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Vicissitudes of Bush Life in Australia and New Zealand

Chapter II

Chapter II.

“My beautiful, my beautiful, that standest meekly by,
With thy proudly arched and glossy neck, and dark and shining eye.”

The time had verged upon twelve months since my arrival at Mr. M‘Elwain's station. It was September, the month that ushers in the wool season in that locality, and preparations for beginning the shearing were in a forward state. The shearer's hut, generally unoccupied for the major part of the year, now presented a somewhat bee-hive-like appearance, with all its tenants crowding about the door, or sitting down on a form alongside. The course of a fine spring day was waning towards its close, when the sudden clamorous barking of the dogs signalled the approach of a stranger, and looking down the track, a single horseman was seen approaching at a quick walking pace towards the home-station: his appearance excited considerable comment from the shearers and other hands who were assembled round the door of the hut.

After several remarks had been ventured regarding the probable identity of the stranger, one of the men suddenly exclaimed:—

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“It's George Laycock, I know his horse; there isn't a nag in the Wimmera can walk with him.”

“Is it George Laycock, Driscoll?” said another. “So it is. I wonder what he is after now. I thought he was hunting after wild horses; by-the-bye, has he still any hope of getting Major Firebrace's mare?”

“Why, the old fool will never get her,” said a third. “He has been five years now trying to catch her, and he has as little chance of getting her now as ever he had.”

“Well, now, I believe different,” here chimed in another, an elderly-looking man. “I knew George in the Sydney side, and a better stock-rider you won't find in the colony, and I know that he wouldn't keep on after that mare if he didn't think as how he'd yet get hold of her. But George is a cove as will stick to a thing he goes after—he'll never cave in as long as he believes there's a chance to get it.”

“Well, but,” replied the former speaker, “see how long he's been after that mare now, surely he ought to have knowed long ago if he had a chance or not.”

“That's all very well,” replied the elderly man, “but George has told me hisself that he never yet seed a proper chance to get a good hunt after the mare; there is always so much scrub where she is; and besides it has been only now and then he's been after her in these five years. See how long he's been putting up the stockyards and wing fences to run her into!”

“And has he been to all this trouble for all this time, and got nothing at all to show for it?” chimed in another voice.

“No fear,” replied the elderly man. “Leave George alone for that; I believe George makes a good thing out of these horses, for I s'pose he has never been out after them yet but what he brings home one, and sometimes two and three with him.”

“Has any one of you ever seen this mare?” some one now demanded. “Is it certain she's as good as people make her out to be?”

“Seen her,” replied the man who was addressed as Driscoll, “I seen her often afore she got away. She was a splendid looking animal to be sure—a dark chestnut. I believe the major paid 200 guineas for her, and he refused 100 guineas afterwards on his bargain. She was a pure blood. She got out of the paddock when there was a mob of wild horses about at the time, so she just went away with them; and since then she's got as wild as a deer, and gallops straight for the scrub when any one comes in sight of her, and she can just go like the wind.

“I suppose,” one of the interlocutors here remarked, “she'll page 8 have some foals by this time, but then they'll not be much worth, as they'll be got by some scrubber of an entire.”

“No,” replied Driscoll; “in the mob with which she runs there's a splendid looking entire. He's not a blood, of course, but the foals out of that mare, if they are got by that horse, will be something worth having, I can tell you.”

By this time the subject of their remarks had dismounted to take down the slip panels, and leading his horse forward, and saluting the men, he ungirthed his saddle and turned his horse out to graze. The animal first, however, proceeded to enjoy the luxury of a good roll, then getting up and shaking himself soundly, went quietly munching the herbage around him. He was rather a fine-looking animal, high in the withers, with shapely legs and long pasterns; altogether an animal well calculated to support fatigue, and with considerable capacity for speed.

His rider was a man evidently about fifty years of age, rather under-sized, but powerfully built. His features, encircled with a bushy grey beard, were open and honest, though they expressed marks of impatient irritation. His eyes were restless and seemed filled with a rather unwonted light, as if something exciting was just then occupying his mind. That such was the case was soon evident, when, after the first general salutation to the assembled groups of, “Good evening, lads,” and a more particular greeting to the elderly man who had lately expressed such a decided opinion of his abilities, whose hand he cordially grasped with the remark, “Well, Caleb, how are you getting on?” he at once delivered himself of the matter that was exercising his mind, with the abrupt remark, “Well, lads, are any of you fancy riders inclined for a gallop, there is a splendid chance now for any one who wants to get hold of a good nag?”

