(C) Copyright 1970 Robert Gordon Delahoy
September moving to a close, the rains still coming, and the crop growing
Six hundred and fifty acres of wheat all told, the three hundred of our own, two hundred on share with Mr Dick McNally, and one hundred and fifty with Mr Harry Kylie.
We did not see Mr Kylie very often. He had another property down Berriwillock way. A tall, clean shaven, fine looking man about forty five years old, he spoke with a soft voice and the lilt of an Irish brogue.
He had driven bullocks when he was younger.
There was a hut and stable on his property, but a lot of it was stilled uncleared mallee.
Dick McNally had moved into his own place now, batching in his hut, and since the crop was in had been clearing mallee ready to sow for next year.
Rust marks had begun appearing in the wheat because of the rain and humidity, and we needed a dry spell and a steady breeze to get rid of it. But it was not serious, and of no great concern at the moment.
And then the cheque for the pigs arrived, for twice the amount we had expected.
"Why, that's good," Rupe said. "Be able to buy two ploughs now."
"Yes," said Mother, "we could, but we'll have to be content with one. The rest will go into the bank to reduce our overdraft."
Rupe cocked his head to the side and looked up at Mother. "What's an overdraft?"
"Yes, but why do they let you have it?"
"Because of your assets Rupert."
"Assets? What are assets?"
"Why, you are son," Mother told him with a smile, and Rupe, surprised, felt a great deal more important for the next hour or so. He had not known he was anything so grand as an asset.
Bill was going over to the Nitschke's nearly every weekend to see Olga now.
"How is she Son?" Mother asked when he returned on Sunday night.
"She asked to be remembered to you." Bill sat down heavily and sighed. "The Education Department's transferred her back to a town in Gippsland."
"I am sorry to hear that Son."
"Yes," agreed Bill, "but I suppose beggars can't be choosers. Anyway, she gets the Christmas holidays and I've invited her to come and spend them here with us."
Mother was delighted.
"By the way," Bill said, turning to Harry. "I met Snowy Whitecross on the way home. Told me a big mob of bullocks are headed our way from up north. Snowy said they were grazing them down through the desert country to the north. Taking them to Sea Lake to rail to Melbourne."
"Can't see they'll get much to live off that country to the north," Rupe said. "I've been miles up into it on Snowy. 'Course the water holes are full and there's a lot of kangaroo grass growing this year. Suppose they could feed off that."
We didn't think any more of it until the day Tom Burns called. He stopped his horse where we were working, and leaned forward in the saddle. "G'day."
"I've just been over on that hill where the big pine tree grows and saw that mob of bullocks I'd heard were coming down this way. No idea there'd be so many. Must be five hundred head. Good heavens, if they got into the crop they'd eat a man out in a night."
Tom's boundary fence was on the west side of the bullocks as they headed southwards down towards our north boundary, then McNally's, east of us, on to Kylie's. And it was along the northern boundaries we had the crops in on shares, with the fences only five plain wires and a barb.
"You know what hungry bullocks are like," Tom said.
"You don't think they'd try cattle duffing on as big a scale as that?"
Bill was thoughtful.
Cattle duffing with five hundred bullocks?
It was not so bad when the bullock drivers tried it. They camped with their wagons in wheat country and at night let their teams into a farmer's paddock for a feed, having them out and the fences repaired by morning. But five hundred! What a mess they would make of a paddock of wheat almost in the shot blade.
"Wonder why they've come in the back way instead of along the stock route?"
Bill shrugged and shook his head, glancing up as Mother called from the verandah. "Aren't you coming up to the house Tom?"
"Yeah, come and have a cup of something," Bill said.
Tom dismounted and tied his horse to the rail by the machinery shed and walked up to the house with us, chatting to Mother as she poured tea.
Harry came in after us, explaining he had just been setting another clucky hen, calling out as he washed up on the verandah. "Don't anyone use those eggs on the kitchen table. I've another hen to set yet."
As we sat around with our morning tea the conversation was about bullocks.
"What about we saddle up and ride over with you and have a bit of a talk to the owners or drovers or whoever they are?" Harry suggested to Tom.
"Yes," agreed Bill. "Come on. Let's get cracking. Want one of us to stay with you Mother?"
"No Son. I'll be alright."
