Down on the rock the two friends were talking. Hows about we go ridin' today boy?
Said Andrew to James…
And the two were off to fetch their horses. Andrew was a brilliant rider and could go anywhere at all with ease. When he rode with the other stockmen, some said God hadn't made a horse that could throw him.
James could ride pretty well too for his ten years of age. It was a proud tradition in his family. He would often go mustering with his uncles in the rough country to the south and west of the homestead. His faithful pony was a brown and white paint horse named Apache who was quite clever and sometimes did not want to be caught. He would toss his nose in the air, hold his tail high and canter off up the hill above the yards, always just a little faster than James could run. What a great game he would play.
Andrew knew a thing or two about horses and he would stand while James ran around like a mad thing tiring him-self out. Then Andrew would pluck some sweet long native grass from across the boundary and stand waving it upwind. Sure enough old Apache would smell the tasty treat and walk meekly back to be caught. Andrew always rode his mare Topsy, a shaggy old stock horse he had rescued from a flood one year…but that’s another story.
A days ride took a good deal of preparation and the two friends had learned enough about the bush to know you must think ahead. First of all, the horses would be carefully washed and groomed, paying special attention to any place the saddle might rub or chaff. Then the hooves cleaned and checked for stones, cuts or bruising. Out on the trail your life could depend on how well you cared for your horse. Besides, the animals could always tell who loved them by the way they were handled. One of dad's favourite stories was of a faithful stock horse that had galloped himself to death to save the life of his loving master.
After saddling, James fastened swags to the back of their saddles. A whip and canteen tied to the front and then he made final adjustments to Apache's girth while Andrew gave the ponies a last drink for the road.
Off they went! Past the stockyards, then the cornfields and down the slope to the shallow ford across the river.
The horses were getting excited now and they splashed enthusiastically. Up the far bank at a canter and onto the big flat. This was always their favourite spot for a good gallop. The nice clean paddocks with no fences for ages. There were even a few logs and a narrow gully to jump. Faster and faster they raced, only slowing down just before the old wooden gate to the coach road.
James brought his horse up close and slid the catch with his foot allowing the gate to swing upon. That part was easy. Next he had to back his horse through while holding the gate in one hand to close it after Andrew. Then it was off into the forest.
The day was sparkling, the sun was shining with only a few clouds scattered in the crystalline sky as Topsey and Apache trotted into the dappled coolness of the forest edge. The distinctive smell of the bush was all around them. Molasses grass and Lantana, wet leaves and moist earth. Here and there as they rode along, they caught the sounds of small animals foraging in the underbrush and once they heard a deer bounding away from them through the thickening scrub.
Quite soon they found themselves enclosed by the rainforest and they began looking for telltale signs of something to eat for lunch. Here in the forest, they were surrounded by tasty treats, if only one knows where to look for them. Andrew's people were masters at finding a good meal.
Coming to a spot where an old tree had fallen clearing a large space, James and Andrew dismounted and found a branch to hitch their horses. James remembered what his father had said and made sure not to tie his horse to too strong a branch. This was so that if you were away too long, perhaps having injured yourself your horse could pull away and wander home. Of course, an animal arriving home with no rider would cause quite a stir, and everyone would be out looking for you.
Andrew found a large Blackboy tree and with clever strokes of his knife, dug out the base of the tall stem growing from its centre. This tasted like celery and was filling like a potato. James spent his time hunting for roseapples and water cherries, which are small pink and white berries that grow on large trees in the forest gullies.
You had to be very careful of what you collected to eat. Many things that looked good could be quite poisonous, like the shiny bright red berries of one particular bush. Eating those makes you very sick indeed and you would have to spend days and days running to the dunny!
By the time they sat down together, there was quite a collection in Andrew's hat. There were berries, booyum, pieces of blackboy stem, roseapples and two, -foot long sections of water vine with its tart, sappy cordial inside.
The only thing James wasn't particularly fond of were the fat white 'booyum', or witchetty grubs Andrew liked. They did taste a bit like peanut butter, but after pulling off their heads and squeezing out their innards, he didn't feel much like munching on what was left. Andrew thought James foolish and consumed the things whole.
Then it was up on horseback again for a game of hide 'n tag.
There were lots of trails crisscrossing through the thick trees, overhanging vines and large leafy shrubs had to be dodged as the boys trotted wildly around each other. They shrieked with laughter and many times came close to falling off as the ponies raced down gullies and up steep banks to avoid being caught.
