Now, here was this girl playing better than any one I’d ever heard in a music hall or in a theatre, and singing—by George! Jack and I thought—like an angel. He sat with his mouth open and stared at her as if she was a new creature of some sort. He was ready to follow her about like a dog. Of course, like women do mostly, whatever colour they are, she didn’t care a dump for him—ordered him about, and would hardly say a civil word to him. That’s the way all the world over.
We’d had a deal of fun and nonsense that night. Possie said they’d got in the horses, and she was going to give us a hand on Cooramen next day. I was very glad of it. Then we went to bed.
‘My word,’ says Jack next morning, ‘you’ll see some riding as you may call riding to-day, when the cutting out begins; Cooramen was the best stock-horse on the Macquarie before they found out he was fast enough to win the Wilcannia Maiden Plate; the way he can walk round a bullock is something to look at.’
‘All the credit belongs to the horse, Mr. Hall,’ says she, mischievous like. ‘The girl that steers him has nothing to do with it, I suppose?’
‘You know better than that,’ says poor Jack, ‘but the old horse is a ripper and no mistake. You don’t want me to blow about your ridin’, I suppose. That’ll tell for itself when we get to the camp. But there’s no pleasin’ you. The last time I told that young fellow from Coranga as you’d forgot more about riding than he ever learnt, you said it looked as if you couldn’t do anything else.’
‘Girls are hard to please sometimes, and that’s the truth, Jack,’ she says, and smiled at him in a way that nearly made him drop his knife and fork (it was at breakfast) to look at her. ‘If you knew as much about them as you do about horses you’d be aware of the fact. But I’m going to be very good-tempered to-day and enjoy myself, so you’ve to look pleasant, and see that my saddle’s well girthed and won’t slip round.’
Jack was quite pacified by this, and came up with her horse directly after breakfast. Cooramen, as they called him, was a beauty without paint, sure enough. I wondered how they got such a horse in the family. However, it turned out that old George had backed him one day for a selling race at a bush meeting, and when he was put to auction, bid up for him like a man, and bought him over his owner’s head. He knew the horse before, and he was that fond of Possie as he’d have done any mortal thing to please her, so he didn’t grudge paying a bit high. Besides, what he’d won on him made him come cheaper, and there was an off chance as he’d pull off another race or two on the quiet before his legs went. He was a dark brown horse, about fifteen hands, but when he held up his head he looked half a hand higher. He had a drop of Arab blood in him, Jack said. They used to get ’em down from India in the old days. Anyhow, he was a regular plum, such as you see every now and then in all the colonies. Fast—game—wiry—with legs and feet like iron; up to weight, and good across country. You can’t put ’em wrong with fair play. He’s a lucky man that gets one or two of them in his lifetime, and my advice is always to stick to ’em, and never sell ’em while you’ve a shirt to your back.
Well, away we went. Possie had the old horse led up to the edge of the verandah and swung herself into the saddle as light as a bird. She had a nice side-saddle, and a regular stunning cloth habit, made by a tailor. It showed off her figure—one of the grandest ever a woman had. She had wonderful small hands—like a child’s they were, and feet to match. When she walked she was that springy and graceful like she put me in mind of the tame doe there used to be in the Squire’s park at Applegate. Her eyes were so dark and soft (when she liked) that they made her more and more like some shy, light-stepping wild creature, that seemed when she was startled as if she could jump over a house or fly into a tree. Sometimes, when Possie was walking up and down in a bit of a tantrum like, she put me more in mind of the tigress I saw in a cage at the Zoo, in London. But that was long after, and don’t come into this part of my story.
Well, away we went, the whole boiling of us, for Back Boree that morning. It was a clear warm day, about an hour after sunrise. First of all old George went ahead with his boy Johnny, and his next girl Kitty alongside of him. She was a slip of a girl about fourteen, with big eyes and a shy look, but full of fun and mischief underneath. She had a ragged gray tweed skirt on, an old straw hat, and she rode on a man’s saddle with one stirrup over the pommel, and sat as straight and lissome as if she’d the best side-saddle in the world. She could ride anything, I believe, and her father said he’d sooner have her with him after wild cattle than any stock-rider in the country. Both girls had stock-whips, made light, and with ‘myall’ handles (the native wood that smells like violets); before the day was over I saw that they knew how to use them.
