(C) Copyright 1970 Robert Gordon Delahoy
The Last Hundred Yards
"This bloody war!" Harry said savagely, then stood silent on the
platform, watching the train disappear into the night.
Bill arrived in Ouyen in the early hours of the morning, and booked into the local boarding house.
His appointment with the doctor for his medical examination was at ten, so after breakfast and a wash up he walked around the town until it was time.
"One or two ahead of you Bill," the doctor said. "Have a read till I call."
When his turn came Bill stripped down and waited for the doctor to go over him. He felt a twinge of concern at the fleeting look of concern which crossed the doctor's face as he listened to Bill's heartbeat through the stethoscope, then checked his pulse with a finger on his wrist.
Bill did not know it at the time, but the doctor had heard that tell-tale murmur from the heart. It was so usual, and yet he could never discover a way to tell these boys, who had been doing the work of men, just what he had found.
"Alright Bill. You can get dressed now."
The doctor turned and looked through the window into the dusty street. If he could pass one out of five of these young men enlisting from the district he would be lucky. Most of them he had helped bring into the world, smacking their first gasp of air into their lungs. He had watched them grow from babies into boys, and from boys into young men. And he had seen them take on the work of seasoned men as they tried to carry on with the farms as their fathers and older brothers enlisted and went to war.
In everyday language, they had busted their guts out working, and were simply not fit to go overseas to fight.
But how the hell could you tell them?
The doctor ran his fingers through the grey of his hair and moved across to his desk, sitting and writing a prescription for heart tablets.
"Well doc, how'd I go? Pretty fit? Nothing wrong with me. I'll do a day's work with the best of them."
"I don't doubt that for a minute Bill, but I want you to ease up a bit. Cut out the heavy lifting for a time." He looked down at a paper on his desk a moment, then faced Bill. "I'm afraid I am unable to pass you."
"What ..!" Bill was shocked. "Can't pass me?"
The doctor shook his head, his eye catching sight of Bill's set of false teeth on the desk, seeing a chance in them to soften the blow. "For a start you only have false teeth."
Bill stepped back a pace. "Damn it all, I'm going over there to fight the blighters. I don't have to eat them!"
The doctor tried to suppress a grin. "No, still, you know what regulations are." He handed Bill a prescription. "I want you to take one of these tablets after each meal. If you take things a bit easier and come back in, say, six months, I may be able to pass you then."
Bill shook his head, stunned.
"Look Bill. This certificate." He scrawled his signature across the paper. "It says you have enlisted, but are medically unfit."
Bill was disgusted, and said so. But the doctor had become used to the protests of these young men, and he simply shook his head.
"Six months Bill. You come back then and I'll check you. That's the best I can do."
Bill closed a hand tightly on the certificate and the prescription. "Alright. Alright. I'll come back then."
There were two other young men about his age in the waiting room. "How'd you go?"
Bill was stuck for words. He managed a mumbled "no bloody good," and walked out into the dust of the hot summer street, and headed for the chemist.
The chemist glanced at the prescription. "About an hour."
Bill nodded, folding the medical certificate into his wallet. "Thanks."
Outside in the heat again he stood for a moment in indecision, then decided he may as well quench his thirst anyway, and turned down to the hotel. A beer might at least brighten the day up a bit, but he hesitated when he entered the bar. The three young men who had been ahead of him at the doctor's surgery were standing there.
"Why, hullo Bill. Come and have a drink."
It was too late to back out now, so he walked up to join them.
"Well, how'd you go mate?"
Bill shook his head, dejected. "Well, you wouldn't read about this .. he wouldn't pass me."
The others broke into laughter, and Bill snapped his head around to face them, jaw tightening in anger ..
"Cheer up mate. You're not Robinson Crusoe. He wouldn't pass us either."
Bill looked at them, his face blank, the anger draining away. "He wouldn't?" Maybe he was not some physically unfit oddity after all. "Fair dinkum?"
"No. Told us to take things easy for a while and come back later on."
