The Fencing of Wandaroona: A Riverina Reminiscence
‘I INTEND to stick to the house this morning. What a sensation the very cutting of the leaves of a new magazine gives one! There is the tale you wish to see the end of, the fresh, clean pages, the certainty of something new, if not original—why! hosts of literary ideas seem to issue from the very paper-knife. Surely, few people can enjoy reading so thoroughly as we squatters do,’ pursued Gilbert Elliot (dividing the inviolate pages of his Cornhill). ‘All conditions so favourable. Appetite sharpened by abstinence, and an occupation permitting priceless intervals of true leisure, by which I mean seasons of repose succeeding unremitting toil. For instance, until this morning, we have hardly had an hour’s rest for the last fortnight—no respite from riding, drafting, sheep-counting, or sheep-hunting. Sheep from morning to night; from night till morning. What a blessed thing to be able to abstract one’s thoughts for a few hours from what men call business, and to realise, however faintly, that this beautiful world is not a partially-stocked run, waiting to be filled with merinoes.’
Thus Mr. Gilbert Elliot of Wandaroona Station, Lower Murrumbidgee, in the colony of New South Wales, on a certain fine Sunday morning.
‘Thoroughly jolly, as you say—did I catch the exact words?’ assented his brother Hobbie, lazily looking up from the Home News. ‘I feel like a Red Cross Knight having a lounge in the castle of his lady-love, though how the unlucky beggars managed to pass the time when there was no fighting on hand without books or tobacco, I cannot imagine. Luckily, the said fighting unspoiled by gunpowder, was a steady-going leisurely sort of recreation. Apparently, also, getting drunk was a work of time. Our Border forefathers that the dear old governor used to tell us about, gave and took a good deal of banging before any one was killed outright, like Sir Albany Fetherstonhaugh in the ballad; he had odds against him too.
‘Heigho! I wonder if ever we shall make money enough at Wandaroona to see the old country and look up the ruined keep into which my ancestor and namesake chivied the Red Reiver of Westburnflat; wouldn’t it be grand?
‘Ha! do my eyes deceive me or is that a man on foot turning into the station track?’
‘A man sure enough,’ pronounced Gilbert, dropping the Cornhill as he spoke, ‘and confoundedly like a shepherd too.’
‘A shepherd!’ echoed Hobbie despairingly—as who should say ‘a bushranger!’ ‘No! Fate couldn’t be so unkind.’
‘It’s that new fellow we hired for the weaners at Pine Hut, or I’m a Chinaman,’ persisted the elder. ‘I know him by the fur cap the scoundrel has on. May the devil fly away with him! I wish every shepherd between here and Carpentaria was boiled down. It’s all they are fit for. Here, Flying Mouse! Mouse!’ (Goes to the back door and shouts loudly.) To him enter an elfish mite of an aboriginal boy.
‘You plenty run up yarraman—saddle that one Damper and Kingfisher—you man ’um Squib—burra burri.’
Some explanation of these incongruous acts and deeds so closely following far different intentions, and evoked by nothing more startling than the appropriate apparition of a shepherd, is plainly demanded. During the ordinary and satisfactory transaction of life on a sheep station shepherds are never seen by day except in charge of their flocks. They are not permitted, for any reason whatever, to leave them by day, and only occasionally at night, when, their flocks being safely yarded, they elect to walk in to make necessary purchases at the station. At all other times a shepherd unattached, seen approaching the homestead, is a precursor of evil, a messenger of bad tidings, causing general alarm and excitement.
Nearer and still nearer came the personage in the fur cap, rueful of countenance and ludicrously important as the bearer of a tale of woe.
‘How many sheep have you lost?’ bluntly demands Hobbie.
‘Bin and ’ad a smash, sir,’ quoth the hireling in hoarse tones, intended to convey deep regret and concern—‘bin and dropped a wing o’ my sheep. They was as quiet in the yard as old ewes till I heard ’em rush in the middle of the night, and afore I could get anigh them they was off into the scrub on the hill—in a body—as one might say.’
‘When was this?’
‘The day before yesterday, sir.’
‘Then why the deuce didn’t you come in, as you ought to have done, and report the loss at once?’
‘Well, sir!’ pleaded the delinquent, swaying his body backward and forward, ‘I was next to certain as I’d drop across ’em every moment—I’m well aware, sir, as I ought to have started in, but I walked all day yesterday till I was footsore and too dead-beat to come in at night——’
‘You knew perfectly well,’ retorted Gilbert, ‘that I’ve always told you in case of lost sheep to come in that moment and report. By trying to find them yourself, you have left them a day and a night out, giving them every chance to get killed by the dingoes. It would serve you right if I made you pay for all losses. There—go into the kitchen and get something to eat.’
‘Oh dear!’ groaned Hobbie. ‘I thought our quiet morning over books and papers was too lovely to last! Think of that idiot wandering about on foot all day and yesterday. Shepherds always fancy they can find their sheep themselves and so escape the blame of the situation. Come along!’
In a few seconds after this dialogue—how different, alas! from the philosophic calm of the preceding one—three horsemen might have been noted, who rode at speed towards the north. The pace was reckless, the expression on the countenances of the riders darkly anxious. A sullen silence was maintained for several miles, then a slackening of speed took place, also a slight escape of steam.
‘Hang all shepherds!’ jerked out Hobbie, with such concentrated fervour that Gilbert in the midst of his woes could not help smiling.
‘Think of our dear day’s reading that we had chalked out, and this precursor of the fiend coming nearer and nearer all the time, to change it with one word into this kind of thing.’
‘Amen! to the first part of the prayer,’ cordially assented Gilbert. ‘Shepherds are about one degree better than wild dogs, with which beasts of prey, by the way, they seem rather to sympathise.’
‘Hunting for lost sheep is the most depressing work I know. You have a long, dreary ride, you must lose a few sheep—you may lose many, especially if they have been a second night out.’
‘If that fur-capped lunatic had only come in the first morning! But we must hit out. It is sixteen miles to his hut, and then we have the tracks to find——’
Away, away, through box-forest, plain, and pinewood; Flying Mouse pulling hard as Squib, a narrow, wiry blood weed, fully convinced that he was in for some species of Scurry Stakes—such being the style of contest in which he annually acquired glory—came racing past his masters, jumping over logs and rocks like a goat, and grazing the legs of the imperturbable Flying Mouse against saplings. In considerably under two hours they halted at a hill, one side of which was thinly wooded, sloping gently towards a plain. On the hillside was a small hut, and a large brush yard. ‘Now then, Flying Mouse—you look alive, you see ’em track—they’ve made this way, no, t’other way, feeding in a circle just to bother us.’
‘That one jumbuck yan ’longa scrub, plenty track all about,’ said the blackboy authoritatively, with his keen roving eyes nailed to the ground as he moved off across the wooded portion of the hill.
‘Leave them alone for that, the troublesome brutes,’ grumbled Hobbie, morbidly prejudiced in this dark hour against the innocent merinoes, ‘Get on, Mouse!’
The trail, once hit off, was never lost by the swart child of the waste, who showed where the disbanded flock had crossed the belt of scrub into a gully, spreading out after a fashion which seemed expressly calculated to mislead; then, that they had headed straight for the river—where they had suddenly turned short in their tracks at the apparent dictation of the evil one; farther on another abrupt divergence, and lastly, a sudden halt and rounding up.
Gazing long at the trampled grass, Flying Mouse raised his head with the air of a diplomate, who, by unerring steps of evidence, had arrived at his adversary’s position.
‘Me thinkum dingo,’ he said conclusively.
‘Ha! you seeum crow?’
It was even so. Under a tree upon which sat the bird of doom, lay half a dozen well-grown weaners, bearing about fourteen months’ wool, their torn throats and flanks showing that the tyrant of the fields had been at his usual work.
‘Six killed and I suppose about twenty bitten,’ said Gilbert—‘pretty work for a beginning—of course they have split up and scattered here to make things nicer.’
‘No use grumbling,’ remonstrated Hobbie. ‘Spoils one’s digestion, and does no good. We must accept the inevitable and make up our minds to be glad if we get out of this smash with a loss of thirty or forty. There are sheep! Hurrah!’
In a glade of the forest a few sheep were espied just about to join a respectable body of others, from which they had temporarily separated. Having counted them, which was effected by driving them round the end of a fallen log, it was apparent that they had recovered nearly one-half of the flock, but among them a dozen or more with red stains amid the wool, showed by their languid movements that they had felt the fangs of ‘the Australian wolf.’
‘These bitten sheep will die,’ remarked Gilbert gloomily. ‘I wonder how many lots the others are in? You go towards the half-way waterhole with these, Hobbie; I will keep on after the rest.’
‘All right; I’ll wait there till you come.’ After much riding hither and thither, and tracking and hunting, three other small lots of the sheep were found by Gilbert and Flying Mouse and driven to the half-way waterhole. Being counted there it was found that only 227 were still missing of the 2300 which had but a week since been carefully counted out to him of the fur cap. Nothing more could be done that night, so the brothers, having deposited their sheep in an unused but dog-proof yard, started for home, which they reached about midnight.
There they unsaddled their sobered horses, upon whose backs they had been sitting for the last fourteen hours without food or rest for man or brute. They were not on this account treated with extraordinary marks of attention. Popping their saddles and bridles into the harness-room they left their hardy nags to ‘browse beneath the midnight dews,’ a refreshment which they were not too fastidious to decline.
All hands were on the war-path early on Monday morning, where, after an hour’s riding, they met one of the other shepherds with his flock. ‘Well, Growlson, good-day, sheep all right?’
‘Good-day, sir,’ returned the Arcadian gruffly, ‘dessay it’s all good-day with you—my sheep’s all adoin’ as bad as can be.’
‘Sorry to hear that, Growlson—catarrh broke out, eh?’
‘Well, I don’t know as they’ve got it yet, sir, but if that new shepherd’s allowed to come backards and forrards through my bit of run, my sheep’ll soon be that poor that they may get the “guitar,” or the scab, or anything else, as only comes from poverty of blood, in my opinion. Then that ration—carrier ain’t brought me the right ’bacca, nor the soap as I sent in for more’n a fortnight ago, and there’s a lump of bone in my meat; I know that storekeeper’s got a down on me, and my yard wants making up, and there’s a sheet of bark off the roof of the hut, and I’d be glad if you’d have my account made out, and let me know how I stand, I’m a-thinking of leaving next month, sir, and—’
‘Confound it, Growlson, I can’t stand here all day listening to your grumbling. If you want to go, go! but don’t come bothering me about it. That new man at the Pine Hut lost his sheep the day before yesterday.’
‘Lost his sheep, did he?’ asked the shepherd with an air of cheerful interest. ‘Well, I thought he seemed a blowin’ sort of fool. Was they branded No. 5?’
‘Yes,—have you seen any?’
‘Well, my leading sheep picked up a few this morning—about a hundred, I should say. Just agoin’ to tell you when you stopped me.’
‘Round up your flock and let me have a look at them.’
Shepherd (to dog): ‘Go round ’em, Balley.’
The obedient collie runs round the head of the flock, which he drives violently back upon the rearward sheep, then rushes behind, driving up the rear rank with great precipitation, and lastly flies round the whole circumference of the flock, jamming them into one terrified and panting mass.
Shepherd: ‘Good dog, Balley!’
Hobbie looks keenly through the flock, after which he says—‘Well, you have 200 good if you haven’t the whole lot. You shepherds never can guess at a small number of sheep. Go into the home station to- morrow and get drafted. Your flock looks well as usual. If you want anything get it at the store.’
Shepherd: ‘Oh, I don’t want nothin’, besides you always charges a pore man so high for everything. Speak to ’em, Balley!’
Hobbie turns, and going quietly back takes it very easily for the rest of the day. Gilbert, who has heard nothing of the fortunate ‘picking up’ of the remainder of the lost sheep by Growlson, goes into some ‘back country,’ where he searches zealously but unsuccessfully the whole day. Finally reaches home very tired and rather cross, long after dark. He is, however, mollified by the good news that the flock is comparatively all right. There are fourteen missing, most of which have been seen dead, and twenty-five bitten more or less badly. Few of these last will survive. The fangs of the dingo strike wolfishly deep; moreover there is a taint of poison, as old shepherds declare, in the wild dog’s bite—so disproportionate often is the mortality to the appearance of the wounds.
The lately jeopardised flock is handed over to another shepherd who had opportunely arrived at the travellers’ hut the night before. He is a clean—shaved elderly man, of grave and respectable air, followed by two collies evidently of value—as they are provided with the wire muzzle of the period. ‘Where were you last?’ inquires Hobbie.
‘Furlong’s Outer-back-Mullah, been shepherdin’ five-and-twenty year come Christmas. Been at Mullah four, just “knocked down” a cheque for seventy-two pound—worse luck.’
‘Then you won’t want to get drunk for a year at least,’ said Hobbie. ‘Had your breakfast?’
‘Got your blankets?’
‘Well, go up to the yard and I’ll come now and count the sheep to you. Feed them along the track by the edge of the plain till I catch you up. I’ll send your rations after you.’
The deposed pastor in the fur cap having had his account made up, is accommodated with a small cheque, and is requested to go and lose somebody else’s sheep, but if so to report the affair more quickly. He accordingly departs—giving out ‘all down the river’ that ‘them Elliots’ entreated him to stay with the tears in their eyes—couldn’t stand the rations—bad flour—post and rail tea—and nothing but old ewe mutton.
ALL the day has been consumed in depositing the new shepherd at his station; also in regulating two other flocks that have taken the opportunity to get ‘boxed’ or mixed up. So that they have to be brought in and carefully drafted. This little duty being finished, word comes in from the farthest out station—twenty miles back from the river—that, in the opinion of the shepherd who sent the message, something was wrong with old Bill Bolton at the Sandhill Hut; had seen his sheep all round the hut in the middle of the day—called out, but got no answer; was obliged to go on, as his (the shepherd’s) sheep were ‘running on young feed.’
This was the substance of the message—apparently not alarming. To the instructed, however, in the ways of sheep and shepherds the aspect of matters thus disclosed was ominous.
‘I don’t like the look of things at all,’ said Gilbert. ‘Old Bill is our best shepherd—never given the least trouble during the five years he has been with us. I can’t understand his sheep being at home at mid-day unless the old man was sick—it is a bad sign. He cannot have gone away for a “spree,” as, besides being a straightforward, plucky old fellow, he has a large sum (for a shepherd) at his credit.’
‘Something must have happened,’ replied Hobbie thoughtfully. ‘The night is fine, there will be a moon in two hours; suppose we ride out after dinner? These men rarely grumble when there is real occasion, curious to say, but die and make no sign.’
‘The best thing we can do,’ assented Gilbert; ‘we shall only be worrying ourselves all night, and we may be in time to help the poor old fellow. Here, Flying Mouse! run up yarraman—the gray for me—Mr. Hobbie’s mare, and you take Curlew for a treat. You put on saddle when that one moon look out ’longa sky; we go long o’ Sandhill Hut; that one old man Bill very bad, I believe.’
‘Strange life is that of a shepherd,’ pursued Gilbert, ’especially in these latter days of economical management. In the old days a hut- keeper was necessary—if only to keep the blacks from robbing the hut, or to report the death of the shepherd when they killed him and took the sheep. One can think of the shepherd as a man not altogether without the minor pleasures, as returning at night he found the mutton chops, the freshly baked damper, and the quart-pot of tea ready on the table. At this season of rest and refreshment, the hut-keeper would walk forth with hair brushed and oiled, his whole get-up denoting study and leisure, to put the flock within the hurdles which, during the day, he had shifted on to fresh sward.’
‘Yes,’ said Hobbie, who was meditatively appropriating a succession of slices from the ample breast of a wild turkey which Flying Mouse had succeeded in stalking a few days previous, victualling the fortress on the principle of the late Dugald Dalgetty, formerly of Mareschal College. ‘Yes! it was not such a bad life, for a man who was old or an outlaw; misanthropical or merely lazy. If he could not fraternise with his hut-keeper he could always fight with him, nearly as pleasant a break in the monotony of his life. It is curious that two people, as wholly dependent on each other’s society as if they had been on a raft, generally did quarrel, often for weeks, not interchanging a word. I always hated the “hatter” (or solitary shepherd) system, and gave in to the fashion reluctantly, as you know.’
‘We must be governed,’ answered the more arithmetical brother, ‘by the laws of supply and demand. A shepherd who keeps his own hut profits pecuniarily to the amount of ten pounds per annum. He undertakes the work and the Alexander Selkirk life voluntarily; we save two-thirds of the hut-keeper’s wages and all his rations.’
‘There’s a money profit and a trade success, I grant,’ retorted the unconvinced Hobbie, ‘but I don’t like it, as I said before. It’s like giving a fellow-creature every facility for becoming a lunatic. I have no doubt of the tendency of the lonely life, the unbroken solitude, the brooding soliloquy of which the shepherd gets the habit, to weaken or destroy the intellect.’
‘People lose their brains in many avocations now,’ said Gilbert; ‘I don’t know whether shepherds are madder than other people.’
‘A man must have incipient dementia who adopts the life at all. It’s lucky all men don’t think alike on these subjects. I think I hear the boy whistling and the horses pawing in the yard—vamos!’
Out into the fresh atmosphere of an Australian autumn night. O’er the dark-blue heavens rose nor cloud nor mist: golden-bright gleamed the star-clusters above them. The track was smooth, the red sand grateful to the feet of the horses. Fragrant the air with the aromatic scent of the shrubs through which the bridle-track led. Indescribable and profound the hush in which wood and plain alike were steeped. They saw the white half-Arab mare which the boy rode, flitting ghost-like through the weird woodland; and somewhat of gloom, as of a savour of death, seemed to associate itself with the night, as, each thinking his own thoughts, they rode fast but silently after their unflagging guide.
In an hour they reached a plain at the farther boundary of which was a wooded knoll. The pendulous streamers of the myall, stirred by the night breeze, swayed to and fro with an undertone scarcely audible. Gilbert thought they resembled funereal hangings—pall fringes, so mournful of hue were they.
At this moment the moon lifted her full orb above the dark-blue sky-line, a flood of light bathed the lonely plain, the darksome myall streamers. Far off, amid the sea-like expanse of the mallee (Eucalyptus dumosa) rise sombre, sharply defined peaks and ranges—the solitary isles of a far-distant sea rarely visited save by wandering tribes or scarce less savage outlaws. The scene was strangely solemn, even to gloom, in the weird silence which pervaded all things.
‘Road good, plenty moon now,’ chirped Mr. Flying Mouse—impervious to all influences save those derived from a rapid computation as to the distance from home and the improbability of supper at the Sandhill hut.
‘Quite right, Flibbertigibbet!’ said Hobbie, ‘twenty miles out and back means forty. Come, Gilbert—’ Gilbert responds by sending his snorting gay-going hackney at a hand gallop along the now plainly visible track, exhilarating to travel upon, from the perfection of its condition as a natural road. In less than two hours they reined up at a sandhill rising out of the level park-like country; a few noble pines grew around, towering above the banksias, the luxuriant growth of which bore testimony to the depth of the sand formation and the underlying moisture, one of the marvels of this ‘terra caliente.’ They rode slowly up the gently ascending track which, indistinct from the constant trampling of the flock, led to the hut where successive shepherds had spent many a lonely year. The building itself was neatly built from pine logs horizontally arranged after the American fashion; the roof was covered with shingles, split from the same valuable tree. An immense balah or forest oak grew immediately before the hut door. As the brothers dismounted, every feature of the lonely outpost was sharply defined in the magical glow of the moonbeams. In the faint night breeze the sombre sad-voiced tree gave forth the dirge-like sighing moan which the lightest air elicits from its melancholy tribe. The front of the little dwelling had been carefully swept, and no trace of disorder told of lawless violence.
