(C) Copyright 1970 Robert Gordon Delahoy
The sun was just up. New Year's Day, 1917, and Tom Burns, the Tom Burns who
had been burned out by a bushfire, and re-built and re-established by the
generosity of his Mallee neighbours, that Tom Burns had been shot dead.
Reg and Snowy Whitecross had been going to pick him up, the three of them going over to a sports meeting at Turriff.
It was just breaking dawn when the Whitecross boys arrived, horses still skittish in the cold dawn, tossing their heads, the clink of a bit through the silent dawn.
"You there Tom?"
They called out several times at the house, and decided he must be down at the sheds saddling. So they rode down there and called again, and Reg slipped off his horse and tossed the reins up to Snowy.
"Tom?" He walked down past the chaff house towards the stable, and almost tripped over the inert body.
"Tom ..?" He turned his head, his voice splitting the dawn in its urgency. "Snowy!!!"
Snowy kicked his horse into a bound, the other jerking up behind, standing on their hind legs as the bit tore back into soft mouth and Snowy flung himself forward onto the ground where Reg kneeled. Tom Burns was pulled half onto his back against his knees, with two bullet holes through his chest. One above the heart.
"Oh, Jesus," Snowy whispered.
And now we rose with Snowy and Pa Jennings towards that place.
"He was, he was, just lying. Just lying there!"
"Snowy!" Pa Jennings' voice was harsh with command, abrupt, to shock, the concern in his eyes belying his voice.
Mr and Mrs Whitecross were already there. She was at the house, the fire alight in the stove. Making tea.
Mr Whitecross stood by the shapeless mound under the horse rug, half angry, half fearful.
"Who the hell could have ..?"
The question hung there between where we stood and where we sat above him on the horses.
"We'll have to wire Mary. I don't know how you put such a thing in a telegram. What would you say?"
Mrs Whitecross came down. "Drive into Speed and see if you can telephone her. It's the least we can do." She turned her head. "Reg was riding so wildly."
Mrs Whitecross turned to us. "He went for the police." He turned back to his wife. "Alright. I'll see if I can reach her." He hesitated, looking down at the horse rug again, shaking his head, then walking stiffly away to the buggy.
About nine-thirty Reg came back, the horse a lather of sweat and foam. "I got through to Sergeant Wall at Sea Lake. He's coming out. By car if he can get Mr Lockwood to drive him. I said to go to your place Harry. Said you'd show them across here. They seemed to know you."
"We'll go straight back home. Come on Bob. Fisher." Harry looked around. "Where's Fisher?"
He seemed to have disappeared.
"Where the hell's he gone?"
He should have been easy to see on Snowy, Rupe's pure white Arab pony, but there was no sign of him.
"Never mind. Come on Bob, we'll have to go. If they come in a car they won't take long. Tell him we've gone back when he turns up will you Reg?"
We were only home a few minutes when Sergeant Wall, Constable Tom Knight, and Charlie Lockwood, who was a Justice of the Peace as well as an auctioneer, came chugging up the paddock from McNally's, Dick McNally riding with them.
Harry had just put the kettle on and was cutting sandwiches, so they had a hurried meal in the kitchen, and Harry told them about the drover and the bullocks.
"I'll swear he's got something to do with this."
"Well, if it turns out that way and we have to look for a suspect in the bush we'll need horses."
"Right," said Dick McNally, standing up and swigging down the last of his cup of tea. "I've got two hacks. I'll go back and saddle them and take them across to Burns'."
We left too, travelling in the car.
Fisher arrived back after the policemen had finished inspecting the body and taking notes from the stories of the Whitecross boys.
"Where the hell have you been?" Harry asked.
"Who's this?" Sergeant Wall asked, nodding at Fisher, and when I had introduced them asked Fisher where he had been.
"Just for a look around." He slipped off the pony and held out two cartridge cases to the Sergeant.
"Where did you find them?"
"Over past the haystack. Where the man shot Mr Burns. There were two men. They carried Mr Burns back and put him where he is now, then walked to the horses and rode off." Fisher gestured to mark his words. "One of them rode away to the west, and the other into the north desert country. The man that rose north has his horse shod. The other fella has a horse with no shoes."
Sergeant Wall took another look at Fisher. "You speak pretty good English."
Fisher looked at Sergeant Wall. "Yes, not bad for a black fella Sergeant."
Sergeant Wall stiffened, a slight flush mounting into his tanned cheeks. Then he relaxed. "I'm sorry."
"That's alright, but the longer we talk the further away the man who shot Mr Burns is riding." He turned and indicated for us to follow him across to the haystack where he pointed out the place Tom Burns fell when he was shot. The place where the man who shot him stood. The footprints of another man, and the tracks showing where they had gone forward and picked up the body and carried it to where it lay now.
They had gone back to their horses then, Fisher explained, and ridden together to the west boundary fence where there had split up.
Those tracks were just like reading an open book to Fisher.
Sergeant Wall shook his head in admiration. "I don't know how you do it Fisher. The thing is now to make up two parties to follow them.
"It was the man on the shod horse who rode north who did the shooting Sergeant. I've already been up a little way where his horse cast a shoe. It was loose and must have caught under a stump." He put his hand into his pocket and pulled the shoe out.
Sergeant Wall took the proferred item in a dazed sort of way. He was quite stunned by the casual way Fisher had it all sorted out. "You're quite sure .." He stopped himself and shook his head. "No. There's no need to ask that. Tom, let's work out a party."
As they made their decisions Dick McNally rose up on one of his hacks, leading Chester and another rangy hack of his own.
The police decided the body would be taken back into Sea Lake by Charlie Lockwood in his car, then asked Snowy Whitecross, Fisher and I to go with them in the search party.
"Harry," Tom Knight asked, "would you go back to your place and get some tucker and water on a pack horse and follow us? No telling how long we might be."
"Sure Tom. I'll go back in the car."
"We'd like you to wait here and come on with Harry Mr Jennings."
"That'll be alright."
"And Mr McNally .."
"No," Dick said. "M' back's playing up a bit much for a long ride. I'll just go back in the car with Harry and give him a hand to get off."
"Alright. Are we ready then?"
Men swung up into saddles, horses turned in tight circles, then surrendered to the bit or the pat of a hand along the neck. Fisher led out to the north, so confident he took a shortcut that brought the party out to the tracks where the horse has cast the shoe, and the change from four shod hooves to three was plain enough for us all to see.
The tracks led out through whipstick mallee and scrub pine country, spinnifex grass in between, then on to the sand hills.
This country could be dangerous further to the north. The 1914 drought had killed off much of the binding ground cover, and the north winds had scoured out great bites of the sand hills on the northern side. If you climbed one from the south you could suddenly find yourself poised on the lip of a sheer drop, twenty or thirty feed above hard, wind swept clay, often with old stumps standing up from it.
When we approached the top of the first hill I rode up to Fisher and warned him.
"Good Bob, I'll keep a watch out."
The sun was fierce from a cloudless sky, reflecting up from the hand and hurting your eyes. And around us were the countless swarms of flies.
Those of us who lived here could tolerate it, but Sergeant Wall was quite distressed, and Tom Knight had a grim set to his mouth. He had been through it at least once before, when we searched for Olga, and seemed determined not to let it get the better of him.
We pushed ahead through the afternoon, mostly silent, Fisher well ahead of us. "Think we better make camp soon," I said to Sergeant Wall. "Harry can't track us in the dark and we want to give him enough light to catch up with us."
Snowy Whitecross had left us and caught up to Fisher, and as we began to climb the steep side of a sand hill we could see them above us on the ridge.
"They're signalling something," Constable Knight said. "They're dismounting."
"Don't come too close," Snowy warned when we came up with them. "Keep the horses back. There's a steep fall in front and our man's at the bottom with his horse on top of him."
We jumped from the horses and scrambled the last few yards, kneeling beside Fisher and Snowy and peering over the top. Below us lay a horse, it's head twisted to one side, the head and chest of a man protruding from beneath it.
"Come 'round the side Tom." Sergeant Wall turned to us. "Bring the horse down will you."
He and Tom Knight went around the ridge and slid down the edge of the scour, and we took the horses further again and rode down to where they were.
"Give us a hand. Quick!"
Working together we managed to lift the horse enough for Sergeant Wall to ease the body of the drover from underneath. The horse had a broken neck, but the drover was still alive. The two policemen lifted him across to the shade of a scrub wattle, and Sergeant Wall began to gently massage his heart.
Constable Knight soaked a handkerchief from the water bag, and folded it across the old man's forehead, and when he groaned they lifted his shoulders and tried to force water into his mouth.
"He's coming around."
The cool liquid was running down his chin and neck, and after a moment he gulped, and began to drink.
Snowy Whitecross spoke softly. "Let the bastard die Sergeant."
All that afternoon on the trail Snowy had been saying aloud to himself what he would do to the one who shot Tom Burns when he caught up with him.
Men riding in the heat for long distances often found their thoughts coming out in spoken words, and were quite embarrassed if a companion questioned them on what they were saying. It was as if the endless hours of mostly silent travel in the bush made the mind force spoken words to re- establish the reality. And Snowy Whitecross had expressed some harsh thoughts against Tom's murderer during the day.
The Sergeant looked up at him, voice quiet and even. "Hand me the flask of brandy from my saddle bag Snowy."
There was a moment of conflict, then Snowy turned and did as he was asked, and the Sergeant put the neck of the bottle to the old man's lips. There was a slight movement as he swallowed, and the spirit seemed to revive him a little. He opened his eyes.
"Awful pain ..all busted, inside ..water .."
They put the mouth of the water bag to his lips again and he drank, and they propped him up against the saddle we had pulled from his dead mount.
Constable Knight walked across to where the .38 Winchester lay, picking it up and opening the breech to look down the barrel. "Well he hasn't bothered to clan it .." He put it back down and walked to the dead animal. "Show us that horse shoe Fisher."
Fisher went and knelt down in the sand with him, fitting the shoe against the hoof. "Yeah, it fits alright Constable."
The drover had heard, and spoke weakly. "Yes, I shot Tom Burns .."
"Listen if you can," Sergeant Wall said. "There's no need to talk unless you want to. We are police."
"I know." His eyes moved to the brandy bottle.
Sergeant Wall tilted the bottle to the man's lips, and when he had drunk he seemed stronger.
"Listen Sergeant. I'm dying. I want to tell you."
"Tell us why you did it."
"Awright. Oh God it hurts. Listen then."
As the old man began to speak Tom Knight took a pad from his saddle bag and began to write. It seemed to be the old man's life story, but neither policeman attempted to stop his tale.
"I was born on a cattle station on the Richmond Plains in Queensland. My father was the son of a Peer in England, and my mother was a servant girl at the station homestead. She was the ward of the manager and his wife. They had reared her from a young girl after her parents were killed in an accident.
"My father and his wife came out from England. He was to learn cattle raising, and then his father was to buy him a cattle station. He worked as a jackeroo.
"After the first year his wife went to friends in Brisbane for a holiday, and while she was away my father made love to the servant girl and she found she was pregnant. It isn't the sort of thing you can hide on a station.
"My father's wife was furious and returned to her friends in Brisbane, and then England.
"I was born on the station, and three years later my father left for England, promising my mother he would try for a divorce so he could return and marry her.
"But the years passed, and my father kept writing he was unable to get the divorce. And then he stopped writing.
"When I was fourteen I was sent to a boarding school in Sydney, and only saw my mother when I came home at Christmas for the holidays.
"When I came home for Christmas in my seventeenth year I found my mother was ill, and I went to Brisbane with her while she consulted a specialist. He would not tell my mother, but he told me, that she had no more than two years to live. She had cancer.
"I refused to go back to school after that. Somehow people always find out the worst about others, and more than once I had been called a Lord's illegitimate son. But I never told my mother.
"The manager and his wife were very good to us. No-one could have been better in those two years my mother was dying."
"At twenty one I had my own droving outfit, and even then I was known as a good cattleman. I used to take mobs of cattle right down to the New South Wales border and into the Riverina.
"Then one year I was caught with cattle on the Barcoo River during a drought, and then fell ill with dengue fever. Most of my stockmen were blacks, and they brought a young lubra to my camp to look after me. She nursed me, and fed me with herbs she collected and boiled. And when the fits of shivering came on she would warm me with her own body.
"It was eight weeks before I started to recover, and then I learned that my black stockmen had deserted me, and the cattle which had not bogged and died in the Barcoo had wandered away in search of food.
"But the lubra stayed with me, and when I was able to travel guided me to a station. Of all my camp and stock, there was only a single horse left when we reached the station."
The drover stopped again and closed his eyes, his face settling, for a moment, into some far away look of peace, as though he lived again those far off days when he was a young man and life stretched ahead of him.
Save from a lonely death on the desolate banks of the Barcoo in drought, where, without the black girl he would have died, and his bones whitened, unburied when the dingoes and crows had left them, scattered there in the desert drought of the great inland of Australia.
Now he faced death again. This time with men about him who would not desert. But this time without hope. Without a future.
"I'd saved my money." His words shocked us, breaking the silence so suddenly. "I was able to get started again.
"But some of the station owners black-balled me, and that hurt. It's not an excuse, just a fact. But I started drinking heavily when we came to the different towns.
"I should have listened to my woman. She was as pretty as a picture. Strong and beautiful, those proud young breasts and those deep, trusting eyes that followed me. Always followed me so she could be ahead of me in what I would want, and have it ready.
"You know, I never took her. All those months she would sleep beside me every night, and she was as virgin to me as the day the stockmen brought her into my camp."
The drover sighed for a long dead dream.
"One night I came back from one of those drinking bouts and caught a chill. She had to nurse me back again from the dengue and malaria. That was when I first took her.
"We were down at Bourke in New South Wales when I found she was pregnant. I loved the girl, and I married her, and after our son was born we went on droving.
"There were two more sons, and I was a happy man. I schooled them around the camp fire at night as they grew.
"Then one day a letter caught up with me from my solicitors in Sydney. My father had died, but not before recognising me as his illegitimate son, and leaving a certain amount of money in trust for me, with a certain proportion to be paid yearly.
"This came in regularly for some years, and then I had another letter saying a brother of my father had taken out a court order in England contesting the truth of my being my father's son. I was so disgusted I went on the drunk, and wasn't what you could call sober for twelve months.
"Sergeant? Can I have more water?"
He seemed to need a lot of water, and swallowed it greedily before taking up his story again.
"From then on I didn't care a damn for anything. I started lifting cattle as well as droving them, and people stopped asking me into their homes. My lubra was only a dirty black gin in their eyes, and several times I had trouble over this."
He stopped speaking and closed his eyes. No one spoke. The sun was sinking quickly, long shadows stretching out from the sand hills, a slight chill in the air.
"This mob I tried to break through the wheat crops. I brought them into Victoria illegally. Tried to get away with it by keeping off the stock routes. I was drinking and worried, and the days those cockies called and that Tom Burns made the slur of being a law to myself, and looked at my wife .. I tried to forget, and after we'd trucked the cattle out of Sea Lake I intended to head back into New South Wales.
"If only I hadn't got on the drunk at Lascelles and met him again. But when he pushed me down I swore I'd get him again, and when we reached Speed on the way back towards Ouyen on New Year's Eve, I told my wife and boys I had some business to see about, and rode out to Tom Burns property.
"It was just on sunset when I hit the west boundary fence. I got down from the horse and walked in, and when he turned to see who it was I shot him twice.
"He fell where I shot him, and I was about to leave when my eldest son rode in. He .., he couldn't seem to believe his father would do such a thing.
"It was his distress that sobered me, and I realised what I had done.
"Tom Burns was still alive, so we picked him up between us and started to carry him over to the house. But he died before we got to the chaff house.
"We left him there and rode out, and when we came to the boundary fence I sent my son back to his mother and the other two and told him I would ride out through the desert country and meet them at Ouyen.
"I never thought you'd find out who did it. But I hadn't figured on him." His eyes turned to Fisher. "No harm son. I guess the marks we left would make the whole thing pretty plain to you. Anyway, after this fall I'm glad you did find me. Thanks."
He turned his eyes to Sergeant Wall and asked again for water.
Above us through the twilight came the long drawn call: "Coo ..ee!"
Snowy Whitecross answered him, and moved up the sand hill to guide them around the scour.
"Don't talk any more," the Sergeant warned the old man. "When the pack horse comes we'll try and get you to a doctor."
The old man closed his eyes and whispered. "In my saddle bag Sergeant. You'll find my story there. Look after my wife and sons please. Their grandfather was a peer of the realm .. God .., God forgive me for what I've done .."
His head tipped forward, and he slipped away from the saddle supporting his back.
He was dead.
The doctor who performed the autopsy told us it was a wonder he lived as long as he did. His spleen had burst, and his life had seeped away internally.
Sergeant Wall lay the old man down and folded his arms across his chest, and covered hid face with his handkerchief. The he reached across and opened the saddle bag on the drover's gear.
Looking over his shoulder I could see the stack of neatly packed letters and papers, and as he shuffled through them I saw the coat of arms of an English family embossed on many of them.
Sergeant Wall shook his head slowly and put them back in the bag. "I guess his story was true."
Now, with the last rays of the sun probing upwards from below the far horizon, the hot anger I had felt through all the long dry day began to drain out of me, replaced by a sadness and pity for this tired old man who had died in the desert sand hills of the north west Mallee in Victoria.
Fisher seemed to have read my thoughts and touched my arm. "Come on Bob. Harry's arrived. Let's go and help him get a fire going and rustle up some tucker."
Sitting around the fire having a meal Sergeant Wall suggested we camp there the night, getting off early for our place the next day. Charlie Lockwood, he thought, would be waiting for us.
But sleep did not come easily. What a hell of a way to spend New Year's Day.
Early next morning we got a fire going and made a quick breakfast. Then putting the body of the drover across the back of the pack horse, set off south across the sand hills for home.
It was hot again when the sun came up, and the flies found us again, as thick as ever, as we toiled up and down, up and down, over those countless ridges of the sand hills.
Hour after hour, those cursed flies, the burning sun, a dead man across the back of the pack horse, and the untracked sand. Sand stretching ahead in those giant corrugations running east and west, directly across our route. Sand reflecting the burning sun upwards. Heat shimmering in mirage. Light from the sun, from the sky, from the sand, hurting your eyes. And the steady plodding determination of the horses, mile after burning mile. Taking us home. Home, and by two in the afternoon the boundary fence of Delahoy's Mile was ahead.
As Sergeant Wall had hoped, Charlie Lockwood's car was there, several of the neighbours sitting on the verandah with him waiting for us, and the neighbours who would be there and must be fed. He had prepared a lot of food, and even killed a porker, serving up a meal of hot roast pig.
Everyone ate heartily, except Harry and Fisher and I. We settled for eggs on toast. Somehow, when we looked at the crisply roasted pork, all we could see were the tails of mice disappearing into that hungry snout.
Sergeant Wall wanted to know how Fisher picked which track to follow when the horsemen had split up, and after the meal we went outside and Fisher, a rifle in his hand, selected a soft spot of sand and showed us.
"The man who fired the rifle had on elastic sided riding boots, and the heels were like this."
He bent and made an outline in the sand. Then he stood up and put the rifle to his shoulder as though he were going to fire it, and automatically his right foot went back behind the left. "See?"
Sergeant Wall nodded, a slow grin of admiration appearing on his face.
"The other heel marks were more like ladies boots, but heavier, and they never showed the way a man stands to fire a rifle."
"Well, what about where they split up?" the Sergeant asked.
"Aw, that was easy," Fisher grinned. "The old man dismounted, and the heels that fired the rifle got back on the horse that turned north. I didn't know who it was, but I knew it was the man that shot Tom Burns."
Even without the drover's confession, Fisher's ability as a tracker had made out a good case against him, and Sergeant Wall shook his hand. "You made our job a lot easier Fisher, and I'll see you're rewarded for it."
"Aw, that's alright Sergeant. Glad to help."
When I went back to the verandah Constable Tom Knight was washing hands. They had just loaded the body of the drover into Mr Lockwood's car.
"I don't know Bob," Tom said, drying them. "Why I ever joined the police force .. Cleaning up a bloody mess like this. A man gets sick and tired of it." He hung the towel back on its nail. "People seem to forget we're just as human as they are, but they expect .." He shrugged. "Never mind."
When they left we walked back into the kitchen, tired out. Dick McNally was washing up, and I picked up a tea towel to dry, looking around the walls. The mouse holes had joined up alright. The hessian and wallpaper was just long shreds hanging from the ceiling.
Whiskers had found a new place to sit, up on the mantlepiece as far away from the mice as he could get. And the dogs they had given up catching mice a long time ago, and sometimes they just sat by the fire and howled, and the mice ran over them.
Harry came in through the door with Charlie McDougall. "It's certainly been a hell of a couple of days Charlie."
"Yes," said Charlie. "I guess that's life all over. Just one God-damned thing after another."
Chapter 12 | Contents | Chapter 14