mobs. At the present time there were a promising lot of about two hundred four-year-olds fit for the market, and Musgrave had decided to have them handled, not, however, so much with the object of selling, as to provide remounts for his own men should the occasion arise. On the morning after Cameron’s arrival the muster took place.

It was a poor affair compared with the grand old musters of the past, for most of the stations round were now worked solely by Kalmucks and other aliens, and Musgrave for many reasons decided not to ask for their help.

But apart from this, the muster really died with the introduction of fenced runs. In the days when only an imaginary line divided stations, stock naturally got more or less mixed. When branding-time arrived, each man came for his own, and sometimes for as many of his neighbours’ foals as he or his men could manage to secure by superior finesse or more unblushing prevarication. Starting at one station, and taking each of the adjoining runs in turn, the muster was an affair of weeks. To it all sent a contingent, and at it the best and bravest of the country side outvied with each other in deeds of daring horsemanship and feats with rope and brand. What men they were, these old stockmen! — lean-flanked and bearded, with eyes like hawks, and hearts as hard as their sun-tanned, sinewy hands. Men ready, if required, to rope a young one over night and ride him at daybreak; not one of the half-starved poddies one sees rough-riders winning reputations on to-day, but a colt fit to buck through his tackling, and then go out and carry the man till dark who was able to sit on him. What horses they were! — stout-barrelled, iron-legged ‘lasters,’ as short behind the wither as they were long in front of it; horses who worked day after day on no better feed than grass, and raced up beside the swiftest outlaw when the whips were cracking. To see the old stock-horse jogging along behind the ‘tailers,’ scarcely noticing the spur, one who didn’t know points might easily have been pardoned for calling him a moke. But once let a mob get going, and it took a good man to hold most, and a better to sit on many when their noses were on a bullock’s rump, and he turned in his own length.

‘Cutting-out’ horses used to be led out to a cattle-camp so broken down and ‘crutchy’ that they could hardly walk without stumbling; but once at work, what wonders they were! — quick as lighting, sure as death, and game to the last. The bullock they were once ‘laid on to’ never got back into the mob if once he left it.

Now, in most parts of Australia the muster was in reality a thing of the past, and the stock-horses and their riders lived only in story. The bushman of the day rode round boundary-fences on a hybrid creature, having as much in common with the gelding of the past as the wooden structure on which clothes are dried. After all, it was as well; the mount was worthy of its rider, for men who called innocent gambolling bucking, and whose reins were either dangling about their horses’ chests or held on a level with their own mouths, were better fitted to jog at the trail of a flock of old ewes than to ride on the wing of a mob of wild horses. ‘Out back’ Australian horsemanship still lived, but in the country, where sheep and farming had driven out cattle and horses, the bush-rider was a shameless fraud, who traded on the memories of the past. Doubtless the average Australian still rode better than the average Englishman, simply because the latter seldom got the chance to ride at all. Still, this is certain: under changed conditions the wonderful horsemen of Australia were growing fewer and fewer, and were now, with certain brilliant exceptions, only to be found where surroundings still remained in which to create them.

Taking out enough quiet horses to act as ‘tailers,’ a dozen men from the Fort, accompanied by Dick, Ted, and their stockmen, rode out early in the morning to where the horses ‘ran.’ Rounding up the ‘tailers’ in the bottom of one of the ravines across which the mobs were accustomed to ‘make,’ the party, leaving half a dozen men in charge, rode off in threes.

‘You ought to drop on some the other side of that bald hill,’ said Jackson, one of the Mallarraway men, pointing to a flat-topped rise about five miles away.

‘Right you are,’ said Johnson, as he, Dick, and Billy rode off. ‘Now, mind you “tailers” don’t go to sleep.’

‘Did you ever know the beggars do anything else?’ laughed Dick.

Making a big sweep, the three came in well at the back of the hill.

‘They’re sure to be down on the flat,’ said Ted, who knew the country.

Riding on to the crown of a rocky ridge, they came on a mob of about thirty resting under some corals. Silently as they had approached the wild horses heard them, and now as they topped the rise ran neighing round a white, bloodlike-looking stallion. Giving a trumpet-tongued snort, he tossed his long tangled mane and raced off like the wind, followed by his companions.

‘I’ll take the lower side,’ shouted Johnson. ‘Don’t let ’em break back, Billy!’

‘No blooming fear!’ grunted Billy, as Ted shot past him, while Dick, who did not know the lie of the country, ran up on the other wing.

Galloping straight from point to point, Johnson met and turned them whenever they tried to break through, while the crack of Billy’s stock-whip rang out above the clang of the horses’ hoofs as he forced the mares and foals up into the mob. Afraid to lie off too far, Hatten raced well up on the other wing.

