While the Billy Boils

In a Wet Season

Henry Lawson

IT was raining—”general rain.”

The train left Bourke, and then there began the long, long agony of scrub and wire fence, with here and there a natural clearing, which seemed even more dismal than the funereal “timber” itself. The only thing which might seem in keeping with one of these soddened flats would be the ghost of a funeral—a city funeral with plain hearse and string of cabs—going very slowly across from the scrub on one side to the scrub on the other. Sky like a wet, grey blanket; plains like dead seas, save for the tufts of coarse grass sticking up out of the water; scrub indescribably dismal—everything damp, dark, and unspeakably dreary.

Somewhere along here we saw a swagman’s camp—a square of calico stretched across a horizontal stick, some rags steaming on another stick in front of a fire, and two billies to the leeward of the blaze. We knew by instinct that there was a piece of beef in the larger one. Small, hopeless-looking man standing with his back to the fire, with his hands behind him, watching the train; also, a damp, sorry-looking dingo warming itself and shivering by the fire. The rain had held up for a while. We saw two or three similar camps further on, forming a temporary suburb of Byrock.

The population was on the platform in old overcoats and damp, soft felt hats; one trooper in a waterproof. The population looked cheerfully and patiently dismal. The local push had evidently turned up to see off some fair enslavers from the city, who had been up-country for the cheque season, now over. They got into another carriage. We were glad when the bell rang.

The rain recommenced. We saw another swagman about a mile on struggling away from the town, through mud and water. He did not seem to have heart enough to bother about trying to avoid the worst mud-holes. There was a low-spirited dingo at his heels, whose sole object in life was seemingly to keep his front paws in his master’s last footprint. The traveller’s body was bent well forward from the hips up; his long arms—about six inches through his coat sleeves—hung by his sides like the arms of a dummy, with a billy at the end of one and a bag at the end of the other; but his head was thrown back against the top end of the swag, his hat-brim rolled up in front, and we saw a ghastly, beardless face which turned neither to the right nor the left as the train passed him.

After a long while we closed our book, and looking through the window, saw a hawker’s turn-out which was too sorrowful for description.

We looked out again while the train was going slowly, and saw a teamster’s camp: three or four wagons covered with tarpaulins which hung down in the mud all round and suggested death. A long, narrow man, in a long, narrow, shoddy overcoat and a damp felt hat, was walking quickly along the road past the camp. A sort of cattle-dog glided silently and swiftly out from under a wagon, “heeled” the man, and slithered back without explaining. Here the scene vanished.

We remember stopping—for an age it seemed—at half a dozen straggling shanties on a flat of mud and water. There was a rotten weather-board pub, with a low, dripping veranda, and three wretchedly forlorn horses hanging, in the rain, to a post outside. We saw no more, but we knew that there were several apologies for men hanging about the rickety bar inside—or round the parlour fire. Streams of cold, clay-coloured water ran in all directions, cutting fresh gutters, and raising a yeasty froth whenever the water fell a few inches. As we left, we saw a big man in an overcoat riding across a culvert; the tails of the coat spread over the horse’s rump, and almost hid it. In fancy still we saw him—hanging up his weary, hungry little horse in the rain, and swaggering into the bar; and we almost heard someone say, in a drawling tone: “’Ello, Tom! ’Ow are yer poppin’ up?”

The train stopped (for about a year) within a mile of the next station. Trucking-yards in the foreground, like any other trucking-yard along the line; they looked drearier than usual, because the rain had darkened the posts and rails. Small plain beyond, covered with water and tufts of grass. The inevitable, God-forgotten “timber,” black in the distance; dull, grey sky and misty rain over all. A small, dark-looking flock of sheep was crawling slowly in across the flat from the unknown, with three men on horse-back zigzagging patiently behind. The horses just moved—that was all. One man wore an oilskin, one an old tweed overcoat, and the third had a three-bushel bag over his head and shoulders.

Had we returned an hour later, we should have seen the sheep huddled together in a corner of the yard, and the three horses hanging up outside the local shanty.

We stayed at Nyngan—which place we refrain from sketching—for a few hours, because the five trucks of cattle of which we were in charge were shunted there, to be taken on by a very subsequent goods train. The Government allows one man to every five trucks in a cattle-train. We shall pay our fare next time, even if we have not a shilling left over and above. We had haunted local influence at Comanavadrink for two long, anxious, heart-breaking weeks ere we got the pass; and we had put up with all the indignities, the humiliation—in short, had suffered all that poor devils suffer whilst besieging Local Influence. We only thought of escaping from the bush.

The pass said that we were John Smith, drover, and that we were available for return by ordinary passenger-train within two days, we think—or words in that direction. Which didn’t interest us. We might have given the pass away to an unemployed in Orange, who wanted to go out back, and who begged for it with tears in his eyes; but we didn’t like to injure a poor fool who never injured us—who was an entire stranger to us. He didn’t know what Out Back meant.

Local Influence had given us a kind of note of introduction to be delivered to the cattle-agent at the yards that morning; but the agent was not there—only two of his satellites, a Cockney colonial-experience man, and a scrub-town clerk, both of whom we kindly ignore. We got on without the note, and at Orange we amused ourself by reading it. It said:

“Dear Old Man—Please send this beggar on; and I hope he’ll be landed safely at Orange—or—or wherever the cattle go—yours, ——”

We had been led to believe that the bullocks were going to Sydney. We took no further interest in those cattle.

After Nyngan the bush grew darker and drearier, and the plains more like ghastly oceans; and here and there the “dominant note of Australian scenery” was accentuated, as it were, by naked, white, ring-barked trees standing in the water and haunting the ghostly surroundings.

We spent that night in a passenger compartment of a van which had been originally attached to old No. 1 engine. There was only one damp cushion in the whole concern. We lent that to a lady who travelled for a few hours in the other half of the next compartment. The seats were about nine inches wide and sloped in at a sharp angle to the bare matchboard wall, with a bead on the outer edge; and as the cracks had become well caulked with the grease and dirt of generations, they held several gallons of water each. We scuttled one, rolled ourself in a rug, and tried to sleep; but all night long overcoated and comfortered bushmen would get in, let down all the windows, and then get out again at the next station. Then we would wake up frozen and shut the windows.

We dozed off again, and woke at daylight, and recognized the ridgy gum-country between Dubbo and Orange. It didn’t look any drearier than the country further west—because it couldn’t. There is scarcely a part of the country out west which looks less inviting or more horrible than any other part.

The weather cleared, and we had sunlight for Orange, Bathurst, the Blue Mountains, and Sydney. They deserve it; also as much rain as they need.

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