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The Sundowners by Henry Lawson

1901

Sheep stations in Australia are any distance from twenty to a hundred miles apart, to keep well within the boundaries of truth and the great pastoral country. Shearing at any one shed only lasts a few weeks in the year; the number of men employed is according to the size of the shed—from three to five men in the little bough-covered shed of the small “cockatoo,” up to a hundred and fifty or two hundred hands all told in the big corrugated iron machine shed of a pastoral company.

Shearing starts early up in northern Queensland, where you can get a “January shed;” and further south, in February, March or April sheds, and so on down into New South Wales, where shearing often lasts over Christmas. Shearers travel from shed to shed; some go a travel season without getting a pen, and an unlucky shearer might ride or tramp for several seasons and never get hands in wool; and all this explains the existence of the “footman” with his swag and the horse man with his packhorse. They have a rough life, and the Australian shearers are certainly the most democratic and perhaps the most independent, intelligent and generous body of workmen in the world.

Shearers at a shed elect their own cook, pay him so much a head, and they buy their rations in the lump from the station store; and “travellers,” i.e. shearers and rouseabouts travelling for work, are invited, as a matter of course, to sit down to the shearers' table. Also a certain allowance of tea, sugar, flour or meat is still made to travellers at most Western station stores; so it would be rather surprising if there weren't some who, travelled on the game. The swagman loafer, or “bummer,” times himself, especially in bad weather, to arrive at the shed just about sundown; he is then sure of “tea,” shelter for the night, breakfast, and some tucker from the cook to take him on along the track. Brummy and Swampy were sundowners.

Swampy was a bummer born—and proud of it. Brummy had drifted down to loaferdom, and his nature was soured and his spirit revengeful against the world because of the memory of early years wasted at hard work and in being honest. Both were short and stout, and both had scrubby beards, but Brummy's beard was a dusty black and Swampy's fiery red—he indulged in a monkey-shave sometimes, but his lower face was mostly like a patch of coarse stubble with a dying hedge round it. They had travelled together for a long time. They seemed at times to hate each other with a murderous hatred, but they were too lazy to fight. Sometimes they'd tramp side, by side and growl at each other by the hour, other times they'd sulk for days; one would push on ahead and the other drop behind until there was a mile or two between them; but one always carried the billy, or the sugar, or something that was necessary to the comfort of the other, so they'd come together at sundown. They had travelled together a long time, and perhaps that was why they hated each other. They often agreed to part and take different tracks, and sometimes they parted—for a while. They agreed in cadging, and cadged in turn. They carried a spare set of tucker-bags, and if, for instance, they were out of sugar and had plenty flour and tea, Brummy or Swampy would go to the store, boundary-rider's hut, or selector's, with the sugar-bag in his hand and the other bags in his shirt front on spec. He'd get the sugar first, and then, if it looked good enough, the flour-bag would come out, then the tea-bag. And before he left he'd remark casually that he and his mate hadn't had a smoke for two days. They never missed a chance. And when they'd cadged more tucker than they could comfortably carry, they'd camp for a day or two and eat it down. Sometimes they'd have as much as a pound of tobacco, all in little “borrowed” bits, cut from the sticks or cakes of honest travellers. They never missed a chance. If a stranger gave Swampy his cake of tobacco with instructions to “cut off a pipeful,” Swampy would cut off as much as he thought judicious, talking to the stranger and watching his eye all the time, and hiding his palm as much as possible—and sometimes, when he knew he'd cut off more than he could cram into his pipe, he'd put his hand in his pocket for the pipe and drop some of the tobacco there. Then he'd hand the plug to his mate, engage the stranger in conversation and try to hold his eye or detract his attention from Brummy so as to give Brummy a chance of cutting off a couple of pipefuls, and, maybe, nicking off a corner of the cake and slipping it into his pocket. I once heard a bushman say that no one but a skunk would be guilty of this tobacco trick—that it is about the meanest trick a man could be capable of—because it spoils the chances of the next hard-up swaggy who asks the victim for tobacco.

When Brummy and Swampy came to a shed where shearing was in full swing, they'd inquire, first thing, and with some show of anxiety, if there was any chance of gettin' on; if the shed was full-handed they'd growl about hard times, wonder what the country was coming to; talk of their missuses and kids that they'd left in Sydney, curse the squatters and the Government, and, next morning, get a supply of rations from the cook and depart with looks of gloom. If, on the other hand, there was room in the shed for one or both of them, and the boss told them to go to work in the morning, they'd keep it quiet from the cook if possible, and depart, after breakfast, unostentatiously.

Sometimes, at the beginning of a drought, when the tall dead grass was like tinder for hundreds of miles and a carelessly-dropped match would set the whole country on fire, Swampy would strike a hard-faced squatter, manager or overseer with a cold eye, and the conversation would be somewhat as follows:

Swampy: “Good day, boss!”

