Such is Life, by Tom Collins (Joseph Furphy) [chapter 5, part 1]

[Editor: This is the first part of Chapter Five 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.]

Chapter V

WED. JAN. 9. Trinidad Pad., per Sam Young. Conclave.

Introductory. — On the evening of Tuesday, the 8th, I had called officially at Mondunbarra homestead. No one was visible except Bert Smythe, the managing partner’s younger brother, who was leaving the store, with a ring of keys on his finger. His icy response to my respectful greeting revived certain memories connected with the Chinese boundary man, and Warrigal Alf’s bullocks, as related in last chapter. In the fewest words possible, Bert informed me that Mr. Smythe was in Melbourne, and would n’t be back for another week. If I chose to leave the K form with himself, it would be filled up and posted to our Central Office immediately on Mr. Smythe’s return. Which would save me the trouble of calling at the station again for some time. I gave him the K form, and he was moving away toward the barracks, when I asked him if he could let me have a bob’s worth of flour and a bob’s worth of tea and sugar. Without a word, he turned back to the store, and supplied the articles required, whilst I monologued pleasantly on the topics of the day. When I inquired where I would be likely to find a bit of grass, he glanced at my half-starved horses; and I honoured him for the evident accession of sympathy which dictated his ready reply. He informed me that the only available grass was to be found in the near end of Sam Young’s paddock, and proceeded to give me directions that a child might follow. Fixing these in my mind, I went round by the slaughter-yard, to solicit from the Tungusan butcher a pluck for Pup; and, altogether, by the time I reached Sam Young’s paddock, night had imperceptibly set-in. The atmosphere was charged with smoke — probably from some big fire among the spinifex, far away northward — and a nucleus of brighter light on the meridian showed the position of a gibbous moon. Yet the hazy, uniform light, disciplining the eye to its standard, seemed rather like a noonday dulled to the same shade. The temperature was perfect for comfort, so I fared well enough; whilst with respect to my horses, I could only hope that Bert had been unfaithful to his chief and clan.

Now for the record of Wednesday, the 9th:—

Just at sunrise, one glance round the vicinity brought me out of my possum-rug with an impression that there was nothing but roguery to be found in villainous man. The country on all sides was as bare as the palm of your hand; and my horses, a quarter of a mile away, were nibbling at the stumps of cotton-bush. Breakfast, however, was the first consideration, as I hadn’t bothered about supper on the previous night — though filling my water-bag at a tank on the way.

Whilst baking a johnny-cake of such inferior quality as to richly deserve its back-country designation, and meanwhile boiling my quart-pot on a separate handful of such semi-combustibles as the plain afforded, I found myself slowly approached by a Chinaman, on a roan horse. And though it is impossible to recognise any individual Chow, I fancied that this unit bore something more than a racial resemblance to the one from whom I had recovered Alf’s bullocks. Moreover, he was riding the same horse.

“Mornin’, John,” said I condescendingly. “You scoot-um long-a homestation big one hurry.”

“Lidee boundly,” replied the early bird, in his mechanical tone

“Borak this you paddock, John?”

“My plully paddock, all li.”

“You name Sam Young? “

“Paul Sam Young,” corrected the boundary man. “You wantee glass you holse? — two-tlee day-goo’ glass? Me lay you on, all li.”

“It is the voice of a god, and not of a man!” I replied. “Have-um drink o’ tea, Paul? Have-um bit o’ du-pang? Where me find-um grass?”

“Tlinidad Paddock, all li-plully goo’ glass.”

“How me fetch-um that peller?”

Paul dismounted, and, declining my meagre hospitality, gave me copious information respecting the Trinidad. The nearest corner of this paddock was only eight miles away; but it would be expedient to go round by certain tracks, making the distance twelve or fourteen miles. It was a small paddock — five by two-being portion of a five by ten, recently divided. There was no water in it. It was crossed by a shallow billabong which had been dammed when the dividing fence was erected; but the first flood in the Lachlan had burst an opening in the embankment, so that even at the end of the previous winter there was no water in the paddock, except a drop of sludgy stuff in the excavation. Hence the grass. There was no stock in the Trinidad, and no one in charge. There were two station men, with a team of bullocks and scoop, cleaning out the dam and repairing the bank; but they would n’t see anything. Also, Mr. Smythe was away in Melbourne, and would n’t be back for another week. Of course, it took me about half-an-hour to Champollion all this information from the cryptical utterances of the friendly Asiatic.

“You allee same Christian,” I remarked, packing away my breakfast-service. “You go long-a good place bimeby.”

“Me Clistian allee same you,” he replied, not without dignity “Convelt plully long time. ‘Paul’ Clistian name. Splink’ wattel, all li.”

With this he bade me a civil good-bye, and went his way. Then I saddled-up and started for the Trinidad; mentally placing Mr. Smythe, Bert, and myself, in one dish of the moral scale, and this undesirable alien in the other, with an unflattering upshot to the superior race.

