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THE SQUATTERS' HANDICAP
A TALE OF THE 'SEVENTIES
By Nat Gould
“We lived in the Kelly country in the 'seventies,” said Tom Halton, “and there were wild doings there then let me tell you. Our place was not far from Benalla, and of course all that district in Victoria was occasionally laid under contribution by the bushrangers. Yes, those, were stirring times, as some of us discovered, myself amongst the number.”
We were in Melbourne for the Autumn meeting at Flemington and Tom Halton generally made one of our party. He was a good specimen of a colonial, a man who had worked his way to the front by sheer “hard graft.” He had plenty of money, and knew how to spend it when surrounded by genial company. Nothing pleased us better than to get “Benalla Tom” to tell us a yarn of his early days, and although he stretched the long bow sometimes there was always a substratum of truth in his story.
“Under pressure, lads,” said Tom, “I'll tell you a yarn with pleasure, but mind you it's under pressure, and if you don't like it remember you squeezed it out of me against my better judgment.”
“Fire away, Tom,” was our rejoinder, “you always work better under pressure.”
“We were fond of a bit of racing in those days,” said Tom, “and my brother and myself were accounted very fair horse men.” “You are a good 'un yet,” said one of the party.
“Dry up," said Tom, "or I'll break away, and you'll not get me going again.”
“The Kelly gang had been going it hot, and scouring the country, sticking up banks, and lifting cattle and horses, putting bullets in the mounted police, and scarifying quiet folks out of their wits. The 'boys' generally let us alone. We had a way of our own in dealing with 'em. Now it's all done with years ago I may tell you it's not one meal, but scores, the boys had at our place. They'd a good deal of gratitude in 'em, those wild fellows, but they were a lawless set, and the country is better without them and their likes. They seldom took any of our horses, but they managed to give us a turn once. We had a very fine horse, a real thoroughbred, and we'd won heaps of local races with him. My brother called him Fly-by-night, because he was a beggar to get loose after sun down, and we often had to scour the country for him. Such a good opinion had we of him that we entered him in the Squatters' Handicap, a mile race, run at Flemington in the Cup Meeting. The race was run on the last day of the meeting, and generally secured a lot of entries. We specially trained Fly-by-night for this race, and had him as fit as a fiddle. We meant to have him there in ample time for the race, and took good care of him, you bet.
About a week before the meeting one of the 'boys' called at our house. He was a newer hand than some of 'em and not so hardened. We took quite a fancy to him. He'd seen better days and had been brought up a bit of a swell. He was very anxious to see Fly-by-night, so we showed him the horse, and he went mad over him. We were not over-pleased at this because when one of the 'boys' fancied a thing he generally managed to get it. We told him what we were going to run Fly-by-night in and that we thought he'd win, for we knew these chaps backed horses heavily.
When he'd gone I told my brother we must look well after Fly-by-night or he'd be missing. We had him safe under lock and key every night, and all went well until the day before we had arranged to take him to Melbourne. My brother locked him up as he thought safe and sound that night. When I went to look at him next morning the door of his box was wide open and there was no horse inside. I saw the padlock fastened and the bar hanging down, and fancied Fred had forgotten to slip it on before padlocking it. There was a row in our house that morning, you bet, and words flew about as thick and big as hailstones. Fred vowed he had locked the door all rlght, and said some of the boys had unlocked the padlock and taken the horse away.
“I said it was nothing of the sort. He had not put the bar up, and Fly-by-night had burst the door open and gone off on one of his nocturnal rambles.
“There was nothing for it anyhow but to search high and low for him, and we did. From morning to night we were after him. We met some of the gang, and they said they had not touched him, and helped us in the search. Lor', I shall never forget it. We looked all over the country for that blessed horse, and not a trace of him could we find. Talk about being mad! We were more than that. We raved and ranted, but it was no use.
“ 'What are you going to do?' ” says Fred, at breakfast, the morning before the race.
“Do?” I said. “You're a pretty fellow to ask me what I'm going to do. What are you going to do? It's all your fault the horse has been lost.”
“ 'Taint my fault,' ” he says; “ 'just you drop that, or you and me'll quarrel. We've never done it before, but, blame me, if I'm going to sit here and be made a jackass of.'
“ 'If it's not your fault, whose is it?' I asked.
