We had, in most instances, paid premiums to learn the noble art of squatting—which now appears to me hardly worth studying, for so much depends on luck that a man with a head as long as a horse’s has little better chance than the fool just imported. Besides the manager and the jackaroos, there were a few boundary riders to prowl round the fences of the vast paddocks. This constituted the whole station staff.
Buckalong was on one of the main routes by which stock were taken to market, or from the plains to the tablelands, and vice versa. Great mobs of travelling sheep constantly passed through the run, eating up the grass and vexing the soul of the manager. By law, sheep must travel six miles per day, and they must be kept to within half-a-mile of the road. Of course we kept all the grass near the road eaten bare, to discourage travellers from coming that way.
Such hapless wretches as did venture through Buckalong used to try hard to stray from the road and pick up a feed, but old Sandy was always ready for them, and would have them dogged right through the run. This bred feuds, and bad language, and personal combats between us and the drovers, whom we looked upon as natural enemies.
The men who came through with mobs of cattle used to pull down the paddock fences at night, and slip the cattle in for refreshments, but old Sandy often turned out at 2 or 3 a.m. to catch a mob of bullocks in the horse-paddock, and then off they went to Buckalong pound. The drovers, as in duty bound, attributed the trespass to accident—broken rails, and so on—and sometimes they tried to rescue the cattle, which again bred strife and police-court summonses.
Besides having a particular aversion to drovers, old M’Gregor had a general “down” on the young Australians whom he comprehensively described as a “feckless, horrse-dealin’, horrse-stealin’, crawlin’ lot o’ wretches.” According to him, a native-born would sooner work a horse to death than work for a living any day. He hated any man who wanted to sell him a horse.
“As aw walk the street,” he used to say, “the fouk disna stawp me to buy claes nor shoon, an’ wheerfore should they stawp me to buy horrses? It’s ‘Mister M’Gregor, will ye purrchase a horrse?’ Let them wait till I ask them to come wi’ their horrses.”
Such being his views on horseflesh and drovers, we felt no little excitement when one Sunday, at dinner, the cook came in to say there was “a drover-chap outside wanted the boss to come and have a look at a horse.” M’Gregor simmered a while, and muttered something about the “Sawbath day”; but at last he went out, and we filed after him to see the fun.
The drover stood by the side of his horse, beneath the acacia trees in the yard. He had a big scar on his face, apparently the result of collision with a fence; he looked thin and sickly and seemed poverty-stricken enough to disarm hostility. Obviously, he was down on his luck. Had it not been for that indefinable self-reliant look which drovers—the Ishmaels of the bush—always acquire, one might have taken him for a swagman. His horse was in much the same plight. It was a ragged, unkempt pony, pitifully poor and very footsore, at first sight, an absolute “moke”; but a second glance showed colossal round ribs, square hips, and a great length of rein, the rest hidden beneath a wealth of loose hair. He looked like “a good journey horse”, possibly something better.
We gathered round while M’Gregor questioned the drover. The man was monosyllabic to a degree, as the real bushmen generally are. It is only the rowdy and the town-bushy that are fluent of speech.
“Guid mornin’,” said M’Gregor.
“Mornin’, boss,” said the drover, shortly.
“Is this the horrse ye hae for sale?”
“Ay,” and M’Gregor looked at the pony with a businesslike don’t-think-much-of-him air, ran his hand lightly over the hard legs, and opened the passive creature’s mouth. “H’m,” he said. Then he turned to the drover. “Ye seem a bit oot o’ luck. Ye’re thin like. What’s been the matter?”
“Been sick with fever—Queensland fever. Just come through from the North. Been out on the Diamantina last.”
“Ay. I was there mysel’,” said M’Gregor. “Hae ye the fever on ye still?”
“Yes—goin’ home to get rid of it.”