Down a rock-bound ravine they dashed, the stallion still in front, but met on either side, and pressed too close to double, they galloped up its broken face, and on over the open downs straight for the square-topped hill. The foam flying from their leaders’ manes fell like snow on the sweat-stained coats of the weary mares as they neared its base. Breasting it gallantly, the mob, tossing back dust and stones from their flying hoofs, reached the crown. Then for a moment they wavered, but Billy’s whip rang out, and tossing their manes they charged down the farther side. Racing round either shoulder, Ted and Dick, sitting well back with feet rammed ‘home’ and hands held low, shot up on both flanks, as Billy, giving the ‘Barcoo back cut,’ drove his horse down the face of the hill. Running wide, then closing up, the three, with practised generalship, steered the wild horses straight for the ravine in which the ‘tailers’ were placed. As they neared it, all their stock-whips rang out in warning, and closing on the chase, they drove them over its edge. Down into the gully the horses plunged as a chorus of yells and stock-whip cracks rose above the thunder of hoofs and neighing of the tailers.

‘D——n them, they’re asleep!’ shouted Ted, as they saw in a flash the mob burst through the ‘tailers,’ carrying most of them away with them up the other side.

Cursing the men, just mounted, and now vainly attempting to block the rush, Ted and Dick drove spurs into their blown horses, and, nursing them up the rise, gave chase. Luckily the country was good, and gaining half a mile by one of Johnson’s short-cuts, they again met the mob, and turning them with their whips, drove them back into the ‘tailers,’ now rounded up and well backed by Billy and the men.

‘What the devil were you up to?’ demanded Dick savagely, as he loosed the girths on his reeking horse.

‘Oh, shut up!’ growled one of the delinquents; ‘the fellow you left behind has just given us about as much as we can stand already.’

‘Been reading out their characters — eh, Billy?’ laughed Ted.

‘My oath!’ drawled the trainer.

About four in the afternoon the musterers started for home. Steadying the mob on a bit of good country, Dick, Ted, and Jackson moved on ahead, followed by the horses, while the rest of the men jogged on the wings and kept up the stragglers. Sitting loosely in their saddles, the stockmen discussed the chances of the day to a running accompaniment of hoof-beats and the whinnying of foals and neighing of the stallions.

Tired limbs could now be stretched at leisure, and reins still damp with sweat let hang on drooping necks, for the smoke-rings which coiled lazily above each pipe told that the work of the day was done. As they guided the horses between the wings of the stockyard, which stood at the head of the valley commanded by the entrenchments, Cameron and Musgrave, accompanied by Zenski, drove up.

After a look from the top of the fence, the Russian remarked carelessly: ‘You have a few fair remounts among your horses, mon ami; they are for India?’

‘I’m not sure,’ replied Musgrave curtly.

‘If it will save you any trouble, possibly I may be able to find a buyer for a few of them.’

‘You are very obliging, Count,’ remarked Musgrave suspiciously.

‘Not at all,’ laughed Zenski; ‘self-interest, I can assure you; ma foi! I am but what you would call touting for business.’

Hearing in Hughenden various reports as to the work going on at Fort Mullarraway, Count Zenski determined to judge for himself. Everyone voted the Afton Downs people a crowd of lunatics, and with this opinion Zenski cordially fell in — in public. Privately, he considered that there was enough of method in their madness to warrant a personal inspection.

Much as Musgrave detested the Russian, he yet felt that to show his dislike would be both useless and unwise, so on his arrival he was received, if not with cordiality, still with all due politeness. That he was not wanted struck Zenski at once, but this troubled him little; he had come for a purpose, and so long as that was gained the feelings of his hosts towards himself were matters of perfect indifference. The fact that even Heather met him with a certain restraint roused the Count’s curiosity, and induced him to cultivate Mrs. Enson with even more empressement than usual. From that lady he soon learned all he wanted to know, and considerably more than was likely to prove advantageous to Hatten should Dick ever fall into his hands. During the afternoon the Russian made it his business to inspect as much of the scheme of defence as could be viewed from the roof of the club-house.

Musgrave’s politeness utterly refused to allow of his guest’s nearer approach, on the plea of the intense heat; and as Zenski had no wish to appear suspiciously interested, he had perforce to be contented with this somewhat distant view.

While professing indifference as to the colts, Zenski had determined to buy up all the four-year-olds if he could manage it. He was moved to this determination by the double motive of wanting good mounts for the invading cavalry, and desiring to keep them out of the hands of the defending force.

That night, after considerable finessing, Zenski made an offer for the whole draft. As he put it, their trainage to Point Parker would cost his firm nothing, so he could afford to be liberal. This liberality first took the shape of an offer of £10 apiece, but at last, as Musgrave remained firm, Zenski made a final bid of £20 a head on a three-months bill. Under ordinary conditions this was handsome enough, but to Musgrave and Hatten the conditions sounded both ominous and ludicrous. If they were right in their supposition, both felt it would be a hard bit of paper to collect.

‘I admit the offer’s not a bad one, Count,’ said the President after a little thought; ‘but I regret to say I must ask you to let it stand over until after our annual meeting, three months ahead.’

Pardieu, that is not business!’ muttered Zenski. ‘In three months I may not want your horses, mon ami; what then?’

‘I doubt if you will, Zenski,’ replied Musgrave, so significantly that the Russian dropped the subject.

Kenneth Mackay, The Yellow Wave: A Romance of the Asiatic Invasion of Australia, London: Richard Bentley and Son, 1895, pages 200-208

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