[Editor: This is the third part of Chapter One of the novel Such is Life by Tom Collins (Joseph Furphy). A glossary has been provided to explain various words and phrases that may be unfamiliar to modern readers.]
Then I disposed my possum rug and saddle, took off my boots, spread my coat for Pup to sleep on, lit my pipe, and lay down for the night. Thompson, Mosey, and Willoughby arranged themselves here and there, according to taste. Dixon and Methuselah retired to hammocks under the rear of their respective wagons. Bum simply lay where he was. I would do my companions what honour I can, but the stern code of the chronicler permits no quibbling with the fact that Mosey and Bum wound up the evening with a series of gestes and apothegms, such as must not tarnish these pages — Willoughby occasionally taking part, rather, I think, through courtesy than sympathy, and ably closing the service with a fescennine anecdote, beginning, ‘It is related that, on one occasion, the late Marquis of Waterford’ ——
Willoughby had selected a smooth place near my own lair. Here he spent five minutes in spreading his exceptionally dirty blanket, and another five in tidily folding his ragged coat for a pillow. Then he removed his unmatched boots, and, unlapping from his feet the inexpensive substitute for socks known as ‘prince-alberts,’ he artistically spread the redolent swaths across his boots to receive the needed benefit of the night air; performing all these little offices with an unconscious elegance amusing to notice — an elegance which not another member of our party could have achieved, any more than Willoughby could have acquired the practical effectiveness of a good rough average vulgarian.
Poor shadow of departed exclusiveness! — lying there, with none so poor to do him reverence! He was a type — and, by reason of his happy temperament, an exceedingly favourable type — of the ‘gentleman,’ shifting for himself under normal conditions of back-country life. Urbane address, faultless syntax, even that good part which shall not be taken away, namely, the calm consciousness of inherent superiority, are of little use here. And yet your Australian novelist finds no inconsistency in placing the bookish student, or the city dandy, many degrees above the bushman, or the digger, or the pioneer, in vocations which have been the life-work of the latter. O, the wearisome nonsense of this kind which is remorselessly thrust upon a docile public! And what an opportunity for some novelist, in his rabid pursuit of originality, to merely reverse the incongruity — picturing a semi-barbarian, lassoed full-grown, and launched into polished society, there to excel the fastidious idlers of drawing-room and tennis-court in their own line! This miracle would be more reasonable than its antithesis. Without doubt, it is easier to acquire gentlemanly deportment than axe-man’s muscle; easier to criticise an opera than to identify a beast seen casually twelve months before; easier to dress becomingly than to make a bee-line, straight as the sighting of a theodolite, across strange country in foggy weather; easier to recognise the various costly vintages than to live contentedly on the smell of an oil rag. When you take this back elevation of the question, the inconsistency becomes apparent. And the longa of Art, viewed in conjunction with the brevis of Life, makes it at least reasonable that when a man has faithfully served one exclusive apprenticeship, he will find it too late in the day to serve a second. Moreover, there are few advantages in training which do not, according to present social arrangements, involve corresponding penalties.
Human ignorance is, after all, more variable in character than in extent. Each sphere of life, each occupation, is burdened with its own special brand of this unhappy heritage. To remove one small section of inborn ignorance is a life-work for any man. ‘Ignorance, madam, pure ignorance,’ was what betrayed the great lexicographer into defining ‘pastern’ as ‘a horse’s knee.’ And the Doctor was right (in his admission, of course, not in his definition). Ignorance, reader, pure ignorance is what debars you from conversing fluently and intelligibly in several dialects of the Chinese language. Yet a friend of mine, named Yabby Pelham, can do so, though the same person knows as little of book-lore as William Shakespear of Stratford knew. But if you had been brought up in a Chinese camp, on a worn-out gold-field, your own special acquirements, and corresponding ignorance, might run in grooves similar to Yabby’s. Let each of us keep himself behind the spikes on this question of restricted capability.
And should some blue-blooded insect indignantly retort that, though his own ancestors have borne coat-armour for seventeen generations, and though he himself was brought up so utterly and aristocratically useless as to have been unable, at twenty years of age, to polish his own boots, yet he is now, mentally and physically, a man fit for anything — I can only reply, in the words of Portia, that I fear me my lady his mother played false with a smith. But this, again, would be claiming too much for heredity, at the expense of training. Remember, however, that our present subject is not the ‘gentleman’ of actual life. He is an unknown and elusive quantity, merging insensibly into saint or scoundrel, sage or fool, man or blackleg. He runs in all shapes, and in all degrees of definiteness. Our subject is that insult to common sense, that childish slap in the face of honest manhood, the ‘gentleman’ of fiction, and of Australian fiction pre-eminently.
Heaven knows I am no more inclined to decry social culture than moral principle; but I acknowledge no aristocracy except one of service and self-sacrifice, in which he that is chief shall be servant, and he that is greatest of all, servant of all. And it is surely time to notice the threepenny braggadocio of caste which makes the languid Captain Vemon de Vere (or words to that effect) an overmatch for half-a-dozen hard-muscled white savages, any one of whom would take his lordship by the ankles, and wipe the battlefield with his patrician visage; which makes the pale, elegant aristocrat punch Beelzebub out of Big Mick, the hod-man, who, in unpleasant reality, would feel the kick of a horse less than his antagonist would the wind of heaven, visiting his face too roughly; which makes the rosy-cheeked darling of the English rectory show the saddle-hardened specialists of the back country how to ride a buckjumper; which makes a party of resourceful bushmen stand helpless in the presence of flood or fire, till marshalled by some hero of the croquet lawn; above all, which makes the isocratic and irreverent Australian fawn on the ‘gentleman,’ for no imaginable reason except that the latter says ‘deuced’ instead of ‘sanguinary,’ and ‘by Jove’ instead of ‘by sheol.’ Go to; I’ll no more on’t; it hath made me mad.
And don’t fall back upon the musty subterfuge which, by a shifting value of the term, represents ‘gentleman’ as simply signifying a man of honour, probity, education, and taste; for, by immemorial usage, by current application, and by every rule which gives definite meaning to words, the man with a shovel in his hand, a rule in his pocket, an axe on his shoulder, a leather apron on his abdomen, or any other badge of manual labour about him — his virtues else be they as pure as grace, as infinite as man may undergo — is carefully contradistinguished from the ‘gentleman.’ The ‘gentleman’ may be a drunkard, a gambler, a debauchee, a parasite, a helpless potterer; he may be a man of spotless life, able and honest; but he must on no account be a man with broad palms, a workman amongst workmen. The ‘gentleman’ is not necessarily gentle; but he is necessarily genteel. Etymology is not at fault here; gentility, and gentility alone, is the qualification of the ‘gentleman.’
