[Editor: A short story. Published in The Barrier Miner, 15 May 1894.]
The old drover’s yarn.
“Thanks, boss, I don’t mind. It is cold this evening.”
He took my spirit flask and tilted it.
“Where’r yer going to camp? Makin’ for the homestid? Damned mean lot there — and beggin’ your pardon for the oath if ye’r not that way yerself. Billy’s on, and the pan, an’ there’s a good break: ye’re welcome, and more, to camp with us. Tea? Yes. Hold the pannikin, sir — by the handle, it’s hot else. Sugar’s in it.
“You’ll camp here? You’re welcome, sir. Bill, pile a bit more on to that break. . . . . Horse stand hobbles? Yes? Bill, hobble the neddy.”
Here was an experience — a bushman garrulous while sober.
“Not used to campin’ out, yer said! I’m 40 years at it. Yes, 58 now. P’r’aps I don’t look it, though God knows I oughter — it’s been hard enough, right from the jump. Hoom! Might ha’ been easier and better if my first’d been my last trip.
“Experience — excitn’ time? Rather. Want the yarn? Right!
“Old Higgle was with me. We was going up to bring down a mob of cattle from a new station, which was bein’ part abandoned — most every thing was bein’ part abandoned them times for gold. They couldn’t keep
enough men on to save the cattle from the blacks, which was bad. We got nearly up to the run when old Higgle took bad. They never ought ha’ sent old Higgle. He was groggy when we started, and last he couldn’t keep his saddle. He couldn’t go back for certain; and old Higgle says I mustn’t leave him to go on, as the blacks in them parts had a derry on him and would put a spear through him if they found him alone.
“What oughter I done, d’ye think? Old Higgle says I oughter take him on somehow. ‘Rig me up on a pack horse,’ he says. I did it ’swell as I could, and tied him on. It was slow travelling, very slow. ‘Never mind,’ old Higgle says, ‘we’ll get to Punch Downs to-morrer night.’ But old Higgle didn’t know everything. ‘Keep a sharp look-out’ for blacks,’ he kep’ sayin’. He was very oneasy.
“We wanted to make a creek that night, and was pushin’ on into the dusk. ‘Somebody’s about’, I says, for there was smoke comin’ from near the creek. ‘Ain’t blacks, is it?’ and I could see old Higgle was shakey.
“But all the blacks weren’t in the creek. Some of ’em, about a dozen men and lubras, were not 20 yards from us, crouched behind scrub. They had spotted old Higgle, and their spears were up.
“‘Shoot,’ Higgle says, ‘shoot like hell!’
“But all of a sudden they’d dropped their spears and was lookin’ the scaredest lot of beggars ever you see.
“Whiskey? Thank you, sir. Bill, sling on some more logs.
“I was saying that those niggers dropped their spears and looked scared. Then there was such yabbering as you never heard in your life. They were holding, old Higgle said, a sort of council of war. They yabbered, coming closer and closer, and last sent off a lubra to the creek. Back come a force of ’em, some running and all shouting, with a fine old fellow ahead. He came right on to us. I had got off my horse, and stood aside old Higgle, sayin’ they shouldn’t hurt him without prodding me first.
“The old fellow came on, grinning as he saw old Higgle helpless on the pack.
“‘My Gord,’ says Higgle, in a whisper; ‘I believe it’s old Rumatinga; I shot his son last time I was here, three years back. I’m as good as dead.’
“The old man came up without a sign of fear. He was without weapons. His disposition was evidently friendly, though he did shake his fist at old Higgle. When he came up to me — which I let him do without pertesting, which wouldn’t ha’ done much good — he put out his hand, lifted my top lip with his forefinger and thumb, dropped it, and started dancing like mad. The others jumped off when the old man stopped.
“‘ Holy Moses,’ I says to Higgle, is this their way usual?’
“The old fellow turned to listen. Then he pranced up, clapped me on the back, and pointed to old Higgle; I nodded my head.
“‘For Gord’s sake don’t leave me,’ Higgle says; ‘they’ll do for me sure. What the devil they’re up to, though,
I can’t make out. Never heard of ’em carryin’ on like this afore.’
