The Chinese skinner was sitting on a log, rubbing a huge butcher’s knife on a sharpening stone. Away up the plain the horses, about thirty or forty in number, were slowly trooping into camp, hunted by a couple of blackfellows, naked except for little grass armlets worn above the elbow, and sticks stuck through their noses. When the horses reached the camp they formed a squadron under the shade of some trees, and pushed and shoved and circled about, trying to keep the flies off themselves and each other.
Hugh walked over to Tommy Prince at his rifle-oiling, and watched him for a while. That worthy, who was evidently a true sportsman at heart, was liberally baptising with Rangoon oil an old and much rusted Martini carbine, whose ejector refused to work. Every now and then, when he thought he had got it ship-shape, Tommy would put in a fresh cartridge, hold the carbine tightly to his shoulder, shut his eyes, and fire it into space. The rusty old weapon kicked frightfully, after each discharge the ejector jammed, and Tommy ruefully poked the exploded cartridge out with a rod and poured on more oil.
“Blast the carbine!” said Tommy. “It kicks upwards like; it’s kicking my nose all skewwhiff.”
“Don’t put it to your shoulder, you fool,” said one of the shooters; “it’ll kick your head off. Hold it out in one hand.”
“Then it’ll kick my arm off,” said Tommy.
“No, it won’t; you won’t feel it at all,” said the shooter. “Your arm will give to the recoil. Blaze away!”
“What are you up to with the carbine?” said Hugh.
“I’m going to have a blaze at some of these ’ere buff’loes,” said Tommy gaily. “Bill’s lent me a horse. They’s got a rifle for you, and one for the old man. We’ll give them buff’loes hell today. Five rifles—they’ll think the French is after them.”
“Well, but I want to get back,” said Hugh. “We mustn’t waste any time. What about the storekeeper’s horses?”
“Ho! it’d never do to take them straight back again,” said Tommy. “Never do. They must have a spell. Besides, what’s the hurry?”
And Hugh, recognising that for all the good he could do he might just as well not hurry back again, resigned himself to the inevitable, picked up his bridle, went into the shuffling herd of horses, and caught the one pointed out to him. It was a big, raw-boned, ragged-hipped bay, a horse that would have been a gentleman under any other conditions, but from long buffalo hunting had become a careless-going, loose-jointed ruffian, taking his life in his hands every day. He bit savagely at Hugh as he saddled him, and altogether proclaimed himself devoid of self-respect and the finer instincts.
Breakfast was despatched almost in silence. The shooters knew vaguely that Hugh’s visit was in some way connected with Considine, and that Considine had refused to do what Hugh wanted. But the hospitality of the buffalo camp is as the hospitality of the Arabs of old—the stranger is made welcome whatever his business, and may come and go unquestioned.
Hugh had little desire to talk on the subject of his visit, and Considine maintained a dogged silence. Tommy Prince alone chatted away affably between large mouthfuls of buffalo beef, damper, and tea, airing his views on all subjects, but principally on the fair sex. Meanwhile the blacks were catching the packhorses, and sharpening their skinning knives. The two horses used by the shooters were brought over to the camp fire and given a small feed each of much-prized maize and oats and bran, that had been brought round in the lugger from Port Faraway with the camp supplies, landed on the river-bank twelve miles off, and fetched in on packhorses.
“A little more beef, Mister? No? Well, all aboard for the Buffalo Brigade! That’s your rifle by the tree. Put this cartridge-belt on and buckle it real tight; if you leave it loose, when you start to gallop it will shake up and down, and shake the soul out of you. Come, Paddy, what are you riding?”
“I wouldn’t if I was you. He’s all right to race up to a buffalo, but that blind eye of his’ll fetch him to grief some day. Ride the old grey.”
“No fear,” said the old man obstinately, “the boco’s one eye’s worth any horse’s two. Me an’ the boco will be near the lead when the whips are crackin’, take it from me.”
“Come along, then!”
Hugh clambered on to his raw-boned steed, known as “Close Up”, because he would go so close to the buffaloes, and the procession started. The five white men rode ahead, all smoking with great enjoyment. Hugh was beside one of the shooters, and opened conference with him.
“I’ve heard a lot about this business,” said Hugh, “but never hoped to see it. What are these Australian buffaloes? I thought they were just humped cattle like those little Brahmin cattle.”
“People reckon they’re the Indian buffalo,” said the bushman. “They were fetched here about fifty years ago from Java—just a few pair, and they were let go and went wild, and now they’re all over the face of the earth about here. We’ve shot six hundred of ’em—just the two rifles—in six months. It’s not play, I tell you, to shoot and skin six hundred and cure their hides in that time. We’ll get a thousand this season.”
