Henry Lawson (1867-1922)
Wilson and His Mates
|In the days when poetry recital was a popular pastime, the works of
Henry Lawson were distributed far and wide. Regarded as Australia's finest
poet, he was a brilliant, sad, lonely man whose biography would bring tears
to the most hard-hearted soul. This story, however, will bring tears of
a different nature.
Dave Regan, Jim Bently, and Andy Page were sinking
a shaft at Stony Creek in search of a rich gold quartz reef, which was
supposed to exist in the vicinity. There is always a rich reef supposed
to exist in the vicinity; the only questions are whether it is ten feet
or hundreds beneath the surface, and in which direction. They had struck
some pretty solid rock, also water, which kept them bailing. They used
the old-fashioned blasting powder and time fuse. They'd make a sausage
or cartridge of blasting-powder in a skin of strong calico or canvas, the
mouth sewn and bound round the end of the fuse; they'd dip the cartridge
in melted tallow to make it water-tight, get the drill hole as dry as possible,
drop in the cartridge with some dry dust, and wad and ram with stiff clay
and broken brick. Then they'd light the fuse and get out of the hole and
wait. The result was usually an ugly pothole in the bottom of the shaft
and half a barrow-load of broken rock.
There was plenty of fish in the creek, fresh-water
bream, cod, catfish, and tailers. The party were fond of fish, and Andy
and Dave of fishing. Andy would fish for three hours at a stretch if encouraged
by a 'nibble' or a 'bite' now and then, say once in twenty minutes. The
butcher was always willing to give meat in exchange for fish when they
caught more than they could eat; but now it was winter, and these fish
wouldn't bite. However, the creek was low, just a chain of muddy water-holes,
from the hole with a few bucketfuls in it to the sizeable pool with an
average depth of six or seven feet, and they could get fish by bailing
out the smaller holes or muddying up the water in the larger ones till
the fish rose to the surface. There was the catfish, with spikes growing
out of the sides of its head, and if you got pricked you'd know it, as
Dave said. Andy took off his boots, tucked up his trousers, and went into
a hole one day to stir up the mud with his feet, and he knew it. Dave scooped
one out with his hand and got pricked, and he knew it too; his arm swelled,
and the pain throbbed up into his shoulder, and down into his stomach too,
he said, like a toothache he had once, and kept him awake for two night,
only the toothache pain had a 'burred edge', Dave said.
Dave got an idea. "Why not blow the fish up in
the big water-hole with a cartridge?" he said. "I'll try it." He thought
the thing out and Andy Page worked it out. Andy usually put Dave's theories
into practice if they were practicable, or bore the blame for the failure
and the chaffing of his mates if they weren't. He made a cartridge about
three times the size of those they used in the rock. Jim Bently said it
was big enough to blow the bottom out of the river. The inner skin was
of stout calico; Andy stuck the end of a six-foot piece of fuse well down
in the powder and bound the mouth of the bag firmly to it with whipcord.
The idea was to sink the cartridge in the water with the open end of the
fuse attached to a float on the surface, ready for lighting. Andy dipped
the cartridge in melted bees'-wax to make it watertight. "We'll have to
leave it some time before we light it," said Dave, "to give the fish time
to get over their scare when we put it in, and come nosing round again;
so we'll want it well water-tight."
'El-lo, Da-a-ve! How's the fishin' getting on, Da-a-ve?'
Round the cartridge Andy, at Dave's suggestion,
bound a strip of sail canvas - that they used for making water-bags - to
increase the force of the explosion, and round that he pasted layers of
stiff brown paper - on the plan of the sort of fireworks we called 'gun-crackers'.
He let the paper dry in the sun, then he sewed a covering of two thicknesses
of canvas over it, and bound the thing from end to end with stout fishing-line.
Dave's schemes were elaborate, and he often worked his inventions out to
nothing. The cartridge was rigid and solid enough now - a formidable bomb;
but Andy and Dave wanted to be sure. Andy sewed on another layer of canvas,
dipped the cartridge in melted tallow, twisted a length of fencing-wire
round it as an afterthought, dipped it in tallow again, and stood it carefully
against a tent-peg, where he'd know where to find it, and wound the fuse
loosely round it. Then he went to the campfire to try some potatoes, which
were boiling in their jackets in a billy, and to see about frying some
chops for dinner. Dave and Jim were at work in the claim that morning.
They had a big black young retriever dog - or rather
an overgrown pup, a big foolish, four-footed mate, who was always slobbering
round them and lashing their legs with his heavy tail that swung round
like a stock-whip. Most of his head was usually a red, idiotic, slobbering
grin of appreciation of his own silliness. He seemed to take life, the
world, his two-legged mates, and his own instinct as a huge joke. He'd
retrieve anything: he carted back most of the camp rubbish that Andy threw
away. They had a cat that died in hot weather, and Andy threw it a good
distance away in the scrub; and early one morning the dog found the cat,
after it had been dead a week or so, and carried it back to camp, and laid
it just inside the tent flaps, where it could best make its presence known
when the mates should rise and begin to sniff suspiciously in the sickly
smothering atmosphere of the summer sunrise. He used to retrieve them when
they went in swimming; he'd jump in after them, and take their hands in
his mouth, and try to swim out with them, and scratch their naked bodies
with his paws. They loved him for his good-heartedness and his foolishness,
but when they wished to enjoy a swim they had to tie him up in camp.
