His life and books
A RIDE FOR LIFE
By Nat Gould
The summer was terribly hot, and Woonoona station had suffered greatly from drought. For four months no rain had fallen, and the ground was parched and baked. Not a blade of green grass could be seen for miles round the homestead, and the monotonous brown colour became wearisome to the eyes. Sheep perished by thousands, and their bleached bones lay in heaps on the tracks. Cattle rushed into the almost empty water holes and perished miserably, being crushed to death in their efforts to extricate themselves from the pit into which they had fallen. Even the rabbits seemed to have met with a check, and the plague was for a few weeks stayed as they perished from famine. The trees were gaunt and bare, their leafless branches looked weird and witch-like, and their white trunks glistened in the sunlight. Above this scene of desolation was a cloudless blue sky, dazzling in its intensity, and the sun glared down without mercy upon the scorched earth beneath. The wind which gently blew across the paddocks was like a waft from an open furnace, and it was a struggle to exist under such circumstances. There were three large artesian bores on Woonoona station. Two of them had given out, and water came only in small quantities from the third.
Mathew Martin, owner of Woonoona station, was a man about forty-five years of age, powerful and athletic, and inured to the hardships of colonial life. He had piled up a very fair fortune by constant hard work. Whatever his hands found to do he did with all his might. He never gave in until the last ray of hope failed. As he stood on the spacious verandah of Woonoona homestead and looked around upon the barren scene his heart almost failed him. His losses from the drought he knew would be enormous. It would take him years to pull round, but he felt he could do it if the drought would only break up. His sister's child, a pretty girl, came on 1o the verandah and said, “Uncle, how fearfully hot it is. This is the hottest day we have had this summer.” “Yes, Nelly,” he replied. “It is 120 degrees in the shade now; heaven knows what it will be by noon!”
On the front lawn, where a few blades of grass yet remained, Mathew Martin's favourite horse Wilga had been brought in to refresh himself. Wilga was a splendid animal, and had thoroughbred blood in his veins of the stoutest strain. Many a hundred miles had he carried Mathew Martin, and many a wild ride had he had on Wilga. Nelly's mother had gone to pay a visit at a neighbouring station, and the girl had elected to stay with her uncle. Mathew Martin was fond of children, and Nelly was a special favourite with him. They were alone in the homestead. The housekeeper had gone to Sydney on business, and the only female servant had been stricken down with the heat and sent into hospital. The hands were at work on different parts of the station, and consequently Nelly and her uncle were alone. They did not mind this for a few hours. Mathew Martin could turn his hand to anything, and being alone in a house did not trouble him in the least. They sat chatting on the verandah, when Nelly said, “Look, uncle, I believe it is going to rain at last. There is a black cloud over there.” And she pointed across the lawn.
“Hang me if I don't think you're right, Nelly,” said Mathew springing to his feet in his excitement, and looking earnestly in the direction she indicated. "I'll go inside and have a peep at the glass.” He went into the house, and saw with joy the glass lowered when he tapped it.
“That looks promising,” he said to himself. “I'll be back in a few minutes, Nelly,” he shouted to her. “I'm just going to look how Yamba is getting on.” Yamba was another of Mathew Martin's favourite horses, and the intense heat seemed to have affected him the last few days. Mathew Martin stayed away longer than he at first intended, and when he returned to the verandah he found Nelly, overcome with the heat, asleep in her chair. She looked such a charming picture of innocent childhood that Mathew Martin stood gazing at her in admiration. “Bless me, how dark it's getting,” he thought; “we must be going to have a downpour.” He looked at the spot where Nelly had pointed out the black cloud to him. As he looked his face became grave, and in a few moments he turned paler than was his wont. There were not many things daunted the brave spirit of Mathew Martin, but what his practised eyes saw now made even him quail. This was what he had dreaded for the past six weeks. It was the finishing touch to the series of disasters he had experienced. What Mathew Martin saw now was not a black rain-cloud. It was a moving mass of thick black smoke, and as it neared the ground there was a thin streak of flame shooting upwards to meet it. In front of this Mathew Martin saw a crowd of moving objects. In a moment he realised the danger he was in and also the child by his side sleeping so calmly. It was a bush fire racing towards Woonoona homestead with the speed of an express train, and driving before it hundreds of maddened animals who had but little chance of beating it in the race.
He had no time to lose. The hands he knew were out of the line of fire, had it been otherwise he would have had no time to warn them. Woonoona homestead was doomed. Nothing could save it. A pang shot through his heart as he thought how the place he loved so well, and for which he had toiled so hard, must be ruthlessly burned to ashes.
“Nelly, Nelly,” he cried, “wake up, lass! Don't be afraid, wake up, my lass! We must ride for it. There's a bush fire tearing down on us like mad.” Nelly woke from a pleasant sleep in which she had been dreaming of green paddocks and refreshing showers. “A bush fire, uncle !”she said in alarm. “Yes, Nelly. Come outside, quick. That was no rain-cloud we saw. Put on your hat. I'll saddle Yamba for you. Be quick, lass, and don't lose your head. You're a brave girl, Nelly. We'll have to ride for it - and quick.”