“Where is the mob, George?” inquired Driscoll. “I wouldn't mind having a ride, if they weren't too far away; is the major's mare among them?”

“Yes, she's there, and all within ten miles of us now,” replied Laycock quickly. “Do you know,” he eagerly continued, “I never did have such a chance of getting that mare as I had this afternoon. I had been shepherding them for days, and to-day the whole mob came to drink at the Bonyup water hole; if I'd had two or three chaps along with me I could have ridden them at once into the yard; so I came away here to see if I could get two or three of you chaps to go along with me. We can ride out and camp at the water hole, and then on the following morning we can easily get them in the bush, they won't be far away. I know where we shall be able to drop upon them.”

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Laycock's information produced a lively sensation amongst the shearers, most of them young men and bold riders, and a half dozen or so instantly volunteered their services, but expressed surprise at Laycock letting his horse loose if he intended riding forth that evening. “Oh, he's all right; I thought he would be the better for a roll, I can catch him anywhere.”

Meanwhile, to all this conversation I had been a silent, but highly interested listener, and, charmed with the novelty of the adventure, the idea instantly possessed me to make one of the party. Signifying this determination forthwith to the others, my proposal was received with ready approbation.

Among the station horses was a bright bay gelding with dark points, named Latrobe, that had often excited my admiration. He was a magnificent looking animal, above sixteen hands in height, with an eye that under excitement literally blazed like a live coal; yet, he was entirely without vice, but from one slight blemish consequent on his excitability, by which he was so inflamed when galloping in pursuit of horses, that he became almost unmanageable, he had been slighted for “mustering” by the overseer, who was rather a timid rider. Yet, precisely for this reason, I now resolved to make him my charger for the occasion, with the reflection that as hard galloping was to be the chief means towards the success of our enterprise, Latrobe could hardly do too much of it. After a hearty supper had been done ample justice to we all started off in high spirits, prepared with blankets for camping out for the night.

The twilight had faded, although it was still as bright as day from the light of the moon, that now at its full, shone calm and broad over the trees, when we reached the water-hole where we all dismounted, and tethering our horses securely, prepared cheerfully for passing the night there. But Laycock, with the foresight of a prudent commander, instead of seeking repose, determined if possible to ascertain the whereabouts of the horses, so as not to lose time needlessly in the morning, and at once started off on foot on the track of the troop. In about two hours he returned in high glee, stating that he had heard them neighing in the forest, just about where he had expected they would be.

I may as well here describe the position we were placed in. The water-hole at which we were camped lay through open forest country about ten miles due north from the station. At this water-hole, however, there was a small plain two miles or so in circumference, which on the other side was fringed with a belt of the mallee scrub that is spread so widely through parts of Australia. This belt of scrub was about three miles in page 10 breadth: then the country again expanded for a space into open forest land that was again enveloped on all sides by the interminable scrub.

It was in the open space of forest land that Laycock had discovered by the sound of their neighing the whereabouts of the horses. So our plan of operations for the morrow was carefully laid down that night, viz., to start by four o'clock next morning, and quietly outflank the horses before attempting to come within sight of them, and then, as the dawn appeared, to charge suddenly from different points so as to head them directly for the water-hole, where there was a yard ready for their reception, and into which we doubted not that by proper management, we should be able to drive them.

