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The Bush Fire by Henry Lawson

1901

I

SQUATTER AND SELECTOR

Wall was a squatter and a hard man. There had been long years of drought and loss, and then came the rabbit pest—the rabbits swarmed like flies over his run, and cropped the ground bare where even the poor grass might have saved thousands of sheep—and the rabbits cost the squatter hundreds of pounds in “rabbit-proof” fences, trappers' wages, etc., just to keep them down. Then came arrangements with the bank. And then Wall's wife died. Wall started to brood over other days, and the days that had gone between, and developed a temper which drove his children from home one by one, till only Mary was left. She managed the lonely home with the help of a half-caste. Then in good seasons came the selectors.

Men remembered Wall as a grand boss and a good fellow, but that was in the days before rabbits and banks, and syndicates and “pastoralists" or pastoral companies instead of good squatters. Runs were mostly pastoral leases for which the squatter paid the Government so much per square mile (almost a nominal rent). Selections were small holdings taken up by farmers under residential and other conditions and paid for by instalments. If you were not ruined by the drought, and paid up long enough, the land became freehold. The writer is heir to a dusty patch of three hundred acres or so in the scrub which was taken up thirty years ago and isn't freehold yet.

Selectors were allowed to take up land on runs or pastoral leases as well as on unoccupied Crown lands, and as they secured the best bits of land, and on water frontages if they could, and as, of course, selections reduced the area of the run, the squatters loved selectors like elder brothers. One man is allowed to select only a certain amount of land, and required by law to live on it, so the squatters bought as much freehold about the homestead as they could afford, selected as much as they are allowed to by law, and sometimes employed “dummy" selectors to take up choice bits about the runs and hold them for them. They fought selectors in many various ways, and, in some cases, annoyed and persecuted them with devilish ingenuity.

Ross was a selector, and a very hard man physically. He was a short, nuggety man with black hair and frill beard (a little dusty), bushy black eyebrows, piercing black eyes, horny knotted hands, and the obstinacy or pluck of a dozen men to fight drought and the squatter. Ross selected on Wall's run, in a bend of Sandy Creek, a nice bit of land with a black soil, flat and red soil sidings from the ridges, which no one had noticed before, and with the help of his boys he got the land cleared and fenced in a year or two—taking bush contracts about the district between whiles to make “tucker” for the family until he got his first crop off.

Wall was never accused of employing dummies, or underhanded methods in dealings with selectors, but he had been through so much and had brooded so long that he had grown very hard and bitter and suspicious, and the reverse of generous—as many men do who start out in life too soft and goodhearted and with too much faith in human nature. He was a tall, dark man. He ordered Ross's boys off the run, impounded Ross's stock—before Ross had got his fencing finished, summoned Ross for trespass, and Ross retaliated as well as he could, until at last it mightn't have been safe for one of those men to have met the other with a gun. The impounding of the selector's cattle led to the last bad quarrel between Wall and his son Billy, who was a tall, good-natured Cornstalk, and who reckoned that Australia was big enough for all of us. One day in the drought, and in an extra bitter mood, Wall heard that some of his sheep had been dogged in the vicinity of Ross's selection, and he ordered Billy to take a station-hand and watch Ross's place all night, and, if Ross's cattle put their noses over the boundary, to drive them to the pound, fifteen miles away; also to lay poisoned baits for the dogs all round the selection. And Billy flatly refused.

“I know Ross and the boys,” he said, “and I don't believe they dogged the sheep. Why, they've only got a Newfoundland pup, and an old lame, one-eyed sheep-dog that couldn't hurt a flea. Now, father, this sort of thing has been going on long enough. What difference does a few paltry acres make to us? The country is big enough, God knows! Ross is a straight man and—for God's sake, give the man a chance to get his ground fenced in; he's doing it as fast as he can, and he can't watch his cattle day and night.”

“Are you going to do as I tell you, or are you not?” shouted Wall.

“Well, if it comes to that, I'm not,” said Billy. “I'm not going to sneak round a place all night and watch for a chance to pound a poor man's cows.”

It was an awful row, down behind the wool-shed, and things looked so bad that old Peter, the station-hand, who was a witness, took off his coat and rolled up his sleeves, ready, as he said afterwards, “to roll into” either the father or the son if one raised a hand against the other.

“Father!” said Billy, though rather sobered by the sight of his father's trembling, choking passion, “do you call yourself an Englishman?”

“Yes!” yelled Wall, furiously. “What the hell do you call yourself?”

“If it comes to that I'm an Australian,” said Billy, and he turned away and went to catch his horse. He went up-country and knocked about in the north-west for a year or two.

