The other day, some recent visitor to our shores, one intimately associated with the film industry, suggested confidently that in the Australian bushman lurked very promising raw material for "talkie" purposes.
Why not, he asked, build up a celluloid tradition around our own stout heroes, and he-men of the great open spaces? By exploiting and idealising our drovers and shearers, our boundary-riders and cattlemen, by the addition of just the right measure of "sob-stuff" and a spice of danger, and an adequate slab of sex-interest, we might yet employ that tradition for the edification of a pliant public and the delirious joy of many a box office.
Upon reading this mention of bush tradition, I sighed vastly, and fell into a reverie.
Back in my carefree youth, Ned, Dicky and myself were bringing down a huge mob of bullocks across the overland from one of Kid Sidman's stations to the rail-head.
It was toward the end of the third long dry stage - about 200 miles of it, maybe 300 - that old Ned fell sick. We younger men sensed it with true bush instinct, but old Ned, being laconic, said nothing of it for quite a while.
Finally he could hold out no longer, and, one night, under the everlasting stars, when the mopoke called along the creek and dingoes howled across the salt-bush plain, old Ned broke his stoical silence.
"Boys," he said. "I reckon I been sent for. May be very soon I won't have the strength to play the game as a true stockman should. I trust you, as good mates o' mine, to do the needful. There's a belt of mulga somewhere this side the Anthill Creek. Get me there, lads, but don't lose a beast."
You wonder why? Ah, you were not born and bred in the old tradition. Know then, that in those days every true stockman, when he came to die, died beneath a mulga tree. To die elsewhere was to be dishonored. Old Ned must die beneath a mulga, and we were his mates. It was enough.
Briefly, then, old Ned next day grew delirious, and had to be tied to the saddle. Doggedly we pushed ahead. We came to a belt of trees. Dicky said they were gidgee trees. I agreed. We pushed ahead, never losing a beast. We crossed the Anthill Creek and travelled a hundred miles beyond, when Dicky discovered the horrible truth. They were not gidgee, they were mulga, and we had left them leagues behind. There was no turning back. We must find a mulga, so that old Ned might die.
Suddenly Dicky remembered a solitary mulga tree just beyond Casey's shanty, fifty miles eastward off our track. We turned the cattle, never losing a beast.
Within sight of Casey's Dicky suddenly drew rein with a hoarse cry.
"Curse me for a fool," he muttered. "I had forgotten! Old Ned is one of those!"
Fingers to lips, he raised his elbow, and threw back his head significantly, and I understood.
Narriberri Ned was a man who could never pass a pub!
Just another old bush tradition. The bush in those days swarmed with such men.
"Turn back!" gasped Dick. "Wheel the cattle, but do not let us lose a beast!"
But it was too late. A light of intelligence sprang suddenly into old Ned's lack-lustre eye. Raising his head, the sniffed the air for a second; then, putting spurs to his brumby, galloped for Casey's. It was useless to follow.
I did not see old Ned again until the other day. He was married and toiled in the city as a caretaker of a garage.
He was too old and too poor, he told me, ever again to seek the distant mulga. His health was failing, and he reckoned he would have to die soon - under one of his wife's aspidistras. Stark tragedy, indeed.
|Copyright © Perry Middlemiss 2002|