(AS TOLD BY JAMES NOWLETT, BULLOCK-DRIVER)
There useter be a teamster’s camp six or seven miles out of Mudgee, at a place called th’ Old Pipeclay, in the days before the railroad went round to Dubbo, an’ most of us bullickies useter camp there for the night. There was always good water in the crick, an’ sometimes we’d turn the bullicks up in the ridges an’ gullies behind for grass, an’ camp there for a few days, and do our washin’ an’ mendin’, and make new yokes perhaps, an’ tinker up the wagons.
There was a woman livin’ on a farm there named Mrs Hardwick—an’ she was a hard wick. Her husban’, Jimmy Hardwick, was throwed from his horse agenst a stump one day when he was sober, an’ he was killed—an’ she was a widder. She had a tidy bit o’ land, an’ a nice bit of a orchard an’ vineyard, an’ some cattle, an’ they say she had a tidy bit o’ money in the bank. She had the worst tongue in the district, no one’s character was safe with her; but she wasn’t old, an’ she wasn’t bad-lookin’—only hard—so there was some fellers hangin’ round arter her. An’ Dave Regan’s horse was hangin’ up outside her place as often as anybody else’s. Dave was a native an’ a bushy, an’ a drover an’ a digger, an’ he was a bit soft in them days—he got hard enough arterwards.
Mrs Hardwick hated bullick-drivers—she had a awful down on bullickies—I dunno why. We never interfered with her fowls, an’ as for swearin’! why, she could swear herself. Jimmy Hardwick was a bullick-driver when she married him, an’ p’r’aps that helped to account for it. She wouldn’t let us boil our billies at her kitchen fire, same as any other bushwoman, an’ if one of our bullicks put his nose under her fence for a mouthful of grass, she’d set her dogs onter him. An’ one of her dogs got something what disagreed with him one day, an’ she accused us of layin’ poisoned baits. An’, arter that, she ’pounded some of our bullicks that got into her lucerne paddick one night when we was on the spree in Mudgee, an’ put heavy damages on ’em. She’d left the sliprails down on purpose, I believe. She talked of puttin’ the police onter us, jest as if we was a sly-grog shop. (If she’d kept a sly-grog shop she’d have had a different opinion about bullick-drivers.) An’ all the bullick-drivers hated her because she hated bullickies.
Well, one wet season half a dozen of us chaps was camped there for a fortnight, because the roads was too boggy to travel, an’ one night they got up a darnce at Peter Anderson’s shanty acrost the ridges, an’ a lot of gals an’ fellers turned up from all round about in spite of the pourin’ rain. Someone had kidded Dave Regan that Mother Hardwick was comin’, an’ he turned up, of course, in spite of a ragin’ toothache he had. He was always ridin’ the high horse over us bullickies. It was a very cold night, enough to cut the face an’ hands off yer, so we had a roarin’ fire in the big bark-an’-slab kitchen where the darncin’ was. It was one of them big, old-fashioned, clay-lined fire-places that goes right acrost the end of the room, with a twenty-five foot slab-an’-tin chimbly outside.
Dave Regan was pretty wild about being had, an’ we copped all the gals for darncin’; he couldn’t get one that night, an’ when he wasn’t proddin’ out his tooth with a red-hot wire someone was chaffin’ him about Mrs Hardwick. So at last he got disgusted an’ left; but before he went he got a wet three-bushel flour-bag an’ climbed up very quietly onter the roof by the battens an’ log weights an’ riders, an’ laid the wet bag very carefully acrost the top of the chimbly flue.
An’ we was a mortal hour tryin’ to find out what was the matter with that infernal chimbly, and tackin’ bits o’ tin an’ baggin’ acrost the top of the fire-place under the mantelshelf to try an’ stop it from smokin’, an’ all the while the gals set there with the water runnin’ out of their eyes. We took the green back log out an’ fetched in a dry one, but that chimbly smoked worse than ever, an’ we had to put the fire out altogether, an’ the gals set there shiverin’ till the rain held up a bit an’ the sky cleared, an’ then someone goes out an’ looks up an’ sings out, “Why, there’s somethin’ acrost the top of the blazin’ chimbly!” an’ someone else climbs up an’ fetches down the bag. But the darnce was spoilt, an’ the gals was so disgusted that they went off with their fellers while the weather held up. They reckoned some of us bullickies did it for a lark.
