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In the Back Blocks. A Queensland Sketch.

Edmund Stansfeld Rawson

WE were camped on the banks of Mundooren Creek with a draft of two hundred and fifty head of fat cattle, bound for Port Larcom.

A good time had arrived for the squatters of the Heaton district, an actual buyer having suddenly come amongst them, and for the time, at any rate, they were independent of “the Pots,” as the boiling-down establishments were called. A certain Captain Jackson had lately arrived from the South, and made arrangements to purchase all the available fat cattle in the district for shipment from Port Larcom to New Zealand. The Captain, as may be supposed, immediately became the most popular man in the North. Apart from his naturally genial qualities, and an unlimited fund of good stories, he was armed with credentials of the highest order, no mean accompaniment in those days of doubtful cheques and promissory notes so often “referred to drawer.” He completely took

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every station by storm; the best horses were saddled for his use, and the somewhat limited larders ransacked to the last piece of spiced beef and bottle of fruit to prepare a feast suitable to the occasion of his visits.

Our “fats” had been collected from three different stations, and the last draft of fifty head had only joined us that morning. They were rather a “rowdy” lot, and we had, therefore, made a long stage, about seventeen miles, in order to reach Mundooren Creek, where we knew that the camp was a good one, a favourite spot, in fact, for travelling-stock. An elbow in the creek, with deep water all round, and a moderately high bank, formed a sort of peninsula, about twenty acres in extent, with a narrow neck not more than fifty yards across; a fire at either side of this, and one man on watch was sufficient to guard two thousand head of cattle; consequently with one small lot we felt that we were in for a comfortable night. Jack Mackenzie, part owner and manager of Wetheringo, from which station the main portion of our cattle had come, was in charge, and with him were Jim Donovan, his head stockman, Bob Nicholls, and myself. Bob and I had arrived from England six months previously with letters of introduction to a Brisbane firm, and had been located with Jack Mackenzie at Wetheringo to be

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“broken in.” “Jackeroos,” we were called, a term signifying young men acquiring colonial experience.

This was our first trip on the roads, and we were both very full of the romance of camping out, and the excitement of watching; but like most “new chums,” a little too nervously inclined to worry the cattle. “Shove them along,” said Jack, “in the early morning, when it's cool, and break the neck of the day's journey, but never hurry them after that.”

Jim had the first watch, and we three had made all snug for the night, and were lying on our blankets near the fire in various and thoroughly lazy attitudes, our pipes going freely, and a quart pot of tea within reach. A tin billy, containing a piece of salt beef, simmered on the fire; an occasional sputter from this, the tinkle of the horse bell in the distance, the chink of a hobble chain, and a long-drawn blow as some beast in the mob settled himself for a snooze, were the only sounds that broke the stillness. Now and then a flash from the watch fires denoted that Jim was throwing on a log; sometimes he approached us, either for a minute's talk with any one who happened to be awake, or to take a pull at the pot of tea.

“What a lovely night,” exclaimed Jack, blowing out a cloud of smoke sufficient to have eclipsed the moon had there been one. “You boys”—he

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always called us boys—“are certainly having a good time of it. We ought to have one wet night just to break you in properly.”

As we were not provided with any other covering but a single blanket, the bare ground for a mattress, and our saddles for pillows, Bob and I replied that we were quite satisfied as things were, and contented to leave the wet night to imagination.

“Thank goodness,” presently said Jack, “there are no blacks likely to come poking round and sticking a spear into one, or starting the cattle, which would be worse. I remember when they were pretty lively about here, but that's a good many years ago, and they are all civilised enough now.”

“Did you ever have any adventures with them?” I asked.

“Well, only once,” he replied, “but that was up North when I was out pioneering. That was a shave,” he went on, with a deep sigh, “and no mistake.”

“Oh, do tell us,” Bob and I exclaimed together.

“Look here,” said Jack, “if I begin spinning yarns to you boys, you'll be going to sleep on watch, and that would never do.”

“Not we,” we scornfully rejoined; “at any rate tell us this one, and then we'll turn in.”

“Very well,” assented Jack, “the night's young enough yet, and I don't think the cattle will

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trouble us much. Give me a pannikin of tea, Ted, to start with. Thanks. Now for a light; that's right. Well, here goes.

