Chapter Twelve: The Dry River

Beyond the Big Bend by Greg Barron

When Captain Cadell pushed through the river bar to the relative calm of the Goolwa Channel, the Randell brothers had suffered through months of waiting for the low and sluggish Murray River to rise. Yet this was no ordinary surfeit of rain, it was a long and terrible dry that became known as the ‘Black Thursday” drought of the early ‘fifties.

Day after day, the waters fell further, until the marker itself was high and dry, and recording the drop became pointless. Word came that the Darling had become a chain of pools filled with floating dead fish – no longer flowing at all – and apparently getting a rowboat through the Murrumbidgee from Wagga Wagga to Narrandera was nigh on impossible.

Through these soulless days, news of Captain Cadell and his progress came constantly, for the big-city press loved to record the Scotsman’s every move. The fitting out of the Lady Augusta had been completed, followed by her departure from Sydney under the command of Captain Davidson. The newspapers reported the new paddle-steamer’s arrival in Melbourne, and didn’t they crow when Cadell himself met his creation at Port Elliot, taking command for the run through the bar!

With the spectre of Cadell on their tails, the Randell brothers waited for a fresh in the river, and the work of improving and fine-tuning the Mary Ann palled on William. Worse still, his father was not prepared to have his sons spend their time in unprofitable activity. It was a bitter blow when Elliot was recalled to the farm to tend the orchards. If all this wasn’t enough, the three-hundred-pound cheque that had been promised from the South Australian government – money that William needed desperately to show his father that their efforts were showing some return – had not arrived, and appeared to have been forgotten.

With each new snippet of news William fell deeper into a sense of despondency that only another visit to Gumeracha to see his family and Bessie could lift him from. It was a cool mid-August day when he spent much of the afternoon walking with Bessie through the crackling-dry paddocks of Kenton Villa, across the road from the Randell’s property, talking of very little, but feeling warm in his heart from every glance and the exchange of some of their very first loving words.

Bessie, at seventeen, was a sensible, attractive and lively young woman. Her face, surrounded by curls, was both determined and full of fun. When they held hands her skin was cool and dry. William had a feeling that anything was possible when he was with her.

His mood improved immeasurably over that very pleasant hour, though this was not to last. Having said his farewells, he was heading home through the Nickels’ front garden when he was hailed by Bessie’s mother, who had been pruning roses.

Elizabeth Nickels Senior, like a good proportion of Gumerachans including the Randells, hailed from Devonshire and spoke with a strong accent. She had the same name as her daughter, but a rather different demeanour. Secateurs in one hand, and a thorny length of rose stalk in the other, Mrs Nickels confronted William across a garden bed fringed with local stone, her stubborn chin out-thrust like a weapon.

‘Excuse us, William Randell,’ she said.

‘Yes, Mrs Nickels?’ He paused, hands in his pockets, impatient to get across the road to a warm kitchen and a cup of tea.

‘Well I just want to tell ee that you’re paying a little too much mind to young Bessie, and I, fer one, am not thinkin’ on marryin’ her off to a bey near twice ‘er age.’

‘Not twice ‘er age,’ complained William. ‘I’m only twenty-nine.’

Elizabeth held her ground stubbornly. ‘Too much difference  fer my liking,’ she said, ‘an’ I won’t have it. Cast yer eye somewhere else, for that’s a union that won’t proceed while I live to ferbid it.’

William stared at her, heart sinking, then turned on his heel, wondering when anything was going to go right for him.

The next morning, as he prepared to leave, William found a gift-wrapped package atop his saddle, which was sitting on a beam that served as a rack in the stables. A card affixed by a ribbon said, ‘From Bessie to William. Not to be opened until you reach the Darling River!’ Smiling again, William carefully rolled the small item in his swag.

In no hurry to get back to Noa-no, William walked his horse all day, then camped beside the track near Narcoonah – a spot the brothers favoured because of a tiny spring and a flat clearing. He had scarcely set off after breakfast the next day when he saw Tom riding towards him at a canter, his horse near blown, horse and rider sweating even in the cool morning.

‘What is it?’ cried William, expecting the worst.

Tom’s face was animated, almost bright red. ‘It’s the bloody river – she’s rising. Twelve inches overnight, and more even while I saddled me horse – I’ve got the boys warming the boiler now.’

There was no need to say any more, for William was already digging his heels in, and his gelding launching off her back legs, eager for the run. By the time they reached the river at Noa-no the measuring stick was again under water, reading almost forty inches and still rising.

‘This is no flash in the pan,’ said William. ‘We can steam as far up as we’ve a mind to this time.’

‘And we’ve still got the jump on Cadell by a few days,’ agreed Tom.

‘We leave this very day,’ roared William. And while the holds were already full of trade goods such as tea, flour and sugar, and the fuel holds were bulging with three-foot lengths of red gum log, there were a hundred final tasks that needed to be done. All the Noa-no farmhands were called to the fray, and human chains passed goods into the Mary Ann, floating free and able to be brought up higher and closer than ever before.

The boiler was blowing off steam, and they were just about to cast off, when the rapid hoofbeat of a lone horseman sounded from further up the lane towards Mannum. William paused from being about to climb aboard for the last time, watching the man come. He was riding too fast for his ability. He was tall and gangly, a little awkward in his seat.

The horseman stopped beside them and swung off his horse, and William cried, ‘Why, it’s the Reverend Davies. What are you doing here?’

The newcomer was pink-faced from exertion, around William’s age, eyes shining with excitement. ‘I was in Mannum, and saw that the river was on the way up. I heard the Lord God in my ears, and he spoke to me.  He told me to ride and beg that you will allow me to journey upriver with you.’

‘We’d be honoured,’ said William, figuring that having one of Heaven’s earthly representatives on their side could only help matters. ‘You only just made it, we’re about to cast off. There may be hardships. Can you manage?’

‘With the Lord’s help, I can,’ said the Reverend.

William turned to one of the crew. ‘Quick, help the Reverend get his gear aboard.’

Finally, a little after one in the afternoon, with just that small group of farm workers to clap them off, the Mary Ann’s paddle wheels began to churn, and away she went into the fast-flowing river. The Reverend Davies was good company, delighting in every aspect of the scene, pointing out this and that on the banks and speaking of natural beauty and its creator as one and the same thing.

William was ecstatic but also sad. Leaving Bessie had been difficult, but his thoughts now roamed over fractured ground. She was still a child. Her mother would never let them marry. They would have to be just friends, the very best of friends. But how could he be happy if she married someone else?

His mind touched on the gift-wrapped package that he was not to open until they reached the Darling. It was nestled amongst his shirts in the drawer in his cabin. For that, as much as any reason, he wished to reach the Darling River as fast as the Mary Ann would carry him.

Continued next week … and in the meantime check out our Australian stories at ozbookstore.com

©2021 Greg Barron

If you missed a week and want to catch up you’ll find all the episodes at: https://www.storiesofoz.com/category/beyond-the-big-bend/

Photo credit: State Library of South Australia

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