The `big squatter', as he was called on our side of the country, was Mr. Falkland. He was an Englishman that had come young to the colony, and worked his way up by degrees. He had had no money when he first came, people said; indeed, he often said so himself. He was not proud, at any rate in that way, for he was not above telling a young fellow that he should never be downhearted because he hadn't a coat to his back or a shilling in his pocket, because he, Herbert Falkland, had known what it was to be without either. `This was the best country in the whole world,' he used to say, `for a gentleman who was poor or a working man.' The first sort could always make an independence if they were moderately strong, liked work, and did not drink. There were very few countries where idle, unsteady people got rich. `As for the poor man, he was the real rich man in Australia; high wages, cheap food, lodging, clothing, travelling. What more did he want? He could save money, live happily, and die rich, if he wasn't a fool or a rogue. Unfortunately, these last were highly popular professions; and many people, high and low, belonged to them here—and everywhere else.'
We were all well up in this kind of talk, because for the last two or three years, since we had begun to shear pretty well, we had always shorn at his shed. He was one of those gentlemen—and he was a gentleman, if ever there was one—that takes a deal of notice of his working hands, particularly if they were young. Jim he took a great fancy to the first moment he saw him. He didn't care so much about me.
`You're a sulky young dog, Richard Marston,' he used to say. `I'm not sure that you'll come to any good; and though I don't like to say all I hear about your father before you, I'm afraid he doesn't teach you anything worth knowing. But Jim there's a grand fellow; if he'd been caught young and weaned from all of your lot, he'd have been an honour to the land he was born in. He's too good for you all.'
`Every one of you gentlemen wants to be a small God Almighty,' I said impudently. `You'd like to break us all in and put us in yokes and bows, like a lot of working bullocks.'
`You mistake me, my boy, and all the rest of us who are worth calling men, let alone gentlemen. We are your best friends, and would help you in every way if you'd only let us.'
`I don't see so much of that.'
`Because you often fight against your own good. We should like to see you all have farms of your own—to be all well taught and able to make the best of your lives—not driven to drink, as many of you are, because you have no notion of any rational amusement, and anything between hard work and idle dissipation.'
`And suppose you had all this power,' I said—for if I was afraid of father there wasn't another man living that could overcrow me—`don't you think you'd know the way to keep all the good things for yourselves? Hasn't it always been so?'
`I see your argument,' he said, quite quiet and reasonable, just as if I had been a swell like himself—that was why he was unlike any other man I ever knew—`and it is a perfectly fair way of putting it. But your class might, I think, always rely upon there being enough kindness and wisdom in ours to prevent that state of things. Unfortunately, neither side trusts the other enough. And now the bell is going to ring, I think.'
Jim and I stopped at Boree shed till all the sheep were cut out. It pays well if the weather is pretty fair, and it isn't bad fun when there's twenty or thirty chaps of the right sort in the shearers' hut; there's always some fun going on. Shearers work pretty hard, and as they buy their own rations generally, they can afford to live well. After a hard day's shearing—that is, from five o'clock in the morning to seven at night, going best pace all the time, every man working as hard as if he was at it for his life—one would think a man would be too tired to do anything. But we were mostly strong and hearty, and at that age a man takes a deal of killing; so we used to have a little card-playing at night to pass away the time.
Very few of the fellows had any money to spend. They couldn't get any either until shearing was over and they were paid off; but they'd get some one who could write to scribble a lot of I O U's, and they did as well.
We used to play `all-fours' and `loo', and now and then an American game which some of the fellows had picked up. It was strange how soon we managed to get into big stakes. I won at first, and then Jim and I began to lose, and had such a lot of I O U's out that I was afraid we'd have no money to take home after shearing. Then I began to think what a fool I'd been to play myself and drag Jim into it, for he didn't want to play at first.
One day I got a couple of letters from home—one from Aileen and another in a strange hand. It had come to our little post-office, and Aileen had sent it on to Boree.
When I opened it there were a few lines, with father's name at the bottom. He couldn't write, so I made sure that Starlight had written it for him. He was quite well, it said; and to look out for him about Christmas time; he might come home then, or send for us; to stop at Boree if we could get work, and keep a couple of horses in good trim, as he might want us. A couple of five-pound notes fell out of the letter as I opened it.
When I looked at them first I felt a kind of fear. I knew what they came from. And I had a sort of feeling that we should be better without them. However, the devil was too strong for me. Money's a tempting thing, whether it's notes or gold, especially when a man's in debt. I had begun to think the fellows looked a little cool on us the last three or four nights, as our losses were growing big.
So I gave Jim his share; and after tea, when we sat down again, there weren't more than a dozen of us that were in the card racket. I flung down my note, and Jim did his, and told them that we owed to take the change out of that and hand us over their paper for the balance.
