We played around the long abandoned old farm house, my Great Grandfather had built it, yet we were never brave enough to enter.
One day my cousins from Perth were visiting, they had come all the way on the mail train. After we had tired of building dams in the creek, I took my city cousins back up to the old house to play. I had built a cubby there under a huge old fig tree in the houses backyard, and was eager to show off my handy work.
Walking past the old mud brick house, surprisingly the roof was still somehow intact, my cousins, who were completely unaware that we were too scared to go in, walked over to it, and began exploring. Initially they wanted to rummage around beneath the big veranda that ran all the way around the house, and from previous experience I was able to tell them that there was nothing under there, except for snakes and redback’s the size of your fist. Not to be put off, I think they misinterpreted my warning as a challenge, the pair walked up the old granite stairs and onto the run down wooden veranda. It was filthy, and covered in dust and leaves. I had seen kangaroo’s sleeping on it early most days, although oddly not this morning.
As they got to the top of the steps I called out, “Dad said we aren’t allowed in there.” I don’t really believe Dad could have cared less if we went in there or not, but as a kid, you can’t let your fears cause you to lose face in the eyes of other kids, especially if they came from the city and you were trying to be the tough country boy. My elder cousin called back “Your Dad won’t know if we go in, he said it to you and not us anyway.”
She was a girl and liked to bully us with her seniority and immense wisdom on all things. Tilly was nine and I secretly didn’t like her, but Mum said she was family and you had to be friends whether you liked it or not. So being brave I said “The last time I went in Dad gave me the belt, you better not go in, if he finds out you’ll get the belt too”. Well, my dumb little sister who was five and didn’t know anything said “no he didn’t. You only got the belt because you didn’t milk Honey yesterday when you said you did, and I told Mum, and Mum told Dad, and he didn’t use the belt very hard anyway.” So I said to my horrible cousin and sister together, “She’s just a little kid, and she’s lying, and I did get the strap for going into the old house, and you just didn’t see, because he gave me the strap up at the shearing shed!” Which was a lie, with that, Tilly and my other cousin Beatrice (who secretly still played with dolls, but I never told her I had caught her playing with them because of the hiding she had given me at Christmas) said “You are such a scaredy cat,” and turned the old door knob, then pushed against the great big heavy front door. It squealed as it fought the resistance of the boards of the veranda, but swing in it did, exposing them both, plus myself and my younger sister to the passageway beyond. The doorway looked for all the life of me like some massive black gaping mouth, opening up to devour them and take them down to some horrid and utterly terrifying hell, all the scarier as my sister and I did not know what lurked beyond it. Unbelievably, the pair of know all’s walked in, and then shoved the door, protesting loudly all the way back, to close with a sudden ‘bang’.
Well, I didn’t know what to do. They were in the scary old house, and I was standing outside barefoot and dirty with my four year old sister, she was two years younger than me, and still had a ‘ruggy’; she wandered off back up to the house after she became bored a little while later. So I waited. Tilly and Beatrice must have gone into the house at about afternoon tea time, and by the time I was meant to be feeding the hens, they still hadn’t come out.
With the shadow’s of the afternoon much lengthened, it took every ounce of my courage to walk up the stairs on to the veranda; I was just about crying when I reached the top step, but I didn’t because men don’t cry. With the worst yet to come, I screwed up my courage, shoved it into my stomach, and walked half a dozen paces down the veranda to a window. The window had no glass, a month earlier I had accidentally smashed it with my ging, letting a rock go at a kangaroo that was asleep up there just before first light; I was meant to be calling the cow in for milking. On reaching the window, I peeked in, and I am sure the wind that susurrated through the Sheoak trees picked up, making them talk and moan and quietly scream at the same time as I was staring into the nightmare darkness of the front room. It was then that I started to feel really scared, so much so that I had to concentrate on making myself talk. Once I had eventually brought myself under control, I called out in my bravest voice “Beatrice, you have to come out now. I’ve got to go and feed the hens, and you can help me milk the cow if you want.” I wasn’t brave enough to call out to Tilly, she would have given me a thick ear, plus I knew Beatrice wanted to see the cow. I could never really understand why she would want to see something that stood on your feet, tried to kick you, and got you out of bed before dawn? After waiting for what must have been about fifteen seconds, yet felt like an eternity, I called out again, this time with a bit more volume.
Not a sound beyond the wind talking to me as it continued to groan painfully through the horrible Sheoak stand. I gave another yell, and then with sudden realisation, it dawned on me that the two girls, dumb girls, were playing a trick on me. That in mind I scooted off the veranda, and down the stone steps. It took immense effort not to break into a sprint as I walked quickly away from the ghastly place, lest I be seen and later mocked, and made straight for home.
I fed the fowls, milked the cow, chopped and brought in kindling, then lit the inside fire. Forgetting to have washed my feet and legs before coming in, and thankful Mum hadn’t caught me, I went back out, ran water into the bucket left there for just that reason, and washed up. Tipping the now dirty water onto Mum’s single rose bush beside the back veranda, I went back inside and sat down at the scrubbed kitchen table.
