Go down


Post  Guest on Mon May 16, 2011 9:17 am



IT was after one of those long seasons of drought
which are so periodically prevalent in the pastoral
districts of New South Wales. To him
who has lived through one of these dry spells
on the spot nothing can be so hopeless and
depressing. Nothing makes one feel so utterly
helpless and unable. The drought of 1862 will long be
remembered on the Lachlan for its severity. Several
previous years had been very good. The year '60 was
specially favourable. Long green grass was to be seen all
the year through. An unusually moist summer made
new arrivals think that the seasons had changed. Said
" We shall never see droughts again." The older
residents who had seen '38 and '39, and again '49 and
'50, used to shake their heads and look wise, and tell
the stories of the past. They were looked upon as
antique fossils,
" Was not the whole country becoming
stocked ? Tanks and dams were being made. Nature
was adapting herself in some mysterious or perhaps
specially providential way to the new requirements of
the country." This argument had little effect upon the
fossils. They still shook their heads. " We shall see,"
said they. Some of the more sanguine of the " New
Chum" squatters seriously thought that because by
means of tanks they had conserved a few thousand
gallons of water, the evaporation of these would supplement
the natural supply in sufficient quantity to make
droughts a thing of the past. The year of '61 was a
fairly prosperous one, but notwithstanding the tanks,
the rainfall had decreased considerably. However, ;i
great increase of stock took place. Every animal old
enough to fatten was sent to market and the butcher's
shambles. Whether or not they preferred this kind of
death to that nature might have given them, I have
been unable to learn. Good rains fell in October, and
the rivers were all full. Now dry-westerly winds blew
sharply in November and parched up the herbage. The
summer was dry throughout, with its hot and cold spells,
the thermometer going up to 110 deg. in the shade, and
sometimes falling as low as 65 deg. in 48 hours, when
cyclones, accompanied by clouds and dust and a few
drops of rain, were passing, February and March
having failed to give rains of any value, stock began to
fall off in condition as the plains became bare of grass.
A few showers in the winter sent the stock out into the
back country and produced a slight growth in the herbage.
When September came there was some little
greenness to be seen, and hopes revived as a fresh came
down the river. These hopes were not realised, and
were doomed to complete disappointment, as October
set in dry and dusty. To add a last straw to the camel's
back, myriads of locusts began to come up out of the
ground ; small, tiny black specks at first, and growing
rapidly, they destroyed every vestige of green that the
slight rains of springtime had caused to grow ; and when
they assumed their wings they filled the air as thick as
a snowstorm, and hosts of them were drowned in the
river, covering the water with a stinking layer of their
dead bodies, and providing a great feed for the fish.
The ibis, too, came in thousands to feed upon the locusts,
and deserve all protection in consequence. And now
the cattle, as the backwater completely dried up, began
to march into the river to water in long dust-raising
files, slowly moving across the plains. And the heated air
rises and quivers under the hot sun, and the cattle loom
large in the delusive mirage which seems to cover the
plains with glassy sheets of water.
Cattle always go to water along pathways which they
make by walking in single file. A natural instinct
directs the movement. Many hundreds may water at a
small pond. But to do this they come to it in droves of
20 or 30 at a time. Each drove when satisfied marches
off, and by that time another is close by to take the
place. They begin to water at about 5 o'clock in the
evening, and come in relays till daylight or sunrise.
Before fencing was adopted, watching cattle coming to
water by moonlight, and keeping in custody all that
came, was a good plan to secure those that could not
be got by other means. Old bullocks that lived away
out in the back scrubs and eluded pursuit, were captured
in this way. It was a spirit-stirring and dangerous
business, many of the cattle were very wild, and made
desperate efforts to escape, and the holey ground often
brought man and horse down in crashing falls at full
gallop. As December, 1861, was dry and the grass
was all gone, the older and weaker of the cattle began
to stick in the mud at the water's edge in the rivers and
lagoons, and die there. Towards the end of the month
the stronger began to fail, as all the scrub, the yarran
trees, the warriah bushes, the salt bushes, and indeed
every green thing within reach had been devoured. In
January the poor brutes began to die in their camps
away from the water. On the surface of the plains
there was nothing but dust. All the water holes stank
with dead cattle. Hundreds could be counted at
favourite watering-places. Dead cattle could be seen
everywhere ; indeed, one might ride for miles, and dead
cattle were always in sight. And still the sky glittered
in its beautiful blue depths, while the heated air,
radiating from the black and dusty land, rose upwards
continually in quivering undulations.
On the first day of February the canvas bag full of
water hanging under the verandah of the station hut
