Roy Glashan's Library
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First published in Pall Mall Magazine, August 1909

Reprinted in The Daily News, Perth, Australia, 20 August 1909 (this version)

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2020
Version Date: 2020-05-07
Produced by Terry Walker, Gary Meller and Roy Glashan

All original content added by RGL is protected by copyright.

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FOR ten months there had been no rain in the Baronne district; on hillside and flat the gaping, deep-fissured earth protested against the relentless November sky. The drought- stricken trees creaked their sapless boughs in the dry, hot wind; a band of crow's wheeled over the piled-up cattle bones that marked the camping grounds of the famishing Queensland overlanders.

George Henderson's team crawled through the last cutting on the hillside, the dray squealed as the brakes answered, causing the sixteen bullocks to slow down on the perilous grade. Seated on the dray was a sun-tanned woman with a baby; a man's felt hat jammed about her ears. In front was packed some household furniture with a parrot cage fastened on top. Henderson rode beside the bullock train, his long-handled whip making pistol-like echoed In tho hot silence. Far away on the distant flat the woman beheld u small homestead sheltered from the dry winds by rows of close-planted pepper and myall trees.

The dray descended the mountain track slowly, and the lean, black bullocks seemed to scent the grass as the moist irrigated paddocks surrounding the homestead came into view.

Henderson was about to take possession of 'Jika' farm; he had purchased it a month before from a settler named Blythe, who had been compelled to sell on account of his wife's ill-health. Seven hundred pounds was the price paid for the holding, and Henderson knew that the following year would see a five-fold increase in value. There were 3,000 acres of black-soil land with 200 acres of lucerne on its creek frontage, and In that year of drought and famine lucerne was as gold in the land.

From boundary to house-gate the holding was a maze of dog and rabbit proof fences. Henderson rubbed his hands with the joy of a land-hungry man as the bullock dray swung into tho narrow bush track leading to the slip-rail, The homestead was a seven-roomcd bungalow having two underground tanks and a windmill for pumping and irrigation purposes.

Mrs. Henderson glanced round with the eyes of a born bushwoman as she alighted from the dray, and entered the cottage with the child. Their new purchase was certainly an oasis in a drought-stricken land. Its green, well-fenced paddocks contrasted strangely with the wind-blighted, sun-scorched flats around. Inside the creek paddock were 70 head of cattle and 200 sheep. Blythe, the previous owner, had gone in for mixed farming wool and lucerne, with a bit of cheese and beef thrown in to pay the blacksmith.

AFTER dinner Henderson strolled towards the southern boundary with a sense of ownership thrilling his blood. A magpie chortled from the distant scrub, and Henderson wiped his hot face as he examined the bullock-proof fences that protected him from the marauding drovers swarming along the Nyngan road with their mobs of straying cattle.

Henderson pinned his faith in good fences. Experience taught him that some men will stop at nothing when the lives of their perishing flocks are at stake. And the man who has 500 acres of grass must guard it in the famine years with rifle and dogs. It is pitiful to watch a big mob of sheep nosing their way through the blinding hoof-dust, their gaunt eyes fixed oh the pastures beyond the wire-netted enclosures.

Henderson halted suddenly and pointed to where half a dozen starved horses were feeding hungrily along the edge of the lucerne.

'They're not ours,' he called to his wife. 'How did they got in?'

The presence of the six starved horses in his lucerne-paddock seemed to fill Henderson with unutterable rage. In spite of every precaution to guard his grass from the famishing things outside, here were six useless scrubbers, devouring his substance.

Returning to the homestead, he reappeared with a rifle and walked swiftly towards the lucerne paddock.

'George!' shouted his wife from the verandah. 'Don't shoot those poor brutes. Some one has let them in.'

'Shoot them!' He glanced back through the sun-glare, shading his eyes. 'Isn't every squatter in the district shooting all the starvers that break through his fences, Isn't it a mercy, and do you expect me to feed all the unbranded cattle in the country?'

Without heeding his wife's remonstrances he passed hastily to where the six gaunt animals were tottering along the edge of the creek. Mrs. Henderson covered her eyes as the loud crack of the rifle echoed again ana again across the paddock. She did not speak when her husband returned and placed the rifle on a shelf in the kitchen. The parrot squawked on the verandah, and the shrilling of locusts filled the hot afternoon air.

NIGHT brought no relief from the stifling heat; swarms of black mosquitoes invaded the house and drove Mrs. Henderson to bed and the shelter of the curtains.

