IN THE GREAT BUSH.
"Daddy's dead !"
Thus the news was given and received, and Jem Johnson meant no blasphemy nor unbelief, nor even disrespect by his strange expletive. That Sling the Wire should be dead was to him a fact so utterly strange and amazing he could enot express himself in any ordinary terms. Or rather, perhaps, he let his soul out in the first words that canne to his lips.
"Last night," said the other fellow, "in the sheepwash hut."
"There now ?"
Then we both dismounted and entered the hut—a long stab table down the centre, adouble row of bunks on either side. Beyond, a bit of a cookshop, and on a broad table there, whereon the cook had often hewed sheep into chops and moulded his mighty loaves, a something beneath a blue blanket.
There was nothing irreverent about Jem as be bared his head, stepped softly and pulled the blanket away. Then we saw "Sling the Wire"—all that was left of him. It was not much; about five feet two of the oldest seeming humanity eyes ever beheld. Flesh all gone, teeth all gone, eyelids shut over sockets from which the eyes seemed torn or worn away. A bare scalp, looking like a skull one might pick up on a hot plain, hair the color of dead wool, lying like a patch cut from an old fleece on lips and chin, and falling back from the skull-like head on the rough boards. The whole body wrapped in a long sun-rusted coat, the very same he had worn when I met him seven years before.
I had met him before, yes, and had [promised to] tell his story and propose to set it down here because in his latest years "Sling the Wire" was one who linked the present with Australia's very first years of white occupation. He was old as our history—no man knew how old. He had the haziest notions on the subject him self. I should think that he must have overpassed four score and ten, for he seemed clearly to know of the time when the Blue Mountains shut in the infant colony, and all the inner land were peopled and pictured by fancy alone.
I met him first—it was early in the eighties—by a gate in fence where the so far unmistakeable track bifurcated. He looked terribly old then, and fearfully and wonderfully dirty. He had the same old dead wool mat of hair about lips and chin, the same tangled elf locks hanging down on the same old coat.
When he lifted his marvellous cabbage tree he displayed a dirt-caked poll and a face whose innumerable wrinkles were filled with the dust of the plains accurately as those of any ancient dame of fashion with enamel or pearl powder. The dirty condition would not have occasioned sur prise, for it is very common amongst old hands in the bush. I knew one instance at a sheepwash of an old fellow who had some pottering job about the yards, and persisted at tucker time in handling the joints "wid his fists," and never washed. The other fellows remonstrated and then complained to the "boss."
"You might have a sluice down once a day, anyhow," said the boss.
Old Bill replied, "It's time I was goin' further back. There's too much washin' and foolin' here. It used to be enough for a man to wash whenever he got his cheque."
"Sling-the-Wire" did not open the gate, but stood in his long coat, leaning on his long stick, conning me as I looked up one track and down the other, uncertain which to take.
I had said good day, and he had mumbled something in reply. Now it was necessary to ask about the tracks.
"Which of these tracks makes the river road ?"
"What's your wire ?"
It was the first hint of the peculiarity which gave him his name. I guessed his meaning, and replied,
"I want to make the railway surveyor's camp."
"Ah ! Then you slings your wire this way. You takes that track and you makes to that pint o' timber. You takes that on your back, leaves the track and slings your wire then straight down to the river timber. When you comes nigh it you sees a opening, and a little further on big balah. Just round that is the big bend, and there's the camp. See ?"
"That's your wire then."
And without further words he turned and went away. Shuffling over the plain with the old coat about his heels, back rounded, head bowed never in the world I thought did a figure answer so well to that description of Chamisso's, of the buyer of Peter Schlemil's shadow—an end of thread which a tailor has cast out of his needle.
The camp was duly made, and we worked away for a week or more. I had been ill, and a sensible doctor said, "Get out in the bush and work hard for a spell." An old mate had been anpainted to survey this line, and that made the opportunity.