No doubt it is very nice to see a ‘gentleman’ who, when drunk, can lie in the gutter like a ‘gentleman’; but will someone suggest a more pitiable sight than such a person trying to compete with an iron-sinewed miner on the goldfields, or with a hardy, nine-lifed bushman in the back country? In the back country, a penniless and friendless ‘gentleman,’ if sober and honest and possessed of some little ability, may aspire to the position of a station storekeeper. If destitute of these advantages — and reduced ‘gentlemen’ are not by any means always sober, honest, and capable — the best thing he can do, if he gets the chance, is to settle down thankfully into the innocent occupation so earnestly desired by Henry the Sixth of the play, and so thriftily pursued by the alleged father of any amateur elocutionist whose name is Norval on the Grampian Hills.
Of such reduced ‘gentlemen’ it is often said that their education becomes their curse. Here is another little subterfuge. This is one of those taking expressions which are repeated from parrot to magpie till they seem to acquire axiomatic force. It is such men’s ignorance — their technical ignorance — that is their curse. Education of any kind never was, and never can be, a curse to its possessor; it is a curse only to the person whose interest lies in exploiting its possessor. Erudition, even in the humblest sphere of life, is the sweetest solace, the unfailing refuge, of the restless mind; but if the bearer thereof be not able to do something well enough to make a living by it, his education is simply outclassed, overborne, and crushed by his own superior ignorance.
To be sure, there are men of social culture who gallantly and conspicuously maintain an all-round superiority in the society to which I myself hereditarily belong, namely, the Lower Orders; but their appearances are like angels’ visits — in the obvious, as well as in the conventional but remoter sense. I can count no less than three men of this stamp among my ten thousand acquaintances. When the twofold excellence of such ambidexters is not stultified by selfishness, you have in them a realised ideal upon which their Creator might pronounce the judgment that it is very good. Move heaven and earth, then, to multiply that ideal by the number of the population. The thing is, at least, theoretically possible; for it is in no way necessary that the manual worker should be rude and illiterate; shut out from his rightful heirship of all the ages. Nor is it any more necessary that the social aristocrat — ostentatiously useless, as he generally is — should hold virtual monopoly of the elegancies of life.
But the commonplace ‘gentleman’ of fiction, who, without extraneous advantage, and by mere virtue of caste-consciousness, and caste-eminence, and caste-exclusiveness, doth bestride this narrow world like a colossus ——
“I am sorry to break in upon your meditations, Collins,” said Willoughby deprecatingly, turning towards me on his elbow, “but you know, Necessitas non habet leges. I find myself without the requisite for my normal bedtime solace; and I am unusually wakeful. Could you spare me a pipeful of tobacco?”
“Certainly! Why did n’t you mention it before? I had no idea you were a smoker. I feel really vexed at your reticence.”
“Well, Mr. Thompson kindly lent me a supply this morning; but, unfortunately, I had a hole in my pocket that I was not aware of, and — Thanks. I’ll just take a pipeful” ——
“No, no; shove it in your pocket. I’ve got more in my swag. Been long in these colonies, Willoughby?”
“About a year. I spent two months in Melbourne, and nearly four in Sydney. For the last six months I have been — er — travelling in search of employment.”
“You find the colonies pretty rough?”
“I do, Collins; to speak frankly, I do. Even in your cities I observe a feverish excitement, and a demnable race for what the Scriptures aptly call ‘filthy lucre’; and the pastoral regions are — well — rough indeed. Your colonies are too young. In time to come, no doubt, the amenities of life will appear — for you have some magnificent private fortunes; but in the meantime one hears of nothing but work — business — and so forth. Cultivated leisure is a thing practically unknown. However, the country is merely passing through a necessary phase of development. In the near future, each of these shabby home — stations will be replaced by a noble mansion, with its spacious park; and these bare plains will reward the toil of an industrious and contented tenantry” ——
“Like (sheol)!” sneered Mosey from his resting-place, — a little crestfallen notwithstanding.
“Irrigation, my dear Mosey, will meet the difficulty which very naturally arises in your mind. A scientific system of irrigation would increase the letting value of this land more than a hundred-fold. Now, if the State would carry out such a system — by Heaven! Collins, you would soon have a class of country magnates second to none in the world. You are a native of the colonies, I presume?”
“Yes; I come from the Cabbage Garden.”
“Victoria, I know, is called the Cabbage Garden,” rejoined Willoughby. “But — pardon me — if you are a native of Victoria, you can form no conception of what England is. Among the upper middle classes — to which I belonged — the money-making proclivity is held in very low esteem, I assure you. Our solicitude is to make ourselves mutually agreeable; and the natural result is a grace and refinement which” ——
“But what the (adj. sheol) good does that do the likes o’ us (fellows)?” demanded Mosey impertinently — or perhaps I should say, pertinently.
—— “a grace and refinement which — if you will pardon me for saying so — you can form no conception of. Inherited wealth is the secret of it.”
“Beg parding,” interposed Cooper apologetically — “I was goin’ to say to Collins, before I forgit, that he can easy git over bein’ a Port Philliper. Friend o’ mine, out on the Macquarie, name o’ Mick Shanahan, he’s one too; an’ when anybody calls him a Port Philliper, or a Vic., or a ‘Sucker, he comes out straight: ‘You’re a (adj.) liar,’ says he; ‘I’m a Cornstalk, born in New South Wales.’ An’ he proves it too. Born before the Separation, in the District of Port Phillip, Colony of New South Wales. That’s his argyment, an’ there’s no gittin’ over it. Good idear, ain’t it?”
“It is a good idea,” I replied. “I’m glad you laid me on to it. But, Willoughby, I can’t help thinking you must feel the change very acutely.”
“I do. But what is the use of grumbling? Ver non semper viret. No doubt you are surprised to see me in my present position. It is owing, in the first place, to a curious combination of circumstances, and in the second place, to some of my own little pranks. I am nephew to Sir Robert Brook, baronet, the present representative of the Brooks of Brookcotes, Dorsetshire — a family, sir, dating from the fourteenth century. Possibly you have heard the name?”
“Not the Brookes of the King’s Elms, Hants, pray observe. The Brookes of the King’s Elms gained their enormous wealth as army contractors, during the struggle with Napoleon, and their baronetcy, Heaven knows how! The baronetcy of the Brooks of Brookcotes dates from 1615, at which time my maternal ancestor, Sir Roger Brook, knight, procured his patent by supplying thirty infantry for three years in the subjugation of Ireland. Independently of the title, our family is many centuries older than the other. We spell our name without” ——
“My (adj.) fambly come all the way down from the Hark,” observed Mosey, with a rudeness which reflected little credit on his ancient lineage.
—— “without the final ‘e.’ There is a manifest breach of trust in creation of these new baronetcies. It was more than implied — it was distinctly stipulated — at the origination of the Order, by James I, that the number of baronets should not exceed two hundred, and that there should be no new creations to supply the place of such titles as might lapse through extinction of families.”
“And is there no remedy for this?” I asked.
“None whatever. Not that I am personally interested in the exclusiveness of the Order, my connection with the Brooks of Brookcotes being on the distaff side. My mother was Sir Robert’s only sister. My father was a military man — 3rd Buffs — died when I was twelve or thirteen years of age. Sir Robert was a confirmed bachelor, and I was his only nephew. Now you see my position?”
