Ironbark [by P. R. Stephensen]

[Editor: This is a short story from The Bushwhackers: Sketches of Life in the Australian Outback (1929) by P. R. Stephensen.]


— How did Curley get his leg stiff like that?

— Oh, that was years ago, Sonny, before you were born. He scraped his kneecap off on an Ironbark Tree. You see, Curley had a horse he called Nero, a marvellous stockhorse he was too; I’ve never seen the likes of that horse before or since. Marvellous after a beast, that horse was. He could turn on a dinner-plate, as the saying goes, at full gallop, too. He’d work a beast silly, all by himself, that horse. When Curley was after a steer through the Bush, the steer had exactly no chance at all. Nero would just run rings around any beast that broke away from the mob. Curley used to roll a cigarette with one hand, and light it, too, while the horse did all the work. You never saw anything like it. The speed of that horse on the turn was terrific. And I will say this: Curley and his horse understood one another. Nobody else except Curley could work a beast properly on Nero. The horse kind of sulked for any other rider.

Well, the result was Curley got a swelled head about Nero, and he had every right to, believe me. But one day Curley had a thirst inside him after mustering cattle all week, cutting and branding ’em, and so he rode into the township here, straight up to Brasch’s pub, and blow me if he didn’t ride that horse straight up the steps and across the verandah and into the Bar, to call for a pot. The lads all laughed except one called Billy Curtis, who was a hard case bloke, a regular doer. He pinched Nero behind the crupper just as Curley had his head back well into the pot, and the horse lashed out, and smashed the glass window with BAR painted on it. Curley pitched forward on to Nero’s neck and dropped his pot with a smash, so then the horse began to rear and plunge inside the bar, and everybody yelled. Old Brasch, the publican; who was a bit of an athlete, acted prompt; he just jumped straight across the Bar and grabbed that horse by the bridle and one ear, and hung on there till Nero quietened down, then he led the horse outside, Curley still on him, and told Curley never to set foot on his premises again.

The result was bad feeling all round, some saying it was all Curley’s fault for riding Nero into the Bar; some saying it was Billy Curtis’ fault for starting the pig-rooting; and matters got worse when Billy Curtis said Nero would look very nice on a Merry-Go-Round, but he couldn’t see the point of Curley using him in the Bush after cattle. This led to an argument which looked remarkably like developing into real stoush, particularly when Billy Curtis said his creamy mare could give Nero half-a-day’s start after a beast anywhere in the Bush, though he admitted that Nero would be useful on a dairy farm to bring the cows home at milking-time.

Actually, Billy Curtis’ creamy mare was pretty good after stock; so Curley took him dead serious, and insisted on a race between Nero and the Creamy. The lads were just about ready for some fun after all the argument, so Curtis had to lead the Creamy mare out, and all hands went down to the flat to map out a course for the race. In those days, you see, the Bush was not cleared down on the flat like it is now; so they decided to race from one end to the other, round a whopping big Ironbark tree which used to stand at the other end, and then back home. It was a pretty fair test, because the Bush was thick in those days, and the fastest horse over logs, stumps, and holes, in long grass and through saplings and bushes, would win; not to mention the clean turn at full tilt round the big Ironbark tree.

Well, the result was they got started with a great yell from the lads, and I bet those two lovely horses must have thought it was silly just to pelt hell for leather through the Bush with no beast in sight; that is, allowing horses to have human brains, which no sensible person denies. Anyway, off they went, each on a separate track, picking his own way through the Bush, separated by a couple dozen yards, making for the big Ironbark tree. We could watch them all the way, twisting and turning like real champions, the creamy holding Nero very well as a matter of fact; that is until they neared the big Ironbark.

Around this tree there was a kind of natural clearing, about thirty yards of it, and when the two broke together into this clearing, Nero seemed suddenly to realise the idea. Curley stood up in his stirrups and waved his hat in the air, and shouted an insult at Billy Curtis, so Billy gave the creamy a spur, and the two drew together, thundering like a cavalry charge, flank to flank, straight for the Ironbark tree.

Nero, I was saying, knew what was wanted. At any rate, he wheeled like a boomerang at that tree, spun on his hind legs almost, rounded that big Ironbark as though it was a steer.

As though it was a steer! That was the whole trouble! You can work a steer with your flank, but you can’t work an Ironbark tree that close . . . particularly with another good stockhorse on your own flank, working you inwards on the turn. You know, Sonny, the bushwhackers don’t ride on a horse like your lah-de-dah gentlemen you read about in Hyde Park. Bushwhackers ride with their horses, not on them, so Curley with Nero and Billy Curtis with the Creamy just spun round that tree in a kind of whirlwind, the whole four of them.

The result was Nero took the turn too sharp, and the Creamy crushed him in, just as though she was rounding a steer, and in the excitement it was all over before you could say “Jack-knife” — Curley hit the big Ironbark tree such a wallop with his knee-cap that it took the gristle right off. Then Curley leaned across in tearing pain and smacked Billy one crack on the jaw which nearly knocked him off the Creamy. Then they were off into the Bush again, headed hell-for-leather for home, each on separate tracks — crashing through the undergrowth — both mad with rage, and hate, and pain. But Curley’s left leg was dangling loose from his hip, feeling like if was hanging by a thread, which it damn near was.

Nero won by about six length, because man and horse came crashing home like devils; but Curley just twisted his hands in the reins and fainted dead away when they stopped. He never rode after stock again. It took six months for the leg to get set again, and then it was stiff as a poker, like it is to this day.

When Billy Curtis learned what had happened, and realised why Curley had cracked him such a whop on the jaw, he stopped talking fight, and he went and got a Kelly axe, and single-handed he chopped down that Ironbark tree to the ground.

P. R. Stephensen, The Bushwhackers: Sketches of Life in the Australian Outback, Mandrake Press, London, [1929], pp. 84-92

Editor’s notes:
Kelly axe = an axe manufactured by the W.C. Kelly Axe Company
See: 1) Bernie Weisgerber, “Brief History of the Ax”, in “An Ax to Grind: A Practical Ax Manual”, United States Forest Service, United States Department of Agriculture (accessed 28 October 2013)
2) “Kelly Axe Manufacturing”, Wood Trekker, 6 August 2012 (accessed 28 October 2013)
3) Henry J. Kauffman, American Axes: A Survey of Their Development and Their Makers, Masthof Press, Morgantown (Pennsylvania), 2007, p.42 (accessed 28 October 2013)

stoush = fight, brawl (stoush may also mean to hit or punch)

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