'They'll die off when the cool weather comes.' Henderson lit his pipe and strolled up and down the verandah thoughtfully.

Long after midnight they heard the fluting note of a dingo in the ranges, and the farm dogs near the kitchen whined fretfully in response. Later—it seemed years to the woman with the heat-fretted child—the dawn brought a sudden coolness and a scent of wattle from the hollows.

SHORTLY after daybreak a man rode up to the sliprail and called to Henderson. His face was sun-blackened, and his hair grew in matted coils about his throat and ears. There was a nervously hostile look In his deep-set eyes; he slouched over in his saddle, his brown, sap-scalded hands resting on the rail.

'Six hawses of mine gone astray!' he bellowed to Henderson. 'Three darkies, a couple of bays, and an old grey leader. Haven't seen 'em, I 'spose?'

A sudden exclamation where Mrs Henderson was peeping from behind the window curtains. Her husband paled slightly as he approached the sliprail.

'I am the owner of this land,' he said coldly, 'I happened to shoot six unbranded scrubbers yesterday that were eating my lucerne. I mistook them for brumbies.'

'Shot my six hawses!' The man seemed to reel in his saddle. 'Good God!' He put up his sap-scalded hand, as though the sun were hurting his eyes.

'Why don't you brand your cattle!' broke in Henderson passionately. 'And why do you keep six horses when you can't feed one? It was a mercy to shoot them—the poor skeleton bags.'

The man looked at Henderson, and his very muscles seemed to bind themselves in the fierceness of his rage.

'You—you swine! A poor selector's got no chance against you,' he choked. 'I'll make you sweat for each hawse you shot. I'll mark you afore the summer's gone.

He rode away into the scrub, looking back again and again at the little bush homestead.

'That's Mulligan from Black Rock,' muttered Henderson, as he entered the house. 'One of those thieving free selectors who never buy cattle feed. I hope he isn't going to give us trouble.'

'If a bush fire started on our boundary to-night it would serve us right for killing his horses,' sobbed Mrs. Henderson. 'It was a bad beginning to make in a strange district.'

'I'll teach these bushies a lesson anyhow,' growled her husband. 'He put his horses in here to fatten. We'll have to watch our grass, Kate; maybe we'll have to fight for it,' he added. 'We're the grass-lord in a famine district. Please don't forget!'

THE paddock fences were in excellent condition; the five-feet close mesh wire defied the wallabies and starving sheep ever ready to swarm in and consume the precious herbage and grass. Henderson's struggle to keep out wandering cattle was incessant. Day after day, during the long months of drought, he had to guard his boundaries against the Queensland drovers hurrying south with their starving mobs.

One broiling day in December a Queensland squatter, accompanied by two drovers, halted on the Nyngan road and, offered Henderson a hundred pounds for permission to pasture his perishing stock within the grass paddocks of Jika. His five hundred big-horned steers swept up to the homestead gate moaning sullenly at sight of the near grass. The owner looked haggard and weary; there was a look in his eyes that spoke of long night vigils while pawing through the big drought regions.

'We'll allow you a feed for your camp horses,' said Henderson quietly. 'But I can't allow that starving mob in here at any price. I've got my own cattle to keep alive.'

It was curious to watch Henderson standing rifle in hand at the homestead gate as the drovers entered with their eight camp horses, while the great hungry mob of steers stood ready to charge in upon the grass as the gate opened.

Slamming and locking it swiftly, Henderson climbed on top with the air of a priest guarding a temple of the gods. And Henderson was merely typical of his class. There are times when squatters and farmers will give freely of money to hard-pressed overlanders, but one must not ask them for grass during the drought season. And the drovers knew better than press Henderson on the subject of letting in their hungry mob.

They left at sundown after thanking him sullenly for his hospitality. True to his calling, he followed the slow moving mob, his four dogs at heel, until they were well off his boundaries. Even then he rode round his fences uneasily until long after dark, as though expecting a sudden return of the gaunt, hunger-stricken cattle.

A sudden shift of wind turns the dry Australian night into one of delicious repose and peace. Through the clear air the large white stars seem to droop at the length of one's arms. Henderson smoked until late, talking somewhat feverishly to his wife about the prospects of the big starving mob ever reaching grass and water.

SHORTLY after midnight he was awakened by the dogs barking wildly about the paddock. Slipping to the verandah, he glanced towards the long dry cattle pad which flanked his eastern boundary. At first glance, only the spindly trees were visible through the darkness, and the dogs leaping to and fro as though enjoying some rare sport. Suddenly his eye was attracted by innumerable flecks of white dancing across the lucerne beds.