Grandma and I always sat down together at that time of day for a chat if she was over. It wasn’t until many years later that I would look back fondly at the education she gave me under the hurricane lamp at that table; it’s where I learnt to read, we didn’t have a school anywhere near us at that stage. But I digress. Mum and my Aunt were already sitting there at the table, Mother turned around, and not unkindly said “are the other children still outside?” I said “I don’t know where they are. Agatha went back up to the house while I was waiting for Tilly and Beatrice to come out of the old house. But I think they must have been hiding from me because I kept on waiting, and when they didn’t come back, I went and did the hens and milked Honey the cow.” With a quizzical look on Mothers face, she said “that’s odd”. She and Aunt Nellie went out to the front veranda a moment later, and started calling for the wretched girls to come in.
It was just about dark, and Dad, Grandpa, and my Uncle came back from up the paddock. I could hear them having a laugh as they washed up prior to entering the house (I always thought they washed up because they were afraid of the telling off they would get from Mum, and not because they were dirty. Hygiene was a word beyond my grasp at that stage), they had been weaning cattle all day up at the old yards. Well, after a bit, Grandma got up from the table, told me to “Be a good boy, and wait there for me my dear.” She walked out to the front veranda where Mum was, and asked Mum to go back inside to get a lantern for her, and she would go for a look around down near the old house for them. Mum came and went, and I heard Grandma say “I won’t be long my dears”.
Aunt Nellie started to call a bit louder for them, and Mum came back into the house once more to see if the girls were hiding anywhere inside; she then strode outside onto the front veranda to where my bed was. Grandpa’s and my Uncles swag’s were out there as well, as they were visiting and didn’t get a room of their own. Only Mother and Father, the ladies, and the horrid girls got to sleep inside. We men slept on the veranda, which Grandpa reckoned was better than sleeping in a hollow log out of the rain.
After a bit, Dad, Grandpa, and Uncle Jack (his real name was ‘John’, and was Fathers twin brother. I could never work out why they called him ‘Jack’) began to take a bit of notice of Mum and everyone else as they had all started to call out that little bit louder. Once I had grown up, subsequently marrying and having children of my own, I understood that pitch of voice to have gone from one of general calling, to another of deep concern, yet as a lad I did not appreciate the subtle difference. Grandpa went and got the lamp that was hanging from the ceiling in the kitchen, it must have been that last one left, and just as he was walking out the door, I heard Grandma start screaming “BRING THE GUN GEORGE! BRING THE GUN!” from somewhere down near the old house.
Exactly what happened then, I don’t know, but I remember hearing Grandpa slamming the door open, and start running outside. He must have grabbed the shotgun, or Dad’s rifle he bought back from South Africa when he and Uncle Jack were fighting the Boer; he may have collected both, I really don’t know.
About a minute later, Mum and my Aunt started screaming, and then Dad or my Uncle were yelling something truly horrible, after that, there was shooting. Not two, but three different sounding reports landed in my ears as I waited in the kitchen. I heard Grandpa yell “You two (my Dad and Uncle), get up to the bloody house and make sure no harm comes to the Boy! There might be another bastard around!” I had never heard Grandpa swear before, but twice in as many sentences was enough to send me under the kitchen table. Another enormously loud roar from a rifle came from just outside the kitchen window, and I heard my Uncle yelling something about getting another one, then his rifle went off again at the same moment as Dad kicked the door hard into the kitchen. He was holding his skinning knife in one hand, and his boning knife with the other. Father was covered in more blood than I had ever seen in my life. It was splattered over his face, shirt front, and thickly covered both arms. Without dropping either knife, he leant down to me quicker than I had ever seen him move before, grabbed me by the scruff of my shirt, and yelled out to my Uncle that he was coming out the back door, and “Do not to shoot me!” Everything went exceptionally quiet for a wee bit.
My Mother shattered that moment of utter silence. She began to howl and scream “NOOOOOOO!” and sob so loudly I could hear her from the back veranda where I stood with Father. My Aunt joined in almost immediately, just as loudly, in the same horrible keening voice. The noises coming from the women were not of anger, but of pain. Absolute and soul destroying. Dad yelled to Grandpa and my Uncle “Have we got them all?!” Grandpa yelled back “I reckon so! Keep hold of the Boy and get the hell back here! Don’t let the lad out of your sight!”
Dad ran with me hanging from beneath one arm down to the old house, skidding to a stop about two minutes later at the base of the stairs to the veranda. Mum’s crying and screaming continued. He dumped me onto the bottom step, and Grandpa who was already there handed me the shotgun, the hammers were both drawn back, the gun was cocked “Shoot anyone you see coming toward this house. You are a big boy now, and you’ve seen Father use it often enough. Just point, and pull one trigger at a time.” with that, he left, striding up the stairs, across the veranda, and into the house. The shotgun was incredibly heavy in my small hands, but I was a big boy now, and I would not be scared; I would do what Grandpa said.
