Back to the Index Page

 
 
 

A Hero in Dingo-Scrubs by Henry Lawson
 

This is a story — about the only one — of Job Falconer, Boss of the Talbragar sheep-station up country in New South Wales in the early Eighties — when there were still runs in the Dingo-Scrubs out of the hands of the banks, and yet squatters who lived on their stations.

Job would never tell the story himself, at least not complete, and as his family grew up he would become as angry as it was in his easy-going nature to become if reference were made to the incident in his presence. But his wife — little, plump, bright-eyed Gerty Falconer — often told the story (in the mysterious voice which women use in speaking of private matters amongst themselves — but with brightening eyes) to women friends over tea; and always to a new woman friend. And on such occasions she would be particularly tender towards the unconscious Job, and ruffle his thin, sandy hair in a way that embarrassed him in company — made him look as sheepish as an old big-horned ram that has just been shorn and turned amongst the ewes. And the woman friend on parting would give Job's hand a squeeze which would surprise him mildly, and look at him as if she could love him.

According to a theory of mine, Job, to fit the story, should have been tall, and dark, and stern, or gloomy and quick-tempered. But he wasn't. He was fairly tall, but he was fresh-complexioned and sandy (his skin was pink to scarlet in some weathers, with blotches of umber), and his eyes were pale-grey; his big forehead loomed babyishly, his arms were short, and his legs bowed to the saddle. Altogether he was an awkward, unlovely Bush bird — on foot; in the saddle it was different. He hadn't even a `temper'.

The impression on Job's mind which many years afterwards brought about the incident was strong enough. When Job was a boy of fourteen he saw his father's horse come home riderless — circling and snorting up by the stockyard, head jerked down whenever the hoof trod on one of the snapped ends of the bridle-reins, and saddle twisted over the side with bruised pommel and knee-pad broken off.

Job's father wasn't hurt much, but Job's mother, an emotional woman, and then in a delicate state of health, survived the shock for three months only. `She wasn't quite right in her head,' they said, `from the day the horse came home till the last hour before she died.' And, strange to say, Job's father (from whom Job inherited his seemingly placid nature) died three months later. The doctor from the town was of the opinion that he must have `sustained internal injuries' when the horse threw him. `Doc. Wild' (eccentric Bush doctor) reckoned that Job's father was hurt inside when his wife died, and hurt so badly that he couldn't pull round. But doctors differ all over the world.

Well, the story of Job himself came about in this way. He had been married a year, and had lately started wool-raising on a pastoral lease he had taken up at Talbragar: it was a new run, with new slab-and-bark huts on the creek for a homestead, new shearing-shed, yards — wife and everything new, and he was expecting a baby. Job felt brand-new himself at the time, so he said. It was a lonely place for a young woman; but Gerty was a settler's daughter. The newness took away some of the loneliness, she said, and there was truth in that: a Bush home in the scrubs looks lonelier the older it gets, and ghostlier in the twilight, as the bark and slabs whiten, or rather grow grey, in fierce summers. And there's nothing under God's sky so weird, so aggressively lonely, as a deserted old home in the Bush.

Job's wife had a half-caste gin for company when Job was away on the run, and the nearest white woman (a hard but honest Lancashire woman from within the kicking radius in Lancashire — wife of a selector) was only seven miles away. She promised to be on hand, and came over two or three times a-week; but Job grew restless as Gerty's time drew near, and wished that he had insisted on sending her to the nearest town (thirty miles away), as originally proposed. Gerty's mother, who lived in town, was coming to see her over her trouble; Job had made arrangements with the town doctor, but prompt attendance could hardly be expected of a doctor who was very busy, who was too fat to ride, and who lived thirty miles away.

