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Vicissitudes of Bush Life in Australia and New Zealand

Chapter XXIII

Chapter XXIII.

Shortly after sunrise the next morning we were again in the saddle, and leaving the belt of the forest in which Lampiere and Burrel's hut was situated, we held a bee line for the end of a distant blue mountain, round which our route wound. By mid-day we rode into the camp, just as the men were preparing to sit down to their dinner, which was spread on the ground, in front of a large tarpaulin, improvised into a tent, page 157 that had just been erected and was to serve as a sleeping apartment for all hands, until some of the huts could he finished.

Charles Knight, with a white cap on his head, looking every inch a cook, was there, attending to the wants of the diners, with an air of profound importance, as though presiding over the arrangements of a civic feast, or agricultural dinner. His erect carriage was supported by the proud consciousness of Self's resources for provisioning the party by which he was enabled to spread before them such a choice repast of meat pastry and fruit pastry prepared at home before starting. All this now was partaken of with great relish, together with some fragrant tea, of which an ample supply was steaming in a large American bucket on the ground beside them—all this excellent feed having been improvised ere any conveniences for his cooking arrangements had been made.

He now kept replying with the most imperturbable demeanour to the constant, vociferous summonses to “Self” for attendance on the varied wants of the party, which wants appeared to be almost voracious in their character, with the calm replies of “Yes, sir,” or “Self is here at your service, sir”. Tom Crawford, as usual leading the conversation, was entertaining the party by the relation of some of his wild stories of adventures with the blacks, or experiences with noted pugilistic champions among the whites.

All seemed hearty and happy; nor did the sudden presence of their overseer, or Cove, as the bush term for such a personage is, put the least damper on their spirits. Among these roving, independent bushmen, Jack is always reckoned just as good as his master—and indeed I would not have envied the overseer's lot who would have attempted to assume an air of superiority over fractious and facetious Tom Crawford. Not that either he or any of the others were disrespectful, quite the contrary. Looking to me for orders for their work they addressed me with simple respect when they spoke, but this respect on their part was based on the assumption that what work I ordered them to do, I could judge of when done, and that I gave no other orders than what I meant should be carried into effect. For of all the evils that such men as these find it hardest to submit to, it is that of being under the orders of an incompetent director who interferes from a love of meddling, and frets and fumes with dissatisfaction when they are conscious of having honestly executed their work.

“Well, Tom,” remarked Lilly, as we joined the party at dinner, “fighting some of your old battles over again? What a terrible warrior you have been in your time, man!”

“Well, yes, Lilly, I reckon I have been in a few scrimmages page 158 in my time; I think you have seen me in one or two yourself, old man!”

“I should like to see the man who has known Tom Crawford long and not seen him in a scrimmage,” here remarked Mulroy, speaking in that tone of solid emphasis that, without the ear being offended by the inflection or any peculiarity of accent, at once indicates the speaker to be a Scotchman.

“Well, I believe that is true too,” replied Tom, joining good humouredly in the laugh raised by Mulroy's dry remark, “but you know for all that, Mul, that I would quarrel with no man without a cause.”

“Somehow or other, you seem to have a cause pretty often for quarrelling, for all that,” replied Mulroy in the same dry tone as before, thereby eliciting another peal of laughter from the party.

“Well,” replied Crawford apologetically, at the implied charge of his readiness to take offence, “I am a man that will take nonsense from no one, and it makes my blood boil when a man speaks to me in a domineering tone, and especially, too, when I see a bully trying to bounce a weaker man than himself.”

“Just so, Tom,” replied Mulroy, in the same tone of dry though good humoured banter, “you're like a carpenter that is pretty handy with his tools, and so likes to be always using them whenever he sees a crooked job that he reckons he can put straight, and so when you see something going crooked between two men, you are bound to try and straighten the matter with your tools.”

