The Pantechnicon

Every time I see a pantechnicon, I wonder about the contents of that canvas bundle. It was a long time ago when I was just a bit more than a lad, but to this day I’ve never experienced such fear as I did that night.

The only ambition I ever had was to be a truck driver. Dad, bless him for his patience, put up with me through the years as I badgered him for driving lessons, almost before I could reach the pedals of the family utility. Sometimes he allowed me to sit on his lap and steer the tractor to the field where he was working.

Every day I measured the length of my legs after a lengthy session of stretching them. In the privacy of my room I lay face up on the floor, hooked my toes under the rail of my bed, grasped the bottom of the heavy wardrobe with my fingers and endeavoured to pull the bed towards me.

Inevitably, in God’s own good time, I grew. On Saturday mornings I hung around the local garage and made friends with Joe, the owner. I made myself useful, and gradually wheedled my way into the workshop where I fetched and carried for Mike the mechanic. At home on the farm I never missed an opportunity to drive. I drove the tractor, the truck and the old utility and eventually at the garage, Mike allowed me to shift vehicles, bringing them in and out of the workshop.

When I got my licence to drive, I left school and got a job at the local store. At first it was just delivering groceries and small items and I had the use of a small, rattletrap of a van. Then the management saw opportunities to expand. A new sign went up to replace ‘Coleman’s General Store.’ The new sign read COLEMAN’S GENERAL SERVICES and underneath in smaller letters, “we supply everything and deliver anywhere.”

Well, it all turned out in my favour and I got some good delivery assignments. That was how I came to be involved in the Pantechnicon incident.

The Pantechnicon was en route to Darwin. It had been consigned by rail to the Alice where its new owner was to take delivery. However, the best laid plans don’t always work and, for one reason or another, Coleman’s were hired to deliver it to Darwin.

Dick Coleman wasn’t one to miss an opportunity. He was not about to send an empty Pantechnicon on a thousand mile trip, so he arranged to kill two birds with one stone as it were. We had furniture to deliver to Tennant Creek and some crates bound for Elliott. And then there was the package we were to pick up from the hospital and take to Darwin.
It was morning tea time when I drove into the hospital grounds. I parked the van in the spot designated by the chap dressed in khakis and accepted his offer of a mug of tea while his two offsiders got the package.

I watched as they struggled with an awkward floppy bundle in a canvas bag. They heaved it into the back and slammed the doors shut. “There y’are, mate,” one said with a grin, “they reckoned Colemans’ll take on anythin’ but I’d a thought y’d baulk at a body!”

I looked at him dumbly. “Body?”

He nodded towards the pantechnicon. “Y’aint superstitious I reckon or y’wouldn’t be driving this ‘ere corpse all the way to Darwin.” I was in the process of swallowing the last mouthful of tea when it sank in that the canvas bundle held a body. A sharp intake of breath sent a few drops of the tea down the wrong way and I began to choke.

“Gee Mate!” my informative friend exclaimed, “are you okay?”

Still coughing and spluttering I managed to nod and croak my thanks as I climbed into the cab. As I drove slowly away, I tossed up as to whether I should go back and have it out with the boss for keeping me in the dark, or whether I ought to do the trip and argue about it later. Then it occurred to me the bloke might have been pulling my leg.
Since it didn’t worry me if I did have a corpse in the back, I saw no point in finding out one way or the other. I turned right and headed off up the Stuart Highway, whistling the tune “John Brown’s Body.”

The pantechnicon was brand new. The cab was well appointed with a well-padded bench seat that had a sort of moulded back support. I loved to drive and being comfortable was an added bonus. I took a cigarette from the pack in my shirt pocket and lit up, using the lighter in the cab.

I got to The Tennant five minutes before knock-off time so I wasn’t too popular. The two storemen who had to unload the furniture had a standard appointment at the Goldfields every night after work, and they resented being late. To get at the furniture easily, they dumped the canvas bag on the ramp just outside the pantechnicon door.

When the last wardrobe was set down in the warehouse, one of them began to close the pantechnicon doors. “Hey, don’t forget me passenger,” I said, pointing to the canvas bag.
The tall one who’d done most of the grumbling and least of the unloading, took hold of the bag and lifted. “Give us a ‘and, will ya – it aint light.”

His mate put the bolt down on his half of the door and took hold of a corner of the canvas. “Well,” he said, “it’s a dead weight anyway.” He laughed. “Dead weight – body – get it? It could be, ya know, a dead body, I mean.”

“Yeah, ya bloody dumbo – pity it aint your arse in there,” the sour one retorted.

I couldn’t help it. He was such a surly bugger I thought he deserved to know the truth. “It is indeed a body,” I told him, “I’m taking it to Darwin…” I paused because it occurred to me that if the bloke who loaded it in the Alice was not having me on, then I had no idea why a body was being transported to Darwin by me in the back of a pantechnicon, “for burial.” I concluded lamely.

“Shit!” the surly fellow exclaimed. The other fellow just looked stunned and then he burst into laughter. When I drove out, he was still laughing but, it pleased me to see, the surly one was emptying the contents of his stomach as he leaned out from the warehouse ramp.

I pulled up in front of the Goldfields. After driving three hundred miles I had worked up a bit of a thirst and I was looking forward to a couple of cold ones and a feed before I struck out for Elliott, a hundred and fifty miles further north.

The Goldfields was a popular watering hole and as always there were a few familiar faces at the bar. Jeannie the barmaid drew a schooner of ale and placed it in front of me without waiting for me to order. A hefty slap on the back had me spluttering over the first mouthful. “Hey, Jamie me lad – is it you drivin’ that fancy bit o’ machinery?”

“G’day Mike,” I said when I recovered. Normally I’d have been pretty annoyed at such thoughtlessness but I admired Mike as much then as I had when he was Joe’s mechanic. We spent the next hour swapping yarns and then I left him while I got a feed. I was tucking into a fat juicy steak when there was an uproar coming from the bar. The waitress informed me it was the usual commotion that went on when the Honourable Stanley was evicted from the premises.

Stan Gibson was the town drunk. In better times he’d been a Member of Parliament and a respected member of the community, but after a tragic accident that robbed him of his family, he sought solace in the bottle. Mostly he was treated with kindness, sometimes pitied, but occasionally he was target for the practical joker.

The plight of this unfortunate man took a little of the enjoyment out of my meal and I lost no time in getting on my way but the light was all but gone when I climbed into the cab and turned on the ignition. I felt relieved somehow, to be leaving Stan and his troubles behind me.

After I’d clocked up the one hundredth mile I began to feel pretty weary. Away in the distance the reflectors on the white posts shone in the headlights. Now and again they danced towards me and sometimes there were multiples of moving lights as cattle or kangaroos strayed on or beside the road.

I yawned. Through the drumming of the wheels on the tarred road I heard a sound. Instantly I was alert. I listened and heard a thump behind the cab. I relaxed. Something must have come adrift in the back.

A short time later the hackles rose on the back of my neck. I had the distinct feeling I was not alone. I glanced warily beside me – nothing. There was no ghostly form beside me but my heart was fairly thumping its way out of my chest.

I put my foot down on the accelerator, gripped the steering wheel harder and my heart leaped into my mouth. My brain registered a mournful moaning together with shuffling and thumping coming from the back of the van. By now I was in a cold sweat behind the wheel of the pantechnicon that was pretty well rocking with speed, and I was struggling to control it.

Through my terror-addled brain, words were tumbling erratically. “Stooooooooop. Fer Christ’s sake stoooooop.”

