‘Nothin’ beats an early start,’ says he, ‘breakfast ‘ll be ready by the time you’ve saddled up and packed. Don’t you forget what I said last night. You’ll lose nothing by coming this way, it’s a few miles round, but a stockyard’s everything with cattle just off their beat.’
I was pretty sure not to forget to come by Wallanbah; the quarters were too good. I said, anyhow, we were not pushed for a day or two, and there was nothing much to do when we got back to Yugildah.
‘It’s a rough shop, ain’t it? and Roper’s a rum chap when his monkey’s up. I don’t go there now; we had a barney about some calves. He bested me then, but he’ll land himself in the logs about that same calf racket if he doesn’t look out, some day.’
‘Logs!’ I says. ‘There don’t seem to be many about this part. The trees are all too small. I should think the yard at Yugildah is strong enough to brand all the calves on the run in a month.’
He laughed. ‘You don’t tumble quite,’ he says. ‘It don’t matter, either, it’ll come by degrees. Tell your boy to saddle up and get his breakfast in the kitchen.’
‘Look here, Claythorpe,’ he says, after breakfast, ‘don’t you get collared on Poss Barker, she’s a fine girl, but you’ll do better than her if you mind yourself.’
‘Who’s Poss Barker?’ says I. ‘I began to think there were no women in these parts; and why shouldn’t I get “collared,” as you call it?’
‘Well, she’s George Barker’s gal at Boree, and a fine upstanding filly to look at as ever you came across. He’s had her eddicated; more’s the pity. I think he’d better have let her grow up like her mother, and then she’d ha’ been contented.’
‘Education never hurt anybody,’ says I, rather quick. ‘Why should it be worse for her than for you and me?’
‘Well, you’ll see when you get there,’ says the old chap, laughing to himself like. ‘Poor Possie (that’s short for Possum—she got the name when she was little, for being so soft-looking and bright about the eyes). I seen her turned out in a regular fine habit last time I was there mustering. She was riding old Cooramen, as won the Yanjee Town Plate two years ago. I was reg’lar stunned, but I say take care of her, that’s all.’ So we shook hands and away we started.
We got along first-rate with the Wallanbah stock-rider to show us the way. He was a smart young fellow, full of fun and tricks; he made his horse rear and kick, and played off a few jokes upon Talgai, which set me laughing. He could speak the blacks’ language, and though Talgai came from a different part, he could make him understand. They had a deal of jokes between themselves. He was native-born, and so was his father, he told me. What he didn’t know about horses and cattle wasn’t much, and you couldn’t put him wrong in the bush night or day, wet or dry.
He took the lead. Talgai and he understood one another, I could see, so I left em to fix it between themselves. Straight through scrub and forest, plain and creek, he went without seemingly studying anything. It was latish in the afternoon when we came in sight of the hut and yards.
‘There’s Back Boree,’ says he; ‘we’ll be pretty comfortable to-night.’
‘Why, it’s a big place,’ says I. ‘I thought it was only an out-station.’
‘I don’t know as it’s much more,’ says Jack, ‘but old Barker has a good-looking daughter, and a lot of kids. Possie’s a smart girl, and keeps a better house than many a white woman.’
‘Why, bless my heart! what colour is she?’ says I. ‘I’ve seen never a woman at all in this part, and now you say she isn’t white.’
‘Well, she’s betwixt and between. Poss is a half-caste, as the saying is. Her mother was a good-looking gin, and while she lived she kept old Barker pretty straight. He’s a tiger to drink when the fit’s on him.’
‘And this girl, Possie as you call her, she’s educated?’
‘You’ll see for yourself,’ says he, laughing. ‘I aint much in that line, but she’s been to school in Bathurst, and so’s the boy, young Johnny. There’s the old man himself, and he’ll know to a mile where them WG cattle runs.’
As we rode up to the biggest hut near the bank of the creek a tall heavy man walked towards us from the stock-yard, with a hide rope in his hand.
‘Hallo! Jack,’ he says to the stock-rider, ‘what’s up? We’re not going to muster this month yet. Are you going to send away fat cattle, or what is it?’
‘This is Mr. Claythorpe, from Yugildah,’ says Jack. ‘He’s come over with the black boy to fetch them WG cattle that got away over here last year.’
‘Oh, that’s it,’ says he. ‘You’re welcome Mr. Claythorpe. I thought Roper was going to leave ’em till they got fat, and send ’em down with our next lot. It’s a pity to move ’em now, they’re broke in like to the run. Come along in and stay the night; we can do nothing before the morning. I think the paddock’s all right, but you’d better hobble your horse, Jack.’