‘Me seeum sheep camp ’longa yard,’ whispered Flying Mouse, pointing ahead.
‘Not mind ’um sheep now,’ said Gilbert gently; ‘get off, hold ’um horse.’
‘How awfully still everything is,’ said Hobbie as they entered the hut together. ‘I wouldn’t have come by myself for the world. Halloa, Bill! is that you, old man? I see you, what is the matter with you?’
‘Hush, Hobbie,’ said Gilbert, ‘I see him too; he would have turned round if he could; he is ill and weak, or dead.’
Side by side the brothers walked up to the rude pallet; rude was it, but neither poorly nor scantily covered, on which lay the old shepherd—he whose wild life had been passed on land and sea, an actor on both elements in many a strange adventure.
He lay in an easy posture, with his face slightly turned from them, one arm behind the head, the other stretched out by his side.
‘As I feared,’ said Gilbert, ‘the poor old fellow has gone to his account; I wonder if he was long ill? He was too weak or too proud to leave his sheep; could he have suffered much?’
‘My God!’ cried Hobbie, ‘look here!’ and he pointed to the throat of the dead man, in which an awful gash told the tale of reckless despair. ‘There lies his razor on his blanket under his hand; he has done the deed deliberately!’
There could be no doubt as to the coolly-arranged suicide. The old man lay stark and stiff, but his rugged features were calm. The death agony had marred not nor convulsed them.
Wondrous in their calmness are often such faces, even after violent death.
Short and passing had been the death pang; the corpse lay motionless as in sleep.
All was over! The brothers gazed long on their dead servant in silence. How desolate seemed the stillness, in which the wailing cry of a night-bird alone sounded sadly, as they stood, at the midnight hour, by the corpse of the suicide.
The little dwelling was scrupulously neat and cleanly, the hearth was swept, the few clothes and personal effects of the old man methodically disposed, the last half-eaten meal, the pannikin of tea, the rude arrangements of the tiny table made from a sheet of bark, all testified to the coolness with which the strange old man had planned to end his days—the darksome days of which he had long said, ‘I have no pleasure in them.’
Gilbert, with a sigh, broke the silence—‘God have mercy upon his soul! He alone knows how sorely His creature was tried ere he raised his hand against the life he gave——. We can but give him a Christian burial. Let us be doing. You had better go home at once and send the express waggon with a couple of men. Mouse and I will bring on the sheep, until we’re met. We must abandon this out-station for a while; we should never get a man to live here till the story was worn down a bit.’
‘I should think not,’ said Hobbie; ‘fancy dooming an unfortunate wretch to sleep here night after night, solitary after solitary days. Here, Mouse, round up that one sheep! you and Mr. Gilbert drive ’em alonga home station——’
‘What come ’long ole man Bill?’
‘Poor old Bill dead—cut ’um throat,’ answered Hobbie.
‘Ah! mine thinkit that one ole man die soon! him talk ’longa himself; me seeum cry, go down on knee and pray to de Lord and de Jesus Christ; what for white fellow go bad ’longa cobbra, baal blackfellow likit that——’
‘Blackfellow head too thick, like yours. Now, you fetch up sheep; away you go! You keep alonga road——’
‘No fear! baal mine loose im road alonga this one place—me too much big one frighten.’
Hobbie thereupon put spurs to his good horse, and long before daylight was back at Wandaroona, where the necessary dispositions were made for the removal and burial of poor old Bill.
Gilbert and the boy drove the flock before them on the homeward road, until met by a mounted shepherd. The flock was then counted through an improvised break, and Gilbert discovered to his great relief that of the 2500 fat wethers none were missing.
‘So much for good shepherding,’ said he (for the benefit of the fresh functionary). ‘These sheep had justice done to them; therefore they came home of themselves, and very likely would have kept on doing so till the wild dogs got at them. It is a miracle they had not done so before we came.’
That afternoon the men returned with the waggon in which was the corpse, with the scanty personal effects of the dead man. A grave had been dug in the little station burying-ground, the site of which had been selected with care. It lay under a rocky hill, which rose abruptly before it. A few pines, having in their cypress-like forms a certain fitness for the place, shaded the mound, where within a neatly paled enclosure rested the ordinary station casualties: A drowned sheep-washer; a horse-breaker taken unawares, and ‘smashed’ by a savage mustang; a nameless wayfarer who had prolonged his stay at the travellers’ hut, ‘feeling bad’ as he said—on the next day dying and making no sign. Besides these, under a neatly carved headstone, the former owner and pioneer of Wandaroona, whose constitution, impervious to privation, had succumbed to prosperity and whisky. To this unconsecrated but picturesque resting-place was borne the coffin made by the station carpenter, which contained the mortal remains of William Bolton, aged 65, born at North Shields, England, as a lettered inscription told. The station hands, with the exception of his brother shepherds—who under no circumstances whatever could be spared, followed him to the grave and stood silently around while Gilbert read the burial service of the Church of England. Then the grave was filled, the gate locked, and the spot deserted until Death should again claim his ‘teind’ from the little community.
Some days after this occurrence, disposition having been made of the usual morning’s work and the agents thereof, certain men whom it was found necessary to send forth, to ride, to drive, to carry rations for messages, to escort and watch travelling sheep, having been despatched accordingly, Gilbert thus delivered himself. He had been walking up and down the verandah puffing, smoking meditatively, in more than usually cogitative fashion.
‘Hobbie, like a good fellow, put away that confounded newspaper and listen to me. If you would read less (in a desultory way) and think a little more (connectedly, that is), you would do what you call your mind far greater justice.’
‘You don’t say so!’ replied Hobbie, looking up good-humouredly from the study of a wildly improbable Tale of Australian Life, in three parts, which he was gleaning from the back page of the Wallandra Watchman and Lower Oxley Advertiser. ‘Really now, if you were to smoke a little less, and dig in the garden a little more, you would improve your digestion, strengthen your nerves, and correct that habit which gives your affectionate junior so much uneasiness. And so, drive on, old man. What’s the idea?’
‘The idea is this, Hobbie—I am weary of this barbarous, expensive, antediluvian system of shepherding. It is a waste of time, of money, of the lives of our fellow-men. I am determined, as far as we are concerned, to make an end of it. Here we stand in the year 1865, with all its modern appliances and labour economies, content to crawl along with a system only suitable to those pre-auriferous days when a man to every thousand sheep was a fixed unalterable necessity. Now we have strychnine, fencing wire, dams, wells, hot-water soaks, steam engines, spouts—things then undreamed of. Why should we cling to this intolerable obsolete absurdity? Poor old Bill’s miserable death has decided me. I have been collecting information and statistics on the matter. We must make an end of the anxiety, expense, and injustice. Let us go in boldly and fence Wandaroona.’
‘HURRAH!’ shouted Hobbie, dashing down Stephen Shelton, or the Adventures of a Gentleman in Australia, with all his perils, privations, and pitched battles with blacks, bushrangers, and immoral squatters. ‘Hurrah! here’s the adventure I’ve been looking for. I’m by your side, most deliberative senior; but have you gone sufficiently into “Cocker”? Won’t it cost a heap of money? Won’t the dingoes have a grand general go-in at our enfranchised muttons?
‘He saw the wild dogs beneath the wall
‘How a great poet anticipates all life, adventures—even the least improbable! Could he have forecast Australia with her dulness, debts, deserts, dingoes? Won’t all the dingoes get boxed? Won’t all the lambs die? Won’t the Wallandra Watchman have this paragraph some fine day:—“New insolvents: Elliot Brothers of Wandaroona; cause of insolvency: costly improvements, commercial agents, and bad seasons”?’
‘I have considered that aspect of the question very carefully, my dear Hobbie,’ commenced the aroused senior, sailing out with his proposition in full majesty into battle line. ‘I have calculated the relative expense, and have fully convinced myself that shepherding is costly as well as criminal! Here are the figures! Our run has ten miles of frontage to the river by twenty in depth—two hundred square miles. We depasture at present on it over nineteen thousand sheep; horses and cattle none to speak of; the country is partly river flat, partly plain, with a large proportion of open forest and some thickly timbered but well-grassed ranges. Pine is plentiful on the boundary, log fencing therefore might be cheaply put up across the plains; on one side we must have wire. Consider the labour department. We have at this moment ten shepherds to pay and feed; a ration carrier who does nothing but attend upon them; then Mr. Countemout, who with ourselves is kept hard at it—active fellow as he is—finding lost sheep, verifying the flocks, and acting as first whip to those exasperating shepherds; more than that, the extra attendants at lambing time—my blood boils when I think of the army of incapables that we are obliged to pay, feed, house, and tenderly entreat, during that season of trial. Hutkeepers, motherers—save the mark! a man for the first green mob; another for the second green mob; double shepherds, the flock being halved. Every kind of useless vagrant fattening upon you, and giving himself airs of importance, for doing what a black gin could do much better; whereas turned-out sheep——’
‘But you would not surely turn the ewes at liberty,’ interrupted Hobbie—aghast at this wild departure from all tradition.
‘Of course I would. Why not?’
‘Why not?’ echoed Hobbie. ‘Why, who ever heard of such a thing? Will they not all mix up in one immense trampling multitude? I have visions of them moving along excitedly, five thousand strong, with the tender new—born lambs striving to keep up—listening all vainly for the maternal baa among the bleating masses; finally falling and perishing by the wayside in hundreds. The picture is too painful!’ Here Hobbie covered his eyes.
‘Don’t be a goose!’ went on Gilbert sternly. ‘You are as senseless as an old shepherd, who (I always think) knows less of the nature of the animals he has wasted his life over than any other human being. He believes that a ewe can’t suckle her lamb except he and his confounded Balley are in sight to distract the (perhaps) limited intelligence granted by Providence to the female sheep. Why should not a ewe, if not troubled and worried—arrange her maternal duties as well as a heifer? I am certain the sheep will gain in all respects by non-interference, and whatever it costs I am resolved to see how it works.’
‘Has anybody else tried the experiment; and with what success?’ demanded Hobbie.
‘Lots!’ asserted Gilbert, regardless of grammar in his enthusiasm. ‘Those Victorian fellows have been at it for years—if we may trust the papers; they are rather bumptious, certainly, but if they get hold of a new idea they don’t wait, like an aloe, till a century produces a flower.’
‘Hurrah! hear, hear!’ called out Hobbie, clapping his hands, ‘you’re not going in for the House, are you? But who is this riding across the flat?
‘I know the light gray charger,
‘I hadn’t quite time to polish that last line—bears signs of haste, doesn’t it? I’ll go and order lunch. Jack is on his way back from Victoria, after selling those store cattle. Doubtless full of new ideas.’
The welcome guest—as indeed any decent friend, acquaintance, or stranger always is in Bushland—rode rapidly up, and flinging his bridle-rein over the garden fence, advanced to the verandah.
He displayed a broad, powerful frame, a determined visage, illumined by bright blue eyes and fringed by an abundant beard, the colour of which had so materially aided Hobbie’s audacious parody.
‘Well, old fellow!’ said the visitor in a big jolly voice, ‘how goes it? how do you get on in the wilderness? Lost any sheep lately? had any bush fires? You see I am adapting my conversation to your capacity. Where’s that scamp Hobbie?’
‘Not far off—went to see if there was any grog in the house directly he saw you coming. Get into that rocking-chair in the shade. Mouse! take Highflyer ’longa stable. What’s the news in Melbourne?’
‘Opera very good; Club full: some pleasant Indian fellows there just now; lots of balls, two or three picnics; spent all my money and left at least two hearts and a half behind. It amazes me how you fellows contrive to live in this confounded burning desert!’
‘I hear you, you old humbug,’ called out Hobbie in a menacing tone, as he entered; ‘how refined and repolished we have become after our five weeks in town. But wait till you get back to Indragyra. The mailman said last time he passed that there were two lots of sheep lost and such a bush fire.’
‘That be hanged!’ said the guest with startling emphasis. ‘What the deuce was Holmwood about? What’s the use of being bothered with a partner if a man can’t be away for a month on business without everything going to the dogs—Partners! Confound all of them, they’re——’
‘Nearly as bad as shepherds,’ interposed Hobbie; ‘ask Gilbert about that. Look here, Jack! have a long cool drink after your ride. It’s all right—they got the sheep again and put out the fire; luckily it came on to rain. Holmwood was here on Saturday. Yours is the old room; and when you have taken the dust off, lunch is ready.’
That refection over, and the three friends comfortably seated in easy-chairs, to the full comfort of the mid-day pipe, John Bulmer thus delivered himself:
‘Precious slow set of fellows you are in this part of the country. Shepherding away as usual?’
‘Of course,’ answered Hobbie, with a look at Gilbert, who smoked silently; ‘what else is one to do?’
‘Do?’ shouted the energetic guest, throwing back his broad shoulders and gazing fiercely at his entertainers, till his eyes sparkled—‘do? what every man with a grain of sense is going to do; what these Western fellows in Victoria have done years ago—Fence in your run! I declare on my honour, as I travelled through their country the other day, to deliver those W.D. cattle I made such a good sale of, I felt ashamed of myself, and of you, and every one in this benighted region.’
‘Why, what did you see, Jack, after all?’ inquired Hobbie; ‘the sheep coming up to be counted by an Arcadian shepherd with a tuneful reed, foot-rotting themselves, or having their boots laced up? There was a reformer in those parts, it was said, who ordered two thousand pairs of boots for his sheep one wet winter!’
‘Devil take the boots!—it showed energy at any rate. Why, I saw as many sheep in one paddock as you have altogether in this fleabite of a Wandaroona, with one man at a pound a week looking after them on a cheap horse, and finding his own saddle.’
‘No doubt he wanted a horse,’ suggested Hobbie; ‘I suppose the sheep looked like hunted devils.’
‘Better sheep, better wool, better lambs than we have here, and not a fourth of the expense,’ affirmed Mr. Bulmer, slowly and emphatically. ‘I suppose you’ve sense enough to understand that! You’ve caught the name of the “Merra-Mellum” clip, and the price it reached at home last year? Through that run I passed and saw thousands of full-mouthed ewes which had never been shepherded for a day in their lives.’
‘What do you say to that, Hobbie?’ at this juncture asked Gilbert, who had so far been enjoying the effective corroboration of his programme supplied by their enthusiastic friend. ‘All your prejudices are dashed to the ground now. The fact is, Jack, that I was labouring to convert Hobbie to the new faith in fencing when you hove in sight, and appeared as counsel for the party of progress. But what are you going to do yourself? That’s the proof.’
‘I have two tons of fencing wire on the road, old fellow; advertisements are in the local papers for contractors and teams. I’m going to turn out twenty thousand ewes to lamb loose! I shall fence a frontage paddock right off the reel, and go on with the rest of the run after shearing.’
‘Well done!’ responded Hobbie heartily. ‘I was only chaffing you and Gilbert as a sort of advocate for the devil, in order to bring out the weak points of the scheme. For there is a slight risk, you know. How about dogs and eagles? do they fence them in Victoria?’
‘There is a dingo in the Melbourne Museum,’ defiantly retorted the reformer; ‘you would be puzzled to find one anywhere else. What do you suppose strychnine was furnished by Providence for? The poison cart settles that.’
‘Do they send out a cartload of strychnine at once?’ inquired Hobbie, with an assumption of economical terror. ‘Then I give in; only, at a guinea an ounce, a ton would come to £34,840. I’ve always heard that they were opulent in that colony; but it seems to require capital—it does indeed.’
‘You’re getting a little “touched,” Hobbie. In this infernal climate if a man doesn’t take to drinking he goes mad. You want a trip to town, my boy! or else you’ll have one to the district hospital. Does he ever talk to himself, Gilbert? That’s the way it comes on. Our cook began to soliloquise last summer, and in less than a week awoke me, standing by my bedside, saying: “The Lord had delivered me into his hand. That we had always been good masters, but that we must now permit him to cut our throats, previous to the whole of the station hands starting for the New Jerusalem.” I told him I fully agreed with him, but that Holmwood, being the junior partner, must of course be operated upon first. He adopted my suggestion, and as he turned to go to old Bob’s room, I muzzled him, and secured the regenerating steel. We had to strap him down and send him to the gaol for medical treatment. So beware, my ingenuous patient.’
‘You do well to be careful about incipient dementia—it’s easily accounted for,’ returned Hobbie, with great affectation of candour. ‘People say that you and Holmwood are more than half mad as it is; so that of course the least eccentricity will land you over the border. But chaffing apart, how are we to work these ranges at the back? They are full of dogs, every one knows.’
‘Well, what then?’ replied Bulmer scornfully. ‘Wild horses are cheap enough—you can buy them for five shillings apiece—cut them up into chunks and put poison in every bit; send a man out with a cart and some old crawler of a horse; let him drag a trail and spread the baits everywhere. Any dog crossing the run must get a bait in one place if not in another. Besides strychnine is not a guinea an ounce, not much more than half, wholesale. I have a lot coming up, pure crystal; you can have all you want at cost price. In the summer you can always get a cancered bullock or two from old Duffersleigh at the back. Send the poison man out to stay with him for a week so that he can strew the tracks leading to water with baits, and in a short time you will clear out all the dogs in the country.’
‘But the shepherds’ dogs?’ said Hobbie, bent on extracting every unfavourable fact. ‘There will be a general strike if their dogs take the baits; and the fences are only up on paper as yet.’
‘Get up wire muzzles, and give each fellow a couple,’ replied Bulmer, armed at all points. ‘If they are too lazy to use them it is their own lookout. They will soon get tired of losing them and their wits together—and now, boys, you know as much as I do. I’m a fencing man, fixed and inflexible. If Holmwood won’t be converted I’ll dissolve the partnership. I’ll have a “deoch-an-doruis,” Hobbie, if you’ll send the small savage for Highflyer, and make tracks for Indragyra.’
‘Nonsense, it’s fifty miles, and three o’clock—you won’t get home to-night!’
‘Some time before to-morrow morning—I must go—the night is fine, and plains the last thirty miles.’
He proved inexorable, and the grand old gray having been brought round, John Bulmer, the younger, formerly of Beaumanoir, Bucks, now of Indragyra, Lower Oxley, Riverina, departed for a rather extended afternoon ride.
‘Just like Jack,’ said Gilbert, as the horseman’s rapidly receding figure faded away in the mellow distance. ‘What a fellow he is to ride late! Just as if he couldn’t have stayed the night and made a good start early to-morrow morning.’
‘He’s a bad starter,’ admitted Hobbie, ‘but once away it takes something to stop him. River or range, dark night or summer day, plain or forest, on foot or horseback, all things are the same to John Bulmer on the war-path. He is a man of immense energy, only foresight bores him. I always think he is so perfectly certain of getting along somehow, that he disdains to take the precautions weaker men are obliged to use. Don’t you think there is a sort of a hint of a natural law in these things?’
‘I don’t quite follow,’ said Gilbert, with a tinge of sarcasm. ‘Without underrating Jack’s splended physique and utter fearlessness, you do not surely defend a want of calculation, or that power of computing future necessities which is one of our higher faculties?’