Bill drew in a long breath of relief.
"Y'know," one of them said. "I've got a bit of an idea. If we could, say, get old doc drunk one day, he might stretch a point and let us pass."
"Hell of a good idea," his mate agreed. "Only he doesn't drink. Any more bright suggestions?"
"Ah, hell! Here barman, fill 'em up again."
And so the rounds of drinks kept coming, the four rejects leaning up against the bar, one foot on the rail, trying to work out some scheme to have the doctor pass them, until Bill decided he had better go and get his tablets.
"This one's on me .."
They drunk the round, and the four of them, a little unsteady, but feeling betterthan they had, walked out into the street.
At midnight Harry and I met him at the station, noticing how subdued he was as he walked across to the buggy, and not questioning him until we were on the road.
"How'd you go Bill?"
Bill shrugged. "No good."
Harry was surprised. "What d' you mean?"
Bill shook his head. "Don't think they really want men. Doctor reckons I've got a bit of a heart condition according to the tablets he gave me. Supposed to take things easy for a while."
There was a long silence.
The horses were pulling eagerly for home, the night clear and crisp, the moon bright.
"Right'o," Harry said, and he had thought it out and made a decision. "We'll just have to think of some other way to make a living and get right out of this gut- busting game."
Bill nodded to himself. "Yairs ..Yeah, that's not a bad idea Harry. You know what? I reckon we should give this irrigation country a try. Might be a bit easier than growing wheat. I reckon we could buy some land on the rivers and get stuck into growing vines and citrus.
Harry though a moment. "You know Bill, that's not a real bad idea. Get up Chester. Get up Snowy."
At breakfast, Bill had all of us in fits of laughter, telling us the story of the false teeth and his telling the doctor he didn't have to eat the Germans. Then, quite off-handedly, he gave his chest a thump. "Seems to be a bit wrong with the old ticker." He pulled a pill bottle from his pocket. "Have to take one after each meal."
Mother looked up quickly. "Harry was right. I should have known. Whatever will we do?"
Bill grinned at her. "Ah, don't worry Mum. Let's put the crop in for 1918, then have a look around for some irrigation land before I go and see that cranky old doctor again around July."
Harry nodded. "I was thinking things over in bed last night. I think you should go off to Em and Rudie's Mother. See if there's any land we could buy somewhere along the Murray." He turned to Bill. "Or on the Darling for that matter eh? If we found suitable land we could sell out here and try our luck growing vines. Be closer to doctors too. Mildura's a good town. Plenty of doctors there."
Mother's face brightened. "Now that is a good idea, and with your sister expecting again. But I don't like leaving you all here to batch."
"Well, I've never poisoned any of them yet when you've been away," harry said. "I reckon we can look after ourselves. You know, with the first payment due on the wheat early next month, I think it should all work out rather well."
"How do we stand for money?" Bill asked.
"Well, we're not exactly broke. In fact we're that far ahead it doesn't really matter."
Mother, Bill and Harry began discussing our finances, and Fisher and I excused ourselves and wandered out onto the verandah, standing there, looking out across the paddocks of stubble we had stripped of wheat. Paddocks ploughed ready for the sowing of the 1918 crop. The horse paddock. The stables. The men's hut ..
It was nearly four years since we had come on that journey from Woomelang. And despite the heat and the drought, the bushfire, the stables burned, the hawker and the drug-crazed Indian, the flies and the dust and the heartache, I realised suddenly I loved this farm. And like Prince, even if I went to live amongst the green pastures of the rivers, I would still, one day, have to come back.
Come back to breathe this air. To smell the scent of the eucalyptus. To listen to the night cry of the curlew and the mopoke, and even the spine-chilling cry of the dingo.
And the willy wagtail. That cheeky little black and white acrobat of the day and night who cannot keep a secret.
There was such a bright crispness in that Mallee morning, and I felt as Eva Miner:
This land of mine is jealous,
And holds me in her clasp,
As if to say ..
You'll not depart,
For I have claimed your heart.