“I think I do.”
“Four years ago, demme if Sir Robert did n’t marry a manufacturer’s daughter — soap manufacturer — and within two years there was a lineal heir to Brookcotes!”
“You don’t say so?”
“Fact, begad! Shortly afterward, I was detected — ha-ha! Sua cuique voluptas — in a liaison with a young person who resided with my uncle’s wife as a companion. Whereupon my lady used her influence with the demd old dotard, and I was cut off with a shilling. However, he gave me a saloon passage to Melbourne, with an order on his agent in that city for £500. My lady’s father also gave me letters of introduction to some friends in Sydney — business people. Fact was, they wanted to get rid of me.”
“The £500 should have given you a fair start,” I suggested.
“Pardon me — it is impossible for you to enter into the feelings of a man who has been brought up as presumptive heir to a rent-roll of £12,000. You cannot imagine how the mind of a gentleman shrinks from the petty details, the meanness, the vulgarities of trade. You are aware, I presume, that all avenues of ambition except the Church, the Army, and the Legislature, are closed to our class? You cannot imagine — pardon my repeating it — the exclusiveness, the fine sense of honour”
“Holy sailor!” I heard Thompson whisper to himself.
—— “which pervades the mind and controls the actions of a gentleman. As a casual illustration of what is amusingly, though somewhat provokingly, ignored here, you have, no doubt, observed that our gentlemen cricketers will acknowledge no fellowship with professionals, though they may belong to the same team, and be paid from the same funds. However, to proceed with a story which is, perhaps, not without interest. I left Melbourne before my pittance was exhausted, and presented my credentials in Sydney. Mr. Wilcox, a relation of my lady’s father, and a person of some local importance, treated me at first with consideration — in fact, there was always a knife and fork for me at his table — but I noticed, as time went on, a growing coolness on his part. I ought to mention that his sister, Mrs. Bradshaw — a widow, fat, fair, and forty — had considerable capital invested in his business; and I was paying my addresses to her, deeming my birth and education a sufficient counterpoise to her wealth. I’d have married her too, begad I would! At this time, Wilcox was establishing gelatine works; and he had the demd effron” ——
“What’s gelatine?” demanded Mosey. “I’ve of’en heard o’ the (adj.) stuff. What the (sheol) is it used in?”
“In commerce, principally, Mosey,” I replied.
“Neat, begad! As I was saying, Wilcox had the demd assurance to offer me a clerkship in his new establishment. We had a few words in consequence; and shortly afterward I left Sydney, and found my way here. Have you any acquaintance in Sydney — may I ask?”
[A word of explanation. Being only an official of the ninth class, I received my appointment in Hay. On that occasion, I asked the magistrate who received my securities and otherwise attended to the matter — I naturally asked him what chance I had for promotion. He told me that it would go strictly by seniority, but, as my immediate superior, the Assistant-Sub-Inspector, was not eligible for any higher grade — never having passed any examination whatever — and as I could not be advanced over his head, my only chance was to step into his place when he vacated it Now, I knew he was not likely to resign, for he had a good salary all to himself, and nothing to do but refer me to the Central Office for orders. I knew in fact, that there was only one way in which he was likely to quit his niche in the edifice of the State. So I replied to Willoughby’s question]
“Well, I may say I have; and yet I’m not aware of anyone in Sydney that I would know by sight. My superior officer lives there. Remotely possible you may know him — Rudolph Winterbottom, esquire.”
“Rudolph Winterbottom — did you say? Yes, by Jove! rather a happy coincidence. I remember him well. I was introduced to him on a reception day at Government House, and met him frequently afterward; dined in his company, I think, on two occasions.”
“Is he a very old man?”
“No; the old gentleman is his father — Thomas Winterbottom — hale, sturdy old boy, overflowing with vitality — came out, he told me, in the time of Sir Richard Bourke. But I scarcely think Mr. Rudolph Winterbottom holds any Government situation. His private fortune is fully sufficient for all demands of even good society. Ah! now I have it! His son Rudy — his third or fourth son — holds some appointment. That will be your man.”
“Very likely. An invalid — is he not? Something wrong with his lungs?”
“So I should imagine, now that you mention it. He was away on an excursion to the mountains when his father spoke of him to me.”
“Git to sleep, chaps, for Gossake,” murmured Cooper. “Guarantee there’ll be none o’ this liveliness in the mornin’, when you got to turn out.”
Thus sensibly admonished, we committed ourselves to what Macbeth calls ‘sore labour’s bath’ — the only kind of bath we were likely to have for some time.
Among the thousand natural ills, there are two to which I never have been, and probably never shall be, subject — namely, gout and insomnia. My immunity from the former might be difficult to account for, but my exemption from the latter may, I think, be attributed to the operation of a mind at peace with all below. Nevertheless, it used to be my habit to wake punctually at 2 a.m., for the purpose of remembering whether I had to listen for bells or not, and determining how long I could afford to sleep. So, at that exact hour, I opened my eyes to see the calm, splendid stars above, whilst merciful darkness half-veiled the sordid accessories of daily life below. Yet I noticed that the hammock under the rear of Dixon’s wagon was empty. All the other fellows were sleeping, except Bum, who seemed to have disappeared altogether. The two were probably up to something. No business of mine. And I dropped to sleep again.
I had set myself to wake at full daylight. Just as I woke, I heard the distant patter of a galloping horse. Such a sound at such a time is ominous to duffing bullock drivers; so, as I sprang to my feet, you may be sure my companions were not much behind me. Along the track, a mile in advance of the wagons, we saw an approaching horseman. And as if this was n’t enough, we heard the sound of an axe in the selection.
“Holy glory! there’s somebody livin’ in the hut, after all!” ejaculated Mosey.
The house stood on a very slight rise, where the clump of swamp box terminated, a quarter of a mile away; and, sure enough, we could see, through a gap in the undergrowth of old-man salt-bush, a man chopping wood at the edge of the clump. But he seemed quite unconscious of the multitude of bullocks that, scattered all over the paddock, were laying in a fresh supply of grass.
“It’s Moriarty,” sighed Thompson, gazing at the horseman.
“He’s been sent to catch us. It’s all up.”
Then, like the sound of many waters, rose the mingled sentiments of the company, as each man dragged on his boots with a celerity beyond description.
“You keep him on a string, Collins, while we coller as many of the carrion as we” ——
“What use? It’s a summonsing match already. Look at the fence! And Martin lives in the hut after all. He’s between us and the bullocks now — laughing at us. What business had we to travel on” ——
“Demmit suggest something. Make use of me in this emergency, I beg of you. Shall I” ——
“Port Phillip, all over. Jist let me deliver this (adj.) load. That’s all I” ——
“Comes o’ young pups knowin’ heverythink. I kep’ misdoubtin’ all the (adj.) time” ——
“Are you fellows mad?” shouted the young storekeeper, as he dashed past the group, and pulled his blown horse round in a circle. “Out with those bullocks as quick as the devil’ll let you! Martin’s on top of you! I’ve just given him the slip! We were sent from the station expressly to nip you. Fly round! blast you, fly round!”
