(C) Copyright 1970 Robert Gordon Delahoy
Geeba Singh was a solid Sikh about six feet tall and thirteen stone, an
expatriate Hindu of the casteless military community of Punjab.
He had made himself at home on our farm, and did not want to leave.
"Well you certainly did us a favour Geeba, and we don't mind if you stick around for a bit more," Bill said. "You're welcome."
But soon after we arrived back Geeba changed his mind and yoked up his horses, leaving, as George said, all his bloody snakes behind him.
He also left some of his things in the hut where he had been camping, and said he would come back for them later.
"Right'o," said George. "They'll be right. Come back any time you like. They're safe there."
But a few days later Rupe suggested we go into the hut and see what he had left behind, and we found amongst the horse collars, hames, bridles, camp oven, and pots, a lot of blue bottles marked "Poison. Laudanum."
"What's laudanum?" Rupe asked Mother at tea that night.
Mother explained it was a type of drug, tincture of opium, used by chemists in various medicines. "Why do you want to know son?"
Rupe couldn't hold his tongue. "Oh, we had a look in the men's hut amongst Geeba's stuff. There's bottles of the stuff there."
"You keep out of there," Harry warned. "We told Geeba we'd look after his things."
After tea George and Bill went over to the hut, and on their way back I heard George say to Bill that he had not known Geeba was a drug addict.
"No .. maybe it belongs to some of his cobbers? Probably used to have his mates over now and then while he was here."
But Geeba's laudanum was of passing interest, as the hard work of sowing the crop had already begun.
Bill and Harry were carting seed wheat, super and chaff out from Speed, and the rest of us were trying to put the house, sheds and stable back in order as well as making sure the drills and harness were in order.
We were hindered in this way by Geeba's snakes, as George had called them. They were big browns, and seemed to have taken the place over. They were under the house and in the stables and the sheds, and they really resented our arrival back.
They could complicate the simplest job, and we were always glad when the day was over and we could relax around the mallee root fire and yarn.
One night, when we were sitting there, George picked up the length of iron we used as a poker, and pushed it reflectively into the glowing coals.
"I've been thinking," he said, and Mother lifted her head sharply, as though she had been expecting something and knew it was about to happen. "Reckon as soon as I've helped put the crop in I'd better enlist."
"Jove!" Rupe said, excited, but Mother drew into herself and did not answer him.
It seemed exciting to me too, but as the days passed something of Mother's sadness infected us all, and there was an air of glumness as we worked.
George was not very big, but they did not come any tougher, and we began to realise the job we would have trying to manage the farm without him. And who did you call for when you had a six-foot brown snake jammed with a stick halfway under the house?
George. He would coming running and grab it by the tail, and would pull it out and prod it until it could be hauled out, then swing it around his head and crack it like a stock whip.
No trouble at all to our little George, and we relied heavily on him again when it came to the actual seeding.
We began in March of 1915, sowing dry before the rains came, and as well as our own had arranged to put in three hundred acres for a neighbour on half share.
This was Dick McNally, whose block adjoined ours on the eastern boundary. It was cleared and fenced, but the dam was dry and the only buildings were a twelve by ten galvanised iron hut and a stable.
"I don't know," Dick said slowly, gazing upwards into the hard bronze sky, the dust from the drills around us. "Think a man's a damn fool even putting grain in the ground."
Harry squinted across the wide paddocks towards the far boundary where George and his team worked in their own dust cloud, and slowly nodded in agreement.
It was hard, harsh work, betting against the improbably hope of a break from a sky that promised nothing but the continuing dry.
"Pity your little mate Fisher's not here Bob. He told you how to pick a drought coming, maybe he could tell us when it's going to end."
But the sun came up each morning hard and bright, and the crystal shimmer of the heat haze quickly reappeared across the land, and we went to work with out heads already bent forward to try and somehow beat the heat.
"Well," said George, when the last drill row had been run. That's about all we can do. I guess I had better think about enlisting."
We all saw him off on the midnight train in Speed, and it was a long, silent drive home that night, the sky blazing clear above us with its myriad stars.
And so we waited. Another year?
"Hey!" shouted Bill. "Come and look at this!"
We ran. Out from the house and up from the sheds, and looked where Bill pointed, his arm stiffly stretched in front of him, his face creased in disbelief.
"Clouds?" Mother asked.
"Jove," Harry breathed. "I reckon .."
But he was not prepared to say any more, and we simply stood there, watching.
They rolled up from the horizon, and built, mountain on mountain, and lightening sheeted them with a backdrop of promise.
We watched, and waited, but the great monoliths of grey and black moved so slowly, so ponderously, and had so far to come ..
"Listen, let's get on with things," Harry said, an edge to his voice. "Come on."
Conversation at tea was stilted, head half turned towards the window, eyes flicking from plate to the light outside. It was certainly becoming darker. But of course night was approaching
"Thank God." It was a whisper from Mother. A prayer, and we all froze, immobile, as the first heavy drops spattered on the iron above us.
"Rain?" Rupe asked hesitantly.
"I reckon," Bill said slowly. "I reckon like you've never seen in your life young Rupert."
And that was the signal. With a scrape and a clatter we abandoned the tea table and rushed out across the verandah onto the sand, spreading our arms wide and turning our faces up into the sky.
Heavy, long-falling drops of water splattered against our skin and hissed into the sand around us, and the first tempo of sound speeded up, and up, and up until it was a continuous roar on the galvanised iron of the roof.
"Come in before you all drown!" Mother laughed, and wet we turned and followed her up onto the verandah.
"I hope George hears about it," Bill shouted above the noise. "Jove, he'd love to see this."
We stood there filling our lungs with the sweet smell of the newly wet ground, watching the small pools form, and the rivulets breaking across the sand, the leaves of the mallee gums by the sheds glistening with light.
In bed, it was hours before we could sleep, lying there on our backs and listening to the even drumming on the roof, the gurgle of running gutters, savouring each breath of the new sweetness.
Almost overnight, it seemed, seeds soaked up the moisture and exploded into green. Water came down the slopes into the dams and overflowed them, and dry creek beds filled in the deeper pools, and began to run again.
Wildflowers, waxflowers, the everlastings, broke above the greenery in a riot of colour, and the Mallee became a garden, and men relaxed.
With this new awakening of hope we began to look to the future again. Harry brought home a young sow, Bettsy we called her, and built her a sty. She was the founder of the literally hundreds of pigs we were to raise over the next few years.
We also began to look out again for visitors. Being off the main road, or track, life could become lonely, and if a stranger happened to call at the house you knew almost certainly he was lost, and always tried to talk him into staying the night to have a yarn.
One day at the gate on our west boundary we discovered a man lying unconscious on the roadway.
It was a Mallee gate, of the particular variety famed and respected for its vices. Unless treated with the greatest circumspection it would lash out like a live thing. It consisted of five plain wires about twelve feet long, every two feet spaced with a mallee stick. When you came to close it you dragged it around and slipped the bottom of the end stick into a wire loop at the base of the strainer. The top of the end stick was levered up tight using a short stick wired to the top of the strainer. This had its free end slipped into a loop to hold the tension.
The end result was a gateway closed as neatly as any other panel in the fence, but to the unwary it was about as harmless as an angry brown snake.
This was our particular variation of a Mallee gate in a district where there were many examples of individualism, so that each had to be approached with the utmost care and cunning.
The stranger lying unconscious on the ground at our gate that day had left the history of his decline and fall plainly apparent to Mallee eyes. The end-stick was still in the lower loop, hanging back from the strainer at the top, and the lever swayed gently in the breeze at the end of its wire where it had finished after dealing the knockout blow to the stranger's skull.
"You catch his horse Rupe," Bill directed. "We better carry him back to the house."
We took him up and laid him on a bed, and Mother bathed the contusion on his head, and kept his forehead damp until he slowly opened his eyes.
He was a small, wiry little man, and after looking us over a moment through eyes still slightly dazed, closed them and said he was glad someone had found him. He was making his first quarterly round in the north of his new parish ..
"Struth!" Harry whispered. "It's the new minister from Woomelang."
"Maclean," the man said slowly. "And you would be ..?"
"Mrs Delahoy. These are my sons."
The Reverend MacLean touched the wound on his head and flinched.
"Yeah," said Rupe conversationally. "That was our gate."
The Reverend MacLean rode a horse to visit his flock, and in time we came to know and respect him as a true man of god. The locals used to call him the Reverend 'Jockey' MacLean, perhaps because for as long as we knew him he never again tried to open a Mallee gate, but always put his horse to them at the jump.
His visit was a pleasant interlude in our daily work and our frequent inspections of the new crop, which, by September, was growing well.
Rupe and I were going to the Turriff East State School, a part time school running two days one week and three the next. It was five miles from our farm, and we rose the ponies; Rupert on Snowy and me on Chester. Our brothers would not let us ride with saddles so there was no danger of being dragged with a foot caught in a stirrup if we were thrown, and there was every chance of that in the impromptu races we held with the other school children, most of the twelve boys and eight girls riding ponies too.
Then George came up from Melbourne on final lave. He was off to the other side of the world to fight in a war, and how could you say goodbye in such circumstances? Only with a laugh and a joke, and your true feelings hidden beneath a smile.
He was particularly pleased with the crop, and spent long hours wandering about the paddocks when he was not with Mother.
"Wish I was here for the harvest. Look after the horses, won't you Bill?"
When harvest did come around Mother was up at Merbein with Emma, who was expecting a child, and Harry was doing the housework on the farm.
Wally was also up at Merbein. He had decided to become a baker's apprentice, so that only left Bill, Harry and I to take the crop off.
"We'll have to get Wally back," Bill said, "there'll be too much work for three over the harvest."
We started cutting the oats first, Bill driving the five foot binder, with Harry and I walking along behind to put the sheaves into stooks ready for carting.
Then Wally arrived home to help, and everything went along nicely, until the day Harry tossed Bill a sheaf in which was a five foot long brown snake.
"Struth," Bill said from the top of the wagon. He didn't need a five foot brown snake, so he tossed it back down again.
Harry didn't particularly want it either, but as it fell around his neck and shoulders he didn't have a chance to say no.
With a gentle word or two of reproach to Bill he jumped back and tripped over Rowdy, our big staghound who was always slinking along behind you.
Down they went, Harry and Rowdy and the big brown, and in all the excitement Rowdy bit Harry on the calf.
I jumped forward as the brown snake slithered away and got him with the pitchfork, as Bill slithered down from the load.
"I've been bit!" Harry yelped.
"Yes," I said, "Rowdy bit you."
"No," yelled Bill, "Can't take any chances. Give'us a look."
Sure enough, there were two puncture marks in Harry's leg.
"There you are," Bill said. "It's a snake bite alright." He whipped out a boot lace and tied it around Harry's thigh, then sucked at the wound until he was satisfied he had done all he could there.
"Right'o Bob, get one of the horses out of the team and double-donk Harry back to the house."
I dropped the chains off Prince and climbed onto his back, and together Bill and I got Harry up behind me.
"Off you go!" Bill shouted, smacking Prince on the rump, then realised he should have been on the horse instead of me, and came running and jumping along behind cursing the mistake of using one of his boot laces instead of Harry's.
Up at the house Harry got down and sat on the edge of the verandah, head held in his hands as he considered why fate should have selected him to receive the bite. But that was not good enough for Bill, and when he arrived he insisted Harry go in to bed.
"Ah, it's not worth it. Anyway, I feel alright."
"Never mind about that," Bill insisted. "I'll have to open up the bite."
He took a razor and opened a cut between the two puncture marks, and it bled really well. Then he rubbed Condy's Crystals into the wound, eased off the ligature for a few moments, then tightened it up and turned to me.
"See if you can find some brandy."
I went out and had a look around, but could only find a quart bottle of whisky.
But that seemed to buck Harry up no end, and Bill filled a pannikin and Harry took it neat.
"Think I'll have one myself," Bill said, and turned to me. "You go and give Wally a hand to bring the wagon up and unload. We'll call it a day I reckon."
Wally and I forked the hay off, and unyoked and fed the team, doing the other chores around the house and sheds before we went back inside. It was getting dark by then.
"You know Wally," I said as we went in. "It was Rowdy that bit Harry. Not the snake."
"Well y' never know," Wally said.
When we walked into the kitchen we found Bill and Harry seated one each side of the table, pannikins in hand, grinning stupidly at each other with the empty quart bottle between them.
"How're you feeling Harry?" Wally asked.
"Ah well ash a masher of facsh," slurred Harry, "I've never felt besher in me life " and slipped from the chair and went peacefully to sleep on the floor.
Bill blinked his eyes at the suddenly empty place and looked at us in puzzlement. "Wesh Harry?"
"Shtruth ..!" Bill yelped. "Don't let him go t' sleep! He'll die!"
"Like hell," said Wally. "I think we better get you both off to bed."
Soon after the two of them had recovered from Harry's snake bite, or the cure for it, we finished the hay making and moved into the wheat, using two five foot cut strippers with a four horse team, which we changed at lunchtime, in each.
Harry and Bill drove them, and after a week's stripping we started on the cleaning.
We used a hand winnower, with Wally and I taking turns on the handle, the other forking the wheat and cocky-chaff into the feeder, always making sure the back was to the wind to help keep the riddles clear of chaff.
It was hard work, but although Wally was only 16, and I was two years younger, we managed to put out around eighty three bushel bags of wheat a day.
Bill reckoned the crop was averaging nearly ten bags to the acre, which was fine, except that it meant Wally and I had three thousand bags to clean on our property and another three thousand on Dick McNally's.
But we enjoyed the work, and the hum of the strippers was a pleasant sound through the long hot days, and in the evening, when the horses were fed and the chores around the shed and house done for another day, we would all strip off and bathe in the big galvanised tubs on the back verandah.
"Wonder how George is getting along?" Bill mused one evening from the depth of a tub bubbled high with soap-foam.
"Aw," said Harry, ever an optimist. "Maybe he's out having a good time in gay Paree with all those French sheilas?"
Bill pondered this from within his cave of soap. "Yes," he decided finally. "Maybe he is at that."
It was so peaceful there on the back verandah, the evening so still the sounds from miles around floated to us when we were quiet. It was difficult to believe our farm could ever be any different. But it could be, and it came so very suddenly when the change did arrive.
Wally and I were at the wheat winnowing and sewing bags. Rowdy, who spent his day alternately following the strippers and checking up on Wally and I, came bounding down a sand hill to us, threw himself down in the shade of the bags, and without even appearing to check on our progress, went to sleep.
"What a life," Wally said, watching him, then looked up, surprised. "Here's Geeba!"
I turned. "Jove! Hullo Geeba."
He was mounted, his horse standing quietly beside the bags of wheat. Beet Geeba did not answer my greeting, simply stared at Wally, his eyes red- rimmed and bloodshot.
"What's wrong Geeba ..?"
Slowly he climbed down from his horse, dropped the reins on the ground, and stalked towards Wally.
"Wally ..! I warned, suddenly realising Geeba was in a terrible rage, and turned my head quickly in the hope of seeing Bill or Harry working towards us.
But neither of them were in sight.
"You!" Geeba screamed at Wally. "You smashed it! All my laudanam! I come back to get it and all the bottle broken!"
"Don't know what you're talking about!" Wally protested.
But oh, I did, and felt sick at my own stupidity. Rupe and I had taken all the bottles from the hut and used them as targets for the pea rifle.
"You bloody lie!" Geeba shouted, and rushed at Wally, dealing him a blow across the side of the head.
Wally went down on his back, but rolled and came up onto his feet to meet Geeba as he launched himself at him again, dodging and running behind the bags of wheat.
"What're you doing!" Wally yelled to him.
I could not move. I couldn't even find my voice, my knees had gone weak and watery, and I just had to stand and watch Wally and Geeba circle around the bags, Geeba throwing wild punches. That wild, full grown man bent on thrashing, perhaps even murdering, a five foot tall boy.
Wally, realising Geeba was not going to cool down and stop, suddenly dodged back, and moving inside Geeba's guard, landed an uppercut on his jaw that sent him sprawling, his turban becoming undone and unwinding onto the ground, Wally into him like a little fox terrier.
"Now cut it out!" Wally yelled, but the moment he stepped back Geeba was up like a flash, and spinning across to his horse whipped a six-inch long knife from the saddle and turned back on Wally.
He'll carve Wally up! I though. Oh God help us!
Then from behind me came a roar, and Rowdy launched himself into the air, over the bags of wheat and past my shoulder, hitting Geeba full on the chest and sinking his teeth deep into Geeba's arm as he knocked him to the ground.
"Rowdy!" I shouted, my voice coming back with a rush. "Rowdy! Come back!"
Rowdy was standing above the Indian, teeth bared, hair standing up in a ridge along his back, making snaps at Geeba's throat.
"Leave him!" Wally shouted, but although I was grateful for what the dog had done, I had often seen that big eight stone of staghound in the bush pull a six foot kangaroo down with a single slash that tore out the animal's throat.
"Come off Rowdy!" I shouted, and threw myself at him, catching him by the neck and rolling away with him into the sand. "Steady boy steady .." I pleaded, winding my hand into his collar.
"Let 'im go," Wall panted. "Let 'im kill the black bastard."
Wally had kicked Geeba's knife away, and held it now as the man struggled to his feet. He had got a hell of a fright when Rowdy knocked him down, and the blood was pouring from his arm.
"Watch it!" Wally warned.
But Geeba had no fight left in him, and catching up the length of his turban, pulled himself into the saddle, then turned on us, his face contorting in rage.
"You win this time!" he screamed. "But I come back! I come back and kill you! Kill you both!" And jerking his horse away kicked it into a gallop.
Wally looked after him a moment, then turned to me. "Well, that was a bloody nice turnout. What was it all about?"
I shrugged, and told him.
Bill and Harry were very upset about it all. They decided Geeba must be a dope addict and had run short of laudanam, probably becoming unbalanced when he discovered the hoard he had put away for a rainy day was not there when he wanted it.
"We'll have to get the police," Bill said. "Can't have a crazy dope addict, especially an Indian, roaming the countryside."
The nearest police station was back at Woomelang, thirty miles away, or Sea Lake or Ouyen, about the same distance.
"Too far to go tonight," Bill decided. "I'll ride into Speed in the morning and ring the Woomelang police from the Post Office."
"Have to put a guard on tonight then," Harry said. "We're not taking any risks."
In the house we had a 12 gauge double barrel shotgun, a double barrel .410, and two rifles, a .303 LeEnfield, and a .22."
"How's the ammunition Harry?"
"Plenty," Harry said, and brought out several boxes of shotgun shells and rifle bullets.
Bill decided we would take guard duty in two hour shifts. Wally and I first, then he and Harry.
"Just in case the black devil comes back. You never know with Eastern people. Why this Government lets these crazy dope addicts into the country in the first place I'll never know."
"I think I'll take one of the ponies and ride over and warn Pa Jennings and Charlie McDougall," Harry said. Pa Jennings' place was a mile to the west, and Charlie's a mile to the south. "Wish George was home here instead of over there fighting those bloody Huns."
Going on for ten o'clock that night we tied Clyde, the black and tan cattle dog, at the back, and Rowdy around the front. He was very uneasy and would not lie down, every so often making a low growl of suspicion.
Bill and Harry went off to bed, and Wally and I sat through a quiet two hours, yarning to keep awake as the clock moved slowly around to midnight.
"Well," said Wally, glancing up at the hands, "I guess that's it." He stood up and stretched. "Better go and wake them I guess."
He took a couple of steps towards the door, then froze as the blood-chilling scream of a terrified horse split the night.
We turned and ran, out through the back door and over the verandah, brought up short by the dancing flames behind the stand of mallee trees.
"Good God!" Wally shouted. "The bastard's set fire to the stable!"
We turned and ran back into the house, shaking the other two roughly awake, then off back across the verandah towards the stables, the dry broom bush thatch burning fiercely.
"They're out!" Wally shouted from ahead of me, and through the dancing light I could see the horses huddled together in the yard against the gate.
"What about Sailor?" Bill yelled, rushing up. "Come on!"
He dashed in under the fire of the roof to where our big, long-legged Clydesdale stallion was tied in his stall. Quiet with us, he was a rogue and a bully amongst the other horses, but now he was simply a terrified animal as he lay back against the halter rope, screaming.
Bill's hands tore at the rope, but the weight of the stallion had pulled it impossibly tight, and his fingers could make no impression.
"Git up Sailor!" he cried, glowing coals of stick and thatch falling about him, the smell of living flesh in his nostrils. "For God's sake come up!"
Harry rushed in after them, saw what had happened, and snatched up a chaff cutter blade.
"Look out!" he yelled, and swung the blade at the rope, Bill leaping back with an oath as it shaved his arm before slicing through the rope. "Now get out!"
Sailor fell back on his haunches, then struggled upright and spun out of the stall, bursting from the blazing stables at a gallop that took him blindly into the mob at the gate. There was a splintering crash as the added weight shattered the gate, and sixteen great draughts and two ponies broke into a thundering gallop away towards the dam.
"You alright?" Wally cried as Bill and Harry staggered from the blazing building.
"Yes," Bill cried back. "Get hold of some shovels Wally. We can't save the stables now, but if we get sand on the burning bits in the hay stacks, we can save them."
We were fortunate it was a calm night, and the flames were going straight upwards, so even the bits of burning thatch were not falling far away.
Bill turned to me. "Get back to the house Bob, the black devil might be there even now."
I slipped a bullet into the chamber of the rifle and set off at a run, stopping to release Rowdy before I went on up to the house. The lamp was still alight on the kitchen table, and after listening for a few moments I moved cautiously across the verandah and inside.
"Come on Rowdy. Git him!"
Rowdy moved past me, sniffing, but after a moment or two he came back and flopped at my feet, so I knew Geeba wasn't there, and went back outside.
Across through the night I could make out the dark shapes of the horses milling at the dam, and for a moment I stood, listening, as I thought I heard the sound of a scream come from their direction. But it did not come again, so I sat down near the tank stand and looked across at the fire.
"Good boy," I said, as Rowdy came and put his head on my knee. He was nervous again now, and began to whimper, so I reached out and stroked him as I listened to the sounds of Bill, Harry and Wally's voices. And it sounded like several others as well.
Above me a little black and white willy wagtail flitted and chirped as he picked holes in the night, feeding greedily on the insects attracted by the glow of the lamp. I remembered Fisher telling me black people never told secrets at night when the willy wagtail was about, because he was a bird who never slept and would hear their secrets and tell them to the Bird Spirits, who in turn would sing them to the other backfellows.
"What do you think Rowdy?" I asked, and the next thing I knew Harry was shaking me by the shoulder.
"Wake up Bob. A nice guard you turned out to be."
I blinked my eyes and looked around, surprised. There were men everywhere. Charlie McDougall, Pa Jennings, the Whitecross boys, Wally Cook
"Come on Bob. Give me a hand to get some breakfast."
"Breakfast?" It was still dark, only the first suggestion of dawn appearing in the east. But Harry went in and stoked up the fire and put two baking dishes over the flame.
"Star cracking eggs into this one," he told me, and after filling the other with slabs of bacon turned to slicing bread, handing them to one of the Whitecross boys who sat in front of the fire toasting them.
The rest of the men came in in ones and twos and sat around the long deal table, yarning until Harry began serving them with the eggs, bacon and toast.
And tea! I reckon our tea pot held a gallon, but it was emptied time and time again. It was like feeding a mob of refugees who hadn't seen food for a week.
After breakfast, the sun now up, we all stood around on the verandah or out on the sand and talked about last night's events. It was a great worry to know Geeba was free, and apparently half crazy with his need for laudanam. He would have to be found before any of us would sleep easy again, and the men were particularly worried about leaving their homes even during the day with women and children unprotected.
Charlie McDougall had walked down to the dam, and when he came back he saw a horse with a bridle on amongst the others.
"Which of you blokes didn't tie your horse up?"
"Well ours had saddles on," Snowy Whitecross said.
"Same here," said Pa Jennings.
"I'll go back and have a closer look," Charlie said, turning away, and the other men said they would go down with him.
"Bob. Wally," Harry called as we moved off with them. "Come on, you can give me a hand with the washing-up."
We shrugged and followed him back into the kitchen, drying while he washed, then had Wally go and help him make the beds, leaving me to sweep out the kitchen.
I had just finished when the men came back, their voices subdued. I called Harry and Wally and went out to meet them.
"Well, he's done for," Pa Jennings sighed, lowering himself onto the edge of the verandah. "Have to get the police out of course."
Bill came over to us, his voice low. "Geeba's down there. Looks like he must have ridden down to watch how the fire went and got mixed up with the draughts when they stampeded. Knocked his horse down by the look of it." He stopped, marking the sand with his boot. "Poor old Geeba. They trampled all over him."