The doctor's was really good advice and may as well be passed on. To any man who wants a taste of real bush life, to gain in formation, to satisfy curiosity, or to build up new life there is nothing like a spell in a surveyor's camp. Get a friend to put you on his staff as a workman and—work. Drag the chain, blaze trees, make and drive pegs, learn to pitch and strike a tent, and on Sundays and holidays rattle away to the nearest township, and prove the truth of the old Horatian proverb
"Dulce est deipere in loco."
Learn how rising suns and moons appear when they come over an eastern bar unbroken as on a placid sea, and if it be in you when the stars shine out at night, and the world is very still, get to yourself a little of the sentiment which Ernest Favenc, poet and explorer, knew when he wrote his exquisite verses to the genius of Australias' solitudes.
But this is not " Sling the Wire." I was sitting on a pine log smoking one night, a hundred yards from the camp, when, suddenly came,
"Good day,"and there, leaning on his stick was the little old man.
"You slung that wire all right ?"
"I want a pot of tea."
"Go down to the cook then."
"That's my wire."
I followed down an hour later, the evening was cold and calm, and bright. Dry pine logs had been thrown on the solid fire of box, which burned always from the pitching to the striking of thie camp, and a ruddy blaze leapt high. The white tents showed clearly, the trees a little beyoynd them were intensely black. The bronzed-bearded hardy fellows lying about semed grouped for an artist, but bolt upright on a water-keg sat the little old man, and beside him on his swag,his head bowed to his knees, an old traveller.
Sling-the-Wire was reciting a "something" which will not be found in any of the books.
If memory would serve one could not print the whole of it, and indeed it was mostly rubbish, though at tinmes so bitter and vigorous as to show the working of a powerful mild. It was the ryhmed story of a "Prisoner's tour to Hell."
"The hero's valor had been tried
Upon the highway before he died.
At length to deatlh he fell prey,
Which proved to him a happy day.
Downward he bent his steps untold
Until he came to Satan's fold."
Satan, of course, would have none of him. He was a man to be comforted, not tormented, and so was sent on the upward track. Having arrived at the gate he
"Knocked so loud upon tlhe wicket
That Peter cried, Come, where's your ticket ?"
The old man on the swag looled up with a cunning leer.
"Ah ! If he hadn't that he was crooked !"
"Yes," said the narrator, "he'd slung a wrong wire then," and proceeded—
"Or if you've got none to show
Is there anybody here you know ?"
The gentleman admitted that he knew
Johnny Troy, and Wilkins, too,
Old Ben, and bold Jack Donohue.
And many more, whose backs were mangled.
Or whom Long Tom, the hangman, strangled.
Peter regarded this as sufficient qualification and unbarred the door, after which the narration became somewhat blansphemous and very tame. It was eagerly listened to, however, and when towards midnight the old man said he would sling his wire for the station, the cook invited him to "doss in a tent." He said he would camp by the fire and did. But before sunrise hle had taken his departure.
He came along again on a Sunday, and I was alone in the camp, writing.
"You're wire ain't the bush allays ?"
"I could tell that by your blazes on the trees."
"What's the matter with them ?"
"If you'd slung your wire like that along with the Major, sonny, you'd have had fifty for breakfast every morning."
"Who was the Major ?"
"Ah ! you didn't know him; I did." (And he seemed to curl his shoulders as he spoke.) "I done twelve months with the Major, cook's mate."
"Who wrote the verses you were spouting the other night ?"
"Ah ! that was Frank, the poet. Frank Macnamara's wire that was."
"You've been a long time in the world, Daddy ?" "Yes," and he sucked hard at an empty pipe.
A big plug of tobacco accompanied the question :
"When did you come out ?"
"Dunno. I slung my wire first in Lunnon. All smart men slings their wire fust in Lunnon. King George was Governor then, and his wire was to send smart men to Port Jackson. Some of the others said Port Phillip, but King George, his wire was Port Jackson. I come to Port Jackson."
