― 51 ―

Sweet Nell.—The Brumby's Story.

Not one of us carried a station brand; Silvertail was the only filly that had seen the inside of a stockyard, or felt the pinch of bit or spur. We were a band of outlaws, hard-living, sure-footed, kings of the ranges.

There was grass in the gullies, and we drank our fill where the steep torrents thundered into the pine-shadowed ravines. None but “stayers” could live with us. The wasters were generally cut off and yarded by the men from Yarabba station. We were not flat-racers or hurdle-jumpers, but we took the gullies as we found them, and they were rough enough to sharpen the horns of a goat.

We trooped warily through the morning mists, the dams with their foals running behind or in the centre of the mob. Sometimes our readers skipped round on the edge of a spur, with ears flattened and eyes staring across the grass country below.

Rock wallabies and hawks about us, dwarf oaks and bottle-brush. The coast wind lifts into the face of our old Gulf leader, Beno. Lowering his head, he browses on the edge of the range. All is well.

Twenty miles away, where the bush sprawls like a blue haze, we see the mail coach trundled up the thin red road that lies like a wound under the waist of the hill. Too far away to hear the lead bars or the rattle of whip and chains, but each brumby fees the heart of the mail horses beating at their work.

Jim Jams, a dish-faced outlaw, whinnied peevishly. “It's galling work for those fools hauling that coach, all the year round,” he said. “I'd sooner work for an undertaker—a horse does get a change of scenery and a few nice clothes.”

“What's that sneaking up the hill?” coughed little Silvertail, with the white chest and the Arab head.

We swung round in a body and sniffed the wind. A strange horse was creeping up through the boulders like an old mountaineer.

“It's a camp-horse,” neighed Beno, from the look-out. “I can see his brands—two bars across W. What's he after, I wonder?”

Gambolo, a fiddle-headed Riverina outlaw, poked his face to the front, and stared at the approaching stranger. “Looks a bit of a warrior,” he whispered. “Pretending he's got stringhalt. Hush, not a whinny!”

The camp-horse walked up and up, picking a bit of grass here and there, without seeming to notice us. Shoulders, thighs, and buttocks, he was fit to carry seventeen stone. The was a star-blaze on his face. He smelt of saddle-sweat and men's clothes; there were blood-gouts on his sides, where the spurs had been.

  ― 52 ―

He looked at us sorrowfully and sighed. “I thought there were a few bunches of sweet grass up here,” he said, flicking his short tail. “I've met nothing but boulders and blowflies so far.”

The band of brumbies gathered round him curiously. Jim Jams lowered his ears wickedly. “I've seen you cutting out cattle, my good fellow. I've heard that you drive horses from the Queensland pastures, and yard them for the sales. You deserve to be branded on the face,” he snapped.

The camp-horse flicked his ears. “I've no sympathy with cattle,” he said; “I've been gored in the yards and trampled on. Besides, I like a bit of honest work. Honesty is my strong point.”

“Don't deny that you have rounded up horses so that they could be broken to bit and saddle,” cried Jim Jams.

The camp-horse shuddered. “Some of you fellows would round up your own mother if you were ridden by a man with a hand of iron and heels like swords. Wait till some of you taste whip and steel.”

“Traitor!” The mob of outlaws wheeled round him in a circle of thundering hoofs. “You have caused hundreds of free horses to be yarded and branded like sheep. You shall not eat grass with us.”

The camp-horse remained quite still, watching the foaming brumbies with tired eyes. “Kick the traitor into the gully!” snorted little Silvertail. “He is only fit for dingoes.”

The smell of the saddle sweat and the blood on his girths made us sick. “Why does he come here, with his station airs?” shouted the mob. “The star-faced renegade!”

The camp-horse shook himself wearily. “Gentlemen outlaws,” he began, “I am a horse with feelings, like yourselves. For ten years I have carried a hulking fourteen-stone drover. Up and down, through big scrub and plain, from the Diamantina to the great southern cattle routes. In my young days I brought beef to the goldfields—store mobs from the Flinders to the Castle-reagh. My fetlocks ache now through stumbling about the spewey camping grounds of the Gulf. I have crossed the Poison Country, where the plant killed hundreds of sheep and cattle. I have galloped through black spear-grass that would have lamed a buffalo. Don't be too hard on a comrade,” he grunted.

