(C) Copyright 1970 Robert Gordon Delahoy
Jeparit 1902 - Woomelang 1912-13
Heat was a physical assault on the wide, sunburnt paddocks. A steel hammer
beating the earth into subjection.
Passive, the few trees hung their leaves limply towards the ground, pointing at the small lizards lying stunned amongst the dead leaves and bare twigs.
Across on the stark branches of a white, ring- barked tree, two black crows tilted forward, beaks partly opened, eyes glazed. The dead sheep, rotten on the ground below, left to the flies.
Between the leaning fences of the wide stock road the bullocks plodded slowly, heads down, moving mesmerised, in subjection to the yokes, taut chains hauling the great wheat wagon soundlessly through the sand.
The man plodded beside them. Big, over six feet tall, freckle faced, with an unruly mop of red hair beneath the battered hat, he set one foot in front of the other, mechanically, and dreamed of a shaded pub verandah and cold, cold beer.
Time was relative, and passed slowly with the miles, until ahead, he knew without lifting his eyes, was the low outline of Jeparit, roofed by a shimmering mirage of crystal heat.
Sun clanged from the iron roofs of the town and bit into the sand of the streets, the burnt browns and harsh red-yellows of the Australian bush assaulting the eyes and searing into the brain.
In the bar of the Hindmarsh Hotel, men leaned, gazing blankly at the open doorway, silent now. Just looking. Waiting.
Waiting to see if their comprehension was awry. If that was hell out there. Waiting, without expectation, without impatience, disbelieving that a miracle such as evening could ever come again and dissipate the heat.
Behind the bar, leaning against the shelves, George Delahoy nodded, almost asleep, bemused by the heat, resting his mind on memory. The green forests of the hills out of Avoca, and the straining teams he had driven hauling timber for the hungry iron teeth of the mill.
He smiled slowly; even the mill going broke had been in his favour. He took sawn timber in payment, and with it built a butchers shop and house on a block of land his mother gave him at Great Western.
Married, and in debt for the first animals he had bought to butcher, he worked hard. When he sold the business he had £500 clear, and with it bought this hotel, where I was born in 1902; the year of the big drought.
A blowfly mumbled lazily in through the window, and eyes followed it for a moment, relieved by the movement that disturbed the still, breathless heat; then turned back to the door and resumed their protective glaze.
The bullocks turned in along the edge of the town and up the main street without word of direction, the leaders, Darkie and Redman, following a trail worn deep into their memory.
Beside them the bullock driver lifted his eyes from the ground, face crinkling into a silent laugh at some thought when he sighted the hotel.
Call in and pay brother-in-law George a visit.
He slowed his walk, and as the wagon came up to him lifted a billy from a hook on the tray, and caught up the few paces he had lost, continuing in his position, the smile now only in his eyes.
"Come-ee Redman. Come-ee Redman," he called softly as they drew level with the hotel, and Redman, responding with dull obedience, changed the direction of the team, and with another soft command Uncle Dan lodged the two leaders firmly in the doorway of the bar.
"Gord!" one of the drinkers whispered, shocked, and made his first real movement of the day as he groped blindly for his glass.
George started in surprise, blinking to make sure it was not some trick of the heat.
"In there George?" a voice drawled from the roadway.
George shook his head slowly and rocked forward onto his feet, stiff muscles protesting as he moved across to the window and leaned on the ledge.
"Dan," he said slowly, "before I do something serious ..... Get 'em out!"
Dan leaned against a verandah post and pushed the hat back on his head. "I'm that dry George ....."
George sighed and reached out a hand, taking the proffered billy can, filling it with beer, his eyes on the two bullocks. Another step forward and half the front would be demolished.
He carried the billy back to the window and handed it out. "There."
Dan took it and tipped it up to his mouth. "Ahh ...," he sighed. "Just the thing to loosen a man's tongue."
He stepped back into the road, billy in one hand, the long whip in the other, a quiet smile in his eyes, and called softly for Darkie and Redman to back up.
"See you a bit later George."
The two lead bullocks moved slowly from the shade, dropping their heads as the weight of the sun fell on them, leaning into the yokes until the wagon rolled.
