A Sydney-Side Saxon

Chapter IX

Jack Leighton, Swagman

Rolf Boldrewood

POSSIE and the boy Johnny came with us as far as the first plain, just to help us off the run. She kept quieter a deal this time than the day before, and looked as if she was out of sorts a bit. She spoke very little to either of us, but rode on ahead with the leading cattle, and as I was behind, and Jack on the other side looking out sharp in case any wanted to break, there wasn’t much chance of a talk. Her brother Johnny and Talgai kept at the tail, and seemed to have all the fun of the party between ’em. I couldn’t help looking at him and then at her. He was very near as dark as Talgai, with just the same kind of sleepy ways when he wasn’t roused, while Possie and Kit were as fair as lots of English girls I’ve seen. There was nothing about ’em different from any other of the white natives—except that they were a deal better looking, and walked and held themselves better. Possie had wonderfully good teeth, as white as milk, and her dark eyes, that used to look so mournful sometimes, would brighten up when she smiled, so that you couldn’t help thinking what a merry happy creature she was. She and Johnny said good-bye to us both, and went off back as soon as the cattle were steadied. She rode quiet for a hundred yards or so, and then set the old horse going, and was soon out of sight. I caught myself thinking about her for the next hour or two, and Jack Hall, I expect, was a good deal in the same line.

When we got to Wallanbah, Mr. Burdock was knocking about the yards and saw us come in. ‘My word,’ he says, ‘you’ve got a fine lot of bullocks there, fattened on another man’s grass. However, we must give and take. A few cattle’s keep’s neither here nor there, as long as we get country for ten pound a block, Crown rent.’

‘How much is a block?’

‘Five miles square,’ he answers; ‘of course there’s water to be made, and there’ll be fencing by and by; but it’s a fairish grazing farm for the money, ain’t it? Anyhow they’d call it one where I came from.’

‘I should think it was,’ says I, ‘especially when it tops up cattle like that.’ And there’s no doubt a lot of these WG’s were shaking fat. ‘Is there any more land to be got at that price?’

‘Plenty more, and cheaper too if you know the right way to go about it,’ says he. ‘Come inside and we’ll have another yarn. I’m a-goin’ over to Bynjewong to-morrow and I shan’t see you for a bit. Oh! I forgot; what d’ye think of Possie Barker? Ain’t she a stunner? There ain’t many of these eddicated gals as hold their heads so high that’s a patch on her, I think.’

‘She’s a clever girl,’ says I, ‘and good-looking too, there’s no mistake about that; and I never saw a woman that could ride like her before.’

‘You’ll have Jack Hall goin’ for ye if ye don’t look out,’ he says, laughing. ‘And now we’d better come inside; my leg ain’t quite right yet, and standing about tires me.’

After tea the old man mixed his brandy and water like he did before, and settled down for a solid yarn, as he said.

‘I’ve been and taken a fancy to you, Claythorpe,’ he says, by and by. ‘I’ve good reason to owe you something for doing me a good turn that day on the plain. Still it ain’t that altogether. I can see you’re a young feller that’s bound to get on in this country; that’s got sense enough to keep a bit of money together, and not spend it foolish directly it comes. I’m not one of them chaps that’ll entice a man away from his employer. Buffray’s been a good friend to you, and of course you’ll stay with him as long as he’s got work to do. But I don’t believe in Roper altogether, and so I tell you. Buffray gives him his own way a deal too much for my fancy. I told him that before Roper’s face one day. He’ll find him out yet. He ain’t the man he takes him for, and before long you and he won’t hit it. You ain’t his sort, I can see. And when he tells you to clear—as he’s most sure to do some day—there’s a home for you at Wallanbah, wet season or dry, and a welcome too.’

We landed our cattle safe at Yugildah, and Roper seemed regular right down pleased for once that we’d got so many of the brand, and they looking so well.

‘There’s a man taking down fat cattle from Grambla,’ says he, ‘as will pass this way to-morrow. I’ll draft the good ones out of the mob and send ’em down with him. Then there’s no fear of them straying again. Mr. Blake won’t mind obliging the boss, and I’ll send a young chap with ’em. I’ll tail the rest for a week or two, and turn ’em out with a quiet mob. How did ye get old Burdock to send Jack Hall with ye? Him and me ain’t cousins, and I didn’t expect he’d give ye a lift like that.’

So I told him about the buggy accident, and our going with him to Wallanbah, with a general notion of the muster at Boree.

