When we got to the station it was all plain sailing. Jane thought the missis the nicest lady she ever met, and she was very glad to see Jane, as they hadn’t had a housemaid for a month. So they got to be quite friendly like, and she told every one Jane was a treasure.
I had a pair of carriage horses and one or two other nags, besides three or four vehicles, to clean and see to. The stable was nearly as full as the Squire’s, and I soon showed the overseer that I meant work and could do it. Then they had races, and I won the big handicap at the township with Tornado, an old favourite horse of Mr. Buffray’s, and every one said it was very easy seen I’d learned to ride in good company. All the work came easy. Jane and I were as happy as the day was long. And after a bit the master came out from England.
After he’d been home a bit I’d found out that keeping on being a groom and coachman wasn’t the way people made their money in this country. I wanted to tackle something bigger, and more likely to grow into property. I had heard lots of stories from the youngsters about this man and that beginning with a few cattle or sheep, and now being worth thousands.
So I made up my mind to get away to one of the far-off stations as soon as I could, and as there was a lot of colts going to be sent to Yugildah—a ‘run’ on the plains down the river—I made bold to ask Mr. Buffray to let me take them there, and have the job of breaking them in. He wasn’t best pleased at first, but after a bit he said I was quite right to try and better myself, and he’d give me the driving and breaking.
So I said good-bye to Jane, who couldn’t help crying at the thought of my going so far, but said I was acting right; and off I started in a day or two, with a boy to help drive and a pack-horse, as pleased as Punch. When I got up to the ‘back station’ at Yugildah, as it was called, I was struck all of a heap with the look of the place. It happened to be a hottish day, though it was only early summer, and I thought it was worse than anything we’d had last year at Bandra.
There was something about the whole affair that seemed to me not only wild and outlandish, but dismal looking. I drove up my horses, put ’em in the stock-yard, and fastened up the slip-rails, and then we rode down to the huts. There were three of them altogether, two of ’em by the side of an ugly creek with steep banks, so straight down that the cook had a kind of arrangement—a bucket that slipped along a wire rope, and was drawn up by a windlass—to get water with.
There was no garden, no stable—nothing but a tumble-down two-railed horse paddock. The only good improvement was a big cattle yard—strong enough for wild elephants. Where the huts were had once been covered with trees, but most of them had been cut down, and only their stumps left. Plains all round and everywhere, like the sea.
I’d had my dinner, and was sitting on a bench outside the hut feeling a bit better, when I saw two men and a black boy riding across the plain. ‘Here comes Mr. Roper,’ said Jack, the cook. ‘They’ve been at Mildool muster.’ ‘Which is him?’ says I. ‘The one in the front riding the big bay horse. That’s Quondong—the best hack and stock-horse in these parts. He can walk as fast as some horses can trot, cut out any beast that ever stood on a camp, and canter round a cheese plate.’ This was a bit of a blow, but when I saw him come tearing along with his head up—doing at square walk, and no amble, a good five miles an hour—I found they’d some smart horses as well as men in these parts.
The overseer, when he came close, turned out to be a tall, hard-faced, dried-up looking man, that looked as if living in that hot country had shrivelled all the sap out of him. He was a native-born Australian, and had come up as a boy from Penrith, where he was reared. He’d lived for twenty years or more on this very place. He had pretty near lost his eyesight with the sandy blight, which made him put his head forward when he spoke, as if he took you for some one else, or was looking for what he couldn’t find. Anyway he was given in to be one of the best bushmen in that part of the country: the men said he could find his way over it blind-fold, or the darkest night that ever was. Roper rode easy and light in his saddle, though he was a tall man; but there was that sort of look about him as he sat there that I’ve seen with many a man in this country, as if he’d been born on a horse, and was ten times as much at home in a saddle as on a chair or his own legs.
He rides up to the door of the hut and dismounts, pulls off his saddle and bridle, and lets his horse go before he says a word. Then he looks at me sharp, pushing his head forward and blinking his eyes, and says, ‘You’re the young chap the boss sent out from the old country. I heard you was coming up with them horses. You’ve got a letter or something, I suppose, for me.’ I handed him the letter. ‘Yes, yes!’ he says, after making believe to read it all careful. ‘Your name Claythorpe—Jesse Claythorpe! I thought that was a woman’s name. Never heard of a man being called so.’