“ 'The boys have stolen him, I'm certain,' said Fred. 'Let's ride to the gully and have a look.'
“ 'And get a bullet inside us for our pains,' I said.
“The gully was an open spot in the ranges with two narrow entrances, and very few people knew of it except the 'boys' and ourselves.
“ 'We'll risk a bullet then,' said Fred. "I'm game, if you are.'
“This was a direct challenge, so I made no more to do, but agreed to go with him. I knew if the 'boys' had the horse it was a hundred to one they had him in the gully, it was a long ride from our place, and we took some grub with us, as we might have to camp out. Neither of us was in a talking mood, so we rode silently most of the way. It was late in the afternoon when we came to the entrance to the gully. Not a sign of a human being about, and the place as quiet as a grave. I did not relish the look of it, and should not have been surprised to hear a shot and the whirr of a bullet past my head, if I was lucky enough not to be hit. They were dead shots most of the 'boys' and seldom missed their aim. After hesitating for some time we cautiously entered into the gully. It was a dangerous thing to do without an invitation, but we did not mean to go back without seeing if Fly-by-night was there. Once inside we saw none of the gang were there. Two or three cows and a couple of horses were the sole living things besides ourselves. We camped and rested, and thought the matter over.
“ 'Not much stock in the place,' said Fred. 'I reckon they're out on a lifting excursion somewhere. We'd best make tracks for home. If they find our place empty the temptation will he too great for them to resist.'
“ 'We must camp here for the night,' I said, 'and start for home at daybreak.'
“We were tired, and slept soundly. I was first to wake, and found it getting light. No one had returned to the gully yet. I soon had a fire going, and made some tea in the billy. We always had a billy with us, and tea is a grand tipple when you are camping out. After breakfast we made the best of our way home, and found all safe when we reached the yards. Not many people passed our way in those days. Benalla and district was not the place you lads find it now. We had the country-side pretty much to ourselves then. We wondered what had won the Squatters' Handicap at Flemington, run that afternoon, and were not in the best of tempers about it.
“ 'Fly-by-night would have won right enough,' said Fred. 'Awful had luck I call it, and I don't suppose we shall see the horse again.'
We didn't care much what had won, and never thought of going over to Benalla to find out. It was on a Saturday the race was run, and I did not go into Benalla until Wednesday. We fetched our letters, and got a paper or two about once a week from the township. At the post-office I got a letter and Monday's paper, just to see an account of the race. I did not stop in the place ten minutes, but rode straight back home.
“ 'Here's a paper,' I shouted to Fred, and flung it to him into the verandah, and then rode round to put my horse in the paddock. I clean forgot the letter in my pocket. We did not get many letters; about two or three in a month, perhaps less. When I got inside I saw Fred staring at the paper as though his eyes would drop out.
“ 'What's up?' I said. 'Are you going to have a fit? '
“ 'You'll have fits when you read this,' he said, handing me the paper and pointing to a corner of it.'
“It was an account of the races at Flemington. I nearly collapsed when I read it. Never was so surprised in my life. The Squatters' Handicap of 200 sovs. ; distance one mile. Mr. Tom Halton's b.g. Fly-by-night (Roach), 1.' I couldn't read any more. I sank into a chair and gasped out, 'What does this mean?'
“ 'Can't you read?' said Fred. 'We've won the Squatters' Handicap.'
"I thought of the letter in my pocket. I pulled it out and tore it open. I read somehow as follows:- Bourke Street Stable, Monday. Dear Sir, - Your horse, Fly-by-night, was left here on Sat. night after the races by a man who said you would send for him on Sunday. When shall you fetch him? Glad you won the Squatters' Handicap. Yours truly, Mark Jones.'
“I handed the letter to Fred. 'Well, I'm blessed,' he said.
“We found out the mystery. One of the 'boys' discovered it for us. The young chap, the new member of the gang we showed the horse to, came and picked the lock and took Fly-by-night out of the stable. The dare-devil took him to Melbourne, ran him, and won a big stake on him. We got the horse back, and we received the stake money from the club, so we were very glad it was no worse.
“Those were rum days, boys, and no mistake,” said Tom, as he concluded his story. “That's only one of a hundred yarns, I could tell of what happened to us 'in the 'seventies.' ”
This story by Nat Gould was published on 7 November 1896 in Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News.