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In Bad Company, and other Stories/In the Droving Days


IN THE DROVING DAYS

It is midwinter. The season has been severe, the rainfall heavy and continuous, almost without parallel. The floods are out and the whole country is generally spoken of as being 'under water.' We are on the road from Goulburn, New South Wales, to Gippsland with a thousand head of store cattle. We have crossed the high bare downs of the historical district of Monaro, rich in tales of wonderful feats of stock-riding, performed by 'the old hands,' and repeated by one generation of stock-riders after another. The Snowy River, rushing savagely over granite boulders, is in sight, and we hail that turbulent stream as a midway stage in our long, tedious, and adventurous journey.

Now there is cattle-droving and cattle-droving. When loitering in early summer-time over rich or level country the expedition is an idyll. The cattle follow one another without pressing, feeding as they go. The horses lounge along or are driven among the cattle, some of the men always preferring to be on foot. The dogs are easy in their minds, the whips are at rest. Around the camp-fires at night are heard sounds of careless merriment; the air seems charged with exhilaration, and all is couleur de rose. This sort of business is occasionally the rule for weeks, causing the unreflecting newcomer to exclaim, 'Is this the overlanding of which we have heard so much? Why, any fellow could do this.'

Quite another style of travelling was that which we had experienced for weeks and which was even now becoming intensified. When the country travelled through is rough, thickly timbered, or mountainous; when ceaseless rain floods the rivers and soaks the baggage; when the horses and cattle are enfeebled and therefore prone to straggle, ordinary difficulties are increased fourfold. Everybody is required to be at the fullest stretch of exertion, with both head and hand, from daylight till dark—occasionally for all night as well. Horses become lame or die; losses occur among the cattle; the person in charge has a tendency to become gruff, even abusive; hard work, anxiety, and perhaps short commons are frequently inscribed on this, the reverse side of the shield. Such is the prospect which we shrewdly suspect lies before us as we halt the drove nearly a mile from the formidable ice-fed stream, 'rolling red from brae to brae,' and prepare for a swim over.

Our party consists of eight mounted men, exclusive of a cook or tent-keeper, and a boy, hardy, knowing, and, it might be added, impudent beyond his years. The leader is Mr. Harold Lodbroke, an Australian of English descent; he has managed cattle from his youth up, and these are not the first thousand head that he has personally conducted from one side of the country to the other.

Mr. Elms, the second in command, is an Englishman who has plainly, by some peculiar arrangement of circumstances, been 'born out of his native country.' In speech, in manner, in the fifteen stone which he walks, in the square-built, clever cob which he rides, he is as conspicuously English as his name 'John Meadows Elms' would lead you to suppose. Nevertheless he is a 'Campbelltown native'—(why were so many of the early Australians born in that curious old-fashioned village in New South Wales?)—and he knows, I feel persuaded, not only what any cow or bullock would do under given circumstances, but what they would think.

James Dickson (otherwise Monaro Jim) and his mate, whom he introduced at their hiring as 'a young man from the big Tindaree,' are stock-riders of the ordinary run of Australian bush natives. They are given to long hair, tight breeches, tobacco, and profane swearing; it is possible they may be 'everything that is bad,' but bad riders—their worst enemy could find no fault in that respect. They require to be kept well in hand, but as they will receive no payment until the completion of the journey, it is probable they will do their work well.

Mr. Jones (of England) is a young gentleman recently arrived, who has joined the partly mainly for the sport and to add to his colonial experience—of this last commodity he is likely to gain on this expedition perhaps a little more than accords with amusement; but he is plucky and energetic, so he will most likely come well through, with a fair allowance of grumbling, as befits his nation.

Some preparation for the wilderness is now progressing, this being the last outpost of civilisation. Whips are looked to, and 'crackers' are at a premium; every horse has his shoes examined in anticipation of rocky passes and absence of blacksmiths. 'You won't find no shoes on the Black Mountain,' says Monaro Jim to Mr. Jones, 'and you'd look well leading that chestnut mare fifty mile.' At this cheerful way of putting things, Mr. Jones has a close overhaul of his charger's feet and makes at once for the smithy. Flour and beef are laid in, spare boots, and, above all, full supplies of tobacco are secured by the men, and lastly the pack-saddles, provisions, tent, and general property are ferried across the river in a rough sort of punt. It is now mid-day, dinner is ready, and after due observance of that ceremony, every one mounts and real work begins.