“Well done, Mulroy,” cried Lilly, laughing heartily at the illustration, “but people may be too handy with their tools, as Tom was when he tried to straighten the job that had got crooked between the swagger and the six ‘Tips’ who were going to mob him, and who all turned on Tom himself, and the man whose part Tom had taken left him to fight it out by himself whilst he showed them a clean pair of heels.”

“Aye, Lilly, old man, I had some cause for thanking you for helping me out of that scrape that time.”

“Yes,” said Mulroy, “I heard something about that, but I never heard the particulars; it was down at Menindie wasn't it?”

“Yes,” replied Crawford. “As Lilly says I went to help a cove who was drinking at Tom Payne's, and who had been shouting for these ‘Tips,’ and having said something to them that they did not like, as soon as he went outside, they all followed him. It was just about dusk, but I just saw them as they went round the corner, and I rushed out among them, for I wasn't going to stand by and see one man mobbed by six; and page 159 then as Lilly says, the sods all turned on me, whilst the cove I had gone to help bolted and left me to do the best I could with them! Well, I had knocked one of the ‘Tips’ sprawling, when the other five rushed at me, and just then Lilly came at them with his stockwhip. My word, he soon cleared the course of them!”

“I just happened to come out of the hotel,” said Lilly, “and hearing a row round the corner I went forward and saw at a glance what was up. Well, I was just going to rush in among them to help Tom with my fists, when I happened to think of a better plan; so I just ran back and unhooking Coleena from the verandah post, I jumped into the saddle, and unfastening my stockwhip I just went at them with the lash! Talk of rounding up a mob of cattle, it was nothing to the way that I made my stockwhip play about those dogs.”

“Yes! and didn't they soon clear away, and bolt into the house and lock themselves up in one of the rooms! I would have smashed the door open with the axe, if Tom Payne hadn't begged me to go away and leave them alone. But you saved my bacon that time, Lilly!”

“Well, I don't know but what you would have cleared off the whole bang lot of them yourself, Tom. When I came up, you were going at them with your feet and hands; talk of a cat being raised, I never saw a man looking as wild as you were in my life! But I should have cut the eyes out of the heads of the sods if they hadn't bolted when they did. I am an Irishman myself, but curse foul play! I can never stand the sight of that in Irishmen or Englishmen.”

“Aye, Lilly, it would be well if all Irishmen were like you: there wouldn't be so much said against them if they were,” replied Crawford, who himself was a Scotchman, and known for entertaining a violent prejudice against Irishmen in general, from the frequent collision he had with such unfavourable specimens of the race as the “Tips” in the squabble he had just alluded to.

“I shall always consider myself in your debt for a broken head, Lilly, since your service to me that time.”

“Never mind the debt, Tom; unless indeed you find me being mobbed by a half-dozen wild ‘Tips,’ when you may then pay a little of the debt back in the way of interest if you like.”

“I pity the half dozen or dozen Tips that interferes with you, Lilly, when you are sitting on Coleena, and have your stockwhip in your hand!” This sally produced another loud laugh from all the party.

“Did any of you chaps,” inquired Crawford,” ever hear how Lilly announced dinner to the governor, when he had been page 160 stopping at Tappio, on his way down the river, when Emerson was there, the year before Mr. Farquharson arrived?”

Most of us replied that we had not heard of the circumstance, whilst Lilly laughed, and one or two of the men who had been acquainted with the affair, smiled in amusement at the remembrance of it.

“Well,” continued Crawford, “it was one day as I was splitting posts on the river bank, just at the station, and Lilly was beside me and lending me a hand, as he said he had nothing to do that day, when Captain Caddell's steamer, on his way down the river, stopped and was moored to a gum tree just beside where I was working; and then out of the steamer came several swells, one of them being no less a person than Sir Richard M‘Donnell, governor of South Australia.

“Now Mr. Emerson was naturally a fussy stuck-up sort of a man, and down he comes when he saw the steamer stop, and starts bowing and scraping to this viceregal swell, as if he were in the presence of royalty itself, instead of merely its shadow.

