The Shearer’s Colt

Part I - Chapter IV

Bush Hospitality

Andrew Barton ‘Banjo’ Paterson

A SQUATTER’S dinner in the backblocks is apt to cover any range from a cold mutton chop eaten in shirt-sleeves to a five-course affair eaten in dinner-jackets. Maggie, who was simply snorting with rage, and with curiosity to know why a shearer and a trap had been allowed inside, had an idea of serving them up a real shearers’ meal, fit for their station in life; but on second thoughts she decided on a dinner which should show those canaille how the quality really lived. She gave one of the stationhands a gun and some cartridges and told him to get a couple of wild duck, and she sent down to the blacks’ camp to say that she would “give it big feller nobbler” to any black who could catch her a Murray cod.

Both items for the menu came to hand, and Maggie set to work to prepare her dinner. Only a thoroughly aroused woman could have done it in the time at her disposal. She brought in a dinner consisting of Murray cod with (tinned) oyster sauce, a stew of black duck and a roast fowl with onion sauce. A water-bag dripping coolness on the veranda contained a bottle of claret, three bottles of whisky and a squat little flask of cherry brandy. The boss’s enormously valuable old Irish silver was strewn about the room in any place where there was room for it, and gold and silver racing trophies glittered on mantelpiece and sideboard. It was an ideal setting for a horse deal. Who could haggle about a few pounds in the midst of such magnificence!

The two guests dressed for dinner by the simple process of washing their faces and hands at a tap. When they came into the dining-room Maggie was pleased to see that the ex-shearer was staggered by the magnificence of his surroundings. The young policeman, however, was quite cool, and actually seemed to know something about old silver: a knowledge gained, as Maggie suspected, by his association with burglary cases.

When the claret, the only wine in the establishment, was served with the fish, the young fellow said:

“Where on earth did you get this claret? I haven’t tasted anything like it since Oxford.”

But the shearer was critical:

“On one of the gold-rushes,” he said, “there was an old German bloke used to make his own claret and it had more kick than this. You could pour it out on the counter and set fire to it with a match, and it’d burn.”

The Irish whisky rose superior to all criticism in the matter of strength, but he complained that it left “a taste in your mouth like after you’ve been working at a bush-fire.”

When they had topped up with the cherry brandy, Red Fred reckoned it must have been the stuff that made the rabbit chase the kangaroo dog. And when they settled down to talk horses, nobody had the slightest hesitation in expressing an opinion on any subject whatever.

To Maggie’s great satisfaction the host did the thing properly by handing round cigars, an almost unheard-of luxury in those parts. Then he started to talk business.

“Tell me now, Fred,” he said, “how many horses do you want to buy?”

“I’ll buy,” said Fred, “any you’ve got, or all you’ve got.”

“Ah, yer sowl, what way is that to talk? Dealing with you is like fighting a duel with a man who won’t fire at you. In Ireland a horse deal will last a week, and they’ll differ not only over the horse itself, but even the halter it’s led with, and the bit of rug that’s over its loins. If you buy any, who’s going to break them in for you? What about a trainer? I can get you a breaker here if you like. He’s what they call a whisperer in England. Did you ever hear of a whisperer?”

“I have,” said Fitzroy, “plenty of ’em. They’re fellows who come to you on the racecourse and whisper to you what’ll win.”

“No, no, no, not at all! A whisperer is a man who can shut himself in a loose-box with a dangerous horse, and he’ll begin talking to it and in a little while the horse will follow him about rubbing its head against him. It’s a gift. There used to be plenty of them in England and Ireland. There’s a fellow knocking about here, a worthless sheep-stealing scoundrel he is too, and he has the gift. He can go into a yard with one of my unbroken station colts and an old mare, and he’ll work the old mare up alongside the youngster and talk to it. And while you’re expecting to see the colt ram its fore foot down his throat, he has it caught and saddled and he’s riding it round the yard. I’ve known him come here and catch a green unbroken bush scrubber that had never been fed or handled in its life, and he’d ride it away next day and lead another unbroken horse off its back. He’s in jail now. But he’ll be out in time to handle these horses.”

