― 146 ―

On the Grand Stand.

A Pioneer Sketch.

THERE was a lot of men from up-country staying at the Kamilaroi. One could easily tell them by their bronzed hands and faces, and creased or brand-new clothes, from the city members of the well-known Pastoralists' Club.

‘Hello,’ suddenly exclaimed a fine-looking man, whose thick moustache lay snow-white against the deep tan of his cheek, ‘here's Boorookoorora in the market! H'm, one hundred and sixty thousand sheep (so they've got the jumbucks on it at last).… Capital homestead … stone-built house … splendid garden and orchard. How things must have changed out there since Wal Neville and Jimmy Carstairs and myself took that country up, and lived for months at a time on damper, bullock and pigweed in a bark humpy. Stone house and orchard! Well, well,' he concluded, laying down the newspaper with a sigh,’ I hope they haven't disturbed the boys. I left them there sleeping quietly enough side by side over five-and-twenty years ago.’

‘Shouldn't have gone home and stayed away so long,

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Standish,’ here remarked a friend. ‘You're out of touch altogether with our side now. That's the worst of being rich. D'rectly a fellow gets a pot of money left him, off he must go “home.” But here's Hatton.—Hatton, let me introduce Mr Hugh Standish to you. He's interested in your place. First man to take it up; early pioneer, and all that sort of thing.’

‘Yes,’ said Mr Hatton presently, ‘I was the first to put sheep on Boorookoorora, and they do well. Yes, the two graves are untouched at the old homestead still. Carstairs and Neville! I've heard the story, or a version of it. Poor fellows! I had their graves freshly fenced in a couple of years ago. And so you were the third partner. Will you tell us the story of your escape? I should much like to hear it at first hand.’

‘Do you know the Grand Stand?’ asked Standish,' without replying directly.

The other shook his head.

‘What is it?’ he asked.

‘Why, the big rock, close to the Black Waterhole, on your own run,’ replied Standish.

‘Oh,’ said his new acquaintance, ‘you mean Mount Lookout. That's just at the bottom of the orchard now. You see, we've shifted the head station from where you and Warner and Adams and the rest had it.’

‘Well, well,’ replied the other, ‘Grand Stand, or Mount Lookout, or whatever you like to call it, I had a very rough time on its top.’

‘Ah,’ remarked the owner of Boorookoorora, ‘I've had the top levelled and an anemometer erected on it;

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also a flight of steps cut. In fact, it is a sort of observatory on a small scale.’

‘The devil it is!’ exclaimed Standish. ‘Well, if you'll listen, I'll tell you what I observed once from its top.’

‘There were three of us. We were all young and healthy, and each had a little money. Foregathering (the first time was in this very room), we determined to become partners, and take up country. We would go out in person—far out, beyond even, as poor Neville put it, the “furthest paling of civilisation.”

‘There we would acquire a territory, expressible not in poor, miserable acres but in square miles—thousands of 'em.

‘There we would breed sheep and cattle, increasing yearly in multitude, so that the sands upon the seashore shouldn't be a circumstance to them. We would plant in that far country our own vines and our own figtrees, and sit under their shade in the good days to come—we and our children, and our children's children after us—in that wide and pleasant heritage of our founding. Alas, the glamour of youth and confidence, and health and strength over a bottle or two of good wine! Five-and-twenty years ago, gentlemen, in this same old room!

‘So we went. And the days grew into weeks, and the weeks into months, as we rode, searching hither and thither, to the right hand or to the left, but always with our faces to the falling sun. Over stony ridges and over

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rolling downs; over deserts of cruel spinifex and barren sand; through great scrubs, thick and gloomy; along rivers, tortuous and muddy. At times drenched with rain, at others suffering from heat and hunger and thirst, but ever westward. At length, after many disappointments, emerging from a broad stretch of sterile country and ascending a range of low hills, our eyes beheld something resembling the Canaan of our dreams. Track of horse or beast we had not seen for weeks; therefore we knew that the land was, if we so willed it, ours.

‘For a long time we gazed over the timber-clumped, wide expanse, emerald-swarded after some recent fire, and through which ran a creek whose waterholes shone like polished steel under the mid-day sun.

‘ “Here we rest?” said one; and another,—“The Plains of Hope lie before us!”