They all stared, for such a thing hadn't been seen since the shearing began. Shearers, as a rule, come from their homes in the settled districts very bare. They are not very well supplied with clothes; their horses are poor and done up; and they very seldom have a note in their pockets, unless they have managed to sell a spare horse on the journey.
So we were great men for the time, looked at by the others with wonder and respect. We were fools enough to be pleased with it. Strangely, too, our luck turned from that minute, and it ended in our winning not only our own back, but more than as much more from the other men.
I don't think Mr. Falkland liked these goings on. He wouldn't have allowed cards at all if he could have helped it. He was a man that hated what was wrong, and didn't value his own interest a pin when it came in the way. However, the shearing hut was our own, in a manner of speaking, and as long as we shore clean and kept the shed going the overseer, Mr. M`Intyre, didn't trouble his head much about our doings in the hut. He was anxious to get done with the shearing, to get the wool into the bales before the dust came in, and the grass seed ripened, and the clover burrs began to fall.
`Why should ye fash yoursel',' I heard him say once to Mr. Falkland, `aboot these young deevils like the Marstons? They're as good's ready money in auld Nick's purse. It's bred and born and welded in them. Ye'll just have the burrs and seeds amang the wool if ye keep losing a smart shearer for the sake o' a wheen cards and dice; and ye'll mak' nae heed of convairtin' thae young caterans ony mair than ye'll change a Norroway falcon into a barn-door chuckie.'
I wonder if what he said was true—if we couldn't help it; if it was in our blood? It seems like it; and yet it's hard lines to think a fellow must grow up and get on the cross in spite of himself, and come to the gallows-foot at last, whether he likes it or not. The parson here isn't bad at all. He's a man and a gentleman, too; and he's talked and read to me by the hour. I suppose some of us chaps are like the poor stupid tribes that the Israelites found in Canaan, only meant to live for a bit and then to be rubbed out to make room for better people.
When the shearing was nearly over we had a Saturday afternoon to ourselves. We had finished all the sheep that were in the shed, and old M`Intyre didn't like to begin a fresh flock. So we got on our horses and took a ride into the township just for the fun of the thing, and for a little change. The horses had got quite fresh with the rest and the spring grass. Their coats were shining, and they all looked very different from what they did when we first came. Our two were not so poor when they came, so they looked the best of the lot, and jumped about in style when we mounted. Ah! only to think of a good horse.
All the men washed themselves and put on clean clothes. Then we had our dinner and about a dozen of us started off for the town.
Poor old Jim, how well he looked that day! I don't think you could pick a young fellow anywhere in the countryside that was a patch on him for good looks and manliness, somewhere about six foot or a little over, as straight as a rush, with a bright blue eye that was always laughing and twinkling, and curly dark brown hair. No wonder all the girls used to think so much of him. He could do anything and everything that a man could do. He was as strong as a young bull, and as active as a rock wallaby—and ride! Well, he sat on his horse as if he was born on one. With his broad shoulders and upright easy seat he was a regular picture on a good horse.
And he had a good one under him to-day; a big, brown, resolute, well-bred horse he had got in a swap because the man that had him was afraid of him. Now that he had got a little flesh on his bones he looked something quite out of the common. `A deal too good for a poor man, and him honest,' as old M`Intyre said.
But Jim turned on him pretty sharp, and said he had got the horse in a fair deal, and had as much right to a good mount as any one else—uper or squatter, he didn't care who he was.
And Mr. Falkland took Jim's part, and rather made Mr. M`Intyre out in the wrong for saying what he did. The old man didn't say much more, only shook his head, saying —
`Ah, ye're a grand laddie, and buirdly, and no that thrawn, either—like ye, Dick, ye born deevil,' looking at me. `But I misdoot sair ye'll die wi' your boots on. There's a smack o' Johnnie Armstrong in the glint o' yer e'e. Ye'll be to dree yer weird, there's nae help for't.'
`What's all that lingo, Mr. M`Intyre?' called out Jim, all good-natured again. `Is it French or Queensland blacks' yabber? Blest if I understand a word of it. But I didn't want to be nasty, only I am regular shook on this old moke, I believe, and he's as square as Mr. Falkland's dogcart horse.'
`Maybe ye bocht him fair eneugh. I'll no deny you. I saw the receipt mysel'. But where did yon lang-leggit, long-lockit, Fish River moss-trooping callant win haud o' him? Answer me that, Jeems.'
`That says nothing,' answered Jim. `I'm not supposed to trace back every horse in the country and find out all the people that owned him since he was a foal. He's mine now, and mine he'll be till I get a better one.'
`A contuma-acious and stiff-necked generation,' said the old man, walking off and shaking his head. `And yet he's a fine laddie; a gra-and laddie wad he be with good guidance. It's the Lord's doing, nae doot, and we daurna fault it; it's wondrous in our een.'
That was the way old Mac always talked. Droll lingo, wasn't it?