Jack rode on one side of Possie and I on the other. Talgai came behind all by himself, but that didn’t trouble him much; he wasn’t over fond of company at the best of times. After we’d ridden seven or eight miles we came to a plain at the edge of a wilga scrub. Then the old man pulls up and lays out the different lines we’re to take.
‘You two girls come along o’ me, I’m a goin’ up to the Pine Cowall, and you’re both on your best at the scrub racket. It’ll take some galloping to wheel that poley brindle’s mob, and if they once break there’s no headin’ ’em. Jack Hall, you can follow the creek up till you come to them sand-hills—there’s one big mob run that way. You’d as well take Mr. Claythorpe with you. Johnny, you and Talgai sweep in all the plain cattle between here and the yellow water-hole, and don’t you be larkin’ or kangarooin’, else I’ll lay my stock-whip into you when we come to the camp.’
Johnny rode away rather solemn lookin’, with Talgai after him; then the old man started off with the girls on each side of him, as if they were all entered for a three mile heat. Jack looked after ’em for a bit, rather grave like. ‘Confound that old George,’ he says, ‘he might have left Possie with us; but I suppose he reckoned we might get lost. I expect there’s some calves among them scrub cattle, and the old cove thinks it’s a handy chance to get them. They’ll be pretty smart cattle that gets away from Poss on Cooramen to-day; let alone Kitty.’
We’d all brought in our mobs by about two o’clock, and sat on our horses waiting for best part of an hour before we heard the roaring of George’s mob coming closer and closer; by and by a faint crack of a whip now and again. There was a good-sized plain that came close up to the forest, and through this they had to come.
We all had our horses ready, for some of us were sitting side-ways on the saddle smoking and resting, when we saw a big brindled poley bullock dash into the plain, with a long string of cattle behind him, and make for the camp. They were coming pretty fast for fat cattle, as most of them were, and the brindled bullock and the dozen or two leading cattle had their tongues out. It was a heavy mob, five or six hundred at least. It took some time for the ‘tail,’ with all the slower quiet cattle and cows and calves to clear the forest. Last of all out they come, every beast, with Possie on the right side of ’em, Kitty in the middle, and George and his two dogs on the left flank. ‘Little Kitty’s had a buster or something,’ says Jack, ‘run against a tree, perhaps. She’s got her bridle in her right hand and her whip’s tied to her saddle.’
We rode up a bit nearer to the string of cattle that were making into the main drove collected on the camp, and Jack Hall looked sharply at them as they passed before us. I couldn’t make out—having seen so little of that kind of work—how it was that he could tell one beast from another in such a mixed-up mob, and so quick too.
‘There’s a snailey Wallanbah bullock I haven’t seen this two years,’ says he, ‘and that sheeted red and white BL cow with the red heifer calf. She was a heifer when she got away from Wallanbah, and now she’s a dashed fine cow, and, by George! there’s that black bullock of ours, him with the wide horns. I thought he was dead. I never seen him so near a camp before. He always breaks when he sees the other cattle.’
‘How’s that? Is he like the crows and smells powder?’
‘Can’t say,’ says Jack, ‘but there’s always a few cattle in every herd that’s like that. They get cunning, and bolt back when they’re near a yard or camp, for fear they’d be sent off, I expect. You’ll see that joker’ll bolt soon. Isn’t he a slashing fine beast?’
The bullock Jack meant was a tremendous big beast, as fat as he could roll. On he came, with his head up, shaking his immense wide horns as if he was looking about him, and didn’t know what he’d do next. All of a sudden he stops and wheels short to the right.
