The Old Station

There are few countries in the world with such varieties of climate as Australia, and though some stations are out in the great, red-hot, frying wastes of the Never-Never, others are up in the hills where a hot night is a thing unknown, where snow falls occasionally, and where it is no uncommon thing to spend a summer’s evening by the side of a roaring fire. In the matter of improvements, too, stations vary greatly. Some are in a wilderness, with fittings to match; others have telephones between homestead and outstations, the jackeroos dress for dinner, and the station hands are cowed into touching their hats and saying “Sir.” Also stations are of all sizes, and the man who is considered quite a big squatter in the settled districts is thought small potatoes by the magnate “out back,” who shears a hundred and fifty thousand sheep, and has an overdraft like the National Debt.

Kuryong was a hill-country station of about sixty thousand acres all told; but they were good acres, as no one knew better than old Bully Grant, the owner, of whose history and disposition we heard something from Pinnock at the club. It was a highly improved place, with a fine homestead⁠—thanks to Bully Grant’s money, for in the old days it had been a very different sort of place⁠—and its history is typical of the history of hundreds of others.

When Andrew Gordon first bought it, it was held under lease from the Crown, and there were no improvements to speak of. The station homestead, so lovingly descanted upon in the advertisement, consisted of a two-roomed slab hut; the woolshed, where the sheep were shorn, was made of gumtree trunks roofed with bark. The wool went down to Sydney, and station supplies came back, in huge wagons drawn by eighteen or twenty bullocks, that travelled nine miles a day on a journey of three hundred miles. There were no neighbours except at the township of Kiley’s Crossing, which consisted of two public-houses and a store. It was a rough life for the young squatter, and evidently he found it lonely; for on a visit to Sydney he fell in love with and married a dainty girl of French descent. Refined, well-educated, and fragile-looking, she seemed about the last person in the world to take out to a slab-hut homestead as a squatter’s wife. But there is an old saying that blood will tell; and with all the courage of her Huguenot ancestry she faced the roughness and discomforts of bush life. On her arrival at the station the old two-roomed hut was plastered and whitewashed, additional rooms were built, and quite a neat little home was the result. Seasons were good, and the young squatter might have gone on shearing sheep and selling fat stock till the end of his life but for the advent of free selection in .

In that year the Legislature threw open all leasehold lands to the public for purchase on easy terms and conditions. The idea was to settle an industrious peasantry on lands hitherto leased in large blocks to the squatters. This brought down a flood of settlement on Kuryong. At the top end of the station there was a chain of mountains, and the country was rugged and patchy⁠—rich valleys alternating with ragged hills. Here and there about the run were little patches of specially good land, which were soon snapped up. The pioneers of these small settlers were old Morgan Donohoe and his wife, who had built the hotel at Kiley’s Crossing; and, on their reports, all their friends and relatives, as they came out of the “ould country,” worked their way to Kuryong, and built little bits of slab and bark homesteads in among the mountains. The rougher the country, the better they liked it. They were a horse-thieving, sheep-stealing breed, and the talents which had made them poachers in the old country soon made them champion bushmen in their new surroundings. The leader of these mountain settlers was one Doyle, a gigantic Irishman, who had got a grant of a few hundred acres in the mountains, and had taken to himself a Scotch wife from among the free immigrants. The story ran that he was too busy to go to town, but asked a friend to go and pick a wife for him, “a fine shtrappin’ woman, wid a good brisket on her.”

The Doyles were large, slow, heavy men, with an instinct for the management of cattle; they were easily distinguished from the Donohoes, who were little red-whiskered men, enterprising and quick-witted, and ready to do anything in the world for a good horse. Other strangers and outlanders came to settle in the district, but from the original settlement up to the date of our story the two great families of the Doyles and the Donohoes governed the neighbourhood, and the headquarters of the clans was at Donohoe’s “Shamrock Hotel,” at Kiley’s Crossing. Here they used to rendezvous when they went away down to the plains country each year for the shearing; for they added to their resources by travelling about the country shearing, droving, fencing, tanksinking, or doing any other job that offered itself, but always returned to their mountain fastnesses ready for any bit of work “on the cross” (i.e., unlawful) that might turn up. When times got hard they had a handy knack of finding horses that nobody had lost, shearing sheep they did not own, and branding and selling other people’s calves.