‘So we rested from our wanderings; and one, journeying backwards, secured the country, defining its boundaries, not by marked trees, but by parallels of latitude.

‘Shortly a homestead arose, rude but sufficient. Mob after mob of cattle came up from stations to the south and east, and Boorookoorora became itself a station.

‘We got the name from a black fellow. We understood him to signify that the word meant “No place beyond.” This pleased us, for we were, so far, proud of being the “farthest out”—the Ultima Thule of settlement. We may have been altogether mistaken, for the fellow was wild as a hawk, and, at the first chance, gave us the slip. But I'm glad, all the same, that the old name still holds.

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‘Of the blacks we had seen very little. They appeared to decline all communication with us. Now and again the stockmen would bring one in; but he came evidently under strong protest, and refused both food and gifts of any description. However, we cared nothing for that, so long as our cattle remained unmolested. They were doing splendidly; and we soon began to talk about sending a mob to the southern markets, with which, in those days, there was little or no communication. We intended to pioneer that trade. There was plenty of room as yet. Our nearest neighbour was a hundred miles away; the nearest township, five hundred. One Sunday morning I went for a ride, leaving Walter and Jimmy alone. The two white stockmen and a couple of black boys, who made up the head station staff, were away on a round of the out-stations.

‘I had intended to be back for the dinner, which I had left the pair busily preparing. Unfortunately, when about five miles from the homestead on my return, my horse put his foot in a hole, stumbled badly, and directly afterwards went dead lame.

‘The day was a roaster for a tramp; but there seemed no help for it. So, planting the saddle and bridle, also, in a most unlucky moment, my heavy Enfield rifle, I set out through the long, dry grass, which reached at times over my head, and made walking hard and disagreeable work.

‘As often as I paused to rest and wipe my dripping face did I curse our remissness in not having “burnt off” before this, and vow to soon have a right royal

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blaze amongst the thick reed-like grass-stalks that hampered my progress towards shade and dinner.

‘I had got about two miles along, and was just thinking of having a good drink at the Black Waterhole, which I knew to be close to me, when I suddenly came upon the dead body of a fine young heifer.

‘A couple of broken spears stuck out of the carcase— so freshly killed that even the crows had not yet found it. It was, indeed, still warm. By the tracks I could see that the niggers were in force. They had evidently run the beast up from the water, and slain it merely for sport, as it was untouched. My first impulse was to return for the rifle. Second thoughts determined me to make for home as quickly as possible.

‘I had kept my shoulder-belt, to which was attached a heavy metal powder-flask. Thinking that I should travel lighter without these things, I started to unbuckle, when a tomahawk hurtled past one side of my head, whilst a spear went sailing by the other. The grass was full of blacks coming at me sideways—that is, between me and the station.

‘Turning, I ran for the water, the whole pack, now in full cry, after me.

‘Close to the banks of the Black Waterhole stood a tall rock we had named (I don't know why, for it was as much like one as this tumbler is) the Grand Stand. I daresay it must have been quite one hundred and fifty feet high, if not more—’

‘One hundred and seventy-five six,’ put in Mr Hatton,

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who, in common with, by this time, a small crowd, was listening interestedly.

‘Thanks. You've evidently had more leisure than we could manage. Anyhow, it was sheer on three sides, only accessible, in one part, on the fourth.’ (‘Just where I had the stairway cut,’ murmured Mr Hatton. But no one took any notice).

‘Many a time I had climbed it to look for cattle across the plains on which it formed such a landmark. If I could do so now, very quickly, there might still be a chance.

‘I could tell by the sound of the spears that I was gaining. They didn't come slipping quietly past, but whizzed and sung angrily, a sure sign that the throwing sticks were being used; at least I found it so. It was wonderful how they missed me. If the grass had been burnt I was a dead man fifty times over. Presently, I struck a cattle pad, and, at the same moment, caught sight of the Grand Stand. Now they saw what I was after, and put on a spurt, yelling harder than ever. As they arrived at the foot of the rock I was half-way up the narrow, almost perpendicular, track, going like a goat, whilst spears, tomahawks and nullahs hit all around me. One spear grazed my leg, sticking in the breeches, and a stone tomahawk knocked my hat off. I afterwards made use of that spear. It was hot work while it lasted, which, luckily, wasn't long. The top of the Grand Stand measured about twenty feet each way, and sloped gently inwards, saucer-shape, to a depth of four. There had been rain lately, and a good pool of water was collected

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in the basin, which was strewn with stones and big boulders, remains of a former top, which had broken off and lay around the base. Being in a hurry, I hadn't time to pull myself up, so tumbled headlong into the water. However, the bath refreshed me much, and, everything below having all at once become silent as the grave, I peeped over.

