A north wind was blowing as thirty men gathered at the crossroads north-east of the town for a hare shoot. It was late September and there wasn’t much pasture in the paddocks or even grasses growing along the verges beside the roads. There had been an inexplicable increase in the numbers of hares. Rabbits had continued to be a curse, and now there was an outbreak of hares. Hundreds of thousands of pelts and carcasses were being sent to Mildura from all over the Mallee, and then shipped for export. The rabbits and hares were shot and skinned, and their pelts were stretched to dry over fencing wire, bent into a U-shape.
The men stood in loose groups on this clear restless day, waiting until all those likely to turn up were in attendance. The talk was of the meeting called at the Memorial Hall last night and chaired by councillor Bussau, a distinguished speaker, wearing a dark beard and always with a crumpled suit. Men had left the billiard room, and both pubs, to hear what was said, the large turnout reflecting the deepening concern with the economic conditions. It was 1929, and another bad season.
“The council’s worked out that money’s going to get tight!” said a jolly red-faced man. “I suppose they worked that out by themselves. Now they’ll have to be like us and pull their belts in.”
Adam, his clear, unlined, swarthy face radiating a quiet intelligence, was isolated within his private thoughts. He was short but not thin, and despite liking the men in the town he never seemed to be one of them. He kept his thoughts to himself. Adam represented the Courier; he’d attended the meeting and gone home thinking how many changes there had been in the past ten years. This bad season would certainly slow things down. Yet it was the wider arena, where larger clouds were darkening, that worried him. Was it possible that men could lose sight of what had been achieved since the end of the war? These thoughts had kept him awake after the meeting while he’d been penning his report. The yields had increased—the science had worked: the application of superphosphate, the improved tilling techniques, he’d even reread the report about Johnson’s methods when he’d won the Crop Competition five years ago. Johnson’s land was ploughed in April to a depth of three inches, harrowed towards the end of May, skim-ploughed in July, spring-toothed in September, harrowed in February, spring-toothed again in May and sown in early June with ninety pounds of seed, ninety pounds of superphosphate. There had been seven cultivations. And new varieties of wheat, and new machinery—even the roadwork was unrecognisable. Electric lights were in the towns, as well as new drains and footpaths. The Bush Nursing Association had introduced many changes to medical services, including the Baby Health Centres. It seemed to Adam that they had got used to all this.
It was Bussau and Stewart, politicians he considered to be shrewd and forward-thinking, who had formed the Victorian Wheat Growers’ Association and had arranged for a compulsory wheat pool which stabilised prices and made marketing more efficient.
Adam was pretty sure that Alec Cranbourne, the ruddy-faced objector to spending, was a member of the White Army, a secret group who were alert to the imminent breakdown in society caused by increasing government debt, and to the debilitating effects of socialist thinking.
Alec now approached Adam and said: “I don’t think I’ve seen you on one of these shoots before—I didn’t know they held much interest for you.” It was the kind of backhanded talk towards someone perceived to be more educated that Adam had learned to despise.
“You wouldn’t want to count on appearances for any guarantees of a bloke’s values,” Adam countered, “particularly in this community.” It seemed Alec’s face grew even ruddier, but then it may have been Adam’s wish to see it thus. “I was encouraged,” he went on, “by how none of this seemed too hard to pick up if you had the right equipment.” He was referring to the shotgun Alec was carrying. Shotguns were weapons that peppered a target: they did not require the finesse of a fine marksman using, say, a rifle.
“It’s good to see you here,” Alec whined, wishing the man had not turned up.
Ron Hounslow, a farmer from the south of the town, had walked across to Adam. “Were you at the meeting last night?” Adam indicated that he was. “It was a big crowd.”
“Why would farmers vote against a motion offering ratepayers the option to work on the Shire to pay off any money they owed?” Adam asked. “It mightn’t get that bad, but at least farmers would have the choice.”
“Because farmers don’t want to be railroaded. They think they’re independent.”
“You mean dependent. On the season, and on the price!”
Ron was canny, astute, and now a wealthy farmer. “Do you want to say it any louder?” he said.