When they stole stock, they moved them on through the mountains as quickly as possible, always having a brother or uncle, or a cousin⁠—Terry or Timothy or Martin or Patsy⁠—who had a holding “beyant.” By these means they could shift stolen stock across the great range, and dispose of them among the peaceable folk who dwelt in the good country on the other side, whose stock they stole in return. Many a good horse and fat beast had made the stealthy mountain journey, lying hidden in gaps and gullies when pursuit grew hot, and being moved on as things quieted down.

Another striking feature was the way in which they got themselves mixed up with each other. Their names were so tangled up that no one could keep tally of them. There was a Red Mick Donohoe (son of the old publican), and his cousin Black Mick Donohoe, and Red Mick’s son Mick, and Black Mick’s son Mick, and Red Mick’s son Pat, and Black Mick’s son Pat; and there was Gammy Doyle (meaning Doyle with the lame leg), and Scrammy Doyle (meaning Doyle with the injured arm), and Bosthoon Doyle and Omadhaun Doyle⁠—a Bosthoon being a man who never had any great amount of sense to speak of, while an Omadhaun is a man who began life with some sense, but lost most of it on his journey. It was a common saying in the countryside that if you met a man on the mountains you should say, “Good day, Doyle,” and if he replied, “That’s not my name,” you should at once say, “Well, I meant no offence, Mr. Donohoe.”

One could generally pick which was which of the original stock, but when they came to intermarry there was no telling t’other from which. Startling likenesses cropped up among the relatives, and it was widely rumoured that one Doyle who was known to be in jail, and who was vaguely spoken of by the clan as being “away,” was in fact serving an accumulation of sentences for himself and other members of the family, whose sins he had for a consideration taken on himself.

With such neighbours as these fighting him for every block of land, Andrew Gordon soon came to the end of his resources, and it was then that he had to take in his old manager as a partner. Before Bully Grant had been in the firm long, he had secured nearly all the good land, and the industrious yeomanry that the Land Act was supposed to create were hiding away up the gullies on miserable little patches of bad land, stealing sheep for a living. Bully fought them stoutly, impounded their sheep and cattle, and prosecuted trespassers and thieves; and, his luck being wonderful, he soon added to the enormous fortune he had made in mining, while Andrew Gordon died impoverished. When he died, old Bully gave the management of the stations to his sons, and contented himself with finding fault. But one dimly-remembered episode in his career was talked of by the old hands around Kiley’s Hotel, long after Grant had become a wealthy man, and had gone for long trips to England.

Grant, in spite of the judgment and sagacity on which he prided himself, had at various times in his career made mistakes⁠—mistakes in station management, mistakes about stock, mistakes about men, and last, but not least, mistakes about women; and it was to one of these mistakes that the gossips referred.

When he was a young man working as Mr. Gordon’s manager, and living with the horse-breaker and the ration-carrier on the outstation at Kuryong (in those days a wild, half-civilised place), he had for neighbours Red Mick’s father and mother, the original Mr. and Mrs. Donohoe, and their family. Their eldest daughter, Peggy⁠—“Carrotty Peg,” her relations called her⁠—was at that time a fine, strapping, bush girl, and the only unmarried white woman anywhere near the station. She was as fair-complexioned as Red Mick himself, with a magnificent head of red hair, and the bust and limbs of a young Amazon.

