Mrs. Trout began to read, the sonorous yet dulcet timbre of her voice filled every corner of Maggie’s room.
Maggie opened her eyes expecting to find the room around her. With a gasp, she found herself 100 odd miles from anywhere, on a track that appeared unused since the last rains four months prior.
Three of the four fairly narrow gauge tyres, wooden spokes imitating roulette wheels, spun languidly, coming to a halt at roughly the same time; all three, a first time experience, were above the body of the now upturned light Chev truck they carried. The fourth wheel, laid in ruin some forty yards off to the north. Brown and white dust coated everything as it settled, not a breath of wind for it to escape into. Clunking and coughing, the engine finally gave up the ghost, and for the first time since the grey cabbed, wooden trayed, vehicle had run off the road, with exception to the ‘pink’ing of the hot motor cooling, there was absolute silence. Off in the distance an old crow let out a mournful ‘caaaw’, and the first sign of life came as coughing from the inside of the cab, from approximately the same area of the vehicle came a moan and swearing. Eventually came a bang, as the door got kicked open from the inside; one, two, then three men crawled their way from within the near flattened cab. Dragging themselves away and upright, in his own way, each man slowly checked themselves for injury. Nought bar bruising was found as they stood in the 40 something ℃ sun, over 100℉ in the old money.
As one, concern creased each individual’s features, all started calling for the two blokes, mates to all, that had been sitting in the back a’top tools, wire, camp gear, and dried kangaroo skins. After a moment, silence reigned, ominous amidst the carnage beside the barely visible rough dirt track. Skirting around the mess of gear that had been thrown from the tray, one, then the other man was found. Dick McKenzie had been crushed beneath the heavily laden vehicle, and was very obviously dead. His head, now deformed and grotesque, had been squashed nearly flat, and his right eye hung from his optic nerve against his cheek; blood and brain had escaped a large split across his right temple; flies had already begun to gather.
The second chap, Jock McGregor, had suffered a far worse fate. Both legs broken, bent out at opposing angles at the thigh, bright blood streamed from a wound, now pooling beneath him. The lip of the tray crushing them on impact, this the cause of the fractures. Standing proud from the upper left of the red head’s malnourished back, was a narrow shaft of dried dead wood, pointed at the tip, and common to the area, having pierced his chest, front to back. Jack Bridgeman, standing and watching his mate begin to scream and cough blood, ran back around to the open door of the cab, leaned inside, and withdrew a .22 rifle; cocking it in the same motion, he purposefully walked back to his still screaming mate. Placing the barrel of the little .22 against the back of his head, above the spot at the top of his neck, he pulled the trigger, and his broken mate was released from further pain and suffering. All five in the accident being veterans of the trenches, where saving a man from pain, rated much higher than saving the life of the suffering and the terminal, especially if there was no hope of rescue anytime soon.
With the sun shifting slowly from the forenoon to the aft, the three remaining, Albert Smart, Harry Smart, and Jack Bridgeman examined the area around the irreparably broken vehicle, and drew the same conclusion; of the five water bag’s, four had been burst or punctured, and the fifth was no more than half full; the mercury still very much on the rise.
Of the three men, the brothers Albert and Harry Smart, were fence riders on the Rabbit Proof Fence. Camped near Bonnie Rock, they individually worked up and down the fence line, one working to the north, the other to the south, mounted on camel’s, repairing it as needs be, ensuring all the gates on its length had been left shut by travellers passing through; three camel’s each, one to ride, the others carrying wire, strainers, miscellaneous tools, water, rifle’s, fodder, and general provisions. On the other hand, Jack and the two deceased men, all hunted for skins on either side of the ‘Fence; selling the skins to furriers in Perth. Kangaroos, rabbits, the odd fox being their main targets and source of income; shooting, skinning and pinning the pelts to dry, burning piles of carcasses as they went. Most of all, each and everyone the five men were as hard and tough as they came; all experienced bushman, none of which were the type given to whinge about circumstance, rather, a breed of Australian accepting whatever their situation may be, and cope with it as best they could. How they came to be travelling together being nothing more than incidental convenience, and a shared friendship founded during the Great War.