At the word, Cooper and Thompson snatched up their bridles and darted off, followed by Price and Willoughby. Dixon and Bum were not in the crowd, but no one had leisure just then to notice their absence.
“Len’s yer horse, like a good feller,” said Mosey hastily.
“To (sheol) with your cheek!” snapped Moriarty. “What next I wonder?” Mosey snatched up his bridle, and went off at a run. “Hello, Collins! I didn’t notice you in the hurry. Bright cards, ain’t they? Nothing short of seven years’ll satisfy them. You’ve been travelling all night?”
“No; I camped here with the teams.”
“I thought when I saw the saddled horse, that you had just turned him in to get a bite.”
“He’s not saddled. There’s my saddle.”
“I thought that was your horse — that black one with the new saddle on.” (I should explain that Moriarty, being mounted, could see across the old-man salt-bush, which I could not.) “But I say,” he continued; “what do you mean by stopping here instead of making for the station? I’ve a dash good mind to tell Mrs. Beaudesart. Why, it’s two months since you parted from her.”
“Where’s Martin?” I asked.
“I left him at the ram-paddock, trying to track his horse. I suppose you haven’t heard that he lives here now?”
“Well, we heard that some one was being sent to live here. By the way, Moriarty, you better keep out of sight of that fellow at the hut”
“No odds. It’s only Daddy Montague; he can’t see twenty yards. But I say — Mrs. Beaudesart is sorting out her own old wedding toggery; she knows you’ll never have money enough to” ——
“How does Martin come to be at the ram-paddock, if he lives here?” I interrupted.
“I’ll tell you the whole rigmarole,” replied the genial ass. “Martin was at the station yesterday, crawling after Miss King, when up comes a sandy-whiskered hound of a contractor, name of M’Nab, to see about the specifications of the new fence between us and Nalrooka; and this (fellow)’s idea of getting on the soft side of Montgomery, about the fence, was to nearly break his neck running to tell him that Price, and Thompson, and a whole swag of other fellows, intended to work on the ram-paddock that night. That would be last night, of course. Now, Montgomery doesn’t bark about a night’s grass out of the ram-paddock at this time of year, in case of emergency; but he does n’t believe in people\ driving expressly for it; and besides, he badly wants to catch Price and Thompson, and make an example of them. Well, it happened that he had thought out early jobs for all the rest of the fellows, so what does he do — Sunday and all — but he rouses out Martin and me, and tells us to go to the ram-paddock, and quietly round up all the bullocks, and bring them to the station. No hurry, of course, so I got playing cards with some of the shearers, and Martin got yarning with the old wool-classer; and we timed ourselves to be at the ram-paddock just before daylight. Of course, the right plan would have been to go through the ration-paddock, and in by the Quondong gate; and that was what I wanted to do. Then we could have made a circuit of the ram-paddock, inside the fence, and given it a good rough overhaul. But because I proposed this, Martin insisted on going by the main road, for better riding, and to see if we could find the wagons, as a sort of guide. Sensible to the last. Well, he would have it his own way, and I didn’t give a curse, so on we went; and just as we were crossing the sort of hollow at this near corner of the ram-paddock, the God-forsaken old fool thought he heard cattle in the timber. So we tied our horses at the fence, and walked across to see. Nothing there, of course, only imagination and kangaroos. We stayed about ten minutes — me moralising about fools, and him sulking — and when we came back to where we had left our horses, mine was there by himself. Martin was dancing mad, for his horse was never known to break a bridle, and he did n’t know who to blame for making away with him. However, I was n’t any way interested in mustering the ram-paddock, and Martin wanted his horse, so we hunted round and round, but devil a smell of horse or saddle or bridle could we find in the dark. After a while, daylight came, and I caught sight of the wool, and tumbled to the little game. Of course, I ripped across to give the fellows the office, praying and cursing fit to break my neck. What the dickens induced them to run the risk of duffing here? Maddest thing I ever knew. Martin has been living here since this day week; and his greatest pleasure in life is prowling round when he ought to be asleep.”
“Warrigal Alf laid Mosey on,” I replied. “At least, he said he had stayed here the night before last, and had taken his bullocks out after they lay down.”
“Ah! the treacherous beggar! I’ll tell you how that came. Day before yesterday — let’s see — that was Saturday — Montgomery and Martin met Alf just at the station, coming along behind some other teams. Montgomery was sorry in his own mind for a blaggarding he gave Alf last winter, for letting his bullocks get into our horse-paddock. Seems they got adrift from Bottara, while Alf was unloading, and had gone the thirty miles, right across country, with him after them full chase. Alf was too ill-natured to explain things at the time: and he never mentioned it when he loaded our first wool, a month ago. Montgomery heard the truth of it only the other day; so when he met Alf, he stopped him, and mentioned it, and told him to shove his bullocks in Martin’s paddock for that night, as grass was so scarce. It must have cut Martin to the bone to see a kindly thing done, but he had to grin and bear it — treasuring up wrath against the day of wrath, as Shakespear says.”
“Then Martin may be here any minute?”
“Well, I left him a little better than two mile away, trying to track his horse, and he can’t track worth a dash. Certainly, he was headed toward the station the last I saw of him. But if he’s got a spare saddle at home here, he’s pretty certain to come for a fresh horse, to hunt up the other. I’d give five notes, if I had it, to see these (fellows) yoked up and off; for if Martin catches them, there’ll be (sheol) to pay, and no pitch hot; and, by George! there’s not half a second to lose. Just look at that fence! Ah! here they come! Good lads! Well, take care of yourself, Tom, and give us a call at the station as soon as you can. I’ll keep out of sight till these chaps are started; then I’ll have a bit of breakfast with Daddy Montague, and invent a good watertight lie, and do a skulk for an hour or two, and then dodge on to the station as slowly as possible. I want something to go wrong in the store while Montgomery has charge himself; it’ll learn him to appreciate me better. I’ll have to ram it down his throat that the fellows had their bullocks out before I got here.”
“Wait, Moriarty — what’s Martin’s horse like? I might see him.”
“Liver-colour; star and snip; white hind feet; bang tail. One of the best mokes on the station. Belongs to Martin himself. I hope he’ll scratch the bridle off, and roll on the saddle till it’s not worth a cuss. I say — if Martin should find his way here before the fellows get clear, will you just tell him I fancied I saw his horse going for the Connelly paddock, and I shot after him hell-for-leather. No message for Mrs. Beaudesart? Well, so long.” And the good and faithful young servant cantered away toward an adjacent cane-grass swamp.
I was picking up my possum rug and saddle, when I heard Dixon’s voice, in earnest entreaty. Looking round, I saw him sitting on the edge of his hammock.
“Say, Collins — will you fetch my (adj.) bullocks, while yer hand’s in? I can’t har’ly move this mornin’.”
“Yes, Dixon; I won’t see you beat, if I can help it. What’s the matter?”