Job, in common with most Bushmen and their families round there, had more faith in Doc. Wild, a weird Yankee who made medicine in a saucepan, and worked more cures on Bushmen than did the other three doctors of the district together — maybe because the Bushmen had faith in him, or he knew the Bush and Bush constitutions — or, perhaps, because he'd do things which no `respectable practitioner' dared do. I've described him in another story. Some said he was a quack, and some said he wasn't. There are scores of wrecks and mysteries like him in the Bush. He drank fearfully, and `on his own', but was seldom incapable of performing an operation. Experienced Bushmen preferred him three-quarters drunk: when perfectly sober he was apt to be a bit shaky. He was tall, gaunt, had a pointed black moustache, bushy eyebrows, and piercing black eyes. His movements were eccentric. He lived where he happened to be — in a town hotel, in the best room of a homestead, in the skillion of a sly-grog shanty, in a shearer's, digger's, shepherd's, or boundary-rider's hut; in a surveyor's camp or a black-fellows' camp — or, when the horrors were on him, by a log in the lonely Bush. It seemed all one to him. He lost all his things sometimes — even his clothes; but he never lost a pigskin bag which contained his surgical instruments and papers. Except once; then he gave the blacks 5 Pounds to find it for him.

His patients included all, from the big squatter to Black Jimmy; and he rode as far and fast to a squatter's home as to a swagman's camp. When nothing was to be expected from a poor selector or a station hand, and the doctor was hard up, he went to the squatter for a few pounds. He had on occasions been offered cheques of 50 Pounds and 100 Pounds by squatters for `pulling round' their wives or children; but such offers always angered him. When he asked for 5 Pounds he resented being offered a 10 Pound cheque. He once sued a doctor for alleging that he held no diploma; but the magistrate, on reading certain papers, suggested a settlement out of court, which both doctors agreed to — the other doctor apologising briefly in the local paper. It was noticed thereafter that the magistrate and town doctors treated Doc. Wild with great respect — even at his worst. The thing was never explained, and the case deepened the mystery which surrounded Doc. Wild.

As Job Falconer's crisis approached Doc. Wild was located at a shanty on the main road, about half-way between Job's station and the town. (Township of Come-by-Chance — expressive name; and the shanty was the `Dead Dingo Hotel', kept by James Myles — known as `Poisonous Jimmy', perhaps as a compliment to, or a libel on, the liquor he sold.) Job's brother Mac. was stationed at the Dead Dingo Hotel with instructions to hang round on some pretence, see that the doctor didn't either drink himself into the `D.T.'s' or get sober enough to become restless; to prevent his going away, or to follow him if he did; and to bring him to the station in about a week's time. Mac. (rather more careless, brighter, and more energetic than his brother) was carrying out these instructions while pretending, with rather great success, to be himself on the spree at the shanty.

But one morning, early in the specified week, Job's uneasiness was suddenly greatly increased by certain symptoms, so he sent the black boy for the neighbour's wife and decided to ride to Come-by-Chance to hurry out Gerty's mother, and see, by the way, how Doc. Wild and Mac. were getting on. On the arrival of the neighbour's wife, who drove over in a spring-cart, Job mounted his horse (a freshly broken filly) and started.

`Don't be anxious, Job,' said Gerty, as he bent down to kiss her. `We'll be all right. Wait! you'd better take the gun — you might see those dingoes again. I'll get it for you.'

The dingoes (native dogs) were very bad amongst the sheep; and Job and Gerty had started three together close to the track the last time they were out in company — without the gun, of course. Gerty took the loaded gun carefully down from its straps on the bedroom wall, carried it out, and handed it up to Job, who bent and kissed her again and then rode off.

It was a hot day — the beginning of a long drought, as Job found to his bitter cost. He followed the track for five or six miles through the thick, monotonous scrub, and then turned off to make a short cut to the main road across a big ring-barked flat. The tall gum-trees had been ring-barked (a ring of bark taken out round the butts), or rather `sapped' — that is, a ring cut in through the sap — in order to kill them, so that the little strength in the `poor' soil should not be drawn out by the living roots, and the natural grass (on which Australian stock depends) should have a better show. The hard, dead trees raised their barkless and whitened trunks and leafless branches for three or four miles, and the grey and brown grass stood tall between, dying in the first breaths of the coming drought. All was becoming grey and ashen here, the heat blazing and dancing across objects, and the pale brassy dome of the sky cloudless over all, the sun a glaring white disc with its edges almost melting into the sky. Job held his gun carelessly ready (it was a double-barrelled muzzle-loader, one barrel choke-bore for shot, and the other rifled), and he kept an eye out for dingoes. He was saving his horse for a long ride, jogging along in the careless Bush fashion, hitched a little to one side — and I'm not sure that he didn't have a leg thrown up and across in front of the pommel of the saddle — he was riding along in the careless Bush fashion, and thinking fatherly thoughts in advance, perhaps, when suddenly a great black, greasy-looking iguana scuttled off from the side of the track amongst the dry tufts of grass and shreds of dead bark, and started up a sapling. `It was a whopper,' Job said afterwards; `must have been over six feet, and a foot across the body. It scared me nearly as much as the filly.'