‘Ever hear of any one called David, the son of Jesse, in the Old Testament?’ says I, rather hasty like.
‘Can’t say as I remember,’ says he. ‘We haven’t had a Bible in this place this years. Had to send a policeman twenty miles for one the last inquest the coroner held here. So his father’s name was Jesse, was it! Well I’ll take your word for it, young man. And now we’ll go down to the yard and count out the horses. They can stay in the paddock till sundown. I’ll yard and tail ’em after tomorrow—till they get used to the run a bit. They’d make straight back for Bandra if we were to let ’em go now. You’re to begin breaking ’em in, the boss says.’
‘How am I to do that without a stable?’ says I.
‘Haven’t you got a first-rate yard?’ says he, ‘and a paddock—what more d’ye want? a bloomin’ circus, eh? Many a good colt I’ve broken without so much as a paddock. Turned ’em out every night, and tied ’em up with a green-hide rope to a tree, when they wanted lunging. Old Quondong was broke that way, and where’s there a hack like him on the river?’
‘That’s not my style,’ says I. ‘It’s a handy way to kill a good young ’un or two as would pay for a middlin’ stable. But I suppose I must do the best I can. I didn’t come all this way to grumble.’
‘That’s the way to look at it,’ says he, growing a bit civiller. ‘You’ll get colonised after a bit, like all the rest of us.’
‘I daresay,’ says I, passing it off, though I didn’t mean it all the same. ‘Is there a lad in the place I can have to help me catch the horses and tackle them. The young chap that came with me is going back, and it’s awkward work by oneself.’
‘There’s a darkie, a chap that was dropped sick by the drover of the last mob of cattle that passed through from Queensland. He’s a sulky cove, but he can ride. Talgai! come here, you black sweep. Look alive or I’ll freshen you up with my stock-whip.’
The boy walked over, not much quicker for Roper’s bullying. He was heavy made and awkward for a black fellow, but he looked us straight in the face, and didn’t seem cowed. He’d a good eye in his head, too. I thought he was about eighteen from the hair on his face, but I believe now he was younger.
‘There,’ says Roper, ‘here he is, and I’ll sell him to you out and out. I gave Benson £5 for the chance of him. He’s worth more, but you can have him for the same money. I knew he couldn’t be much good, or he’d never have left him behind, though he looked more dead than alive. I can’t knock anything out of him. I’d a dashed-fine mind to shoot him one day. Still he might suit you.’
‘I’ll take him. We’ll get on without the gun,’ says I.
‘I don’t know about that, but lay the whip into him well if you’ll take my tip. I never saw a black fellow yet that would work without it. You hear—you bull-pup—Jesse, here, knock devil out of you ’spose you no burra burri like’t white fellow.’
The boy looked at me like a pointer pup that thinks the keeper’s whip’s coming; but I laughed and said, ‘Now you blackfellow you belongy me, allysame hut-keeper. Come along and boilem kettle ’longa supper.’
I knew that I was to have a hut to myself. It was farther along the creek. Not a very grand one, but there were two rooms in it, and a pretty good chimney, with a bed and slab table. I intended to make it snug. I liked the notion of being by myself, and not in the men’s hut, or with the overseer. There was a skillion behind, which could be filled up with a bunk for Talgai. He could look after things when I was out. The first colt to be broke in was Talgai himself. I could see he hadn’t been well handled. He’d been hammered and sworn at and bullied by the men he’d been with, and as he was a game sort of pup, with more ‘bull’ in him than blacks mostly have, it made him sulky, and put vice into his head. So I set to work to fetch him round a bit. He was fond of smoking—nearly all blacks are, and why shouldn’t they? They’ve a deal of time on their hands when you come to think of it, and if it makes the hours pass pleasant, when they can’t read or haven’t their own people to talk to, why not? It doesn’t shorten their lives that I’ve ever seen; and if it did, why—no great matter either. So I gave him a fig of tobacco to start with. I’d learned to smoke regular myself by this time, and when evening came set him to boil the kettle while I fished out the beef and bread, and pannikins, and tea and sugar that the cook had put in a kind of rough cupboard for me. The overseer told him. After a bit the tea was made, and Talgai took his bread and beef, and sat on a log outside. I took my meal in the hut, but we’d both the same kind of tucker. I was just thinking the place was awful rough, when all of a sudden it came into my heart about how many times Jane and I had hardly a bit of bread to put in our mouths in the old country, much less meat; and the weather that cold and dismal it was enough to starve us to death. Then I thought of the plentifulness of everything, and the good wages here. If there was a little roughing, we were both young, and could stand it. Not that Jane had any; she had a regular lady’s life of it, as she often said. ‘It would be a cowardly thing to grumble now, and ungrateful to boot,’ I said almost out loud. ‘Besides I’m going to be a man or a mouse one of these days yet.’