“Well, I was on top o’ my load las’ night, gittin’ — gittin’ some tobacker an’ matches; an’ I come a buster on top o’ one o’ the yokes here. It’s put a (adj.) set on me, any road.”
With a few words of condolence, I entered the paddock, carrying my saddle and bridle. As I came in sight of Cleopatra, I was constrained to pause and reflect. The horse was feeding composedly, saddled and bridled; a pair of hobbles hanging to the saddle. The bridle was a cheap affair, but the saddle was as good as they make them in Wagga, and quite new. During the previous afternoon, I had marked something incongruous in Bum’s ownership of such a piece of furniture. But being always, I trust, superior to anything like surprise, I saddled and mounted Bunyip, took Cleopatra by the rein, and joined the Ishmaelites, who, on their bare-backed horses, were hurrying contingents of cattle from different directions toward the gap of the fence, whilst the fascination of overhanging danger bore so heavily on their personal and professional dignity that every eye kept an anxious look-out toward the ram-paddock. In a few minutes more, we were all outside the fence; and the drivers immediately began yoking. I hooked Cleopatra’s rein on a wool-lever, and, still riding Bunyip, kept Thompson’s and Cooper’s bullocks together. Mosey’s dog was performing the same office for him and Price. Willoughby had n’t returned with the muster; and Bum was still absent.
“Did you count my (bullocks)?” demanded Dixon, limping slowly and painfully toward his big roan horse.
“O you sweet speciment!” retorted Mosey, as he picked up his second yoke. “Why the (compound expletive) don’t you rouse roun’?”
“How the (same expression) ken I rouse roun’? I got the screwmatics in my (adj.) hip.”
“Somethin’ like you — Stan’ over, Rodney, or I’ll twist the tail off o’ you — You don’t ketch me havin’ nothin’ wrong o’ me when things is” ——
“No, begad! no you don’t! — take that! — ah! would you indeed! — on you go, dem you! s-s-s-s-s! get up there!” It was Willoughby’s voice among the salt-bush; and, the next moment, half-a-dozen beasts leaped the wires and darted, capering and shying, past the wagons. “Quod petis hic est!” panted their pursuer triumphantly. “The mouse may help the lion, remember, according to the old” ——
Then such a cataract of obscenity and invective from Price and Mosey, while Cooper remarked gravely:
“Them ain’t our bullocks, Willerby; them’s station cattle — shoved in that paddick for something partic’lar. Now they’re off to (sheol); an’ it’s three good hours’ work with a horse an’ stockwhip, to git’em in here agen. An’ that kangaroo dog ain’t makin’ matters much better. Lord stan’ by us now! for we’ll git (adv.) near hung if we’re caught.”
And, to be sure, there was Pup looping himself along the plain in hot pursuit. It was no use attempting to call him off, for Nature has not endowed the kangaroo dog with sufficient instinct to bring him in touch with his master, except when the latter offers him food. But there is always some penalty attached to the possession of anything really valuable. So, though I wasn’t interested in the cattle, I was bound to follow them till I recovered my dog. Thompson’s unpretentious stockwhip was in my hand at the time; and, judging it unlikely that Cleopatra had been broken in to the use of that disquieting implement, I was just turning Bunyip round, when Willoughby stepped forward ——
“Permit me to redeem my unfortunate mistake by assisting you!” he exclaimed. “I have ridden to hounds in England. May I take this horse? Thanks. Pray remember that I shall be under your orders, Collins.”
“Take care might he buck-lep,” I remarked casually, as the whaler gathered Cleopatra’s reins, and threw himself into the deep seat of the new saddle.
And, to my genuine astonishment, he did buck-lep. But he took no mean advantage of his rider; he allowed him time to find the off stirrup, and then led off with a forward spring about five feet high. Willoughby — small blame to him — was jerked clean out of the saddle, and lit fair across the horse’s loins; in the impulse of self-preservation grasping the cantle with both hands. The small thigh-pads afforded a good rough hold, and the next buck jammed the poor fellow well under the seat of the saddle. The position was neither pleasant nor dignified, though certainly more secure for an amateur than the conventional style; particularly after the horse’s tremendous plunges had raised the back of the saddle a foot or more by dint of fair wedging.
Price, Mosey, Thompson, and Cooper forgot the dangers of the time, and discontinued their work, drawing near the spot with a carefully preserved air of indifference and pre-occupation. Even Dixon ignored his screwmatics, and composed his demeanour to something like apathy.
Owing to the leverage of the saddle, the girth was gripping Cleopatra in a ticklish place, and the bow of the saddle was dipping into another ticklish place, whilst Willoughby’s swinging feet provided for the ticklish places on the horse’s thighs and flanks. Cleopatra mistook all this for deliberate provocation, and responded to the very best of his splendid ability. Early in the entertainment, Willoughby’s hat was bucked off his head; presently the wellington boot was bucked off one foot, and the blucher off the other, the prince-alberts following in due course. Then the portion of attire known to one section of society as ‘linen’, and to another as the ‘beef-bag’, was bucked out of that necessary garment which we shrink from naming. The ground was cut up as if rooted by pigs; yet Cleopatra was only just warming to his work; and the whaler was still clinging to the saddle like a native bear to a branch.
“God help thee, Jack,” I remarked listlessly; “thou hast a bitter breakfast on’t.”
“He’ll tire the horse out yet,” said Thompson, with an artificial yawn.
“Good lad, Willoughby! stick to him a bit longer.”
“Got no holt,” observed Dixon. “Gone goose, any time.”
“He don’t want no pipeclay, anyhow,” said Mosey, with childish levity. “Dark-complexion people ought to steer clear o’ playful horses.”
All eyes were turned on the young fellow’s face in surprise and reprehension; and he uneasily attempted to carry off his inadvertent solecism with a sort of swagger.
“The horse can’t hold out much longer at that rate,” repeated Thompson, stooping to lace his boots.
“Can’t he?” drawled Cooper, poking out the stem of his pipe with a stalk of grass. “He can hold out till something gives way. That’s what he’s in the habit o’ doin’, I’m thinkin’; an’ he ain’t goin’ to break his rule this time.”
“The Far-downer got at you that trip, Collins,” remarked Mosey, seeking to retrieve his dignity by turning his back on the performance. “He seen you comin’. Say, ole son — how’d you like to swap back?”
“I kep’ misdoubtin’ that hoss all the (adj.) time,” observed Nestor wisely. “I felt sort o’ jubious, on’y I did n’t wanter say nothink.”
“There goes the pore (fellow) at last; I knowed the horse would do it,” said Cooper, as the stern captive spum’d his weary load, and asked the image back that heaven bestowed.
“Collar the horse quick!” suggested Dixon. “Nail him now, or you’ll never ketch him.”
“No great hurry,” I muttered, dismounting. “However, I think I’d better have it out with him while he’s warm. Or perhaps one of you fellows would like a try, while I do his yoking — just for a change?”
