(C) Copyright 1970 Robert Gordon Delahoy
Through the warm stillness of evening the voices floated out across the
paddocks and bush.
"Abide with me, fast falls the even tide .."
Children moved closer to parents, hands stealing up to find comfort, conscious of the sadness of this hymn and affected by it.
" ..Lord with me abide."
Quiet stole slowly over the gathering in front of the verandah, and the Rev. McLean lifted his hands and began to pray ..
"Where two or more are gathered together in my name .."
In the vast emptiness of the sand country we were gathered together, isolated in the circle of the flickering flame in the kerosene lamp, drawn together by this rare chance to worship in a group.
Insignificant beneath the limitless dome of the heavens, aware of frailty, and aware of the warmth of human companionship and this need to reach upward and outward to a greater power, a greater strength.
"The peace of God which passeth all understanding .."
Bowed heads took comfort and strength, voices subdued with the service ended. Men drifting slowly to the stable to collect horses and yoke them to the vehicles in the yard.
Children, resuming the games of the day, but tired now, and finding they lacked the same excitement.
The women gathering the family belongings from the house, calling children to put on warmer clothes for the drive home.
The vehicles were brought up to the house, and just before they were ready to leave the people gathered again in our front verandah, and the Rev. McLean lifted his hands, a short prayer, almost always ending:
"May the peace of God abide with you now, and forever. Amen."
And the deep chorus of the gathering. "Amen."
Chink of metal bit, snuffle and creak of leather. Horses impatient now to be off home.
They called to each other and waved, the youngest children already asleep, wrapped warmly. Squeak of dry axle, stamp of hooves, a call to a horse too impatient to whoa-back, and we stood up on the verandah and watched them leave.
The Rev. McLean was staying the night with us, and the next morning rode part of the way to Speed alongside Bill and I in the buggy. We were on our trip in to collect the day's mail and stores, and to place an order with Jack Thrower for the corn sacks, binder twine, and all the other things needed in preparation for the big harvest we were expecting.
It was a warm, sunny day, and I stayed outside in the buggy when Bill went in to order. I was thinking I would go down and collect the mail, and at the same time watching a black boy about my own age walking slowly up the dusty street from the direction of the bakery.
He seemed tired as he walked, his clothes ill fitting, his black curly hair dull with a layer of dust. He went across to the door of the agent'' office and looked in, then turned and came across to me.
"'Xcuse me mister. Would you know where Delahoy's live?"
My voice failed me. I leaned forward, staring, and saw the flicker in his eyes, the sudden leap of, of hope?
Those soft brown eyes. The nose, broadened now. The strong white teeth. The shy, kindly smile as he spoke, voice low: "I'm Fisher Bob."
I yelled the name and jumped down from the buggy and grabbed him to me. "Fisher! What are you doing here after all these years?"
I had carried his memory since our childhood in Jeparit.
"Bob ..it's been a long time, and I did want to see you."
"Wait till I tell Bill! You remember him?"
"Yes ..I remember Bill."
There were several men gathered around the door of Jack Throwers agency, and I noticed as I turned towards them that they were watching us.
"Where'd the nigger come from?" one of them asked loudly. "Don't see them around here too often."
Fisher reached up and gently removed the hand I still held on his shoulder, an embarrassed smile of apology. "Things aren't quite like they used to be Bob."
For a moment I was stunned, looking from Fisher to the person who had spoken. He was about eighteen, and wore the usual dirty football guernsey and dungaree trousers.
"You're speaking about my friend!" I said, and walked across to him. "Dirty white trash like you aren't fir to lick his boots!"
He swayed back, lips twisting in a sneer. "Here's a nigger lover boys."
My fist smashed against his mouth, a sudden wild desire to tear this man apart, but as he moved to retaliate Bill ran from the office and jumped between us. "What the hell's going on?" he caught me by the shoulders and shook me.
"It's Fisher Bill. It's Fisher .." I shouted, pulling myself away from him and turning for the buggy.
But Fisher had gone.
I looked wildly around, "There!" He was walking slowly up the street away from us.
"Fisher!" I cried. "Fisher, come back!" and started up the street after him shouting his name, catching hold of his arm as I reached him. "No you don't mate. You're not walking away from us!"
"No Bob," he said gently, trying to disengage himself. "I'm only a dirty black nigger."
I put my arm around his shoulders, shouting at him. "No you don't mate." Reason had deserted me, tears running down my face as I turned to the men and women gathering about us and shouted at them.
"You brainless, senseless idiots! Call yourselves Christians! We're blessed to be living in his country! Fisher is my friend, and if you knew him you'd be glad to have him as your friend too!"
Bill ran up to us. "Calm down Bob. Calm down!" He turned to the crowd, speaking quietly. "Fisher is a friend of our family and will be living with us from now on." He turned to the youth who had abused Fisher. "If you've any more hurtful remarks to make I'll invite you down behind the bushes and try and teach you the hard way that God may make some men black and some men white, but he gave them all a heart and a soul, so please just try and remember that."