“Do you know where there is any sweet grass, sir?” whinnied a colt from the rear. “I'm tired of eating wood and stones.”

“Sweet grass!” The camp-horse shook his tail. “I could take you to a place where it lies fetlock-deep, and sweet as lucerne, I only strolled up here for a breath of air.”

“Why didn't you say so before?” Silvertail pranced round and round excitedly. “Is the sweet grass inside a sheep-wire fence, or just open country near a creek?”

“It isn't half an hour's run from here,” said the camp-horse, reflectively. “When I come to think of it, the grass is more like barley than lucerne.”

The brumbies followed him eagerly down the ranges. He never skipped or stumbled once. Beno and Jim Jams didn't like leaving the hills. The

  ― 53 ―
camp-horse had an oily tongue, they said. But they ran behind him sulkily, until they came to a creek where the water lay stagnant between rocks and ferns. On the opposite side we saw sheep-wires running towards sunrise.

“Where's the grass?” demanded Beno, “that stands over your fetlocks and is more like barley than lucerne.”

“Half a mile down the creek,” neighed the camp-horse. “You never tasted such grass.”

“Taste the sheep fence,” sneered Jim Jams, “and the stockwhips. Yah!” He flew round suddenly with a neigh of disgust. At that moment a couple of boundary riders mounted on clever station horses almost leaped from the scrub towards our flanks.

“Trapped!” screamed little Silvertail. “Back to the hills!”

“See where the star-faced spieler has led us!” cried Beno. “The foals and dams are goners. Look out for yourselves.”

I ran with flying strides side by side with Silvertail, hoping to reach the hills. As I turned, a long snake-like whip struck me across the face. The sound was like a pistol-shot, and the pain almost blinded me. I turned, with the clever station horse on my flank, and the long evil whip boomed on my ears and hips.

“Yarded and done for!” choked little Silvertail. “They are driving us towards the wings of the yard. To-morrow we shall be branded and flogged. Good-bye to freedom and the hills.”

The station horse and the snake-whip clung to us until we reached a gully. I followed Silvertail down the jagged slopes over boulders and fallen timber. Down, down we leaped, with never a falter or spill; stones flew past, boulders rumbled after us, but neither wombat holes nor gaping fissures could stay us. The station horse and the terrible whip were left far behind. As we ran up the opposite slope we saw twenty of our brother outlaws being yarded at Yarabba station.

We had lost most of our dams and yearlings. That night, as we crossed to our look-out on Blue Spur hill, I heard the mothers crying for their foals.

A brumby soon forgets a lost comrade, and there was no time to lament. A big drought held the land, and we had to travel far to find safe water and grass.

We came up with a silk-coated riderless mare one night, running like the wind at the back of the hills.

“Ho, ho! my little lady!” shouted Silvertail. “Where are you going?”

She was a beautiful creature, if I am a judge of a lady, bitted with a silver-plated snaffle. Her saddle was the smartest bit of pigskin work outside a gentleman's stable.

“Where's your owner, my pretty friend?” snorted Jim Jams. “Why are you running about the country with a saddle and bridle on?”

She pulled up, curving her pretty neck and pawing like a picture horse.

“Oh, dear,” she whinnied, “I didn't see you in the dark. I was stolen from Gunoon Downs yesterday. The black police captured me and Dick Manners this afternoon. I'm so sorry for Dick. He isn't a bit like a horse thief.”

  ― 54 ―

“Thought he might have cut you out of a picture,” sniffed Jim Jams. “What did he steal you for—the photograph trade?”

“Don't be rude to a lady.” Beno lashed out at Jim Jams' ribs. “Is it likely she'd be scampering about the hard ranges with her pretty clothes on for fun, eh?”

By this time the little lady had quietened. She merely champed her bit and shook her head violently.