Just as the lights of the Elliott pub showed up in the distance, the meaning of the words sank in. Someone was telling me to stop. The knowledge that I was almost safe had a calming effect on me but there was no way I was going to stop just yet. When I did, it was with squealing brakes right outside the door of the pub. I all but fell out the door of the cab and staggered up the verandah steps to be greeted by a row of curious faces.

“Crikey, it’s Jamie – what the hell’s got into ya?” asked Tom, the publican.

I was shaking like a leaf and unable to utter an intelligible word. Someone gave me a good slug of whisky and after I’d calmed down enough to tell the story, a couple of blokes went out and opened up the rear doors of the pantechnicon.

“Hey Jamie,” Tom’s voice boomed out amid roars of laughter from the pub verandah, “this ‘ere ghost aint dead yet!”

Presently Tom appeared in the doorway with Stan Gibson swaying a little unsteadily beside him. By now the whisky had calmed me and I cursed the practical jokers at the Goldfields. “Bloody hell, Stan,” I blurted, “waddya want to scare the hell out of a bloke like that for?”

Stan grabbed the glass out of my hand and drained it. “You think you were scared, mate? You should’ve been in my shoes.” He sounded as sober as a judge. “I opened one of the crates. I was pretty dry, you know – next thing I know I’m sprawled out on my back and there’s a hell of a din going on. I curled up in a ball and lay doggo.”

“Oh, come on Stan! Those crate lids are nailed down – you couldn’t have opened one without a lever or something.”

Stan shook his head. “This one wasn’t – I tell you I just lifted the lid and got knocked flat.”

I looked at Tom who simply shrugged his shoulders. “Reckon we’d better check out the crates, Jamie old son. If yer mate ‘ere wasn’t sufferin’ from the DTs, we might jest git ourselves a ghost.”

As soon as I saw the crate I knew it wasn’t part of the Elliott consignment. Besides it was empty. Tom moved it aside. In the light of his torch we stared down at a prostrate figure. I really thought he was dead. It was the surly character from the warehouse and it flashed across my mind that I’d be up for manslaughter, if not murder, and the thought chilled me to the bone.

Tom squatted down and felt for his pulse. There was a sizeable bruise on the side of his head and Tom had a good look at it. Then he grinned up at me. “He’s still kickin’ – reckon he took a mighty wallop that knocked him cold.”

Next morning after I’d off loaded the crates and double checked the back of the pantechnicon for uninvited travellers, I called into the pub to pay the bill. Tom shook his head and grinned widely, “it’s on the ‘ouse, Jamie old son. Long time since we ‘ad good entertainment in Elliott. I reckon that ride’ll be enough to keep old Stanley sober for months. The other bloke’ll think twice before he pulls another stunt like that as well!”

Yeah. Well, I made it to Darwin and though I was dying to find out whether the canvas bundle was a body or not, I was reluctant to ask. As it was, the bush telegraph would be buzzing. I had no doubt the story was already embellished beyond recognition and had reached Darwin before I did. No point in giving them more ammunition.

Ends.

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The Bespoken Dog

“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.

Ends

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Merry Christmas Old Man

Summers on Andado Station were always very hot and dry. There were long periods when no rain fell, so Charlie spent his time doing the ‘bore run’ checking that there were no problems with the windmills and ensuring there was water for the cattle.

There were several bores equipped with windmills as well as pump engines so that if there was insufficient wind to turn the mills then it meant starting the engine to fill the 30,000 gallon stock tanks. It was a constant round of riding from one bore to the next which were about ten miles apart.

This particular year, Charlie was on his pat malone as Jessie and the kids were having time off in Alice Springs, and the boss had gone to Adelaide on business. He made his main camp at Mt. Pebbles Bore where he needed to use the engine to pump water to the tanks more frequently. There had been rain on the lower half of the property which meant there was water for the cattle in streams and clay pans, relieving the stress on the stock tanks down that end.

On Christmas Eve, after checking out the water situation at West Bore, Charlie turned his horse and headed for the homestead. After ensuring all was well there, he planned to add a little luxury to his tucker box. He knew there was a carton of port wine under the counter in the store room . The boss, he reasoned, wouldn’t begrudge him a christmas drink.

When Charlie opened the storeroom door he was stunned to see the floor littered with the bodies of rats. As he scanned the room he could see rats hanging precariously from the shelving and others trying desperately to scamper away. He took a bag from the hook inside the door and picked up little bodies as he proceeded inside.

At the counter he reached underneath for the carton of port wine and all became clear. The carton had one side eaten out and empty bottles lay on their sides. Of the twelve bottles, only two remained standing. One had the cork eaten out and the wine level below the neck of the bottle. Charlie thought he was damned lucky the alcoholic rats left him the one bottle which he added to his supplies in his saddle bag.

By the time Charlie had cleared away the dead and drunken rats, the sun had disappeared behind the sand dunes and there was a storm building up. He spurred his horse on in the hope that he’d make the shelter of the engine shed at West Bore before the storm reached it.

Just when the shelter was in sight, the storm hit and the rain came down in torrents, drenching both horse and rider. At the shed he dismounted and reached to tie the horse’s rein to a post by the engine shed door. It was at that precise moment that there was a deafening clap of thunder, closely followed by a brilliant flash of lightening. The horse reared up in fright and took off into the night at full gallop.

When daylight came Charlie was dismayed to see the mill had broken a connecting rod in the storm and it took him a couple of hours to fix it. He now had to use shanks’ pony and find his horse which, he knew, would have headed for his camp at Mt.Pebbles. It was a three mile hike before he came across the horse standing dejectedly with his head down, with the saddle bags hanging under his neck. There was sugar spilling out in a gentle stream to make a nice little pile of white sand near its front hoof.

They reached camp at Mt.Pebbles about 2pm and Charlie set about making himself Christmas dinner. It was blowing a cold breeze of fine drizzle and he sat on an oil drum beside the camp fire. He opened the bottle of port wine and poured some into his pannikin. He cut a couple of thick slices of damper and between the two slices added thick slices of salt beef topped with tomato sauce.

A bite of damper sandwich, a mouthful of port wine….. and a hissing noise stopped his chewing. He looked down and there, just a couple of feet away, was a seven foot long, battled scarred, perentie.

“Merry Christmas, old man.” Charlie greeted the big reptile. “Want some tucker?” He threw down a lump of damper and a lump of salt beef which was accepted and eaten with relish.

“Well,” Charlie laughed, “since it’s christmas, how about a drink, eh?” He put a nip of wine in a log cabin tobacco tin and put it down on the ground.

The perentie lapped up the wine as though it was something always on his menu. More damper, more meat and more wine, until finally his appetite was sated. He waddled off contentedly in the direction of a clump of salt bush to sleep off his full belly.

From then on the perentie turned up every meal time to share Charlie’s fare. He didn’t seem to mind the absence of wine to wash down the damper and salt meat.

Charlie considered the perentie a mate and called him ‘Old Crock’. He was always delighted when he stopped at Mt.Pebbles Bore and Old Crock waddled up to greet him, and he always made sure his saddle bag contained a handout to offer his Christmas Day companion.

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Money For Jam

The sun hung low in the western sky when Fred brought his horse to a halt at the hitching rail in front of the saddle shed. Wearily he tipped his well worn Akubra towards the back of his head and wiped the sweat from his brow on the sleeve of his khaki shirt.

While he went about the business of unsaddling his mount and stowing the gear away in the shed, his mind dwelt on the fact that his well earned break away had been effectively reduced to a mere few hours.

“Fancy havin’ ta turn up an’ admit ya’ve been fleeced!” he muttered as he made his way across the flat to the stockmen’s quarters, cursing and kicking at any loose stones that happened in his path.

