The Loaded Dog
By Henry Lawson (1867-1922)
Dave Regan, Jim Bently, and Andy Page were sinking a shaft at Stony Creek in search of a rich gold quartz reef, which was supposed to exist in the
vicinity. There is always a rich reef supposed to exist in the vicinity;
the only questions are whether it is ten feet or hundreds beneath the
surface, and in which direction. They had struck some pretty solid rock,
also water, which kept them bailing. They used the old-fashioned blasting
powder and time fuse. They'd make a sausage or cartridge of blasting-powder
in a skin of strong calico or canvas, the mouth sewn and bound round the
end of the fuse; they'd dip the cartridge in melted tallow to make it
water-tight, get the drill hole as dry as possible, drop in the cartridge
with some dry dust, and wad and ram with stiff clay and broken brick. Then
they'd light the fuse and get out of the hole and wait. The result was
usually an ugly pothole in the bottom of the shaft and half a barrow-load
of broken rock.
There was plenty of fish in the creek, fresh-water bream, cod, catfish, and
tailers. The party were fond of fish, and Andy and Dave of fishing. Andy
would fish for three hours at a stretch if encouraged by a 'nibble' or a
'bite' now and then, say once in twenty minutes. The butcher was always
willing to give meat in exchange for fish when they caught more than they
could eat; but now it was winter, and these fish wouldn't bite. However,
the creek was low, just a chain of muddy water-holes, from the hole with a
few bucketfuls in it to the sizeable pool with an average depth of six or
seven feet, and they could get fish by bailing out the smaller holes or
muddying up the water in the larger ones till the fish rose to the surface.
There was the catfish, with spikes growing out of the sides of its head,
and if you got pricked you'd know it, as Dave said. Andy took off his
boots, tucked up his trousers, and went into a hole one day to stir up the
mud with his feet, and he knew it. Dave scooped one out with his hand and
got pricked, and he knew it too; his arm swelled, and the pain throbbed up
into his shoulder, and down into his stomach too, he said, like a toothache
he had once, and kept him awake for two night, only the toothache pain had
a 'burred edge', Dave said.
Dave got an idea. "Why not blow the fish up in the big water-hole with a
cartridge?" he said. "I'll try it." He thought the thing out and Andy Page
worked it out. Andy usually put Dave's theories into practice if they were
practicable, or bore the blame for the failure and the chaffing of his
mates if they weren't. He made a cartridge about three times the size of
those they used in the rock. Jim Bently said it was big enough to blow the
bottom out of the river. The inner skin was of stout calico; Andy stuck the
end of a six-foot piece of fuse well down in the powder and bound the mouth
of the bag firmly to it with whipcord. The idea was to sink the cartridge
in the water with the open end of the fuse attached to a float on the
surface, ready for lighting. Andy dipped the cartridge in melted bees'-wax
to make it watertight. "We'll have to leave it some time before we light
it," said Dave, "to give the fish time to get over their scare when we put
it in, and come nosing round again; so we'll want it well water-tight."
Round the cartridge Andy, at Dave's suggestion, bound a strip of sail
canvas - that they used for making water-bags - to increase the force of
the explosion, and round that he pasted layers of stiff brown paper - on
the plan of the sort of fireworks we called 'gun-crackers'. He let the
paper dry in the sun, then he sewed a covering of two thicknesses of canvas
over it, and bound the thing from end to end with stout fishing-line.
Dave's schemes were elaborate, and he often worked his inventions out to
nothing. The cartridge was rigid and solid enough now - a formidable bomb;
but Andy and Dave wanted to be sure. Andy sewed on another layer of canvas,
dipped the cartridge in melted tallow, twisted a length of fencing-wire
round it as an afterthought, dipped it in tallow again, and stood it
carefully against a tent-peg, where he'd know where to find it, and wound
the fuse loosely round it. Then he went to the campfire to try some
potatoes, which were boiling in their jackets in a billy, and to see about
frying some chops for dinner. Dave and Jim were at work in the claim that
They had a big black young retriever dog - or rather an overgrown pup, a
big foolish, four-footed mate, who was always slobbering round them and
lashing their legs with his heavy tail that swung round like a stock-whip.
Most of his head was usually a red, idiotic, slobbering grin of
appreciation of his own silliness. He seemed to take life, the world, his
two-legged mates, and his own instinct as a huge joke. He'd retrieve
anything: he carted back most of the camp rubbish that Andy threw away.
They had a cat that died in hot weather, and Andy threw it a good distance
away in the scrub; and early one morning the dog found the cat, after it
had been dead a week or so, and carried it back to camp, and laid it just
inside the tent flaps, where it could best make its presence known when the
mates should rise and begin to sniff suspiciously in the sickly smothering
atmosphere of the summer sunrise. He used to retrieve them when they went
in swimming; he'd jump in after them, and take their hands in his mouth,
and try to swim out with them, and scratch their naked bodies with his
paws. They loved him for his good-heartedness and his foolishness, but when
they wished to enjoy a swim they had to tie him up in camp.
