In search of a cure for restlessness, a wanderer finds himself adventure bound for Australia, lured by a job that manifests itself equal parts fascinating and altogether brutal…
by: James Hanna
Author’s Note: Fifty years ago, feeling like a prisoner of the American Dream, I took a job on a cattle station in the Never-Never. The memory of this indiscretion grows stronger every year.
The moment I stepped out of the Land Rover, I was assailed by hordes of flies. Ravenous, sweat-thirsty bush flies that covered my face like a mask. The flies were my first impression of Birdstone Station, a remote cattle outpost in the Top End of Australia’s Northern Territory. The station consisted of a drab cookhouse, a squalid drover’s barracks, and a corral filled with spindly horses. It did not impress me as much as the flies.
“How long until you get used to them?” I asked Jim Cooper, the rangy headstockman who had picked me up at the Darwin Airport. He was a weathered man with a permanent squint, and he had driven me two hundred miles to this remote, forbidding place. Most of our drive was on a graded dirt road through an endless scrub of tea trees. Fascinated, I watched as big red boomers and blue-tinted does leaped out of the path of the Land Rover and thud-thud-thudded away to vanish among slender paperbark trees. Would this be a cure for the restlessness that had made me drop out of a midwestern American college, catch a tramp freighter to Australia and talk a cattle company in Brisbane into flying me to the Top End? I had lied when I said I was a cowboy, and I had hoped to get away with that lie. As I swatted at the flies, I now realized the worthlessness of my deceit.
“How long?” Jim Cooper said with a laugh. “Mate, you never get used to them.”
“They’re enough to drive you mad,” I said, spitting a fly off my lips.
“My oath,” said Jim, “but if you weren’t mad to start with, you wouldn’t come here in the first place. Even the abos don’t hang around long. We used to have a crew of black fellows — blokes who were born to the land. The bloody lot of them went walkabout a couple of days ago.”
“Why would they want to go walkabout?”
“Only an abo knows,” said Jim. “They go walkabout all the time. The only reason we hire them is that no one else suits the land.”
Will this cure my suburban boredom? I wondered as my eyes drifted back to the scrub. The impenetrable sweep of paperbarks was a bleak yet thrilling sight. Perhaps I would still find less to be missed as a drover in the Northern Territory.
“It’s not civilization,” I conceded. “Or anything close to it.”
“Forget about being civilized,” said Jim. “Only madness will help you out here. Besides, there’s nobody on this station but us and a drunken cook.”
Had I come too far? I speculated as I tried not to breathe in the flies. In my quest to find an adventure, had I fallen into an abyss?
As though reading my mind, Jim shook his head and patted me on the shoulder. “Mate, the Outback has no use for the nonsense that brought you here. If you listen closely to the land, you oughta hear it laughing at you.”
“Maybe it will look better from horseback,” I said. I was not unfamiliar with horses, having grown up riding them in Brazil when I was a State Department brat. Was it my love of horses that had nurtured my wanderlust?
“Crickey,” Jim replied. “If your horse steps in a pig hole, you’ll get thrown and break a leg. After that, you’ll either die of thirst or the wild pigs will eat you up.”
Was he teasing me? I wondered. I attempted a joke of my own. “What if I take a canteen and a shotgun?”
Jim snorted and rolled his eyes. “If you regard the Outback too lightly, mate, there’s a lot more ways you can die. A water buffalo might gore you, a bush fire might suffocate you, or you might get so lost in the scrub that you’ll ride in circles all day. Unless you have a black fellow with you, you won’t last long out there.”
“Suppose I go walkabout too,” I said. “Maybe I’ll run into one.”
“We still have a job to do here,” said Jim. “You don’t need to go looking for black fellows — they’ll come to us when they’re ready.”
A hint of movement caught my eye, distracting me from the flies. It was a sand-colored wallaby inching toward a creek, as though undecided if it would drink.
“So we’re not going to muster cattle,” I groused.
“Not ’til the abos get back,” said Jim. “Two white blokes aren’t enough to handle a mob of untamed cattle.”
