(C) Copyright 1970 Robert Gordon Delahoy
Speed - Ouyen
The seeding was finished by the end of May, and the rains continued. The
winter was mild, and as the golden glory of the wattle began to fade the wheat
and oats came up and stooled along the ground.
One evening Mother put down the paper and suggested to Harry and Bill that they go along to a big ball at Ouyen which was advertised. "You could stay the night and come home the next day."
"Might just do that," Bill said, interested. "Things aren't so busy we can't take a couple of days off."
Wally had returned to Merbein, and the paddock he had ploughed with the stump jump plough looked really good. We had carted in all the mallee stumps the plough had turned up, and made a big stack of them by the men's hut. Although Mother liked us all to be at home, she was very pleased Wally was so keen to become a baker. She thought everyone should have a trade.
"Ah well," said Bill, "our trade is growing wheat, and the baker wouldn't be much good without it to grind for his flour."
Mother nodded. "Yes, I suppose you're right."
"Got to have the farmer," said Bill. "Can't do without him."
Mother smiled at him and picked up one of Fisher's best loved books, Oliver Twist.
Fisher was off from the table and sitting at her feet in a flash, waiting for Mother to read to us.
She was a good reader, and you were with Oliver all the way, and drew your own conclusions as to what a dreadful person Fagin was.
Fisher's eyes would really dance with pleasure when mother read to us or recited poems of early English history.
Sometimes I thought she meant more to Fisher than his own Mother. When Fisher caught a cold, being an aboriginal without generations of built-up resistance, he became quite ill. Mother would send him off to bed and dose him with cough mixture, rubbing his chest and back with a concoction she made up from camphorated oil and eucalyptus to help him shake off this complaint which was not known in Australia until the white man came.
Measles was another disease to which the original inhabitants had no resistance, and amongst their children it could be fatal.
Mother treated Fisher in every way as though he were her own son, and I often heard her explaining to him the ways of the world. The colour of his skin could or would be a disadvantage amongst white people who wanted to hurt him. "But son, be of good cheer. There are always good and bad in black and white, and so long as you hold your head up proudly, and conduct yourself as a gentleman, no matter what may happen, you will find friends amongst all people. But never be ashamed of your colour. God made us all."
Fisher idolised the very ground Mother walked on, and always referred to her as 'Mother'.
The day arrived when Bill and Harry were to leave for the big Red Cross Ball at Ouyen, the event of the year in those parts.
Fisher and I yoked up Chester and Snowy for them while they shaved and bathed, and tried on their new, made to measure suits, which had come by mail from a firm in Bendigo.
Bill complained the trousers were a bit on the tight side, and Harry was not very happy about his coat. He reckoned the tailor must have mis-read the measurements set out on the order. It seemed a bit too long, and he could not see, at his age, that he was likely to grow into it.
He gave his shoulders a heave. "Bit tight under the arms too."
"Aw, you'll get used to it. Fashions alter too you know."
Harry grunted, and studied the material. "Funny how different the patterns look when they make them up into a suit. Nothing like the material of the sample."
I had to agree with him there. "The checks in the suit do look a bit wide Harry. But I remember when we were at the races one time in Birchip there was a bookmaker with a suit like that."
Harry just glared at me.
"I only though you'd like to know .."
But he was not at all grateful for the information.
Bill was having extreme difficulty with the shirt and collar. He had not worn the outfit for some time, and the starched collar must have shrunk a bit, because when he eventually got the ends to meet, he looked around from the mirror with his face showing signs of recent and severe strangulation.
Desperate to get a breath, he put his fingers inside it and gave it a pull. But even that did not seem to help. "Blast the thing!" he gasped.
Mother came in frowning. "Whatever's the matter?" She took the situation in at a glance. "Take it off."
He handed her the offending article and Mother took it away to make new holes.
At last they were more or less satisfied, so they reversed the procedure and got undressed, putting on their older travelling clothes and packing the new suits and the shirts in a suitcase.
"Ah yes," Bill sighed. "That feels better."
Mother had prepared cut lunches for them and gave these to Harry to put in the buggy, before he turned and kissed her and climbed up unto the buggy with Bill.
