The dust swirled up into the dry air with each step he took. He kicked the ground hard, a sign of his anger and frustration, before pausing for a moment to take in his surroundings. It was hard to take it all in, to absorb what he was seeing. This drought had been longer than usual, and the impact was now so devastating that he was still finding it hard to accept the situation.
He stopped as he reached the edge of the churned-up mud that was already beginning to harden under the never-ending sun. He slowly made his way forward, feeling the ground give way and soften as it sucked his boots down deeper into the moist sediment around the edge of what was left of the largest dam on his property.
His thoughts shifted as soon as he heard the familiar sound. A soft, weak cry desperately calling for his help. He focused on the woolly figure ahead covered in a mass of flies and partially buried in thick red mud. The flies covered the poor creature’s eyes and mouth, trying to suck whatever moisture they could. He stepped forward and tried to wipe them away, his anger only growing.
He was angrier at himself for letting this all get to him. This was all part of farm life here in this harsh country, ‘so, get over it!’ he told himself. ‘Toughen up!’ As he cleared the flies from the sheep’s face, he couldn’t help but focus on the eyes. They seared into his soul, piercing any resolve he had to get on with the task ahead.
He swung his rifle back over his back and bent down, clearing away as much of the mud as he could to loosen its deadly grip. Grabbing the short fleece, he started to drag the poor creature out of the mire and back on to solid ground. Its bleating cries were slowing, and those desperate eyes stayed fixated on him.
His thoughts were suddenly interrupted when Bluey, his faithful red cattle dog, quickly moved in to help.
‘Piss off, Bluey! Leave him, mate!’ He pushed the dog away as he excitedly tried to nip at the sheep in his arms.
Immediately Bluey stopped barking and cowered before getting down on his haunches, patiently waiting for his master’s next command.
Finally, they reached the hard ground. He bent down to have a good look. The sheep’s tongue was swollen and protruding from its mouth. It was just panting now, and the eyes were still fixated and pleading with him. He knew it was too far gone.
He quickly swung the rifle around and placed the muzzle between the sheep’s eyes. He didn’t hesitate in pulling the trigger.
Bluey quietly crept back to his master’s side, sitting there faithfully waiting for his instructions.
‘I know, mate’, he uttered, giving Bluey a pat of assurance.
It was part of their daily routine. Their time together that no one could understand. His immense sense of loss and hopelessness. The overwhelming feeling that he was a failure. Drought was all part of life here in the outback. He knew it was out of his control. It was part of nature, but it didn’t help change his thoughts. He was still a failure.
It was those bloody eyes … they kept haunting him. He saw them in his dreams. They kept flashing across his mind.
He quickly stood up, patting off the dust before grabbing the lifeless carcass.
‘Come on, Bluey!’ Time to go home and get some chow.
Bluey obediently followed, watching intently as he tossed the sheep over the back of his motorbike. As soon as he was seated and had the motor started, Bluey knew it was his signal. He jumped aboard and positioned himself on top of the bike’s fuel tank between his master’s arms.
They weaved their way over the rough track moving towards the homestead. There were carcasses of sheep in various stages of decay scattered along the way. Some were still attracting birds of prey, but most were parched and as dry as the ground beneath them.
Drawing closer to home, he noticed the long dust cloud moving along the road from the front gate towards his homestead. Visitors! Just what he needed.
There were two carloads of people waiting for him when he pulled up outside his house gate. They were all young ones. City Slickers dressed in bright coloured beach style clothing and wearing rubber thongs on their feet. They stood out a mile. He had completely forgotten about them coming. He didn’t know how he got roped into hosting them, especially with all that was going on.
Their smiles and laughter and the overall noise they generated were both irritating and yet contagious. He had been on his own for so long since his wife had died. He was not used to seeing or being around people, let alone teenagers. Again, he asked himself, ‘how did I get talked into doing this?’
Three of the boys stepped forward and introduced themselves, shaking his hand.
‘Thanks for having us, Mr Williams, and allowing us to shoot on your property. We really appreciate it,’ one of the boys announced. ‘We heard things were pretty tough out here at the moment, and you were having a problem with rabbits and dingoes’.
One of the other boys stepped forward. ‘We are all here to help and brought our own guns, ammunition and food with us’.