Cleopatra, now nibbling the scanty grass, glanced from time to time with grave sympathy at his late rider, who was occupying himself with his toilet.
“Ketch the (horse) quick!” reiterated Dixon.
“I would n’t mind if I had my mare back again,” I remarked, as I approached Cleopatra’s head. “By Jacob’s staff I swear I have no mind of trying conclusions with this fellow for a dull, sickening” ——
The adjectives were shorn of their noun, for Cleopatra, accurately gauging his distance, suddenly sprung round and lashed out with both hind feet. You could have struck a match on the smoothest part of my earthly tabernacle as I dodged him by about half an inch. Then he went on cropping the grass as before, while I looked round and inquired with sickly bravado, “What noble Lucumo comes next, to taste our Roman cheer?”
But the bullock drivers silently repudiated the grim invitation, and hurried back to their work, which they now pursued with redoubled vigour and anxiety. I remounted Bunyip, and caught Cleopatra from his back. Then dismounting, I arranged the new saddle with ostentatious offhandedness, though in a prayerful frame of mind, and presently climbed on as if nothing was the matter. I certainly anticipated Westminster Abbey rather than a peerage; but the horse, with a nonchalance greater than my own, inasmuch as it was genuine, turned quietly round as I pressed the rein against his neck, and sailed away across the plain at his own inimitable canter. Then I looked back to see the bullock drivers disgustedly resume the work they had again suspended.
By this time the cattle had crossed a cane-grass swamp, and were out of sight; but before I had gone a quarter of a mile I saw Pup coming to meet me, limping and crestfallen. He had probably been kicked by one of the absconders; and as he could see no sign of civilisation except our camp, his sagacity had drawn him back. Well pleased, therefore, I returned to the wagons after a few minutes absence.
“The cattle are out of sight, Steve,” said I, as I rounded up the scattering bullocks. “Not worth while to go after them now.”
“Let them go, by all means,” replied Thompson, with a ghastly simulation of cheerfulness. “We’ll gladly stand the loss of them, and make the station a present of Bum’s mare besides, if we once get out of sight of this infernal camp — Stand up, Magpie — Just let us yoke up as quickly as if our lives depended on it — which, to tell the truth, is not much of an exag — — Hello! where’s Damper?”
“Stuck in a gluepot, jist in front o’ the (adj.) hut,” replied Mosey, without pausing in his work. “I seen him there — Back, Snailey, or I’ll knock the (adj.) horn off o’ you — but I thought it was one o’ them station cattle till you minded me. Why the (sheol) didn’t you count yer lot properly?”
A deep oath broke from the lips of the man who never swore. But he controlled himself by a strong effort.
“How much of him’s above ground?” he asked.
“(Adv.) little on’y his horns; or else I’d ’a’ knowed him — Wub-back, Major,” replied Mosey reluctantly, as he chained his last pair.
Then, I grieve to say, Thompson let himself out. No puerile repetition; no slovenly, slipshod work there. It was the performance of a born orator and poet, and one who, like Timothy, had known the Scriptures from a child — a long, involved litany of seething malediction, delivered, moreover, with a measured and effortless eloquence and a grammatical exactitude which left St. Ernulphus a bad second. The other fellows pursued their work in awe-stricken silence, till at length Cooper, glancing toward the ram-paddock, said deprecatingly:
“— —it, man, don’t swear; not now, anyway. I’ll fetch these ten across, an’ they’ll (adv.) soon snake him out. Git that spare rope off o’ my wagon, an’ foller me quick.”
He brought his yoked bullocks through the gap, and drove them rapidly to the spot indicated by Mosey. Thompson mounted his horse and cantered after, with the heavy coil of rope across the front of his saddle. I accompanied him. At the very extremity of the clump, and not fifty yards from the house, was one of those bottomless quagmires too common in Riverina. It was about twenty yards across; and, in the very centre, Damper’s head and the line of his back appeared above the surface; the straight furrow behind him showing that he had been bogged at the edge, but being unable to turn, and being exceedingly strong and sound, had worked himself along to the middle, where he was slowly settling down.
In a couple of minutes, one end of the wool-rope — sixty feet long and an inch and a-half in diameter — was looped round the roots of the bullock’s horns, and the team was attached to the fall. Then a slow, steady strain drove Damper’s nose into the ground, and gently shifted him, first forward, then upward, then on to the surface, where he slid smoothly to the solid ground. We released him there, and he staggered to his feet, shook himself thoroughly, and followed the team to the camp, ravenously snatching mouthfuls of grass as he went along.
Price and Mosey had just got under way. Willoughby was trying to yoke Dixon’s leaders, while Dixon, owing to his screwmatics, could do nothing but sit on his horse, cursing with wearisome tautology, and casting glances of frantic apprehension toward the ram-paddock. His anxiety was not unreasonable, for there had just come into sight an upright speck, too small to be a horseman; and it was easy to guess who was the likeliest person to be coming on foot from that direction. There is a limit to the dignified sufficiency even of a bullock driver; and the unhappy conjecture of circumstances had driven Dixon past this point.
“Stiddy, now; go stiddy, an’ keep yer (adj.) mouth shut. Now lay right (adv.) bang up to him; jam him agen the off-sider, so’s he can’t shift. There! block him! (Sheol)! Let him rip now. O may the” &c., &c.
“Dixon! Dixon! I must protest” ——
“Purtest be (verbed). Fetch ’em up agen. Don’t be frightened; they ’on’t bite. Yoke on yer other (adj.) shoulder. Right. Git well up agen him this time. Lay yer whole (adj.) weight on-to him, an’ jam him, so’s he can’t budge if it was to save his (adj.) life.”
Willoughby, with the yoke on his shoulder, and the off-side bow in his hand, gingerly approached the excited bullocks, essaying a light touch on the near-sider’s shrinking shoulder. The next moment, he was reeling backward, and both bullocks were gone. Eve’s curse on Cain, in Byron’s fine drama, is mere balderdash to what followed on Dixon’s part.
“Dem your soul, you uncultivated savage! you force me to inform you that your helpless condition was my incentive to these well-meant efforts on your behalf — as, begad! it is now the only consideration which restrains” ——
“O, go to (sheol). You’re no (adj.) good. You ain’t fit to (purvey offal to Bruin). An’ here’s them (adj.) sneaks gone; an’ Martin he’ll be on top o’ me in about two (adj.) twos; an’ me left by my own (adj.) self, like a (adj.) natey cat in a (adj.) trap. May the holy” &c., &c. “If I’d that horse,” he continued, glancing furiously at Cleopatra, “I’d make him smell (adj. sheol).”
“Nonsense, Dixon,” said I pleasantly; “the horse is not annoying you. Ah! Willoughby; Ne ultra — no, let’s see — Ne sutor ultra crepidam. Let me try my hand there. I took my degree of B.D. — which doesn’t always signify Bachelor of Divinity — before you took your B.A. Will you just bring up the unspeakables as Dixon points them out.”
“Palmam qui meruit ferat,” responded Willoughby, instantly recovering his temper. “Smoker — Nelson — dem your skins, come up once more!”
