“If I go to England after this money, Mister, I suppose they won’t be handin’ me out ten years for perjury, same as they done for Roger Tichborne? I won’t have no law case, will I?”
“Shouldn’t think so. You’ve been advertised for all over the place, I believe.”
“Ha! Well, now they’ve got me they mightn’t like me, don’t you see? I never took no stock in them unclaimed-money fakes. I never see any money goin’ beggin’ yet, long as I’ve lived, but what some chap had his hands on it quick enough. But I s’pose it’s all right.”
“It’s me wife I’m troublin’ about. I’m no dandy, Goodness knows, but if people’ll let me alone I’ll let them alone, and I don’t interfere with anyone. But if old Peg turns up, she’ll want to be right in front of the percession. If she follows me, I’ll realise everything by public auction, unreserved sale, for spot cash, and I’ll sneak back here to a place I knows of, where there’s no trooper can find me. I ain’t goin’ halves with that woman, I tell you. She wouldn’t stick to me if I was poor, and I ain’t goin’ to take her up again now. You’d better come back with me, Mister, and show me the way round a bit.”
“There’s a mob of cattle, Gordon,” he went on, changing the subject quickly; “let’s ride up here, while the boys bring ’em into camp.” And off they went at a canter, leaving the question of his social prospects in abeyance for the time being.
The ceremony of taking delivery lasted some days, Considine’s signature to the deed of transfer being only the first step. This long document, prepared in Sydney, kept them going in literature for about a week; and they were delighted to find that, through the carelessness of a clerk, in one part of the deed there figured “one bull of mixed sexes and various ages”
They rode out, day after day, through interminable stretches of dull timbered country, or over blazing plains waving with long grass. Here they came on mobs of half-wild cattle, all bearing the same brand, a huge RL5. These were not mustered into a yard or counted, except roughly. Gordon was not completing a purchase, but simply taking over what were there—many or few, good or bad, he could only take what he found.
Miles and miles they rode, always in the blazing heat, camping for a couple of hours in the middle of the day. To the Englishman it seemed always the merest chance that they found the cattle, and accident that they got home again. At rare intervals they came upon substantial mustering-yards, where the calves were brought for branding; near these a rough hut had been constructed, so that they could camp there at night, instead of returning to the head station.
They always slept out of doors. In the intense heat it was no hardship, and the huts, as a rule, fairly jumped with fleas. Once they camped alongside a big lagoon, on whose surface were huge pink and blue water-lilies and rushes, and vast flocks of wild fowl. After the stretches of blazing plain and dull timber this glimpse of water was inexpressibly refreshing. On their way back they struck new country, great stretches of almost impenetrable scrub, tropical jungle, and belts of bamboo. In this cover wild cattle evidently abounded, for they frequently heard the bellow of the bulls.
“There should be a terrible lot of wild cattle here,” said Charlie. “Don’t you ever get any out of the scrubs?”
“Oh, yes, we moonlight for ’em,” said Considine. “We take coachers out. We have a very fair coaching mob. Some of our coachers are as quick as racehorses, and they’ll hustle wild cattle away from the scrub just as if they understood.”
“What do you mean by coachers?” asked Carew. “Not cattle that go in carts, eh?”
“Carts, no. The way we get wild cattle hereabouts is to take out a mob of quiet cattle, what we call coachers, and let ’em feed in the moonlight alongside the scrub, while we wait back out o’ the road and watch ’em. When the wild cattle come out, they run over to see the coachers, and we dash up and cut ’em off from the scrub, and hustle ’em together into the open. It’s good sport, Mister. We might try a dash at it, if you like, before we go back; it’s moonlight now.”
“Let’s have a try tonight,” said Cordon. “Are your coachers handy?”
“Yairs. They feed near the house. I’ll send ’em on with the gins tonight.”
When they got back that evening, Carew was so dead-tired that he wished the wild cattle expedition at Jericho. But Considine and Charlie were in great form, directing, arguing, and planning the expedition. One of the black boys rode out, and returned driving a big mob of horses that dashed into the yard at full gallop. The gins and the black boys caught fresh mounts out of these and started away, driving some fifty head of cattle selected from a mob that made their headquarters within a few miles of the house. Most of them were old stagers, and strung away in the evening quite tranquilly, while the blacks, always smoking, rode listlessly after. Considine produced two stockwhips, and gave one to Charlie.
“No good givin’ you one, Mister,” he said to Carew. “You’d hang yourself with it most likely. I’ve got a rare good horse for you—old Smoked Beef. He’d moonlight cattle by himself, believe. You’d better have a pistol, though.”
“What for?” asked Carew, as Considine produced three very heavy navy revolvers and a bag of cartridges.
