Three times a year all the cattle on the run are mustered, and passed through the drafting-yards, that the young calves may be branded, and the older ones weaned.
The cattle belonging to each camp are brought in separately, drafted and turned out again to make room for the next lot, as the yards will only hold about a thousand head comfortable at a time. Mustering is pretty hard work, for, when once you start, you have to stick at it from daylight to dark, Sundays very often included, until it is finished. A general muster at Mount Spencer used to take us a month, and a fortnight after to "clean up." One or two hands from the neighbouring stations used generally to come up and help, and look after their own cattle, a good number of which were pretty certain to pass through the yards.
Drafting cattle in the yards is very good fun, especially if they are at all rowdy, but it is work that requires a good deal of nerve to start with, and long practice before a man becomes a good hand at it. The yards are very strong enclosures of posts and rails, the posts from a foot to sixteen inches thick, set in eight feet apart, and the rails not less than four inches thick and ten inches wide, the top rail being about six feet from the ground.
One of our stockmen, Billy Burgess, was reckoned to be about the best hand in the yards in the north of Queensland, and, certainly, the whole time I was in the country, I never saw anyone who could hold a candle to him. No one ever saw him in a hurry, but he would draft more cattle in an hour than most men would in two. While other men were shouting, and swearing, and running for their lives, he would stand perfectly still, watching the cattle with an amused smile on his face, and seeming to know by instinct exactly how far he could trust them. To an outsider, the power he possessed over cattle seemed little short of mesmerism; but in reality it was only the result of years of experience and work amongst them, combined with an excellent temper and iron nerves.
A man running for his life, pursued by an infuriated animal with horns two feet long and as sharp as needles, does not at first sight seem to be a particularly mirthful spectacle. Familiarity, however, breeds contempt, and a charge in the yard is always greeted with shouts of laughter from the lookers-on, especially if the man who is hunted has a narrow escape. Provided he is not actually hurt, the nearer he is to being horned the funnier everyone thinks it, including the individual himself, who is always ready to join in the laugh the instant that he has got up the rails out of harm's way. Occasionally the best and most experienced hands get caught, and very few men have worked for any length of time amongst Bush cattle without getting a horn into them once or twice. The wound from a beast's horn is always a nasty one, and very bad to heal, and I have known several cases where it has ended fatally.
In some yards it is the fashion to leave a big post, or the stump of a tree about four feet high, in the middle of the big yard, so as to afford a shelter for anyone who is charged and has no time to get to the rails at the side. We had nothing of the kind at Mount Spencer; but I remember a most ludicrous scene at Gracemere, a station near Rockhampton, where there was one of these harbours of refuge in the middle of the yard. Seven or eight men were yarding up a mob of cattle, when suddenly an old cow came out and charged in a most business-like manner. Five men all ran for their lives for the post. The first who got there, of course, was all right; but there was only room for one, so the next man had to hang on to the belt of the man in front, and so on, till the whole five were extended in a row. The cow charged, and, of course, no one could tell which side of the post she would pass, so it was not until she was within a few feet that the human tail swung round out of her way, a yell of terror escaping from the last two men, as the brute's horns passed within an inch of them. Quick as lightning the cow turned and charged again, and again the end of the tail had a narrow escape. Four times the cow charged, four times the tail swept round, their howls of anguish mingling with shouts of laughter from the men on the rails who were looking on. Anything more ridiculous than the whole scene cannot possibly be imagined. The last man at the end was very fat, and very nervous, and had no business in a yard at all. He was evidently getting weak with terror and exhaustion, so a diversion was made by those on the rails, and, the cow having been induced to charge someone else, the men in the middle of the yard were enabled to leave their post and make for the rails.
When the cattle are run through the yards in a general muster, all the calves that are old enough to wean are picked out. They are then "tailed," as it is called, for several weeks; that is to say, they are let out in a mob in the daytime to feed, and carefully watched by one or two hands, to see that none get away, and that no strange cattle mix with them, and shut up in a small paddock every night. Of course, the object of everyone in working a cattle-station is to get all the cattle as quiet as possible, and nothing has such an excellent effect in quieting a whole herd as tailing the weaners when they are young. But of all occupations that fall to the Bushman's lot, it is probably the most irksome.
Shepherding sheep is bad enough, and the asylums are three parts full of idiot shepherds, whose reason has succumbed to the dreariness of their lives; but for a short time it is infinitely preferable to tailing a mob of weaners. A man who is looking after sheep can, at all events, enjoy long intervals of perfect repose, during which, if he likes, he can lie on his back and read a book. But of mob of weaners will never give him an instant's peace. Without being at all interesting, their habits are extremely irritating. They never know exactly where they want to go, or what they want to do, but the one thing they will not do is to keep still and feed sensibly. Out of a thousand weaners you may possibly induce nine hundred and ninety-nine to lie down round a water-hole for an hour in the middle of the day. But the remaining one is certain to keep on the move the whole time, walking off into the Bush, first one way and then another, so that you never have a spell. If you get off your horse for a drink, the whole mob probably pretend they never saw a man on foot before in their lives, and make a wild stampede. Fortunately, it is an occupation that does not last long; for a continuance of it at the best of times would drive the most sane man out of his mind, and in wet, cold weather it is simply deadly. However it is very necessary and very useful work, though everyone shirks it who can, and a "new chum," if one can be found, is invariably selected for the duty.
It is pleasant to set out to work in the morning, after eight hours of such sleep as none but men who work hard ever enjoy. The sun is just rising, and there is not a breath of wind, but the air feels as cool and fresh as iced champagne. The tools have been "planted" under a sheet of bark by the big tree which you felled overnight; so you have nothing to carry but a pipe, and as the blue smoke curls round your lips, mingled with the fragrant scent of the gum-trees and blood-wood flowers, you decide that certainly the first pipe after breakfast is the most thoroughly enjoyable of any. By the time that you have got to your work you are wet through up to the knees, and it is just cold enough to make you very glad to roll up your sleeves and start in with a will to work yourself dry. This does not take long, and as the sun rises and makes himself felt, it does not take long to work yourself damp again. If you are wise you will not drink much in the morning, for if you once start you will be thirsty all day. With a cheery mate, and an occasional spell of five minutes for a smoke, the morning does not seem very long, and the sun fair overhead, combined with certain internal sensations, warns you that it is time to knock off and boil the "billy" for dinner. Every meal in the bush is, if possible, accompanied by a brew of tea; and, though it may seem strange, when you have worked yourself up to boiling point under a grilling sun, there is nothing in the world so refreshing as a pannikin of very hot tea, not too strong, with not too much sugar and without any milk. Refreshed with a square meal of salt beef and damper, which is of all forms of bread the sweetest and most easily digested if it is properly made, you start in again, with a firm determination to raise a good "tally" by the end of the day. As the sun gets low, a hundred sound rails, nine feet long, bear witness that your day's work has been an honest one. A pleasant feeling of languor, which cannot be called fatigue, makes you very glad to get home, and a wash in the creek brings a sensation of perfect strength and soundness into every fibre and muscle of your body, unknown to those who have not worked hard in the healthiest climate in the world. Supper ended, you pitch a fresh log on the fire to make a blaze, and, stretching your limbs full length on a 'possum-rug, prepare to devour the last number of the Australasian, a paper which, for general interest and information, was never surpassed. A fresh pipe lighted with a fire-stick, just as the stars are coming out, makes you forget the sweetness of the morning air; and for the hundredth time you tell yourself that tobacco never tastes so nice as in the cool of the evening, after a real sound day's work splitting rails.
Jim Foley || Email me