Exactly by four o'clock the next morning accordingly, we were all in the saddle, indeed, I question if Laycock that night closed an eye, so excited was he at the near prospect of securing the prize after which he had toiled for so many years. Under his guidance, after entering the mallee, and proceeding quietly for fear of alarming the quick ears of the animals we were in quest of, we made a wide detour, never entering the open forest till we were able to do so on the side opposite to where we wanted to drive the horses to. That none of the wild troupe might have an opportunity of eluding us among the dark shades of the timber, we made no show of discovering ourselves till the dawn was fully in, when, first spreading ourselves out in the form of a semicircle, the forest suddenly resounded with the loud lashings of our stockwhips, as we all instantly galloped from our different stations towards the astonished herd. Then occurred one of the most magnificent spectacles it has ever been my good fortune to witness. In instant reply to our demonstration we heard the loud neighing of the entires—of which there appeared to be several in the troop—while one, a stately looking animal with flowing hair, and of a dark brown colour, that appeared to be the leader of the troop (which might have numbered about fifty head), without thinking of his own safety, first dashed completely round the mob collecting them all into a close body, then, placing himself at their head, and laying back his ears, dashed straight at George Laycock, in the centre of the advancing riders, with the apparent purpose of overthrowing his horse, and so breaking through the cordon that was intercepting the retreat of himself and his troop to the scrub. But Laycock, who was well accustomed to such encounters, was provided against the emergency. In such a case the lash of a stockwhip would be of small use in preserving a horseman from the attack of an infuriated stallion. But just as this one, open mouthed, was preparing to leap upon Laycock's horse, the sudden detonation page 11 of a revolver (blank charge), with the flash and smoke in his face, sent him flying in panic in an opposite direction. Then all the riders, with whoops and yells, plied every nerve to lash the terror stricken troop before them. For a short time it appeared as if they were going to have everything their own way, until the mob began to enter the mallee towards the little plain where the water-hole and yard were; when the leading stallion, that appeared to be an animal of great spirit and courage, again galloped along in front of his companions, and wheeling sharply round, made another desperate attempt to break through the line of riders and making a wild launch of his heels at one of the horses, whose rider, unlike Laycock, unprovided with a pistol, lashed vainly at him with his whip—he fairly dashed past him. Then ensued a scene of indescribable confusion, as the whole troop following their leader, poured through the gap in the line of riders like water through a sieve, despite the furious efforts of the horsemen who, with their long whips lashed frantically in the horses' faces, and, as the line contracted in the effort to secure the parts through which these breaches were made, galloping round either end of it, and so making off in the direction whence they had come. Above all the tumult, Laycock's voice stern and loud could be heard, shouting to the men to keep back from the horses, but such was the excitement and confusion, that intelligent co-operation was hopeless; in a few minutes the whole mob was irretrievably dispersed.

While these events were passing, I, whose station had been on the northern extremity of the line of riders, found myself, when the horses made their furious stampede, suddenly confronted by a small group that had detached itself from the main body and which evidently intended outflanking me.

It consisted of a superb looking chestnut mare, and I at once surmised it must be the same that Laycock had toiled so long and so arduously to secure. With her were three other younger looking animals, colts or fillies, that by their close attendance appeared to be her progeny.

How, until that moment, I had conducted myself I hardly remember. Being fresh to such work, during the chase I experienced the wildest exhilaration of spirits, and in my excitement I almost forgot what I was doing. But on being thus confronted with the mare, whose identity I immediately divined, in instant anticipation of her intention I gave Latrobe the spur, and thus caused her to head in a more north-westerly direction. Even then, I fear, I was less animated by an intelligent wish to wear her back to the water-hole, than by the mere youthful pleasure of galloping after something, still I had the idea of trying page 12 to gain on her opposite flank, and thus to prevent her escape in the direction of her own haunts.

Latrobe behaved gloriously. His mettle required no quickening with either whip or spur, so gallantly did he stretch out to lay himself level with the animal he was chasing.

Between him and the mare, at the start, there might have been a couple of lengths; and I noticed, as we flew along, that although Latrobe gained nothing on the mare, neither did she leave Latrobe behind. This might, however, have been accounted for by the fact that she was heavy in foal, and hence running at a great disadvantage. Among the progeny that followed her there was a three-year-old colt that next to the mare herself excited my admiration by the easy, springy gallop that enabled him apparently at will to lead the chase, as he occasionally shot ahead, kicking up his heels in mere wantonness. The other two, that seemed to be one and two-years-old respectively, found it more difficult to keep pace with the others and gradually dropped behind. For half an hour the chase continued, during which time we must have traversed ten or twelve miles at least, sometimes through open forest, but principally through scrub. How I saved my head from the stems of the latter as they flew back from the pressure of the racers ahead I cannot tell. I seemed so transported with my situation that I felt no fear, and experienced no difficulty in accommodating myself to its dangers, whilst, as the supple body of my horse doubled beneath me in his bounds over fallen timber, or in crashing through resisting saplings, I felt as if I were but part of him, so thoroughly had my enthusiasm and spirit warmed up all my nerves.

