With Nell and Ned we reckoned we had two saddle-horses—those were their names, Nell and Ned, a mare and a colt. Fine hacks they were, too! Anybody could ride them, they were so quiet. Dad reckoned Ned was the better of the two. He was well-bred, and had a pedigree and a gentle disposition, and a bald-face, and a bumble-foot, and a raw wither, and a sore back that gave him a habit of “flinching”—a habit that discounted his uselessness a great deal, because, when we were n’t at home, the women could n’t saddle him to run the cows in. Whenever he saw the saddle or heard the girth-buckles rattle he would start to flinch. Put the cloth on his back—folded or otherwise—and, no matter how smart you might be, it would be off before you could cover it with the saddle, and he would n’t have flicked it with his tail, or pulled it off with his teeth, or done anything to it. He just flinched—made the skin on his back—where there was any—quiver. Throw on the saddle without a cloth, and he would “give” in the middle like a broken rail—bend till his belly almost touched the ground, and remain bent till mounted; then he’d crawl off and gradually straighten up as he became used to you. Were you tender-hearted enough to feel compunction in sitting down hard on a six-year-old sore, or if you had an aversion to kicking the suffering brute with both heels and belting his hide with a yard or two of fencing-wire to get him to show signs of animation, you would dismount and walk—perhaps, weep. We always rode him right out, though.
As a two-year-old Ned was Dad’s hope. Pointing proudly to the long-legged, big-headed, ugly moke mooching by the door, smelling the dust, he would say: “Be a fine horse in another year! Little sleepy-looking yet; that’s nothing!”
“Stir him up a bit, till we see how he canters,” he said to Joe one day. And when Joe stirred him up—rattled a piece of rock on his jaw that nearly knocked his head off—Dad took after Joe and chased him through the potatoes, and out into the grass-paddock, and across towards Anderson’s; then returned and yarded the colt, and knocked a patch of skin off him with a rail because he would n’t stand in a corner till he looked at his eye. “Would n’t have anything happen to that colt for a fortune!” he said to himself. Then went away, forgetting to throw the rails down. Dave threw them down a couple of days after.
We preferred Nell to Ned, but Dad always voted for the colt. “You can trust him; he’ll stand anywhere,” he used to say. Ned would! Once, when the grass-paddock was burning, he stood until he took fire. Then he stood while we hammered him with boughs to put the blaze out. It took a lot to frighten Ned. His presence of mind rarely deserted him. Once, though, he got a start. He was standing in the shade of a tree in the paddock when Dad went to catch him. He seemed to be watching Dad, but was n’t. He was asleep. “Well, old chap,” said Dad, “how are y’?” and proceeded to bridle him. Ned opened his mouth and received the bit as usual, only some of his tongue came out and stayed out. “Wot’s up w’ y’?” and Dad tried to poke it in with his finger, but it came out further, and some chewed grass dropped into his hand. Dad started to lead him then, or rather to pull him, and at the first tug he have the reins Ned woke with a snort and broke away. And when the other horses saw him looking at Dad with his tail cocked, and his head up, and the bridle-reins hanging, they went for their lives through the trees, and Blossom’s foal got staked.
Another day Dad was out on Ned, looking for the red heifer, and came across two men fencing—a tall, powerful-looking man with a beard, and a slim young fellow with a smooth face. Also a kangaroo-pup. As Dad slowly approached, Ned swaying from side to side with his nose to the ground, the elder man drove the crowbar into the earth and stared as if he had never seen a man on horseback before. The young fellow sat on a log and stared too. The pup ran behind a tree and growled.
“Seen any cattle round here?” Dad asked.
“No,” the man said, and grinned.
“Did n’t notice a red heifer?”
“No,” grinning more.
The kangaroo-pup left the tree and sniffed at Ned’s heels.
“Won’t kick, will he?” said the man.
The young fellow broke into a loud laugh and fell off the log.
“No,” Dad replied—“he’s perfectly quiet.”
“He looks quiet.”
The young fellow took a fit of coughing.
After a pause. “Well, you did n’t see any about, then?” and Dad wheeled Ned round to go away.