‘George Barker’s a dry old stick, ain’t he?’ says he, ‘and Possie’s a good-looking gal enough. They say he’s had her eddicated, taught the pianner, and all that. More fool he! I say. All those half-bred brats of his are sure to give him the slip as they get older. It’s wasting money and time to teach ’em anything, in my way of thinking.’

‘They seem smart enough,’ I said, careless like, for I didn’t mean to tell him more than I could help; ‘I don’t suppose all the teaching they’ll get will hurt ’em.’

The cattle went away all right, and we settled down to the regular everyday station work, and pretty dull it was. After being away at the other places, Yugildah looked more dreary like and miserable than ever. Unless we were all hard at work, there was nothing to cheer up any one, or to take the least interest in.

It was a splendid run—large, and well watered, and out and out healthy—but no money had been spent upon it. There were no improvements of any sort, so at last I began to feel mopish for want of somebody to talk to, or something to do.

First of all Talgai and I got all the colts in and rode them, so as to keep them quiet. The most part of them were steady enough, but some were more trouble than they were at first. That took up a month or so. Then we had mustering, or going round the run every other day—lovely rides some of them used to be—coming in after dark, and then to cook your own supper when you got back. I felt ready to grumble at this, but I’d determined not to mind trifles in a new country; and I thought if any one had given us as much beef steak or corned beef in England as we could eat, with bread, tea, and sugar in proportion, what a trifle we should have thought the cooking of it was!

Talgai and I were out on the run a goodish way from home one day when we dropped in with a mob of cattle that hadn’t been yarded for a year or more by the looks of them. They were wild and no mistake; it was some time before we could get them to round up. There were a good many unbranded calves among them belonging to the station, so we started to bring them home. We hadn’t gone far before we came on another mob, camped. It was a bigger one than what we had with us. I stopped with the cattle, and sent Talgai over to look at them.

‘Name that one,’ I says, when he came back.

‘All about cow and calf belonging to Thoresby,’ says he. ‘Calf not branded.’

‘You see um Yugildah calf?’ I said.

‘No; like it four feller bullock. That one run here long time.’

‘How far longa Mr. Thoresby’s station?’ I said.

‘Mindorah five mile, close up.’

‘You yan alonga head station, Talgai, and yabber that one calf alonga this one camp. Mine quambi alonga cattle.’

Talgai looked a bit astonished, but he always did what I told him. I’d broke him in to that. So off he sets. The cattle stopped quiet in the camp. It was pretty hot, so I pulled up under a tree and laid myself out to wait for an hour or two till he came back.

I hadn’t been half an hour by myself when I heard horses, and back came Talgai with two men. Mr. Thoresby it was, and his stock-rider. It seems they were out too, and Talgai fell across their tracks accidental. The other cattle were within sight, and they rode up to them before they came over to me.

He was a square-built, jolly-looking, middle-aged man. His face was burnt a regular brick-dust red, but I was pretty sure he was an Englishman before he began to talk.

‘Your name’s Claythorpe,’ he says, holding out his hand. ‘Mine’s Mark Thoresby, of Mindorah. You came up from Bandra to Yugildah with the horses: not long out from home. So you sent me word about these cows and calves here. Wonders’ll never cease, will they, Ned?’

He and the stock-rider laughed as if it was a first-rate joke, and so did Talgai after a bit. I didn’t see it, and said so.

‘Oh! it’s only our nonsense,’ says he. ‘I’m obliged to you all the same. If ever you’re this near Mindorah again, mind you come over and see us. This chap knows the road,’ pointing to Talgai. ‘You tell Jim Roper you seen me, and I wanted to know if the Bishop had been at Yugildah and converted him like. He’ll understand. You come over some day soon, or I’ll think you don’t want to be neighbourly.’

They went their way and we went ours. When I had put the cows and calves into the yard, I told Roper that we’d found a large lot of cattle with more calves, but that Talgai had said they were Mr. Thoresby’s, and I had sent word to him to fetch them.

‘Sent word to him!’ says he, struck all of a heap. ‘Why the h—l didn’t ye bring ’em home to the yard with these others? How did ye know they was his? Weren’t they on this run?’

‘I believe they were half a mile over the boundary,’ says I; ‘but Talgai told me they were Mr. Thoresby’s. He was quite certain.’