Mr Brown moved from the crowd and came across to us. He was a tall, quietly spoken man you could respect, and he turned to the crowd. "I have something to say. Now I don't agree with young Bob Delahoy that we are brainless, or senseless idiots. But sometimes it takes the young and impetuous, so quick to anger, so quick to strike out, to shake we older ones from our complacency. But we don't all feel like that thoughtless person who made that stupid remark."
He turned and rested a hand on Fisher's shoulder. "Well young man, we haven't given you much of a welcome, but you can be sure that after what has happened you need no introduction, and you will find we are glad to have you among us."
He looked slowly around the crowd, and back to Fisher. "They tell me, Fisher, some of your uncles are amongst the best Australian Rules footballers in Jeparit and Rainbow, and we all hope you'll decide to play with us. By the way, what's your full name?"
Fisher looked up at Mr Brown, speaking quietly. "Fisher Mark."
Mr Brown reached out his hand. "Welcome to Speed, Fisher Mark."
The crowd began to break up, and Fisher and I turned back for the buggy. Bill went into the agency again with Jack Thrower, and we sat silently in the buggy until he came out.
"I'll be with you two in a minute."
He walked down to the post office for the mail, and picked up the list of goods from the general store, then went into the bakery. When he came back he had a bag of hot meat pies, and Jove, they smelled good.
He pushed the goods under the seat and climbed up, touching the reins. "gee-up." He turned the buggy for home. "A man's feeling pretty hungry. How about passing 'round those pies?"
I reached under the seat and took out the bag, passing it across Fisher to Bill, then Fisher and I taking one each, and the rapid way Fisher's disappeared showed how long it had been since he had eaten.
"Have another Fisher. Go on, eat 'em all up," Bill said. "One's enough for me."
We drove out along the road munching meat pies, the sun hot, but the breeze of our own movement and a light wind made it quite pleasant travelling, and Bill relaxed back against the seat.
"How's things over Jeparit way Fisher?"
"Well Bill ..not so good. Or maybe I've altered. I found when I left school, I only went up to the third grade, things seemed to be changing. Mum and Dad were drinking too much, and Dad didn't care any more how he looked or even if he was working. Got in awful tempers when he was on the grog."
Fisher stopped speaking, a pie in his hand, gazing out ahead, his eyes on some view beyond the one ahead. "I went out and worked at a bit of droving and a bit of rabbitin', and when I come back to our shanty on the Wimmera found dad's been locked up in gaol. Almost killed Mum on one of their drunken sprees.
"They took Mum away from the river and put us in a Mission Station with m' young brother and sister. It was alright, I s'ppose, but I wanted to learn shearing so they let me go out to a shed as a rouseabout and picker- up.
"I didn't want to go back to the Mission when the shearing finished, so when a drover asked me to help him shift a big mob of sheep from Jeparit to Hopetoun and across to Woomelang, I said I would. He promised me £1 a week and tucker.
"We were ten weeks getting the sheep to Woomelang, and I thought we'd go back to Jeparit from there, but the boss and the other white blokes got on the drunk, and when I asked for my money the boss knocked me down.
"Didn't know what to do then, so I started walking back to Jeparit. No tucker. No money. Boots worn out."
"There's some pretty lousy types around alright," Bill said in disgust. "Some pretty lousy types alright."
Fisher shrugged. "There was a good bloke stopped his buggy when I was just out of Woomelang. Wanted to know where I was going. Said to hope in when I told him I was going back to Jeparit. He was on his way to Lascelles and thought I might get a lift from there across to Hopetoun.
"I was pretty hungry when we got to Lascelles, and went round the back of the hotel and asked the lady there if she'd give me some tucker for cutting wood. She said to cut the wood first."
Fisher told the story as if it were quite natural. There was no complaint in his voice, just the facts.
"She come out and had a look at the wood when I'd cut it, then took me into the kitchen. Jove, she did give me a feed too! And when I'd finished she gave me some more in a parcel to take with me.
"She asked where I cam from, and when I told her Jeparit said she came from there too. Told me the names of some of the people she knew, and said some of them had moved over this way. She mentioned your name and I asked her if there was a Bob Delahoy.
"She didn't know where you lived, just that it was somewhere out of Speed. When I got out on the road I found there weren't hardly any buggies going Hopetoun way, but there were a few coming to Speed and one of them gave me a lift.
"Got here last night in the dark and slept under a tarpaulin in the good shed at the railway station. I had the tucker that woman at Lascelles gave me.
"This morning the station master let me wash up in the fire bucket, and I was thinking of walking out to your place when I found it was only about nine mile. But then the agent fella said you might be in today, so I kept a watch out to see if you turned up. I was callin' back to the agent when I met Bob."
"Well, Fisher, you're home now m'boy," Bill said, and turned the buggy around the old stump towards the gate, the laughing jackasses in the sugar gum giving a cackling welcome as I opened the gate.
"You take Fisher in to see Mother," Bill said, stopping near the house. "I'll unyoke the ponies."