At that very moment we saw Cooramen give a plunge, and then go for him as hard as he could lay legs to the ground. The bullock was pretty near the lead, so that he had a fairish start. But the brown horse, now at top speed, overhauled the heavy beast stride by stride. ‘Poss is going for him,’ sings out Jack. ‘Now you’ll see some riding.’
It looked like it, as we both sat on our horses and watched the pair. I’d never seen anything like it before.
The bullock kept his own line, heading back, sulky and savage, towards that part of the cattle run where he was accustomed to feed. Poss, leaning forward, as if she was riding a race, kept on the outside of the line he was going, cracking her whip, like a pistol shot, every now and then. He didn’t turn his head. Presently she came up with him, and keeping just clear of his horns, laid the whip into him back and forward, as neat as any one I ever seen. He shook his head, but wouldn’t turn; every now and then he made a short rush at the horse. Cooramen—she had him well in hand of course—would be out of his road like a shot, and before the bullock was well round again her whip would be playing on him, making the hair fly and drawing the blood like a bushel bag of mosquitos.
Blest if she didn’t get close up on his shoulder once and rush her horse against him, so that she turned him in spite of himself towards the cattle. Then he’d stop and shake his head and face her. She’d play with him and get away when he rushed, and then go at him, flaking him right and left as he turned, and edge him off towards the other cattle. He was nearly done with running too, he was so fat, and last of all he began to get pretty slow, and show signs of giving in. She stuck to him back and edge till at last he turned tail and hit out for the camp, as if he’d settled in his mind to give her best. Then she raised a shout and followed him up, dropping the whip into him right and left till he fairly broke into a gallop and lumbered in among the cattle quite beat and exhausted.
I couldn’t help looking at the girl as she came flying in among the cattle after him, leaning forward in her saddle, with her lissome figure swaying gracefully with every motion of her horse. Her hair had come down too, and hung over her shoulders in great shining coils.
‘Hurrah for Possie!’ shouts Jack Hall, as we rode up to her. ‘Mr. Claythorpe didn’t ever see a girl ride like that in the old country, I’ll be bound?’
‘I don’t think I ever did, or anywhere else,’ says I. ‘I couldn’t do it to save my life, though I can ride a little in my own way.’
‘I’m afraid I look rather wild just now,’ she said, smiling and hoisting up her hair in a great knot behind, while Cooramen stood as still as a trooper, with the reins on his neck. ‘But I never like to be beat, and that same bullock has got away from us times without number.’
‘Once we get him to Wallanbah we’ll put him in “the round yard,”1’ says Jack, ‘so as he won’t stray away from home no more. Mr. Burdock ought to give you a new bridle or a bonnet, Miss Possie, after your running him in so clever.’
‘I can buy my own bonnets and bridles, thank you,’ she says. ‘I don’t want any of Mr. Burdock’s presents.’
‘Now then,’ says old George, coming up, ‘if you want them WG’s home to-night, the sooner we set to work cutting on ’em out the better. Poss! you and Jack Hall’s got the two slippiest nags; you’d better cut out, and Mr. Claythorpe can help ye. Kitty and I’ll keep camp, while Johnny and Talgai mind the cut-out cattle.’
‘All right, governor,’ says Jack, ‘my horse wants work, he’s too fresh. What’s up with poor Kit. Has she hurt her arm?’
‘Pony fell in a stump-hole and shook her a bit. She’ll be all right to-morrow. Now there’s four of your bullocks all in one bunch; get to work all and run out any clearskin-calves; I spotted a few.’
There wasn’t much talking for the next two hours. Jack picked out the four WG’s, and a few cows and calves, which we put together under a tree to make a start with. Then it was quick work, hammer and tongs. One minute I’d see Possie edging out a wild-looking steer, till she got him clear of the camp. He’d trot a few yards and then gallop for his life, then stop dead and wheel.