“I'm called Sweet Nell,” she said. “Dick Manners is only a boy—not 20 yet. He knew me when I was a yearling. After I was broken to saddle I got quite used to him. He is a gentleman, and a friend of Nat Howit, the station manager at Gunoon Downs. Both of them are in love with Phyllis Chalmers, a girl who lives over the Victorian border. Dick was always worrying old Howit—he is 60—to sell me to him. But Nat Howit wouldn't sell; he wanted me for Phyllis, across the border, and he knew that Dick wanted me for the same reason.

“Dick used to come into my box and whisper in my ear: ‘Nell, Nell, some day I'll steal you—steal you. You shall go south and see Phyllis.’ I would have kicked anyone but Dick—poor Dick.”

“I'd have torn his arm off if he'd put a bit in my mouth,” cried Jim Jams, passionately.

Sweet Nell shook her head and danced from side to side, her pretty trappings ringing like bells in the cold night air. “You don't know what it feels like to be thoroughly broken,” she said, “to hear a human voice calling you by name, to feel yourself flying across the earth, to be fed and groomed until your blood sings for work and pace.”

“Give me freedom,” snorted Silvertail.

“Freedom!” whinnied Sweet Nell. “You are only prisoners after all: wandering like terror-stricken rebels from gully to ridge, shirking your duties and living the lives of dingoes and wild cattle.”

“Tell us about the boy Dick who stole you,” put in Beno.

“Ah, Dick,” she went on; “he came to my box at midnight, after the station hands had turned in. He unlocked the door, saddled me without a word, and we stole away towards the south.

“We halted at daybreak and refreshed ourselves at a bush hotel. Towards afternoon we heard a couple of troopers coming behind. It was no use racing them; there were others ahead. They came up quickly and arrested Dick for stealing me. We were taken to Yarraba, in the hollow below. The black tracker threw my bridle over a post outside the lock-up. I switched it off while they were reading out the charge against Dick inside. And,” she struck fire from the rocks with her shoes, “here I am.”

“Dick will get five years, and you'll be an old lady by the time he comes out of gaol,” tittered Silvertail.

“If they haven't got me how can they prove the charge?” she asked, piteously. “I don't want Dick to get five years, because he is so young,” she whimpered. “And Phyllis—oh, my! oh, my! I think my heart will break.”

She fretted round and round the hillside, her stirrup-irons pounding her sides mercilessly. “Five years in gaol will break his heart and Phyllis's.

  ― 55 ―
He used to read his letters to me. Oh, dear! or dear! I'm only four years old myself, and his voice was more loving than anything in the world.”

“You're worth fifty guineas, anyhow,” yawned Jim Jams. “What's your best time for a mile?”

“One minute fifty seconds. But what does it matter? I can't run as fast as a telegram.”

We wandered through the gullies, and Sweet Nell followed with her clinking snaffle and stirrup-irons. Her pace was different to ours. We sprang and jolted over the ground; she bowled like an india-rubber ball, and passed us easily one after another.

“Her time's all right,” panted Beno. “No fuss about her pace, either. Wonder if she would steal the Summer Cup?”

All that night she fretted over the bleak ranges, nibbling a bit of grass here and there, and pawing the hard ground with her tiny feet.

“Worrying about that young scoundrel, I suppose,” coughed Gambolo. “Doesn't know when she's well off.”

“He stole her for his sweetheart,” snapped Beno. “Can't you distinguish between a common horse-thief and a cavalier?”

It was a long and bitter night-watch. I seemed to grow old waiting for the mists to roll inland with the dawn. My long coat kept me warm, but I knew that the dainty stable-bred Sweet Nell was quaking with cold. Giant clouds stole up from the east, black and sullen, and heavy with rain. There was no sun that day. The storm broke across the hills in pelting slopes of rain. The earth grew soft, and the torrents sprang down the hillside in loud murmurs.

“The ducks are making for the back creeks!” shouted Gambolo, “which reminds me that I put my foot into a mallee hen's nest last year. Couldn't stop to apologise. I'm sure my foot was all over egg-yolk. Why don't those mallee hens put up a notice board?”

Sweet Nell champed her silver bit, and fretted all day like a queen in love. One moment she was standing near the look-out staring at Yarabba gaol, the next found her nipping the grass and whinnying all over the ranges.

