"To wheel the wild scrub cattle at the yard
With a running fire of stockwhip and a fiery run of hoofs."
Pip could hardly sleep one night, a month after their arrival, for thinking of the cattle drafting that was on the programme for the morrow. He had been casting about for some fresh occupation, far he was a boy to whom variety was the salt of life. At first he had been certain he could never tire of shooting rabbits. Mr. Hassal had given him the "jolliest little stunner of a gun," and, Tettawonga had gone out with him the first day; and had been very scornful about his enthusiasm when he shot two.
"Ba'al good, gun do. Plenty fellow rabbit longa scrub, budgery way north, budgery way south; budgery way eblywhere. Ba'al good barbed wire fence do, ba'al good poison do. Bah!"
But Pip was not to be discouraged, and really thought he had done great good to the Yarrahappini estate by shooting those two soft, fleet brown things. He took them home and displayed them proudly to the girls, cleaned his perfectly clean gun, and sallied forth the next day.
Tettawonga took his pipe from between his lips when he saw him again and laughed, a loud cackling laugh, that made Pip flush with anger.
"Kimbriki and kimbriki, too! Rabbit he catti, curri-curri now. Boy come long with cawbawn gun, rabbit jerund drekaly, go burri, grass grow, sheep get fat-ha, ha, he, he!"
"To-morrow and to-morrow too! Rabbit, he go away quickly now. Boy come along with big gun, rabbit he afraid directly, go under the ground."
Pip understood his mixed English enough to know he was making fun of him, and told him wrathfully to "shut up for a Dutch idiot."
Then he shouldered the gun he was so immeasurably proud of and went off the other side of the barbed-wire fence, where was the happy hunting-ground of the little rodent that would not allow Mr. Hassal to grow rich.
He shot five that day, four the next, seven the next, but after a time he voted it slow, and went after gill birds, with more enjoyment but less certainty of a bag.
Every day was filled to the brim with enjoyment, and but for the intense heat that first month at Yarrahappini would have been one of absolute content and happiness.
And now there was the cattle-drafting!
Breakfast was very early the morning of the great event; by half-past five it was almost over, and Pip, in a fever of restlessness, was telling Mr. Hassal he was sure they would be late and miss it.
Judy had pleaded hard to be allowed to go, but everyone said it was out of the question—indeed, it was doubted if it were wise to allow Pip to face the danger that is inseparable with the drafting of the wilder kind of cattle that had been driven from great distances.
But he had forcibly carried the day, and dressed himself up in so business-like a way that Mr. Hassel had not the heart to refuse him. He came down to breakfast in a Crimean shirt and a pair of old, serge trousers fastened round the waist with a leathern belt, in which an unsheathed bowie knife, freshly sharpened, was jauntily stuck. No persuasions would induce him either to wear a coat or sheathe the knife.
The grey was brought round to the veranda steps, with Mr. Hassal's own splendid horse. Mr. Gillet was there on a well-groomed roan; he had three stock-whips, two quite sixteen feet long, the third shorter one, which he presented to Pip.
The boy's face glowed. "Hurrah, Fizz!" he said; standing up in his saddle and brandishing it round his head. "What 'ud you give to change places?"
He dug his heels into the animal's sides and went helter-skelter at a wild gallop down the hill.
It was a mile and a half to the cattle yards, and here was the strongest excitement.
Pip could not think where all the men had sprung from. There were some twenty or thirty of them, stockmen, shearers "on the wallaby," as their parlance expressed lack of employment, two Aboriginals, exclusive of Tettawonga, who was smoking and looking on with sleepy enjoyment, and several other of the station hands.
In the first yard there were five hundred cattle that had been driven there the night before, and that just now presented the appearance of a sea of wildly lashing tails and horns. Such horns!—great, branching, terrific-looking things that they gored and fought each other madly with, seeing they could not get to the common enemy outside.
Just for the first moment or two Pip felt a little disinclined to quit the stronghold of his horse's back. The thunder of hoofs and horns, the wild charges made by the desperate animals against the fence, made him expect to see it come crashing down every minute.
But everybody else had gone to "cockatoo"—to sit on the top rail of the enclosure and look down at the maddened creatures, so at length he fastened his bridle to a tree and proceeded gingerly to follow their example.