And this conclusion was more than verified when I reached my destination. The grass was something splendid. Any island or peninsula of plain among the tall lignum would do for a camp; and there was a good waterhole about a mile away, with only a low, slack fence to cross.

Between one thing and another, it might have been about three in the afternoon when, with Pup reposing by my side, I finally settled down to an after-dinner smoke from the sage meerschaum often deservedly noticed in these annals.

The two greatest supra-physical pleasures of life are antithetical in operation. One is to have something to do, and to know that you are doing it deftly and honestly. The other is to have nothing to do, and to know that you are carrying out your blank programme like a good and faithful menial. On this afternoon, the latter line of inaction seemed to be my path of duty — even to the extent of unharnessing my mind, so that when any difficulty did arise, I might be prepared to meet it as a bridegroom is supposed to meet his bride. Therefore whenever my reasoning faculties obtruded themselves, I knapp’d ’em o’ the coxcombs with a stick, and cry’d ‘Down, wantons, down.’ Briefly, I kept my ratiocinative gear strictly quiescent, with only the perceptive apparatus unrestrained, thus observing all things through the hallowed haze of a mental sabbath. There is a positive felicity in this attitude of soul, comparing most favorably with the negative happiness of Nirvana.

“Taking it easy, Tom?” conjectured a familiar voice.

“No, Steve,” I murmured, without even raising my eyes. “Tea in the quart-pot there. What are you after? Or is someone after you?”

“Prospecting for a bite of grass.”

“Well, you’ve bottomed on the wash. Thought you were out to Kulkaroo, with salt?”

“Just getting down again, with a half-load of pressed skins. Bullocks living on box-leaves and lignum. Rode over to get the geography of this place by daylight. Saunders, the fencer, told me about it this morning. He’s got a ten-mile contract away on Poolkija, and he’s going out with three horses and a dray-load of stores for himself. Dray stopped on the road for the last week, with his wife minding it. Horses supposed to be lost in the lignum on Yoongoolee, and him hunting them for all he’s worth. Keeps them planted all day, and tails them here at night. He would n’t have laid me on, only that he’s going to drop across them to-morrow morning, and shift.”

“Anyone coming with you to-night?”

“Baxter and Donovan. It’s a good step to travel — must be ten or twelve mile — but this grass is worth it. Safe, too, from what I hear. Might get two goes at it, by taking the bullocks out at daylight, and planting them till night. However, I must get back, to meet the other chaps with the mob.”

“Well, I’ll be here when you come.”

Thompson turned his horse, and disappeared round a promontory of lignum. By this time, the sun was dipping, dusky red, toward the smoky horizon; so I addressed myself to the duties of the evening, which consisted in taking my horses and Pup to the water, and bringing back a supply for myself. Also, as a concession to the new aspect of things, I took the bell off Cleopatra.

Daylight had now melted into soft, shadowless moonlight; and the place was no longer solitary. Dozens of cattle were scattered round, harvesting the fine crop of grass; and Thompson, with his two confederates, joined me. During daylight, I had made it my business to find a secluded place, bare of grass, where a fire could be kindled without offending the public eye; and to this spot the four of us repaired to see about some supper.

Before the first match was struck, a sound of subdued voices behind us notified the coming of two more interlopers.

One of these was Stevenson, a tank-sinker, now on his way northward with twenty-two fresh horses — fresh, by the way, only in respect of their new branch of industry, for the draft was made-up entirely of condemned coachers from Hay, and broken-down cab-horses from Victoria.

The other arrival was a Dutchman, who brought his two ten-horse teams. A thrifty, honest, sociable fellow he was; yet nothing but the integrity of narrative could possibly move me to repeat his name. It was Helsmok, with the ’o’ sounded long. The first time I had addressed him by name — many years before — a sense of delicacy had impelled me to shorten the vowel, also to slur the first syllable, whilst placing a strong accent on the second. But he had corrected me, just as promptly as Mr. Smythe would have done if I had called him Smith, and far more civilly. He had even softened the admonition by explaining that his strictness arose from a justifiable family pride, several of his paternal ancestors having been man-o’-war captains, and one an admiral — in which cases, the name would certainly seem appropriate. But some Continental surnames are sad indeed. The roll-call of Germany furnishes, perhaps, the most unhappy examples. There are bonâ fide German names which no man of refinement cares about repeating, except in a shearers’ hut or a gentlemen’s smoking-room.

“Shadowed you chaps,” remarked Stevenson, replying to the bullock drivers’ look of inquiry. And he also applied himself to the kindling of a small fire.

“Jis’ missed my ole camp by about ten chain!” cheerfully observed Saunders, entering the arena with a billy in one hand and a small calico bag in the other. “I was makin’ for her when when I heard you (fellows) talkin’. More the merrier, I s’pose.” And he set about making a third little fire.

“Gittin’ out with loadin’, Helsmok?” asked Donovan, while we waited the boiling of the billies.

“Yoos gittin’ dan mit der las’ wool,” replied the Dutchman. “I make der slow yourney; but, by yingo, I mus’ save der horses.”

“Ought to change that name of yours, Jan,” remarked Thompson, with real sincerity. “It’s an infernal name for children to hear.”

