Thursday, May 30, 2013

Love or terror, it is still the Outback

Talking of the Outback and its perils draws me back to an experience I had working on a property out from Winton in the Central West. The owners, for some reason, let the property run down. The stock were poor and the fences had not been touched for repair for several years. The first day I started on this place I felt an atmosphere of despair from the boss, and it wasn't until some years later that I heard that he and his wife were breaking up and the property became the argument in settlement.

Of course that was not my concern, even if I had known about it at the time, I was hired as a stationhand when they seemed to expect a miracle worker.

The first morning the boss said to me, “Go and ride the fences in as many paddocks you can get through before dark and take some paper and a pencil with you to write down the fence condition as you go." Nothing else; no indication of where I would be likely to find broken fences, but he was the boss so I did as I was told.

Before I went, I went over to the cook house to get some damper, maybe some cold mutton and a bit of tea and sugar to keep the “worms” away during the day.  More depression as the Cook took almost half an hour before he appeared out from his room.
“Waddya want?” he growled, a scrawny, stumpy little bloke with dirty clothes and an appearance that he had not washed himself or his clothes for a long time. I had been given what he considered breakfast an hour ago, and he had fed the boss and overseer in the house and gone back to bed, which accounted for his grumpiness with me.
“I will be out all day and I was wondering if I could get some tea, sugar and maybe some damper and cold mutton?”
“Bloody young blokes, all they can think of is belly and what hangs from it.”
I knew that I was not going to last long on this place.
“Well are ya' going to get me some stuff or not?”
The miserable old coot came back with two slices of high-top bread, two slices of fatty mutton, and in his hand he held a mix of sugar and tea leaves.
"Where's ya saddle bag?” he mumbled.
Luckily I had a couple of small flour bags in my saddle bag and I took these in to the kitchen to find the food and tea dumped on the table. The cook had gone back to bed. I managed to scrape enough of the tealeaves and sugar together to make at least one quart-pot of tea. I looked around the kitchen to see if I could get a bit more tucker but would you believe every cupboard, and the refrigerator, had a solid lock on the doors. Ah well I thought, I will do this one bit of work for this boss and then get the mail truck to town in the morning, and they could stick their miserable property where it will do the most good.

It took me more than a hour to pick out a horse that I reckoned would be capable of a bit of work, and was still looking when the overseer came over and wanted to know why I wasn't out on the fences. I spoke to him about the condition of the horses and the poor bloke agreed with a sigh that seemed as though his world was ending.
“Come over with me, there are a couple of good stock horses over in the  stables that have been fed up and worked, you can take a pick form one of those.”

I didn't ask him why these horses were here while the others were starving and riddled with worms, with one of them with a weeping gash on its foreleg that looked at least a month old. When I asked him if he wanted me to do some work on the poor animal, his answer was, funnily enough, half expected.
“Na! I'm gunna take him up the creek later and put a bullet in his brain, the Boss won't spend any money on animals.”

So, full of glee and happiness at my new job on this bright and cheerful property - Yeah right - I rode out the gate on a horse that had that much oats and lucerne in its gut that it didn't stop fertilising the paddock for twenty minutes. And the smell! Even the flies hung back, but he did have a bit of go in him and I let him canter at his own pace for a couple of miles.

I should have taken a whole book instead of one scrap of paper. The fence line, including that part of fence that was a boundary, was a mess. My boss and the neighbour had been going at it for a couple of years about the boundary with the neighbour doing all of any of the repairs needed, but as cheaply as he could. There were holes under the fence every mile, some a lot closer, and diggings that left a tunnel for the pigs, dingoes, wild goats and station sheep to wander around the paddocks unchecked.

The first paddock was about ten mile around, making it around 6500 acres, and I reckoned that the horse would not be in real good condition, even with his feeding, as his muscles would shudder with use each time I pulled him back from a canter. No doubt, with a week's light work this horse would be in pretty good condition, but it had been standing and eating and wandering around a yard for the last month, and was like a primed up fighter with muscular dystrophy. It had plenty in the engine room, but the tyres were all flat.

We had finished the first paddock and had gone through a gate into what looked like it might be in a bit better condition. I could see a big Prickly Acacia and under its boughs the green that indicated water, probably a bore drain, I thought. The horse drank, and tried to drink some more, but I pulled back because it was only trying to fill the stomach that had been made a little hollow with the expulsion of all that good tucker.

Against my best instincts I kept the horse at a walk and continued up the fence line. I only went about a mile up and reckoned that I should get off this animal and give it a bit of a rest. I did, but I walked it around slowly as one would do a race horse after a big run, so as to let it cool down slowly. This horse had a good eye and was looking at me with a sort of apologetic look on its face, so I brushed the flies out of its eyes and talked to the animal, trying to reassure it, at the same time, trying to reassure myself.

We had come along the longest part of the previous paddock, and a mile or so into this one, so we were about fourteen mile from the station. My thoughts were with the horse now, the old boss could stuff his fence, I wouldn't be here tomorrow, and good riddance I reckoned.

I led the horse up to a taller gidgee tree and tried to find a bit of good grass for it to eat as it was starving for its feed bin back at the stables. The bore drain was only a hundred yards away and I resolved to take it over there for a feed when I had had a cuppa myself.
“Bugga it, horse, I think we might head home. You aren't in any condition to do a full days work, and to tell you the truth, I ain't either, not for this lousy property and its angry old men.” 
The horse agreed and settled down in the shade to have a bit of a nap.