He watched Andy with great interest all the morning
making the cartridge, and hindered him considerably, trying to help; but
about noon he went off to the claim to see how Dave and Jim were getting
on, and to come home to dinner with them. Andy saw them coming, and put
a pan full of muttonchops on the fire. Andy was cook today; Dave and Jim
stood with their backs to the fire, as Bushmen do in all weathers, waiting
till dinner should be ready. The retriever went nosing round after something
he seemed to have missed.
There was one old one-eyed cattle-dog round that shanty for years
afterwards, who couldn't stand the smell of a gun being cleaned.
Andy's brain still worked on the cartridge; his
eye was caught by the glare of an empty kerosene tin lying in the bushes,
and it struck him that it wouldn't be a bad idea to sink the cartridge
packed with clay, sand, or stones in the tin, to increase the force of
the explosion. He may have been all out, from a scientific point of view,
but the notion looked all right to him. Jim Bently, by the way, wasn't
interested in their 'damned silliness'. Andy noticed an empty treacle-tin
- the sort with the little tin neck or spout soldered on to the top for
the convenience of pouring out the treacle and it struck him that this
would have made the best kind of cartridge-case; he would only have had
to pour in the powder, stick the fuse in through the neck, and cork and
seal it with bees'-wax. He was turning to suggest this to Dave, when Dave
glanced over his shoulder to see how the chops were doing and bolted. He
explained afterwards that he thought he heard the pan spluttering extra,
and looked to see if the chops were burning. Jim Bently looked behind and
bolted after Dave. Andy stood stock still, staring after them.
"Run, Andy! Run!" they shouted back at him. "Run
! ! ! Look behind you, you fool!" Andy turned slowly and looked, and there,
close behind him, was the retriever with the cartridge in his mouth wedged
into his broadest and silliest grin. And that wasn't all. The dog had come
round the fire to Andy, and the loose end of the fuse had trailed and waggled
over the burning sticks into the blaze; Andy had slit and nicked the firing
end of the fuse well, and now it was hissing and spitting properly.
Andy's legs started with a jolt; his legs started
before his brain did, and he made after Dave and Jim. And the dog followed
Dave and Jim were good runners - Jim the best -
for a short distance; Andy was slow and heavy, but he had the strength
and the wind and could last. The dog leapt and capered round him, delighted
as a dog could be to find his mates, as he thought, on for a frolic. Dave
and Jim kept shouting back, "Don't foller us! Don't foller us, you coloured
fool!" but Andy kept on, no matter how they dodged.
They could never explain, any more than the dog,
why they followed each other, but so they ran, Dave keeping in Jim's track
in all its turnings, Andy after Dave, and the dog circling round Andy,
the live fuse swishing in all directions and hissing and spluttering and
stinking; Jim yelling to Dave not to follow him, Dave shouting to Andy
to go in another direction, to 'spread, and Andy roaring at the dog to
go home. Then Andy's brain began to work, stimulated by the crisis: he
tried to get a running kick at the dog, but the dog dodged; he snatched
up sticks and stones and threw them at the dog and ran on again.
The retriever saw that he'd made a mistake about
Andy, and left him and bounded after Dave. Dave, who had the presence of
mind to think that the fuse's time wasn't up yet, made a dive and a grab
for the dog, caught him by the tail, and as he swung round snatched the
cartridge out of his mouth and flung it as far as he could: the dog immediately
bounded after it and retrieved it. Dave roared and cursed at the dog, who,
seeing that Dave was offended, left him and went after Jim, who was well
ahead. Jim swung to a sapling and went up it like a native bear; it was
a young sapling, and Jim couldn't safely get more than ten or twelve feet
from the ground. The dog laid the cartridge, as carefully as if it was
a kitten, at the foot of the sapling, and capered and leaped and whooped
joyously round under Jim. The big pup reckoned that this was part of the
lark he was all right now, it was Jim who was out for a spree.
The fuse sounded as if it were going a mile a minute.
Jim tried to climb higher and the sapling bent and cracked. Jim fell on
his feet and ran. The dog swooped on the cartridge and followed. It all
took but a very few moments. Jim ran to a digger's hole, about ten feet
deep and dropped down into it - landing on soft mud and was safe. The dog
grinned sardonically down on him, over the edge, for a moment, as if he
thought it would be a good lark to drop the cartridge down on Jim. "Go
away, Tommy," said Jim feebly, "go away."