An’ arter that Dave’d come ridin’ past, an’ sing out to know if we knew of a good cure for a smokin’ chimbly, an’ them sorter things. But he always got away before we could pull him off of his horse. Three of us chased him on horseback one day, but we didn’t ketch him.
So we made up our minds to git back on Dave some way or other, an’ it come about this way.
About six months arter the smoked-out darnce, four or five of us same fellers was campin’ on th’ Pipeclay agen, an’ it was a dry season. It was dryer an’ hotter than it was cold ‘n’ wet the larst time. Dave was still hangin’ round Mrs Hardwick’s an’ doin’ odd jobs for her. Well, one very hot day we seen Dave ridin’ past into Mudgee, an’ we knowed he’d have a spree in town that night, an’ call at Mrs Hardwick’s for sympathy comin’ out next day; an’ arter he’d been gone an hour or two, Tom Tarrant comes drivin’ past on his mail-coach, an’ drops some letters an’ papers an’ a bag o’ groceries at our camp.
Tom was a hard case. I remember wonst I was drivin’ along a lonely bit o’ track, an’ it was a grand mornin’, an’ I felt great, an’ I got singin’ an’ practisin’ a recitation that I allers meant to give at a bush darnce some night. (I never sung or spouted poetry unless I was sure I was miles away from anyone.) An’ I got worked up, an’ was wavin’ me arms about an’ throwin’ it off of me chest, when Tom’s coach comes up behind, round a bend in the road, an’ took me by surprise. An’ Tom looked at me very hard an’ he says, “What are yer shoutin’ an’ swearin’ an’ darncin’ an’ goin’ on at the bullicks like that for, Jimmy? They seem to be workin’ all right.” It took me back, I can tell yer. The coach was full of grinnin’ passengers, an’ the worst of it was that I didn’t know how long Tom had been drivin’ slow behind me an’ takin’ me out of windin’. There’s nothin’ upsets a cove as can’t sing so much as to be caught singin’ or spoutin’ poetry when he thinks he’s privit’.
An’ another time I remember Tom’s coach broke down on the track, an’ he had to ride inter town with the mails on horseback; an’ he left a couple of greenhides, for Skinner the tanner at Mudgee, for me to take on in the wagon, an’ a bag of potatoes for Murphy the storekeeper at Home Rule, an’ a note that said: “Render unto Murphy the things which is murphies, and unto Skinner them things which is skins.” Tom was a hard case.
Well, this day, when Tom handed down the tucker an’ letters, he got down to stretch his legs and give the horses a breathe. The coach was full of passengers, an’ I noticed they all looked extra glum and sulky, but I reckoned it was the heat an’ dust. Tom looked extra solemn, too, an’ no one was talkin’. Then I suddenly began to notice something in the atmosphere, as if there was a dead beast not far away, an’ my mates started sniffin’ too. An’ that reminds me, it’s funny why some people allers sniff hard instead of keepin’ their noses shut when there’s a stink; the more it stinks the more they sniff. Tom spit in the dust an’ thought a while; then he took a parcel out of the boot an’ put it on the corner post of the fence. “There,” he said, “There’s some fresh fish that come up from Sydney by train an’ Cobb & Co’s coach larst night. They’re meant for White the publican at Gulgong, but they won’t keep this weather till I git out there. Pity to waste them! you chaps might as well have a feed of ’em. I’ll tell White they went bad an’ I had to throw them out,” says Tom. Then he got on to the coach agen an’ drove off in a cloud of dust. We undone the brown paper, an’ the fish was in a small deal box, with a lid fastened by a catch. We nicked back the catch an’ the lid flew open, an’ then we knowed where the smell corned from all right. There wasn’t any doubt about that! We didn’t have to put our noses in the box to see if the fish was bad. They was packed in salt, but that made no difference.