Just then Talgai, who had been lighting his pipe—a very black clay—begins all of a sudden. ‘What name belongin’ to you? That one Roper always yabber like’t swearum.’
‘My name is Jesse,’ says I; ‘Jesse Claythorpe.’
‘Jess-ee, Jess-ee,’ he says pretty slow. ‘Me Minalee. That one boss belongin’ to me at Bundaberg win two fellow race alonga big mare Jess-see. Baal whitefellow name that one!’
I saw I couldn’t make him understand that there was a man’s name and a woman’s with the same sound. He was puzzled, and gave it up.
‘Me callum you mahmee (master) that best fella,’ he said, so we settled it at that.
I told him to bring his blankets into the skillion and settle up his bunk, and most of next day I spent in making the hut clean and comfortable, putting up pegs for saddles and bridles, and making everything ship-shape. I never could abear muddling and untidy ways, and I can’t now, for the life of me. There’s no groom worth his salt that isn’t neat in his ways, nor no stable fit to call one where the boys ain’t brought up to put everything in its place, and be as regular as clockwork. The very horses like it, and thrive as well again for knowing the hour and minute they’ll get their food and exercise, day after day.
When we’d finished, and it took us to dark, the hut looked quite different. I’d made Talgai sweep all the front and rake up the chips, and burn them and the rubbish, and with a bit of a clear wood fire burning in the evening I sat down on one end of the stool, and thought myself quite grand. I got out my pen and ink, and wrote a letter to Jane, for I knew she’d be uneasy till she heard how I was getting on.
Talgai sat outside for more than an hour, smoking, over the fire he’d made of the rubbish heap, when all of a sudden he says.
‘Mahmee; You buy me along of that one Roper?’
‘No good that one, Talgai,’ I said.
‘Big one whitefellow put me alonga chokee; that one Benson sell me alonga Roper!’ he went on quite seriously, ‘big one sore longa cobra; big one me sick. Mine think it go along a ground, and jump up white fella. Me hear’um Benson, say, “I’ll take five pounds.” That one Roper yabber all right, “me gibit, five note and chance it.”’
‘Then that one Benson laugh, and ride away after cattle. Suppose black boy die, he no care. Long time me very bad, like’t here (then he put his hand on his chest and head), all right now. That one Roper yabber me got pleuro, you think um pleuro?’ And he looked at me quite pitiful like.
‘Not a bit of it,’ says I. ‘You’re all right now. You got big one cold, like that one colt got strangles; all right now, by and by you grow up big fellow.’
His eyes fairly brightened up; the poor fellow thought he was going to die, and that made him so dozy and stupid like. He’d seen many a one of his countrymen die the same way. They get wet travelling with stock, and take no care of themselves, catch a heavy cold, it settles on the chest, and soon makes an end of them.
I could see he’d taken a fancy to me now, and I knew if so be I got regularly master of him he’d be worth two white boys. He’d do what I told him about the horses, and not be too conceited to learn, which is everything with a youngster.