Harold Lodbroke on The Dromedary, a long brown horse, not far from thoroughbred, plain enough, but with legs of iron and a constitution to match, slides in among the cattle, followed by Monaro Jim and his mate. They bring on separately, or as they would say 'cut off,' three or four hundred of the vanguard; the rest of the party close up behind these and they are brought briskly towards the river. There is a steep but sandy bank, below which is the river shore. The cattle see this and hesitate; at a shout from the leader, every whip and every voice is raised simultaneously; the half-wild, half-fierce bullocks dash forward like a herd of deer. Down the bank they go, dropping over and breaking down the overhanging bank as they are forced on by the maddened animals in the rear. Harold jumps The Dromedary over the crumbling ledge, and, making a drop leap of three or four feet, lands right among their undecided lead. Swinging his twelve-foot stockwhip and yelling like a Sioux Indian, he forces half-a-dozen bullocks into the foaming water. The next moment they are struggling with the deep, violent stream, heading straight for the further shore and followed by all the rest. Other detachments are brought down, which readily follow their comrades, and in little more than an hour the whole expedition is safe on the right side of the treacherous Snowy River. We do not purpose to camp after the usual fashion to-night; no watching is thought necessary, we can see for some ten miles in every direction, the cattle are not likely to re-swim that pleasant rivulet, so the order goes forth, 'Let 'em rip.' They graze peacefully in the gathering darkness, a fire is made of drift-wood, the tent is pitched, and that day at least is successfully over. I have often thought that a nearer approach to perfect contentment, and therefore to happiness, is more frequently realised 'on the road' than under any other circumstances of life's travel. Everything conduces to those 'short views' which Sydney Smith recommended. The hours spent in the saddle or at the watch-fire tend to a pleasant weariness of mind and body. Health and spirits are at a high register, owing to a freshness of the atmosphere and the regularity of muscular action. A certain amount of anxiety is felt for the success of the daily enterprise, and when that is reached in the crossing of a dangerous river, or by the attainment of a favourable camp, the needs of our nature seem fully if temporarily gratified. Let the morrow provide for itself. The abstract incompleteness appears to diminish, almost to disappear in the illimitable distance, and we smoke our meerschaum by the watch-fire, or sink into well-earned repose, in the luxurious enjoyment of that unbroken slumber which is born of toil and toil alone.

So, one by one, we lie down to rest with the lulling sound in our ears of the turbulent, rock-strewn river. The reveillé is sounded at 5.30; there is no possibility of daylight for more than an hour, but breakfast can be cooked and eaten before dawn, whereas horses cannot be profitably searched for without some manner of daylight. The day breaks, cold and discouraging. The rain, which had poured steadily during the latter part of the night, causes us to congratulate ourselves that we are on the right bank of old Snowy, now rising fast. The faintly chiming bells, which every other horse of the twenty-three composing our 'caballada' wore, warn us of their whereabouts. We see, as the mist lifts, long lines of the cattle at various distances, but within easy reach of the camp. The horses, now driven in by the boy, Sydney Ben, and the 'young man from the Tindaree,' arrive. The cattle are soon put together. It seems improbable that any stragglers had left the main body. Mr. Elms, after looking through them, gives it as his deliberate opinion that he didn't miss any of the 'walk-about mob.' We take the trail that faces the dark woods and frowning ranges of the south, and the grand array moves on. It would be hard to find a more bitter day, except on a Russian steppe in a snowstorm. The unsheltered, stony downs over which we pass seem to invite the whirlwinds of sleet which ever and anon sweep over them. The cattle refuse to face their course from time to time, only to be forced on as regularly in the very teeth of the blast. The stage is comparatively long, so we toil on, drenched to the skin and cold to the very marrow, in spite of oilskins and wraps. Still 'the day drags on, though storms keep out the sun,' and nightfall find us at the appointed halting-place. We do not propose to 'chance' the cattle to-night, so a camp is made. First of all the drove is permitted to graze peaceably to the particular spot selected. This is either a dry knoll or the angle of a creek, fence, or whatever boundary may help to confine the cattle at night and lessen the labour of watching. This being accomplished, they are gradually driven up into such a compass as gives room for comfort without undue extension of line. Fires are as quickly as possible lighted around them. The horses are unsaddled, hobbled, 'belled,' and turned loose. For all night purposes cattle can be managed on foot, always excepting when they have been recently brought from their native pastures, in which case a relay of fresh 'night horses' is always kept ready for a rush or other emergency. Regular watches now are allotted to the different members of the party, changing, of course, every night. On this occasion Mr. Jones, who is on the first watch, is informed by the cook that his tea is ready, a piece of information which he receives with the keenest gratification. He seats himself between the tent and the camp-fire upon his rolled up gutta-percha ground-sheet and bedding, and thinks he never enjoyed anything so much in his life as the boiled corned beef, fresh damper, and quart-pot tea. Monaro Jim, who is his companion on watch, is also partaking after a deliberate and satisfying fashion, volunteering from time to time his impressions about the weather, the road, and the state of the cattle.