‘Talgai be blowed!’ says he; ‘what’s he know about brands. It’s your business to bring all cattle as you find on this here run to Yugildah yard. When they’re properly drafted they can be sent home, or they can come for ’em. But I don’t believe in people taking cattle off this run without my seein’ ’em.’

‘What, not their own cattle?’ says I. ‘If they’d caught us driving those cows and calves they might have thought we were stealing them.’

‘What the blazes business is it of yours,’ says he, ‘what they thought? What do you know about a cattle station, just off the ship? If you think you’re to act boss here because you can ride a bit and had the luck to pull off a twenty-pound handicap, you’ve most infernally mistook your lay, and so I tell you.’

‘I know I’ve not been long out of England, Mr. Roper,’ says I, ‘but I suppose the law about your own and other people’s property is the same here as there. If you think I’m going to help you or any one else to steal cattle you’ve made a mistake, and a big one too.’

‘I’ve two minds to kick you off the place,’ says he, looking as mad as a wild bullock, ‘and only the boss sent you here I’d do so, dashed quick. You come up to-morrow morning and I’ll settle with ye, you can go back to Bandra then and tell the boss I sent ye.’

‘You needn’t try to bully me,’ says I, looking him in the eye, ‘if you’d like to get your hands on me, don’t baulk your fancy. But I don’t want a row for the sake of Mr. Buffray. I shall go over to Wallanbah from here.’

‘You may go to h—, for anything I care,’ says he, and he turns his back and makes off home.

He was a bit cooler next morning, and seemed as if he’d like to make it up; but I’d had enough of Yugildah, and being sure we’d have another row if I stopped, thought it was best to clear when I’d got right on my side. He made out the time I’d been up and paid me at the rate of a pound a week. That was the regular wages on a station then. I’d only drawn some tobacco out of the store so I had a fairish cheque. For horse-breaking I ought to have had extra, but I didn’t bother. I thought myself pretty well paid, and it hadn’t all been hard work.

Talgai came up with me.

‘You yan away, Mahmee?’ he says, ‘Talgai baal sit down alonga Yugildah; first time that one Roper bung (shoot) this one blackfellow, I b’leeve.’

‘So you’re a-going too, you black santipee, are ye?’ says Roper, glaring at him; and if I hadn’t been there I believe he’d a half killed the poor feller. ‘The place is well rid of the pair of ye, in my opinion. I don’t want no crawlers about Yugildah, only don’t let me catch ye on the run after to-day, or by—-I’ll shoot ye as soon as I would a dingo.’

We cleared next day, mighty glad both of us to be shut of Yugildah and Jim Roper. We had to stop on the road one night, and next day we reckoned to get to Wallanbah. We were going along a bush track that led into the main road to Wallanbah near the end of the day when we pulled up a swagman. He was walking very slow; he was a bit lame too. His swag wasn’t heavy, for he had only a rag of a blue blanket, a billy of water in his hand, and very little else.

‘Hot day, mate?’ says he, as we came up.

‘You’re right there, how far are you going?’

‘To Wallanbah,’ says he, ‘and that’s a good ten miles by my reckoning. My feet are not up to much; I’m pretty well done up, and out of tobacco besides. Happen to have any about you?’

I pulled out half a fig of ‘negrohead’; he took it as if he wanted it badly, and cut off an inch or so which he put in his mouth at once. As he did so I took a good look at him.

He was a slight, well-made, good-looking man, rather above the middle size, but not tall; brown hair and beard that just showed a few streaks of gray. His hands were burnt the same colour as his face, which was nearly black, and they were knotted and hardened with work, as any one might see. His shirt and trousers were worn and in holes; his boots were broken and pretty well done for—that was what made him lame. One of his feet had been bleeding, I could see from his ‘toe-rag,’ which stuck out on one side. A regular station hand he looked, on the ‘wallaby track’ as they call it, out of luck. His last shilling spent, tramping on without food, clothes, or a penny in the world, till he met with a fresh job of work. I’d seen dozens before like him, but somehow I kept looking at him, and looked and looked again.

‘So you’re going there too?’ he said, ‘that’s a piece of luck; I’ve worked for old Sam Burdock before, and there’s no better men’s hut in the district. You tell him Jack Leighton’s coming along, and he’ll find me work of some sort. What are you on for?’

‘I’m going to stop there for a week or two,’ says I. ‘I know Mr. Burdock a little, and he asked me.’

‘You’re not long out from home?’ he said, looking pretty straight at me. ‘English, I see. What county?’