II

ROMEO AND JULIET

Mary Wall was twenty-five. She was an Australian bush girl, every inch of her five-foot-nine; she had a pink-and-white complexion, dark blue eyes, blue-black hair, and “the finest figure in the district,” on horseback or afoot. She was the best girlrider too (saddle or bare-back), and they say that when she was a tomboy she used to tuck her petticoats under her and gallop man-fashion through the scrub after horses or cattle. She said she was going to be an old maid.

There came a jackaroo on a visit to the station. He was related to the bank with which Wall had relations. He was a dude, with an expensive education and no brains. He was very vain of his education and prospects. He regarded Mary with undisguised admiration, and her father had secret hopes. One evening the jackaroo was down by the homestead-gate when Mary came cantering home on her tall chestnut. The gate was six feet or more, and the jackaroo raised his hat and hastened to open it, but Mary reined her horse back a few yards and the “dood" had barely time to jump aside when there was a scuffle of hoofs on the road, a “Ha-ha-ha!” in mid-air, a landing thud, and the girl was away up the home-track in a cloud of dust.

A few days later the jackaroo happened to be at Kelly's, a wayside shanty, watching a fight between two bushmen, when Mary rode up. She knew the men. She whipped her horse in between them and struck at first one and then the other with her riding-whip.

“You ought to be ashamed of yourselves!” she said; “and both married men, too!”

It evidently struck them that way, for after a bit they shook hands and went home.

“And I wouldn't have married that girl for a thousand pounds,” said the jackaroo, relating the incidents to some friends in Sydney.

Mary said she wanted a man, if she could get one.

There was no life at home nowadays, so Mary went to all the bush dances in the district. She thought nothing of riding twenty or thirty miles to a dance, dancing all night, and riding home again next morning. At one of these dances she met young Robert Ross, a clean-limbed, good-looking young fellow about her own age. She danced with him and liked him, and danced with him again, and he rode part of the way home with her. The subject of the quarrel between the two homes came up gradually.

“The boss,” said Robert, meaning his father, “the boss is always ready to let bygones be bygones. It's a pity it couldn't be fixed up.”

“Yes,” said Mary, looking at him (Bob looked very well on horseback), “it is a pity.”

They met several times, and next Prince of Wales's birthday they rode home from the races together. Both had good horses, and they happened to be far ahead of the others on the wide, straight clear road that ran between the walls of the scrub. Along, about dusk, they became very confidential indeed—Mary had remarked what a sad and beautiful sunset it was. The horses got confidential, too, and shouldered together, and touched noses, and, after a long interval in the conversation, during which Robert, for one, began to breathe quickly, he suddenly leaned over, put his arm round her waist and made to kiss her. She jerked her body away, threw up her whiphand, and Robert ducked instinctively; but she brought her whip down on her horse's flank instead, and raced ahead. Robert followed—or, rather, his horse did: he thought it was a race, and took the bit in his teeth. Robert kept calling, appealing:

“Wait a while, Mary! I want to explain! I want to apologize! For God's sake listen to me, Mary!”

But Mary didn't hear him. Perhaps she misunderstood the reason of the chase and gave him credit for a spice of the devil in his nature. But Robert grew really desperate; he felt that the thing must be fixed up now or never, and gave his horse a free rein. Her horse was the fastest, and Robert galloped in the dust from his heels for about a mile and a half; then at the foot of a rise Mary's horse stumbled and nearly threw her over his head, and then he stopped like the good horse he was.

Robert got down feeling instinctively that he might best make his peace on foot, and approached Mary with a face of misery—she had dropped her whip.

“Oh, Bob!” she said, “I'm knocked out;” and she slipped down into his arms and stayed there a while.

They sat on a log and rested, while their horses made inquiries of each other's noses, and compared notes.

And after a good while Mary said “No, Bob, it's no use talking of marrying just yet. I like you, Bob, but I could never marry you while things are as they are between your father and mine. Now, that'll do. Let me get on my horse, Bob. I'll be safer there.”

“Why?” asked Bob.

“Come on, Bob, and don't be stupid.”

She met him often and “liked” him.

III

A TRAMP'S MATCH AND WHAT IT DID

It was Christmas Eve at Wall's, but there was no score or so of buggies and horses and dozens of strange dogs round the place as of old. The glasses and decanters were dusty on the heavy old-fashioned sideboard in the dining-room; and there was only a sullen, brooding man leaning over the hurdles and looking at his rams in the yard, and a sullen, brooding half-caste at work in the kitchen. Mary had ridden away that morning to visit a girl chum.