‘I don’t go so far, of course, but I have certainly observed that men who sketch out their programme with scrupulous accuracy, providing for all possible contingencies, are, when unforeseen difficulties confront them, often very helpless. Now, men like our friend Jack, who think of little beforehand, and march all unheeding into misfortunes and obstacles, are wonderfully fertile in resources and almost unconquerable when the supreme hour of danger arrives. If Jack is too late he can ride all night; if he loses his horse he can walk; if he comes to a river he can swim it; if he loses his way he can find a blackfellow or a stock-rider or a star. He is never too cold or too hot, or hungry or thirsty, or cross or ill at ease, in circumstances where most other people would be suffering from one or the other, or most of these evils together. He will have dinner and a smoke with Haughton down the river, make another start as they are going to bed, knock Holmwood up in the small hours, and be at breakfast after a dip in the creek, as fresh as if he had been in bed, instead of in the saddle all the previous night.’
‘So mote it be,’ appended Gilbert to this panegyric upon their nearest neighbour, whom a passing drover, sore beset with weak horses and worthless road hands, had once described as ‘a very able gentleman, and very friendly.’ ‘All the same a good look-out and a good reckoning are not to be despised. For want of them the best ship may get among breakers, where strength is useless and courage vain—do you remember King Haco in the maelstrom?
‘He grasped the wheel with a giant’s grasp.
‘Haco, you see, was a Norse Jack Bulmer, and had been drunk or indifferent to probabilities which eventuated in total loss, possibly in serious complications to the insurance companies of the period. And now let us desert the abstract for the concrete—I am about to talk sheep, and pour out figures like a Chancellor of the Exchequer. Having definitely made up our minds about the fencing, the sooner we get the contractors on the line the better; the season appears to me to look like a drought, and if we are to have it, the turned-out sheep will fare the best. So up the advertisements go to-night.’
‘DIDN’T you say something about calculations, Gilbert? I’m afraid it will amount to something terrifying.’
‘I have been working up the expense of a paddock to hold ten thousand ewes for lambing,’ answered Gilbert, with the air of a man who has facts and figures, like a hand at whist, ready to play at a moment’s notice. ‘I have jotted down roughly the ordinary expense of lambing the same number by hand; you will be rather surprised at the comparative outlay. The question stands thus,’ he added, producing a sheet of figures neatly arranged in columns: ‘we have ten thousand ewes to lamb in May. These sheep are at present kept in five flocks. Let us take their ordinary expense for six months, including the lambing. I put it down on one side. We will reckon the cost of fencing the paddock on the other. And you will be rather startled to see that the amount needed for fencing, which is a permanent improvement and economy, only slightly exceeds that of shepherding, which is annual.’
‘I can’t believe it,’ asserted Hobbie; ‘you must have left out something, or added up the Year of Grace in the shepherding column.’
‘I challenge you to check my arithmetic. You know of old that I was always pretty accurate; however, look for yourself, here we go.
|Five shepherds for six months, wages at £40 per annum||£100|
|Rations for ditto||50|
|Five extra shepherds, on halving the flocks, 8 weeks at 20s. per week||40|
|Rations for ditto||20|
|Ten brush yards at £5 each||50|
|Hut-keepers and extra men, three to each half flock (ten half flocks), at £1 per week||240|
|Rations for 30 men for two months||120|
|Ration carrier for six months||25|
|Rations for ditto||10|
|Extra horses, wear and tear of tools, cartage, etc.||20|
|Other expenses, bonus to lambers, etc.||15|
‘That sounds a lot of money,’ remarked Hobbie ruefully. ‘I had no idea odds and ends ran up so. What a thing is addition! it’s the principal branch of arithmetic in one’s bank pass-book, and how it tells there!’
‘Not a penny of all this is reproductive,’ explained Gilbert. ‘That’s the worst of it. Next year sees exactly the same necessity for outlay—brush yards, shepherds, motherers, rations, and cheques, all da capo.
‘Now for fencing, which, once done, like the brook “goes on for ever.” What is the first cost? Here we are again. Behold this picture.
|Six miles of zigzag log fencing at £40 per mile||£240|
|Three miles five wire fence, pine posts, at £50||150|
|Three miles zigzag pine log fence at £40||120|
|Six miles chock and log, back line, at £30 per mile||180|
|Boundary rider for six months||25|
|Rations for ditto and poisoner||25|
|Strychnine, labour, etc.||50|
‘The river, of course, is our southern boundary, saving five miles of fencing. What do you think of that, old fellow, only £100 more than your miserable shepherding? Nearly all the money back in six months, and the fencing to the good! I had no right either to charge all the poison to the debit of the fencing, as it is an economic benefit to the whole establishment. As to the boundary riding, we shall have so little to do when a few more fences are up that we shall be glad to take the home paddocks ourselves for the sake of exercise. We’ll begin to suffer from ennui, I foresee, that’s the worst of it.’
‘There is but one Allah in Salt-bush-land,’ confessed Hobbie, ‘and the Fencer is his prophet. I give in. I am an apostate from the ancient faith. I am ready to retract and turn Turk. From this moment I am a sworn convert to the new religion of wire plus chock and log.’
‘I thought that would convince you as it did me,’ said Gilbert. ‘I was in great doubt about it when I first made the calculations, and went backwards over the figures, feeling like you that there must be some mistake. They’re all right; and now, the first act being over, let us drop the curtain and go in for some mild refreshment.’
The ukase once issued, a new and foreign element was introduced into the routine of station management. Constant interviews were held with sunbrowned teamsters who had come to contract for a few miles of log or wire fencing as the case might be. Camps were formed along the boundary lines, while the felling and drawing in of straight-barrelled pine trees warned the shepherds of the ewe flocks that their employment was wearing to its close. Many were the dire forebodings and darksome prophecies uttered by these actors in a drama being played ‘positively for the last time,’ passing into the limbo of formless inutilities.
‘My word! wait till them bloomin’ sheep’s turned out. Won’t the cove see a difference in them this day three months! Why, they’ll get as wild as kangaroos, and there won’t be a mossel o’ flesh on their bones.’
‘Why not, old Beard and Billy1?’ I demanded one of the fencers—a shrewd specimen of the new régime. ‘I was boundary rider on Ahla Lahwa, a big down-the-river run, where the sheep did middling well with none of you old growlers to bother ’em.’
‘Why not?’ retorted the shepherd, champion of the dim and glorious past. ‘’Cos they goes rambling and walkin’ about all night, ’stead of lyin’ down in a good yard and resting of theirselves! Stands to reason they can’t do so well as sheep that’s minded by a man as knows his work, and as for lambs—’
‘Well, lambs?’ persevered the new man. ‘I’ve seen eighty-five per cent of lambs marked off forty thousand ewes, and never a dog nor a shepherd nor no other varmint near ’em from March to November. And they was lambs, not ‘possums.’
‘Well, you’ll see, you’ll see! I believe they’ll get out and be boxed2 along of old Jerry Graball’s sheep half the time, and then we’ll see who gets the most lambs.’
‘Boxed be hanged!’ continued the friend of fencing warmly. ‘Why, you can’t drive turned-out sheep through a broken panel in a fence; they’d walk past one for days, or go through and come rushin’ back, frightened, to their own ground. You old chaps had better go away back to the Bogan and the Paroo where you’re wanted and gets twenty-five shillin’ a week—you ain’t wanted here no more, unless they chop yer up for baits.’
‘You shut up, young fellow!’ concluded the justly incensed elder, with dignity. ‘You might be glad enough to take a flock yourself some day, for all ye’re so jolly now. Go round ’em, Balley; he ain’t got no tongue now, with that there cussed muzzle on.’
All this time the poison-cart was kept going well. Bits of horse-flesh, duly death-loaded with strychnine, were scattered profusely in every paddock, along every road or track, by every creek and waterfall, while dead dingoes here and there testified to the efficacy of the system.
Far different were the results of the old fashion of giving each shepherd the eighth part of an ounce of strychnine, and exhorting him to lay it around his sheep-yard. This, of course, he never did, being far too much concerned for the safety of his own dogs. Besides, as old Jack Lagger openly propounded, ‘If there was no blacks nor dingoes the squatters wouldn’t want no shepherds.’ The wild dog was regarded by the average shepherd as an animal whose existence was by no means an unmixed evil—on the contrary, useful in his generation, as keeping up in the minds of the masters a wholesome regard for that indispensable variety of working man, the ‘experienced shepherd.’
It became apparent to the brothers that the sooner the paddock was finished, the sheep turned out, and the shepherds discharged, the better it would be for the great experiment. No labour or cost to this end was spared. To the sole charge and superintendence of Mr. Countemout were delivered the fat wethers, the four-tooth and six-tooth sheep, with the last year’s weaners.
These were all shepherded ‘at the back,’ whither, in consequence, he betook himself, often long before daylight, and did battle ceaselessly with the crimes and misfortunes of the shepherds. He, a man of tireless energy and sleepless watchfulness, was as yet unconverted to the new-light tenets. Perhaps the idea presented itself that in the strange economy of labour rendered possible by fences, not shepherds alone, but even overseers might be discovered to be superfluous. However that might be, he worked loyally at his post, leaving the losses and crosses so confidently predicted by the ‘old hands’ to evolve themselves from the sensational future of Wandaroona.
The fencing had been let in several contracts with a view of securing greater speed and efficiency, so that Gilbert and Hobbie were at work from dawn to dark, so organising the commissariat for the various camps that no delay might occur.
The contractors were paid in cash at a certain fixed rate, say from £30 to £50 per mile, they finding the teams, labour, rations, and tools. Strict agreements were made in all cases, wherein the contractors bound themselves to use only certain length and thickness of rails, and to complete the work within a specified time. The proprietors, on their part, agreed to supply meat, flour, tea, and sugar at certain specified prices, the whole amount of such and other stores to be deducted from the gross total due when the work was completed satisfactorily. Work of this nature is chiefly performed by contract. At weekly wages men lack the enthusiasm generated by the encouraging conviction that the harder they work the more money they will make. Much of the despatch necessarily depends upon the working bullocks and horses. Station teams often stray, but it is matter of remark that the teams of contractors, to whom time is money, are rarely missing.
The fencers, therefore, aware that each economy of time would pass to the credit of the ration bill, worked hard, late and early. The contractors were chiefly native-born Australians, small farmers from the settled districts, who migrated periodically with their teams, to earn what money might be available between seed-time and harvest. They engaged the better portion of the wandering labour of the district, and paid high wages; but working hard themselves, and being judges of the quantity of fencing contained in a good day’s work, they compelled their men to keep abreast of them. If unwilling or unable, they were discharged without notice. And harder labour is not performed under the sun, as very literally it may be described. In wire fencing the digging of the post-holes, the splitting of the posts, the wiring and putting up the fences, are generally in sub-contracts. In the scorching summer days, in the long breezeless afternoons, how often have we seen the sun-baked, brow-bathed toiler casting into his task all the unflinching energy which his forefathers had built up in the national type under such widely different climatic conditions.
The zigzag fence, better and cheaper than any, where the Murray River pine (Frenela verracosa) can be easily procured, is simple of construction. The logs, cut in lengths of sixteen or eighteen feet, are placed resting by their ends upon each other, at an angle sufficient to secure solidity. A few strokes of the axe form a bed for each log upon the one below. Four logs—the heaviest placed uppermost—will make a barrier which neither sheep nor lambs will jump or penetrate. It is superior to its relation ‘the chock and log,’ which requires more timber and more labour. The contract for all the zigzag fencing of Wandaroona was taken at £40 per mile—the contractor to find everything. The wire fencing cost £50 per mile, or even a little more; the first cost and carriage of the wire being paid for by the proprietors.
The season was dry—too dry, indeed—bordering on a drought, but the preceding year had been so prosperous that there was a reserve capital of grass—’old feed,’ as the shepherds call it. The grass of the Australian interior retains its nutritive quality even when dried and withered. Like the soil, the timber, and the animals of ‘Australia deserta,’ it can dispense with the rainfall for an almost incredibly protracted period. There was plenty of water artificially supplied, so that no delay took place. By the last week of March, therefore, all lines were completed. As a main high-road ran by the river through the whole length of the ‘frontage’ of the run, as it was called, gates were constructed of easy habit of hinge and latch, so that the traveller, whether careless or irritable, might have no excuse for leaving them open. In after days, when subdivision came generally into operation, the gradually perfected invention of the semicircular lane superseded gates. These lanes were always open—had no gate, and wanted none. The sheep never dreamed of going through—inasmuch as the entrance, beyond which they could not see, looked like a yard—feeding peacefully past them, as if they had been the park gates of the lord of the manor. 1
‘SO, Gilbert!’ called out Hobbie on Saturday evening, ‘we have reached the last week in March, and, praise we the gods! we have ended the fencing. The next month is momentous; are you nervous?’
‘Not in the least,’ answered his brother, looking up from a book, which he closed and returned to its place on the shelf in a methodical and preparatory way. ‘Not in the slightest degree. You know I rode down to Jack Bulmer’s last week and stayed a night with him. We went into the subject exhaustively, when he gave me experiences and statistics in a more leisurely mode than when we saw him here.’
‘I daresay you two had a stupendous yarn—I can imagine it,—Jack doing the talk, and you the listening and most of the smoking.’
‘You have hit upon the proportion,’ replied the senior. ‘I have an idea I can talk a little myself when I see fit. Only, at the time you mention, I wished to acquire, you may observe, another man’s experience.’
‘Well! what did you acquire from the impetuous, impressionable Jack?’
‘This much: that in the minds of all thinking men fencing is a proved success as applied to sheep-farming. The outlay is fully repaid through the increased profits and decreased expenses in two or three years—often in less time. The sheep do not, as stated, become wild. They arrange their hours of feeding, watering, and camping so well that all interference is injurious. Finally, the station expenses are wonderfully lessened; the losses are small, and the fleeces materially improved in length, purity, and weight.’
‘About the lambs?’ demanded Hobbie.
‘Well, he admits that the percentage is not so high as in favourable seasons by hand. But when the difference in expense is taken into consideration, as also the fact that only strong lambs are reared, the balance is undoubtedly in favour of the “turned-out” system. Besides, you can lamb any number of ewes in paddocks in any season, and you are wholly independent of labour until shearing approaches.’
‘What about the fattening sheep?’
‘It is agreed,’ explained Gilbert, ‘that a single flock of wethers with a very good shepherd, and about three times as much run as they require, might probably reach the Melbourne yards more prime in condition than paddocked sheep; but a far larger number, if turned out, could be fattened on the same ground. However,’ continued Gilbert, ‘Jack Bulmer, with his customary noble disdain of trimming, is going to back his opinions in spite of Holmwood’s disapproval by turning out twenty thousand ewes in a week or two.’
‘All in one paddock?’
‘No, in separate paddocks; he has fenced his frontage and divided it, and next year will further subdivide. But at present he goes in for lambing loose in two big lots.’
‘So then on Monday morning?’
‘On Monday morning, all being well, we pay off five shepherds; count and turn out the five ewe flocks. The gates are made, and I passed the last few miles of fence last week. We shall have some heavy cheques to pay, but, as I have had the honour of proving to you, most of the money will be returned soon after shearing.’
‘So be it,’ assented Hobbie; ‘I am Brutus and you are Caesar. We are good for the Rubicon.’
On the fateful Monday morning the five flocks, having been ordered in, arrived at the drafting yard. Each was counted over carefully as received from its respective shepherd, and being found correct, was then and there left to wander at will. Great was the bleating and apparent confusion—two flocks incontinently ‘boxed’ (or mixed together), the others, having been headed different ways, had the decency to keep apart while within sight.
Then the five discarded Arcadians walked up to the house to receive their cheques, full of dark sayings and moody imaginings, relieved by visions of the imminent holiday, with a ‘spree’ at the adjacent township, such being invariably the end of all things with them after payment for protracted service.
‘Well, Mr. Hobbie,’ said one of them as they were awaiting their arithmetical doom, ‘I suppose you’ll give a man a job of work at shearing time? We ain’t hunted off the place for good and all?’
‘Nonsense!’ answered Hobbie cheerily, not wishing the experiment to wear the appearance of total obliteration of labour, ’of course you will get work whenever it is going on here. It’s only a few months till shearing, when we shall want no end of spare hands. Besides, there will be lots of work to let afterwards—more fencing, dams, and wells at the back. It seems to me we shall want more hands than ever for the next two years.’
‘That’s all very well, sir,’ answered the ex-pastor, ruefully, as one who saw himself ‘improved off the face of the earth,’ and to whom in the autumnal stage of life there was no comfort in visions of dam- making and well-sinking; ‘but all the same, sir, it’s very hard on the poor man. Here’s you squatters have got all the country to yourselves, as one might say; and if you’re allowed by Government to go on like this, you won’t want no hands from shearing to shearing, except two or three Jackaroos. I don’t see as it’s right myself.’
‘Pooh, pooh! you’ll take to boundary riding, and have a horse of your own and go galloping about like gentlemen. We don’t happen to want any one just now, but be sure to call next time you pass. Besides Wandaroona is not all the world. There’ll be shepherding till we’re both old men. You have a middling cheque, I believe?’
Hobbie was not indisposed to let his reduced retainers down easily; for though he and his brother were, like all straightforward, liberal employers, so popular that no one would have thought of harming them, yet the proletariat in those parts had occasionally accented its remonstrances against the rule of capital by burnings of woolsheds, burnings of fences, and most strange direction of incendiarism, conclusively antipodean—burnings of wells. In a dry country each lucifer match contains an invisible ‘diablotin’ magically ready for evil.
This slight grumbling apart, the shepherds departed contented with a state of temporary solvency, and, as is usual with their class, splendidly indifferent about the morrow. On that morrow, but earlier than usual, the Messrs. Elliot Brothers sallied forth accompanied by Mouse to reconnoitre in a general way, and to do their first boundary riding.
The season of autumn in Australia affords weather which is simply perfect. Cool nights, bracing mornings, and mild Indian-summer-like days, are the rarely broken rule in this charmed time. The day was wondrous fair as they rode across to the river, where the dewy grass glistened, as the sun-rays lighted up the hills, the meadow, the far- stretching plain. A few crows—there are crows everywhere (except in New Zealand) in all seasons of the year, flew softly up and down, cawing in a meditative, noncommittal manner. There was evidently no recent robbery or murder on the cards; even they had surrendered themselves to the calm influences of the hour.
‘Superb weather, isn’t it?’ commenced Hobbie. ‘I always feel like another man as soon as the autumn sets in—and oh! what a jolly life with two or three trifling drawbacks ours is! Think of our fellow-creatures penned up in offices and banks, while we are so free—free to ride, to run, to stay at home, or to quit it as we please, “Please the pigs,”—or rather please the sheep, for our boasted liberty availeth nought if anything happens to these preposterously delicate creatures. We ought to see some of them about here, by the way. Yes! there they are, Gilbert, a big mob, too, just turning out to feed, and some still in camp; now for the trial.’
Riding to a point where the creek, an anabranch, probably an ancient channel of the river, made a wide sweep, they saw a large number of sheep which their practised eyes at once decided to be but little short of four thousand; they were mostly feeding peacefully on the fresh herbage, some still lying or standing meditatively as mouton qui rêve, on the ‘camp’ where they had passed the greater part of the night.
‘There,’ said Gilbert, ‘are the two flocks that joined forces just after they were let out. How full and jolly they look! most likely they have been feeding all the earlier part of the night. Now, they are strolling off camp at their leisure, instead of being hurried up by a violent young dog and a cross old shepherd.’
‘They certainly appear to have the best of it,’ agreed Hobbie, ‘but there are some things to be proved yet, such as keeping tame and quiet, going into smaller lots, etc. But I catch myself repeating the usual shepherd’s jeremiad; let us go back amongst the timber and pick up the others.’