Both dead men were wrapped in their horse blankets and the canvas of their swags, to finally be tied up with split reins and stirrup leather from their gear; both then buried in graves dug deep enough to stop the wild dogs from turning their corpses to carrion. Hats held in scarred heavily calloused hands, a quiet spoken word over them by Albert once the final lumps of dirt and rock had formed their eternal dirt shroud.
“Righto,” said Harry, head back, inspecting the sky from beneath the brim of his battered old slouch hat, “there’s nothing behind us with water, I’ll head off toward Ballidu at dusk.” And promptly, after previously retrieving his bed roll from a nearby tree, kicked out the canvas of his swag in the shade of the upturned tray, lay down, and fell asleep in the heat.
Jack and Albert got a fire going, not for cooking on, nor warmth, the men kept feeding it, the smoke from it a marker and a reference, allowing them to find their way back to the upturned vehicle, hence, the rude camp they had set up for the duration of their wait for help to arrive. After that, a mast of cut branches and tent poles roughly combined equalled fifteen feet in length was attached to the highest point of the broken Chev, a flag of white flour bags was attached to its top and then erected, creating a secondary marker should the fire go out. The hunt for water had begun.
At roughly 2 o’clock, judging by the sun at least, swatting flies, Jack Bridgeman headed north, Albert Smart south, two water bags hurriedly repaired hung slung over their shoulders beside the rifle each carried; a small flour bag each, containing matches, knife, and other life saving odds and ends tied to their belts. Harry was woken and told not to leave until at least one had returned; without a word, the pair strode off to hunt for water, both agreeing previously to be back by dark. The fifth water bag hung in the shade of the tray beside Harry, unmoving.
The day got hotter, and smoke rose vertically from the fire into the scorching cloudless sky without a whisper of wind to disturb it.
At around 4 in the afternoon, it was sound, rather than smell, that caused Harry Smart to wake in fright from his makeshift bed beneath the upturned tray of the old Chev truck. Maggie was astounded at how quickly she had been able to fall asleep in such heat. Dawning on her predicament, and realising in the same moment that she was now Harry Smart, she found herself rolling quickly out from under the truck, took in at a glance the fire that was beginning to engulf the cab of the broken vehicle, and the expanse between it and the fire that had been left to burn as a beacon to the east of it. Grabbing his heavy old brown rug from the length of canvas that had been his bed for many years, Maggie beat furiously at the fire beside the cab, realising after a moment that her efforts were entirely in vain as the wood of the vehicle, plus the diesel from the motor caught alight. Turning her attentions to the fire on the ground, she beat at it savagely, with only minor success. Where there had been no breeze at the time ‘he’, Harry, now ‘she’ Maggie, got her head down, to discover that now a steady and strengthening wind had picked up. Blowing from the east, the fire beginning to take hold in the dry scrubby vegetation, burning away, and speeding into the immense expanse of low bush to the west.
20 minutes later, Maggie had given up her fight against the fire, now putting her energies into rescuing whatever gear she could from the vehicle, dragging and carrying it away as best she could.
Some two and half miles to the north, Jack Bridgeman welcomed the relief the strengthening easterly gave him. Looking for tell tale bird life or animals heading in a similar direction, he turned his head left and right, scanning the horizon and all between in the hope that he may be lead to water. Finding nothing, he lingered onward, the unbroken scrub and saltbush running away like the ocean in every direction from him. Reaching a small rise, he strode up it; standing at the top he welcomed the view. A small patch of greenery among the drab lighter coloured scrub, and slightly larger trees in the middle distance off to the west drew his attention. With a small spring returning to his step, he upped the pace and made his way toward it, noting that the breeze had begun to swing around from the east, and oddly starting to pick up and move in from the north.
