In Bad Company, and other Stories/Moonlighting on the Macquarie

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MOONLIGHTING ON THE MACQUARIE

There are different kinds of work connected with the management of cattle-stations in the far bush of New South Wales. Some of them strike the stranger as being curious. At any rate, most people have not heard of them before, or if they have, don't know much. Something depends upon finding the cattle which you are required to manage. Didn't Mrs. Glass say, before yarning about hare soup, 'First catch your hare'? Right she was! If you'll come with me to the Wilgah brakes, 'Hell's Cages,' and 'Devil's Snuff-boxes' of the Lower Macquarie, you will see the pull of the 'first catch' arrangement. Don't suppose for a moment that ours is a neglected herd. If you were to see the stud animals—chiefly Devons and Herefords, for we found that the 'active reds' could pace out many a mile from the frontage in a dry season, and be back at their watering-place while a soft shorthorn would be thinking about it, and, of course, losing flesh. As I was saying, if you saw our 'Whitefaces' and 'Devon Dumplings,' you wouldn't think that. But those M'Warrigals, that we bought the place from long ago, were careless beggars; thought more of their neighbours' calves—some people say—than minding their own business and doing their proper station work. Now the back of the run is scrubby in parts, and the cattle there are 'outlaws' that increase and multiply. They get joined by other refugees and breakaways—brutes with no principle whatever. We seldom see them, as they have got a nasty habit of feeding at night, like tigers and lions and other wild animals. When we do see them—by day—they break away, scatter, and charge. All the horses and dogs in the country wouldn't get them.

What are we to do? There are some famous bullocks among them—rather coarse, perhaps, but rolling fat—ugly with fat, as the stock-riders say. And as cattle are a first-class price just now, and the feed grand all the way to market, there's no use talking; we must have a shy at them. It won't do for me, a native-born Australian, and manager of my father's best cattle-station, to be beaten by anything that ever wore a hide. Have 'em we must. The new paddock is just finished. We are going to muster the other side of the run—the quiet side—the day after to-morrow, and if we can make a good haul out of these 'scrub danglers' we shall have together as fine a lot of fat cattle as ever left the Macquarie.

And how are we going to do it? There are half-a-dozen as good hands on this Milgai Run, including the black boys Johnny Smoker and Gundai, as ever rode stock-horse or followed a beast. And yet, if we rode after this lot for a month we shouldn't get more than a couple of dozen, tear our clothes to rags, stake our horses, and get knocked off in the Wilgah scrubs—after all get next to no cattle—that's what I look at. Still, there is a way—and only one way—that we may fetch 'em by, and perhaps in one night. I'm going to tell you about it. We must moonlight 'em.

It is a strange thing and I've no doubt it was found out by some rascally 'duffer,' some cattle-stealing brute that went poking about after his neighbours' calves (but the amount of cleverness they show when it's 'on the cross,' no man would believe, unless he knew it from experience)—it's a strange thing that wild cattle are twice, ten times, as easy to drive by night as they are by day. Whether they are afraid—like children—whether they can't see so well, or what it is, I don't know. But every old stock-rider will tell you that all cattle, particularly wild ones, are much easier to handle by night than by day. Another reason is, they go out a long way into the open plains to feed at night. Whereas by day they lie in their scrubs like rabbits near a hole, and directly they hear a whip, or a voice, or a stick crack almost, they're off like a lot of deer. Not that I ever saw any; but one thinks about the red deer listening and then popping into fern-brakes and heather-glens. Perhaps I shall see them some day, who knows, if cattle keep up?

Well, we had to wait for a day or two, till the moon rose, about ten o'clock. When the moon rises soon after dusk, they keep about the edge of the timber, and are ready to dash back directly they see or hear any one. But when it's dark for some hours before the moon rises, they'll go out far into the plains and feed as steadily as milkers.

