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Vicissitudes of Bush Life in Australia and New Zealand

Chapter XIV

Chapter XIV.

The busy stir incidental to the shearing had subsided, and been followed by the normal listless state of existence on a sheep station. The homestead lately swarming with men was now comparatively deserted.

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The wool teams had made several trips, returning with the necessary station supplies for the ensuing year, and Christmas was near at hand when I received a letter from Miss Rolleston, warning me of the advent of her party by Captain Caddell's boat that was then making a trip, though not her first, in prospecting the navigable properties of the Darling, as far as Menindie.

From that station the river made a wide detour of about forty miles ere it reached Tappio, but instead of following the river, the road from thence struck straight through a sandy scrub to our station, shortening the distance by ten miles; therefore, in telling me of the coming of her party, Miss Rolleston in her letter desired me to be sure and have the dray awaiting their arrival at Menindie, from which point they would start on the ensuing day, so that the intervening distance between there and Tappio might thus be comfortably accomplished.

Besides herself and Mrs. Campbell, with her two daughters, and Tiny Sutherland, the serving maid, the party was to consist of a Miss Brydone and two young gentlemen of the names of Brown and Green. The first was a banker's clerk, and the second was attached to an insurance office. But I felt by no means sorry, from the absence of any reference to his name, to think that Marsden was not likely to be one of the party.

This letter I received about a week before Christmas, so that I had ample time, with the assistance and advice of Lilly, to fit up one of the bullock drays with an awning made out of tarpaulin, for the greater comfort of the ladies during the heat of their journey which would be very great, and especially trying, because of the sun's reflection from the sand, through which the road chiefly lay. Besides this, I had benches made for them, on which washed sheep-skins were tacked to act as cushions. The house was at the same time, at my desire, thoroughly overhauled by the cook; whilst he, with the assistance of Charles Knight, the men's cook, made a perfect store of sweets and cakes in honour of our Christmas guests.

On the day that I had despatched the dray to meet the expected party, my original intention of riding to Menindie and escorting them home had to be given up, as I had to assist Lilly with some calves that required branding.

Whilst thus employed with Lilly in his stockyard my attention was, to all appearance, concentrated on my work, but mentally my thoughts were busy with anticipations of the coming festivities, and, as the afternoon advanced, I could not resist the temptation of gazing in the direction whence the visitors would come, or, of keeping my ears on the alert to mark the echoes of the bullock-whip in the forest.

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The prospect of enjoying the society of Miss Rolleston again, without the mortification of being compelled to witness her attention being monopolised by the more favoured Marsden, was peculiarly soothing to my still unrelinquished hopes of yet winning her hand; for although I ought to have seen enough already to have understood how utterly vain such hopes were in view of her evident preference for my dangerous rival, still it is wonderful how true love will hug itself and buoy itself up under the most adverse circumstances. The only shadow of hope I could now have, came from the thought of his absence, and the favourable opportunity I should thus have of being able to recover my lost ground.

Poor fool! when thus counting on the diversion in my favour of the thoughts of her whom I loved, when parted from him whom she loved, I should have remembered the line of the song,

“Absence makes the heart grow fonder”.

I also thought with pleasure of the prospect of meeting Mary Campbell, for whom I entertained a genuine though, of course, only friendly regard. Then I found myself speculating on the probable appearance of her sister, and I remembered the caution I had received from Miss Rolleston about the danger of my heart when in company with her. “Not much fear of that, Miss Campbell,” I sadly soliloquised, my thoughts shaping themselves involuntary into rhyme—

“However beautiful thou may'st appear,
Whilst peerless Rachel Rolleston is near”.

At length, as the shadows of the afternoon began to lengthen considerably, the sudden clamorous barking of the dogs drew our attention to the figure of Billy Stack, the bullock driver, who had been despatched with the dray to bring our visitors from Menindie, and who, whip in hand, was now seen coming down the opposite bank of the river towards us, and, crossing over in the canoe, he soon reached the yard where we were at work. As we had surmised, he had got stuck in the muddy creek, an awkward, boggy crossing, about two miles from the station, so he had come on for reinforcements to help to drag the team out.

Lilly's team were at that time on my side of the river, so Billy had come either to get Lilly to take his bullocks himself, or to let him (Billy) take them to pull the dray out of the bog.

“Will you do it, Lilly?” he asked, “I am fairly bested, and the dray is fairly up to the axles in the middle of the creek.”

