In Bad Company, and other Stories/A Kangaroo Shoot
A KANGAROO SHOOT
Another month has passed. The calendar shows that the midwinter is over, and still the much-dreaded New England cold season has not asserted itself. Such weather as we have had in this last week of June has been mild and reassuring. Certes, there have been days when the western blast bit shrewdly keen, and ordinary garments afforded scant protection. In the coming spring there may be wrathful gales, sleet and hail—snow, even. We must not 'hollo till we are out of the wood.'
In the meantime it is not displeasing to see a trifle of mud again—marshes filling with their complement of water; to hear the bittern boom and the wild drake quack in the reed-bordered pool,—sights and sounds to which I have been a stranger for years and years.
The showers have refreshed the long-dry fallows, and a goodly breadth of wheat is now looking green and well-coloured. But to-day I marked three ploughs in one field, availing of the favourable state of tilth. The ordinary processes of a country neighbourhood are in full swing. Loads of hay, top-heavy and fragrant, meet you from time to time upon the metalled highway. A pony-carriage passes, much as it might do in the narrow lanes of Hertfordshire or Essex. The straggling briar and hawthorn hedges have been trimmed lately. All things savour strongly of the old land, from which the district takes its name. As in England, the guns are now in use and request; and amid my peregrinations it chances that I fall upon a custom of the country, which is partly of the nature of work and partly of play.
Yes, it is a kangaroo drive or battue—a measure rendered necessary by the persistent multiplication of these primeval forms, and their tendency to eat and destroy grass, out of all proportion to the value of their skins.
To this gathering I am bidden, and gratefully promise to keep tryst, divining that certain of the neighbours and notables will attend, with wives and daughters in sufficient abundance to warrant a dance after the sterner duties of the day.
And while on the subject of sport and recreation, how little is there worthy of the name in the country districts of Australia. Fishing is there none, or bait fishing at the best; hunting is a tradition of our forefathers; shooting, an infrequent pleasure. Since the introduction of the railway many of the ordinary travelling roads have been practically deserted. The well-tried friend or the agreeable stranger no longer halts before the hospitable homestead; months may pass before any social recreation takes place in the sequestered country homes which were wont to be so joyous. But just at the exact period when such resources were strained, the too prolific marsupial has come to the rescue. He it is who now poses as the rescuer of distressed damsels, and ennuyées châtelaines, wearying of solitary sweetness as of old; and yet he is classed by reckless utilitarians and prosaic legislators as a noxious animal! Behold us, then, a score of horsemen gaily sallying forth from a station of the olden time,—one of those happy, hospitable dwellings, where, whatever might be the concourse of guests, there was always room for one more,—well mounted, and mostly well armed with the deadly chokebore of the period. The day is cloudy and overcast; but no particular inconvenience is apprehended. The majority of the party are of an age lightly to regard wind or weather. The conversation is free and sportive. Compliments, more or less equivocal, are exchanged as to shooting or horsemanship, and a good deal of schoolboy frolic obtains. Dark hints are thrown out as to enthusiastic sportsmen who blaze away regardless of their 'duty to their neighbour,' and harrowing details given of the last victim at a former 'shoot.'
As we listen to these 'tales for the marines,' uncomfortable thoughts will suggest themselves. We recall the grisly incident in The Interpreter, when at a 'wild-schutz' the Prince de Vochsal's bullet glides off a tree-stem and finds a home in Victor De Rohan's gallant breast. Might such a contretemps occur to-day? Such things are always on the cards. May not even the rightful possessor of this susceptible heart be widowed ere this very eve, and the callow Boldrewoods be rendered nestless? No matter! One can but die once. It won't be quite so hot as Tel-el-kebir. Even there survivors returned. So we shake up our well-tried steed, shoulder the double-barrel, and ruffle it with the rest, serene in confidence as to the doctrine of chances.
And now after three or four miles' brisk riding o'er hill and dale—the country in these parts may certainly be described as undulating—we come upon a line of recently 'blazed' trees. These are half-way between a ravine or gully, and the crest of a range, to which it runs parallel. As the first man reaches a marked tree, he takes his station, the next in line halting as he comes to the succeeding one. The distances between are perhaps seventy or eighty yards, and each man stands sheltered on one side of his tree-trunk. The number of guns may be some ten or fifteen. The beaters, horsemen also, have gone forward some time since, and our present attitude is one of expectation.