The blue heeler lying on the verandah watched him curiously and, catching the odour of ill-humour, rose and slunk off behind the building. The sight of the dog with its tail wedged between its legs served as further irritation. He aimed his boot at the animal’s feed dish, kicking it clattering and banging the length of the verandah.

Three pairs of eyes looked up questioningly when he slammed open the door to the quarters. Mick, his fellow ringer and young Tommy the Jackeroo, were playing poker while the station roustabout lounged comfortably with raised feet, reading a deadwood dick.

“Thought ya was gunna kick up yer heels down south fer a bit, Fred,” Tommy drawled as he selected three cards and placed them on the discard pile, “give us three will ya Mick?”

Fred scraped the Akubra off his head and with practised accuracy, flung it to land squarely on the hook behind the door. “Yeah, well I was until I went and lost me bloody dough.”

“Jeez mate! Howd’ya do that? Ya didn’t get fleeced playin’ poker did ya?” Mick asked, half turning in his chair and looking horrified. Mick didn’t play poker for stakes higher than matches.

Fred dragged out a chair, turned it and sat astride it with his elbows resting on the back. “Nah. Bought a coupla things from the store when I got t’Bunyip Creek ‘n Ted was clean outa change. He managed to scrape up a coupla quid but he ‘ad ta give me an IOU for the rest. Put the flamin’ thing in me top pocket ‘n went to the pub.”

Tommy had a knowing look on his face as he shook his head. “Yeah, ya went to the pub, had a skinful ‘n when ya woke up ya was skint,” he tossed his cards down on the deck. “Yer a lousy dealer Mick – that the story Fred?”

“Yeah, that’s about it Tommy. Owd ya know?”

“Same thing ‘appened ta me awhile back. Did thirty quid jest like that!” He snapped his fingers in the air and shook his head. “Funny thing that – never did work out ‘ow I come to lose it neither.”

The roustabout’s attention strayed from his book to the talk at the table. He’d been taken on the payroll only recently and although they were all friendly enough, he was very much aware he was an outsider. The feeling wasn’t new. He was an outsider because he never stayed in a place long enough to form any attachments.

Life’s experiences were many and varied for the roustabout and now the lost IOUs stirred interesting memories. Years ago when he was up in the Kimberleys there was a hullaballoo about a bloke issuing IOUs that vanished into thin air. A good many ringers lost their pay cheques before the bloke was rumbled, but there being no proof to hand over to the law, they simply ran him out of the area. The roustabout thought at the time that if he’d been a victim he’d have figured out a way of getting even.

“You blokes’ve been conned by an expert, I reckon,” he ventured as he joined them at the table.

“Ows that, mate?” Fred asked.

“Well, this Ted runs outa change, right?” Fred and Tommy both nod. “He writes out an IOU ‘n you put it in the old top pocket. In the mornin’ ya wake up after a hard night and ya pat the old pocket ‘n there’s nuthin’ in it. That is nuthin’ but a bit of confetti.”

Again Fred and Tommy not their heads in agreement.

“That confetti,” the roustabout said leaning in closer, “that confetti was yer IOU! Y’see, this Ted, he puts the paper in the oven fer a bit which make it kinda fragile like – it breaks up inta crumbs after awhile ‘n you …. well ya got no IOU so he don’t owe ya nuthin.”

There was a stunned silence for a few seconds as the three of them, eyes fixed on the roustabout’s face, digested his words. Then Fred slammed his fist on the table and yelled, “the bloody mongrel!”

Tommy emitted a long low whistle, “crikey, talk about cunnin’! Bloody Ted ‘as been gettin money for jam. Me thirty bloody quid he got ‘n all.

“Well he aint gunn git off scot free with my dough,” Fred declared.

“’Ow ya gunna git it back mate? He aint gunna part up with it jest cos ya ask.”

“What say we go in tomorra ‘n front ‘im eh? When ‘e knows we’ll blow ‘is scheme to the whole bloody bush e’ll pay up with interest.” Fred turned to the roustabout. “Wadda ya reckon, Jim?”

The roustabout shrugged his shoulders. “Well, if it was me in your boots, I reckon I’d want to get me dough back before makin’ any broadcast. ‘E aint goin’ nowhere so jest bide yer time till ya come up with a plan ta git even.”

There was complete silence for the minute it took for the roustabout’s words to sink in. Fred stopped chewing the match and nodded his head. “Yeah!” he exclaimed as though enlightened, “that sorta makes sense.”

……..

Bunyip Creek staged its annual picnic race meeting on the easter weekend regardless of what the weather chose to do. It was a fund-raiser for the Royal Flying Doctor Service so it was an event no self-respecting bushie would miss.

They came from properties near and far, tossing down their swags in a convenient spot not too great a distance from the pub verandah. The racetrack itself had been carved out of the bush to run past the pub on the eastern side, making it totally unnecessary for anyone to venture further than the verandah.

Fred produced the stone in the crowded bar-room after the last race. You could have heard a pin drop in the sudden hush. He leaned his elbows on the bar and turned it over and over in his hands, admiring the colours that flashed in the lamplight.

“Where’d ya come by a chunk like that?” breathed a ringer from Anna Creek, “ya didn’t git it around ‘ere, did ya?”

Fred’s eyes slid from the object in his hands to the man behind the bar, “what’ll ya lend me against this lil bewdy, Ted?”

Ted made no move to inspect the stone but there was a sparkle of interest in his eyes. “Where’d ya get it, Fred? I gotta be sure it aint stolen property, ya know.”

“Oh, it’s mine orright,” Fred told him, “me ol’ man dug it out of Coober Pedy. Nice bit o’ opal that, Ted. It’s been me sinka fund like; fer a rainy day y’see.” He put it reverently on the bar.

Ted picked it up and slowly turned it in his hands. “I’ll give ya one fifty for it.”

“Nah, I reckon that’s a bit light,” Fred said, “it’s gotta be worth a coupla ‘undred.” He held it above his head. “Any ‘o you blokes interested in gettin’ a opal, cheap like?”

“I’ll give ya a ‘undred ‘n seventy, mate,” answered a stockman from Lizard Downs, who was holding up the bar at the far end.

His mate downed the contents of his glass and slammed it down noisily to indicate his need for a refill. “A ‘undred an’ seventy-five,” he yelled.

Ted shot an exasperated look towards the bidders, “If ya want it y’ll ‘ave to top two hundred,” he said.

“Y’kin ‘ave it. “C’mon, give a man a drink, will ya?”

When Fred left the bar a short time later, Tommy and Mick followed. “Y’gunna let us in on it, Fred?” Tommy asked curiously.

Fred slapped the verandah post with the flat of his hand and whooped for joy. “I bloody done it, Tommy me lad. I bloody well got me dough back,” he slapped Tommy on the back, “and yours and a little bit fer me trouble as well.”

Mick and Tommy both slapped him on the back, “good on yer, mate,” Mick laughed, “the opal – is it a dud then?”

“Its real enough – what there is of it y’know,” Fred grinned widely, “I guess y’could say it’s more a pretty piece of quartz. Me ol’ man found it at Coober Pedy orright, but if Ted ‘ad known me ol’ man, he’d a known it wouldn’t be worth much; me ol’ man was one of those blokes who’d sell the gold filling outa ‘is mother’s teeth.”

“Jeez Fred, when Ted finds out he’ll come gunnin’ fer ya.” Tommy warned and then whistled, “Two ‘undred lovely smackers. Phew!”

