The first shafts of daylight probe the Sunday morning shadows, as two men meet under the Redlynch hotel veranda, grunting acknowledgment to each other, crossing over to the little timber railway station where Vince, a sturdy, fair-headed forty-year-old, lifts the linesmen’s telephone off its cradle on the outer wall, cranking two longs and a short.
“Control’s here,” answers a voice from Cairns central station.
“Fettling ganger Owens speaking. Could you give me the train times for today?”
“Sure thing, Vince.”
Owens extracts paper and pencil from his breast pocket, writing down the time-table as given, then cradles the telephone, turning to his companion. “Sixty- Six is on time, Dan,” he tells the tall, dark Morrison. There’s no need to elaborate on this blunt statement, both men aware that the train’s due at 7.30 a.m., and all even numbers run up hill, odds down.
The men walk across the tracks and up to their work shed where, after unlocking and entering, they are greeted by a savage hissing. The fettlers instinctively glance across the tool-littered shed to six mesh cages on a raised platform, three of them occupied by hostile brown snakes, heads poised on arched necks. “Mendosa’s comin’ by later this mornin’,” says Vince, “so we’ve only got this run to fill those empty cages.”
They push the section car, mounted on two spiked rails running into the shed, out to the main line, and manhandle it onto the tracks. “Don’t forget Albert’s beer, Dan,” reminds the ganger, climbing into the driver’s position.
Morrison re-enters the shed, collecting the carton of Cairns Draught, before cranking the motor to life and climbing up beside his partner as Vince engages the drive belt.
Although both trays of the car are loaded with shovels and picks there is, strapped to one side, an instrument bearing little resemblance to the tools of a working fettler. Over six feet long, looking like a heavy fishing rod, it has, affixed to one end, two rubber clamps, operated by a cord running back, through staples, to the user’s hand.
Owens and Morrison, employees of the Queensland government railways, designated to run the range line before the first train each morning, are involved in a little private enterprise, catching and selling taipan snakes for their venom (which is used to counteract the poison injected by the deadly bite of the snake) that is in heavy demand in 1960.
Although their destination, Stony Creek, is to the north-west, because of the steep grade that causes the tracks to detour they have to journey several miles southward before turning into the upward climb.
Two miles out, the trolley rattles over the points of Jungara loop-line, shortly after navigating Horseshoe Bend and, within minutes, facing north, climbs into the heights.
From high above, numerous ridges descend from the summit of Mt Williams like splayed fingers from a giant hand. The section car plunges into the first tunnel, and the sound of the engine vibrating back off the enclosed walls is ear-splitting. Emerging back into daylight the men become alert, for in this mountainous terrain with scrub pressing in from both sides live many varieties of reptiles including the taipan, one of the most lethal snakes in the world. Being June, and cold, they come out to warm themselves in the patches of sunlight penetrating the scrub canopy to shine on the railway line.
“There’s a couple of greenies,” says Dan, indicating two tree snakes trying to escape up the cliff face as they watch, one dropping back into the cess, slithering away in their wake.
Presently the section car races onto the Jump-up, a grassy knoll. The fettlers catch a glimpse of Sixty-Six, a steam train, a mile below, puffing away in front of the Redlynch station.
The section car, motor working overtime, plunges on, through three, four, five and six tunnels over bridges that, on the top side, are only few feet high, while on the lower the ground falls away for hundreds of feet. They pass numerous reptiles, mostly tree and carpet snakes. Until, when exiting number nine, Morrison whispers, “Up ahead, Vince …”
Owens shuts the engine off, hits the brakes, reaches for his rod.
As they approach, the taipan, a five-footer, unable to scale the sheer face of the cutting, turns, rearing, preparing to strike.
Vince, using his rod, pushes the snake’s head back against the wall of the cutting and, with the cord, tightens the clamp around the taipan’s neck, then moving forward, seizes the snake’s tail before removing its head from the clamp.
Dan holds a hessian bag open while Vince drops the snake in, closes the bag and ties it up.
They do not restart the motor, but continue on pushing the trolley because ahead, between eleven and twelve tunnels, lives the biggest taipan either of them has ever seen, at least nine feet long. They’ve been after him for months but, so far, the reptile has eluded them.
“In the upper cess, Vince.” Dan emerges from number eleven, pointing to a sandy strip on the top side of the tracks.
The sleek brown reptile is stretched to its full length parallel with the line, diamond-shaped head resting on a sleeper.
The fettlers, setting the trolley brakes, creep forward, Vince with his rod. They’re within feet of it when the snake, which they sense has been waiting for them, slides away, as usual, into a familiar gully. “One of these days, boy,” threatens Vince.
His companion, exhaling a big breath, confesses, “To tell you the truth, mate, I’m not looking forward to tangling with that big bastard.”
“You’ve got a point there,” admits the ganger. “Maybe we should call it quits while we’re still ahead.” They start for the trolley. “Have you ever stopped to consider the consequences if one of us gets bitten?”
