Chapter 14 [Fools’ Harvest, by Erle Cox, 1939]

[Editor: This is a chapter from Fools’ Harvest (1939) by Erle Cox.]

Chapter XIV.

We five little thought when we cut across from Donnybrook to Whittlesea that afternoon of the strange wild life for which we were headed. It was dark when we reached Yea, and strange, after our weeks of strain and uncertainty, to find the town in a reasonably normal state. There was both fear and anxiety, but otherwise the people were untouched by the tragedy. A few men from the broken army had made their way across from Tallarook through Kerrisdale, so that the defeat was known. But they brought the reassuring news that the enemy were not moving in our direction.

So for that last time in our lives, we ate a civilised meal and slept in civilised beds. From enquiries we learned that the shops were still doing business. That next morning, as there was no immediate need for haste, we went shopping. We four still had a little money, but to our delight Dr. Ben came forward as a fairy godfather. At a council he urged we should buy essentials for a rough life. It was he who found the money for tools and thick, hard-wearing clothing and boots with which we crammed the luggage carrier and the car. So that, with our three rifles and ammunition, we were well prepared for emergencies.

Then, just as we were preparing to start, that amazing man went off in a characteristic blaze of wrath at Fergus. “See here! you young ass! Haven’t you got a grain of sense? Do you expect me to dry nurse you all your life?”

Fergus gaped, astonished by the apparently unwarranted onslaught.

Then turning on Lynda as though he would bite her, Dr. Ben snapped. “You’re as bad! No sense, either of you! Get yourselves married at once! No other chance but now!”

Fergus rallied his senses, and gulped, “Doc, you’re a genius!”

I think that was the only time I ever saw Lynda at a loss in an emergency. She stood voiceless and motionless, with her face burning, and her eyes on Fergus.

Clifford and I made no attempt to hide our mirth, but we recognised that there was sound commonsense behind Dr. Ben’s unconventional suggestion. We both rallied to his side.

“Lyn,” I said, “do you dare to disobey your superior officer in war time?”

“There’ll be no orders,” Fergus growled, “But, Lyn, I’m pleading!” He held out his hand to her.

Lyn did not speak, but took the hand he held out.

This had happened as we were standing on the footpath beside the car. Ben watched them with a chuckle. “Bless you, my children!”

“Well done, Cupid!” said Clifford grinning at the Doctor.

“You impudent young ruffian!” he snorted. Then he took Lynda’s arm. “Lend her to me a moment, Fergus, while I buy the ring,” and he led her away.

Fergus looked after them with a dazed expression on his face, and then murmured with deep feeling. “Yon’s a great mon — a great mon!”

When the two returned, Lynda was laughing and Ben was looking fierce. The jeweller had assumed that he was the bridegroom. Ben resented the mistake as an affront to Lynda, though a compliment to himself.

We drove to a parsonage to which Ben had been directed, and found the parson in his shirt sleeves, gardening. Ben took full charge of the proceedings, and brushed aside some technical objections raised by the parson regarding the three days’ notice. He surrendered, and after filling in the necessary forms, Ben gave the bride away when the ceremony was gone through.

I do not think more than 25 minutes elapsed between the time when Ben issued his ultimatum and when Lynda walked out of the parsonage as Mrs. Fergus Graham.

As Clifford said, by that time the bride had recovered consciousness. As we returned to the car she stood with her hand in Fergus’ arm, and laughed up at us. “Listen, you men! I’ve known Fergus for three weeks. He proposed to me while we were being shelled, and travelling at 70 miles an hour. Now he has married me, and is taking me on a honeymoon with three other men, to no known destination. We have no home, and we are penniless; but,” here she put her hand on Ben’s shoulder, and kissed him, “Major, you’re a darling.”

“She’s a shameless hussy, Fergus,” laughed Ben. Then, opening the car door, he said to Clifford and me. “You two crowd in the front seat with me, the back is reserved for the bride and bridegroom.”

Some 50 miles from Yea, if you know where to look for it, there is a little village at the junction of two clear mountain streams. It is built on the only 200 acres of level ground within many miles. Once, 80 years ago, it was a busy mining town. When we saw it late that afternoon, with its little silent street of some 20 or 30 old houses, it looked like an English village that time had forgotten. The hills towered high all round it so that it lay as though at the bottom of a cup. In the tiny gardens were neglected pear and apple trees 50 ft. high. Rose bushes ran wild, and were in their first blossom. Though it was not five o’clock, the sun was behind the towering range that rose from the stream behind the town, and its atmosphere was a mystic misty blue. On that day the peace of Heaven brooded over it, and we felt safe.