“Yep, ol’ Ted’ll be as mad as a mallee bull but he won’t do nuthin’,” Fred grinned, “ I reckon ‘e might keep good an’ quiet when he knows we tumbled to ‘is little scheme. ‘E won’t be bakin’ any more paper in a ‘urry, neither.”

ends

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Christmas At Boundary Bore

The school year was over and we kids were on our way home for the Christmas holidays. It was always a time of great excitement because the shorter holidays during the year precluded us from travelling the long distance and we were obliged to stay in Alice Springs at the boarding school.

The week before Christmas, my brother and sister and I joined a group of other children and boarded The Ghan, in those days a steam train servicing the outback from Alice Springs to Adelaide. Looking back now I realise that the train crew probably steeled themselves each year against the prospect of being responsible for a bunch of over-excited kids and no doubt breathed a sigh of relief at each stop when they delivered their charges safely into the arms of their parents.

The Ghan’s crew kept us in check by giving us chores. We’d be enlisted to help Bluey, the cook, in his kitchen and to set the tables in the dining car, help wait on the tables and clear up afterwards. In this way we learned the hospitality trade and how to serve meals and drinks and keep our feet steady despite the rocking, rolling motion as the Ghan steamed its way down or up the line.

This year was different in that there had been substantial rain falls in Central Australia and when the Ghan reached the Finke River it was running a wide stream and the railway line was underwater. This caused a delay of a couple of hours while the track under the water was inspected by a railway gang using a section car to check the depth of the water and the rails. All being well, the Ghan proceeded with an extra engine at the back pushing while the main engine was doing the pulling.

The Ghan arrived at the Finke Siding late, but welcomed by a few dozen Aborigines who never failed to come and watch the arrivals and departures of the train. While the Ghan’s engine replenished its water tank from the big, square overhead water tank, supplies and mail were off loaded and passengers disembarked or alighted. Many of the passengers would go and pass the time of day with Jack and Kitty Colson at the Finke Store or take the time for a cold one at the Finke Pub.

A few minutes before the Ghan was ready to depart, the train whistle blew a couple of warnings. Those passengers who were taking their first ride on the Ghan rushed to get back on board, but the ‘locals’ carried on drinking and talking and were not worried that the train would leave without them. It was quite amusing then, that when the Ghan slowly began puffing and blowing its whistle as it pulled out of the siding, you’d see a number of people leave the store or pub and head for the slowly moving train. There was no need to run as a fast walk was sufficient to allow them to catch the guard’s van as it passed the water tank.

By the time the Ghan pulled out of Finke, all the kids except we Paige kids had been returned to the bosom of their families. The sun was disappearing from the horizon in a blaze of colour and the light was fast fading into night. It was about 9pm when the Ghan pulled into the Abminga Siding.

Abminga was no more than a dot on the map. There was a line of railway gangers’ huts on the western side and a hundred yards away on the eastern side there was the Abminga Hotel and a structure we knew as the Telegraph Station. The hotel dunny was the thing that stuck in my young mind. It was a larger structure than most bush dunnies and a six seater. It was constructed from the usual galvanised iron and sat over a very large pit. The seats were made of timber that had been sanded to a smooth finish, four along the back wall and one each on the side walls. To this day, I look back with amusement at the prospect of seeing a full complement of people seated to do what comes naturally. What sort of conversation might have arisen?

That is all neither here nor there though. We didn’t stay at the hotel unless the weather was particularly inclement, choosing instead to sleep under the diamond lit, starry sky.

Again, our arrival at Abminga was different this year because Mother had come to meet the train so that she could supervise the unloading and loading onto the Blitz truck of the Christmas goodies she had ordered from the Alice. At first light, Father began the task of loading the Blitz with the station supplies and Mother ensured her christmas order was carefully placed on it. Right on top of the load was a crate that held two fat roosters that would be the base of our christmas dinner.

It was a hundred miles from Abminga to the Andado Station homestead and it was slow going in the Blitz truck. We reached Boundary Bore mid morning to discover the Finke River flood waters had beaten us and cut us off from the homestead, still some sixty miles away. We were obliged to wait until the river had disgorged its water into the Simpson Desert.

There had been no rain in this neck of the woods and it was very hot. Boundary bore had a small galvanised iron shed used to house some supplies necessary at mustering times. There was a stone fireplace a dozen paces away and two or three huge old gum trees that offered shade from the burning sun. The windmill pumped sweet water into two thirty-thousand gallon stock tanks and kept the long line of cattle drinking troughs filled with fresh water.

When the river levels rose rather than fell after two days, Father decided we were in for a longer stay than at first thought. All the christmas goodies were unloaded from the Blitz and the two roosters set free. The heat in the shed was unbearable and the two older kids spent most of the day cooling off in the stock tanks. I hadn’t learnt to swim so had to use the troughs once the cattle had quenched their thirst and settled down to wait out the heat of the day under the shade of trees.

The hot winds blew relentlessly. Every now and then a whirly-wind hit the shed and covered us all with dust and debris. Above the treeline the sky was filled with spiralling red columns of dust rising upwards to eternity where the blue of the sky met the red hazy dust. At dusk the wind dropped but the heat inside the shed remained. We dragged our cyclone beds out under the stars where the air felt less stifling. We had no mattresses and the mesh underneath the swags was uncomfortable. However, we could be confident that we would not be visited by snakes and other creepy crawlies. Instead, it was the bats that caused the problems.

They arrived in force at dusk and seemed intent on using terror tactics to evict the invaders from their territory. At the time the moon was in its third quarter shedding an eerie light all over. The heat was stifling and the bats swooped relentlessly; so close that one could feel the flutter of air as they passed.

Mother opened one of her packages from the back of the Blitz and produced some sheets which were part of her new linen order. That night we covered ourselves with the white shrouds and managed to fall asleep despite the heat, only to be awakened later by the swift dark forms passing dangerously close to our faces. It was with some joy then that we’d find one or two of these creatures drowned in the stock tanks.

Christmas Day dawned with a brilliant sunrise and the Finke River showed the first signs that its water levels were going down. From their perch high in the gum tree, our intended christmas dinner crowed in good voice to greet the new day.

Most of our christmas goodies had been consumed and we sat in the sweltering heat of the shed to a very ordinary meal of damper and rabbit, roasted in the camp oven. Always one to look ahead, Mother had managed to save some sweets and a beautiful homemade cake sent to her by a friend as a christmas gift. It was a poor replica of the dinner we’d looked forward to for Christmas Day.

When the Finke River dwindled to a shallow stream a few days later we were able to continue on to the homestead. The two roosters resisted all our attempts to capture them and became permanent residents of Boundary Bore. For years these two birds were a source of amazement to us all for they managed to survive all predators. They’d turn up for scraps when the stockmen camped there when mustering and accepted handouts of wheat. They became very lean and could fly like magpies so that one false move would send them cockadoodling into the gum tree. Christmas dinner? Us? No way.

Ends

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Colour Her Bold

Jessie stepped out of the Chrysler Tourer into the fine red-brown bulldust that instantly clung to her white shoes. She ran her beautifully manicured hands down her sides to smooth the wrinkles from the skirt of her navy and white silk suit as she took in the scene before her.

Charlie had driven the Chrysler right up to the back verandah. Just a few yards away the contents of three kerosene-tin pots were bubbling furiously on the grate of a stone fireplace. A short distance away in the shade of a line of eucalypt trees, a group of Aborigines stood waiting with expectant faces. Swarms of flies buzzed around them, settling momentarily before a hand movement sent them flying again.

“What are they waiting for, Charlie?” Jessie asked.

“They came up from the camp to see the new Missus,” Charlie grinned. “I told them you were coming, y’see. Every Sunday they come up from the camp to get their rations – those three boys over there are my stockmen. They get their dinner here every day so I reckon they’re waiting for their tucker as well.”