"Ahh ..., yes ...," sighed Uncle Dan, and tipped the billy back in another long swallow, then with a lift of his hand to George, fell back into position beside the team as they headed up towards the railway station.
Leaning on the ledge of the window, George laughed softly to himself, watching them move up along the main street, then lifted his eyes to the horizon as the deep rumble of thunder rolled slowly towards him through the dull, lifeless air.
But now those days were past.
Mother and Father sold the Hindmarsh Hotel and moved from Jeparit to a farm at Myall, near Sea Lake, and then Father became ill after driving an open buggy from Warracknabeal to Woomelang in heavy rain, and they sold up at Myall and moved into Woomelang to retire.
Dad just sat out in the garden, quiet mostly, with his own thoughts, but filled with stories from the past for us after school and in the evenings.
Woomelang, like most other Mallee towns, was thriving, the population swelling as the families of the railway workers moved in when they built the loco sheds.
It was an exciting place to live, and Mother, always ready to seize opportunity, saw the sale sign on the Woomeland bakery, and bought it.
It was in the main street, up the town from our house, which was in Station Street, almost opposite Mr Dettman's timber yard and general store.
Harry Laughton, a man in his early twenties, was the tradesman baker, and with Wally helping out after school, Mother was managing it very successfully.
Brother Bill was working in the general store, Harry clerked in a solicitor's office, whilst we three younger ones, Wall, Rupert and I, went to Mr Ellis's school.
George, the eldest son, was up contracting at Naracoorte in South Australia, with teams of horses Father had given him, and Emma, the eldest in the family, was on a share farm at Tempy with her husband Rudie Huff.
When they laid the water on the face of Woomelang changed greatly. They had built reservoirs on the east side of the town, and now, with the water tower completed and the pipes laid, our gardens bloomed.
And there was an added bonus for we children when the Progress Association formed the Woomelang Volunteer Fire Brigade.
"Can we go down and watch 'em train?" Rupe asked after tea.
"Don't be late then."
The day had been another scorcher, the hours of school dragging towards the release of time when we could rush home for our bathers and towels, a few quick words with Father before we were off to the swimming hole.
With the stillness of days end, the heat became more tolerable, and by the time we had finished tea and done our work around the house, the harshness was forgotten.
"Come on!" Rupe called from ahead. "Hurry up Bob!"
"They're only starting!"
He waited impatiently until I caught up, then hurried on again towards the crowd of other children gathered by the fire station where the men stood around in small groups, talking.
"Come on Delahoy!" someone yelled to Rupe. "He's coming out!"
Moustache waxed tightly at the ends, as stiff as his bearing, resplendent in his Fire Captain's uniform and peaked cap, Bill White marched smartly from the fire station, and lined the Woomelang Volunteer Fire Brigade up with a Navy bark of command.
"Hooray!" Rupe shouted exuberantly, rushing to the front of the crowd.
Bill White turned on him in surprised indignation, and Rupe, suddenly finding himself the centre of attention, dropped his head and shuffled his feet in the sand.
"Aw- gee, I was only excited," he apologised.
"That's right," Harry Laughton said from the ranks, "nothing like a bit of encouragement young Rupe."
Later that night Harry needed all the encouragement he could get.
He was having a sleep between the rising of the doughs when the smell of burning penetrated his mind, and he rolled onto his back, still half asleep.
Burning? Something burning?
He opened his eyes and sniffed. Must be something in the wood he had fired the oven with.
He closed his eyes and rolled over, but the smell was becoming stronger, and a crackling sound was coming from -
Harry rolled from the bed and ran, stopping and staggering back from the bakehouse doorway as the heat and smoke hit him.
"Fire!" he yelled in surprise, and sprinted out into the street towards the fire station, three or four hundred yards away towards the railway station.
"Fire!" he croaked into the empty building, and stopped, torn between the need to ring the bell and the urgency of getting a hose back to the fire.
"Ah hell!" he cried in frustration, and, giving the bell a tug, grabbed up the handles of the reel and set off back towards the bakehouse, shouting as he ran.