Had we scoured the State could not have found a more perfect place of refuge. The road that ran through the deep valley gave the only approaches from north and south. Access to it was impossible without our knowledge. After we had explored thoroughly the surrounding country, with one of the 30 or 40 residents as a guide, we knew we were safe from the incursions of an army. The hills to east and west, clothed with virgin forest, offered a thousand hiding places. Along one branch of the stream coming in from the east we could penetrate for miles into the ranges. At an alarm, within five minutes, everyone could be under cover and beyond danger.

Here we settled down, and for nearly two months were lost to the world. Ben took the lead naturally. He gathered the villagers together and told them of the certainty and the danger of enemy activities. He urged them to prepare by building, beforehand, shelters for the times of stress that would surely come. He proved a born organiser and leader. Under his direction and with willing labour, huts were built in the most inaccessible positions, deep in the scrub. He would permit no grouping. Everyone knew where all the huts were, so that each in a measure was dependent on the other. He taught them that they must not use one path too often, to make tracks that might betray the existence of the huts. These were so cleverly built and disguised that they could be passed almost without notice. Within a week he had won the absolute confidence of all.

Beside a deep pool in one stream, shadowed by elms with a span of 50 ft., Fergus and Lynda were given a two-roomed cottage. Fergus made all its crude furniture, and that of their own refuge hut in the ranges. We three left them pretty much to themselves, but after a while they came to life again and became part of the community. During their honeymoon, however, we made two valuable discoveries. One was that stock of every description was roaming at large through the bush. The other was when we were led to an old deserted homestead in a valley some ten miles away. It was large and surrounded by a small forest of great walnut trees. For two weeks Ben kept the workers busy on it, disguising it so that from the air it must have looked like an outcrop of rock. He foresaw its need. Later it became “Dynamite Ben’s” hospital for wounded guerillas.

In those first few weeks we laid the foundation of an organisation that became one of the best known among the ranges. We formed contact with adjacent settlements — though none were near — and organised a perfect code of bush telegraphy. Those quiet, resourceful people in that district accepted Ben’s frequent explosions at their real value as a driving force. It was at this time some local genius of the mining profession named him “Dynamite Ben,” and the name stuck. Bob, Fergus, and I were his aides. But Lynda became his Chief-of-Staff, second only to him in authority. She was Ben’s chief nurse and right hand. Among the women her word was law. What Ben aimed at was creating a communal spirit — which is a very different thing from the Communist spirit.

When the day came, as we knew it must, when our lovely village was but a few smoked walls and heaps of ashes, and when death was our hourly neighbour, the protection of Ben and Lynda became a sort of religion. When Fergus and Bob and I had to leave the valley on our raids we did so with the knowledge that they were guarded as kings were never guarded. Their whereabouts was known to all, but a stranger who strayed within five miles of either of them unchallenged would be lucky if he were not shot on sight.

During that respite Ben organised lines of communication with Mansfield, Alexandra, Woods Point, and hamlets in between, through which we obtained news of what was going on. And all that news, bad at first, became worse as the weeks passed. But when the time came for action our system was so complete that a man could not have moved a mile in the district without our knowledge and consent.

Then presently strangers worked their way towards our village, for the story became known that somewhere there was a strong man and a leader. Newcomers never knew how closely they were watched and tested. If we did not “like the looks of them,” they were turned aside without ceremony or politeness. If in doubt, we brought them to Ben, who had an uncanny insight that was unerring. Occasionally without their knowledge Lynda looked over recruits, There was a Melbourne barrister who never knew that a woman he had never seen passed judgment on him, and had him turned back. But by December we had recruited some fifty sound men.