We sighted the bullocks from the sand hill with the big pine tree, the country sloping away to the north, miles of country in view. The cattle were moving around in amongst the small mallee, and Tom pointed across to a plume of smoke, which we assume came from a camp, although it was not visible from this distance.
"We'll head for the smoke," Bill said, and away we went, dodging through the mallee scrub, up past the mallee hen's nest, and in amongst the feeding bullocks, gathered in loose groups of six and seven down to twos and threes.
We kept in a general line towards the smoke, and finally broke from the scrub into a clearing. There was a wagonette, or covered wagon, near the camp fire, and several hobbled horses feeding nearby, with three saddled horses ties to the wagon. Bending over the fire, cooking something in a camp oven, was a rather stout, perfectly black woman about middle age.
G'day. What you want?" she asked, turning to face is as we rode in.
"Where's the boss?" Tom asked.
"Him asleep with the boys." She walked across to the wagon and peered underneath. "Wake up. Wake up. You wanted. You wanted."
A thin, wiry, grey haired man came out from underneath the wagon. He wore a beard and a moustache, and when he opened his mouth exposed teeth darkly stained with nicotine. Behind him came three half castes about the same height as the old man, and very flashily dressed. Fancy, high heeled boots, tight fitting trousers, two with blue shirts, the other in a red one, and all wearing spurs, far larger than anything we used.
"What d'you want?" the old man asked bluntly.
"Well, we're farmers from south of here," Bill said. "We saw your cattle and the camp and came to ask you where you intend to drive them."
"What business is that of yours?"
"It is our business," Tom said quickly. "We have crop in not far from here, and we don't want any bullocks in it."
The old man looked at Tom a moment or two, then waved at the three boys, perhaps as a threat. "These are my sons."
I had seen a lot of half castes in Jeparit, but somehow not quite like these boys. They stood there in front of us, hands on hips, moving this way and that, flexing their feet in the long, black riding boots. Then every so often they would suck through their teeth and spit.
They did not speak, but just looked at you every now and then from under their wide-brimmed, leather hats.
Somehow they looked lawless. These were cattlemen. The only thing they cared about was to see the bellies of their bullocks filled. They were strange people, and you could not help wondering who they were and where they came from, with that herd of long-horned, rangy bullocks.
But you could sense, somehow, that here was trouble.
The father walked across to Tom. He was about six feet tall, the grey hair still thick on his head, fit and tough in spite of his age, the skin of his face above the beard tanned and hard, he would have been a fine looking man when young.
"Listen man," he said to Tom. "We're only minding our own business shifting these bullocks, and if your damn fences aren't good enough to keep our bullocks out, well that's just too bad."
"No," said Harry. "The law states fences are such they keep your stock in your paddocks. They're not to stop other stock from getting in. In fact stock found wandering about the road are to be impounded, and their owner is liable for poundage and any damage they do."
The old man turned slowly to Harry. "Are you a lawman?"
Harry looked at him. "You should be driving those bullocks on a given stock route and not just anywhere you please across country."
The old man stepped up beside Harry's horse. "Listen son, we please ourselves what we do, where we come from and where we go. We aren't told by any wheat cocky what we do, so you listen to me."
"Go on. I'm listening."
"These bullocks are ours, and we intend trucking them from Sea Lake .."
"Tell me," Harry said. "These bullocks came from over the Murray in New South Wales; have you got a clean bill of health for them from a stock inspector wherever you crossed the border?"
"How the hell would you know where they came from?"
Neither Bill nor Tom had spoken. Like me, they were seeing Harry in a new light. The quiet one, the one who could set a clucky hen with eggs and talk to her while doing it of all the lovely little chickens she was going to hatch. And the hen, it seemed to me, would cluck that Harry would be the first to know when their little beaks broke the shells. Harry, the one who was always so kind and so thoughtful, was facing this man and his sons without flinching. Without thought of backing down or bargaining.
"Look at that bullock there."
We turned to where Harry pointed and saw the big bullock rubbing himself against a mallee tree.
"Looks to me as though he may be lousy with tick."
"You get the hell out of here!" the old man roared suddenly, and the sons moved to the.38 Winchester rifles standing against the wagon.
"Yes," said Harry, "we'll go. But I warn you. We intend to protect our crops."