After a time, Grandma came out to sit with me on my step. She gently took the long heavy shotgun from my young hands, and held it in her own. Within a minute or so she started to talk softly, Mother and Aunt Nellie had gone fairly quiet, and I could hear both of the younger men trying to comfort their wives. Grandma said that “Something very, very, very bad has happened.” In that moment Grandpa briskly strode down the cold stone steps, and passed us without a word. He went straight to the shed where we kept the saddles and tack, whistled up one of the horses, threw a halter, reins, a blanket and saddle over it; taking off at a gallop I didn’t think the horse was capable of.
Grandma and I spent the night on the step, it was a pretty warm night, and I don’t remember falling asleep, but I think I must have, as I recall being surprised to see sunlight and that it was morning. It was now a bit cold, and thankfully someone, probably Grandma, had lit a small fire on the ground in front of the steps. She had a billy on the go upon it, and I could smell tea leaves stewing. When I asked her where everyone was, she said in the saddest tone that I had never heard in her gentle voice before.
“Your Mother and Aunt are with the girls.”
Oddly, she still held the shotgun, and told me “Honey can wait to be milked until later.” At about morning tea, I heard a motorcar for the first time in my life. Grandpa and two Policemen were squeezed onto the front seat. By lunchtime, more Police had arrived on horseback, and after lunch, our neighbour Mrs. Wilson, who I remember being absolutely lovely, arrived in the Wilson’s sulky. Grandma said I was going to spend a day or so at their house for a visit, which I thought was pretty good. It was then, a little bit before I left with Mrs. Wilson, that Father came over to me. I noticed he had had a wash, and the blood that had coated his arms was now all gone, but there was still one spot he must have missed, just beneath his right eye. Kneeling down, he put an arm gently around me and said “I don’t have the words to tell you any other way Boy. Your sister and your cousins are dead. Now don’t cry my boy, men don’t cry. Stand up straight and be good for Mrs. Wilson. I will come over in day or so to get you. Dreadful business is here.”
He picked me up two days later and drove me to town in the cart. Mum was already in there with Grandma and Grandpa, plus Aunt Nellie and Uncle Jack apparently. I think he may have tried to talk to me a few times on the way, but he couldn’t seem to find anything happy to start a conversation with. Entering town, we went past the railhead and the store, and on to the Church. There were men with shovels digging behind the Police house I noted as we passed.
We buried my sister in the cemetery a mile or so out of town that afternoon. Tilly and Beatrice were buried beside her. “The trip to the city is too far to take them down in this heat.” Grandpa told me quietly. I nodded and pretended I knew what he meant, but I didn’t.
With my sister and cousins now in the ground, we slowly drove back into town, Mum was really quiet, she kept shaking and pulling me close in beside her, we had to stop once when she vomited and came close to falling from the high seat onto the dusty road, but being the big boy I was, I caught her before she fell. Cart stopped, and with Mother standing on the road, she had a drink, rinsed her mouth, then washed her face from the water bag. Still sitting up next Father the cart, I quietly asked him what had happened to them? He told me “Some bad men had crept onto our farm and killed the girls.” When I questioned him, ” Are the bad men still at our place?” he said, “not anymore. ” And as if by way of further answer, Father pointed out past me to the Police Station where I had seen the men with shovels when we were going to the cemetery. I counted five red earth mounds stark against the pale dry grass in the small yard behind it, and he said “they are all in there, and they aren’t fit enough to be buried anywhere else.”
He burnt the old house to the ground when we got back that evening, while I quietly watched from my bed on the front veranda. Uncle Jack and Grandpa were with him, and with no one to see me, I cried myself to sleep.
Years passed, I went away and fought the Turk and the Hun, and when I finally made it back from those horrors, I asked my father one morning what had really happened to my sister and cousins, and also to the men that had killed them? He replied “five men, white men, each of the bastards known to be bad men, had crept on to our place in search of probably food and shelter, but more likely mayhem and carnage. They had raped then killed the three little girls. Your two cousins had stumbled upon them when they entered the old house. Your sister,” he guessed “had either been lured in there, or carried. The five of them were already hiding in the old place while you kids were playing down there.” I asked what became of the men that did it, he said “You have probably worked it out for yourself by now, but your Grandpa and I, plus Uncle Jack, hunted them out after Grandma saw them running from the old house. They spread out, some back tracking up to our house. Grandpa shot two down at the creek. One had a rifle which they had pinched from the Wilson’s shed, but only had a couple of bullets. The other three ran into Uncle Jack and I, and that is as far as they went. It was Grandma that discovered the girls.”
It had not been the Sheoak’s I had heard wailing and moaning quietly that afternoon as I waited for my cousins to come out of the old house.
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