After taking a look at the ewes, now spreading out over the creek flat or meadow, the brothers turned their horses’ heads towards the uplands and rode briskly through the box-tree forest (Angophora) which bordered the alluvial level.
The day wore on; the sun became decidedly warm. The dew had dried upon the crisp herbage which did not entirely conceal the red-brown soil. Birds were not plentiful; still from time to time they heard the harsh saw-like notes of the great black macaw, and marked the crimson bars which adorned his wings and tail. He was engaged in crushing with his tremendous mandibles the hard seed of the balah or forest oak (Casuarina). Now a late-returning opossum, a strayed reveller, scuttling up the nearest tree, his life in much jeopardy the while from sticks hurled with accuracy at him by his congener Flying Mouse. Then a cloud speck in the blue cloudless sky told of the great wedge-tailed eagle soaring above them, not wholly uninterested in sick sheep or early lambs. A distant group of ‘brumbies’ (wild horses) threw up their heads, and with a shrill neigh raced off to ‘the back,’ apparently the sole denizens of the waste.
‘Well,’ said Hobbie, ‘we have seen no traces of Master Dingo at any rate, I think we have thinned his family circle; and those wretches of eagles too—many of them went down last summer, and we shall get the claws of ever so many more before lambing, I trust. Hallo! fresh tracks “all about,” as Mouse says!’
That retainer, whose small faculties were always concentrated upon the business in hand, came swooping down at a gallop, and waving his hand, cried out, ‘That one jumbuck, him big one feed here; run him yan away altogether, likit Dead Swamp.’
‘All right, Mouse,’ said Gilbert, who had been scouting on the other side, ‘I believe the tracks do run that way, so let us ride straight for it.’
A strong trail leading due north, made in old days by half-wild cattle and wholly wild horses coming in from the waterless deserts of the ‘outer back country’ to the river, was then struck, and noting that it was thickly covered with fresh sheep tracks, they pushed on.
The ‘Dead Swamp,’ as by the shepherds and stock-riders the place had been named, was an extensive tract below the level of its surroundings. From the elevation of its borders and uniform central depression, it had evidently been filled in former floods. The water had evaporated during a succession of dry seasons, and seedling eucalypts having sprung up, the lake basin had become a forest. Such changes are strictly antipodean. Then, as the cycle altered in character, a rainfall of exceptional duration had fallen upon that waste land, filling the long-dry, half-forgotten lake. Eucalypts do not support growth in permanent water. So in that period of protracted irrigation every tree in the lake forest perished. Then another succession of rainless years succeeded. Islanded, as it lay now, amid the pale evergreens of the slopes, this leafless melancholy woodland had a weird aspect. From exposure to light and air, the sward of grass grew thick and sweet. Hence, the locale was a favourite haunt of whatever lawless stock could reach its rarely disturbed pastures. As they crossed the banks which centuries since had faintly felt the wash of the surges rising with every breeze, what time the stone-weaponed savage roamed around, the boy, sending his beady black eyes far through the distance, gave a yell of triumph, and, dashing his heels into his horse, rode straight and fast through the whitened skeleton timber. Following him for a mile, the brothers came suddenly upon another flock of considerable magnitude, reposing peacefully upon a knoll, where the forefathers of Flying Mouse had roasted shells, roots, and game apparently in tons, judging from the size of the mound, the subsoil of which was chiefly composed of ashes.
‘So far well!’ said Gilbert, looking cheerfully over the tranquil muttons; ‘they don’t seem inconsolable for the loss of their pastor. What can look better than they do? About three thousand by their appearance—this is not far from where they used to feed. Don’t seem wild yet, do they?’
‘Couldn’t look more comfortable if they had been in a feather-bed all night,’ graciously assented Hobbie. ‘How clean they are! full as ticks too. I begin to believe in fencing, I must say. Four and three are seven, we’ve seen seven thousand now, rather more than less, if I know anything of the look of a flock; now for the odd thirty hundred or so. I think we might as well go to the north-west corner of the fence, run it down easterly, and so home. We shall most likely drop on them that way.’
Leaving the flock (no doubt to the great surprise of the sheep, who from long habit must have concluded that they were ‘wanted,’ when they saw the horsemen approach) to wander at will, the brothers rode towards the mid-day sun, till they struck the paddock-fence not far from the north-west corner. No sheep being visible, they drew back just sufficiently far to see the ground between; Hobbie retreated still farther, keeping in sight of Gilbert, while Flying Mouse betook himself swiftly to the outer edge of the scouting parallel. Moving in this order they rode on, until they reached the north-east corner of the fence, seeing nothing living save a score of ‘paddymelons’ (dwarf kangaroo), bolting out of cover like hares, and always holding up one foreleg as if hurt, and four ‘soldiers’ or forest kangaroo, with their reddish fur, the colour of the soil they bounded over. Then they turned south and made towards home, still following the line of fence.
‘Gilbert!’ inquired Hobbie, ‘confess, don’t you feel just a little anxious? I could have sworn we should have seen them before now. Suppose they found a hole in the fence, and got out last night. By this time they might be twenty miles back, split into as many lots, or boxed with Jerry Graball’s sheep. Those shepherds of his would not be sorry to pay us off for setting the fashion of fencing, and ruining the country, as they call it.’
‘Suppose they have started for the Gulf of Carpentaria or climbed up a tree,’ retorted Gilbert testily. ‘There are thirty-six square miles in the paddock—you can’t suppose that we are to find all these sheep in an hour or two.’
‘Little Bo-peep has lost his sheep,’ sang Hobbie, ‘that is, temporarily, but he needn’t lose his temper also. As you say, there is a good deal of finding in a forty-mile paddock. I thought I heard a yell, though; yes, ’tis the war—whoop of Flibbertigibbet!’
That restless indigène had impatiently widened the gap between himself and his masters, and was not to be seen, but from the far distance came faintly at intervals the shrill clear cry of his race. ‘The young rascal has them,’ quoth Gilbert, much relieved, though loath to confess it. ‘I believe he could see through a flight of steps and a deal door, Sam Weller notwithstanding. This way,’ and turning at right angles, they rode at best pace in the direction of the sound. At length they caught sight of the successful wood-elf seated at the foot of a tree, from which he had just extracted a large maternal opossum by the questionably humane process of screwing a stick into her fur, and dragging her from her nest far up in the hollow trunk.
‘WHERE jumbuck?’ demanded Hobbie; ‘you didn’t bring us all this way to see a ’possum?’
‘Ha, ha!’ laughed the imp, puckering up his goblin-like face into a grin of triumph; ‘close up me lose ’em. Me see ’um piccaninny track, ground very hard; then two fella sheep come out ’long o’ scrub—run back when him see me. I believe big one mob ’longa flat top hill. Me hear ’um.’
‘I believe this urchin is a transition type of the Darwinian system,’ asserted Gilbert in a leisurely tone, delivering himself over to the fanciful analysis. ‘He is a runaway ear evolved in some atomic scramble from the lower human forms. He has been joined by an eye floating unclaimed through space. The remainder of his organisation is entirely subservient to these two senses, and exists only for their physical protection and locomotive needs.’
‘Didn’t Sydney Smith say Jeffrey’s intellect was improperly exposed—that he hadn’t enough body to cover it decently? Nothing new (except boots) you see.’
‘Why, Hobbie, I begin to believe that you read sometimes—your memory is so good that you might do something if you had any application. Let us go up the hill and leave Mouse to roast his ’possum. He’ll soon overtake us.’
Before them lay an isolated irregular mass of sandstone running transversely for several miles. Its sides were thickly clothed with the forest oak and varieties of the myall, all low growers, having scented wood and leaves which, greedily eaten by stock, are at once palatable and fattening.
Lofty crags and deeply-furrowed ravines denoted the extensive denudation that had taken place. The soil was rich and the grass thick in large patches where the timber had been cleared off by periodical fires. Leading their horses and ascending the range in a leisurely manner, they noticed signs of a large body of sheep, which had evidently been feeding and cropping the bushes at their ease through all the thicker portions of the scrub. ‘Behold another of the numerous advantages of fencing; we have always known there was capital feed on the spurs of these hills. Besides the untouched grasses, sheep enjoy nothing more than these young oaks and low-growing aromatic shrubs. Then at the top of the range there is a splendid tract of table-land naturally cleared. I don’t believe any flock of ours has been twice a year upon it.’
‘Of course not,’ answered Hobbie. ‘Fancy old Growlson wearing out his boots among the stones, and his breath swearing at Balley one moment for breaking the sheep’s legs by doubling them up on this rough ground, and the next moment, directly they began to spread, dogging them together and making sure “he’d lost a wing of them.” So here we are at the table-land, and there is the remaining lot of sheep safe enough. We must give Mouse a farm selection some day or a tail coat, as a slight tribute to his talents. What a glorious view!’
As they remounted their horses on the plateau and gazed over the wide champaign, which lay spread out far as eye could reach in the clear, bright-hued mid-day, less sympathetic hearts had stirred. A landscape of varied beauty and vast extent! For many a mile the level was unbroken, save for an isolated formation similar to the one on which they stood. Their position gave them a panoramic coign of vantage. On the west stretched immense plains o’er which a faint gray line occasionally denoted the rare myall woodland. Southward a loftier and more densely green forest line marked, in well-defined undulations, the course of the ‘river timber.’ A lake fringed with dwarf eucalypti lay glistening in the sun-rays a short mile distant, but seeming beneath their feet. To the northward ‘all is sea’—a forest sea—an ocean of which the billows are undulating tree-tops, the wavelets branches green of every shape, tossing in the breeze and lifting their leafage on high; of every hue from palest green to darksome cypress. But ever faintly tremulous with a murmurous monotone stretching now, as from immemorial ages, unbrokenly to the farthest horizon.
A solitary far-seen monolith broke the sky-line. So rises o’er the ocean rim in the charmed summer seas of the south the verdurous summit of Tahiti or Ovalau.
Over this fair waste, fresh from the hand of God, brooded a solemn stillness—a desolation perfect, yet scarce melancholy. It was the still mid-day hour. Bird nor beast nor insect sang nor cried nor chirped.
Gilbert drew a long breath. ‘It is very beautiful. One always wishes for leisure and congenial appreciation of scenes like this. But revenons à nos moutons.’
‘There they are,’ said Hobbie, ‘every mother’s child of them!’
‘So I suppose,’ continued Gilbert, ‘yet I feel the afflatus of the Lake school. At this instant I defy the world, the flesh, and the “Dingo,” which means the “Devil” as far as sheep-owners are concerned. These lines always come into my head, time and place befitting—
‘And here on this delightful day
‘Heigho! I suppose we shall get old some day; dreadful to think of, isn’t it?
‘Well, yes,’ answered Hobbie cautiously. ‘Experience is in favour of the theory. But sheep-owners have an existence so torn by the passions that they can hardly expect to grow calmly old. Now, let us go and look at the adventurous mountaineers before we make tracks for home and a little dinner, by which time we shall not have done a bad day’s work.’
Nothing could have surpassed the comfortable, well-to-do aspect of this enterprising remainder of the liberated flocks. They were full. They were quiet. No torn fleece or bloody stain showed that proceedings under the law of natural selection had commenced. Lying down or indolently cropping the unused herbage, the flock presented a picture of reposeful enjoyment perfect in its degree.
‘Too good for this wicked world, quite Arcadian, by Jove!’ said Hobbie, after a long admiring review.
‘Always excepting the shepherd with or without his pipe. He could say, with Death, “I too in Arcadia.” Surely they enjoy the view?’
‘Shouldn’t wonder,’ graciously returned Hobbie, ‘I begin to think everything possible to the awakened intelligence of turned-out sheep.’
Weeks have passed. The lambing has fairly commenced. Save and excepting the man with the poison cart no one is permitted to go into the sacred paddock. That trusted official moves about deliberately, as befits his responsible duties, with an old horse and an ex-ration cart, from which medical comforts are liberally dispensed. The eagles are gathered together, but they have a bad time of it. They are brought in as return loading by this modern Borgia. Hundreds must have perished, he avers; they lie about in all directions. The crows are fellow-sufferers, although their superior power of digestion saves many. The long howl, so frequent, so unpleasantly suggestive in the cold nights, has become a tradition. Old Bill Jones on his way to the back blocks, seeking employment as a ‘lamber,’ believes the end of the world to be imminent. ‘They’ll lay baits for the swagmen and travellers next,’ says he, with grim unsmiling visage, ‘and just as well for ’em too, if these here fences is allowed to smother the whole bloomin’ country. Ten thousand ewes a-lambin’, and never a extra hand. Well! well! Wish I’d never seen the —— country.’
The end of the first week in June. There has been a steady outpouring of prophecies up to the day when the tender sheeplets are due; so soon to fill the air with their bleatings and the pastures with their frolicsome groups. Doubts, fears, and bodings of evil are rife. Mr. Countemout during his long experience had never witnessed a similar experiment. All the sheep successes, known and proved by him, had been due by the ceaseless watch and ward kept by and over shepherds. By main force and ceaseless attention to detail had profits been made and numbers kept up. The elaboration of a plan such as this, which, when finished, was self-acting, had no place among his memories. Not being a man of original mind, he distrusted all but the well-beaten tracks, which he knew by heart. ‘The sheep were in large lots still.’ He expected they would have broken up more. If the weather came bad, ‘a tremendous smash’ might take place. There might be only 40 or 50 per cent of lambs instead of the well-known high average of Wandaroona. He thought if they had a few steady men, just to go among the ewes and separate them judiciously or put them together when they wandered from their lambs, it might be as well.
Hobbie, acted upon by these discouraging suggestions, began to waver. Suppose the thing didn’t work right all at once. Suppose they lost three or four thousand lambs. That would be ruinous. ‘What do you think, Gilbert? Isn’t it a little rash? You hear what Countemout says?’
‘Yes, I do hear, and am not in the least degree changed in my opinion! Countemout is a good fellow, but like most men of his occupation, has ceased to use his brains, except on lines which long habit has stereotyped. His great physical energy carries off any tendency to any logical reasoning which he may ever have possessed. I look upon the mental processes of such men—though he is as well born and bred as ourselves—as but a few removes above those of the shepherd. They are also, involuntarily, affected by the fact that this movement is antagonistic to their prestige and interest. Fencing once universal and in prosperous practice, the experienced “overseer” becomes merely advantageous, not as with shepherds indispensable. As I have said for the fiftieth time, how do other men manage? We have borne all the expense. We have made full preparation. We must now stand the shot. I won’t hedge a farthing!’
‘Hurrah, old boy, stand to your guns! Gentlemen of the Guard, fire first! The battle is about to begin. I own to having felt slightly nervous. But “Richard is himself again!” Let us wait till Tuesday, and then see the first division mobilised.’
Behold the 10th of June! A wild dawn. Red glaring glooms. A rolling cloud rack. Rain had fallen in the night. The temperature was low, the wind high, altogether bordering on severe weather.
‘We shall know our fate to-day, Hobbie,’ said Gilbert, as they looked at the driving masses of cloud from the breakfast-table. ‘We must take a long ride round, to get a fair idea of our progress or otherwise. It’s a week to-day since lambing began. There has been a man outside the fence daily, and he reports it as perfectly secure. Joe the poisoner (it has a queer sound, hasn’t it? might have exposed him to misconstruction in the Middle Ages) tells me that the eagles are lying dead all over the plains, and except a few tame dogs, which have fallen victims to the absence of muzzles, nothing canine has been noticed since the autumn poisoning round the water. Now we shall see for ourselves.’
Outwardly calm, but somewhat impatient withal, the brothers were soon mounted and inside the first gate. Flying Mouse was left behind as perhaps lacking the high degree of discretion necessary for so highly responsible an errand. No dog of course was permitted to follow; indeed the station kennel had been seriously thinned; only those animals whose owners considered them of sufficient value to be regularly chained and muzzled had escaped old Joe’s profuse exhibition of lethal crystals. The day had slightly cleared, though still uncertain, the ground had been somewhat dried by the wind. Rain had, however, fallen heavily in the night. Shallow pools lay over the plains and the creek flat, giving those unsheltered localities a damp and cheerless appearance.
‘What a pleasant morning this would have been at an ordinary lambing station,’ quoth Gilbert, grimly. ‘Can’t you fancy the old fellow in charge with three or four half-dead and twice as many wholly dead lambs round a fire? The other hum-bugs pottering about, each with an armful of callow, crying lambs, and their mystified mothers following. Half a dozen truant ewes, naturally sick of the whole matter, imprisoned each in a hurdled cell; the muddy yard, the instant demand for more rations, better meat, a rise in wages, and the dismissal of the ration carrier; a complaint about the shepherd, sure to be at feud with everybody, and accused of playing the deuce with the flock; the affair ending with general pacification by submission of employer, till lambing was over; he naturally not caring to offend persons who had power of life and death over his increase. Multiply this arrangement by ten, and judge of what we have escaped!’
‘If the experiment turns out well, I will consider everything. But now, Gilbert, let us ride, for I don’t see a sheep on the open country where I should have remained had I been one.’
‘“If ye had been a sheep ye wad ha’ had mair sense,” as the old Scottish shepherd told the Duke. Now, I think it would have occurred to me, as a sheep at large and therefore capable of reasoning, that hills and the timber thereon were created for shelter, so now let us make for the hillside.’
When they reached the timbered slope that bordered the range, the ceaseless cries of hundreds of woolly infants testified that they were on the actual arena wherein the melodrama of the Great Experiment was then and there being enacted. ‘Now for it, Hobbie! I see no end of ewes and lambs lying about, and sheep in all directions on the hillside. They have evidently drawn up here for shelter, and having arranged themselves satisfactorily, well away from the wind and the damp lowlands, are in no great hurry to quit.’
Slowly and cautiously did they thread the ovine groups. ‘Thick as leaves in Vallombrosa’ were knots and clusters of lambs, from a weakling of a few hours, bleating piteously and staggering wildly, to the well-mothered frisking lamb over whose head a whole week had passed benignantly. Hither and thither passed the maternal sheep, occasionally feeding and anon returning, each one recognising wondrously her identical unit, even when helplessly mingled with the clamorous crowd.
Hobbie scrutinised the assemblage with a severely practical eye, looking in vain, however, for any sign of the confusion and sundering of ewes from the feeble offspring which all experienced critics had foretold.
‘Well,’ he said at length, ‘I can’t see any damage. Everything looks as well as we could wish. I haven’t noticed a motherless lamb anywhere. The “strong mobs” are by themselves and the very young and weak ones are in separate divisions, self arranged. All the howling about general loss and unutterable confusion seems unjustified. Nothing could be more nicely managed, and by the sheep themselves, better than an army of ‘motherers’ could do it. My doubts are over.’
‘Well, it is gratifying—it repays one for some thought and anxiety,’ answered Gilbert, his face lighting up with subdued triumph.
‘I daresay a good bark from the redoubtable Balley would change the face of matters, and an experienced shepherd would have a good percentage of killed, wounded, and missing by sundown. Thank heaven! their day is over at Wandaroona. Ha! look at that ruffian of an eagle sitting so close, “regardant,” as the heraldry people have it.’
‘He is more likely to be couchant directly’—laughed Hobbie. ‘To me he looks unnaturally solemn; something has disagreed with him. See! his mate lies dead yonder; he has taken a bait, for a pound!’
AS they charged the monarch of the air, he rose slowly, and spreading his enormous wings and wedge-shaped tail, essayed to soar. But the sweeping fans moved feebly. Mortal sickness was fast paralysing the pinions that had floated through endless azure in long summer days, or whirled with fierce joy amid the eddying thunder- gusts. Slowly he descended to earth, where, though facing his foes royally to the last, the hautes oeuvres of the law were not to be evaded; the lämmergeier soon lay lifeless near his mate.