"I make," the old man said slowly and distinctly, "my own laws."
"Yes, I can see that," Tom Burns said, and looked across at the black woman and the three boys.
The old man froze, then turned slowly on Tom, his mouth twisting, the words spitting from between his teeth. "I'll get you for that."
"Come on," Harry ordered us. "We're leaving." He gestured the three of us to move off, and turned his horse in behind us."
We stopped back towards the boundaries for a short talk, then Tom turned off for his place, and we headed at a canter for home, agreeing to wait for him at our place the next morning for a discussion.
"Looks like Harry Kylie's jinker," Bill said as we rose into the homestead. "He'll be a good man to ask about this."
In the kitchen Mother and Mr Kylie were sitting talking over a cup of tea, and we sat down and told them of our encounter with the drover.
"We're a bit stumped Harry. Don't really know what to do."
Harry Kylie's blue eyes twinkled. "Well, I think I can be a bit of a help. Did a bit of cattle duffing myself twenty years ago when I was punching bullocks, and you know the old saying, it takes a thief to catch a thief."
Mother smiled in relief. "I knew you would help us. I'll go and make a bed up for you in the sleep-out, and Bob, go and take Mr Kylie's horse out and see him fed and watered. We can discuss the whole matter further after tea."
While I was putting the horse away Mr Kylie, Harry and Bill, were down at the clump of whipstick mallee to the right of the stable.
"Yes," Harry Kylie said. "Just the right size. Sure and begorrah, just made to order."
When we were seated around the fire after tea that evening, Mr Kylie outlined his plans.
"Those drovers will try and break through our paddock to the south road. It will be much easier going for them droving between fences, but they'll be nothing but worry and trouble to the farmers all the way from the Myall to Sea Lake, and they won't leave much of our wheat when they break through."
"But they can't do that!" Harry protested.
Mr Kylie looked at Harry. "No. Not by law they can't Harry. But if you take them to court after the damage is done they'll only plead the bullocks rushed, so what can you do then?"
Harry shook his head in disgust.
"Tomorrow morning," Mr Kylie went on, "I want fifty or sixty mallee sticks, about six feet long, cut from that stand by the stable. And I want a hundred and twenty or so wires cut long enough to make a loop around a fence post, and bagging strips to wrap around the end of each mallee stick. And plenty of kerosene."
"Might have a couple of tins left," Bill said, "But I can take the jinker into Speed in the morning and get some more."
"Splendid," said Mr Kylie, and briefly outlined what he planned to do, talking quietly as he explained how a big mob of bullocks became very touchy and could be stampeded if something upset them.
The wire loops were to go around fence posts, one at the top and one at the bottom as loops to hold the mallee sticks, which would be dropped into them after the bagging ends were soaked in kerosene. We would set them up every hundred yards or so along the boundaries, and when the bullocks cam, ride along inside the fence and fire them with a torch.
"Porcupine grass burns pretty quickly too, if you drop a match in it here and there." His eyes twinkled. "By the way, it seems to me the porcupine grass outside the boundaries should be burned off to make a fire break before the crop ripens. Might as well do it now eh?"
Mother smiled across at him and we grinned.
"Tomorrow we'll set the loops up on the posts. We'll have Dick McNally and Charlie McDougall and Tom Burns help us, and before the day's over everyone will know exactly what part he has to play."
"Sounds alright to me," Harry said. "I'll put on a cuppa for supper."
We sat around the fire eating buttered toast and drinking tea, Harry Kylie yarning softly about his droving days, his very presence giving us a feeling of confidence and security.
When we finally got to bed I was so tired I didn't even speak to Rupe when I heard him sneak Joey into bed with him.
After breakfast the next morning Bill left for Speed with the jinker to get the kerosene, and Harry went off with mr Kylie to see Charlie McDougall and Dick McNally.
"Just ask Tom Burns to wait if he comes," Harry called back. "Won't be long."
Rupe was home from school, and after we had helped Mother with the washing up we went down and started cutting the mallee sticks Mr Kylie wanted, and when that was done wired them into bundles of ten and stacked them by the machinery shed.
The others arrived back with Charlie McDougall and Dick McNally as Tom Burns rode in, and we all went up to the house, sitting along the edge of the verandah as Mr Kylie drew a plan on the ground of our northern boundaries and the crops.