“Literally so,” commented Stevenson.

“Alter it to John Sulphur-Burnin’,” suggested Baxter.

“How’d Jack Brimstone-Reek do?” asked Donovan.

“Give it the aristocratic touch,” proposed Stevenson. “Sign yourself Jean Fumée de l’Enfer.”

“Why not the scientific turn?” I asked. “Make it Professor John Oxy-Sulphuret, F.R.S. — Foreigner Rastling for Selebrity.”

“My idear’s Blue Blazes,” put in Saunders bluntly.

“Tank you, yentlemen,” replied the genial Mynheer. “Mineself, I enyoy der yoke. Bot I am brout of my name. Mit mine forefadders, it have strock der yolly goot fear of Gott into der Spaniar’ und der English.”

“No wonder,” sighed Thompson, purposely misconstruing the honest vindication. “And it’ll have the same effect on anybody that considers it properly. But for that very reason, it’s not a decent name.”

“It is ein olt name, Domson,” argued the Dutchman.

“Old enough,” rejoined Thompson gloomily. “It was to the fore when Satan was slung out of heaven; and it’ll be going as strong as ever when we’re trying to give an account of ourselves. It won’t be a joking matter then.”

Nor was it any longer a joking-matter for our assembly. Soon, however, the billies were taken off the fires, and spiritual apprehension forthwith gave place to physical indulgence.

After supper, we adjourned to the open plain. The night was delicious; and for half-an-hour the congress was governed by that dignified silence which backcountry men appreciate so highly, yet so unconsciously. Then the contemplative quiet of our synod was broken by the vigorous barking of Saunders’ dog, at a solitary box tree, indicating a possum tree’d in full sight.

“Gostruth, that ’on’t do!” muttered the fencer, hastily starting toward the dog. “That’s visible to the naked eye about three mile on a night like now.”

“Recalls the most perfect pun within my knowledge,” remarked Stevenson. “A lady, travelling by coach, had a pet dog, which annoyed her fellow-passengers till one of them remonstrated. ‘I’m surprised that you don’t like my dog,’ says the lady; ‘he’s a real Peruvian.’ ‘We don’t object to your Peruvian dog,’ says the passenger, ‘but we wish he would give us less of his Peruvian bark’.”

Before our company had recovered from the painful constraint induced by this unfathomable joke, Saunders resumed his place, holding the dog by a saddlestrap taken from his own equator.

“Dead spit of my poor old Monkey,” remarked Thompson sadly, as he caressed the dog. “Never felt the thing that’s on me more distinctly than when I lost poor Monkey.”

“Well, I offered you a fiver for him,” rejoined Donovan. “Never know’d a man to have luck with a thing that he’d refused a good bid for. Picked up a bait, I s’pose?”

“Monkey would never have stayed with you,” replied Thompson. “That dog would have broke his heart if he’d been parted from me. Tell you how I lost him. Last winter, when I was loaded-out for Kenilworth — where I met Cooper — you might remember it was dry, and frosty, and miserable, and the country as bare as a stockyard; and mostly everybody loafing on Kooltopa. Well, I dodged round by Yoongoolee, stealing a bite of grass here, and a bite there; and travelling by myself, so as not to be worth ordering-off the runs; and staying with the bullocks every night, and keeping them in decent fettle, considering.

“So, one evening, I left the wagon on that bit of red ground at the Fifteen-mile Gate, and tailed the bullocks down in the dark to sample the grass in Old Sollicker’s horse-paddock. About eleven at night, when the first of them began to lie-down, I shifted the lot to an open place, so as to have them all together when they got full. I was in bodily fear of losing some of them among the lignum, in the dark; for it’s a hanging-matter to duff in a horsepaddock on Yoongoolee. I knew Old Sollicker was as regular as clockwork, and I was safe till sunrise; so I intended to rouse-up the bullocks just before daylight, to lay in a fresh supply. In the meantime, I settled myself down for a sleep.”

“Where was the (adj.) dog?” asked Baxter.

“Rolled up in the blanket with me, I tell you; and we both slept like the dead” — —

“Owing to having no fleas on you?” suggested Stevenson.

“Don’t know what was the cause; but the thing that woke me was the jingle of a Barwell horse-bell on one side, and the rattle of a bridle on the other. Sure enough, there was the sun half-an-hour high, and Old Sollicker about thirty yards off, and here on the other side was his two horses dodging away from him; and me in a belt of lignum, half-way between; and my twenty bullocks, as bold as brass, all feeding together in the open, a bit to the left of the horses. It was plain to be seen that the old fellow hadn’t caught sight of the bullocks on account of the belt of lignum where I was planted; but he was making for an openish place, not twenty yards ahead of him, and when he got there it would be all up. So I grabbed hold of Monkey, and fired him at the horses. He was there! He went like a boomerang when I let him rip, and in two seconds he had the blood flying out of those horses’ heels; and, of course, they streaked for the clear ground near the hut. As soon as I let the dog go, I turned my attention to Sollicker. At the first alarm, he stopped to consider; then, when the horses shot past him, with the dog eating their heels, he rubbed his chin for about two minutes — and me trusting Providence all I was able — then he gave a sort of snort, and said, ‘Well, I be dang!’ and with that he turned round and went toward his hut. That was the signal for me to clear; and in fifteen minutes I had all my stock in safety-bar poor Monkey; and I never saw him from that day to this.”