We took off the saddles and put them on the verandah, which was pretty wide; then we let the horses go in the paddock. Talgai went into the kitchen, and Jack and I followed Barker into a snug enough sitting-room. As we opened the door, a tall girl rose up from a sofa covered with a rug made of a soft fur, something like sealskin, and smiled at Jack Hall.
‘Possie, this is Mr. Claythorpe,’ says the old man; ‘he’s just up from Bandra, and he’s after them WG’s that came here last winter; you remember my telling yer, don’t yer?’
‘Somebody did at the muster,’ answered the girl in a careless way. ‘Didn’t Jem Atkins say there were no calves or else Roper wouldn’t leave them long. How do you do, Mr. Hall? So you haven’t quite forgot the road over here? What do you think of this part of the country, Mr. Claythorpe?’
All this time I’d been looking at the girl with both my eyes, and wondering how she came to be what she was, and so different from any woman I’d ever seen. To begin with she was tall—taller than most women, slight made, but ever so handsome. She had large dark eyes and splendid teeth. Her voice had a wonderful soft low tone in it, and when she laughed it was pleasant to hear—like a child’s. She spoke more like a lady I thought than a country girl. I was regularly thunder-struck.
‘It’s a very fine part of the country, I should say,’ I stammered out. ‘I never thought it was anything like this.’
‘It’s a fine place for grass,’ she said ‘in a wet season, but that’s all that’s good about it. I think it horribly dull, wet or dry; I’m glad to see even Jack Hall, if he only knew it. Mr. Roper’s is a lovely place, I believe.’
‘You’re laughing at us now, Miss Barker,’ says Jack rather sulky. ‘You oughtn’t to run down the country at any rate, or them that live in it.’
‘Because I was born here, I suppose, Mr. Jack Hall. I don’t see that at all. I’d have been born in Bathurst, or Sydney, or London if they’d asked me, but they didn’t; and now I’ll get you some tea; I’ve no doubt you’re hungry enough, and thirsty too.’
She went out into another room—walked out like a young duchess. There was a strong good-sized table, big enough to dine a dozen people. A shy young girl of fourteen, dark like herself, brought in a clean table-cloth and afterwards everything that made up a real good tea-dinner; corned beef, boiled eggs, good bread, and capital milk and butter, with a big tin teapot full of strong tea.
When it was all ready, she called us in and sat in the room while we went to work at the eatables.
She talked away to Jack Hall most of the time, but found a way to ask me some questions about Bandra and Mr. and Mrs. Buffray. She supposed it was a grand place, and she’d always heard Mrs. Buffray was such a nice woman.
‘So she was,’ I said. ‘Nobody could be kinder than she was to my sister Jane.’
‘So you have a sister, then,’ she said. ‘Did she come out with you?’
‘Yes, we had come out together.’
‘And did she like this country? Didn’t she hate it after England?’
‘No; both of us liked this country better than England—intended to live in it all our lives.’
‘How strange!’ she said; ‘I used to read such lovely things about England when I was at school. It made me cry when I thought I should never have a chance to see them all my life. Now I think this is a frightful country, with nothing to do but look after these tiresome sheep and cattle in good years, and to stand by and see them die in bad ones.’
‘Still it’s a good country to make money in,’ I said.
‘Perhaps it is. I don’t care much about money. You see, people have to wait so long before they get any. What’s the use of having money when you’re old, like Mr. Burdock? Why his hair and his beard are the colour of that’—and she pointed to a calico bag, where the flour had just been emptied out, beside a door.
‘People seem to be able to do without money sometimes here,’ I said. ‘That’s where you have the best of it. But we can’t get on without it in the old country.’
‘I don’t know how it is in towns,’ she said, ‘I’ve only been in Bathurst; but in the bush people only seem to think of two things—hard work and drinking. When they’re not doing one, they’re always at the other. I’d go away from the bush to-morrow if I could.’
‘And have no more riding, Miss Possie?’ said Jack Hall. ‘No more gallops on Cooramen! Remember the ride we had across the Wild Horse Plain last winter, and the way you passed that new chum on the chestnut—like a flash of lightning.’
‘That was pretty good fun, I dare say,’ she says, and her eyes lit and flashed as if a fire blazed up inside of ’em, while she raised her head like a hound listening for the cry of the leading dog of the pack. She looked a handsome girl then, and no mistake. ‘A good horse is worth having, and a real day’s mustering is something like, when you haven’t done anything or seen anybody for half a year, but it gets tiresome in the end.’
