His life and books
THE PHANTOM HORSE
A BOUNDARY-RIDER'S STORY
By Nat Gould
BILL, the boundary rider, was resting outside his hut with his back and head supported against a huge log, and his limbs stretched out at ease. He was smoking a short pipe, and watched the smoke curling up as he blew clouds from his mouth with lazy satisfaction.
I was seated on the stump of a tree contemplating Bill, and wondering how he managed to kill time in this outlandish spot, for we were some hundreds of miles west from Sydney in sunny New South Wales.
"You promised to tell me that yarn about the phantom horse, Bill," I said. “I have ridden from the homestead on purpose to hear it, and I mean to camp with you for the night."
"Would you prefer a feather bed or a spring mattress to camp on?” said Bill, with a contemptuous glance at my city rig-out.
“A saddle for a pillow and a blanket to put on the ground will do me, Bill."
"You'll be lucky if you get the blanket," said Bill. "I reckon there'll be enough ground around here for you."
I threw a cake of tobacco to Bill, and said
“Try that, old man, and then tell me about the Phantom."
Bill was mollified, and, having cut off some tobacco, rolled it in his hands, and filled his pipe, he said -
"He was a rum 'un, that Phantom. Never saw his like in these parts, or anywhere else, for a matter of that.
“How he came here, blest if I know. He was a thoroughbred, right enough, and, snakes alive, he could gallop!
“One night I was sitting outside this hut, and the moon was shining brightly. I was smoking and thinking over matters, wondering how long I was to be buried alive here - that's ten years ago - and calling myself all the choice names I could come across.
“Well, all at once, just over yonder, out of that bit of scrub, I saw something white moving up and down, for all the world like a ghost waving his arms at me."
“Ever seen a ghost, Bill?” I asked.
“You dry up, or you'll get no yarn from me," growled Bill.
I subsided, and resolved to let Bill tell his story in his own way.
"Blest if I could make it out at all," went on Bill. "At first I felt a bit creepy, but that didn't last long. I got up and walked over there, and when I was about half-way across I saw it was a horse rubbing his neck against a tree. There were three of our mares along with him. I couldn't make it out ; so I went back, saddled old Banjo, and then rode across again. Banjo could gallop in those days above a bit. He was about six years old then. He's eighteen now if he's a day. When 1 got near the trees the white horse saw me. He raised his head, shook it savagely, and commenced to paw the ground. Then he wheeled round, and, biting at each mare, seemed to say to 'em, 'Follow me.' He came out into the open with the mares alongside him, and then I saw he was one of the most perfect horses I ever clapped eyes on. He stood nearly seventeen hands and was almost white in colour. I couldn't make it out. I fancied he must be a blood stallion got loose and strayed over here on to our station. At any rate I meant to head him if I could, as he had three of our best mares with him. Lord, what a ride that was! It was chasing a phantom, and no mistake. The beggar could gallop like the wind, and it took the mares all their time to keep near him. Banjo was in good trim, so after them I went. You see I fancied I should have the best of it, as a man on a horse can generally ride down a loose horse. But I was out of my reckoning this time, as you will see. After a ten mile spin, at a pace that made Banjo blow, I found the white horse more than held his own, although the mares hung fire a bit.
"My blood was up, and the excitement of the ride was commencing to tell on me. I vowed I would run this horse down if I raced him till morning. The mares dropped back, and although the horse tried his best to keep them with him it was no use. He stopped for a moment, and I gained on him ; but when he saw I was coming nearer he snorted savagely, then left the mares and went off again at full gallop. How the beggar could go! In the moonlight he looked for all the world like a phantom horse. His white coat was plainly visible, and he seemed to fly over the ground with his long, sweeping stride.
"I was now alone with him, and urging Banjo to his utmost speed in order to keep him in sight. As for heading him, I had no chance at all ; but I meant to track him to his lair. Banjo never went faster in his life. We covered mile after mile at top speed, with the Phantom in front of us. Suddenly he branched off to the right, and I knew he was making for a place we call the Gullies.