The night came up black and squally; the rain spilled over us in sheets. At midnight the moon broke through the banked-up clouds, and lit up the hills.

“Listen to the creeks,” whispered Silvertail. “Flood, flood, lap, lap; that's how the water talks. All the animals and insects understand—the ants, the snakes, the little bears, and the 'possum. I don't know how the rabbits get on, but the wild geese knew all about this rain three days ago. I heard them preaching the news when the sky was grilling like a fire-bar.”

“Whinny, ninny!” screamed Beno, from the look-out. “Something's in the wind.” He trotted round and round with ears twitching and nose in the air.

“Someone is coming!” gasped Silvertail. “A man—I can see his white skin through the boulders.”

“Cooey!” The sound broke faintly up the steep hillside, and died away in the gullies beyond. Sweet Nell bounded forward like a Cup starter, her head towards the voice.

  ― 56 ―

“Cooey!” It came again, clearer, and almost at our feet.

“I'm off!” gasped Silvertail. “No more men for me. It's a stockman sooling those villainous camp-horses round the hills to trap us again.”

“T'sh!” Gambolo whisked round uncertainly. “Let's stay and see the fun.”

Sweet Nell stood apart from us; then she began to pick her way down the hill, stopping at times to listen.

“Nell, Nell!” It was a boy's voice that called. We saw him climbing among the boulders. His face was white, and the rain had drenched his hair until it hung like a wet mask about his brow and eyes. He listened for a moment as he caught the clink of curb and bridle. Then he stood like a ghost on the hillside watching her.

“Nell,” he whispered. “My pretty Nell. Steady, my girl, steady.”

She flew round with the white moonlight in her eyes, and the rain flashed on her silk coat. The rebel madness was on her. What horse can speak to us without getting it in his blood?

“Ah!” coughed Gambolo. “He's done for, anyhow. Broke gaol, I suppose, and now he's putting his trust in a horse, like many a man before him. He, ho, he!”

The boy stood, white-faced and irresolute, on the hillside, not daring to breathe. Then slowly he took a half-step forward, his stroking hand held out. “Nell,” he whispered, “give me a chance, old girl. I swear they won't take us again. To-morrow we'll be over the border. My people will make things right with Nat Howit. Steady! Whoa, Nell!”

He half crouched to the ground, and held up his hand.

Down below we heard the sudden champing of bits, the voices of troopers scrambling up the hillside. We were watching Sweet Nell, and I saw the boy creeping towards her.

“Nell, Nell!” he choked, “for the sake of Phyllis give me this one chance. It's gaol or the border for me now. They are coming. Listen!”

She stood like the statue of a racing queen, her Arab head bent towards him.

“Gee Wilkins and Kafoozelum!” snuffled Silvertail. “Look at that, now!”

The boy's fingers stole to her quivering flank, then his bridle hand touched her mane, and in a flash he was in the saddle.

“Heigho for the troopers!” guffawed Beno. “I don't know much about the tracker's mount, but I'm game to make a bet.”

We ran with Sweet Nell until she cleared the boulders. “Oh, those troopers! Look at 'em!” cried Gambolo. “They won't give the little lady a chance!”

The troopers swept across the hillside in full cry; their hoofbeats rang like axe strokes on the basalt slope. Down, down they thundered. Then we heard the cry of a man and horse plunging forward over a wombat hole.

The moonlight streamed over the plain; beyond the wide patches of silver grass we saw Sweet Nell racing south for the Victorian border. A solitary trooper crawled down the hillside; his horse limped, and after examining her feet, he returned to the hills to pick up his fallen companion.

  ― 57 ―

From our look-out we saw the last of Sweet Nell. The boy turned in the saddle, looked back at the hills, and waved his hand.

“That's good-bye to us,” coughed little Silvertail. “I suppose she thought us a rough lot. Hang it! I hope they pull through all right.”

“These youngsters get into awful scrapes over horses,” laughed Gambolo. “We aren't worth it.”

“He nearly got left, though,” said Jim Jams, spitefully. “The breaking of a stick would have sent her skeltering across the mountains.”

“Take a pull, old dry-as-dust,” chuckled Beno. “That was only the way of the lady.”