“You (adj.) fool! why did n’t you hunt for him?” asked Donovan.

“And did n’t I hunt for him till I was sick and tired? I spent half that day hunting for him; and next morning I went back seven mile, and called at the hut to ask Mrs. Sollicker if her old man had seen a magpie steer, with a bugle horn, anywhere among the lignum; and when I got clear of the hut, I whistled till I was black in the face; and still no dog. I hunted everywhere; and still no dog. Vanished out of the land of the living. That dog would never leave me while he had breath in his body; and when he did n’t come back, after he had chivied the horses, I might have” — —

“Sh-sh-sh!” whispered Stevenson. And, following the direction of his look, we discerned the approaching figure of a man on horseback.

“Ben Cartwright,” observed Baxter, after a pause. “Anybody else comin’, I wonder? Seems like as if people couldn’t fine a bit o’ grass without the whole (adj.) country jumpin’ it.”

“I move that all trespassers ought to be prosecuted with the utmost vigour o’ the (adj.) law,” remarked Donovan aloud, as the new-comer dismounted and liberated his horse, a few yards away.

“We should certainly be justified in taking the opinion of the Court on a test case,” added Stevenson. “Suppose we make an example of Cartwright? Oh, I beg your pardon!” For the intended sacrifice was just collapsing into an easy position beside the speaker.

“Been scoutin’ for you (fellows) this last half-hour,” he remarked sociably, but in the suppressed tone befitting time and place. “Seen samples o’ your workin’ plant, an’ know’d who to expect. Heard the dog barkin’ jis’ now. Soft collar we got here — ain’t it?”

“How did you find it?” asked Thompson.

“Know Jack Ling — at the Boree Paddick, about four mile out there? Well, I worked on his horse-paddick las’ night, an’ he follered me up this mornin’, an’ talked summons. But I ain’t very fiery-tempered, the way things is jis’ now; an’ I got at the soft side o’ the (adj.) idolator; an’ he laid me on here. Reckoned I’d mos’ likely fine company.”

“One good point about a Chow boundary man,” observed Thompson. “So long as you don’t interfere with his own paddock, he never makes himself nasty.”

My own experience of the morning led me to endorse this judgment; wherefore, if John didn’t exactly rise in the estimation of the camp, he certainly reduced his soundings in its destestation.

“Comin’ down with wool?” asked Baxter.

“Comin’ down without wool, or wagon, or any (adj.) thing,” replied Cartwright. “Jist loafin’ loose. Bullocks dead-beat. Left the wagon tarpolined at the Jumpin’ Sandhill, a fortnit ago. Five gone out o’ eighteen since then, an’ three more dead if they on’y know’d it. Good for trade, I s’pose.”

“Had any supper?” asked Thompson.

“Well, no. Run out o’ tucker to-day, an’ reckoned I’d do till I foun’ time to go to Booligal to-morrow.”

While three or four of the fellows placed their eatables before Cartwright, Thompson remarked:

“You gave me a bit of a start. When I saw you coming, it reminded me of one time I got snapped by Barefooted Bob, on Wo-Winya, while M’Gregor owned the station. For all the world such a night as this-smoky moonlight, and as good as day. I’d had a fearful perisher coming down with the last wool, and I was making for the Murray, by myself; stealing a bite of grass every night, and getting caught, altogether, five times between Hay and Barmah. Well, I knew there was rough feed in the Tin Hut Paddock; so I crawled along quietly, and loosed-out after dark, in that timber where the coolaman hole is. Then I sneaked the bullocks through the fence, and out past that bit of a swamp; and they had just settled down to feed, when I saw some one riding toward me.

“‘I’ve got possession of some bullocks close handy here,’ says he ‘Do you own them?’

“‘Yes,’ says I; ‘and, by the same token, I have possession.’

“‘Right you are,’ says he. ‘Court job, if you like. Your name’s Stephen Thompson. Good night.’

“‘Hold-on!’ says I. ‘On second thoughts, I haven’t possession. But I think I know your voice. Are n’t you Barefooted Bob? Where’s Bat?’

“‘Laying for Potter’s horse-teams to-night,’ says Bob. ‘He’ll get them, right enough.’

“‘Come over to the wagon, and have a drink of tea,’ says I.

“‘No, no,’ says he; ‘none of your toe-rag business. I’ll just stop with these bullocks till it’s light enough to count them out of the paddock.’

