While the Billy Boils, by Henry Lawson

Stragglers

An oblong hut, walled with blue-grey hardwood slabs, adzed at the ends and set horizontally between the round sapling studs; high roof of the eternal galvanized iron. A big rubbish heap lies about a yard to the right of the door, which opens from the middle of one of the side walls; it might be the front or the back wall — there is nothing to fix it. Two rows of rough bunks run round three sides of the interior; and a fire-place occupies one end — the kitchen end. Sleeping, eating, gambling and cooking accommodation for thirty men in about eighteen by forty feet.

The rouseabouts and shearers use the hut in common during shearing. Down the centre of the place runs a table made of stakes driven into the ground, with cross-pieces supporting a top of half-round slabs set with the flat sides up, and affording a few level places for soup-plates; on each side are crooked, unbarked poles laid in short forks, to serve as seats. The poles are worn smoothest opposite the level places on the table. The floor is littered with rubbish — old wool-bales, newspapers, boots, worn-out shearing pants, rough bedding, etc., raked out of the bunks in impatient search for missing articles — signs of a glad and eager departure with cheques when the shed last cut out.

To the west is a dam, holding back a broad, shallow sheet of grey water, with dead trees standing in it.

Further up along this water is a brush shearing-shed, a rough framework of poles with a brush roof. This kind of shed has the advantage of being cooler than iron. It is not rain-proof, but shearers do not work in rainy weather; shearing even slightly damp sheep is considered the surest and quickest way to get the worst kind of rheumatism. The floor is covered with rubbish from the roof, and here and there lies a rusty pair of shears. A couple of dry tar-pots hang by nails in the posts. The “board” is very uneven and must be bad for sweeping. The pens are formed by round, crooked stakes driven into the ground in irregular lines, and the whole business reminds us of the “cubby-house” style of architecture of our childhood.

Opposite stands the wool-shed, built entirely of galvanized iron; a blinding object to start out of the scrub on a blazing, hot day. God forgive the man who invented galvanized iron, and the greed which introduced it into Australia: you could not get worse roofing material for a hot country.

The wool-washing, soap-boiling, and wool-pressing arrangements are further up the dam. “Government House” is a mile away, and is nothing better than a bush hut; this station belongs to a company. And the company belongs to a bank. And the banks belong to England, mostly.

Mulga scrub all round, and, in between, patches of reddish sand where the grass ought to be.

It is New Year’s Eve. Half a dozen travellers are camping in the hut, having a spell. They need it, for there are twenty miles of dry lignum plain between here and the government bore to the east; and about eighteen miles of heavy, sandy, cleared road north-west to the next water in that direction. With one exception, the men do not seem hard up; at least, not as that condition is understood by the swagmen of these times. The least lucky one of the lot had three weeks’ work in a shed last season, and there might probably be five pounds amongst the whole crowd. They are all shearers, or at least they say they are. Some might be only “rousers.”

These men have a kind of stock hope of getting a few stragglers to shear somewhere; but their main object is to live till next shearing. In order to do this they must tramp for tucker, and trust to the regulation — and partly mythical — pint of flour, and bit of meat, or tea and sugar, and to the goodness of cooks and storekeepers and boundary-riders. You can only depend on getting tucker once at one place; then you must tramp on to the next. If you cannot get it once you must go short; but there is a lot of energy in an empty stomach. If you get an extra supply you may camp for a day and have a spell. To live you must walk. To cease walking is to die.

The Exception is an outcast amongst bush outcasts, and looks better fitted for Sydney Domain. He lies on the bottom of a galvanized-iron case, with a piece of blue blanket for a pillow. He is dressed in a blue cotton jumper, a pair of very old and ragged tweed trousers, and one boot and one slipper. He found the slipper in the last shed, and the boot in the rubbish-heap here. When his own boots gave out he walked a hundred and fifty miles with his feet roughly sewn up in pieces of sacking from an old wool-bale. No sign of a patch, or an attempt at mending anywhere about his clothes, and that is a bad sign; when a swagman leaves off mending or patching his garments, his case is about hopeless. The Exception’s swag consists of the aforesaid bit of blanket rolled up and tied with pieces of rag. He has no water-bag; carries his water in a billy; and how he manages without a bag is known only to himself. He has read every scrap of print within reach, and now lies on his side, with his face to the wall and one arm thrown up over his head; the jumper is twisted back, and leaves his skin bare from hip to arm-pit. His lower face is brutal, his eyes small and shifty, and ugly straight lines run across his low forehead. He says very little, but scowls most of the time — poor devil. He might be, or at least seem, a totally different man under more favourable conditions. He is probably a free labourer.

A very sick jackaroo lies in one of the bunks. A sandy, sawney-looking Bourke native takes great interest in this wreck; watches his every movement as though he never saw a sick man before. The men lie about in the bunks, or the shade of the hut, and rest, and read all the soiled and mutilated scraps of literature they can rake out of the rubbish, and sleep, and wake up swimming in perspiration, and growl about the heat.

