John Gray was a shearer in the old blade days, when the men who shore thought a “quid” a hundred was big pay, and the fraternity was contented. In his third year of shearing, Gray “rung” Wetherina, out west, which was a full test of a man’s capabilities in wielding the clippers, and an achievement any man might be proud of. It was a big performance, but a man of Gray’s calibre might do anything. He was of that class of Australian who has blazed the trail leading up to big things, among men who have helped to build empires.
As the result of his Wetherina achievement, Gray was enabled to select three hundred and forty acres on the banks of the Macquarie. He built a hut and found a life’s mate, just the sort of mate who has helped in the development of the big lonely acres of the wide bush-land; the real Australian woman who stands shoulder to shoulder with her man through all the hardships and adversities that beset him in those great empty spaces. She was one who, never murmuring, helped to turn the wilderness into a land blossoming with full and plenty.
When I think of those loving pals of the west, those splendid types of Australian motherhood from whom the true spirit of Australia has sprung, I recall the lines of “Stripper” in the Bulletin:—
When you join the mob in praisin’
Those who spent their lives in blazin’
Tracks for other men to safely tread,
Our Pioneering Band.
Don’t forget that loads were lightened,
And long days of trial brightened
By the love and brave endurance
Of the woman on the land.
On worked John Gray with even greater determination. He ringbarked and split his posts until his capital was exhausted, but there was no exhausting the grit of John Gray. There was plenty of money in the ironbark muscles of Gray, and he had a full confidence in those muscles — the smile never slipped from his face. A greater happiness came along at the end of the year, and that stimulated Gray to further progress. John Gray saddled his horse and rode off to the roll-call of a distant shed, while his pal worked on back in the little homestead, now shaped into comfort by the hand of a woman, She milked the few cows Gray had got together, and carted the butter and eggs of the farm to Dubbo, while the baby girl thrived amid the freshness of the great Australian bush.
The time came round when, by dint of his industry and determination, Gray increased the selection to eight hundred acres, and then Mother Bush, smiling upon the grit of the man, was good to him, and gave bounteously from her incalculable store. So it was that soon the holding on the Macquarie was increased to two thousand five hundred and sixty acres. Now came the next opportunity, which Australia provides to men and women with pluck, and the wife was enabled to select two thousand five hundred and sixty acres adjoining the old home.
The years were swift. Five boys and three girls grew up. Chance presented a further opportunity, and Gray secured four thousand five hundred acres of a famous station property adjoining his farm lands. The future looked rosy, with all the children helping, flocks increasing, and herds growing. Gray’s experience had taught him how necessary it was to protect the animals providing his sustenance, and he prepared for the onslaughts of the lean years by the conservation of the heaven-sent waters, the fodder, and grasses. There were ensilage-pits on the property of John Gray. He took off his coat to a system, and was one of the first in his district to experiment in wheat-fertilisers and one, be it to his credit, who paid homage to that man to whom Australia owes an everlasting monument — Farrar. “Our wheat lands wouldn’t be what they are to-day, mum,” he said to his mate, “only for Farrar.”
As Gray became more solid on his feet he originated a system of bores for artesian and sub-artesian waters, which lie beneath the crust of Australia for hundreds of miles, a sea of water that will serve five million homes of five million farmers some day.
Knowing the value of good cattle and good sheep, he stocked from the best blood of the land.
But life was not a cakewalk for the Grays, and it must not be thought that it was. They had their setbacks. On one occasion mother’s little holiday trip to the city went up in smoke, and five hundred acres of wheat went under the flames. Mother never grumbled. She just smiled and said it was a blessing that the fire stopped where it did and didn’t cross the boundary, because the Crocketts on the other side had a big family and were just feeling their feet. “It would have been a terrible thing if the fire had reached them,” she said.
“Still,” said John Gray, “I’m sorry for your sake, mother, because I wanted you to have that trip down to Sydney.”
“It’s all right,” said mum; “it’s an ill wind that blows nobody good. The fire has cleaned up that cloud of grasshoppers that hovered about for a couple of days. They might have been a disastrous plague to the whole countryside.”
Gray nodded, and inwardly he thanked God for the woman who was his mate.
“My word, you’re right, mum! Remember one year how they cleaned up the bullock-paddock and finished up by riddling the green blinds till they looked like colanders, and the boys and myself had to take the stock out on the roads for three months till the rain came?”
Mum only smiled back on those days of anguish.
“Oh, yes, dad; but you always said fire was a great fertiliser; let us hope for a bumper crop next year and so get a double holiday!”
There was a tear in dad’s eye as he went outside murmuring, “Good old pal!”
Such was the position of the Grays when the boom of the last gun had died away in Flanders and the boys were home again.
During the period of war the heart of Mary, the eldest daughter, was away in France, and her prayers included an entreaty for the safeguarding of Bill Osborne of the 13th Batt. So when Bill came back, wearing the M.M., he was a proud Aussie, for he knew the greatest honour he could wish was awaiting bestowal, the hand of a pure merino Aussie girl.
