Western Fiction posted August 30, 2017

This work has reached the exceptional level
This is a Fiction story based on fact.

Mustering in the river country PART1

by trumby

The author has placed a warning on this post for violence.
The author has placed a warning on this post for language.

Bill was a big man. Bigger than most. But the constant heavy work of building this station into a productive outfit was really wearing him down. This was probably the problem with taking over a property that was in the condition of Crocodile Downs.

The river country, the most challenging area on the place to muster, was 2 paddocks of the thickest Brigalow scrub on the station. The paddocks were full of melon-holes, gilgais and wash-away gullies that were part of the 6000 acres that went underwater when the Isaacs River flooded. It made this 20,000 block such a fertile area of land to draw in the Brigalow ballot. He hoped that the months that they spent doing flood-fencing were finally going to pay off. Then again, some of these cattle may well be so feral that they wouldn't take any notice of the 3-barb fence-line, because they were so used to it not even being there.

At least the main stockyards on the property were in reasonable condition. Some of the rails that were up in various places were showing signs of age, but he'd already been right through the yards to replace the ones that looked really bad. He'd also bought a new branding cradle that was supposed to be the best on the market. He expected it to get a really good workout with the big calves on this place. If it went well, he might even send a testimony to the manufacturers talking about how good it is.

He and his worker, Tom Jones, had been up since 4 am this morning in order to make sure that everything would be organized and up-to-speed for the neighbors when they turned up at 5 am. All the horses were now in the yards with saddles on the riding horses ready for mustering. They'd each be leading a horse to act as their spare in case of injury or exhaustion of their original mount.

He watched the truck-lights coming up the 5 kilometre driveway that led from the highway. They were driving through what was known as the "Road Paddock". The truck lights seemed to be flickering as they passed through stands of Brigalow scrub. He sighed deeply and reflectively. The scrub in the Road Paddock would have to be pulled eventually too. Just one more job that would have to be done sooner or later. His "To Do" list never seemed to shrink all that much and, even when it did, other jobs quickly came along to replace the ones that were taken off the list.

The two big work trucks pulled up to the yards and Jack backed his big Hino into the ramp first while all of the men were saying "G'day" to each other. There were Tom, his two sons and his working man from Clarkson Downs. The two boys were 15 and 16 years old. Jason, the oldest, was a very fit football player. Ivan, at 15 years of age, would have appeared to be too young for a day like this by city standards, but he'd virtually been born on a horse. Actually, if a choice had to be made, Bill would have chosen Billy over Pat as a working man for the day.

Pat and his worker, Arty, had turned up from Battle Creek Station. Pat, a man aged in his late 50's, would have been better off buying a block of flats in town rather than a beef block. He just didn't have enough fire in him. Building up one of these blocks required a younger man's determination. Pat's old horse, Queenie, demonstrated this truth very well. Her real name may have been Queenie, but everyone called her "Feathery-Legs", because of the long hairs that were hanging off her fetlocks.

"I'm sorry about this, Bill," said Pat, "but I've got a yard full of wieners at home at the moment. I'll have to go straight home when we get back from the muster so that I can throw them some hay."

"Yeah, no worries, mate," said Bill with most of his mind on the day's muster. He mainly had Pat along because he lived across the road and might have some cattle in the mob. Pat could be very good at keeping the tail together once they had the mob moving, but not much use for chasing bush cattle.

Arty was a different case altogether. Not only could he be a fair hand with a "bad beast" in the bush, but he also brought his dog, "Croc", along with him. The dog had achieved local fame for the way that he could handle bush cattle. His breed being uncertain, but, his ferocity, well known, he'd tamed many a trouble-maker in the bush.

The 10 years seniority that he had over Bill didn't seem to make any difference to him in a fight. If it came right down to it, Bill would rather have Arty backing him up than any of the other "professional chucker-outer-ers" in town. As a young man working his way up through the amateur boxing ranks, he'd "blown his shoulder out" just before his first professional fight. He'd worked as a bouncer at various clubs in town just like Bill had done, so they had a lot in common. In fact, they'd sometimes even worked doors together, so they could often talk about shared battle stories with drunken patrons who were completely different people when they were sober.