The dog bounded off after Dave, who was the only
one in sight now; Andy had dropped behind a log, where he lay flat on his
face, having suddenly remembered a picture of the Russo-Turkish war with
a circle of Turks lying flat on their faces (as if they were ashamed) round
a newly-arrived shell.
There was a small hotel or shanty on the creek,
on the main road, not far from the claim. Dave was desperate; the time
flew much faster in his stimulated imagination than it did in reality,
so he made for the shanty. There were several casual Bushmen on the verandah
and in the bar; Dave rushed into the bar, banging the door to behind him.
"My dog!" he gasped, in reply to the astonished stare of the publican,
"the blanky retriever - he's got a live cartridge in his mouth."
The retriever, finding the front door shut against
him, had bounded round and in by the back way, and now stood smiling in
the doorway leading from the passage, the cartridge still in his mouth
and the fuse spluttering. They burst out of that bar. Tommy bounded first
after one and then after another, for, being a young dog, he tried to make
friends with everybody.
The Bushmen ran round corners, and some shut themselves
in the stable. There was a new weatherboard and corrugated iron kitchen
and washhouse on piles in the back yard, with some women washing clothes
inside. Dave and the publican bundled in there and shut the door - the
publican cursing Dave and calling him a crimson fool, in hurried tones,
and wanting to know what the hell he came here for.
The retriever went in under the kitchen, amongst
the piles, but, luckily for those inside, there was a vicious yellow mongrel
cattle-dog sulking and nursing his nastiness under there - a sneaking,
fighting, thieving canine, whom neighbours had tried for years to shoot
or poison. Tommy saw his danger - he'd had experience from this dog - and
started out and across the yard, still sticking to the cartridge. Halfway
across the yard the yellow dog caught him and nipped him. Tommy dropped
the cartridge, gave one terrified yell, and took to the bush. The yellow
dog followed him to the fence and then ran back to see what he had dropped.
Nearly a dozen other dogs came from round
all the corners and under the buildings, spidery, thievish, cold-blooded
kangaroo-dogs, mongrel sheep and cattle dogs, vicious black and yellow
dogs- that slip after you in the dark, nip your heels, and vanish without
explaining, and yapping, yelping small fry. They kept at a respectable
distance round the nasty yellow dog, for it was dangerous to go near him
when he thought he had found something which might be good for a dog to
He sniffed at the cartridge twice, and was just
taking a third cautious sniff when ... It was a very good blasting-powder
- a new brand that Dave had recently got up from Sydney; and the cartridge
had been excellently well made. Andy was very patient and painstaking in
all he did, and nearly as handy as the average sailor with needles, twine,
canvas, and rope.
Bushmen say that that kitchen jumped off its piles
and on again. When the smoke and dust cleared away, the remains of the
nasty yellow dog were lying against the paling fence of the yard looking
as if he had been kicked into a fire by a horse and afterwards rolled in
the dust under a barrow, and finally thrown against the fence from a distance.
Several saddle horses, which had been 'hanging-up' round the verandah,
were galloping wildly down the road in clouds of dust, with broken bridle-reins
flying; and from a circle round the outskirts, from every point of the
compass in the scrub, came the yelping of dogs. Two of them went home,
to the place where they were born, thirty miles away, and reached it the
same night and stayed there; it was not till towards evening that the rest
came back cautiously to make inquiries. One was trying to walk on two legs,
and most of 'em looked more or less singed; and a little, singed, stumpy
tailed dog, who had been in the habit of hopping the back half of him along
on one leg, had reason to be glad that he'd saved up the other leg all
those years, for he needed it now.
There was one old one-eyed cattle-dog round that
shanty for years afterwards, who couldn't stand the smell of a gun being
cleaned. He it was who had taken an interest, only second to that of the
yellow dog, in the cartridge. Bushmen said that it was amusing to slip
up on his blind side and stick a dirty ramrod under his nose: he wouldn't
wait to bring his solitary eye to bear, he'd take to the bush and stay
out all night.
For half an hour or so after the explosion there
were several bushmen round behind the stable who crouched, doubled up,
against the wall, or rolled gently on the dust, trying to laugh without
shrieking. There were two white women in hysterics at the house, and a
half-caste rushing aimlessly round with a dipper of cold water. The publican
was holding his wife tight and begging her between her squawks, to 'hold
up for my sake, Mary, or I'll lam the life out of ye'.
Dave decided to apologise later on, 'when things
had settled a bit', and went back to camp. And the dog that had done it
all, 'Tommy', the great, idiotic mongrel retriever, came slobbering round
Dave and lashing his legs with his tail, and trotted home after him, smiling
his broadest, longest, and reddest smile of amiability, and apparently
satisfied for one afternoon with the fun he'd had. Andy chained the dog
up securely, and cooked some more chops, while Dave went to help Jim out
of the hole.
And most of this is why, for years afterwards,
lanky, easy going bushmen, riding lazily past Dave's camp, would cry, in
a lazy drawl and with just a hint of the nasal twang: 'El-lo, Da-a-ve!
How's the fishin' getting on, Da-a-ve?'