All this talk bored Red Fred who was just getting into that frame of mind when he was not disposed to agree with anybody. He took another swig of the cherry brandy.

“I know a blackfeller . . . ” he began.

“A blackfellow! A blackfellow is it? Listen! Before I’d see you let a blackfellow within a hundred miles of any of my horses, I’d pick up that empty bottle and leave you stretched a corpse on the floor here in front of me. It’s a duty I’d owe to the world. Don’t you know, man, that once a blackfellow breaks in a horse, the horse looks on all white men as his enemies?

“And then there’s the trainer. Trainers are like cooks, there’s mostly always something wrong with the good ones, a good cook, you know, pretty well always drinks. Even Maggie. I’ve heard her and her friends sitting out there on the wood-heap of an evening singing like dogs howling. Well, I’ll say this for trainers: there’s very few of them drink; but every owner thinks his horse has wings on his legs and a Rolls-Royce engine in his inside, and the trainer daren’t deny it or he’ll lose the horse.”

Here the embryo owner thought it was time that he should get a word in. Visions of cleverly worked coups began to float on the sea of liquor, and he decided to put his foot down.

“I’ll tell yer what I’m goin’ ’er do,” he said, “I’m not goin’ ’er run horses for the click [clique]. You know what I mean. The click that hangs round the big stables and says ‘How’s your horse goin’ ’er run, old chap?’ an’ they get in and back it before you do. I’m goin’ ’er find a lirrle trainer can keep his mouth shut, an’ I’ll keep my mouth shut. Jimmy the Head, that was shearin’ with me at Bogan West, he done all his old man’s dough horse-racin’ and he sez to me, ‘you can’t have no friends in racin’, Fred, friends is only a curse to a man.’ Wha’ about that?”

Old Delahunty, who had drunk, perhaps not with more restraint but certainly with more discrimination, became more pompous and didactic, as the liquor stimulated his sense of superiority:

“Excellent in theory, my dear Fred, but impossible in practice. Every moneyed fool that has gone into the game from the Marquis of Hastings down to the Jubilee Juggins has been obsessed with the same idea. But your small trainer will have no decent trial horses, so you won’t really know where you are. Another thing, he won’t be able to get good jockeys, for the princes of the pigskin stick to the big stables, and a small trainer has to go to them on all fours and give away the whole circus, before they will even consider riding one of his horses. ‘See my valet,’ that’s what the crack English riders will tell him. And he has to convince the valet that it’s a stone home-and-dried certainty before the valet will even look at the jockey’s engagement book. You threaten to report the ruffian, and you find that he’s keeping, or being kept by, a duchess.

“I mean nothing personal by the remark, but you are like a bear with all your troubles before you. You’ve got to go through it all, putting bad riders up on your horses to get a price, and getting accused of pulling the horse when it is beaten. If you don’t bet, they’ll say you are a nuisance on the turf because they can’t tell when your horses are fancied; and if you do bet, you’ll have to back every horse you start or some ink-slinging assassin will print that your horse was pulled. But it’s the greatest game in the world; and when you’ve learnt it—if you have any money left—you’ll be glad you went into it.”

Looking out through the open door they could see the moonlight flooding the plain. In a lagoon below the garden, frogs sang in chorus and wild ducks quacked and splashed. A flock of plover wheeled just over the house, chanting their shrill war-cry. Away, up in the paddocks a bull roared a challenge and was answered from across the river. Young Fitzroy got up and walked to the door to stretch his legs.

“Well,” he said, “this is better than the police-station at Barcoo, or lying out under a log all night waiting for some of those sheep-stealing johnnies. But we’re not getting any further ahead over this deal. I might as well start work on my new job. If you’ll give me the names and breeding of the horses I’ll write them down and then you can say what you want for each one. Then my boss here can say what he’ll give, and if you can’t agree he can make you an offer.