This gave me a chance. I knew a short cut to the Gullies, and at once turned Banjo's head and rode for it. After a couple of miles at a quieter pace I reached the opening to the first gully, and here I determined to wait, as I felt sure the horse would pass the spot. I waited an hour, but saw no signs of him. I then rode on to the second gully, and, sure enough, the beggar had given me the slip, for there stood the white horse under a tree, calmly flicking his sides with his tail, as though a twenty-mile gallop was an ordinary everyday occurrence to him. This made me savage, and I gave a shout and rode straight for him. Beggar me if he didn't come straight at me. You never saw such a thing in your life. I was fairly paralysed. He galloped down on to me like an express train. Before I had time to think what was best to be done, or to turn Banjo aside, he was right on top of me. Then there was a shock. I thought there must have been an earthquake. Banjo was knocked clean off his legs, and came down with a thud, and I went sprawling on to the ground. Luckily I fell clear of Banjo, and neither of us was hurt. I scrambled to my feet and caught Banjo by the bridle. Then I looked round and saw the Phantom standing some distance away, and I could have sworn the beggar was laughing at me. I was savage, you bet. I vowed vengeance on that animal. I mounted Banjo, and after him I went again like mad. But, Lord bless you, the white horse was as fresh as paint. He led me a pretty dance. Then I missed him. Where he got to I don't know, but there I sat on Banjo, looking like a blooming bandicoot, and both of us fairly pumped out. There was no help for it, so I rode quietly back to my hut. Next day I told the tale to Sam Bowden, who came over from the homestead, and we went after him again. It was a difficult matter to find him. We searched high and low, and after about four hours' wandering came across him. Blest if the Phantom hadn't got the mares with him again. No sooner did he see us than off he went, and the mares with him. Ride? we did ride. Sam Bowden is no slouch on a horse, and I reckon I can stick on just a little bit, but we might as well have been chasing an express train.
"Of course the mares knocked up again, but the Phantom kept on, and he soon had us beaten. There was nothing for it but to go home and leave the beggar to it. We drove the mares back with us and then, tired out, we camped for the night. Next day five mares were missing, and, would you believe it, that blessed Phantom had got 'em away again. Nothing seemed to tire that horse. Well, we determined to have him next time, so a dozen of us, mounted on the best horses we had, went after him. If there had been a small township after that horse I verily believe he would have given them all the slip. We cut him off from the Gullies, so he had to take to the open. He gave us a dose, you bet. First one man fell back, and then another. Sam Bowden and myself were the last two after him. Then Banjo gave it up, and I had to pull out my pipe and smoke to keep my temper down. I had no sooner got my pipe going than I saw Sam's horse come a cropper, and Bowden shot out of the saddle like a rocket.
“You may laugh, but it's true, every word of it. I wish you'd been there. I guess you would not smile quite so broad then. That's ten years ago or more, and it was only last year we found the old Phantom dying in a gully. He had broken his back, and we shot the old chap to put him out of his pain. Yon can see his hoofs up at the homestead, mounted in silver.
“We never found out where he came from or how he was bred. He was never caught, although we had many a chase after him. We called him the phantom horse because he looked such a weird, wild fellow on a moonlight night, when his white coat could be seen a long distance away. He must have been a good bred 'un, for all his stock can gallop, and they are the best stayers in the district. The Phantom was a mighty particular cuss. He always chose the best mares to take away with him, and I can tell you some of our best horses on the station at the present time are by him. The Ghost, the winner of the Sydney Cup, was by him, and you bet we all had a bit on when he won. It is supposed he was an imported stallion and was stolen, that he got away from the thieves and was never caught, and finally made his way up here. Whatever he was, he was the best galloper I ever saw, and some of the finest riders in the colony have had a try to catch him, but he beat them all.
"That's all I know about the phantom horse. I hope you like the yarn."
I thanked Bill for his interesting story, which I knew had the merit of being true.
“We'll turn in now," said Bill.
Turning in to Bill, the boundary-rider, meant putting down his pipe, drawing a rug over himself, and going to sleep where he lay.
I got a blanket out of the hut, rolled myself in it, took Bill's saddle for a pillow, and was soon fast asleep, and dreaming I was chasing a phantom horse across the Western plains.
The Phantom Horse. A Boundary-Rider's Story by Nat Gould appeared in Illustrated Sport and Dramatic News on 18 April 1896.
It is not to be confused with a different full-length story, also written by Nat Gould, called simply The Phantom Horse that was published in the 1911 Annual and afterwards in the usual book form by John Long.