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Two Sundowners
by [?]

Sheep stations in Australia are any distance from twenty to a hundred miles apart, to keep well within the boundaries of truth and the great pastoral country. Shearing at any one shed only lasts a few weeks in the year; the number of men employed is according to the size of the shed–from three to five men in the little bough-covered shed of the small “cockatoo,” up to a hundred and fifty or two hundred hands all told in the big corrugated iron machine shed of a pastoral company.

Shearing starts early up in northern Queensland, where you can get a “January shed;” and further south, in February, March or April sheds, and so on down into New South Wales, where shearing often lasts over Christmas. Shearers travel from shed to shed; some go a travel season without getting a pen, and an unlucky shearer might ride or tramp for several seasons and never get hands in wool; and all this explains the existence of the “footman” with his swag and the horse man with his packhorse. They have a rough life, and the Australian shearers are certainly the most democratic and perhaps the most independent, intelligent and generous body of workmen in the world.

Shearers at a shed elect their own cook, pay him so much a head, and they buy their rations in the lump from the station store; and “travellers,” i.e. shearers and rouseabouts travelling for work, are invited, as a matter of course, to sit down to the shearers’ table. Also a certain allowance of tea, sugar, flour or meat is still made to travellers at most Western station stores; so it would be rather surprising if there weren’t some who, travelled on the game. The swagman loafer, or “bummer,” times himself, especially in bad weather, to arrive at the shed just about sundown; he is then sure of “tea,” shelter for the night, breakfast, and some tucker from the cook to take him on along the track. Brummy and Swampy were sundowners.

Swampy was a bummer born–and proud of it. Brummy had drifted down to loaferdom, and his nature was soured and his spirit revengeful against the world because of the memory of early years wasted at hard work and in being honest. Both were short and stout, and both had scrubby beards, but Brummy’s beard was a dusty black and Swampy’s fiery red–he indulged in a monkey-shave sometimes, but his lower face was mostly like a patch of coarse stubble with a dying hedge round it. They had travelled together for a long time. They seemed at times to hate each other with a murderous hatred, but they were too lazy to fight. Sometimes they’d tramp side, by side and growl at each other by the hour, other times they’d sulk for days; one would push on ahead and the other drop behind until there was a mile or two between them; but one always carried the billy, or the sugar, or something that was necessary to the comfort of the other, so they’d come together at sundown. They had travelled together a long time, and perhaps that was why they hated each other. They often agreed to part and take different tracks, and sometimes they parted–for a while. They agreed in cadging, and cadged in turn. They carried a spare set of tucker-bags, and if, for instance, they were out of sugar and had plenty flour and tea, Brummy or Swampy would go to the store, boundary-rider’s hut, or selector’s, with the sugar-bag in his hand and the other bags in his shirt front on spec. He’d get the sugar first, and then, if it looked good enough, the flour-bag would come out, then the tea-bag. And before he left he’d remark casually that he and his mate hadn’t had a smoke for two days. They never missed a chance. And when they’d cadged more tucker than they could comfortably carry, they’d camp for a day or two and eat it down. Sometimes they’d have as much as a pound of tobacco, all in little “borrowed” bits, cut from the sticks or cakes of honest travellers. They never missed a chance. If a stranger gave Swampy his cake of tobacco with instructions to “cut off a pipeful,” Swampy would cut off as much as he thought judicious, talking to the stranger and watching his eye all the time, and hiding his palm as much as possible–and sometimes, when he knew he’d cut off more than he could cram into his pipe, he’d put his hand in his pocket for the pipe and drop some of the tobacco there. Then he’d hand the plug to his mate, engage the stranger in conversation and try to hold his eye or detract his attention from Brummy so as to give Brummy a chance of cutting off a couple of pipefuls, and, maybe, nicking off a corner of the cake and slipping it into his pocket. I once heard a bushman say that no one but a skunk would be guilty of this tobacco trick–that it is about the meanest trick a man could be capable of–because it spoils the chances of the next hard-up swaggy who asks the victim for tobacco.