It was about the second week in December that we heard from Woods Point that four waggon loads of soldiers with machine guns were coming up from Warburton. We told our friends to let them pass. Ten miles from our village they were stopped by a fallen tree in a narrow road. Then, when they bunched, another tree fell behind them. I was the very proud commander of the thirty rifles that formed the reception committee. When that second tree fell they were like rats in a trap. There was not a man in sight in the thick undergrowth, but there was no possible shelter for them. From both sides of the road a point blank fire swept through them. Three minutes after the explosion of the charge that brought down the second tree, it was all over. It was that afternoon, for the first time, that anyone of us saw a soldier of the Paramount Power at close quarters.

From any point of view, that first episode was sheer butchery. They were taken by surprise, and fired wildly into the scrub beside the road. On our side, there were no casualties; on theirs there were no survivors. I do not think there was one among us who felt the slightest compunction for what we had done or for how we had done it. My own feelings were those of elation. When I remembered the scenes in the Domain in Sydney on Bloody Saturday, and the massacres in Melbourne, the merciless killing seemed not only justifiable but a moral obligation.

Within two hours we had cleared up the road and removed the traces of our raid. ‘We dumped the bodies of two officers and 49 men into an old shaft. Our spoils were two machine guns, fifty rifles, and a quantity of ammunition. Three of the trucks were run into a gully and covered with bushes. The fourth we brought back to the village, where it was concealed in the scrub with the petrol from the other three.

Within an hour the news had been circulated throughout the district. As Ben said that night as we talked it over, “The fat’s in the fire now. We’ll have them swarming through the country like hornets.” And he was right. That was the first conflict in our district, and from then on it was savage war. After our first sight of the enemy we saw far too much of them. They were up next day looking for their lost trucks, and they came in force. They did not find the trucks, but they found trouble in plenty at Woods Point, where they were expected, and were received with military honours.

They burned the town before they left, but they never saw a man. On the night of our raid Ben had sent the Woods Pointers one of our machine guns, and a man who could use it. The Woods Pointers were very grateful. They scuppered four armoured waggons with gelignite. During that night Ben and Lynda treated their first half dozen wounded.

After that they kept trying through Alexandra and Mansfield. They had made what they left of Yea a military depot, and from then on we were kept on the jump. Every now and then they sent over a squadron of planes that would come swooping down our valley machine gunning anything they thought suspicious. It was by a development of their aircraft tactics that they finally reached our village and destroyed it. This was about the end of January.

We were warned of a raid in force with light tanks, both from Mansfield and Alexandra. But from daylight that morning their planes patrolled the roads through the ranges. They flew singly in a procession about a mile or two apart, so that there was always one in sight to checkmate our attempts to block the road with timber. By this time we had more than one hundred good men at the village, and the Woods Pointers reinforced us gladly. Ben had the bridge at the south end of the village mined. He scattered the rifles in the timber along the road in twos. His orders were that not a shot was to be fired unless there was a man to fire at.

It was eleven o’clock before the first tank rumbled into view, scouting for the armoured cars. A quarter of a mile behind came another, and then the armoured cars — 40 of them. They fairly sowed the timber on the hillsides with bullets, while the light tanks pasted them with shells. Our reply was a slow irregular fire, but while they certainly made the most noise, we did the most damage. Our luck was out, for the bridge looked too suspicious, and we failed to get the tank we hoped would try to cross it. It was blown up and they were stopped from going past the village. But we scored when they tried to leave their cars to burn the houses.

They raged round the village for about two hours and left it in ruins, but the cost must have been more than it was worth. That day we, too, suffered the heaviest loss up to date, with 17 men killed and twice as many wounded. Among the wounded was Bob Clifford, with a hole through his shoulder that held him in fuming inaction for three weeks. That was the only time that one of our trio received so much as a scratch.

After that raid Ben blocked the road so effectually with timber, and by blowing up stretches of it, that not even a heavy tank could get through. It crippled our movements a good deal, but it made us immune from surprise visits, except from the air. Our loss in that big raid in January was heavy, but we had no difficulty in finding recruits. The trouble was the other way. There were more offering than we could handle comfortably, or arm adequately, at the time. Ben found that 150 men were the maximum that could be used with advantage from our headquarters. The surplus were encouraged, and helped to form new independent units.

From then on the struggle never ceased. From Warburton northward, the countryside was in arms. As time went on the bitterness and utter ruthlessness intensified. Learning from experience, we began raiding instead of waiting to be raided. There was always a loose and flexible association between the independent guerilla units, and where possible we helped or reinforced one another’s efforts.

