Stories and illustrations by David Cox
My father was the manager of a sheep station (a ranch it would be called in America), that was known mostly as ‘West Hill’, though sometimes as ‘Murringo’, which was the name I preferred. My father was dying during our last year at Murringo and he knew it; He had told my mother that he would try to hang on to life until I left school, just so that he could advise me a little about my future career. That didn’t happen; but a short time before he died, he and I sat down to talk about what might be the best thing for me. I was about fifteen years old when we had that talk and in my mind there was really no question about it: I would do the work that he did.HJe had schooled me in bushmanship and horsemanship and the skills of stock-raising since I was a child. As a baby, he had carried me on the pommel of his saddle when he rode around the paddocks.
He surprised me: ‘I don’t think station life would suit you very well.’ He said and that sort of shocked me. ‘I don’t think this life would suit you.’ He said, ‘I think you have an artistic temperament,’ he said, ‘and station life is far from being the romantic you imagine it to be.’
I didn’t agree. Of course I was a stockman; that was how I saw myself, dressed in a wide hat, blue shirt, riding pants, leather leggings and riding boots. My hat was styled with the right bash in the crown, with a curl to the brim, a p band of plaited kangaroo hide and I wore it at an angle; My boots had cuban heels were always neat and polished well (I glanced down, now and again, while I rode, to admire the way they looked in the stirrup irons, heels down). I carried a mouth organ in my pocket and, now and again, I pulled it out and played cowboy song, which I now know frustrated my father a bit, because I should have been looking out for the sheep or cattle or horses that we were mustering.
I can see it from his point of view, when I look back. I can see myself as my father did. I was acting a role and, apart from that, I spent a whole lot of time drawing and painting, mostly horses and stockmen.
I was away at boarding school when my father died and, even though it was something we knew would happen, it came a terrible shock. Because he was a manager and not the ownerof the place we called home, when our father waslost, our home was lost, a place that had been focal point that joined our family. My mother moved to the city, and , pretty soon after that, I received a letter at school, from a man who knew my father, a Mr Jones, who was the manager of a big sheep and cattle station, Listowel Downs, about a hundred kilometres or so to the west of West Hill (Murringo). He offered me condolences in that letter; but he also offered me a job as a jackaroo, an apprentice in the stock raising industry. I accepted by return mail and that was how, at sixteen years and thinking myself a man, just as Harry, my brother, had done (my sisters, Lyn and Mary had taken up nursing as so many girls from the bush did in those times),I came to be a jackaroo.
The first paid job I ever had was on a sheep and cattle station (ranch) in the west of Queensland. It was known as Listowel Downs Station and covered an area of eight hundred square miles. Mr. Jones, the Boss, looked me over in the way he might look over a colt or a micky bull., or so I thought. There was a half-smile on his face, a quizzical smile, and he looked down at me from under the brim of his hat and he spoke with a bit of a nasal drawl. ‘Small feet, small backside;’ he said, ‘You look as though you might be a horseman. Can you ride a young horse?’
He said, ‘I’ll show you some of our young horses.’ and e strolled together across bare hard packed round to a set of stockyards, that lay over a couple of acres of ground. Its yards and pens had post and rail fences six feet high. One of the yards was the round yard, round so that a horse couldn’t buck into a corner. There was a man there who held the bridle of a big bay mare and, just as we arrived, he swung up into the saddle. The mare wasn’t too happy about that, she bucked hard and high and raised a lot of dust; but he sat her as though he was going for a canter in the park. He was as good a rider as I had ever seen and I was very impressed.
He was a horse breaker whom we knew as Foxy. He had been a jockey in Sydney and was on his way to being famous, until he did something that was bad enough to have him banned from race tracks for the rest of his life. I didn’t know him long, because he was sacked soon after I arrived at Listowel Downs, for breaking a china milk jug over the head of Junior, the cowboy . Junior retired to his bunk, head bleeding and as Boss Jones and all of the other men were away from the homestead at the time that it happened, Foxy was called up to the big house by Mr. Jones. He stood before her, hat in his hand, tough and arrogant.