The filly shied off like a rocket. Job kept his seat instinctively, as was natural to him; but before he could more than grab at the rein — lying loosely on the pommel — the filly `fetched up' against a dead box-tree, hard as cast-iron, and Job's left leg was jammed from stirrup to pocket. `I felt the blood flare up,' he said, `and I knowed that that' — (Job swore now and then in an easy-going way) — `I knowed that that blanky leg was broken alright. I threw the gun from me and freed my left foot from the stirrup with my hand, and managed to fall to the right, as the filly started off again.'

What follows comes from the statements of Doc. Wild and Mac. Falconer, and Job's own `wanderings in his mind', as he called them. `They took a blanky mean advantage of me,' he said, `when they had me down and I couldn't talk sense.'

The filly circled off a bit, and then stood staring — as a mob of brumbies, when fired at, will sometimes stand watching the smoke. Job's leg was smashed badly, and the pain must have been terrible. But he thought then with a flash, as men do in a fix. No doubt the scene at the lonely Bush home of his boyhood started up before him: his father's horse appeared riderless, and he saw the look in his mother's eyes.

Now a Bushman's first, best, and quickest chance in a fix like this is that his horse go home riderless, the home be alarmed, and the horse's tracks followed back to him; otherwise he might lie there for days, for weeks — till the growing grass buries his mouldering bones. Job was on an old sheep-track across a flat where few might have occasion to come for months, but he did not consider this. He crawled to his gun, then to a log, dragging gun and smashed leg after him. How he did it he doesn't know. Half-lying on one side, he rested the barrel on the log, took aim at the filly, pulled both triggers, and then fell over and lay with his head against the log; and the gun-barrel, sliding down, rested on his neck. He had fainted. The crows were interested, and the ants would come by-and-by.

Now Doc. Wild had inspirations; anyway, he did things which seemed, after they were done, to have been suggested by inspiration and in no other possible way. He often turned up where and when he was wanted above all men, and at no other time. He had gipsy blood, they said; but, anyway, being the mystery he was, and having the face he had, and living the life he lived — and doing the things he did — it was quite probable that he was more nearly in touch than we with that awful invisible world all round and between us, of which we only see distorted faces and hear disjointed utterances when we are `suffering a recovery' — or going mad.

On the morning of Job's accident, and after a long brooding silence, Doc. Wild suddenly said to Mac. Falconer —

`Git the hosses, Mac. We'll go to the station.'

Mac., used to the doctor's eccentricities, went to see about the horses.

And then who should drive up but Mrs Spencer — Job's mother-in-law — on her way from the town to the station. She stayed to have a cup of tea and give her horses a feed. She was square-faced, and considered a rather hard and practical woman, but she had plenty of solid flesh, good sympathetic common-sense, and deep-set humorous blue eyes. She lived in the town comfortably on the interest of some money which her husband left in the bank. She drove an American waggonette with a good width and length of `tray' behind, and on this occasion she had a pole and two horses. In the trap were a new flock mattress and pillows, a generous pair of new white blankets, and boxes containing necessaries, delicacies, and luxuries. All round she was an excellent mother-in-law for a man to have on hand at a critical time.

And, speaking of mother-in-law, I would like to put in a word for her right here. She is universally considered a nuisance in times of peace and comfort; but when illness or serious trouble comes home! Then it's `Write to Mother! Wire for Mother! Send some one to fetch Mother! I'll go and bring Mother!' and if she is not near: `Oh, I wish Mother were here! If Mother were only near!' And when she is on the spot, the anxious son-in-law: `Don't YOU go, Mother! You'll stay, won't you, Mother? — till we're all right? I'll get some one to look after your house, Mother, while you're here.' But Job Falconer was fond of his mother-in-law, all times.