At length through the mallee, whose dewy tops were now illumined by the bright beams of the risen sun, I descried the openings of a plain, which we almost immediately after entered. From a piece of rising ground, however, on the edge of it, I cast a glance forward, and saw the interminable scrub apparently spreading again for miles beyond.

On entering the plain, that was of an oval form, not over two miles in length or one in width, the mare suddenly wheeled to the right towards the upper end, about a half mile further on. Latrobe was now white with foam, and as the mare appeared to be gradually extending the distance between us, I was thinking, as we were rapidly approaching the termination of the plain, with all the scrub ahead of us, that further pursuit would be hopeless, when I was suddenly made aware of a violent crashing among the bushes to my right, and just as the mare was within a hundred yards of the scrub, George Laycock, his horse literally a sheet of foam, dashed out ahead page 13 of us, and, crossing the mare's path again, with a shot fired almost in her face, so startled her that she wheeled round in her tracks. Then immediately crack, crack, crack went the lash of the stock-whip, resounding like so many reports of a rifle, as, giving the animals no time to consider, he flogged them right on before him. “Keep 'em on, keep 'em on, young fellow,” he shouted, wild with excitement, still energetically plying his whip, which he seemed able to manage as he pleased whilst at the top of his speed, pressing hard upon the mare's heels, or galloping from side to side, as she turned her head in either direction, his horse the while with scarcely a motion of the rein wheeling as short as if on a pivot, in obedience to each impulse of his will.

As the horses wheeled back on their former course, they were joined by the two younger beasts, which had fallen considerably to the rear. They were now all urged towards the opposite extremity of the plain, and as we approached it I noticed two lines of rail fencing along the edge of the timber on either side of me, and converging gradually, and I instantly divined that they were wings leading to some adjacent stockyard.

As we approached to within the reaches of these fences, the old man's excitement seemed to become uncontrollable, as, furiously lashing with his whip, he shouted to me to use mine. Indeed his objurgations at times were hardly complimentary to me, but these, supported by the important service I had been able to render, and buoyed up by the excitement of the chase, I hardly heeded. My whip, in fact, I carried more for form's sake than for use, as, not being yet expert with a stock whip, in the rapidity of my morning's gallop I had scarcely attempted even to flourish it.

At length we found ourselves fairly within the protecting wing fences, and after another half mile through forest country, during which the fences rapidly converged and led into a substantial stockyard, whose slip panels were down as if in expectation of our present emergency, the whole troop were fairly driven within its secure enclosure. Instantly springing from his foaming horse, and without uttering a single word, Laycock banged the panels into their sockets, and fixing them there with wooden pegs, lashed them securely with a strong rope; nor even then did he appear satisfied, until he had carefully walked round the yard and critically examined each panel as he passed. Not till this was done did he give utterance to his satisfaction in words too forcible for insertion here. His fevered impatience now wholly subsided, and the lines of his face relaxed into the open, frank expression that seemed to be natural to them. Cordially shaking my hand, he greatly complimented page 14 me on my conduct in the chase, which indeed was more owing to the mettle of my horse than to any judgment that I had been conscious of.

“Look here, young fellow,” he remarked, “I reckon there's not a rider in the county would have done better than you have done this morning, although you are a new chum. Now I'll tell you what I'll do with you: you see that bay colt, the three-year-old? I've long had my eye on that beast, as I reckon him to be near as good an animal as his mother. I think he must be got by that stallion that charged me that time. Well, I'll give you that colt, and what is more, I'll take him in hand for six months for you, and if you can find a man in the country as can beat old George Laycock at breaking-in a horse, why, I'd like to see him, that's all! And after I have done with him, I reckon £100 would be too little a price for him.”

To this condition I gladly enough agreed, and considered I had performed a very fortunate day's work. Laycock appropriated to himself the lion's share of the booty in the mare and the two remaining young ones, a colt and filly. This was only his due, considering the labour he had previously expended to enable him to at last secure his prize.

We now proceeded to examine the various points of the captured horses. The mare was indeed a most superb-looking animal of a rich, dark chestnut colour. The broad forehead, expansive nostrils, almost square-cut nozzle, large prominent eyes, still aflame from her late excitement, proudly arched neck, sloping shoulders, and springy, taper legs, on whose pastern joints not one long hair was visible, were all models of beauty that it would have delighted the heart of a jockey to view.