Charlie took her elbow and propelled her forward a few steps, “This one,” he said in a proud voice, “belonga me. I bin tellem you I bringem new missus longa Mt. Dare. What you reckon, eh?” He drew Jessie closer to the group and introduced her to the old lubra who had moved out a few steps from the group. “This is Maggie. Maggie is boss of all these women and all these picaninnies – eh Maggie?”

Maggie gave a lopsided grin showing the pitchourie-stained teeth and the disgusting lump of pitchourie she’d parked between her lip and gum. She stretched out a wrinkled, bony claw and grasped Jessie’s forearm, squeezing gently. “Maggie look after missus.”

“Good girl, Maggie. We talk next time, okay?”

Jessie waved at the flies trying to settle on her face, “what’s cooking? Is it for the blacks?” She asked Charlie as they moved back towards the car.

Charlie answered without even looking in the pots. “Salt beef, spuds, carrots and a bit of pumpkin. Old Jack put it on,” he pointed to an old aboriginal man squatting on his heels a couple of yards from the fireplace, “ only my stockmen get their dinner here – now you’re here you can do the cooking.”

“Me! Cook!” Jessie exclaimed in horror. She had not the faintest idea how to cook and, in fact, had never even boiled an egg in her life.

“Well,” Charlie shot her a look of pure astonishment, “what in the bloody hell do you think you’re here for?”

The words exploded in her brain like a thunderbolt and she stood stunned. She felt the sting of tears filling her eyes and fought hard to suppress them. Her mother’s voice rang in her ears. You’re making a terrible mistake, my girl, MaryAnne had warned her when she announced her intention to wed the dashing young manager of Durrie Station, in southwest Queensland.

Jessie had been the governess and bookkeeper on the neighbouring property, Morney Plains, when she met Charlie who lost no time in the wooing and courting of the lovely governess. Durrie Station was one of Sidney Kidman’s chain of cattle stations and Charlie, who had served his apprenticeship on Kidman properties in South Australia, became Kidman’s youngest manager when he was sent to take over the running of Durrie.

When he was successful in winning the heart of the lovely governess of Morney, Charlie announced his intentions to his employer and was dealt a mortal blow. There was no place on Durrie Station for a wife – the property was for a single manager only. However, if Charlie cared to postpone his marriage for a year or two, there was every possibility a management position for a married man would arise. Charlie, his pride wounded, gave a month’s notice.

When Jessie announced her intention to wed the dashing young station manager from Durrie whom she presented to her mother with some pride, Mary Ann voiced her concern to her daughter when they were alone. “I hope you know what you are doing my girl,” she warned “marriage isn’t always a bed of roses.”

Jessie laughed. “Oh, mother don’t worry so. I’ll never have to work again!”

After their wedding in Brisbane, she and Charlie headed for South Australia where Charlie had been offered a job with the Stock and Station Agents, Goldsborough Mort & Co. to take over the running of Mt. Dare, Federal and Dalhousie Stations, which properties were in the grip of drought, and their owners had walked away heavily in debt.

Charlie left Jessie in Adelaide with his parents and spent the next six weeks mustering and trucking away any saleable cattle on the three properties. He then returned to Adelaide to collect his new bride and take her to her new home at Mt. Dare.

Charlie relished being back in his old stamping grounds and took the opportunity to call on friends and relations to show off his beautiful new wife. Their final short stopover was at the Blood’s Creek Post Office and General Store before tackling the last twenty miles to Mt. Dare.

By the time they arrived at Mt. Dare, Jessie had spent long days bumping over roads that were meant for wagon wheels and now the shock she was experiencing upon her arrival at the homestead was indescribable. It was isolated, drought stricken country. The homestead, constructed of rough hewn logs looked primitive and basic, and now her beloved was sounding like a hard taskmaster talking to a slave.

Charlie proudly took her on a tour of the homestead, pointing out its comforts and spaciousness. Jessie’s heart sank further with each step. The place was thick with fine dust that seeped in through the large gaps between the log walls. The furniture was basic and mostly home made and there wasn’t one single homely item to be seen.

For a few months after this bald introduction to the bush, Jessie set about learning to survive it. After the initial shock wore off she took an objective look at her predicament and decided she had no option but to make the best of it. She would not dwell on the thought that she should have heeded her mother’s warning, and pushed it far back into the recesses of her mind. She had made her bed and she would lie in it no matter how lumpy it got.

The demands of the station left Charlie little time to allow Jessie to settle into the routine gently. He spent a couple of days instructing her on the art of making damper and bread, and to manage the black monster of a stove that stood at the far end of the kitchen. It burned wood like a furnace and heated the whole house to unbearable temperatures before its oven became hot enough to bake a batch of rock cakes.

Charlie also told her about the jar of yeast that stood on the hob and instructed her how to dish out the rations to the lubras on Sunday mornings. Finally he showed her how to pack a tucker box for him to take on the ‘run’ and then he saddled his horse and rode off with his boys and the plant horses.

Left on her own, Jessie stoked up the black monster and sweated for hours as she tried to master the art of cooking. She wept bitter tears when her loaves of bread came out of the oven as flat as when she put them in. She wept buckets more because she was lonely and frightened. Oh mother, what have I done? What am I going to do?

Charlie rode in from the stock camp after a week to check on her and instead of praising her for her efforts, he ranted and raved about the waste of station supplies. “Out here, Jess, you don’t waste anything. If we run out inside three months we go without, for God’s sake.” When he left again a few hours later she wept another ocean of tears for a few more days.

After that first time alone, Jessie asked Charlie if she could join him when he went out on the run. At first Charlie refused, saying he wouldn’t have time to look out for her so it was safer if she stayed at home. However, she persuaded him that she might be useful and from her point of view, anything was preferable than being totally on her own in the middle of nowhere.

Jessie had learned to ride a horse when she was on Morney Plains and Charlie was surprised that she proved to be asset rather than a liability out in the stock camp. Her cooking skills were improving as well and she soon discovered that the way to a man’s heart was through his stomach and Charlie was no exception. She was becoming quite adept at knocking up a damper or a brownie cake in the camp oven and this sort of fare was most appreciated by the blokes after a long day mustering, branding or whatever.

After Jessie suffered her first dust storm and spent a whole day shovelling out the dust that blew into the house, she enlisted Charlie’s help to help her plug up the larger spaces between the logs with newspaper and then to line the inside of the walls with thick layers of newspaper. They made flour and water glue to make the paper stick to the logs. They tacked up a ceiling of hessian to soften the image of corrugated iron and the rough-hewn timber bearers and joists.

When her pregnancy was confirmed, Jessie’s contribution in the stock camp ceased. She had settled into her new life reasonably well but was still coming to grips with her husband’s short fuse and his tendency to pounce on any small mistake she made and serve it up to her repeatedly in a never ending diatribe. She went to great lengths to avoid his lectures and recriminations and began to hide or cover up the mistakes she made as she set about learning the ways of the bush. She took to burying her cooking failures in the vegetable garden she had started in an attempt to add fresh greens to their diet of canned stuff.

Charlie wandered out to see how the vegie garden was coming along late one afternoon and he came rushing back calling excitedly, “Jess! Jess! Come and look at this giant mushroom.”

Jessie hurried out to see what he was on about and there, looking for all the world like the mushroom Charlie thought it was, was the bread dough that had refused to rise and which she had buried in exasperation the morning before. Her hand covered her mouth as she suppressed a giggle, and then steeling herself for the tirade that was about to issue from Charlie, she admitted her sin of waste.