Mac. had some trouble in finding and catching one of the horses. Mrs Spencer drove on, and Mac. and the doctor caught up to her about a mile before she reached the homestead track, which turned in through the scrubs at the corner of the big ring-barked flat.

Doc. Wild and Mac. followed the cart-road, and as they jogged along in the edge of the scrub the doctor glanced once or twice across the flat through the dead, naked branches. Mac. looked that way. The crows were hopping about the branches of a tree way out in the middle of the flat, flopping down from branch to branch to the grass, then rising hurriedly and circling.

`Dead beast there!' said Mac. out of his Bushcraft.

`No — dying,' said Doc. Wild, with less Bush experience but more intellect.

`There's some steers of Job's out there somewhere,' muttered Mac. Then suddenly, `It ain't drought — it's the ploorer at last! or I'm blanked!'

Mac. feared the advent of that cattle-plague, pleuro-pneumonia, which was raging on some other stations, but had been hitherto kept clear of Job's run.

`We'll go and see, if you like,' suggested Doc. Wild.

They turned out across the flat, the horses picking their way amongst the dried tufts and fallen branches.

`Theer ain't no sign o' cattle theer,' said the doctor; `more likely a ewe in trouble about her lamb.'

`Oh, the blanky dingoes at the sheep,' said Mac. `I wish we had a gun — might get a shot at them.'

Doc. Wild hitched the skirt of a long China silk coat he wore, free of a hip-pocket. He always carried a revolver. `In case I feel obliged to shoot a first person singular one of these hot days,' he explained once, whereat Bushmen scratched the backs of their heads and thought feebly, without result.

`We'd never git near enough for a shot,' said the doctor; then he commenced to hum fragments from a Bush song about the finding of a lost Bushman in the last stages of death by thirst, —

 
    `"The crows kept flyin' up, boys!
       The crows kept flyin' up!
    The dog, he seen and whimpered, boys,
       Though he was but a pup."'

`It must be something or other,' muttered Mac. `Look at them blanky crows!'

`"The lost was found, we brought him round, And took him from the place, While the ants was swarmin' on the ground, And the crows was sayin' grace!"'

`My God! what's that?' cried Mac., who was a little in advance and rode a tall horse.

It was Job's filly, lying saddled and bridled, with a rifle-bullet (as they found on subsequent examination) through shoulders and chest, and her head full of kangaroo-shot. She was feebly rocking her head against the ground, and marking the dust with her hoof, as if trying to write the reason of it there.

The doctor drew his revolver, took a cartridge from his waistcoat pocket, and put the filly out of her misery in a very scientific manner; then something — professional instinct or the something supernatural about the doctor — led him straight to the log, hidden in the grass, where Job lay as we left him, and about fifty yards from the dead filly, which must have staggered off some little way after being shot. Mac. followed the doctor, shaking violently.

`Oh, my God!' he cried, with the woman in his voice — and his face so pale that his freckles stood out like buttons, as Doc. Wild said — `oh, my God! he's shot himself!'

`No, he hasn't,' said the doctor, deftly turning Job into a healthier position with his head from under the log and his mouth to the air: then he ran his eyes and hands over him, and Job moaned. `He's got a broken leg,' said the doctor. Even then he couldn't resist making a characteristic remark, half to himself: `A man doesn't shoot himself when he's going to be made a lawful father for the first time, unless he can see a long way into the future.' Then he took out his whisky-flask and said briskly to Mac., `Leave me your water-bag' (Mac. carried a canvas water-bag slung under his horse's neck), `ride back to the track, stop Mrs Spencer, and bring the waggonette here. Tell her it's only a broken leg.'

Mac. mounted and rode off at a break-neck pace.

As he worked the doctor muttered: `He shot his horse. That's what gits me. The fool might have lain there for a week. I'd never have suspected spite in that carcass, and I ought to know men.'

But as Job came round a little Doc. Wild was enlightened.

`Where's the filly?' cried Job suddenly between groans.