‘Sic semper tyrannis,’ quoth Gilbert gratefully. ‘The market will be indifferently supplied with eagles next year, I should say. It is evident that if we destroy their natural enemies and provide effectual fences, the sheep may be safely trusted to manage their own parturition. Dame Nature is apt to be trustworthy. Watch that single ewe, for instance! She is a good way from the flock, yet she feeds but a few yards from her tiny lamb, lying snugly under that bush, and goes back from time to time to assure herself of his safety. How she stamps her foot as we approach, and falls back prepared to do battle! We know by her earmark that it is her first lamb. Does she look as if she is likely to desert it?’
‘I stand reproved! No argument, sir!—as old Jackie Down used to say, “Seeing is believing.” Now let us skirt all these delightful clever creatures, and take a look at the head of the flock.’ Making a circuit, and riding so as to avoid awakening apprehension in the mixed multitude that they were about to be ‘put together,’ they reached the main leading portion of the shepherdless flock. These were feeding peacefully, looking in fine condition, having improved much in this respect since their liberation. Very few lambs were in this division. What there were had evidently been amongst the first born, and drew forth compliments as to their growth and general appearance.
‘Couldn’t be better, could not be better,’ affirmed Hobbie, with tremendous emphasis. ‘Nothing is needed now but for us to take it in turns to ride through the paddocks. A dog might turn up, you know? But what a jolly thing to think of, that blow high, blow low, with ten thousand lambing sheep, we have not an earthly thing to do, or a single man to pay till the time comes for taking off their tails. By the way, that will not be so easy to manage, as we must get it all over in one day or two at the furthest.’
‘Of course,’ assented Gilbert, ‘the yarding of 18,000 sheep, great and small, which I hope our number of ewes and lambs will then reach, is a sort of battle of Waterloo affair. It is to be done, however, and—for the present—lunch.’
June and part of July have fleeted by since the first lambs of the season made their appearance in the world of Wandaroona. During this period, a strict supervision has been maintained of all things connected with their safety. The proprietors have taken it in turns to ride through the paddock. The outside of the same has been carefully watched. None but prosperous indications have been observed. The lambing, with all anxieties about weather and conjectures as to percentage, is past and over. It but remains to arrange the yards for the transaction of the first act of sheep-farming as applied to the increase, and for the verification of the exact number thereof. For a week past, great preparations have been made for the capture and amputation of the unconscious ‘tail-bearers.’ It seems odd that the intentions of Nature, and the opinions of sheep-owners should be so diametrically opposed in the matter of tails. The former high controlling power has furnished all manner of sheep, including the merino, with reasonably long ones. All persons having authoritative management of Australian sheep believe that the elongated caudal appendage conduces to untidiness and unprofitableness. Hence the edict of amputation goes forth—and millions of innocents are ‘docked’ annually. This universal practice affords a cheap and accurate method of enumeration. The process of reasoning, by which it may be inferred that every newly-severed tail represents a lamb, from which it has in all probability been reft by force and bloodshed, is within the reach of the humblest intelligence.
A large brush yard, formerly used under the old régime as a lambing station, after being topped up and added to, was fixed upon as the operating theatre. Happily the sheep had been accustomed, while at large, to ‘collect’ here as a central position, and had used it for camping purposes. On three sides was a far-stretching plain; an abrupt stony hill at the back with a thinly timbered forest made up the surroundings. Lines of provisional fencing were now put up, in order to act as ‘wings,’ extending far into the plain. The extremities of these were a considerable distance apart. All arrangements had been carefully carried out before the time of muster was fixed.
‘My idea,’ said Gilbert, as the time drew near, ‘is to have a crowd of hands and get it all over in one day. We are now taking on men for the shearing, and giving them free rations until we start, so we shall have lots of fellows on hand for whom it is always difficult to find work. They will go at it like niggers, or rather like Britons, and we shall do it in a day.’
‘We must do it in one day,’ persisted Gilbert, ‘because we can’t draft the ewes and lambs, and it is vitally necessary to turn out all the lambs and get them mothered as soon as they are “tailed.” It’s a fine open place where they will be able to see one another well, and make their “mothering” arrangements as accurately as the unavoidable fuss will admit. We can try, at any rate, but it will push us hard. The confusion will be terrific; some of the lambs are sure to lose their mothers permanently, and the driving in will be no joke. The strong lambs that have never been rounded up by a dog will gallop like scrub colts. I suppose one mustn’t hint at a dog?’
‘Not half a one,’ earnestly returned Gilbert; ‘with care and giving them plenty of time, we shall manage, I daresay.’
The dreadful day of trial arrived at length. All the expectant shearers and hangers-on who have been gathering for various work at the wool-shed for the last fortnight are paraded, and a certain number mounted. Breakfast, as on all great occasions—battles, executions, duels, etc.—is a truly early ceremonial. Thus, ere the sun rises golden clear over diamond-glistening woods in the dew of an early spring morning, all the horsemen are in the saddle. They are divided into four troops led by the two brothers, Mr. Countemout, and lastly the redoubtable Flying Mouse, who, enveloped in a red shirt several sizes too large for him, mounted on Curlew, and bearing a big stockwhip, is in the highest state of pride and satisfaction. Several of the men carry whips, a certain amount of noise and intimidation being necessary for the driving.
The general order is to go round the outside of the paddock, cracking their stockwhips from time to time, so as to start all the lots of sheep towards the centre; when gathered, to drive very quietly to the ‘pretty plain,’ as the ancient shepherds had christened the locality of the mustering-yard. The different lots of sheep, in high health and condition, are rather nimble on their feet at first, but are soon seen converging in long lines and widespread array. They run and skip at the outset; then attempt to halt, when there is the usual turning hither and thither—a tremendous chorus of bleating lambs, and the aimless fussy journey backward and forward of ewes in wildest anxiety, which makes them (except milch cows with very young calves) the most difficult, exasperating, and saint-provoking animals to drive that ever tried the temper of man.
Now they come slowly forward in one vast mixed-up mass; a new danger peculiar to paddocked sheep arises. Great troops of the older lambs, mad with frolic spirits, separating themselves from the main army, gallop away like antelopes. They sweep off, wheeling and darting like birds, from the main body, and sometimes head back with instinctive obstinacy straight for the particular corner of the paddock in which they were born. Some of the younger members of the party turn to gallop after these flying squadrons, which are apparently bent on deserting the army at all hazards. An elderly knock-about-man observes sardonically, ‘That all comes along of havin’ never seen a dorg; a good sheep dorg, now, he’d soon round ’em up, my word!’
‘Very likely,’ returns Gilbert, who catches the criticism, ‘and the very first bark would frighten the very lives out of these strong lambs, which would break and scatter so that we should lose half of them. Hold hard,’ he shouted in a tone of command which at once arrested the eager youngsters. ‘No galloping, sit still on your horses, and they will come in of their own accord when they see no one following them. Nothing but time and patience will do any good with these fellows.’
This prudent order being followed, the juvenile battalions come quietly back to greet their anxious mothers, who in long stringing-out files were permitted to join them. Following these matrons they were merged in the great sheep ocean until a similar outbreak, similarly treated, takes place.
By dint of the utmost patience and strict avoidance of unnecessary noise the great ovine mass is moved and hustled up to the wings. Once between them the battle is won, and the gates of the large yard soon close behind them.
By the time this first success—not inconsiderable—is accomplished, the day is nearly done. There is abundance of grass and water in the moderate-sized paddock, called the receiving-yard. A night’s confinement in such quarters not involving privation, it is decided to leave them there. The outlets are carefully closed, and everything left in order for the morrow’s deeds of blood.
‘Wonder what percentage we shall have?’ queried Hobbie; ‘not very low, by the look of the mob; splendid strong lambs they are, too, not a waster or a weak one amongst them.’
‘We have seen very few dead lambs,’ answered Gilbert. ‘They have all the advantages of savage life, only strong ones survive. There is little profit in saving the life of a weakling. He never comes to anything. I am rather sanguine as to the result.’
‘At any rate, they will not have cost much, that is one comfort,’ said Hobbie. ‘Do you remember the cheques we used to draw at this season? Lamber so much—lamber—lamber—it was nearly as bad as shearing time.’
The mustering party stands steady at the yards as the sun upheaves a crimson disc o’er the green billows of the sylvan sea into a pearly sky. At this comparatively early hour all have breakfasted, dressed, smoked, and are ready for a ‘big day’s work.’ The sheep are safe and serenely comfortable. From the spring cart are drawn shirts and trousers of such antiquity as render damage difficult and deterioration impossible. These are donned by the leading operators. A long lane has been filled with sheep and lambs. From these, smaller yards are packed closely. Outside stand ten men, including the brothers and Mr. Countemout, armed with sharp knives. Twenty others—two to each operator—are told off, who at once jump in, and seizing each a victim, ‘unconscious of their doom,’ hold it breast high to the executive.
‘The tip off near ear,’ shouts Gilbert, ‘for the ewe lambs; off ear for the others—tails rather short.’
As he spoke the tender pink skin of the lamb’s ear is divided like paper, and the astonished little creature dropped upon the grass, its tail being simultaneously severed by a sharp wooden-hafted knife. Almost at the moment, nine other miniature sheep are deftly cropped, docked, and tumbled bleating beside them, just in time to keep them company. The work is ceaseless after this for half an hour, when the subdivision was cleared of lambs, only the ewes remaining. The Elliots, Mr. Countemout, and the others are by this time covered, as to face, neck, and shoulders, with the blood which had spurted from the ears and tails of the wounded. Now appears the value of the aged garments. The ewes of the lamb-emptied small yard are then carefully counted out and duly entered in a notebook. As the last sheep goes out, the catching-yard is refilled, and the ‘cutting and wounding, without the statutory intent to do grievous bodily harm’ recommences. The tails as severed are thrown into heaps, close to the feet of the performers. Still as the day wears on, the same process of yarding up, catching, and cropping proceeds with unslackened speed. Higher and higher grow the mounds of tails; larger the released body of sheep on the plain outside. Many of the lambs at once find their mothers, who, after one glance at their altered appearance, march off into the less dangerous interior of the paddock. Others, not so fortunate—ewes whose lambs are yet in the yard, and lambs whose mothers are not released—remain bleating around the enclosure. Small time is given for the mid-day meal. A crust of ‘damper,’ a glass of grog, a cup of tea, and at it again. The calculation is tolerably close. As the sun dips behind the range, the last yard of ewes is counted out, and the great operation is over.
‘Far from a bad day’s work,’ quoth Gilbert, with a grateful sigh. ‘I feel (and probably look) “a man of blood” all over.
‘They were weary at eve when they ceased to slay,
‘Give the men another tot. They’ve worked like bricks; catch the horses, some of you, while we count the tails. Just enough light.’
Every one upon this, whose education had not been neglected, commences to sort the small mountains of tails into heaps of one hundred each. These are placed in rows, clearly and separately, for Gilbert to make a final computation thereof. All told, there are eighty-seven of them, and nearly half a one over, which contains forty-three. ‘Hurrah!’ sang out Hobbie, after checking Gilbert’s count. ‘Eight thousand seven hundred and forty-three lambs. Eighty-seven per cent, and a fraction. Who dares to say a word against fencing now? The battle is won, and now, “all tails being told,” give me the reins, and jump in, you fellows!’
The next day being conscientiously devoted to doing nothing, there was leisure for discussion.
‘I can hardly realise now,’ said Hobbie, ‘that matters have turned out so splendidly. Here is lambing well over, a famous percentage of strong lambs which nothing can hurt; what is better, we have not an extra man or meal to pay for till their jackets are off; even after that we can wean for nothing by simply drafting and removing the ewes, and leaving the lambs inside. Being where they have been born and bred, of course they will settle down more easily.’
‘It is wonderful, when one sees the result,’ agreed Gilbert, blandly philosophising. ‘Strange that so few people, comparatively speaking, should have had enterprise sufficient for such an obvious improvement. It only demonstrates the slow growth of the idea.’
‘Slow indeed!’ assented Hobbie. ‘I don’t wonder at Jack Bulmer’s vehemence. It must seem so intensely thick-headed of us all, to a man who has seen the advantages of fencing proved.’
‘Fancy our state of Egyptian bondage to the lambing stations we should have had, if all these ewes and lambs had had to be shepherded; how did we ever endure the drudgery, anxiety, and expense of the old system!
‘We shall have a pull, too, at shearing time,’ pursued Gilbert, ‘along of the fencing; we can shear all the “dry sheep” first, and have them back at their yards, before we commence at the ewes and lambs, which will be in clover all the time. We ought to make up our minds, then, about fencing the rest of the run.’
‘I should say so,’ returned Hobbie with enthusiasm. ‘We’ll have every sheep in thin fences, wire, zigzag, and chock-and-log, before next shearing after this. Then, life will be worth having. When I think that those praiseworthy ewes had “mothered” all their offspring, and were out of sight of the yard this morning at sunrise, when Countemout passed in from Burnt Hut Station, and that we need not go near them for a week, I could almost weep with the overflow of real unadulterated happiness. The golden age has revisited the earth. We must change the name of the place from Wandaroona to Arcadia.
‘Round Arcady’s oak, its green
‘Heigho! I wonder if we shall ever see the classic land, or whether we are, like the ’possums, doomed to gum-leaves for ever?’
LAMBING is, after all, chiefly an affair of outposts. There is a large infusion of guerilla warfare; but shearing is the real campaign, when the entire military force of the kingdom is displayed; when the reserves are called out to the last man. This ‘protomachia,’ with its sallies and repulses—its anxiety and triumph—its feverish energy and reactionary repose, has come to an end. The men are paid off, the huts are empty—the wool-teams are gone, the heat increases, the travellers decrease. All the land seems settling down into a torrid, lotus-eating stage, when everybody is too hot to do anything, and labour of every sort has become extinct by process of desiccation. At this season in the ‘Terra Caliente,’ even Riverina, as day by day the sun plants his flaming banner in the face of shrinking nature, so the water disappears, the flowers fade, the grass shrivels, breaks off, and is blown away into infinite space by the fiery breath of the desert wind. A great horror of dulness and lassitude settles upon all things. By reason thereof the dogs will scarcely bark, the shepherds have barely sufficient vitality to cut up tobacco, the sheep decline the recreation, at once so easy and so pleasantly wrong, of getting lost. With the thermometer one hundred and ten in the shade, the millennium of the ‘dead certain’ sets in. There has been a slight ripple in the breezeless calm, owing to the sinister influence of grass-seed! This does not sound very dreadful. It rather has a tone of nature’s luxuriance, lush herbage, waving meadows, and all the rest of it. It does wave, my malison upon it! Of all the permitted diabolism with which the Enemy is suffered to torment man and his poor relations, the animals, this corkscrew member of the Gramineae, Anthistiria infernalis, is the deadliest. Barbed, involuted, needle-pointed, the tiny javelin, which ought to be a grass seed, is in summer hardened to the temper of steel. Borne by the wind, or falling ripe from its stalk, it matters not which, it is launched forth and buried in the sides of the innocent lambs. ‘The pity of it!’ Up to a certain age, say six months, a man may have ten thousand—twenty thousand lambs which are ‘a sight to see,’—plump, strong, splendidly developed, looking nearly as big as their mothers; in value so many half- sovereigns walking on four legs. The sun flames, the grass ripens, the waving prairies upon the slopes and the long levels of the angophora woods have a pallid appearance, dismal and uncanny in the eyes of Mr. Countemout and the elderly shepherds. Let the bounding, vigorous lambkins but once gambol through this fatal field, and they come forth pierced through their tender pink skins in a hundred places with the barbed arrow-heads, stricken nigh unto death.
Fancy! my favourite friend, who thinkest lightly of the sorrows of the ‘lower classes,’ brute or human, what thy sufferings would be if a howitzer suddenly discharged at thee a thousand tiny barblets, striking deep into every skin crevice and by a kind of natural rifling action tending to bite more and more deeply with each movement into the agonised flesh. Think, too, if thou hadst no hands, no tweezers, no speech, no friends, nought but dumb agony, and an occasional spasmodic kick for relief! Riddled and pierced through every pore have I seen lambs and young sheep. Through skin and the underlying muscles and nerves went the steel-pointed tiny needle. The helpless victim pines, lies down, wastes, weakened and worn to death with agonised endurance; it refuses food. Then the friendly crow picks out its eyes as it lies gasping on the sward, afraid to move and so provoke the intolerable agony of locomotion. The remainder of the flock struggle through the period and eventually arrive at maturity. They tell up in a count, and if the station is sold are as others. But ‘they never make sheep,’ and are always referred to by Mr. Countemout and other disciplinarians as those confounded undersized wretches of the year 187- that were regularly ruined by grass seed, have grown up stunted and bad constitutioned, will never be worth a curse the longest day they live. Great pity they were not all knocked on the head directly they opened their eyes.
This was the sort of thing our young friends found imminent.
Fortunately for them between the anabranch and the river there was a splendid green grass meadow averaging two miles in width.
‘I did think of a run to Sydney for a month,’ quoth Gilbert plaintively, ‘but now this confounded grass seed is so bad, I shall defer it. Bush fires will be in season when the first difficulty is disposed of. Nature is the unkindest step-mother to squatters!’
‘We must humour the ancient dame till she sends us a wet season,’ answered Hobbie. ‘That is our only chance for a holiday; and then we might have two thousand ewes and lambs drowned like Athelstane’s in the great flood.’
‘Served him right,’ said Gilbert ruthlessly. ‘He was as unready as his namesake in Ivanhoe and took no precautions when he saw the anabranch filling up before his eyes. Now what precautions are we going to take? We mustn’t lose all these fine lambs now that we have them.’
‘Well,’ returned Hobbie, ‘the flat between the anabranch creek and the river is all clover and meadow-grass together. Except on the small sandhill there is not an acre of corkscrew grass in the lot. The creek is high; if we swim the lambs over and brush-fence one or two of the shallow places, they will be safe, sound, and literally “in clover” for the next three months. By that time all the wire-grass seed will have been shed.’
‘First-rate idea!’ assented Gilbert. ‘We must get them all in and draft off the ewes; the lambs will then be weaned and out of harm’s way at one and the same time.’
This project was duly carried through with the full concurrence and assistance of Mr. Countemout. The weaners were drafted out, and being taken to a yard at a narrow part of the creek, a rope stretched across as a guide, were after considerable intimidation and coercion forced over. Sheep, especially when young, are nearly as unwilling as cats to wet their feet. There was no likelihood of their volunteering to swim back. So they roamed unattended over the great river meadows till the autumn, enjoying abundant food and water with perfect immunity from the graminaceous scourge.
‘I don’t like the look of the weather,’ said Mr. Countemout, apropos of nothing, one evening as they were all sitting smoking in the verandah.
‘What’s the matter with it?’ said Gilbert, looking up at the starry heaven of a cloudless autumn night, ‘seems fine enough now.’
‘A deal too fine,’ returned the experienced resident. ‘It has threatened rain at times lately and there have been a good many clouds, but no rain—no rain—that’s what I look at. I could swear that the winter was setting in dry.’
‘You don’t say so?’ asked Gilbert with some anxiety. ‘To me there is nothing uncommon in the appearance of clouds and the absence of rain.’
‘I’ve been watching the signs of the season,’ continued Countemout, with a grave and earnest expression upon his darkly-bronzed features, ’and everything tells the same tale. I hear that the stock are moving in from the back all through the lower country. I saw an ibis to-day, too. My belief is that we are on the edge of a drought.’
