The Shearer’s Colt

Part I - Chapter III

Class Distinctions

Andrew Barton ‘Banjo’ Paterson

DANCING along in the battered old Ford the new employer gave his employee his life-history.

“Me, I’m like two men,” he said. “Me father had some swell people in England, but he was a bit of a hard doer, and he got into some trouble and had to clear out and come over here. I think he changed his name when he came out here because he didn’t want to disgrace his people. He could speak of lot o’ languages, so he started to teach languages for a living. I lived with him, lived hard, too, until I was sixteen and then I cleared out and got a job on the mines at Charters Towers. Look at me hands—” and he held out a hand that was nearly as broad as it was long. “That’s the mines did that,” he said. “Working the drill underground putting in the shots at the two thousand feet level. Did you ever work a drill?”

“No, I can’t say that I ever did.”

“Well, don’t do it, unless you’ve got to. I can work a drill with any man, but I don’t hanker after it. But what I was going to say about being two men. I can talk just like an Englishman if I like. You know, ‘Haw, haw, tell the butlah to bring the sugah!’ But they used to laugh at me on the mines, so now I talk Australian just as good as any cockatoo. But, keep it dark that I got money. You call me Fred, and they’ll think you have the money. You look more like it!”

They threw mile after mile behind them and Red Fred grew reminiscent.

“I made a bishop jump a foot high once,” he said. “He came out to a place I had in the Northern Territory, after I made me money, and he thought he’d get a whacking big subscription. So he drives up in his buggy and he sees me and he thinks I’m the rouseabout! ‘Haw,’ he says, ‘I’m the Bishop of Carpentariah, and I wish to see the proprietah.’ So, I says, ‘Haw, I’m the proprietah,’ I says, ‘and I’m—haw—an athiest,’ I says. ‘Well,’ he says, ‘that’s unfortunate, haw, for both of us,’ he says. ‘But I’ll get you to ring up the next place and see if they can get their men together and perhaps arrange a little subscription,’ he says.”

“So I rings up Flaherty, who’s a good Roman Catholic—that Bishop had no luck—and Flaherty rings back and he says: ‘You tell the Bishop’ he says, ‘that if he comes out here we’ll guarantee him twenty-five pounds, and if he don’t come we’ll give him fifty!’ he says.”

“And what did the Bishop do?”

“He didn’t go and he took the fifty. But I couldn’t let a Mick like Flaherty poke it at me that I was a savage, so I gives the Bishop fifty quid to help put a new roof on a church, and we were the best of friends and talked haw haw talk all the evening. But about a month afterwards he wrote me that the church had been struck by lightning and would I send another fifty. But I said no, if Providence likes to bust up it’s own buildings, I ain’t going to interfere.”

“But now I’m going to tell you something. I’m all right till I get tight, and then I get quarrelsome, or I gets chucking money about. You can always tell when I’m getting full, for I start to talk like my father used to. Dash it all, sometimes I talk a bit of French, though I don’t know a word of French when I’m sober. The booze seems to bring it back. So, if you hear me starting to parlez-vous, you get a hold of me and take me away to bed. I’ll most likely take a swing at you and I’m sure to give you the sack. But I’ll be all right next day. I reckon we’ll work together like two leaders in a bullock-team.”

While Fitzroy was thinking over these prospects they drove mile after mile over the plains, on a two-hundred-mile trip out to Delahunty’s Cockatoo Creek station. Those who think plain country must be dull and uninteresting would get a surprise if they saw the West in a good season. In the intensely dry inland air, colours are intensified and sizes are magnified. Silver-grey and bright green trees, such as the myall, belah, krui-bush and emu-bush gleam in the bright light and a clump of Old Man Saltbush in the distance looks like a dome of silver. The breeze brings sweet scents of ripening herbage. Looking out over that immensity a whole thunder-storm looks like a wandering patch of black against the blue of the sky; sometimes two or three such thunder-storms can be seen moving in stately fashion along the horizon, like wrestler’s manoeuvring for a hold.

