© Warren Fahey 2008
Bush work was unbelievably hard work and lonely. Dogs became soul mates to many bush workers as they traveled endless boundary fences, drove cattle over countless plains, penned sheep, or just hit the road and looked for work. They were offsiders to itinerant workers, swag carriers and also to so many women left behind to tend the homestead. They were mates to kids too, often joining them as they walked several miles to school, and then, back again for the return journey. Dogs kept many men on the thin border between sanity and madness simply by being good listeners. The image of the tired bushman, patiently boiling the billy, with his four-legged friend sitting curled next to the campfire, intently listening to every inflection, is a common image in our history. So too the image of the dog sitting alone on the bullock dray, waiting for his master’s return.
‘It must be near one or two o’clock. The fire is burning low. Alligator lies with his head resting on his paws, and watches the wall. He is not a very beautiful dog, and the light shows numerous old wounds where the hair will not grow. He is afraid of nothing on the face of the earth or under it. He will tackle a bullock as readily as he will tackle a flea. He hates all other dogs—except kangaroo-dogs—and has a marked dislike to friends or relations of the family. They seldom call, however. He sometimes makes friends with strangers. He hates snakes and has killed many, but he will be bitten some day and die; most snake-dogs end that way’.
Henry Lawson, our greatest bush storyteller has two wonderful dog stories. The Drover’s Wife is a classic and the passages where he describes the reactions and actions of Alligator, the family dog, are emotionally charged:
It must be near daylight now. The room is very close and hot because of the fire. Alligator still watches the wall from time to time. Suddenly he becomes greatly interested; he draws himself a few inches nearer the partition, and a thrill runs through his body. The hair on the back of his neck begins to bristle, and the battle-light is in his yellow eyes. She knows what this means, and lays her hand on the stick. The lower end of one of the partition slabs has a large crack on both sides. An evil pair of small, bright bead-like eyes glisten at one of these holes. The snake—a black one—comes slowly out, about a foot, and moves its head up and down. The dog lies still, and the woman sits as one fascinated. The snake comes out a foot farther. She lifts her stick, and the reptile, as though suddenly aware of danger, sticks his head in through the crack on the other side of the slab, and hurries to get his tail round after him. Alligator springs, and his jaws come together with a snap. He misses, for his nose is large, and the snake’s body close down in the angle formed by the slabs and the floor. He snaps again as the tail comes round. He has the snake now, and tugs it out eighteen inches. Thud, thud comes the woman’s club on the ground. Alligator pulls again.
Thud, thud. Alligator gives another pull and he has the snake out—a black brute, five feet long. The head rises to dart about, but the dog has the enemy close to the neck. He is a big, heavy dog, but quick as a terrier. He shakes the snake as though he felt the original curse in common with mankind. The eldest boy wakes up, seizes his stick, and tries to get out of bed, but his mother forces him back with a grip of iron. Thud, thud—the snake’s back is broken in several places. Thud, thud—its head is crushed, and Alligator’s nose skinned again.
(The story goes on to relate the fitful night of watching and waiting until the snake is dead)
She lifts the mangled reptile on the point of her stick, carries it to the fire, and throws it in; then piles on the wood and watches the snake burn. The boy and dog watch too. She lays her hand on the dog’s head, and all the fierce, angry light dies out of his yellow eyes. The younger children are quieted, and presently go to sleep. The dirty-legged boy stands for a moment in his shirt, watching the fire. Presently he looks up at her, sees the tears in her eyes, and, rthrowing his arms round her neck exclaims:
“Mother, I won’t never go drovin’; blarst me if I do!”
And she hugs him to her worn-out breast and kisses him; and they sit thus together while the sickly daylight breaks over the bush.
Most bush workers summed up their respect for their dogs in a short statement: Dogs don’t complain or argue.