Well, we sent word to our neighbours and mustered up about twenty men. We went into the timber at sundown, near a point where we thought they wouldn't come out, and hobbled our horses. We had brought something to eat with us, and made a billy of tea; and after we lit our pipes, it was jolly enough. My stock-rider, Joe Barker, was one of the smartest riders and best hands with cattle on the river, but, as is sometimes the case with good men and good horses, he had a queer temper. I wanted him to bring his old favourite, Yass Paddy, as good and sure a stock-horse as ever heard a whip. But no, he must bring a new mount that he'd run out of the wild mob!—a good one to go and to look at, but the biggest tiger I ever saw saddled. Joe was put out about something, and I didn't like to cross him. A stock-rider is a bad servant to quarrel with, unless all your run is fenced, or very open. Besides, with his riding, a donkey would have been 'there or thereabouts.'

So we sat and talked, and smoked, and looked about for an hour or two. At last the time came. We pouched our pipes, saddled up, and headed for the plains, making a point for a few trees a good way out, near where the lot we were after often fed. We didn't talk much, but rode far from one another, so as to have a better chance of seeing them. At last Gundai rode up alongside me, and pointed ahead. I looked and saw something dark, which seemed to change line. There were no Indians, no wolves, no buffaloes, in our part of the world. It might have been horses, of course, but we were soon near enough to see tails—not horses'—and a big mob too. Cattle, by Jove! and the heaviest lot we have seen together since the general muster, many years since, just after we bought the station. 'All right, boys! we're in for a good thing.' They were, of course, scattered, feeding about, looking as quiet as store cattle. The regular thing to do was, of course, known to most of us. A couple of the smartest riders must start to 'wheel' them, one on each side. Charley Dickson and the black boy, Gundai, were told off. You couldn't lick Charley, and Gundai was the most reckless young devil to ride that ever broke down a stock-horse. But just at this pinch we want 'em to be pretty quick. Never mind about horses' legs, we look to them afterwards. Off they go like mad Arabs. You can see the dust and dry grass sent up by Gundai's horse's hoofs, like a small steam-engine. We hear the rolling gallop of the heavy bullocks, as the big mob of cattle all raise their heads and make off in a long trailing string—like a lot of buffaloes—directly they hear the first horse. We ride steadily up in line, so as to intercept them in the rush they will be sure to make back towards the scrub. In the meanwhile Charley and Gundai have raced to the two ends of the string, and are ringing and wheeling, and doubling them up together, till the mob is regularly bothered.

Then we go at them, still in well-kept line, and at whichever point a beast tries to 'break' he finds a horseman ready to 'block' him. There is no shouting, whip-cracking, or flash work generally. The great thing is to ride like ten men and be always ready to head or stop a breaking beast, which can be done at night by only showing yourself. No row or nonsense; it only makes the cattle worse. Always be in your own place, and do your work without crossing any one else's line; that's the only way with cattle. Of course we don't mind their running a little wide as long as they are heading out into the plains, and not back towards their scrub forts and hiding-places. So we let them trot a bit, keeping one man ahead to stop them if they get too fast, as they might get winded, and then charge and have to be left on the plains. We keep steadily behind them, while they are streaming out well towards the middle of the plain, and in a direction that by a little judicious 'edging' will land them at the Milgai stock-yard.

Of course there are well-known incorrigibles that have escaped many a muster, and will be sure to try it on now. 'There goes the grey-faced bullock. Look out! Look out!' shouts a stock-rider, as an enormous red bullock, with a speckled Hereford face, turns deliberately round, and, breaking through the line of horsemen, makes straight for ' Hell's Cage.'

I am riding Wallaroo, the best stock-horse on the river—at least that is my belief and opinion. I race at him, and we go neck and neck together for a hundred yards, at a pace that would win the Hack Stakes at a country meeting. Wallaroo's shoulder is jammed against the bullock, his head just behind the brute's great horns. At the batt Greyface is going, of course, he is occasionally on the balance. As I rush the game little horse against him, again and again, I can feel his huge bulk tremble and shake. I am too near for him to horn me, unless he had time to stop and turn, which, of course, I take care that he has not. After a while he edges round a bit, then a little more, then he sees the cattle and makes straight for them as they are moving past in the original direction in front of him. I slacken pace for an instant, and as I do so, drop the twelve foot stockwhip on to him with a right and left, which sends him right up among the tail cattle. He breaks no more for a while, and we are getting on pretty well. We know our direction now. Some of the cattle have got rather blown, and their tongues are out. We round them up, and let them stand for a bit to recover breath.