“It was towards the close of the wet season, some years ago, when I was camped on the north bank of the Somerset with a small lot of sheep on my way to Warrindah, which, in three days, was an outside run. I had only one man with me, old Joe Halliday. We had just crossed the river in time, and established ourselves in very comfortable quarters; a nice dry ridge, lightly timbered and sloping gradually towards a large lagoon, full of ducks and all sorts of water-fowl, about a quarter of a mile back from the river. Here we had pitched our tent, and, as it were, anchored ourselves until the weather became more settled, and the creeks ahead of us sufficiently low to cross. Joe was a regular old hand, a splendid shepherd and excellent cook; he had been for many years in a pastry-cook's shop in London, and, report said, had ‘come abroad for the good of his health, but not at his own expense,’ but into this part of his history, it is needless to say, I never inquired. As a rule, a man's antecedents are not very carefully examined in the Colonies; as long as he works well and doesn't annoy anybody particularly, he is free to go where he will and do what he pleases without remark. Joe was a great reader, and very

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fond of airing his learning at every possible opportunity; frequently, however, he would get mixed up in the meaning and pronunciation of words. On one occasion he had been dosing himself with some quack medicine, a flowery account of which had appeared in the columns of the local thunderer, or Rag, as it was popularly called. When I asked him if he had benefited by it, he said, ‘Well, sir, it may renoviate the h'animal spirits for a time, but as far as the CORPORAL body is concerned, it's my belief it will never do it no good!’ Poor old Joe! I always digress when I speak of him; he was a real good old fellow, and one of the best mates I ever had on the road.”

Here Jack took another pull at his pannikin, and re-lit his pipe with a fire-stick. After a pause, during which he drew hard at his pipe, he resumed:—

“Our camp was about eight miles from the nearest settlement, a small cattle station lower down the river, where we used to buy our rations. To get there we had to pass through half-a-mile of dense scrub, through which a narrow track, just wide enough for a horse, had been cut by some old explorers; it was a great saving in distance, and we always used it; some of the station hands also would visit us on Sundays by the same track, bringing us a newspaper, and taking back with them a few ducks. The township of Stonehampton

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was about fifteen miles down the river on the south side, and there was another station, Erlesmere, owned by the Bowmans, old friends of mine, on the same side about twelve miles away. We had been over six weeks stuck up by the floods, and were fidgeting to get away. Although we had plenty of grass and abundance of water, the delay was a serious one, as we were obliged to be on Warrindah by a certain time, or would run the risk of forfeiture, or possibly of some other pioneer ‘jumping our claim.’ Well, one Sunday morning, after the usual post-prandial pipe and everything had been swept and garnished in and around the tent, I took my gun, an old muzzle-loading Purdey by the way, and telling Joe that I would return about noon with some ducks or pigeons for supper, strolled away towards the lagoon and scrub. Joe was just settling himself comfortably on his bunk with a volume of Macaulay's History of England, which he had brought with him for the trip. The sheep were well in sight, in fact, they hardly required any shepherding now; their usual run was almost like a paddock, fenced in as it was by the river and scrub. I wandered about for two or three hours, in and out of the scrub, and along the river bank, resting now and then and having a smoke. I had collected a lot of ferns which I intended to press

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and send home, had shot a few rare pigeons which I also meant to preserve for the old house at home, and at last found myself back at the lagoon with both barrels loaded, but no more ammunition. With one shot I potted a couple of ducks, to get which I had to strip and swim in. By this time it was well past noon, so I slowly returned to the camp. Throwing the game down on the shady side of the tent, and placing my gun against a rough bench Joe had manufactured—a sort of baking-board, washing-board, and dining-table combined—I called out to my mate, but receiving no answer, concluded he had gone to look after the sheep which were not then in sight. I never can forget the sudden and awful thrill which at that moment went through me! My heart seemed to stand still for a second or two, and then to burst out in quick, wild pulsations, as hard as a postman's knock! What was it? All around where I stood by the door of the tent, grass had been worn off, and the ground swept clean; in the scattered ashes from the open fire, only the back log of which remained smouldering, were the tracks of naked feet, the unmistakable tracks, once you have seen them, of Blacks. Here and there a patch of flour whitened the dust, and a broken spear was lying at my feet. I was so stunned that for the moment I forgot about Joe. We had been told that there were blacks higher up

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the river, but that there was nothing to fear from them if we kept them at a distance. We certainly had not had any chance of encouraging their visits, as we had never seen even a sign of them up to that time, and, perhaps, had become careless in consequence. But where was Joe? Something told me that he was inside the tent; yet I dare not lift the canvas, fearful of what I should see. How long I remained in that state of indecision I could not tell, probably only a few seconds; I was recalled to my senses by a faint cooee, and glancing in the direction of the sound, plainly saw the figure of a girl, outlined against the sky, at the summit of the ridge, about four or five hundred yards away. She was gesticulating, evidently to someone on the other side. I faintly called again, ‘Joe,’ and then, with trembling hand, pulled aside the opening of the tent.”

Here Jack sat up on his blanket, gulped down a mouthful of tea, and, nursing his knees, said impressively, “Boys, I hope you may never have such an experience as that was; that you may never be compelled to look at what I saw in that tent!

