Old Melbourne Memories/Chapter 8

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On the third day after our departure Joe and his wife were in the milking-yard finishing the morning's work, when suddenly Mrs. Burge, looking towards the road, exclaimed, "Good God! the hut's full of blacks!" Realising that her infant lay in his cradle in the front room, she rushed down, in spite of Joe's command to stay where she was while he confronted the enemy.

"Sure, isn't the child there?" she said. "And whether or not, mayn't you and I be as well killed together?"

Joe, having no sufficiently effective answer at hand, was fain to follow his more impetuous helpmate with what speed he might. When they arrived on the scene, they found about twenty or thirty blacks briskly engaged in pillaging the hut. They were passing and repassing from out the doorway, handing to one another provisions and everything which attracted their cupidity. Mrs. Burge, in her own words, first " med into the big room, and the first thing I seen was this precious baby on the floor, and him with the cradle turned upside down over him. It's a mercy he wasn't smothered! I jostled the blackfellows, but none of them took any notice of me. When I got outside, who should I see but that little villain Tommy coming out of the dairy with something in his hand. I put down the child and riz the tin milk-dish off the meat-block and hit him over the top of the head with it. Down he drops like a cock. I caught hold of him by the hair, and tried to hold him down, but he was too slippery for me, and got up again. I thought worse of the ungrateful little villain than all the rest. Many's the good drink of milk he had in that same dairy, and now he comes an' lades on the blacks to rob the hut, and perhaps kill poor Joe, that never did him anything but good, and me and the baby."

Said Joe Burge—"I went into the hut quiet-like, and seeing the old woman's monkey was up, after she got outside, gave her a strong push as if I was angry, and sent her back to the milking-yard. She wouldn't go at first, and I made believe to hit her and be very angry with her. This seemed to please the blacks, and they grinned and spoke to one another about it, I could see. I saw them carry out all the tea, sugar, and flour they could find. As far as I could make out, they were not set upon killing me or her. They seemed rather in a good humour, but I knew enough of blacks to see that the turn of a straw might make them change their tune. One fellow had my double gun, which was loaded; he did not know much about the ways of a gun, which was lucky for us. He held up the gun towards me, and pulled the trigger. The hammers were up, but there were no caps on. I had taken them off the night before. When the gun wouldn't go off, he says, 'no good, no good,' and laughed and handed it to another fellow, who held it in one hand like a fire-stick. I saw they were out for a day's stealing only. I thought it was better not to cross them. They were enough to eat us if it came to that. So I helped them to all they wanted, and sent them away in good humour with themselves and me. By and by down comes the wife from the milking-yard, and she rises an awful pillaloo when she sees what they had took. About a hundredweight of sugar, a quarter-chest of tea, a half-bag of flour, clothes, and, worse than all, two or three silver spoons, with the wife's initials on, which she looked on as something very precious. Master Tommy, who had put up the job to my thinking, cleared out with them. I saw them making a straight board for the rocks, toward the lake. I guessed they would camp there that night. As soon as they were well out of sight I catches the old mare and ripped over pretty quick to Dunmore. I saw Mr. Macknight, and told him, and he promised to make up a party next morning and follow them up, and see whether something might not be recovered.

"Next morning, soon after sunrise, he, and Mr. Irvine, and Mr. Cunningham, and their stockman, all came riding up to the place. They left their horses in our paddock, and we went off on foot through the swamp, and over to the nearest point of the rocks.

"We had all guns but me. Mr. Macknight and Mr. Irvine had rifles, Mr. Cunningham and the Dunmore stockman double-barrels. It was bad walking through the rocks, but after a mile or two I hit off their tracks by finding where they had dropped one or two little things they had stolen. The grass was so long and thick that they trod it down like as they were going through a wheat-field, so we could see how they had gone by that.

"Well, after four or five miles terrible hard walking, we came in sight of the lake, and just on a little knob on the left-hand side, with a bit of flat under it, was the camp. I crept up, and could see them all sitting round their fires, and yarning away like old women, laughing away now and then. By George, thinks I, you'll be laughing on the wrong side of your mugs directly.