Sometime later, Mrs. Jones told me about when she, so tiny, faced Foxy, tough as nails. ‘Foxy,’ she said, I believe you smashed a milk jug over Junior’s head.’
‘That’s right, Mrs Jones, I did.’ There was no remorse in Foxy.
‘You do realise, Foxy, that the jug you broke was station property.’ she said and she told me that that was all she could think to say.
The last I ever heard of him was how he got himself mixed up in a drunken fight in a back room of a pub in a town further west. There were a few men in that fight , firing off .303 rifles.They missed one another completely, it was said, but managed to shoot an ear lobe off a drinker who was stumbling from the public bar towards the lavatories in the pub’s back yard.. Must have sobered him up pretty quick.
I was put to work breaking the horses that Foxy was breaking in at the time of of the china jug affair. As well as that, I looked after the stud shorthorn cattle in paddocks close around the homestead and assisted the bookkeeper. I was the Boss’s man: he and not the station overseer gave me my orders. Boss Jones called me the ‘five-meal-a-day man’ because I was very seldom far from the homestead and was there for breakfast, lunch and dinner as well morning and afternoon tea, which we called ‘smokohs’.
Boss Jones was a tough old bushman and had worked with sheep and cattle all his life. When he was younger, he had gone on a droving trip taking the first ever flock of sheep to go to the Gulf Country in the North of Queensland. He talked about an ‘old style of stockman’, smart men, good horsemen, good workers, good good bushmen. The old style stockman wore a hat with a reasonable brim, blue shirt, good solid belt, maybe made from a stirrup leather, with pouch for stock knife, pouch for a watch, moleskin pants, leather leggings and elastic sided boots with a Cuban heel, well polished. Nowadays, he said, stockmen wore fancy American clothes and didn’t want to , and maybe couldn’t, ride a horse that kicked up its hind legs.
He liked to hand me challenges and it became part of the pattern that I would accept them. ‘If anyone asks you can you do something,’ he said, ‘say that you can; then work out how to do it.’ Just after the sacking of Foxy, we were standing, he and I, in the dusty round yard with horses galloping all around us, he pointed ouy a big, black gelding. ‘Think you could ride that feller?’ he said. He didn’t mention that the gelding was only half broken-in; but that’s how it was and that’s how I got to be breaking in Listowel Downs horses.
Listowel Downs had a whole lot of horses. Boss Jones had theories on horse psychology, so with me, as a kind of student who would do the practical work, he could try out those theories. He wanted to work out the kindest way to break in horses. I was all for that too: I have always thought that we people exploit horses in dreadful way.
The horses on Listowel Down as ran free till they were five-year-olds, full-grown, and strong, with all their teeth cut and with minds of their own. They were big thoroughbreds, mostly, many taller than sixteen hands high at the wither…(one hand equals four inches) As for me, I was just fifteen hands and two inches at the head. The horses towered over me.
While I handled the horses, Boss Jones leaned on the stockyard rails and gave advice. At that time, an old horse breaker called Kell Jeffries was gaining a lot of attention. He was demonstrating how horses could be broken in without violence, without choking them with ropes without pulling their mouths about with bridle bits until they were raw and tender. The boss read articles about him and we did our best to follow his system.
For one thing, to catch a young horse, I rode another one, a quiet one, and used a long, smooth stick to stroke its neck and get it used to there being a connection between us. Round and round we’d go till the youngster settled, then I was able to slip a rope over its head, quiet-like, no fuss. Another thing was, when it came time to ride the horse for the first time and I slipped up into the saddle, the boss would tell me, ‘Just pat her a bit and get her to walk two steps, or three, when she has done that, get off her straight away and takeoff the saddle .’ That way, neither of you will be losing a fight.’ And we worked on more than one horse at a time to give each horse about half an hour of teaching and then a rest.
This method worked well ; but it didn’t change the nature of Listowel Downs horses. They had a bit of a reputation for bucking. Most of the stockmen couldn’t see any reason why they should risk their necks on half wild horses, so the young horses had to quietened by just two or three of us. On Saturday, we who thought we could ride would spend the morning taking youngsters out for a ride, and that was the best morning of the week for me: we had a bit of a laugh… and a bit of rodeo.