"Dunno. But it was afore Governor Macquarie. He built the Rum Hospital, and I carried bricks."
"Where did you work first?"
"The first man had me was a farmer near the old parson's place, at Parramatta. Parson used to preach on Sundays and flog on Mondays. Tuesdays he'd go down the river fishing—I've pulled him."
This was fragmentary, and I soon found that only a few isolated peaks and capes stood out through the haze of his memory of that period. He crossed the mountains with the third party, He thought it was the third party, and "slung his wire" in Mudgee country with Captain Deane.
"Oh ! it was a country fit for a man to live in then ; grass as big as salt bush and salt bush big as ...
"Lazy the hutkeeping ?"
"You ever sling your wire at hutkeeping ?"
"And you can't put a straight blaze on a tree. Shall I give you the wire about hutkeeping ?"
A hutkeeper's wire them times was to watch five of 'em. The sheep, and the shepherd, the dingoes, an' the blacks, and the boss. Sometimes one was the worst, sometimes another. He had to cook the shepherds tucker in the morning, leastways to boil the billy, for we didn't use to cook more'n once a week then. He had to hump all the hurdles, and fix 'em on a clean camp; then to wheel the dog box along. The dog box was a hut on wheels; both of you camped there, and the hutkeeper had to watch the sheep till morning. P'r'aps he didn't keep awake all night, but if the dingoes got into the yard, or the blacks speared the sheep, he slung a bad wire and was crooked with the boss.
"May be twenty-five, may be fifty."
"Yes, sonny, if you slung a bad wire them days, the lines was hard. Then, may be, you didn't sling the same wire as the shepherd, and life was lonesome. I was hut-keeping with Big Scotty, and we didn't speak for more'n two years. He hanged hisself to a brigalow after."
"Could anybody flog then ?"
"No, the boss must sling the wire to his mate. If you knowed it you bolted, but it you didn't you was crooked—like Jemmy Mullins. He was the best cook on the Bogan, but he never would make a Christmas duff, He slung a bad wire that way once. His boss was a hard 'un, and when Jemmy asked for stuff for Christmas he counted him out ten plums.
There was ten of them in the hut. Jemmy cooked the boss's duff, and served it up to his mates, and put the ten plums in another and that went in to the boss. The boss laughed over it, but next day he says to Jemmy,
"You'll have to travel down to Dawaon's, Jemmy ; they've get a spree on, and want the loan of you. You'll get plenty of grog, no doubt, and give Mister Dawson this note. Jemmy slung a bad wire because that note was a order for fifty, and they tied him up to a dray wheel and served him. He wouldn't mix a duff after that if he hanged for it."
So the old man would yarn by night or in the tent on Sundays ; and as he talked it was it marvellous how old historic figures seemed to appear and live again. He was of no use if you came to dates. He was "lagged" before Waterloo. He didn't know what for, but he reckoned he slung a good wire then. He remembered being kicked out of doors and "dossing" under cover when he could get it. London was a cold hungry, crowded place, and there was always plenty of sunshine and meat in Australia. Every man's wire was to come to Port Jackson, if he would only sling it. Travellers had told him there were folks settled in Port Phillip now, but travellers were liars mostly. He had a mind to sling his wire that far—but who would shepherd the rams if he was away ?
"Safe journey, " said he, as I said good- bye that time, and "don't you get off the Major's" old line when you get into the mountains, or you'll sling a bad wire." He had never seen the railway, scarcely believed in its existence, for all news canme to him by travellers, and all travellers to him were liars.