Next day we had breakfast early, ran the horses up out of the paddock into the yard, and made a beginning. There were some small yards, and a ‘crush,’ as they call it, for branding cattle. I drafted off four of the colts and a couple of quiet horses. I wouldn’t let Talgai rope them, as he wanted to—he was very smart at that; but we managed with a good deal of patience and humbugging to halter two, and get the tackle on them. Then we let them walk about the yard and exercise themselves, champing the bit, and all that. We caught them again at dinner time, and stroked them over, trying to make them know we weren’t going to hurt them. My line in breaking horses is to be as quiet and as kind as you can with them from the first, never to be sudden or harsh with them, or to lose patience. They’re only babies after all; of course like with children you must be firm, and show you’re not frightened of ’em. And there are bad-tempered ones among all lots of horses, it’s bred in ’em—same as in men and women. You must take them easy too, bullying makes ’em worse. They’ll never be any chop perhaps, but if kindness won’t fetch ’em nothing will, take my tip for that, and I’ve tried both ways. At night we turned ’em into the paddock, and pretty stiff and sore they must have felt, poor things. Next day we caught two more, I went steadily on by degrees with the whole lot. Talgai was a first-class rough-rider, and could sit anything.
He was inclined to be hard on them, like all lads, black or white—but when he saw I wouldn’t have it, he left it off, and did what I told him.
When the mob was finished the overseer said they were the best broken-in lot of colts he’d ever seen in that part of the country. He praised me up in his rough way, and spoke so kind to Talgai that the poor chap would have blushed if he’d a skin that showed it.
I’d worked pretty hard at the horses, and thought I was due for a change. So I asked Roper if there wasn’t anything about the cattle that I could manage. I didn’t want to be idle, and the horses would stay as they were for a while.
‘There’s some cattle to be fetched from one of the back runs on Murdering Creek—Boree they call it,’ he said. ‘About two hundred. They went back there last winter. There’s a man out there that’ll help you part of the way in. There’s no road, and a point of scrub to get through. I don’t know how you’ll make out the line. Oh! I forgot; Talgai can go with you. He was there once, so of course he knows the road again. These niggers never forget that.’
This was the very thing I wanted. I began to think breaking-in horses was very well in its way, but that I’d never make my fortune out of that line of business, besides the chance of getting my leg broke, or neck, indeed. With young horses the best man may come on an accident, and more than one young fellow I’ve known finished up that could ride anything, and by no fault of his own either. So you young fellows don’t be too proud of your riding. You might be crippled or killed outright any day.
So we started away next day as jolly as sandboys. Stock-whips we had too. Talgai had managed to smuggle an old gun, which he put on the pack horse. ‘Me seeum wild duck, big fellow wild turkey, I believe,’ he said, ‘longa Old Man Plain.’ So I let him bring it.
We started at sunrise, and when we got outside of the station track, Talgai made as straight as a line for the north-west, and kept to one point of the compass, I could see, without even a twist or a turn. I’ve seen a black boy do that in country where he’d never been before, when they only told him the direction, and he stuck to it after dark too, and brought his party straight to the station they were going to. They’re wonderful people that way—beat us whites hollow. But sometimes they get frightened and lose their heads. Then it’s all up with them, and they’re useless.
We camped about 12 o’clock by a creek, where we tethered one horse and let the others go in hobbles. It was a pretty place though wild and solitary; but when the tea boiled I thought the beef and damper tasted better than anything I’d ever eaten. By and by we tackled up again and rode on till sundown.
Then we came to an out-station of one of the neighbours, a miserable old hut it was, with only a stockman and a hut-keeper. They were both rough, dirty-looking fellows, and I’d far rather have camped under a tree, but there was a paddock for the horses, and that made a difference. However, I told Talgai we wouldn’t do it coming back.
It’s a curious thing how little some of the old-fashioned squatters ever did in the way of improvements. There was a grand run, and a fine herd of cattle. The owners—old Sydney-side people—lived in town. They’d had it thirty or forty years, and the slab hut, a stockyard, and paddock were all the buildings they’d ever put up, though they must have taken thousands of pounds off it.
I heard a story about these two men, the stockman and hut-keeper that lived there, that wasn’t bad in its way. A surveyor happened to call at the place, and both of them were out—the stockman after cattle, and the hut-keeper over at the next station. He expected to get something to eat, and to be shown the way. He didn’t manage either, as the place was so filthy dirty that he couldn’t touch anything. He happened to know their names, and, being a bit of a card, he wrote on the door with a piece of chalk—
“Dick and Bob, of Yalco-green,|
Are the dirtiest pair that ever were seen.”