Boss (shortly): “'Day.”

Swampy: “Any chance of a job?”

Boss: “Naw. Got all I want and we don't start for a fortnight.”

Swampy: “Can I git a bit o' meat?”

Boss: “Naw! Don't kill till Saturday.”

Swampy: “Pint o' flour?”

Boss: “Naw. Short ourselves.”

Swampy: “Bit o' tea or sugar, boss?”

Boss: “Naw—what next?”

Swampy: “Bit o' baccer, boss. Ain't had a smoke for a week.”

Boss: “Naw. Ain't got enough for meself till the wagon comes out.”

Swampy: “Ah, well! It's hot, ain't it, boss?”

Boss: “Yes-it's hot.”

Swampy: “Country very dry?”

Boss: “Yes. Looks like it.”

Swampy: “A fire 'ud be very bad just now?”

Boss: “Eh?”

Swampy: “Yes. Now I'm allers very careful with matches an' fire when I'm on the track.”

Boss “Are yer?”

Swampy: “Yes. I never lights a fire near the grass—allers in the middle of the track—it's the safest place yer can get. An' I allers puts the fire out afore I leaves the camp. If there ain't no water ter spare I covers the ashes with dirt. An' some fellers are so careless with matches lightin' their pipes.” (Reflective pause.)

Boss: “Are they?”

Swampy: “Yes. Now, when I lights me pipe on the track in dry weather I allers rubs the match head up an' drops it in the dust. I never drops a burnin' match. But some travellers is so careless. A chap might light his pipe an' fling the match away without thinkin' an' the match might fall in a dry tuft, an'-there yer are!” (with a wave of his arms). “Hundreds of miles o' grass gone an' thousands o' sheep starvin'. Some fellers is so careless—they never thinks. . . . An' what's more, they don't care if they burn the whole country.”

Boss (scratching his head reflectively): “Ah-umph! You can go up to the store and get a bit of tucker. The storekeeper might let yer have a bit o' tobacco.”

On one occasion, when they were out of flour and meat; Brummy and Swampy came across two other pilgrims camped on a creek, who were also out of flour and meat. One of them had tried a surveyors' camp a little further down, but without success. The surveyors' cook had said that he was short of flour and meat himself. Brummy tried him—no luck. Then Swampy said he'd go and have a try. As luck would have it, the surveyors' cook was just going to bake; he had got the flour out in the dish, put in the salt and baking powder, mixed it up, and had gone to the creek for a billy of water when Swampy arrived. While the cook was gone Swampy slipped the flour out of the dish into his bag, wiped the dish, set it down again, and planted the bag behind a tree at a little distance. Then he stood waiting, holding a spare empty bag in his hand. When the cook came back he glanced at the dish, lowered the billy of water slowly to the ground, scratched his head, and looked at the dish again in a puzzled way.

“Blanked if I didn't think I got that flour out!” he said.

“What's that, mate?” asked Swampy.

“Why! I could have sworn I got the flour out in the dish and mixed it before I went for the water,” said the cook, staring at the dish again. “It's rum what tricks your memory plays on you sometimes.”

“Yes,” said Swampy, showing interest, while the cook got some more flour out into the dish from a bag in the back of the tent. “It is strange. I've done the same, thing meself. I suppose it's the heat that makes us all a bit off at times.”

“Do you cook, then?” asked the surveyors' cook.

“Well, yes. I've done a good bit of it in me time; but it's about played out. I'm after stragglers now.” (Stragglers are stray sheep missed in the general muster and found about the out paddocks and shorn after the general shearing.)

They had a yarn and Swampy “bit the cook's ear” for a “bit o' meat an' tea an' sugar,” not forgetting “a handful of flour if yer can spare it.”

“Sorry,” said the cook, “but I can only let you have about a pint. We're very short ourselves.”

“Oh, that's all right!” said Swampy, as he put the stuff into his spare bags. “Thank you! Good day!”

“Good day,” said the cook. The cook went on with his work and Swampy departed, catching up the bag of flour from behind the tree as he passed it, and keeping the clump of timber well between him and the surveyors' camp, lest the cook should glance round, and, noticing the increased bulk of his load, get some new ideas concerning mental aberration.

Nearly every bushman has at least one superstition, or notion, that lasts his time—as nearly every bushman has at least one dictionary word which lasts him all his life. Brummy had a gloomy notion—Lord knows how he got it!—that he should 'a' gone on the boards if his people hadn't been so ignorant. He reckoned that he had the face and cut of an actor, could mimic any man's voice, and had wonderful control over his features. They came to a notoriously “hungry” station, where there was a Scottish manager and storekeeper. Brummy went up to “government house” in his own proper person, had a talk with the storekeeper, spoke of a sick mate, and got some flour and meat. They camped down the creek, and next morning Brummy started to shave himself.

