A five-minute read about boys in the bush after WW2.
Western Australia. 1948.
It wasn’t the heat or the wind or the flies walking over Edwin’s brow that made him squint; it was the blinding glare from Jack’s front room windows.
“I got ewes; I need a ram for under thirty quid,” Jack told Edwin. Edwin looked back over his shoulder at the dry, cracked paddocks behind him. He knew there was one hundred and twenty-six head of sheep on Jack’s property, but none of them were anywhere near the house.
He replied, “You won’t get anything decent for under thirty, and you need four or five rams for any kind of lambing percentage. You need one-hundred and twenty pounds, not thirty.”
“Well, that’s everything I got for it. I put all my money in-“
“I know you put your money in the crop at Albany, and I know you’ve lost it, but that doesn’t make any difference to anyone else. Thirty is still less than you need for a decent stud ram, nobody will do you any favours.”
Jack scratched at the stubble on his neck, and Edwin looked over to the house. The gutters had holes in them, there were bees flying around the chimney, and the fly screens on the windows were ripped.
“The market needs wool, so I need a stud. I can put my last thirty quid into it, but that’s it.”
“That’s it, huh?”
“Yeah,” Jack nodded.
“Fine, I’ll see you later this afternoon.”
“Yeah, I’ll see you later then.”
Edwin nodded and said, “I’m sorry to hear about Margaret. I hope you and the kids are alright,” but Jack didn’t reply. Edwin continued. “Do you or the kids need a hand with anything?”
“How about money.”
“I said no. We don’t need anyone else’s money. We need a ram, that’s all. Then we’ll be making our own way again.”
Edwin walked a few paces away from the old limestone house and paused a moment under the mulberry tree. He took his brown Akubra hat off and wiped his brow. He hung the Akubra on a knot in the trunk of the plant to let the rim of sweat on the fabric cool for a second. While he enjoyed the moment of peace, Edwin pulled a little red notebook from his pocket and added ‘Jack, Ram, 30 Pound,’ to the list for today’s Katanning auction.
Edwin looked over towards the road to see Chris, Jack’s oldest son, struggling to fix a hole in the front fence with some old lengths of cut rope. The young man was leaning on one crutch while his single leg wobbled under his bodyweight. Edwin considered helping the wounded soldier but decided against it.
After he had stuck the hat back to his head, he walked a little quicker to his old, war surplus Landrover.
Edwin had managed to find the used 109 series Landy pickup truck in Jeramungup, and he’d paid far too much for it. He was sick of riding his horse, and he was pretty certain the horse was getting sick of him, and he knew the 109 series was the only vehicle he’d find with a front cab and an open tray. He needed the tray for the livestock, and every now and again, he needed it to sleep under the stars, up away from the ants.
At the auction, he found exactly what Jack was looking for, a beautiful merino. A handful of blokes were standing around looking down at it, and when the auctioneer called its number, six hands went up.
“Twenty-eight pounds? Just twenty-eight pounds for this magnificent beast?” the auctioneer called.
“Yes,” Edwin replied.
“Yep,” someone else answered.
“Anyone for thirty-five?”
“At the back, you sir, thirty-eight?” The auctioneer sped up as the barrage of enthusiasm slowed.
“Anyone for thirty-eight? No, thirty-six pounds then?”
“Yeah, thirty-six,” Edwin offered.
“Thirty-seven,” someone countered.
Edwin turned to his opposition and said, “Thirty-eight then, and don’t you put your hand up again. You didn’t want the damn thing for thirty-eight before I did.”
A few of the onlookers laughed, and the auctioneer announced, “That’s it then. He’s all yours Edwin.”
“Good. I’ll take him now. Can someone give me a hand?”
Three young brothers from Perth and Edwin dragged the stubborn animal to his vehicle by its horns. It dug its hooves into the earth as it shuffled and long, thin trenches could be seen in the ground all the way from the pens to the parking lot. When they got to the pickup truck, they put arms under its throat and arms between its back legs and slung the whole, dense thing up onto the tray with a unified, loud grunt. It bleated and complained, but it calmed right down as soon as it was tied to the metal of the vehicle.
Edwin drove the old car quickly over the gravel road as he approached Jack’s house and an orange cloud rose behind the white vehicle as the tires rattled over the little pressed rocks.
He was only about a mile away from the house when Edwin looked up into his rear view mirror to make sure the ram wasn’t too agitated or aggressive. He could see the lump of dirty wool lying content against the side of the tray, and when he looked forward again, a kangaroo was only a couple of meters from the front of his vehicle.
It was at the top of a jump as the bull-bar smashed into the side of the beast and the crown of its head was the first thing to come through the windshield. Glass exploded into the cab like water from a showerhead and Edwin slammed on the brakes.