Ben’s fame as a doctor as well as a leader spread. It was through this that Fergus and I made the acquaintance of “Dumbell” Wright in August, 1940. Ben was seriously hampered through a lack of medical supplies — especially anaesthetics. We knew the P.P. had a military hospital at Wangaratta — they needed it badly, because Dumbell’s men alone must have provided sufficient P.P. patients to keep a normal hospital busy. So Fergus and I made a very lively journey north, and found Dumbell in his quarters outside Beechworth. The suggestion of raiding the hospital appealed to his sporting instincts, as much as did the idea of supplying Ben with his medical stores.

Two days later, we three — Dumbell, Fergus and myself — wandered into Wangaratta. It was the first time I had been in one of the big towns that was fairly crawling with P.P. troops and police. Dumbell was accustomed to the game, but Fergus and I found the ordeal rather trying to our nerves. But no one took much notice of three deplorable deadbeats so long as we kept from between the wind and their nobility. We scavanged for food in a back lane till we were summarily ejected by a P.P. policeman who almost broke my shoulder with a waddy he carried. It was a revolting business, but fruitful, for in one of the dirt bins was Dumbell’s post office. For two days we loafed about, an offence to the eye, nose and landscape.

Then Dumbell received news that altered his plan of raiding the hospital to the more congenial method of holding up a train at the station. We heard from friends in Albury that there was a truck of medical stores coming through. On it were a dozen carboys of anaesthetics. The stunt was more burglarious than spectacular — apart from Dumbell’s exercise of his own peculiar weapon. We three actually did the job, but Wright had half a dozen of his men at hand to help if necessary, and to get away with the loot.

At that time trains in transit were heavily guarded, but once in the yards in a military town, the vigilance was relaxed. There were a few sentries whose beats we knew. The night was dark and bleak, and we waited until we saw the sentries changed at about 2 o’clock in the morning. Then I saw Dumbell in action. He abolished three men in as many minutes without a sound. We knew exactly where the truck was on the train, and where to look for the carboys. The only noise we made was in opening the truck door. Wright handed out three big jars and remained for some time nosing round in the truck before he came out.

Ten minutes later we passed the three jars over to Wright’s men, who were waiting for them with orders for their disposal. Had they been our own property, and legally acquired, there could not have been less fuss over getting them. The really trying part came next day. Wright decided that it would be better to hang round the town, as his and our immediate disappearance would have placed the three deadbeats under suspicion, and made further visits to the town, for Wright, too risky. So we stayed for another two days, which I admit, I spent with my nerves on edge. The P.P. were boiling with wrath and making things unpleasant, even for them. Wright told us that his identity was known to three-fourths of the Australians in the town, but while the military and police raged they gave no sign.

The night we came away Wright told us to wait for him outside the town, as he had business to attend to before he left. It was nearly two hours before he rejoined us, and we made off at our best pace towards Tarrawingee, though not by the road, to recover our precious ether. After a while he said, “I might as well tell you fellows what I have been doing. I didn’t let you know before, because it is entirely my own affair. I went back and climbed the water tower and emptied four four-ounce bottles of hydrocyanic acid into the tank. I have warned all of our people.”

Fergus gave a low whistle. “I don’t love the P.P., Wright, as you know, but you’re giving them a nasty weapon for propaganda.”

Wright stopped and turned to us. He spoke in a whisper of concentrated hate, “Believe me, I would not lay poison for a dog, but when I saw my home at Holbrook after those brutes had been there, I swore I would kill and go on killing by any means, however foul, so long as I live.”

He was in no mood for argument, so we said no more. Though remembering that first day in Sydney, I understood the urge that prompted him to do what he had done.

[This incident was blazoned all over the United States. The Paramount Power alleged that more than 600 of their people, among whom were several high officials, had been poisoned. It had a disastrous influence on the Australian cause. While they condemn Wright, Peel and Everard remark that the Paramount Power was careful to omit adding that they had forced several hundred Australians to drink the same water — this they undoubtedly did. — Eds.]

One effect of Wright’s vengeance was to rouse the P.P. to a fury. The whole of the North-East and the ranges seethed with their raids of reprisals. Fergus and I had a hectic time getting back to the village where we had been given up as lost. It took us three weeks to cover the road back, about 90 miles. Had it not been for the aid we received all along the tracks by which we travelled, I doubt if we would ever have pulled through. But we arrived with our precious burden intact.