“Whatever are you a-doin' of, Brummy?” gasped Swampy in great astonishment.

“Wait and see,” growled Brummy, with awful impressiveness, as if he were going to cut Swampy's throat after he'd finished shaving. He shaved off his beard and whiskers, put on a hat and coat belonging to Swampy, changed his voice, dropped his shoulders, and went limping up to the station on a game leg. He saw the cook and got some “brownie,” a bit of cooked meat and a packet of baking powder. Then he saw the storekeeper and approached the tobacco question. Sandy looked at him and listened with some slight show of interest, then he said:

“Oh that's all right now! But ye needn't ha' troublt shavin' yer beard—the cold weather's comin' on! An' yer mate's duds don't suit ye—they 're too sma'; an' yer game leg doesn't fit ye either—it takes a lot o' practice. Ha' ye got ony tea an' sugar?”

Brummy must have touched something responsive in that old Scot somewhere, but his lack of emotion upset Brummy somewhat, or else an old deep-rooted superstition had been severely shaken. Anyway he let Swampy do the cadging for several days thereafter.

But one bad season they were very hard up indeed—even for Brummy and Swampy. They'd tramped a long hungry track and had only met a few wretched jackaroos, driven out of the cities by hard times, and tramping hopelessly west. They were out of tobacco, and their trousers were so hopelessly “gone” behind that when they went to cadge at a place where there was a woman they were moved to back and sidle and edge away again—and neither Brummy nor Swampy was over fastidious in matters of dress or personal appearance. It was absolutely necessary to earn a pound or two, so they decided to go to work for a couple of weeks. It wouldn't hurt them, and then there was the novelty of it.

They struck West-o'-Sunday Station, and the boss happened to want a rouseabout to pick up wool and sweep the floor for the shearers.

“I can put one of you on,” he said. “Fix it up between yourselves and go to work in the morning.”

Brummy and Swampy went apart to talk it over.

“Look here! Brum, old man,” said Swampy, with great heartiness, “we've been mates for a long while now, an' shared an' shared alike. You've allers acted straight to me an' I want to do the fair thing by you. I don't want to stand in your light. You take the job an' I'll be satisfied with a pair of pants out of it and a bit o' tobacco now an' agen. There yer are! I can't say no fairer than that.”

“Yes,” said Brummy, resentfully, “an' you'll always be thrown' it up to me afterwards that I done you out of a job!”

“I'll swear I won't,” said Swampy, hurriedly. “But since you're so blasted touchy and suspicious about it, you take this job an' I'll take the next that turns up. How'll that suit you?”

Brummy thought resentfully.

“Look here!” he said presently, “let's settle it and have done with this damned sentimental tommy-rot. I'll tell you what I'll do—I'll give you the job and take my chance. The boss might want another man to-morrow. Now, are you satisfied?”

But Swampy didn't look grateful or happy.

“Well,” growled Brummy, “of all the —-I ever travelled with you're the —-. What do you want anyway? What'll satisfy you? That's all I want to know. Hey?—can't yer speak?”

“Let's toss up for it,” said Swampy, sulkily.

“All right,” said Brummy, with a big oath, and he felt in his pocket for two old pennies he had. But Swampy had got a suspicion somehow that one of those pennies had two heads on it, and he wasn't sure that the other hadn't two tails—also, he suspected Brummy of some skill in “palming,” so he picked up a chip from the wood-heap, spat on it, and spun it into the air. “Sing out!” he cried, “wet or dry?”

“Dry,” said Brummy, promptly. He had a theory that the wet side of the chip, being presumably heaviest, was more likely to fall downwards; but this time it was “wet” up three times in succession. Brummy ignored Swampy's hand thrown out in hearty congratulation; and next morning he went to work in the shed. Swampy camped down the river, and Brummy supplied him with a cheap pair of moleskin trousers, tucker and tobacco. The shed cut out within three weeks and the two sundowners took the track again, Brummy with two pounds odd in his pocket—he having negotiated his cheque at the shed.

But now there was suspicion, envy, and distrust in the hearts of those two wayfarers. Brummy was now a bloated capitalist, and proud, and anxious to get rid of Swampy—at least Swampy thought so. He thought that the least that Brummy might have done was to have shared the “stuff” with him.

“Look here, Brummy,” he said reproachfully, “we've shared and shared alike, and—-”

“We never shared money,” said Brummy, decidedly.

“Do you think I want yer blasted money?” retorted Swampy, indignantly. “When did I ever ask yer for a sprat? Tell me that!”