“Joe was there, sure enough—all that remained of him. Lying across the tent, his legs on the low stretcher which formed his bed, his body on the ground, and his head just touching my stretcher, was poor old Joe. His right arm, the hand still

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grasping his loved Macaulay, was stretched towards me, his head completely shattered, the white locks black with gore, and the features hardly recognisable.

“My first impulse was to rush madly out and defy the wretches; to fire my last charge into them recklessly, and meet my death fighting to avenge my murdered mate. Reason, however, returned to my rescue. One glance round the disordered tent was sufficient to show me that all I wanted was gone; powder, caps, bullets, and shot were nowhere to be seen. I had one charge of duck-shot in the gun, and that was all. What made me think of pursuing the tactics I did I could not tell. Some unseen hand guided me, some powerful mind urged me on, and kept me from going mad. I shouldered the gun, and walked away from that tent as calmly as if I had just received instructions from the head keeper, and was going to take a stand in a cover shoot at home—slowly down to the lagoon, and along its banks towards the scrub. I felt that I was being watched, and that my only chance was to pretend that I had seen nothing and was still in pursuit of game. It was, perhaps, a wild idea, but I reckoned that if by an appearance of indifference I could once reach the opening in the scrub before the blacks, who, I knew, were behind the ridge, divined my object, I would cover

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the eight miles which separated me from friends in a time which would have done credit to the fastest ‘crack run’ on record.

“I carefully stalked the ducks as if I meant to shoot them, raising my gun now and then and pretending to be about to fire. How I longed at that moment to be as safe as the plumpest old mallard was within twenty yards of me! I would even have changed skins with the bob-tailed coots who were dodging about among the reeds and lilies at my feet!

“The end of the lagoon was close to the track in the scrub, and, at last, I reached the cutting. A cold, numb feeling crept over me when I saw foot tracks in the dust at the entrance; the toe of one foot-mark in particular was deeply imprinted, as if its owner had made a sudden spring to conceal himself. A slight rustle in the scrub made my heart leap into my mouth, in momentary expectation of seeing a shining black figure spring out to attack me. Still I managed to retain my presence of mind, and edged away on quietly, as before, to the opposite side of the lagoon. This would bring me more quickly to the river, and that I now knew was my only chance.

“Swollen as it was, running strongly, and full of hidden dangers in the shape of snags, drift-wood, and, horrible to think of, alligators, I must risk it

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or die. Again I pretended to be in quest of ducks, raising my gun at intervals, sometimes even going back a few paces towards my hidden enemies. I knew this could not last long, and that every second was important, and to keep up this outward show of indifference and to walk slowly, when I longed to make a bolt for it, was a work of several life-times. I even sat down when I reached the end of the lagoon, but it was with an object; my boots and socks were off and hidden in the rushes, while I pretended to spell. Then to make the river! It was the longest quarter of a mile I ever experienced.

“I gained it at last, but what a prospect! Two hundred yards at least to the opposite bank, the water rushing along in oily and treacherous-looking eddies, while here and there the head of a ti tree broke the surface and told of dangers lurking underneath. A large dead tree came sailing down the stream; checked for an instant by some hidden undertow, it slowly rolled half over, displaying its ragged roots, like the fangs of some hidden monster, then, with a shake, as if angry at the slight detention, it once more swirled away towards the sea. I shuddered as it passed, it looked so life-like and horrible. Then a huge raft of drift-wood, firmly wedged together, came steadily along in mid-stream, and inspired me with

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fresh confidence, it seemed so safe and solid. I thought I might reach it, perhaps, and rest halfway; but even as the thought passed through my mind there was a sudden, half-smothered crash, and the raft was ground-up and scattered in a hundred pieces; it too had met with some foe concealed beneath the muddy waters. I hesitated, and feared to make the plunge. I turned round, hoping to find some other means of escape, but only to see about a score of naked blacks creeping towards me along the bank of the lagoon. They had me, as they thought, hemmed in, apparently with no escape. Instantly my clothes were off and thrown into the river. I knew there was no chance in them, and I had slipped down the bank, which was only about four feet high, and was being whirled away down stream. I am a good swimmer, but to breast that raging torrent with one arm, as I kept my gun above water with the other, was anything but an easy matter. Luckily, I decided to keep the gun, otherwise I might have attempted to strike out at once for the opposite shore; as it happened, I was carried swiftly along within twenty feet of the bank, and so concealed from the approaching blacks. This, no doubt, saved me. In a few moments it seemed they appeared on the bank where they had last seen me. By that time I was well away down stream, and had paddled

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myself about a third of the distance across. They saw me, and, with wild yells, hurled some spears, which, however, fell far short of their mark. I could not help half raising myself in the water, and, as I flourished the old Purdey, yelling a defiant cry in return. They ran along the bank, screaming and gesticulating wildly, but I had enough then to do to look after myself. Twice I struck against something, but eventually got ashore about a mile down the river, and dragged myself on to the bank, where I lay exhausted and half-unconscious for some considerable time. I could not help smiling when at length I stood up, clothed in an old cabbage-tree hat and a double-barreled gun; my left shin ornamented with a streak of blood from a scratch below the knee. I was safe, at any rate, for the time, but where should I go?