“When do you expect them back?”
Jim popped opened a tin of tobacco and rolled a cigarette. Tremors in his calloused hands suggested early Parkinson’s disease. “A week or two — no worries,” he said. “The buggers always come back. When they’re done with their bloody walkabouts, they want to earn money for grog.”
“So what’s this job you have for us?”
“The bog runs,” Jim said. “That much we can manage. We’ll do the bog runs, mate.”
The following morning, we started the day with a breakfast of bully beef. A surly cook fried it up for us and served it with beetroot and tea. He also made us bully beef sandwiches, which he tucked into brown paper bags.
As we settled into the Land Rover, I commented on our breakfast. “How come we have to eat spam?” I said. “We’re on a cattle station.”
“Have you seen the cattle here?” Jim muttered. “They’re nothing but hide and bone.”
The Land Rover jounced aggressively as we traveled beside the creek. Jim said we were heading towards Darkie’s Hole, one of the furthermost paddocks on the station. Steering the Land Rover skillfully, he maneuvered it through a village of termite castles — towering reddish structures that looked like ancient ruins.
“I wish I was back on the Alice,” said Jim. “This country belongs to the pigs.”
He was referring to Alice Springs, a cattle town in the territory’s Red Centre. In the days to come, Jim would talk frequently about the stations near Alice Springs. That his wife had died on one of these stations, her blood poisoned by an ironwood splinter, did not diminish the reverence with which Jim spoke about the heart of Australia. “But I left the Centre after she passed,” he said. “That was over a year ago. A drought killed so many cattle that there wasn’t much work to be found.”
“What was her name?” I asked.
“Ileana,” he said, “but that’s a bit of a mouthful. I called her Helen for short. Now I’ve had better pokes from the lubras, but we were married for almost three years. And all she could do was nag me about going to live in Brisbane. I finally told her she could go with me blessing, but she passed before that could happen. An ironwood splinter, the size of a pin — that’s what did her in.”
We rode for an hour in silence then entered a sweeping fenced paddock. Emaciated cattle watched me suspiciously as I opened then shut the gate. As we drove on, we passed through savannah dotted with eucalyptus brush, and an emu sprinted alongside us as though challenging us to a race. The country was so epic that the paddocks all had names. “We just entered Horse Paddock,” Jim explained. “The next one is Flying Fox Paddock. Around noon, we’ll come to Darkie’s Hole and that’s where we’ll check the bogs.”
When we spotted a dingo, Jim swore and brought the Land Rover to a stop. The dingo was lying by a patch of cane grass, which was no more than a stone’s throw away. It perked its ears and looked at us as though we were alien beings.
Retrieving a high-powered rifle from the boot, Jim aimed at the gaunt, yellow dog. “This three-oh-three will bring him to justice,” he said as he steadied his aim. “Dingoes are the only buggers I know who will kill for the sport of it.”
The gun boomed — the dingo yelped then trotted into the cane grass. “Got him,” said Jim. “He’ll die in there once he finds a hole to lie down in.”
Jim put the Land Rover back into gear, and we continued towards Darkie’s Hole. “In Queensland, they put up fences to stop them,” he said. “But no fence ever stopped a dingo from killing a mob of sheep.”
“How long since you were in Queensland?” I asked.
Jim scowled. “Not long enough. I served two years in Boggo Road Jail — that was twenty years ago. After I served me time, I left that bloody state for good. Been in the Territory ever since.”
“Why were you put in jail?” I asked.
“Queensland has too much law,” said Jim. “The coppers charged me with the rape of a minor, but a fair go is what it was — a little Tasmanian whore who lied about her age. She did five other blocks before she fucked me then she tried to charge me a tenner for sloppy seconds. The tart ran straight to the cop shop when I wouldn’t cough it up.”
I nodded with genuine sympathy, not doubting Jim’s tale for a moment. Instead, I could only envy his fierce independence of spirit.
Entering Flying Fox paddock, we drove through a towering fig tree grove. The sinewy bark of the fig trees looked like bodies blended in wood. Jim downshifted the Land Rover to a crawl and guided it through the trees.