“So we stayed there yarning all night, and in the morning we settled-up, and he saw me out of the paddock. Nicest, civilest fellow you’d meet; but no more conscience than that kangaroo-dog of Tom’s. He and Bat had been four or five years away north toward the Gulf, and had just come down. M’Gregor used to keep them up to their work. Sent them away somewhere about the Diamantina, shortly after this affair; and now Bob” ——

“Speak o’ the divil,” growled Baxter. “You done it, you blatherin’ fool! Look behine you! Now there’s a bob a-head, or a summons, for every (individual) of us. Might ’a’ had more sense!”

Thompson (as you will remember) had heard of Bob’s decease, but had since learned the fallacy of the report. I was therefore, probably, the only person present who took for granted that M’Gregor’s obnoxious familiar was so removed from further opportunity of mischief as to leave him a safe subject of conversation among people situated as we were. Hence the well-concealed disquietude of the company was nothing in comparison with my own perplexity — which, I trust, was no less successfully disguised. For it was Bob himself who had just ridden round a contiguous cape of lignum, and now, dismounting and throwing his reins on the ground, joined our unappreciative group. After folding his interminable legs in two places, and clasping his hands round his shins, this excrescence on society remarked, in basso profundo:

“Evenin’, chaps.”

“Evenin’,” came in sullen, but general, response. Then Baxter queried indifferently:

“Same ole lay?”

“Not me,” replied the deep, low voice. “Every man to his work. My work’s mullockin’ in a reservoy, with a new-chum weaver from Leeds for a mate, an’ a scoop that’s nyther make nor form, an’ the ten worst bullocks ever was yoked.”

“Well, Bob,” said I; “though you gave me a fright, I must congratulate you.

I heard you were dead.”

“Would n’t mind if I was dead, Collins.”

“Where’s Bat?” I asked.

“Gone to a better billet” — and the leonine voice deepened to hoarseness. “Restin’ in the shadder of a lonely rock, as the Bible says. I buried him by my own self, way out back, eight or ten months ago. Many’s the time I wish I was with him, for I’m dog-tired of everything goin’. Best-hearted feller ever broke bread, Bat was; an’ the prittiest rider ever I seen on a horse. Yes; pore ole chap’s gone. You’d ’a’ thought he was on’y asleep when” ——

No further word was spoken for a couple of minutes. Then Stevenson asked:

“How long since you came down?”

“Five months since I left the Diamantinar. Grand grass there, an’ most o’ the road down. I come with some fats as fur as Wilcannia; an’ a drover took charge o’ them there; an’ my orders was to come on to Mondunbarra. I been here goin’ on for three weeks, rasslin’ with that reservoy, an’ cursin’ M’Gregor an’ Smythe for bein’ man-eaters, an’ myself for bein’ a born fool.”

“Then why don’t you leave?” asked Thompson.

“How can I leave without a settlin’-up?”

“An’ why the (sheol) don’t you git a settlin’-up?” asked Donovan.

“How’m I goin’ to git a settlin’-up, when M’Gregor don’t know me from a crow, an’ says Smythe’ll represent him in the meantime; an’ Smythe says his hands is tied on account o’ M’Gregor, or else he’d dem soon give me the run. Nice way for a man to be fixed, after me breakin’ my neck since I was fifteen, to make M’Gregor what he is. Eighteen solid years clean throwed away!”

“How did you fine us here, unless you was (adv.) well after somebody?” asked Baxter, still suspicious of the dog with a bad name.

“Well, I am after somebody. I’m after ole M’Gregor — at least, I’ll be after him as soon ’s I git this reservoy off o’ my mind. Daresay I’ll git you to understand by-’n’-by. See: Jist when Smythe wanted this job fixed-up, he got a slant o’ fourteen bullocks, sold at a gift, for debt; an’ he thought that would be the cheapest way to git the work done; for he did n’t want to engage any o’ your sort, knowin’ you’d loaf on the grass, an’ most likely make a song about it, an’ be the instigation of no end o’ trouble watchin’ the place. Well, them fourteen was put in Sling Ho’s paddick for a fortnit before I come; an’ I could on’y muster ten; an’ me an’ this mate o’ mine we made a start with that lot — not knowin’ which was nearsiders, nor off-siders, nor leaders, nor nothing. Nice contract. Anyway, jist before dark this evenin’, I seen two o’ the missin’ ones in the ‘joinin’ paddock, so I rooted-up one o’ my horses, an’ fetched them in here. Then I heard a dog barkin’ out this way, an’ I thought I’d come across to kill time, an’ then I happened to hear a lot o’ laughin’ where them other blokes is camped” ——

“Which other blokes?” asked Saunders.

“Dan Lister an’ three Vic. chaps. Be about half-a-mile out there. Dan’s as sulky as a pig with these coves for foxin’ him; an’ they’re laughin’ at him like three overgrown kids. They got twelve bullocks each. Dan tells me he dropped two out of his eighteen, comin’ down from Mooltunya. Says one o’ the Chinks laid him on to this bit o’ grass. Two other fellers I met in the plain-strangers to me — they had the very same yarn. Them heathens think I’m in charge here; an’ they’re workin’ a point to make me nasty with the chaps on the track. An’ if I was in charge, that’s jist the sort o’ thing would put a hump on me. Sort o’ off-sider for a gang o’ Chinks! My word!”