Now Billy Stack was one of the very few men whom Lilly page 98 allowed to be fit to drive bullocks, even paying him the extraordinary compliment of admitting that Billy was near as good a driver as himself, than which he could pay no bullock driver a higher. At any other time, therefore, Lilly would have been delighted to have taken the team himself, in order that he might be able to chuckle over such a proof of his superiority over Billy, in being able with his superior team (a contingency he would never have dreamt of doubting) to do what Billy had fairly confessed himself “bested at,” but at that precise time Lilly was up to his eyes in work from which he could on no account absent himself, whilst yet the idea of trusting his beloved team to any other hands than his own, was simply revolting to him.

However, as matters were, there was no help for it, and having such confidence in Billy Stack as a judicious driver, who never ill-treated bullocks, punishing them only as a very last resource, he, although at first receiving the proposal with a resentful glance, at length reluctantly consented to let Billy take them; but he distinctly charged Billy not to yoke the two teams together as he reckoned his own were sufficient to shift the dray, however deeply bogged it might be. As the sun would now be soon setting, I directed Billy to return straight to the dray and have the bullocks unyoked by the time Lilly's bullocks arrived, and I at once sent away a black fellow to fetch and drive them to him.

It was easy to see that Lilly was dissatisfied that the bullocks should have to go at all. He growled to himself, but made no remark, while with renewed energy we both applied ourselves to the completion of our task. We had fortunately just finished as it was getting dark, though a bright moon was replacing with her beams the light of the departed sun, when the black fellow (Snowball, he was appropriately called) who had been sent away with the bullocks, came riding up with the astounding intelligence: “Lilly bullocks no good, no pullem wheel barrow” (i.e. dray). “What ——,” I will not repeat what Lilly said, but he swore tremendously, and I believe, had he been alongside the black fellow, would have struck him, so greatly was he exasperated at this unlooked for slight on the honour of his team, the more so because I was there to hear, as he had frequently descanted to me in glowing terms on the staunch properties of all his bullocks, declaring that each one of them would drop in his tracks ere he would flinch at any pull.

As both of our horses were saddled, and feeding alongside the yard, we instantly caused them to swim across the stream, one at a time, behind the canoe; being accustomed to this, they did it without the least difficulty. Then, mounting, we rode page 99 straight away to the scene of action, where we found our party in a rather embarrassing plight.

Owing to late rains, the natural sponginess of the soil on the banks of this creek was increased, and that in the bottom, made much more so from the recent traffic of the wool teams; moreover, the water had been considerably widened by the rain. At the time at which we entered upon the scene, the bullocks had crossed so far, that some of them were on the opposite bank while the dray wheels were embedded in the mud near the water's edge. It was herein that the difficulty lay, for whilst the wheels were deeply embedded in soft gluey clay, the bank at the landing was now reduced, by the trampling of the bullocks in their past struggles, to a quagmire. A little lower down there was another landing, but so steep that it was deemed impracticable to a dray loaded as the present one was, that, besides its living load and their luggage, had also several cwts. of wire in coils, that had come up for the station in Caddell's steamer.

On arriving at the creek I at once rode forward and greeted the ladies, and from all of them received a very merry response, Mrs. Campbell, with her quiet smile, asking, “Is there any likelihood, Mr. Farquharson, of our getting out of this bog to-night?”

“Well, yes, Mrs. Campbell,” I replied, “you may safely trust to Lilly's energy to relieve you from your present difficulty, but you must be fatigued with being so long confined in your cramped position in the dray. Lilly and I did our best to arrange it so as to make you more comfortable than otherwise you might have been, but I fear after all our efforts, it must still be very uncomfortable.”

“Oh no! upon the whole I have found the dray very easy, although I shall be glad when the journey is over.”

“Well, ladies,” I said, glancing at the cluster of merry faces—merry still in spite of their present misadventure; “you seem to be happy at all events, whether you stick here all night or not.”

“We always are,” replied the ever-ready Miss Rolleston, “and have all the more reason for being so now; it looks so jolly stuck in a bullock dray in the middle of a creek on a moonlight night, and I am sure these two young gentlemen ought to consider themselves highly honoured by such close contact with so many young ladies, who have all contrived to do so much for their amusement through all this tiresome journey.”

“Honoured, no doubt,” I heard one of them rejoin; “still, for my part, I wish I was out of here. I am squeezed almost page 100 to death by so many of you. One can have too much even of a good thing, as the kitten said when it fell into the cream can.”

“Oh, now, Mr. Green,” exclaimed one of the ladies, Miss Campbell as I at once guessed, “it is too bad of you to say that, after the professions of loyalty you have been making, declaring you would go to the end of the world for me, and all that sort of thing.”

“Good evening, ladies,” here Lilly suddenly interrupted, “you are in a fine mess here, I must say. How would you like to have to camp here all night?”

“Oh, fie, now, Mr. Lilly,” cried Miss Rolleston, “is that the tone with which you greet us, after we have come such a long way to see you? I expected more sympathy from you than that.”