Ben was more exercised in his mind as to the results of Wright’s methods than in the deed itself. It certainly intensified the brutality with which our war was conducted. It was about this time we all began practising knife throwing until we could pin a playing card at thirty feet. Any ideas of the chivalrous side of warfare vanished. It became a matter of course to get our man in the back. Everything went in those days.

As the months went by all our clothing wore out, and we were reduced to wearing skins of the stock we slaughtered for food. Any luxury, such as soap, we looted from the P.P. There was an unwritten law that we left their women alone, but when our own were reduced to wearing sheep skins, some of the P.P. women who fell into our hands received unceremonious treatment to provide them with something better. Because of this Lynda acquired an extraordinary wardrobe. After a successful raid there was always someone who had acquired some kind of dress material for her. They laid at her feet every fabric between calico and brocaded silk.

The long bitter months of 1940 passed, and it was well into 1941 before we heard rumours of peace in Europe. What had been going on there we heard in scraps but could believe nothing. Then in the middle of October an aeroplane soared down the valley shedding leaflets instead of the usual bullets. These leaflets, printed in English, announced that a worldwide Armistice had been signed, and that a peace congress was being held in Berlin. They offered a three months’ truce from hostilities to be extended if necessary.

Our experience of the Paramount Power made us wary about accepting their news or their assurances. Then they approached us under a white flag. They wanted the leaders to go to Melbourne to negotiate. The reply of the leaders was a unanimous and unflattering refusal to consider their guarantees of safe conduct. After arguing for three weeks we agreed that Wright and Ben would meet their delegates on the road in the open outside Mansfield. Each delegate could bring three men, but all must be unarmed. No armed men were to be within 20 miles of the meeting place.

Bob, Fergus and I went down with Ben. We were a picturesque gang. Lynda had done some amateur tailoring, and had fitted out Ben and Fergus in suits of duck that looked so like pyjamas that the difference did not matter. Bob was wearing a natty sheepskin tunic with the wool inside. My costume was a P.P. uniform overcoat with the badges and buttons removed. Dumbell’s gang were in sheepskins, but he, himself, had the nerve to show up in a P.P. officer’s uniform with badges and buttons he had cut from jam tins. His impudence so incensed the Brigadier General who met us, that the conference nearly ended before it began.

After four hours of cat and dog discussion, we began to get somewhere. Finally we agreed that hostilities should cease pending the decision of the Berlin Congress, provided they confined their troops to five towns on the Hume Highway. Our men were not to approach within ten miles of these towns. Similar arrangements, with slight variations, were made in other districts. They also agreed — this was on Ben’s insistence — that we should be supplied with medical necessities, soap and some clothing for women and children, and at least 50 tons of flour for each camp.

So it was that by mid-November the raids ceased and we waited. The Paramount Power had agreed to keep us informed on the negotiations in Berlin, but whether they had not the information or they withheld it, what we were told was scanty and noncommittal. We had become used to our hard lives. Apart from the risks it had been a demoralising period in some respects. We who had once been decent citizens had become men to whom killing was a matter of course. Human life meant less than nothing. And it was not clean killing, for both sides used the basest treachery and the basest means.

On the other hand, I and the others were never so healthy in our lives. We lived in the open, and developed a hardiness and endurance that we would not have believed possible in other circumstances. Most of our fighting had been done on foot, and some of our forced marches of ten and fifteen miles were done at nearly five miles an hour carrying rifles and full cartridge belts. I have done a good deal better than that for an hour when some of the gentlemen opposite were on my trail — to make the pace for me.

The truce was adhered to on both sides. I think they were as glad as we were of the respite. We certainly had a bad time. It is not boasting, however, to say that the gruelling they got was far worse than they gave. If — that bitter “if” — we had had an army of men such as made up the guerilla forces in the first place, we would have wiped them off the map in a fortnight. And we would have had that army but for the altruists, sentimentalists and other well-meaning but thrice accursed visionaries.

However, we hung round our camps in the hills idling away our time until the middle of December, when the news was sent to us that the Congress had arrived at a decision regarding Australia. It was to be announced at a meeting arranged as before.

