A FOR APPLE
Harry’s old man was a drover and his home was the supply wagon that moved with the plant horses from camp to camp. His mother was the cook and when Harry and his brother were old enough to stay on a horse’s back, they were given the task of tailing the plant horses.
The family never stayed in one place long enough to take advantage of school facilities, and his poorly educated mother had neither the time nor expertise to teach them even the little she knew of the three Rs.
Their lack of schooling seemed not to bother his older brother who stayed on droving with his Dad, but Harry nursed a secret desire for knowledge and he ventured away from his family to seek out a niche for himself where he wasn’t forever on the move.
There was little Harry didn’t know about horses. He soon had himself a handy reputation as a first class horsebreaker, which landed him a steady job on one of the Kidman properties. Sidney Kidman owned a chain of properties in Queensland and South Australia. All in all Harry was happy with his lot, except that the sight of a jackeroo or stockman engrossed in a Deadwood Dick filled him with envy.
It was more by accident than design that Fred, the Station Manager and Harry’s boss, began to teach him to read and write. It all began when Harry decided he wanted to learn to write his name. Fred printed the letters and Harry copied them over and over until he had learned them.
This small achievement sparked a burning desire in Harry to learn more. He went after Fred, and anyone else who possessed these skills, like a hound after a rabbit. He laboured long into the night practising his signature in cursive writing and memorising the new words and letters Fred would list for him.
The time came when Harry was competent enough to write out the supply order list. It was a job from which he derived much pleasure, especially as it gave him the opportunity to display his new skill. He always signed his name at the bottom to impress whomever had the honour to make up his order. After all, it was a small world in the bush and everyone knew Harry was learning to read and write.
In time, the position of Storekeeper was added to Harry’s duties. Fred created the position essentially to keep Harry with less time on his hands to pester him for reading and writing lessons. The order dockets were now signed “Harry Beland – Storekeeper” and underlined with a proud flourish.
The Jackeroo dumped the last bag beside the others. “That’s it Harry – see ya later.”
Harry looked at the heap in the middle of the floor. “Where’s me bloody onions?”
“If there was onions on the list there’d be onions in with that lot.” Jimmy, the Jackeroo stated casually as he turned to depart.
Harry let out a yell and grabbed the unsuspecting lad by the collar of his shirt, yanking him back from the wagon. “Ya cheeky mongrel,” he yelled with menace, “there was onions on the bloody list.”
“I tell ya they wasn’t, else they’d be there.” Jimmy pointed to the pile of stores they’d unloaded from the wagon.
The commotion brought Fred and Charlie out from the saddleshed to hurry over to the storeroom. When they arrived they were in time to save Jimmy’s hide. Harry had hold of him on either side of the throat and was shaking him so violently they could hear his teeth rattling.
“What the hell do you think you are doing, Harry?” Fred asked when they’d prised him away from Jimmy.
“That useless mongrel didn’t bring me onions, that’s what!”
“They wasn’t on the list,” the lad croaked as he massaged his throat, “he’s bloody mad!”
“They was on the bloody list.” Harry shouted, lunging forward to have another go at him. Charlie grabbed him and held him back.
Fred held out his hand. “Give us a look at the bloody list, Jimmy.”
Jimmy fumbled in his shirt pocket and produced a tattered sheet of paper. Fred began to read out the items. “Flour. Salt. Sugar. Tea. Jam. Soap..”
“Soap!” Harry interrupted. “We don’t need soap. There’s four bloody boxes there already.”
“Well, you’ve got soap written down here, Harry.”
“Bullshit, Fred. I didn’t want no soap. Look,” he picked up a box which contained a dozen or so onions, “I distinctly wrote S-O-A-P” his finger poked hard at each letter as he spelled them out, “bloody onions, right?”
Three faces gazed at Harry in stunned silence. From Jimmy came a low gurgling sound, a spluttering and then finally the laughter bubbled up and burst out uncontrollably.
“Wrong,” Fred managed to utter before both he and Charlie broke up with laughter.
Harry, looking confused and somewhat embarrassed, stared at the soap box. “Go ta hell!” He shouted as he threw the box at the wall, narrowly missing Fred’s head.
“Aw, Harry. Don’t get on your high horse,” Fred soothed, “you just got a bit too smart. You see, that is a bloody soap box you had the onions in. Onions, you silly bugger, come in bags.”