"Hey!" Bill cried as Harry went to start, "hang on a tick. Get me a water bag and a billy and some tea will you?"
Fisher went for the water bag and I went for the billy and the tea.
Bill took them and had a long swig from the water bag. "Got to have a cuppa along the way. Cheerio!"
"G'dup Chester. G'dup Snowy."
A flick of the whip and a wave and away they went for the ball of the year at Ouyen.
We watched them from the verandah as they headed down towards the west boundary gate, then the three of us went back into the house to clean up a little before lunch.
Afterwards I went off to the north boundary fence to repair a section where the emus had broken some of the wires, and Fisher went down to clean and oil the saddles in the machinery shed.
About two in the afternoon Mother heard the dogs barking and came out on the verandah to see what had disturbed them. There was a covered wagon coming up from the gate.
When it got to the house dam a man stepped out and opened the gate and let the wagon through, closing it behind him and driving on up to the house, and climbing down.
"How d' you do missus."
He was a peddler, or hawker as we called them, and sold men's working trousers, shirts, cottons, needles, lengths of cloth and a whole range of other goods in the same line.
"Anything you want missus?"
Mother said she would like to see some shirts, so the hawker put the nosebags on the horses and went around to the back of the wagon and undid the canvas flags and lowered the tailboard to let Mother see his stock.
She selected the shirts and had him show her some curtain lengths, the conversation moving back and forth from his goods to the season and the people he had called on along the track.
He was a man in his early forties, and very attentive.
"Where's the menfolk? Some of my merchandise might interest them."
Mother answered without thinking. "Oh, they've left for Ouyen. There's the Red Cross Ball there tonight."
The hawker smiled at Mother. "Do you know, you're a very attractive woman."
Mother smiled at the compliment. "Get away with you," she said, her mind on the sum she owed him. "I'll just go inside for my bag."
She took her purchases inside and came out with the money she owed him, stepping back when he took the money and moved towards her.
"I still say you're rather an attractive woman," he said, and before Mother could move back again, put an arm around her.
"Go away sir!" she cried, jerking herself from him, her hand stinging against his face.
But the hawker caught hold of her again, and this time Mother was unable to break free. "How dare you! Let go of me!"
It was then Fisher came out of the shed and saw what was going on, and covered the yards to Mother in a wild sprint.
"Get the hell out of here you black bastard!" the hawker roared.
But those words only sealed his fate, and Fisher smashed into him and flung him away, Mother falling back, catching her balance and stumbling up onto the verandah.
"Keep off! Keep off!" the hawker called, backing away.
Fisher was nearly seventeen, and beautifully built, and as he circled around this man who had violated by intent everything in the world that was dear and precious to him, he had already decided how that man would suffer.
In Fisher's eyes the hawker had stepped out of the social bounds, not only of the white man, but of the Australian aboriginal, and their law was harsher and quicker to effect.
If a black man tried to assault a black woman he was tried, and if found guilty, would be sentenced to either death or marking. It if was marking, a symbol would be burned onto his chest and back, and this would designate him an outcast for the rest of his life, and neither his own or any other tribe would have anything to do with him. He was shunned worse than any leper.
And now Fisher began to deal his punishment, moving in and cutting away at the hawker with his knuckles, seeming to feel no effect or pain from the other's wild swinging, just moving in and cutting and cutting with those short-arm jabs peculiar to the Ausralian aboriginal.
"Fisher! That's enough!"
But this was one time when Mother's words were of no avail, and by the time I arrived home the hawker was a slobbering wreck. His face was broken and bleeding as he lay in the dust by the wheel of his covered wagon with Fisher, his broad nostrils quivering in anger, standing above him.
On first sight I was horrified.
He turned to me. "I'm going to mark him!"
I spun to look at Mother. She was leaning against the wall of the house, a hand to her face, and I turned in blazing fury to the hawker.
"No Bob ..No!" Mother cried. "You can't!"
I clenched my hands beside me. "No ..No, we can't And it wouldn't do any good. His shirt would cover the mark. We'll let the law. The police .."
