A Droving Yarn by Henry Lawson
Andy Maculloch had heard that old Bill Barker, the well-known
overland drover, had died over on the Westralian side, and Dave Regan
told a yarn about Bill.
“Bill Barker,” said Dave, talking round his pipe stem, “was the
quintessence of a drover—”
“The whatter, Dave?” came the voice of Jim Bentley, in startled
tones, from the gloom on the far end of the veranda.
“The quintessence,” said Dave, taking his pipe out of his mouth.
“You shut up, Jim. As I said, Bill Barker was the quintessence of a
drover. He'd been at the game ever since he was a nipper. He run away
from home when he was fourteen and went up into Queensland. He's been
all over Queensland and New South Wales and most of South Australia,
and a good deal of the Western, too: over the great stock routes from
one end to the other, Lord knows how many times. No man could keep up
with him riding out, and no one could bring a mob of cattle or a flock
of sheep through like him. He knew every trick of the game; if there
was grass to be had Bill'd get it, no matter whose run it was on. One
of his games in a dry season was to let his mob get boxed with the
station stock on a run where there was grass, and before Bill's men and
the station-hands could cut 'em out, the travelling stock would have a
good bellyful to carry them on the track. Billy was the daddy of the
drovers. Some said that he could ride in his sleep, and that he had one
old horse that could jog along in his sleep too, and that—travelling
out from home to take charge of a mob of bullocks or a flock of
sheep—Bill and his horse would often wake up at daylight and blink
round to see where they were and how far they'd got. Then Bill would
make a fire and boil his quart-pot, and roast a bit of mutton, while
his horse had a mouthful of grass and a spell.
“You remember Bill, Andy? Big dark man, and a joker of the loud
sort. Never slept with a blanket over him—always folded under him on
the sand or grass. Seldom wore a coat on the route—though he always
carried one with him, in case he came across a bush ball or a funeral.
Moleskins, flannel waistcoat, cabbage-tree hat and 'lastic-side boots.
When it was roasting hot on the plains and the men swore at the heat,
Jim would yell, `Call this hot? Why, you blanks, I'm freezin'! Where's
me overcoat?' When it was raining and hailing and freezing on Bell's
Line in the Blue Mountains in winter, and someone shivered and asked,
`Is it cold enough for yer now, Bill?' `Cold!' Bill would bellow, `I'm
“I remember it well. I was little more than a youngster then—Bill
Barker came past our place with about a thousand fat sheep for the
Homebush sale-yards at Sydney, and he gave me a job to help him down
with them on Bell's Line over the mountains, and mighty proud I was to
go with him, I can tell you. One night we camped on the Cudgegong
River. The country was dry and pretty close cropped and we'd been
“sweating” the paddocks all along there for our horses. You see, where
there weren't sliprails handy we'd just take the tomahawk and nick the
top of a straight-grained fence-post, just above the mortise, knock out
the wood there, lift the top rail out and down, and jump the horses in
over the lower one—it was all two-rail fences around there with sheep
wires under the lower rail. And about daylight we'd have the horses
out, lift back the rail, and fit in the chock that we'd knocked out.
Simple as striking matches, wasn't it?
“Well, the horses were getting a good bellyful in the police horse
paddock at night, and Bill took the first watch with the sheep. It was
very cold and frosty on the flat and he thought the sheep might make
back for the ridges, it's always warmer up in the ridges in winter out
of the frost. Bill roused me out about midnight. `There's the sheep,'
he says, pointing to a white blur. `They've settled down. I think
they'll be quiet till daylight. Don't go round them; there's no
occasion to go near 'em. You can stop by the fire and keep an eye on
“The night seemed very long. I watched and smoked and toasted my
shins, and warmed the billy now and then, and thought up pretty much
the same sort of old things that fellers on night watch think over all
over the world. Bill lay on his blanket, with his back to the fire and
his arm under his head—freezing on one side and roasting on the other.
He never moved. I itched once or twice to turn him over and bake the
front of him—I reckoned he was about done behind.
“At last daylight showed. I took the billy and started down to the
river to get some water to make coffee; but half-way down, near the
sheep camp, I stopped and stared, I was never so surprised in my life.
The white blur of sheep had developed into a couple of acres of long
dead silver grass!
“I woke Bill, and he swore as I never heard a man swear before—nor
since. He swore at the sheep, and the grass, and at me; but it would
have wasted time, and besides I was too sleepy and tired to fight. But
we found those sheep scattered over a scrubby ridge about seven miles
back, so they must have slipped away back of the grass and started
early in Bill's watch, and Bill must have watched that blessed grass
for the first half of the night and then set me to watch it. He
couldn't get away from that.
“I wondered what the chaps would say if it got round that Bill
Barker, the boss overland drover, had lost a thousand sheep in clear
country with fences all round; and I suppose he thought that way too,
for he kept me with him right down to Homebush, and when he paid me off
he threw in an extra quid, and he said:
“`Now, listen here, Dave! If I ever hear a word from anyone about
watching that gory grass, I'll find you, Dave, and murder you, if
you're in wide Australia. I'll screw your neck, so look out.'
“But he's dead now, so it doesn't matter.”
There was silence for some time after Dave had finished. The chaps
made no comment on the yarn, either one way or the other, but sat
smoking thoughtfully, and in a vague atmosphere as of sadness—as if
they'd just heard of their mother's death and had not been listening to
an allegedly humorous yarn.
Then the voice of old Peter, the station-hand, was heard to growl
from the darkness at the end of the hut, where he sat on a three-bushel
bag on the ground with his back to the slabs.
“What's old Peter growlin' about?” someone asked.
“He wants to know where Dave got that word,” someone else replied.
There was a chuckle.
“He got it out back, Peter,” said Mitchell, the shearer. “He got it
from a new chum.”
“How much did yer give for it, Dave?” growled Peter.
“Five shillings, Peter,” said Dave, round his pipe stem. “And stick
of tobacco thrown in.”
Peter seemed satisfied, for he was heard no more that evening.