“To shoot any beast that won’t stay with the mob. Some of ’em won’t be stopped. They have to go. Well, if one goes, the rest keep trying to follow, and no forty men will hold ’em back. You just keep your eyes open, and if a beast breaks out in spite of the whips, you shoot him if the blacks tell you. See?”
“Where am I to shoot him?”
“Shoot him any place. In the earhole, or the shoulder, or the ribs, or the flank. Any place at all. Shoot him all over if you like. One or two bullets don’t hurt a beast. It takes a lead-mine to kill some of ’em.”
“Do the blacks shoot?” asked Charlie.
“No, I don’t never trust no blacks with firearms. One boy knifes well, though. Races alongside and knifes ’em.”
This seemed a fairly difficult performance; while the Englishman was wondering how it would be carried out, they made a start. They rode mile after mile in the yellow moonlight, until they discerned a mob of cattle feeding placidly near some big scrub. They whistled to the blacks, and all rode away down wind to a spot on the edge of the plain, a considerable distance from the cattle.
Here they dismounted and waited, Considine and Charlie talking occasionally in low tones, while the blacks sat silent, holding their horses. Carew lay down on the long dry grass and gazed away over the plain. His horse stood over him with head down, apparently sleeping. Far away under the moon, in vague patches of light and shade, the cattle were feeding. Hours seemed to pass, and Carew almost fell asleep.
Suddenly a long-drawn bellow, the angry challenge of a bull, broke the silence. A mob of wild cattle were evidently coming along the edge of the scrub, and had caught scent of the strangers. Again the bull roared; there is no animal on earth with so emphatically warlike a note as the wild bull when advancing to meet a strange mob. The quiet cattle answered with plaintive, long-drawn lowings, and the din became general as the two lots met.
“Let ’em get well mixed up,” said Considine quietly, tightening his girths, and swinging into the saddle. Everyone followed his example. Carew was shaking with excitement. Angry bellowing now arose from the cattle, which were apparently horning one another—such being their manner of greeting.
Considine said, “There’s a big lot there. Hope to blazes we can hold ’em. Are you ready, Mister?”
“Yes, I’m ready,” replied Carew.
“Come on, then. We’ll sneak up slowly at first, but once I start galloping let your horse go as fast as he likes, and trust him altogether. Don’t pull him at all, or he’ll break your neck.”
They started slowly in Indian file, keeping well in the shadow of the scrub. The horses picked their way through the outlying saplings and bushes, until suddenly Considine bent forward on his horse’s neck, and said, “Come on!”
What a ride that was! The inexperienced reader is apt to imagine that because a plain is level, it is smooth, but no greater fallacy exists. The surface of a plain is always bad galloping.
The rain washes away the soil from between the tussocks, which stand up like miniature mountains; the heat cracks the ground till it opens in crevices, sometimes a foot wide and a yard or two deep; fallen saplings lie hidden in the shadows to trip the horse, while the stumps stand up to cripple him, and over all is the long grass hiding all perils, and making the horse risk his own neck and his master’s at every stride.
They flew along in the moonlight, Considine leading, Charlie next, then the two black boys, and then Carew, with a black gin on each side of him, racing in grim silence. The horses blundered and “pecked”, stumbled, picked themselves up again, always seeming to have a leg to spare. Now and again a stump or a gaping crack in the ground would flash into view under their very nose, but they cleared everything—stumps, tussocks, gaps, and saplings.
In less time than it takes to write, they were between the mob and the scrub; at once a fusillade of whips rang out, and the men started to ride round the cattle in Indian file. The wild ones were well mixed up with the tame, and hardly knew which way to turn. Carew, cantering round, caught glimpses of them rushing hither and thither—small, wiry cattle for the most part, with big ears and sharp, spear-pointed horns. Of these there were fifty or sixty, as near as Considine could judge—three or four bulls, a crowd of cows and calves and half-grown animals, and a few old bullocks that had left the station mobs and thrown in their lot with the wild ones.
By degrees, as the horses went round them, the cattle began to “ring”, forming themselves into a compact mass, those on the outside running round and round. All the time the whips were going, and the shrill cries of the blacks rang out, “Whoa back! Whoa back, there! Whoa!” as an animal attempted to break from the mob. They were gradually forcing the beasts away from the scrub, when suddenly, in spite of the gins’ shrill cries, some of the leaders broke out and set off up the plain; with the rush of a cavalry charge the rest were after them, racing at full speed parallel with the edge of the scrub, and always trying to make over towards it.
Old Considine met this new development with Napoleonic quickness. He and the others formed a line parallel with the course of the cattle, and raced along between them and the timber, keeping up an incessant fusillade with their whips, while the old man’s voice rang out loudly in directions to the blacks behind.
“Keep the coachers with ’em! Flog ’em along! Cut the hides off ’em!”