As the afternoon wore on I led the horse more that riding it as we headed back towards the homestead. I had no intention of staying out until dark but I also had no desire to spend my last hours in the company of the miserable crew on this property. I doubted that I would be fed if I said I was quitting, and I only wanted to have a bit of a feed, a sleep and get onto the mail truck early in the morning.

We must have been heading home as the horse picked up its spirits, probably with the thought of the big feed that would be waiting for him at the stables. So I climbed into the saddle and let the horse move into a trot. I was standing in the irons and the distance was being covered at an easy rate. We headed due west, straight into the afternoon sun, and I had my head down out of the glare of the big round lump of fire in the heavens.

When I came too from the whack on the back of my head I was laying on my back, my rear end in the air and one leg up the side of the dog fence boundary. Five feet off the ground my boot and foot were inside a loop of wire that someone had put there away from roaming stock, a good idea gone seriously bad, bad for me that is. I had no chance of reaching up, pulling my body weight up to reach the wire, and what could I do if I could? My fingers were not pliers. I had nothing to cut the wire with other than the pair of fencing pliers in the saddlebag on the horse that was about a mile down the fence line, and still trotting.

I lay back and considered the predicament, I was still about ten miles from the station and I reckoned no one would come to look for me until well after dark, if at all. My foot didn't have the blood cut off with the wire as my R.M. Williams boot was good leather and the stirrup iron was also wrapped up in the wire, but I was effectively held captive like a sheep carcase hung up, one legged, of a killing gamble.

What could happen? I began to take the matter seriously, hanging like I was it would not be long before the crows and the carrion hawks would gather to watch proceedings, as I was not posing  much of a threat to them at this particular time. I could struggle and jerk around like a dingo in a trap,  which I did for a little while to no effect, or I could just lay there and wait for help; this was not very sensible either as I had no trust in the help that may or may not come.

My hat was still on my head as I landed, and it only left when I hit the ground hard, which knocked me out, for a time undetermined. I reached back over my head and felt the Akubra and pulled it forward, using it as a shade over my eyes while I took deep breaths to settle my nerves. I must have dozed off because I felt the nuzzle of the horse examining me with its soft and curious snout.
“Mate, me old mate,” I was very happy at the horses return, “Mate you came back?”
The horse lifted its head and looked back down the fence line towards home and the feed, but the reins trailed over my arm and I quietly took a hold of them, and the horse quickly submitted to its training and stayed quietly until I decided what to do.

I tried to get the horse to stand side on, but it kept getting a bit nervous when I also tried to pull myself up to reach the pliers in the saddle bag.  He pulled away each time, although I got to the point where I was actually hanging onto the saddle bag and was about to reach in for the pliers before he did a small side step that had me slam onto my back again.

It is not unusual for a man to start swearing at this type of thing as though swearing will fix the problem, but I felt fear, cold fear as my predicament reached deeply into my hopelessness, and I could not think of one swear word to yell.
“Oh well!” I moaned in my misery “I have had a reasonable life, short but reasonable. I would have liked to get married and have kids, maybe a property myself one day, at least I wouldn't let it get as run down as this lousy hell hole.”
The horse blew soft snuffles in my face and I reckoned it was thanking me for my kindness, as well as saying, 'sorry mate' I can't help you.'

I was guessing, and more than scared as the sun started to go below the horizon, and already the evening star shone in a still blue/grey sky. A large carrion hawk landed on the fence above my trapped foot, and I screamed at it “Chew that bloody wire if you want something to chew at.” I threw a handful of dirt at the beady-eyed, hooked beak gleaner of all torn flesh and it took off in a flurry of feathers as high-pitched whistle like squeals, and this startled the horse, and he lunged back, with me hanging tight to the reins, not knowing why, just not wanting the horse to leave me.  He pulled against the reins and I hung tight so that my body came up off the ground, which had me in readiness for the horrible thud as the reins broke or I let go.

Thud...wooof! Down I went flat on my back, the horse running backwards, and to my surprise, was dragging me after it. I let the horse go and it trotted off and settled down enough to stand still as I looked at the stirrup iron and my boot hanging on the fence, still. I jumped to my feet, one sore ankle but little else wrong, and I want you to promise you wont make a meal of this, but I went to that horse, that wonderful kind horse, and I kissed it full on its lips.

I was seventeen years of age, but the tears of relief cascaded down my face as I cogitated on the prospect of being dead, but saved by the thing that opened this Outback country up to the settlers, the graziers that let their land run down and became miserable at the fruits of their own making, but here I was, alive and young and with a story to tell at least.

I tried to tell that story back at the homestead but no one was interested, the Boss only wanted a report on the fence, the Overseer only wanted the horse back in the stable and fed, and I wouldn't even bother with the cook, if that was his title.

Early the next morning I went to the stables and patted the horse in a quiet good-bye, and he even lifted his head out of the feed trough to give me a bit of a nod and a gentle whinnie! Luckily I ended up heading down to the Barcoo River and took up work as a stationhand on Isis Downs, but that is another story …

[Peter Rakes Romance Adventure novel, The Outback Story - The Loves and Adventures of 'Tiger' Williams, is available now on Amazon]

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