In a dry season [short story by Henry Lawson]

[Editor: This story by Henry Lawson was published in While the Billy Boils (1896).]

In a dry season

Draw a wire fence and a few ragged gums, and add some scattered sheep running away from the train. Then you’ll have the bush all along the New South Wales Western line from Bathurst on.

The railway towns consist of a public house and a general store, with a square tank and a schoolhouse on piles in the nearer distance. The tank stands at the end of the school and is not many times smaller than the building itself. It is safe to call the pub ‘The Railway Hotel,’ and the store ‘The Railway Stores,’ with an ‘s.’ A couple of patient, ungroomed hacks are probably standing outside the pub, while their masters are inside having a drink — several drinks. Also it’s safe to draw a sundowner sitting listlessly on a bench on the verandah, reading The Bulletin.

The Railway Stores seem to exist only in the shadow of the pub, and it is impossible to conceive either as being independent of the other. There is sometimes a small, oblong weatherboard building — unpainted, and generally leaning in one of the eight possible directions, and perhaps with a twist in another — which, from its half-obliterated sign, seems to have started as a rival to the Railway Stores; but the shutters are up and the place empty.

The only town I saw that differed much from the above consisted of a box-bark humpy with a clay chimney, and a woman standing at the door throwing out the wash-up water.

By way of variety, the artist might make a watercolour-sketch of a fettler’s tent on the line, with a billy hanging over the fire in front, and three fettlers standing round filling their pipes.

Slop sac suits, red faces, and old-fashioned, flat-brimmed hats, with wire round the brims, begin to drop into the train on the other side of Bathurst; and here and there a hat with three inches of crape round the crown, which perhaps signifies death in the family at some remote date, and perhaps doesn’t. Sometimes, I believe, it only means grease under the band. I notice that when a bushman puts crape round his hat he generally leaves it there till the hat wears out, or another friend dies. In the latter case, he buys a new piece of crape. This outward sign of bereavement usually has a jolly red face beneath it. Death is about the only cheerful thing in the bush.

We crossed the Macquarie — a narrow, muddy gutter with a dog swimming across, and three goats interested.

A little further on we saw the first sundowner. He carried a Royal Alfred, and had a billy in one hand and a stick in the other. He was dressed in a tailcoat turned yellow, a print shirt, and a pair of moleskin trousers, with big square calico patches on the knees; and his old straw hat was covered with calico. Suddenly he slipped his swag, dropped his billy, and ran forward, boldly flourishing the stick. I thought that he was mad, and was about to attack the train, but he wasn’t; he was only killing a snake. I didn’t have time to see whether he cooked the snake or not — perhaps he only thought of Adam.

Somebody told me that the country was very dry on the other side of Nevertire. It is. I wouldn’t like to sit down on it anywhere. The least horrible spot in the bush, in a dry season, is where the bush isn’t — where it has been cleared away and a green crop is trying to grow. They talk of settling people on the land! Better settle in it. I’d rather settle on the water; at least, until some gigantic system of irrigation is perfected in the West.

Along about Byrock we saw the first shearers. They dress like the unemployed, but differ from that body in their looks of independence. They sat on trucks and wool-bales and the fence, watching the train, and hailed Bill, and Jim, and Tom, and asked how those individuals were getting on.

Here we came across soft felt hats with straps round the crowns, and full-bearded faces under them. Also a splendid-looking black tracker in a masher uniform and a pair of Wellington boots.

One or two square-cuts and stand-up collars struggle dismally through to the bitter end. Often a member of the unemployed starts cheerfully out, with a letter from the Government Labour Bureau in his pocket, and nothing else. He has an idea that the station where he has the job will be within easy walking distance of Bourke. Perhaps he thinks there’ll be a cart or a buggy waiting for him. He travels for a night and day without a bite to eat, and, on arrival, he finds that the station is eighty or a hundred miles away. Then he has to explain matters to a publican and a coach-driver. God bless the publican and the coach-driver! God forgive our social system!

Native industry was represented at one place along the line by three tiles, a chimney-pot, and a length of piping on a slab.

Somebody said to me, ‘Yer wanter go out back, young man, if yer wanter see the country. Yer wanter get away from the line.’ I don’t wanter; I’ve been there.

You could go to the brink of eternity so far as Australia is concerned and yet meet an animated mummy of a swagman who will talk of going ‘out back.’ Out upon the out-back fiend!

About Byrock we met the bush liar in all his glory. He was dressed like — like a bush larrikin. His name was Jim. He had been to a ball where some blank had ‘touched’ his blanky overcoat. The overcoat had a cheque for ten ‘quid’ in the pocket. He didn’t seem to feel the loss much. ‘Wot’s ten quid?’ He’d been everywhere, including the Gulf country. He still had three or four sheds to go to. He had telegrams in his pocket from half-a-dozen squatters and supers offering him pens on any terms. He didn’t give a blank whether he took them or no. He thought at first he had the telegrams on him, but found that he had left them in the pocket of the overcoat aforesaid. He had learned butchering in a day. He was a bit of a scrapper himself and talked a lot about the ring. At the last station where he shore he gave the super the father of a hiding. The super was a big chap, about six foot three, and had knocked out Paddy Somebody in one round. He worked with a man who shore 400 sheep in nine hours.

Here a quiet-looking bushman in a corner of the carriage grew restless, and presently he opened his mouth and took the liar down in about three minutes.

At 5.30 we saw a long line of camels moving out across the sunset. There’s something snaky about camels. They remind me of turtles and iguanas.

Somebody said, ‘Here’s Bourke.’

Henry Lawson, While the Billy Boils, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1896, pages 101-105

Editor’s notes:
billy = a metal pot or tin (usually with a wire or steel handle), used for boiling water over a camp fire (also known as a “billy can”)

blank = substitution for a swear word; “blank” was often used as a way to infer a swear word, without actually swearing; commonly used as a replacement for words such as “damn” or “bastard”

blanky = substitution for a swear word (such as “bloody”)

fettler = a maintenance man or repairman, especially on a railway; may also refer to a worker who fettles (cleans, smooths, and trims) the rough parts of metal castings or pottery) (from the Middle English “fetlen”, to prepare or shape)

Macquarie = the Macquarie River, New South Wales (named after Lachlan Macquarie, who was Governor of New South Wales, from 1810 to 1821)

quid = a pound or a dollar; originally “quid” referred to a pound, a unit of British-style currency used in Australia (until it was replaced by the dollar in 1966, when decimal currency was introduced); after the decimalisation of Australia’s currency, it referred to a dollar

Royal Alfred = the “prince” of swags, containing not just a few belongings, but also a tent (named after Prince Alfred, the son of Queen Victoria, who toured Australia during 1867-1868)

sundowner = a swagman, or tramp, who walked from station to station, ostensibly to look for work, but with no intention of doing any, who would deliberately time his arrival at a farm or station late enough in the evening, or at sundown, so that they could ask for food and lodging, but with little to no risk of being asked to perform some work in exchange

swag = a swagman’s bundle, being a number of personal belongings rolled up in a blanket, and hung from the shoulder; also known as a “bluey”, “drum”, or “Matilda”

touched = stole

Vernacular spelling in the original text:
wanter (want to)
wot (what)
yer (you)

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