“No, I did n’t, old man,” the other answered, and snatched hold of Ned’s tail and hung back with all his might. Ned grunted and strained and tore the ground up with his toes; Dad spurred and leathered him with a strap, looking straight ahead. The man hung on. “Come ’long,” Dad said. The pup barked. “Come ’long with yer!” Dad said. The young fellow fell off the log again. Ned’s tail cracked. Dad hit him between the ears. The tail cracked again. A piece of it came off; then Ned stumbled and went on his head. “What the devil——!” Dad said, looking round. But only the young fellow was laughing.
Nell was different from Ned. She was a bay, with yellow flanks and a lump under her belly; a bright eye, lop ears, and heavy, hairy legs. She was a very wise mare. It was wonderful how much she knew. She knew when she was wanted; and she would go away the night before and get lost. And she knew when she was n’t wanted; then she’d hang about the back-door licking a hole in the ground where the dish-water was thrown, or fossicking at the barn for the corn Dad had hidden, or scratching her neck or her rump against the cultivation paddock slip-rails. She always scratched herself against those slip-rails—sometimes for hours—always until they fell down. Then she’d walk in and eat. And how she could eat!
As a hack, Nell was unreliable. You could n’t reckon with certainty on getting her to start. All depended on the humour she was in and the direction you wished to take—mostly the direction. If towards the grass-paddock or the dam, she was off helter-skelter. If it was n’t, she’d go on strike—put her head down and chew the bit. Then, when you’d get to work on her with a waddy—which we always did—she’d walk backwards into the house and frighten Mother, or into the waterhole and dirty the water. Dad said it was the fault of the cove who broke her in. Dad was a just man. The “cove” was a union shearer—did it for four shillings and six pence. Wanted five bob, but Dad beat him down. Anybody else would have asked a pound.
When Nell did make up her mind to go, it was with a rush, and, if the slip-rails were on the ground, she’d refuse to take them. She’d stand and look out into the lane. You’d have to get off and drag the rails aside (about twenty, counting broken ones). Then she’d fancy they were up, and would shake her head and mark time until you dug your heels into her; then she’d gather herself together and jump high enough for a show—over nothing!
Dave was to ride Nell to town one Christmas to see the sports. He had n’t seen any sports before, and went to bed excited and rose in the middle of the night to start. He dressed in the dark, and we heard him going out, because he fell over Sandy and Kate. They had come on a visit, and were sleeping on the floor in the front room. We also heard him throw the slip-rails down.
There was a heavy fog that morning. At breakfast we talked about Dave, and Dad “s’posed” he would just about be getting in; but an hour or two after breakfast the fog cleared, and we saw Dave in the lane hammering Nell with a stick. Nell had her rump to the fence and was trying hard to kick it down. Dad went to him. “Take her gently; take her gently, boy,” he shouted. “Pshaw! take her gently!” Dave shouted back. “Here”—he jumped off her and handed Dad the reins—“take her away and cut her throat.” Then he cried, and then he picked up a big stone and rushed at Nell’s head. But Dad interfered.
But the day Dad mounted Nell to bring a doctor to Anderson! She started away smartly—the wrong road. Dad jerked her mouth and pulled her round roughly. He was in a hurry—Nell was n’t. She stood and shook her head and switched her tail. Dad rattled a waddy on her and jammed his heels hard against her ribs. She dropped her head and cow-kicked. Then he coaxed her. “Come on, old girl,” he said; “come on,”—and patted her on the neck. She liked being patted. That exasperated Dad. He hit her on the head with his fist. Joe ran out with a long stick. He poked her in the flank. Nell kicked the stick out of his hands and bolted towards the dam. Dad pulled and swore as she bore him along. And when he did haul her in, he was two hundred yards further from the doctor. Dad turned her round and once more used the waddy. Nell was obdurate, Dad exhausted. Joe joined them, out of breath. He poked Nell with the stick again. She “kicked up.” Dad lost his balance. Joe laughed. Dad said, “St-o-op!” Joe was energetic. So was Nell. She kicked up again—strong—and Dad fell off.
“Wot, could’n’ y’ s-s-s-stick to ’er, Dad?” Joe asked.
“Stick be damned—run—catch her!—d——n y’!”
Dad made another start, and this time Nell went willingly. Dad was leading her!
Those two old horses are dead now. They died in the summer when there was lots of grass and water—just when Dad had broken them into harness—just when he was getting a good team together to draw logs for the new railway line!