The animal was upside down on the passenger seat and kicking its bloody legs up at the roof when Edwin leapt out of the vehicle. He watched the thing struggling and silently writhing in agony for a full minute while he tried to decide what he needed to do next. It ripped the seat cover and bumped the car-horn, sending short sporadic honks up into the arid afternoon air. The kangaroo wouldn’t die, and there was no way it was getting out without help.
Edwin moved to the other side of the pickup truck and stood by the passenger door. He was still watching the tormented thing inside as it kicked a few more times and it pressed its head against the passenger window. Edwin opened the door and stood back to let the kangaroo fall out onto the road.
It kept flicking around on its side, and it looked up at him with a single, comprehending eye as Edwin found a large rock in the drainage ditch beside the road. He stood over the animal as it tried, and failed, to stand. He hit it three times at the base of its skull, then lifted its tail and waited for a second to make sure it didn’t have a single thought or feeling left in its luckless soul.
He took off his Akubra hat and placed it, upside down, on the roof of the cab to let the ring of sweat on the fabric cool. Then he dragged the carcass into the bush.
When he returned to the vehicle, he remembered the ram. It wasn’t in the tray.
Edwin took a deep breath and returned the cooled cap to his burning skull and looked back the way he’d come.
There was a single dot of white on the horizon, and he knew it had to be Jack’s purchase. Edwin watched the creature as it retreated further and further away. Then he thought of Jack and the kids and the bees around the house and the damaged windows.
He got back in the vehicle and started reversing down the road. He found the ram bleating with crazy rapid breaths and its eyes were as round as coins. It was pacing back and forth against the old wire fence beside the road in a strange sort of crazed dance. Edwin watched it for a second and then decided it wasn’t limping and it wasn’t hurt, just stupid.
He got out of the car and walked over towards it, but the animal charged at him. He skipped out of its way, and the thing seemed content to return to the fence and keep scraping its torso up against the sharp wire.
Edwin returned to the pickup truck and revved the engine until the animal stopped its strange jig to look at him. Then Edwin left the road and drove the vehicle bumping and skidding through the drainage ditch towards the creature. As he’d expected, it changed its priorities and sprinted away from the truck and towards Jack’s house.
Edwin chased the stupid animal, slowing a little when it slowed then rushing at it if it looked like stopping altogether until the pair of them approached the house.
There was a closed fence between the ram and the property and a young boy with no shirt and no shoes came running out from behind the building as they drew closer. The kid unlatched the boundary and swung the gate out of the way just in time to welcome the exhausted animal. Edwin saw a look of sheer horror on the child’s pale face as he drove past in the dented, bloody vehicle.
The ram kept running along the inside of the fence, and it charged towards the repaired patch that Edwin had seen Chris working on that morning. The beast scraped across the rope section as if it were as solid as a brick wall and turned to manoeuvre through the parched and naked paddock. Edwin slowed the vehicle to a halt beside the house, and Jack was waiting on the concrete porch.
“What happened to you?” he asked as Edwin walked towards him.
“Nothing, don’t worry about it,” he replied as the kid who’d opened the gate yelled out, “Come have a look at this car!” towards the house. Two little girls and another boy came running from the building, giggling and chasing one another towards the strange arrival.
“Settle!” Jack shouted at them. The clump of children stopped a few meters from the truck and pointed and whispered to one another.
“Did you see the merino run past?” Edwin asked Jack.
“Yep, he’s a beauty.”
“Yes, he is.”
“How much?” Jack asked, and Edwin took a moment to look at the grubby children beside his vehicle.
“Really? No way, not for him.”
“You actually paid thirty for him?”
“I said I want thirty for him, leave it at that.”
“No worries. Chris did a bloody good job fixing that fence. Margaret would’ve been proud.”
“Yeah, she would have, but she’d make him change the colour.”
Both men chuckled. They looked each other in the eye for a moment, and Jack released a long, trembling sigh.
“Alrighty then, have a good one, I should get going,” Edwin finished as he shook Jack’s hand and turned to walk back to the broken pickup truck.
“Hold on,” Jack began. ”Is that an old army vehicle?”
“My cousin in Bremer Bay has a windshield that’d probably fit it in his shed; I reckon he might be willing to part with it.”
“He’s not using it, I’ll have a word with him. I reckon he’d be happy to give it away.”
“Well, that’d be great if you could.”
“Yeah, no worries. I’ll come by tomorrow.”
“Sounds good. Bring the kids, and we’ll make a proper evening of it.”
Edwin ruffled the hair on the head of one of the children as he walked past and they all knew to retreat from his machine. He drove the pickup more slowly, not because he was worried about anything, but because he couldn’t see with all the wind in his eyes. He pulled his hat down on his brow and just kept driving, the wind and the dust and the heat in his face, none of it really bothered him.
About this story: My grandfather was a livestock salesman in Australia after WW2 and his job included anticipating the needs of his friends. “Akubra,” is a fictional representation of this occupation, and I’ve tried to highlight the importance of personal relationships in the country at this time in Australia. I reckon those old fellas back then were doing quite a few things the right way.