‘East Kent. I’ve only been here a year and a half—since I left Applegate.’

‘By Jove!’ said the swagman ‘you don’t say so. This is a rum place to meet a man of Kent. Applegate—Applegate on the Stour—why, that’s where I came from. What’s your name, may I ask?’

‘Claythorpe,’ says I, looking at him again and wondering in my own mind how he knew about Applegate. ‘And what did you say yours was?’

‘So you’re a son of Job Claythorpe, are you?’ says he, looking hard at me. ‘I used to play with your brother Dick—the one that was hurt in that poaching row. Poor Dick! Did you ever hear of the Leightons, of King’s Leighton? I’m one of them.’

‘Good God!’ I said, ‘you’re never Reggie Leighton? My sister Jane used to tell me all about the day your people went to see you off when you were coming out to Australia. I was a little chap then, of course, and didn’t know. Then you’re Mr. Reginald? I thought there was something I knew about you. However did you lose your money and get down to this?’

‘Down to this!’ he says rather bitterly. ‘You may well say that, Claythorpe; a broken-down swagman, without a shilling, and hardly a shoe to his foot! Well, bad luck, I suppose, bitter bad luck; most of it my own fault; that’s the worst of it, you know.’

‘I can lend you anything you want,’ says I, eager enough. ‘When we get to Mr. Burdock’s he’ll put you on to a job; I know I shall be there for a bit. You may trust me; you won’t want anything that I can do for you. And now, you take my horse for a bit and we’ll ride in turn. Squire Leighton’s son oughtn’t to walk while Jesse Claythorpe rides, or else the world’s coming to an end.’

The tears came into my eyes; I could hardly speak, it seemed so dreadful. I felt as if I could have stripped myself naked to clothe him in his poverty. I had never seen him that I knew of; but Mr. Reginald, Squire Leighton’s son, from the grand old castle of a place, with its avenues three hundred years old, and its terraces and alleys, with the Dutch clipped yew and box trees, and the family chariot, and the eldest son that was in the Guards, I couldn’t make myself believe that he was going to Burdock’s men’s hut, and glad to get there.

‘It’s Squire Leighton’s son’s own fault,’ he says, frowning first and then smiling like; ‘and if he has to walk it serves him dashed well right. You’re a good fellow, Jesse, though; a man of Kent always stands up for his county. I’ll take your horse for a mile or two, for this confounded foot of mine feels as if it were coming off.’

He took my horse; Talgai dismounted too and walked alongside of me. ‘That one knock-about, big one tired,’ says he, ‘altogether that one lie down and quambi dead alonga road, I believe. Baal him, yan (get) along Wallanbah.’

There was plenty of time before us, and as long as we got to the station by sundown it didn’t matter how easy we took it. We talked away about the old place until I felt quite a boy again.

He was the youngest son of Squire Leighton, and was a bit spoiled, and let have his own way after his brothers went out into the world. One was in the army, I knew, because we used to see him in his uniform when he came back at Christmas. He didn’t always wear it, of course, but he had it on when there was a county ball, and at other times. The second was a clergyman, and had a parish not very far off. The third one was a lawyer in London, a book-learned man they said he was, and stood for the county once. This one was the fourth and youngest. He had my brother Dick with him shooting and fishing whenever he could. They were great friends as boys, and there’s no doubt that Mr. Reginald would have taken him out to the colonies if he hadn’t happened to get hurt just when he did.

This one was always inclined to be wild, and wouldn’t take to his book. He could ride and shoot and fish with any man in the village when he was quite a little chap. The old Squire was very fond of him, and kept him at home long after he ought to have been at a public school like his brothers, people said. When he did go to school and college he did no good there, we heard in the village. Always up to some frolics, and spending a deal of money on racing and hunting. All manner of games he was up to, and at last he was sent home for a year, they said, and wasn’t let go back.

Then it seems he took a wonderful fancy into his head to go out to Australia, and turn cattle and horse breeder. He’d been reading some book which said what a fine country it was; that people did nothing but gallop about on horseback all day long, and so on. Anyhow, he wouldn’t be said no to. So the old Squire at last gave him a couple of thousand pounds, and told him he’d send him three or four more when he was settled, and off he goes.

