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In Bad Company, and other Stories/Old Stock-Riders


So poor old 'Flash Jack' is dead, says the Port Fairy Gazette, drowned in a creek—a stock-rider's not unfitting end. We remember him, young, debonnair, tall, sinewy and active, with longish, curling brown locks of which he was rather proud, as also of the cabbage-tree hat of the period. But every one seems to be old nowadays except a crowd of juniors so painfully young that one wonders they are permitted to take life seriously. His sobriquet was acquired more through the ebullitions of a harmless vanity than from any of the offensive qualities which the well-worn colonial adjective is wont to imply. There was a certain amount of 'blow' about Jack, doubtless, but never in undue proportion to his attainments, which, as a stock-rider, horse-breaker, and mail-man, were admitted to be creditable. His introduction to the Port Fairy district was through the Messrs. Carmichael, while before taking service with them he had reached Melbourne from England in the Eagle, Captain Buckley—both ship and commander favourably known in the early days.

A rumour prevailed that Jack was the scion of a good family; had been sent to sea as a midshipman, possibly to cure the malady of 'wildness,' for which a voyage to or residence in Australia is (erroneously) held to be a specific. It did not answer in Jack's case, for he quitted his ship, 'taking to the bush' (in a restricted sense), and never afterwards abandoning it. Uncommunicative about such matters generally, he threw out hints from time to time that he was not in the position for which his early associations had prepared him.

'My name's not Crickmere, Mas'r Rolf,' he said to me once, as we were riding through the Eumeralla marshes. (He always adopted the fiction that he was an old retainer of our family.) 'Far from it.' But after this dark saying he relapsed into his usual reserve on the subject and enlightened me no further. One trait of character which was in keeping with his presumed social past he was well known to possess.

'You seem mighty independent, my man,' said an employer to him on one occasion.

'Yes,' replied Jack proudly, 'and I can uphold it.'

He was in my service before and after 'the gold' as stock-rider, horse-breaker, and road-hand, both at Port Fairy and Lake Boga. Not the man to save his wages; unlike many of his contemporaries, who are now men of substance, Jack varied but little in his non-possession of the world's goods. But there were many homesteads in his old district where he was always sure of a welcome, a glass of grog, and a week's lodgings, so that when out of employment he was never in any great straits.

With one influential class of the community he was especially acceptable, and a favourite to the last. He had a natural 'Hans the boatman' faculty for amusing children, whom he delighted by making miniature stockwhips and other bush requisites, while they never tired of listening to his wondrous tales of flood and field.

In the matter of stockwhip-making he was a second 'Nangus Jack,' and, moreover, an extraordinary performer with that weapon in the saddle. I have seen him cantering along with a steady stock-horse, standing in the saddle and cracking a brace of stockwhips, one in either hand—a feat which any young gentleman is free to try if he wishes to ascertain if it be easy or otherwise. He had been through the rougher experiences of bush life, and mentioned casually, once, having been speared by blacks in Gippsland. The company being disposed to treat the statement as 'Jack's yarn,' he gave ocular proof by exhibiting a cicatrice, far from trifling in dimensions, where the jagged spear-point had been cut out above his hip-bone.

He was a reliable horse-breaker, for several reasons. Being long and loose of frame, he rode a good deal 'all over his horse'—unlike some breakers, who are so still and noiseless in their method that any unwonted cheerfulness of manner is apt to startle their pupils into 'propping.' But as Jack on his excursions was always singing, shouting, and whistling; leaning half out of his saddle to greet a friend, or leaving his colts tied up at a public-house; by the time he had done with them they were safe for anybody, and would be difficult to alarm or astonish on account of these varied experiences.

As a road-hand Jack was quite in his element, and a decided acquisition to any overlanding party. He would have been invaluable in South Africa. Always in good humour, he kept every one alive during the monotonous days of driving and dreary nights of watching with his songs and stories, his 'quips and quiddities.' He was also of signal service to the commissariat, making frequent reconnaissances where the country was inhabited, and returning with new-laid eggs, butter, and other delicacies, out of which he had wheedled the farmers' wives or daughters.