There was a horse there called ‘The Gun’, I suppose that was because he shot riders out of the saddle like bullets.. Now that was a horse who could buck. I know he threw the man who broke him in and the one who took him off the breaker and both of them were good roughriders. When I got on him for the first time, I was off him again, in an upside down way, just seconds after. He was feisty and hard in the mouth, not easy to ride.
And, at that time, an Englishman called Ted came along, looking for adventure and a job. He was a pale-skinned Englishman, thin, narrow in the shoulders, who wore rimless spectacles, a goatee beard and he spoke in mellow English tones, telling jokes we didn’t understand. He was a gentle soul who looked like, and maybe was, a professor, and ‘the Professor’ was how he was known.. He togged out in cowboy gear, red shirts, Buck Jones hat, rodeo boots and never really looked like a cowboy. We never took him very seriously. He was put to work cutting Bathurst burrs and he rode away each morning, on a quiet old horse, with a hoe across his shoulder.
One day the Boss said to me, ‘I’m going put the Professor on the Gun.’
‘What?’ I said, ‘What? Not the Gun! Not the Professor!’
‘Yes, ‘ Boss Jones said. Then he looked at me a bit sternly, from under his hat brim. ‘You men look at a man in just one way and you make your own judgments. You’ve seen the Professor riding a horse. Didn’t you notice how he rides a horse. He has beautiful hands on a horse and a beautiful seat in the saddle. He mightn’t have done much riding, but he’s a born horseman.’
And so, one day, Ted mounted the Gun, picked up his hoe from where it leant against a post, slung it up over his shoulder and rode off, both he and the horse without a care. And all of us, the experienced stockmen, stared after him. The Professor was the first man to ride the Gun with no trouble, without ever being thrown.
As for me, I learned a lot from old Boss Jones.
Miss Seaton of Seaton
The homestead buildings of Listowel Downs Station were all low-built with roofs white painted. They straggled across the top of a round ridge and, reading from left to right, were the Boss’s house, called the big house, the Eastern end, with wooden walls,wide verandas, an enclosed garden, a lawn, tennis court and a small orchard of citrus trees; next was a cottage to quarter the overseer, book-keeper and Jackaroo (me), then the big kitchen and men’s dining room, the office and store, a tiny butcher shop and dairy, a blacksmith shop whose big chimney rose from a forge, a shed that housed horse drawn vehicle, there was an old wool wagon that stood, as it had for years, beside an immense pile of firewood, and still reading from left to right, next came the men’s lavatory, a two seater, standing on a pile of earth over a deep pit, horse stalls then a saddle shed against a background of stockyard rails, six feet high, and only paces away from those dung-dusty stockyards, the men’s hut, with a narrow veranda in front and a line of doors.
All but the house of the Boss had walls of corrugated iron, also painted white. Big House, kitchen overseer’s quarters and office enjoyed electricity from a generator, running hot water and flushing lavatories as well. The ones who had to live to the West of those buildings had to make do with oil or carbide lamps, for light, water heated in four gallon kerosene tins, and of course, the aromatic dunnies built over a pit.
The kitchen and men’s dining room was a plain, square building with a pyramid shaped roof. Half was kitchen, half men’s dining room, with a narrow veranda on one side with a small plain room at one end, which was a home for whoever was the cook of the time.
There were no ceilings or inner linings to this building, just one thickness of iron, outside painted white inside not. The kitchen itself was a big room with rough beams of unmilled gidgee. A big wood stove had darkened the underside of the roof and the beams with its smoke to almost black. An iron partition and a counter separated the kitchen from the men’s dining room, where there were a long, deal tableand simple benches.
An English lady named Miss Seaton was the cook when I began work on the station. And nobody could say she was not a lady. She was a long-legged lady, spare, aquiline of face, with straight grey hair and a very proper, English way of speaking. Her manner was polite but very distant. She addressed the bookkeeper as ‘Captain Connor’ (we called him ’Cappy’, the overseer as ‘Mister Dick’ and me as ‘Master David’, because, according to class system of the station, we were sort of middle class and had our own small dining room.