They passed a big lagoon where for acres and acres the ground seemed to be covered with a pink and white snow, but was really covered by tens of thousands of the crested galah parrots moving in orderly fashion to the water for a drink and a bath; each splashing and ducking himself in the water for his allotted time and then flying off to a tree to dry, so that before long the trees seemed to be laden with pink and white blossoms.

To the bushman those phenomena meant nothing. His companion noticed that as they approached Delahunty’s station a certain uneasiness and irritability was developing in Red Fred’s mind. He muttered to himself a few times and more than once he canvassed the idea of pushing past Delahunty’s for another fifty miles to the next place.

“Delahunty’s all right,” he said. “But he’s an Irish swell, you know, and he thinks all the rest of the population is just a lot o’ culls. When his wife’s at home he wouldn’t ask the Governor inside, not until he’d had a look at his breeding. Broke to the world he is too; but that don’t worry him. If he’s at home we’ll be all right, for he’s bound to have heard of my luck; but if he’s not at home I don’t know what about Maggie.”

“Who’s Maggie?” said the ex-trooper. “What has she got to do with it?”

“Maggie’s the girl who works there, and she and I used to be pretty thick when I was shearing there. You know there is a big lot of travellers come to these far-back places and you can’t tell by looking at them whether they ought to be asked inside, or whether they ought to go to the bachelors’ quarters, or to the men’s hut. They all look like scum to Delahunty, so he lets Maggie sort ’em out. When Maggie was away one time he came home and found a mob of travellers there and he said:

“‘Well, gentlemen, this is inside; that’s the bachelors’ quarters; and that’s the men’s hut. Draft yourselves.’”

The young Englishman laughed.

“Does Maggie ever make a mistake?” he said.

“Never. She can smell a swell like these here pointer dogs can smell a game bird. If Maggie hasn’t heard about me, and if she thinks that you and me are just a shearer and a trap [policeman] she’ll tell us to come into the kitchen for our grub, and she’ll tell us to sleep in the skillion behind the wash-house. Well, we’ll have to chance it.”

As they drove up to the homestead the sheep-dogs barked and a red-haired Amazon holding a decapitated fowl in one hand and a shingling tomahawk—like a battle-axe—in the other, walked out into the yard. When she saw Red Fred her face was wreathed in smiles.

“Hello, Fred!” she said. “Put your old Tin Lizzie in the cart shed and come into the kitchen and I’ll give you a drink o’ tea.”

The worst had happened. Evidently Maggie hadn’t heard. Refusing to meet her eye, Red Fred shuffled about in his seat, and at last he said:

“Is the boss about, Maggie?”

“An’ what do you want with the boss?” said Maggie. “Didn’t he spear [dismiss] you for cutting a plateful of meat off one of them stud rams? If you’re lookin’ for a pen for the next shearin’ you’d better drive on to some place where they don’t know you. This young feller’ll be the trap from Barcoo, I suppose? I heard none of the boys in Barcoo could keep a girl since he come there. You can go for a walk to-night, Fred, and leave me and the trap to have it out.”

Before things could get any worse a tall elderly man with a hawk-like face, and eyebrows that nearly met across his forehead, walked out into the yard followed by a beautiful Irish setter.

“Hello, Fred!” he said. “I heard about your luck. You must come inside now. You wear the golden cloak that admits through any door. The daughter is away, but Maggie will look after us, and we can have a talk and forget all about the stud ram. You might introduce me to your friend who, I should say, has in his time been at home in places where admission is not obtainable either by cheque-book or ticket.”

“This young bloke’s name is Fitzroy,” said Red Fred, whose boasted fluency in what he called haw haw talk had deserted him under the old man’s satire. “He was a trap at Barcoo but he got the sack, same as I got over the ram. We both got the sack!”