Nelly had a good deal of her uncle's spirit, and she said as she ran to her room, “I'll be quick, uncle. I'm not afraid. I know there is no danger with you.” Mathew Martin rushed into the stable. Yamba was trembling in every limb. The horse was not fit for a desperate ride, but he would have to do his best. The saddle and bridle were quickly put on; but all this took time, and when Mathew Martin rushed to the front to saddle Wilga he saw there was no time. He slipped on the bridle, slung the saddle down, and then took Wilga round to where Yamba stood. “Up, Nelly; quick,” he said, as he lifted her into the saddle. “Out at the gate, and ride straight ahead. I'll be after you in a minute." He flung open the gate, and Nelly, who was a capital horsewoman, rode Yamba out and then set him at a gallop. Mathew Martin dashed into the house again, took some papers out of his desk, which he carefully placed in the inside of his shirt, and then ran quickly into the yard. Wilga was sniffing the air and pawing the ground. He scented danger around. In the distance he could hear the thunder of hoofs, the crackling of burning wood, and the roar of the flames as they tore along annihilating everything in their savage march. “Steady, Wilga, old chap,” said Mathew. “We've got to ride for it; ride for life, Wilga, it may. Be! Steady, lad. Now then!” He sprang on to the horse's bare back, shook the reins, and in a moment was galloping after Nelly.
Suddenly Mathew pulled up his horse. He saw Nelly well ahead, a mere speck in the distance. He knew Wilga would catch up with Yamba in the condition he was in. What made him halt so suddenly and turn Wilga round? He did not hesitate a moment, but galloped the reluctant horse back into the yard. He leapt from Wilga's back, ran to a building across the yard, flung open the door and called “Peter, Peter lad! Come here.” A beautiful colley dog came bounding up to him. “Good heavens, and to think I nearly left you here, Peter, to be burned to death!” Mathew Martin never gave a thought to the danger he had incurred in returning to save the dog. But as he galloped out of the gate again with Peter tearing after him, he glanced round and saw it was indeed a race for life. Behind lay a terrible death - in front was safety if Wilga could race the fire. How Wilga flew over the ground! Terror seemed to lend him wings, for Wilga knew as well as his master what lay behind him.
On they went. It was a desperate race. Peter kept up as well as he could, but he was some distance behind.
“Where's Nelly?” thought Mathew. He looked ahead and saw a dim speck. “She's all right,” he thought. Then he turned and called to Peter to come on faster. The fire was travelling at a terrible rate. Nearer and nearer Mathew drew to Nelly on Yamba, and nearer and nearer the fire came on Wilga's flying hoofs. Mathew saw he was gaining rapidly on Yamba. A great fear arose in his heart for Nelly's safety. Was Yamba done up? That was the question. As he neared the horse he saw there could be no doubt about it. Mathew Martin knew their only place of safety was in the barren rocks, a good ten miles ahead. The fire would burn itself out there. No fuel for its cruel jaws could be found on these barren rocks. He reached Nelly's side. “Yamba's done up, uncle,” she said. He saw what she said was correct, and without a moment's hesitation he said: “Let go, Nelly. I'll lift yon in front of me. Yamba may struggle on if you are off his back.” He pulled her off Yamba and placed her in front of him on Wilga. Then Wilga galloped on again with his double burden, and Yamba and Peter toiled after them. Wilga's breeding now stood him in good stead. The horse raced on with a power of endurance Mathew thought wonderful. They could hear the roar of the flames behind and all sorts of strange unearthly cries, as flying animals were caught and burned. Nelly snuggled close to her uncle. She felt safe with him, and did not realise the great peril they were in. Mathew Martin knew it was a ride for life, and he looked eagerly forward to the dim outlines of rocks that loomed in the distance. There lay safety, behind them an awful death. Wilga galloped on with nostrils extended, red as fire, and an occasional drop of blood mingled with the foam that flew from him. His eyes were extended, his breath came in great sobs and gasps.
Would the horse last it out? That was Mathew's great fear. At last the welcome haven of refuge grew distinct. Never had a barren rock looked so lovely in a man's eyes. That stretch of bare dull stone was a more glorious sight to Mathew Martin than thousands of acres of fertile pasture. He urged Wilga on. He encouraged the horse in every possible way, and the noble animal struggled gallantly. Half a mile more and they would be in safety. The heat of the chasing flames commenced to scorch them. Mathew Martin felt Wilga staggering under him. He pressed his knees to the horse's side, and once more urged him on. Wilga made a last effort. He plunged forward madly. He swayed from side to side. He gasped for breath, but he reached the rocks, and as he galloped through the great gap, with the boulders rising high on either side, Mathew Martin thanked his God for saving them from an awful fate. He reined Wilga in, and putting Nelly down, got off the exhausted horse. Wilga had done his task nobly, and he reeled and sank on the rough ground and gasped for breath. Peter came in panting and tired out, and just as the flames were catching Yamba, the riderless horse reached the haven of safety.
Woonoona homestead was burned, but Mathew Martin and Nelly were saved. Mathew Martin often tells the story of that ride for life in his own simple way. He also tells how the papers he brought away with him contained, amongst other things, mining scrip that turned out well, and brought him in enough to re-build and refurnish Woonoona and tide him well over his losses. His niece, Nelly, has never forgotten that ride, and her uncle made her a present of Wilga, who recovered from his desperate struggle, although he was never quite the same horse again.
A Ride For Life by Nat Gould was published on 29 August 1896 in Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News. It resembles (but is not the same as) Chased by Fire, the third story in the Nat Gould book called A Stable Mystery and Other Stories that was published posthumously by John Long in 1921. See Nat Gould The Biography by Tom Askey (2017) pages 148 to 149.