showed outwardly a moist surface. There is a feeling
in the air somewhat different from usual. A gentle
wind is commencing to blow from the northward ; clouds
are appearing in that direction, and long mares' tails
(cirrus clouds) are spreading themselves in fanlike
figures over the sky from the westward. As the day
goes on the clouds thicken, and a low bank of vapour
appears in the west, behind which the sun disappears,
and is not seen when he really sets below the horizon.
The clouds still drift overhead from the north, and when
night comes a few pattering drops of rain are heard on
the shingled roof, and then cease. Our hearts are
in our mouths. We dare not speak for fear the expression
of a hope might have the effect of dispersing the
clouds, for our hopes have long indeed been deferred
into heart-sickness. But hark ! another little shower,
brisker and longer than the last, and in an hour or so a
steady, gentle rain is falling, and is even beginning
to drip from the eaves. We go to bed, but not to
sleep. We are up and down all night wandering out
into the verandah, standing on the very edge in naked
feet and peering out into the darkness. How sweet is
the scent of the moistened earth ! How soothing is the
constant soft murmur of the falling rain ! How refreshing
the splash from the eavesdrops upon our feet !
Thank God, it has come at last. Our eyes fill with
tears of thankfulness. We feel that we can scarcely
trust ourselves to speak, lest we should be unmanned
and begin to cry. Next day the wind shifted round to
the eastward, and the rain comes in heavy, continuous
driving showers. All the small water-courses run strong
streams, and the low grounds begin to fill. Near sundown
there is a sudden lull, and a great black bank of
clouds appears in the west and comes rolling on overhead,
and then the rain that has fallen seems as nothing compared
with the torrent from this cloud, which pours
from the roof in perfect waterspouts. This at length
passes by and there are intermittent showers during the
rest of the night. The morning is light and cool, with
a gentle south-west wind, and the face of the country is
all bare mud and sheets of water, and in a few hours a
little green tinge is to be seen here and there, and in a
few days there is a great change visible in the appearance
of the country as the grass appears to grow. The
cattle left all wander away into the back country. How
many died we never knew, at least a third, possibly a
half. The increase from July, 1861 (before the drought)
to July, 1862, one year, was 1700. The increase from
July, 1862, to October, 1864 (after the drought), over
two years, was only 1600. The eight dry weeks from
December i to January 31, did all the mischief. If two
inches had fallen in November after the locusts took
wing, no losses would have been. We only saved two
milking cows out of 23, and these were kept alive by
cutting boughs for them to eat. On March i a storm,
identical in character with the one four weeks previous,
visited the place, and then the grass grew a foot high
and more all over the country. Some 10 inches of rain
had probably fallen in these two storms. The winter
following was wet and the river was in constant flood,
running bank high for weeks together. The managing
partner's cottage is near the bank of the river. It is
built of sawn pine slabs, and has a shingled roof and
boarded floor and ceilings. Its walls inside are covered
with calico and paper. There are wide verandahs on
two sides. To the posts are trained grape vines and
dolichos and the beautifully fragile maurandia, with
dark purple velvet flowers. Rose bushes and chrysanthemums
and oleanders, when in flower, add brightness
to the little flower-garden in front. Inside, the place is,
for a bush home, comfortably furnished, and one corner
of the sitting-room is occupied by a good collection of
books. The country around is level and flat. The outlook
is across an open plain through which the river
meanders in graceful serpentine windings, with its high
leafy wall of blue gums. Out from the river the country
is prettily broken by open plains, fringed and dotted
with myall trees and bounded by forests and clumps of
box and pine and belar. In the distance is to be seen
a low range of hills relieving the level monotony by their
undulating blue outlines. A great stockyard, 6 ft. high,
and enclosing about 3a. of ground, stands on a small
hillock of red soil at the edge of the plain. As the herd
of cattle on the run did number, before the drought,
some 6000 head, a large yard was necessary for its
The month of August had nearly passed, and the
spring was setting in, the plains were beginning to look
quite green. At night, in the sitting-room of the
cottage, the station manager and a friend are playing
a quiet game of cards. In an easy chair is the housewife
busy with her needle, making those little garments,
which, to an experienced eye, are somewhat prophetic.
As she works, her mind seems to be in deep reverie, as
the regular and ceaseless click of needle is repeated with
mechanical precision. Her thoughts are in the future,
with the conjectures of the forms and features of that
first little one, which in the fancy of a mother's love in
tender imagination she presses to her bosom and endows
with every charm and grace. The station life to her is
a very solitary one. There is no neighbour, except the
servants, nearer than some ten miles away. She has
