We were sitting outside old Tallwood cattle-station, in our white moleskin trousers, elastic-side boots, and cabbage-tree hats, watching two stockmen shoe a very wild brumby mare. We were all salves to the saddle and bridle, and there was nothing too heaving or hard. The boss squatted on a new four-rail fence. There were twenty panels of this fence, strong iron bark post-and-rails. The first rails were mortised into a big iron-bark tree, and there were four No. 8 wires twisted around the butt, passed through the posts and strained very tightly to the big strainer at the other end.
As though he had dropped out of the sky there appeared on the scene a very smart-looking man carrying a red-blanket swag, a water-bag, tucker-bag, and billycan. He put them down and said, “Is the boss about?”
We all pointed to the man on the fence. The new chap took his pipe out of his mouth and walked up, a bit shy-like, and said,
“Is there any chance of a job, boss?”
“What can you do?” asked the boss.
“Well, anything amongst stock. You can’t put me wrong.”
“Can you ride a buckjumper?”
“Pretty good,” said the young man.
“Can you scrub-dash – I mean, can you catch cattle in timber on a good horse before they’re knocked up?”
“Hold my own,” said the young man.
“Have you got a good flow of language?”
The young man hesitated awhile before answering this question. So the boss said,
“I mean, can you drive a rowdy team of bullocks?”
“Just into my hand,” said the young man.
The boss jumped down off the fence.
“Look here,” he said, “It’s no good you telling me you can drive a team of bullock if you can’t.”
And pointing to a little grave-yard he added,
“Do you see that little cemetery over there?”
The young man pulled his hat down over his eye, looked across, and said, “Yes.”
“Well,” continued the boss, “ there are sixteen bullock-drivers lying there. They came here to drive this team of mine.”
I watched the young man’s face when the boss said that to see if he would flinch; but a little smile broke away from the corner of his mouth, curled around his cheek and disappeared in his earhole, and as the effect died away he said,
“They won’t put me there.”
“I don’t know so much about that,” said the boss.
“I’ll give you a trial,” the young man suggested.
“It would take too long to muster the bullocks,” said the boss. “But take that bullock-whip there” – it was standing near the big ironbark – “and say, for instance, eight panels of that fence are sixteen bullocks, show me how you would start up the team.”
“Right,” said the young man.
Walking over he picked up the big bullock-whip and very carefully examined it to see how it was fastened to the handle. Then he ran his hand down along the whip, examining it as though he were searching for a broken link in a chain. Then he looked closely to see how the fall was fastened to the whip. After that he stood back and swung it around and gave a cheer.
First he threw the whip up to the leaders, and then threw it back to the polers. He stepped in as though to dig the near-side pin-bullock under the arm with the handle of the whip, then stepped back and swung the big bullock around. He kept on talking, and the whip kept on cracking until a little flame ran right along the top of the fence.
And he kept on talking and the whip kept on cracking until the phantom forms of sixteen bullocks appeared along the fence – blues, black and brindles. And he kept on talking and the whip kept on cracking till the phantom forms of sixteen bullock-drivers appeared on the scene. And they kept on talking and their whips kept on cracking till the fence started to walk on, and pulled the big ironbark tree down.
“That will do,” said the boss.
“Not a bit of it,” said the young man, “where’s your woodheap?”
We all pointed to the woodheap near the old bark kitchen.
And they kept on talking and their whips kept on cracking till they made the fence pull the tree right up to the woodheap.
We were all sitting round on the limbs of the tree, and the young man was talking to the boss, and we felt sure he would get the job, when the boss called out,
“Get the fencing gear lads, and put that fence up again.”
“Excuse me for interrupting, boss,” said the young man, “but would you like to see how I back a team of bullocks?”
“Yes I would,” said the boss.
So the young man walked over and picked up the big bullock whip again. He swung it around and called out,
“Now then, boys, all together!”
And the phantom forms of the sixteen bullock-drivers appeared on the scene again; and they kept on talking and their whips kept on cracking, till every post and rail burst out into flame, and when the flame cleared away each post and rail backed into its place, and the phantom forms of the sixteen bullock-drivers saluted the young man, then bowed and backed, and bowed and backed right into their graves, recognising him as the champion bullock driver.
Skuthorpe, L., (1946), The Champion Bullock-Driver, in ‘Twenty Great Australian Stories’ (J.L Waten and V. G. O’Connor, eds), pp127-130. Dolphin Publications.