He watched Andy with great interest all the morning making the cartridge,
and hindered him considerably, trying to help; but about noon he went off
to the claim to see how Dave and Jim were getting on, and to come home to
dinner with them. Andy saw them coming, and put a pan full of muttonchops
on the fire. Andy was cook today; Dave and Jim stood with their backs to
the fire, as Bushmen do in all weathers, waiting till dinner should be
ready. The retriever went nosing round after something he seemed to have
Andy's brain still worked on the cartridge; his eye was caught by the glare
of an empty kerosene tin lying in the bushes, and it struck him that it
wouldn't be a bad idea to sink the cartridge packed with clay, sand, or
stones in the tin, to increase the force of the explosion. He may have been
all out, from a scientific point of view, but the notion looked all right
to him. Jim Bently, by the way, wasn't interested in their 'damned
silliness'. Andy noticed an empty treacle-tin - the sort with the little
tin neck or spout soldered on to the top for the convenience of pouring out
the treacle and it struck him that this would have made the best kind of
cartridge-case; he would only have had to pour in the powder, stick the
fuse in through the neck, and cork and seal it with bees'-wax. He was
turning to suggest this to Dave, when Dave glanced over his shoulder to see
how the chops were doing and bolted. He explained afterwards that he
thought he heard the pan spluttering extra, and looked to see if the chops
were burning. Jim Bently looked behind and bolted after Dave. Andy stood
stock still, staring after them.
"Run, Andy! Run!" they shouted back at him. "Run ! ! ! Look behind you, you
fool!" Andy turned slowly and looked, and there, close behind him, was the
retriever with the cartridge in his mouth wedged into his broadest and
silliest grin. And that wasn't all. The dog had come round the fire to
Andy, and the loose end of the fuse had trailed and waggled over the
burning sticks into the blaze; Andy had slit and nicked the firing end of
the fuse well, and now it was hissing and spitting properly.
Andy's legs started with a jolt; his legs started before his brain did, and
he made after Dave and Jim. And the dog followed Andy.
Dave and Jim were good runners - Jim the best - for a short distance; Andy
was slow and heavy, but he had the strength and the wind and could last.
The dog leapt and capered round him, delighted as a dog could be to find
his mates, as he thought, on for a frolic. Dave and Jim kept shouting back,
"Don't foller us! Don't foller us, you coloured fool!" but Andy kept on, no
matter how they dodged.
They could never explain, any more than the dog, why they followed each
other, but so they ran, Dave keeping in Jim's track in all its turnings,
Andy after Dave, and the dog circling round Andy, the live fuse swishing in
all directions and hissing and spluttering and stinking; Jim yelling to
Dave not to follow him, Dave shouting to Andy to go in another direction,
to 'spread, and Andy roaring at the dog to go home. Then Andy's brain began
to work, stimulated by the crisis: he tried to get a running kick at the
dog, but the dog dodged; he snatched up sticks and stones and threw them at
the dog and ran on again.
The retriever saw that he'd made a mistake about Andy, and left him and
bounded after Dave. Dave, who had the presence of mind to think that the
fuse's time wasn't up yet, made a dive and a grab for the dog, caught him
by the tail, and as he swung round snatched the cartridge out of his mouth
and flung it as far as he could: the dog immediately bounded after it and
retrieved it. Dave roared and cursed at the dog, who, seeing that Dave was
offended, left him and went after Jim, who was well ahead. Jim swung to a
sapling and went up it like a native bear; it was a young sapling, and Jim
couldn't safely get more than ten or twelve feet from the ground. The dog
laid the cartridge, as carefully as if it was a kitten, at the foot of the
sapling, and capered and leaped and whooped joyously round under Jim. The
big pup reckoned that this was part of the lark he was all right now, it
was Jim who was out for a spree.
The fuse sounded as if it were going a mile a minute. Jim tried to climb
higher and the sapling bent and cracked. Jim fell on his feet and ran. The
dog swooped on the cartridge and followed. It all took but a very few
moments. Jim ran to a digger's hole, about ten feet deep and dropped down
into it - landing on soft mud and was safe. The dog grinned sardonically
down on him, over the edge, for a moment, as if he thought it would be a
good lark to drop the cartridge down on Jim. "Go away, Tommy," said Jim
feebly, "go away."
The dog bounded off after Dave, who was the only one in sight now; Andy had
dropped behind a log, where he lay flat on his face, having suddenly
remembered a picture of the Russo-Turkish war with a circle of Turks lying
flat on their faces (as if they were ashamed) round a newly-arrived shell.