married the man of her choice, however, and is determined
cheerfully and courageously to perform her duty
with a hope that prosperous years may enable them to
choose a less unsociable home. The rain without pours
down in relentless torrents. Would that it had only
come when it was more wanted ! As we wondered
when the drought was going to end, so now, we think
almost with fear, that the rain will never cease
unsatisfied mortals that we are. The lamp on the table
illuminates the room, and the three-log myallwood fire
burns fiercely and brightly with its pretty pale rose colored
slender flame.
The manager's friend is a cattle - buyer from
Melbourne. He is an educated, intellectual gentleman.
He has had misfortunes, and must do something
for a living. He has had much practical
experience of bushcraft, and knows fat cattle when he
sees them. His latest venture was to pioneer the
Gawler Rangers, and endeavour to form a large sheep
station there. Droughts and unforseen expenses consequent
thereupon swallowed up all the capital of self
and partner, and sent them both adrift to seek other
means of making money. Christian O was Scotch
by birth, and claimed to be the rightful heir to a Scottish
Earldom held in abeyance.
" When I make my fortune,"
said he,
" I will establish my claim." He died
before this could be carried out. He had been educated
at one of the great historical English Public schools,
and had all the fine, independent manly tone of that
training. A love of adventure and finding no opening
for his energies in the overcrowded condition of the old
country brought him to Australia. He had been a
private secretary for a short time to the first Anglican
Bishop of Australia. Had tried squatting in the days
before the gold discovery. Had sold out of that business.
Had speculated and lost all his capital. Had
been obliged to work as a bullock driver. Had managed
large pastoral properties for others. Was now on the
wrong side of 50, a tall, lithe, active, sanguine man still,
with nothing but colonial experience and an unblemished
reputation as his only properties. A kind and
friendly man, he was not without little sarcastic touches
for his best friends, laid on with such good humour and
sparkling twinkle of the eye as made the victims like
him all the better for his candid openness. He was a
rolling stone, and attrition with his fellows added some
little roughness’s to his character. As honest as the
sun and rather close in his dealings, one felt quite safe
in striking a bargain with him. Melbourne agents trusted
his personal integrity and advanced money to any extent
for his purchases. With few, if any, strong religious
convictions, he had a conscience so refined as to
stand much in the way of his worldly success. He once
obtained a lucrative Government appointment which he
could, at his own discretion, treat as a sinecure or not,
as it so pleased him. His temperament forbade him to
be inactive. After a time he voluntarily resigned his
position and his daily bread, because he found that he
was not able to do the good he anticipated. So there
he was, another Australian antipodean anomaly, a man
with education and abilities for much higher possibilities,
driven by an inexorable fate or crass perverseness to
drive bullocks to market for a living.
While the game goes on, the fire burns brightly, and
the rain stills pours outside with chilling persistence,
and the friends discuss the prospects of the season, and
the land law lately passed. O takes the popular
views, and hopes much from the settlement of the country
by a small proprietary. The other, whose whole
interests and heartstrings are bound up in the place (it
has been his home for some years), who knows every
tree on the run, every romantic little nook among the
hills, whose delight has been to watch his cattle fattening
on the plains with all the profitable consequences,
and who has come to look upon the river as a live thing
and a friend, who, as a schoolboy, was taught to look
forward with ambitious pleasure to the time when the
management should devolve upon him as is most
natural: is much stirred with antagonism to the future
prospects, and cannot look with complacency upon the
advent of strangers whose claims may mean ruin to him,
while hurling him from the little throne which custom
has taught him to look upon as inseparable from himself.
The day after, driving showers from the south-west
alternate with gleams of sunshine ; but the next day is
bright and clear. Early in the morning the son of a
neighbouring squatter comes to tell the manager, who
is a magistrate, that he has found the dead body of a
man lying in the bush. A messenger is dispatched to
the nearest police-station, ten miles away. A flooded
branch of the river has to be crossed before the
body can be seen, so "
Jackey Street
" and "
Billy," two of the station blacks, are dispatched to cut a
canoe at the point nearest to the spot. These canoes
are sheets of bark, stripped from the bole of a large
slightly-bent tree. If skilfully taken off, they make
efficient and useful vessels. As the party is complete,
they start off with pick and spade and axe, and,
lastly, a prayer-book. They do not like to consign a
fellow-creature to the grave without some of the usual
reverential practice. When the branch is reached,
the men and saddles are ferried over in the canoe, and then
the horses are made to swim across the stream, which
they do readily, with much snorting and blowing. The