I doubt whether Miss Seaton knew the names of the stockmen (‘ringers ‘ as they were known); they were working class and of them she needed to know only the name of the cowboy, which was ‘Junior’, who carted firewood, milk, meat and other stores to her
The pine counter was a boundary line between her and them: ringers would never enter Miss Seaton’s kitchen. I was told that, one day, a ringer advanced on Miss Seaton waving a butcher’s knife threateningly in front of him. Miss Seaton, I was told, reached calmly to the side, picked up a cast iron frying pan and donged it hard on the ringer’s head and he, he ringer, staggered out of the kitchen, head ringing, … ‘I was only joking.’ he was heard to say.
Nobody offered to help Miss Seaton; she cooked alone, washed up alone and retired alone to her tiny room and she did so for seven days of every week. She was not interested in the Great Outback or the animals that roamed it. She never walked further from her kitchen than to the office and store, just twenty paces.
’Not a bad cook, Miss Seaton,’ said one of the ringers, ‘but socially, she’s a bloody failure.’ It was matter of breeding and class and I think we were all conscious of it. We knew about breeding; that station bred aristocratic shorthorn cattle and thoroughbred horses. Maybe we were a little bit proud of a cook who was to the manor born.
Miss Seaton was always the first person on the station to be up and about. In the morning silence, she started up the fire in the big stove, slott big billets firewood into its grate: no need to light it anew because gidgee coals stay red hot through the night. She cooked mutton chops, liver and kidneys or, if a bullock had been killed, there might be steak. Before he milked the cows, the cowboy, Junior, would call in to the dining room for a cup of tea, but she would never sit with him. Off He would go, with buckets clanking, to the coyard. At exactly six o’clock, to get everyone else out of bed, Miss Seaton rang the old ship’s bell that hung beside the kitchen’s back door. At about that time thirty or forty head of horses would come galloping and in through to the stockyard gates with a horse-tailer, on Bomber, the night horse, whose mouth was hard as iron, close behind them and the cowboy would come back to the kitchen carrying milk in two four-gallon cans. At exactly six-thirty, Miss Seaton rang the breakfast bell.
She worked seven days a week and her work was monotonous, the hours long, her quarters were small and plain. There was no-one with whom she had long conversations, no-ne who called her by her first name and few who would have known it. She did write many letters she received letters, though fewer than she wrote. Poor, gaunt Miss Seaton, more out of place than any of the other of us in that landscape, what had brought he to this country and to outback Queensland, all heat and dust and small greyish trees? Miss Seaton saved money and endured and after a while, she would go away: this was her second time as the cook on Listowel Downs.
It just happened that when Miss Seaton did give in her notice and caught the train for the state capital. I was off to the city too (‘Going down below’ as people of that district said) and we were in the same carriage, same compartment, sitting opposite each other. ‘Master David, would you mind putting your legs a little bit to the side?’ said Miss Seaton and she pointed at the seat opposite her, ‘I need to put my feet up there.’
We were together on that train for two days and two nights and outside was a seldom changing landscpe: Central Queensland desert, similar trees and similar ant hills, a mountain range where grew agreat forst of prickly pear trees, darkness for long and fitful hours.
Atl, it seemed to me, Miss Seaton had someone to talk to and that was me. And she talked and talked until night fell and I could go to sleep, sharing my seat with her big socked and sandalled feet. She told me how badly she had been treated by the company and how she would never go back to Listowel Downs. I think she dozed too; but at refreshment stops, I ran out to refreshment rooms to get tea and thick sandwiches for us both and when we changed trains, I hauled her luggage and mine and she stalked majestically ahead. For that time on the train (two days, two nights), in spite of the great age difference between us, we had formed some kind of friendship. I’ll go as far as to say that I think she quite approved of me, maybe because I am half English, maybe not. I was a little bit disappointed, however, that by the end of that journey, I knew not much more about Miss Seaton than I had when it began.
Oh well, ‘Cooks come and go’ that is all that people on the station would say. Miss Seaton’s spare figure was replaced in that big dark kitchen by that of a round man whom we knew as Borroloola Joe.
