After going about three miles, Talgai pointed to a dark object at the edge of the plain; what it was I could not make out. ‘That one Mahmee bin fall out alonga buggy I believe,’ says he.
When we got nearer to one another, a stout-built elderly man comes towards us, not very fast, for he was lame, but he got on as well as he could. ‘That one, Mr. Burdock, big one Mahmee—live along Wallanbah.’
When he came up, Mr. Burdock very soon explained all about himself and the horse too.
‘By—’ he said, ‘young man, you’ve done me a good turn to-day. I don’t know who you are, but I’ll do you another if ever I get the chance. Blast that infernal horse! A goanna started him, and he set to and kicked the front of the buggy in—pretty near broke my leg and chucked me out over a yarran stump. I’m blessed if I could have walked home, and what I’d have done if you hadn’t stopped him I don’t know. Who do you belong to, Billy?’
‘Me, Talgai—longa Yugildah.’
‘By George! I remember you now. You’re Benson’s boy that was took sick when the cattle passed. Thought you was dead long ago. Tell ye what, both on ye, come back to Wallanbah to-night and go on in the morning. What’s your name, young man? I suppose you’re one of Buffray’s mob?’
‘My name’s Claythorpe; came from Bandra with horses; I’m going over to Back Boree for some cattle that got away from Yugildah last winter.’
‘I know, I know,’ he says. ‘There’s no calves among ’em or Roper ’d had ’em back months ago. Smart cove, he is, Master Jim Roper. Well, you come home with me, and I’ll send my stockman, Jack Hall, with you, and he shall give you a hand part of the way back. What d’ye say?’
It wasn’t far out of our way, and we was not pushed for time. His man would be a great help, for I didn’t know the country, of course. I said yes, so we held the horse while he got in, and then we all started at a rattling pace across the plain. His horse had got some of the fight knocked out of him, and didn’t want to kick any more. We got on a track after a bit, and made Wallanbah, which was a big comfortable-looking head station, before dark.
‘You go alonga men’s hut, Talgai, first time, yarraman yan likeit big one paddock,’ says Mr. Burdock, giving the buggy to a couple of young fellows that ran out from the stables, ‘and you come into the house, Claythorpe, so as you and me can have a yarn comfortable.’
I followed him into the house, which was a large, rambling, shingled cottage, built of pine let into grooved uprights, plastered and lined inside. ‘Here’s a bedroom,’ he says; ‘put your things in there, and come into the parlour. My wife and daughters are all away in Sydney; and now I think a glass of brandy and water won’t hurt us after all that smash and run-away business. I want something, I know.’
I wouldn’t take any. He helped himself to a ‘third mate’s glass,’ and took a good pull. ‘You don’t touch, I see. Well, this is a free country. Every man does what he likes best in my house; and I don’t say you’re wrong, mind you. If I was to tell you of all the men I’ve seen go to the bad since I’ve been on Wallanbah—good fellows too—it would frighten you. I take it because I like it, and I can pull up when I’ve had enough. But many a man can’t. That’s why I don’t care to see a youngster take to it like mother’s milk. It’s a bad sign. Here’s the tea a-comin’ in; that’ll be more in your line. Take a look at them oranges in the garden (I’ve got a pump as brings the water up from the creek), and by that time we’ll have something before us.’
A clean-looking old woman brought in tea. After a couple of days’ camping out I had something like an appetite for it. Hot mutton chops, potatoes, and cabbage with lettuce and cress afterwards, and first-rate butter. It was prime. Milk and butter were never seen at Yugildah; no vegetables neither, not so much as a potato. They wouldn’t be bothered to milk a cow; lived like blackfellows, as the saying is.
After tea we sat outside on the verandah, and had a smoke. It was fine and cool, and the garden put me in mind of the pleasant times at Bandra. Mr. Burdock took another glass of brandy and water. He talked quite free and pleasant, and got me to tell him how I came out to Australia. ‘So that was it,’ he says, after I’d done. ‘You did the right thing in coming out here, you may take your oath of that. I’m a different man today from what I’d ha’ been if I’d stopped in the blessed Old Country, that’s so chock full of chaps like you and me that one’s taking the bread out of the other’s mouth, and jolly nigh starved at that. I made the place too hot to hold me, for I was rather rombustious as a youngster, and might have been sent out at the Queen’s expense, only I had just sense enough to run away to sea, where I had the life and soul pretty near licked out of me before we got into Sydney Harbour. Then I had that good judgment that I ran away again, stowed myself away in a crib in the Rocks, and then made up into the bush, the best day’s work ever I did—that was.’
Here the old chap took a pull at his brandy and water, filled his pipe again, and settled down steady like for a tough yarn.