“You wouldn't have got it if you had asked,” said Brummy, uncompromisingly. “Look here!” with vehemence. “Didn't I keep yer in tobacco and buy yer gory pants? What are you naggin' about anyway?”

“Well,” said Swampy, “all I was goin' to say was that yer might let me carry one of them quids in case you lost one—yer know you're careless and lose things; or in case anything happened to you.”

“I ain't going to lose it—if that's all that's fretting you,” said Brummy, “and there ain't nothing going to happen to me—and don't you forget it.”

“That's all the thanks I get for givin' yer my gory job,” said Swampy, savagely. “I won't be sick a soft fool agen, I can tell yer.”

Brummy was silent, and Swampy dropped behind. He brooded darkly, and it's a bad thing for a man to brood in the bush. He was reg'lar disgusted with Brummy. He'd allers acted straight to him, and Brummy had acted like a “cow.” He'd stand it no longer; but he'd have some satisfaction. He wouldn't be a fool. If Brummy was mean skunk enough to act to a mate like that, Swampy would be even with him; he would wait till Brummy was asleep, collar the stuff, and clear. It was his job, anyway, and the money was his by rights. He'd have his rights.

Brummy, who carried the billy, gave Swampy a long tramp before he camped and made a fire. They had tea in silence, and smoked moodily apart until Brummy turned in. They usually slept on the ground, with a few leaves under them, or on the sand where there was any, each wrapped in his own blankets, and with their spare clothes, or rags rather, for pillows. Presently Swampy turned in and pretended to sleep, but he lay awake watching, and listening to Brummy's breathing. When he thought it was safe he moved cautiously and slipped his hand under Brummy's head, but Brummy's old pocket-book—in which he carried some dirty old letters in a woman's handwriting—was not there. All next day Swampy watched Brummy sharply every time he put his hands into his pockets, to try and find out in which pocket he kept his money. Brummy seemed very cheerful and sociable, even considerate, to his mate all day, and Swampy pretended to be happy. They yarned more than they had done for many a day. Brummy was a heavy sleeper, and that night Swampy went over him carefully and felt all his pockets, but without success. Next day Brummy seemed in high spirits—they were nearing Bourke, where they intended to loaf round the pubs for a week or two. On the third night Swampy waited till about midnight, and then searched Brummy, every inch of him he could get at, and tickled him, with a straw of grass till he turned over, and ran his hands over the other side of him, and over his feet (Brummy slept with his socks on), and looked in his boots, and in the billy and in the tucker-bags, and felt in every tuft of grass round the camp, and under every bush, and down a hollow stump, and up a hollow log: but there was no pocket-book. Brummy couldn't have lost the money and kept it dark—he'd have gone back to look for it at once. Perhaps he'd thrown away the book and sewn the money in his clothes somewhere. Swampy crept back to him and felt the lining of his hat, and was running his hand over Brummy's chest when Brummy suddenly started to snore, and Swampy desisted without loss of time. He crept back to bed, breathing short, and thought hard. It struck him that there was something aggressive about that snore. He began to suspect that Brummy was up to his little game, and it pained him.

Next morning Brummy was decidedly frivolous. At any other time Swampy would have put it down to a “touch o' the sun,” but now he felt a growing conviction that Brummy knew what he'd been up to the last three nights, and the more he thought of it the more it pained him—till at last he could stand it no longer.

“Look here, Brummy,” he said frankly, “where the hell do you keep that flamin' stuff o' yourn? I been tryin' to git at it ever since we left West-o'-Sunday.”

“I know you have, Swampy,” said Brummy, affectionately—as if he considered that Swampy had done his best in the interests of mateship.

“I knowed yer knowed!” exclaimed Swampy, triumphantly. “But where the blazes did yer put it?”

“Under your head, Swampy, old man,” said Brummy, cheerfully.

Swampy was hurt now. He commented in the language that used to be used by the bullock-punchers of the good days as they pranced up and down by their teams and lammed into the bullocks with saplings and crow-bars, and called on them to lift a heavy load out of a bog in the bed of a muddy creek.

“Never mind, Swampy!” said Brummy, soothingly, as his mate paused and tried to remember worse oaths. “It wasn't your fault.”

But they parted at Bourke. Swampy had allers acted straight ter Brummy—share 'n' share alike. He'd do as much for a mate as any other man, an' put up with as much from a mate. He had put up with a lot from Brummy: he'd picked him up on the track and learned him all he knowed; Brummy would have starved many a time if it hadn't been for Swampy; Swampy had learned him how to “battle.” He'd stick to Brummy yet, but he couldn't stand ingratitude. He hated low cunnin' an' suspicion, and when a gory mate got suspicious of his own old mate and wouldn't trust him, an' took to plantin' his crimson money—it was time to leave him.

 
 
 

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