In about ten minutes a sound as of galloping hoofs is heard upon the western side, of ringing stockwhips, shouts and yells, then nearer still the measured 'thud, thud' which tells of the full-grown marsupial. Bang goes a gun at the end of the line; the battle has begun. A curious excitement commences to stir the blood. It is not so much unlike the real thing. And a line of skirmishers in close quarters with an enemy's vedette would be posted like us, and perhaps similarly affected by the first crackling fire of musketry. Two more shots right and left nearer to our position; then half-a-dozen. A volley in our immediate neighbourhood raises expectation and excitement to the highest pitch. 'May Allah protect us! There is but one Prophet,' we have but time to ejaculate, and lo! the marsupial tyrant of our flocks and herds is upon us in force. Here they come, straight for our tree, seven or eight of all sizes, from the innocent 'joey' to the grim ancient, 'the old man,' in the irreverent vernacular of the colonists.
Now is our time. We step bravely from behind our tree and bang into the patriarch's head and shoulders, as for one moment he arrests his mad career in wild astonishment at our sudden apparition.
He staggers, but does not fall. Habet, doubtless; but the half-instinctive muscular system enables him to carry off the balance of a cartridge of double B.
As the affrighted flock dashes by, we wheel and accommodate the next largest with a broadside. It is more effective; a smashed hind-leg brings down the fur-bearing 'noxious animal,' which lies helpless and wistful, with large, deer-like eyes. A smart fusilade to the left reveals that the fugitives have fallen among foes in that direction.
The small arms being silent, we quit our trees, each man scalps his victims, giving the coup-de-grâce to such of the wounded as need a quietus. No quarter is given—neither age nor sex is spared. Even the infants, those tender weaklings the 'joeys,' are not saved. It is the horrible necessity of war—a war for existence. As thus: If the kangaroo are allowed to live and multiply, our sheep will starve. We can't live if they don't. Ergo, it is our life and welfare against Marsupial Bill's, and he, being of the inferior race, must go under.
One wonders whether this doctrine will be applied in the future to inferior races of men. As the good country of the world gets taken up, I fear me pressure will be brought to bear by the all-absorbing Anglo-Saxons, Teutons, and Slavs upon the weaker races. Wars of extermination have been waged ere now in the history of the world. They may be yet revived, for all we can predicate from existing facts.
As we go down the line the scalps are collected in a bag. We are thus enabled to compare notes as to success. One gentleman has five kangaroos lying around him; he is not certain either whether an active neighbour has not done him out of a scalp. The collecting business having been completed, a move is made for the horses, hung up out of danger, and another paddock is 'driven' with approximate results.
A good morning's work has been done, and a sufficiency of bodily exercise taken by one o'clock, at which time a move is made towards a creek flat, where on the site of a deserted sheep-station, with yards proper, of the olden time, a substantial picnic lunch is spread. Appetites of a superior description seem to be universal, and a season of hearty enjoyment succeeds to that of action.
The spot itself might well have stood for the locality sketched in Lindsay Gordon's unpublished poem. Strange that the poetic gift should enable the possessor to invest with ideal grace a subject so apparently prosaic and homely as a deserted shepherd's hut.
Can this be where the hovel stood?
Of old I knew the spot right well;
One post is left of all the wood,
Three stones lie where the chimney fell.
Rank growth of ferns has wellnigh shut
From sight the ruin of the hut;
There stands the tree where once I cut
The M that interlaced the L.
What more is left to tell?
As we were converging towards this spot before lunch, the smart shot of the gathering was made. A forester kangaroo, demoralised by the abnormal events of the day, came dashing up towards the party. He wheeled and fled as we met, and a snap shot but staggered him. Then one of the party dropped the reins on his horse's neck, and with a long shot rolled him over, dead as a rabbit.
A succession of 'drives' make a partial clearance of each paddock, all being taken in turn. The short winter day, accented by heavy showers in the afternoon, begins to darken as we ride homewards, damp but hilarious. The day had been successful on the whole. Plenty of fun, reasonable sport, manly exercise, and a fair bag. Nearly a hundred legal 'raisings' of 'h'ar' prove that the average has been over ten head per gun. Dry clothes, blazing fires, a warm welcome and sympathetic greetings, await us on arrival. The advantage of bearing trifling discomfort, to be compensated by unwonted luxury, presents itself to every logical mind. The dinner was a high festival, where mirth reigned supreme; while the ball in the evening—for had not all dames and demoiselles within twenty miles been impressed for the occasion?—fitly concluded the day's work with a revel of exceptional joyousness.
If there be a moral connected with this 'study in Black and White' it must be that while most people (excepting the advocates for the abolition of capital punishment) admit that it is a good and lawful deed to clear the 'noxious' marsupial off the face of the earth, we trust that the process will not be so swift as to bring speedily to an end such enjoyable gatherings,—these sociable murder parties, wherein business and pleasure are happily conjoined, as in the battue at which I had the happiness to be present.