Fisher turned and sneered at me. "Yeah ..the white man can cover himself. Hide in his clothes .."
I reached out and caught hold of him. "If you hadn't been here ..Fisher, we believe, you and I, there's a God who can see right through a man's clothes into his heart .."
"We should mark him!"
He turned his eyes to look at me, and slowly the tension began to go from his body, and he nodded. "Alright Bob." He walked up to Mother on the verandah and put an arm around her. "Mother, I am sorry. No one, no one must ever hurt you."
Mother could not speak, just nod her feelings.
"I wanted to kill that man. Kill him!"
"Fisher, come and give me a hand."
I caught hold of the hawker, and together we pulled him to his feet and propped him against the wagon wheel.
"Boys ..we can't let him go like that .."
Fisher and I looked at each other.
"Alright," Fisher said at last, and we dragged him across and sat him on the edge of the verandah and bathed his face from a dish of warm water Mother brought out.
He was in a dreadful state. Fisher's punches had not only split the flesh above the eyes, but had opened it against the man's bones on his cheeks. He was in a hell of a mess, and the bandage we wrapped around his head was little more than protection against the flies.
Together we lifted him from the verandah and pulled him up into the seat of the wagon, and drove him down to the gate by the house dam.
"Right'o mister. Now you just drive off back the way you came, and don't ever come near this district again. We'll warn the police to keep a look out for you, and if my mate Fisher ever gets you on his own ..well, God help you."
"Git on!" Fisher called, and slapped the nearest horse, and with a jerk the wagon started forward, the hawker clutching at the seat with a cry of pain.
We watched him head off towards the Nyarrin country, then turned and walked slowly back to the house.
In the kitchen Mother made Fisher sit down while she bathed his face, gently spreading ointment over his badly skinned knuckles, and bandaging them lightly.
Fisher had cooled down a lot, and as Mother talked gently to him he relaxed, and after a time they both began to laugh, and I went out and left them alone.
By tea time the matter had been placed carefully aside.
"Let's hope Bill and Harry enjoy themselves at the ball tonight," Mother said. "It seems strange with just the three of us sitting down to tea."
"Miss young Rupe," Fisher said.
"Well, it's better for him to be up at Merbein and going to school five days a week."
Mother had decided it was not fair to Rupe to expect him to gain an education from two days schooling one week and three the next at the Turriff East school, when he could stay at Merbein. And Emma and Rudie had seemed keen to have him up there with them.
But you certainly missed him. Any place lost something of its zest when Rupe was not there. When he did not actually attract unusual happenings and situations, he manufactured them.
No, there was never a dull moment when Rupe was there.
"Never mind. Rupert will be down on holidays again soon, and Bill and Harry have only gone for the night."
It was quite a night too, and one Mother would never have suggested if she had known the repercussions.
They arrived at Ouyen about five thirty in the afternoon, and after such a long drive felt more like going to be than a dance.
They booked into the boarding house, and after putting the ponies in the stable and rubbing them down, went up to their room for a wash before tea. Afterwards they went for a short walk around the town before dressing for the dance.
It was a big night in Ouyen. The hall was gaily decorated by the Red Cross Committee, and air of excitement pervaded the whole community.
There were two violins, a piano, a trumpet, and drums in the orchestra, and the Master of Ceremonies opened proceedings with a circular waltz, then on to the square dancing.
Bill was really enjoying himself. He fancied himself as a bit of a dancer, and, as he always said, being the good looking one of the family, had no trouble finding partners.
As always at country dances, the menfolk assembled near the entrance after each dance, leaving the ladies on the wooden seats around the side of the hall.
"Select your partners for the Barn Dance," the MC called, and men buttoned their coats, butted their cigarettes in their fingers, and sauntered across the hall to their partners.
When it came to the Vienna Waltz, Bill selected a pretty little redhead who hardly came up to his shoulder. She was a good dancer, and as they waltzed snuggled closer and closer against him, making certain he became well aware of the warmth of her body. And the perfume she wore was not exactly unpleasant ..
Slowly, her hand moved up his back until her fingers were caressing the back of his neck, and through the dreamy haze of his contentment Bill heard her suggestion that they go outside and sit the next dance out.