Harry came from the door as we stepped up onto the verandah. He looked at Fisher. "G'day," and glanced at me.
I grinned at him. "Don't you recognise him?"
"I'm Fisher Harry."
"Fisher! Well I never. Glad to see you." He stepped back. "Jove you've grown. Mother! Here's young Fisher."
Mother had come to the door of the kitchen. "Oh, not from jeparit? Come in, come in."
"In a minute Mrs Delahoy." He turned to me, quiet. "Anywhere I can have a bit of a wash Bob?"
I pointed to the tubs hanging on the wall. "You take one, and I'll take one, and we'll both go and have a proper bath."
That night, when we came for tea, Mother pointed to a chair. "That's where you'll sit Fisher. Between Rupert and Bob." She looked around at us all. "So now I've another son."
Bit we knew he really belonged when it came to bed time, and along with Rupe copped a dose of castor oil.
Rupe was stunned. "He never even held his nose! Jove, he must like the stuff!"
Fisher was given the bed in the sleep-out, and as I undressed I could hear him singing to himself, a soft lullaby I had never heard before.
The next morning Fisher and I spent in the machinery shed oiling the harness and talking about our childhood in Jeparit. They had been happy times for us both, uncomplicated and carefree, and we recaptured something of those days just talking them over.
When we went in to the house for morning tea Mother had Fisher stand while she ran a tape over him. The sewing machine was already set up, and would be worked overtime until Fisher had a new set of shirts and trousers.
"Been thinking about you wanting to learn shearing," Bill said later, coming to the door of the machinery shed. "Charlie McDougall's running about five hundred sheep on his place, and he used to do a bit of shearing in his younger days. Bob, why don't you and Fisher take this afternoon off and ride over and see Charlie?"
"Right'o Bill. With both of us working on the harness we're well ahead anyway."
Charlie McDougall had the sheep penned up in the yards near the old bush shed and dip when we arrived. He called the shed his shearing shed, and earthen floor, with a wooden floor section about ten feet by ten feet set in the middle where he did the crutching and shearing.
"Want to learn how to shear?" Charlie said. "Know anything about it?"
"I've worked in sheds as a rouseabout Mr McDougall."
Charlie considered Fisher a moment, and nodded. "Alright. There's a few need crutching, we'll start with that."
Charlie walked into the mob and caught hold of a ewe and dragged her out onto the board, placing her between his legs and picking up the shears.
Fisher watched every move he made, his face alight with excitement.
After he had crutched three, Charlie pointed to another and called Fisher. "Catch that one there."
Fisher darted into the mob and caught it.
"You know why she needs crutching? She's struck. You can pick them from the mob by watching the way they keep turning their heads back to where the maggots are."
The lesson went on all the afternoon, Charlie as interested in teaching as Fisher was to learn. How to catch a sheep, how to pull it on the boards, how to place it between your legs, which was the correct way to hold it when shearing, and on and on.
The old handing on their skill to the young.
But little did Charlie McDougall or I know then that his pupil would one day rank amongst the best shearers in Australia, and take the title of 'Gun Shearer' in many of the big Australian sheds.
This little black boy from Jeparit was to earn a place in the legends of his country, respected by everyone who knew him as was another boy, a little older than Fisher, who had the same school master at Jeparit. This one was the son of a storekeeper of Scottish descent, who, like Fisher, swam in the waters of Lake Hindmarsh, and fished for blackfish in the Wimmera River.
Could it have been the first lessons their teacher, Mr Livingston, taught them? That the son of a country storekeeper became the first citizen of Australia, one of the British Empire's finest statesmen, and the black boy, with life stacked against him from the start, became such a fine man, respected by all who knew him?
Or was it that: "There is a destiny that shapes our end, rough hew it as you may .."
"Be you black, or be you white,
She gently seems to say,
By the gentle breeze, through the tall gum trees,
I'll lightly mark their brow,
Have chosen them for greater things ..
Don't ask, but ponder how."
When the lesson had finished Fisher was tired out, but so very happy and contented, and when I passed the sleep-out after he had gone to bed, the snores were enough to vibrate the iron roof.
But on the farm the next day the work was directed towards the coming harvest. The machinery had to be carefully checked and cleaned. New canvasses on the binder. Check the trace chains and the swingle trees. Item after item until the great day arrived when Bill cut into the hay.
This was the oat crop, and Fisher and I followed behind him as he went around and around the paddock, felling the ripe growth and binding it into sheaves for Fisher and I to put into stocks.
Then, when this was done, carting the sheaves up to put into stacks.
As we worked on the oats the paddocks of wheat were changing slowly, ripening from green into the golden brown of harvest time, the paddocks rippling like waves over water under the wind in the heat of the new season.
Judging it ripe, Harry and Bill moved in to strip the wheat, and there would be no turning of a winnower handle this year. After the success of Frank Nitschke's power winnower last year, we had contracted the winnowing to him.
"Reckon we could use another stripper," Bill remarked to Harry, and then mentioned it to Snowy Whitecross in Speed one day, and as they had bought one of the new harvesters, Snowy offered us a loan of a stripper.