country passed over is diversified open plain and woodland.
All the hollow depressions are now small lake lets,
with wild ducks innumerable upon them. The plains
are green with young grass, and in a month's time will
be patterned carpet-like with large informal blotches of
colour, as the yellow, white, and blue flowers come into
bloom. Native-companions dance and make love with
ridiculous antic awkwardness in the propitious season,
and the wild turkeys strut about and swell their necks
with amorous self-conceit that is if we may judge them
from the known foibles of the human race. But perhaps
this is too hard upon the bird. The alien chat and
laugh and chaff each other, as they ride along splashing
through the shallow sheets of water left by the late rain.
As the guide indicates that they near the spot, a silence
falls upon them. Death exacts the respect due to him.
At length, at a little distance through some park-like
trees, and on an open place, -a dark object unlike anything
else but the thing it is, is seen lying on the green
grass. The body is that of a tall, thin, grey-headed old
man, stretched at full length on his back on the wet
ground. His arms lie close by his side, his few grey
locks wave and quiver in the gentle breeze. The half shut
sightless eyes stare blindly up to heaven. As the
men ride up to the body and gather around it, their
horses sniff and snort at and start back from it. They
dismount and tie their horses to the trees, and proceed
to examine and if possible discover the cause of death.
A pair of well-worn blankets are huddled in a heap close
by, and there is a large bag with a bundle in it.
Apparently the man had camped here for some
day or two, as there is a large heap of ashes of a fire by
which he lies, evidently extinguished by the rain. On
the heap of ashes lie a knife, a razor and a whetstone.
They are about concluding that it is a case of death
from want and exposure (as the small bags in which he
has carried some food are quite empty), when one, more
curious than the rest, tenderly draws down the neck
from under the right jaw a large knot of a thick woollen
comforter. " Good God," he exclaims,
" the man's
throat is cut !" Here, then, was the cause of death.
They then gathered from the indications that the poor
old man was lost, that his scanty provisions had failed
him, that the heavy night's rain over which they had
rejoiced, had so completely exhausted him that he had
been unable to keep his fire burning, and had taken a
short way to end his worldly troubles. There was
deliberation, too, in the method. He had taken the
razor and discarded it for some reason. He had then
sharpened the knife, and with one stroke severed the
jugular vein, and so died. His very last act showed
most pathetically that he must have been somewhat
ashamed and repentant. He had evidently drawn over
the part from which his life was flowing away the large
double knot of the woollen comforter, as if to hide the
signs of his guilt. Gold enough was found on him to have
purchased provisions, had they been obtainable. Papers
found in his bundle disclosed a sad case. He had been
employed by some wealthy squatters as a night-watcher
of sheep. His pay was less than a pound per day. In the
judgment of his employers he had failed in his duty.
He had been summoned to appear at the court to show
cause why his munificent wages should not be forfeited
for the masters' benefit. He had thereupon wandered
away with the intention of disobeying the summons and
leaving his masters to do what they liked with his hardly earned
pittance. These masters had claimed the pound
of flesh, and, with better fortune than Shylock had, at
last obtained the blood as well. The magistrate took
the evidence of the finder of the body, and of the constable
who examined it. Then the blacks cut a sheet
of bark, and a grave was dug under two beautiful
cypress trees, and the body laid within the bark was
placed in it, and they all stood round the grave with
uncovered heads, while a portion of the English burial
service was read. As they covered him over with the damp
earth, a gentle shower drifted from the westward and
fell upon them. And the grave being filled, they rode
away for some short distance, when the sun shone out
in all his brightness from under the dark cloud, and as
they took a last look at the scene of their sad work,
a beautiful and perfect rainbow was arched over the
spot. The two cypress trees were lit up in full relief
against the black rain cloud slowly drifting to the east,
and they reflected a light beryl-hued and sparkled in
brilliant splendour with raindrops as with diamonds.
As the men gazed, a gentle breeze, softly sighing, shook
the drops in glistening tears upon the grave. And the
trees, standing under the very centre of the bow, seemed,
with their delicate fragile tops, to point upwards, like
angels' fingers, to the glorious iridescence, and to assure
the onlookers of a bright material morrow for themselves,
and to give (for who can tell ?) a heavenly promise
of a brighter spiritual dawning for that poor friendless
castaway lying darkly in his lonely grave.

Taken from
STORIES RETOLD AND Sketches of Country Life,


Back to top Go down


Post  Lyricus on Mon May 16, 2011 2:51 pm


New Poster
New Poster

Number of posts : 16
Age : 40
Registration date : 2011-04-18


Back to top Go down

Back to top

Permissions in this forum:
You cannot reply to topics in this forum