There was a small hotel or shanty on the creek, on the main road, not far
from the claim. Dave was desperate; the time flew much faster in his
stimulated imagination than it did in reality, so he made for the shanty.
There were several casual Bushmen on the verandah and in the bar; Dave
rushed into the bar, banging the door to behind him. "My dog!" he gasped,
in reply to the astonished stare of the publican, "the blanky retriever -
he's got a live cartridge in his mouth."
The retriever, finding the front door shut against him, had bounded round
and in by the back way, and now stood smiling in the doorway leading from
the passage, the cartridge still in his mouth and the fuse spluttering.
They burst out of that bar. Tommy bounded first after one and then after
another, for, being a young dog, he tried to make friends with everybody.
The Bushmen ran round corners, and some shut themselves in the stable.
There was a new weatherboard and corrugated iron kitchen and washhouse on
piles in the back yard, with some women washing clothes inside. Dave and
the publican bundled in there and shut the door - the publican cursing Dave
and calling him a crimson fool, in hurried tones, and wanting to know what
the hell he came here for.
The retriever went in under the kitchen, amongst the piles, but, luckily
for those inside, there was a vicious yellow mongrel cattle-dog sulking and
nursing his nastiness under there - a sneaking, fighting, thieving canine,
whom neighbours had tried for years to shoot or poison. Tommy saw his
danger - he'd had experience from this dog - and started out and across the
yard, still sticking to the cartridge. Halfway across the yard the yellow
dog caught him and nipped him. Tommy dropped the cartridge, gave one
terrified yell, and took to the bush. The yellow dog followed him to the
fence and then ran back to see what he had dropped.
Nearly a dozen other dogs came from round all the corners and under the
buildings, spidery, thievish, cold-blooded kangaroo-dogs, mongrel sheep and
cattle dogs, vicious black and yellow dogs- that slip after you in the
dark, nip your heels, and vanish without explaining, and yapping, yelping
small fry. They kept at a respectable distance round the nasty yellow dog,
for it was dangerous to go near him when he thought he had found something
which might be good for a dog to eat.
He sniffed at the cartridge twice, and was just taking a third cautious
sniff when ... It was a very good blasting-powder - a new brand that Dave
had recently got up from Sydney; and the cartridge had been excellently
well made. Andy was very patient and painstaking in all he did, and nearly
as handy as the average sailor with needles, twine, canvas, and rope.
Bushmen say that that kitchen jumped off its piles and on again. When the
smoke and dust cleared away, the remains of the nasty yellow dog were lying
against the paling fence of the yard looking as if he had been kicked into
a fire by a horse and afterwards rolled in the dust under a barrow, and
finally thrown against the fence from a distance. Several saddle horses,
which had been 'hanging-up' round the verandah, were galloping wildly down
the road in clouds of dust, with broken bridle-reins flying; and from a
circle round the outskirts, from every point of the compass in the scrub,
came the yelping of dogs. Two of them went home, to the place where they
were born, thirty miles away, and reached it the same night and stayed
there; it was not till towards evening that the rest came back cautiously
to make inquiries. One was trying to walk on two legs, and most of 'em
looked more or less singed; and a little, singed, stumpy tailed dog, who
had been in the habit of hopping the back half of him along on one leg, had
reason to be glad that he'd saved up the other leg all those years, for he
needed it now.
There was one old one-eyed cattle-dog round that shanty for years
afterwards, who couldn't stand the smell of a gun being cleaned. He it was
who had taken an interest, only second to that of the yellow dog, in the
cartridge. Bushmen said that it was amusing to slip up on his blind side
and stick a dirty ramrod under his nose: he wouldn't wait to bring his
solitary eye to bear, he'd take to the bush and stay out all night.
For half an hour or so after the explosion there were several bushmen round
behind the stable who crouched, doubled up, against the wall, or rolled
gently on the dust, trying to laugh without shrieking. There were two white
women in hysterics at the house, and a half-caste rushing aimlessly round
with a dipper of cold water. The publican was holding his wife tight and
begging her between her squawks, to 'hold up for my sake, Mary, or I'll lam
the life out of ye'.
Dave decided to apologise later on, 'when things had settled a bit', and
went back to camp. And the dog that had done it all, 'Tommy', the great,
idiotic mongrel retriever, came slobbering round Dave and lashing his legs
with his tail, and trotted home after him, smiling his broadest, longest,
and reddest smile of amiability, and apparently satisfied for one afternoon
with the fun he'd had. Andy chained the dog up securely, and cooked some
more chops, while Dave went to help Jim out of the hole.
And most of this is why, for years afterwards, lanky, easy going bushmen,
riding lazily past Dave's camp, would cry, in a lazy drawl and with just a
hint of the nasal twang: 'El-lo, Da-a-ve! How's the fishin' getting on,