Young men who have always hung around the home districts, doing a job of shearing here or a turn at horse-breaking there, look with reverence on Riverine or Macquarie-River shearers who come in with tales of runs where they have 300,000 acres of freehold land and shear 250,000 sheep; these again pale their ineffectual fires before the glory of the Northern Territory man who has all-comers on toast, because no one can contradict him or check his figures. When two of them meet, however, they are not fools enough to cut down quotations and spoil the market; they lie in support of each other, and make all other bushmen feel mean and pitiful and inexperienced.
Sometimes a youngster would timidly ask Greenhide Billy about the ‘terra incognita’: “What sort of a place is it, Billy—how big are the properties? How many acres had you in the place you were on?”
“Acres be d——d!” Billy would scornfully reply; “hear him talking about acres! D’ye think we were blanked cockatoo selectors! Out there we reckon country by the hundred miles. You orter say, ‘How many thousand miles of country?’ and then I’d understand you.”
Furthermore, according to Billy, they reckoned the rainfall in the Territory by yards, not inches. He had seen blackfellows who could jump at least three inches higher than anyone else had ever seen a blackfellow jump, and every bushman has seen or personally known a blackfellow who could jump over six feet. Billy had seen bigger droughts, better country, fatter cattle, faster horses, and cleverer dogs, than any other man on the Clarence River. But one night when the rain was on the roof, and the river was rising with a moaning sound, and the men were gathered round the fire in the hut smoking and staring at the coals, Billy turned himself loose and gave us his masterpiece.
“I was drovin’ with cattle from Mungrybanbone to old Corlett’s station on the Buckadowntown River” (Billy always started his stories with some paralysing bush names). “We had a thousand head of store-cattle, wild, mountain-bred wretches that’d charge you on sight; they were that handy with their horns they could skewer a mosquito. There was one or two one-eyed cattle among ’em—and you know how a one-eyed beast always keeps movin’ away from the mob, pokin’ away out to the edge of them so as they won’t git on his blind side, so that by stirrin’ about he keeps the others restless.
“They had been scared once or twice, and stampeded and gave us all we could do to keep them together; and it was wet and dark and thundering, and it looked like a real bad night for us. It was my watch. I was on one side of the cattle, like it might be here, with a small bit of a fire; and my mate, Barcoo Jim, he was right opposite on the other side of the cattle, and had gone to sleep under a log. The rest of the men were in the camp fast asleep. Every now and again I’d get on my horse and prowl round the cattle quiet like, and they seemed to be settled down all right, and I was sitting by my fire holding my horse and drowsing, when all of a sudden a blessed ’possum ran out from some saplings and scratched up a tree right alongside me. I was half-asleep, I suppose, and was startled; anyhow, never thinking what I was doing, I picked up a firestick out of the fire and flung it at the ’possum.
“Whoop! Before you could say Jack Robertson, that thousand head of cattle were on their feet, and made one wild, headlong, mad rush right over the place where poor old Barcoo Jim was sleeping. There was no time to hunt up materials for the inquest; I had to keep those cattle together, so I sprang into the saddle, dashed the spurs into the old horse, dropped my head on his mane, and sent him as hard as he could leg it through the scrub to get to the lead of the cattle and steady them. It was brigalow, and you know what that is.
“You know how the brigalow grows,” continued Bill; “saplings about as thick as a man’s arm, and that close together a dog can’t open his mouth to bark in ’em. Well, those cattle swept through that scrub, levelling it like as if it had been cleared for a railway line. They cleared a track a quarter of a mile wide, and smashed every stick, stump and sapling on it. You could hear them roaring and their hoofs thundering and the scrub smashing three or four miles off.
“And where was I? I was racing parallel with the cattle, with my head down on the horse’s neck, letting him pick his way through the scrub in the pitchy darkness. This went on for about four miles. Then the cattle began to get winded, and I dug into the old stock-horse with the spurs, and got in front, and began to crack the whip and sing out, so as to steady them a little; after awhile they dropped slower and slower, and I kept the whip going. I got them all together in a patch of open country, and there I rode round and round ’em all night till daylight.
“And how I wasn’t killed in the scrub, goodness only knows; for a man couldn’t ride in the daylight where I did in the dark. The cattle were all knocked about—horns smashed, legs broken, ribs torn; but they were all there, every solitary head of ’em; and as soon as the daylight broke I took ’em back to the camp—that is, all that could travel, because I had to leave a few broken-legged ones.”
Billy paused in his narrative. He knew that some suggestions would be made, by way of compromise, to tone down the awful strength of the yarn, and he prepared himself accordingly. His motto was “No surrender”; he never abated one jot of his statements; if anyone chose to remark on them, he made them warmer and stronger, and absolutely flattened out the intruder.
“That was a wonderful bit of ridin’ you done, Billy,” said one of the men at last, admiringly. “It’s a wonder you wasn’t killed. I suppose your clothes was pretty well tore off your back with the scrub?”
“Never touched a twig,” said Billy.
“Ah!” faltered the inquirer, “then no doubt you had a real ringin’ good stock-horse that could take you through a scrub like that full-split in the dark, and not hit you against anything.”
“No, he wasn’t a good un,” said Billy decisively, “he was the worst horse in the camp. Terrible awkward in the scrub he was, always fallin’ down on his knees; and his neck was so short you could sit far back on him and pull his ears.”
Here that interrogator retired hurt; he gave Billy best. After a pause another took up the running.
“How did your mate get on, Billy? I s’pose he was trampled to a mummy!”
“No,” said Billy, “he wasn’t hurt a bit. I told you he was sleeping under the shelter of a log. Well, when those cattle rushed they swept over that log a thousand strong; and every beast of that herd took the log in his stride and just missed landing on Barcoo Jimmy by about four inches.”
The men waited a while and smoked, to let this statement soak well into their systems; at last one rallied and had a final try.
“It’s a wonder then, Billy,” he said, “that your mate didn’t come after you and give you a hand to steady the cattle.”
“Well, perhaps it was,” said Billy, “only that there was a bigger wonder than that at the back of it.”
“What was that?”
“My mate never woke up all through it.”
Then the men knocked the ashes out of their pipes and went to bed.