The day was going great and James managed to slip away without being caught. He rode on and on until the sound of Topsey's hoofs were left far behind. Finally, he slowed to a walk and began looking around him. He listened carefully for any signs that he had been followed, but all was quiet. It was ages since he had won this game and finally he would have the battered tin cup, which was their trophy back on his bedroom dresser. After a few minutes to revel in his victory, James began listening to the forest song around him. He had been so determined to out smart his friend that he had lost track of where he was. He called out at the top of his voice "A-A-Andrew!". He listened carefully for a reply. Not a sound. Thinking Andrew might be playing tricks on him he called again, "A-A-A-Andrew?" Nothing. "Coo-o-o-wee!" Still nothing. James began to get a bit nervous. He knew that no one would ever ignore a coowee. It was one of the rules of the bush that you always answered, in case someone needed help.
Dismounting, he remembered what his father said about this kind of situation. First of all, don't panic. Walk up the nearest mounting ridge as high as you can. Then find a very tall tree and climb up so you can see over the land and get an idea of your direction and to allow your voice to carry even further if you call out.
James tried to stay as calm as he could as he began the long hike up the slope. Apache was not being very helpful. He did not approve of pushing through the close growing saplings and vines; even through as they ascended the forest gradually thinned and tasty ferns for him to snatch on the way past began to appear. The going was tough, as the ridge became steeper and steeper. This was hot sweaty work now that the late afternoon sun was shining down on them through the canopy above. James saw an enormous old gum tree just ahead and as they stopped at last to catch their breath, Apache gave a splutter, a snort, and a deep sigh of approval.
There was still no sign of Andrew or Topsey and as James looked around, he began to wonder how to scale the gum. He has an idea. Undoing the buckle at the centre of his reigns, he edged his pony close against the tree, below its lowest branch. Because the tree was too big to reach around, he stretched one reign as far around as he could and secured the end with his pocket knife. Taking the other end, he went around the other side of the tree and rejoined them by the buckle.
None of this made the pony very happy, but he stood there obediently, lashed tightly against the tree. All this was so James could stand on the saddle to begin his climb. Poor old Apache!
Up he climbed, higher and higher into the canopy of the big gum, his riding boots slipping dangerously on the smooth grey bark. James could see the river valley stretched out in the distance. On this beautiful clear day there was nothing prettier.
Arriving about half way up the tree, he discovered to his delight, an enormous hole in the trunk. This happened often in big storms. Large pieces of the tree would break away leaving the heart wood exposed to fill with water and be eaten by ants and grubs and small creatures who help it along by burrowing into the softened timber. Eventually, the whole tree could become hollow, like a pipe, where birds and animals could nest, or bees could swarm, leaving their tasty treasure for a clever hunter to find. James and his friends would find pigeons nesting in places like this. He determined to check it out more closely on his way down.
As he began to climb again, he noticed that the sun had begun to set and pass down over the hills behind him. He had to climb fast. If darkness fell before he got down again, he might not be able to find a safe place for he and Apache to sleep.
Finally he reached the crown of the tree. Wow! What a view! He could see all the way back to the homestead. He could see herds of cattle moving slowly away from their holding pens. He could see the small branding fires like little orange stars against the growing shadows of the home paddock. He knew just the right way to go now to get home, and when he got down…Oh dear! The real stars were coming out now and the breeze was picking up, making his footing in the fork of a thin branch a lot shakier.
The dew had begun to form on the smooth bark as he began to work his way ever so carefully towards the ground. Then all of a sudden, the smooth soles of his riding boots began to slide. He grasped desperately at leaves and branches as they began to fly past. Heels skidding. Whoosh of cold air. He could feel his heart beating in the back of his mouth. He yelled, Ahhhhh! As he fell down and down. Branches crashed into his ribs. Then all went dark as he rocketed down the gaping hole in the centre of the tree trunk!
Sleeves tore as the rough eaten sides scratched down his arms and legs. His bottom got a pounding to as he rattled from side to side down into the belly of this huge old gum. Then CRUNCH! He came to a stop.
A sharp pain shot up his left leg to the knee. His ankle felt as though it was on fire and it throbbed to the fast beating of his heart. He called out in terror and pain, but of course there was no one to hear.