In yet another Spring I saw him again. A cold had crept into his old lungs, and sat down there. All his bones seemed to rattle as he coughed, and you might well imagine nose and chin would presently knock to gether. He had crawled from the home station to the camp in a mortal terror, for the boss," "the manager of the station," had proposed to send him into hospital. He could not disassociate the ideas of hospital and gaol. It meant confinement and restraint. It came over him with an indefinable horror. As soon as it was dark he "slung his wire" straieht out for the bush, and when the cold came on him he saw tie light of the camp fires and made down to them. He lay there when the cook turned out, and "Doctor," said he to the cook, "you speak a good word for me to your boss and let me lay alongside the fire at night, and I'll sling my wire into the scrub on the ridge at daylight, or, may be, he'd give me a job point- ing pegs. I can't go amongst them walls, Doctor; I should die. It ain't my wire, you see, never was."
So the cook told when he brought in breakfast. Old Dad came up later, shiver ing fearfully, and was hardly steadied by a half-pannikin of rum. He certainly would have died had any attempt been made to re- move him to the township. "I'd sling my wire there," said he, " if they'd let me camp in one place—"
"Where's that ?"
"That's Billy Samson's dead house."
"Where they put the drunks and dead beats ?"
"Jess so. I'd find travellers there, and I could pitch and give them the wire where to make for; and Billy, he wouldn't see me short ot a bit of damper. I'll sling my wire down to Billy's."
"You'll die on the road."
"What for ?"
It was a hard question, and remained unanswered. After a moment's silence, he spoke again, brightening. "I'll leave Billy this turn. There's old Sam up the river ; he's got a tree with room in it for two. I'll sling my wire to Sam's, and we'll doss together. An' old Kiing Jerry, he'll get us possums if Sam can't ketch fish." "Stay with the cook till to-morrow,"said the boss, and that evening we both went down to the home station.
The manager felt nothing but kindness for poor, old Dad, but he was bad, and the hospital seemed the only place for him. "I should be blackguarded by every rag of a newspaper in Riverina it I let him die in the hut," said he, "though God knows hle's welcome to them all. He won't rest, either, unless he thinks he is doing something, and what's he fit for, except a coffin!"
It was a rough sort of kindness, but the word coffin suggested probably, the cemetery. There was a little fenced enclosure of that sort on the run, and was it not possible for "Old Dad" to take charge of it ? Something like setting him to dig his own grave, it seemed, but the idea took. Thie old man regarded it as final deliverance from all dread of the hospital, and went to work, and began to get better. He knew nothing about gardening ; his only notion was to plant trees and flowers. He could see the beauty on any patch of the sand-ridge, and would say to himself, " We must have that in the grave garden." And so he rooted up young myalls and mulga and wilga and brigalow,with clematis and native flowers innumerable, and carried them down and set them about the graves. And enough grew to fill the place and make it beautlful.
In the evening be would "sling his wire" to the huts or the travellers' camps and pitch there to young Manaro men and youths from the Goulburn, and new chums and dead beats from the city, exchanging occasionally a few words in an unknown tongue with some ancient, whose face betrayed him clearly as would the seams and furrows of his bared back. No one molested him, not even the larrikins who come down like ghouls and vampires into the sweet and lovely sanctu- aries of Riterina's Spring.
He seemed to be the same as of old, but in a year or two the station hands noticed that he "slung his wire" more furiously than ever. The quaint, incomprehensible phrase, picked up no man knew how, seemed to take possession of him. New hands on the river used to seek him out as a sort of curiosity, but those who knew him better had only one fear, which was that his reason would wholly give way before his life's thread snapped. Perhaps it did. This at least is what happeoed, on the night before the the morning when Jem Johnson and I saw him in the hut.
It was early Spring and wet, and yet another cold had laid siege to the poor old citadel of his life. He coughed himself to pieces almost as he sat by the fire, and a foolish fellow said, " You'll have to sling your wire to that hospital yet, Dad." It was seen immediately that the words awoke the old horror, and the more sensible of the men scowled and cursed deeply as the old fellow gathered hirmself together and crept away to his bunk.