“Bin many people workin’ on this paddick lately?” asked Saunders innocently.

“Well, besides your three horses, there’s been an odd team now an’ agen for the fortnit or three weeks I been here. Good many last night. Rallyin’-up to-night. No business o’ mine. Too busy shiftin’ mullock to know what’s goin’ on. Way o’ the world, I s’pose. Anyway, Smythe’s gittin’ a slant to come to an understandin’ with M’Gregor about me; an’ if it ain’t satisfactory, there’ll be bad feelin’ between us. I want to be kep’ at my own proper work, or else sacked an’ squared-up with — not shoved into a job like this the minit I show my face; with that young pup cheekin’ me for callin’ him ‘Bert.’ ‘Mr. Smythe, if you please,’ says he! Hope I’ll live to see him with bluey on his back.”

“Well-matched pair — M’Gregor an’ Smythe,” remarked Donovan thoughtfully. “Wonder which of the two (individuals) is worst in the sight o’ God?”

“Toss-up,” replied Bob. “Same time, there’s a lot o’ difference in people, accordin’ to the shape o’ their head. There’s Stewart of Kooltopa; he don’t demean his self with little things; he goes in for big things, an’ gits there; an’ he’s got the heart to make a proper use o’ what money travels his road. Comes-out a Christian. Then there’s Smythe: his mind’s so much took-up with the tuppenny-thruppenny things that he can’t see the big thing when it’s starin’ him in the face. Can’t afford to come-out anything but a pis-ant. Then there’s M’Gregor: he goes-in for big things an’ little things, an’ he goes-in to win, an’ he wins; an’ all he wins is Donal’ M’Gregor’s. Comes-out a bow constructor.”

“Do you think he’ll shift Smythe from Mondunbarra, as he did Pratt from Boolka?” I asked.

“Ain’t he doin’ it all the time?” replied Bob. “He’s got Smythe frightened of him now, an’ beginnin’ to hate him like fury, besides. That’s M’Gregor’s lay. By-’n’-by, Smythe’ll be dreamin’ about him all night, an’ wishin’ he was game to poison him all day; an’ when he feels enough haunted, M’Gregor’ll make him an offer, an’ he’ll sell-out like a bird.”

“I should be inclined to reverse the situation,” remarked Stevenson. “I should make him glad to sell-out to me.”

“My word, you’d do a lot,” replied Bob. “I seen smarter men nor you took-down through tryin’ to work points on the same ole M’Gregor. Tell you what I seen on Wo-Winya, about three year ago — jist before me an’ pore Bat was put on the Diamantinar Feller name o’ Tregarvis, from Bendigo, he selected a lot o’ land on Wo-Winya, an’ made-up his mind he’d straighten M’Gregor. Bit of a Berryite, he was. Well-off for a selector, too; an’ he done a big business back an’ forrid to Vic. with cattle. Mixed lots, of course, with stags an’ ole cows that no fence would hold. North of Ireland feller, name o’ Moore, was managin’ Wo-Winya at the time; an’ M’Gregor was a good deal about the station, takin’ a sort o’ interest in this Tregarvis. Well, things was so arranged that the Cousin Jack’s cattle was always gittin’ into our paddicks; an’ the rule was that his people had to come to the home-station to get leaf to hunt ’em; an’ a man was sent along o’ them as a percaution. An’ generally, by the time they foun’ the cattle, there was one or two o’ the fattest o’ them short.”

“Remedy for that game,” remarked Stevenson. “I should have laid a trap.”

“Jist what Tregarvis done,” rejoined Bob. “One day there was a stranger among our cattle — a fine big white bullock, an’ Tregarvis’s brand on him. We run this mob into the yard before dinner, to git a beast to kill, an’ turned ’em all out agen, bar the white one; but he was in the killin’-yard all the afternoon. Dusk in the evenin’, the white bullock was shot; an’ jist in the nick o’ time, when the head was slung in the pigsty, an’ the hide was hangin’ on the fence, raw side up, who should pounce on us but ole Tregarvis, an’ Young Tregarvis, an’ a trooper. No mistake, Moore looked a bit gallied on it; an’ he hum’d an’ ha’d, an’ threatened to brain Tregarvis if he laid a hand on the hide. Anyhow, the trooper took charge o’ the hide; an’ both the Tregarvises struck matches an’ examined the head in the pig-sty. Next mornin’, a warrant was served on Moore; but, of course, he was bailed. Then the Court-day come on; an’ Tregarvis swore to a knowledge that a white bullock of his was among the Wo-Winya cattle; an’ he give evidence about the findin’ o’ the skin, an’ swore to the head he seen in the pig-sty. An’ young Tregarvis, he swore he was watchin’ with a telescope, an’ seen a white bullock o’ theirs yarded with some more, an’ all the rest turnedout; an’ he kep’ his eye on that white bullock all the afternoon; an’ he heard the shot, an’ went up with his ole man an’ the trooper; an’ he seen the raw hide hangin’ on the fence, an’ the head in the pig-sty, an’ a couple o’ fellers hoistin’ the carkidge on the gallus. When the magistrate asked Moore if he wanted to make a statement, he said he was quite bewildered about it. He allowed he had picked the white bullock for killin’, an’ he had give the order; but he’d swear the beast belonged to the station. So the hide was spread out on a bit o’ tarpolin in the floor o’ the Court; an’ there was on’y one brand on it, an’ that brand was M’Gregor’s — DMG off-rump. Mind you, this is on’y what I was told. My orders was to keep clear till the case was over; an’ it was on’y a day or two follerin’ that me an’ pore Bat got our orders for the Diamantinar. Anyhow, Moore whanged it on to Tregarvis for malicious prosecution; an’ it cost the Cousin Jack a good many hundred before he was done with it. As for young Dick Tregarvis, he got four years for perjury; so they’ll be jist about lettin’ him out now, if he’s got the good-conduct remission.