At a sudden signal from Mr. Hassal the men dropped down inside, half along, one side and half the other. The object was to get a hundred or two of the cattle into the forcing-yard adjoining, the gate to which was wide open. Pip marvelled at the courage of the men; for a moment his heart had leaped to his mouth as bullock after bullock essayed to charge them, but the air resounded with cracks from the mighty stock whips and drafting-sticks, and beast after beast retreated towards the centre with its face dripping with blood.
Then one huge black creature, with a bellow that seemed to shake the plain, made a wild rush to the gate, the whole herd at his heels. Like lightning, the men made a line behind, shouting, yelling, cracking their whips to drive them onward. Pip stood up and halloed, absolutely beside himself with excitement. Then he held his breath again.
Mr. Hassal and one of the black boys were creeping cautiously up near the gateway through which the tumultuous stream of horns and backs was pouring. Half a dozen mighty blows from the men, and the last leader fell back for an instant, driving the multitude back behind him.
In that second the two had slipped up the rails and the herd was in two divisions.
Two lines of stockmen again, whip-crackings, bellows, blood, horns, hide and heels in the air, and some forty or fifty were secure in a third yard, a long narrow place with a gate at the end leading into the final division.
Pip learnt from Mr. Gillet the object of these divisions: some of the beasts were almost worthless things, and had been assigned to a buyer for a couple of pounds a head, just for the horns, hides, and what might be got for the flesh. Others were prime, fat creatures, ready for the butcher and Sydney market. And others again were splendid animals, of great value for prize and breeding purposes, and were to be made into a separate draft.
The man at the last gateway was doing the all important work of selecting. He was armed with a short thick stick, and, as the other men drove the animals down towards him, decided with lightning speed to which class they belonged. A heavy blow on the nose, a sharp, rapid series of them between the eyes, and the most violent brute plunged blindly whither the driver sent him. All the day work went on, and just as the great hot purple shadows began to fall across the plain they secured the last rail, the battle was over, and the animals in approved divisions.
Pip ate enough salt beef and damper to half kill him, drank more tea than he had ever disposed of at one sitting in all his fourteen years, swung himself into his saddle in close imitation of the oldest stockman, and thought if he only could have a black, evil-looking pipe like Tettawonga and the rest of the men his happiness would be complete and his manhood attained.
He reached home as tired as "a dozen dogs and a dingo," and entertained his sisters and Bunty with a graphic account of the day's proceedings, dwelling lengthily on his own prowess and the manifold perils he had escaped.
The next day both Esther and Judy rode with the others to the yards to see the departures.
The best of the contingent, which Mr. Hassal had only wanted to separate, not to sell, were driven out through the gate and away to their old fields and pastures stale.
The "wasters," some hundred and fifty of them, with half a dozen stockmen mounted on the best horses of the place told off for them, were released from their enclosure in a state of frenzied desperation, and, with much cracking of whips and yells, mustered into a herd and driven across the plain in the direction of the road. And some hour or two later the best "beef" lot were driven forth, and quiet reigned at Yarrahappini once more. During the two days of excitement the children all decided upon their future professions, which were all to be of a pastoral nature.
Pip was going to be a stockman, and brand and draft cattle all the days of his life. Judy was going to be his "aide-de-camp", provided he let her stay in the saddle, and provided her with a whip just as long as his own. Meg thought she should like to marry the richest squatter in Australia, and have the Governor and the Premier come up for shooting and "things," and give balls to which all the people within a hundred miles would come. Nell decided the would make soap and candles, coloured as well as plain, when she arrived at years of discretion; said Baby inclined to keeping paddocks full of pet lambs that never grew into sheep.
Bunty did, not wax enthusiastic over any of the ideas.
"I'd rather be like Mr. Gillet," he said, and his eyes looked dreamy.
"Pooh! no books and figures far me; give me a run of Salt Bush country, and a few thousand sheep," said Pip.
"Hear! hear!" chimed in Judy.
"Stoopids!" said Bunty, in a voice of great scorn. "Doesn't Mr. Gillet keep the store keys—just think those currants and figs."