“It’s wonderful what you’ll get by making an offer. A pal of mine had a horse that he had to sell, stone-broke you know, and the horse was full brother to something or other but ran as though he was full brother to a milking cow. He was a titled man, this friend of mine, but he had very queer teeth, and somebody christened him Curius Dentatus. A theatrical chap, all scent and astrakhan collar, was in Oxford and he came to have a look at this horse. He didn’t really want a horse, you know, he only wanted a talk with a titled man, and he got that all right. Curius was a polished liar when it suited him, and he started to say how sorry he was to part with the horse, and he pitched a tale that would have fetched tears to the eyes of a crocodile. Then he wound up by asking a thousand guineas for the horse.

“The theatrical chap wouldn’t dream of insulting a lord by saying that he was asking too much for a horse, so he started to crawfish a bit. ‘I’ve no doubt, my lord,’ he said, ‘that the horse is worth every penny of a thousand guineas, and I only wish I could afford to buy him; but I want a horse for selling races, something about three hundred, something just to take my mind off my work, you know.’

“Curius wheels on him’ in a flash: ‘He’s yours at three hundred,’ he says, ’and you’ve got seven hundred the best of the bargain. Come and have a drink. He’ll take your mind off your work all right.’”

While this episode of undergraduate days was being unfolded old Delahunty’s eyes twinkled.

“And do you suggest, Mr Fitzroy,” he said, “that I would ask a man like Fred here, a man that has shorn for me, to pay a thousand pounds for a horse worth nothing! I had expected to have some fun over this deal, just to see if I were in my old form; but I see I must outrage all the decencies by being both seller and buyer. I would advise you to take the chestnut colt out of Single Star for one. He is halfbrother to a Derby winner and that makes a horse valuable, even if it doesn’t make him win races.”

By this time the ex-shearer had begun to goggle a good deal about the eyes, and the assorted liquors that he had consumed were beginning to fight amongst themselves.

Like Ivan Chinitzky Cheddar, he assumed his most truculent sneer and said that he would certainly take the Single Star colt, and with some difficulty in articulating he added “an’ I wan’ the’ big colt, the one you don’ like.”

“Right! Now, if I sent them to Sydney I ought to get a thousand guineas for the Silver Star colt on account of his relations, and I ought to get five hundred for the big fellow. Deducting something for travelling them down and costs of sale, commission, insurance, risk of injury, and so on, it would be a fair thing if I asked you eight hundred guineas for the Single Star colt; and I wouldn’t insult Fred’s judgment by asking less than four hundred for the big fellow. That little fellow you said the stud groom would have liked, I’ll take a hundred and fifty for him, and he might be a good horse. You can leave them here as long as you like, and I’ll get them broken in for you. How does that suit you?”

Before Fitzroy could make any offer, such as the man with the astrakhan collar had made, his employer ruined any chance of a deal.

“I’ll go and get my cheque-book, Fitz,” he said. “It’s been yabber, yabber, yabber the whole evening. Like a lot of black gins round a sick dog. I don’t have to study a few bob, you know. But I won’t take that scrawny lirrle bay scrubber. You can buy him if you like, Fitz, and pay for him out of your screw, so much a week—like a time-payment suit of clothes.”

So saying he stumped off to get the cheque-book.

“I can see heaps of trouble ahead of you, my young friend,” said Delahunty. “Your employer has, I believe, a heart of gold, but he hasn’t got a head of cast iron. You will have to shepherd him a bit. When he first came in for his money there was a politician making a speech at Fred’s mining-camp, and he had one of these new-fangled loud speakers rigged up in the crowd. Fred had been celebrating a bit, and when the loud speaker said ‘I shall provide millions for irrigation,’ Fred said to it ‘where are you going to get the money?’ The loud speaker went on about irrigation, and Fred said ‘answer my question, won’t you? Where are you going to bet the money?’ And when it wouldn’t answer he tried to throw it in the creek. Here he comes now.”