“Yes,” acknowledges Morrison, “but I don’t dwell on it.”
The ganger cranks the motor to life, the men riding through the remaining two tunnels to the Stony Creek loop-line. The siding, shaded by mango trees, consists of a men’s quarters, water tank, and a little waiting shed equipped with a linesmen’s telephone.
Dan, carrying the carton of beer, crosses over to the quarters where he swaps the carton for another, much lighter box, this one secured with masking tape, and ventilated with small breathing holes.
“No sign of Albert,” says Morrison, placing the box on the trolley.
“Never mind,” responds Owens with a grin, “he’ll be pleased when he finds what’s waitin’ for him.” Albert’s a recluse who, for the occasional carton of beer, traps field mice for the fettlers.
Several minutes later Sixty-Six whistles. Presently the locomotive, hauling a freight of empty grain and cattle wagons, with several passenger cars preceding the guards van, passes by.
The fettlers, letting themselves out in the train’s wake, start back for home base.
Back in the fettlers shed Vince carefully transfers the taipan from the bag into an empty cage. “Peel the masking tape off Albert’s carton, Dan. Mendosa’s due anytime, so we best feed his taipans.”
Two miles eastward the snake-man’s yellow Volkswagen van is cruising towards Redlynch. The driver gazes up at the mountain beyond the township, eyes focused on the winding course of the Kuranda Range railway line.
Mendosa, a small, olive-skinned, politely spoken man, has already gained renown for his expertise with snakes, especially the taipan, which he either catches himself or buys to milk for the venom. As he drives along he continues to stare up at the mountain railway line. “Taipan Run”, he calls his most reliable source of supply.
The fettlers are in the process of feeding the mice into the reptiles’ containers when Mendosa, carrying some empty cages, comes around from the rear of the shed. The three men watch with fascination, hearing the ping of steel mesh, seeing the threshing snakes manoeuvring, catching, devouring the helpless prey. “Good afternoon, gentlemen,” greets Mendosa, when the carnage ceases. “Magnificent creatures—are they not?”
“We only got four,” concedes Owens, feeling more repulsed than impressed by the spectacle.
“That is quite agreeable, Vince,” assures Mendosa.
“Tell me,” asks Owens, “what would happen if Dan or I were to be bitten, and got stuck up there on the mountain waiting for an overdue train?”
The snake man, caught off guard, stammers, “You’d most probably—”
“Die,” provides Owens. “But if we were to have your antivenin on hand?”
‘My antidote has been approved for use in medical institutes, Vince, but it’s still in the experimental stage, and could prove dangerous in the hands of—”
“Not considering the alternative,” interjects Owens.
“You’re holding me to ransom, Vince,” relents the snake man, “but okay, as long as you abide by my instructions, I’ll bring the remedy and means of injecting it along next trip.”
The ganger nods, and the men take the merchandise out to the vehicle. Minutes later, standing at back of the Volkswagen, looking in at his latest cargo, Mendosa observes, “I see you haven’t got the big one from number eleven—yet?”
Vince, remembering he’d told the snake man about the elusive nine-footer, replies, “He’s a cunnin’ bastard, always camps at the mouth of an open gully. We’ve been shuttin’ the motor off well back, pushin’ the trolley up to him, but no matter how quiet we approach—he always seems to hear us.”
“Their hearing’s not so acute,” says Mendosa. “It’s vibration that alerts them to danger. They can detect the faintest of tremors. If you are going to get him you’ll have to leave your trolley a long way back, and swap those work boots for sandshoes.” With these two polite suggestions, he takes his leave.
“Maybe he’s got something there, Vince,” muses Morrison, as Mendosa drives away.
“Maybe. Come tomorrow we’ll find out.”
Monday morning, being a work day, the gang is at full strength, four in all. Although the other two, Spears and Harris, play no active role in the snake venture they go along for the sake of harmony. To ensure their silence, they receive equal shares in the catch and, for this reason, do not object to the section car departing Redlynch at 6 a.m., an hour before the official starting time.
The putt, putt, putt of the engine sounds clearly in the early morning air as they motor by Jungara siding, come in and out of Horseshoe Bend, and echoes off the walls of number one tunnel, and off the face of the mountain as the section car ascends the Jump-up.
By the time they reach number nine they’ve seen numerous snakes, but no taipans. “This’ll do us,” declares Vince, shutting off the motor. They’ve already told Spears and Harris about their plan to stalk the “big fella” at number eleven. “I’ll give you a yell when all’s clear,” Owens tells them. Then he, armed with his rod, and Morrison with a shovel, both wearing sandshoes, start off.
“We’re in luck,” whispers Dan, as they’re exiting number eleven. “He’s dossing in the bottom cess. I’ll see if I can get by him, and block off that gully.”