Flames were licking from the street doorway as Harry dropped the handles and dashed to the back of the reel for the hydrant.
"Aw ..., n...o!" It must have fallen off!
He turned and sprinted back down the main street. How the hell would he ever find it in the dark?
A yelp of pain split the night as his foot connected with the missing piece, and he sailed into the air in full flight, coming down sliding, chin, chest and knees, the wind absolutely knocked out of him.
But Harry was made of good stuff, and struggling to his feet grabbed up the hydrant and went limping back towards the bakery.
People had heard his earlier cries, and a crowd was beginning to gather. But no-one was doing anything, until Len Moon, holding his pants up with one hand, arrived at a run.
He dashed straight to the reel, looking around for the hydrant, then saw Harry struggling up the street towards them.
"Harry! Come on! What's wrong with y'? The bloody place'll burn down for all you care! Gor God's sake get a move on!"
Harry came staggering up and shoved the hydrant at Len. "Here ... I'm winded!"
Len grabbed it and turned to where a voice called the plug was, stepped smartly forward, and his pants fell down.
"Blast!" he roared into the night, stepping from his trousers and twisting the hydrant into the plug.
"Here's the hose Len!"
Len grabbed the hose and snapped it onto the hydrant, turning the handle to release the water.
"Here she comes!" he yelled to those at the other end.
"No! Hold on. Haven't got the nozzle on yet!"
Len restrained himself with an effort. After such a fine performance he was reluctant to have to turn the water off - "Ah ..., alright."
There were curses from the other end of the hose, then a voice shouted they were ready, and Len turned the water back on. But the nozzle was pointing at the crowd of half- dressed people who had come to watch, and the solid stream of water shot into their midst and knocked several of them from their feet.
This was too much for Len Moon. He clapped his hands to his head and shrieked "Put the water on the fire! Not down the bloody street!"
"But I can't turn it!" a voice called back in despair.
The pressure was too great, but several bystanders jumped forward and caught hold of the hose near the nozzle, forcing it around until the water was directed at the fire, and the front windows of the bakery shattered inwards with the force.
Above the roar of the fire and water a voice, that turned out to be fireman Jack Hooban, called for another hose, and Harry Laughton and Len Moon set off at a run.
"There's no bloody Y-piece!" an anguished voice cried out when they arrived back, and off went Len again to get the missing connection.
The water had to be turned off again while the second hose was fitted, and by the time they had a hose going back and front, the bakery was an inferno, and as the first streaks of dawn appeared, they had to concede defeat.
Our bakery was a total loss.
Turning off the water Len gazed sorrowfully at the blackened mess. If I'd been here earlier .....". He shook his head and turned to the others. "Too much panic - ".
"By jove yes," Jack Hooban agreed. "I could see how calm you were Len." He gestured over his shoulder. "But seeing there's a mob of girls standing over there, why don't you put your trousers on?"
Len looked down in shock at his own nakedness, and stepped smartly behind the reel. "See what I mean? You couldn't have told me before? No co-operation anywhere."
But there was worse to come.
The first fire in the town since the brigade had been formed, and the Captain had slept through it all. No-one had thought to wake him, and he only heard when the milkman called the news under his window.
Bill White was incensed.
Dressed in his splendid uniform, moustache waxed tightly at the ends, he marched with slow dignity down the centre of the main street towards the scene of the fire, his eyes aflame with indignation.
Jack Hooban saw him coming and gave Len a nudge. "Struth! Here's old Bill!"
Len jerked his head up in surprise. "Jove! Never gave him a thought Jack!"
The other firemen gathered around them, not quite willing to meet Bill's gaze as he stood in the middle of the road and surveyed the burnt chimneys standing starkly from the blackened pile of twisted and burnt iron, then turned his eyes to his men, the look on his face suggesting there was something yet to come.
They glanced at each other, then shuffled into a ragged line, waiting for him to speak.
"Well men, from what I can see you've done a good job. But don't you think it would have been more correct to have notified your Captain?" And then he bellowed "What d'you think we've got a bell for?"
"Well, I give it a bit of a tug," Harry mumbled.
"Tug be buggered!" Bill shouted. "When there's a fire you've been instructed to ring the bloody thing, and ring it hard!"
Harry tenderly felt the gravel-rashed chin, the pain beginning now. "I only did the best I know," he said quietly, "and what I've got to worry about now is getting some way to make bread for you hungry cows."
* * *
Mother was very upset, and called Bill and Harry, my brothers, together to talk it over. They had to decide whether to try and raise the money to re-build and go on with the business, or sell the goodwill and what little there was left for what they could get.
They finally decided to continue, and when we sat down to morning tea the discussion was on ways and means of raising the money to rebuild.
"I'll see who that is," Harry said when a knock sounded on the door.
It was Mr Ankatell who owned the bakery at Lascelles, about nine miles north, and Mother invited him to join us for morning tea.
"Just a quick cup thanks Mrs Delahoy." He hooked his hat on the back of a chair and sat down. "I heard about the fire and brought a couple of cart loads of bread over with me."
"Mr Ankatell - "
He held up his hand. "No thank yous. It's what you would do for me. I'll be able to keep you supplied until you rebuild."
Harry Laughton leaned forward on the table, face creased with worry. "It'll be at least a couple of weeks."
"Why not come back with me and do the baking at Lascelles?" Mr Ankatell turned to Mother. "Your boys could come over each morning and collect it in your own carts."
"That's very kind ....." Mother looked at Harry.
"Sure Mrs Delahoy. That's be alright with me. I'll go and pack a few things now.
But that was only a part of the problem, and when they had left we still had to decide how to raise the money for rebuilding.
And then Mr Dettman from over the road called. He suggested we put a shop onto the front of the house, extending it out to the footpath, and only rebuild the bakehouse on the old site.
"I've drawn up an estimate Mrs Delahoy. I've all the materials you'll need to begin building right away."
Mother was hesitant - "There are a few things - "
Mr Dettman leaned over and rested a hand on Mother's shoulder. "We'll start the job right away Mrs Delahoy, and if it's money you're thinking of." He shook his head and smiled. "I've had to give years of credit to farmers to help them, so I think I can afford to help you." His eyes twinkled. "And there'll be no interest charges either."
Mr Dettman was one of Woomelang's first storekeepers, and there were many of the early settlers who would never have been able to carry on without the credit he extended them. Storekeepers had played a large part in the pioneering and settling of the country. They were unheralded and unsung, even by the farmers themselves, and politicians seemed never to have heard of them.
"Well, that's settled then," he said, and by Christmas 1912 we were back in business with a new bakehouse and a new shop.
* * *
The weather was hot, and to make things easier for Father, Mother had a sleep-out built for him. But he was not improving, and we began to realise just how sick he really was.
He liked to have us sit with him in the garden while he yarned, but after a time he would hunt us off to join our mates, and he would settle back for a doze in the deep shade of the trees.
Wheat carting was in full swing, the long lines of horses and wagons stretching back along the main street while they waited their turn to unload at the railway station.
"Coming down to watch the lumpers Bob?" Rupe kicked a stone into the gutter, watching it roll down the sun-cracked earth, and frowning at it when it came to a stop as though he had expected something more dramatic from it. "eh?"
"What about a swim?"
He shrugged. "Too hot t' walk down there. Anyway, I want to watch the lumpers."
We wandered from shade to shade down the side of the main street towards the yards, the wheat stacks visible well before we reached them.
There were thousands of bags in a stack, each a picture of ordered construction with the three rows of stretchers, then a row of headers to bind them, and another three rows of stretchers.
"I wouldn't mind being a lumper," Rupe mused, "only it's a bit hot."
They were strong men, patient and painstaking as they carried the three bushel bags across their shoulders from wagon to stack, climbing the bouncing plank with a rhythm, and dropping the bag expertly into its place. Hour after hour, pausing only now and then to pick up a billy of black tea and drink it straight down.
"There's one," Rupe said, pointing.
We were intrigued by certain of the lumpers who had beer instead of tea in their billy, as it went down with the same steady swallow.
"He's still not drunk," Rupe said. "Bill reckons they sweat it out as fast as they drink it."
The lumpers had a uniform of their own. Black flannel shirts hanging out of their trousers for the sake of coolness, and a canvas cap like a monk's cowl, with a flap that hung down over their shoulders.
"Hey Delahoy!" a voice shouted. "Your mother's looking for you."
Mother had a letter she wanted us to post to George at Naracoorte, telling him she was increasingly worried about Father. He was failing visibly now, and Mother's eyes and face told a story that was enough to subdue us.
Naracoorte was about 250 miles away across the semi- desert country, just over the border in South Australia. When George received the letter he left his foreman in charge of the contract, and mounting his bicycle, pushed it almost non-stop home.
Dad seemed to pick up a little when he arrived, and they would spend hours together out in the garden yarning. But the doctor was calling every day, and one night, waking in the bed I shared with Rupe while George was home, I heard subdued voices in the kitchen, and went out to find Mother sobbing at the kitchen table.
Bill was standing beside her, an arm about her shoulders, and raised a finger to his lips when he saw me.
Mother had lost her Geordie.
I didn't speak, just turned and went back into the bedroom, standing looking down at Rupe a moment, before I sat on the edge of the bed and tried to sort through the fog in my mind.
Dad was dead. I should be crying. But I could not.
What now? I had lost my best friend. Dad had always been my champion.
Rupe rolled over on his back, his voice slurred with sleep. "What's up Bob?"
"Shhh Rupe. Go back to sleep."
It was a sad house he woke to in the morning, a twilight of heavy shades drawn at the windows, the stillness of death heightened by the heavy breathlessness of the heat. And then that time of tension when the thunderheads rolled in, charging the air, a prickly sweat on the skin.
Emma and Rudie were the only ones not there. They came down as soon as the news reached them on their share farm at Tempy, and Emma and Mother went off by themselves into Mother's bedroom and seemed to bring some measure of comfort to each other.
Somehow it was almost a relief when finally we lowered Father into the depths of the land he loved.
That evening Mother called us all together. "It was your father's dying wish that all his sons went on the land, and I promised him you would.
She looked across at George, and when he nodded, started to go on, then dropped her eyes, twisting a handkerchief in her hands.
Emma moved forward and rested her arm about her shoulders, and after a moment Mother looked up and smiled at her, then turned to us.
"Emma and Rudie have selected a fruit block at Merbein and will be moving onto it quite soon. We must sell the bakery, and George, you've to finish up your contract and bring the teams and wagons down."
There was a moment's silence before Bill spoke.
"We must find a farm. Perhaps a wheat block somewhere in the Mallee."
* * *
Towards the end of 1913 a very tall man, Dick Jennings from up Speed way, called on Mother. He had heard we were selling the bakery, and he thought it might suit him better than his wheat block.
"I wonder could we make a swap?" Mother suggested, and the next weekend drove up with Harry and Bill to see Mr Jennings' property.
They left early on Saturday morning driving Chester and Snowy in the single buggy, and arrived back on the Sunday evening.
"What's it like?"
Bill was thoughtful. "Well ..... It's the sand country, and a bit rough, but it appears to grow wheat alright. Mostly grey loam, with a few good patches of red."
"What about buildings?"
"There's a few sheds and that. The stable's only thatched with brown bush, and the homestead could do with some repair - "
"Not to mention the fences," Harry broke in.
"Is it near a town?"
Bill scratched his head thoughtfully. "About nine mile east of Speed I'd reckon, and five west of Nyarrin. But that's only a railway siding, so Speed would be the main town."
Rupe was not very impressed. "Doesn't sound as interesting as Woomelang."
"You'll find plenty to do on your own square mile of sand," Bill assured him.
"Well, I'm willing to give it a try," Harry said quietly.
Part of the deal was for Mr Jennings to sow three hundred acres with wheat in March 1914, when George was due back with the wagons and teams, which would give us a good start for our first season. And as it was a direct swap it seemed well worth a try.
"Yes," Mother agreed with Harry, and turned to Bill.
Bill leaned back in his chair and stroked his chin thoughtfully. Then he leaned forward, grinned, and thumped his fist on the table.
"Done! Let's give it a go."
Contents | Chapter 2