While Red Fred was ostentatiously writing out a cheque, the old squatter thought he would ease the situation for young Fitzroy.

“I don’t want Fitzroy to take this horse,” he said, “a racehorse is a bad asset to a young man. I ought to know.”

But Red Fred was in the frame of mind when he couldn’t be told anything.

“I say he will take him,” he growled. “I’ll guarantee his account. Just because I been a shearer and been kicked about like a dog all me life, that doesn’t say I’m to take orders from an Irish half-sir like you, does it? You been tyrr’nisin’ over people all your life, sendin’ ’em round to the kitchen, but that’s all done now, for Mr Frederick Carstairs.” And then in a pleasant baritone voice be sang:

“Aux armes, mes citoyens,
Le jour de gloire est arriv? . . . ”

Then relapsing into his Australian voice he said, “Whadda you think of that, you cows?”

If Fitzroy had been in a normal frame of mind, he would have hesitated before man-handling his employer. But the world just then seemed to him one glorious adventure, and without an instant’s delay he threw his arms round his master and started to carry him out of the room.

“Obey orders if you break owners,” he said. “You’d better come to bed. Good night, Mr Delahunty. We’ll put off the revolution until the morning.”

As he put out the lights and took a final walk round the place, talking to his dog as his habit was, old Delahunty laughed to himself.

“Well, we had some fun out of it anyway, Molly,” he said. “The man sang in French and he called me a half-sir! How did he get to know that word? I ought to have called him out, Molly. But a man can’t go out with a shearer, especially when he’s buying one’s horses.”

Next morning Red Fred came into the breakfast room without any trace of embarrassment.

“Good morning, all,” he said. “I suppose you think I was tight last night. Well, I wasn’t. I was cold sober. You see, I told young Fitz here that when he saw me gettin’ into a barney and startin’ to talk French, he was to cart me off to bed, and I wanted to see if he was game enough to do it. All what I said about that bay horse, that was just part of the lurk. I am going to give him that horse as a present for his pluck. When you have had your breakfast, Fitz, you fix up all the papers about the horses and I’ll go and get the old car ready.

“Do you know what I got in that car? I got an opal brooch that’d fair knock your eye out. An old mate o’ mine come to me at Barcoo, flat broke, and asked me to buy it to give him a start. I gave him fifty quid for it. I never saw such a stone, the size of a hen’s egg, and all scarlet and green and gold lights like fireworks. I’m going out to give it to Maggie. Maggie stuck to me many a time for a feed and a drink o’ tea. Maggie’ll be like the Opal Queen that used to keep the pub at Eulo, and get all the best opal from the gougers when they came in to knock down their cheques.”

While he was fixing up the car and making his peace with Maggie the other two fixed up the papers about the horses.

“Do you know,” said the old man, “I envy you your job. If you go to England to race, you can go anywhere and meet anybody. A good racehorse is better than any letter of introduction. Here am I like Kipling’s Roman Emperor, sitting by a river waiting for death, and you’ll be meeting princes and potentates and some of the best people in the world and some of the worst. The women will be your main trouble. That red fellow is easy money for any woman. By the way, talking of that, I have a daughter away on a visit at Saltbush Downs, just alongside the place you’re going to. I’ll give you a note to her. If you can teach Red Fred not to mix his liquors and not to drink cherry brandy like water, he’ll do all right. I wish you luck.”

When they went out to the car their eyes were dazzled by something that looked like a lighthouse, and they found that Maggie had pinned the opal brooch on her breast, and was loading the car with sandwiches and fruit.

“So long, Fred,” she said. “If you get broke, come back here, and we’ll see that you get a pen. When the studs come on to be shorn, you can say that your wrist has cracked up, and let the other fellows shear ’em. So long!”

The Shearer’s Colt - Contents    |     Chapter V - Jimmy the Pat

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