No money changed hands when these neighbors worked together. The days of labour were just swapped with each other when required. The work got done, everyone stayed happy and it fostered a lot more community spirit in the area.

He jerked his thoughts back to the present. Time to move. As he strode off, he reviewed his mental checklist for the day's labour. All gates open for receiving the mob of cattle this afternoon. Horse saddled and ready to ride. Spare horses on halters beside it. Two sets of dinner hobbles each. Plain wire for fixing fences. Both men had pliers and rope.

When the trucks turned up and the men started to get their gear out, all their equipment was the same as the home team had assembled. As they tailed the mob of coaches towards the river country, Bill wished that he'd thought to get his camera out and take a picture of the group of horsemen. It would have made a good picture. The men looked like they were riding off to do battle with some dangerous foe. Unfortunately, it was too dark and Bill was too far away from the "house" when he thought of it. A couple of swags on the hay in the shed would do a pair of hard working men for the moment. These men were thinking of work, not pretty pictures.

Everyone brought spare horses along with them. Tom, Jason and his worker, Lindsay, enjoyed hard riding days and rode as fast, if not faster though the dense Brigalow scrub as what Bill could go. Experience at the fast riding definitely made men faster at the challenging task of chasing scrubbers through these trees. But, then again, experience at anything made the operator better at it.

They were riding now across the paddock that the previous owners had rather gloriously named the "Airstrip Paddock". Any pilot who decided to land on this "Airstrip" certainly had to be a bit of a daredevil. It counted as just another one of the many things that Bill had on his "To-do" list. It was probably more of a community service than anything else, but he probably should do a little bit of maintenance on the strip so that at least the flying doctor had somewhere to land. Some of the melon-holes on this strip were deep enough to "bog a duck" if it rained. Even now, they were still pretty soggy at the bottom of the hole from the recent downpour. It was a good thing that the soil up here was sandy loam, not clay like it would be down in the river country.

They drove a mob of about 20 coach's into the paddock with the theory being that the wilder cattle would see the quieter cattle and settle down. This mob of cattle had been tailed along the fence down to the scrubber yards on the highway and back to the house once a day for the last week. It'd really settled them down. Pat, Ivan and Arty had the job of driving these quieter cattle around to the scrubber yards that Bill and Tom had constructed a few months ago as part of the flood-fencing down in the river-country. The yards down here were only temporary.

"Righto," said Bill. "This paddock is still going to be a bit wet in places, so just try to be a bit careful. I'd rather get through the day with a minimum of horses, men and dogs being injured. Thank you."

Jack looked at him strangely and cocked an eyebrow as he said drily, "We're mustering scrubbers, Mate, and you want us to be careful?"

"As much as is possible, mate, but we've got to clean out this country as much as we can though. To be honest with you all, I need the coin to keep going. It's all very well spending the required amount on improvements etc., but I haven't had much income over the last two years and I've put a lot of money into this place. It'd be wonderful to send off a couple of decks of cattle to the works. We saw a few mobs of cattle when we were fencing, and they look pretty good."

"I'd like to turn these two paddocks into my breeder paddocks-- once we get them a bit more civilized. The cattle are all over the place at the moment."

"Good news, too. The old Marylebone station stallion and his mares are in one of these two paddocks. He's got a good young colt with him. Try to avoid them though. I think that Sun-ray, the station stallion, is pretty prickly. We saw him a few times when we were flood-fencing and he was pretty stroppy. Now, there's four men with whips in this crew. Just make sure that you're near one of them at all times. He's supposed to be in the Heifer paddock, but the greedy bastard has stuff-all respect for fences and gates, so he goes straight for the best grass on the place."