“Fitzroy, eh! Any relation to Hilton Fitzroy who used to come over and hunt with the Kildares?”

“Yes, I’m a nephew.”

“I thought so; I thought so. I very seldom make a mistake. I think I can class humanity much better than I can class stud rams. But come inside, Fred, and to-night we will see whether you have the Midas touch that will convert Maggie’s fowl into a golden pheasant. Would you like to have a look round before dinner, re-visit your old haunts in the shearers’ hut, for instance?”

“I’ll tell you what I’d like to do Mr Delahunty, if you don’t mind. We’d like to have a look at the young horses. I know you’ve been racing all your life, and you’ve bred some pretty good ones. I don’t know much about horses meself, but I want to go in for racing, and I thought we might get a good youngster or two off you. Fitzroy knows a good bit about horses, and when he got the sack off the police, I made him my ‘seckitary.’ First we’ll race in the bush, and then we’ll race in Sydney, and then we’ll go on to England.”

Even after a lifetime of surprises, the old Irishman lost his somewhat stilted pose for a moment.

“You’re going in for racing! God help you! And you’ve got a seckitary? Well, I’m damned! I thought from your name you’d be English, but you must be as Irish as I am. What do you know about racing, and about seckitaries?”

So far from resenting these crudities, the ex-shearer visibly brightened up. This was the sort of talk he was used to, and he felt like the Admiral’s servant who told the Admiral that he wished to leave the service, whereupon the Admiral said: “What will a double-distilled fool like you do for a living if he leaves the service?” And the servant went back to his mates and told them that he couldn’t think of leaving after the Admiral had spoken to him so friendly.

“You see, it’s this way Mr Delahunty,” Fred said, “I thought I’d go in for racing. I’ve got the stuff now and what else is there for a man to do? I hadn’t hardly rung the bell at this here racing before I got pinched. And now me name’s in all the papers. When you get your mail you will see all about it.”

“I see, I see. From shearer to celebrity, so to speak. Well, if you will go in for racing, we can have a look at the horses and we can have a deal over them after dinner. I will of course take you in if I can. Perhaps you have heard of Abraham who, when badly pressed for a sacrifice, looked up and saw a ram caught by the horns in a thicket. After what has happened between us, it is a bêtise on my part to bring up the subject of rams. But Abraham accepted the sacrifice and who am I that I should set myself above Abraham? Come along and be sacrificed.”

As they walked down to the horse paddock Fitzroy recalled that in his youth, he had heard stories about this queer old eccentric Delahunty. He had squandered fortunes in Ireland; had fought a professional bruiser with bare knuckles; had won the sword championship of the Army; and had nearly strangled his card partner in a Dublin club for holding up an ace at a critical moment. Fitzroy determined there and then to be very guarded in his remarks about the horses.

The first lot they looked at were half a dozen yearlings running in a small paddock, up to their knees in irrigated lucerne, while the unirrigated part of the paddock was belly-deep in Mitchell grass, that wonderful Queensland grass on which a horse can be trained almost as well as on oats. Mostly whole chestnuts in colour, the luxuriant feed had forced their growth until they were as big as two-year-olds.

Like the aristocrats that they were, they came and welcomed their owner by rubbing their velvety noses against his face, fearless as young children, “gentlemen unafraid” as our friend Kipling puts it.

“There you are,” said the old man. “These are my unworthy possessions in the way of horseflesh. I would race them myself, only a soulless bank manager has decreed otherwise. Their sire never raced but he is a direct descendant of Irish Birdcatcher, and their dams all run back to unbeaten Barcaldine. Do you know the history of Barcaldine? He would have been one of the greatest horses in history, only that his owner, an ignorant countryman of mine, actually wrote to an official of the Jockey Club and asked him to join with him in doing some shady work with the horse in England. The official handed the letter to the authorities, and Barcaldine was disqualified for some of the best years of his racing life.