Bill would never tell the story of that war decoration, but somewhere it must be recorded.
It was a golden day of September, and a golden September day in the west is something to talk about. My train had pulled in to Narrawa platform, and Narrawa platform was hot with excitement. To-day was, by all evidences, a red-letter day in the house of John Gray and in the district of John Gray. The whole of the population, including the parson and his grey horse and spurs, had gathered equipped with bags of rice, old boots and confetti, so it was not difficult to understand that a wedding was being well and truly celebrated. In a few minutes the “newly-weds” were right in the fore-front of the moving picture.
He was a clean-cut Australian, with an open and very tanned countenance, a pair of clear blue eyes, and a slight golden tinge running through his hair; the true type the Anzacs were moulded from. There was a silver medallion, indicative of deeds worthily done, pinned to the lapel of his blue serge coat, and there was a more precious award hooked to his arm. The bride was a winsome, happy-faced, plump Aussie girl, whom the big chap could pick up and fondle like a bird. She was most attractive in her prettiness and she took her seat in the carriage, in which I had already made myself comfortable, with all the unassuming modest confidence of the Australian girl.
Cheers and rice came rattling through the car, and the train drew out carrying two very happy scions of the Australian houses of Osborne and Cray, now united.
I felt rather uncomfortable at the outset, and somewhat like the villain of a Dan Barry drama, and that I was foiling the hopes of the hero and the heroine, and for a little while placed myself in the category of “no sport!”
I made up my mind to vacate the carriage at the next stop and give the Osbornes the opportunity of being a little more comfortably intimate in the first stages of their life’s journey, However, my friendly intentions were of no avail, for at the next stop a further invasion of the carriage was effected. When the train pulled up a big chap, with his wife and family — a sturdy kid of about ten months — rushed the compartment. The wife was wan-looking, weary, and sick; and the son and heir, a struggling piece of loud humanity, was more than an armful for her. Behind came the man, a “bonzer” man, tall, rugged, ruddy-brown, with wide-open, smiling eyes, and each hand gripped cushions, bags, a rug, and sundry packages. With care he snuggled-up a cosy corner for his wife, saw again that the various bags and packages were stowed in proper order in the overhead racks, and then took over his son from the tired mother. Young Bill resented the change. He squirmed and he wriggled; he frowned at the harsh goo-goos, and backed away in resentment from the playful pinches of a hard thumb and finger, With kicking, sturdy legs he registered his disapproval; his sparring arms emphasised it, and his tightly-clenched fists proclaimed to high Heaven — and to his sire in particular — that what ire marled down as a goal he would have, even in the face of Government taxation, ticks, rabbits, or trades-unionism.
The big man summed up the position very quickly in so far as the fellow-passengers were concerned; but the medallion on the lapel of the coat caught his eye, and he turned to me.
“Gets me thinkin’,” he said.
“Yes?” I answered, encouragingly.
“Reminds me of a mate in the 4th. ’Struth! If ever a bloke deserved the V.C., he did.”
Then he became communicative. He told me of the bravest chap he ever knew; “a bloke,” he said, “who came across a chap just behind the lines, down, and almost out. He gave him what attention he could and made him as comfortable as possible under the circumstances, and then was goin’ on towards his lines, when he met a couple of diggers coming back, to give the warning of more gas comin’ over. In a flash the big chap from the 4th remembered that the Aussie back there, helpless, was only protected by a mask utterly ineffective against the coming poison of the Huns, So back he goes, fixes his own mask on the bloke on the ground, and goes forward. But, ’Struth! he gets it full, and with no mask; so he goes under. I didn’t know him, but I reckoned if the poison hadn’t got him, a bleedin’ Cross would have been his!”
At this juncture the bonzer kid gave a terrific kick and caught the big chap on the chin.
“Who the hell are you kickin’?” he cried. Then, as he looked at the bonzer kid, he laughed. But the bonzer kid had his monkey up, and there were ructions.
The big chap fought valiantly against the tantrums of the sturdy youngster, while the tired mother, in the corner, smiled encouragement. The big man directed the attention of the plump kid to a dangling strap and indicated the bridegroom as “that nice cobber over there,” but without success — the youngster was still obstreperous.
By this time the honeymooners evinced a deep interest in the doings of young Bill.
The big chap in charge of the sturdy kid hit upon the idea that the clothing of his young hopeful was the cause of the outbreak, and forthwith he reached for a bag from the rack and began to rummage for a change to the chubby kid’s attire — even to an entirely new set of safety pins.
Then came a look of consternation to the eyes of Bill Osborne, and a blush to the pretty face of Mrs. Bill. Up to this point I could see the long golden sunbeams those two young souls were visioning, the hovering butterflies along the flower-bordered road through Life, as they wandered down it hand in hand, their faces ever towards the sun, their footsteps faltering occasionally, perhaps, but never with any loss of the faith and love that was to shine in their lives.