“I stood looking straight at them and should not have cared if it had been Prince Albert, with the Queen to boot. I wasn't going to touch my hat to them, nor, I reckon, did Lilly, although I could see by the angry manner with which Emerson looked at us, that he considered we should have both done so. Well, Mr. Emerson then begged that the governor would do him the great honour of dining with him, although he said he had but poor entertainment to offer him. But the governor, who appeared to be a rather jolly old cock, told Emerson not to put himself about: he could do very well with what he could offer. Then he and Captain Caddell, and two or three other swells, one of them the governor's secretary I believe, and the other perhaps his snuff-bearer for all I know, went all the way up to the house.

“In a very short time afterwards Emerson came down and begged Lilly to go up to the kitchen and cook the dinner, for he knew that Lilly was not to be beaten as a cook, and he wanted to give the Governor and his friends as grand a feed as he possibly could manage. At first Lilly swore and declared that he would see Sir Richard M‘Donnell in pandemonium, before he would cook for him; however, he at last took pity on this poor fussy crawler of an overseer, as he could see his heart was set on doing the grand to the governor in the little tin pot way that he could manage, so he went up to the kitchen.

“As soon as Emerson had got him fairly started, he got old John into the house, and had him fairly rigged up in one of his best suits of clothes, to wait at table, whilst he fossicked up some white tablecloths, and had one cut up into sizes for page 161 dinner napkins, and lent a hand himself in laying out the dinner to make things look as grand and genteel as possible, all to do honour to this Governor. Governor indeed,” ejaculated Crawford contemptuously, “why, I was told afterwards that on his way down the river, at a station where he called, he saw a parrot in a cage that was hanging outside of one of the huts, and he actually had the cheek to walk away with the parrot! Yes, the Governor of South Australia actually took a parrot. I reckon he should have been put in quod for it, for my part. Well, among other things that Emerson thought of doing to have his dinner to this Governor served up in as grand a style as possible, was to send in a bullock bell that Lilly was told to ring when the dinner was ready. I was in the kitchen where I had gone to have a yarn, when the last order came in. ‘Ring be d——d,’ said Lilly to John who had brought in the message, ‘I'm going to ring no bell!’ Well, dinner shortly after this was ready to serve up, and Lilly soon had it on the table. Emerson was out in that bit of garden behind the house airing his importance before his Excellency.

“He could be heard coming across this title at almost every other sentence that he uttered. But I guess his dignity got a fine down-come, when, instead of the tintinnabulation of the bullock bell announcing dinner, he heard Lilly's rough voice shouting from the kitchen door, ‘Now then, swells, the grub's on the table; go in and get a feed,’ and with these words off Lilly marches away down to the river to his own hut. Laugh! I thought I should have split my sides with laughing when I heard Lilly shouting out like that, and I laughed all the more when I saw how Emerson looked when he heard it!”

We all laughed very heartily at Crawford's narrative, that was told with a spirit very hard to convey on paper, as we realised the inglorious collapse, that Lilly's unceremonious announcement must have occasioned to my predecessor's air of importance in the eyes of the Governor of South Australia.

Lilly returned home next day, but I remained where I was for several days longer, to personally superintend the initial operations of my arrangements for the lambing. The weather being good, the work in the bush, in which I took a personal part, was very pleasant and invigorating, with its continual chop, chop, of axes, and see saw of the cross cuts, and the sound of falling timber; though as this (save a little for the huts) was not required of any great size, it did not fall with anything like the shock or noise occasioned by that of the more important trees.

At night, seated on logs around a blazing wood fire, in the open, or by the ample fireplace of one of the huts, the first page 162 of which was completed in about three days, there was no lack of entertainment to keep our spirits from flagging in our solitary encampment.

