[Editor: This is a short story from The Bushwhackers: Sketches of Life in the Australian Outback (1929) by P. R. Stephensen.]
Strength of ten
Easily the strongest man was Big Bill O’Reilly, the timber-getter.
He would come into the township, cracking his great bullock-whip, imploring and cursing at his team of twenty working bullocks as they plodded along, yoked in a train of pairs to the lumbering great broad-wheeled waggon with its load of pine logs for the sawmill. Big Bill O’ Reilly, the Oxen-Conductor, everybody called him, with affection. A good-humoured giant if ever there was one, his face, arms and throat burned almost black by the sun; his sounding voice tuned by the dry air to a crack like that of his whip-thongs.
“Wa-a-a-a-ah . . . Baldy!”
“Wa-a-a-a-ah . . . Tiger!”
“Wa-a-a-a-ah . . . Prince!”
We all knew when Big Bill O’Reilly was coming in, even before the two wide-horned leaders of his team came over the hill and began to ease down the dusty slope, Bill applying the screeching brakes to steady his load down the last stretch of the journey.
“Hullo, Bill, how’s things?” somebody would ask.
“Not so dusty” Bill would beam; though he was always, in fact, very dusty.
“Why don’t you give ’em a hand?” some other would ask, meaning that Bill should yoke himself with the Oxen, so strong a man was he.
“Oh, I ain’t in a hurry,” Bill would reply, off-hand; being quite a simple fellow, knowing his strength was, in fact, as good as a bullock’s, and actually not ever being in a hurry.
Many tales were told of his strength. How once, when his mate, Steve Hart, had been caught by the leg under a thirty-feet pine trunk, Big Bill had lifted the end of the tree so that Steve could roll free. He had also, once, in rage, actually felled an ox with a fist-blow, and it was said in the district: “Why don’t he go and fight Jack Johnson, instead of letting Tommy Burns be made a chopping-block of by a nigger?” He could also, of course, straighten a horse-shoe with his bare hands, and the fellows used to say: “Hey, Bill why don’t you go and do that trick on the stage ?” He had also once broken a cricket-stump across his knee at the Married versus Single match, which the reader is advised to try doing if he doubts the strength of Big Bill O’Reilly; and once, losing at poker, he tore the pack of cards across with his fingers, then again in quarters, doubled, then he couldn’t grip the quarters in his big thumbs when he wanted to tear eight thicknesses of the pack, so he bent a half-crown piece between his teeth, and the fellows said: “Hey, Bill, come an’ ’ave a drink, yer gettin’ real dangerous now.”
Over the quart-pots, some argument developed, and Bill got rather surly because Harry Chambers said he knew of a man as strong as Big Bill — a bloke in the Northern Rivers District, who could lift and carry half-a-ton.
“Half-a-ton!” sneered Bill. “You an’ yer half-tons! I’ll bet anybody here drinks for the crowd I can lift and carry a ton!”
He found takers, half-a-dozen, on the spot.
Jack White, the storekeeper, had a whimsical thought.
“Tell you what, Bill,” he stuttered, “I’ve a ton of flour over at the station now, and you might just carry it over to the store for me, would yer, Bill just to save time, like?”
The irony was lost on Bill.
“Orright, Jack,” he grunted. “Orright . . .”
Bill slowly thought out ways and means. All the fellers went with him to Hans’ blacksmith shop, where Bill picked out, from the lumber-heap, the floor of a dismantled spring-cart to serve as a frame to carry the flour-bags on. He got Hans to bend in two iron handles, or grips, bolted to the underpart of the frame just at the limit of grip of his stretched hands. Then he swung the frame on to his back, and trudged to the station-yard, looking somewhat like a beetle, and followed by an encouraging crowd saying: “Hey, Bill, don’t be a bloody fool; never mind showing off; we know you can lift a ton, Bill; never mind; wait till tomorrow, Bill.” Also “Hey, Bill, ain’t yer gettin’ tired, carryin’ that ’eavy frame?”