The Bonzer Man worked en, testing the points of safeties, and handing me the first of an all-wise series of winks. A look of surprise, a hasty glance at each other, a peep at the gliding, uninteresting plain through opposite windows, and then cause the second slow, knowing wink. The confetti dropped silently to the floor; odd grains of rice bounced and rolled under the seats, and various conflicting emotions swept across the countenances of the two as they furtively watched the manoeuvres of young Bill as he found less and less satisfactory the thoughtful offices of his father. Then on the face of him, who had only quite recently emphatically declared “I will!” I saw subtle changes, and wondered if he was seeing something more than gorgeous butterflies and flower-bordered walks. But Bill continued spasmodically to jerk his fat, pink legs and wave his tightly clenched fists, The dangling strap became an insult, and with another solemn wink the father reached up to a certain bag on the rack, and lo! and behold, there came forth a spirit lamp! Soon some sort of milk-food materialised, and between occasional glances at the eager watching honeymooners and cheerful winks at me, it found its way into a feeding bottle, and with due decorum and in proper ceremonial was offered to Bill. Bill regarded the peace-offering with scorn. He felt the rubber nipple at his lips and bawled. His face grew red; he swelled visibly; he stretched himself, and the Bonzer Man’s face for the first tine grew confused, and in his smiling eyes there came a changed expression as the next wink passed in front of the blushing pair to me. Young Bill’s strident tones ascended several octaves, and the Bonzer Man rose. He temporarily discarded Bill. I got my next wink, and the bottle disappeared wider the Bonzer Man’s armpit inside his waistcoat; the tubing was pulled through the armhole of the vest, the business end of it reaching to the second top button-hole, and Bill was once more taken up. And he drank. Little, contented gurgles — “yum,-yum!” sort of noises — mingled with the clatter-clat, clatter-clat of the hurrying wheels. The pair settled closer together and engaged in low, murmuring conversation; the Boozer Man handed me a more triumphant wink, the tired mother smiled through a mist, I looked out through a window, and young Bill drank on — and slept. Later the Bonzer Man made a comfy little nest on the seat for Bill, and as he reached near me to place his son therein, after a significant glance at the bright young honeymoon couple, he said in a rumbling whisper: “I’ll take a shade of odds I know what those two have been thinking about! Anyhow, they look the right stuff to make good!”
“That cove there seems to have the material to make good, too,” I ventured.
The big man glanced down lovingly on the sleeping little Anzac. “My oath he will! On the mother’s side he came down from the men and women who made good in the days gone by, the sort of coves,” he further confided, “that planted the spirit of big things out here, and showed the kind of stuff required in makin’ good.”
I thought of John Gray’s life.
“The kid’s a bonzer, isn’t he?” the big man questioned, as he looked across to where mother sat and smiled. And then he looked out of the window, and said, “By Cripes! it’s a bonzer day!”
Jack Moses, Beyond the City Gates: Australian Story & Verse, Sydney: Austral Publishing Co., 1923, pages 47-54
Anzacs = a member of the Australian armed forces, particularly soldiers (may also be used to refer to Australians in general); derives from the acronym of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC), which fought in World War One
Batt. = an abbreviation of “battalion”
bloke = man, chap, fellow
bonzer = (Australian slang) excellent (also spelt as “bonza”)
car = an abbreviation of “carriage”
cobber = friend, mate
cove = man, chap, fellow
Dan Barry = the stage name of John Ringrose Atkins (1851-1908), founder of Dan Barry’s Dramatic Company, which gave performances in theatres and halls in Australia’s eastern provinces (including in its home base of Melbourne) during the 1880s to early 1900s
Farrar = William Farrer (1845-1906), who developed several new strains of wheat in Australia, including the important “Federation” strain of wheat, which was resistant to wheat leaf rust (a widespread fungal disease) and which also provided high yields; Farrer was regarded as “the father of the Australian wheat fields”
feeling their feet = learning how to do things; getting established
M.M. = Military Medal, a medal awarded for “acts of gallantry and devotion to duty under fire” (originally awarded to soldiers below commissioned rank in the military forces of the British Commonwealth)
red-letter day = an important or significant day (from the practice of marking feast days and other holy days in red on church calendars; however, the stylization of using red to mark important days was used as far back as ancient Rome)
rice, old boots and confetti = regarding customs for a wedding day, whereby rice and confetti are thrown over the bride and groom as they leave the church, and old boots and tin cans are tied to the back of the vehicle in which they depart from the church or post-wedding reception
select = to obtain land by free-selection
’Struth = an oath, a contraction of “God’s truth”, also rendered as “Gawstruth” or “Gorstruth”
V.C. = Victoria Cross, a medal awarded for conspicuous acts of bravery in wartime (it is the highest military decoration which can be awarded in the military forces of the British Commonwealth)
[Editor: Corrected “found it way” to “found its way”.]