“Bill Barker,” said Dave, talking round his pipe stem, “was the quintessence of a drover—”
“The whatter, Dave?” came the voice of Jim Bentley, in startled tones, from the gloom on the far end of the veranda.
“The quintessence,” said Dave, taking his pipe out of his mouth. “You shut up, Jim. As I said, Bill Barker was the quintessence of a drover. He’d been at the game ever since he was a nipper. He run away from home when he was fourteen and went up into Queensland. He’s been all over Queensland and New South Wales and most of South Australia, and a good deal of the Western, too: over the great stock routes from one end to the other, Lord knows how many times. No man could keep up with him riding out, and no one could bring a mob of cattle or a flock of sheep through like him. He knew every trick of the game; if there was grass to be had Bill’d get it, no matter whose run it was on. One of his games in a dry season was to let his mob get boxed with the station stock on a run where there was grass, and before Bill’s men and the station-hands could cut ’em out, the travelling stock would have a good bellyful to carry them on the track. Billy was the daddy of the drovers. Some said that he could ride in his sleep, and that he had one old horse that could jog along in his sleep too, and that—travelling out from home to take charge of a mob of bullocks or a flock of sheep—Bill and his horse would often wake up at daylight and blink round to see where they were and how far they’d got. Then Bill would make a fire and boil his quart-pot, and roast a bit of mutton, while his horse had a mouthful of grass and a spell.
“You remember Bill, Andy? Big dark man, and a joker of the loud sort. Never slept with a blanket over him—always folded under him on the sand or grass. Seldom wore a coat on the route—though he always carried one with him, in case he came across a bush ball or a funeral. Moleskins, flannel waistcoat, cabbage-tree hat and ’lastic-side boots. When it was roasting hot on the plains and the men swore at the heat, Jim would yell, ‘Call this hot? Why, you blanks, I’m freezin’! Where’s me overcoat?’ When it was raining and hailing and freezing on Bell’s Line in the Blue Mountains in winter, and someone shivered and asked, ‘Is it cold enough for yer now, Bill?’ ‘Cold!’ Bill would bellow, ‘I’m sweatin’!’
“I remember it well. I was little more than a youngster then—Bill Barker came past our place with about a thousand fat sheep for the Homebush sale-yards at Sydney, and he gave me a job to help him down with them on Bell’s Line over the mountains, and mighty proud I was to go with him, I can tell you. One night we camped on the Cudgegong River. The country was dry and pretty close cropped and we’d been “sweating” the paddocks all along there for our horses. You see, where there weren’t sliprails handy we’d just take the tomahawk and nick the top of a straight-grained fence-post, just above the mortise, knock out the wood there, lift the top rail out and down, and jump the horses in over the lower one—it was all two-rail fences around there with sheep wires under the lower rail. And about daylight we’d have the horses out, lift back the rail, and fit in the chock that we’d knocked out. Simple as striking matches, wasn’t it?
“Well, the horses were getting a good bellyful in the police horse paddock at night, and Bill took the first watch with the sheep. It was very cold and frosty on the flat and he thought the sheep might make back for the ridges, it’s always warmer up in the ridges in winter out of the frost. Bill roused me out about midnight. ‘There’s the sheep,’ he says, pointing to a white blur. ‘They’ve settled down. I think they’ll be quiet till daylight. Don’t go round them; there’s no occasion to go near ’em. You can stop by the fire and keep an eye on ’em.’
“The night seemed very long. I watched and smoked and toasted my shins, and warmed the billy now and then, and thought up pretty much the same sort of old things that fellers on night watch think over all over the world. Bill lay on his blanket, with his back to the fire and his arm under his head—freezing on one side and roasting on the other. He never moved. I itched once or twice to turn him over and bake the front of him—I reckoned he was about done behind.
“At last daylight showed. I took the billy and started down to the river to get some water to make coffee; but half-way down, near the sheep camp, I stopped and stared, I was never so surprised in my life. The white blur of sheep had developed into a couple of acres of long dead silver grass!
“I woke Bill, and he swore as I never heard a man swear before—nor since. He swore at the sheep, and the grass, and at me; but it would have wasted time, and besides I was too sleepy and tired to fight. But we found those sheep scattered over a scrubby ridge about seven miles back, so they must have slipped away back of the grass and started early in Bill’s watch, and Bill must have watched that blessed grass for the first half of the night and then set me to watch it. He couldn’t get away from that.
“I wondered what the chaps would say if it got round that Bill Barker, the boss overland drover, had lost a thousand sheep in clear country with fences all round; and I suppose he thought that way too, for he kept me with him right down to Homebush, and when he paid me off he threw in an extra quid, and he said:
“‘Now, listen here, Dave! If I ever hear a word from anyone about watching that gory grass, I’ll find you, Dave, and murder you, if you’re in wide Australia. I’ll screw your neck, so look out.’
“But he’s dead now, so it doesn’t matter.”
There was silence for some time after Dave had finished. The chaps made no comment on the yarn, either one way or the other, but sat smoking thoughtfully, and in a vague atmosphere as of sadness—as if they’d just heard of their mother’s death and had not been listening to an allegedly humorous yarn.
Then the voice of old Peter, the station-hand, was heard to growl from the darkness at the end of the hut, where he sat on a three-bushel bag on the ground with his back to the slabs.
“What’s old Peter growlin’ about?” someone asked.
“He wants to know where Dave got that word,” someone else replied.
There was a chuckle.
“He got it out back, Peter,” said Mitchell, the shearer. “He got it from a new chum.”
“How much did yer give for it, Dave?” growled Peter.
“Five shillings, Peter,” said Dave, round his pipe stem. “And stick of tobacco thrown in.”
Peter seemed satisfied, for he was heard no more that evening.