Slowly, very slowly, the white flecks spread fanwise across the grass until they resembled a line of surf racing over a flat beach. A hard dry lump seemed to gather in Henderson's throat; his eyes bulged as he leant, half hypnotised, across the verandah rail.

'What is it, George?' His wife's querulous voice sounded close to his elbow. 'What Is it?' she repeated. Instinctively she followed his glance to where the ruffling, white-topped wave rolled towards the homestead.

'The rabbits—they're in!' There was a curious, frightened whimper in his voice like the cry of one awakened suddenly from a nightmare. His big hands gripped the verandah rail; his eye followed the white crests as they swarmed and floated over his pastures—the wave of devastating vermin that no human power could fight or check. They were not afraid of man or dogs. They had come in from the arid west, from the sand hummocks and drought regions beyond the Castlereagh. They ran under the house in hundreds, and over the verandah and kitchen; hunger had made them tame, and Henderson tripped over them as he staggered from the house.

'How—how?' he cried. Speech failed him as he turned home again groping foolishly for his rifle. The dogs romped Joyously, leaping and barking among the inrushing waves. It occurred to Henderson that his wire-netting had been tampered with. Taking a lantern from the kitchen, he floundered through the palpitating rabbit swarms until he reached the five-feet wire mesh which guarded the southern wing.

Crawling along the fence he arrived at an opening thirty feet wide where the mesh had been unfastened and rolled back. The flux of rabbits pouring through the gap resembled a mill-race. Pressed from behind, they flowed in. He kicked at the squirming heaps in his futile wrath and flung the lantern among them with a bitter malediction.

INSOLVENCY and ruin stared ahead now: a bush fire could not have been a more terrible misfortune, for the rabbits, once in, would not leave a blade of grass for his cattle and sheep. Mechanically he gripped the wire net and strove to draw it across the wide gap. Calling to his wife to bring-hammer and nails, he hauled the mesh across the instreaming rabbits and held it fiercely against the post, Mrs Henderson hurried to his assistance with a tool-chest, stumbling in the darkness over the fifty pests that leaped across the pain.

Henderson killed them in dozens with the hammer as he nailed the net to the posts, but not before the wave had piled itself in a smothering heap on the outside. Returning to the homestead, they watched the rabbit army moving like a scythe-blade over the wide grass paddocks.

THE dawn revealed a strange sight to the haggard-faced man and woman seated on the verandah. Hundreds of lucerne-gorged rodents lay in heaps about the hollows and flats, but the main army still moved and fed riotously. The dogs had grown tired of killing, and they lay panting near the house with fur-covered mouths and crimson jaws.

'Rabbit for breakfast, I suppose,' said Henderson bitterly. 'To-morrow we shall enjoy a plague of blowflies that will drive us from the district.'

Mrs. Henderson did not answer for a few moments; her eyes flashed strangely as she surveyed the rabbit-invaded farm.

'It seems to me there's more money in our paddock than ever,' she began slowly. 'Get your horse and bring half a dozen men from the township. Last week's paper gave the market price for skins at fifteen shillings a hundred. It's a good thing we drew the wire back into its place,' she added, 'or we'd have lost grass and rabbits too.'

Henderson gaped in surprise; then, without a word, hurried from the house, and was soon on his way to the little railway township situated in a hollow beyond the ranges. He returned before midday accompanied by a small crowd of professional trappers. The work of killing; and skinning the pests began. Henderson, assisted by a couple of men, dug a big trench and buried the carcasses swiftly. By sundown a great pile of skins stood in the centre of the paddock.

For a whole week the work continued; pile was added to pile until the dried skins stood almost level with the homestead roof. Henderson worked feverishly, loading the drays and carts and escorting; them to the railway siding.

A MONTH after the skins had been consigned to the Sydney buyers Henderson returned from an early visit to the township post-office and placed a cheque for three hundred pounds before his wife.

'There's a war demand for rabbit skins just now,' he said cheerfully. 'The Sydney dealers wired asking me to let them have more.'

Mrs. Henderson placed the cheque in her purse carefully, then glanced shrewdly at her husband.

'You'd better send that fellow Mulligan thirty pounds for the horses you shot. Tell him he can let in as many more bunnies as he likes.'


Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
Go to Home Page
This work is out of copyright in countries with a copyright
period of 70 years or less, after the year of the author's death.
If it is under copyright in your country of residence,
do not download or redistribute this file.
Original content added by RGL (e.g., introductions, notes,
RGL covers) is proprietary and protected by copyright.