You know how a smell will start sudden in the bush on a hot, still day, an’ then seem to take a spell, an’ then get to work agen stronger than ever. You might be clost alongside of a horse that has been dead a fortnight an’ smell nothin’ particular till you start to walk away, an’ the further you go the worse it stinks. It seems to smell most round in a circle of a hundred yards or so. But these fish smelt from the centre right out. Tom Tarrant told us arterwards that them fish started to smell as soon as he left Mudgee. At first they reckoned it was a dead horse by the road; but arter a while the passengers commenced squintin’ at each other suspicious like, an’ the conversation petered out, an’ Tom thought he felt all their eyes on his back, an’ it was very uncomfortable; an’ he sat tight an’ tried to make out where the smell come from; an’ it got worse every hundred yards—like as if the track was lined with dead horses, an’ every one dead longer than the last—till it was like drivin’ a funeral. An’ Tom never thought of the fish till he got down to stretch his legs and fetched his nose on a level with the boot.
Well, we shut down the lid of that box quick an’ took it an’ throwed it in the bushes a good way away from the camp, but next mornin’, while we was havin’ breakfast, Billy Grimshaw got an idea, an’ arter breakfast he wetted a canvas bag he had an’ lit up his pipe, an’ went an’ got that there box o’ fish, an’ put it in the wet bag, an’ wrapped it tight round it an’ tied it up tight with string. Billy had a nipper of a nephew with him, about fourteen, named Tommy, an’ he was a sharp kid if ever there was one. So Billy says, “Look here, Tommy, you take this fish up to Mrs Hardwick’s an’ tell her that Dave Regan sent ’em with his compliments, an’ he hopes she’ll enjoy ’em. Tell her that Dave fetched ’em from Mudgee, but he’s gone back to look for a pound note that he dropped out of a hole in his pocket somewheers along the road, an’ he asked you to take the fish up.” So Tommy takes the fish an’ goes up to the house with ’em. When he come back he says that Mrs Hardwick smiled like a parson an’ give him a shillin’—an’ he didn’t wait. We watched the house, an’ about half an hour arterwards we seen her run out of the kitchen with the open box in her hand, an’ run a good way away from the house an’ throw the fish inter the bushes, an’ then go back quick, holdin’ her nose.
An’ jest then, as luck would have it, we seen Dave Regan ridin’ up from the creek towards the house. He got down an’ went into the kitchen, an’ then come backin’ out agen in a hurry with her in front of him. We could hear her voice from where we was, but we couldn’t hear what she said. But we could see her arms wavin’ as if she was drivin’ fowls, an’ Dave backed all the way to his horse and gets on an’ comes ridin’ away quick, she screamin’ arter him all the time. When he got down opposite the camp we sung out to know what was the matter. “What have you been doin’ to Mrs Hardwick, Dave?” we says. “We heerd her goin’ for yer proper jest now.” “Damned if I know,” says Dave. “I ain’t done nothin’ to her that I knows of. She’s called me everything she can lay her tongue to, an’ she’s ravin’ about my stinkin’ fish, or somethin’. I can’t make it out at all. I believe she’s gone ratty.”
“But you must have been doin’ somethin’ to the woman,” we says, “or else she wouldn’t have gone on at yer like that.”
But Dave swore he hadn’t, an’ we talked it over for a while an’ couldn’t make head nor tail of it, an’ we come to the conclusion that it was only a touch o’ the sun.
“Never mind, Dave,” we says. “Go up agen in a day or two, when she’s cooled down, an’ find out what the matter is. Or write to her. It might only have been someone makin’ mischief. That’s what it is.”
But Dave only sat an’ rubbed his head, an’ presently he started home to wherever he was hangin’ out. He wanted a quiet week to think.
