24 Hours in a 1960's Stock Camp - Barkly Tablelands Part II

Sunday, Jul 29, 2012 at 16:31

Bob Y. - Qld

The SE wind has blown all night, and occasional stronger gusts send clouds of dust swirling through the camps. A few muffled words, the clink of a hobble chain and creak of leather signals the departure of the horse tailers, off to unhobble and bring the plant back to camp by breakfast. To the east, a thin crescent shaped moon is just above the horizon, but no morning star as yet, so it must be about 3 am.

The metallic clatter of the Westclox “Big Ben” alarm clock noisily lets everyone know that it’s 3.55 am. The cook sits upright in his swag, then lies back with a sigh, and turns the noisy timepiece off. But before a cloud of sleepiness can engulf him again, he hastily throws back the flap of his swag, drops his shorts and pulls on yesterday’s pair of stockman cut trousers. He finds a clean pair of socks, and a not too dirty shirt, dons them quickly, and pulls on his boots. But not before he bangs each on the ground, and tips them upside down, in case there’s an unwelcome visitor. He walks well out past the line of swags, has a leak and looks to check the position of the Southern Cross. That necessary duty completed, he strides to the fire and quickly sets some kindling on last night’s remaining coals.

The cook works quickly, digging out some coals from amongst the ashes, and covering these with some dry grass, and small sticks. He huffs and puffs, and soon the grass catches fire which then gets the twigs burning. At this point he notices the supplejack night log is just a line of fluffy, white ash, though at the end of the ash, there is a stub of wood, with one end glowing. It looks like an oversize Cuban cigar, he thinks, but it’s soon added to the blaze. He checks the tea billys are still full, and moves them close to the flame. More wood is added, and as it flares up, he tries to get warm. In the firelight, his face looks gaunt, and there’s not an ounce of fat on his lanky frame. In fact, his Mum would probably be concerned to see him at this moment. She needn’t worry, he’s healthy, and content. He goes to the truck, grabs his jacket, and then tends to the carbide lamp.

With the lamp now lit, and the fire burning well, he goes for a “bogey”. He washes his face and hands well, rinses some water through his hair, and, Mum would be surprised, combs it quite neatly, part on left hand side. He remembers his first night in the camp, the head stockman diplomatically asking if he’d had a “bogey” before the meal. When the answer was in the negative, the directive was very firm: “Have a wash before meals!!!” With all the fresh meat gone, porridge is on the menu for this morning, and it is soon on some hot coals, and being stirred regularly. The billys are starting to simmer, so he should have brekkie ready on time. But then he remembers the milk, grabs an empty Sunshine Milk tin, with lid removed, pours in some water, adds enough milk powder and mixes up a couple of pints of “dried cow”.

The boys’ camp is showing some activity, as their cook has been up early, got the fire going, and wandered over to fill their billys, and a large boiler. Most of the boys are up as well, as their “cigarette swags” are barely adequate for nights like this. They sit, or squat, around the fire, talking softly in language. No one seems too boisterous this morning. The head stockman, and a couple of other ‘roos, are up, and moving around, with the remainder either enjoying the warmth of their swags, or delaying the inevitable dash into the icy blast. With the porridge now cooked, and even turning a little gluggy, the billys are at a rolling boil, the cook yells “DAYLIGHT” and throws a handful of tea leaves in each billy. Breakfast is ready.

They all squeeze in around the fire, some standing, with backs to the fire, and the others are sitting on flour drums, sourced off the back of the truck. Like any small group, their tastes vary, and with only one exception, they are tucking into some porridge, and mugs of tea. With milk available this morning, some have white tea, with a dessertspoonful of sugar mixed in. The exception, who is usually a grumpy riser, cuts and toasts 2 slices of bread, and spreads each with a thick layer of butter and Golden Syrup. This improves his humour somewhat, and he adds to the current discussion. One of the ‘roos, from NSW, wants to know why it’s so bloody cold, when they are so far north of the Tropic of Capricorn. “Must be snowing down south”, and “It’s just that lazy Barkly breeze, it doesn’t go ‘round ya, it goes straight through ya”.

