A visit to the Sandford home was an ordeal. No one, least of all their parents, was exempt from the pranks of a bunch of the wildest kids in the bush.
The Sandfords lived on an isolated cattle station in the far north east of South Australia. Dick Sandford was employed as the Station Manager and his wife, Maisie, spent her time doing domestic chores and acting as chief cook and bottlewasher for the Station’s workforce and the frequent visits of the owner or his representatives.
There were six Sandford children, Tom, Richard, Margaret, Owen, William and the endearing young Molly. Their ages ranged from twelve to two years. Schooling for children in the outback was correspondence lessons under the eye of a hired teacher or Governess, and there was always a huge turnover of such employees due to the tough conditions and isolation.
Maisie Sandford presided over organised chaos. While she did her best she found it difficult to allocate enough time to keep her brood in check, and they were left to amuse themselves. When Tom and Richard reached school age, she set up a school room by getting Dick to enclose part of the verandah off the dining room and with the best of intentions, started them off on their correspondence lessons.
Unused to being confined in any way, Tom and Richard were not impressed with this learning caper. They grumbled and moaned. The moment Maisie had to leave the room to attend the kitchen, the two boys lost no time in escaping and remaining out of Maisie’s reach until supper time.
By the time Tom and Richard were twelve and ten years old, they had learned very little. Margaret liked learning, and now she was helping Owen complete his correspondence assignments. Maisie had been complaining to her husband that she was out of her depth with schooling their kids, but their efforts to secure the services of a teacher had been unsuccessful.
It was with some relief then, that she announced the arrival of a governess. “Well, you two, your good times are about to end,” Maisie told her boys one evening when they showed up for supper. “Your father will be home tomorrow and he is bringing a school teacher with him. There’ll be no more of this ducking your school lessons.”
Tom and Richard looked long and hard at each other but said nothing. Owen and Margaret began to giggle whilst the two younger ones, not understanding the impact of the news, began to tuck into the food on their plates. Maisie paused to study the faces of her brood around the table and realised for the first time that they looked for all the world like a bunch of ruffians.
“From now on, “ Maisie said with all the sternness she could muster, “you will get no supper unless you have washed your face and hands and combed your hair.” Her eyes fell on her older boys. “Tom and Richard, go at once and wash those filthy hands.”
As the two older boys pushed their chairs away from the table with much noise, Owen and Margaret’s giggles became louder. Tom, angry now, picked up a handful of mashed potato and threw it with precision accuracy to splatter on Owen’s face. “Bull’s eye” he said as Owen spluttered and scraped the mess from his eyes. Margaret, always protective of her favourite sibling, returned the gesture and when the missile splattered on Tom’s face she yelled, “Double bull’s eye”.
Before Maisie had time to react she had a riot on her hands. William and Molly, too young to comprehend, also joined in the fun of throwing food. Molly laughed in delight from her high chair as she filled her little plump hands from the contents of her bowl and William climbed up on his chair yelling “Bull’s eye, bull’s eye.”
Maisie grabbed Richard by the neck of his shirt and with the other hand cuffed Tom over the ear. Suddenly there was silence. She pushed Richard out the door and grabbed Tom, spun him around and sent him off after Richard.
Owen began to cry. Margaret, protective as always put her arms around him and tried to soothe him. “Don’t cry, Owey.”
William was back sitting in his chair looking somberly at the mess around him. He looked at his mother and said plaintively, “I’se hungry Mummie.”
It was mid-morning on a Friday when the governess arrived at the station. She was about twenty years old with little experience in her profession. She came from a genteel city family, was quietly spoken and almost prissy in appearance. She was introduced to her new charges as Miss Morris and she began her duties at 9am on Monday morning.
Tom and Richard failed to show up in the school room by 9.30 am and Miss Morris was forced to enlist Marcie’s help. At 10 am the classroom door slammed open and the boys were unceremoniously flung into the room by a red-faced, furious Dick Sandford. “Think yourselves lucky you didn’t find out what my stockwhip feels like,” he roared.
Miss Morris looked as though she’d rather have been anywhere else at that moment. Her eyes darted from the two sullen faces of her pupils to the angry face of their father. Dick Sandford’s rage subsided quickly and he turned to Miss Morris and apologised for the behaviour of his sons. “I hope you can put something worthwhile in their heads,” he told her quietly. “My wife and I will do our best to help you. Good morning,” he added as he left the room, shutting the door quietly behind him.
“Because this is our first day together,” Miss Morris began tentatively, “I’d like to use this time to get to know each other.” She paused and directed her gaze to Tom and Richard who were huddled together at the far end of the large table where Margaret and Owen were working. “Tom, I’d like you to sit here at this small table, and Richard, you may have the space right there where you are.”
“Now, I’d like you to tell me a little about yourselves. I would like to know what lessons you find hard to understand and what subjects you would like to learn more about. Margaret, would you like to begin?”
