At periodical intervals a boom in cattle-country arises in the cities, and syndicates are formed to take up country and stock it. It looks so beautifully simple—on paper.
You get your country, thousands of miles of it, for next to nothing. You buy your breeding herd for a ridiculously small sum, on long-dated bills. Your staff consists of a manager, who toils for a share of the profits, a couple of half-civilized white stockmen at low wages, and a handful of blacks, who work harder for a little opium ash than they would for much money. Plant costs nothing, improvements nothing—no woolshed is needed, there are no shearers to pay, and no carriage to market, for the bullock walks himself down to his doom. Granted that prices are low, still it is obvious that there must be huge profits in the business. So the cattle start away out to “the country”, where they are supposed to increase and multiply, and enrich their owners. Alas! for such hopes. There is a curse on cattle.
No one has ever been able to explain exactly how the deficit arises. Put the figures before the oldest and most experienced cattleman, and he will fail to show why they don’t work out right. And yet they never do. It is not the fault of the cattle themselves. Sheep would rather die than live—and when one comes to think of the life they lead, one can easily understand their preference for death; but cattle, if given half a chance, will do their best to prolong their existence.
If they are running on low-lying country and are driven off when a flood comes, they will probably walk back into the flood-water and get drowned as soon as their owner turns his back. But, as a rule, cattle are not suicidal. They sort themselves into mobs, they pick out the best bits of country, they find their way to the water, they breed habitually; but it always ends in the same way. The hand of Fate is against them.
If a drought comes, they eat off the grass near the water and have to travel far out for a feed. Then they fall away and get weak, and when they come down to drink they get bogged in the muddy waterholes and die there.
Or Providence sends the pleuro, and big strong beasts slink away by themselves, and stand under trees glaring savagely till death comes. Or else the tick attacks them, and soon a fine, strong beast becomes a miserable, shrunken, tottering wreck. Once cattle get really low in condition they are done for. Sheep can be shifted when their pasture fails, but you can’t shift cattle. They die quicker on the roads than on the run. The only thing is to watch and pray for rain. It always comes—after the cattle are dead.
As for describing the animals themselves, it would take volumes. Sheep are all alike, but cattle are all different. The drovers on the road get to know the habits and tendencies of each particular bullock—the one-eyed bullock that pokes out to the side of the mob, the inquisitive bullock that is always walking over towards the drover as if he were going to speak to him, the agitator bullock who is always trying to get up a stampede and prodding the others with his horns.
In poor Boake’s “Where the Dead Men Lie” he says:
Cattle on a camp see ghosts, sure enough—else, why is it that, when hundreds are in camp at night—some standing, some lying asleep, all facing different ways—in an instant, at some invisible cause of alarm, the whole mob are on their feet and all racing in the same direction, away from some unseen terror?
It doesn’t do to sneak round cattle at night; it is better to whistle and sing than to surprise them by a noiseless appearance. Anyone sneaking about frightens them, and then they will charge right over the top of somebody on the opposite side, and away into the darkness, becoming more and more frightened as they go, smashing against trees and stumps, breaking legs and ribs, and playing the dickens with themselves generally. Cattle “on the road” are unaccountable animals; one cannot say for certain what they will do. In this respect they differ from sheep, whose movements can be predicted with absolute certainty.
All the cussedness of the bovine race is centred in the cow. In Australia the most opprobious epithet one can apply to a man or other object is “cow”. In the whole range of a bullock-driver’s vocabulary there is no word that expresses his blistering scorn so well as “cow”. To an exaggerated feminine perversity the cow adds a fiendish ingenuity in making trouble.
A quiet milking-cow will “plant” her calf with such skill that ten stockmen cannot find him in a one-mile paddock. While the search goes on she grazes unconcernedly, as if she never had a calf in her life. If by chance he be discovered, then one notices a curious thing. The very youngest calf, the merest staggering-Bob two days old, will not move till the old lady gives him orders to do so. One may pull him about without getting a move out of him. If sufficiently persecuted he will at last sing out for help, and then his mother will arrive full-gallop, charge men and horses indiscriminately, and clear out with him to the thickest timber in the most rugged part of the creek-bed, defying man to get her to the yard.