"Well, I crept back and told the party, and we all began to sneak on them quietly, so as to be close on them before they had any notion of our being about, when Mr. Cunningham, who was a regular bull-dog for pluck, but awful careless and wild-like, trips over a big stone, tumbling down among the rocks, drops his gun, and then swears so as you could hear him a mile off.

"All the dogs in the camp—they're the devil and all to smell out white men—starts a barkin'. The blacks jumps up, and, catching sight of the party, bolts away to the lake like a flock of wild duck. We gave 'em a volley, but it was a long shot, and our folks was rather much in a hurry. I didn't see no one tumble down. Anyway, between divin' in the lake, getting behind the big basalt boulders on the shore of the lake, and getting right away, when we got up the camp was bare of everything but an old blind lubra that sat there with a small child beside her, blinkin' with her old eyes, and grinnin' for all the world like one of the Injun idols I used to see in the squire's hall at home. Just as we got up, one fellow bolted out from behind a rock, and went off like a half-grown forester buck. Mr. Cunningham bangs away at him, and misses him; then flings down his gun, and chivies after him like a schoolboy. He had as much chance of catching him as a collie dog has of running down an emu.

"I couldn't hardly help bustin' with laughin'; there was Mr. Cunningham, who was tremendous strong, but rather short on the leg, pounding away as if he thought he'd catch him every minute, and the blackfellow, a light active chap, spinning over the stones like a rock-wallaby—his feet didn't hardly seem to touch the ground. Then Mr. Macknight was afraid Mr. Cunningham might run into an ambush or something of that kind. 'Mr. Cunningham, Mr. Cunningham, come back! I order you to come back!' Howsoever, Mr. Cunningham didn't or wouldn't hear him; but, after awhile, the blackfellow runs clean away from him, and he come back pretty red in the face, and his boots cut all to pieces. We rummaged the camp, and found most of the things that were worth taking back. The flour, and tea, and sugar they had managed to get rid of. Most likely sat up all night and ate 'em right off. Blacks feed like that, I know.

"But we got the gun and a lot of other things that were of value to us, as well as my wife's silver spoons, which she never stopped talk in' about, so I was very glad to fall across 'em. After stopping half an hour we made up all the things that could be carried, and marched away for home. It was a long way, and we were pretty well done when we got there. However, my old woman gave us a first-rate tea, and I caught the horses, and the gentlemen rode home. There's no great harm done, sir, that I know of, but it might have been a plaguy sight worse; don't you think so, sir?"

I could not but assent to the proposition. The caprice of the savage had apparently turned their thoughts from blood revenge, though they "looted" the establishment pretty thoroughly. Another time worse might easily happen. We determined to keep good watch, and not to trust too much to the chapter of accidents.

After half a ream of foolscap had been covered with representations to the Governor, in which I proudly hoped to convey an idea that our condition was much like that of American border settlers when Tecumseh and Massasoit were on the war-path, a real live troop of horse was despatched to our assistance. First came two of the white mounted police from Colac; then a much more formidable contingent, for one morning there rode up eight troopers of the native police, well armed and mounted, carbine in sling, sword in sheath, dangling proper in regular cavalry style. The irregular cavalry force known as the Native Police was then in good credit and acceptation in our colony. They had approved themselves to be highly effective against their sable kinsmen. The idea originated in Victoria, if I mistake not, and was afterwards developed in New South Wales, still later in Queensland. Mr. H. E. Pulteney Dana and his brother William were the chief organisers and first officers in command. They were principally recruited from beyond the Murray, and occasionally from Gippsland. They were rarely or never used in the vicinity of their own tribes. Picked for physique and intelligence, well disciplined, and encouraged to exercise themselves in athletic sports when in barracks, they were by no means to be despised as adversaries, as was occasionally discovered by white as well as black wrongdoers.