A man can only get Queensland fever in a malarial district, but he can carry it with him wherever he goes. If he stays, it will sap his strength and pull him to pieces; if he moves to a better climate, the malady moves with him, leaving him by degrees, and coming back at regular intervals to rack, shake, burn, and sweat its victim. Gradually it wears itself out, often wearing its patient out at the same time. M’Gregor had been through the experience, and there was a slight change in his voice as he went on with his palaver.
“Whaur are ye makin’ for the noo?”
“Monaro—my people live in Monaro.”
“Hoo will ye get to Monaro gin ye sell the horrse?”
“Coach and rail. Too sick to care about ridin’,” said the drover, while a wan smile flitted over his yellow-grey features. “I’ve rode him far enough. I’ve rode that horse a thousand miles. I wouldn’t sell him, only I’m a bit hard up. Sellin’ him now to get the money to go home.”
“Hoo auld is he?”
“Is he a guid horrse on a camp?” asked M’Gregor.
“No better camp-horse in Queensland,” said the drover. “You can chuck the reins on his neck, an’ he’ll cut out a beast by himself.”
M’Gregor’s action in this matter puzzled us. We spent our time crawling after sheep, and a camp-horse would be about as much use to us as side-pockets to a pig. We had expected Sandy to rush the fellow off the place at once, and we couldn’t understand how it was that he took so much interest in him. Perhaps the fever-racked drover and the old camp-horse appealed to him in a way incomprehensible to us. We had never been on the Queensland cattle-camps, nor shaken and shivered with the fever, nor lived the roving life of the overlanders. M’Gregor had done all this, and his heart (I can see it all now) went out to the man who brought the old days back to him.
“Ah, weel,” he said, “we hae’na muckle use for a camp-horrse here, ye ken; wi’oot some of these lads wad like to try theer han’ cuttin’ oot the milkers’ cawves frae their mithers.” And the old man laughed contemptuously, while we felt humbled in the sight of the man from far back. “An’ what’ll ye be wantin’ for him?” asked M’Gregor.
“Reckon he’s worth fifteen notes,” said the drover.
This fairly staggered us. Our estimates had varied between thirty shillings and a fiver. We thought the negotiations would close abruptly; but M’Gregor, after a little more examination, agreed to give the price, provided the saddle and bridle, both grand specimens of ancient art, were given in. This was agreed to, and the drover was sent off to get his meals in the hut before leaving by the coach.
“The mon is verra harrd up, an’ it’s a sair thing that Queensland fever,” was the only remark M’Gregor made. But we knew now that there was a soft spot in his heart somewhere.
Next morning the drover got a crisp-looking cheque. He said no word while the cheque was being written, but, as he was going away, the horse happened to be in the yard, and he went over to the old comrade that had carried him so many miles, and laid a hand on his neck.
“He ain’t much to look at,” said the drover, speaking slowly and awkwardly, “but he’s white when he’s wanted.” And just before the coach rattled off, the man of few words leant down from the box and nodded impressively, and repeated, “Yes, he’s white when he’s wanted.”
We didn’t trouble to give the new horse a name. Station horses are generally called after the man from whom they are bought. “Tom Devine”, “The Regan mare”, “Black M’Carthy” and “Bay M’Carthy” were among the appellations of our horses at that time. As we didn’t know the drover’s name, we simply called the animal “The new horse” until a still newer horse was one day acquired. Then, one of the hands being told to take the new horse, said, “D’yer mean the new new horse or the old new horse?”
“Naw,” said the boss, “not the new horrse—that bay horrse we bought frae the drover. The ane he said was white when he’s wanted.”
And so, by degrees, the animal came to be referred to as the horse that’s white when he’s wanted, and at last settled down to the definite name of “White-when-he’s-wanted”.
White-when-he’s-wanted didn’t seem much of an acquisition. He was sent out to do slavery for Greenhide Billy, a boundary-rider who plumed himself on having once been a cattle-man. After a week’s experience of “White”, Billy came in to the homestead disgusted. The pony was so lazy that he had to build a fire under him to get him to move, and so rough that it made a man’s nose bleed to ride him more than a mile. “The boss must have been off his head to give fifteen notes for such a cow.”