‘Well it was I did so!

‘Four big fellows were climbing up, one behind the other.

‘Lifting a stone, just as much as I could manage, I rolled it to the edge, and, forgetting to sing out “Stand from under,” let go.

‘It caught the first fellow fair on the chest, and the lot went down like skittles.

‘Three picked themselves up and limped off howling. The fourth man—he who led—lay quite still, and had to be dragged away. I did not care about expending my ammunition or I could have scattered them also.

‘It was terribly hot up there under the sun, but, ripping out the lining of my coat, I covered my head with it. If there had been no water, though, I should have been done—roasted alive.

‘Now I had a spell, and took a good look at the niggers.

‘They were a wild lot—five-and-twenty of 'em— naked as the day they were born, tall and wiry, with woolly hair and long, black beards. One side of their faces was painted white, t'other red, ribs and legs to match. Half-a-dozen of 'em had some shining stone

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like a lump of crystal either around their necks or tied upon their foreheads. These I took to be chiefs.

‘I had never seen any niggers quite like these, and, consequently, was rather impressed, not to say scared. They squatted under a shady tree, the only one for miles around, evidently holding a council of war, whilst I crouched and watched them, and slowly baked on top of my rock.

‘Suddenly, all springing to their feet, they ran backwards, then, wheeling together, threw their spears. But the height beat 'em. There was a strong breeze blowing, too, hot as from a furnace, right against them. Quite plainly that game wouldn't answer, so they squatted again and started another consultation.

‘Meanwhile the day grew hotter. The rock was actually blistering my skin through the light clothes I wore.

‘Bathing my head and face brought relief.

‘Being quite a new chum with respect to blacks and their ways, I half expected that, now, seeing they couldn't get me down, they would raise the siege and be off.

‘Nothing, it appeared, could be further from their intentions. The confab over, some lit a fire on a small, clear space close to the water, whilst others went off towards the dead heifer, shortly returning with great lumps of meat, which they roasted and devoured.

‘After this, they all got up, and coming quite close, one went a little apart from the rest and pointed at my

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head, which was all he could see, with outstretched arm.

‘Then his fellows formed a circle and danced and yelled, patting their bellies, and going through the motions of eating and drinking. Presently the gaunt, black semaphore was altered, pointing towards the sun. The dancing and shouting ceased, and, sitting down, the party began to display symptoms of the utmost distress.

‘Once more the arm shifted, this time towards the water, whereupon the whole crowd stiffened themselves out as if dead.

‘Another dance round and a song, and the semaphore put himself in position again and pointed in the direction of the homestead.

‘Instantly all but two sneaked off into the tall grass. The pair left behind lay down beside each other, feigning sleep. Suddenly, with terrific yells, the rest sprung upon them and went very realistically through the motions of beating the sleepers’ brains out and thrusting spears into their bodies.

‘The first portion of the pantomime I took to mean that they were determined to stay and see how long I could withstand the combined effects of heat, hunger, and want of water.

‘The second was only too intelligible, and for the first time made me feel a sharp pang of anxiety for those at home, totally unwarned, and off their guard.

‘How, as I watched the brutes, did I wish and long

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for that rifle, hidden away back there, or—best of all— that newly-imported breech-loader hanging over my stretcher at the station.

‘It was getting late in the afternoon. The rock was casting a long shadow, and my dripping body beginning to feel a little cooler as the sun lowered. Slight though the scratch upon my leg was, it smarted terribly. I was also very hungry, and altogether in anything but a happy frame of mind.

‘Foreseeing a night of it, I carried and rolled big stones to the edge, placing them so that at a touch they would go crashing down.

‘Darkness fell at last, and with it came the moon, nearly at her full.

‘Lying along the incline, I watched the niggers, and tried to work out some plan of giving them the slip.

‘Gorged to repletion, they were stretched about their fire: but two upright black forms, motionless as if cut from marble, watched steadfastly the pathway, on which the moonbeams fell full of light.