It is hot, and two shearers’ cats — a black and a white one — sit in one of the upper bunks with their little red tongues out, panting like dogs. These cats live well during shearing, and take their chances the rest of the year — just as shed rouseabouts have to do. They seem glad to see the traveller come; he makes things more homelike. They curl and sidle affectionately round the table-legs, and the legs of the men, and purr, and carry their masts up, and regard the cooking with feline interest and approval, and look as cheerful as cats can — and as contented. God knows how many tired, dusty, and sockless ankles they rub against in their time.

Now and then a man takes his tucker-bags and goes down to the station for a bit of flour, or meat, or tea, or sugar, choosing the time when the manager is likely to be out on the run. The cook here is a “good cook,” from a traveller’s point of view; too good to keep his place long.

Occasionally someone gets some water in an old kerosene-tin and washes a shirt or pair of trousers, and a pair or two of socks — or foot-rags —(Prince Alfreds they call them). That is, he soaks some of the stiffness out of these articles.

Three times a day the black billies and cloudy nose-bags are placed on the table. The men eat in a casual kind of way, as though it were only a custom of theirs, a matter of form — a habit which could be left off if it were worth while.

The Exception is heard to remark to no one in particular that he’ll give all he has for a square meal.

“An’ ye’d get it cheap, begod!” says a big Irish shearer. “Come and have dinner with us; there’s plenty there.”

But the Exception only eats a few mouthfuls, and his appetite is gone; his stomach has become contracted, perhaps.

The Wreck cannot eat at all, and seems internally disturbed by the sight of others eating.

One of the men is a cook, and this morning he volunteered good-naturedly to bake bread for the rest. His mates amuse themselves by chyacking him.

“I’ve heard he’s a dirty and slow cook,” says one, addressing Eternity.

“Ah!” says the cook, “you’ll be glad to come to me for a pint of flour when I’m cooking and you’re on the track, some day.”

Sunset. Some of the men sit at the end of the hut to get the full benefit of a breeze which comes from the west. A great bank of rain-clouds is rising in that direction, but no one says he thinks it will rain; neither does anybody think we’re going to have some rain. None but the greenest jackaroo would venture that risky and foolish observation. Out here, it can look more like rain without raining, and continue to do so for a longer time, than in most other places.

The Wreck went down to the station this afternoon to get some medicine and bush medical advice. The Bourke sawney helped him to do up his swag; he did it with an awed look and manner, as though he thought it a great distinction to be allowed to touch the belongings of such a curiosity. It was afterwards generally agreed that it was a good idea for the Wreck to go to the station; he would get some physic and, a bit of tucker to take him on. “For they’ll give tucker to a sick man sooner than to a chap what’s all right.”

The Exception is rooting about in the rubbish for the other blucher boot.

The men get a little more sociable, and “feel” each other to find out who’s “Union,” and talk about water, and exchange hints as to good tucker-tracks, and discuss the strike, and curse the squatter (which is all they have got to curse), and growl about Union leaders, and tell lies against each other sociably. There are tally lies; and lies about getting tucker by trickery; and long-tramp-with-heavy-swag-and-no-water lies; and lies about getting the best of squatters and bosses-over-the-board; and droving, fighting, racing, gambling and drinking lies. Lies ad libitum; and every true Australian bushman must try his best to tell a bigger out-back lie than the last bush-liar.

Pat is not quite easy in his mind. He found an old pair of pants in the scrub this morning, and cannot decide whether they are better than his own, or, rather, whether his own are worse — if that’s possible. He does not want to increase the weight of his swag unnecessarily by taking both pairs. He reckons that the pants were thrown away when the shed cut out last, but then they might have been lying out exposed to the weather for a longer period. It is rather an important question, for it is very annoying, after you’ve mended and patched an old pair of pants, to find, when a day or two further on the track, that they are more rotten than the pair you left behind.

There is some growling about the water here, and one of the men makes a billy of tea. The water is better cooked. Pint-pots and sugar-bags are groped out and brought to the kitchen hut, and each man fills his pannikin; the Irishman keeps a thumb on the edge of his, so as to know when the pot is full, for it is very dark, and there is no more firewood. You soon know this way, especially if you are in the habit of pressing lighted tobacco down into your pipe with the top of your thumb. The old slush-lamps are all burnt out.

Each man feels for the mouth of his sugar-bag with one hand while he keeps the bearings of his pot with the other.

The Irishman has lost his match-box, and feels for it all over the table without success. He stoops down with his hands on his knees, gets the table-top on a level with the flicker of firelight, and “moons” the object, as it were.

Time to turn in. It is very dark inside and bright moonlight without; every crack seems like a ghost peering in. Some of the men will roll up their swags on the morrow and depart; some will take another day’s spell. It is all according to the tucker.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38