Next, two attractive young girls stepped forward. Williams could not help but think they looked like they had just stepped out of one of those pin-up calendars. Before he even got a chance to say anything, they were gushing over him, telling him how happy they were to meet him. How glad they were that he had allowed them to come and stay on his property. Talk about bubbly and full of life. He felt overwhelmed. He hadn’t seen or experienced this much human interaction for a long time.
‘You can set up camp over there in the shearing quarters. I hope you brought your swags? He added.
‘You mean sleeping bags?’ One of the young lads replied. ‘Yes, we brought all our gear and water. We don’t want to put you out. We are here to help’.
Williams quickly gave them a briefing about general gun safety and advised them which paddocks they could shoot in. ‘Just make sure you don’t knock off any of my sheep, or there will be trouble’.
His words dampened their enthusiasm as their gazes shifted to the fleecy carcass draped over the back of his bike.
‘Oh, and don’t worry about the noises in the ceiling over there. It’s just the mice, a bit of a plague at the moment, but you’ll be right. They won’t hurt ya’.
One of the young girls stepped forward, ‘Oh Mr Williams, my grandfather asked me to make sure I sent his regards’.
‘Your grandfather? ‘Williams looked puzzled. ‘Do I know him?’
‘Yes, I am Brian O’Sullivan’s granddaughter, Lucy. He told me you two grew up together out here’.
Williams was taken aback. His old mate Brian, and here was this beautiful girl standing in front of him. All those years they had spent together.
‘How is the old bastard? I thought he would have been dead by now?’
It was the first time a slight grin had formed on his lips since they got there. Williams quickly lost interest in the rest of the group, dismissing them. His whole stiff demeanour had changed.
‘Come inside. I want to show you something’. He reached for his rifle, leaving the sheep behind. Bluey was right by his side.
She gingerly followed while the others looked around, wondering what they should do.
‘It’s okay. You can all come’, he added.
Lucy fell in behind the tall man, with the others following behind. As they entered the homestead's darkened interior, the old man stopped in the hallway and took off his well-beaten hat revealing his thick mane of grey hair. After giving his hat a few whacks to shake out the dust, he placed it up on a hook on the wall before moving on.
They entered a large, opened sitting room. Slithers of filtered light entered through the dust-coated windows, and multiple boot prints were visible on the dark timber floorboards. Lucy noticed a large, well-worn leather armchair. It was surrounded by books and magazines strewn across various side tables. Old photos and more books on shelves adorned the walls. It was Lucy’s first trip to the outback, and at just seventeen years of age, she was awestruck.
‘Mr. Williams, do you live here on your own?’ she politely asked.
After propping his gun against the fireplace, he turned around and started to move more of his magazines off one of the other chairs for her. ‘Here, here, Lucy, you sit here!’ He instructed.
The others were standing around the room, taking in their surroundings. He went over to one of the shelves and fumbled through some of the books and albums stacked there.
‘Yes, my wife died over a year ago,’ he quietly replied, ‘just when the drought kicked in,’ he added almost as an afterthought.
‘Here you are, this is it!’ He walked back to her and handed her a dark photograph album. ‘I bet you haven’t seen these photos of your grandfather before?’
Lucy slowly worked her way through the album, so enthralled by her grandfather's old images together with Mr Williams in their young days. What a life they had both shared. So many different adventures. Horses, dogs, sheep shearing, tractors, a whole kaleidoscope of outback life. All the while, Mr Williams gave her a commentary on each photo and the story behind it. So exciting, but at the same time, she had an overwhelming sense of sadness. Lucy couldn’t help but feel the loneliness of this big house and think of poor Mr Williams, all alone surrounded by dust and memories. She could see the life he had once led, and yet here he was living like this, surrounded by hundreds of acres of sprawling barren land so far away from town and people. So sad. How could he live out here on his own with no one? He eventually asked his guests if they would like a cup of tea, and Lucy took up his offer, while the others politely declined. Her companions were ready to crack a beer and moved out to the fresh air on the big verandah to wait for her.
Williams led Lucy into the large kitchen, where he filled up a big teapot with water and just tipped Bushel’s tea into the pot. No measurement, no spoons. Wow, Lucy was impressed. They did things differently in the bush. He put the pot on the top of the stove to boil while he moved to the sink to wash the dust off two large old beaten-up enamel mugs. In her mind, they looked more like buckets. Finally, as they made small talk, he told her to sit at the kitchen table. She noticed the old plastic tablecloth had seen better days. She didn’t want to be impolite as she watched him pour the dark brew and ask for the milk and sugar. He must have realised what she was thinking and suddenly pushed the large tin of Sunshine full cream milk and another can full of sugar in front of her. There was no teaspoon, just a large dessert spoon he handed to her, smiling.
