We caught up with an old swagman crossing the plain, and tramped along with him till we came to good shade to have a smoke in. We had got yarning about men getting lost in the bush or going away and being reported dead.
‘Yes,’ said the old ‘whaler,’ as he dropped his swag in the shade, sat down on it, and felt for his smoking tackle, ‘there’s scarcely an old bushman alive — or dead, for the matter of that — who hasn’t been dead a few times in his life — or reported dead, which amounts to the same thing for awhile. In my time there was as many live men in the bush who was supposed to be dead as there was dead men who was supposed to be alive — though it’s the other way about now — what with so many jackaroos tramping about out back and getting lost in the dry country that they don’t know anything about, and dying within a few yards of water sometimes. But even now, whenever I hear that an old bush mate of mine is dead, I don’t fret about it or put a black band round my hat, because I know he’ll be pretty sure to turn up sometime, pretty bad with the booze, and want to borrow half-a-crown.
‘I’ve been dead a few times myself, and found out afterwards that my friends was so sorry about it, and that I was such a good sort of a chap, after all, when I was dead that — that I was sorry I didn’t stop dead. You see, I was one of them chaps that’s better treated by their friends and better thought of when — when they’re dead.
‘Ah, well! Never mind . . . . Talking of killing bushmen before their time reminds me of some cases I knew. They mostly happened among the western spurs of the ranges. There was a bullock-driver named Billy Nowlett. He had a small selection, where he kept his family, and used to carry from the railway terminus to the stations up-country. One time he went up with a load, and was not heard of for such a long time that his missis got mighty uneasy; and then she got a letter from a publican up Coonamble way to say that Billy was dead. Someone wrote, for the widow, to ask about the waggon and the bullocks, but the shanty-keeper wrote that Billy had drunk them before he died, and that he’d also to say that he’d drunk the money he got for the carrying; and the publican enclosed a five-pound-note for the widow — which was considered very kind of him.
‘Well, the widow struggled along and managed without her husband just the same as she had always struggled along and managed with him — a little better, perhaps. An old digger used to drop in of evenings and sit by the widow’s fire, and yarn, and sympathise, and smoke, and think; and just as he began to yarn a lot less, and smoke and think a lot more, Billy Nowlett himself turned up with a load of rations for a sheep station. He’d been down by the other road, and the letter he’d wrote to his missus had gone astray. Billy wasn’t surprised to hear that he was dead — he’d been killed before — but he was surprised about the five quid.
‘You see, it must have been another bullock-driver that died. There was an old shanty-keeper up Coonamble way, so Billy said, that used to always mistake him for another bullocky and mistake the other bullocky for him — couldn’t tell the one from the other no way — and he used to have bills against Billy that the other bullock-driver’d run up, and bills against the other that Billy’d run up, and generally got things mixed up in various ways, till Billy wished that, one of ’em was dead. And the funniest part of the business was that Billy wasn’t no more like the other man than chalk is like cheese. You’ll often drop across some colour-blind old codger that can’t tell the difference between two people that ain’t got a bit of likeness between ’em.
‘Then there was young Joe Swallow. He was found dead under a burned-down tree in Dead Man’s Gully — ‘dead past all recognition,’ they said — and he was buried there, and by-and-bye his ghost began to haunt the Gully: at least, all the school-kids seen it, and there was scarcely a grown-up person who didn’t know another person who’d seen the ghost — and the other person was always a sober chap that wouldn’t bother about telling a lie. But just as the ghost was beginning to settle down to work in the Gully, Joe himself turned up, and then the folks began to reckon that it was another man was killed there, and that the ghost belonged to the other man; and some of them began to recollect that they’d thought all along that the ghost wasn’t Joe’s ghost, — even when they thought that it was really Joe that was killed there.
‘Then, again, there was the case of Brummy Usen — Hughison I think they spelled it — the bushranger; he was shot by old Mr. S——, of E——, while trying to stick the old gentleman up. There’s something about it in a book called ‘Robbery Under Arms,’ though the names is all altered — and some other time I’ll tell you all about the inquest, and digging the body up for inquest and burying it again. This Brummy used to work for a publican in a sawmill that the publican had; and this publican and his daughter identified the body by a woman holding up a branch tattooed on the right arm. I’ll tell you all about that another time. This girl remembered how she used to watch this tattooed woman going up and down on Brummy’s arm when he was working in the saw-pit — going up and down and up and down, like this, while Brummy was working his end of the saw. So the bushranger was inquested and justifiable-homicided as Brummy Usen, and buried again in his dust and blood stains and monkey-jacket.
‘All the same it wasn’t him; for the real Brummy turned up later on; but he couldn’t make the people believe he wasn’t dead. They was mostly English country people from Kent and Yorkshire and those places; and the most self-opinionated and obstinate people that ever lived when they got a thing into their heads; and they’d got it into their heads that Brummy Usen was shot while trying to bail up old Mr. S——, and was dead and buried.
‘But the wife of the publican that had the saw-pit knew him; he went to her, and she recognised him at once; she’d got it into her head from the first that it wasn’t Brummy that was shot, and she stuck to it — she was just as self-opinionated as the neighbours, and many a barney she had with them about it. She would argue about it till the day she died, and then she said with her dying breath: ‘It wasn’t Brummy Usen.’ No more it was — he was a different kind of man; he hadn’t spunk enough to be a bushranger, and it was a better man that was buried for him; it was a different kind of woman, holding up a different kind of a branch, that was tattooed on Brummy’s arm. But, you see, Brummy’d always kept himself pretty much to himself, and no one knew him very well; and, besides, most of them were pretty drunk at the inquest — except the girl, and she was too scared to know what she was saying — they had to be so because the corpse was in such a bad state.
‘Well, Brummy hung round for a time, and tried to prove that he wasn’t an impostor, but no one wouldn’t believe him. He wanted to get some wages that was owing to him.
‘He tried the police, but they were just as obstinate as the rest; and, beside, they had their dignity to hold up. ‘If I ain’t Brummy,’ he’d say, ‘who are I?’ But they answered that he knew best. So he did.
‘At last he said that it didn’t matter much, anyroad; and so he went away — Lord knows where — to begin life again, I s’pose.’
The traveller smoked awhile reflectively; then he quietly rolled up his right sleeve and scratched his arm.
And on that arm we saw the tattooed figure of a woman, holding up a branch.
We tramped on by his side again towards the station — thinking very hard and not feeling very comfortable.
He must have been an awful old liar, now we come to think of it.
Henry Lawson, While the Billy Boils, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1896, pages 290-295
barney = argument, fight
bullocky = a driver of a bullock team
jackaroo = (also spelt “jackeroo”) in modern times, the term refers to an apprentice station hand (female station hands are known as “Jillaroos”); however, in The Old Bush Songs (1905), Banjo Paterson explains the term thus: “A “Jackaroo” is a young man who comes to a station to get experience. He occupies a position much like that of an apprentice on a ship, and has to work with the men, though supposed to be above them in social status. Hence these sneers at the Jackaroo” [see: Jimmy Sago, Jackaroo]
missis = wife (usually spelt “missus”)
missus = wife
out back = remote rural areas; sparsely-inhabited back country; often given as one word and capitalized, “Outback”
shanty = a pub, especially an unlicensed pub (may also refer to a small roughly-built cabin or hut)
swag = a swagman’s bundle, being a number of personal belongings rolled up in a blanket, and hung from the shoulder; also known as a “bluey”, “drum”, or “Matilda”
Vernacular spelling in the original text: