Seize the Moment

FictionIssue Four

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By Errol Bishop


James McFarlane eagerly absorbed the sights and sounds of Australia as the ship made its way up the Mary River, towards the small town of Maryborough.  Almost three years earlier he had left Glasgow aboard a clipper bound for America but as he travelled westward across that vast continent, he became disillusioned with the mood of the American people. Like James, many Americans wanted slavery abolished, but James feared that wasn’t going to happen without conflict.  He could go north to Canada where he had an older brother scrounging out a living searching for gold but Canadian winters were reputedly even colder than Scottish winters which he found hard to endure. Therefore, when he reached California he continued his westward journey arriving in Queensland in the autumn of 1861.

A butcher by trade, and a man of considerable physical strength, James easily hefted his large trunk onto his shoulder and walked up Maryborough’s only street. Here he found a bullock dray being loaded by a grizzled old man.

‘Where are you headed?’ James asked.

‘Inland to settlements and homesteads,’ he was told.

‘Is there work in those places?’ he asked.

‘Plenty of work lad,’ said the man.

‘Could I put my trunk on your wagon and travel with you?’

‘Can you handle a bullock team?’

‘I’ve had a little experience but the teams were smaller than what you have hitched to this wagon.’

‘Then today is your lucky day. Last week I lost a teamster to the Gympie goldfields. I need a man to drive the second team.’

James considered this offer then said, ‘I’ll be happy to drive the second team but I can’t guarantee I’ll make the return trip. I’m not sure what I’m looking for in this land but I reckon I’ll know it when I see it.’

‘I appreciate your honesty son. You can call me Joe. Now let’s go out the back and I’ll show you which beast likes to be hitched where. Your lead bullock is one of the best so you should have no trouble, at least not with the bullocks. The natives might trouble us a bit as we get further from the settled areas but by then we’ll have linked up with other bullock drivers.  It’s safer to travel in groups.

During the week it took them to travel to Ban Ban Springs, the first outback station on their route, James did not even see a native person. Joe had talked a little of the growing tension between blacks and whites explaining that the natives had no qualms about hunting sheep and cattle a practice the squatters could not abide.

The day of their arrival at Ban Ban Springs Station, shepherds had reported the spearing of two sheep and the squatter, Mr Herbert, was livid. He wanted revenge but the perpetrators were nowhere to be found.

‘I feel for the local natives,’ Joe confided during their evening meal.

‘Why? They just killed two sheep that belonged to someone else,’ said James.        ‘True, but I doubt the natives would see it that way. For many generations they have hunted on this land. Furthermore, they believe they belong here. Suddenly, up rides a squatter and turns their lives upside-down.’

‘But what about the law?’ asked James.

‘Whose law, black man’s or white man’s?’ asked Joe as he rolled out his swag and made ready for bed.

Mr Herbert of Ban Ban Springs insisted on being called Mister Herbert but others like Henry Russell of Burrandowan and Charles and William Haly of Taabinga were more relaxed about being large landholders and welcomed James and Joe to their homes with open arms. After all James and Joe brought to these properties essential supplies and building materials.

So began a glorious three-year venture for James walking alongside his team as he ferried supplies to South Burnett homesteads and the new township of Nanango (previously known as Goode’s Inn).

The easy pace of the bullock teams gave James time to absorb the sights and sounds of this raw and unique land. The myriad of strange birds fascinated him and he grew to love the sweet songs of the magpie, the laugh of the kookaburra and harsh calls of the parrots.  Australia enthralled him.

With the blessing of his crofter father who had always claimed the colonies held the promise of a brighter future, he had left home uncertain as to what lay ahead but confident that his father’s optimism was well founded.

One evening, at a campsite called Dingo Creek, James, Joe and other teamsters talked of the Queensland Government’s plan to build rail lines to the interior of the colony.

‘There will be plenty of money to be made off government contracts,’ Joe said.

‘No doubt about that,’ said one of the other bullockies, ‘two new rail lines and the line westward will take years to build.’

‘Perhaps they’ll need butchers to supply meat,’ mused James.

‘Butchers will be in huge demand,’ said Joe. ‘A food supply contract would be very rewarding.’

‘About time the government did something about opening up the country,’ said another bullocky, ‘there’s hardly a decent road in the entire state.’

‘Yeah, I think I’ll take my team to Toowoomba,’ said Joe, ‘and make a few bob off the government.’

So they went. By skirting the northern edge of the Bunya Mountains, an easy route for bullock teams, they crossed from the coastal plain to the western side of the Great Divide then travelled in a south-easterly direction to the small settlement of Drayton. As they travelled across the open grassland named by explorer Cunningham as the Darling Downs, James became enraptured by the obvious richness of this great plain.  The deep black soil and the clean, slow-moving creeks convinced James that this land held the promise of abundance. This was by far the best land he had seen in Australia and he wanted some of it.

To some extent James and Joe went their separate ways over the next three years as James won a contract to supply beef to the railroad crews and Joe won other contracts. As Joe had predicted they made a very good living off these Government contracts. James got to know the Southern Downs well and when the government repossessed part of one of the large holdings squatters had settled years before, and broke it up for closer settlement, James won an eighty acre block alongside one of the small creeks that flowed westward into the inland river system.

Eighty acres! His father had struggled to make a meagre living out of five poor acres in Scotland so with eighty good acres James considered he was blessed. He worked hard and by the end of the first year he had tilled land, planted a crop and constructed a two room dwelling with a cow dung floor.

On occasions local wildlife also intruded on the space inside his hut, the most alarming incident being the morning he woke to find a large brown snake coiled around a crossbeam directly above his bed. There were many snakes on James’s property, mainly king browns, red-bellied blacks and pythons. Suffice to say that James and the snake were not roommates for long.

His first harvest went well but the second year the crop failed due to insufficient rain.  Nevertheless, undaunted by that setback, he improved his property building fences, planting fruit trees, acquiring pigs, a house cow and chooks. In time he hoped to become self-sufficient.

On one of his infrequent visits to town he met Mary, the Australian born daughter of German migrants. Her father worked as a shepherd for one of the wealthy squatters. James was drawn to Mary and over the next few months he could see that, whenever they met, she was also interested in him. Within a year of their marriage not only did their first child Robert arrive but James, with a little help from Joe, built a better house with living quarters and bedrooms separated from the kitchen by a covered walkway. Cooking areas were prone to catch fire and the walkway ensured that, if a fire took hold, they would only lose their kitchen.

Mary proved to be a resourceful person and was soon selling eggs to the general store in the nearby township.  Each week she would pack twelve dozen eggs in a crate made for the purpose and, a few minutes before the train was due, carry the crate on her head to the rail siding not far from their property entrance.

Mary preserved fruit and vegetables each summer. She milked the house cow and made butter. She sewed shirts, shorts and dresses and knitted jumpers, caps and socks to keep them warm in winter and still found time to help James build haystacks when summer grasses were cut to provide winter feed for their animals.

Feeding the animals through winter was a constant challenge for James as the native grasses didn’t make palatable hay. In other parts of the world lucerne was grown, mowed, dried and stored in hay stacks and provided stock with a sweet, wholesome winter feed but there was no lucerne grown on the Darling Downs. So James wrote to his cousin, Charles who lived in the north of England and suggested that, as Charles and his young family were planning to migrate to Australia, they settle on the Darling Downs. James urged him to buy lucerne seed and somehow protect the seed during the long voyage from England because James believed the Downs was ideally suited to the growing of lucerne. Not only would this solve James’s winter feed problem but also he and his cousin could make money selling hay.

When Charles read James’s letter he did purchase lucerne seed a few weeks before his ship was due to leave England. His challenge then was to find a way to store the seed so that it would arrive in Australia in good condition. Consigning the seed to the hold of the ship was out of the question. Not only was space a problem but vermin could gnaw through bags and metal containers weren’t suited to the storage of seed.  Moisture could also damage the seed in the hold of a ship. James’s cousin then hit upon the novel idea of filling his family’s pillow cases with the lucerne seed then stitching sturdy covers over the cases for the long voyage. It worked.