“It’s all hard, Miss.” Margaret replied without hesitation. “I can’t do sums very well, but I like learning to read.”
“Thank you, Margaret. I hope I can make it easier for you with your sums and it is very good that you like reading. It is very important to read well. Tom, what do you like to learn?”
“Nuthin,” Tom replied, “I’sall bullshit an I don’t wanna learn nuthin.”
“Yeah, me too,” Richard piped up. “Ridin horses is best.”
Miss Morris showed no reaction to the language or their bad speech.
“Well, it is clear that both of you will have to work at improving your speech,” she told them quietly, “you may not like school lessons but the more you learn while you are young, the better your life will be. There is plenty of time for you to ride horses after school.”
“They’re dumb and won’t ever learn. Owey and I will be smart and Tom ‘n Richy will be dumb, dumb, dumb.” Margaret taunted.
“Shuddup, you goody girl. Ya can’t even ride a horse an’ yer’d drown in the dam.” Richard retorted.
“That is quite enough!” Miss Morris countered sternly. She shifted her gaze to Owen who was sitting quietly with his elbows on the table and his face resting in his hands. “Owen, would you like to tell me what you like to do?”
Owen shook his head and stared down at the table. Just then a gong sounded and all four children got to their feet noisily. Miss Morris raised her voice above the din. “Sit down!”
“But, Miss,” Margaret exclaimed, “ that’s the dinner gong!”
“I know very well it is the dinner gong Margaret,but you will not leave your seats without my permission! Now, sit down until I say you may go.”
Tom and Richard mumbled and grumbled, but all four sat down.
“Good,” Miss Morris said. “Now, I want to see you back in the classroom at two o’clock sharp. This afternoon we will begin your schooling in earnest.” She paused “You may stand and leave the room quietly.”
Miss Morris resigned after a month of enduring a campaign of pranks designed to to get rid of her. She came to dread entering the classroom. She was unable to cope with the fear in the pit of her stomach when she opened a drawer to find a large hairy tarantula looking for a way out of its prison and the smug, satisfied grins on the faces of Tom and Richard and their absolute delight when she freaked out. There was no end of the creepy creatures that turned up in the classroom but the six foot carpet snake, a diamond python, they put in her bedroom was the last straw.
There was a succession of teachers after the departure of Miss Morris. None lasted beyond a month. With as much assistance as Maisie could give, Margaret continued doing her correspondence lessons and did her best to help Owen while Tom and Richard wreaked havoc wherever they were.
“We have to do something about those two boys of ours, Maise,” Dick Sandford said as he entered the kitchen for smoko one morning. “If they don’t kill themselves first they’ll end up gaol bait.”
“What have they done now?” Maisie asked.
“Caused a bloody mess when they decided to stampede the mob of cattle the men were yarding. Silly little buggers nearly got themselves trampled.”
Maisie turned sharply and with a look of alarm on her face said, “Oh Dick. They’re okay aren’t they?”
“Sure they’re okay, but both of them will have trouble sitting on their backsides for a bit. First time I’ve been able to catch them to give them a good belting.” Dick ran his fingers through his thinning hair and sighed. “You know, Maisie, those kids’ve got nine bloody lives but they’ve used up seven of them.”
For Tom and Richard the crunch came a few months later when the station owner, Bob McLean, and his offsider paid a visit. Dick had warned the boys to make themselves scarce and if they got up to anything he’d beat the living daylights out of them. All went well until the time of departure and Dick was feeling relaxed and relieved that the boys hadn’t caused any problems.
“Going to see a man about a dog,” Fred the offsider said and headed off in the direction of the station dunny.
“Watch the redbacks,” one of the stockmen yelled.
It was too good an opportunity for Tom and Richard. They had been hitherto unnoticed and now stood out like beacons. “Let’s see how fast we can get ‘im outa there” Tom laughed. He fired the rifle, and at the same time Richard released the stone from his shanghai. The bullet hit the top of the dunny while the stone hit the iron wall with a shattering noise. Fred came out of the dunny moments later, his pants hobbling him around his ankles and his face as white as a sheet. Tom and Richard were doubled up in hysterical laughter.
Dick Sandford, momentarily paralysed at the scene before him, moved quickly to grab his stockwhip and, with a flick of his wrist, the whip curled around the body of Richard effectively curtailing his escape. Tom took off like a rocket while Dick reeled his brother in like a fish at the end of a line.
“Hang on to this little bastard, Maisie, while I get the other one.” Dick said as he shoved Richard towards her. He folded his stockwhip and headed off furiously muttering to himself about the many ways he could punish his sons.
Some twenty minutes later, Dick arrived back with Tom and pushed him to where Fred was waiting with the boss near the Ford V8 sedan they’d arrived in.
He called to Maisie to bring Richard and when he had the two boys together, he demanded they apologise . The boys mumbled something unintelligible.