But the colt that was destined to be my prize naturally absorbed the major part of my attention. His bright bay colour, that was not marred by a single white hair, contrasted strongly with the deep black of his mane, and the lower part of his legs. Whilst the well-formed head, large expressive eyes, and dilated nostrils were inherited from his mother, in the greater luxuriance of hair in his mane and tail, that also showed slightly in his pastern joints, he betrayed the coarser strain of his bush sire. This, as it added strength, was in my eyes rather an improvement than a defect in view of the use for which I should require him, while his noble withers and swelling ribs, his short back, and that part that to horse dealers is technically known as the coupling, which in him was so short, that the last rib almost seemed to lie against the hindquarters, all promised a strength and endurance that made Laycock predict that no ordinary amount of fatigue would affect him.

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I asked him how it came that he had been able to arrive so opportunely to prevent the mare from reaching the scrub. He replied that, on the sudden dispersion of the horses, he had noticed the mare, for which alone he had eyes, in the midst of the troop, but losing sight of her immediately after in the scrub, he rode on for a few minutes, and then, chancing to look round, he just caught sight of her, with me in full chase, disappearing through the forest. Instantly divining the final direction in which she would head—an old haunt of her's—he rode straight for the head of the plain, and, having the advantage of reaching it in a straight line, whilst we had made a slight curve, he was thus enabled to arrive at the critical moment.

We now unsaddled our horses, which, on our dismounting, had stood where they were, panting heavily from the strain of their late exertions.

Laycock, after critically examining Latrobe, praised him highly, and indeed the brave animal deserved it, for without his spirit and ability our present captives would by then have been miles away in the pathless mallee scrub. We rested ourselves for some time in a hut that, together with the yard, had been built by Laycock long before, in view of the present contingency, and, by his foresight, there was also an ample supply of flour, tea, and sugar, so that we were provided with all necessaries for quickly allaying the cravings of keen appetites that our morning gallop had considerably quickened. Brewing a dish of tea and baking some Johnnie cakes on the coals, we soon fell to, and heartily enjoyed our simple breakfast.

After a delay of some hours, Laycock took his bridle in his hand and went into the yard alone (he would not allow me to come with him) to try and secure the mare. At first she seemed frantic when he attempted to get near her, and, snorting loudly, impetuously charged almost over him. Steadily keeping his eye upon her, however, until in time he seemed to master her by its influence, she at last allowed the bridle to be slipped over her head. Feeling the bit between her teeth once more, all this noble animal's instincts of obedience seemed to return, and quietly allowing the saddle to be girthed tightly round her, after a few restless motions such as might almost have been made by a spirited stable-fed horse, her captor placed his foot in the stirrup and quickly vaulted into the saddle, when the mare walked quietly away as if she had already forgotten, or now resigned, all further thoughts of her late freedom.

Laycock next attempted what seemed a still more improbable feat, and still alone. For after dismounting from the mare he returned to the hut, and choosing from some breaking page 16 tackle that lay there, a strong halter of plaited hide, to which was attached a rope of the same material, he, to my utter astonishment, went into the yard with the evident intention of securing the bay colt with this halter.

At first the animal seemed to grow frantic at the sight of him, but he quietly persevered for hours in walking after him with his eye fixed upon him, and eventually succeeded, with the assistance of his own horse, which he led up beside the colt, in getting the head of the latter fairly into the halter, and then by degrees he soothed and coaxed him until by nightfall he could handle and caress him all over.

The result of all this was, that the next morning I returned to the home-station to fetch some provisions and blankets, and then stayed for two more days with Laycock, who refused to allow the colts and filly to leave the yard until he had made them all so tame that he could lead them away with halters; feeding them meanwhile with oak branches and long grass that he cut by the edge of the water-hole.

The colt, which from its noble appearance I had named Selim, was delivered into my hands on the expiration of the period during which Laycock had promised to keep him in hand for me. His qualities I have already hinted at. In the course of the following pages there will be related some incidents in connection with his endurance and fidelity that will show how far George Laycock's estimate of his own knowledge of horse-flesh and capabilities as a trainer were justified.