On their arrival in Australia Charles and his family took up land not far from the McFarlanes. The lucerne seed both families planted thrived in the rich soil and, as James had predicted, both hay and seed for future plantings, were in heavy demand by farmers and graziers on the Downs.

‘I never did thank you for urging me to bring lucerne seed to Australia,’ said Charles one day. ‘Without the lucerne we might have struggled but now, because of it we are comfortably well off.’

‘It seemed so obvious to me,’ said James. ‘Frankly I’m surprised that earlier settlers didn’t recognise its potential.’

By 1871, ten years after his arrival in Australia, James and Mary had two young children and were well established on their property. Good seasons over the next ten years boosted the family fortune to the extent that when James’s oldest son Robert turned eighteen, James purchased a forty acre block adjoining the family property in Robert’s name. Their second son George was also given forty acres when he turned eighteen, as was William the third son. By the 1890s the McFarlanes owned two hundred and forty acres of rich Downs country, land they farmed co-operatively but when those hard years of the 1890s hit they were shaken to the core.

After three very dry, unproductive years southern Queensland suffered three consecutive cyclones in one year. The small creek that bordered James’s home block became a raging torrent each time, destroying fences, drowning livestock and washing away valuable topsoil. The land barely had time to dry out from the first cyclone when the second one hit. Aware that the weather was worsening James mustered the cattle along the creek flat and was driving them home to the yards when a snake rose out of the grass causing his horse to rear, unseating James. His head hit the ground hard and he lapsed into unconsciousness. As soon as the riderless horse returned to the house everyone headed for the creek paddock to search for James. He was still unconscious when they found him and, although he eventually made a full recovery, he remembered nothing of the events of that day.

The dawning of the new century brought renewed confidence but not without moments of sadness along the way. Their fifth child, by then a young man, died of snake bite and their youngest was taken by diphtheria. Losing those children was particularly hard on Mary. She took solace, however, in the knowledge that she and the man she loved so dearly raised eight beautiful children all of whom did them proud.

‘Our children are all grown up and managing quite well on their own,’ he said to Mary one day. ‘Why don’t we take a long holiday to Europe and visit your relatives in Germany and mine in Scotland?’

‘I’ve no desire to go to Germany,’ Mary replied. ‘You forget James that I was born here. In fact I was one of the first white children to have been born in this district. Why would I want to visit relatives I’ve never met in a land that I do not know? My parents left Germany in 1840. They feared that the discontent that existed between various German provinces could erupt into open conflict. They were proved right. It did in 1848 but by then  they had built a new life in Australia.  It’s different for you. Scotland is where you were born, where you grew to manhood. I understand why you want to go but perhaps you need to go alone. I’ll be here waiting when you return.’

In his later years James did visit his brothers and sisters in Scotland. Mary did not accompany him preferring to stay at home surrounded by her children, grand-children and great-grand-children.

Nothing had changed in Scotland. Those family members who were still there struggled to eke out a living which confirmed for James the veracity of his father’s words all those years before when he urged his children to seek a better life by migrating to the colonies. One daughter now lived in Fiji, another son was a sheep farmer in New Zealand and James’s brother who had gone to Canada had set himself up well in British Columbia.

It seemed strange to James that those who had remained in Scotland revered him as though he had done remarkable things in his life. Perhaps he had been lucky, perhaps he had been in the right place at the right time but he certainly didn’t consider himself to be remarkable. They, however, viewed his prosperity as a symbol of something better than what they were and what they had.

Returning home to Mary on the Darling Downs he realised he now identified more strongly with Australia than he did with Scotland.

Australia was the land he had come to love. Here, he belonged. Here, surrounded by his sons and daughters and their offspring. Here opportunities abounded and he wondered what his grand-children might achieve in their lives if they could seize the moment as he now realised he had been able to do in his youth.


Artwork by Jackie Benney. Published with permission of the artist.