"I thought I heard a scream. When you sent me back to guard the house."
"Must have tried to call for help," Harry said slowly. "Wouldn't have wished that on him." He turned away. "Poor old Geeba."
The men had found him lying under his own horse's belly, one foot caught in a stirrup.
"I'll get off into Speed," Snowy Whitecross said. "Be in there by ten and give the police a chance to get out here today."
"Better ring the Woomelang station," Pa Jennings directed.
Some of the men took a horse rug down to the dam and wrapped Geeba's body in it. It was to be left there until the police came, and his horse tied to a tree nearby. It was obvious that it had gone down under the others from the cuts and bruises on its body.
"Give him a feed," Harry said, "but leave the saddle as it is. Don't want to disturb too much before the police get here."
He seemed to know what should be done from his days as a lawyer's clerk.
Wally and I put the horses back in the stables and made a temporary repair on the gate, and for the rest of the morning and most of the afternoon sat around on the verandah and yarned with the men.
"Looks like the police," Charlie McDougall said late in the afternoon, shading his eyes as he looked down towards our gate. "Yeah. It's them alright."
There was a Sergeant and a Constable, and Mr George Brown, a Justice of the Peace. We all went down to the dam while they inspected the body and the horse and got a general idea of what had probably happened.
Back at the house, Mr Brown said Bill, Harry, Wally and I would have to make statements, and the young Constable wrote them down and made a list of all the farmers who had come over to help fight the fire.
"There'll be an inquest," Mr Brown said. "I'd say .. Ah today's Saturday. I'll make it Monday week at ten. Mechanics Institute at Woomelang, and I'll need you four boys there." He turned to the Sergeant. "I can make an order for burial right away."
"Right sir. We've got the body on board, so we can leave when you're ready. We've taken the saddle off the horse and we'll let him lead behind the buggy."
"Well, that seems to be all," Mr Brown said. "We can leave now. Thank you all for your co-operation."
We walked with them out onto the verandah and watched them leave. Poor old Geeba. If only his laudanam had been where he had left it
But there was no point in pondering on what might have been, and Harry and Bill sent us off to feed the horses for the night.
The next morning the Whitecross family came over, bringing horse feeders to lend us until we could rebuild. Mr Whitecross and the boys hopped in and helped us build a set of stalls in the yard from mallee saplings we cut on the property.
"That's all you need to see you through the harvest," Mr Whitecross said. "You can build again when that's done."
Mrs Whitecross, a big, buxom woman, had got onto Harry about the house, and with his help had done the washing which had been piling up.
"And by jove," Harry said later. "Can she wash! The way she stands over the troughs and works on that scrubbing board. And her hands!" He looked down at his own and shook his head. "When she finishes ringing out a sheet they're nearly dry. No need to cut a bullock's throat when they want meat on the Whitecross place." He made a twisting motion with his hands and grinned.
And it was not only the washing. After that she had started in on the house, and bossing Wally and Harry at a run, had left the place as clean as Mother kept it.
"Nothing like a bit of civilisation," Bill said, leaning back from the fire, and settled himself for a sleep before bed.
We could not get Geeba from our minds, and it was quite a relief to have the company of the Whitecross boys when they came over the next Sunday evening. Snowy and Reg were going to drive the stripper for us while we were at the inquest, and had come over ready for an early start.
We left for Woomelang at five thirty the next morning in the double buggy. The ponies were fresh, and after we had passed through the gate Bill let them run, and we really sailed along.
It was a beautiful, crisp, fresh morning, and in the east the red streaks of dawn showed as the night was peeled away.
There were a few rabbits along the roadside, and over to the right a mob of kangaroos were feeding in one of Charlie McDougall's paddocks.
"Blue fliers I'd reckon," Bill said. "Jove, it's a great morning, isn't it?"
"Yes," said Harry, taking a long deep breath of the sweet fresh air. "It's a beauty."
"Look out!" shouted Bill, and we all grabbed hold as the buggy bucked over a stump.
"I'll watch the 'roos," Harry advised. "You keep an eye on the road."
Bill grinned to himself and didn't answer. He was a good driver, and with a flick of the whip and a touch on the reins, would guide Snowy and Chester round most of the stumps. But you couldn't miss them all. Where they were really thick Bill let the ponies drop down to a walk to have a spell.