Off to the south, and roughly equidistant from the forlorn vehicle, Albert Smart fell 13 feet down the side of the rugged breakaway ridge he had been trying to find a way around. Landing heavily amongst large rocks and scrub, he gingerly turned his head running a quick assessment of his body and any injuries he may have sustained. Guessing he must have lost consciousness for a few minutes, Albert spat blood tainted dust from his mouth. Focussing on his now extraordinarily painful extended lower right leg; not immediately registering that what filled his vision, was the sole of his hobnail boot, filled with sockless foot facing him. His leg lower leg broken and bent back upon itself. Blood began to leak through his trouser leg, drawing flies and ants to it. Undoing the buckle of the hobble belt he wore, he pulled it out from around his waist; doing his best to sit, he leant as forward as he could, looping the belt as far down his leg as possible, and began to tighten it. With pain stealing his breath, Albert struggled to reach behind himself, withdrawing his well worn, highly prized .303 Lee-Enfield rifle. After a brief examination, he opened and then closed the bolt, loading it, pointed it to the sky, and pulled the trigger, repeating the process another two times, sending out a distress signal used the world over. Yet, due to the distance back to the broken truck, the direction of the breeze, and with the cliff like break away looming up behind him, the shots went unheard by anyone other than himself and the flies.
Back at the camp, the fire jumped the track, and took to the scrub to the south greedily, speeding its way forward broadly, eating everything in its path.
Jack let out a ‘whoop’ when he reached the little soak. No more than three yards in diameter, brackish, and foetid, he cast around for wildlife. The smile disappeared from his face faster than it appeared at the realisation that there was absolutely no bird life around the water hole. Scanning the ground, the only tracks he could see were kangaroo’s, but even then, they looked quite old. Being a man of the bush, his first thought was ‘poison’, and that the water had been tampered with by a dogger or station owner in the ongoing battle to eradicate wild dogs and dingo’s. By law, every poisoned body of water must have a sign nailed up in close proximity to it stating ‘Poison Here’, and signed by the man who had done it. After a second, then a third walk around, an uninspired scratch, and the ubiquitous swatting of flies, Jack found nothing telling him poison had been used. Tasting it, he had drunk far worse, he didn’t think that there was anything unusual about the water, after a minute or two, reaction free, Jack got down on his knees, and drank deeply from it. Thirst slaked, he filled both water bags, and headed back toward camp.
The nausea that started after twenty yards quickly became vomiting, Jack’s vision began to blur, it was then that the convulsions began.
Laying on his side, spots then darkness clouded his vision; ears ringing, racked in pain, the dog poison taking full effect, Jack Bridgeman was shoved into unconsciousness, then slowly nudged into death. The gathering ants and flies thought it was Christmas.
South of Jack, north of Albert, the fire that had escaped Maggie was now a flaming run away train of death. Willy willy’s of fire leapt around from ground to bush, weaving and circling, ranging from six to thirty feet in height. Smoke billowed, blotting out the sun, the fire front stretching east to west by about a mile and spreading, heading southward at a blistering rate, everything in its path reduced to ash in moments. Heat sapped all moisture from the air, leaving Maggie entirely helpless to do anything other than to continue jogging east away from it, watching hell erupting to the south over her right shoulder with fearful dread fascination. Water bag, rifle, and flour bag bouncing along with every stride he made.