Mounted on serviceable, well-conditioned horses, all in uniform, with their carbines slung, and steel scabbards jingling as they rode, they presented an appearance which would have done no discredit to Hodson or Jacob's Horse. Buckup, as non-commissioned officer, rode slightly in front, the others following in line. As I came out of the hut door the corporal saluted. "We been sent up by Mr. Dana, sir, to stop at this station a bit. Believe the blacks been very bad about here."

The blacks! This struck me as altogether lovely and delicious. How calm and lofty was his expression! I answered with decorum that they had, indeed, been very bad lately—speared the cattle, robbed the hut, etc.; that yesterday we had seen the tracks of a large mob of cattle, which had been hunted in the boggy ground at the back of the run for miles.

"They only want a good scouring, sir," quoth Buckup, carelessly, as he gave the order to dismount.

As they stood before me I had a good opportunity of observing their general appearance. Buckup was a fine-looking fellow, six feet high, broad shouldered and well proportioned, with a bold, open cast of countenance, set off with well-trimmed whiskers and moustache. He was a crack hand with the gloves, I heard afterwards, and so good a wrestler that he might have come off in a contest with Sergeant Francis Stewart, sometimes called Bothwell, nearly as satisfactorily as did Balfour of Burley. Tallboy, so called from his unusual height, probably, was a couple of inches taller, but slender and wiry looking; while Yapton was a middle-sized, active warrior, with a smooth face, a high nose, heavy, straight hair, and a grim jaw. I thought at the time he must be very like an American Indian. The others I do not particularly recall, but all had a smart, serviceable look, as they commenced to unsaddle their horses and pile their arms and accoutrements, preparatory to making camp in a spot which I had pointed out to them.

They spent the rest of the day in this necessary preliminary, and by nightfall had a couple of miamias solidly built with their backs to the sea wind, and neatly thatched with tussac grass from the marsh.

During the afternoon Buckup held consultation with me, Joe Burge, and Old Tom, at the conclusion of which he professed himself to be in possession of the requisite information, and decided as to future operations.

Next morning, early, the white troopers and the blacks started off for a long day in the Rocks, on foot. It was almost impossible to take horses through that rugged country, and the police horses were too good to be needlessly exposed to lameness, and probably disablement. Long afterwards a trusty retainer of mine was betrayed into a hardish ride therein after an unusually tempting mob of fat cattle and unbranded calves, which had escaped muster for more than a year. The shoes of the gallant mare which he rode came off before the day was done. He was compelled to leave her with bleeding feet a mile from the edge of the smooth country, bringing out the cattle, however, with the aid of his dogs. Next day we went back to lead her out, but poor Chileña was as dead as Britomarte.

So, lightly arrayed, the black troopers stole through the reeds of the marsh, in the dim light of a rainy dawn, and essayed to track the rock-wolves to their lair. Camps they found, many a one, having good store of beef bones at all of them, but the indigènes were gone, though signs of recent occupation were plentiful. An outlying scout had "cut the track" of the trooper's horses, and "jaloused," as Mr. Gorrie would have said, only too accurately what was likely to follow. Anyhow, the contingent returned tired and rather sulky after sundown, with their boots considerably the worse for wear. I did not myself accompany the party, nor did I propose to do so at any other time. I took it for granted that blood might be shed, and I did not wish to be an eye-witness or participator. The matter at issue was now grave and imminent. Whether should we crush the unprovoked émeute, or remove the remnant of our stock, abandon our homesteads, and yield up the good land of which we had taken possession?

It would hardly have been English to do the latter. So we had nothing for it but to make the best fight we could.

A fresh reconnaissance was made daily from my homestead, sometimes in one direction, sometimes in another. But though rumours were heard of their appearance in different and distant parts of the district, no actual sight of the foe could be accomplished. Buckup and his men-at-arms, after the first day, were very patient and cheerful about the matter. They played quoits, of which I had a set—wrestled and boxed during their leisure hours, shot kangaroo and wild duck, and generally comported themselves as if this sort of thing was all in the day's work. Meantime, the heavy winter rains had begun to fall and the marshes to fill; the forest became so saturated that horses could hardly be ridden over it in places. I had occasion to go to Belfast for a couple of days on business. When I returned I found that a regular engagement had taken place the day before, the result of which would probably be decisive.