“Fred,” he went on, “tell me now, which of them appeals to you most, so that I will be able to pretend that I don’t want to sell that one when we are dealing to-night.”

A massively built chestnut colt, shaking with fat, with a somewhat coarse head and a neck like that of a stallion, drew out from the mob and aired himself for their admiration. Fred’s eyes bulged with appreciation, and he spoke with all the confidence of an American oil magnate criticizing pictures by the Old Masters.

“Which do I like?” he said. “Why, a blind man could pick this lot, Mr Delahunty. Look at that chestnut feller. Look at his ribs! Look at his rump! Look at his bone! What’ll he be like next year, eh?”

“I thought so,” said the old man. “I thought so. There was once a celebrated judge of racehorses who lost his sight and had to be led about by an attendant. One day this attendant said to him, ‘There’s a beautiful horse passing us just now.’ The blind man gave a sigh and said: ‘A beautiful horse, is he? Well, I’ll bet he’s a fat ’un.’ I shudder to think what that colt will be like next year. He’s got plenty of bone, but in my distressing country they say ‘the bigger the bone the nearer the cart.’ You might make a success at buying war-horses for Job, Fred, but you had better let me select your racehorses. I won’t rob myself, you can be sure of that.

“And now Mr Fitzroy,” he went on, “judging by what I remember of your uncle, you should have some sort of affinity for racehorses. Which of them do you like?”

Among the yearlings trotting round them was a long, low-set whole-coloured bay youngster with black points, not too well grown and a trifle low in the shoulder. He seemed all legs and wings, but he had great arms and thighs and a set of cast steel legs. Apart from his arms and thighs his best point was his great depth through the back ribs. When Fitzroy was asked which of the young ones he fancied he ran his eye over the mob before replying.

“Well,” he said, “I don’t know a great deal about it, but the old stud groom at my grandfather’s place always told me to keep off the ready-made yearlings and to go for one that might grow into something. He said that the ready-made ones might race early and that would be the end of them. He said that a pumpkin vine would grow quicker than an oak, but it wasn’t as tough. How is that bay fellow bred? I think he’s the one that old Archie would have picked.”

“Excellent, excellent,” said the old man. “Who would have expected so much wisdom from an English stud groom? An Irishman, now, would tell you that he liked one of the others, but he would come and steal that one in the night. That colt’s dam was no good as a two-year-old, but she won the Victorian Oaks, and his grandsire won the English Leger. Any one who buys him and puts him by for a year might have a very good three-year-old. The more haste the less racehorse is the motto with his sort. The shoulder is your best guide. The early ones are always well up in the shoulder, and the late ones are low in the shoulder but they come up later on.”

Having listened by the hour to other shearers laying down the law about horse-breeding, Red Fred thought it was time to air his knowledge. He had felt rather hurt at Delahunty’s condemnation of his judgment about the big chestnut colt, and he meant to buy that colt, anyhow. As all horse-dealers know, the best way to make a man buy a horse is to tell him that you would sooner sell him one of the others.

“Do you believe in this horse figure system, Mr Delahunty?” he said.

With a wave of his hand the old Irishman consigned the figure system to the bottomless pit, and excitement lent his speech a touch of the brogue.

“The figure system, is it?” he said. “Let me tell you there was only one man in all England and Ireland who ever believed in the figure system and he went bankrupt three times. That was Allison. But the fellow was so clever with his pen that he collected an army of fools to follow him.”

“Any great horse is a freak,” Delahunty said. “After a few generations his blood gets watered down until the strength goes out of it. Did iver ye see a Jew get married into a Christian family? For five or six generations the nose on that Jew’s face, and his nose for a bargain, will crop up in that family. After that it gets bred out of them. It’s the same with horses. Ye have to breed from a freak, and when his blood gets done, look out for another freak. But, it’s time to get back to the house, or Maggie’ll ate the face off us if we’re late.”

The Shearer’s Colt - Contents    |     Chapter IV - Bush Hospitality

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