‘God forbid!’ ejaculated Hobbie.
At the ominous word the brothers were obviously moved. In the land in which they lived it was a sound of dread, an image of desolation, which few stock-owners who had lived a decade in Riverina recalled without alarm. In the great plains of the interior, even in the more temperate regions of Australia, the awful spectre of drought had appeared at uncertain intervals in the history of the land. Before its gradual approach and deathlike presence verdure flies the earth. The streams and springs disappear. The stock which have multiplied in happier seasons pine and die from sheer starvation, or in the distant scantily-watered solitudes from which their owners have not had the foresight to drive them before the last water is exhausted, perish in thousands, maddened by the torture of thirst. The labour of years is rendered fruitless in a single season. The unlucky squatter, overtaken and distracted, finds the small portion of his stock which has escaped the famine utterly unsaleable. Even at the lowest prices men are unwilling to purchase, having but scanty pastures for their own attenuated flocks and herds. I he be free from debt he may bear the loss, trusting to make a fresh beginning with the remnant of his stock; if he has been erecting ‘improvements’ on credit, however well considered and certain to pay eventually, or if he have engagements to meet dependent on the sale of stock, he is a ruined man.
Such, or similar, ideas passed through the minds of the proprietors of Wandaroona as Mr. Countemout delivered himself of his prediction. They knew that he had lived for many years in the neighbourhood and had passed through the ordeal of such visitations. Of his general sagacity and powers of observation they entertained no doubt. Therefore the danger loomed sufficiently near to be confronted. Hobbie was the first to speak.
‘It will be awfully mortifying, after all our expense and successful carrying out of the great fencing idea, if we have to retrace our steps, advertise for shepherds, and travel the sheep to the mountains, which is the obvious course, if Countemout is dismally right—and I’m afraid he is!’
‘I am not so sure of that,’ answered Gilbert, who had been smoking savagely and corrugating his brow, as if with unusual mental effort. ‘I am not sure but that the fencing will stand to us in our extremity; and we may have another paean to sing in praise of it. We have not as yet fully stocked the run. We have a large part of the back country fenced. We have one good well, twenty miles back, which will water ten thousand sheep. I vote for completing the fencing, putting down another well, and standing the shot!’
‘We shall certainly save the expense, trouble, and partial loss of travelling. My “blood runs cold,”’ pathetically continued Hobbie, ‘at the bare idea of fresh shepherds, dogs, carts, rations, billies, tents, brush-yards, reporters, hobbles, bells, and all the antiquated nuisances I fondly hoped we had got rid of for ever. We have lots of rough feed in those scrubby ranges at the back; with one more well and a few more miles of fencing, I believe we could weather it out. I am for trying; what do you say, Countemout?’
That veteran removed a richly-coloured pipe from his lips, and thoughtfully made answer, ‘I am not sure but what Gilbert is right, and considering that the feed just now is very fair, and that there is plenty of three-year-old grass at the back that a well would bring into play, we might see it out without unreasonable loss. But there’s this to be looked at—if we start from here, say next month, we can make the mountains, with thirty thousand sheep, in five weeks and have first-rate quarters on the road. On the other hand, if we stand by the run with all the stock, get the sheep regularly down in condition, and find at the worst of the drought that we can’t hold on longer, why then—’ and he gave a puff at the darkly red meerschaum, which sent the clouds of strong ‘negro-head’ towards the ceiling, causing them to fold and swim like the vapour of a locomotive.
‘Why then, we can travel when we can do nothing else,’ continued Hobbie.
‘By that time,’ solemnly made answer the old bushman, ‘the road between Wandaroona and the mountains will be like a stockyard, there will be no more grass upon it than upon the floor of this room. The sheep will be so weak that they could hardly bear the journey, even if there was feed; only one thing can happen, if the rain keeps off when you get to that stage.’
‘And that is?’ inquired Gilbert, who had been following the speaker with deep attention.
‘That you will see every sheep you have in the world die before your eyes, without the ghost of a chance of saving anything but their skins. A sorry sight it is. And I, John Cumnor Countemout, have seen it happen, ay, and to my own sheep too. I wasn’t always a super; I started with a tidy little capital, when I first came to Australia, and I lost nine thousand sheep, to the last tally, within six months.’
‘What, from drought, old fellow?’ asked Hobbie sympathetically; ‘why, you never told us that.’
‘No; from catarrh. I was left with two horses and as many suits of clothes, when all was paid. It’s an old story; there is a bit of bad luck now and then, or I shouldn’t be here on £200 a year. All the same I couldn’t be in a better place. But I’ve seen five thousand fat wethers, splendid sheep too, die of thirst on a back block. The owner nearly went mad at the same time. But I think we’ve had enough of these old stories for one night. I’ve got to be at Long Ridge at sunrise. Good-night.’
The grizzled, stout-hearted, iron-sinewed pioneer drained his glass of grog and strode off to bed—leaving to our friends considerable material for thought.
‘Poor old Countemout has had hard luck, as it would seem,’ said Hobbie after a rather long interval of smoking, during which they gazed silently at the dark-blue starry heavens. ‘The race is not always to the swift, truly, or he would have been named in the running. He is strong, shrewd, economical, upright in all his ways, and close on fifty years old—his working life nearly told out, and a couple of hacks, three brood mares, and a ten-pound note or two are his sole possessions.’
‘There’s apparently an ingredient of what we are content to call “luck” in the affairs of life,’ said Gilbert. ‘I fancy it has been remarked before. When one sees some of our neighbours, who are neither clever, strong, nor even particularly honest, in possession of famous country, that even their gross mismanagement cannot render unprofitable, the riddle of life does seem difficult to unravel.’
‘We shall find the difficulty increased,’ quoth Hobbie, returning to the concrete, ‘when this drought in all its glory, is upon us. What are we to do? According to Countemout, Riverina is about to be like a pastoral edition of Campbell’s “Last Man,” the last squatter will boil down the last sheep, and gracefully subside amid a grand concluding conflagration—
‘The Sun’s eye had a sickly glare.
‘Parodies are gloriously easy, are they not? I feel very like a poet.’
‘My dear Hobbie, remember the lady in “Hyperion”—“Sir,” said she, with dignity, “you have been drinking”—you must have mixed a second grog, unconsciously, or you would not joke about our probable ruin, and make ruffianly parodies.’
‘Well, old fellow,’ said Hobbie, ‘I stand reproved; and now for business. What are we to do?’
‘I have been thinking,’ answered Gilbert, ‘and I adhere to our first idea maugre Countemout’s gloomy possibilities. We are not above three parts stocked. Let us get the remaining fences at the back finished, while there is a little grass left.’
‘Advertise at once for another set of well-sinkers, and if we strike water at a reasonable depth, we shall have feed to keep us going, unless it’s a worse drought than anything since 1837. I think we may risk it,’ asserted Hobbie, much assured by his elder’s confident bearing. ‘We are not like Jack Bulmer, who is fully stocked and has a lot of cattle. I suspect he must travel.’
‘Most likely; the run looked bare when I was down last, and three thousand store cattle which he put on last season, all at once, destroy much grass. All the same, he will fight his way through somehow, as of yore. But his movements need not govern ours.’
SINCE the foregoing council of war months had passed. No rain had fallen. None appeared likely to fall. The skies were as iron and the earth as brass. Day followed day, clear but monotonously cloudless. The glory of the dark-blue summer sky, in which burned nightly ‘the stars in their courses,’ was fast becoming to the souls of the gazers, as they sickened from hope deferred, emblematic of sorrow and despair. They looked upon the unchanging heavens, which during a long succession of weeks had scarce been flecked by a cloud, as the shipwrecked mariner regards the ocean calm, which, if unbroken, dooms him to the most fearful of deaths. The grass on the frontage flats had long been eaten, trampled, and dried up, so that the dusty level looked as if green sward were never again possible. Jack Bulmer’s contingent of thirty thousand sheep, one-half of his whole stock, had long since passed en route for the mountains. He himself had gone on ahead to inspect a mountain plateau, which, cleared of snow in the warm spring weather, was now waving with green grass, and traversed by clear, cool mountain streams. He was in great spirits as usual on his return, and declared he wouldn’t have missed the drought with its attendant adventures for any pecuniary consideration whatever.
‘What’s the use of jeremiads about the drought?’ demanded he, ‘and why this despondent tone? Go up to the Devil’s Punch Bowl and see for yourselves. Scenery there you never dreamt of. Regular sanitary station; another Simla, by Jove! Lots of nice fellows. Sheep splendid fleeces next year. Extra clip, pay shearing expenses, give you my honour!’
‘Is it open country or timbered?’ inquired Hobbie.
‘Rather thick until you get into the plateau, and then glorious downs and rolling prairie. Famous green grass, a little coarse or so, lovely little brooks—regular brooks, by George, running the summer through; sheep in clover. Cold at night, quite enjoyed a fire, grand snow-peaks, regular Alpine region, native inhabitants cattle-stealers to a man, but simple and friendly. Why don’t you fellows come? I can rent you some country on the mountain plain. I’ve got more than I can use.’
‘To tell the truth, Jack,’ answered Gilbert resolutely, ‘we are not so fully stocked as you, and have decided to stay at home. We believe that with the two back paddocks, especially as the wells have turned out so good, we can keep all the sheep unless things are worse than they have been known to be.’
‘Well, of course, you can try, old fellow, and you certainly have more grass than any run I know except “Tungamain” and “Maradheree,” but don’t you hang on too long.’
‘We must risk that, I know,’ replied Gilbert, ‘and a terrible hazard it is. But we have thought the matter well over, and we are resolved to abide the issue.’
‘Well, you will save the expense of travelling, which is fearful, absolutely fearful,’ said Jack with much feeling. ‘The cheques I’ve drawn since the blessed sheep started would bring tears to the eyes of a stock agent! It’s shearing time all the year round—give you my honour! But there’s no help for it. You can’t exactly cut the beggars’ throats. I suppose it will rain some day or another; I must be off now. Holmwood tells me his milkers at the station are living upon water-lilies in the lagoons, ha, ha! They’ll soon have to dive for a subsistence at that rate. I hear there are thirty thousand sheep from the Bogan passing up to-morrow; look out for your frontage, Hobbie.’
So Bulmer the Berserker departed, leaving his friends troubled in mind, and doubting somewhat of the prudence of putting so large a stake on the board as thirty thousand sheep and the lives thereof.
‘By Jove, it’s an awful risk, Gilbert,’ said Hobbie, after a long pause, during which they listened to the hoof echoes of Jack’s wonderful gray dying away in the distance. ‘Suppose the rain keeps off for six months we shan’t save a sheep; they begin to look weak now. I almost wish we had taken Jack’s offer and rented some of his country.’
‘Too late now,’ answered Gilbert; ‘we’ve made our election and we must stick to it. The sheep are a long way from being “crawlers” yet. Mind you turn out early, and take Countemout to meet those Bogan sheep. If you don’t watch them well, they’ll strip every blade of grass within miles of the road.’
The morning was fresh and almost cool. A blood-red sun was slowly ensanguining the dim outline of the distant alp as Hobbie Elliot and Mr. Countemout rode briskly along the dusty road towards the western gate. How changed was the colour of the vast meadow or ‘river flat’ from the garb of spring! Instead of a prairie, a natural hay-field, rich with wild oats and tall with many a waving tassel, the wide brown level lay bare and arid. Far as the eye could reach on either side there was not only no sign of vegetation, green (save the mark), yellow, or brown, but the whole desolate area looked as if eternally devoted to barrenness. Looked as if grass could never grow there again—as if not only the stalks and tufts, but the very roots of all grass and herbage had perished, now and for evermore. The broad lagoons, deep and cool, with floating silver-petalled water-lilies, and populous with waterfowl, were now dry, dusty, and swept clear of every suspicion of reed or weed.
‘They say these Bogan sheep are frightfully weak,’ remarked Hobbie, ‘dying by hundreds. Poor devils! they won’t get much better here if we keep them to their half mile on each side of the road.’
‘Of course we must do that,’ said Countemout, ‘or starve our own sheep. They do say that they lost three thousand between Baradine and Wilbandra; even worse than that since. Jefferson summoned the man in charge, and made him pay two men to kill and burn all the sheep left on his run.’
‘That was sharp work, if you like. He might have been contented to take the risk of their dying or living. It was too bad to make the unfortunate beggar pay for the murder of his own stock. We had better push on; I see them drawing off camp and the first flock passing through the gate.’
As they reached the boundary fence the first of the fifteen flocks had passed, and the long narrow line of sheep had extended itself along the dusty highway.
‘Look at them, for God’s sake!’ said Hobbie. ‘Did you ever see sheep walk along a road with their heads up like these? They don’t seem to think it worth while to look for feed; what a fearful array of skeletons! If I met them at night I should take them for the ghost of a sheep station. I have scarcely the heart to tell the men to keep within the half mile from the road.’
They rode up to the advancing flock, which on closer inspection realised all the wretchedness of aspect which Hobbie had referred to. The delusive covering of their half-grown fleeces prevented the emaciation from being apparent. But the hollow eyes, the trembling limbs, the attenuated frames of the feeble creatures, were signs easily read by practised eyes. Flock after flock, file after file, the melancholy procession passed along. The worn and desperate animals never lowered their heads or walked from side to side after the manner of grazing sheep. Hopeless and nerveless, they had not sufficient energy to quit the beaten track in the vain search for pasture. Sullen and wayworn they passed slowly along the road. They neither halted nor wandered; all sensation seemed obliterated except a mechanical tendency to move aimlessly forward till they dropped. And this process in one flock or other was continually taking place.
The men and shepherds who were driving the sheep assisted at the sombre function with morose countenances—even they felt distressed and demoralised.
‘Good day,’ said Mr. Countemout to the shepherd, ‘this is a bad look-out. I never saw so large a lot of sheep so weak before; you will lose half of them before long.’
‘Can’t lose ’em faster than we’re a-doin’ now, unless the whole boiling drops down dead on camp some night,’ answered the shepherd, an elderly man of acidulated aspect; ‘and they’ll do that soon unless rain comes. We’re three thousand short since last week.’
‘How do you come to be so late on the road?’ asked Hobbie. ‘All the down-river sheep have been at the mountains months ago.’
‘Well, I believe our boss thought the water would hold out; the feed was middling good, but the back lakes dried up all of a sudden, and then we was started on the road with a rush like.’
‘The river was all right, though, I suppose?’
‘The river!’ said the sun-scorched weather-beaten ancient—‘the river!’
‘Well,’ retorted Hobbie tartly, ‘I suppose there is always plenty of water in the river—enough for a hundred thousand sheep where you came from.’
‘Water enough,’ slowly returned the wayfarer. ‘The stock might drink till all was blue, or drown theirselves in it for that matter; as to feed, I wish you could see it!’
‘Pretty well picked over, I daresay,’ assented Hobbie.
‘Picked over!’ growled the injured stranger, ‘see here,’ and he stirred the fine dust on the road with his foot, ‘there’s no more feed within twenty mile of the river then there is where we are standin’, nor hasn’t been for months.’
‘What an awful state of things! what will become of the other stock down there, with three more months’ dry weather?’
‘God knows! there was Jackson’s, and Hunt’s, and Ronaldson’s sheep back of us, as can’t travel; they’ll lose ’em in heaps and thousands, I am thinking. Here, wake ’em up, lass!’ The dog he addressed, a wiry, restless, intelligent collie, with one blue eye and one brown ditto, had been ambling backward and forward behind her flock. She now barked and advanced. A feeble rush was the result, when half a dozen sheep fell instantly, and lay patiently, utterly incapable of rising. ‘Come away, old woman,’ said the shepherd apologetically, ‘you’ve got more sense then I have. I’d never have told you to wake ’em up, only I was talking to the gentleman and thinking of somethink else. You see what it’s like, sir. They’ve been like this for the last two hundred mile.’
‘Where’s the gentleman in charge of the sheep?’ said Hobbie, ‘Mr. Delafield, isn’t that his name? I think the reporter said so.’
‘Well, he went to Jildebah last night. We was camped close handy; he and the super had a barney, I believe, and a traveller told us to-day as Mr. Delafield was in Jildebah lock-up.’
‘In the lock-up!’ said Hobbie, much astonished, ‘what in the world for?’
‘Well, they tells me the Jildebah super has a rough side to his tongue, he has, and Mr. Delafield, though he is so quiet-looking, won’t stand no nonsense from no man, and so Bouncin’ Bill, as they calls ’im, fell off his ’orse.’
‘And was that any reason to put a gentleman in the lock-up?’
‘Well, sir, you don’t tumble, if Bouncin’ Bill did, perhaps he might have got a tap promiskus like. He’s very quick with his hands, Mr. Delafield is, and uncommon neat—I don’t know as ever I see a gent neater.’
‘So,’ said Hobbie, ‘that’s it! Now, this is Saturday, so he stands a good chance of being locked up till Monday, if I don’t find him bail. Well, good—bye! Don’t you fellows get straggling over my run, or I’ll put you in the pound, shepherds and all. This gentleman will keep along with you while I go to Jildebah.’
Leaving Mr. Countemout to his monotonous but necessary occupation of riding at a foot-pace by the funereal flocks, thus restraining the shepherds from wandering into the heart of the run, pretending to lose themselves, and having to be fetched back after devouring every blade of grass in their way, Hobbie rode into the city of Jildebah. This imposing township seemed to be compounded in equal parts of dust, delirium-tremens, dulness, and broken bottles. It boasted several public-houses, two stores, a large graveyard, a small school, a blacksmith’s shop, and a police barrack. To this latter establishment was affiliated the aforesaid lock-up, popularly known as ‘the logs,’ from the preponderating quantity of these massive timbers displayed in the floor, the wall, and indeed the ceiling of the edifice.
‘Senior Constable Ryan,’ said Hobbie, J.P., in magisterial tones, as a good-looking, well-got-up police trooper came out of the barrack and saluted, ‘what’s this you’ve been about, confining a gentleman (the Governor’s nephew, for all you know) in Jildebah lock-up, just like a horse-stealer?’
‘Assault upon Mr. Rougham, your worship! Aggravated—Mr. Rougham’s face much cut, sir.’
‘Did you see the assault?’
‘Then you had no right to arrest; I am surprised that you don’t know better, Ryan, after all your experience. Bring the gentleman to the inn parlour, and ask Mr. Jones and Mr. Williams, with my compliments, if they will walk up.’
Ryan departed crestfallen. He was a smart fellow, and a staunch sleuth-hound on the trail of bushrangers, or horse-stealers, but from living in a poky place like Jildebah, had become too autocratic, and occasionally rendered himself open to proceedings involving damages.
Proceeding to the Jildebah Hotel Hobbie seated himself in an armchair, behind the table, at the upper end of the dining-room, and presently the ‘prisoner’ arrived, escorted by Ryan in full uniform, and stood in an easy nonchalant attitude before him. Messrs. Jones and Williams, burgesses of Jildebah, came in and, bowing respectfully, seated themselves upon the unyielding horsehair chairs of the imposing apartment. The ordinary loungers of such a settlement, a shepherd or two whose cheques were only partially melted, a teamster, two Chinamen, and a blackfellow, and lastly, the hotel book-keeper, an aristocratic-looking personage with a large black beard, ranged themselves at the lower end, and awaited such tragedy as might be imminent.
‘Cecil Delafield,’ commenced Hobbie, in a matter-of-fact tone of voice, ‘you stand charged with an aggravated assault upon William Rougham of Jildebah. How do you plead?’