‘I asked for work at the first station I came to, and though I was strange to it, I wired in with a will and took things as they came. The grub was A1 after ship biscuit and junk, and a lad that had had the third mate after him with a rope’s end half his time, night and day, wasn’t likely to turn up his nose at shore work. As a west country chap we had used to say, “I’ve allays been used to slaving, and I do’ant expect now’t else.” Sailors are the best men at any kind of bush work. They’re able to turn their hands to anything, and they’ve been broke in to obey orders, and no two ways about it. I’ve had soldiers as wasn’t bad, but in a general way they’re no chop. I saved my money and lived close for years. After a bit, when I had knocked about over one shearing, I made as good a “rouse-about” as here and there one. I earned my pound a week easy, and took to the bush for good and all. I’d a decentish headpiece, too, though if I’d stayed in England I shouldn’t have had much of a show for using it. I “knocked down” my money like the rest for a year or two, till I began to cipher up a bit whether I couldn’t save my wages and start a bit of a station on my own hook.’
‘That takes money,’ I said.
‘Not so much in them days, and it’s to be done now without such a lot of cash, if a man only goes about it the right way. Anyhow, I saw men doing a stroke with cattle and sheep of their own that I knew hadn’t hardly a five pound note to start with. So I reckoned I’d have a try myself when I could muster the cash.’
‘But that’s the hard part of it,’ says I, listening with all my might to see what I could pick up, for I saw it was as good a chance as I should have to find out how to climb fortune’s ladder. Old Mr. Burdock finished his second tumbler, and began to mix a third. It didn’t seem to have no effect on him. It doesn’t on some men, here and there. Then he lit his pipe and went on again.
‘Somehow it came into my head that shepherds seemed to save more money than any other of the station hands. They had their cheques at the end of the year, and one or two as I knew had money in the bank. Most of ’em blued theirs in the first public-house they met. But I wasn’t going for that foolishness no longer.’
‘So the first chance I got I took a flock of sheep at Buckajinga, because I knew I should live at an out-station, with an old card they called Sails, that I’d cottoned to somehow. He’d been a man-o’-warsman as had voyaged all round the world, and was as good as a book to talk to. He’d a fancy for me because I’d been at sea, so I thought we’d get on well together.’
‘How long were you shepherding, then?’ says I.
‘Two year,’ says the old chap, ‘two mortal long twelve months. One thing I wanted to get hold of, that was the lay of the country. Old Sails, as they called him, he’d been sail-maker in the Dido, knew every run from here to the Queensland border, and would pitch about them by the hour. He’d a good notion of the points of the compass and the distance between one run and another. He was book-learned pretty fair, and made me read the paper we took in out loud to him. It was a weekly one, and as we were allowed to kill our own sheep once a fortnight, we had plenty of fat to make candles. The sheep had any amount of feed, and gave no trouble to speak of. It wasn’t a bad sort of life, I can tell you.’
‘I daresay not,’ I says, ‘but wasn’t it very lonely and dull?’
‘Not so bad as you’d think. I got used to it after a month or two, though we never saw a soul but the ration-carrier and the overseer, perhaps once in three months. The seasons was better long ago—more grass and water everywhere—not so many sheep either; that made a deal of difference.’
‘One day the old man says to me, “Look here, Sam,” says he, “I see by this paper that Buckajo is to be sold. The cove’s outrun the constable, and Richard Jones and Co. are a going to sell him up. Now everything’s desperate low, and cash is that scarce they’re glad to take it for anything. It’s my belief that they’d sell a flock of ewes for half-a-crown or three shillings a head, and give in this out-station, Buckajinga. I’ve got betwixt two and three hundred in the bank, and you’ve about seventy or eighty. What do you say to making a dart for it?”
‘And one day, to make a long story short, I bought twelve hundred ewes for three-and-sixpence a head, cash down, and the outstation Buckajinga given in. Of course, it was dirt cheap, but squatters, and merchants too, was short of cash in those days, and my money was there, without expense or commission. That’s where it was. All the pots and buckets and hut and hurdles were given in too. That saved a few pounds.’
‘Then you got a station and a flock of breeding ewes,’ I said, ‘and everything that you wanted, all for two hundred and ten pounds. That seems cheap enough.’
‘It was cheap, no two ways about that, and it was the start of a pretty big pile; still it was the market price. If they’d driven the sheep to Sydney, they mightn’t have fetched half-a-crown. There’s no chances like that now. But money’s to be made yet, for all that.’
‘I’d like to know the way,’ says I. ‘I’ve saved every penny I’ve earned since I came out, except what’s gone in clothes and tobacco, but I didn’t see any way of trading with it.’
‘Saved your money, have you?’ says the old chap, looking at me as if he’d see through me and half way into the wall on the other side. ‘Well, you’re one of the right sort. Don’t you never go for to drink no grog, neither. It’s a bad line for a young feller; once you start on it, ten to one you can’t pull up again; I’m turned seventy, and I know what I can stand and what I can’t, so I take my grog free and cheerful, if I’ve a friend with me. But I’ve seen many a fine young chap, as was strong and plucky, and well eddicated, and belonged to a tip-top family to boot, go down to the lowest through drink; yes, so that he’d beg a drink or a shilling from a travelling tinker. And now it’s a fair thing for bed. I’ll send Jack with you tomorrow, and you come back this way and stop a night. We’ll have another yarn, and I might lay you on to something.’
We shook hands, and Mr. Burdock walked off to bed, steady enough, though he’d had three or four stiffish glasses of grog. But he could stand a lot. I’ve seen a few men like that; but for one that holds up, makes money, and keeps his health, there’s a hundred goes down.