Off we go again. Can't stay here all night. They can run for miles in the scrub, and why not now ? Much more steady this time. Begin to give it up. 'Hullo, what's that?' 'The brindled leader has doubled on us this time.' This was another regular outlaw. He was called 'Leader' because he was never far from the two or three foremost cattle wherever he was. Many a camp had he been on. Many a man had had a turn at him. But the inside of a yard he hadn't seen for years. He generally waited till the mob had gone some distance; when he did turn there was no stopping him. Joe Barker to-day must have a try at him. Away he went. His horse had not been behaving quite the fair thing, and Master Joe was in a great rage accordingly. Away he went, as I said, driving his spurs into the horse, and nearly jumping on to the brindled bullock's back, when he caught him up. He flogged for a bit without trying to turn him, and no man in these parts could use a whip with Joe Barker; he always had it in great order, oiled and lissom, with first-rate hide fall, and the exact thing in crackers. As the whip rose and fell, every cut marking itself in blood on the brindle's quarters, we all knew that he hadn't had such a scarifying for years, if he ever had. This was only to let him taste what the whip, in Joe's hands, was like. He knew, bless you, that it was no good to try and turn 'Leader 'at first. After he'd smarted him enough, he went broadside on, and let him have it about the near side of his face. He could sit on his horse at a hard gallop and flay a beast alive. After a bit the brindle began to feel it hot. He turned and made a dangerous rush at Joe. It wasn't so easy to get away as you'd think, because the horse was partly sulky, and had it taken out of him a good deal. We had stopped the cattle, and were looking at the fun. He did get away, however, and flogged that bullock over the face and eyes until he was more than half blinded. Then he turned again and made for the scrub. At him, broadside on, went Joe, still flogging to the inch—forward, backward, every way, all on the near side, till the brindle could stand it no longer. He sidled and sidled away; lastly, he turned right round, and, as soon as he saw the cattle again, made for them like a milker's calf, Joe following up and warming him all the way in.

The fight wasn't over though, for Joe had been punishing his horse for being awkward, and the horse's sides and the bullock's back must have been all of one colour if we could have seen. I mentioned that Joe Barker had the devil's own temper; it carried him too far this time. The horse was a sour, peculiar animal, partly nervous, partly determined, as all the worst buck-jumpers, and what people call vicious horses, are. There are very few really vicious horses. Half of it is ignorance or stupidity on the part of the horse or his rider—generally the last, sometimes both. In this case I think there was vice. At the last few strides, as Mr. Leader, regularly blown and bullied, was dashing into the tail cattle, with the intention of working up to the front as usual, Joe gave his horse two or three tremendous drives with the spurs, standing up and letting him have them right. He then brought the double of the whip down over his head, swearing at him for the sulkiest brute he had ever crossed. It wasn't proper treatment for any horse, but he was beside himself with rage; and I made up my mind to speak to him in the morning about it after we had the cattle all safe. The horse took the law into his own hands, or feet, or fingers, or whatever they are. The geological fellows tell you once upon a time horses had three toes, and all but the middle one became unfashionable, and finally hooked it. I know country where a three-toed horse would come in very handy. But Joe's horse showed now he hadn't mistaken his character. He gave a snort as if he had just seen a man for the first time, propped dead, and in a couple of seconds was bucking away, as you may swear he did the very first time he was crossed. I thought it served Joe right, and nobody was uneasy, as he could sit anything with a horse's skin on. But this one kept bucking sideways, front ways, every way, rearing and kicking, and what I never saw any horse but a wild one do, biting and snapping like a dog at Joe's foot every time he turned his head round. Joe, of course, kicked him in the mouth when he got a chance, and the horse was just done when he caught his jaw accidentally in the stirrup-iron—his under jaw. Here he was fixed. He swung round and round with his head all on one side till he got giddy, and fell with a crash before any one could get to him. It was a hard bare place, as luck would have it. Joe was underneath him. We lifted him with his thigh smashed, and a couple of ribs broken. Here was a pretty thing—ten miles from home, and our best man with his leg in two. However, there was no help for it. We let go his horse, put the saddle under his head for a pillow (and, except that this one was rather hot, it isn't such a bad one), left a black boy with him till we could send a cart from the station, and started on.