‘Not guilty, your worship,’ replied the captive knight, for such indeed he looked, in a soft maniéré tone, as if he was talking to a pretty girl at a flower show.
‘Very well,’ said Hobbie. ‘Senior Constable Ryan, go into the witness box!’ That official did so by the fiction of advancing to the corner of the table, and, having been sworn, deposed as follows:—‘My name is Patrick Ryan, I am senior constable of police, stationed at Jildebah; on the evening of yesterday, the 7th instant, at about half-past six, Mr. William Rougham gave the prisoner in charge for violently assaulting him. His face at the time was bleeding, and one eye contused and swollen. He said prisoner had assaulted him without provocation. I rode over to where I saw prisoner and arrested him. When I charged him with the offence he said “All right,” and asked if the lock-up was empty. I locked him up. Upon searching I found four five-pound notes and some silver, which I produce, a tooth-brush, a gold watch, a penknife, and a photograph.’
Cross-examined by prisoner: ‘Did not see you commit any assault.’
‘Sign your deposition,’ said Hobbie, who had duly written down this important evidence, ‘and at this stage I will adjourn the case till Friday next, when the police magistrate of Moona-Warraban will attend. Cecil Delafield, bail is allowed, sureties, two in £25 each, yourself in £50. Mr. Jones, Mr. Williams, are you content to be bound?’ These worthy tradespeople bowed. ‘The prisoner stands remanded to Friday next—Mr. Delafield, you can go.’
Mr. Delafield duly appeared before the Court on the afternoon of Friday, as did also Mr. Rougham. Consequent on the arrival of the police magistrate of the district, a leading solicitor made his appearance, who was at once retained for the defence.
AFTER Mr. Rougham had told his tale and exhibited his injuries, the first witness for the defence was sworn and deposed as follows:—
‘My name’s Bill, leastways William Dickson, mail driver. I was a-lookin’ for horses in the crick, I see most of this row. Billy Rougham, he gallops down swearing at this gentleman as if he’d eat him. Asked him why the h—l he come down their frontage, stealin’ all the grass and starving people’s sheep. Said he was travelling for feed, and grass stealers was worse nor sheep stealers, why didn’t they keep on the road, and not go through his river flats, making believe they’d lost theirselves? Said he’d knock his damned head off for sixpence. This gentleman said he thought it was the main road. “You’re a liar,” says Rougham, “fellows as steal grass would tell a lie for sixpence any day. You go off this private land, it’s a pre-emptive right, or I’ll make you.” The gentleman said he didn’t think it was private land. Would go off when he chose—not afore.’
‘Now, did any one do anything?’ inquired the police magistrate. ‘Never mind repeating these conversations.’
‘Yes, they did, my word!’ said the witness. ‘Your worships, I’m just a-comin’ to ’em. “I shall not go,” says this gentleman, “how do I know it’s private land?” “I’ll soon show you,” says Rougham—with that he shoves his horse right agin the gen’leman’s, as was that weak and low, as he pretty nigh fell down, and makes a crack at him. Ha! ha!’
It was demanded by the Bench of the witness why he laughed—and he was sternly ordered to proceed.
‘I couldn’t help it, your worships, to see how old Billy, as fancies he can welt any man about Jildebah, was took in. The gent threw back his ’ead, and as Billy having missed ’is stroke, was drawed a bit forrard, he lets him have it—one, two, right atween the eyes. Mr. Super Rougham tumbles off his ’orse, with ’is face altered considerably for the wuss, and makes for the bobby. That’s all I know about it.’
The Bench having heard this with other evidence, cross-examination, re-examination, and all the usual inventions for filling up the time of the Court, held as follows:—
That Mr. Delafield was probably feeding his sheep on the Jildebah pre-emptive right in ignorance of boundaries; that the assault complained of appeared, though technically illegal, to have been in self-defence; and that Mr. Rougham had been proved to have acted violently and abusively. Under all the circumstances, they would dismiss the case with two guineas costs—of Court. Mr. Delafield went home with Hobbie and stayed a couple of days at Wandaroona. He was not obliged to be always with his sheep, having a deputy upon whom he could depend for counting, and the like. He was an entertaining man of the world, once a thriving squatter, now a salaried superintendent. He did not appear to repine greatly at his altered fate. ‘After all,’ he said, ‘health and spirits are the great facts of existence. I am pretty hard worked, but I enjoy my pipe, my meals, a book, the society of gentlemen, and sleep like a top. I don’t know that I was happier when I was rich.’
‘Awfully depressing work, I should say,’ said Gilbert, ‘travelling with weak sheep in weather like this.’
‘You may say that,’ assented their guest sincerely, ‘even the men feel it, though of course their pay is all the same. What with no feed, a scarcity of water, the terrible losses we have had since starting, and the present uncertainty of rain, I feel pretty reckless. I cannot help matters. I can only see the sheep die. I don’t intend even to count them till rain comes.’
‘I daresay you’re right,’ said Hobbie. ‘You can’t stop them dying, and you can have the melancholy satisfaction of knowing how many are killed, wounded, and missing all at once.’
‘Quite my idea. We are five thousand short now, and if it does not rain for another two or three months (and I see no likelihood of the drought breaking up) not a sheep will go back to the lower Bogan.’
‘Had you any stages without water, before you got to the Oxley?’ asked Gilbert.
‘We had two nights and a day; awfully hot weather, too. I shall never forget it,’ said Delafield. ‘We had travelled all one night, it was fairly cool, though dusty. The next day was hot, the sheep became obstinate and we could hardly get them along. At night they seemed utterly beat and exhausted. We had a miserable attempt at a meal, a short smoke, and then orders were given to march. We dogged the sullen, tired brutes along the dusty road the long night through. It was breezeless and sultry, though comparatively cool after the scorching day. All night we toiled on, however, knowing that if we stopped another day, without reaching water, we should lose every sheep.
‘The men behaved well too. They kept going and said little, as is the custom of Englishmen when there is danger or need. As the dawn broke—I thought it would never come—and the clouds of dust rolled back from the host of panting sheep, I saw a dark line on the horizon. It was the “river timber” of the Oxley.’
‘By the beard of the Prophet!’ exclaimed Hobbie, ‘that was a touch of the Great Desert; and so the caravan was saved, and all of you performed your ablutions with water instead of sand, and returned thanks to Allah, like devout Mussulmans.’
‘We shall all turn Mahometans, I believe, if we live here long enough. Religion is partly a matter of climate.’
‘How did you contrive to water them?’
‘That was the difficulty. After a short rest, we went slowly on, having hope before us in the actual course of the river, but for which I think we should have lain down and died—dogs, horses, men, and sheep. When we got a reasonable distance from the river, I ordered one flock forward, intending to detach them, and water gradually for fear of accidents But we were nearer the water than I had reckoned. As soon as the happy first flock scented the water, they began to bleat and run—the other flocks caught the infection. All commenced to run and made one grand stampede in spite of our efforts, so in a wonderfully short time, considering our late rate of progression, the whole twenty-five thousand sheep, mad with thirst and excitement, hurled themselves into the deep clear water, where many were drowned and as many more smothered. They drew back by degrees into the polygonum flat which at that point bordered the river. We had a comparatively happy camp of it that night. They didn’t need watching. But when morning and the usual count came, there was a considerable deficit. However, that disaster is mourned and buried, and we are nerving ourselves for the next. Do you feel inclined to speculate?
‘Would you sell them?’ asked Gilbert. ‘What’s the price? though it’s a superfluous question, as no one can buy now, unless he cuts the throats of his own sheep as a preliminary. However, let us hear, that we may have the mournful pleasure of knowing what good sheep are worth in a drought.’
‘I had a telegram yesterday from Melbourne,’ said their guest, slowly and deliberately, as if enjoying the flavour of the jest, ‘permitting me to sell the whole lot for two shillings per head. Six months’ bill.’
‘Death and all the furies! Hades and destruction!’ shouted Hobbie; ‘are we live and sane assessment-paying squatters? Well-bred, well-framed merino ewes, with seven months’ wool on, offered at two shillings per head! and refused at that!’
‘Isn’t it awful?’ chimed in Gilbert; ‘we have thirty thousand sheep, and at that rate they are worth just three thousand pounds—exactly one-sixth of what we gave for store sheep four years ago—and glad to get them.’
‘Now is the time to buy,’ said Delafield, ‘if you want to back the field against the season. I would if I had the cash or credit. I always liked a long shot, or I should not be here. Deuced comfortable place it is too! I know of two thousand fine full-fleeced weaners being sold the other day for nine-pence a head!’
‘Don’t tell us any more,’ entreated Hobbie; ‘it’s dreadful either way. If no rain comes, we be all dead men—horse, foot, and dragoons. If it does come—we shall be ready to cut our throats at having lost such glorious chances of a rapid fortune. Let us smoke and turn in. Life is becoming lurid and oppressive.’
Their pleasant guest had gone. Weeks had passed. Still the endless succession of cloudless days and starry nights. Drier still and more dismal was the face of all nature. As the autumn wore on and the winter—in name—approached, the nights became longer, colder—the enfeebled sheep more wan and shrunken. Other troops of ovine spectres had passed in sad array, foreshadowing to the brothers the probable fate of the whole stock of Wandaroona. The river was low; creeks, water-holes, and dams were drying up; every day hands were sent forth to pull sheep out which, hopelessly bemired, and too weak even to struggle, stood or lay in rows around each watering-place. Yet again another month—another month of monotonous work, of anxiety, of increasing though as yet inconsiderable loss. The drought still relaxed nothing of its cruel grip, in which the whole country from Albury to Adelaide, from the Wimmera to Roma, was held. Tales of terrible losses—of widespread ruin and desolation—came from every side and filled the journals with lamentation and woe.
The wealthiest stock-holders commenced to speculate on the chances of total loss. The banks, long-suffering and forbearing, less from any uncommercial sentiment of mercy than from calculation and the dread of precipitating a general insolvency, were hardly pressed. Rumours floated in the air of coming financial revolutions, of depreciated shares, and darksome days of reckoning.
All the portents of the day were storm signals, so to speak—combining to foretell a financial earth-quake; the toppling down of a grand structure of pastoral prosperity, reared by the energy and intelligence of less than two generations of Britons. All the social croakers in the land (the frogs being chiefly mute by reason of the absence of water, and the conversion of all marshes and pools into brick-dust wildernesses) set up their consolatory chorus—‘Drought coming to an end? Not the slightest chance of it; might last years yet. The present race of colonists had never seen a drought. Sheep and cattle poor? Nothing to ’37 and ’38. Every one would have to live upon rice and gum leaves as they did in the great three years’ drought in the thirties. In their youth, the blacks had a tradition of a drought which had lasted six years and had killed whole tribes of their own people; when you could catch dingoes by the tail, they were so weak; when the Murray and Murrumbidgee were simply chains of water-holes. As for stock, they had always known that when they increased without check or drawback they would become as valueless as in South America, where cattle and horses are killed for their hides. But that didn’t matter much, as before next year there would not be a cow, a sheep, or a horse alive. Why did they come to such a country, or stay in it either?’ it was demanded of them. ‘Why? because they were fools—like every one else in the infernal country, except the rogues, and they were the only people in accord with the requirements of the place.’ A good deal of this cheerful and encouraging talk was indulged in about this gloomy period. The larger minds decried these theories, but backed up by unkind fate they had a harmony with nature that gave them adventitious weight and power for evil.
It was on the sixteenth day of June 1867 that Gilbert and Hobbie Elliot, with the faithful Countemout, sat in the verandah at Wandaroona smoking as of old. It might have been a council of war, but no one spoke. Gloom, if not despair, sat on every brow.
All looked worn, moody, hardly so resigned as reckless. The untasted liquor stood before them as they smoked and gazed upon the soft-hued sky on this ‘night of all nights in the year,’ having less than the ordinary fatal splendour which had become of late so ominous.
‘I feel as if I could lie down and die, like the sheep,’ said Gilbert wearily, at length. ‘I see nothing but destruction, total ruin indeed, before us if this weather lasts. Such an awful pity too, after our successful fencing. I was out to-day looking at the wretched, low-conditioned sheep. A large lot was coming in from “the back” to water, just as an equally large lot was leaving it, and going back for twenty-four hours’ feed. In spite of my misery, I could not help smiling to see how cleverly the two flocks managed matters.’
‘What did they do?’ asked Hobbie languidly—‘box up together?’
‘Not a bit of it; they met and parted, just as store and fat cattle would separate from each other. The sheep, three or four thousand, which had watered, marched soberly and solemnly outwards, without turning to right or left, right through the advancing column. The unwatered sheep held straight on towards the creek; finally the outgoing flock extricated itself, and entered the timber, without the admixture of a single sheep. And now, all our hopes and time, labour and money are—’
‘Not irretrievably gone to the bad, for all that is said and done,’ interrupted Hobbie. ‘Don’t throw up the sponge till the fight is over. A good rally makes all the difference at the finish. Matters look blue, of course, but we have had no losses yet, to speak of. We can send away some as a forlorn hope, and it may rain yet!’
‘The travelling dodge won’t wash, anyhow,’ struck in Mr. Countemout. ‘The time is past for that, and they may as well die here, where we can get their skins, as on the road. I was round the back wells to-day, and the sheep are all as nearly as possible in exactly the same state of strength, that is of weakness. They can walk and keep on their legs, and that is about all. If we wait to travel them on that stockyard of a road, they would drop in hundreds and thousands. If rain does not come within a fortnight, they’ll begin to die at the rate of five hundred a day.’
‘I’m afraid you’re not far wrong,’ agreed Hobbie. ‘But if it doesn’t rain next week, I’m off to the mountains with twenty thousand sheep—die or no die, I’ll make a fight for it.’
‘We can do our best, of course,’ said Countemout. ‘I’ll go with you; we’ll leave Gilbert in charge of the house and the crawlers.’
‘It’s a pity now we didn’t start in November with Bulmer. His sheep are doing first-rate in the mountains.’
‘One can’t say what the country is coming to,’ pursued Gilbert. ‘Another six months of dry weather, which is quite possible, would make all this Riverina country a perfect valley of dry bones. I see, from the Pastoral Times, that Fossill’s herd at Lake Warringong has had to shift. Fancy Warringong dry! next thing to the Bay of Biscay—and ten thousand head of cattle travelling for food and water!’
‘It won’t ruin Fossill if they all die,’ remarks the superintendent. ‘He has many another station, though I remember him when all the stock he had were two kangaroo dogs.’
‘Ha! ha!’ shouted Hobbie, surprised into a laugh—and his cheery natural outburst infected slightly the melancholy seniors. ‘Fancy the great squatter—The Honourable Abraham Fossill, M.L.C.—a slender super, on his promotion! Always economical through, and saving up his money to buy a few cattle. What an inconvenient memory you have, Countemout. Come, Gilbert, laugh like a good fellow, and put your trust in Providence. I don’t say that in jest. As I live, the clouds are gathering, and that was a drop of rain.’
‘A Riverina sham,’ said Gilbert bitterly. ‘How many scores of times has the sky clouded over lately and set fair again! I am half sick of shadows, like the Lady of Shalott. Hope deferred, you know.’
‘Four drops upon five acres,’ chimed in Countemout. ‘That’s about the regulation quantity up here. Hand over the brandy, Hobbie, if you please. I feel as if a glass of grog would do us all good to-night.’
‘“LET us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die”—is that your philosophy?’ said Gilbert. ‘Eating is necessary and drinking is pleasant, but to-morrow is the inevitable cross-examiner, and what a bad quarter of an hour the witness has of it, if he has exceeded the modest tumbler the night before. If ever I take to poverty as an habitual practice I shall drink nothing but tea and smoke mild tobacco. With a sound digestion, regret may be borne and adversity faced, but alcoholism dips the sting of remorse in poison. Then the knight must fare forth. “Out over the wall, out into the night, three hundred feet of fall.”’
‘I’ll trouble you for the “battle-axe,”’ inconsequently returned Hobbie. ‘I agree in the main with your reasoning, but this is a night of electrical disturbance, as if strange events were imminent.’
‘“Too much of anything is not good,” said the Indian, “but too much fire-water is just enough.” What heads fellows must have though who overbrandy themselves! What awakenings and fearful looking for judgment; I don’t wonder that they suicide now and then.’
‘It’s all luck,’ quoth Countemout, ‘or Circumstance. I knew a station of which all the owners—and there were four, that followed one another—drank themselves to death. There was a mineral spring on it, and the temptation to mix brandy therewith was irresistible.’
‘What an ill-omened spot—as gloomy a legend as you could hear about a ruined castle, with melancholy sighing trees and weed-grown avenue, in the old country!’ remarked Gilbert. ‘A place where the heir always went mad or died young, and which the irreverent Croesus gazed at wistfully, but dared not buy.’
‘Your probable losses are beginning to bring on softening of the brain, Gilbert, or are you and Countemout going in for literary enterprise when the sheep are all dead? Why, there never was even a ghost in this dried-up, miserable, new country of ours.’
‘No ghosts, did you say?’ asked Countemout in a strangely altered tone, as he gazed out into the distance with fixed and staring eyes. ‘Did you never hear of the “Grey Woman”?’
‘You don’t mean to say, old fellow, that you’ve seen her,’ said Hobbie, ‘and that the story is all true? Excuse me for laughing. I didn’t remark how serious you were at first. Is it a true tale?’
‘It may not be true that we are sitting here in the flesh; it may not be true that the season is dry, that the flocks are starving,’ said the overseer, with all trace of jesting banished from his face. ‘But if these be facts, it is no less one that I saw the Appearance of that foully murdered woman, long after she had gone to her doom.’
‘Let us have it then, by all means,’ said Gilbert, who had noted their companion’s changed manner. ‘Countemout, help yourself and pass the brandy. I feel rather in need of a sensation. Now, go ahead, old man, we can’t be more miserable than we are.’
‘What I am about to tell,’ commenced the bushman, ‘came to pass many a year ago. Things were different then—men lived a wilder life; there were not a police station and half-a-dozen magistrates round every bit of a township like Jildebah. The stations were far apart. The masters mostly lived away from them. Money was scarce, stock cheap, and good men who knew their work and could do it were hard to get. They had more of their own way than in these days; and what they had been, or what their moral tone was like, were matters little heeded as long as the brandings and musters went on all right.
‘I was a youngster when I went to live as a kind of offside manager at one of old Captain Grimwood’s cattle-runs. It had been a bad place for blacks. Stock-riders had been speared; bloody reprisals had taken place there. This happened before my time; I heard tales though from the stock-riders that were enough to make one’s hair stand on end.
‘There was one distant out-station at which lived a man, commonly called “Black Ned”—a saturnine, silent sort of fellow whom I instinctively shrank from. A splendid stock-rider, he was held in some kind of estimation by the overseer, old Driver, and other wicked veterans of the place, for having defended his hut from an attack made by blacks. He shot many before they raised the siege, and an unknown number afterwards, by which ruthless deed he had acquired honour and renown of the old bush pattern.
‘He was a good-looking ruffian in his way. He had just the gaudy, scene-painted kind of outward appearance that attracts foolish women. Good Lord! they are foolish! For the rest, he was tall and muscular, with coal-black hair and beard. His eyes were remarkable enough—when he was crossed and dared to show his temper.
‘He and I were never friends; I had heard of a brutal act of his long ago—nailing a wretched black by the hands to the stockyard—and I could not conceal my abhorrence. He hated me and I knew it; he was not so young as he looked at first sight, and in his cups—for, of course, he drank hard at times; what bushman in those days did not?—he let slip hints of more important villanies.