That same evening when she put his meal in front of him and he went through the usual ritual of waiting until she sat down ready to eat before asking for whatever condiment was not on the table, she rebelled. “No chutney, Jess?”

“There is chutney in the cupboard, Charlie. Middle shelf, left hand side.” Jessie uttered the words so matter of factly she surprised herself, and for a moment Charlie looked somewhat taken aback.

“Oh! Well I suppose pickles will do but you ought to know a man likes a bit of chutney with cold beef.”

Jessie said nothing. From now on, a man will discover his wife has backbone; that she won’t be a doormat for a man to wipe his boots on; from now on I promise myself there will be no more tears – I will beat this God-forsaken drought-stricken country if it is the last thing I do. And with that promise to herself, Jessie took the first confident steps into her future in the bush.

NOTE: This is the first chapter of what I hope will be a
Novel, my mother’s story of a long life lived in
Remote areas of Australia’s outback.

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Dingo Bounty

DINGO BOUNTY

Jess put on the cotton button-through dress. Folding the kerchief into a triangle, she brought it up to her face to cover her mouth and nose, and then tied the end securely at the back of her head.

The mask in place, she took the sack of meat pieces and went out through the flywire door onto the small back verandah, where she spread them out onto several thicknesses of newspaper left there in readiness on the wooden table.

With her foot, she moved the small stool the short distance to the doorway, stepped up on to it and reached for the Sunshine Milk tin on the shelf above the door. Her hands were shaking as she placed the tin onto the table.

From the milk tin she took a sharp bladed penknife and a small Golden Syrup tin in which was a small, brown, screw-top bottle containing the pink powder – strychnine. A little shudder went through her as she thought of what she was about to do. Not only did it go against her nature, but it terrified her that she might breathe in some of the lethal pink powder.

Being careful not to handle the meat pieces and leave her human scent on them, she made a slit in each piece with the blade of the knife, then dipping the blade in the powder, wiped it off into the slit. When all pieces were similarly treated, she wrapped them in the newspaper. She returned all items to the milk tin, hammered the lid on tightly and replaced it on the shelf above the door.

It was late afternoon but the December heat still rose fiercely from the sand dunes of the desert. As she trudged across the plain carrying the flour bag containing the strychnine-laced meat and a sturdy stick, her back to the now weakening rays of the summer sun, she tried hard to think pleasant thoughts that would keep her mind from dwelling on the purpose of her frequent treks back and forth across the sand dunes.

In two weeks time the kids would be home from boarding school for the Christmas holidays. She was looking forward to having them home after enduring ten months, two weeks and three days without seeing them. For six weeks she would enjoy them before packing them off for another year. She smiled wistfully. Even their squabbling couldn’t spoil the joy of having her children around her.

A half mile from the homestead she stopped at the foot of the sand dune. She took a stick from the bag and scraped a depression in the sand near a large clump of Spinifex; then, skewering a lump of meat on the end of the stick, dropped it into the depression and covered it lightly with sand. After pushing a piece of crumpled newspaper well down into the clump to mark the spot of this her first bait, she retreated, swishing the stick back and forth across the sand to disperse her human scent.

The perspiration was running freely from her forehead, its saltiness stinging her eyes but she dared not wipe it away. She would not touch her face again until she had washed and scrubbed her hands.

She could not count the number of times she had carried out this same routine, though there was a time when she thought it would become easier. Instead, it had become more and more distasteful and her terror of poisoning herself more acute. There would be no-one to help her. Charlie would be away for another week and in any case, medical help was three days away.

It was almost dark when she returned to the homestead. She washed her hands at the tap in the yard and then shed her dress at the back door. Before
making her way to the bathroom she dropped the dress into the copper already filled with soapy water.

Standing under the cold shower, she took the nail brush and scrubbed her hands, soaping, rinsing, soaping and rinsing her body over and over. Finally she washed her hair before she was satisfied there could be no trace left of the pink powder.

She washed her hands once again in the kitchen sink before making the cup of tea she so desperately needed. Yet, with the steaming black liquid enticingly before her, it was some time before she could bring herself to drink it.

Jess left the homestead as the sun reddened the eastern sky; before the golden light rose above the deep terracotta red of the sand dunes; before the dry southerly wind whipped up the sand and covered the tracks.

The first two baits were untouched and she was following tracks from the third which took her back down onto the plain. The tracks had been easy to follow in the loose sand but now it was difficult on the dry, grassy plain. She cast her eye in a wide circle pondering the route which might lead her in the right direction.

She reasoned that the dog had been heading roughly in a north-easterly direction so that it was likely it was headed towards the now parched swamp which offered low bushy cover.

As she walked, Jess kept her eyes on the ground looking for a lucky break. She was about to give up when she came across a cattle pad. Following the pad for some fifty yards, she picked up the dingo’s tracks once again.

Shortly afterwards she came across the dead body lying under a bush. She looked down at the golden yellow body, stiff in death, the teeth bared and eyes staring. She shook her head sadly, “poor bloody animal, ” she said aloud, ‘you poor bloody animal.”

Taking the butcher’s knife from her bag, she picked up the ears and sliced, parting them from the skull; quickly, carefully, firmly slicing down the back, cutting the strip of pelt from the body and finally removing the tail with one stroke of the knife. She rolled the scalp and put it in her bag. Then, turning away, she vomited. Holding her stomach with one hand, she picked up the bag and knife and set off back across the plain. Seven and sixpence earned – was it worth it?

Always she asked herself this same question and always she came up with the same answer. The dingo bounty kept the three kids at boarding school. They would never be able to afford the school fees on the five quid a week Charlie earned managing this place.

Not that the Old Border was mean – he wasn’t. He kept the station store generously supplied with provisions. Not just the basics but luxury items as well like the tins of honey, sausages and fish. He did expect his pound flesh though so nobody did any loafing.

She stood on top of the sand dune and looked down towards the homestead. She was a couple of miles away but could see it glistening in the morning sunlight. A big rambling building constructed of mud bricks covered with whitewash.

It looked like a small township down there with the scattering of outbuildings. The garden, lush and green with the two big bean trees, the oleander hedge, the windmill and mulberry tree. It all stood out against the red of the surrounding sand dunes. A little oasis on the flat treeless plain.

Beyond the homestead a herd of cattle was stringing its way in to water, a dust pall hanging over and behind them as they followed their well-worn tracks across the plain. Her eyes followed the line of the dune. She noticed a dark shape fifty or so yards away and moved down towards it. It was nothing. Just an area of roughened sand in the lee of the Spinifex where a big roo had rested. She stood and gazed ahead. The sun was high in the sky now and she could feel the heat rising from the sand. It was going to be a scorcher today. She turned and started for home.

She was a hundred yards from the cattle troughs when she came across the tracks. Drunken tracks with the familiar splayed paw marks of a sick dog. He’d been in for water and by the look of the tracks, he wouldn’t be far off. She began to follow them.

She found him lying under a clump of Spinifex. Knife in hand she bent down and grasped the ears but screamed in horror when the animal heaved itself to its feet.

As her screams filled the desert air, she took off down the dune as though the devil himself was hard on her heels. Sanity returned some fifty yards down the dune and she sank to her knees and waited for her heart to cease its pounding. She couldn’t bring herself to use the knife to end the wretched animal’s pain. Instead she sobbed and yelled, “die you bugger – for God’s sake, die”. Sitting there in the hot sand with the sun beating down on her back she tried to control the retching of her stomach as the animal suffered its last spasms.

For a long time the dog had been still. She got to her feet and looked about her for something to throw at it but there was nothing. She jumped up and down and yelled. Gingerly she approached and toed it with her foot.