A burst of piercing shrieks announced our arrival in the grove. High above us, the sky was black with countless flying foxes. The racket they were making suggested that Judgement Day had come.
I opened a final gate when we arrived at Darkie’s Hole. The paddock was a mudflat with a scattering of billabongs. As we rolled towards one of the billabongs, I was struck by a rotting aroma, a smell so penetrating that it grew difficult to breathe.
The billabong was a mile in length and as wide as a football field. It was littered with cattle that had come to drink and sunk to their shoulders in mud. Mobs of feral pigs were feeding on the cattle, pigs as black as the dingy mud that held the cattle fast. The pigs bounded across the mudflat as we approached the billabong, and a falcon rose above them, emitting its prehistoric cry.
Jim drove along the bank of the pond, inspecting the helpless cattle. Most appeared to be dead or in various stages of dying. A few were lowing plaintively and struggling to free themselves, but the majority looked as passive as Hindu monks in prayer.
“Look at their shit,” Jim advised me. “That will tell you which ones might be saved. If the shit is old and crusty, the bugger is long past saving. If the shit is fresh, that means the poor sod might have a bit of a chance.”
Many of the cattle had been partially eaten, including some that were still alive. Jim parked beside a trembling bull and handed me the .303. The beast had several deep wounds where the pigs had gobbled its flesh, wounds that shrank then expanded as the animal labored to breathe. I looked at his shit. It was drier than wood.
“Do the right thing,” Jim said.
I held the rifle as though it might burn me. “How do I do the right thing?”
“Stand over the bugger then trace an X between its horns and its eyes. Shoot in the middle of the X. That’ll do the job.”
Having never shot anything before, I sat as though paralyzed. I then slipped out of the Land Rover and slogged towards the beast. It looked at me indifferently as I hobbled through the mud.
My heart hammered as I stood over the animal and traced the imaginary X. I pointed the rifle at the center of the X and took a shallow breath. As I pulled the trigger, I flinched as though slugged. The gun did not make a sound.
“Release the safety,” Jim called.
I uncocked what I thought was the safety and aimed a second time. The gun spoke as I squeezed the trigger, the stock jerked against my hip, and a hole the size of a penny appeared in the forehead of the beast. The animal shuddered as though electrified then died with a passive grunt.
“Good on ya, mate,” Jim called, but I did not feel worthy of praise. Instead, it seemed that I had done something so vile it could never be repaired.
We continued our drive along the billabong, and I executed a dozen more cattle. Each time I traced an imaginary X then shot the beast in the forehead. With each successive killing, the job grew easier.
Finally, we came upon a heifer that appeared to be salvageable. She was struggling furiously in the mud, and her shit was olive green. At Jim’s direction, I unhooked a steel cable from a winch bolted to the bull bar then I waded into the muck and looped the cable over her horns. The heifer bawled and stiffened when Jim activated the winch. Seconds later, she slithered out of the mud as though the pond had given her birth.
I unhooked the cable from the animal’s horns and she lumbered to her feet. Her eyes were bright with fury, and she kept bawling as though possessed. When she dropped her horns and charged me, I tried to leap aside, but a horn scraped my chest so deeply that it felt like the tip on a knife.
In an instant, Jim jumped from the Land Rover and grabbed the heifer’s tail. When she turned and tried to hook him, he shouted, “You bloody, mongrel bitch!” He skillfully yanked the tail — the animal collapsed in a heap — then he wound the tail under a hindquarter and spread the legs apart.
“Come here and hold her,” Jim ordered. “I’m gonna fetch the snippers. Mate, next time you turn loose a bogger, make sure you first cut off its horns.”
I gripped the animal’s tail. “You might have told me that first.”
My remark — an attempt to be witty — was like whistling in a morgue. It could not compete with dying cattle, the carnage wrought by the pigs, or a stench so overpowering that it almost enveloped us.
Jim cut off the beast’s horns with a huge pair of pruners while I kept pulling up on the tail. When Jim was done with the pruning, he told me to let the animal go.
“She has no fight left in her,” Jim said, and we walked back to the Land Rover. “She’ll sit there awhile and then she’ll probably bog herself again.”
He turned the winch back on. The cable retreated like a snake. As we drove away, the hornless beast watched us with uncomprehending eyes.
We hauled several more cattle out of the billabong as the afternoon wore on. I snipped off the tips of their horns with the pruners before Jim turned on the winch. After the winch hauled the beast from the mud, I nervously freed what was left of its horns. If the animal rose and charged me, I followed Jim’s example, leaping behind it, grabbing its tail then jerking it off its feet.
“You’d think they’d be grateful we saved them,” I grumbled as we continued our drive around the pond.
Jim snorted then spat through the driver’s side window. “We’re saving them for the slaughterhouse,” he said, “if we ever get them there. Mate, you’re a bit of a yobbo if you expect them to be grateful.”
“They don’t know they’re going to be butchered,” I insisted, “and it’s better than being eaten by pigs.”
“So you’d rather those poor, bloody bah-sterds got eaten by gentlemen?”
We followed the bank of the Daly River as we headed back to the station. It was a huge silty waterway, a quarter-mile wide, that wound towards the Timor Sea. Jim stopped the Land Rover whenever he spotted a beast bogged in the riverbank, and I scrambled down the thirty-foot embankment and hooked the cable over its horns. The horns plowed ruts into the dirt as the animal was dragged up the slope, sometimes to clear the top of the bluff and lie panting on the ground, other times to topple back into the river, its skull popped off like a bottle cap. The corpse, sweeping downriver, would vanish in a boil of water, dragged beneath the surface by saltwater crocodiles.
“Now those crocs won’t attack you on land,” Jim said, “so you don’t need to worry about them. Not unless you’re as small as a wallaby, you don’t.” Despite this assurance, I studied the water whenever I hooked up a beast. When I spotted floatage, I convinced myself it was a log from a mangrove tree. I was always surprised the log changed directions then moved against the current.
A blood-red sunset reddened the clouds when we finally got back to the station. My pores were itchy from bulldust, so I took a dip in the creek. A flock of magpie geese scolded me as I plunged into the water — their primeval cries as old as the dawn of time itself. The creek was cool and cleansing, so I splashed about for an hour, but the fetid stench from the billabong remained in my lungs and throat.
The next morning, Jim tossed a few packs of cartridges into the boot of the Land Rover. “We’re going to have a bit of a pig cleanup,” he said after he slipped behind the wheel.
As we headed back to Darkie’s Hole, I looked stoically at the land. It was not a place of promise, a place to be hustled or tamed. As we jounced along, I could almost swear that I heard it laughing at me.
Jim talked about his departed wife as we traveled alongside the creek. “The Red Centre was driving her troppo,” he muttered. “I don’t think she could have survived it. So I said she could leave with me blessing, but a splinter took her life.”
“I’m sorry you couldn’t save her,” I said.
“She wasn’t a bad sort,” Jim replied.
Once we were back in Darkie’s Hole, Jim told me to reload the rifle. The pigs had returned to the billabong and were feasting on the bogged cattle. A few of the cattle were bellowing as the pigs tore into their flesh.
I slipped a magazine into the .303 then I tucked a clip into the chamber. As I closed the bolt, I felt an unexpected thrill of anticipation.
“I’ll run them down and you shoot them,” said Jim. “Do you think you can manage that, mate?”
“Let’s do it,” I said. I felt no compassion for the gluttons we were about to kill. After seeing what they had done to the cattle, I knew I would have no trouble shooting them.
Jim flattened the accelerator, and we charged the billabong. The pigs scattered in clusters across the flat. We bore down on the largest group.
A huge, limping boar with shriveled hind legs was lagging behind the rest. I uncocked the safety and took careful aim as we captured ground on him. Before I could shoot, Jim swerved towards the boar and struck him with the bull bar. Squealing with terror, he bounced off the bar and collapsed on my side of the Rover. I fired and missed. The boar lumbered to its feet like an old man getting out of bed. Hooking blindly with one of his tusks, he lunged in our direction.
Panicked, I ejected the shell and fired a second time. The slug slammed into the snout of the boar, and it rolled onto its back. The boar started squealing so lustily that I felt I had pumped life into him. I kept firing, my hands shaking so badly I could barely control my aim. The slugs thwacked rhythmically into the pig as though I were beating a carpet.
Once the boar lay still, Jim gave me a bit of advice. “Take your time shooting,” he said. “You’re wasting too many bullets.”
“I was shitting my pants,” I protested.
Jim chuckled and watched me reload. “If you shoot them behind the shoulder, you won’t have that problem, mate.”
We continued to chase the pigs and caught up with a bunch more. Most were sows with litters of piglets scampering behind them. Following Jim’s instructions, I shot some behind their shoulders. In less than a minute, several more pigs lay still upon the ground.
Jim stopped the Land Rover and frowned. “The sucklings too,” he instructed. “The dirty, little runts will starve without their mums.”
As I watched the litters of piglets crowding around the dead sows, some vestige of conditioning made me put the rifle down.
“Pity won’t help them, mate,” Jim said. “Here, I’ll show you what needs to be done.”
Matter-of-factly, Jim picked up the rifle and chambered a couple of clips. He then stepped out of the Land Rover and shot the piglets one by one.
After he had killed the piglets, Jim said. “Let’s have ourselves a smoko.” He leaned the rifle against the Land Rover and gathered a few sticks of scrubwood. Placing the sticks in a teepee-shaped pile, he set them ablaze with a lighter. We squatted while the crackling wood heated water in a billycan.
That our netherworld included a tea break was puzzling to me. The Outback, in all its darkness, had ingested me with such ease that I felt undeserving of anything that might give me a momentary break. But the water started to jump in the billy, and Jim dropped in a handful of tea leaves then he fetched a couple of pannikins and filled them with boiling tea.
My hand trembled as I accepted a pannikin. I took a sip of tea. It tasted so bitter, I spat it out.
“Would you like some sugar?” said Jim.
We ran the bogs for several more days, and the chore seemed increasingly futile. What cattle we managed to save usually bogged themselves by the next day, but Jim seemed fiercely determined to salvage what beasts he could. We also kept slaughtering pigs and, at first, I aimed over their heads. But when I saw them eating the bodies of the swine we had already killed, I lost all sense of propriety and shot as many as I could.
After a week of bog runs, I was weary and disgusted. “You know,” I said, “only Sisyphus has a task that’s worse than ours.”
“I dunno the bloke,” said Jim, “but he must have a cunt of a job.”
The bog runs ended the next morning when the aboriginals returned to the station. They were a rail-thin lot with sunny demeanors and skin as black as tar. I gave them a nod and they gave me their friendship — it was as basic as that. They turned out to be the most charitable people that I had ever met. And they helped me catch my horses when we prepared for the morning musters, and they rescued me whenever I managed to lose myself in the scrub. I reciprocated by cantering behind them when they chased down enormous scrub bulls — when they leaped from their saddles and brought down the beasts by jerking on their tails. If they missed the toss and the bull tried to hook them, I lifted them onto my horse. They called me bungi — their word for mate — and they grew closer to me than brothers.
I did not evolve into a stockman — I rode too poorly for that — but at least I could stick to the saddle when we rounded the cattle up. At least, I could amble behind the herds and coax the stragglers along. I grew adept at spurring my horses away from pig holes and feral boars, and one day, I hung on when a spooked Appaloosa tried to buck me off.
But the Outback had killed me as surely as my adventures had set me free. Whenever I think of the bog runs, I still hear it laughing at me.
James Hanna wandered Australia for seven years before settling on a career in criminal justice. He spent twenty years as a counselor in the Indiana Department of Corrections and recently retired from the San Francisco Probation Department where he was assigned to a domestic violence and stalking unit. James writing has appeared in over thirty journals, including Crack the Spine, Sixfold, and The Literary. His books, four of which have won awards, are available on Amazon.
Header art by Deborah Williams.