I just remember it being talked about as one of the wonders of the village when I was quite a little chap; everybody was astonished that the Squire could have the heart to let his son go to such a wild, far-away place. All his friends went to see him off; it was a nine days’ wonder. After that it grew faint and forgotten, like Stephen Buffray’s doing the same thing a lifetime ago. No doubt the Squire sent him the other thousands. No doubt there were letters at first, and crying over them by the sisters, and promises to come back in a year or two, when his fortune would be made. But the fortune was not made, somehow. The letters got fewer, then stopped altogether. The Squire died, and only the young ladies, his sisters, two of whom had never married, and lived in the old hall still, seemed to regret the handsome young man, full of hope and spirits, that had sailed away years ago for Botany Bay.

And here he was now, a ragged hard-up tramp, a ‘knock-about,’ as Talgai called him, not as well dressed as my black boy, and beholden to the son of one of his father’s hinds for a lift on his journey, or a few shillings to carry him along.

How in the world was it possible for such a man to come to this? to sink so low? Clever, though not in the way of books, a gentleman born, belonging to one of the oldest families in England, manly too, full of work or fight when it was wanted; in a country where money was ten times as plentiful and easy got as in England; even supposing he’d lost all he brought with him by misfortunes or bad seasons, I couldn’t make it out; whatever was the reason of it all?

If I’d been longer in the country I should have known what the reason was, the only one which ever knocks down a man worth calling a man in Australia, and keeps him down. Because he may fall once, then he’s helped up always; twice—three times—perhaps even another time—if he’s true to himself, by his friends. He’s sure to have some if he’s any good at all.

But I didn’t know then for certain. I thought perhaps he’d been very unfortunate, indeed, and it mightn’t have been his fault altogether. I could see he’d worked and not played for years by the look of his hands, as were hard and horny, with the knuckles twisted, and the bones spread out and roughened,—besides being burnt as black as Talgai’s nearly—working men’s hands are all alike. There’s no forging that certificate of manual labour. When I thought of what the Miss Leightons would have thought if they could have seen his hands at that minute, not to speak of the rough red folds of skin at the back of his neck, from years of exposure with nothing but a jersey or an old check shirt between him and the terrible sun, I thought I should have cried like a child. We were used to it, father and I, Tom and Dick, and all our lot from generation to generation. It was what we were born to go through—aboard ship or on land, it was all the same—we didn’t expect anything better, and didn’t grumble.

But there’s something about gentlefolk and old blood—people may talk as they like—that stirs the heart of a true-born Englishman. When you think of what they’re born to, the way they’re brought up in a good county family, and you see one of them brought low in a strange land, it melts the very heart within you, and you feel as if you couldn’t do enough for them.

These thoughts came into my head as we made our way along the dusty road. There hadn’t been any rain for three months or so, and the weather was getting hotter and the country drier every day.

About a mile from the station we came to the Wallanbah Inn. It belonged to Mr. Burdock, who built it so that he mightn’t be overrun with all sorts of travellers after he got married and had a family growing up. ‘I was never to say stingy about a trifle of rations like “hungry Jackson,”’ he said once, ‘but having to feed perhaps from five to twenty strangers every night of your life is a little too much of the monkey, so I built this here hotel, which is a comfortable shop enough, and put Bill Bottrell into it, where they can have everything they like to call for, and pay for it if they’ve the money.’

We were passing the inn, when all of a sudden Leighton said, ‘Claythorpe, you haven’t a note about you that you can lend me? If you have I’ll borrow it to get a pair of boots from Bottrell’s store; these things are so deuced disreputable, I don’t like to face old Burdock in them.’

I pulled out a couple of pounds. I’d brought some cash with me in case I might want it.

‘Better get a shirt or two, and anything else you want while you’re about it,’ says I. ‘I’ll leave Talgai’s horse for you to ride up. We’ll go on to the station.’

‘All right,’ he said. ‘It’s devilish kind of you. I’ll not be ten minutes.’

He got off and hobbled into the bar, while Talgai and I went quietly up to the station.

‘Mr. Burdock was out,’ the servant said; ‘but would be sure to be back for tea—say in half an hour.’

I put my horse in the paddock, and waited till nearly dark, expecting Leighton to come up every minute.

‘You go alonga public-house, Talgai, look out that one mahmee, mundoee big one brokit.’

‘I believe him wompi wompi alonga cobbra,’ says Talgai, with a curious look in his eye, ‘fust time me bring ’em Yarraman.’

So away goes Talgai along the road to the inn, and I walked into the verandah to wait till Mr. Burdock came.

A Sydney-Side Saxon - Contents    |     Chapter X - More of Jack Leighton

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