“Beast changed?” suggested Thompson.

“Yes. That was the idear. Some different dodge next time. Changed jist at dusk, an’ shot the minit after. I had the station bullock all ready, before ever Tregarvis’s one was yarded. Dead spit o’ one another, down to the shape o’ their horns — bar the brands, of course; Treganis’s beast havin’ NT near-shoulder, an’ JH conjoined under halfcircle off-ribs. I had him half-ways back to the paddick agen when Tregarvis thought he was identifyin’ him in the killin’-yard. So he fell-in, simple enough. An’ between one thing an’ another, an’ bein’ follered-up like the last dingo on a sheep station, ole Tregarvis was glad to sell-out to M’Gregor, before all was over. Yes, Stevenson; Lord ’a’ mercy on M’Gregor if you got a holt of him! My word! “

“Where the (adj. sheol) do you reckon on bein’ shoved into when you croak, Bob?” asked Donovan, with a touch of human solicitude.

“Well,” replied Bob pointedly, as he unfolded his long angles to a perpendicular right line — “I got good hopes o’ goin’ to a place where there’s no admittance for swearers. Ain’t ashamed to say I repented eight or ten months ago. Guarantee you fellers ain’t heard no language out o’ my mouth since I set down here. Nor ’on’t — never again. Well, take care o’ yourselves, chaps.” And, without further farewell, Bob removed his lonely individuality from our convention.

“Anointed (adj.) savage,” remarked Donovan, as the subject of his comment receded into the hazy half-light of the plain, where his horse was feeding.

“Uncivilised (person),” added Baxter.

“Well — yes,” conceded Thompson. “Same time, he’s got the profit of his unprofitableness, so to speak. Hard to beat him in the back country. You’d have to be more uncivilised than he is. And I saw that very thing happen to him, four or five weeks ago, out on Goolumbulla.” Thompson paused experimentally, then continued, “Yes, I saw him put-through, till he must have felt a lot too tall in proportion to his cleverness.” Another tentative pause. “But it took the very pick of uncivilisation to do it.” A prolonged pause, while Thompson languidly filled and lit his pipe. Still the dignified indifference of the camp remained unruffled. Thompson might tell his yarn, or keep it to himself. Once already during the evening his tongue had run too freely. “What I’m thinking about,” he continued, in a tone of audible musing, “is that I forgot to tell Bob, when he was here, that I had a long pitch with Dan O’Connell, three or four nights ago.”

“Boundary man on Goolumbulla,” I suggested apathetically. “Got acquainted with Bob years ago, when he was making himself useful on Moogoojinna, and Bob was making himself obnoxious on Wo-Winya, or Boolka.”

“No; they never met till four or five weeks ago,” replied Thompson, with inimitable indifference, though now licensed to proceed without damage to his own dignity. “Dan’s an old acquaintance of yours — is n’t he? I heard your name mentioned over the finding of a dead man — George something — had been fencing on Mooltunya — George Murdock. Yes.”

Thompson told a story well. I verily believe he used to practise the accomplishment mentally, as he sauntered along beside his team. He knew his own superiority here; his acquaintances knew it too, and they also knew that he knew it. Hence they were reluctant to minister occasion to his egotism.

“Speaking of Bob,” he continued listlessly; “I met him in the hut, at Kulkaroo, on the evening I got there with the load. He was on his way down from that new place of M’Gregor’s, where he’s been; and he had come round by Kulkaroo to see one of the very few friends he has in the world; but he lost his labour, for this cove had left the station more than a year before.

“However, we had been yarning for hours, and the station chaps were about turning-in, when we heard someone coming in a hurry. No less than Webster himself — first time he had been in the hut since it was built, the chaps told me afterward. He had a leaf of a memorandum-book in his hand; and says he:

“‘Child lost in the scrub on Goolumbulla. Dan O’Connell’s little girl — five or six years old. Anybody know where there’s any blackfellows?’

“Nobody knew.

“‘Well, raise horses wherever you can, and clear at once,’ says he. ‘One man, for the next couple of days, will be worth a regiment very shortly. As for you, Thompson,’ says he; ‘you’re your own master.’