Bill sent me off with two horses on the next day to collect the stripper. I didn't ask who was going to drive it, but just hoped it would be me. But Bill didn't say anything when I arrived back with it, and it was not until tea that night that I knew.
"Well Bob, you'll be with us tomorrow on the stripper. We'll give her a look over in the morning and oil and grease her up."
That was something to dream about.
Next morning Bill and Harry selected the four horses I was to drive. They were a quiet team, and I drove them down to where I had left the borrowed stripper outside the machinery shed.
"Whoa .." I called to them, and walked over to the machine.
"Get up onto the seat," Bill instructed, and when I did scowled and said accusingly, as though it were my fault. "You're a bit short in the leg."
I held my tongue, fearful of losing the privilege.
"Well, we'll try it anyway. Now. You put your right foot in there." This was the foot steering, a U-shaped piece of iron with a leather strap to hold your foot from slipping. "Right. Now this iron handle is for hand steering the front wheel. You put a hand on that, and this lever to the right is to pull it in and out of gear, and this other handle is the choke cutter, for when the comb chokes up .."
"But Bill, listen. I've .., I've only got two hands ..!"
"Of course you've only got two bloody hands!" Bill swore. "How many did you want?"
It began to dawn on me that what looked so easy when they were doing it, was actually a complicated and dangerous occupation.
"Now listen, if the wheat chokes in the comb, and the choke cutter won't free it, you stop. Put the reins there. Walk around behind the stripper, and then around to the comb. But don't try and remove the choke from the top of the comb. Always put your hand underneath."
"Because, if the beaters are still running, and your hand gets pulled in there, it'll get cut off. Right?"
"Yes," I nodded, uncertain. "Seems a damn lot to remember .."
"And," Bill went on, "you've got to learn to oil up." He took the oil can from the holder on the side of the stripper and oiled the wheels, pointing out the other holes requiring attention.
The oil held together in a string as he moved the can from hole to hole. "You'll notice," Bill said, lifting the can to show the oil strung out and still attached, "That this is stringy-oil and got plenty of body in it."
"Should do it like this," Harry said, and took the can from Bill, filling a hole, the nipping the stringy oil off with a thumb and forefinger, wiping his hand down the side of his trouser. "That's how I do it."
Bill look at this demonstration hole a minute, shook his head in dismissal, and turned back to me. "Now another thing you've got to watch when you're stripping. The belt might come off when you get a choke in the comb, and that can jam the beaters. If it does, and you're not stopped, it could fly off and knock you clean out of the seat."
"Yes, that's another thing," said Harry. "The laces that fasten the belt come undone sometimes, and the ends sting like hell."
I looked at the machine with a new respect, and left it to them to hitch on the team.
"Right'o Bob. Away you go!"
I moved my foot in the steering to make sure I had it right, then put my hands on the levers. "Alright. I'll try it."
"You may as well have these," said Bill.
I looked at the reigns in his hand. "How am I going to hold them as well?"
"Come on," said Bill impatiently. "Stop messing around."
I let go a lever and gathered the reins. "G'dap!" I cried, and the team moved off.
But unfortunately it was on a downhill slope, and the stripper started after the team and began to overtake them.
"Bill! Hey Bill! What do I do?"
Bill came sprinting alongside. "Use the brake!"
"There!" he shouted, pointing. "Put y' bloody foot on it!"
I removed my foot from the steering and pressed down on the brake.
"Y' hand!" Bill yelled. "Keep y' hand on the hand steering when you do that!"
I made a grab at the hands steering. "Alright," I called back. "I think I'm right now." And off I went to the paddock to strip wheat.
At the edge of the crop I stopped the team and had a long, long study of the stripper, actually trembling as I climbed down and walked around it, hoping my nerves would settle.
The comb seemed too high for the wheat, but there was a chain running from it, and a small wheel amongst the other wheels and levers ..
I climbed back onto the seat and turned the wheel. That lowered the comb, and I turned it back and forth several times to get the feel of it. Funny Harry or Bill had not said anything about it.
But that day I learned there were a lot of things they had not told me. Fortunately the horses were quiet and tolerant, and when the cold air before sunset settled down and made the wheat too tough to cut, it was a very tired boy who unyoked the team and walked them back up to the stable. Tired, dirty and dusty. But happy.
Fisher was helping around the house, cutting up mallee stumps for the stove, and doing a lot of the jobs Rupe usually did after school. He was quite prepared to play his part in the family by doing this, but his face really lit up when Bill asked him if he would like to learn to sew bags when the thresher arrived.
"And I've been thinking there'll be no need to get Wally back now Fisher's here," Bill went on. "We'll be able to get through the harvest between us and let him keep on with his trade."
"Oh I am pleased," Mother said. "It's always a comfort to me to know Wally is up there with your sister and Rudie, particularly now neither Emma or the baby are very well."
"Well, why don't you go up for a while the?" Bill suggested. "We can batch."
"But with the harvest .."
"You get away just as soon as you're ready," Harry said. "We'll be alright."
Mother was still doubtful, but the thought of Emma and the baby persuaded her, and the next night Bill drove here into Speed to catch the train.
Harvesting went on through day after day of hot, dry weather, made to order for the job, and in the paddocks the heaps of wheat and cock chaff grew like little golden pyramids, ready for Frank Nitschke when he arrived with his power winnower.
Fritz Kruger was still in the team, his English greatly improved in the year since we had seen him. But he still sang in German. The first question he asked when he arrived was about George. "How's your brother getting on at the war?"
We showed him the photograph of George and cousin Hubert, and told him what little George was able to write, his letters being heavily censored.
By this time Harry was finished on his stripper and was mainly looking after the house, Fisher and he together doing the cooking and washing.
From the way it was progressing it looked as though the harvest would be finished by Christmas, as it was still a fortnight away when Frank Nitschke and his team finished the threshing.
Now it only had to be carted into Speed, so Harry and Bill started with the wagons, making a trip a day with eighty bags each. Which left me to try and cope with the housework.
After school one day Rupe and Fisher came back from feeding the pigs, deep in an animated discussion.
"I've just never seen so many before," Rupe said as they came in through the door.
I turned from the stove. "So many what?"
"Mice," Rupe said. "What did you think I meant?" He shook his head. "All over the place. Down the stables, in the chaff house .."
"Well, they won't do any harm Rupe."
As I finished speaking Whiskers, our old tom cat, came in with a mouse in his mouth. He never ate them, but brought them into the kitchen and placed them at your feet as some kind of offering.
"Come off it Whiskers. I've just about had enough of this. Get it out of here. Go on, pick it up and take it out."
He knew what I was saying, and picking up the limp, grey body, carried it out and dropped it on the verandah, sitting to have a short scratch before he ambled off to get another one.
"Well," I admitted to Rupe. "There do seem to be a few more around than usual."
Having tea that night Harry said he would see if he could get a few more mouse traps in Speed, or maybe some poison, as there seemed to be a lot of them around.
"Yes," agreed Bill. "Mother will be back for Christmas, and Olga's due from Gippsland Christmas Eve, so we better clean them up before then."
But things did not work out that way. The little grey shadows kept on coming in ever increasing numbers, and they had lost all fear of cat, dog, and man.
"This is becoming ridiculous!" Bill said as a mouse stopped in its run across the kitchen floor and sat up and looked at him.
The whole district was alive with them. You could not even pick up a bag without a dozen or more running out from under it. But at least they were not too bad in the paddocks.
"Better think of putting galvanised iron around your haystacks," Dick McNally suggested when he was over for tea one night.
He explained this meant sinking posts around the perimeter of the stacks and nailing sheets of galvanised iron, lengthways and sunk about two inches into the ground, to them.
"Stops them in their tracks," Dick assured us. He was concerned that we had enough for the horses as he wanted us to put wheat in for him on shares again next season. "I'll come over and give you a hand."
He was a sturdy, tough man, and when he started work he really kept at it. He came over the next morning and started on the mouse-proof enclosures, and then decided to put up a stand for the seed wheat to keep them out of that.
It was built of posts standing about three feet from the ground, with flat galvanised iron barriers nailed to their tops to stop the rodents climbing past. Across the posts he laid a decking of mallee logs, and made quite a neat job of it.
He took time off for a cup of afternoon tea, then with Fisher and I helping lumped the bags of seed across and stacked them on the mouse-proof stand.
"That'll keep the little buggers off," Dick said, standing back to survey his work with a smile of satisfaction.
It was just on dark, and Harry and Bill arrived back from Speed with the empty wagons in time to admire the job with us.
"Yes," agreed Harry, "that ought to do the job alright. Going to stay overnight Dick?"
"Ah yes. Chance for a yarn."
The next morning, as breakfast was cooking, Rupe and Fisher came in from the milking and announced the mice were on the stack of seed wheat.
"Wha ..t?" roared Dick. And with the rest of us trailing dashed down to see.
"Well blow me down!" Bill said. "How the devil ..?"
Mice were running about over the bags of seed, quite unconcerned by our arrival, and we watched as they frolicked and jumped around and, to me, seemed to put their fingers up to their noses and say: "How about that?"
"Can't understand it!" Dick said. "I mean .., well, I can't understand it!"
"Jove no .."
"But how ..?"
"It beats all buggery!" Dick yelled suddenly, and flung his hat onto the ground.
Fisher was moving around the stand, searching, then suddenly stopped and pointed upwards. "Look!"
We turned our heads upwards.
Poor old Dick! He had only built his stand under the biggest mallee gum on the place. The mice merely had to run up the trunk and out along a branch, dropping the ten or so feet down onto the stack.
"Ah well Dick," Bill said casually. "At least you made them think for their tucker."
"Teach them a few more tricks like that and you could run a circus," Harry suggested, and we went back up to the house for breakfast.