Dixon’s bullocks were exceptionally docile, for that uncultivated animal was one of the most humane and skilful drivers in Riverina; therefore, about twenty-five minutes sufficed to place his team in readiness for a start.
“You might as well come along o’ me for a change,” said he to Willoughby. “We’ll git on grand together. I’m a quiet, agreeable sort o’ (person), though I say it myself; an’ I would n’t wish for better (adj.) company nor you. Come on; you won’t be sorry after.”
“Quocunque trahunt fata sequamur,” rejoined Willoughby, bowing gaily to me. Then taking up the whip — Dixon was a virtuoso in whips, and always carried one with six feet of handle and twelve feet of lash — he aimed at the team, collectively, a clip which, in the most literal sense, recoiled on himself. And so the officer’s son and the sojer’s son took their way together; to become, as I afterward learned, the most attached and mutually considerate friends on the track. Such is life.
Thompson and Cooper, now ready for the road, were repairing the fence as well as they could. This being done, and the relics of the fire kicked about, they put their teams in motion, leaving little trace of the camp, except Bum’s mare, standing asleep outside the fence. The ominous speck on the plain had approached much nearer, but had taken definite form as an emu; and now the negative blessing of escape seemed like a positive benefaction. “If,” says Carlyle, “thou wert condemned to be hanged — which is probably less than thou deservest — thou wouldest esteem it happiness to be shot.”
Serene gratitude therefore shone in the frank faces of the outlaws; tempered, however, in Thompson’s case, by salutary remorse, for his companion had reproachfully asked him what the (adj. sheol) good his swearing had done.
We could see Price’s teams stopped, half a mile away; one of the loads appearing low, and canted over to the off side; bogged, evidently. Dixon’s wagon was close in front of us; Willoughby was zealously flogging himself, and occasionally we could hear Dixon’s voice in encouragement and counsel.
The place where Price’s wagon was stuck was not a creek, but merely a narrow belt of treacherous ground. Mosey had n’t gone down six inches, but Price had happened on a bad place, and his wagon had found the bottom. All Mosey’s team, except the polers, had been hooked on, but with no result beyond the breaking of a well-worn chain.
“Ain’t got puddin’ enough, Thompson,” said Mosey, as my companions stopped their teams and went on to survey the place. “The (adv.) thunderin’ ole morepoke he goes crawlin’ into the rottenest place he could fine. You shove your team in nex’ the polers, an’ I’ll hook our lot on in front. Your chains’ll stan’ to fetch (sheol) out by the (adj.) roots. Please the pigs, we’ll git out o’ sight afore that ole (overseer) comes.”
Thompson did as desired; and the first pull brought the wagon on to solid ground. Meanwhile Dixon and Willoughby had taken their team through, and were hurrying along. Cooper, growling maledictions on everything connected with Port Phillip — roads in particular — had selected his route, and started his team. Thompson hooked on to his own wagon, and crossed safely, but with very little to spare.
“Touch-and-go,” he remarked to me; “another bale would have anchored her. Ah! Cooper’s in it, with all his cleverness.”
Cooper was in it. The two-ton Hawkesbury, with seven-and-a-half tons of load, was down to the axle-beds; and the Cornstalk was endeavouring, by means of extracts from the sermons of Knox’s soundest followers, to do something like justice to the contingency. Thompson sighed, glanced toward the ram-paddock, and hooked his team in front of Cooper’s. Mosey, who had been mending his broken chain with wire, now came over with Price.
“We’ll give you a lend of our whips,” said he with cheap complaisance. “Take the leaders yerself, Thompson. Stiddy now, till I give the word, or we’ll be fetching the (adj.) handle out of her. Now — pop it on — to ’em!”
Then thirty-six picked bullocks planted their feet and prised, and a hundred and seventy feet of bar chain stretched tense and rigid from the leaders’ yoke to the pole-cap. The wagon crept forward. A low grumble, more a growl than a bellow, passed from beast to beast along the team — sure indication that the wagon would n’t stop again if it could be taken through. The off front wheel rose slowly on harder ground; the off hind wheel rose in its turn; both near wheels ploughed deeper beneath the top-heavy weight of thirty-eight bales ——
“She’s over!” thundered Cooper. “Keep her goin’ — it’s her on’y chance!”
Then the heavy pine whipsticks bent like bulrushes in the drivers’ skilful hands, while a spray of dissevered hair, and sometimes a line of springing blood, followed each detonation — the libretto being in keeping. A few yards forward still, while both off wheels rose to the surface, and both near wheels sank till the naves burrowed in the ground; then the wagon swung heavily over on its near side.
“Good-bye, John,” said Cooper, with fine immobility. “Three-man job, by rights. Will you give us a hand, Collins?” For Price and Mosey were silently returning to their teams.
“Certainly, I will.”
“Well, it’s a half day’s contract I’ll git some breakfast ready, while you (fellows) unloosens the ropes.”
Thompson and I released the bullocks from the pole, unfastened the ropes, and brought the wagon down to its wheels again. Then Cooper summoned us to breakfast.
“You’ll jist take sort o’ pot-luck, Collins,” he remarked. “I should ’a’ baked some soda bread an’ boiled some meat last night, on’y for bein’ too busy doin’ nothing. Laziness is catchin’. That’s why I hate a lot o’ fellers campin’ together; it’s nothing but yarn, yarn; an’ your wagon ain’t greazed, an’ your tarpolin ain’t looked to; an’ nothin done but yarn, yarn; an’ you floggin’ in your own mind at not gittin’ ahead o’ your work. That’s where women’s got the purchase on us (fellows). When a lot o’ women gits together, one o’ them reads out something religious, an’ the rest all wires in at sewin’, or knittin’, or some (adj.) thing. They can’t suffer to be idle, nor to see anybody else idle — women can’t.” Cooper was an observer. It was pleasant to hear him philosophise.
The work of reloading was made severe and tedious by the lack of any better skids than the poles of the two wagons — was, indeed, made impossible under the circumstances, but for Cooper’s enormous and wellsaved strength. Our toil was enlivened, however, by an argument as to the esoteric cause of the capsize. Cooper maintained that nothing better could have been hoped for, after leaving Kenilworth shed on a Friday; Thompson, untrammelled by such superstition, contended that the misadventure was solely due to travelling on Sunday; whilst I held it to be merely a proof that Cooper, in spite of his sins, wasn’t deserted yet. Each of us supported his argument by a wealth of illustrative cases, and thus fortified his own stubborn opinion to his own perfect satisfaction. Then, descending to more tangible things, we discussed Cleopatra. Here we were unanimous in deciding that the horse had, as yet, disclosed only two faults, and these not the faults of the Irishman’s horse in the weary yarn. One of them, we concluded, was to buck like a demon on being first mounted, and the other was to grope backward for the person who went to catch him after delivery of loading.