What with songs from the one, and performances on the accordion, on which instrument there was more than one ready player—and even step dances, the time between the completion of our evening meal, and that for seeking our beds some hours later, was as cheerfully and pleasantly occupied as if the idea of our lonely encampment in this Australian solitude, so far removed from any other civilised settlement, was a source of disquiet to no one.

Then, when there came a lull amongst the singers and players, there was always a standing source of entertainment in the reminiscences of someone of the party, though in such tales it was usually Tom Crawford who took the chief part. Yet, though free enough in talking about his own prowess, there was but little of what he told us that could be set down to the score of mere gasconading, and many a tale of wild adventure and of fighting had he to tell, all of which, from the daring and decisive manner of the narrator, I doubted not had actually occurred. But of all his narrations, that which excited me most at the time, and which in the light of subsequent events I had most reason to remember afterwards, was his relation of a tragedy that had happened some weeks before (of which I had already heard some rumour), at a creek called the Warego, situated farther up the country towards the Queensland Border, in which two white men had been murdered by the blacks.

This incident, Crawford, who had a naturally dramatic and impassioned way of telling a story, was able to describe more vividly, from his having viewed the scene of action a few days after the tragedy had taken place.

Crawford, by the way, had only been a few weeks with me at this time, for although he was frequently engaged in one capacity or another at Tappio, yet, being a thorough bird of passage, it was seldom that his stay at any place was prolonged beyond two or three months at a time. Being a professional shearer, it was seldom that he failed to quit whatever employment he chanced to be engaged upon, on the first dawn, so to speak, of the shearing season, so as to catch the early sheds in the very earliest districts. Thus by following these sheds up till they were finally closed for the work in the latest shearing districts, he reaped the full benefit of what money was to be made at this work, by which he contrived each season to turn over no inconsiderable sums, even as working men's wages were at that time rated in the colony.

page 163

I use the term advisedly when I say that he was able to turn all this money over. In truth, Crawford did little more than turn it over, when he had received it—to wit, into a publican's hands at the inn or shanty nearest to the shed at which he had just earned a good cheque. This money, notwithstanding the toil he had undergone in securing it, he there, in the midst of a group of kindred roysterers and fellow-shearers, contrived to wholly dissipate in a surprisingly short space of time, by the simple method of continual “shouts” of “nobblers” for all hands at a crowded bar.

By this mode of fast living on the part of the shearers it was soon evident, even to themselves, that the fastest and surest shearer of them all was the shanty-keeper himself.

As the result of all this, at the end of the most prosperous shearing season Crawford generally turned up in search of employment at Tappio absolutely penniless; flyblown, in fact, as a very unsavoury but expressive bush simile expresses the condition of things. On the present occasion, however, Crawford had agreed to stay and shear at Tappio shed, being provided with ample employment in the shape of a contract for a dam that was to be constructed after his present work at the yards was at an end, and which would keep him and Macalister going until the shearing at Tappio was ready.

As to the narrative in question, however, we had been sitting round the fire in a newly-finished hut one night after supper, and Crawford had just finished a description of a desperate encounter with the blacks in some newly-occupied country in Queensland, where the natives were particularly daring and turbulent, when Billy Stack inquired:—

“Did you hear, Tom, of those two white men who were murdered a few weeks ago up in the Warego? I heard something about it, but not the particulars of the case. Do you happen to know anything about them?”

“Do I know anything about them? I should think I do, Billy. I came past the place a fortnight after the murder was committed.”

“Then you might tell us all about it. I heard that one of the men had been a captain in the army.”

“And so he was a captain,” replied Crawford, “a Captain Bruce; a man of good family; but I suppose that won't make his body taste any sweeter to the worms now they have got it. And his aristocratic friends will have to come a long way if they want to see the grave in which he now lies in a bend of the lonely Warego. Mrs Hemans's lines,

‘The Indian knows his place of rest,
Far in the cedar shade,’

page 164

only wants the alteration of two or three words to make the comparison perfect, as thus—

‘The Australian knows his place of rest,
Far in the boxtree's shade’.