It was so true, and I tried to put the feeling into my own words:
This land that suckled me from birth,
This land of sweet and scented earth,
Will always be, so dear to me,
Wherever I may roam.
I only know, this is my land,
I fondly love as home.
"Hey Bob, snap out of it!" Fisher said beside me.
"Uh? Oh, I was just thinking."
"Yeah, I could see that. How about thinking up some way to get some chaff bagged up? We've got to get a load down to Dick McNally's place today for his horses."
"I don't know Fisher. Sometimes I reckon you're a damned nigger driver."
Fisher grinned. "You bet. Come on."
While we were bagging the chaff Fisher told me he was thinking of writing to a firm in Melbourne who did contract shearing for some of the big sheep stations in the back country of New South Wales and along the Darling River. He wanted to see if he could be included in a team of shearers and try his luck.
"Good idea Fisher."
He was good now. I had watched him shear Charlie McDougall's sheep. Five hundred of them, and Charlie never touched a one, contenting himself with keeping the board clear for Fisher.
When we were outside one day bringing up some more sheep for the pens, Charlie told me how proud he was of Fisher. "He's a natural Bob. The way he catches a sheep and the careful way he holds them. Mark my words, he'll be a gun shearer one of these days." Charlie shook his head. "Yes Bob, I', damn proud of that boy."
As we loaded the bagged chaff for McNally's horses I agreed with Fisher. "You ought to do that. A letter to one of the big firms should get you in a gang."
We delivered the chaff and stayed for a yarn to Dick, then came home in the wagon, letting the team pick their own pace as we talked of the future.
Harry and Bill were still talking about the irrigation country, and Mother had finally agreed to go up to Merbein and stay with Emma and Rudie while she looked around for some suitable land we could farm under irrigation.
She left in mid-February, and we carted mallee roots in from the paddocks as Bill ploughed them. Towards the end of March we began preparing to sow the crop for the 1918 season.
The war was still not going well for the Allies. Although America had sent a great number of troops across to England, they had not yet started to fight. During the winter months Germany had amassed her troops, and now made an all-out attack on the British and French lines, and in our daily newspapers the lists of those killed in action grew.
Somehow, the confidence we had felt when America had come into the war began to fade, as it now appeared Germany was far from nearing defeat. She was actually attacking.
It made you wonder how strong this nation was, holding out so long with, apparently, still reserves to throw into the battle.
During the last week of March the rains came and we began sowing the grains, continuing into the middle of May. The season was good, and further rains in June brought the crop up well.
Again the countryside was swathed in green, the wildflowers grew in profusion and bloomed, the skylark took up his song, and the plover returned.
Spring was on the horizon.
And then, as the weeks passed, the news of the war improved. The American troops were now at grips with the enemy, the Allies attacking and the German lines crumbling. The signs of defeat were visible at last.
The people in Germany were feeling the effects of the blockade of their ships, and from reports filtering back food was becoming scarce in Germany, and the people themselves were asking for an end to the fighting.
Mother wrote from Merbein that she wanted Harry to come up and inspect irrigation land on the Darling River which was for sale, and Bill and I drove him into the train.
"Did you know Harry was thinking of buying a car?" Bill asked as we drove back.
"Yeah. He's been talking to the agent at Sea Lake about it?"
"What sort's he thinking of? Jove Bill, a car!"
"Yep. A car. Reckon it'll be a Ford. Reckon we can afford a Ford (he laughed to himself), but I'll stick to the horses. They don't have punctures and don't run out of petrol. G'dup Chester, Snowy. Yes Bob, I'm a horseman, and cars just don't appeal to me."
"You can get along the road a lot faster."
Bill shook his head. "I reckon it's just another way of spending your money."
"Yes, but if we had a car right now we'd be home in bed asleep by this."
Bill was not impressed. "Maybe. But they're not too good in the sand yet, for a start. Saw one bogged out from Turriff the other week and they had to get horses to pull it out and over the sand hill."
He laughed quietly to himself.