After, when Harry and Bill had left for Speed with full wagons, and Rupe for school, Fisher and I washed up while Dick McNally had a smoke and a drink.
"'Nother one," Fisher said.
Whiskers had appeared at the door with a mouse. "Out!" I commanded, and he simply dropped it where he was and walked out. Even a cat didn't get any thanks for catching a mouse now.
As we were finishing Dick stood up and reached for his hat. "Well, there's nothing else for it. I'll just have to build another stand." He gritted his teeth, nearly snapping the stem of his pipe. I'll bloody well see this time it's not under any damn mallee tree ..". And off he went, muttering to himself about plague and pest, and perhaps famine.
After cleaning up and making the beds Fisher and I went down to see how he was getting on. He was stripped to the waist digging post holes on another site, and as we worked alongside him I was sure he kept glancing upwards to make sure he was not under another tree.
Watching the mice on the seed stack closely when we went across to start taking the bags off, I noticed something I had never seen before. The mice did not stay on all fours and nibble, but would sit on their hind legs with a grain between their front paws, and nibble away at the seed like that. But after only a part of the grain was gone, they would drop it and pick up a fresh one, as though they knew there was plenty and could afford to be wasteful.
With nature gone haywire, and the natural balances fallen out; with more than plenty to meet all our needs, did it always create this careless, wanton orgy of destruction and waste?
"Well, yes, maybe it does," said Fisher. "Reckon there is something we can learn from the mice. You see people carry on like that when they have more than they need. Why, I've seen men sit around an eighteen gallon keg of beer and drink until they could hardly stand, then go off and be sick and come back and start drinking again."
Dick paused, the sweat running down his face and chest. "Well, I'd like to see an eighteen gallon keg of beer right now. Reckon I'd drink it on me own. Come on you blokes, give us a hand."
And so we built another stand.
That evening after tea Harry pointed to the walls of the kitchen. "See those holes?"
Yes, we could see them alright where they had begun to appear in the hessian and wallpaper.
"Well, you know what they are, don't you. Mouse holes, and I reckon even before Christmas the whole place'll be riddled with them, even the ceiling, if there's anything left at all."
"They trying to make burrows?" Rupe asked.
"They're eating the paste. There won't be any privacy in the whole house, so I was thinking we should write to Mother and ask her to stay up at Merbein."
"Hey!" Bill protested. "I've invited Olga to stay."
"I know that Bill. I hadn't forgotten. But what if you wrote to her and suggested you and Rupe get on the train with her when she comes through Speed and all go on up to Merbein?"
"Well, I suppose we could Harry."
"Look, there'll be quite a crowd of you up there, and Bob and Fisher and I don't mind staying down here to do battle with these bloody mice."
"But we won't have all the wheat in by then .."
"Yes you will," said a voice at the kitchen door, and Harry Kylie walked in.
"Good day Harry. Sit down. Have some Irish stew and potatoes."
After he had eaten and was sitting back drinking a cup of tea he told us he had heard about the mice while he was up north. He had just arrived back this afternoon with a team of bullocks, and had turned them into the paddock on his place we had stripped.
"Left them feeding in the stubble and walked over. There's a friend of mine got a farm and he wants a loan of the bullock team early in the New Year to roll some mallee. Thought if I stopped off here I could haul a few loads of wheat into Speed before I went on."
"But that's our responsibility in the contract Harry."
Harry Kylie shrugged. "Yes, I know that. But we're alright at Berriwillock. My sons are carting the wheat there, so if you're willing I'll get at least a thousand bags into Speed before Christmas for you .."
He held up a hand as Harry went to speak.
"No. It'll not cost you anything. Good heavens, I want you boys to put in crop on shares with me next season, and the sooner we deliver the wheat into the station the better, the way the mice are."
"Well," Bill explained. "Harry wants Rupe and I to go up to Merbein for Christmas. I've got a .., a friend who'll be staying with us."
"A girlfriend," Rupe smirked.
Bill glared at him.
"Be a damned good idea," Mr Kylie said, looking around at the walls. "It's no place for a woman in this condition."
"Well with you carting we'll be finished up before Christmas," Bill said. "You could take one of the jinkers and the ponies then, and drive back to be home at Berriwillock for Christmas."
"Yairs ..," smiled Mr Kylie. "I'd figured on that Bill."
After a laugh at this, Dick McNally told Harry Kylie about the mouse-proof stand. "I'm telling you Harry, if you hear of anyone building a stand, tell them not to put it under a tree! Spent all day building a new one, then had to clean all the bags up and lump them over to the new one!"
"That's be quite a job Dick," Mr Kylie said thoughtfully. "Was it worth it/"
"Well, what else could a man have done?"
"I was wondering," said Mr Kylie, "if it wouldn't have been easier just to cut down the tree."
Dick McNally looked at Harry Kylie a long moment, then turned to the fire. He lifted a hand and scratched the back of his neck, took a long draw at his pipe, shook his head slowly, and a look of disgust came over his face.
"Well, bugger me," he said softly into the fire. "I never thought of that."
