An Aussie Prodigal
I’ve been shearin’ and drovin’ all me life. And I’ve seen some things in me time, and folks of all types.
But the time I spent on Donovan’s station after the war, well that was really somethin’.
Old man Donovan was the kind of boss every jackaroo or shearer just dreamed of. Fairest man this side of the Murray I say, well both sides, and don’t let any man naysay. But what he done that year of the big harvest, well they still talk about it to this day down at O’Malleys pub.
Like I said, it was 3 years after the war, and well, old mother nature had dished out one hum dinger of a year. The wool on the sheep was so fat you couldn’t see their legs, and the wheat, well it was so high in the paddocks they hired school kids to sit on the shoulders of the horses to steer the reapers. Yeah, that was a good year for old man Donovan. He was sittin’ pretty. And Casey the bank manager, he had a smile a mile wide too.
And then it happened, the day his heart was broke. Reckon it near broke every man jack of us too.
You see old widower Donovan had two boys. Loved them somethin’ fierce too. Mick, the eldest, well ‘e was big and strong, the silent type. And work? Never a man could out shear, out ride, or plough a straighter furrow in double quick time as Mick. Knew every paddock, every gully, every tree of Donovan’s lease like the back of his hand, and worked harder than any man I ever saw. Loved his dad, loved his land, loved his work, Mick did.
And then there was Toby, the larrikin. Don’t get me wrong, ‘e was a fair worker was Toby, but oh he liked a party Toby did, and a practical joke. He’d just as likely start a two up game in the middle of the crutching, or bet a tenner that he could shear the house cat without getting a scratch as do just about anything. And we all loved Toby. But that summer ‘e broke old Donovan’s heart.
Y’see he said to his dad, and I tell no lie, Murphy, the ringer heard it clear as day, ‘I’m off Pa, I’m going to Melbourne to make my way. And I want my share of the family dough. It’s been a good year and you’ve got cash to pay me out. You and Mick like this life, but I want more. I can make it big in Melbourne, but I need my stake, and I need it now.’
The old man tried to talk to him, but when Toby said what he said next, well it took the wind right out of him. ‘You might as well be dead livin’ ‘ere.’ Says Toby ‘It’s the life of the livin’ dead, it is.’
Yep, old man Donovan was broken hearted. Y’see, he loved his land, loved the bush and was proud of what he built. And he always dreamed of setting up the boys one day. Did it all for them. The light just plain went straight out of ‘is eyes that day.
But strike me ‘e did just like Toby asks. So before the summer was out ‘e sold the South bend lease to raise the extra cash. Didn’t really have what Toby figured ‘e was due. And then Toby just gets all his gear together, and rides off. Eleven thousand guineas they reckon he give Toby that day, a princely sum even for a station owner the likes of Donovan. Casey, the banker and him had a blue over it too, but his mind was made up, and off Toby went, with horse and cart, and a banker’s cheque for eleven thousand guineas, heading for the big smoke, to make it big. I had a terrible fear for the lad, too right I did. Smart and quick, but a country boy ‘e was, an’ I’ve seen what those city coves are like. That’s why I ride boundary on Donovan’s station. City life’s too ugly, too cutthroat for any decent man.
From that day on, the old man just gave in. Mick picked up the slack, and took over runnin’ the station. Donovan just moped around the house, would stand for hours at the gate and look down the track, like ‘e was waitin’ for Toby to just walk back in.
Well, I heard from a mate later that year what happened to Toby. Got caught up with those Carlton spivs and pimps real quick. They can smell a tenner on you even if it’s tucked in your boot, they can. And Toby lasted about 3 months while they bled him dry. Yeah, make it big he said, make it big.
Seems he just couldn’t resist the booze and party girls, poor Toby. He always was a sucker for a pretty face and a bottle.
Well Charlie, me mate in Carlton, reckons Toby went to laboring at the Footscray cattle yards first. An’ then the next year the big drought set in. We was all right up on the Murray, but those poor sods down south, well it never rained for 10 months on the go. Farms was just dust from one end to the other, and even the gums died. Never seen the likes I tell you. The cattle yards closed, and men was out of work all over Melbourne as well as the bush. Grim times I tell you it was.
So as it turns Toby ends up working for a piggery in Bendigo. Strewth, how far down can you go? Mucking out stalls, washing down filthy sows to go to market, and sleeping rough in the pig sheds, all for what? Pride I guess. Toby had a lot of that, but then don’t we all?
That’s where I ran into him one day. Old Grumpy and me were down to Bendigo with a truck picking up supplies and seed, and Mick asked us to get a couple of sides of salted pork to supplement the station fare.