‘Dirty Dick,’ as he was called, came home an hour or so afterwards, and saw by the horse tracks that a white man had been to the hut. He also saw the writing on the door. Now at this time he was expecting the master on one of his half-yearly visits. He couldn’t read, neither could Bob. He began to think, indeed to be fully sure, that his master had come, and gone away again for a day or two to a neighbouring station, and that the strange letters on the door were about his making a muster and getting all the herd ‘on camp’ without loss of time. Such an order meant sending word round to all the neighbours, as of course a single pair, even if Bob left the hut to itself and went with them, could not do much by themselves with two thousand head of cattle.
After thinking it over for nearly an hour, it struck him that the only way to get at the sense of this writing was to carry it bodily to the nearest home station, where there would be sure to be some one who could read and write.
Dick was a strong wiry fellow, though soap and water wasn’t much in his line, so he prises the door off its hinges,—they were only wooden (there was mighty little iron about a station in those days)—bark and green hide, slabs let into grooves above and below, did the most of it,—claps it on to his back and starts off at a dog trot to do the twelve miles to the next station. A hardwood slab door weighs a goodish deal, as any one may find out that has to hump it a hundred yards. However, Dick was pretty tough, and as fit as regular exercise and beef and damper could make him. So he did the twelve miles in three hours or thereabouts, and trots in with his door on his back up to the men’s hut of Mr. Lowe’s home station.
When the cook saw him take the door off his back, and put it up against the kitchen, while he wiped his forehead with a big yellow silk handkerchief (the sort they used to work up for crackers in those days), he thought Dick had gone out of his mind, and started to run over to the house. But Dick muzzled him, and gave him a volley or two, just to show he was sensible like.
‘What blamed foolishness are you up to? Is the cove at home?’
‘He’s over at the house, but what do yer mean by roofin’ over yer back with twenty-feet of hardwood like that? Are ye afraid of hailstorms or is it too hot for yer, or what is it? Have ye had a keg up on the quiet?’
‘You tell Mr. Lowe that Yalco-green Dick wants to see him, and don’t stand chattering and opening yer head like a laughing jackass. He’ll know when he sees me. I’m not off my chump, no more than you are, and I haven’t smelt spirits since last Christmas.’
‘And then you went in a docker, eh, Dick? But here’s the master coming, and you can pitch your own yarn to him.’
‘Well, Dick,’ said Mr. Lowe—a good-natured gentleman he was, ‘cattle all right? Not branded any of my calves lately? I suppose you are out of tea and sugar. I can lend you some till the drays come up.’
“Taint nothing o’ that sort, Mr. Lowe,’ says Dick, grinning. ‘As to the calves, I’m a few short myself, as I think that half-caste chap of yours must have “duffed.” But I want you to read this here writin’, if you’ll be good enough. Ye see I’m expectin’ the master, and I don’t know the day he’ll be here.’ As he says this he lifts the door up, and holds it before Mr. Lowe.
‘Is it anything about the master, sir, or when the cattle’s to be drafted? I’m short of horses too, now Whitefoot’s gone lame.’
Mr. Lowe cast his eye over the bit of poetry, and all but burst out laughing in Dick’s anxious face. He stopped himself however.
‘It isn’t anything about the cattle, Dick,’ he says, ‘I am very sorry you have had the long walk over for nothing.’
‘Walk be dashed!’ says Dick; ‘a few miles is neither here nor there. I’m just as well pleased it ain’t a general muster. Who wrote it, and wot does he say?’
It was Mr. Langley, the surveyor, and this is what he wrote, and the whole female population (Mr. Lowe was a married man) had gathered up to hear the fun. Then Mr. Lowe read it out—
‘Dick and Bob, of Yalco-green,|
Are the dirtiest pair that ever were seen.’
‘Well, I’m blowed!’ says Dick, ‘and to think of my carrying the bloomin’ thing every step of the way here for that. It’s twelve mile, sir, every inch of it. I’m jiggered if I carry it back again though, if the blessed hut never has a door again. There’ll be a dray coming over some day.’
‘And I’ll see that it goes back safe,’ said Mr. Lowe, after every one had done laughing. ‘It’s an interesting document though. If I could I would have a photo taken of it.’