Bill had not until then been aware of her as a particular person, but only part of the whole evening, and her words shook him from his bemusement.
This saucy little redhead in his arms was not his Olga of the light brown hair, with lips which had never felt the touch of paint, and who was perfumed only of herself.
"Sorry sweetheart," Bill whispered. "Not tonight. Some other time maybe." And to the dying strains of the waltz escorted her back to her seat, thanking her with a short bow.
He went back down the hall and joined Harry and the other men around the door.
"Cutting a bit of a dash with the redhead Bill! Not bad either. Looks like a good sort."
"Yes," another young man who had been talking to Harry agreed. "She's always making conquests. Bit of a good thing." He looked Bill up and down. "Seems to have taken quite a bit of a shine to you."
Bill shrugged. "Ah ..not for mine, sweet Angeline."
He shrugged, dismissing the incident. But brother Bill had yet to learn the truth of the old saying, "Hell has no fury like a woman scorned."
Harry was really enjoying himself, dancing or talking, but Bill had lost interest. The one he wanted to dance with was hundreds of miles away in the tall timber mountains of Gippsland, so he just stood around the door yarning with the other men until the ball was over.
But he had enjoyed it anyway, and in the morning they both slept in, leaving Ouyen around ten and reaching home just before sunset. We heard them coming through the still air, and were waiting on the side verandah when they drove up.
It was during tea that night that Bill noticed Fisher's hands. "Had an accident or something?"
"Aw, nothing much. Just skinned them."
Mother had asked us not to say anything about the incident with the hawker. Later on, perhaps, we could tell them, but if they learned now they would only saddle up and go after the man. And they would be in no mood for charity.
The weather was being good to us, the crop growing well with the soaking rains that came in regularly.
But just when the mice had finally left us, the rabbits were increasing, and doing quite a lot of damage to the young crop. They came into the paddocks from the mallee country where their burrows were. Fisher and I did all we could by trapping, and digging out any warrens we could find.
One day, deep in the green mallee to the north, Fisher stopped me with hand on my arm and pointed through the scrub.
A mallee hen, or lowan, was preparing the communal nest for her eggs.
"She's late laying," Fisher whispered, and indicating to me to sit, moved a small branch to make a clearer view and sat beside me to watch.
She was about the size of a small turkey, with a head larger, but more like a pigeon in shape. The nest was a mound of sand ten or fifteen feet across, and nearly five feet high, and with her wings she was scalloping out the inside. Satisfied, she then brished dry leaves up into the hole, and on top of them laid her eggs in a circle, covering them with more dry leaves and then sand, the whole operation being repeated on top of this for another laying.
Mallee hens shared their nests, and quite a number of hens would share in building the incubator. When the laying season was finished the mound would be left with a saucer shaped depression in the top, so when rain came it would be caught and seep down. The heat created by the fermentation of the leaves coming up to the right temperature to hatch the eggs.
When the chick broke from the egg he would then have to scratch his way up through the warm leaves and soft, fine sand, and scamper for the protection of the porcupine grass and undergrowth.
There was no mother to tend him. He was on his own and had to fend for himself from the start.
"But who teaches them to build these nests when they're old enough to lay Fisher?"
Fisher shrugged. It was just one of those things you had to accept. Another of the mysteries of our land.
"Don't know how much longer they'll last with the foxes though," Fisher said.
The early settlers had, in their ignorance, brought in foxes for the English Lord and gentleman to have his hunt. Perhaps it made him feel more at home in this outwardly hostile land. But the fox quickly adapted, and one of the things he learned was that by simply sitting and waiting by a mallee hens' nest at a certain time of the year, he could have a feast of young birds, killing them as they popped from the great incubator.
The fox was cutting their numbers down alarmingly, and also the numbers of the curlew. When you heard their plaintive cry rising up and up on a moonlit night, you new that more than likely a fox had found their nest on the ground.
The very thought of the damage foxes were doing brought a wave of bitterness and hostility against your ancestors of a little over a hundred years ago for importing them.
"C'mon Bob." Fisher's hand on my arm surprised me. "Getting late. Better be going."