You coulda knocked me down with a feather. We was talking to the boss at the piggery, makin’ the deal, when he calls out “Toby, here lad, I need ya.”
And this stick of a figure, filthy as the any pig on the joint come sloping out from one of the sty’s. But I recognised him alright. Can’t mistake Toby, even if the gleam and swagger had gone from him.
What to do, tell him how his pa was missing him so? Nah, you gotta remember we are Aussie blokes. Most things are best left unsaid by our rules. Toby and another labourer loaded up the two sides of pork, and he just slunk off.
A month later, well what a turn up. I hadn’t dared tell the boss about Toby, might have made him worse, ‘cause he was still spending most of his time standing at that gate lookin’ down the track. Coulda sworn he was praying too. Maybe he was, pillar of the church as well as of the community he was, so I guess ‘e was a prayin’ man.
That’s just what he was doing this chilly Spring morning, cuppa in hand, standing and staring, when all of a sudden that tea just flies up in the air as ‘e lets off a shout, “Toby, it’s me boy Toby!” and the old man is off and running down that track lickety split. Never seen an old geezer with such zip in him in all me days.
‘E outran us, and when Charlie and I finally caught up with ‘im, there ‘e was, arms wrapped around this washed out, filthy rag of a lad on ‘is knees cryin’. Toby alright, no mistaking it.
“Pa,” ‘e was cryin’ “I been starving Pa, and I know I’m not your son no more, I gone and done so much wrong ‘agin you and God pa. But gimme a job in the shearin shed will you? I’ll do you right I will.”
The old man never answered; ‘e just turned to me, and in between his own tears says “Harry, quick, go up to the house. Find my best riding coat, the boys cold. And my best boots too, and woollen socks.”
As I turned, he calls out “Harry, go into my room too. In the dresser, top drawer, is my best watch, the gold one mama bought me for our anniversary, bring it with you, don’t forget.”
“Charlie” he called out to me mate. “Go find one of the new calves in the East paddock, get the boys to help you kill and dress it quick. Get it on the spit right away. We’re going to have a party tonight, nothing but the best. My boy was dead but now he’s alive. We’re celebrating big time.”
And we got busy, and how the whole station was abuzz with excitement, that is till Mick rode in from checking the mob in the river paddock. He just looked, station hands running round excited, spit fired up, an ‘e asks me “What’s goin’ on Harry?”
So I tell him, “Toby’s come back Mick, ‘e looks a sight but it’s ‘im for sure, and your pa’s got a spit goin’ and us organisin’ a party. ‘E said to watch out for you, to let you know so you can go and see the boy straight away.”
“See Toby?” he roared at me, “See that filthy rag that wasted most half the value of this station on booze and hookers? I’d rather choke on a dust storm than see that toerag.” Furious ‘e was!
Just then his dad comes out and seein’ Mick there comes runnin’ over to get him. Tries to get him to go and see Toby, whose resting up in his old room.
What a raging row that was, all Mick mind you. ‘is dad was in tears tryin’ to get ‘im to go in and see ‘is brother.
But Mick riled up even fiercer, “Pa, not once, not once do you hear, did you ever make this kind of palaver over me. I’ve worked my butt off my whole life, run this place while you pine away lookin’ down the road for that mangy rat you call your son. Why, you never even put a stringy goat on the spit so me and my mates could have a barbie. Now nothin’ but the best for that worthless toerag soon as ‘e turns up after nearly ruining us so ‘e could waste it all on ‘is spiv mates and scrubbers. No way pa, I ain’t comin’ in!”
Well, old Donovan just looks deep in Mick’s eyes, like ‘e could feel the boys pain. ’E goes kind of quiet, ‘an ‘e reached out and took Mick by the shoulders and looked ‘im in the eye, an’ ‘e says –
“Mick, you’re my number 1, always have been. This whole spread is yours, and you know it. Toby’s done ‘is dash on that score. But your brother, yes Mick, not just my son, your brother, ‘e’s back from the dead, and yes, we’re gonna celebrate.”
Well, time’s a wastin’ and the fires near out.
Yeah, I know you’re itching to know what Mick did next, and how it all turned out. It’s late boys, time to hit the sack. Reckon I’ll have to save that story for another day.
But to wrap up, we all learned somethin’ deep that day from old man Donovan. Before that I reckon not a man jack of us on the station would have given Toby time of day.
Forgiveness! That’s what Donovan taught us that day. Reckon every one of us went to bed thinkin’ on the grudges and resentments we were all carryin’ round ourselves. Carryin’ round like back packs full of rocks if you get my drift.
Never gonna forget it m’self, the day Toby came home, and how old man Donovan welcomed ‘im and forgave ‘im.