Later in the evening Mr Kylie asked Bill if he'd mind him asking Fisher to give him a hand.
Bill shook his head. "How about it Fisher?"
"Jove, can I? I've never drove bullocks. Would you show me Mr Kylie?"
"Sure," said Harry. "Glad to have the chance. It's a dying art. But it'll be up bright and early tomorrow to bring them in."
Fisher nodded, excited, and a few minutes later slipped out of the room, coming back to report that he could hear the bullock bells from the verandah. We all went out to listen, and in the still quietness came the distant sound of the bells.
Harry wrote to Mother before he went to bed that night, and we had a long letter back. Mother said that although she understood the position, she did not like the idea of just three of us being here for Christmas.
But Bill and Rupe wanted to go, and we were quite happy with the idea.
"Anyway," Harry said. "When you get back Fisher and Bob and I can go up and have a bit of a spell before we start thinking about the 1917 crop."
"Of course you can," Bill said. "Jolly good idea."
The next day Mr and Mrs Whitecross called in on their way to Sea Lake, and when Rupe told them about the trip to Merbein insisted that Harry, Fisher and I go over to their place on Christmas Day.
Christmas Eve we drove into Speed in the double buggy, arriving just on dark. We unyoked in the station yard and put out feed for the ponies, then went across while Bill bought the tickets.
We had to fill in the time then until midnight, and were waiting when the train pulled in, Olga standing in the open door of a carriage, waving and calling.
Bill only had time to give her a quick hug before the station master called for all aboard, and Harry lifted Rupe up into the doorway and pushed their two battered suitcases in after him.
"Merry Christmas! Love to Mother and Em!"
We watched the train disappear into the night, north to Mildura, then yoked up the horses and turned them for home.
The house seemed awfully lonely without the others, but it was not as silent as it once had been. There was the constant sound of scattering feet and the nibble, nibble, nibble of countless teeth.
The mice were eating our house away around us, and squeaking with delight as they did it!
Harry had us up bright and early next morning. We got the cows in and milked them, a quick job now they were nearly dry, then fed the pigs and turned all but the two horses we would use out into their paddock. Then we went back inside for a quick breakfast and a bath in the tubs on the verandah.
Reg and Snowy Whitecross came out to meet us when we arrived, yarning while we unyoked the ponies and put them in the stable.
There was a great crowd down at the house, and I was introduced to so many uncles and aunts, nephews and nieces of the Whitecross' that there was no chance of remembering them all.
Tom Burns was there too, but I had not seen Mary or the children.
"Sent them off to her mother's place up at Nhill. These damn mice were getting on her nerves. The harvest is finished and I thought a bit of a spell away from the place would do her good. Holiday for the children too."
Christmas dinner was a really wonderful affair. Mrs Whitecross bustled around seating us, then Mr Whitecross stood at the head of the table and said grace.
Fisher nudged me. "Never seen so much food Bob! Look at it will you?"
The table was laden. Hot roasted turkeys, roosters and ducks. Steaming dishes of vegetables. Almost anything you could name was somewhere amongst the laden dishes and bowls.
And then the Christmas plum pudding! I had never seen one anything like that size before.
There was a constant stream of talk and laughter, and when the meal finally came to an end we staggered up from the table and made our way outside.
All except the women. They were left with the dishes.
The Whitecross place certainly had its share of mice, and the younger men were making the most of their opportunity by catching them to chase the girls with. The girls' screams were quite shattering, but surely not bona fide in a district where old and young alike lived with mice 24 hours a day as a way of life.
Snowy and Reg took us down to their machinery shed to see the new harvester. It looked a lot more complicated to drive than the stripper, and I wondered how it would work out if Bill ever had to show me. It would not only be my legs being too short on this machine.
"Be only a year or two before the stripper's a thing of the past," Snowy reckoned. "All be using harvesters soon."
"Yes," said Harry. "Have to progress. Getting a bit hard to keep pace with things these days."
"Yes," said Tom Burns. "But one of these would do me." He seemed to remember something suddenly. "By the way Harry. Saw that bloke who tried to rush those bullocks through our wheat."
"The drover? Where?"
"Snowy and I were over at Lascelles the other day and called into the hotel for a drink before we left. He was down the end of the bar with his three sons. Didn't notice him when I went in or I mightn't have stayed."
"Made a bit of a nuisance of himself," Snowy said. "Came up to Tom and tried to pick a fight. He was rotten drunk and called Tom a smart bloody cocky and accused him of stampeding the cattle. Threatened Tom. Said he had a score to settle with him."
" I told him to forget it. We didn't hold any grudges, and it didn't seem to have hurt him."
"But it wasn't for stampeding the cattle," Snowy put in. "It was something Tom said about the drover's family the day they all rode into their camp."
"To cut a long story short," said Tom, " he took a swing at me. He was so drunk I just pushed him away and he fell over. His two youngest boys picked him up and the eldest one wanted to have me on, but the barman jumped over and broke it up, so we cleared off."