At one time or other Jack had been in the employment of all the principal stockholders in the Port Fairy district, including Mr. John Cox of Werongurt, the Messrs. Rutledge, Campbell, and Macknight, Kennedy, Carmichael, and others. His never staying very long in one place was less due to any fault of his own than to an inherent restlessness and love of change. A born roamer, with strong Bohemian proclivities, Jack had wandered over a considerable portion of the colony. With commendable taste he latterly elected to make Western Victoria his habitual residence; and, strangely enough, he was fated to finish a roving life as nearly as possible at the place where he first took service, more than forty years since, on his first arrival in the district.

A fellow-worker and in a sense a companion of my youth, he 'was a part of those fresh days to me.' Many a day we rode together in the heaths and marshes, the forests and volcanic trap-ridges which lie between the lower Eumeralla and the sea. At many a muster have I heard Jack's cheery shout, and enjoyed with others his drolleries at camp and drafting-yard. Now poor Jack's whip is silent; his songs and jests are hushed for evermore. A man with few faults and no vices. 'Born for a protest' (as Mrs. Stowe says somewhere) 'against the excessive industrialism of the age.' Many a dweller in the Port Fairy district must have felt sincerely grieved at the news of poor old Jack's ending, and deemed that 'they could have better spared a better man.'

Peter Kearney, who came to Port Fairy first with Mr. Frank Cobham from Monaro (a good specimen of the old race of stock-riders), was one of Jack's earlier contemporaries. With Tom Glendinning, generally known in the district as 'Old Tom,' he was employed for a time on the Eumeralla station. Irish by birth and 'Sydney-siders' by residence, these last had served apprenticeship to every grade of colonial experience. The naming, indeed, of the Eumeralla station and river was due to 'Old Tom' and his mates, who brought from New South Wales the J.T.H. cattle (formerly the brand of John Terry Hughes), with which the station was first 'taken up' by Mr. Hunter. From some fancied resemblance to the Umaralla (spelt differently, by the way), one of the streams which mingle their waters with the Snowy River near the Bredbo, the men christened the new watercourse after the old one. There is no special resemblance, rather the reverse, inasmuch as the Port Fairy river, if such it be, runs mostly underground, percolating through marshes and trap dykes, and generally pursues an erratic course, while the Umaralla of New South Wales is a merry, purling, snow-fed stream, which nearly attained celebrity by drowning Mr. Tyson, who crossed it ahead of our cattle in 1870, unobtrusively travelling, as was his wont, on horseback to Gippsland.

While on the subject of stock-riders, it is noticeable how many different nationalities and sub-varieties there were among them. Peter and Old Tom were, as I said before, Irishmen, both light weights, first-rate riders, and extremely good hands at 'breaking-in cattle to the run'—that lost or almost unnecessary art, except 'down the Cooper, where the Western drovers go,' or thereabouts. I may stop here to state that 'Clancy of the Overflow,' quoted by a writer who signs himself 'Banjo,' which appeared lately, was, in my opinion, the best bush-ballad since Lindsay Gordon. It has the true ring of spur and snaffle combined with poetic treatment—a conjunction not so easy of attainment as might be supposed. When charged with the responsible duty of breaking-in store cattle freshly turned out, Old Tom was ever mounted and away by daylight. He disregarded breakfast, knowing that the early morn is the time for getting on the tracks of wandering cattle. Carrying his quart-pot with him, a wedge of damper and a similar segment of cold corned-beef, after he had gone round his cattle and satisfied himself that none of the leaders were away, then, and not till then, he lighted a fire, made his tea, and settled to his breakfast with a good appetite and a clear conscience. He came with me from Campbell's farm, in order to point out Squattlesea Mere, then unoccupied, somewhere about May 1843. We stayed at Dunmore for lunch. The members of the firm were absent, but good, kind Mrs. Teviot provided me with such a meal of corned-beef, home-baked bread, fresh butter, short-cake and cream, that, as I told my guide, I was provisioned for twenty-four hours if needful. As it happened, by some mischance, we were very nearly that precise time before we had the next meal.