And, indeed, very few besides the Australians do know it. I suppose the man must have given way to gambling and drinking, like the rest of us, or he would not have come so far down in the world as to be carrying his swag when death, by means of a savage's tomahawk, overtook him in that out-of-the-way corner of God's earth. You want to hear the particulars. Well, you shall have them as I got them from some of the men at Bloxham's Station, within six miles of the place where the cold-blooded murder was committed.

“This Captain Bruce and a German named Raynor had come the night before to Bloxham's Station, and staid there all night. They were travelling up the creek in the hopes of getting on at some bush work at a new station that was being formed a good way further up the creek. I knew the German myself. He and I were at the same station last winter. I was making some sheep yards where he was shepherding some ewes and lambs. He was a stout butt of a man, a native of Frankfort, and could speak very good English. He also understood the sword exercise, as he said most of his countrymen, or at least fellow-townsmen, did, for I saw him one evening showing a cove the different passes and guards, and I remember he surprised me by saying that most of the guards are now performed by a simple turn of the wrist, though I can hardly see well how that can be so. But, however, about this German. I always, before I met with that man, used to look upon Germans as only soft, slobberly sort of men. Big enough frames, and strong enough, for that matter, but altogether wanting the hardiness and pluck of us Britishers. However, I admit that this man, at least, was an exception to that rule. I partly thought so when I was in his company, but I am now convinced of it by the way in which he behaved himself in the scene that I am about to describe to you.

“The next morning as this German and this Captain Bruce were rolling up their swags outside, there were several of the station blacks looking on and watching them. As these blacks were all reckoned quite harmless, no one dreamt of the villainy that was at that very time filling their minds. These two white men had a good stock of tobacco with them, and evidently these black devils had noticed the fact. Now, in my opinion, a black fellow, no matter how quiet he looks, is never to be trusted, for in their eyes a fig of tobacco constitutes as great a page 165 temptation to knock a man on the head as £100 would be to a white murderer. Besides their tobacco, both men had very good swags of clothes and blankets with them.

“Curiously enough, it would seem as if a sudden presentiment of foul play had flashed across the German's mind; for he looked up and remarked with a smile to one of the station hands who was beside him, ‘I hope that the blacks won't take a fancy to my red blankets!’ Little did the poor fellow really imagine what these devils were planning in their minds at that time, or he would not have left that station so happily as he did that morning, if indeed he would have left it at all that day.

“Well, these two men putting their swags on their shoulders, went along the road quite easy in their minds I suppose, and without the slightest idea that close on the tracks of each, death's dark shadow was silently stalking, in the persons of two of these blacks, who followed them along the way they went, without the white men having the least suspicion as to why they were doing so. If they thought of them at all, they would probably have only fancied that they were accidentally going along the same way as they themselves. Another thing would have confirmed them in this idea, that is, if they had happened to give a thought to the matter at all: on the other side of the creek was another black fellow keeping up with them, in company with a gin.

“I have always understood that when blacks mean mischief they leave their women at their camps, and doubtless these travellers had heard the same thing, so that the sight of this gin in company with the black fellow would have at once quieted any suspicions if they had happened to arise in their minds; a thing that is very doubtful, for no one suspected the least danger from these station blacks. Of the two customers that were following them, one was armed with a tomahawk, and the other had a nulla-nulla. This weapon they either fight with, you know, in close quarters, or throw at anything they want to hit, from a distance of from ten to twenty yards. I forget what arms the black fellow on the other side of the creek was provided with, but I know he had one of those long sticks, that the gins use for digging up roots or yams with.