M’Gregor heard this complaint. “Verra weel, Mr. Billy,” said he, hotly, “ye can juist tak’ ane of the young horrses in yon paddock, an’ if he bucks wi’ ye an’ kills ye, it’s yer ain fault. Ye’re a cattleman—so ye say—dommed if ah believe it. Ah believe ye’re a dairy-farmin’ body frae Illawarra. Ye ken neither horrse nor cattle. Mony’s the time ye never rode buckjumpers, Mr. Billy”—and with this parting-shot the old man turned into the house, and White-when-he’s-wanted came back to the head station.
For a while he was a sort of pariah. He used to yard the horses, fetch up the cows, and hunt travelling sheep through the run. He really was lazy and rough, and we all decided that Billy’s opinion of him was correct, until the day came to make one of our periodical raids on the wild horses in the hills at the back of the run.
Every now and again we formed parties to run in some of these animals, and, after nearly galloping to death half-a-dozen good horses, we would capture three or four brumbies, and bring them in triumph to the homestead to be broken in. By the time they had thrown half the crack riders on the station, broken all the bridles, rolled on all the saddles, and kicked all the dogs, they would be marketable (and no great bargains) at about thirty shillings a head.
Yet there is no sport in the world to be mentioned in the same volume as “running horses”, and we were very keen on it. All the crack nags were got as fit as possible, and fed up beforehand; and on this particular occasion White-when-he’s-wanted, being in good trim, was given a week’s hard feed and lent to a harum-scarum fellow from the Upper Murray, who happened to be working in a survey camp on the run. How he did open our eyes!
He ran the mob from hill to hill, from range to range, across open country and back again to the hills, over flats and gullies, through hop-scrub and stringybark ridges; and all the time White-when-he’s-wanted was on the wing of the mob, pulling double. The mares and foals dropped out, the colts and young stock pulled up dead beat, and only the seasoned veterans were left. Most of our horses caved in altogether; one or two were kept in the hunt by judicious nursing and shirking the work; but White-when-he’s-wanted was with the quarry from end to end of the run, doing double his share; and at the finish, when a chance offered to wheel them into the trapyard, he simply smothered them for pace, and slewed them into the wings before they knew where they were. Such a capture had not fallen to our lot for many a day, and the fame of White-when-he’s-wanted was speedily noised abroad.
He was always fit for work, always hungry, always ready to lie down and roll, and always lazy. But when he heard the rush of the brumbies’ feet in the scrub he became frantic with excitement. He could race over the roughest ground without misplacing a hoof or altering his stride, and he could sail over fallen timber and across gullies like a kangaroo. Nearly every Sunday we were after the brumbies, until they got as lean as greyhounds and as cunning as policemen. We were always ready to back White-when-he’s-wanted to run-down, single-handed, any animal in the bush that we liked to put him after—wild horses, wild cattle, kangaroos, emus, dingoes, kangaroo-rats—we barred nothing, for, if he couldn’t beat them for pace, he would outlast them.
And then one day he disappeared from the paddock, and we never saw him again. We knew there were plenty of men in the district who would steal him; but, as we knew also of many more who would “inform” for a pound or two, we were sure that it could not have been local “talent” that had taken him. We offered good rewards and set some of the right sort to work, but heard nothing of him for about a year.
Then the surveyor’s assistant turned up again, after a trip to the interior. He told us the usual string of back-block lies, and wound up by saying that out on the very fringe of settlement he had met an old acquaintance.
“Who was that?”
“Why, that little bay horse that I rode after the brumbies that time. The one you called White-when-he’s-wanted.”
“The deuce you did! Are you sure? Who had him?”
“Sure! I’d swear to him anywhere. A little drover fellow had him. A little fellow, with a big scar across his forehead. Came from Monaro way somewhere. He said he bought the horse from you for fifteen notes.”
The King’s warrant doesn’t run much out west of Boulia, and it is not likely that any of us will ever see the drover again, or will ever again cross the back of “White-when-he’s-wanted”.