“Bred out where the gum trees grow” [short story by Jack Moses]

[Editor: This is a short story from Beyond the City Gates: Australian Story & Verse (1923) by Jack Moses.]

“Bred out where the gum trees grow”

I am not quite sure whether Jimmy Howard had ever read Bacon’s fragment of an essay on Fame — I rather doubt it — but the fact remains that Jimmy desired to achieve fame through the medium of a sideshow at the Annual Exhibition of “The Flat.” Jimmy was an interesting personality, a bushman, pure and simple, and it was hard to understand his ambition to blossom out as a showman. It may have been that the seeds of “Get-rich-quick Jim” were planted during his peregrinations around some carnival of pleasure; anyhow, I struck him at “The Flat,” when he was new at the game.

The Ground Committee had allotted him space down near the cattle pen — far away from the beaten track of general trade. His hopes, therefore, of making a pile through the agency of his ’possums were as a consequence slightly disturbed, but possessing the characteristics of a good bushman he determined to make good.

His big “spruiking punch” was an appeal to “save the ’possum,” and grandiloquently he reminded and regretted that it was only too true that during the previous year no fewer than five and a quarter million ’possums had been ruthlessly slaughtered. “Therefore, ladies and gentlemen, the ’possums I show may be classed as a ‘rare bird’” — it did not seem to worry Jimmy that he classed his pets as birds — but “rara avis” seemed the kind of stuff to tickle the ears of the small mob that periodically stopped at Jimmy’s tent en route to scrutinise the Herefords, the Durhams, or the polled Angus — but unfortunately the man bent upon inspecting the quality of the cattle pens had very little time to devote to the strong points of Jimmy’s ’possums, hence it was that the “box office of the joint” was not rushed. Jimmy realised that his position for show purposes was not to be compared with the stand allotted to “Casey the Monk,” and as a consequence his anathema on the Ground Committee was lurid and long. Patiently, but vainly, the presenter of the ’possum waited for “inflow” — but the “inflow” failed to materialise, and Jimmy strolled forth to ascertain the strength of the contemporary sideshows.

Now, Jimmy’s whiskers were bushy, and Jimmy’s headgear was of the plain felt variety, appurtenances sufficient to camouflage Jimmy and make him to the eyes of the energetic wool traveller, circling the grounds for clients, a likely “primary producer” with wool “to get away.” So it was that Jimmy got away from his ’possums, and was strolling by the sheep pens when he was button-holed by the ubiquitous traveller in search of the clips.

“A nice day?” was the opening shot of the woolman.

“Yus, not too bad,” was Jimmy’s rejoinder.

“Season looks good,” said the woolman, warming to it. “How’s the country down your way?” He was fencing to get the full strength of Jimmy’s flocks.

“Oh, fair,” said Jimmy, cobbering up in true Australian style. This chap might also be a sideshow man, and Jimmy was out to get the strength of things.

“Lambing pretty good?” casually ventured the woolman as he struck a match on the seat of his pants, and re-lit his pipe.

“Rather,” said Jim.

“Shearing many out your way?” Jimmy mentally counted the stations “out his way” and ventured “about 100,000.” The woolman warmed to it; he had struck a big clip man, while Jimmy couldn’t quite understand why a showman should take such interest in the blasted sheep belonging to another bloke.

“Come and have a drink?” was the friendly invitation of the woolman.

Jimmy accepted, and he responded to the toast of “Here’s to your show!” by intimating he’d a couple of “all wool Australians” on exhibition.

“Ah!” said the traveller in quest of clips. “Got all the bales you want?”

“Bales!” said Jimmy in surprise. “What the hell do I want bales for?”

“For your clip — when sheep are shorn.”

“I ain’t go got no sheep,” grinned Jim.

“No sheep?” The woolman could not understand him. “What have you got, cattle?”

“Cattle be durned,” said Jim, “all I’ve got is a couple of ’possums and a rotten stand to show ’em off from.”

“Oh, I see,” said the woolman. “By Jove, I’m glad I met you. A lady friend of mine from town has got a fancy to see a live ’possum. I’ll bring her round to your show.”

“I wish to ’ell you would,” thanked Jimmy as he walked away to begin de novo his spruik on the splendours of the ’possum.

As he went the woolman gazed after him and murmured, “I’m the goat — things are certainly not what they seem.”

The joke was on him, but being a sport he didn’t even mind the touch he got next night at the Show Smoke Concert when the episode was set to music thus:—

I met him on the Showground
In my rambles through the day,
Showing ’possums for a living,
Trying to catch the “sprat” and “tray.”
He was tall and tough and boney,
Bred out where the gum trees grow;
One whom you’d connect with ’possums,
Though you never saw his show.

He was not without his troubles;
Didn’t like the pitch he had;
Wasn’t just among the people,
And business, where he stood, was bad;
Blamed the Ground Committee for it,
Said the monkey held the stand;
And “Casey” was a “furrin” subject,
While he had products of this land.

Said he couldn’t understand it;
Happened everywhere you go;
Anything that is Australian
Has to fight to get a “show.”
He left his joint to take a ramble,
To get his wind — and banish care;
He met a traveller seeking wool clips,
And knocked a “pitch” up then and there.

They had some drinks, to wet the meeting,
But the traveller made a “bull” —
Took him for a well-off farmer
Growing wheat or growing wool;
But the woolman, keen and clever,
Never put the game away;
When he found he made a bloomer,
Just gripped his hand and said “Good day.”

Ah, my friends, this world’s a study —
We’re rippling on just like the stream;
And the humour of it all is
Things are not just what they seem.

Jack Moses, Beyond the City Gates: Australian Story & Verse, Sydney: Austral Publishing Co., 1923, pages 28-31

Editor’s notes:

cobbering up = being friendly

en route = (French) on the way

pile = a pile of money (a lot of money)

’possum = an opossum or “possum”, a tree-dwelling marsupial species native to Australia; opossums are actually those animals of the Didelphimorphia order of marsupials (which are colloquially known as “possums”), whilst the term “possums” technically refers to those animals of the suborder Phalangeriformes, of the Diprotodontia order of marsupials; however, the two are often confused as being the same animal

rara avis = (Latin) “rare bird”; in broad terms, this phrase refers to a rare person (or someone of rare qualities), a rare thing, or to any rarity in general (however, the phrase may also be specifically applied to actual rare birds)

traveller = a commercial traveller, a travelling salesman

Vernacular spelling in the original text:
furrin (foreign)
yus (yes)

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