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A Bush Dance by Henry Lawson

 

`Tap, tap, tap, tap.'

The little schoolhouse and residence in the scrub was lighted brightly in the midst of the `close', solid blackness of that moonless December night, when the sky and stars were smothered and suffocated by drought haze.

It was the evening of the school children's `Feast'. That is to say that the children had been sent, and `let go', and the younger ones `fetched' through the blazing heat to the school, one day early in the holidays, and raced — sometimes in couples tied together by the legs — and caked, and bunned, and finally improved upon by the local Chadband, and got rid of. The schoolroom had been cleared for dancing, the maps rolled and tied, the desks and blackboards stacked against the wall outside. Tea was over, and the trestles and boards, whereon had been spread better things than had been provided for the unfortunate youngsters, had been taken outside to keep the desks and blackboards company.

On stools running end to end along one side of the room sat about twenty more or less blooming country girls of from fifteen to twenty odd.

On the rest of the stools, running end to end along the other wall, sat about twenty more or less blooming chaps.

It was evident that something was seriously wrong. None of the girls spoke above a hushed whisper. None of the men spoke above a hushed oath. Now and again two or three sidled out, and if you had followed them you would have found that they went outside to listen hard into the darkness and to swear.

`Tap, tap, tap.'

The rows moved uneasily, and some of the girls turned pale faces nervously towards the side-door, in the direction of the sound.

`Tap — tap.'

The tapping came from the kitchen at the rear of the teacher's residence, and was uncomfortably suggestive of a coffin being made: it was also accompanied by a sickly, indescribable odour — more like that of warm cheap glue than anything else.

In the schoolroom was a painful scene of strained listening. Whenever one of the men returned from outside, or put his head in at the door, all eyes were fastened on him in the flash of a single eye, and then withdrawn hopelessly. At the sound of a horse's step all eyes and ears were on the door, till some one muttered, `It's only the horses in the paddock.'

Some of the girls' eyes began to glisten suspiciously, and at last the belle of the party — a great, dark-haired, pink-and-white Blue Mountain girl, who had been sitting for a full minute staring before her, with blue eyes unnaturally bright, suddenly covered her face with her hands, rose, and started blindly from the room, from which she was steered in a hurry by two sympathetic and rather `upset' girl friends, and as she passed out she was heard sobbing hysterically —

`Oh, I can't help it! I did want to dance! It's a sh-shame! I can't help it! I — I want to dance! I rode twenty miles to dance — and — and I want to dance!'

A tall, strapping young Bushman rose, without disguise, and followed the girl out. The rest began to talk loudly of stock, dogs, and horses, and other Bush things; but above their voices rang out that of the girl from the outside — being man comforted —

`I can't help it, Jack! I did want to dance! I — I had such — such — a job — to get mother — and — and father to let me come — and — and now!'

The two girl friends came back. `He sez to leave her to him,' they whispered, in reply to an interrogatory glance from the schoolmistress.

`It's — it's no use, Jack!' came the voice of grief. `You don't know what — what father and mother — is. I — I won't — be able — to ge-get away — again — for — for — not till I'm married, perhaps.'

The schoolmistress glanced uneasily along the row of girls. `I'll take her into my room and make her lie down,' she whispered to her sister, who was staying with her. `She'll start some of the other girls presently — it's just the weather for it,' and she passed out quietly. That schoolmistress was a woman of penetration.

A final `tap-tap' from the kitchen; then a sound like the squawk of a hurt or frightened child, and the faces in the room turned quickly in that direction and brightened. But there came a bang and a sound like `damn!' and hopelessness settled down.

A shout from the outer darkness, and most of the men and some of the girls rose and hurried out. Fragments of conversation heard in the darkness —

`It's two horses, I tell you!'

`It's three, you ——!'

`Lay you ——!'

`Put the stuff up!'

A clack of gate thrown open.

`Who is it, Tom?'

Voices from gatewards, yelling, `Johnny Mears! They've got Johnny Mears!'

Then rose yells, and a cheer such as is seldom heard in scrub-lands.

Out in the kitchen long Dave Regan grabbed, from the far side of the table, where he had thrown it, a burst and battered concertina, which he had been for the last hour vainly trying to patch and make air-tight; and, holding it out towards the back-door, between his palms, as a football is held, he let it drop, and fetched it neatly on the toe of his riding-boot. It was a beautiful kick, the concertina shot out into the blackness, from which was projected, in return, first a short, sudden howl, then a face with one eye glaring and the other covered by an enormous brick-coloured hand, and a voice that wanted to know who shot `that lurid loaf of bread?'

But from the schoolroom was heard the loud, free voice of Joe Matthews, M.C., —

`Take yer partners! Hurry up! Take yer partners! They've got Johnny Mears with his fiddle!'

The Buck-Jumper.

Saturday afternoon.

There were about a dozen Bush natives, from anywhere, most of them lanky and easy-going, hanging about the little slab-and-bark hotel on the edge of the scrub at Capertee Camp (a teamster's camp) when Cob Co.'s mail-coach and six came dashing down the siding from round Crown Ridge, in all its glory, to the end of the twelve-mile stage. Some wiry, ill-used hacks were hanging to the fence and to saplings about the place. The fresh coach-horses stood ready in a stock-yard close to the shanty. As the coach climbed the nearer bank of the creek at the foot of the ridge, six of the Bushmen detached themselves from verandah posts, from their heels, from the clay floor of the verandah and the rough slab wall against which they'd been resting, and joined a group of four or five who stood round one. He stood with his back to the corner post of the stock-yard, his feet well braced out in front of him, and contemplated the toes of his tight new 'lastic-side boots and whistled softly. He was a clean-limbed, handsome fellow, with riding-cords, leggings, and a blue sash; he was Graeco-Roman-nosed, blue-eyed, and his glossy, curly black hair bunched up in front of the brim of a new cabbage-tree hat, set well back on his head.