‘Although I had promised to return for dinner, I had no expectation, on account of my failure, that the others would come and look for me. We were all nothing if not irregular in our habits. Of the blacks we had almost ceased to think, so little had we seen of them. Indeed, though generally going armed, we carried rifles more for the purpose of shooting an odd bull or so than from any other motive. The place, you should remember, had been formed now over a couple of

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years, during all which time nothing suspicious had occurred.

‘The two at home would merely think that I had extended my ride as far as one of the out-stations, and feel no surprise if I did not turn up till the next day.

‘As for them, I knew not what to think. That the blacks were nearly all inveterate liars I was aware; but this sudden, strange raid, together with their expressive pantomimes and determined attitude towards myself, made me fear the worst.

‘If there had been no moon I should certainly have made an effort to get away. But it was as bright as day—so bright that I fancied I could at times see the glitter in the eyes of the sentinels.

‘I must have been cat-napping, for I awoke with a start to the sound of an awful chorus of yells.

‘The moon was low, but still gave enough light to enable me to make out that more niggers had arrived.

‘After what appeared to be an enthusiastic greeting of the new-comers, the whole mob—about fifty—came up and began to dance at the foot of the rock. Presently, to my horror, I caught sight of objects that I recognised only too well.

‘One fellow had on a broad-brimmed straw hat belonging to Carstairs; another flourished a hunting-knife of my own; yet another waved a gaily-striped rug that I had last seen covering poor Neville's stretcher.

‘Evidently the station had been sacked.

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‘Neither hearing nor seeing anything, they perhaps imagined me asleep, and, just as the dawn was breaking redly, some of them began to ascend.

‘A leaping, rattling, boulder, however, soon undeceived and sent them to the right-about.

‘Knowing that another day would probably see the end, they were in no particular hurry now.

‘The sun rose hot and angry-looking. By its better light I made out a whole heap of our traps under the tree, jumbled up anyhow.

‘But, lest I should, by any means, fail to comprehend what had happened, they had recourse once more to dumb show.

‘A nigger came forward and arranged three spears, tripod fashion. To their apex he hung a nullah-nullah. All the weapons were red with blood. Then, pointing alternately to the homestead, myself, and the heap of plunder, he made a long speech, beginning quietly enough, but working himself into such a rage at the finish that his big black beard was speckled with foam.

‘Of course, I didn't understand a word. There was little need that I should — everything was plain enough.

‘But worse was to come!

‘Seeing that I made no sign, and thinking, perhaps, that I was difficult to convince, the orator went off to the pile of stuff, and, in a minute, returned with some object in a net, which, amidst triumphant yells, he fastened to the trophy already erected.

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‘For a moment I couldn't make it out at all. Then, as the sun shone fuller on the thing, I saw that it was Neville's head.

‘All gashed and disfigured though it was, I recognised it by the long golden beard which the poor old chap had been so proud of.

‘The sight turned me quite faint and sick. Then I got vicious. Slipping to the water, of which there was now very little left, to get one good, long, last drink, my eyes fell upon the powder-flask lying where I had thrown it off.

It was one of the old-fashioned kind, of solid copper, very large, and holding nearly a couple of pounds. It was quite full.

‘ “Well,” I said to myself, taking the flask up as the idea struck me, “you've cornered me and killed my mates, but I'll be hanged if I don't try and scorch some of you before giving in.”

‘Now, sitting down, I tore a strip off my handkerchief, and, with moistened gunpowder, made a rough sort of fuse. Then unscrewing the measuring cylinder, and taking out the spring-valve, I inserted the fuse deeply into the powder, brought the twisted end well up, and replaced the long cylinder. Then, binding the flask firmly about five feet from the head of the spear that had come up with me, I shouted to the niggers, who were busily overhauling their booty.

‘They stared with surprise, and I waved my coat and beckoned to them to come nearer.

‘Chattering like anything, a couple of 'em advanced a few steps very doubtfully.

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‘Stooping down and striking a match I fired the fuse, which caught at once and began to burn quietly away inside the cylinder.

‘At this moment I hove the spear well out towards them. To my delight it stuck fairly upright in the ground almost at their feet, the shock, so far as I could see, shifting nothing.