After this none of the cattle gave any trouble till we were quite within sight of the yards. There was a large receiving paddock outside of these again, into which I intended to put the mob for the night, as I fancied we could get them into the drafting yards better by daylight. But anything of the nature of post and rails is very terrifying to the uneducated 'Mickies' and 'clear-skins.' They are always likely to bolt directly they see a fence. The bullocks might follow them, and if much confusion arose and there was a little timber there, we might lose the lot. So our troubles were not over yet.

But for the wild young bulls and the unbranded heifers born and bred in the thick covert of the 'Cage' and the 'Snuff-box,' both belonging to the infernal regions, I had a different kind of help. As the mob now moved slowly on, the old cows roaring, the calves chiming in, the bullocks occasionally giving a deep low bellow, making, like all cattle off their bounds, noise enough for four times the number, I knew that assistance was not far off. So it turned out, for about two miles from home we were met by two black dogs, walking slowly to meet us. A brace of very powerful and determined, not to say ferocious-looking animals they were. Half bulldog, half greyhound, they took about equally after both sides of the house. They were moderately fast and immoderately fierce, most difficult to keep back from bloodshed. They had required an immense amount of training, which in their case meant unmerciful licking, before they could be brought to obey orders. In their own line they couldn't be beat. They were too slow to follow horses all day, but, as they were fond of cattle work, they always came out a mile or two to meet us, when they heard the whips and the well-known sounds. Danger and Death, as I had christened the brothers, were known all up and down the Macquarie.

Now I felt quite safe for the first time since we had started, and as we closed up a little round the cattle, I looked anxiously for a 'break.' It was not long in coming. A three-year-old bull and a splendid red heifer charged back, and broke in regular fancy scrub style. Danger luckily took the heifer; she was clearing out like a flying doe. Danger was a good deal the quickest on his feet. Death was as sure as his namesake. He had his customer by the muzzle before he had gone any distance, and a loud roar, half of rage, half of pain, told us he was brought to bay. It was not a bad fight. The bull raised him from the ground more than once, and dashed him down with such force as would have satisfied any ordinary dog. But his mother's blood was strong in him, and, after an unavailing resistance, the dog having shifted his hold, and taken to the ear in preference, Micky was half dragged, half driven into the mob, among which, for security, he immediately rushed. Meanwhile the red heifer, rather 'on the leg' and not too fat, forced the pace, so that I really thought she was going to run away from old Danger. But he lay alongside of her shoulder doing his best, and every now and then making a spring at her head. At last he nailed her, and as he stopped and threw all his weight against her, with his terrible gripe on her nostrils, her head went right under, and she fell over on her back with such force that she lay stunned. I thought she had broken her neck. When she got up she staggered, stared piteously all round, and finally trotted after the cattle like an old milker. We had only one more break, just as they were going through the paddock rails. Then we had a wing—fine thing a wing, saves men and horses, too—and the whole lot were in and the rails up before they knew where they were going.

Next day we put them in the strong yard, without much trouble, and after drafting the cows, calves, strangers, and rubbish, we had over a hundred of as good fat cattle as ever left our district. We picked out a few of the out-and-outers, including the grey-faced bullock and Leader, and 'blinded' them, after which they travelled splendidly, fed well, and gave us no trouble on the road down. Isn't it cruel? Not particularly. We don't put their eyes out. We run them into the 'bot.' The bot is a 'trevis' or pen, high, strong, and so near the size of a beast that they can't turn round after they've been inveigled into it. Then we can do what we like with them. They may roar and knock their horns about, or kick if they're horses—they can't hurt you. For 'blinding' we cut a broad flap of greenhide, and hang it over the face of any bullock that has bad manners. It is secured above and below. It works wonders. He can't see in front of him, only out of the corners of his eyes. Sometimes he runs against trees and things. This makes him take greater care of himself. He mostly follows the other cattle then, and in a week feeds like an old milker. We were nearly selling Greyface and Leader for a pair of working bullocks before we got down.

Poor Joe was a long time before he got round. He was never the same man again. We dropped in for a first-rate market in town, and so were handsomely paid for a night's 'moonlighting on the Macquarie.'