Mr. Lodbroke and the rest of the party are at this time fully engaged in lighting fires, and 'steadying the cattle.' Their turn for luxury, tea, and improving conversation will come at a later period.

'Terrible hard they seem to camp to-night,' quoth Jim, taking off a wedge of beef with his clasp-knife, and looking approvingly at Mr. Elms, who is rushing frantically after an old cow with a fire-stick in his hand. 'One comfort is, some of it'll be out of 'em by the time we're on watch.'

'Surely we two won't be able to keep them on the camp?' queries Mr. Jones, alarmed at the responsibility about to devolve upon him and his companion, and picturing cattle escaping into the darkness in all directions.

'Dessay we'll do well enough, after a bit,' said that experienced person reassuringly. 'Just you keep walking round 'em till you come to me. I'll be t'other side. If two or three sneaks out, rush at 'em and keep a fire-stick handy to throw. If a string makes for goin', holler for me. But they ain't fond of leavin' one another, nor yet travellin' in the dark. We'd as well go on now.'

Supper having been concluded without unnecessary hurry on his part, Monaro Jim walks forth, filling his pipe as he goes. He explains to Mr. Jones the position of the fires he is to guard, and departs to his post. As they advance, the rest of the party make for the main camp-fire with considerable alacrity, leaving Mr. Jones nervous but sternly determined. For the first half- hour he paces rapidly from fire to fire, anxiously peering into the darkness and driving back straggling animals. Rather to his surprise they rush back to their companions in the herd directly they see him or hear his voice, in preference to what he supposed to be their obvious course, viz. to disappear in the darkness and elude pursuit.

Finding that Jim did not think the same activity necessary, and observing that the cattle, with few exceptions, remained stationary, even commenced to lie down, Mr. Jones moderates his energy and lights his pipe. He finds time to smoke in peace by the middle fire. As the night wears on he employs himself in replenishing the fires on his side, and occasionally carrying or dragging heavy logs of wood. Happening to look at his watch after doing all this, he finds to his astonishment that half his vigil is over. He feels refreshed by his late heartily-eaten meal. He warms himself from time to time by the blazing fires which he has piled up. Once every half-hour he walks round his watch and ward. The night is calm and starlit. The cattle have mostly lain down, and are apparently not disposed to stir. When another hour has passed, Mr. Jones begins to realise a treacherous inclination for slumber.

He has been up early, has worked hard all day, and after the third hour of watching begins to feel as if he would give all the world for a good, careless sleep. However, he combats the feeling, and it passes off. Great comfort comes from the thought that when his watch is over at ten o'clock, he can have unbroken rest till breakfast-time.

The last hour dies hard, but comes to its end in due time, and then Mr. Jones, with secret joy, veiled under a careless manner, shakes the feet of the pair who are to relieve him and his mate, telling them to keep moving as the cattle are troublesome on the far side. Having seen them drowsily dressing and finally on their way to his outside fire, Mr. Jones betakes himself to his cork mattress, ground-sheet, and blankets, where under five minutes he is sleeping that sleep which comes to the just and the unjust alike if only they be sufficiently tired.

At half-past five a.m. Dan, the cook, is roaring out unfeelingly, 'All aboard!' It seems but a few minutes to our tired hero, but on reference to his watch the fact is fully borne out. So ends his first night's watching.

Another day, with its difficulties to be surmounted and its dangers to be risked. We have said farewell to the cold uplands of Monaro proper, and are entering a mountain land, amid deep ravines and narrow gorges, sunless glens, dense forests, and precipitous ranges. We become aware that our droving difficulties are commencing. The subsoil, saturated with the rains of the most severe season known for thirty years, gives under the heavy trampling of the leading bullocks. In the vain struggle to pass quickly many of the stronger cattle only succeed in getting deeper and deeper into the treacherous hillsides.

It is even difficult to ride, and Mr. Jones more than once finds himself confronted by a bullock of forbidding aspect, who, unable to advance or retire, glares as if too happy to have the chance of 'skewering' him, and keeps, with the defiance of despair, turning his horns instead of his heels towards Mr. Jones' person.