While in his mother’s company he seconds her efforts with great judgment. But, if he be separated from her, he will follow a horse and rider up to the yard thinking he is following his mother, though she bellow instructions to him from the rear. Then the guileless agriculturist, having penned him up, sets a dog on him, and his cries soon fetch the old cow full-run to his assistance. Once in the yard she is roped, hauled into the bail, propped up to prevent her throwing herself down, and milked by sheer brute-force. After a while she steadies down and will walk into the bail, knowing her turn and behaving like a respectable female.
Cows and calves have no idea of sound or distance. If a cow is on the opposite side of the fence, and wishes to communicate with her calf, she will put her head through the fence, place her mouth against his ear as if she were going to whisper, and then utter a roar that can be heard two miles off. It would stun a human being; but the calf thinks it over for a moment, and then answers with a prolonged yell in the old cow’s ear. So the dialogue goes on for hours without either party dropping dead.
There is an element of danger in dealing with cattle that makes men smart and self-reliant and independent. Men who deal with sheep get gloomy and morbid, and are for ever going on strike. Nobody ever heard of a stockman’s strike. The true stockrider thinks himself just as good a man as his boss, and inasmuch as “the boss” never makes any money, while the stockman gets his wages, the stockman may be considered as having the better position of the two.
Sheepmen like to think that they know all about cattle, and could work them if they chose. A Queensland drover once took a big mob from the Gulf right down through New South Wales, selling various lots as he went. He had to deliver some to a small sheep-man, near Braidwood, who was buying a few hundred cattle as a spec. By the time they arrived, the cattle had been on the road eight months, and were quiet as milkers. But the sheep-man and his satellites came out, riding stable-fed horses and brandishing twenty-foot whips, all determined to sell their lives dearly. They galloped round the astonished cattle and spurred their horses and cracked their whips, till they roused the weary mob. Then they started to cut out the beasts they wanted. The horses rushed and pulled, and the whips maddened the cattle, and all was turmoil and confusion.
The Queensland drovers looked on amazed, sitting their patient leg-weary horses they had ridden almost continuously for eight months. At last, seeing the hash the sheep-men were making of it, the drovers set to work, and in a little while, without a shout, or crack of a whip, had cut out the required number. These the head drover delivered to the buyer, simply remarking, “Many’s the time you never cut-out cattle.”
As I write, there rises a vision of a cattle-camp on an open plain, the blue sky overhead, the long grass rustling below, the great mob of parti-coloured cattle eddying restlessly about, thrusting at each other with their horns; and in among the sullen half-savage animals go the light, wiry stock-riders, horse and man working together, watchful, quick, and resolute.
A white steer is wanted that is right in the throng. Way!—make way! and horse and rider edge into the restless sea of cattle, the man with his eye fixed on the selected animal, the horse, glancing eagerly about him, trying to discover which is the wanted one. The press divides and the white steer scuttles along the edge of the mob trying to force his way in again. Suddenly he and two or three others are momentarily eddied out to the outskirts of the mob, and in that second the stockman dashes his horse between them and the main body. The lumbering beasts rush hither and thither in a vain attempt to return to their comrades. Those not wanted are allowed to return, but the white steer finds, to his dismay, that wherever he turns that horse and man and dreaded whip are confronting him. He doubles and dodges and makes feints to charge, but the horse anticipates every movement and wheels quicker than the bullock. At last the white steer sees the outlying mob he is required to join, and trots off to them quite happy, while horse and rider return to cut out another.
It is a pretty exhibition of skill and intelligence, doubly pleasant to watch because of the undoubted interest that the horses take in it. Big, stupid creatures that they are, cursed with highly-strung nerves, and blessed with little sense, they are pathetically anxious to do such work as they can understand. So they go into the cutting-out camp with a zest, and toil all day edging lumbering bullocks out of the mob, but as soon as a bad rider gets on them and begins to haul their mouths about, their nerves overcome them, and they get awkward and frightened. A horse that is a crack camp-horse in one man’s hands may be a hopeless brute in the hands of another.