This young woman, as she grew up, attracted the attention of Billy the Bully, and they used to meet a good deal out in the bush. On such occasions, he would possibly be occupied in the inspiriting task of dragging a dead sheep after his horse, to make a trail to lead the wild dogs up to some poisoned meat; while the lady, clad in light and airy garments, with a huge white sunbonnet for headgear, would be riding straddle-legged in search of strayed cows. When Grant left the station, and went away to make his fortune in mining, it was, perhaps, just a coincidence that this magnificent young creature grew tired of the old place and “cleared out,” too. She certainly went away and disappeared so utterly that even her own people did not know what had become of her; to the younger generation her very existence was only a vague tradition. But it was whispered here and muttered there among the Doyles and the Donohoes and their friends and relations, that old Billy the Bully, on one of his visits to the interior, had been married to this undesirable lady by a duly accredited parson, in the presence of responsible witnesses; and that, when everyone had their own, Carrotty Peg, if alive, would be the lady of Kuryong. However, she had never come back to prove it, and no one cared about asking her alleged husband any unpleasant questions.

So much for the history of its owners; now to describe the homestead itself. It had originally consisted of the two-roomed slab hut, which had been added to from time to time. Kitchen, outhouses, bachelors’ quarters, saddle-rooms, and storerooms had been built on in a kind of straggling quadrangle, with many corners and unexpected doorways and passages; and it is reported that a swagman once got his dole of rations at the kitchen, went away, and after turning two or three corners, got so tangled up that when Fate led him back to the kitchen he didn’t recognise it, and asked for rations over again, in the firm belief that he was at a different part of the house.

The original building was still the principal living-room, but the house had grown till it contained about twenty rooms. The slab walls had been plastered and whitewashed, and a wide verandah ran all along the front. Round the house were acres of garden, with great clumps of willows and acacias, where the magpies sat in the heat of the day and sang to one another in their sweet, low warble.

The house stood on a spur running from the hills. Looking down the river from it, one saw level flats waving with long grasses, in which the solemn cattle waded knee-deep. Here and there clumps of willows and stately poplars waved in the breeze. In the clear, dry air all colours were startlingly vivid, and round the nearer foothills wonderful lights and shadows played and shifted, while sometimes a white fleece of mist would drift slowly across a distant hill, like a film of snowy lace on the face of a beautiful woman. Away behind the foothills were the grand old mountains, with their snow-clad tops gleaming in the sun.

The garden was almost as lacking in design as the house. There were acres of fruit trees, with prairie grass growing at their roots, trees whereon grew luscious peaches and juicy egg-plums; long vistas of grapevines, with little turnings and alleys, regular lovers’ walks, where the scent of honeysuckle intoxicated the senses. At the foot of the garden was the river, a beautiful stream, fed by the mountain-snow, and rushing joyously over clear gravel beds, whose million-tinted pebbles dashed in the sunlight like so many opals.

In some parts of Australia it is difficult to tell summer from winter; but up in this mountain-country each season had its own attractions. In the spring the flats were green with lush grass, speckled with buttercups and bachelors’ buttons, and the willows put out their new leaves, and all manner of shy dry-scented bush flowers bloomed on the ranges; and the air was full of the song of birds and the calling of animals. Then came summer, when never a cloud decked the arch of blue sky, and all animated nature drew into the shade of big trees until the evening breeze sprang up, bringing sweet scents of the dry grass and ripening grain. In autumn, the leaves of the English trees turned all tints of yellow and crimson, and the grass in the paddocks went brown; and the big bullock teams worked from dawn till dark, hauling in their loads of hay from the cultivation paddocks.

But most beautiful of all was winter, when logs blazed in the huge fireplaces, and frosts made the ground crisp, and the stock, long-haired and shaggy, came snuffling round the stables, picking up odds and ends of straw; when the grey, snow-clad mountains looked but a stone’s throw away in the intensely clear air, and the wind brought a colour to the cheeks and a tingling to the blood that made life worth living.

Such was Kuryong homestead, where lived Charlie Gordon’s mother and his brother Hugh, with a lot of children left by another brother who, like many others, had gone up to Queensland to make his fortune, and had left his bones there instead; and to look after these young folk there was a governess, Miss Harriott.