`Do it for a quid, Jack?' asked one.

`Damned if I will, Jim!' said the young man at the post. `I'll do it for a fiver — not a blanky sprat less.'

Jim took off his hat and `shoved' it round, and `bobs' were `chucked' into it. The result was about thirty shillings.

Jack glanced contemptuously into the crown of the hat.

`Not me!' he said, showing some emotion for the first time. `D'yer think I'm going to risk me blanky neck for your blanky amusement for thirty blanky bob. I'll ride the blanky horse for a fiver, and I'll feel the blanky quids in my pocket before I get on.'

Meanwhile the coach had dashed up to the door of the shanty. There were about twenty passengers aboard — inside, on the box-seat, on the tail-board, and hanging on to the roof — most of them Sydney men going up to the Mudgee races. They got down and went inside with the driver for a drink, while the stablemen changed horses. The Bushmen raised their voices a little and argued.

One of the passengers was a big, stout, hearty man — a good-hearted, sporting man and a racehorse-owner, according to his brands. He had a round red face and a white cork hat. `What's those chaps got on outside?' he asked the publican.

`Oh, it's a bet they've got on about riding a horse,' replied the publican. `The flash-looking chap with the sash is Flash Jack, the horse-breaker; and they reckon they've got the champion outlaw in the district out there — that chestnut horse in the yard.'

The sporting man was interested at once, and went out and joined the Bushmen.

`Well, chaps! what have you got on here?' he asked cheerily.

`Oh,' said Jim carelessly, `it's only a bit of a bet about ridin' that blanky chestnut in the corner of the yard there.' He indicated an ungroomed chestnut horse, fenced off by a couple of long sapling poles in a corner of the stock-yard. `Flash Jack there — he reckons he's the champion horse-breaker round here — Flash Jack reckons he can take it out of that horse first try.'

`What's up with the horse?' inquired the big, red-faced man. `It looks quiet enough. Why, I'd ride it myself.'

`Would yer?' said Jim, who had hair that stood straight up, and an innocent, inquiring expression. `Looks quiet, does he? YOU ought to know more about horses than to go by the looks of 'em. He's quiet enough just now, when there's no one near him; but you should have been here an hour ago. That horse has killed two men and put another chap's shoulder out — besides breaking a cove's leg. It took six of us all the morning to run him in and get the saddle on him; and now Flash Jack wants to back out of it.'

`Euraliar!' remarked Flash Jack cheerfully. `I said I'd ride that blanky horse out of the yard for a fiver. I ain't goin' to risk my blanky neck for nothing and only to amuse you blanks.'

`He said he'd ride the horse inside the yard for a quid,' said Jim.

`And get smashed against the rails!' said Flash Jack. `I would be a fool. I'd rather take my chance outside in the scrub — and it's rough country round here.'

`Well, how much do you want?' asked the man in the mushroom hat.

`A fiver, I said,' replied Jack indifferently. `And the blanky stuff in my pocket before I get on the blanky horse.'

`Are you frightened of us running away without paying you?' inquired one of the passengers who had gathered round.

`I'm frightened of the horse bolting with me without me being paid,' said Flash Jack. `I know that horse; he's got a mouth like iron. I might be at the bottom of the cliff on Crown Ridge road in twenty minutes with my head caved in, and then what chance for the quids?'

`You wouldn't want 'em then,' suggested a passenger. `Or, say! — we'd leave the fiver with the publican to bury you.'

Flash Jack ignored that passenger. He eyed his boots and softly whistled a tune.

`All right!' said the man in the cork hat, putting his hand in his pocket. `I'll start with a quid; stump up, you chaps.'

The five pounds were got together.

`I'll lay a quid to half a quid he don't stick on ten minutes!' shouted Jim to his mates as soon as he saw that the event was to come off. The passengers also betted amongst themselves. Flash Jack, after putting the money in his breeches-pocket, let down the rails and led the horse into the middle of the yard.

`Quiet as an old cow!' snorted a passenger in disgust. `I believe it's a sell!'

`Wait a bit,' said Jim to the passenger, `wait a bit and you'll see.'

They waited and saw.

Flash Jack leisurely mounted the horse, rode slowly out of the yard, and trotted briskly round the corner of the shanty and into the scrub, which swallowed him more completely than the sea might have done.

Most of the other Bushmen mounted their horses and followed Flash Jack to a clearing in the scrub, at a safe distance from the shanty; then they dismounted and hung on to saplings, or leaned against their horses, while they laughed.

At the hotel there was just time for another drink. The driver climbed to his seat and shouted, `All aboard!' in his usual tone. The passengers climbed to their places, thinking hard. A mile or so along the road the man with the cork hat remarked, with much truth —

`Those blanky Bushmen have got too much time to think.'

. . . . .

The Bushmen returned to the shanty as soon as the coach was out of sight, and proceeded to `knock down' the fiver.

 
 
 

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