Slowly James calmed down and began to survey the damage. He was sure his ankle must be broken. He couldn't quite reach it to give it a rub because the hole he was in narrowed at the bottom, so his head bumped the side when he tried. He could feel a sticky wetness a tear in his trouser leg, which could be blood. Another thing he noticed, was the heat. All day long the sun had beaten down on the tree trunk. Inside was moist and hot, like the bathroom with a tub full of hot water and all the windows closed. He had begun to sweat from the tough climb and the fright of his fall. As he sweated the salty drops ran down his arms and legs to find every scratch and cut he had. Ooh it stung! He tried to dab carefully at them as best he could with some pieces torn from his shirt.
Mum was going to kill him if he got out of this alive. She had only just made his new work shirt from cloth she bought from the Indian hawker when he came with his camels for his yearly visit two weeks ago.
There was still some sawdust falling from above and with it a million small ants. They were all certain he wasn't meant to be there and told him so with their bites. Now James was a tough lad and had been in some fairly tricky spots before, but nothing like this. As he realised how utterly alone he was, the lump in his throat tightened and big warm tears began to trickle silently down his dusty face.
What would his father do? He was a man who always seemed to have an answer to any problem. Then he remembered a piece of advise he hadn't understood till now…"If ever you find yourself in a really tight spot and you don't know what to do…" - he remembered his father saying - "…sleep on it!" WHAT? You have got to be kidding! Sleep on it? Wit his ankle pounding and his arms stinging and the ants biting and no hope of escape and….he sank down as low as he was able and began to cry in earnest. What could possibly save him now?
Isn't it amazing how our bodies know what we need, even when our brain has stopped figuring things out for us! Some time, while his tears fell, James slipped off into dreamland. A deep exhausted sleep, which flew him away from his pain and sorrows as he dreamed of soaring above those big trees like an eagle. He dreamed of a scratching sound his wings made as he skimmed the treetops. A scratchy harsh sound that made it hard for him to move his wings and he began to fall! Down and down into a cold blackness. Whirling around and around to land with a jolt! He opened his eyes.
For a moment he didn't know where he was and he almost cried out. Then he knew.
It was cold. The sky he could see above him was turning from black to grey. He was shivering. He felt as stiff as an old dried out boot and as he tried to shift his weight to ease the pins and needles in his toes, a sharp pain shot fiery bolts up his legs.
Then he heard it.
The scratching sound from his dream.
Not wings but the sound of large claws on the outside of the tree! Something large and heavy was climbing the trunk towards the hole where he lay frozen. James had seen goannas hundreds of times. He had hunted them with Andrew and even eaten their stringy meat roasted over a Gubbi Gubbi fire. He knew they were as dangerous as any animal that could be found in the Australian bush. All the stories of strange diseases people got after a goanna bite and the horrid tales of the ugly monsters carrying babies away tumbled on a wind of fear through his head.
The goanna was big. James could tell by the distance between the scratchings that this old one was at least seven feet long! Its legs would be as thick as his thigh and its mouth big enough to swallow a cattle dog. As he listened he could hear it getting higher and higher, till finally he saw it's massive snake-like head appear over the rim of the hole above him. Then he realised his predicament. The goanna had been out hunting over night and was now returning home to its eggs in the tree. Guess who was visiting!
James could hear the monsters hissing as it flicked it long tongue out to taste the air. It paused at the rim and them began to scrabble inside the hole. James was really frightened. He huddled down as far as he could and held his breath as he felt sawdust fall from above. The thing was getting closer now and he could smell the rotten breath of the carrion eater as it lumbered down towards him in the half dark! James closed his eyes to shut out the terror, and as he did so he remembered how his dad had told him about reversing a charging bull!
As the huge goanna reached him, it opened its foul maw in a mighty hiss. James suddenly reached back with his best arm and then swung upward with all his might, punching into the wide-open mouth. He reached right in deep as the creature hurtled toward him. Grabbing the goanna's tail bone, he gave a mighty heave and pulled it right inside out. The monster exploded up and out of the tree, dragging the victorious James with it!
He never saw that goanna again. Some of the locals say they have seen an odd slimy thing thrashing around in billabongs, trying to swallow its own tail. Others tell of the stories of a goanna with no skin, but James only smiles his little smile. He and I know the truth.
And now, so do you!