“Her chimbly might have been smokin’, Dave,” we shouted arter him, but he was too dazed like to ketch on.
Well, in a month or two we was campin’ there agen, an’ we found she’d fenced in a lane to the crick she had no right to, an’ we had to take the bullicks a couple o’ miles round to grass an’ water. Well, the first mornin’ we seen her down in the corner of her paddick near the camp drivin’ some heifers, an’ Billy Grimshaw went up to the fence an’ spoke to her. Billy was the only one of us that dared face her and he was the only one she was ever civil to—p’r’aps because Billy had a squint an’ a wall eye and that put her out of countenance.
Billy took off his hat very respectful an’ sings out, “Mrs Hardwick.” (It was Billy’s bullicks she’d “pounded,” by the way.)
“What is it?” she says.
“I want to speak to you, Mrs Hardwick,” says Billy.
“Well, speak,” she says. “I’ve got no time to waste talkin’ to bullick-drivers.”
“Well, the fact is, Mrs Hardwick,” says Billy, “that I want to explain somethin’, an’ apologize for that young scamp of a nephew o’ mine, young Tommy. He ain’t here or I’d make him beg your pardon hisself, or I’d cut him to pieces with the bullick-whip. I heard all about Dave Regan sendin’ you that stinkin’ fish, an’ I think it was a damned mean, dirty thing to do—to send stinkin’ fish to a woman, an’ especially to a widder an’ an unprotected woman like you, Mrs Hardwick. I’ve had mothers an’ sisters of me own. An’ I want to tell you that I’m sorry a relation o’ mine ever had anythin’ to do with it. As soon as I heerd of it I give young Tommy a lambastin’ he won’t forgit in a hurry.”
“Did Tommy know the fish was bad?” she says.
“It doesn’t matter a rap,” says Billy; “he had no right to go takin’ messages from nobody to nobody.”
Mrs Hardwick thought a while. Then she says: “P’r’aps arter all Dave Regan didn’t know the fish was bad. I’ve often thought I might have been in too much of a hurry. Things goes bad so quick out here in this weather. An’ Dave was always very friendly. I can’t understand why he’d do a dirty thing on me like that. I never done anything to Dave.”
Now I forgot to tell you that Billy had a notion that Dave helped drive his bullicks to pound that time, though I didn’t believe it. So Billy says:
“Don’t you believe that for a minute, Mrs Hardwick. Dave knew what he was a-doin’ of all right; an’ if I ketch him I’ll give him a beltin’ for it if no one else is man enough to stand up for a woman!” says Billy.
“How d’yer know Dave knew?” says Mrs Hardwick.
“Know!” says Billy. “Why, he talked about it all over the district. “
“What!” she screamed out, an’ I moved away from that there fence, for she had a stick to drive them heifers with. But Billy stood his ground. “Is that the truth, Billy Grimshaw?” she screams.
“Yes,” he says. “I’ll take me oath on it. He blowed about it all over the district, as if it was very funny, an’ he says” An’ Billy stopped.
“What did he say?” she shouted.
“Well, the fact is,” says Billy, “that I hardly like to tell it to a lady. I wouldn’t like to tell yer, Mrs Hardwick.”
“But you’ll have to tell me, Billy Grimshaw,” she screams. “I have a right to know. If you don’t tell me I’ll pull him next week an’ have it dragged out of you in the witness-box!” she says. “An’ I’ll have satisfaction out of him in the felon’s dock of a court of law!” she says. “What did the villain say?” she screams.
“Well,” says Billy, “if yer must have it—an’, anyway, I’m hanged if I’m goin’ to stand by an’ see a woman scandalized behind her back—if yer must have it I’ll tell yer. Dave said that the fish didn’t smell no worse than your place anyway.”