Harry came back a few days later. He had inspected the land on the Darling with Mother, and was quite impressed. There were about 20 acres of oranges and mandarines already bearing, and some of the other land was suitable for vines.
"We took an option to purchase after the harvest, but we'll have to decide before Christmas."
Fisher was considering buying a jinker if we sold out. "Be able to go up Wentworth way into New South Wales and have a look at some of the big sheds."
He had broken Roan into the jinker, and that horse could really sail along.
Fisher saved all his money and had Harry bank it for him. He didn't even smoke, and when we teased him about it, he just grinned. "I know what it's like to be short of a quid."
One day in October the agent from Sea Lake called, driving up to the house in the latest T Model Ford Tourer, and over lunch he launched into an enthusiastic description of the machine, and wanted us to go for a drive in it.
"Caught us on a bad day actually," Harry said. "I've got to go into Speed."
"Good!" The agent was quite pleased. "I'll drive you. Give you a chance to see how she goes."
So after lunch Harry climbed into the front with the agent, and Bill, Fisher and I in the back. Jove, it seemed awfully fast after the horses, and we sat there and hung on and hoped for the best.
The nine miles into Speed was covered in no time, and then, on the drive back, the agent stopped and suggested Harry try his hand at the wheel.
Bill was a bit dubious about this. "Look, I might just get out and walk back .."
"No, no. She'll be right," the agent assured him.
Bill was still doubtful, but he stayed where he was in the back seat, Harry sat down behind the steering wheel, and the car moved off slowly.
"Pull the throttle lever down and let the clutch come right back."
Harry followed instructions, and the car leapt forward, settling into a faster pace. After a while Harry seemed to get the hang of it, and instead of the car going from side to side on the road it settled into a fairly straight line - when he wasn't dodging stumps.
"Pull up here and I'll show you how to back her Harry."
The car pulled to a stop, and the agent gave another set of instructions.
"Right," said Harry, and holding the clutch in neutral pressed down on the middle pedal, and back we went.
"There you are. Nothing to it," the agent said. "Right, let's go forward again."
And start, stop, and reverse we went, all the way home, Harry absolutely delighted.
"I'll be able to get you a license in no time Harry. Now, how about you having a drive Bill?"
"No." Bill shook his head, quite definite. "Seems a bit complicated to me. I'll have a go some other time."
"Well, how about signing the order now? Harry can come back with me then and learn a bit more on the way, then stay the night in Sea Lake and get his license tomorrow. Drive the new car home then."
Bill and Harry had another walk around the machine, and made up their minds.
They signed the order, and after a quick cup of tea Harry went off with the agent.
During tea that night it occurred to Bill we didn't have a shed to put the new car in.
"How about if we knock the end out of the men's hut?"
"Well, why not," Bill agreed. "Splendid idea. We'll get onto that first thing in the morning."
We knocked the mud and cocky-chaff bricks out and had a garage ready for the car before lunch.
"Harry's going to get a surprise when he sees it," Bill said. "Bet he never thought of a garage. It's not bad you know, only now we'll have to boil the wheat for the pigs outside."
So Fisher and I set the old boiler up and packed the best of the mud bricks around it, then started the back-breaking job of hauling kerosene tin buckets of water up from the dam to boil the wheat in.
And then towards sunset we sighted Harry, and rushed down to open the gate at the house dam for him.
"Got your license alright?"
Harry drew up beside the verandah. "Ah, yes, no troubles there. But she's a bit tricky out on the stumpy roads. Got to be careful. She hasn't got the clearance of a buggy."
Bill stepped down from the verandah and walked around our shiny new car. A dark blue, T Model Ford Tourer.
"Mmm," Bill commented, giving each tyre a kick as he came to it, then stopping at the front to consider it from that angle before lifting the bonnet.
"What's them things Harry?" he asked.
Harry explained the spark plugs' job in firing the four cylinders, and pulling around the crank handle, started the motor.
Bill stood there watching the motor. The spark plugs seemed to fascinate him, and he reached out, a little hesitantly, and touched one.
"He ..ll ..!" he roared, leaping back. "Oh crikey!" He worked his arm up and down. "Damn stupid thing!"
"Get a kick Bill?" Harry asked with a grin as he climbed back into the driver's seat. "Put the bonnet down will you?"
Bill looked at the car, then looked at Harry. "Put the bloody thing down yourself," he said, and turned and walked away.
Harry grinned and got down and closed the bonnet, then handed me the instruction book. "We'll have a look through that after tea tonight. Wonder where we can keep her?"
"We knocked a wall out of the men's hut," Fisher said.
"Never thought of a place. That should be just the thing." He drove down and in through the new opening and shut the motor off. "Just the thing alright. Have to put a door on to keep the fowls out though."
An old hen walked in the door and flapped up onto the back of the car, clucking contentedly as she settled down on the back seat.
"Get out!" Harry shouted, making a dive for her, and sending her flapping and squarking out through the door past Fisher, who took a swing at her as she flapped into his face.
He was bringing in a bag wogga made of wheat bags cut down and sewn together like a patch-work quilt. "Cover her with this Harry."
During tea we discussed our new purchase, and after the dishes were done sat around the table to go through the instruction book.
"You'll have to learn how to drive now Bill."
"Ah yes, I'll get around to it." He turned the pages of the instruction book. "I'm looking to see what they've got to say about those spark plug things. M' arms still tingling."
"Well, they only do that when the engine's running."
Bill shook his head. "I suppose that's something."
The next day came in warm, and Harry asked me to go into Speed with him in the car to collect some binder twine for the harvest, and some tins of oil.
"Reckon we should have bought a motor truck," he said as we filled the back seat with the bundles of binder twine outside the agent's office in Speed. "Can't see where we're going to put the oil."
"That's the beauty of a car," Jack Thrower said. "You can run in any time Harry. Even during the harvest."
There was no doubt about that. A car had brought Speed much closer to the farm.
On the way home a big brown snake crossed the road in front of us, and Harry turned the wheel. "Watch me get this bloke."
But the snake was apparently undamaged by the wheel, which only threw it up into the air. It came thrashing wildly down into the back seat amongst the binder twine.
Harry slammed his foot on the brake, and in his excitement yelled "Whoa there! Whoa there! Pull up! Pull up!"
The car came to a stop, and we threw ourselves out. "Quick, quick, a stick!"
But here, in 18,000 square miles of mallee country, we were stopped in a section of cleared land with not a stick in sight.
"Hell." Harry gave up looking and went cautiously back to the car, peering over the side into the twine. "Must be down there somewhere. Have to try and unload ..Hell!"
Harry danced backwards as the snake poked its head up from amongst the twine and struck, landing his fangs in a bundle, and pulling back ready for another go at anything that moved.
"He's a bit cranky. Suppose we better just wait around a bit and see if he comes out."
Harry stood on one side of the car, and I waited on the other. But there was no sign of the brown reptile, and we both began to feel pretty foolish about the whole situation.
"Here comes a buggy Harry."
We watched it approach. It was Snowy Whitecross.
"G'day. Out of petrol?"
"No Snowy. Plenty of petrol."
"Ah. Engine trouble."
"No Snowy." The actual problem was a little difficult to put into words.
"What's the trouble then?"
"Well Snowy, you see, it's like this .." and he told Snowy what had happened.
"Mmmm," said Snowy with a bit of a grin, climbing down from the buggy and crossing to the car, not quite sure whether to believe us. "In there is he?" He reached out and shifted a bale of twine, and stumbled back with an oath as the snake bobbed up in front of him. "Starve the lizards!"
"Yes," said Harry. "He's quite nasty, isn't he. What we need is a stick."
Snowy took a moment to settle himself, then took a new pitchfork he had just bought in Speed from the back of his buggy. "This should do it."
He snapped the fork into a bale and lifted it from the car into the sand, and when he had the top layers out stepped forward and opened the door.
The snake dropped down onto the ground and slithered off, about ten feet before Snowy let him have it across the back with the pitchfork.
"Crack." The handle of the new pitchfork snapped. But the snake was finished.
"Get you a new handle."
Snowy threw the two pieces into the buggy. "Forget it Harry. I'll fit a mallee stick to it when I get home. They generally finish up that way anyhow."
By November the oats were ready to cut, and Bill pulled into the crop with the reaper and binder. Fisher and I followed behind to stand the sheaves into stooks.
Carting it in and building the stacks was hard work, but like all work on the farm it had its own reward when you stood back and saw the result of your efforts. We even tried our hand at building a round haystack, and beside the big oblong stack it looked really good.
On the tenth of November Harry started stripping the wheat with the new reaper thresher, as Bill had been warned again by the Doctor to take things easier.
He grumbled about this, and didn't like the idea of sewing bags, but he and Fisher got into it anyway, and on the second day I pulled into the wheat with a stripper.
Dick McNally had come over to stay with us, and was going to drive the second stripper, but in the meantime was cooking for us. He rather liked the job.
"Beats me why you don't get married Dick."
Dick shrugged. "Ah well, I'm a bit old for it now, and I've never really met anyone I'd like to marry anyway."
Harry nodded. "There's not much to choose from around here, unless you marry a kangaroo."
"Well, they say if you live with kangaroos you'll grow like them, and that's just about what's happened to me. Trouble is no decent woman would want to marry a kangaroo." He sighed and reached for the teapot and poured himself another cup.
After we had washed up we went and sat out on the back verandah, yarning in the soft warmth of the evening until Fisher spoke.
"Sounds like a horse."
Through the stillness of the dusky evening came the sound of a cantering horse, and as we watched it appeared through the half light and came up towards the house.
"It's Charlie McDougall."
He swung down from the saddle and dropped the reins of his horse. "I've just come from Speed," he said quickly. "Thought you'd like to know they've received a message by telegraph at the Post Office to say the war's over."
No-one spoke. Somehow, after living with four years of war, you could not suddenly accept the news of peace.
Harry finally broke the silence. "Any news of conditions of surrender or anything like that Charlie?"
"Not really, but I understand it was an unconditional surrender. General Foch said Germany wanted to make terms, but America and the Allies wouldn't accept any terms, and Germany signed."
As we sat there on the verandah our thoughts were of thankfulness.
"Well let's hope brother George has survived," Bill said. "We can only pray for his safe return."
The others moved from the verandah into the kitchen, and by the light of the kerosene lamp Bill, Harry, Fisher, Dick and Charlie talked of what would happen now in the world.
After a time Fisher came back out and joined me on the verandah.
Rowdy, Clyde and Joey lay at the end, and over the talk of the men inside we could hear the distant cry of a curlew.
In the western sky the bright point of the Evening Star stood out against the gathering blackness, and the two pointers of the Southern Cross kept their station below the symbol of the cross above.
How did you make your mind comprehend the fact that the guns had stopped firing on the western front in France? That at last the soldiers would feel the silence of peace around them? That the survivors of our armies would be coming home?
Thousands of them would want to select land. Would want to build a life of peace for themselves and their families on farms.
What would it be like for them after the hell of war?
To our loved ones, who will not return,
We shall always remember,
And bow our heads, in Common Prayer,
The eleventh of November.
Man knows what is past, he knows what is present,
He has seen years of toil and sorrow,
He longs for the time, when his heart will be glad,
And hopefully looks for tomorrow.
The path of life, upon this earth,
We can only boldly tread,
And pray, dear Lord, we'll make amends,
And to the end be led.
From the house came the sound of the piano, and Harry's singing, strong on the still night air.
"Hark the Herald angels sing,
Glory to the new born King,
Peace on earth, and mercy mild ."
And all over spread the vast canopy of the sky. Over Delahoy's Mile. Over Australia. Over a whole world in which there was peace.
Chapter 15 | Contents