The oldest musterer drew the box he was sitting on a little closer to the fire. The flames emphasised the lines etched on his face by years of exposure to wind and snow, sun and rain. Outside the wind howled in the stunted birch trees and already the snow was banked halfway up the but window on the southern side.
“This is what comes of startin’ the autumn muster a fortnight late,” he said. “Gotta go to the football, or go to the races. And here we are stuck out on the hill with muster only half over. Of course the snow’s started early this year. Still, it was bound to happen. We been gettin’ away with it for years now. I allus said: one of these days old Hughie’s goin’ to make a pounce and when he does there’s goin’ to be some long faces in the high country. Their bottom lips’ll be frostbitten through draggin’ in the snow….
“Reminds me of the first year I came down here from up north. I wanted to see what this high country musterin’ was like. Just shows yer where a bit of curiosity will get you. Nineteen-eighteen I think it was. She broke early that year and we was snowrakin’ for four months.” “I’ve never been snow-raking,” said the youngest musterer from his place in the corner.
“Son, you don’t know what you been missin’. If you want to get good and cold, that’s the way to do it. When I first came down here I hadn’t done none either. Not until I got a job up on Stormy Peaks, and then I got a bellyful. She was a steep bit of dirt, that. All welkin’ country and straight up on end. The only flats were the bits that’d fallen over. Miles of rock and runnin’ shingle. Up at the old Pyrites Hut you could look up the chimney and see the sheep grazing.
“Old Mac Gregor was in charge—you wouldn’t know him. Fur all over him except on his head. No, it’d be before your time. He’s dead now anyway. When the station was taken back by the Forestry they bought him a bit of a house in Christchurch. “Didn’t last long after that. Couldn’t stand being hemmed in. Three good paces and he was at the far boundary. He wasn’t that old neither. Be about the same age as I am now, when I first went there, but he hadn’t weathered very well. Used to start breathin’ fast on any climb above 6000 feet and was always talkin’ about things that’d happened thirty or forty years before. Nobody wants to hear that sort of rubbish. It’s like yesterday’s newspaper, it’s finished.
“Course I always blamed the porridge for him being in such a poor state. He and his wife used to eat buckets of the stuff. Any hour of the day or night they’d be lapping up porridge. They even made a pudding out of the blasted stuff.
“She was a grand old lady, that. Do anything for you. I stayed there fifteen years and didn’t never once hear her say a bad word about nobody. Died on the place, she did. Helped carry her out in the dead of winter. Helluva trip. Snowed all the time. On the way back we had to lie down and roll over the drifts and if you think that’s funny you try it some time. Come to think of it, it was probably the porridge that done her in.
“Daughter come to look after the old man after that, but she wasn’t a patch on the old lady. She must’ve had a disappointment somewhere along the line because she used to go around with a face like a rabbit trap, glarin’ at the milk and turnin’ it sour. We got just as much porridge as before but more lumpy.
“Ian and I dumped a packhorse load of oatmeal in the river when we were packin’ the stores in once, when the old lady was alive. We was very apologetic about it but she said it didn’t really matter because luckily she’d ordered a bit extra.
“Old MacGregor was a bit of a rough diamond but we got along all right with him. Especially Ian, he could play the pipes. The first toot on them would set Mac and the old lady buckin’ and rearin’. It wasn’t as if they weren’t old enough to know better. Couldn’t seem to help themselves, somehow.
“Old Mac was a great counter of sheep. Made a speciality of it. I’ve seen sheep counted in all sorts of ways. I’ve seen blokes lettin’ them run through the race and dittin’ them off one by one and usually gettin’ the wrong answer at the finish. Other blokes count them in three and add one at thirty-three to make a hundred. Some count them in ones and twos ready to shut the gate in their faces if they start comin’ a bit fast. And then there’s the bloke that counts them from pen to pen with all the odds and sods checkin’ his tally. After about a dozen times round the yards, they generally reach agreement.
“Old Mac didn’t do none of these things. He just swung the twelve-foot gate wide open and took ’em as they came. He was good. He could count with both hands. Trouble was he knew he was good, and he talked about it, and that made him unpopular. He used to count them on the hill for practice, and if ever he met a mob on the road, he’d count them as they went past. Then he would tell the drover how many he had, and that’d make him more unpopular still. There were some pretty good counters about among the drovers those days, and after tallyin’ them out in the morning they didn’t like this old coot comin’ along and givin”em the answer. To make it worse he was always right.