It was December 18, when we went down to Mansfield to hear the verdict. We were met by the Brigadier-General with whom the truce was negotiated. Without any preliminary discussion, he read from a document in his hand. “The Congress decrees that all that part of Australia north of 28 degrees south latitude and west of 128 degrees east longitude shall become the unalienable territory of Cambasia. Further, that for a period of 20 years, Cambasia shall occupy the remainder of the Continent and Tasmania as Paramount Power. This period has been fixed in order to permit the Paramount Power to indemnify itself for the cost of its expeditionary operations in Australia, and to facilitate and assist in the establishment of a responsible government of their territory by the Australian people subsequently. In order that the Paramount Power shall base its administration on a just and benevolent treatment of the Australians during the period of occupation, a neutral delegation of inspection consisting of five members appointed by the President of the United States, shall visit Australia once during the course of each year, and report thereon to the permanent committee of the Congress of Berlin.”

Then that arrogant little brute carefully folded and creased that document and handed it to one of his staff, looking us over all the while with a cynical grin on his face. Wright exploded in an oath, and made as if to throw himself on the Brigadier, but in an instant he was covered by three automatics. Ben stood pale as though frozen. Beside me Fergus was rumbling in his throat. I did not look at Bob, but I knew he felt as I felt, murderous.

It was Ben who broke the silence. “Does Great Britain subscribe to that document?” he asked.

“All the Powers at the Berlin Congress, including Britain and the United States.” He bowed ironically as he spoke.

Then he turned to one of his staff and held out his hand for some documents, which he took, and then went on speaking.

“You cannot expect, and my Government cannot and will not concede, the lenience that we would have extended to you had you accepted your defeat with a spirit of resignation and conciliation. The outrages you have perpetrated against the nationals of the Paramount Power demand full reparation. However, we are disposed to be merciful despite the provocation we have received. You will listen to the terms that my Government imposes.”

He unfolded a paper and read: “All Australian nationals now unlawfully under arms against the Cambasian Government and against the terms of the Treaty of Peace of Berlin, will surrender their arms and themselves forthwith to the appointed officials of the Paramount Power. In the event of disobedience to this order it is decreed that for every man killed by an Australian unlawfully under arms, fifteen Australians selected by lot from under the jurisdiction of the Paramount Power will be summarily shot. Moreover, for every national of the Paramount Power unlawfully wounded five hostages similarly chosen, will be shot.”

He paused and looked up. “It may interest you gentlemen to know that in selecting the hostages, no discrimination of sex or age will be made. I would like you to be quite clear on that matter.”

Then he continued. “In the event of your submission, the Paramount Power graciously agrees to grant an amnesty for your past crimes. You will, however, be required to perform such services for the Paramount Power in return for your pardon as its officers see fit to direct. Two exceptions, however, are made in this district; no mitigation of punishment will be allowed in the cases of the men known as “Dumbell” Wright and Dr. Benjamin Cornish. These two must surrender unconditionally to the officers of the Paramount Power.”

From the three of us came a shout of rage, but Ben swung round on us and thundered, “Silence! Stand back!” Such was the power of his hold on us, we fell back without a word.

There was a nasty smile on the Brigadier’s face as he said, looking at us, “Your friend is now, as always, a man of remarkable ability and understanding.”

Ben turned on the Brigadier, “Assuming we see fit to accept your terms, I presume the safety of our women and children is assured.”

“Your women do not interest us ——” there was a filthy insult in his tone — “They and their children may remain with your men.”

Ben’s voice was icy. “Do you require an immediate answer?”

“Oh! not at all!” came the suave, sneering voice. “Let me see! This is the eighteenth. You will be good enough to deliver your answer to an officer I shall appoint to meet you at this spot on midday on the twenty-fifth — an auspicious day among your people, I believe.”

Until then my hatred of the men of the Paramount Power had been general, but at that moment it centred in that one figure. He paused a moment, but neither Wright nor Ben accepted the challenge.

Then he went on. “You would perhaps like copies of your orders ——” His slight emphasis of the word was an incitement to murder, as he handed Ben and Wright a copy of the paper. “Good afternoon, gentlemen!” He turned stiffly away and entered his car, followed by his staff, without looking round.

We stood silent, watching the car as it disappeared in the dust. Then Ben turned abruptly to Dumbell. “We’ll talk this over together, Wright,” and they paced off down the road.