“Good Lord,” said Hugh. “Won’t they be shot out?”
“Not they. There’s about eight thousand of ’em shot every year for their hides, and it’s just like the ordinary increase of a big cattle station. They’re all over these plains, and for miles and miles away down the coast, and in the jungles there’s thousands of ’em. There’s jungles here that are a hundred miles round, and no animal but a buffalo will go into ’em. The blacks say that inside them there’s big patches of clear plain, with grass and water, where there’s buffaloes as thick as bees; but you can’t get at ’em.”
“How do you shoot ’em?” said Hugh.
“Race right up alongside ’em, and put the carbine out with one hand, and shoot downwards into the loin. That’s the only way to drop ’em. You can shoot bullets into ’em by the hatful everywhere else, and they just turn and charge; and while you are dodging round, first you huntin’ the buffalo, and then the buffalo huntin’ you, the rest of the mob are out of sight. You must go right up alongside, close enough to touch ’em with the barrel, and fire down—so.” He illustrated with the carbine as he spoke.
“And whatever you do, don’t pull your horse about; he knows the game, if you don’t. Never stop your horse near a wounded buffalo, either. They make a rush as sudden as lightnin’. They look clumsy and big; but, my oath, a wounded one can hop along something wonderful! They’ll surprise you for pace any time; but most of all when they’re wounded.”
“Do they always come at you when they’re wounded?” said Hugh.
“Always,” said the shooter, “and very often when they’re not wounded they’ll turn and charge if you’ve run ’em a long way. You want to look out, I tell you. They’ll wheel very sudden, and if they ketch your horse they’ll grind him into pulp. Pen, my mate here, had a horse killed under him last week—horse we gave five and twenty quid for, and that’s a long shot for a buffalo horse. I believe in Injia they shoot ’em off elephants, but that’s ’cause they won’t come out in the open like they do here. There’s hundreds of toffs in England and Injia’d give their ears for a day after these, you know. Hello! Look! See there!”
Far away out on the plain Hugh saw fifteen or twenty bluish-grey mounds in a line rising above the grass; it was a herd of buffalo feeding. The animals never lifted their heads, and were curiously like a lot of railway trucks covered with grey tarpaulin. It was impossible to tell which was head and which was tail. A short halt was made while girths were tightened, cartridges slipped into place, and hats jammed on; they all mounted and rode slowly towards the herd, which was at least half a mile off, and still feeding steadily. Everyone kept his horse in hand, ready for a dash the moment the mob lifted their heads.
“How fast will they go?” whispered Hugh to the nearest shooter.
“Fast asblazes. You’ve no idea how fast they are. They’re the biggest take-in there is. When they lift their heads they’ll stare for half a minute, and then they’ll run. The moment they start, off you go. Watch ’em! There’s one sees us! Keep steady yet—don’t rush till they start.”
One of the blue mounds lifted a huge black-muzzled head, decorated with an enormous pair of sickleshaped horns that stretched right back to the shoulders. He stared with great sullen eyes and trotted a few paces towards them; one after another, the rest lifted their heads and stared too. Closer drew the horsemen at their steady, silent jog, the horses pricking their ears and getting on their toes as racehorses do at the start of a race.
“Be ready,” said the shooter. “Now!”
The mob, with one impulse, wheeled, and set off at a heavy lumbering gallop, and the horses dashed in full gallop after them. It was a ride worth a year of a man’s life. Every man sat down to his work like a jockey finishing a race, and the big stock horses went through the long grass like hawks swooping down on a flock of pigeons. The men carried their carbines loaded, holding them straight up over the shoulder so as to lessen the jerking of the wrist caused by the gallop.
The surface of the plain was level enough, but frightfully bad going; the sun had baked the black soil till great gaping cracks, a couple of feet wide and ten feet deep, were opened in the ground. The buffaloes had wallowed in the wet season and made round well-like holes that were now hard, dry pitfalls. Here and there a treacherous, slimy watercourse wound its slinking way along, making a bog in which a horse would sink to his shoulders; and over all these traps and pitfalls the long waving junglegrass drew a veil. Every now and then belts of small bamboo were crossed, into which the horses dashed blindly, forcing their way through by their weight. When they started the buffaloes had a lead of a quarter of a mile, and judging by their slogging, laboured gallop, it looked as though the horses would run into them in half a mile; but on that ground the buffaloes could go nearly as fast as the horses, and it was only after a mile and a quarter of hard riding that they closed in on the mob, which at once split into several detachments. A magnificent old bull, whose horns measured ten feet from tip to tip, dashed away to the right with six or seven cows lumbering after him. Hugh and one of the shooters followed this lot. Another mob went away to the left, pursued by the other shooter and Considine; while one old cow, having had enough running, suddenly wheeled in her tracks, and charged straight at Tommy Prince, whose horse at once whipped round and carried his rider, with the old cow at his tail, into a clump of bamboos. Hugh followed his mate as hard as he could, both horses feeling the pace, and pecking and blundering every now and again in the broken ground. Once Hugh saw a buffalo-wallow suddenly appear right under his horse’s nose, and half-flinched, expecting a certain fall; but old “Close Up” strode over it, apparently having a leg to spare for emergencies of the sort.
