[Editor: This is a short story from The Bushwhackers: Sketches of Life in the Australian Outback (1929) by P. R. Stephensen.]
Mounted on Edith
It was seven miles to the Long Paddock from Hanson’s, so young Johnny Hanson, fourteen years old and cocksure, had plenty of time, jogging along on Bluey, to imagine himself bringing in single-handed the six horses out at grass there. He would show his father that he was a proper bushwhacker, King of the Stockmen, Jackeroo-in-chief, a man no less, a man who could handle horses. It was exciting, setting out for the first time, alone, to gallop through the bush after brumbies, to round them in to the stockyard, and to drive them home in triumph along the lanes. As his thoughts raced, he dug spurs into Bluey and leaned low along the horse’s neck, anticipating the brilliant manoeuvres by which he should round ’em in.
At the Long Paddock gate was the stockyard. He dropped the sliprails through which he was going to steer the outlaws, and light-heartedly cantered off towards the swamp to find them. Ibis and plovers were feeding amongst the waterlilies, and wild duck rose with flickering wings as he cracked his stockwhip, but the brumbies were not there. So he turned up the gully where the wattle blossomed, golden dancers pirouetting lovely in the sun’s spotlight, but there was no sign of the six, even on the top of the stony ridge at the head of the gully.
As he pushed on along the top of the ridge, amongst grey Ironbark trees now, he startled some bouncing kangaroos, and pursued them with yells, over two ridges full gallop, till they were lost, bouncing, amongst tall saplings; and there, luckily enough, were the six horses, feeding together on the tender grasses of the uplands.
Hoi! Bluey was after ’em, twisting through the saplings, heading them clattering over the ridges, hell-for-leather down the gully of wattle-blossoms, throwing up behind them showers of small pebbles, which missiles he crouched along Bluey’s mane to dodge. Edith the lovely black mare was leading, her tail high in the air, stepping like the beauty, the bloodstock beauty, she was.
At the swamp’s edge, three of them turned left towards the stockyard — Edith, Polo, and Judy; but the other three turned right, and were lost for the time being. Johnny let them go, chagrined, and raced after the three going towards the stockyard. Better to make sure, and come back later for the others. As though anxious to be rounded in, tired of the inaction of three months on grass, Edith sailed straight into the stockyard, followed by the other two; and young Johnny, being a fool, slapped himself on the chest with pride.
Bluey was panting heavily when his rider dismounted to fasten the sliprails. It had been a hard ride, and Bluey, though a perfectly safe horse, was getting rather old. The young bushwhacker had an idea. To round in the other sons-of-bitches left behind at the swamp might be no joke on Bluey, but it would be a mere amusement on Edith. He unsaddled his winded mount and turned him loose in the stockyard, sweating and shaking his flanks. Then he bridled and saddled Edith, lovely old Edith, the black mare fresh as paint, and set off towards the swamp. Edith was frisky enough after her spell on grass, she even pig-rooted and snorted when he got up on her at first, but she soon settled down to a lolloping hand-gallop, along the swamp’s edge.
The three wilduns had cleared off again, up the gully where the wattle danced, back to the stony ridges beyond. He was after them now, very confident on Edith.
When she headed ’em on the second ridge, the black mare took the bit in her teeth, charged down upon her recent mates in a clattering fury, and started them for home, belting through the saplings. Over the top of the stony ridge they went, tails in air. Over the top and down into the wattle-gully after them went Edith, snorting and blurting, her fat belly lined with grass, but gaining on them, thundering through the ranks of the golden dancers, swaying and plunging in pursuit.
Johnny knew that he would have them in a few minutes. Bloodstock tells. Good Old Edith. Hoi! his whip cracked like a rifle-shot as he turned on their flanks to head them left as the swamp drew nearer. Hoi! he would show the Old Man . . . Hoi! You sons-of-bitches . . .
What the Hell?
Up, Edith, girlie!
In the midst of the dancing wattle the earth came up over Edith’s black neck, and smacked Johnny Hanson a crack of doom upon the skull, and the sunlight went out incomprehensibly.
When he came to, it was very late afternoon, and his head was of an extreme size. Red sunrays glinted through red wattle-trees, and his eyes were hurt. In the red glare, over against the sun, Edith, the grotesque black mare, was feeding quietly, saddle askew, with the three wilduns. He could not raise his arm. He could not shout Hoi! for his tongue was crackling. His hat was lying beside a boulder, and there was dryish blood on the boulder. Then night fell like a curtain, and a curlew wailed from the swamp.
Later the Southern Cross came down and rested on the trees, almost within reach of his arm, but he could not raise his arm, it was pinned to something or other somewhere. Still later he spat a crackle upon the sky and laughed “Yes, mother, that is my arm, you see? After them, Edith!”
But it was not till flush of dawn that Old Man Hanson and the two other Hanson boys found young Johnny raving amongst the lovely wattle-ladies bathing in the clear light. All night they had ridden the Long Paddock, coo-eeing in the pitch darkness, and they had passed young Johnny within a dozen yards more than once; so when they found him in a mist of golden light, Old Hanson swore solidly for ten minutes on end without repeating himself while the boys galloped down to the swamp to fetch water in their hats.
When he knew himself again, to the cool pain of water on his eyelids, young Johnny heard his father saying:
“Broken rib, cracked ’ead, that blanky mare must ’ave stumbled on that there little stump.”
To which the elder brother replied:
“She should ’ave ’ad ’er ’ooves trimmed before bein’ rode after three months on grass.”
Then their father:
“Yairs, and I told the young blankard to be careful when he goes out be himself in the Bush.”
P. R. Stephensen, The Bushwhackers: Sketches of Life in the Australian Outback, Mandrake Press, London, , pp. 27-35
blankard = bastard (“blank” was often used as a way to infer a swear word, without actually swearing)
wildun = wild one