“Young ladies seem to take queer notions when they go riding in bullock drays, and it serves them right when they get stuck in bogs; why can't they drive in their own buggies or ride a horseback?” replied Lilly rather shortly, for his temper was up as things looked serious about our getting them out of their present awkward fix.

He now took the whip from Stack, who assured him that he had not pressed the bullocks much.

There was clearly no use in attempting to urge the animals to drag the dray through the hopeless quagmire in front, Lilly therefore turned his attention towards the lower landing place, with the object of getting the dray out of the creek by that means.

Now, although this attempt first involved a sharp turn to the dray, dangerous, from the imbedded position of the wheels, to the security of the pole and stays that might be wrenched off under such a strain, yet, as the mud was very soft, Lilly trusted by the steadiness of the strain to reduce that danger. He, therefore, addressed the bullocks, and accompanying his words with gentle lashes he wheeled the leaders back into the creek, not suddenly, but, as it were, in a semi-circular fashion, so as to keep a steady strain on the chains whilst the move was made. In this way the dray was gradually shifted round till the bullocks' heads faced the opposite bank, alongside of which the dray was then dragged until opposite to the lower landing. Then, again, at his steady orders, accompanied by ringing cracks of the whip, though now it never fell on any of the bullocks, the off-side leader, “Dauntless,” with his horn instantly striking against his yokefellow, came round with his companions, until Lilly's “Gee, Fearless,” suddenly arrested them, the latter bullock then instantly horning his companion off.

Thus alternately addressing each of these well trained page 101 leaders, and giving accompanying orders to all the others, save the pole bullocks, the team in a straightened line began now to emerge from the water and up the bank before them. It was now that the tug of war commenced in good earnest.

As I have said already, this landing was a very steep one, and the ascent rendered all the more difficult from a deep grip in the bank just at the point of egress from the water; just there, however, the footing was much firmer for the bullocks, so that on this point they had the advantage of getting free play to any powers of draught that they could put forth.

By this time Lilly had every bullock well in hand, and firmly feeling the yoke, and now for the first time he spoke to his polers, whilst his orders to all the other bullocks rang out sharp and clear.

“‘Dauntless,’ ‘Fearless,’ ‘Dainty,’ ‘Davy,’ ‘Roderick,’ ‘Bauldy,’ ‘Wallace,’ ‘Samson’ up!” the wood meanwhile echoing at each word with the tremendous cracks of the whip, that now sharply admonished each bullock mentioned. “Samson,” like his namesake of old at the pillars of Gaza, nobly seconded by his yokefellow, leant forward and bowed till his nose seemed to be almost touching the ground; the strain, evenly borne by all the bullocks in the team, seemed terrific. Something was bound to go, though for a moment the dray seemed immovable. At length both pole bullocks, as if in fury at the opposition they were meeting with, tossed their noses in the air and with a most prodigious effort seemed to lift the dray over the opposing grip.

This mighty feat of the polers being bravely seconded by the others, under the watchful eye of their driver, admonished by his whip or cheered by his voice, the dray began to slowly yield to the force laid upon it, and to steadily mount the steep ascent. Even “Wallace,” Lilly's favourite bullock, did not now always escape the lash, so necessary was it that each bullock should keep up an unremitted strain.

When the last pinch of the ascent was fairly overcome Lilly's geniality of spirit was once more restored, and, stopping his panting team, he cried out in a tone of triumph to me:—

“Now, Mr. Farquharson, what is your opinion of that team of mine? I suppose you were suspecting I was blowing a bit when I used to boast to you of what they could do. Did you ever in your life see such a pull as that? I don't believe there is such another team as that in all the colony!”

“Nor do I. They are without exception the most magnificent animals that I ever saw in yoke, but I question if there is another man, Lilly, who could have made these same bullocks do such a feat as, under you, they have just accomplished.”

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Billy Stack, who had followed up, here remarked that he was blowed if ever he saw such a pull. “I reckon,” he added, “that there isn't a man in the colony can drive a team of bullocks like you, Lilly.”

The ladies seemed particularly elated at their extrication from their late plight, and both Miss Rolleston and Mrs. Campbell assured Lilly that they knew that they had to thank him for their rescue.

As for Lilly, he looked simply triumphant, and though certainly pleased at the proof he had now displayed of his skill as a driver, acknowledged by such competent judges as Billy Stack and myself, yet I believe the chief source of the good fellow's pleasure was in the manner that his team had staunchly acquitted themselves. He began to speak to each one of them as if he knew that they were perfectly conscious of the praise that he was giving them; and perhaps they were.

About an hour afterwards we reached the home-station, and glad enough, I believe, all the ladies were to get out of their stiffened and cramped position.