Just ahead of him the shooter, sitting down in his saddle, lifted his horse with a drive of the spurs, and came right alongside the hindmost animal, a fat blue cow, which at once swerved at right angles; but the horse followed her every movement, and drew up till horse and buffalo were racing side by side. Then without fuss or hurry, up went the elbow of the rider and bang! the buffalo fell as if paralysed, shot through the loins. The horse swung away from the falling animal as it crashed to the ground; and the shooter, still going at full gallop, methodically ejected the used cartridge and put in another without losing his place at the tail of the flying mob. The noise of the carbine made the mob divide, and Hugh found himself going full speed after three that came his way. Wild with excitement, he drove Close Up after the nearest, and made ready to fire at the right moment. The long gallop had winded him; his arm was almost numbed with the strain of carrying the carbine, which now seemed to weigh a ton.
Close Up, true to his name, made a dash at the nearest buffalo, and got close enough in all conscience; but what with the jerking to and fro of the gallop, and the rolling gait and sudden swerves of the buffalo, and the occasional blunderings of the horse in broken ground, Hugh never seemed to have the carbine pointed right. Close Up, finding it did not go off when he expected, began to slacken pace and gallop in an undecided way. It sounds easy enough to gallop up to an animal which you can beat for pace, but anyone who has ever tried to lay a whip on the back of a bullock knows it is not so easy as it looks to get more than one or two clips home. Hugh found the buffalo holding its own for pace, and every time he drew up it dodged before he could make sure of hitting the loin. Cover seemed to be getting very near. At last he leaned out as far as he could, held the rifle in one hand, and took a “speculator” at the flying buffalo. He hit it somewhere, but hadn’t time to see where; for, with a snort like a grampus, the beast wheeled in its tracks and charged so suddenly that old Close Up only just dodged it by a yard or two. It rushed past him for a couple of hundred yards, and then stopped. Hugh managed to eject the cartridge and load, and then cantered after the animal, which had started again at a sullen trot, with the blood pouring from its flank. As he galloped up to administer the “coup de grâce”, meaning to make no mistake about hitting the loin this time, the buffalo suddenly wheeled and charged him again, and “Close Up” executed another hurried retreat. For a while they took it up and down—first buffalo hunting man, then man hunting buffalo—while Hugh fired whenever he had the chance, without seeming to discompose the brute at all. At last a lucky shot struck some vital spot inside; the beast stopped, staggered, and fell dead without a sound. Hugh looked round. He was alone; his mate was just visible far away over the plain, still following at full speed a blue mound that struggled doggedly on towards the timber. The grey horse drew up to his quarry, the man leant forward, there was a sudden spurt of white smoke, and the animal fell as if struck by lightning. It was very pretty to watch, and looked as simple as shelling peas. The shooter rode over to Hugh, and congratulated him on his first kill.
“I got all that mob that came our way,” he said, “seven of’em. Yours makes eight. There’s Ben after some still, and there’s Tommy Prince back at the bamboos firing at something. Firing this way, too, damn him! Look at Ben!”
Far away on the plain, like puppets in the distance, went the swiftly gliding figures of man and horse. In front of them dimly seen objects tore through the grass; every now and again out went an arm, there was a spurt of smoke, and another buffalo fell. The blacks and the Chinaman were away behind, gathered in a cluster, skinning the first beast killed, while the packhorses cropped the grass and bit at the flies. Considine was nowhere to be seen.
“Let’s go back and see what Tommy is up to,” said the shooter. “He’s a hard case, is Tommy. If there’s any trouble about he’ll get into it, or get somebody else into it. He’ll wing one of us in a minute, the way he’s blazing. What’s he firing at?”
Suddenly the festive Tommy was seen to dash hurriedly out of the patch of bamboo, with the old original buffalo cow so close to his horse’s tail that, if the horse stumbled, the cow had him at her mercy.
“She’ll have ’im!” yelled the shooter. “Good cow! Can’t she steam? Come on, and let’s see the fun!”
For a while it looked any odds on the cow; then she slackened pace, wheeled round, and bolted back to the bamboos. They found Tommy very excited. He had used about eighteen cartridges, and had nothing to show for it.