Still nobody thought anything would happen. All hands turned in by ten, and they said he was asleep. He smothered his cough till near midnight, then crept from his bunk, carrying a single blanket, and so out of the hut into the night. Possibly he had made up his mind to seek the empty hut at the sheepwash : more likely he was only flying away from the walls and doors and imaginary bolts and bars ot the hospital. It was an early Spring night, with a full moon and a few stars. Long lush grass had already sprung on all the plains by the river. The dew was heavy, and before the dawn he had almost been transformed into hoar frost. He went by the cemetery and seemed to have halted there. Easy to tell what he pondered, through that halt. He passed through the horse paddock, where all the great myalls shon as trees of frosted silver. He turned inland at the long reach. He would see the boat coming down then with her gigantic eyes of fire, and snort and bark of engineering and beat of paddles. She might seem a demon to his disordered fancy or he might simply fear that some of the hands would recognise him. He threaded his way between "Adams Swamp" and the river, and seemed to have hurried. Adam's ghost is seen there, at times.
Adam, who got D.T's. at the shanty and hung himself from the dead balah. He crossed the sheep bridge and seemed to have rested a bit on a white log by a high bank of the river. You can always hear the shepherd's companion there, and his call may have come seductively, temptingly over the dark swift stream.
On again over Paddy's plain, and the day must have been about breaking then, and the jackass would be hooting and the magpie beginning his earliest carols, and the native companions groping about by the swamps would glimmer through the grey, ghost- like and weird. So, on and on, " by glimmering wold and weald," the little old husk of humanity, the bit of thread which the tailor had now indeed cast out of his needle, went shuffling along. The sheep-wash is at the lagoon at the end of Paddy's Plain. And round about all the black pools, halting here and there, went the tracks. Over the bush herbage, brushing away the dew, breaking down stalks and leaves. You could see that the Devil had tempted him all along the dreary road, but he had made up his mind to "sling a good wire" for the last.
Perhaps he lay down to sleep—doubtless he was very weary—stretched himself on a the boards, drew the blanket over his face I and slept as we all must sleep at last. And so ended a hundred years of life begun in the days when George the Third had only begun to reign ; and in the slums of London, running through the whole period of Australian development, and gathering nothing there from, nor, so far as could be learned, doing any man any harm or wrong. How he picked up the strange phrase which named him, no man seemed to know, but when it came to the business of registration and burial no other name could be found.
He seemed the last of a dead race. He had no correspondence, no business, no acquaintances or friends who could tell aught of his baptismal name. He had outlived his own generation and its institutions. He was "Old Dad," "Sling the Wire," nothing more. They buried him in the little "'grave garden" he had loved and tended so well. There he sleeps now in strangely mixed company.
It is curious to think what a marvellous party will come out of some of these old station burying grounds whenever the seal is broken, which bids land and sea give up their dead. A queer glimpse of old colonial life it will be the folks of those times. The pioneer squatter and his wife may be, his assigned servants, but no blacks of that generation. Later on, old King Jerry and his gin, Bill the stockman and the yonng Heavyswell, who came out for colonial experience, and got fever. Little golden-haired Muriel, who was drowned in the river, and Old Jack, who died trying to save her. Commonplace men and women, such as we all know of a still later times and amongst them anomalous as amongst the living in the time of his later years, Old Dad—" Sling-the-Wire"—who, as they say on the river still, "Never done no harm anyhow."
This story shows again the long lasting interest in Frank the Poet and especially in his epic verse "A Convict's Tour to Hell" named here as "Prisoner's tour to Hell". It is quite possible that that was the original title as convict was not a term the prisoners liked to use about themselves, convict was what the authorities called them.
The story told here provides a great source of the vernacular. The old fellow, "old as history", known by everyone as "Sling the Wire" remembered enough of MacNamara's epic to entrance his audience the "bronzed-bearded hardy fellows lying about" thirty years after MacNamara's death in Mudgee, a place "Sling the Wire" also knew well.
The Parson referred to above is undoubtedly Reverend Samuel Marsden known by prisoners as the "flogging parson"