Listowel Downs, where I had my first job, was a big sheep and cattle station (ranch) and ran a fairly big staff of workers. Some of those people were based at outstations quite far from the head station; but there were twenty something people living at the homestead: twenty something mouths to feed. Cooks would come and go; it was a tough job for the cook, with no days off and with a working day that began before first light and lasted till after dark.
Station cooks were there for the money, not for their love of the culinary arts: mutton chops for breakfast, cold mutton for lunch and roast mutton for dinner. In winter time, mutton might be replaced by beef; but with either mutton or beef on the menu, there would also be brains and liver and kidneys to give us a little variety. A cook might make biscuits, or might not, and a cook would certainly bake station brownie, an eggless cake, flat but filling, which some cooks improved, by that cook’s way of thinking, with curry powder.
The cook’s quarters were a small, plain room at the end of a veranda that ran behind the kitchen. The kitchen itself was a big square room, unlined, without ceiling, with beams and upright timbers of unmilled gidgee rails. The beams above and the underside of the iron roof were blackened by years of smoke from a big, black woodstove and on that stove top stood cast-iron pots and pans, black as could be and heavy to lift.
One of our memorable cooks was Borroloola Joe. He was a big man with big belly, big, pale face, big round nose. Over the belly, he wore a blue apron stained and faded; on his feet, sandshoes without socks and laces; he wore a grey flannel singlet, the kind of which working men wore in those days, and, though he was never seen out of doors, he always wore a hat, a narrow brimmed trilby of the kind that, in those all days, most city men would wear. He must have reached for it first thing in the morning and hung it up last thing at night.
We never saw him without that hat, though, when I come to think of it though, I did see Joe without hat, just once and that was on a dark night, in the middle of thick gidgee scrub. We shall come to that.
He called us, the station hands, ‘my boys’ and we called him ‘Borroloola Joe’, simply because ‘Borroloola’ was a word he used again and again. Who knows why: Borrooloola is a tiny township, way out in the Northern Territory, one of the most remote of all Australian townships: ‘ middle of nowhere’ as people say, or ‘the never never’.
‘Here’s the lad from Booraloola,’ Joe would say anytime anyone came in through the dining room or kitchen door, any one of us, ‘not a bad lad this one, bit of a rogue, bit of a scoundrel, not a bad lad…’ and so he would go on in a similar way. We were all boys from Borrooloola.
Joe’s cooking was pretty plain and maybe not hygienic, the tea he brewed was notorious: he would make it, first thing in the morning, in a big cast-iron kettle and then not make another pot for the rest of the day. He would just add tea leaves and water and leave that heavy black teapot to simmer on the stove for the rest of the day. We drank it from thick delft mugs and would laugh at the bitter, bitter, bitterness of it.
The cook whose place Joe took was an English lady, Miss Seaton of Seaton, to the manor borne. She had kept herself aloof and her kitchen was her private domain. ‘She’s mightn’t be a bad cook,’ one of our stockman said, ‘but socially, she’s a bloody failure.’
Miss Seaton was fine boned and austere, Joe was fat and friendly,. No station hand was allowed to enter Miss Seaton’s kitchen and so nobody helped her with her washing up or the lifting of heavy pots. Booroloola Joe’s kitchen and dining room were like a a club, where we could wander in any time of day for an awful mug of tea and to hear Joe announce, ‘Here’s the boy from Borroloola, bit of a rogue.’
His act was somehow comforting and, in his own way and in that men’s dining room, he was quite a social success. Borroloola Joe never washed the dishes alone.
I came into the dining room, one day, for a mug of tea, and was greeted with Joe’s patter: ‘Here’s the boy from Borroloola…’ but then he went on a little differently: ‘Saw him this morning, out the window, on a big bay mare, , toes in the stirrup irons, flash as paint …’ And it struck me that somehow, that those few words he had described everything that I had been experiencing on that strong, young, bay mare. She fairly bounced along in the cool of the morning and me, I sat her, high heeled boots in the stirrup irons, blue shirt, hat cocked over eyes, hands down, heels down, a flash kid that I was. And because Borrooloola Joe described it then, in so few words, I never forgot, never, even seventy years later, what I felt as I rode that young horse out of the stockyards. Old Joe gave me a moment of my own to remember and maybe he did that for others too, from time to time. I don’t know.