We got away from there then. She cut up too rough altogether. I can’t tell you what she said—I ain’t got the words. She went up to the house, an’ we seen the farm-hand harnessin’ up the horse, an’ we reckoned she was goin’ to drive into town straight away an’ take out a summons agenst Dave Regan. An’ jest then Dave hisself comes ridin’ past—jest when he was most wanted, as usual. He always rode fast past Mrs Hardwick’s nowadays, an’ never stopped there, but Billy shouted after him:
“Hullo, Dave! I want to speak to yer,” shouts Billy. An’ Dave yanks his horse round.
“What is it, Billy?” he says.
“Look here, Dave,” says Billy. “You had your little joke about the chimbly, an’ we had our little joke about the fish an’ Mrs Hardwick, so now we’ll call it quits. A joke’s a joke, but it can go too far, an’ this one’s gettin’ too red-hot altogether. So we’ve fixed it up with Mrs Hardwick.”
“What fish an’ what joke?” says Dave, rubbin’ his head. “An’ what have yer fixed up with Mrs Hardwick? Whatever are yer talkin’ about, Billy?”
So Billy told him all about us sendin’ the stinkin’ fish to Mrs Hardwick by Tommy, an’ sayin’ Dave sent ’em—Dave rubbin’ the back of his neck an’ starin’ at Billy all the time. “An” now,” says Billy, “I won’t say anything about them bullicks; but I went up and seen Mrs Hardwick this mornin’, an’ told her the whole truth about them fish, an’ how you knowed nothin’ about it, an’ I apologized an’ told her we was very sorry; an’ she says she was very sorry too on your account, an’ wanted to see yer. I promised to tell yer as soon as I seen yer. It ought to be fixed up. You ought to go right up to the house an’ see her now. She’s awfully cut up about it.”
“All right,” says Dave, brightenin’ up. “It was a dirty, mean trick anyway to play on a cove; but I’ll go up an’ see her.” An’ he went there ‘n’ then.
An’ about fifteen minutes arterwards he comes boltin’ back from the house one way an’ his horse the other. The horse acted as if it had a big scare, an’ so did Dave. Billy went an’ ketched Dave’s horse for him, an’ I got Dave a towel to wipe the dirty dish-water off of his face an’ out of his hair an’ collar, an’ I give him a piece of soap to rub on the places where he’d been scalded.
“Why, the woman must be ravin’ mad,” I says. “Whatever did yer say to her this time, Dave? Yer allers gettin’ inter hot water with her.”
“I didn’t say nothin’,” says Dave. “I jest went up laughin’ like, an’ says, ‘How are yer, Mrs Hardwick?’ an’ she ups an’ lets me have a dish of dirty wash-up water, an’ then on top of that she let fly with a dipper of scaldin’-hot, greasy water outer the boiler. She’s gone clean ravin’ mad, I think.”
“She’s as mad as a hatter, right enough, Dave,” says Billy Grimshaw. “Don’t you go there no more, Dave, it ain’t safe.” An’ we lent Dave a hat an’ a clean shirt, an’ he went on inter town. “You ought to have humoured her,” says Billy, as Dave rode away. “You ought to have told her to put a wet bag over her chimbly an’ hang the fish inside to smoke.” But Dave was too stunned to ketch on. He went on inter the town an’ got on a howlin’ spree. An’ while he was soberin’ up the thing began to dawn on him. An’ the nex’ time he met Billy they had a fight. An’ Dave got another woman to speak to Mrs Hardwick, an’ Mrs Hardwick ketched young Tommy goin’ past her place one day an’ bailed him up an’ scared the truth out of him.
“Look here!” she says to him, “I want the truth, the whole truth, an’ nothin’ but the truth about them fish, an’ if I don’t get it outer you I’ll wring her young neck for tryin’ to poison me, an’ save yer from the gallust!” she says to Tommy.
So he told her the whole truth, swelp him, an’ got away; an’ he respected Mrs Hardwick arter that.
An’ next time we come past with the teams we seen Dave’s horse hangin’ up outside Mrs Hardwick’s, an’ we went some miles further along the road an’ camped in a new place where we’d be more comfortable. An’ ever arter that we used to always whip up an’ drive past her place as if we didn’t know her.