“Of course, I was only too glad of any chance to help in such a case, so I went for my horse at once. Bob had duffed his two horses into the ration paddock, on his way to the hut, and had put them along with my mare, so that he could find them at daylight by the sound of her bell. This started me and him together. He lent his second horse to one of the station chaps; and the three of us got to Goolumbulla just after sunrise — first of the crowd. Twenty-five mile. There was tucker on the table, and chaff for our horses; and, during the twenty minutes or so that we stayed, they gave us the outline of the mishap.

“Seems that, for some reason or other — valuation for mortgage, I’m thinking — the classer had come round a few days before; and Spanker had called in every man on the station, to muster the ewes. You know how thick the scrub is on Goolumbulla? Dan came in along with the rest, leaving his own place before daylight on the first morning. They swept the paddock the first day for about three parts of the ewes; the second day they got most of what was left; but Spanker wanted every hoof, if possible, and he kept all hands on for the third day.

“Seems, the little girl did n’t trouble herself the first day, though she had n’t seen Dan in the morning; but the second day there was something peculiar about her — not fretful, but dreaming, and asking her mother strange questions. It appears that, up to this time, she had never said a word about the man that was found dead near their place, a couple of months before. She saw that her parents did n’t want to tell her anything about it, so she had never showed any curiosity; but now her mother was startled to find that she knew all the particulars.

“It appears that she was very fond of her father; and this affair of the man perishing in the scrub was working on her mind. All the second day she did nothing but watch; and during the night she got up several times to ask her mother questions that frightened the woman. The child did n’t understand her father going away before she was awake, and not coming back. Still, the curious thing was that she never took her mother into her confidence, and never seemed to fret.

“Anyway, on the third morning, after breakfast, her mother went out to milk the goats, leaving her in the house. When the woman came back, she found the child gone. She looked round the place, and called, and listened, and prospected everywhere, for an hour; then she went into the house, and examined. She found that the little girl had taken about a pint of milk, in a small billy with a lid, and half a loaf of bread. Then, putting everything together, the mother decided that she had gone into the scrub to look for her father. There was no help to be had nearer than the home-station, for the only other boundary man on that part of the run was away at the muster. So she cleared for the station — twelve mile — and got there about three in the afternoon, not able to stand. There was nobody about the station but Mrs. Spanker, and the servant-girl, and the cook, and the Chow slushy; and Mrs. Spanker was the only one that knew the track to the ewe-paddock. However, they got a horse in, and off went Mrs. Spanker to give the alarm. Fine woman. Daughter of old Walsh, storekeeper at Moogoojinna, on the Deniliquin side.

“It would be about five when Mrs. Spanker struck the ewe-paddock, and met Broome and another fellow. Then the three split out to catch whoever they could, and pass the word round. Dan got the news just before sundown. He only remarked that she might have found her own way back; then he went for home as hard as his horse could lick.

“As the fellows turned-up, one after another, Spanker sent the smartest of them — one to Kulkaroo, and one to Mulppa, and two or three others to different fencers’ and tank-sinkers’ camps. But the main thing was blackfellows. Did anybody know where to find a blackfellow, now that he was wanted?

“Seems, there had been about a dozen of them camped near the tank in the cattle-paddock for a month past, but they were just gone, nobody knew where. And there had been an old lubra and a young one camped within a mile of the station, and an old fellow and his lubra near one of the boundary men’s places; but they all happened to have shifted; and no one had the slightest idea where they could be found. However, in a sense, everyone was after them.

“But, as I was telling you, we had some breakfast at the station, and, then started for Dan’s place. Seven of us by this time, for another of the Kulkaroo men had come up, and there were three well-sinkers in a buggy. This was on a Thursday morning; and the little girl had been out twenty-four hours.

“Well, we had gone about seven mile, with crowds of fresh horsetracks to guide us; and we happened to be going at a fast shog, and Bob riding a couple or three yards to the right, when he suddenly wheeled his horse round, and jumped off.

“‘How far is it yet to Dan’s place?’ says he.

“‘Five mile,’ says one of the well-sinkers. ‘We’re just on the corner of his paddock. Got tracks?’

“‘Yes,’ says Bob. ‘I’ll run them up, while you fetch the other fellows. Somebody look after my horse.’ And by the time the last word was out of his mouth, he was twenty yards away along the little track. No trouble in following it, for she was running the track of somebody that had rode out that way a few days before — thinking it was her father’s horse, poor little thing!

“Apparently she had kept along the inside of Dan’s fence — the way she had generally seen him going out — till she came to the corner, where there was a gate. Then she had noticed this solitary horse’s track striking away from the gate, out to the left; and she had followed it. However, half-a-mile brought us to a patch of hardish ground, where she had lost the horse’s track; and there Bob lost hers. Presently he picked it up again; but now there was only her little bootmarks to follow.”

“A goot dog would be wort vivty men dere, I tink,” suggested Helsmok.

Published in:
Tom Collins [Joseph Furphy]. Such is Life, The Bulletin Newspaper Company, Sydney, 1903

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