In the first rush the quiet cattle had dropped to the rear, but the blacks set about them with their whips; and, as they were experienced coachers, and had been flogged and hustled along in similar rushes so often that they knew at once what was wanted, they settled down to race just as fast as the wild ones. As the swaying, bellowing mass swept along in the moonlight, crashing and trampling through the light outlying timber, some of the coachers were seen working their way to the lead, and the wild cattle having no settled plan, followed them blindly. Considine, on his black horse, was close up by the wing of the mob, and the others rode in line behind him, always keeping between the cattle and the scrub.
“Crack your whips!” he yelled. “Crack your whips! Keep’em off the scrub! Go on, Billy, drive that horse along and get to the lead!”
Like a flash one of the black boys darted out of the line, galloped to the head of the cattle, and rode there, pursued by the flying mob, the cracks of his heavy stockwhip sounding above the roar of hoofs and the bellowing of the cattle. Soon they steadied a little, and gradually sobered down till they stopped and began to “ring” again.
“That was pretty pure, eh, Mister?” roared Considine to Carew. “Ain’t it a caution the way the coachers race with ’em? That old bald-face coacher is worth two men and a boy in a dash like this.”
Suddenly an old bull, the patriarch of the wild herd, made towards one of the gins, whose shrill yells and whip-cracking failed to turn him. Considine dashed to her assistance, swinging his whip round his head.
“Whoa back, there! Whoa back, will you!” he shouted. The bull paused irresolute for a second, and half-turned back to the mob, but the sight or scent of his native scrub decided him. Dropping his head, he charged straight at Considine. So sudden was the attack that the stockhorse had barely time to spring aside; but, quick as it was, Considine’s revolver was quicker. The bull passed—bang! went the revolver, and bang! bang! bang! again, as the horse raced alongside, Considine leaning over and firing into the bull’s ribs at very short range.
The other cattle, dazed by the firing, did not attempt to follow, and at the fourth shot the bull wheeled to charge. He stood a moment in the moonlight, bold and defiant, then staggered a little and looked round as though to say, “What have you done to me?” Bang! went the revolver again; the animal lurched, plunged forward, sank on his knees, and fell over on his side, dead.
“There, you swab,” said the old man, “that’ll larn you to break another time.” Then he took once more his place in the patrol round the mob. They circled and eddied and pushed, always staring angrily at the riders. Suddenly a big, red bullock gave a snort of defiance, and came out straight towards Carew. He stopped once, shook his head ominously, and came on again. One of the gins dashed up with the whip; but the bullock had evidently decided to take all chances, and advanced on his foes at a trot.
“Choot him, that feller!” screamed the gin to Carew. “You choot him! He bin yan away! No more stop! Choot him!”
Carew lugged out his revolver, and tried to pull his horse to a standstill, but the wary old veteran knew better than to be caught standing by a charging bullock; just as Carew fired, he plunged forward, with the result that the bullet went over the mob altogether, and very nearly winged Charlie, who was riding on the far side. Then the bullock charged in earnest; and Carew’s horse, seeing that if he wished to save human life he must take matters into his own hands, made a bolt for it. Carew half-turned in the saddle, and fired twice, only making the black boys on the far side cower down on their horses’ necks. Then the horse took complete charge, and made off for the scrub with the bullock after him, and every animal in the mob after the bullock.
Nothing in the world could have stopped them. Considine and Charlie raced in front, alongside Carew, cracking their whips and shouting; the blacks flogged the coachers up with the wild cattle; but they held on their way, plunged with a mighty crash into the thick timber, and were lost. No horseman could ride a hundred yards in that timber at night. Coachers and all were gone together, and the dispirited hunters gathered at the edge of the scrub and looked at each other.
“Well, Mister, you couldn’t stop him,” said the old man.
“I’m afraid I made—rather a mess of things, don’t you know,” said the Englishman. “I thought I hit him the second time, too. Seemed to be straight at him.”
“I think you done very well to miss us! I heard one bullet whiz past me like a scorpyun. Well, it can’t be helped. Those old coachers will all battle their way home again before long. Gordon, I vote we go home. They’re your cattle now, and you’ll have to come out again after ’em some day, and do a little more shootin’. Get a suit of armour on you first, though.”
As they jogged home through the bright moonlight, they heard loud laughter from the blacks, and Carew, looking back, found the fat gin giving a dramatic rehearsal of his exploits. She dashed her horse along at a great pace, fell on his neck, clutched wildly at the reins, then suddenly turned in her saddle, and pretended to fire point-blank at the other blacks, who all dodged the bullet. Then she fell on the horse’s neck again, and so on ad lib.
This made the Englishman very morose. He was quite glad when Charlie said he had seen enough of the cattle, and they would all start next day for civilisation—Charlie to resume the management of Mr Grant’s stations, Carew to go with him as “colonial experiencer”, and Considine to start for England to look after his inheritance.