“But the old fellow — chief, he turned out to be — took me in hand and led off back to the creek. Were they goin’ to kill me? I wondered. Yet they didn’t seem like killing: they were makin’ merry over some thin’. It was a satisfaction that Higgle had said they weren’t man-eaters. Higgle they brought on between two niggers with spears. Near the creek the chief stopped, and put a spear into my hand.
“‘Jumpin’ snakes,’ I says, ‘they’re goin’ to make me fight.’
“He pointed to old Higgle. I shook my head, and, with the spear, pointed to his grey beard and then stroked my own beardless chin. That was my handsome way of getting out of a fight.
“They brought us to the camp. They put everything they had before me. Old Higgle they dropped under a bush, with two lubras alongside him, a nullah nullah in the hands of each. The old man was waiting on me himself, the whole camp was at my service. Every time I went near Higgle they put a waddy or a spear in my hand and pointed at the sick man. But each time I shook my head.
“The rest and the excitement and the fear were wakin’ Higgle up. ‘What the blazes are they doin’?’ I asked him when I could get free a moment. But Higgle didn’t know. He only knew that they wanted me to kill him — he was my victim by rights, and was being kep’ for me. . . No thanks; no more just yet.
“The big fires were lit in the creek, and the row started again. The old chief took my hand, and led me through the capers. He touched my shirt and my pants — evidently he fancied they weren’t wanted at that game. It didn’t matter much, and I slung ’em off. You should ha’ seed them stare, though they’d never seen anything but naked bodies except a white stockman and drover or two. Sweat? My oath! I did caper and screech; and the old man was gettin’ mad with delight. Then they wanted to drag out old Higgle; but I was starting to feel that, somehow or other — why I didn’t know — I could take liberties. I showed that I didn’t approve of them dragging out old Higgle, and they dropped him. He limped back to his bush, and his lubras stood guard over him again.
“‘Spared for a while,’ he said, ‘but it can’t be for long. We must make a dash for it directly. The horses are
“When everybody’d got tired — some fell dead beat — they turned the dancin’ up, and started to camp.
“The old man showed me to a wurley — it was about the best of the lot — and he and an old crow came back a minute later with a gin — a very neat little piece it was too. She seemed to have been saved up for me. He took my hand and closed it on her wrist, she standing the time outside the hut, and he motioned me to drag her in, which I did. Yes, that’s 40 years back.
“‘That’s married,’ I thought to myself. ‘Married to a nigger.’
“I looked out and saw poor old Higgle still guarded.
“Very early in the morning I left my bride, without ceremony. Higgle, nearly frozen, was waitin’. I took up a spear, playing the game that he was my victim by right, and marched him out, the sleepy guards not pertesting. Higgle could ride now. The camp was out, but we was away.”
“‘Thank Gord,’ says Higgle, ‘the nearest squeak in my life.’
“In under two days, we made the Downs.
“‘Good trip?” says the boss. We told him.
“‘I know now,’ Moore said — Moore was the boss — ‘what Buglenose Billy meant. In his yabber he said that the Kapitchi tribe’s medicine man had told the chief that his son, who got killed in a bit of a row with whites three years back, was changed into a white man, and was hunting his murderer through the white man’s country. Some day he would come back with his murderer following him, and, having slain him — that’s Higgle — would make this a white man’s country.’
“The medicine man had been talkin’ to a native trooper about trackin’ murderers — and that’s how he mixed up his words.
“What did, the old man lift up my lip for? Oh, some of the tribes knock out a tooth. See, I’ve lost one here — lost it this 50 years — and that was how my black father recognised me for certain.
“Thank you. I will take a drop.”
The Barrier Miner (Broken Hill, NSW), Tuesday 15 May 1894, page 3
gin = an Aboriginal woman
lubra = an Aboriginal woman
neddy = slang term for a horse (e.g. to have “a flutter on the neddies” is to have a bet on a horse race)
nullah nullah = a wooden club used by Australian Aborigines
waddy = (also known as a “nulla nulla”) a wooden club used by Australian Aborigines
wurley = an Aboriginal shelter, made from tree branches, bark, and leaves (also spelt as “wurley” or “wurlie”); also known as a “humpy”
yabber = talk, especially to talk a lot (possibly derived from an Aboriginal word, “yabba”, meaning to talk or speak; or may be derived from the English word “jabber”, meaning to talk rapidly, especially in an excited and/or incomprehensible manner, hence “jibber-jabber”)
first’d (first had)
oughter (ought to)