Joe was our good old clown and we were his boys. The men’s dining room he turned into a club and at any time of day or night, any of us might wander in, go to the black teapot to pour tea that was almost poisonous into a delft mug. And we were boys from Borroloola, all of us, sitting along the long pine table. If it were a club it would be ‘The Borrooloola Club’ no doubt.
Yet Joe was a lonely clown, who made no close friend amongst us, enjoyed no real conversations, put out no opinions, never walked further from his kitchen than the thirty or so steps to the station store. He had to live on banter.
It just happened that I was one of the first of us to meet Borroloola Joe.
Late one afternoon, Lyn, the overseer said: ‘Feel like a drive into town? I’m fetching out our new cook.’
The way to town (well, township), was seventy miles of dusty road, that ran mostly through gidgee scrub, a road not much more than two wheel tracks. Lyn was driving a rugged little Landrover, in those days very much like the jeeps we knew during World War Two, but with a canvas hood… their beauty was in their toughness; It took about two hours or so to get there. We knew Joe’s name and that he would be found at the Barcoo Hotel, which was one of those with high verandas on slim poles with cast-iron decorations. We found Joe in the public bar: ‘Let’s have a couple for the road.’ He said and so we did. Night fell before we left the Barcoo Hotel.
. The Land Rover would take three people in front. I opened the door, for Joe and sort of ushered him into the middle seat. I had come along as gate opener, so I needed to be nearest to the door; but “No, son,.’ Said Joe, ‘You take the inside.’ And in a confidential whisper: ‘You know I had a few beers before you fellers turned up, and you know how it is. ’ He put his hand beside his mouth and whispered: ‘ I think I should sit near the door. Know what I mean? Eh?’
As we drove on the road to Listowel Downs Joe, or maybe the beer, talked ‘I look forward to meeting my boys.’ He said. ‘We’ll have a lot of fun. Tell you what,’ he said, ‘We’ll let them think I’m a new chum to the bush, straight out of town. We’ll let ‘em think I don’t know anything about the bush or the outback. Let ‘em think they can put it over me.‘
He’d been all over the outback, Joe told us: Oodnadatta, Borroloola, Nockatungga, everywhere; ‘But we won’t tell my boys that , will we?’ He laughed and laughed, then told us again how he had worked in shearing sheds and station kitchens and droving camps all over the bush and told us again the tricks that he would play on his boys. ‘Can’t wait to meet ‘em.’ He said.
It was pitch dark. We were barrelling along through scrubland of small gidgee trees growing thick. A great cloud of dust trailed out behind us. Then, suddenly, the car slewed in deep wheel ruts in the road. Joe was leaning against his door and talking, talking; but it seems he hadn’t latched door so well. It swung open and Joe swung with it. Moon face, moon belly, then feet that rose up and followed, Joe floated slowly, without sound, into the dark of the gidgee scrub and that is another moment I never forget nor ever will..
The overseer jammed the brakes, our own dust cloud poured into the car around us. We sat quite still, he and I, for just a long moment.
‘Christ!’ said the overseer, ‘I’ve lost the cook!’
I leapt out and ran back along the road and Lyn sped the Landrover in reverse. I found our Joe, in the dust and burrs beside the road, lying and panting like a whale on a beach. He was panting, not dead. Our cook was not lost after all.
He was heavy, old Joe, but we got him onto his feet and steered him to the Landrover, leant him over its bonnet. We patted away as much dust and burrs as we could and I searched around in the dark till I found his hat and put it where it belonged. (So I did see Joe without his hat)
He slumped for a long time over the car bonnet, gasping, wheezing, fighting for breath. ‘Are you alright, Joe. Joe, are you alright?’ Lyn and I said over and again and we stood, arms around the big feller, gazing at him, seeing him just vaguely in the beam of headlights.
Then, Borroloola Joe, as he would become and deserves to be known, calmed a little and, still panting and fighting for breath, managed to grind out a few words:
‘We… .won’t…. tell…. the boys…. about…. this lot….. will we?’
And, believe me, Borrooloola Joe, in all this time, almost seventy years, I have never told a soul… not until now.