In the meantime, four horsemen, with three pack-horses, went by; then two horse teams, loaded outward; then Stewart, of Kooltopa, paused to give a few words of sympathy as he drove past; then far ahead, we saw two wool teams, evidently from Boolka, converging slowly toward the main track; then more wool came in sight from the pine-ridge, five or six miles behind. By this time, it was after mid-day; and Cooper, having tied the last levers, looked round before descending from the load.
“Somebody on a grey horse comin’ along the track from the ram-paddick, an’ another (fellow) on a brown horse comin’ across the plain,” he remarked. “Wonder if one o’ them’s Martin-an’ he’s rose a horse at the station?”
“I was thinking about to-night,” replied Thompson. “I’d forgot Martin. Duffing soon comes under the what-you-may-call-him.”
“Statute of Limitations?” I suggested.
“Yes. Come and have a drink of tea, and a bit of Cooper’s pastry. His cookery does n’t fatten, but it fills up.”
“O you (adj.) liar,” gently protested the Cornstalk, as he seated himself on the ground beside the tucker-box. “Is this Martin?” — for the man on the grey horse was approaching at a canter.
“No,” I replied; “he’s a stranger to me.”
“But that’s Martin on the brown horse,” said Thompson, with rising vexation. “Keep him on a string, Tom, if you can. Don’t let him drive us into a lie about last night, for, after all, I’ll be hanged if I’m man enough to tell him the truth, nor won’t be for the next fortnight or three weeks.”
By this time, the man on the grey horse was passing us. In response to Thompson’s invitation, he stopped and dismounted.
“Jist help yourself, an’ your friends’ll like you the better, as the sayin’ is,” said Cooper, handing him a pannikin.
“Thanks. I’ll do so; I didn’t have any breakfast this morning,” replied the stranger, picking up a johnny-cake (which liberal shepherds give a grosser name), and eating it with relish, while the interior lamina of dough spued out from between the charred crusts under the pressure of his strong teeth. “Been having a little mishap?”
“Yes; nothing broke, though.”
“How long since my lads passed? I see their tracks on the road.”
“About three hours,” replied Thompson. “Did you meet an old man and a young fellow, with wool-grey horse behind one of the wagons? Good day, Mr. Martin. Have a drink of tea?”
“Yes, I met them,” replied the stranger. “Old Price’s teams, I think — Good day, Martin — six or seven miles from here; Dixon travelling behind, with another fellow driving his team — long-lost brother, apparently.”
“Where did you fellows have your bullocks last night?” demanded Martin, his eye resting on the sun-cracked stucco which covered three-fourths of Damper’s colossal personality.
“And did you see a dark chestnut horse; bang tail; star and snip; white hind feet; saddle and bridle on?” I asked. “I ran across Moriarty this morning,” I continued, turning politely to Martin; “and he told me he was after a horse of that description; but he was in a hurry” ——
“Dark chestnut horse; bang tail; star and snip; white hind feet; JR near shoulder; like 2 in circle off thigh,” said the stranger reflectively. “Yes; I saw the horse this morning, but the owner has got him again — red-headed young fellow; tweed pants, strapped with moleskin. I met him at the Nalrooka boundary shortly after sunrise — thirty miles from here, I should say. I was speaking to him. He told me the horse had slung him and got away from him last night, and he had found him by good luck before daylight this morning. He came down on his hand, poor beggar; it’s swelled like a boxing-glove. But he’s taking it out of the horse.”
Now, in the Riverina of that period, it was considered much more disgraceful to be had by a scoundrel than to commit a felony yourself; therefore Martin, partly grasping the situation, assumed an oblivious, and even drowsy, air.
“Did the young fellow say where he was going?” I asked, pitying Martin’s dilemma, and admiring his greatness of soul, for I had more than once been there myself.
“No; he only wanted to borrow a pipe of tobacco; but after we parted I saw him strike out across the plain to the right.”
Martin yawned, turned his horse, and rode slowly toward the selection. Very slowly, so that the stranger might overtake him soon. Come weal, come woe, he would n’t trail his honour in the dust before three cynical onlookers.
“Well, I’ll push on,” said the stranger, setting down his pannikin. “I want to pull my chaps, and I’m thinking about my horse. I say” — glancing after Martin, and lowering his voice — “you fellows have a devil of a bad show for to-night.”
“You’re right,” replied Thompson.
“Tell you what you’ll do: Camp at the belars, and they’ll think you’re on for the ration-paddock; then, between the two lights, just scoot for the Dead Horse Swamp.”
“Never any grass there,” said Thompson.
“That’s the beauty of it,” replied the stranger. “They’ve been putting down a tank in the middle of the swamp this winter; and the contractor had about a dozen young fellows, every one of them with a horse and a dog, kicking up (sheol)’s delight. There has n’t been a smell of a sheep within coo-ee of the swamp for the last three months; and the paddock was mustered for shearing just before the contractor left. It’s into your hand for to-night. Well, I must” ——
“I beg your pardon,” said Thompson hesitatingly — “Are you coming direct from Hay?”
“Well, I left on Saturday morning.”
“The mailman was telling me,” continued Thompson wistfully, “that Permewan and Wright had three ton of dynamite for Broken Hill. Do you know is it gone yet?”
“Not when I left,” replied the Encyclopedia Australiensis. “They’re offering eighty, and I’ve no doubt they’ll spring to a hundred. Extra-hazardous tack; and there’s not a blade of grass once you pass the Merowie. Good day, boys.” And, nodding to us collectively, he departed.
“Steve,” said I; “are you a man to go fooling with high explosives, — considering the thing that’s on you?”
“Well,” replied Thompson doggedly, “it’s come to this with me, that I must make a spoon or spoil a horn; and if that infernal thing would only keep off till I got the stuff delivered, I’d be right. My bullocks are fit for any track in Australia.”
“Let’s git down to Hay fust,” interposed Cooper; “then you can do as you like; but I’ll be wantin’ a way-bill that’ll take me safe out o’ Port Phillip. Say, Collins; I’ll buy that new saddle off o’ you. Mine’s all in splinters, for my horse he’s a beggar to roll.”
“I’d hardly feel justified in selling it,” I replied. “But I’ll tell you what I’ll do: I’ll sell you my own saddle cheap — say, three notes — and give you Bum’s bridle in.”
Cooper agreed to the proposal. Then, as Pup had been eating about ten pounds of salt mutton, stolen from the bullock drivers’ stores, I enticed him to take a good drink of water, knowing he would need it before the day was over. It was absolutely imperative that I should go thirty miles, and then, if possible, camp alone. So I shook hands with the outlaws, and started; leading Bunyip till he should become accustomed to his new companion.
If the unmannerly reader wishes to know why I was bound to a stage of exactly thirty miles, I have no objection to state that, knowing the geography of Riverina as well as if I had laid out the whole territory myself, I was aware of a sandhill composed of material unstable as water; an unfavourable place for a bucking horse, and a favourable place for a man to dismount head foremost if the worst came; and that sand-hill was my destination.
Tom Collins [Joseph Furphy]. Such is Life, The Bulletin Newspaper Company, Sydney, 1903