It was a great invention. Everybody said so. Even the cowboy described it as neat. The boss had made it from an old motorbike engine, a small gear pump and the tank from an old “Wizard” lighting plant. Although it was somewhat ponderous, he’d managed to fix the whole concern on to a packsaddle which in turn was to be fixed on to the massive back of the old horse, Captain.
In actual fact this portable weed-sprayer had been conceived and manufactured with Captain as the motive force that was to take it from place to place. Without him, it could never have seen the light of day.
Captain was a wise old horse and had been with us for many years. In fact few could imagine the place without him. Nobody knew whether he was a full or three-quarter draught, or just some equine accident that placed him midway between the two. His head was a study of quaint, rather pleasing ugliness. One ear stood up and the other hung down and his nose was Roman to the extreme. During his long hours of meditation his nether lip hung down a full inch below his upper and a trickle of green saliva dripped constantly from it.
His body however was a thing of beauty, with power in every line. On many occasions he’d been known to pull a dray loaded with a ton of spuds over the freshly-dug paddock, going down almost on to his belly to overcome the initial inertia while the skin on his rump puckered up in great wrinkles as he heaved the load into motion.
Of the many and varied jobs on the station, Captain had done the lot. He had packed in the provisions and sledged out the injured. He had packed posts and battens from the bush where he had only to be shown the track once and thereafter could make it alone, cunningly edging his load round trees, and either stopping or leaving the track where he thought the trees were growing too close to accommodate the width of his load. He’d pulled motor cars from the bogs and on one occasion pulled a tractor up a slope which it was unable to climb unaided. On that occasion onlookers swore that for a brief moment an expression of hauteur spread over his ugly old face as he did so.
So you can see how the new sprayer came to be built round the old horse, and how it subsequently proved to be useless without him. When the packsaddle was first put upon him and the contraption bolted into place, he displayed no particular interest. He’d borne varied and curious loads before.
However, when the boss wound the cord round the flywheel and started the motor, his droopy ear became briefly erect for some moments before dropping back to its former position of disinterest. Except that he vibrated unavoidably in unison with the engine, he chose to ignore the whirring, snarling load altogether. When the boss took the spraying wand and gave the climbing rose that framed the stable door an experimental squirt, he took no notice whatever.
Early next morning the spraying expedition started out. The cowboy led Captain, the handyman stood by to use the wand, and the shepherd led another packhorse loaded with two cream cans of replenishing spray. The boss also went along, partly to observe the efficiency of his brainchild, but chiefly because he was the only one who could cope with the vagaries of the motor.
All through the morning, things went well. They sprayed weeds in the gullies, on the hillsides, and on the tops of the highest crags where no one had had the heart to carry a knapsack sprayer before. Twice the shepherd had to take the packhorse home for more spray. Everybody was in high spirits. It appeared as if they’d do in a day work that had taken a week with the old knapsack sprayers. The straps of these knapsack sprayers cut cruelly into a man’s shoulders, and the glands leaked spray on your back every time the handle was pumped.
At that time hormone sprays had not been introduced, and the manufacturers relied upon a product composed chiefly of kerosene with any odd corrosives thrown in that they happened to have on hand. The nozzles blocked constantly, and when you peered down the holes to try and locate the obstruction, a knapsack sprayer always seemed to be able to conjure up a little extra pressure from somewhere—enough to squirt a little jet of liquid into your eye. Even with the new sprayer, this fault was not entirely eliminated, and with the increased pressure from the engine, a lot more vapour-drift was evident. This sometimes enveloped the old horse, but although he emerged from it blinking frantically while big tears ran down his cheeks, he offered no complaint.
It may, however, have been a contributing factor towards his stepping on the stake that ripped his leg open from fetlock to kneebone. Poor old Captain, game to the last. Everybody was concerned, the cowboy so much so that he unhesitatingly tore up his only shirt for a bandage. He and the shepherd took the packsaddle with the sprayer still attached, while the boss explored the wound for any fragments of wood before bandaging it. When they’d all done what they could, the men surveyed the gloomy prospect of going home for the knapsack sprayers to finish the small area still to be done.
Finally the boss decided that they would put the sprayer on Nigger, the other packhorse and, as the boss put it, “see how he went.”
None of the others had dared make this suggestion because they already had a rough idea of how Nigger would go. Compared with old Captain’s pure gold, this other horse was base metal indeed; and as for the sprayer, why, he hated the sight of it. The engine had to be stopped before he could be induced to come near enough for a transfer of spray.