With the exception of their jackets, which are a mix of leather “bikie” type, Tasmanian bluey woollen ¾ length and other hopefully warm garments, their dress is very similar. Without exception, it’s all R.M. Williams gear, though a variety of styles, to suit the wearer. Jeans are not the norm yet, though 2 ‘roos are wearing RM’s new denim style jeans. The remainder have what RM calls his Stockmans’ Cut trousers, in a cotton twill, while one bloke has trousers, made of wool garberdine material, warm, hard wearing but expensive. Especially for a ‘roo on 15 quid a week. Their shirts are a mix, some have the cotton “Bushman” ½ front, with 2 big pockets, while others are wearing purchases from last month’s Brunette Races. These are a Polyester/cotton mix, with “flash” colours and press stud fasteners. They look dressy, but are a bit cold for this kind of weather. Their footwear is almost to a standard, willow leather, tan colour, elastic sides and Cuban heels. Two of the ‘roos have the flashier Santa Fe boot, with square toe, and some fancy stitching across the toe. The remainder are content with the cheaper Bushman boot, round toe and only 10 quid a pair. All of them use a belt, many with a pocket knife in a pouch, but a couple also sport pocket watch and cutting knife pouches as well. These necessary items tend to give each one an air of individuality.

They all wear felt hats at this time, not so much for effect, but to keep their heads warm. Each hat, Akubras and the head stockman’s Stetson, are felt, and grey in colour. No one wears a black hat, it’s the sign of a useless bugger, or a bleep . Each hat has a fairly high crown, rolled brim like John Wayne or Gary Cooper might use, and on some, an intricately plaited roo-hide lace hat band. The rolled brim is not to emulate these American actors, it’s to serve a purpose. A hat, similar to that worn by NSW or Vic sheep people, with low crown, and flat brim would soon be lost with this strong wind. The flat brim acts like a plane’s wing, and allows plenty of lift, whereas the western style is very aerodynamic, and the wind goes “through” the brim, reducing hat removing lift. The high crown allows the head wear to be pulled well down on the head, further reducing the chance of hat loss. But this method is not without some consequence, at least a couple of them will be looking for Aspro, or Bex, at dinnertime, to cure a thumping headache.

Suddenly the horse tailers are back in camp, they dismount, tie their horses up, and front up at their fire, to warm up and have some breakfast. The wind has reduced the sound of the horse plant’s approach, and now they stand in a mob, maybe 50 feet from both camps. After some minutes, 2 large shapes move out of the plant, towards where the ‘roos are standing, backs to the fire. The light from the carbide lamp reflects on the large blaze of one of these infiltrators, its “Major” and his best mate, “Sambo”, both draft horses, and 2 of the bronco horses in the plant. They shuffle closer, silently inquiring if “maybe, just maybe, you blokes might have a crumb or two.” One of the ‘roos who has a soft spot for these two equine gentlemen, bounces up, and grabs the remaining crust of bread, breaks it into 4 pieces, and offers them a morsel, or two. Their velvety muzzles deftly snuffle up the pieces, and they’re happy. The ‘roo feels full of admiration for these 2 gentle giants.

Breakfast finished, it’s down to business. Teeth are cleaned, swags rolled and dumped near the truck, and they all get their saddles, cloth & bridle, and place them in a suitable position, just away from the camp. Then bridle in hand, they move as one towards the edge of the horse plant. While a newcomer might hold his bridle like a “bunch of flowers”, these experienced young men do it properly. Headstall hanging on the forearm, and the red hide reins held in the left hand, at about mid length. Then when their horse is caught, they can easily wrap the reins around its neck, before sliding the bridle up and over the horse’s head. But there’s no “free-for-all” catching of horses here either. The horsetailers work through the plant, and catch the horses required. Each bloke calls out his horse’s name, and soon after the call: “Got ‘Bullwaddy’”, or “’Sheila’ over ‘ear”, signals the horse is caught. As each horse is caught, the rider walks into the plant, to claim his choice for this morning. It’s still so dark it’s difficult to see many of the horses, or to pick a path to where the horsetailer waits. One wag mentioned that, on one particularly dark & overcast morning, the only way he found his horse, was from the light of the carbide lamp, shining on the horsetailer’s teeth.