He explained we would ride to the north fence and patrol it along the ten foot swathe inside which was left clear for a fire break. He outlined the extent of each man's responsibility, and explained to the others what the wire loops were for and how many each man would set up in his territory.
While he was talking Mother and Rupe brought out tea and sandwiches, and after a hurried meal, each man rode off to attend to his part of the job.
"Right," said Mr Kylie, and turned to me. "I want you to ride with me Bob."
Jove. That was good. Picked to ride with Mr Kylie. "Where are we going?"
He just smiled. "Go and get your pony."
I came back with Chester then Mr Kylie climbed into his saddle and we cantered off to the north boundary.
"We'll go along Tom Burns' fence Bob, then you lead. You know the desert country and where their camp is. Bring me in from behind those bullocks and our friends out there."
After riding for an hour I stopped Chester and pointed to the south. "If we ride that way we'll come in on their camp from the north Mr Kylie."
"Right'o. That's what I want."
We picked our way south through the mallee, and after a time began moving through the small mobs of bullocks, an odd cow here and there amongst them.
"Mmm, looks as though they've picked up a few strays on their way down Bob. Strange how a big mob of cattle going past a paddock with a few cows in it sends the ones in the paddock sort of silly. You'll often see them jump the fences and join the travelling mob. Farmer must wonder where the hell his cow's gone when he comes looking for it."
He smiled to himself at some memory, and we moved through the grazing mobs and broken from the scrub into the camp clearing.
The wagonette had not been moved, the black woman standing by it talking to the old man. But there was no sign of the boys.
The two of them looked up as we approached, Mr Kylie leading us straight up to them and swinging down from his horse. "Good day."
"Good day," answered the old man.
"Name's Harry Kylie." He extended a hand, and the old man shook it.
"What can I do for you?"
Mr Kylie didn't answer that, but talked about the weather for a time, then asked if they were taking the bullocks to Sea Lake.
"Got a big job in front of you. You'll have to continue east to the main highway through the mallee across Lake Tyrrell way, but of course seeing you've punched these bullocks so far south already, I guess that won't concern you."
"Well, maybe not," the old man drawled, "but we thought if we could get straight through to the south road it would be easier."
Mr Kylie took some time to consider this. "Well .. yes. But there's really no way through. Farmers have wheat crops in all along this way."
The drover watched Harry Kylie a moment, judging him. "Yes, in fact we had a visit from some of them yesterday. Seemed very concerned about their damned crops."
"It's their living you know. Think you'd be well advised to get any idea of breaking through those crops out of your head."
The drover pushed his hat back on his head and thought about this, finally nodding. "Well stranger. Maybe you're right. We'd best strike out east as you say. Towards Lake Tyrrell was it?"
Harry Kylie nodded.
"Like a drink boss?" The woman held up a pannikin of black tea to Mr Kylie.
"Yes. Thank you." Mr Kylie said, taking the pannikin and draining it.
"Well stranger, you're not like those stuck- up cockies here yesterday. I've got a score to settle with one of them."
"Aw, forget it," Mr Kylie told him. "Look, I'll give you a hand to get your mob across to the east until you're through the scrub."
"Thanks a lot, but we can manage."
"Right'o." Mr Kylie mounted. "Well, I'll say good day to you. Thanks for the tea missus."
When we were out of hearing I turned to him. "Well thank goodness that's all settled. Just as easy as that."
He half turned in the saddle towards me as we rode. "Ever played bluff poker Bob?"
"Why, no. I've played euchre and strip jack naked."
Harry Kylie laughed. "Well, bluff poker's a little different. I've played a lot over the years, perhaps more than our friend at the camp. Yes Bob, it's all in the cards, and the cards tell me it's tonight."
"What is Mr Kylie?"
He smiled to himself. "Signs around that camp tell me they're getting ready to move, and the sons you said you saw weren't there, so they'll be about working 'round the mob to bring it together ready for a move. And I don't think they'll be heading east."
It was nearly four o'clock before we got back to the homestead. The others had finished putting their loops on the fence posts and had come back and made the sticks into torches with the bag strips, and Bill had bought two cases of kerosene.