‘We all have to do a lot of things we don’t like,’ says I. ‘I never expected anything else before I came out here. Nobody has the right to go his own way in England—that is, unless he’s a rich man.’
‘Oh! I don’t pity you men at all,’ says she, with a toss of her head. ‘You can go away when you like; and if you save your money, and don’t spend it like fools, you’re able to do pretty well anything you have a mind to.’
‘There’s a many people seem to like this part middlin’ well,’ says Jack Hall; ‘they never go away anyhow. I’ve seen the same lot this years. They don’t want no change, and if they did they haven’t the money to pay for it.’
‘That’s where it is,’ says she; ‘they spend the money that might take them to some place worth seeing in bad grog at a dirty public-house. They haven’t as much sense as my poor mother’s people, that had the country before them. They never wanted any grog; they lived where God placed them; they hunted and fished from one side of their “tauri” to the other; and when their time came, died without fear or pain.’
‘And quite right too,’ says Jack. ‘Now I think Wallanbah’s a first-rate place; it’s my “tauri,” and I could live there for ever. Mr. Burdock’s going to put me up a real tidy slab hut with four rooms at Little Lake, and then I’ll be looking about—’
‘You’d better be looking about the paddock rails if you want to find your horses in the morning,’ said Miss Possie sharply, ‘and I’d advise you to start off at once.’
We were up at daylight. I ran up the horses; and it was just as well we’d hobbled Jack Hall’s horse, for he jumped the fence, hobbles and all, in the night, and made towards home. But Talgai ran his track and fetched him back; he hadn’t got more than two or three miles.
‘Ain’t you comin’ to lend us a hand Miss Possie?’ says Jack. ‘It’ll give us all our work to keep the cattle on the camp and cut out them outlaws by ourselves.’
‘Oh! I daresay!’ says she, ‘You’re a very harmless crowd—you Wallanbah and Yugil boys. I wouldn’t like to trust you with “clearskins” for all that. I’ve heard stories, I can tell you. Perhaps I’ll come to-morrow, and bring Kitty, but our horses are all in the bush.’
Jack brightened up at this. ‘Oh! I see. Well, I wouldn’t ask you to ride anything but Cooramen—unless you’d like to take a turn out of Warbreccan here—he’d carry you like a bird. We’ll take two days anyhow, and it’s a chance if that’ll finish it off.’
Barker had started on ahead with his boy Johnny and Talgai; he told Jack to come another way, and start all the cattle he saw, so that we’d meet on the main camp, where the most of our cattle would be likely to turn up. Miss Possie went into the house, when Jack started off at a hand gallop, and I after him.
We rode out to one of the run-boundaries, then over to a creek, through a wilga scrub afterwards, cracking our whips and starting big mobs of cattle every now and then, which all headed one way, and went off as hard as they could split. Breaking cattle in to a camp’s a fine thing. It’s the good old-fashioned way of mustering, and there’s nothing like it, to my fancy. By 12 o’clock or thereabouts we made the main camp, on a sandhill by a big water hole, and a fine jolly mob of cattle we found there.
Two thousand head if there was a beast! all in tiptop condition; cows, calves, bullocks, and steers, rolling fat, and fit for the butcher, the whole boiling. We had a smoke after we’d polished off the bit of bread and corned beef we’d brought with us, and then we rode in among the cattle.
‘Plenty feller WG here, I believe,’ says Talgai. ‘You bin look out that one yaller bullock; red feller that one, blue cow—all about—, that one fat too, my word!’
‘There’s the biggest lot of your mob here, Mr. Claythorpe,’ says Barker; ‘I miss a few leading cattle though. They’ll be out with the Pine Cowall mob. We’ll get them to-morrow, if we’ve luck. The best thing we can do now is to cut out all we’ve got here and get them home to the yard to-night. It’ll take all our time. If you don’t mind keeping the cattle on the camp, Jack and I can cut them out; Talgai and my Johnny ’ll mind them when they’re drafted.’
We started to work. It took some galloping; but the ground was open, and the horses were in good buckle; the WG cattle had been driven all the way from Queensland, and after a flirt or two settled down as they were cut out with some station cattle to begin with.
We got away with them an hour before dark, letting the station cattle draw off the camp, of course; and though it was starlight by the time we got to Boree, we yarded ’em all right, and fastened the gates with a hide rope to make safe. Possie had no end of a tea for us. She’d dressed herself too, and had a bit of red ribbon and a silver cross on, that made poor Jack ready to go down on his knees and worship her.