It was towards the end of a long drought, and the country was like tinder for hundreds of miles round—the ground for miles and miles in the broiling scrubs “as bare as your hand,” or covered with coarse, dry tufts. There was feed grass in places, but you had to look close to see it.

Shearing had finished the day before, but there was a black boy and a station-hand or two about the yards and six or eight shearers and rouseabouts, and a teamster camped in the men's huts—they were staying over the holidays to shear stragglers and clean up generally. Old Peter and a jackaroo were out on the run watching a bush-fire across Sandy Creek.

A swagman had happened to call at the station that morning; he asked for work and then for tucker. He irritated Wall, who told him to clear out. It was the first time that a swagman had been turned away from the station without tucker.

Swaggy went along the track some miles, brooding over his wrongs, and crossed Sandy Creek. He struck a match and dropped it into a convenient tuft of grass in a likely patch of tufts, with dead grass running from it up into the scrubby ridges—then he hurried on.

Did you ever see a bush-fire? Not sheets of flame sweeping and roaring from tree-top to tree-top, but the snaky, hissing grass-fire of hardwood country.

The whole country covered with thin blue smoke so that you never know in what direction the fire is travelling. At night you see it like the lighted streets of cities, in the distant ranges. It roars up the hollows of dead trees and gives them the appearance of factory chimneys in the dusk. It climbs, by shreds of bark, the trunks of old dead white-box and blue-gums—solid and hard as cast-iron—and cuts off the limbs. And where there's a piece of recently ringbarked country, with the dead leaves still on the trees, the fire will roar from bough to bough—a fair imitation of a softwood forest fire. The bush-fire travels through the scrubs for hundreds of miles, taking the grass to the roots, scorching the living bush but leaving it alive—for gumbush is hardest of any to kill. Where there is no undergrowth, and the country seems bare as a road for miles, the fire will cross, licking up invisible straws of grass, dusty leaves, twigs and shreds of bark on the hard ground already baking in the drought. You hear of a fire miles away, and next day, riding across the head of a gully, you hear a hissing and crackling and there is the fire running over the ground in lines and curves of thin blue smoke, snakelike, with old logs blazing on the blackened ground behind. Did you ever hear a fire where a fire should not be? There is something hellish in the sound of it. When the breeze is, say, from the east the fire runs round western spurs, up sheltered gullies—helped by an “eddy” in the wind perhaps—and appears along the top of the ridge, ready, with a change in the wind, to come down on farms and fields of ripe wheat, with a “front” miles long.

A selector might be protected by a wide sandy creek in front and wide cleared roads behind, and, any hour in the day or night, a shout from the farther end of the wheat paddock, and—“Oh, my God! the wheat!”

Wall didn't mind this fire much; most of his sheep were on their way out back, to a back run where there was young grass; and the dry ridges along the creek would be better for a burning-off—only he had to watch his fences.

But, about dusk, Mary came galloping home in her usual breakneck fashion.

“Father,” she cried, “turn out the men and send them at once. The fire is all down by Ross's farm, and he has ten acres of wheat standing, and no one at home but him and Bob.”

“How do you know?” growled Wall. Then suddenly and suspiciously, “Have you been there?”

“I came home that way.”

“Well—let Ross look after his own,” snarled the father.

“But he can't, father. They're fighting the fire now, and they'll be burnt out before the morning if they don't get help—for God's sake, father, act like a Christian and send the men. Remember it is Christmas-time, father. You're surely not going to see a neighbour burnt out.”

“Yes, I am,” shouted Wall. “I'd like to see every selector in the country burnt out, hut and all! Get off that horse and go inside. If a man leaves the station to-night he needn't come back.” (This last for the benefit of the men's hut.)

“But, father—”

“Get off that horse and go inside,” roared Wall.

“I—I won't.”

“What!” He darted forward as though to drag her from the saddle, but she swung her horse away.

“Stop! Where are you going?”

“To help Ross,” said Mary. “He had no one to send for help.”

“Then go the same way as your brother!” roared her father; “and if you show your nose back again I'll horse-whip you off the run!”

“I'll go, father,” said Mary, and she was away.

IV

THE FIRE AT ROSS'S FARM

Ross's farm was in a corner between the ridges and the creek. The fire had come down from the creek, but the siding on that side was fairly clear, and they had stopped the fire there. It went behind the ridge and ran up and over. The ridge was covered thickly with scrub and dead grass; the wheat-field went well up the siding, and along the top was a bush face with only a narrow bridle-track between it and the long dead grass. Everything depended on the wind. Mary saw Ross and Mrs Ross and the daughter Jenny, well up the siding above the fence, working desperately, running to and fro, and beating out the fire with green boughs. Mary left her horse, ran into the hut, and looked hurriedly round for something to wear in place of her riding-skirt. She only saw a couple of light print dresses. She stepped into a skillion room, which happened to be Bob's room, and there caught sight of a pair of trousers and a coat hanging on the wall.