Using the matches from the flour bag tied off at his waist, Albert Smart lit a small fire, a call for help moonlighting as a beacon of hope, and then set about trying to straighten his leg. Swatting away an atrocious barrage of flies, whilst slapping meat ants away with a small leafy branch torn from a salt bush, Albert took two deep breaths and dragged himself into a fully seated position, his body now ‘L’ shaped; sweating profusely. Using the butt of his rifle, he pushed against the sole of the boot at the end of his grotesquely broken leg, an attempt to get it vaguely back in line. Pain returned in horrid pulsating waves, bringing nausea with it. Changing tack, he loosened the loop of his hobble belt come tourniquet, and feed the butt of the rifle between it and the deformed leg, catching the belt on the trigger guard, and slid the leather toward the ankle, slowly pressing the hurt limb painfully around, bringing the lower leg back into as near alignment as he could take. The pain it caused him more excruciating than words could describe. Swallowing bile Albert fought another bout of nausea, suppressing a scream, and quietly pressed back the pain once more. Again with the butt of the rifle, he began to bring his belt back up his deformed, yet straighter leg within arm’s reach, catching it, he undid it, pulling it out from beneath his thigh. Loading, then firing the rifle three more times into the blue merciless sky, and slipped into the relief of unconsciousness. His fire slowly burning out over the space of the half hour that followed.
With a terrifying start, he awoke to a cascade of falling ember’s, choking in an atmosphere that was more smoke than air, Albert could see no more than two or three feet in any direction, snippets of burning scrub flickering through the smoke, both burning his eyes and scalding his throat. Heat so intense, all sweat had evaporated from his body, and blisters started appearing on the exposed areas of his skin. A minute or two later, all oxygen had been sucked from his lungs and the air around him; he was fortunate enough not to feel his hair singe, unconsciousness seizing him in preparation for the grizzly charred burning death that was minutes away.
Maggie’s run away fire had reached him, Death stared upon him, and said “you are free now Albert Smart, time to start living proper.” And with the flash of her spectacularly sharp secateurs of trade, Death severed his necrobilical cord with one fell and deft swoop.
“Gordon, is that smoke out east there?” said Fred Chapman to his neighbour as they replaced the cups on the shared windmill. Their meeting more to discuss and inspect a boundary fence and straying stock, than to repair a windmill.
Stopping, turning his head in the general direction mentioned, Gordon Wilkins confirmed the statement.
Placing tools back into respective saddle bags, the station owner’s both strode to their wiry horses.
“I’ll head south to my place, and send my boys to alert the neighbours. I’ll pick up the other hands, and head straight out there.” Stated Gordon.
“Righto mate, I’ll head back to my place, get my lads to do the same, bring the men in, then head there. Meet, you at the westernmost point of the front.” said the tight lipped Fred.
Spurs and flanks met.
Three days had passed between the sighting of smoke and finding the near dead Maggie. Chronically dehydrated, starving, yet with only minor burns, it took a good couple of hours of sipping cold black tea and mouthfuls of greasy tinned dog for Maggie’s story to finally start making sense. Maggie’ obvious concern for her, viewed by all others as Harry Smart’s, two missing mates giving rise to the exhausted lads about her, yet, they all mounted their horses, separated, and disappeared in directions ordered by the older men. Three men moved north from the burnt remains of the rolled Chev truck on the tracks of Jack Bridgeman, with two heading south from the same point.
Crow’s gave away Jacks position within half an hour of the riders departure, it took two days more to locate the burnt remains of Albert Smart. Ironically, neither of Jack’s waterbags’ had lost much water, and were roughly three quarters full when they found him. After the attentions of heat, ants and crows, the majority of his flesh was missing, his bones showing startling white against the bush and the drab and dirty work clothes he perished in.
Albert, charred beyond recognition, was found with his lower leg cooked in gruesome malalignment, his rifle remained charred beside him. It was the engraving along the barrel that proved his identity, where all else had failed.
Harry never returned to the Rabbit Proof Fence, and headed north to settle around Mingenew.
Maggie felt good to be alive.
Mrs. Trout did not like Maggie’s smoke inhalation sounding, dry rasping cough. The sliver of bone began moving of its own accord.
This yarn is a follow on from – https://therebemonstershere.com/2017/04/05/the-inaccurate-context-of-life-2/
Click the picture of the clouds and sky above. I may have put this up here before, regardless, I think it is a fairly groovy tune.
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