‘This respected person was despatched by his master (I don’t mean the Devil, but old Captain Grimwood) on an overland journey with a heavy drove of store cattle to one of the coast towns. He remained away three or four months; he was successful as usual (let us give the Devil his due), and the cattle sold well. His return produced a kind of revolutionary excitement in the population of the station and of the neighbourhood. An event had occurred which no one, in the wildest stage of delirium tremens, had figured among the fancies of a fevered brain—Black Ned had brought back a wife!
‘A curiously large proportion of the strayed stock of the surrounding runs, as well as our own, from that time must have concluded that Ned’s out-station was the land of Goshen, or in the direct line thereto. Horses were picked up just close by. Cattle, it was thought, “might have made out that way.” Even lost flocks of sheep were last seen heading in that direction.
‘It might have been the flat in front of the hut; it might have been the cool depths of the Wild Horse Waterhole, the deepest pool in all the creek, which attracted the stock. But, in consequence of these or other reasons, it became necessary for every stock-rider to call at Black Ned’s hut, which involved necessarily a sight of Black Ned’s wife.
‘“What was she like?” How many score times was that question asked—women were scarcer in those days in the bush—and generally answered in this wise: “Well, not so much to look at—slim and rather pale, with yellowish hair, but very genteel-like; didn’t talk much—perhaps might be afraid of Ned (‘And well she may be,’ added one of the audience). Flash Jack, who went with the cattle, told Bill Davis she was a lady, or leastways a governess; but could not vouch for the latter fact, not having seen any since he was a boy.”
‘The nine days’ wonder ceased. The stock-riders’ wives and other humble women who went to see the wonderful stranger, spoke of her as wearing a subdued air, talking pleasantly, but without interest, to her simple visitors.
‘Ned seemed kind enough, quite a different man; they pitied the poor thing shut up there, with never a soul to speak to, and she not used to the bush, any one could see with half an eye; always wore a gray dress too—pretty made up, but always the one colour. “Well, sooner her than me.” This was always the wind-up; every one felt, who had known her ill-omened mate, that hers was a fate that the meanest among them would have shrunk from.
‘I never went there myself, hating the brute as I did, and thinking I should see his wife time enough. I was worked off my legs also, and had not that abounding leisure which leads to curiosity about other men’s wives. But one day I had been out since sunrise, and on my return fell in with some strayed stock which took me near the Wild Horse Waterhole. I was watering mine there, and standing by him when I saw a woman walking down from the hut with a bucket in her hand. I noticed the gray dress—the yellow hair—the slight figure. It was Ned’s wife, of course. She did not see me till she came close to the water, when, my horse making a movement, she stopped and raised a pair of dreamy blue eyes wonderingly to my face. It was a clear spring morning. The air was clear, the sun-rays, scarce above the darkening range, touched with faint fire her hair, her form, her parted lips, her delicate features—I can see her now. What a vision of loveliness she seemed to me then. I was a youngster, no wonder my head was turned. More than all, I had seen her before.
‘A wonder of wonders, but it was true. How the old Devonshire village came back to me for a moment, all fresh and life-like, at the glamour of a woman’s face. The bright green meadow, the rippling brook, the old hall, the russet-coloured farm-houses, the mill-stream near which I had spent so many a holiday, and the miller’s daughter—I saw the whole scene as clearly as that creeper on the verandah for one moment; then came back the strange new-world landscape—the far ranges, the wild forest, the sullen pond, and the miller’s daughter—here, here! I rushed up to her, seized her hand in both of mine, and sobbed like a child. “Jane Maythorn! is it indeed you, all the way from Enderby and the old mill; or are my thoughts about home driving me mad, and is this the beginning of it?”
‘Her look of settled sadness passed away, and for a moment I saw a faint reflection of the merry look I knew so well flit over the pale face. It had faded when she said, “What, Elmtree Jack of the Barton? Who ever expected to see you in this wretched, wretched-country? But”—drawing herself away with a frightened expression—“you mustn’t be sentimental at the sight of an old friend; you used not to be so. Bring your horse up to the hut, and surely we may have a talk about the dear old times.” She turned away as she spoke, and as I went for Walkover, who was feeding stock-horse fashion with the reins under his feet, I saw that her whole frame was shaken; that tears were trickling fast through her slender fingers which she pressed passionately to her brow.
‘She told me her story—not uncommon, perhaps, but sad enough. The old miller had lost money, then lost heart, fallen ill, and died. Her friends were not too kind to a penniless girl. She was persuaded to emigrate, had fallen in with Ned at the Port, where, well dressed and flush of money, he had passed himself off as an up-country squatter. Confused and desponding, in a strange land, she had consented to a hasty marriage, and had realised doubtless—though this she would not own—the hopeless misery of her present position as the wife of one of the most ruthless scoundrels that ever disgraced humanity. I comforted her as well as I was able. I told her she might trust me in any need as a brother; that I would for her sake make friends with Ned as far as was possible. She thanked me with a sad smile, and as she held out her hand at parting, a look of such unutterable despair was in her mournful eyes, that I could not repress a groan as I mounted old Walkover, and striking spurs into his sides, left the lonely hut far behind.
‘“Pretty Jane Maythorn, merry Jane,” thought I, “has it come to this? Half playmate, half sweetheart, in the girl-and-boy days, when I lived with my uncle, old Mark Countemout, at the Barton, and he used to joke me about fishing so near the mill. ‘Eh, lad! fond of fishing—must be some good trout there! Young blood—young blood—ha, ha!’ She was a shy lass of sixteen or so, when we sat under the old spreading alders, and played in the long happy summer days at fishing. Didn’t I climb the old elm-tree because she was looking on, and breaking my arm by the fall from a rotten upper branch, gained my village sobriquet, which never afterwards left me? And now she is here—living at the Wild Horse Waterhole! How inscrutable are the ways of Providence! Emigration, which has led tens of thousands of poor souls into unaccustomed liberty or sudden wealth in Australia, has brought her to a veritable house of bondage—to a living death.”
‘By Jove, it’s raining steadily!—I’m making an awful long yarn of it.’
‘Never mind the rain,’ said Hobbie; ‘if you allude to it, it will stop at once—I wonder you don’t know that. Go on, old man.’
‘Fill your glass and go on,’ said Gilbert. ‘Too much is turning upon this night’s rain for us to think of sleep. There’s ruin or reprieve in the clouds this night before morning dawns; so tell us your tale of the life ruin that looks so imminent. Time enough for sleep afterwards.’ He lighted his freshly filled meerschaum, and lay back in his armchair with watchful eyes. The overseer drained a full glass, which gave no glow to the bronzed features; and to the faint rhythmic measure of the ceaseless rain-drips, the strong man told all-tenderly of his unburied dead.
‘I kept my promise to poor Jane. I smoothed the bloodhound her mate, and patched up a sort of half-and-half friendship. I arranged opportunities for the decenter women on the station and in the neighbourhood of the place to afford her a little social intercourse. I carefully avoided any appearance of special interest which might rouse his supicious nature. My efforts were aided by those around me, and a slight increase of apparent cheerfulness on Jane’s pale face showed, in the rare intervals when we met, that I had done good. But no one hoped for much. All knew him too well. Jane was looked upon as a doomed creature, and no one who had ever known or heard of Black Ned thought of hers as anything but a tragic ending.
‘I was compelled to visit a distant station in what was called “the new country.” On my return the station was full of a new story. Black Ned had been drinking, had been jealous, and had cruelly beaten his unfortunate wife. What else, indeed, it was said, could be expected? It was the old thing over again. Hadn’t he, etc. etc. etc.—if she didn’t get away she was a dead woman,—and so on.
‘I felt inclined to kill the ruffian myself, but thought it prudent to dissemble, lest I might lose all chance of assisting my ill-fated playmate. So I said little, and determined to see her somehow.
‘An opportunity soon offered. He was sent away to fetch horses from a distant run. Starting from the home station in another direction, I took a circuit, and once more found myself at the Wild Horse Waterhole. Jane was sitting in an attitude which implied the stupor of dejection, and hardly raised her head as I entered. She looked wildly at me for a moment, and then, falling on her knees, cried out, “Oh, Jack! dear Jack! take me away from this dreadful place. I shall go mad if I stay—that is, if he” (and she shuddered) “does not kill me first. What a wicked man he is! I am like a woman who has sold herself to the fiend. I am most truly in hell—in hell! What have I done that I should be so tortured?”
‘I comforted her as much as I could. I told her that in some way I would get her to the Port, and she might then go by sea to one of the other colonies, or even to England, and that I would pay her passage-money myself. “Oh, let me go home—home to the old village and die!” she said, like one praying for life. “If I could only see the cottage, and the meadow, and the mill-stream again, I could die like a child asleep in its mother’s arms. I could work, do anything, only to live or die there—it matters not which now.” She told me how she had been frightened by his fearful looks and words during his dreadful debauch; how some trifling act had excited his causeless jealousy; and how, after a savage accusation, he had cruelly beaten her with his stock-whip; that she had thought of drowning herself, and might yet, if no help came of God or man.
‘I could no longer resist her entreaties. It might be scarcely justifiable to aid in her flight from her lawful custodian, but I was young and rash, and could not stand by without striking in. I arranged that she should leave the hut on a certain evening and meet a trusted ally of mine, who would ride with her to the nearest point, many miles distant, at which the mail-cart—no coaches then—could be met. When she reached the Port arrangements would be made for her voyage. She thanked me with her sad eyes, in speechless gratitude.
‘I made my preparations carefully. I was not without dread of the spies which exist in all communities, and Black Ned had his familiars. I was confirmed in this by his suddenly drawing up to me as we were mustering cattle one day. “Look here, young fellow!” he said. “You’ve been seen at my place more than once while I’ve been away. I don’t want to say much now, but if ever I find you and her talking and colloguing together I’ll knock her brains out, and yours too, as sure as my name’s Ned Charlock. She won’t be the first woman I’ve put away, if you believe the yarns about here.” Here the ruffian sneered, as if I might choose whether I should credit him or otherwise.
‘I was taken by surprise, and lost my temper wholly. “How dare you talk about your wife in that way,” I said, “you murdering scoundrel, that the gallows ought to have had long ago! I know how you’ve ill-treated her, and, by the Lord God! if I ever hear that you ill-use her again, I’ll flog you from here to the next Court-house, and back, if they don’t keep you there. Come off your horse and strike a man, you cowardly, black-shooting, woman-beating dog!”
‘He turned paler as I spoke, his eyes burned with a baleful glare, and he made as though to rush at me, as several of the station hands rode up. I was as strong as a bull then—always in training; and he, though a known bruiser, was none the better, like me now, for twenty years of hard life and hard——’ Here the overseer drained his glass with a half sigh.
‘THE MEN gathered round with the sincere interest that the expectation of a fair fight always arouses in Englishmen or their descendants. They were disappointed, however, for Black Ned put an evident constraint on himself, merely saying, with a hellish curl of his lip: “You mind your business, youngster, and I’ll mind mine.”
‘“Now, then, you staring fools, are you going to let all the cattle draw off the camp, and be hanged to you!” growled Driver, swearing at the men as they dispersed. Then he muttered, “I never saw Ned turn tail before, and if murder don’t come of it, I’m a myall blackfellow.”
‘I was full of self-reproach for letting my temper out, all the more that I knew Ned would visit his discomfiture before the station hands upon the head of his unhappy wife. I heard in a general way that his conduct to her was systematically brutal, almost unbearably so. But I trusted that she would be able to avail herself of my plan for her escape. As the time wore on I received one day a few hurried lines by a hawker: “Do not fear as to keeping the appointment on Saturday evening. I will do so if I am alive.—J.”
‘The day arrived. I made the excuse of seeing some back-country cattle, and rode at evening to where the man I had sent with the horse for Jane was to wait for the mail. She never came. The driver waited good-naturedly as long as he dared, but no one came. Heart-sick and foreboding I retraced my steps, and, bold in despair, rode through the night till I came to the Wild Horse Waterhole. I looked; I rubbed my eyes. Did my senses deceive me? No hut was there. A mass of charred timber, a heap of smouldering ashes, showed where the building had been. I learned when I returned to the home station that Black Ned had ridden hard in the direction of the hut just before dark. A search was made in all directions next day. Black Ned said his wife had disappeared—run away to her friends, he supposed—and set the hut a-fire before she went. But from that hour to this she has never been seen or heard of alive.’
‘I suppose he had found out your friendly conspiracy and misconstrued it,’ said Hobbie.
‘God only knows!’ answered the overseer; ‘I knew the hawker was a rogue, and may have shown the letter he gave me. My heart to her was as pure as a brother’s. I should have as soon thought of murdering a babe as wronging the helpless creature that was cast upon my charity in her sore need.’
‘And was nothing ever heard or discovered to clear up the mystery?’ asked Gilbert.
‘Nothing that amounted to much. I scoured the country in all directions, put the blacks on the tracks; did everything; nothing was discovered. One man, a traveller, who was camped near the spot on that evening heard shrieks and cries, as of a woman being beaten, but did not go up to the place. He was not a strong man, and he thought Black Ned, if he was interfered with, capable of knocking him on the head, or cutting his throat (as it was said he did ——’s). This was all. It might have been her, abused, beaten, murdered—who can tell? There was no further evidence; all was mystery and gloom. The earth had swallowed them up as far as I was concerned. Jane was never seen more on this earth. But something tells me that her murderer lives; and if I ever hear of his being sentenced to death for any other crime, I will ride a thousand miles to see him hanged. How the rain comes down! doesn’t it?’ he continued, lighting his pipe.
‘It does seem heavier,’ said Gilbert; ‘but I am not an impartial witness. The clouds are lower, and the air feels strangely sultry. It may rain to some purpose yet. Good Lord! if it only kept on for twenty-four hours, the country would be saved.’
‘Two o’clock in the morning!’ said Hobbie; ‘not that I feel the least sleepy, Countemout, but I think you said something about—Did you ever think you saw the poor girl’s apparition?’
‘Think?’ said the overseer,—‘think? I saw her, as I hope for mercy hereafter. It was this way. I left the place, hating all belonging to it, and led a reckless overlanding life, earning money fast, and spending it after the same fashion. Years afterwards I happened to be travelling with sheep over the same country, and by a succession of accidents was compelled to pass near the Wild Horse Waterhole. I had been back on our trail, and came on at night-fall to find that Jim Hayward, an active young native, my second in command, had camped the sheep at the accursed spot. He seemed surprised at my displeasure, but held his tongue.
‘The night was cloudy, with a faint struggling moon. The hut had never been rebuilt, and we were not far from its still visible ruin. The sheep were troublesome for the early part of the night, and gave us both enough to do. Towards morning we lay down beside our fire, wrapped in blankets, and fell asleep. It may have been an hour before dawn, when my companion roused me hurriedly. “Listen!” he said. “Did you hear that? Good God! what can it be?” I sat up, then started to my feet, as a cry, a succession of cries, came distinctly from the spot where the hut had been. Agony and mortal fear were in the wailing sounds which, at times low and sobbing, rose to the wildest shrieks.
‘“By——! some brute is beating a woman,” said Jim; “where on earth could they have been, and we not seen them before dark? Oh, Lord! look—look!”
‘I had been spellbound, for even in the strange unnatural sounds, impossible to account for, at the time and place, I had recognised my old companion’s voice. As Jim Hayward spoke, his bold tones changing to a hollow whisper, I looked and saw—yes, I saw a shape passing quickly from the mound, where the hut had been, down the path to the waterhole where I had first seen Jane. My heart stood still; like one in a dream I saw and was speechless. Jim buried his head in his blanket, and then looking out, said, “It’s a woman in a gray dress. Lord deliver us! She’s no living creature. Here, Smoker! Hector!”
‘These were two kangaroo dogs, favourites of my companion. Like many of their kind they were fierce and bold, not particular about the quarry upon which they were loosed. “They come of old Hughes’s breed,” Jim used to say; “and the story goes, they killed and ate a traveller one day at Warragundra. There’s no doubt about their eating him; as to killing him, of course, that was not so easy to know about; but man or beast, dog or devil, I’ll warrant they go at the throat and hang on like bulldogs—they have a strain of that in ’em.” So, a wild fancy, half involuntary, took him to watch them as they approached the figure, which was hurrying down the steep bank before us. The dogs went a pace or two, and, howling, came back to us for protection.
‘“It’s no living thing,” said Jim, “or those dogs would never behave like that!” and he wrapped his head in the blankets and refused to look more.
‘I looked steadily at the shadowy figure that, with a hurried, yet floating motion, descended the water path. The height, the air, the gliding step, all were alike. Whom did it resemble but her? As she reached the turn in the rocky hillside where I had first beheld her, the moon cleft a path through the sullen cloud-masses, and her light fell for one instant upon the Appearance. I saw the yellow hair, the pale face, the horror-stricken eyes of my old playmate—my old love, I may as well say so. I fancied she looked towards me with a reproachful look. I uttered a cry. The shape passed swiftly on down the path to the sullen pond. “The moonbeam strook and deepest night fell down upon the heath,” as Sir Walter Scott says, and Jim and I were left gazing upon the sights and listening to the sounds of an Australian forest.
‘“There’s been murder done here!” said Jim. “May her poor soul rest in peace!” I answered.’
‘Amen to that!’ said both the Elliots solemnly, as they rose with one impulse and shook Countemout’s brown sinewy hand.
‘Thank you, thank you both,’ said he. ‘I’ve opened my heart to-night as I haven’t done for many a year. And now I’ll have an hour’s sleep, and get away to the back at daylight. Cannibal’s in the stable and pretty fit. Good-night.’
He strode off. At daylight Gilbert looked through his open bedroom window, and saw the overseer lead the great raking roan out of the stable, light his pipe, and ride away through the pouring monotonous rain. He saw the roan send up the mud in a shower with the first dash of his powerful hindquarters, and watched until horse and rider disappeared across the river flat.
‘Thank God for the rain, anyhow!’ he said, as he turned over on his pillow, and prepared for additional slumber. ‘If this lasts the twenty-four hours through, the drought is over!’
The drought was over. Within that week fell more rain than had fallen during the whole previous year. That quantity was little more than six inches. Though not sufficient for a year, it was pretty well for a week, and Riverina, with Lower Warroo, Outer-back Jandra, and all the wilds of the inmost deserts, was moistened to a degree which suited its thirsty nature ‘all to pieces,’ as the men said. The herbage grew as in a greenhouse. The sheep at once were sent ‘back,’ water being abundant, and quitted the bare frontages. The mild climate prevented the stock from suffering from the rain, as might have chanced in a colder territory. In little more than a week Mr. Countemout reported the whole of the sheep as ‘kicking up their heels,’ and from that hour they improved uninterruptedly. Seasonable rains followed. The long agony of the drought was over, the battle was won.
Mr. Delafield’s sheep came back in six weeks, half fat, and with patches of wool off, by reason of their sudden increase of flesh. Jack Bulmer’s thirty thousand came down like the hosts of proud Sennacherib. Peace and plenty reigned in the land, so lately abandoned to famine and despair.
The next season was equally as good. Stock, wool, all squatting property, rose in value, until the old prices—long derided by the croakers—were reached.
The Messrs. Elliot Brothers in a few years sold Wandaroona with sixty-three thousand sheep, having bought and fenced more country. They then departed to the land of their forefathers, and the last news was, that Hobbie had killed, in the river that runs by the ancestral home of the great Border family of the Elliots, more salmon to his won rod than any man had been known to do for two seasons.