"We'll move out and set the stage as soon as dusk comes," Mr Kylie directed. "We'll be on horseback at our places around the fence lines when they come."
The evening was warm, and Mother and Harry served tea out on the verandah. The talk was relaxed, but every now and then one or the other would glance quickly to the north, as though expecting to be able to see something from where we were.
"I want you to ride with me again Bob."
Mother showed a flash of concern. "Will he be alright Mr Kylie?"
"Don't you worry about him Mrs Delahoy."
Mother nodded. "But I do wish George was home."
"Yes, how is he?"
Mother went and brought a photograph taken of George and our cousin Hubert taken in England when they were on leave from France. They both looked rather well in uniform.
"I do wish this dreadful war would end." Mother shook her head and sighed. "It's taking such a terrible toll of our young men."
We were quiet with our own thoughts as dusk settled slowly over the paddocks and drew in around us, the last harsh cackle of the kookaburras from down in the sugar gum echoing through the bush, a magpie's warble dying away, and the utter stillness.
Yes. George should be here with us.
"Alright boys." Mr Kylie stood up. "We better move out."
Down at the stable we saddled the horses again, and put one in the jinker for Harry, and another in Charlie McDougall's, loading both the vehicles with the fire sticks and kerosene.
We followed them down on horseback, and at the boundary fence Harry and Charlie unyoked their horses from the jinkers and threw saddles on them. Each of the men took a bundle of fire sticks, soaked the ends in kerosene, and rode off to set them in their loops.
Harry Kylie and I waited until each man came back and reported his line ready, and rode back into the dark to take up their positions, then moved off along the fence line, Mr Kylie leading.
There was no moon, but the night was clear, a frozen cascade of a million stars giving enough light to see quite a distance towards the horizon.
At Dick McNally's boundary we met him as he came up to the end of his patrol, and as we sat quietly talking, we heard, transmitted along the wires, a sharp "Snick. Snick."
Then "Snick. Snick," again. "Two more. Yes, they're all gone. They've cut through the lot. Give them time to ride back towards the mob Dick, then ride back and see if you can find the panel they've cut. Stay there until you hear the bullocks coming then light your torch and set fire to the sticks in the fence." Dick turned his horse and rode off into the dark. "Bob, you ride back and warn Harry and tell him we think they'll make their break through McNally's. But tell him to stick to our original plan. Come back as soon as the word's passed around."
I turned Chester and started her back through the darkness, never once feeling her falter as she weaved her way between stumps and over protruding mallee roots.
"Harry. They've cut the fence in mcNally's. Mr Kylie said to stick to our original plan, but he thinks they're coming through where they cut."
"Right'o." You wait here till I pass it along."
I sat on Chester, straining my ears for some sound from the virgin country beyond our boundaries, starting in surprise as Harry came back and spoke.
"Can you hear them Harry? It sounds like the mob to me."
"I think so. Better get back."
"It is them," I said, the sounds suddenly distinct, and then a flare sprang alight from the blackness of McNally's.
"Right!" Harry cried, lighting his torch. "Get going Bob!"
I turned Chester back along the fence, Harry behind me lighting the flares as he rode, Mr Kylie waiting with two lighted torches as I rode up.
He handed one to me. "Through the fence here Bob."
The wires were slack and the horses just stepped over them, and away we went firing the clumps of spinnifex, or porcupine grass, along the outside of the boundary fences.
The sound of the approaching mob began to fill the air, bellowing in suspicion as the fire sprang up ahead of them, the sounds of cursing men and snapping whips drifting to us from further back.
Snatching a glance behind I could see the long line of the flares disappearing into the night, and the scrub we had fired behind us threw a wider and wider glow through the darkness until we could see the white faces and long horns of the bullocks through the bush.
"Right!" Harry Kylie shouted from ahead of me, swinging his horse around on its hind legs. "Out of here!"
I heaved the torch away and turned Chester to the fence, letting her pick her own way through the tangled wires, catching sight of Charlie McDougall and the others gathering in the wheat paddock.
A horse screamed suddenly from just behind me, and Chester started forward, the sound shattering through the other noises of the night.
The horsemen in the paddock kicked forward towards me, and I turned Chester to see Harry Kylie and his horse on the ground amongst the tangled wires.
Oh hell ..
