The whip o’ the West [short story by Jack Moses]

[Editor: This is a short story from Beyond the City Gates: Australian Story & Verse (1923) by Jack Moses.]

The whip o’ the West

Some folk, maybe, do not believe in the “long arm of coincidence,” and do not connect incidents of to-day, reflecting the happenings of the yesteryears, as something out of the ordinary. I am inclined to do so, and I’ll tell you why.

A few days since I was, for the want of a more lucrative employment for the time being, idly turning the pages of some old newspapers I had unearthed in the smoke-room of the “Royal Mail,” a commercial house I had seen grow from a long, rambling building to one of the most palatial, comfortable and commodious houses of the West, when my eye caught the announcement of the death of “Bun” Orbell. There was no fulsome reference to the splendour of Bun’s manhood, nothing beyond the statement that Bun had dropped the reins in life’s journey, in a quiet little street in a quiet little town. But to me, in addition to the regrets it created, that little par. made me think of coincidences, for on that very morning I was about to proceed to a town by rail to which I had first driven, some twenty years before, under the Jehuship of Bun.

My first impressions of The Castlereagh were formed in my travels under the care of the cheery Bun Orbell.

In those days Bun was known near and far as the “Whip o’ the West,” and a personality of cheerfulness courtesy, good fellowship, possessing a fund of story and a laugh that rang through the timber clumps along the Castlereagh. Bun drove from Dubbo 100 miles to Coonamble a couple of times a week, and I always made a point to keep “Bun’s day” in mind when I had occasion to drive a-down the Castlereagh. As far as I can remember nowadays, we left Dubbo about noon, and drove through the night. Of course, there were exceptions to this rule, especially at those periods when Jupiter Pluv. wept copiously on the bosom of the black-soil plains, and it was found necessary to camp the night at Yalla Creek.

We were nearing Yalla Creek Wayside Inn, kept by one Sadler, long since gone further West, when some accident to the coach — since forgotten — compelled a night’s stay at Yalla Creek. Sadler extended to travellers, at all times, a strong grip, betokening welcome, and provided warm hospitality; furthermore, when seasons warranted it, a warm log.

It was a cosy little halting house this, and the energies of mine host and his buxom, big-hearted wife were reflected through the medium of a compact “selection” at the rear of the house, from whence was derived a tidy little sum. It was this “little selection” at the rear of Yalla Creek Inn that impressed me with the wealth to be had from even the backyards of this great land of Australia.

Old Sadler was an ardent admirer of William Ewart Gladstone, and, of course, though a good Australian by environment, always pointed with no little degree of pride to his “Gladstone Parlour” wherein was hung over the fireplace — a fireplace which would swallow about ten of the modern grates, by the way — a coloured “almanac” of England’s Prime Minister.

“A Great Man — truly a giant among great men” was always the tribute paid to the “Great Axeman” by Sadler, as he spat into the fire, after looking at the coloured print of W.E.G.

In this Gladstone Parlour, and in the centre of a round cedar table, covered with a green cloth, stood a glass globe preserving from the dust — and sometimes the flies — a bunch of pink and white wax flowers, together with a peach and a wax apple — looked upon as an ornament of necessity to add a touch of refinement to the home in those bygone days. At one end of the table, covered with an “antimacassar,” was a copy of the Colonial Edition of Marked Men, otherwise Men of Mark, which caused many a lawsuit and perhaps a little pride in the bosoms of those who had, on the payment of one guinea, their pedigree, photographs and “public punches” recorded. I never looked through the list of Men of Mark, but I daresay Sadler was one of the “Marked Men” in connection with this publication.

Of course, in the Gladstone Parlour these was a “pianny,’ and the same old “Jockey Vamp,” so popular in those days, was in evidence, from the somewhat heavy touch of the musical prodigy born to the house of Sadler.

When our party — compelled to walk from the scene of the breakdown — reached the Inn, Sadler was in the bar, to dispense the usual greeting and grog to weary travellers, and both were accepted in the spirit given. Soon, indeed, the Wayside Inn became the house of a merry gathering, and while we swapped yarns, a joker who had boarded our coach an hour or two earlier entered the bar with a big, fat turkey safely snuggled under his arms.

“Want to buy a turkey, boss?” he inquired.

Mine host took the gobbler in his arms and probed the plumpness most persistently.

“Ha ha,” he laughed; “that’s my bird! I’d know its feathers in a pillow-slip. It’ll cost you drinks round for breaking and burgling the fowlyard, and then it’ll be up to you to do a turkey-trot back to the roost.”

And so the spirit of geniality, always in evidence at the Wayside Inn, permeated the twilight hour.

An inspection of the breakdown had resulted in an announcement by Bun that “You blokes are booked for the night.” But the blokes expressed no sorrow. As luck had it, the guest list included “Slim” Tom Yates, the ringer of Bullagreen at last shearing, who was a finished performer on the concertina, and so, after a filling meal of beef, jacketted spuds, pickles, damper, and home-made plum jam, we adjourned again to the “Gladstone Parlour,” and if the spirit of the fine old English gentleman happened to be present, he enjoyed a night of mirth, melody, “Bully” story and jingle, which chased the fleeting hours till deoch-an’-doris time, and the stranded passengers were ready to retire.

The carolling of the magpie and the laughter of the kookas heralded dawn, and by the time the sun peeped from behind the hills, the crackle of the kitchen fire was heard. Breakfast was prepared for 7.30, for Bun had announced that the “darned old wheel” was righted. The coach passengers were not the only ones at Yalla Creek Inn making an early start, for, on coming from the dining-room to the verandah, in response to Bun’s cry of “All aboard” — just as I was about to say so-long to Sadlers—Judkins, his wife and heir-apparent (very apparent, too) joined the group in the verandah, preparatory to making a start in the opposite direction.