Bob Ross, beating desperately along a line of fire that curved down-hill to his right, and half-choked and blinded with the smoke, almost stumbled against a figure which was too tall to be his father.

“Why! who's that?” he gasped.

“It's only me, Bob,” said Mary, and she lifted her bough again.

Bob stared. He was so astonished that he almost forgot the fire and the wheat. Bob was not thin—but—

“Don't look at me, Bob!” said Mary, hurriedly. “We're going to be married, so it doesn't matter. Let us save the wheat.”

There was no time to waste; there was a breeze now from over the ridges, light, but enough to bear the fire down on them. Once, when they had breathing space, Mary ran to the creek for a billy of water. They beat out the fire all along the siding to where a rib of granite came down over the ridge to the fence, and then they thought the wheat was safe. They came together here, and Ross had time to look and see who the strange man was; then he stared at Mary from under his black, bushy eyebrows. Mary, choking and getting her breath after her exertions, suddenly became aware, said “Oh!” and fled round the track beyond the point of granite. She felt a gust of wind and looked up the ridge. The bush fence ended here in a corner, where it was met by a new wire fence running up from the creek. It was a blind gully full of tall dead grass, and, glancing up, Mary saw the flames coming down fast. She ran back.

“Come on!” she cried, “come on! The fire's the other side of the rocks!”

Back at the station, Wall walked up and down till he cooled. He went inside and sat down, but it was no use. He lifted his head and saw his dead wife's portrait on the wall. Perhaps his whole life ran before him in detail—but this is not a psychological study.

There were only two tracks open to him now: either to give in, or go on as he was going—to shut himself out from human nature and become known as “Mean Wall,” “Hungry Wall,” or “Mad Wall, the Squatter.” He was a tall, dark man of strong imagination and more than ordinary intelligence. And it was the great crisis of his ruined life. He walked to the top of a knoll near the homestead and saw the fire on the ridges above Ross's farm. As he turned back he saw a horseman ride up and dismount by the yard.

“Is that you, Peter?”

“Yes, boss. The fences is all right.”

“Been near Ross's?”

“No. He's burnt out by this time.”

Wall walked to and fro for a few minutes longer. Then he suddenly stopped and called, “Peter!”

“Ay, ay!” from the direction of the huts.

“Turn out the men!” and Wall went into a shed and came out with his saddle on his arm.

The fire rushed down the blind gully. Showers of sparks fell on the bush fence, it caught twice, and they put it out, but the third time it blazed and roared and a fire-engine could not have stopped it.

“The wheat must go,” said Ross. “We've done our best,” and he threw down the blackened bough and leaned against a tree, and covered his eyes with a grimy hand.

The wheat was patchy in that corner—there were many old stumps of trees, and there were bare strips where the plough had gone on each side of them. Mary saw a chance, and climbed the fence.

“Come on, Bob,” she cried, “we might save it ye. Mr Ross, pull out the fence along there,” and she indicated a point beyond the fire. They tramped down and tore up the wheat where it ran between the stumps—the fire was hissing and crackling round and through it, and just as it ran past them in one place there was a shout, a clatter of horses' hoofs on the stones, and Mary saw her father riding up the track with a dozen men behind him. She gave a shriek and ran straight down, through the middle of the wheat, towards the hut.

Wall and his men jumped to the ground, wrenched green boughs from the saplings, and, after twenty minutes' hard fighting, the crop was saved—save for a patchy acre or so. When it was all over Ross sat down on a log and rested his head on his hands, and his shoulders shook. Presently he felt a hand on his shoulder, looked up, and saw Wall.

“Shake hands, Ross,” he said.

And it was Christmas Day.

But in after years they used to nearly chaff the life out of Mary. “You were in a great hurry to put on the breeches, weren't you, Mary?” “Bob's best Sunday-go-meetin's, too, wasn't they, Mary?” “Rather tight fit, wasn't they, Mary?” “Couldn't get 'em on now, could you, Mary?”

“But,” reflected old Peter apart to some cronies, “it ain't every young chap as gits an idea of the shape of his wife afore he marries her—is it? An' that's sayin' somethin"'

And old Peter was set down as being an innercent sort of ole cove.

 
 
 

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