|43. BUTTONS, Billy.|
|"This Billy Buttons was a very flash fellow".|
|Blakeley, Fred. Dream Millions,145.|
For many years Billy Buttons was only known as the, "native stockman who could read, write and speak almost perfect English", Idriess has little to say about the Aboriginal in charge of two assistants and fifteen of Bob Bucks camels. Bucks employee, "had been brought up as a piccaninny in a South Australian home", (the contradiction apparently escapes Idriess). At the time of meeting the C.A.G.E. team at Illbilla on 11/09/30, the stockman and his offsiders were collecting the empty fuel drums discarded by the McKay expedition three months earlier.
"Lasseter was delighted. The native stockmen could speak a little of this particular desert lingo". Using the stockmen as interpreters Lasseter set about learning the language, whether the local Pintubi or Pitjantjatjara from the Petermanns Idriess doesn't elaborate and adds a touch of mystery by writing that Lasseter learnt, "much else besides", the language. Idriess gives more space to the apocryphal story about Aboriginal arithmetic and how the head stockman had his camelmen account for fifteen beasts at the morning muster.
Buttons remained unnamed for over forty years until the publication of Fred Blakeley's Dream Millions in 1972. Blakeley's introduction to Buttons was not an auspicious occasion, returning from the failed journey to Lasseter's Lookout the Thornycroft ran out of oil several hundred yards short of the camp at Illbilla, and from the distance Blakeley, (and no doubt Lasseter) thought the, "large mob of camels and what looked like dozens of people walking about", were Michael Terry's expedition. Closer inspection showed the crowd to be Rip Van Winkle and his family and "three other natives wearing clothes who were with the camels". Billy Buttons is finally introduced as a "native lad from Bob Bucks station", he and two others had arrived at Illbilla a few days earlier and were loading the last of the fuel drums abandoned by McKay. They were intending to leave next morning.
Noting that Buttons was a "fairly intelligent chap", Blakeley questioned him about Rip Van Winkle and his family, "we all think he is mad", and the nature of the bird that made tracks like a small emu. Buttons knew of the bird, a dark shining wingless creature, about nine inches high and able to run faster than a horse. But no inducement in pounds legal tender or tobacco could induce Buttons to catch a specimen for Blakeley, Buttons explained the connection to Aboriginal lore and finished the subject with not wanting to die right now! Later in Alice Springs Blakeley was told to ignore Buttons, being one of Bob Bucks 'boys' he was sure to be "very unreliable", and the story of the Aboriginal religious bird was just a yarn. "All the same, the tracks were there, for I had seen them".
That evening Blakeley and Lasseter tried to hire Buttons, a helper and ten camels at ten shillings per week for each camel and £5 a week for himself as guides and transport for Lasseter's journey to the Petermanns. Buttons firmly refused the generous offer, either now or after delivering the drums to Middleton Ponds, he had already been away a month and was sure to "cop it" from Buck on his return, that would be a difficult enough trek, "and the very hot weather will be in any day". as far as Buttons was concerned it was now too late in the season for camels in the Petermanns, words that Blakeley probably wanted to hear. During discussions Blakeley asked if Paul Johns had been sighted, the mention of Johns and the possibility that he may arrive at Illbilla at any time, "seemed to disturb Buttons", who obviously did not want to meet the German dingo hunter for unknown reasons.
The following morning (12/09/30) Blakeley gave Buttons a couple of letters for delivery to Bob Buck urging Buck to get the second letter to Allchurch in Alice Springs as the Expedition was stranded at Illbilla without engine oil and Freddy Colson had not yet arrived with supplies and he feared the worst. Blakeley thought he was taking a "long chance" contacting Allchurch via Buttons and Buck and as far as he could learn the letter was never delivered. Confirming in his view that Buck and his employees were an unreliable lot. On departure Buttons gave a "fine exhibition of riding a buck jumping camel".
Bearing in mind that Idriess and Blakeley largely influenced each books on Lasseter, the reader is left with an impression of Buttons as an intelligent fellow of unknown age, fluent in English and able to translate a number of Aboriginal dialects, firm of purpose and expected common sense. Buttons was not tempted by Blakeley's lucrative contract and it would soon be unsafe to travel. He had a job to do and that was that. And apparently an excellent camelman, apart from riding skills, managing a string of thirty humps from Middleton Ponds to Illbilla and return with just two offsiders would be no small undertaking, it would be a noisy malodorous journey making for skittish camels. Apart from Blakeley's condemnation by association with Bob Buck I can't help thinking that Buttons would be a mighty handy fellow to have on an expedition to Central Australia.
Buttons made a safe return to Middleton Ponds and survived Bob Buck's wrath, some eight months later in May 1931 he was part of Walter Gill's four man expedition to the Petermann Ranges in search of the little known and feared Pitjantjatjara. Gill kept a daily log of his Petermann Journey and Buttons is frequently observed about the routine of camel and camp. In a dry, perhaps off-hand pen Gill describes Buttons as, "coal black, with the snub features of the Arundta, he was about twenty years old; stockily built and all native ~ he appeared not to have a care in the world". A condition that Gill found odd considering Buttons and his Aboriginal bride had been married by the Missionaries at Hermannsburg just the day before, (12/05/31)
Buttons made an impression on Gill who notes the young stockman's ability as a raconteur, in his own language; and a misadventure with a startled bucking horse that left Buttons flat on his back. The incident amused Buck who crudely yelled, "what th' hell you get off for. Button", the reply and delivery caught Gill's attention, looking Buck squarely in the eye and evenly said, "To pick up me f****** hat". Buck stopped laughing. Over the next month Gill portrays Buttons as confident, sometimes intelligent and not always reliable, devious and given to telling the Whitefella what he wants to or should hear; possibly an attribute in a Buck camp. Contrary to the Idriess/Blakeley story, Gill makes the clear statement that Buttons, "does not deal in numbers", and on the day Gill's expedition arrived at Lasseter's grave, Buttons had to be coaxed across the creek with the tools for erecting the post and rail fence around the grave. Like Micky, possibly a cousin, and as an Aranda man he would be far out of his land travelling through the Petermanns.
Gill's photograph of Buttons at Piltardi cairn on 29/05/31 shows a handsome confident young man and given that intelligence and reliability are often a matter of translation and interpretation I would have Buttons on my expedition before Blakeley. And I've seen it writ somewhere that a few have thought Buttons somewhat smarter than his boss.
© R.Ross. 1999-2006
Blakeley, Fred. Dream Millions.143-145,159. Idriess, Ion. L. Lasseter's Last Ride.48-50. Gill, Walter. Petermann Journey.23,25,28,29,32,86,87,88.