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The Bush-Fire
by [?]



Wall was a squatter and a hard man. There had been long years of drought and loss, and then came the rabbit pest–the rabbits swarmed like flies over his run, and cropped the ground bare where even the poor grass might have saved thousands of sheep–and the rabbits cost the squatter hundreds of pounds in “rabbit-proof” fences, trappers’ wages, etc., just to keep them down. Then came arrangements with the bank. And then Wall’s wife died. Wall started to brood over other days, and the days that had gone between, and developed a temper which drove his children from home one by one, till only Mary was left. She managed the lonely home with the help of a half-caste. Then in good seasons came the selectors.

Men remembered Wall as a grand boss and a good fellow, but that was in the days before rabbits and banks, and syndicates and “pastoralists” or pastoral companies instead of good squatters. Runs were mostly pastoral leases for which the squatter paid the Government so much per square mile (almost a nominal rent). Selections were small holdings taken up by farmers under residential and other conditions and paid for by instalments. If you were not ruined by the drought, and paid up long enough, the land became freehold. The writer is heir to a dusty patch of three hundred acres or so in the scrub which was taken up thirty years ago and isn’t freehold yet.

Selectors were allowed to take up land on runs or pastoral leases as well as on unoccupied Crown lands, and as they secured the best bits of land, and on water frontages if they could, and as, of course, selections reduced the area of the run, the squatters loved selectors like elder brothers. One man is allowed to select only a certain amount of land, and required by law to live on it, so the squatters bought as much freehold about the homestead as they could afford, selected as much as they are allowed to by law, and sometimes employed “dummy” selectors to take up choice bits about the runs and hold them for them. They fought selectors in many various ways, and, in some cases, annoyed and persecuted them with devilish ingenuity.

Ross was a selector, and a very hard man physically. He was a short, nuggety man with black hair and frill beard (a little dusty), bushy black eyebrows, piercing black eyes, horny knotted hands, and the obstinacy or pluck of a dozen men to fight drought and the squatter. Ross selected on Wall’s run, in a bend of Sandy Creek, a nice bit of land with a black soil, flat and red soil sidings from the ridges, which no one had noticed before, and with the help of his boys he got the land cleared and fenced in a year or two–taking bush contracts about the district between whiles to make “tucker” for the family until he got his first crop off.

Wall was never accused of employing dummies, or underhanded methods in dealings with selectors, but he had been through so much and had brooded so long that he had grown very hard and bitter and suspicious, and the reverse of generous–as many men do who start out in life too soft and goodhearted and with too much faith in human nature. He was a tall, dark man. He ordered Ross’s boys off the run, impounded Ross’s stock–before Ross had got his fencing finished, summoned Ross for trespass, and Ross retaliated as well as he could, until at last it mightn’t have been safe for one of those men to have met the other with a gun. The impounding of the selector’s cattle led to the last bad quarrel between Wall and his son Billy, who was a tall, good-natured Cornstalk, and who reckoned that Australia was big enough for all of us. One day in the drought, and in an extra bitter mood, Wall heard that some of his sheep had been dogged in the vicinity of Ross’s selection, and he ordered Billy to take a station-hand and watch Ross’s place all night, and, if Ross’s cattle put their noses over the boundary, to drive them to the pound, fifteen miles away; also to lay poisoned baits for the dogs all round the selection. And Billy flatly refused.