For a while we others remained silent, I knew only one of Wright’s three lieutenants, Fenner, who had been a counter hand in some shop in Melbourne. It was he who spoke first. “We can’t let them give themselves up.”

“Seems to me they need not,” Clifford suggested. “That cocky little swine only said that they would not be pardoned. There’s nothing to prevent them from sticking to the bush.”

“Alone, though,” put in one of the others. “It’s the finish for us. Wonder if they’ll keep their word.”

Fergus, who had been glaring at the spot where the car disappeared, turned round. “Better for us perhaps if they didn’t. The only reason for their dashed amnesty is that we’re more useful to them alive than dead.” Then, “Does anyone know where 28 south and 129 east run?”

It was one of Dumbell’s men who enlightened us. “They’ve grabbed a pretty fair piece of country. Twenty-eight south is approximately the line of the Queensland border, the other is the West Australian boundary. They’ve left us New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania.”

“With the whole Commonwealth to play with for the next twenty years,” I added.

“By that time the four States they’ve left us won’t be worth having — they’ll have stripped them bare.” Fergus was a better prophet than he knew.

While we talked Ben and Wright were pacing slowly up and down in earnest debate.

“Those two are just the splendid pair of fools to give themselves up,” Fenner said, as we watched them anxiously; “and I’d let myself be shot to ribbons to save Dumbell.”

“Who wouldn’t’?” Clifford spoke for us all.

“But,” I said, “actually they can refuse.”

“But they won’t, and that’s the pity of it.” Fergus’ voice was bitter. “They know the game’s up. I doubt if either of them will care to carry on in the bush. Ben won’t, anyway.”

As he spoke they quickened their pace, and walked toward the horses. “Come on, boys!” Ben cried. We mounted and the two shook hands and parted, we three following Ben.

For ten minutes we rode behind him in silence. Then he motioned us to come up. “Well, boys, it’s finished. Wright and I decided we have no option but to accept. We cannot go on in the face of those murderous reprisals.”

“But you, Ben!” I put the question that was in all our minds.

“Wright and I have decided on a way out,” he said. “You’ll know that later.” Then his voice changed. “Now this is an order to you all — and I expect it to be obeyed. Not one word to anyone, and especially not to Lynda, about the exclusion of Wright and me from the amnesty.” Then, to prevent further talk, he touched up his horse and rode on.

That night we called a general rally of our men, and Ben told the unhappy news. “If we alone were affected, men, I would counsel you to stay here and fight to the last man, as I know you would,” he concluded, “But that threat of reprisals is genuine. We cannot go on and condemn hundreds of helpless fellow people to death. I fear we are surrendering to slavery, but that is the price we must pay.”

“Will they keep their words about the women and children?” was the only question asked.

Ben gave the only possible reply. “I think, and hope so.”

And so it was settled. On Christmas Day, by Ben’s orders, I rode down to Mansfield, and met one of their officers, and gave him Ben’s reply. Fenner had come in with Wright’s. We were given our orders curtly. Wright was to surrender with all his people at Beechworth, and we were to come into Mansfield on the same day — New Year’s Day, 1942. All arms were to be brought in.

With all our women and children, it was nearly two days’ march from the village. A touch of humour in that via dolorosa seemed impossible, but Lynda provided it. When the women — there were 32 of them — assembled on the morning we started, the men stared at them in incredulous amazement. Normally they were fine average Australian types. What Lynda presented to us was the most fearsome looking collection of hags and slatterns that ever offended the eye. They were in rags, and unclean rags at that. Their faces, hands and arms were a dirty yellow brown. Their hair was as unkempt as the rest of their get up. The children, some 40 of them of all ages, were equally repulsive looking.

Lynda herself was almost unrecognisable. I was with Fergus when he caught sight of her, and his exclamation of recognition left me speechless with mirth.

“It’s a fairy tale,” Lynda laughed in answer to his demand for an explanation.

“It’s more like a bogie story,” he retorted. “Woman, you look like — like — an ash heap.”

“Call me a ruse de guerre,” she smiled — and we saw her white teeth were stained almost black. “It was Ben’s idea,” she explained. “He suggested that there was no need for us to look our best. The intentions of those brutes in Mansfield may be honourable, but there’s nothing like making sure.”