Adam smiled, his wise shadowed face taking this in. He realised he had a new passion for this farming game. He also felt that he would probably never understand it. He had taken a few lessons in how to shoot rabbits and hares—his time out at harvest with Joe, a farmer new to the district, had brought him to seeing some things differently. This was the least he could do.
“… No need to make excuses.” The words came from a conversation just behind them. “I like Bussau,” was the response. It was Jake. Adam saw that Jake looked thinner, sort of hollow, but maybe it was because he was standing next to Frank, his son. This lad had really grown, unrecognisably from twelve months ago. He was also fit, strong, and had been picked in the team to play in the final.
“We hear Frank’s been making quite an impact on the rabbits!” Ron Hounslow remarked, impressed by any effort to tackle them, and even more when the effort had begun to achieve serious figures.
“Frank can be very determined,” Jake offered. The rawness of the boy in this new unaccustomed body! He stood like a sentinel, looking out beyond the men, anticipating the herding and disposing of the hares—and of any rabbits, as far as that went.
Ron knew that Jake was putting in as much effort on the rabbits as Frank was. It might be because he was keen to put away some money, and had more time now that there wasn’t as much to do on the farm. But he suspected it was more than that. Jake had sold their sheep when they’d run out of feed. He couldn’t afford to buy feed for them, and the money from the rabbits would provide some respite from the bank. He’d had to disclose the problem of the insurance on the tractor, and the bank had agreed that he could lease one. But the bank wasn’t going to lend him any more money. The new tractor was sitting in the shed, as it hadn’t rained; it seemed to Jake that it might be some time before he saw some real mud on it. It was still covered in dust from the appalling dust-storm they’d had in June. They’d got two more cows, and sold the milk and the cream, and the money from the eggs was carefully accounted for, with some put in a tin at the back of the chimney.
Jake was in shock, and had only a remote idea of it. He’d always believed he would get through, stay farming and raise his family, and that Frank would farm the land when Jake got older. It had been hard work, and the simple conception of it was what held the strongest attraction. It had kept him going during those years when he was away in the war, as had the letters from Madge and her news of the baby Frank—that was what helped make sense of that insanity. Only recently he’d read again (how was it possible to have forgotten?): in France alone well over a million men had been killed, including 31,000 officers. For some reason he thought of the bags of wheat that had been carted to the Hopetoun silo, 112,000 bags at the last harvest, each one handled by men who were just like the men he had seen in the trenches—before they became corpses. You can’t make sense of these things, he told himself, although God knows we try.
It had been going all right until that last harvest, when the tractor was burnt. If this season had been similar he could have made it through, but now it was a matter of survival, of putting food on the table. He knew what battling was, he wasn’t the only one in this position; councillor Bussau had a farm, and enough nous to know how many blokes were in trouble. He’s trying to prepare us for it, Jake told himself, so that we might have some chance of taking it. He realised he didn’t have the resources he’d believed he had—he didn’t mean financial resources, now that these didn’t add up to much, but mental and emotional reserves that could be drawn on. He felt a failure because things should have worked out better. He’d thought nothing would ever be as bad as getting through those years at the war, in Egypt and then in France.
He had thought he was being prepared for something—that is, if he survived. It was one of the few ways he could comprehend it. He had to try to understand it, because if you accepted it for the evil it was, there was no reason to bother about anything after that. It was the chance of overflowing happiness which kept him going, of being with Madge. He’d hoped to go farming, but he didn’t mind what he did, he just wanted to provide for his family. Wasn’t that what they were fighting for—for the Australians, the English and the French to be able to keep doing that in their own countries, and not under German rule?
He’d forgotten most of those days in the trenches: the mud and the cold, and the trying to keep your spirits up. He had known right through that the world would go on, whether or not you were lucky enough to survive, and he had some inkling of what the odds were in the cauldron of men’s madness (he’d even scoffed aloud at that), but it felt to him as though it was possible to acknowledge the calm after the storm: he had seen it as a boy in the Western District, and he’d always believed it. The news from home helped. And men’s courage. There were weak and frightened men, some of whom he was surprised by, but he knew from a boy to expect that. It was the courage that held it all together.