“The main western road from Stonehampton, at that time little better than a bush track, was within a short distance; so hoping to meet with a drag or some white man, I struck out for it. I soon reached it, and starting away towards the township had hardly gone half-a-mile when, to my great delight, I saw a man on horseback approaching. You would scarcely believe it, perhaps, when I say that he sheered off into the bush when he was within a hundred yards of

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me, and, notwithstanding all my shouts and entreaties, gave me a wide berth and cantered away.

“I afterwards heard, in fact a paragraph appeared in the local paper about it, that he had taken me for a madman, and perhaps his conduct was not to be wondered at. If you had suddenly come across a man, stark naked and with a gun in his hand, wandering about in the vicinity of a township, noted, as all new bush townships were, for drink of the most fiery and poisonous description, you would have acted as this traveller did, and given him also a wide berth. The country was quite familiar to me, so, after a short consideration, I determined to leave the main road and take a bee-line through the bush for Erlesmere, where I was well known, and would get every assistance. It was only now that I began to notice the effects of the sun on my bare skin, which was gradually assuming a scarlet hue and feeling particularly sore. I made a sort of umbrella out of a few branches, which protected me a little, and so trudged on, foot-sore and weary. It was quite dark when I reached Erlesmere, and I crept cautiously round to the bachelors' quarters. There was no one in the room, so I took possession of the first garments I could find, and, arrayed in these,

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presented myself in the verandah of the house, where some half-a-dozen men were reclining in hammocks and lounges, smoking their after-dinner pipes. It was no uncommon thing for visitors to arrive at Erlesmere at any time of day or night, consequently no surprise was manifested at my sudden appearance.

“ ‘Hullo, Jack, how are you? Have you let your horse go? I suppose you'd like some dinner?’ was the cherry greeting I received. It was only when Tom Bowman and I went into the dining-room together that he exclaimed—‘Why, old man, you look rather scared; anything up?’ I asked for some brandy, and after a stiff nip, and while some dinner was being prepared, told him briefly that poor old Joe had been murdered, and that I had only escaped by swimming the river and walking through the bush to the station.

“The rest is soon told. Volunteers were not wanting, you may depend; even the next day, by noon, six guns, accompanied by an officer of the Native Mounted Police and four troopers, were on the ill-fated spot. An inquest was held by Tom Bowman, who was a magistrate, after which we buried the old man in the sweetest spot we could find. A little knoll on the bank of the lagoon, overlooking that lovely bed of

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water-lilies and graceful reeds, was the last resting-place of poor old Joe.

“The following day we found the sheep, but fifty of them were missing, and never recovered.

“The blacks, I suppose, had killed them, and the native dogs dispersed the rest. It was many a long day before I got over the exertion I had undergone, and the scorching from the sun; and up to the present moment I have never got over the sight that met me when I looked into that tent!”

None of us spoke for a few minutes after Jack had ceased. He replenished his pannikin with tea from the great pot, and after drinking a mouthful, sat gazing thoughtfully at the fire. Suddenly he exclaimed—“Now, boys, turn in, and don't dream of blacks!” Not feeling disposed to talk, we did turn in, rolling ourselves in our blankets, our heads on our saddles, and our feet towards the fire.

How it happened I don't know, but I was on watch, sitting on my horse, near the creek. Suddenly I was aware of something creeping up the bank through the long bladey grass which grew near the water's edge. One, two, half-a-dozen shining black forms were slowly dragging themselves along the ground towards the camp fire,

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where my companions were peacefully sleeping. There was no mistaking them—they were blacks, and they meant murder! I dug my heels into my horse's ribs and tugged at the reins. What was the matter? My horse would not stir an inch, and my reins came away in my trembling hands. I pulled and pulled, but could not feel my horse's mouth. I screamed out in my eagerness, and a yell of rage from the leading black as he jumped to his feet answered my despairing cry. Through a misty sort of haze I heard a voice saying—“What the mischief are you after, Ted?” I awoke to find Bob standing over me. It was only a dream after all. Notwithstanding Jack's caution, the blacks had haunted me, and I was sitting up with Bob's blanket firmly clutched in my hands. This was the rein which would not resist my pull, and his was the cry which brought me to my senses!