“Nobody knew how many million sheep he’d counted in his time to get as good as he was. He seemed to know how many were in a bunch by the size of it.
“But we didn’t mind him skitin’ so much because when his wife died we discovered a curious thing. He couldn’t add up. Not on paper, that is. Whenever he had to do up his books he’d get one of the boys up to the house to add up for him. He’d always take their answer on paper same as he expected them to take his, on the hoof. His wife used to do it before she died. But that daughter of his couldn’t add up neither. (A few additions in the form of a family might’ve done her a lot of good. I wouldn’t’ve been the one to suggest it for all that.)
“When the property was finally taken over, there was 4000 grown wethers to go away and Tom Geery and Dugald McTavish came up to lift.
“Both of them could count sheep. They had to be able to, because they was countin’ them every day. But they couldn’t foot it with old Mac. They’d tried it before and they’d lost count every time. But this time it was goin’ to be different. One of them had a quiet little headin’ dog, one of the old Lillico breed. Good little dog it was too, but at three years old it turned stone deaf. Don’t know why, unless it couldn’t stand the language that shepherds use. You could still work it, but only with hand movements. Well anyhow, when it came time to count the sheep out on to the track, the tallyman climbed up on the fence, with his sheath knife and his tally stick at the ready. Old Mac opened the gate and Tom took up his position as check counter.’em. Tom and Dugald were hard men, both dead now. Tom blew out drinkin’ methylated spirits or paint thinners or something down in Methven, and Dugald got himself drowned huntin’ cattle over the Haast.
“Dugald sat on the fence way back lookin’ so innocent as to be suspicious.”Well, the first hundred went out all right. The old bloke called out tally and the tallyman cut a notch on his stick. We never knew why Mac bothered with a tallyman because he never consulted him afterwards. He already had the hundreds tucked away in the corner of his brain that he kept specially clear for the purpose. From then on things speeded up. Dugald had waved the little headin’ dog on to the back of the mob.
“Those wethers were wild! Straight in off the hill and only six weeks off the shears. They started pilin’ up on top of each other and pourin’ through the gate about twelve deep. The old bloke was really countin’ now. His arms was goin’ like windmills and his beard was bobbin’ up and down like the piston on one of these newfangled two-stroke engines. Tom had given up the pretence of countin’ long ago. The tallies was comin’ so fast that the tallyman nearly cut a notch in his finger by mistake.
“Dugald waved the dog on again, and it started puttin’ the nips in. They was really poundin’ through the gate now, and old Mac was in his element, until an old wether jumped over the shadow cast by a gatepost. Soon they was all at it. That’s where the old bloke found the goin’ a bit tough, and he steps in to check them. Only time I ever saw him do it. It was a mistake.
“As he was leanin’ over to get a look on the far side, a wether jumps up under his feet and catches him under the chin with the back of its head. There was an awful crack, you could hear it all over the yards. Old Mac’s eyes glazed a bit, but he still had enough fire in him to aim a kick at the sheep that did it. That was a mistake too, because he missed the sheep completely and another one jumped under his boot-heel, and put him on his back in an untidy heap and the rest of the mob ran over the top of him. He did try to get up a few times but always a wether would spring on him and put him down again.
“Finally he stayed down. “He was still down when the last of the mob was gone. We dragged him over to the fence and stacked him up against it. He’d had a rough trot under those sheep; they’d tramped great clumps of fur off him everywhere.
“He come round after a bit and spat out a mixture of blood and manure. ‘Four thousand and seventeen,’ he says. ‘Ye’d better keep a leadin’ dog on thim for a couple of days. They’re a wee mite lively.’
“When Tom and Dugald counted them into the holdin’ paddock that night, there were just four thousand and seventeen. They both made it the same tally.” The oldest musterer rose from his box. “Think I’ll hit the hay,” he said.
He kicked off his unlaced boots and climbed into his sleeping bag on its mattress of tussock.
“Haw, haw,” laughed the youngest musterer, breaking the long silence at the fireside. “He knew how many there was beforehand. That’s how he got them right.”
“He didn’t know,” said the oldest musterer. “Nobody did. Straight in off the hill they was.”
“Well, how the hell could he count them when they was running over the top of him?”
“Counted their feet and divided by four,” said the oldest musterer, drawing the sleeping-bag flap over his head.