That instant you’d see Cooramen halt as dead as if his feet had been nailed to the ground, while Possie’s whip would come swinging round, and the small end drop on to him as if it was going to cut him in two. He’d start on again, then try a dart to the left, and Cooramen would be galloping neck and neck with him as if they were running a race. And mind you, a fresh wildish beast can go like smoke for a hundred yards. Then a prop and a wheel, but wherever he turned Cooramen and the stinging rattling whip would be in front of him, cutting, cracking, and whistling across eyes and nose, tail and shoulders, as the case might be. Last of all he’d head for the cut-out cattle, and trot in among them with bellows to mend, regularly bowled-out, out-paced and out-generalled.
Then back to the camp full split. Beast after beast would be run out, Jack Hall bringing another out as she went in, and the other way on. I managed to get a few, but somehow I couldn’t do it half as quick as either of those two—couldn’t pick out the bullocks in the camp either as they did, almost without looking at them. They were all got out in time, besides the black bullock, with a few Wallanbah cattle and about twenty yearlings which belonged—so George said—to the Boree herd, and had never had a brand on their hides.
That night we were home latish, and it took some time to make the cattle safe in the yard. Then we had to unsaddle and turn out the horses. Possie and her sister went into the house at once, taking Johnny to help them. Half an hour, I expect it was, before Jack and I got things fixed right (we didn’t want to find the cattle gone in the morning, you know) and made ourselves ready for tea.
They hadn’t lost much time either, for Possie had changed her dress and put a rose in her hair. The tea was all ready and waiting for us. There was no grog, of course. Men like George Barker never keep it in their house. They can’t answer for themselves, so they don’t have any at all. If they want a drink they go away from home, and as that don’t happen above two or three times a year, it doesn’t matter so much. I shouldn’t have taken any if there had been gallons of it, and though Jack Hall liked it well, he could do without it for months at a time when he chose. Anyhow, we made a merry meal of it—no end of fun and chaff over the day’s doings. Poor Kit’s arm was found to be only bruised after all, and we agreed that we’d got the most of the WG cattle. There would be only twenty or thirty short, and those we could come for at the next muster.
‘So you’re going away in the morning,’ Possie says. She’d been playing one or two pieces on the piano in a careless sort of way. She wouldn’t sing—said she’d made herself hoarse.
‘Yes. I must go back. It wouldn’t be worth while stopping another day and giving so much trouble for a few head. I’d come to next muster, whenever that was, if I could manage it.’
‘Would I really?’ That would be in October. There would be races afterwards at Calyanbone. She’d some notion of running Cooramen for the town plate and handicap, only there was no one she could trust him to—that is, that could ride the weight.
I’d make a point of coming over, I told her. I’d ride the horse willingly for her besides, if she could have him got fit.
Her face brightened up at this. She knew I was a first-class jock, she said. Somebody had told her about Tornado and the Juanbong Plate. It’s wonderful how things travel in the bush. Anyhow, before I said good-night I promised faithfully to come to the muster and ride Cooramen at the Wallanbah races.
She told Jack Hall, with great triumph, but he didn’t seem to be so pleased as she expected. She thought it quite strange.
We cleared out next day for Wallanbah in real good form. I was up early to see if the cattle were right and to make sure of Talgai getting the horses, when I found George Barker and his boy had just killed a fat calf. They were cutting veal chops and getting the sweet-bread for our breakfast. Fresh meat’s always reckoned a treat in the bush. They drew up the hind quarters on the gallows where the bullocks were hung, but to my surprise cut off the fore quarters and gave them to the dogs.
‘Isn’t that wasting good meat?’ I couldn’t help saying.
‘Not at all,’ says George; ‘we’ve often to kill a precious sight more heifers’ calves than we can eat. We’ll be tired of veal by the time we’ve finished the hind quarters of this one, and salt’s too dear in this part of the country to waste it on a calf.’
Whatever would they say in Applegate? I thought to myself. There’s half this fine body of veal, mud-fat, and tender as a chicken, worth a shilling a pound there; besides, what would some of the poor hungry families at home give for these ribs and shoulders? This is a plentiful country and no mistake; there’s enough and to spare, any child may see. It will go hard if Jesse Claythorpe don’t save something for himself out of the land and the stock, and the money that’s going begging here.
1. The harness cask. [back]