"Yelled out he'd even the score though," Snowy said. "If it was the last thing he ever did, and he's the sort of cove that doesn't forget."
"Ah, forget it." Tom turned away. "Let's go and join in the fun at the house." And he and Harry walked away.
"Reg and I've been giving him a bit of a hand," Snowy said. "There's still a bit of cleaning up to do after the harvest. It's not far over, and it's a bit of company for Tom with Mary away. This drover bloke seemed to worry him too."
Back at the house someone had organised a competition. Two ladies and a man acted as the judges, and everyone had to give an item. Sing, dance, recite, it did not matter which. Fisher sang a haunting lullaby with Harry playing on the piano, picking the tune up from Fisher's singing, and it went over very well.
The day was quite warm, but the younger ones still found the energy to hold impromptu races, a ruleless game of football, and hide and seek.
The ladies had been working through it all, and by five-thirty another big sit-down feast was ready. Cold turkey and chicken. Cold plum pudding. It seemed to be endless, and the whole day was capped by the big carton of food Mrs Whitecross handed up to Harry in the buggy just before we left.
"Good heavens! Harry exclaimed.
"But you'll need something for supper tonight."
But back home, when supper time came around, we still had not digested our tea.
Harry looked at the carton of food and shuddered. "Want any supper Fisher? Bob?"
Fisher turned away. "I don't want to even see it thanks Harry."
Even next morning we did not eat breakfast with quite the usual relish, and decided to take things a little easy for the day.
We put wire screens over the rainwater tanks to keep mice from getting in there, then brought a heap of kerosene tins up to the verandah and began cutting out the tops and making wire handles. We were going to sink holes and put the tins in them, half full of water, as traps.
I was sitting on the edge of the verandah with my bare feet on the ground bending and shaping the handles from No. 8 fencing wire, and Fisher was seated up on the tank stand cutting the lengths with a file.
"Bob." His voice was quiet and urgent. "Don't move. Don't move your legs. Just sit still."
I knew by his voice I was in some kind of danger and wanted to jump and shout what?
But I learned what quickly enough by the push of the head, then the long sliding body across my feet.
Freeze. My heart started to pound. I could see Fisher, and the expressions on his face told the progress of the snake as well as the feel of it on my skin did.
Then Fisher moved, dropped onto the ground in a crouch, the hand holding the twelve inch file lifting, slowly, ever so slowly ..
And then he sprang. Smack! The file came down across the snake's back, just behind the head, again, and again. And then Fisher bent down and picked it up by the tail, a brown snake about six feet long.
"Nice and fat on mice Bob. Make good eating."
"Ugh!" I shuddered. "Thanks Fisher. You don't know how scared I was."
Fisher grinned, his eyes looking to the side past me as they always did when he was embarrassed. "The bloody things always frighten me too."
"What's going on?" Harry asked, coming from the house. "Oh no. Not those damn things around the place again? What with mice running everywhere and those damn things crawling around, it's about time we gave up. Wonder how many more of them are under here?"
"Could be plenty," Fisher said. "Nice and cool under the house, and they go in after mice. Pretty good on mice."
But there was not much we could do about it if there were.
When we had finished making the kerosene tine traps and set them out in their holes, emptying them became a daily chore. The mouse plague was certainly becoming worse, and they fell into the tins and drowned themselves by the bucketful.
We seemed to spend a great deal of time lifting the tins out and emptying them into a pile the first day after we put them down.
"What are we going to do with them Harry?"
Harry sighed. "Bury them I suppose. Come up and have morning tea first."
But when we got back the pile of mice had gone. There wasn't a trace.
"It was here we put them wasn't it?" Harry asked. "I mean ..". He shook his head and looked around.
"Harry," Fisher called. "Look at this."
He was pointing to some of the pigs.
"What about them? Oh, hell," said Harry, realising as I did what had happened. "I'll never eat bacon again."
One of the pigs still had mouse tails hanging from his mouth.
"Jove," Fisher said, he was really impressed. "That's a good job. Won't have to bury them now. Be able to leave them to the pigs. Good tucker for pigs!"
"No fear!" Harry said quickly. "We'll bury them alright, and we'll dig the hole before we start."
So from then on digging the hole was the job you did before collecting the tins.
New Year's Day, we decided, we would spend up at the house taking things easy, and the three of us saw the old year out around the fire.
"Be good to have a sleep in, Harry said, standing and stretching. "Looking forward to that."
"Sounds alright," I agreed, but it seemed I had only just dropped off when I heard a voice shouting from outside.
"Hey! Are you awake in there? Hey!"
I struggled from the bedclothes to the window.
"What's the matter? Who's that?"
"Bob?" Snowy Whitecross came sprinting around. "Get hold of Harry, quick. Tom Burns has been shot."
Harry came bolting from his room. "What's up?"
"It's Tom Burns Harry. He's been shot .."
"Where is he? Hurt bad?"
Snowy suddenly lost the sense of urgency in his manner, reaching out a hand to steady himself against the house. "Tom .. Tom's dead."
Chapter 11 | Contents | Chapter 13