“H’m!” said Billy. “As soon as I heard the camels were loose I came away on my own account. When a battery—a screw-gun mule calls gun-bullocks gentlemen, he must be very badly shaken up. Who are you fellows on the ground there?”
The gun bullocks rolled their cuds, and answered both together: “The seventh yoke of the first gun of the Big Gun Battery. We were asleep when the camels came, but when we were trampled on we got up and walked away. It is better to lie quiet in the mud than to be disturbed on good bedding. We told your friend here that there was nothing to be afraid of, but he knew so much that he thought otherwise. Wah!”
They went on chewing.
“That comes of being afraid,” said Billy. “You get laughed at by gun-bullocks. I hope you like it, young un.”
The young mule’s teeth snapped, and I heard him say something about not being afraid of any beefy old bullock in the world. But the bullocks only clicked their horns together and went on chewing.
“Now, don’t be angry after you’ve been afraid. That’s the worst kind of cowardice,” said the troop-horse. “Anybody can be forgiven for being scared in the night, I think, if they see things they don’t understand. We’ve broken out of our pickets, again and again, four hundred and fifty of us, just because a new recruit got to telling tales of whip snakes at home in Australia till we were scared to death of the loose ends of our head-ropes.”
“That’s all very well in camp,” said Billy. “I’m not above stampeding myself, for the fun of the thing, when I haven’t been out for a day or two. But what do you do on active service?”
“Oh, that’s quite another set of new shoes,” said the troop horse. “Dick Cunliffe’s on my back then, and drives his knees into me, and all I have to do is to watch where I am putting my feet, and to keep my hind legs well under me, and be bridle-wise.”
“What’s bridle-wise?” said the young mule.
“By the Blue Gums of the Back Blocks,” snorted the troop-horse, “do you mean to say that you aren’t taught to be bridle-wise in your business? How can you do anything, unless you can spin round at once when the rein is pressed on your neck? It means life or death to your man, and of course that’s life and death to you. Get round with your hind legs under you the instant you feel the rein on your neck. If you haven’t room to swing round, rear up a little and come round on your hind legs. That’s being bridle-wise.”
“We aren’t taught that way,” said Billy the mule stiffly. “We’re taught to obey the man at our head: step off when he says so, and step in when he says so. I suppose it comes to the same thing. Now, with all this fine fancy business and rearing, which must be very bad for your hocks, what do you do?”
“That depends,” said the troop-horse. “Generally I have to go in among a lot of yelling, hairy men with knives—long shiny knives, worse than the farrier’s knives—and I have to take care that Dick’s boot is just touching the next man’s boot without crushing it. I can see Dick’s lance to the right of my right eye, and I know I’m safe. I shouldn’t care to be the man or horse that stood up to Dick and me when we’re in a hurry.”
“Don’t the knives hurt?” said the young mule.
“Well, I got one cut across the chest once, but that wasn’t Dick’s fault—”
“A lot I should have cared whose fault it was, if it hurt!” said the young mule.
“You must,” said the troop horse. “If you don’t trust your man, you may as well run away at once. That’s what some of our horses do, and I don’t blame them. As I was saying, it wasn’t Dick’s fault. The man was lying on the ground, and I stretched myself not to tread on him, and he slashed up at me. Next time I have to go over a man lying down I shall step on him—hard.”