The other riders nodded. They all understood how dangerous this task really was. Bill gave his orders. "Righto. We'll go through this paddock on a face. I'll take Jason with me. We'll go along the gully out through the middle of the paddock. Tom can ride a couple of 100 metres off the fence with the coaches, so that he can give them a hand with the whip in case they get into trouble or that stallion shows up. You other two can space yourselves out between us.

Now! If you get into trouble, -- and I'm expecting it-- make as much noise as possible. Anyone who's not busy with their own mob, come a-runnin'. That'll take care of the half of the paddock over near the river."

At this point, he winced visibly, "I hope--"

"This one isn't going to be a clean muster, but I'm hoping to get enough coin out of it to do some much needed work around the place. We'll meet up at the scrubber yards over at the other end of the paddock, let them settle down over lunch and come home on the other side of the paddock after lunch."

He continued in a half-joking-- half-serious manner," Then we'll put the mob together at the Airstrip gate and drive them home."

He looked around at the group of tough men in front of him. These men all knew what it was like to chase scrubbers in bad country and they came along today expecting the worst. Actually, he thought that most of them were secretly longing for a bit of excitement today. Things were probably becoming a bit too civilized on their own properties.

The coaches were driven off, not travelling too fast, just giving the inhabitants of the paddock time to get used to them. The mob of 8 spare horses followed along behind the coaches, each one with a halter on and the lead rope tied around the horse's neck. Before he even started fencing, he'd hired one of the neighbors with a big D6 dozer to clear an area along the fences of most of the paddocks on the place. It didn't produce a perfectly smooth surface, but at least it was clear enough to drive cattle along it.

Bill started off along his assigned route and ran onto this old, piker, Brahman bullock almost immediately. He must have been watching curiously as the team of men rode into the paddock, but thought nothing of it as it had been so long since the paddock had been mustered properly. He was expecting to be bypassed as he had so many times in the past. He stood there quietly, peering out of the scrub, the shadows of the Brigalow trees playing over his dirty, white hide, giving him a near perfect camouflage. The two huge horns looked like the trunks of two gum saplings. No shortage of them in this paddock. Bill would have ridden past him too, if it wasn't for Skippa.

The dog charged straight at the large animal, displaying his customary total lack of fear and raced straight around behind him to fasten onto one of his heels like a leech. The bullock bellowed in fear and pain, then lashed out with his back leg while trying to spin around to hook the dog. Skippa may have been an older, more experienced dog, but he hadn't got that way by being stupid. As soon as the bullock lashed out, he let go of the leg, which promptly smashed into a Brigalow sucker. If the dog had still been holding onto the leg, he would have been crushed. However, the impact with the tree hurt the steer a fair bit.

The other dog that Bill had brought with him this day had a bit less finesse, but could be equally savage. He raced in and grabbed the big steer on the nose, causing it to strike out at him with its left front leg. It tried to hook at the dogs, but those massive horns, which looked so intimidating at the first sight, were actually a disadvantage in this densely packed scrub. Maybe Bill should have called for help immediately, but he could hear the sounds of battle going on around him as the other members of his mustering team engaged the enemy. While running over in his mind what he would do next, the rope already flying off his shoulder into his hands, he swung his right leg over the horse's rump, making sure to keep the tree between him and the beast.

Ringers generally called this sort of thing, "Fighting a beast around a tree" and it could be quite an effective way of securing wild stock.

"Get out of it, ya mongrels!" he yelled at the dogs as he hit the ground. He wanted to keep the bullock's attention on himself. He supposed that, in America, they'd be trying to "punch a loop in a rope" and drop a rope over it, but in Australia, a different method of catching scrub cattle had been devised. He dodged and bounced back and forth around the tree, looking for an opening to use his rope. He finally got it. As he dodged left, the big bovine started to show its exhaustion and proved to be a bit too slow coming back. He moved into the relative safety behind the horns and dropped the loop around the two of them at the same time "Coooeeeing" for anyone out there who could help him. There would be no trouble in trying to get the beast up closer to him. All that it wanted to do at the moment seemed to be to skewer him on one of those horns.