'Jemmy' White, Mr. John Cox's stock-rider at Werongurt, and Joe Twist, his assistant, a native-born Tasmanian, had both followed Mr. Cox's fortunes from Clarendon in the lovely island. 'Jemmy' was a solid, elderly man of considerable experience, and under his management the Werongurt Herefords were kept in admirable order. He, like his fellow-servant Buckley, was assisted by Mr. Cox in the purchase of a run adjoining his master's station, where, with a flock of sheep to start with, he became independent and comparatively rich. After marrying and settling down, he built himself a comfortable brick house at Louth, and died the possessor of beeves and pastures, horses and sheep, in patriarchal plenty.

Joe Twist—now, doubtless, 'old Mr. Twist,' and a substantial burgess of Macarthur—was a boy when I first came to the district, but growing up in the fulness of time, was promoted to be head stock-rider, vice White retired. He had by that time developed into one of the smartest hands in a yard that ever handled drafting-stick, as well as a superb horseman in connection with cattle-work. He would stand in a stockyard among the excited, angry cattle (and those that came out of the Mount Napier lava country were playful enough) as if horns were so many reeds, even waiting until the charging beast was almost upon him before stepping out of the way, with the cool precision of a Spanish toreador.

With all due respect for the ancestral Briton, whom every good Australian should reverence, I hold that the native-born artist, while equal in staying power, far surpasses him in dexterity. What Britisher could ever shear as many sheep—ay, and shear them well—as the 'big blow' men of the Riverina sheds? Natives they of Goulburn, Bathurst, the Hawkesbury, Campbelltown—all the earlier Sydney settlements. Can any imported 'homo' even now pilot twenty bullocks, with the wool of a small sheep-station on the iron-bark waggon, along the roads the teamster safely travels ? And similarly for 'scrub-riding,' drafting, and camp- work, though many of the old hands, grown men before they ever touched Australian shores, became excellent, all-round bushmen, yet the talent, to my mind, lies with their sons and grandsons, who are as superior when it comes to pace and general efficiency as Searle and Kemp to the Thames watermen.

Well remembered yet is the first typical Australian stock-rider I ever set eyes on—a schoolboy then out for a holiday. I was riding to Darlington, our Mount Macedon Run, early in the 'forties,' with a relative. From Howie's station a young man, detailed to show us a short cut, rode up, furnishing to my delighted vision the romantic presentment of a real stock-rider of the wild, such as I had longed to see. Tall, slight, neatly dressed, with spur and stockwhip, strapped trousers and cabbage-tree hat, 'accoutred proper,' he joined us, mounted upon a handsome three-parts bred mare, in top condition. She shied and plunged playfully as she came up.

'Now, Miss Bungate,' he said, with mock severity of tone, 'what are you up to?'

This was one of the mental photographs, little heeded at the time, which were of use in days to come. Tom or Jack, 'Howie's Joe ' or 'Ebden's Bill'—the rider's name cannot be guaranteed by me, but that bay mare I never can forget. 'Wincing she went, as doth a wanton colt.' The summer leaves may fall, and that dreary season, the winter of age, come on apace, but Miss Bungate will be enshrined among the latest memories which Time permits this brain to register and recall.

The stock-riders of the past were a class of men to whom the earlier pastoralists were much indebted. Placed in positions of great trust and responsibility, they were, in the main, true to their salt and loyal to their employers. If they occasionally erred in the wild confusion of strayed cattle and unbranded yearlings, presumably the property of the Government (was there not a celebrity thus claiming all estrays humorously designated 'Unbranded Kelly'?), their temptations were great. Without their aid, living lonely lives on the remoter inland stations, the cattle herds, often menaced or decimated by the blacks, and roaming over vast areas of natural pasture, would never have enabled their owners to amass fortunes and create estates. They were, as a rule, fearless sons of the wilderness, having some of the vices but many of the virtues which have always honourably distinguished pioneers.