“However, the two doomed men went carelessly along till they thought they would like a spell, when, throwing down their swag, and undoing their pannikins, they went down to the creek and had a drink, then, sitting down on their swags, filled their pipes and had a smoke. It is to be hoped that they enjoyed it, for it was to be the last smoke that either of them was ever to have on this earth. Their smoke being over, they had both turned round and were in the act of fastening their pannikins page 166 on to their swags again, when the two bloodthirsty black villains who had followed them so far, now suddenly stole behind them and both struck their victims a deadly blow at the same time. As it happened, it was the black fellow with the tomahawk who had gone behind the Captain, who by the blow was killed instantly; but the German, while bending over his swag, just happened to catch a glimpse of the tomahawk in the act of descending on his companion's skull, and threw himself up immediately. This caused the blow from the nulla-nulla, intended for his skull, to light full on the nape of his neck, which it did with such crushing force as to fatally injure the sinew of the spine, as he afterwards, but not then, died from its effects. There was still sufficient energy left to enable the brave fellow to turn and grapple for dear life, with the two murderers. Two, did I say? yes, three of them, for the third black fellow now crossed the creek and rushed to the assistance of his two mates; and in the deadly clutches of these three black devils, the gallant German now rolled over and over among the scrub.

“I saw the marks of that terrible struggle while they were still fresh, a fortnight after it occurred, and I tell you, lads, that there were saplings there as thick as my leg snapt off in the course of that death struggle, as if a bullock had been struggling for his life, instead of only one brave man in the clutches of three devils.

“At last the German wrenched himself free from the three blacks. Would to God that I had been beside him to help him at the time, for my heart warms for a brave man whatever country he belongs to. Drawing his knife he challenged his murderers to come on. That man must have had the heart of a lion, German or no German: there was no white feather or craven blood in him.

“Instead of venturing to take up his challenge and come at him again, one of the cowardly blacks, evidently the one that had come across the creek, threw his yam stick at the German's right hand, which it struck with such force, that the knife dropt out of his grasp, but instantly picking it up again with his left hand, he dared them once more to come near him. On their shirking this challenge, he then for the first time seemed to think of flight, and turning round, he fled back with all his speed, in the direction whence he had come. He ran until he fainted; when, on recovering his consciousness, and memory of what had occurred, he again ran with the energy of despair, until he made the station that, a few hours before, he and his now murdered companion had left in such high spirits.

“When he arrived, he was able to tell to the horrified people there all that had occurred. As he spoke, it was observed that page 167 from the injury done to some of the sinews of his neck by the force of the black fellow's club he was unable to hold his head erect: it always had a tendency to fall back. He was able to tell all his story, but shortly afterwards his consciousness left him and never again returned. This event occurred on a Saturday, and on the Saturday following the German died, and on the Saturday following his death one of his black murderers was shot. The other two had also been secured and handcuffed together, but as a trooper was bringing them along through the scrub, they suddenly made a bound into it and disappeared, and though closely followed, no trace could be found of them afterwards. It is supposed that they must have managed to slip their hands out of the handcuffs, and that they have come down in this direction.

“These three blacks were all powerfully built and particularly ugly looking, and it seems strange that each of them had a name corresponding to his forbidding appearance. He that was shot was called ‘Tim the Butcher,’ and the other two are called respectively ‘Billy the Bull’ and ‘Tommy the Turk’.”

The relation of this tragic event, particularly affecting in itself, impressed me vividly enough at the time, though I did not know then, which nevertheless proved true, that I was shortly destined to reap the fruits of this deed of blood.

I had indeed soon reason enough for believing the correctness of Crawford's suspicions that the escaped black murderers had come down in the direction of our present locality. Could I have dreamt at that time of the possibility of such a contingency, I should hardly have owned a guiltless conscience in leaving a party of men with but one double-barrelled gun among them as a protection against blacks, among whom two such desperadoes were known to be at large.

But of course I was innocent of any such knowledge, the distance from the scene of the outrage being too great for me to attach any weight to Crawford's remark about the route that the escaped murderers were supposed to have taken. But the sequel proved that there was no small measure of truth in Crawford's other remark, that “blacks were never to be trusted”.