`She's all right,' said the doctor.

`Stop her!' cried Job, struggling to rise — `stop her! — oh God! my leg.'

`Keep quiet, you fool!'

`Stop her!' yelled Job.

`Why stop her?' asked the doctor. `She won't go fur,' he added.

`She'll go home to Gerty,' shouted Job. `For God's sake stop her!'

`O—h!' drawled the doctor to himself. `I might have guessed that. And I ought to know men.'

`Don't take me home!' demanded Job in a semi-sensible interval. `Take me to Poisonous Jimmy's and tell Gerty I'm on the spree.'

When Mac. and Mrs Spencer arrived with the waggonette Doc. Wild was in his shirt-sleeves, his Chinese silk coat having gone for bandages. The lower half of Job's trouser-leg and his 'lastic-side boot lay on the ground, neatly cut off, and his bandaged leg was sandwiched between two strips of bark, with grass stuffed in the hollows, and bound by saddle-straps.

`That's all I kin do for him for the present.'

Mrs Spencer was a strong woman mentally, but she arrived rather pale and a little shaky: nevertheless she called out, as soon as she got within earshot of the doctor —

`What's Job been doing now?' (Job, by the way, had never been remarkable for doing anything.)

`He's got his leg broke and shot his horse,' replied the doctor. `But,' he added, `whether he's been a hero or a fool I dunno. Anyway, it's a mess all round.'

They unrolled the bed, blankets, and pillows in the bottom of the trap, backed it against the log, to have a step, and got Job in. It was a ticklish job, but they had to manage it: Job, maddened by pain and heat, only kept from fainting by whisky, groaning and raving and yelling to them to stop his horse.

`Lucky we got him before the ants did,' muttered the doctor. Then he had an inspiration —

`You bring him on to the shepherd's hut this side the station. We must leave him there. Drive carefully, and pour brandy into him now and then; when the brandy's done pour whisky, then gin — keep the rum till the last' (the doctor had put a supply of spirits in the waggonette at Poisonous Jimmy's). `I'll take Mac.'s horse and ride on and send Peter' (the station hand) `back to the hut to meet you. I'll be back myself if I can. THIS BUSINESS WILL HURRY UP THINGS AT THE STATION.'

Which last was one of those apparently insane remarks of the doctor's which no sane nor sober man could fathom or see a reason for — except in Doc. Wild's madness.

He rode off at a gallop. The burden of Job's raving, all the way, rested on the dead filly —

`Stop her! She must not go home to Gerty! . . . God help me shoot! . . . Whoa! — whoa, there! . . . "Cope — cope — cope" — Steady, Jessie, old girl. . . . Aim straight — aim straight! Aim for me, God! — I've missed! . . . Stop her!'

`I never met a character like that,' commented the doctor afterwards, `inside a man that looked like Job on the outside. I've met men behind revolvers and big mustarshes in Califo'nia; but I've met a derned sight more men behind nothing but a good-natured grin, here in Australia. These lanky sawney Bushmen will do things in an easy-going way some day that'll make the old world sit up and think hard.'

He reached the station in time, and twenty minutes or half an hour later he left the case in the hands of the Lancashire woman — whom he saw reason to admire — and rode back to the hut to help Job, whom they soon fixed up as comfortably as possible.

They humbugged Mrs Falconer first with a yarn of Job's alleged phenomenal shyness, and gradually, as she grew stronger, and the truth less important, they told it to her. And so, instead of Job being pushed, scarlet-faced, into the bedroom to see his first-born, Gerty Falconer herself took the child down to the hut, and so presented Uncle Job with my first and favourite cousin and Bush chum.

Doc. Wild stayed round until he saw Job comfortably moved to the homestead, then he prepared to depart.

`I'm sorry,' said Job, who was still weak — `I'm sorry for that there filly. I was breaking her in to side-saddle for Gerty when she should get about. I wouldn't have lost her for twenty quid.'

`Never mind, Job,' said the doctor. `I, too, once shot an animal I was fond of — and for the sake of a woman — but that animal walked on two legs and wore trousers. Good-bye, Job.'

And he left for Poisonous Jimmy's.

 
 
 

Back to the Index Page