Dick cuffed the pair of them under the ear and roared. “I said apologise and make sure you sound as if you bloody mean it!” They did so and Dick dismissed them to stay in the classroom until he decided what he was going to do with them. “You bloody well stay there, too,” he yelled after them as they left with heads bowed.
When the boys were out of earshot, Bob Mclean began to chuckle. “Dick, you’ve got to give it to them, those boys of yours sure come up with original pranks. I’ve heard plenty of yarns about them, but until now you’ve kept them pretty inconspicuous when I’ve been here.”
Dick began to apologise but McLean held up his hand to silence him. “I have a solution for you if you’re interested. It’s none of my business mind, but they’ll end up getting themselves hung if you don’t do something about them.”
Dick nodded his agreement and waited for Bob McLean to continue.
“I was thinking while you were chasing after that older boy. The two of them need to be separated so if you and Maisie agree, I’d be willing to take on that older boy and put him to work as a jackeroo plus make sure he gets some education.”
Dick looked at Maisie with a raised eyebrow. She nodded and smiled. “Mr McLean, you are right that the boys need to be separated. Dick and I have hardly any control over them and are at our wits end. If you take Tom and make something of him we’ll both be very grateful. We both know you will take good care of him and give him the discipline he needs.”
“Right then, that’s settled.” He slapped Dick on the back and grinned widely at Maisie. “How about you go and pack him a swag and we’ll be on our way. No time like the present, eh?”
A half hour later, Maisie returned with Tom who was carrying a swag and a small, battered suitcase. Richard was hanging back a few yards to their rear looking worried and a bit confused at this new ‘punishment’ his parents had dreamed up. Fred took the swag and case from Tom and jammed it in the narrow boot of the Ford. “Git in the back, son …and no bloody tricks either.”
Tom moved to the vehicle but before he could open the door, Maisie grabbed him and gave him a hug. “You behave yourself, Tom. We’ll see you soon.” Tom promised he’d behave and Dick shook his son’s hand, telling him he must do as Mr. McLean told him and he’d end up a son to be proud of. He told Tom he always had a home with his family and would always be welcomed.
The Ford V8 departed soon after and the remaining Sandford kids stood and watched until it disappeared into the mulga scrub in a cloud of dust. Richard was still there looking at the empty road when the others had gone back into the homestead. Dick went over to him, took him by the arm and led him to the ‘sitting’ log under the big gum tree just inside the garden fence.
“Richard, we are not sending Tom away to get rid of him. Mr. McLean is giving him a paying job so he can learn to be a jackeroo as well as school learning so he doesn’t end up a useless sod who can’t earn a living. Understand?”
Richard sat there drawing patterns in the dirt with his riding boots. “Yeah Dad, but where does that leave me – up the bloody creek?”
“You’ll be up the bloody creek without a paddle if you don’t pull yourself together and set about learning to read and write properly. If you do your school lessons every day, I will make a stockman out of you in your spare time. When you and Tom get together now and then you’ll be able to swap yarns and crow about what you’ve learned. It’s up to you. So put your nose to the grindstone and see if you can grow into a good sort of bloke.”
Dick left Richard there to decide which road he was going to travel and went in to find Maisie. “Well, Maise, did we do the right thing?”
Maisie put the teapot on the table and filled two mugs with strong black tea.. “I hope so, Dick. It’ll take a bit of getting used to but I think both boys will be better for it. Where’s Richard?”
“I just had a talk to him; he’s out on the ‘sitting’ log thinking over the whole bit. I reckon he’ll knuckle under in a day or two. Tom’ll wonder what hit him until he learns the ropes. Bob McLean won’t take any nonsense from him, but he’s fair and won’t allow him to be bullied. Wouldn’t have considered it otherwise.”
Maisie sat there looking into the bottom of her mug at the pattern of tea leaves. She looked up at Dick and found him doing the same thing. She smiled. “What do you see, love?”
“Tea leaves,” Dick replied, “just bloody tea leaves.”
“I’ve been thinking about what would be best for our kids, Dick. I hate the thought but do you think we might be wise to send the kids away to boarding school? Not all at once, but when they’re old enough?”
Dick sighed. “Oh Maise, that idea has been in my mind for months, but I couldn’t even suggest it to you. I know what a wrench it will be for us both.” He reached over and put his hand on hers. “We live in the bush but that is no excuse to bring up a bunch of scrubbers.”
Maisie smiled. “Well then, let’s turn our bunch of scrubbers into a bunch of fine young people.”
Dick got up from the table and kissed the top of her head. “Maise, old girl, I reckon we’ll look back on this day as the best in our lives, and it all started when Tom and Richard shot the dunny.” A chuckle began in his thoat and became a full-bellied laugh. “Did you ever see anything so funny as Fred trying to run with his trousers round his ankles?”
Maisie shook her head and giggled. The whole house reverberated with the sounds of laugher for some minutes but the story of the dunny prank did the rounds of the bush for years.
NOTE: This story is a piece of fiction based on incidents picked up via the bush telegraph.