But Mr Kylie jumped to his feet and his horse struggled upright, saddle hanging under its belly.
"I've had these people!" Mr Kylie shouted, pulling the saddle loose and throwing it back onto the horse.
The bullocks were bellowing in fear and confusion, the curses and sound of stock whips moving towards us as the men tried to force the mob forward.
"Right'o!" Mr Kylie ordered, swinging back into the saddle, and the other men lifted shotguns and fired, point blank, into the mob.
The shattering explosion was too much for the front ranks. They wheeled away along the clearing by the fences, the fire keeping them back from the wires, and crashed off into the mallee in a blind panic of stampede.
"If they keep that up they'll end up in the middle of Lake Tyrrell!"
The men laughed as the thundering mass swept past. But our laughter was cut short as from the bush a tongue of flame spat out towards us. A heavy, rolling crash, and the whine of a bullet between us.
"Spread out!" Mr Kylie yelled as the bark of .38s punctured the night.
We spun the horses away from each other, and another rattle of fire came from the darkness, and then silence, the sounds of the mob receding into the night, a moment, then the curses of men and sharp sting of whips moving after them.
They would have a job catching and turning that mob in the dark of the night amongst the mallee scrub.
But it was over for us, and suddenly I was shivering, my whole body shaking.
"You alright Bob?"
"Maybe, the cold," I said to Harry. "I'm alright."
The quiet lilt of the Irish-Australian brogue came softly through the night. "Sure and Begorrah, they're as wild as Kilkenny cats and as mad as rabbits. But when a man won't listen to reason he just has to accept the consequences." He laughed softly into the night. "And now I know how the others felt when I did it to them!"
He slapped me on the shoulder with a great hand that almost knocked me from the saddle. "Home to your mother Bob, and report the bullocks gone. Tell her, like Clancy of the Overflow, we don't know where he are!"
And his laughter rang out through the darkness.
"Tell Mother we won't be home till early morning," Bill called after me. "And we'll be as hungry as the devil!"
Chester picked her way daintily back across the paddocks to the stable, nuzzling my shoulder as I pulled off the saddle and poured feed into the trough.
"Goodnight old girl." I slapped her on the shoulder and walked tiredly up to the house. A light was burning in the kitchen, Rowdy and Clyde lying by the fire, Mother asleep in one armchair and Rupe in the other.
Rowdy stood up and yawned as I walked in. Strange how they would bark at a stranger anywhere around the place, yet knew even the sound of one of our horses.
Mother opened her eyes. She looked tired and pale, but when I told her the bullocks were gone and all our men safe, she relaxed and smiled.
"I can rest now. You and Rupert get off to bed." She glanced at the clock. "Good gracious! It's nearly half past two."
Rupe kept up a stream of questions as we undressed.
"What'd the flares look like?"
I yawned. "I don't know. Bit like Bourke Street on Saturday night."
"Must have given the 'roos a fright."
"Yes. Must have. Didn't see any at the north dam on my way back."
I slept to the dream of bullocks playing leap frog, then came half awake as the soft hand stroked my forehead.
"So young ..so brave. So much we expect from the children today .."
I slipped my arms from the bedclothes and put them around her neck. "You're the bravest mother God ever made, and God made all mothers brave to bear and rear their sons." I kissed her.
"Away with you!" She laughed. "Now get up and come and help me make some breakfast!"
In the kitchen I warmed myself at the open door of the stove as I made the toast. The sun was up, and Rupe kept going out onto the verandah looking for the men.
"Here they come!" he shouted.
Mother and I went out. The two jinkers and the horsemen were coming in from the north paddock. Even from a distance they looked tired, just walking their horses.
They were silent as they ate breakfast, until Mr Kylie suddenly raised his head, looked around the table, and began to laugh. Well, I don't think we'll be worried by those fellows and their bullocks again!"
We joined him in the laughter.
"Jove, I wish I'd been there!" Rupe said.
"Never mind," said Tom Burns, replacing his cup and standing. He ruffled Rupe's hair. "Thanks so much for the breakfast Mrs Delahoy, but I'd better be away now. Mary and the children will be worried."
We walked out with Tom and saw him off, little knowing the terrible price he would pay for his part in saving the crops and the livelihood of his family.
Chapter 10 | Contents | Chapter 12