However, by patience and strategy, these difficulties are disposed of and the camp is reached, in the darkest and most gloomy of forests. No more easy days, no more 'lazy-ally' for us. We have entered the 'big timber,' crede Monaro Jim, and it will be all hard work and 'slogging' till we sight the parks and meadows of Gippsland. So we fare on, gradually ascending the forest hills which are to bring us to the celebrated pass by which we shall surmount the grand alpine chain. Sometimes we pass through darksome forests, where the scanty vegetation tantalises the hungry drove; now we stand upon the brow of rocky pinnacles and see stretching before us a cloud-world of mountain peaks and glaciers, rosy in the flush of dawn. We dine by the side of clear, cold, alpine streams, which ripple and gurgle through long summer days, full-fed as now. By such a brook, it chances one day, as we round a rugged promontory, that the unwonted appearance of a settler's hut startles us; an inhabited dwelling too, with smoke issuing from the chimney, a real woman, and (ever so many) children. Shy and wondering, they stand gazing at us as if we were Red Indians, while their mother civilly offers milk and potatoes—luxuries both.

'Her husband was away,' she explained in answer to our inquiries. 'He was nearly always out on the run, and sometimes away for weeks at a time, mustering.'

'Was she not afraid?'

'Oh no; who would harm her? And there was not much to steal.'

'Wasn't she awfully dull?' (This from Mr. Jones.)

'Well, it was rather quiet, but there—the children, and the cows, and the garden,—she always had something to do.'

'Her husband was handy if he made that water-wheel, eh?'

'Oh no. Yankee Jack, the digger, made that one summer he was prospecting about here.'

'However did they manage to get the dray here?'

'Well' (rather proudly), 'it was the only dray for many a mile round; her father gave it to them—and Joe, he packed it on the old horse, up the range, bit by bit.'

'Did she think the mountains fine?'

'Oh yes. They were very well, but she wished they wouldn't rise just out of their back-door like.'

We said farewell to the kindly, simple dame and her sturdy brood of Anglo-Saxons—blue-eyed and rosy-faced as if they had come out of Kent or Devonshire—true types of a race which claims the waste places of the earth for a heritage and which creates thereof New Englands and Greater Britains.

We wander slowly on with our sauntering, grazing herd, this rarely mild, calm winter day. We look back as the cottage grows dim in the distance—the little garden, the water-wheel, the patient wife listening ever for the hoof-tramps of her husband's horse, fade in the darkening eve. But we do not forget the little home picture, this floweret of tender bloom beneath the melancholy alp.

'We'll have to look out pretty sharp to-morrow, Mr. Jones,' says Monaro Jim. 'We've got rather bad country before us.'

'Bad country? Why, what do you call this?' hastily returns that gentleman.

'We're only just a-comin' to it,' calmly explains the saturnine stock-rider. 'You'll see what the sidelings is like; why, this here's a plain to it—cattle slipping and perhaps killing theirselves, big rocks falling fit to knock yer brains out; there ain't hardly a yard fit for a horse to carry you. Them boots of your'n won't look very fresh to-morrow night.' Here Jim took a soothing draw at his pipe, and glanced pityingly at Mr. Jones' neat elastic-sided boots, apparently absorbed in pleasing thoughts of evil which the morrow night will bring forth.

'Is there much more "sideling," as you call it?' inquired Mr. Jones, rather overcome by this terrific description, and almost prepared to arrive in Gippsland like a bare-footed friar, if indeed he ever reached that far and, as he is beginning to believe, fabulous country.

'Not more'n a week of the wust of it,' answered the hard-hearted Jim. 'I wish we was well over it. I've known a-many accidents in the sidelings in my time.'

The dawn is still grey as we ascend a green peak, at the summit of which commences the first of the dreaded sidelings. The peculiarity of the track here is, that while on the upper side the mountains through which the Snowy River cleaves its rugged path rear themselves heavenwards with a gradient of about one foot in three, on the lower side there is not an inch of level ground between the track and the foaming waters of the river. Where the river shore should have been is a mass of granite crags and boulders. The trails of the many herds which have preceded us are deeply-worn ruts, along which it is just possible for men to walk in single file; if slippery with recent rains, or if any confusion occurs, they are all but impassable. If the cattle, as was their constant endeavour, manage to climb upwards, it is difficult and dangerous to force them down. If they slip or fall downwards towards the river, it is a forlorn hope to get them up.