Nobody was surprised therefore when he had to be blindfolded before they could get the packhorse saddle in place. The boss made a personal inspection of the straps, and even managed to get the girth up another couple of holes after the shepherd declared it to be “hog-tight.”
The cowboy kicked footholds in the ground with his tremendous fern tight boots, and shortened his grip on the lead rope. The shepherd made a final examination of the straps and the boss pulled off the blindfold.
The horse did nothing. He stood and shivered. When they led him about, he moved uneasily, but offered no violence: but, as the cowboy remarked, he was “showing a lot of white in his eye.” Everybody was encouraged. Things weren’t going too badly. Perhaps they had misjudged the beast.
“I’ll just give the motor a pull and see what happens,” announced the boss.
The cowboy dug himself fresh footholds and the shepherd looked over the gear once again while the boss wound the cord round the flywheel and gave it a gentle tug. Everybody expected fireworks when the motor burst into a full-throated roar.
Sure enough, the effect on the horse was electric. With his first lunge, Nigger lifted the cowboy with an ease that made him realise the futility of digging footholds. And then he started to buck: he was no mean bucker either. He pulled every trick out of the bag, and a few more that nobody had ever thought of.
He weaved and he corkscrewed. He pig-rooted and he swapped ends. He pinwheeled and he fishtailed. He reared and he pile drove, and all the time he was squealing in a frenzy of rage and frustration.
On the top of this cyclone rode the motor, and the makers must surely have never designed it to run under such conditions. Yet run it sure did. Not perfectly, it’s true, but it did run. Sometimes it backfired and shot great gouts of flame from the open exhaust, and sometimes it died away to the merest whisper only to roar into life again as conditions became momentarily favourable, but it never stopped completely.
Meanwhile in the eye of the storm the cowboy was putting up a stern fight. He fended and sidestepped, he ran backwards and was pulled forwards. Sometimes he became airborne, only to crash land when his aerodynamics proved inadequate, but he never relaxed his grip on that lead rope. The muscles stood out like cords on his skinny arms as he fought a silent desperate fight.
The boss and the shepherd fluttered uselessly on the edge of the tumult, relying on words rather than deeds to quell its violence. The boss could do no better than a high-pitched injunction to “stick to him, boy, stick to him!”
The cowboy was having difficulty in sticking to anything.
The shepherd, however, was a more imaginative man, and one with a cunning if somewhat brightly-tinted turn of phrase. He described the hereditary shortcomings of the horse since its ancestor, a five-toed creature, first crawled from the primeval mud. Unfortunately, many of these gems were lost in the general pandemonium. Finally the horse abandoned the idea of getting rid of its load and sought refuge in flight.
For a time the cowboy stuck with him, progressing in what the shepherd afterwards described as “flamin’ great leaps and bounds.” Eventually the speed of the cowboy’s top half, which was taking the tension, became too great for his feet, impeded as they were by his oversize boots—and he tipped out. He sledged a further 100 yards on his stomach, but finding this a punishing method of getting over the ground, very wisely let go.
Freed of his weight, Nigger gathered speed at every stride and began to accomplish piecemeal what he had set out to do in the beginning. The first thing that came loose was the hose, which trailed out behind, spraying intermittently as the trigger hit the ground. Eventually it got caught up in something and was torn from the pump, which exhausted the tank in a solid stream of liquid, shot far out to the rear. (“Jet-assisted,” said the cowboy who kept himself informed on the latest developments of thrust.)
The engine was still running as Nigger thundered down the ridge, but it was apparent that most of its original sting was gone. Nobody was surprised when it extinguished itself with a mighty bang as the horse disappeared over the skyline.
Thereafter only faint breaking-up noises were heard until eventually these died away.
“Isn’t it quiet?” said the shepherd.
Later on, they followed Nigger’s trail home, picking up pieces here and there, commenting briefly upon their original position on the machine, and then putting them in plain sight for easy recovery.
When they got home the packhorse was in the paddock, naked, foam-flecked, and triumphant. The next day they finished the spraying, using the old knapsack sprayers which seemed by comparison to be pale bloodless things.
The boss never did get around to rebuilding that machine.
By the time the faithful old Captain had recovered, sprayers mounted on fourwheel-drive vehicles had made their appearance, and although the boss switched over to these, he always pointed to the chains of hose that had to be pulled out by hand, and spoke glowingly of the amazing mobility of his great packhorse spraying machine, the pieces of which still lie along the track where the men left them, alone in their glory.