“That’s the most underhand cow ever I seen!” said Tommy. “She runs into them there bamboos and pretends she’s going to run right clean through to Queensland, and when I go in after her, she wheels round and hunts me for my life. Near had me twice, she did. Every time I fire the old carbine, it jams, and I have to get the rod to it. Gimme your rifle, Waiter, and I’ll go in and finish her.”
“She must have a lead-mine in her already,” said the shooter. “Mind she don’t ketch you, Tommy.”
Tommy went in, but couldn’t find a sign of the cow. While they were talking she had slipped along the belt of bamboos, and was then, no doubt, waiting for a chance to rush somebody. As no one cared to chance riding on to her in that jungle, she escaped with the honours of war. The other shooter came up, having shot nine, and reported that Considine had had a fall, his horse, not being used to the country, had plunged up to his shoulders in a concealed buffalo-wallow, and turned right over on him. Luckily, the buffalo he was after was well ahead, and did not turn to charge him, but he was very much shaken; when he came up, however, he insisted on going on. They set to work to find the rest of the dead buffaloes—no easy matter in that long grass—and all hands commenced skinning. This job kept them till noonday, when they camped under some trees for their midday meal, hobbling the horses. Then they rested for an hour or two, packed the hides on the packhorses (and heavily loaded they were, each hide weighing about a hundredweight), and went back to the hunt, scanning the plain carefully.
They were all riding together through a belt of timber, the blacks and the Chinaman being well up with the packhorses, when suddenly the blacks burst out with great excitement.
Sure enough, a huge blue bull—a regular old patriarch, that had evidently been hunted out of a herd, and was camping by himself in the timber—made a rush out of some thick trees, and set off towards a dense jungle, that could be seen half a mile or so away. Hugh and Considine were nearest him, each with his rifle ready, and started after him together, full gallop through the timber. The old man was evidently anxious to make up for his morning’s failure, and to take Hugh down a peg, for he set a fearful pace through the trees, grazing one and gliding under the boughs of another as only a trained bush-rider can. Hugh, coming from the mountains, was no duffer in timbered country either, and the two of them went at a merry pace for a while. The bull was puzzled by having two pursuers, and often in swerving from one or the other would hit a tree with his huge horns, and fairly bounce off it. He never attempted to turn, but kept straight on, and they drew on to him in silence, almost side by side, riding jealously for the first shot. Considine was on the wrong side, and had to use the carbine on the near side of his horse; but he was undeniably a good rider, and laughed grimly as he got first alongside, and, leaning over, prepared to fire. Then a strange thing happened. Before he could fire, the buffalo bull tripped on a stump and fell on his knees, causing Considine’s horse to shoot almost past him. As the bull rose again, he sprang savagely sideways, bringing his huge head up from beneath, and fairly impaled the horse on his horn. It gave a terrible scream, and reared over.
The old man never lost his nerve. Almost as he fell he fired down into the buffalo’s shoulder, but the bullet had no effect. Man and horse were fetched smashing to the ground, the man pinned under the horse’s body. The bull hesitated a second before hurling himself upon the two; and in that second Hugh jumped from his horse, ran up, stood over the fallen man, holding out the rifle like a pistol with the muzzle an inch off the bull’s head and fired. A buffalo’s skull is an inch and a half thick, solid bone, as hard as granite; but a Martini carbine, sighted for a thousand yards, will pierce it like paper at short range. The smoke had not cleared away when the huge beast fell to the ground within two feet of his intended victims. Hugh pulled Considine from under the horse. The unfortunate beast struggled to his feet, with blood gushing from a terrible wound in the belly, ran fifty yards, and fell dead.
The old man looked round him in silence. “Serve me damn well right,” he said at last. “I ought to have got the other side of the buffalo!”
Not another word did he say, as he transferred his saddle to one of the blacks’ horses. But in the camp, that night, the old man came over to Hugh holding a paper in his hand.
“I’ve got something for you,” he said. “Here’s the certificate of my weddin’ with Peggy Donohoe. The parson gev us each one. That ought to do you, oughtn’t it? I’ll come down with you, as soon as you like, and give all the evidence you want. I’ll chance how I get on with Peg. I’ll divorce her, or poison her, or get shut of her somehow. But after what you done to-day I’m on Grant’s side, I am.”
And off he stalked to bed, while Hugh talked long with Tommy Prince and the buffalo shooters of the best way to get down to the wire and send the news of his success. He went to bed the happiest man south of the line; and next day, saying goodbye to his hospitable friends, he started off with Considine and Tommy on the road to the telegraph, and thence to civilisation.
|1. Boco - One-eyed horse. [back]|