But mostly they kept up their stead trot, and in a couple of hours we came to the Grub road where the main road to Woomelang turned east to Sea Lake, and soon after Wally sighted the Woomelang water tower.
We drove into town around nine, down the main street and around into the hotel yard where Mickey Riley the groom came out to meet us. He was a little chap, a good cross-country jockey until he was mashed-up in a race.
"Down for the inquest, eh?"
"Yes Mick," said Bill, climbing stiffly down.
News spread quickly in the Mallee, and as the story passed from mouth to mouth each added a little local colour, until the original facts were pale in comparison.
"Hullo boys!" Mrs Proctor, the licencee's wife came out to greet us. "I've got a cup of tea on." She shook her head. "My, what you have been through."
Bill winked at me. Now it was going to be on.
"You poor boys," she fussed, leading us into the kitchen where there was quite a spread set out. "I don't know how you survived all those mad Indians attacking."
Wally managed to get across to the tap and get a glass of water before he choked to death.
"Dust," Bill said to Mrs proctor. "On the trip."
"Oh, yes." Mrs Proctor turned from watching Wally. "But where's your mother? With dear Ellen and I being such close friends I've been so worried about her, and I'll never forget when your poor father died. You didn't leave her at home alone?"
She stopped, and Harry managed to slip a few words in. "She's up at Merbein. Em's expecting."
Mrs Proctor's eyes lit up. "Really! Is this the second? Why, I remember when she was married "
"That's right. Just before Father died "
Mrs Proctor was running through months on her fingers.
"She lost the first one seven weeks after it was born. You remember that Mrs Proctor. Pneumonia."
Harry warmed to his subject as we ate. He had neatly side-tracked her from the Geeba Singh story, as we had been warned not to say anything about the death until after the inquest, and seemed to be enjoying himself as he led the conversation into family matters.
"I hate to break this up," Bill said, glancing at the clock. "But we better be getting over to the hall."
There was quite a crowd at the Mechanics Institute, and a lot of old friends to greet us we went in past the young Constable at the entrance.
Mr Brown, the JP, was at the head of the table, and the Sergeant who had come out to our place was beside him, with the Clerk of the Court, who seemed to be the one who dictated procedure.
After Bill and Harry had told the court all they knew Wally had to stand up, and after swearing on the bible, make his statement. During it he said Geeba Singh set fire to the stable, and Mr Brown, who we thought was asleep, jerked his head up sharply.
"Did you actually see him set fire to the stable?"
"Well, no," Wally admitted. "But I know he did."
Mr Brown's face hardened. We only want to hear what took place. Not what you presumed took place. He turned to the Clerk of the Court. "Strike out that statement," and then told Wally to proceed.
This little episode upset Wally, and whenever he was upset he began to stutter. So Wally started off stuttering worse than I had ever heard him, and after about ten minutes Mr Brown excused him.
It was my turn then, but when I stood up Mr Brown said I was too young to take the oath. "Just tell the court what happened."
I was a little disappointed by this, but told them what I knew and answered their questions.
Then Charlie McDougall and Pa Jennings gave evidence, and the chemist from Birchip, who said he had frequently supplied Geeba Singh with laundanam, and after he had spoken the court was adjourned until one thirty.
When we returned Mr Brown made his judgement, that the court found Geeba Singh, of India, address not then fully known, had met his death inadvertently, the result of accident.
And that was the end of Geeba.
Outside the hall we stood around talking for a while, the went back to the hotel.
"You two yoke up the ponies," Bill said. "Harry and I'll go in and settle with Mrs Proctor for the feed and stabling."
Wally and I yoked up the ponies and drove them around to the front, sitting there for half an hour or so waiting.
"Reckon they're talking about family again?" I asked.
"I don't know, but I'm going to slip down to the shop for some laces for my footy boots."
I took the reins from him. "Okay."
He was back as the other two came out from the hotel, wiping the froth from their mouths with the backs of their hands and looking pleased with themselves.
"Reckon you may as well drive home Bob," Bill said, climbing up into the back seat, and with the warm smell of beer about us I took my foot from the brake and touched the ponies with the reins.
Chapter 3 | Contents | Chapter 5