Satisfied there was no life left, she gritted her teeth and quickly removed the scalp.

Ends.

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A Good Drop Of Rain

A GOOD DROP OF RAIN
approx 2,247 words

They all agreed. That is, those on Lambina Station at the time agreed, that it was a good drop of rain and when the Alberga Creek ran a good stream, it was even better.

“Well Charlie,” Ted remarked, “you’ll be trucking off some fats this year, I reckon.”

“Yes, she’ll be a good year if we get the follow-up rain but it won’t do us much good if this is the end of it.” Charlie sucked on his pipe. He’d been managing stations long enough to know you didn’t count on one good fall of rain and he’d experienced enough time in the bush to know you couldn’t count on anything, let alone the weather. “I won’t be dallying in getting the new bore equipped.”

Ted grinned. “Come on, Charlie, try being an optimist for a change. The missus reckons the moon wept on the way in and she’ll be weeping on the way out, so there’s a good chance you’ll get more before the month is out.”

Jess slipped the risen loaves into the oven and, wiping the perspiration from her brow with the corner of her apron, smiled at her two waiting offspring. “Well, come on you two, come down and see the water.”

The last time the creek flowed the kids spent an enjoyable hour or two throwing sticks into the stream to watch as the water whisked them away, floating, bobbing and turning in the current. This time the current was stronger and the water stretched from bank to bank; angry, turbulent water filled with tumbling debris and thick heads of spume that rushed by with a roaring noise.

The little boy began to wail. “I wanna go home, Mummy. I wanna go home.” His sister, clinging to her mother’s skirt echoed her brother’s cries. Jess crooned words of comfort which were lost in the roar of the water and the children’s cries. She sighed as she placed a hand on her belly, “and to think in a couple of months there’ll be three of them” she said aloud as she gathered the two of them to her protectively and shepherded them back to the homestead where she found the camp women grouped by the gate. One stepped forward to meet her.

“What name, Maggie?” Jess inquired of the elderly lubra.

“We alla fellas go longa hills, Missus. You bringum piccaninny – big water come longa this way.” She pursed her lips and thrust her chin forward in the direction of their camp to indicate the path of the water.

“You reckon ‘im come here longa homestead, Maggie?” Jess asked in disbelief.

“Im come orright, Missus. Proper big fella water,” her eyes widened as she waved her skinny arms up above her head, “im come longa this place – you bringum piccaninny longa hill.”

The old lubra’s voice had risen and her warning of danger cut through Jess’ mind with startling clarity. It seemed so unlikely, yet she knew the Aborigines had a sort of sixth sense about these things. “Right oh, Maggie. Me tellum boss.”

She stood and watched the lubras hoist their belongings up on their heads and move off yabbering noisily. She looked down towards the creek, her mind filled with sounds of roaring water, the fearful cries of Garry and Lynette and Maggie’s urgent warning. She hurried across to the workshop where Charlie and the other blokes were working.

“Don’t be so bloody silly, Jess,” Charlie scoffed. “This country doesn’t flood for Christ’s sake.” He turned to the others with a laugh. “Did y’hear that? The gins reckon we’re going to go under water – ever hear anything so bloody ridiculous?”

Their laughter rang in her ears all the way back to the house. Well, she supposed they were right. This flat country stretched for miles on end and there were no great rivers to carry huge volumes of water, so where was it all to come from? They’d had less than two inches of rain and even if the Alberga broke its banks there couldn’t possibly be enough water to cause major flooding.

Maggie’s warning nagged at her however, and she decided it could do no harm to take the precaution of making up a tucker box. She packed a tea chest with bread, meat and tins of this and that from the pantry, every so often looking out to check on the creek.

When she looked out and saw the creek had broken its banks and there was water covering the flat between it and the house, she went across to the workshop to try and persuade the men that there was indeed cause for concern. They remained sceptical even when the water was lapping the front doorstep and they complained and grumbled when Jess insisted they put the furniture up on the roof and the tea chest on Ginger’s platform in the tree by the kitchen.

Ginger’s lookout hadn’t been used in months – not since Ginger passed on. He was a big Airedale Terrier whose claim to fame had been his tree climbing ability. Charlie had built the platform for him so that he could sit in the tree in comfort, as he kept his vigil for the first sighting of an approaching vehicle and give due warning.

Jess had already installed the children on the platform and now she climbed up to join them. Inch by inch the water rose while the four blokes sat in or on the Ford V8 Sedan, debating whether it had reached its peak or not. When it rose above the running boards of the V8, they decided to join Jess and the kids in the tree, but not before they’d questioned her choice of a safe refuge.

Percy thought the tall freelight tower might serve them better, but Ted, a boring contractor, reckoned the heavy steel structure of the windmill would be safer. Bob, Ted’s offsider, offered no opinion but reckoned they’d probably do well to get with the tucker. Charlie grumbled at the inconvenience of it all. “It’s bloody unheard of, that’s what it is – bloody unheard of.”

The water rose higher and higher. Jess’ attention was drawn to the black cat on the roof of the house, prowling and mewing loudly. She called to it. “Here kitty, come on. Kitty, kitty.” After a time the cat took the plunge and jumped from the house roof to the platform where it perched, body stiff with fear and huge green eyes trained on the rushing, rising water. Jess stroked the sleek fur but the body stayed rigid and the eyes never left the water.

They made themselves as comfortable as was possible and kept a wary eye on the raging water below. They watched as the rising water forced the chooks to higher perches and then saw them all disappear with the chookhouse as it was swept away. They watched as the water covered the homestead roof and saw the furniture disapear into the turbid sea. They saw the freelite tower teeter, then slowly topple and fall, and soon afterwards watched as the windmill suffered the same fate.

“Thank Christ we weren’t on that!” Ted remarked.

Up until this time, the four men had not considered their predicament dangerous to life. It was inconvenient but not dangerous. When the windmill succumed, a definite air of unease descended upon them.

Suddenly there was a shudder as the tree dropped a little. Jess uttered an involuntary cry of alarm and reached out instinctively to draw the children closer. Percy look about him wild eyed, spotted the tea chest and saw a boat. In a flash he upended the contents into the swirling depths below and had the chest over the side; grappling with it to hold it while he lowered himself into it, still clutching the platform with one hand. As his weight pressed it lower into the water, it became obvious to him that it was anything but seaworthy and he had no choice but to scramble back onto the platform, somewhat wetter than he’d been before.

“Jesus Christ, you stupid bastard,” Bob yelled when he found his voice, “what the hell did you do that for? Now we got no tucker.”

After that there was a long silence in the tree as each reflected his predicament. Charlie wondered what the stock losses would be – he had noticed dozens of carcasses tumbling past and he’d watched helplessly as now and then a live cow swept past still fighting desperately to stay afloat.

Daylight lessened as the sun sank behind the hills in the west. The sky turned pink and then a brilliant glowing red. “Take a good look at that,” Ted advised solemnly, “it might be the last sunset you’ll see.”

With the coming of night the usual sounds of the bush were masked by the sound of the rushing water but the monotonous cry of the mo-poke was clear in the background. The complete blackness was broken only by the glow of a cigarette at intervals and, in the distance they could see the camp fires twinkling like bright stars and these they viewed with envy.

Jess whispered something to Charlie. “Well, what the hell do you want me to do about it?” He hissed at her irritably.

A short while later Percy’s strident yells filled the air. “The bloody water’s risen – I’m getting wet!”

Jess smothered a giggle and when Percy kept on with his panic striken yells, Charlie finally blurted out the explanation. “Shut up you bloody fool. Jess had to pee, that’s all.”