‘Sorry, love, things are a bit different here since I lost the Missus. Not used to having visitors around here anymore’.
She sat there watching him scoop spoonfuls of the milk powder into his mug, followed by a hefty dose of sugar. She had never seen anyone drink so much sugar. She followed his lead with just small amounts of milk and sugar. The brew was so hot she nearly burned her lips. As she slowly sipped, he continued to tell her more stories and reminisce. In the background, she could hear her companions' voices raised and laughter. They were starting to sound impatient out there, but Mr Williams was focused on his storytelling.
Eventually, their conversation ended when Williams realised the rest of the group was still waiting for them, and he forgot the sheep. Oh, that darn sheep was out there in the heat. He better get moving. He finally excused himself and accompanied Lucy out to greet her companions. He seemed a lot more relaxed and not so stern as when they first arrived. He waved them off as they headed down the road to their quarters.
Lucy turned back to wave at him, calling, ‘Thanks, Mr Williams’, I will see you tomorrow.
He waved to her, ‘Thanks, Lucy’.
Williams spent the rest of the afternoon butchering the sheep over in the shed out the back. Bluey was with him, ready to catch any titbits that came his way. The prime cuts were lean on, and he set them aside. The rest he roughly cut into large chunks sawing through the bones of the carcass. Plenty of meat for the rest of the working dogs chained out the back. They were already yapping and barking in anticipation as the smell of the meat drifted on the hot air. With so many sheep dropping, there was no actual work for them now, but at least he could keep them well fed at the moment—one benefit of this horrendous drought.
‘Oh dear, I forgot to warn those kids about the water Bluey. The tanks dry over there, mate!’ He wiped the back of his bloody hand across his sweaty brow. ‘Oh well, they’ll find out soon enough. Let them toughen up a bit and see what life in the bush is really like’. Bluey listened intently to his every word.
‘What do ya reckon, Bluey?’ His loyal companion placed his paw on his boot, looking up at him with loving eyes.
He walked back to the homestead taking in the barren landscape as far as he could see. Those kids from the city are in for a bit of a shock, he laughed to himself. His attention was suddenly drawn to the glorious colours of the cloud formations on the western horizon. Over the past weeks and months, he had found it hard to find any beauty in nature. He was too busy living day to day in survival mode.
Bloody drought! It’s not just the land and livestock. It shatters your soul.
He stood there for a while, just staring at the sunset overpowering his senses.
Arriving back at the house, he placed his rifle down, leaning it back against the fireplace. Pausing for a moment, he looked down at his rifle. It had been another long day, and his plans had all gone astray. He’d forgotten he had agreed to host those kids, and then they go and arrive today. Of all days. Why today? It had ruined his plans.
He slowly turned his back on the rifle, shaking his head. He walked into the kitchen and grabbed the last of his beers before heading back out onto the verandah. He couldn’t believe it. Those bloody kids had spoiled everything. Bloody, O’Sullivan’s granddaughter–of all people!.
Sitting himself down in one of the old squatter chairs, he watched the sunset intensify. He looked over towards the shearer’s quarters and could see the lights were now on.
Oh, to be young again. So full of life, expectations, and that bloody laughter. He had forgotten what it was like to hear that infectious sound.
‘Okay, Bluey, it’s like this!’ The kelpie’s ears pricked up. ‘Plans have changed. He looked down at his faithful companion, ready to pat him. He suddenly caught the look in his eyes. Why was it always the eyes that got to him?
‘It’s okay, mate,’ he uttered as he ran his hand over Bluey’s head. ‘I know, mate … we can make it!’
He looked down to see those big brown trusting eyes staring back at him. Those bloody eyes!
‘We’re going to hang in, old mate. Just you and me’.
He took a long swig of his beer and surveyed the vista all around him. The place he called home.
‘One day at a time, mate!’ ‘Just one day at a time …’
He lifted his stubbie, ‘Thanks, Lucy!’
For more information on Stacey M King and her published books, visit Amazon.