“Good-bye, Moses,” called Judkins, gripping me solidly by the hand — and Judkins had some grip. “You’re a merry lot.”

I bowed my modest acknowledgment, buttoned up my top-coat, and was about to join Bun on the box seat.

This is my old woman, Mrs. Judkins, my wife,” he said.

“This is Moses,” he intimated, turning to his wife.

“This is my boy Ernie, Moses,” he continued, turning to me before I had time to turn to Mrs. Judkins.

The boy sized line up from the toes to the crown, then stared at my face with his eyes wide open, “Don’t stare at Moses, Ernie,” commanded Judkins; but Ernie, being a dutiful son, still stared.

“Excuse the boy, Moses,” apologised Judkins Senior. “This is his first time out, and everything is new to him — he hasn’t got the grip of things yet. You see, we put up here last night, went to bed early, and heard your jolly crew in the parlour. It was a bit of all right.”

I smiled my appreciation.

“Old woman,” continued Judkins, in jerks, “didn’t take on at first, but by cripes, when you told that yarn about the Arizona Cat, cripes! she did shake! hasn’t stopped laughing since, have you, mother?”

And judging by the broad grin upon the good old soul’s kindly face she hadn’t.

“Stop that staring at Moses, Ernie!” commanded Judkins to the young hopeful, who was still intent on taking me out of winding. “Come and have a drink, all you chaps.” And, of course, in keeping with the traditions of Yalla Creek, we breasted the bar.

“Mine’s rum,’ said Judkins. “What’s the others?” The others, by a strange coincidence, were mostly rum, too.

After swallowing his Old Jamaica, Judkins walked to the door and, hailing the groom, said, “Bill, have you got the mare hitched up all right?”

“Yus,” said Bill; “she’s all right.”

“Good-bye, Moses — there’s that damned boy staring at Moses over the seat. Shake hands with Moses, Ernie.” Then noticing the movement of the left hand of Ernie, commanded: “The other hand, damn you! Put him under the seat, mother. Good-bye. Moses.”

He drove off, but immediately pulled up and yelled back, just as I was about to ascend again: “Moses, I’d like you to write out that damned Arizona cat yarn for me so I can keep the missus going. So-long,” And dodging the cattle loafing across the road, he and his family disappeared in the dust.

A few moments later we were off in continuance of our journey along the Castlereagh, passing teamsters resting by the road, where embers of the night fires still glowed, and we drove Coonamble way as Judkins went Dubbowards. So it is we part with friends of the wayside in the journey of life.

Onward — Westward Ho! — through the saltbush in the morning dew, crowfoot, trefoil, the blue grass and the great scrub of fodder trees of the west that have kept life in the stock in time of drought. How generous has Nature been to this land! When I think of these rich grasses and trees, and the great artesian waters still bottled up, I realise that we are not yet grasping the opportunities at our hand to the full.

Away past homesteads and rich fertile lands we drive, creeping nearer the crimson line of sunset. We pass emus, kangaroos, and flocks of the rosy-breasted galah wheeling in the blood-red close of day. How magnificent it all is, and how little of the picture do Australians know! Down there in the rushes round the Gilgai the grey-blue dainty brolga is dancing in the sunlight — the dying sunlight — and as we drive I recall the lines of an old comrade, “Milky White,” who, in Bulletin lore, expressed himself:

On the open country chancing,
Have you ever seen the dancing,
Dance, dance, dancing of the cranes?
’Gainst the sunset red and golden,
Watch them tread their measure olden —
Has it touched you with the spirit of the plains?
Ah! they have no voice for singing,
And their notes, when they are winging,
Make no swan song soft and mellow with delight;
But the gift the gods have sent them
Is sufficient to content them,
And they dance through merry mazes
To the hazes of the night.

Now the lesson, trite, though true, is,
As you hump your bits of blueys
Down the road of life, that skirts the hills of chance,
Though you can’t sing songs of gladness,
Still there is no need for sadness —
Take the gifts the gods have given you,
And dance, dance, dance.

And now, as the mantle of night is about to envelop the Castlereagh, and the lamps of the town are beginning to twinkle one by one, the coach rumbles by the little park on the doorstep of the town, but in the fast-waning twilight I discern, in the shadows, the miniature fountain making a brave effort to bubble to importance, and my mind went back.

My soliloquy was disturbed by Bun’s interrogation: “Where are yer stoppin’?” as he pulled up at the Post Office.

Bun’s last journey has been taken, but the echoes of the “Whip o’ the West” will linger long.

Jack Moses, Beyond the City Gates: Australian Story & Verse, Sydney: Austral Publishing Co., 1923, pages 14-20 (the related picture is on p. 14)

Editor’s notes:
bluey = a blanket; also may refer to a swagman’s bundle (a “swag”, being a number of items rolled up in a blanket)

brolga = a species of Australian crane (Grus rubicunda), noted for their elaborate and ritualised mating dances

deoch-an’-doris = (Scottish) translates as “drink at the door”, a farewell drink, a final drink before departing (also spelt “doch an dorris”, “deoch an doruis”); by tradition, such a parting drink is imbibed whilst standing

Gladstone = William Ewart Gladstone (1809-1898), Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (1868-1874, 1880-1885, 1886, 1892-1894)

par. = an abbreviation of “paragraph” (may also refer to a level or standard, from the Latin “par” meaning “equal” or “equality”)

ringer = the fastest shearer in a shearing shed

selection = an area of land obtained by free-selection; land owned by a “selector”

Vernacular spelling in the original text:
pianny (piano)
yus (yes)

[Editor: Corrected “seat, mother,” to “seat, mother.” (full stop, not comma).]

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