We left quietly, leaving that wonderful bird undisturbed in her work.
When we arrived home we found Dick McNally there. He had come over for tea and a yarn. He was working very hard clearing the remaining mallee on his farm, doing the job by hand. It was heavy and tedious work, and he had felt the need of an evening's companionship.
"It's a good spring alright. Going to be a really good season I'd reckon." He leaned back in his chair. "Heard from George?"
"Yes. We have had another letter from him."
The war was not going well for the Allies, and as summer moved towards Australia, the 1917 winter was coming in across Europe, and the papers reported our soldiers were in for a hard time.
One of the war correspondents wrote that already men were suffering from trench-foot in the cold, wet mud. Sometimes they even had to amputate to save the soldier's life, and you wondered if there would ever be an end to man's suffering.
But there was good news. The American troops were going to France, and we hoped that, somehow, this would herald the end of the dreadful slaughter.
But even then we knew that many thousands of young Americans would have to die to bring the peace.
Feeling was running very high in Australia on whether or not we should have conscription. The Government seemed to feel it would be needed, but it was a bitter pill for the people to swallow. The manhood of Australia had responded so quickly to the call, and volunteered in such vast numbers, and still was. But the supply was drying up in this endless drain.
A vast country the size of Australia, but with a population of not quite seven million, was finding it difficult to keep her industries alive and still meet the demand for soldiers.
"It doesn't bear thinking about," Dick said.
October came in, and the rains kept falling. The wheat was in the shot blade, and, along with the oats, would soon be coming into ear.
Rupe came down from Merbein for the school holidays, and joined Fisher and I in our war on the rabbits, and even if that work was as hard, it was more interesting with him around with his endless chatter and interest.
"Here's a letter for you Bill," Mother said one evening as she sorted through the mail.
"Show us," Rupe said, reaching out and taking it. "Huh, it's light! And it's in a girl's handwriting!"
"Come on!" Bill warned.
"Not Olga's writing either," Rupe said.
Bill reached over and grabbed it, slitting it open with a table knife.
But instead of a letter it contained a white feather.
For all the suffering that large white feather caused us that night, it may as well have been a letter from hell.
Bill's blue-rose, sun- tanned face blanched white.
"Ha-ha!" Rupe crowed. "Brother Bill's got a white feather!"
Mother's face blanched, and her hand caught Rupe across the side of the head.
"Oww ..!" Rupe cried in pain and surprise.
Harry, seated opposite me, stiffened, his eyes hardening, face setting in hard anger, voice brittle. "Don't take any notice Bill. I could just about guess who sent it."
"Yes," said Bill, "I've got a good notion myself, and maybe they're right."
At those words Harry exploded. "Right be buggered! That dirty little bitch. The town bike! Painted little slut .."
"Harry!" Mother cried. "How dare you talk like that in front of me!"
Harry stood up and kicked his chair back. "Bah! That type of woman makes me sick!"
"I will not allow you to talk like that!" Mother cried, upset.
"I'm sorry, and I apologise to you, but I won't allow that thoughtless little .." he swallowed, " ..red-headed, red-headed, thing ..what the hell does she know? It's been Bill that's taken the brunt of running the farm since George went to war. It's been Bill who's strained his guts out, and nearly tramped himself to death behind harrows! He's had to fight drought and bushfires and even bloody mice! All the Goddamned pests that you can name we've got! And he's still got to grow wheat to do his bit!
"I know we've tried to help, but we've only been boys doing men's work!"
Fisher had slipped away to his room, and Rupe after him. They only knew something dreadful had happened over a silly white feather, but did not understand what.
When Harry had finished, Bill rose slowly from the table, and holding the white feather in his hand, went out onto the verandah, and leaned against a post.
I went out behind him, standing there looking out across the land at the great shadow of the wheat, a ripple of breeze across it like waves on a lake.
But what could I say? Nothing. Just stand there beside him and let him know we were with him. That we would not for one moment think of a white feather.
A little robin redbreast flew down and landed on the tank stand, feeding on the breadcrumbs Rupe had put out. He had a nest in the sugar gum by the men's hut.