The ganger lays a restraining hand on the taller man’s shoulder. “Maybe we should wait until Mendosa delivers his antivenin?”
“No,” says Morrison. “I’ve been living in fear of this snake for so long it’s become personal—and we might never get another chance like this.” He starts off, walking on his toes, closing off the retreat without disturbing the snake.
Vince, rod extended, approaches with caution, is just about on it when the reptile comes to life, rearing up on its belly, neck arching back, head hovering three feet above the ground. Owens feels cold fear gripping his intestines. Never has he seen such an exhibition of controlled poise, power and precision, as the taipan swivels, heading for the gully, hesitating as it sees Morrison with his fending shovel.
The trapped snake, head still airborne, darting from side to side as it seeks a way around the man, comes on. Morrison, alarmed, edges back, slipping on a rock, is down on his hands and knees when the taipan strikes, getting him an inch below the hem of his short-sleeved shirt. The reptile slithers away into its haven.
“My God, Vince—he got me, mate,” sobs Morrison. “What am I gonna do?”
Owens, forming his hands in a funnel around his mouth, yells, “Bring the trolley on, boys!” then, quietly to Morrison, “I’ve got to cut you, mate.”
The ganger, removing a sweat rag from around his neck, ties the tourniquet on his friend’s arm then, taking a pen knife from his pocket, severs the skin, slicing through the fang indentations, covers the incision with his mouth, begins to suck, turn and spit. Suck, turn and spit.
Within minutes the trolley arrives and Owens, pale from shock, begins organising.
“Alf,” he instructs Spears, “run into Stony Creek, get in touch with Control’s. Tell them what’s happened, get them to ring Mendosa—then the ambulance—I want them both waitin’ at the Redlynch shed when we get there.”
As Spears departs, Vince and Harris lift a wide-eyed, sobbing Morrison onto the trolley. The ganger, glancing at his watch, estimates, “I reckon we can beat Sixty-Six to the trolley take-off at number one tunnel. Or maybe even the Jungara siding.” He releases the brakes, engages the drive-belt, the motor shudders to life, plunging into number eleven, and soon the white-painted numbers of the other tunnels are flitting by them, ten—nine—eight—seven—within minutes they’re clearing number two—out onto the Jump-up where, looking down hill, the fettlers see Sixty-Six steaming towards Redlynch.
Owens’s and Harris’s eyes meet, slide away from each other. The trolley take-off is less than five hundred yards ahead, and reason dictates they should clear the line, but neither man is willing to suggest it.
“He’s as stiff as a board, Vince,” mutters Harris, supporting Morrison as, with hearts in mouths, they speed by the take-off platform—through number one tunnel—are soon navigating Horseshoe Bend, the men groaning as the cant of the line arrests precious speed but, after seconds, seeming like minutes, the section car emerges from the bend, regathering momentum as it surges towards Jungara siding.
The hurtling trolley and petrified crew are within feet of the sanctuary when a piercing whistle vindicates their worst fears, as five hundred yards ahead looms Sixty-Six. Owens supports the paralysed Morrison while Harris runs to throw the change lever.
The engine driver, seeing the trolley, gasps, hitting the brakes hard. He closes his eyes, waiting, he thinks, for the inevitable, but the section car squeezes into the siding with only inches to spare. The driver opens his eyes and shakes a trembling fist at the offenders. But the fettlers are already moving towards the other end of the loop, anticipating a clear run into town.
Mendosa and two ambulance bearers are waiting at the Redlynch shed. Mendosa, with a loaded needle, jumps up on the trolley before the vehicle stops rolling, injecting the antivenin into Morrison’s arm. The ambulance bearers move in, quickly lifting the patient onto a stretcher, loading him into their vehicle and driving off.
“He’s going to be alright, Vince,” assures Mendosa. He withdraws a plastic bag from his satchel, offering. “The equipment you requested, mate.”
“The horse’s already bolted.” Owens, suddenly exhausted from his ordeal, remembering the near miss with the train, gestures at the shed. “And when you go, make sure and take those empty cages with you.”
Mendosa takes the ganger’s arm, leading him away from Harris. “You’re upset now, Vince, but think, mate,” and knowing the fettler’s motive had been entirely mercenary, he goes on, “think of the lives your contribution has already saved and will continue to save.”
Owens shakes his head obstinately. “From here on this gang’s steering clear of taipans—especially that big bastard!”
A sly gleam appears in the little man’s sober brown eyes. “Dan could just as easily have been bitten by chance and, without the injection I just gave him, would have been dead before he reached the hospital.”
“I told you to take those bloody cages! And I meant it!”
Mendosa winces. He has a contract to supply hospitals all over north Queensland with taipan venom, and now one renegade snake is standing between him and his most dependable source. The snake man gazes up at Mt Williams and, knowing what he has to do, turns, focusing those mild brown eyes on a resentful Owens. “Would you mind if I hitched a ride up the hill with you boys in the morning, Vince?”