Jake wouldn’t have chosen to come out to the hare shoot, but Frank had really taken to the skins business. Apart from wanting to keep the numbers down, Jake didn’t want to be among men with guns. When they’d got into the truck this morning he had glimpsed Madge’s face. He had seen that she was proud of Frank, but also that she felt sorry for Jake, as she knew how he felt about killing things. Frank understood this and did most of the shooting. Jake didn’t mind skinning the rabbits, or the hares now, and the foxes; he’d even got good at it. Frank for his part liked the shooting, he’d become a good shot, so he pushed himself to do as much of it as he could. Jake had told him what he thought he needed to know about his own attitude and the reasons for it, and he’d seen the glassy-eyed look his son gave him as he attempted to describe life in the trenches when he’d been just three years older than Frank was now. “I would’ve gone,” Frank had told his father. “I don’t doubt that,” Jake had replied, “but the question is, would you have come back?” The boy had looked down at the ground. “Angus Blackall’s father didn’t come back,” Frank had added.
There had been quite a few hares shot, their legs tied together and the carcasses slung across the men’s shoulders. There were more hares than Jake would have suspected, and they’d got a few rabbits. Several blokes walked back to where the group had gathered and placed them in the pile. Jake thought he saw Joe across the paddock in the line of the other shooters. He wasn’t sure if Jack Doubleday, Joe’s neighbour, was with him; he knew they sometimes went out together but he couldn’t make out the rounded, rocking form of the old man.
He’d seen Joe in town on a couple of occasions but had not spent much time talking to him. It occurred to Jake that he’d missed Joe’s company; he always liked to hear what the young bloke was up to. He’d noticed that his tennis had improved in the summer. His mother had been up and had stayed at the hotel. She wore all her city finery when she went shopping in the town. Since Joe had moved his sheep out to Jack’s, Jake hadn’t seen as much of him. He didn’t know how they’d gone with the lambs. Joe had brought some new British-bred rams, some Dorset horns, and he was keen to see the results, although this season would surely be a test.
The expression on Madge’s face this morning when they were leaving was more than her feeling sorry for him. It was also her disappointment. Several times recently she had offered herself to him at moments that were not the usual ones. He didn’t imagine that it might have been her need for reassurance, or even for pleasure; he thought she was wanting to accommodate him, to assuage the pain of their circumstances. He wished that she wouldn’t offer herself, as it only highlighted how unbearable this was becoming. She had put her hand on the small of his back, and then on his thigh. It was when she reached to touch his sex that he turned further away. There was nothing he could offer her, or for that matter himself. It was an instinct to recoil from the act of love: how could he allow himself to be cherished when he was unworthy?
The men had begun to move forward, some with bags beating the ground across the remnants of last year’s stubble where hares took shelter. There was a flurry as three hares made a run for it. Frank shot one, and the other two were quickly accounted for. There were no dogs, as the circumstances would have put enormous pressure on their discipline and concentration, particularly if there had been more than one. The loss of valuable working dogs, despite how highly the dogs might have rated the sport themselves, would have been too high a price.
Jake recalled the two hares he had seen grazing just out from his house early one morning when he’d gone to milk the cows. They were large, and calm. The wind was blowing strongly and they hadn’t heard him. He stood beside a tree watching them. Their bodies were long, extremely athletic, their fur was a soft taupe colour. Jake’s idea of hares was that they were long stringy creatures, but these seemed in good condition, with their long heavy ears, maybe five inches long, reminding him of the texture of a moth’s carapace: black-etched edges, white relief, and the mottled orange-brown of the fur. The wind had become even stronger and a shower of rain cast itself across where they were grazing, letting themselves get wet. He liked the peacefulness of it all. Everyone else was asleep in bed.
He didn’t dwell on how changed the creatures were now that they would have some idea they were being herded and disposed of, but he could not stop other thoughts, the images that had come to him for years, usually in the dead of night while Madge slept beside him and the babies slept in the other room. There was one recurrent image that he could not arrest. There was a horse that had fallen, so badly injured that it couldn’t get up, yet it kept trying. He had only his bayonet, and he could not bear to attempt the job with that … He was not thinking clearly, there were bodies all around him, and some of the men were still alive. He chose one to take to safety.