Ben came up at the moment, and looked over the group with approving eyes. “It’s a triumph, Lyn! A ghastly triumph!”

“But how on earth did you do it?” I asked. “It’s revolting!”

“That’s where the fairy story comes in,” Lyn replied. “When the princess disguised herself as a kitchen maid, she always stained herself with walnut juice. The colour lasts.”

“Well,” Ben smiled. “The highest compliment I can pay you is that I’d hate to see you in any kitchen of mine.”

I left Fergus trying to thank Ben for the idea.

But it was an unhappy procession that moved off down the valley an hour later. Bob and Fergus and I were in a state of sick anxiety about Ben. We had each tried to discover his intentions, but he had evaded answering. As we made our way through the scrub he seemed the least concerned of any of us, and chatted with the children most of the time.

That night we camped four miles out of the town, by the roadside in the open. I doubt if many of us slept except for a few occasional minutes. We five had sat round a fire until about 10 o’clock. But there was very little talking. When Ben got up he told me there was no need for an early start, and to let those sleep who could. Then he nodded good night and left us.

I must have dozed off just about dawn, for it was light when Clifford aroused me. There was consternation in his voice. “Wally, quickly! Come to Ben!” I hurried after him. Twenty yards away we found Fergus bending over Ben, who was lying at the foot of a tree. As we came up, Fergus looked up. “He’s dead!” he said in an awed voice.

We stooped and raised him. There could be no doubt but that Fergus was right. Beneath him was a leaf from his pocket book. I picked it up. It was addressed to — “My four dear and loyal comrades.” Briefly he had written that Wright and he had chosen this way out to rob the Paramount Power of its triumph of punishing them. “I leave you to surrender my body to them as you think fit.” Then at the end — “These two years that should have been the most bitter of my life have been made the brightest by the love and friendship of the four dearest people I ever knew. God bless you all, and give you strength to endure. — Ben.”

The small bottle we picked up beside him told its own tale.

When, looking down on the figure, that somehow seemed smaller in death, I said, “I am glad!” The others understood what I meant. Then Fergus left us with bowed head to break the news to Lynda.

After we had called the camp together, and Fergus told them what had happened, and why, we made a litter of branches broken from trees, fastened together with fencing wire. That which had been Ben was laid upon it reverently. Our men — they numbered 160 — formed fours on the road. We broke them into two sections, between which the women and children were placed. With eight men shouldering the litter, and Fergus, Clifford and me marching behind it, the procession moved off, the men with their rifles at the slope.

Until then we had not seen a sign of the enemy though we were sure our movements had been under observation during the whole of the previous day. Less than a mile out of the town we were stopped by an officer in a motor car. Beside the road stood an armoured waggon. As we halted, the officer left his car, and approaching us, demanded the surrender of Benjamin Cornish. For answer Fergus ordered the bearers to lay down the litter. Bending down he raised the leafy branches that had been placed over the body.

Then for the first and only time in my experience I saw an officer of the Paramount Power do a decent action. This one stood to attention and saluted as he looked down. Then he stood aside and waved us forward. As the men raised the litter again he gave some order to those in the armoured waggon which afterwards rumbled along behind us. The officer returned to his car and drove off ahead of us.

When we entered the town the main street was lined with troops, from behind whose ranks what remained of the townspeople watched our surrender with silent sympathy. As we entered the street we flung our rifles to the ground and passed on. The silence was such that the only sound was the shuffle of our ill-shod feet and the clatter of the weapons as they were flung aside. So it was that on New Year’s Day, 1942, we entered into bondage.

That night, in our compound where we had been herded without shelter, we buried the body of our beloved Ben.



Source:
Erle Cox, Fools’ Harvest, Melbourne: Robertson and Mullen, 1939, pages 167-188

Editor’s notes:
Old spelling in the original text:
waggon (wagon)

Vernacular spelling in the original text:
mon (man) [Scottish]

[Editor: Changed “officer in war time.” to “officer in war time?”; “a little vllage” to “a little village”; “It became a matter of course of get our man in the back” to “It became a matter of course to get our man in the back” (as per the original story in The Argus, 19 November 1938, page 33); “illshod” to “ill-shod” (as per the original story in The Argus, 22 November 1938, page 9).]

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