Bush Dance by
`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
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
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and then withdrawn hopelessly.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
`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,
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
Then rose yells, and a cheer such as is seldom heard in
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!'
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
`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
`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
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
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.