Bill was watching the bird, turning the white feather over in his hand. "Pretty, aren't they? Come back every year to nest." He looked at the feather in his hand. "Wonder where the hell she got this from?"
"Aw, probably out of some per cockatoo. Give us a look at it."
Bill handed it to me and I ran my finger along the edge. "Yeah. Cockatoo's feather alright," and I crushed it up in my hand.
"Now look what you've done Bob. You've destroyed my white feather."
I looked down at the broken quill in my hand and threw it out into the yard. "Came to the wrong address anyway."
Bill looked at me a moment, then turned back to the door where the sound of Mother and Harry arguing came from. "Let's go back in and break this up."
Mother was looking quite distressed, and Bill tried a smile to her and dropped a hand on Harry's shoulder. "Listen, don't get upset about this silly white feather business. As a matter of fact I'd already made my mind up to enlist some time ago. I've decided to wait till the crop's off, then join up.
Mother and Harry looked at Bill, then at each other.
Bill pulled out a chair and sat down, tilting it back onto its rear legs. "We'll have the new harvester, and with the two strippers working we should get this crop off in record time if the weather holds. Reckon that way I'll be able to join up early in the new year." He turned to Mother. "I've filled in one of those forms they send you and said I had to get the harvest in first. Anyway, it's about time I thought of giving brother George a bit of a hand. He must be getting tired over there in France fighting the Germans on his own."
Rupe and Fisher had come back quietly, and sat down well away from us, reading.
Mother's face had paled as Bill spoke, but her voice, though subdued, was firm. "Alright son, if you've decided to enlist after the harvest I'll not stand in your way."
"Well, that's all settled then!" Bill said heartily. "Harry and Bob'll be able to handle the place alright, and after all, it's better to enlist than be called up if they bring in conscription."
Standing, he picked up his old felt hat, turned the brim up at the side, and grabbed the old straw broom. "Have to brush up a bit on the drill I learned at school."
"Jove!" cried Rupe in excitement and relief, and watched, bright eyed, as Bill gave us a demonstration, marching around the kitchen table and shouting orders to himself.
"Better than the Woomelang Volunteer Fire Brigade eh Rupe?"
Harry and Mother simply looked at him as he shouldered arms and marched, then Mother began to cry.
"Son, I know you'll make a good soldier. But why do men ever have to learn to kill?"
"Well," panted Bill. "I guess the leaders of the world know what's best for mankind."
"Garn!" scoffed Rupe. "You can't even shoot a kangaroo! How're you ever going to shoot a German soldier?"
"Slo ..pe h'arms!" Bill commanded, and shouldering his broom turned smartly to face Rupe. "Well, there's no law passed by our Government yet says I have to shoot a kangaroo, so I can please myself about that. But as the law stands now they want to start forcing me to kill men." The fire seemed to go out of him, and he lowered the broom, looking at it a moment, then standing it hurriedly back in its place, seemingly embarrassed by his demonstration. "And some people get so damn silly they point a finger at you and say you're a coward if you don't go cheerfully to fight."
Bill came back and sat down. "They haven't brought conscription in yet, but a lot of countries have, and a lot of Australians are in favour of it, and I wouldn't be surprised .." He stopped and shook his head and did not go on.
Harry waited a moment before he spoke. "I've heard some people want to put the names of all the eligible young men into a barrel and pick them out by numbers. Like a Tattersall's sweep. Only if your name comes out you don't get a prize, you go to war and kill. They think that's a very fair way."
Mother's head snapped up. "No government would dare do such a thing!"
"Don't you believe it!" Harry said. "They'd do it alright. They get themselves in such a mess making arrangements without consulting the people first, they've just got to blunder ahead. Anyway, what's the lives of a few young men so long as trade agreements are honoured?"
Harry gave a bitter laugh.
"But what if they picked your name out of the barrel and you didn't want to fight? Rupe asked.
Harry shrugged. "I suppose they could always throw you in gaol."
Rupe was not satisfied. "But if you go out and kill someone here they'll put you in gaol, or even hang you. They hung Ned Kelly." He frowned. "Seems damned strange to me they could put you in gaol for not killing as well. Seem to want it both ways."