But Bill was perfectly serious. The “ton” of flour was in a truck at the railway siding. Twenty hundred-pound bags. Two thousand pounds. It was quick work to pile these in a pyramid on the frame, lashed with ropes. The frame weighed about two hundred pounds. To make the wager literal, ten men carried the burden to the weighbridge. Forty pounds short of a ton avoirdupois. After thought, Big Bill motioned to his son, Young Bill, to perch upon the pyramid as a jockey. The ton waited, perfect, for Big Bill O’ Reilly to carry it.
A silence dropped. He’ll never do it. No man could. Stop him.
Then a heavier silence as Big Bill O’Reilly folded an empty sack across wide shoulders, spat on brown knobbed hands, and stooped to raise the frame on its edge in a straight lift.
It was the crowd, and not Bill, who grunted as the pyramid tilted on its base, while Young Bill, cocky and triumphant, squealed with excitement on his perch. Slowly the frame rose on its edge until it was almost perpendicular, and propped against Big Bill’s straining chest.
“There y’are, Sonny,” he grinned at his kid over the edge of the flour-bags. “There y’are!” And the crowd yelled, identified with the achievement, some saying, however: “Har! But will he lift it?”
Again silence as Big Bill changed position, placed his humped shoulders to the underpart of the frame, and braced his legs wide apart for the lift. Silence. Silence as though a god were about to refute calumnies. A silence of doubting Thomases. A somewhat frightened silence suddenly. A fear that, after all, Big Bill O’ Reilly would really lift and carry the ton out of the station yard and across the wide street to Jack White’s store. And also a fear that perhaps he would not carry the ton.
And then the miracle. On that hot day in the silenced Bush, the strength of Bill O’Reilly was the strength of ten men. On that day, but never again . . .
He raised the ton before our seeing eyes, tautening his limbs, his arched back quivering with force; plod, plod; his thrusting feet seeming to shake the ground, wide apart thrusting that dreadful inertia upwards. A ton! a ton! a ton! Impossible, and him only human flesh, a man of the Bush like us all, a man and a crushing ton. “Stop, Bill.” “Put it down, Bill.” “Don’t be a bloody fool.” “Steady, boy.” “Christ Almighty, you’ll kill yourself!”
Plod, plod. The impossible beetle moved across the station yard, out through the wide gates; plod, plod across the dusty street, half-way to Jack White’s store, till some of us wept, I think, because the gods had made us human with Bill O’Reilly, because our own numbed muscles were strained, our own legs were staggering with a force as we trudged exultant besides him.
Half way across he faltered.
“Put it down, Bill. Put it down!” we all yelled, seeing he was done, seeing it was all so foolish — seeing it was only skite after all. Beneath the edge of the dreadful weight, Big Bill’s eyes seemed to sag suddenly as they peered into the impossible distance to White’s store. His great neck seemed to swell suddenly — a gush of blood burst from his mouth and nostrils.
“For Christ’s sake put it down, Bill!”
But Big Bill was beyond hearing any appeal to reason. A crash of hot blood had burst in his throat, and his mightily-thewed knees had collapsed. There he lay, face in the dust; the ton of flour inert on its frame upon his back and loins; and his fingers moved, only his fingers — clawing the dirt as a cramped swimmer might clutch at water.
Ten men, agonised with reproach, lifted the weight from him, and the wreck of Big Bill O’Reilly was tenderly borne into Tommy Brasch’s pub-parlour. His innards were permanently strained, blood vessels had burst, he was done for. That night the township was silent and ashamed.
He recovered after a time, and got a light job as a billiard-marker in the local saloon. A year later he died, and to this day those of us who were there, occasionally boast that we once saw a man lift a ton, but that he ruptured himself doing it.
P. R. Stephensen, The Bushwhackers: Sketches of Life in the Australian Outback, Mandrake Press, London, , pp. 51-61
avoirdupois = a system of weights, based on the pound measurement of 16 ounces (from French-influenced Middle English, “avoir de pois” meaning “property of weight”) (avoirdupois may also refer to heaviness or weight in general)
doubting Thomas = someone who doubtful or skeptical, and who wants proof (from the story in the Bible of the disciple Thomas, who doubted the resurrection of Jesus until he had proof of the event)
skite = boast; boasting
thew = well-developed muscle or sinew; power, strength, or vitality of the muscles