When the new day dawned, they found they were perched above a sea of mud. The house was gone save for the huge corner post against which their tree was leaning precariously, the significance of which would not register until much later.

Charlie lowered himself into the mud and sank to his armpits. He began to wade, feeling with his feet for obstacles as he progressed in the direction where he’d last seen the workshop. There was a pile of debris heaped up against a fallen tree and tangled in it, he saw a rope which he retrieved after some difficulty.

When he finally returned to the platform he had a rifle, a single bullet, a packet of muddy prunes and a packet of muddy rice as well as the rope. He used the rope to tie the group together a s he lead them out to some high, dry ground where they made a camp.

Their search for food was mostly unsuccessful and when a light plane flew overhead the next day and circled their camp, they waved and cheered. Help would be a hand very soon.

Foraging as usual, Charlie and Ted spied a lone bullock standing under a tree in the distance. They moved down wind and when they were about six hundred yards away they dropped and crawled on their bellies so as not to startle it. After crawling for a hundred or so more yards, they noticed the beast put his nose up and sniff the air.

Charlie put his hand out to warn Ted to be still. To go on would be to risk sending the bullock off in a panic. He was still between four and five hundred yards away and they had just one bullet. Charlie settled himself and took aim, his hand steady on the trigger. Ted had been holding his breath and now he let it out slowly and quietly. “Just don’t bloody miss it, Charlie.” It was an earnest plea but Charlie was well aware of the warning.

The shot rang out and the bullock buckled at the knees to fall slowly to the ground. Before it had settled, both men were upon it to ensure it stayed there and Ted slapped Charlie on the shoulder. “OH, good shot Charlie. What a bloody good shot!”

In normal circumstances it would have daunted Charlie to think of butchering a beast with a penknife but now he considered himself lucky to have a knife at all. The rumbling of his stomach and the thought of a good feed did much to overcome the difficulty of extracting a sizeable chunk of meat from the carcass.

Several days had passed since the aircaft had spotted them but still there was no sign of help. All were suffering from diarrhoea and Charlie decided it was time they had a go at walking out while they were still able. They set off in the wee hours of the morning and had walked about twenty miles when they met the mail truck.

Alec hit the brakes and gazed at the bedraggled group in disbelief. The pilot had reported all was well so no-one was aware that Lambina homestead had been washed away. “Hell, Charlie. That dopey bugger came back and said ya waz all okay out ‘ere.”

“We reckoned a rescue party’d be out after he spotted us. He must have been a useless sort of bloke to send out,” Charlie growled, “did he think were having a bloody picnic out there?”

“Yeah well, he wasn’t sent exactly. He was jest sorta flyin’ about ‘n he said there waz no-one in trouble. Ya better get on ‘n I’ll take ya in.”

When Charlie and the boring crew parted company a week or so later, Ted shook his hand and grinned. “It was a good drop of rain, Charlie. I don’t reckon I’ll hang around for the follow-up though.”

ends

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A for Apple

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.”

ends

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Kadaitcha

KADAITCHA

Jess listened to identify the sound. Her attention focused beyond the square of light on the verandah to the garden where an almost full moon lit up the night with its soft muted glow.

Mentally dismissing the familiar sounds of the bush, she listened to the one as yet unidentified, which by its very elusiveness was causing her to tense with the first thoughts of alarm.

When a dingo’s howl pierced the hot still air, she felt a sudden cold chill envelop her and she began to fight down the panic that threatened to immobilise her senses. In a moment she recognised the figure that emerged from the eerie shadows and in another, a feeling of relief swept over her to quell the rising fear.

“Mick! Whatfor you come longa night time?”

“Me proper sorry Missus,” the old fellow apologised, aware he had alarmed her. “Me camp there longa gate, make em safe longa you fella.” He waved a bony arm back the way he had come.

She studied him for a moment. They had always referred to him as ‘Old Mick’ but his agility, wiry strength and the crop of unruly black hair belied the impression of age given by the wizened features.

“You bin frightened of debil-debil Mick?” she asked.

“No debil-debil, Missus. Kadaitcha bin come.” His eyes were wide and anxious, “you bin keep door shut – hallways you shut em up longa night time.”

Mick’s warning sent a shiver down her spine. Jess knew enough about the Aborigines to know that a Kadaitcha does not deal in trivialities and now she needed to know why Mick saw fit to protect her.

At first he was reluctant to impart any information and it took some clever questioning for Jess to piece together the story that made her realise she was in grave danger. When Charlie and Jess moved to the Out-station after the flood waters washed away Lambina homestead, Mick had accompanied them. In doing so, he had moved out of his tribal area and apparently had ignored the Elders’ orders to return. He had, in effect, committed treason and the Elders pronounced the death penalty upon him and upon the white woman whom they perceived had lured him away from his tribe.

Jess secured the door, picked up the lantern and went down the hallway to check on her sleeping toddlers before going to her own room.

In the morning she awoke unrefreshed. The house was stuffy with all the windows closed and she threw open her bedroom window to stand there a moment to breathe in the cool fresh air. This was harsh country but in the silvery light of dawn it was deceptively tame, the hard ruggedness of the red-brown landscape masked in the softness of early morning.

Already the silence of night had given way to the sounds of the day. Galahs were squawking noisily as they flew in huge flocks from their night roosts, and the goats’ bleating sent her thoughts back to Mick and his Kadaitcha.

She couldn’t deny the fear that knotted her stomach. She was used to spending days, even weeks, on her own at the homestead when Charlie was away mustering cattle. She often despaired at the isolation and loneliness but she had always felt safe. It would be foolish to leave the homestead when help was more than two days travel away. With no means of contacting Charlie, or anyone else for that matter, her sense of helplessness was acute.

A Kadaitcha was a tribe’s executioner sent to carry out the sentence imposed by the Elders under their tribal law. The Aborigines feared the Kadaitcha above all else. He walked with silent stealth in pursuit of his victim, the sound of his steps muffled by feather slippers that left no tracks to betray his presence. His painted body blended with dappled light to mask his movements as he stalked to carry out his grisly chore, usually when the moon was full enough to bathe the bush in eerie light.

The moon was almost full and Jess found herself fighting to stay calm.

When the sun sank below the horizon that afternoon and the goats were not home, she went out and watched anxiously. Only when she heard the tinkling of the bell on the lead nanny did she relax and return inside.

There was no sign of Mick the next morning when Jess went out to milk one of the nannies. The flock was roaming free. “Mick!” she yelled as she shooed young kids from the workshop. Then it occurred to her that the goats had not been yarded the evening before. “Mick, Miiiiiiiick!” she yelled more frantically. On the verge of panic she ran back to the house and shut herself inside.

When the lubras came up from the camp a little later, she sent them out to find Mick.

They brought him home that afternoon. The old one, the one Charlie called ‘the boss lubra’, beckoned to her from the gate. A few yards behind her several others were gathered in a silent huddle. “We bin find im, Missus – im bin finish”.

Jess gripped the top of the gate for support. “Which way? You bin show me.”

The boss lubra pointed to the groups behind her, “Kadaitcha bin get im.”

Jess willed her unsteady legs to propel her towards the bundle in front of the solemn group. With trembling hands she drew back the blanket to reveal Mick’s body. She stared at the ugly wound in his chest. There was no blood. She knew there would be a matching hole in his back and there was no blood because the wounds had been sealed with red hot stones.

Waves of nausea washed over her and she could no longer see for the tears that filled her eyes. The boss lubra took her by the shoulders and led her back to the gate. “We take im, Missus. We make proper good corroboree longa poor bugger, Mick. No more Kadaitcha Missus. Im go now.”

Ends.

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