Bill was watching Mother with concern. "Ah, let's forget about the bloody war. Go and play us a tune on the piano Harry. We'll have a bit of a sing-song. Come one everybody, cheer up. We're not dead yet."
Harry stood up slowly. "Alright." He went through into the other room, and we got up and followed him, and after a few songs we were laughing again, and Mother prepared supper with a smile on her face as peace and contentment returned to our home.
November came, and the oats were ready to cut. Rupe had returned to Merbein after the holidays, and we were starting on the oats.
After cutting we carted them in and built haystacks as we waited for the wheat to ripen enough to begin the stripping.
The new harvester had arrived, and every evening while he waited for tea Bill would go down and simply stand and admire it. It seemed he could hardly wait for the day to arrive when he could put this gleaming new thresher/harvester into the crop.
Harry and I felt quite jealous, comparing it with our battered old strippers. They looked antiquated alongside the new machine.
The season was the best we had experienced. Dick McNally was delighted with the crop we were share farming with him. He came over to live with us while the harvest was on.
When the day arrived to begin the stripping Bill yoked up a team in the new harvester, and with a flourish of reins stood the team up and moved off for the crop.
He stopped on the edge of the new wheat and waited for us to catch up with him. "Right? Then away we go!"
He called his team up, and cut into the wheat with our gleaming new harvester.
The rest of us walked along behind. It seemed quite wonderful to us that when Bill stopped the team, the grain box filled. All you had to do was put a bag on the ring fitted on the grain box, open the chute, and the wheat would gush out and fill it in one operation.
The next day Harry and I pulled into the wheat with the strippers, and harvesting was really under way.
The weather was hot now, and the flies came in their thousands. We had to use fly nets on our hats to stop them getting into our eyes and crawling down our throats. They would swarm on your back, and bite at the exposed flesh above your collar as though you were a juicy piece of food. Before you went into the house you had to brush them off you, then make a dash for it, trying to get the flywire door closed behind you before they regrouped.
But it was ideal weather for harvesting. Through the long hot days of late spring and early summer Bill went round and round endlessly, the bright paintwork of the new machine becoming duller by the day as the dust of harvest coated it. Harry and I forgot how old our machines were, and kept our teams moving out in front of the strippers through the heat and the dust and the flies.
The pyramids of wheat and cocky chaff grew in the paddocks, and Fisher worked sewing the bags as Bill harvested them, so as soon as the stripping was finished Bill and Harry were able to go straight onto the carting, taking the two loaded wagons into Speed each day.
Then Frank Nitschke arrived to thresh the wheat Harry and I had stripped, and very quickly separated the grains from the cocky chaff with the power winnower.
Fritz Kruger was still working for Frank, and during the evenings sang for us again while Harry played the piano. He sang beautifully in German.
But when they left there was that same sense of loneliness. We were so isolated that the loss of any company was greater than it ever could be in the towns, where you had the day to day meeting with strangers and neighbours in the street.
Fisher and I were sewing bags of wheat out in the paddocks, and one day Fisher began to talk about something which had been puzzling him.
"You know when Bill got that white feather Bob? Didn't I hear him say people would point the finger at you if you didn't enlist for the war?"
"Yeah. I suppose he meant they'd point the finger of scorn."
Fisher finished a bag and moved on to the next. "It's a bit like pointing the bone."
"You know. My ancestors, well I suppose some of my people still do it today, had the custom of pointing the bone at anyone they wanted dead. I dunno what it was, but when they pointed the bone at a man, he just went away and died."
"Just from someone pointing a bone?"
Fisher nodded. "They'd get a bone from a dead kangaroo and put it in the ground, then kneel down and chant and sing around it, wishing their enemy dead. You know, someone they hated.
"When they'd sung the bone they'd creep with it to the hated one's wurlie, his bark hut, while he was asleep at night, and stick the bone in the ground pointing at him." Fisher glanced around and gave a slight shiver. "When he woke up in the morning and saw the bone pointing ta him he knew he was gone. Finished. He would die."
"Why? Did they come back and spear him?"
Fisher shook his head. "No. They never touched him. He knew, and he just died. His spirit was crushed. He worried. Would not hunt. Would not eat. The bone had been pointed."
I went on with the bag sewing, wondering if we were really as civilised as we thought. Pointing the finger of scorn at a man could be just about as bad as an aboriginal pointing the bone.
"It was that white feather Bob."
I jerked the thread tight and made the tie. "Yeah."
When Christmas came there was still wheat to be carted.
The Sunday before Christmas the Rev. McLean called at the farm and held a service in our home. The neighbours all came over, and heard the Rev. McLean say a special prayer of thanksgiving for the bountiful harvest the Lord had given us that year.
After the service there was time for a yarn amongst the adults, and games for the children, before again the quiet loneliness of the bush settled over the house as the last of the crowd yoked up their vehicles and drove off for their homes.
We celebrated Christmas Day at home, then Bill and Harry went back to carting wheat, and Fisher and I to our bag sewing.
As well as sewing bags we cut chaff with a horse driven cutter. One day when we were doing this old Rose, the horse we were using, stopped her circular plodding and threw up her head, listening.
"Go on. Gid'up Rose!"
Rose, head high, whinnied, and would pay no attention to me, her eyes on the boundary gate.
"Look!" Fisher exclaimed, and pointed towards the gate where a magnificent Clydesdale, head tossing, mane and tail flying, came striding towards the stable.
He ran straight into the stable without pausing, turned and gave two sharp kicks to another horse, who snuffled and left the stall he had been in, and stepping into the vacated stall the newcomer dropped his head and began to feed.
"Fisher ..that's prince!"
"How would he ever ..?"
We left the chaff cutter and walked over, and as I walked up beside him he turned his head and gave me a nudge on the shoulder, then dropped his head back into the feed.
Prince, it appeared, had had quite enough of pulling a silly single furrow plough on Mr Rose's fruit block at Merbein, and had decided to leave for home.
One hundred and forty miles from Merbein to Speed, and much of it desert sandhill country as we had learned during our trek up in the drought, and Prince had come down in record time. Now, in his stable of pine posts and broom brush, he snuffled happily in the feeder. Home. Better home in the wide sandy wheat paddocks of the Mallee, and the heavy loads of the team, than any green pastures and tiny ploughs.
"Wonder what Bill and Harry'll say?"
I shook my head and patted the great neck. "Prince old chap, you'll have to go back you know."
Prince snuffled into his feed, unconcerned. But Mother took a different attitude.
"Oh dear, oh dear .." She seemed quite worried. "I hope Mr Rose didn't ill-treat him. We'll have to let him know he's here. Now I feel quite guilty exchanging him for the township block in the first place."
We heard the sounds of the wagons approaching just on sunset, the calls of Bill and Harry to their teams as they halted them at the boundary gate, then let them come for home.
"There's a bloke with them," Fisher called.
A hack was tied behind the lead wagon, and sitting up beside Bill was Mr Rose. It seemed he had followed Prince's tracks down along the railway line to Speed, where he had met Bill and Harry.
"Have you sighted Prince anywhere Bob?"
"Have a look in the stable!"
"Well I'll be damned!" Bill exclaimed.
Mr Rose went in and stood looking at Prince. "You old stinker! Might have known I only had to leave the gate open and you'd clear off to that home you were always looking over the fence for."
After tea Mr Rose accepted Mother's offer of hospitality, and decided to stay a couple of days to give his hack a rest before he started back with Prince. He went into Speed with Bill and Harry in the morning and telephoned his wife to let her know where he was, then spent a few days on the farm with us.
When he left early in the morning several days later mounted on his hack and leading Prince, we knew he had a real job on his hands, pulling that big and reluctant Clydesdale all the way back to Merbein!
After the last of the wheat was carted into the wheat pool, we set to and cleaned up the machinery and stored it ready for next year. The horses were turned out into the paddocks to graze and spell, and life on Delahoy's mile took on an easier pace.
Until one evening Bill leaned back in his chair and destroyed our sense of contentment by announcing that he was leaving to enlist.
Chapter 14 | Contents | Chapter 16