‘Starting back, they gazed inquisitively at the shining polished object it had brought with it.

‘For a minute or two they hesitated, and I despaired. But, seeing the rest moving up, curiosity or cupidity prevailed, and one running to it, seized the spear and made off back to the mob.

‘At once he was surrounded with an eager, excited, jabbering crowd, each man with his chin over his neighbour's shoulder.

‘The seconds went by like ages. I had reckoned the fuse would last, perhaps, seven or eight minutes. They had untied the flask, and it was being passed from hand to hand.

‘Still no sound!

‘With a deep sigh of regret I gave the affair up as a failure—had even turned away—when an explosion like that of an eighteen pounder made me jump.

‘From out of a cloud of dense white smoke came shrieks and screams of agony. I could dimly see bodies—some quite still, and others rolling over and over.

‘By God! gentlemen,’ exclaimed the speaker, interrupting himself emphatically, and with a cruel gleam

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in his eyes, ‘although afterwards I shot the wretches down in dozens, and always with joy in my heart, yet never with such a complete sense of satisfaction and pleasure as I felt at that moment.

‘As I looked a sharp blaze curled up, spreading broadly, and almost instantly, into a curtain of flame and smoke.

‘The grass was on fire!

‘Never a thought had I given to that. For miles and miles the country was covered with herbage, tall, and dry as tinder.

‘The top of the Grand Stand was about the only safe place now, bar the water, in all that neighbourhood. For a long time I couldn't see a foot for smoke; but, as with the fire, it rolled away before the wind. I looked towards the Black Waterhole, thinking, of course, that the niggers would have taken to it. To my surprise not one was to be seen. There was the blackened ground, smoking yet, bare, and affording not the slightest cover.

‘The erstwhile shady and graceful tree was a gnarled and withered skeleton.

‘Underneath it, as the haze cleared, I made out four motionless bodies, blacker than the burnt black ashes on which they lay.

‘I waited a bit longer before coming down. But at last, pretty certain that the niggers had cleared out, or better still, been caught in the fire, I crept down the pathway, stiff, sore, and hungry, but with that feeling of vengeful joy in my heart trebly intensified as I passed

  ― 162 ―
by the poor, scorched, singed head lying on the ground.

‘Poking about the heap of blankets, clothing, etc., still smouldering, I dropped across a tin of preserved meat —a four pounder.

‘This was luck, if you like. Taking it to the water I finished it to the last scrap, and made the most appreciated meal of a life.

‘I hadn't gone near the bodies. They were charred, and I was certain they were dead.

‘But, as I finished eating, to my astonishment one fellow got up and staggered straight for me. Snatching up a heavy stick, which happened to be handy, I stood ready to receive him.

‘As he came nearer his face frightened me.

‘It wasn't a face at all, properly speaking; nor, for the matter of that, a head even. It was simply a mass of grass-ashes and blood—every scrap of hair had been burnt off. From his open mouth protruded a blackened tongue. I dropped my stick, for I saw he was stone-blind—in fact, he was eyeless altogether.

‘Groping along, in a minute or two he felt the water at his feet, when, instead of splashing into it, as you'd naturally think a fellow in such an awful predicament would do, he gave a sort of screech, very bad to hear, and made out again at a great pace, tripped over a stone, and fell headlong.

‘When I got up to him he was as dead as Julius Cæsar, and a great lump of jagged copper was sticking out of the back of his skull.

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‘Presently I started off towards the homestead, but hadn't got more than half-way before I met our two white stockmen—the black boys had cleared on the back track.

‘The buildings, such as they were, and all our things were gone. But we didn't trouble much about that just then.

‘Taking Neville's head to him, we buried him and Carstairs, who had been literally chopped to pieces, and then, getting the outside men together, we followed the niggers.

‘They had made for a patch of red ground six miles away. There we found 'em—fifty of 'em; and there we left 'em. How they must have travelled to have beaten the fire! Must have been touch and go, for some of 'em were pretty badly scorched.

‘Well, gentlemen, that's the story of the Grand Stand, and the first settling of Boorookoorora. “Stone house and garden, and splendid orchard,” eh? Well, well, I suppose it's only natural. Yet it sounds curiously to me. No; I won't invest. Shouldn't care about going back to live there now. That's the dinner gong, isn't it? Good old Kamilaroi! Come along.’