Neither of my men had been out, as it happened, but they had gleaned their information from the white troopers, and very sparingly from Buckup. Beyond saying that they had come up with the main body of the tribe and given them a scouring, he was disposed to say but little.

On this particular day an expedition had been made to a "heathy," desolate tract of country which lay at "the back" of the run. Here were isolated marshes covered with rushes, and for the most part surrounded with belts of tall ti-tree scrub. Between these were sand-hills with a thick, sheltering growth of casuarina and banksia, while here and there grew copses of mimosa and blackwood, the Australian hickory. Here, it seems, the police were plodding along, apparently on their usual persistent but unavailing search, when suddenly one of the men pulled up, dismounted, and, picking up something, gave a low, sibilant whistle. In an instant the whole troop gathered around him, while he held up a small piece of bark which had quite recently been ignited. Not a word was said as Yapton took the lead, at a sign from Buckup, and the rest of the black troopers followed in loose order, like questing hounds, examining with eager eyes every foot of the way. Shortly afterwards a tree was discovered where, with a few fresh cuts of a tomahawk, a grub had been taken out of the hollow wood. The trail had been struck. Patiently for several hours the man-hunters followed up the tracks, while fresh signs from time to time showed that a large body of blacks had quite recently passed that way. Suddenly, at a yell from Yapton, every man raised his head, and then rode at full speed towards a frantic company of savages as, startled and surprised, they made for a patch of scrub.

The horses fell and floundered from time to time in the deep, boggy soil, but their desperate riders managed to lift and hustle them up as the last black disappeared in the ti-tree. Unluckily for them, the scrub was not a large one, and the ground on either side comparatively clear.

Buckup sent a man to each corner, and himself with two troopers charged into the centre. Spears began to fly, and boomerangs; but the wild men had little chance with their better-armed countrymen. Out bolts a flying fugitive, and makes for the nearest reed-bed. Tallboy is nearest to him, and his horse moves as he raises his carbine, and disturbs the aim. Striking him savagely over the head with the butt end, he raises his piece, fires, and Jupiter drops on his face. Quick shots follow, a general stampede takes place, but few escape, and when the troop turn their horses' heads homeward, all the known leaders of the tribe are down. They were caught red-handed, too, a portion of a heifer and her calf freshly slaughtered being found on the spot where they were first sighted.

Such was the substance of the tale as told to me. It may have been more or less incorrect as to detail, but Jupiter and his associate with the unclassical profile were never seen alive again; and as no head of stock was ever known to be speared or stolen after that day, it may be presumed that the chastisement was effectual. Years afterwards a man showed me the cicatrix of a bullet-wound in the region of the chest, and asserted that "Police-blackfellow 'plenty kill him'" on that occasion. He further added that he promptly, upon recovery, hired himself as a shepherd to "old man Gorrie," as he disrespectfully termed that patriarch, being convinced that lawless proceedings were likely to bring him to a bad end.

This would seem to have been the general opinion of the tribe. After due time they came in and made submission, working peaceably and usefully for the squatters, who were only too glad to assist their efforts in the right path. Many years afterwards the remnant of the tribe was gathered together and "civilised" at the missionary station of Lake Condah, a fine sheet of water at the western extremity of the lava country, and less than twenty miles from the scene of the proceedings described. There the black and half-caste descendants of the once powerful Mount Eeles tribe dwell harmlessly and happily, if not usefully to the State. A resident of the district informed me some time since that a black henchman of mine lived at the Mission, and was last seen driving some of his kinsfolk in a buggy. Tommy had taken advantage of his opportunities, moreover, for he sent a message of goodwill and remembrance to me, further intimating that if I would write to him he would answer my letter! Such is the progress of civilisation; but, with all good wishes for the success of the experiment, I do not anticipate permanently valuable results.

When Tommy and I swam the Leigh together, one snowy day, bound for Ballarat with fat cattle, I suspect he was employed in a manner more befitting to his nature, and more improving to his general morale.