Suddenly it felt as though he’d been blinded, but Jake didn’t know what could possibly have caused it. There was the sound of gunshot all around him, but what had made him fall down? He checked to see if there was something he’d tripped on, and noticed that the men had continued to advance across the paddock. But Ron Hounslow had seen him go down and came back to help him up. Jake felt dizzy and said he wanted to sit down. Ron said he thought it better if he got Jake across to the truck. The guns continued to go off and Ron could feel the man quivering as he held onto him. Jake looked around and asked, “Where am I?”
“We’re going over to the truck, and you can sit down there,” Ron answered. Jake had closed his eyes, and now he reopened them slowly. Ron knew that the man must be exhausted, and guessed that he hadn’t been sleeping. Jake was a strong man; with a bit of rest he should be all right.
Recently two of Ron’s sharefarmers had come to him, asking if he would stick with them through this harvest. Neither of them had applied for loans last season from the Mallee Advances Act, which gave the government a preferential lien on their crops. Without those advances they could not pay their debts. He would have liked it if they’d had more resources and hadn’t had to come to him, but that was the point, they didn’t have them. He knew they weren’t taking advantage of him—he owned five farms, and supposed that he should consider retiring: that was what his wife always spoke for when the subject came up. The men who sharefarmed his land wanted to own their own farms. One was a soldier-settler like Jake, three were farmers’ sons where there’d not been enough land for them to stay farming, and the fifth farm was the land he worked with his son Bert. When Ron had gone to the bank, the manager had asked him to choose, telling him that they wouldn’t extend credit on all the farms. He was reluctant to go against his better judgment, which was not to go further into debt, but he figured there had to be a way to get through this. Farming had been profitable for him and he’d bought the farms when they had become available. Ron was known for his astuteness, and no one questioned the hours of toil and the thinking behind it all. He would support his sharefarmers, but he would have to look at the figures more closely. He wished the shoot would finish. He could see that Jake was not going to settle down until then.
“I could drive you home,” he offered.
“They shouldn’t be that much longer,” Jake replied, declining the offer, as Ron lived out the other side of town. Ron pulled out his tobacco tin and indicated that he could roll Jake a cigarette too if he wanted. This offer Jake accepted.
“I don’t know what happened back there,” he said, feeling better, drawing back on the cigarette. He’d felt dizzy on several occasions lately and Madge had been at him to see the doctor. The cost had stopped him going in.
By now the men had moved quite a way off and he couldn’t make out which one was Frank. “Have they finished cleaning out the channel into the lake?” Ron asked. “The one on the road to your place?”
“It’s nearly done,” Jake said, “but it wouldn’t take much of a dust-storm to fill it again. You weren’t at the last Fire Brigade meeting. We’ve decided to try and put the money together for a new pump. It could be a hot summer—though God knows there won’t be much stubble.”
“It won’t be before time,” Ron answered, referring to the pump.
The men were moving closer to the middle of the paddock. Frank had decided to stay on the shoot. It had been going well. He was keen to talk to Andy Briggs once they finished and he looked in his direction to give him some indication of this. But Andy was talking in a strong whisper to Bert Coulson, and Frank heard him say, “It was a good turn out at Rogash’s on Tuesday.” There was a snigger and a leer in young Coulson’s voice, and Frank suspected he didn’t mind who heard him. There had been a fancy-dress dance in Rogash’s barn for the football club.
“Did you wear fancy dress?”
“Why wouldn’t you? I spent a lot of time outside but,” he bragged.
“Nah. She didn’t turn up.”
“Smith … Sheila.”
Andy screwed up his face.
“… She mightn’t look much, but she’s a good feel.”
Andy smirked. “You didn’t!”
“She’s not fussy. She wants it.”
Frank was finding it hard to concentrate. He knew Sheila Smith, some of the skins were taken to her father’s shed before they were shipped away. She was shy and never paid much attention to how she looked, always moving into the background when people were around. He hadn’t known this about her.
Frank saw Joe moving towards him.
“Did you get many?” Joe asked.
“You count them?”
Frank smiled, a broad open smile. Why wouldn’t you count them, it said. Everything was gauged, measured, that’s how it should be, and this made Joe smile too.
“Is your dad here?”
“He’s here,” Frank said. “I saw him and Mr Hounslow go over and sit in the truck. He’s not too keen on shooting.”