They lead their horses back to their saddles, and each positions the horse so the wind has the least effect as they put on the saddlecloths. But first, two of the ‘roos hobble their horses, one is a colt, broken in earlier in the year. The other is an older horse, who doesn’t “root”, but has a reputation as a “rat” while he’s being saddled. And neither ‘roo wants to lose their horse back into the plant. The colt’s rider is the “tea ‘n toast” breakfaster, and also the one who has the Barcoo Rot on his left hand. He thinks the way this colt moves, that it has potential as a camp horse, so he’d prefer that it doesn’t get an excuse to drop its head. Before starting to saddle up, he holds the nearside rein in his left hand, and with his right, slowly, but thoroughly rubs the colt’s back, and girth, of any dirt or grass seeds that might irritate the colt’s back. He then rubs the saddle cloth along the lower neck, and wither, and spreads it deftly, into position. The wind is still blowing briskly, but as yet hasn’t disturbed the heavy woolen serge cloth. The colt is standing quietly, but as “tea ‘n toast” turns to pick up his saddle, it turns its head, and playfully nudges him on the behind. He straightens up quickly, takes half a step forward, and with a smile, raises the saddle up with his right hand, centred in the gullet. His left hand has held the near rein all the time, and with rein in hand, he slowly moves the off side flap and stirrup iron, over the colt’s wither, and allows it to slide slowly down the shoulder, as he lowers the saddle onto the colt’s back.

With no adverse reaction from the colt, with the weight on its back, he pulls the saddle up firmly against the withers, and moves around the front of the colt, changing his grip from the nearside, to the offside rein. Once on the offside, he checks the flaps are straight, and the cord girth is not twisted, then returns to the nearside, reversing the rein holding procedure. With a quick soft rub under the girth area, he gently pulls the cord girth across, and begins to thread the ½” redhide lace through the ring on the girth, and back up through the ring on the surcingle. Once the redhide is laced through the rings 3 or 4 times, he gently starts to use the mechanical advantage of this set-up, to tighten the girth. He locks the lace by tying 2 half hitches on the top ring. While “tea ‘n toast” prefers a lace girth, many of his peers are using Bates fasteners, a special buckle that allows a strap maybe 2” wide, with numerous holes punched up the centre of this strap, to adjust the girth. While they work on a similar principle to a lace girth, on cold mornings like today, the friction between the strap and saddle flap, make it difficult to achieve a tight girth.

At no time during the saddling up, maybe only 2 or 3 minutes, has he stepped to the rear of the colt’s front legs, always standing level with, or slightly in front of them. This is for safety reasons, as a “cow kick” by a horses’ hind legs, can be very painful on a cold morning, and could even break a leg. Rather than squatting down to remove the hobbles, he bends over and quickly undoes both buckles. He throws the hobbles towards the camp truck, and reminds Cookie to pick them up. If he needs to restrain the colt, during the morning, he has tied his knee hobbles around his waist. These are like a strong belt, with 2 extra rings sewn in, that
allow it to be used like a set of hobbles. These Knee, or Dinner hobbles are also useful for tying up any beast that might be misbehaving.

“Tea ‘n toast” leads the colt around the area where he saddled up, to get used to the saddle again. He tightens the girth a little more, and leads him around again. A couple of the ‘roos, and some of the boys are already mounted. It’s not impatience, but a need to be active, and after all, they’re sitting down. The leather of the saddle almost feels icy, so stepping aboard early helps to warm the seat. The colt is walking freely now, so without any delay, he hangs the offside rein over the colt’s neck, grabs a decent chunk of mane, about a third of way down the neck with his wounded left hand, and places the nearside rein, then the off rein across his palm, and hangs the rest of the reins over his thumb. He grabs the stirrup, places his boot part way into the iron, puts his knee into the colt’s shoulder, grabs the “monkey strap”, and in one fluid motion, is swinging up, and onto the colt’s back. His right boot slides straight into the off stirrup iron, and he is well seated, as he releases the mane, and rubs the colt encouragingly on the neck. He gives his hat another tug, down onto his head, and calmly urges the colt into a walk. The colt feels a bit “tight”, but as he walks him down the road, towards some of the other ‘roos, he frees up, his tail comes up a bit, and his gait becomes less hesitant. Then, he starts this youngster into a trot, up and back along the road, but never going too far from the other horsemen. By the time all the others are ready to leave camp, he has warmed the colt up well enough, and he rides up towards the others. The headstockman, makes a complimentary remark about the colt’s behavior, and then calls everyone to head off.

As they leave the camp, a few of them let the cook know what they’d like for dinner, and generally give him a hard time. He responds in kind, and reluctantly returns to his domestic chores, but not before retrieving the hobbles that “tea ‘n toast” had taken off his colt. He wished he was riding out today too, but he’ll be too busy soon, to worry about it too much. There is a faint hint of light in the east, so before it gets too late, he sits by the fire to warm up, and decides whether he should wash up first, or roll his swag.
Seen it all, Done it all.
Can't remember most of it.

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