“Nah, ya can’t have that one – he’s bespoken. Take ya pick of the others.”
Jess and Charlie looked at them. They were all cute enough, the best of a few breeds but only the brindle one really appealed. He stood arrogantly apart from his siblings, one ear cocked and tail ramrod straight. Jess shook her head. “Thanks Ted, but we don’t really want a puppy. It’s just that the brindle one caught my eye.”
“Yeah, he’s different alright. Makes the others look pretty ordinary don’t he?” Ted bent down and patted the blue bitch affectionately. “I reckon he’s a bit of a ring-in old girl.”
Weeks later, four maybe five weeks later, they were on their way in to Oodnadatta when they stopped at Bloods Creek to pass the time of day with Ted. The brindle pup was still there. He was now more legs than anything, a long and gangly deliquent. All around the store was evidence of his remedy to ease his boredom.
He was still bespoken, Ted told them. The rest of the litter had gone to suitable homes and the blue bitch had resumed her duties of companion and watch dog. She lay dozing with head on paws outside the store door, one eye opening occasionally while her offspring wreaked havoc within.
When he was more than six months old and his bespoken owner hadn’t claimed him, a frazzled Ted handed him over and they took him home. They called him The Scullin Skunk, a sort of tongue-in-cheek tribute to the Prime Minister of the day.
There was a time when Jess and Charlie despaired that The Skunk would ever grow out of puppyhood or, in fact, if he would ever stop growing at all. By the time he was twelve months old it would not have surprised them to learn he’d been sired by a Great Dane or even a horse. He dug quarries rather than holes in the garden and Charlie reckoned there was room enough to accommodate the carcass of a bullock. Nothing was safe from the champing jaws.
In those days, Charlie owned a Chrysler Touring Car and two or three times a year he got the opportunity to drive his lovely and still new wife into Oodnadatta in style. Behind the wheel of the Chrysler, Charlie felt a sense of pride and achievement and he revelled in the admiring phrases directed toward his pride and joy. The Skunk sat to attention in the back seat with an expression on his canine mug that could only be interpreted as importance personnified. He was also proud to be the owner of such a stylish mode of transport as well as having a chauffeur.
The sixty odd miles into Oodna was a days journey over rough bush tracks that the horse and buggy traversed with reasonable ease. They made a couple of stops along the way to answer the call of nature or simply to give their bones a chance to settle back into place.
On one of these stops The Skunk took off into the bush after a rabbit, deaf to Charlie’s whistles and yells to ‘get back here’. They still had a good few miles to go and finally, furiously muttering that he hoped the bloody mongrel broke his neck, Charlie set the Chrysler in motion and continued on to Oodnadatta.
In front of Wilkinson’s General Store as Charlie switched off the ignition, something large and swift passed so close to his right ear that he felt the slipstream and jumped in fright. “Christ!” he exclaimed incredulously, “will you look at that – it’s The bloody Skunk!”
The Skunk took a few feet to pull up, skidding to a stop and loping back to the Chrysler with his tongue hanging out a foot and a look of pure glee on his face. The eyes sparkling with laughter and the tail wagging furiously, he seemed to say: Gave you a run for your money didn’t I?
When he finally reached adulthood, The Skunk took his watchdogging duties very seriously indeed and diligently guarded his domain. Visitors were welcomed with friendly enthusiasm in the best bush tradition but were not allowed to depart without the express permission of his master or mistress.
It was recognised in the bush that travellers finding a homestead temporarily deserted were welcome to fill their waterbags from the tap in the garden. Should the mistress be at home however, it was an unspoken rule that one paused to pass the time of day or, if time permitted, to share a cuppa and a slice of brownie cake or a rock m’dolly.
Whilst alone at the homestead The Skunk, in typical bush spirit, did not turn away any soul in need or otherwise. He gave them a friendly welcome and accepted with relish their kind words and caressing pats. He watched with interest as they filled their waterbags but that is where the friendship ended. He knew everyone was welcome but as he understood it, his duty was to hold them until they got permission to leave.
It was not unusual for Charlie and Jess to return to the homestead to be greeted by yells of anguish and frustration emanating from the bathroom at the rear of the house. “Hey Missus, fer Christ’s sake come and call off yer bloody dog”.
The first bathroom prisoner happened to be a friend from a neighbouring station and he told them how he came to end up in gaol. He’d called in just to say good day as he was passing through and was greeted by The Skunk who welcomed him like a long lost friend. When he made the move to return to his horse however, The Skunk latched onto his wrist firmly. All attempts to free his wrist from the dog’s massive jaws brought growls of warning and firmer pressure of the teeth.
“After a bit he began to tug and I got the idea I had to move. I moved and he took me round here. I opened the door and the bloody mongrel escorted me inside, released me wrist and then parked himself in the doorway. He bloody well grinned at me and wagged his tail but if I moved a bit over the invisible line he’d drawn, he’d be up on his feet snarling somethin’ fierce.”
Like a true union member, The Skunk had time off from his duties and now and then he gave himself a real holiday when he’d disappear for days at a time. He soon had the reputation of being the best bloody rabbiter in the country, but his joy was in the hunt only for he never consumed the fruits of his labours.
When he had a mind to hunt, he’d hunt for rabbits all day and he’d bring his catch home and place it by the front fence. When he had a line of furry bodies a couple of fence panels long, he’d sit there, head in paws and gloat, keeping watch and guarding against potential thieves. When he finally left his vigil it was quite permissible for the camp aborigines to come and collect their dinner.
The Skunk’s walkabouts were a mystery until a drover, having passed through the property with a mob of cattle, mentioned he’d had a visit from him. “Just turned up, he did. Spent a few days lending a hand with the mob and sharing the night watch and then he was gone. Didn’t see him come; didn’t see him go. Reckon he’s a pretty good dog that!”
More and more reports came in from drovers who’d had the pleasure of his company and more often than not they’d been twenty miles or more from the homestead.
It was inevitable that there came a time when The Skunk’s wanderings got him into trouble. When his last leave of absence stretched beyond three weeks and he hadn’t returned, Charlie and Jess began making enqiries and asked the camp aborigines to keep an eye out for him. Even when more weeks had passed by and no-one had seen hide nor hair of him, Jess and Charlie still held a faint hope that he’d turn up.
Whatever became of him, his memory lives on in the hearts and minds of those who spent hours awaiting their release from their bathroom prison, the drovers and stockmen whose lonely camps he visited to lend a hand and the aborigines who feasted so well on the rabbits he loved to hunt.
For Charlie and Jess, his passing left a void in their lives but the memory of the bespoken dog lingered ever fresh, ever warm in their hearts.