Bugger it, he thought, I've bitten off more than I can chew here. I might have to let him go again. Just the thought of that rankled him. He hated being beaten. This big bloke would certainly pay some bills. However, he seemed to be too big and dangerous for one man to handle by themselves and-in spite of being a very big, strong man-exhaustion was proving to be stronger than determination. The two dogs were proving their worth. No longer were they giving short, sharp bites to the beast. The two of them were patrolling the area behind the steer, just in case it got loose from their boss. However, it soon became apparent that even with the three of them holding him, this big steer would prove to be too strong for them in the end and would eventually free himself.

Suddenly, like an avenging angel, Jason appeared through the trees, summed up the situation in an instant, and bounded off his horse. After tying his horse to a nearby sucker, he grabbed a rope and a bull-strap then joined the battle. He threw a length of rope around the right, rear leg of the beast and jerked it completely off balance. In a very short space of time, the big animal lay there stretched out on its side with all four legs secured.

Bill walked over to his horse, which promptly sidled away from him, not enough to interrupt its feeding, but enough to keep the reins out of his reach. Bill swore at the horse, then at himself for being a fool and not tying it up. Eventually, between the two of them, they were able to corral the horse. In a very bad fit of temper, Bill jerked the reins and "explained" to the horse why it shouldn't do what it had just done. Jason looked on in wonder. Being sure that this method of educating a horse wouldn't be found in any manual on horsemanship, he watched the older horse-breaker in action, trying to learn all that he could while he was here.

Bill grabbed his horn-saw from its scabbard behind his saddle. "Horn-saw" was just the name that everyone used. The tool in question being actually just an ordinary pruning saw with a brown wooden handle. He then held the big beast's head down while Jason docked his horns, trying to get the cut reasonably close to the beast's head to minimize the length of the weapons that he'd have in the future. Closer to his head would mean that his headache would increase in the short-term, as well as trying to preserve those horns. It would be better to try and get him back to the yards at the house, but it would be necessary to make him a little bit more obedient during the trip.

As they remounted their horses, Jason mentioned, "Are you going to try to come back to get those horns, mate? There won't be many more sets around like that in the future."

"Yeah, mate. I'll try to pick them up sometime," replied Bill sulkily.

They could hear crashing and shouts all around them, as men were striking cattle. They could hear loud reports as Tom Callaghan tried to employ his whip to try and move cattle from the scrub. Using a stock-whip in thick scrub like this proved to be very difficult too. The normally quiet bushman shouted and swore as he tried to turn the heads of the mob of cattle that he pursued through the thick stands of trees. Galloping slightly ahead of the noise, they ran into his mob of cattle and, as Jason went to the tail of the mob to keep everything moving so that not too many cattle would duck off into the scrub, Bill charged up the wing to ride for the lead. They'd had a brief glimpse of Tom as the cattle rushed past them, but now there was no chance of seeing him through the thick scrub. They could certainly hear him though as he shouted and crashed through the timber in his quest for the lead of the mob. Although only 50 metres separated them, Bill still couldn't see either of the other two riders. He may as well have been chasing this mob of cattle by himself.

The crashing and banging around him could easily be coming totally from the cattle.


This story is set in Central Queensland and the property is based on "Longacre", the 20,000 acre property that I grew up on.This is what "Longacre" was like when Dad took it over in the late 70's. Us kids were all too young to go mustering for the 1st 12 months or so, although we did muster in the rest of the paddocks, just not the river country.
The picture is a set of dinner hobbles which can also be used as bull straps.

Gilgais and melon-holes- Depressions that appear in the ground in Brigalow country. These make it very dangerous to gallop in this country, especially as the ground can't be seen when moving through thick scrub.
Cooee- a far reaching Australian bush call
Because of the length of this story, I decided to post it in 2 parts. This is part one of an extract from my 2nd novel.
My 1st novel, "Ride To The Whip", is in Kindle.
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