Chapter Eighteen: Closing the Gap

Beyond the Big Bend by Greg Barron

The Murray Valley had changed its character many times since the Mary Ann left her makeshift boatyard at Noa No. It was sometimes narrow – bounded by steep cliffs, and sometimes broad, with grassy floodplains stretching to distant hills. At times spectacular rock bars narrowed her width, or the rising waters inundated lagoons as wide as lakes and thick with birds. The journey was slipping into a routine, with the engineer learning to ‘baby’ the boiler, and incidents had become less common.

Now, however, as William steered the game little steamer across a fast current near Paringa, the left-hand bank was gently sloping, well-grassed, and adorned with yellow flowers. On the right was a low knoll, and a cluster of huts and sheds at its base.

‘There,’ cried William, pointing ahead. ‘John Chapman’s station ahoy.’

‘I see it now,’ agreed Tom. ‘And it looks like they’re expecting us.’

This fact was obvious, for a flag was flying on a rough bush pole with an Irish phrase stitched onto the face, ‘Céad míle fáilte.’

William turned to the Reverend Davies. ‘Any idea what that means?’

‘It means a “hundred t’ousand welcomes”, to be sure,’ said Davies, delivering an Irish brogue as if he was born to it, making the elder Randell brother smile. And as they neared the jetty, John Chapman and a brace of his workers made up a greeting party, standing on the freshly sawn timbers. Behind them stood a vast pile of cut firewood. Seeing this, William frowned, for he could discern no reason for it. Still, there was much to do, bringing the steamer alongside, placing fenders on their ropes, and making the paddle steamer snug to the jetty.

William knew John Chapman by reputation only, but he liked the man straight off as he jumped over the gunnel and down to the jetty to meet him. The station-owner was older by around ten years, with a weathered face, big hands, and a slow-talking manner that telegraphed honesty and good manners.

‘I can’t tell you how excited I am about the opening of the river to navigation,’ Chapman said. ‘We ran out of tea a week ago and the carriers aren’t due with our next supply load for a month. The girls have been drying native mint leaves and brewing a cuppa from that out of desperation.’

As the deckhands assisted in unloading an agreed quantity of flour, tea, rice and tobacco, the rest of the party walked towards the homestead. On the way William asked Chapman about the pile of firewood. ‘There must be ten ton at least. What’s it all for?’

Chapman, in his straight-talking manner, did not try to avoid the question. ‘Captain Cadell wrote to me a few weeks back. He asked if we’d cut and stack fifteen ton of fuel in three-foot cords. He offered a good price so I agreed. It seems that he’s in a powerful hurry – I hear that he’s nigh on reached Moorundie as we speak.’

William felt a jolt in his  chest. I didn’t realise that he was so close.’

‘Travelling day and night, I hear,’ said Chapman, ‘by lantern light when he needs to. They say that he won’t be slowed down by man or God.’ He paused. ‘From what I can work out he’s just four days behind, and closing the gap fast.’

‘Looks like we’d better get a move on,’ said William.

‘I’d hate to see the damned Scot win,’ said Chapman. ‘Take what you want from the wood piles. My men will make it up before Cadell arrives.’

‘That’s a tempting offer, but I don’t have much in the way of cash to pay you. I could let you have a little extra flour, but I need to establish the trade further upriver and show my father that the trip is worthwhile.’

‘No charge,’ said Chapman. ‘As I said, take what you need.’

William inclined his head. ‘In that case I can only say that today you have made yourself a friend and ally. One day, when Cadell has gone to some new challenge across the sea, I will be running a fleet of paddle steamers past this station. Your kindness will be repaid in ample measure.’

‘It seems then,’ said Chapman, ‘that I have made a sound investment for the future.’

*****

With the knowledge that Cadell was so close behind, William did not waste too much time on Chapman’s tasty luncheon of roast hogget and sweet potatoes. By two they were engaged in loading not only cut wood, but fresh fruit and vegetables, and a keg of salted beef. By four, filled with that delightful sense of having sealed new friendships, the boiler was hot and the twin paddlewheels propelled them out into the stream.

‘There’s a good moon until at least midnight,’ William declared. ‘We’ll get as far as we can. With that damn Scot on our tail we can’t afford to relax.’ But he was worried, for with two, sometimes three knots of river current now against them, they were barely making four knots of headway. Cadell’s more powerful steamer would surely be doing better.

‘How far to the Darling Junction?’ asked Tom.

‘A week, if that darn boiler holds up, and we don’t dawdle like we’ve been doing. We’ve five tons of wood on board, thanks to Mr Chapman, so that saves us a full day of hard work for a start.’

Tom had lately, now that they were away from their father’s disapproving eyes, taken to smoking a pipe, and this he produced now, thumbing some tobacco into the bowl and lighting up with a vesta struck on the bulkhead. Once it was drawing well he observed; ‘Perhaps we should have thought of that – having piles of wood cut for us along the way.’

‘It’s a mindset thing, isn’t it?’ Davies asked. ‘The famous Captain Cadell finds ways to get other men to serve him, whereas you Randells are a breed who likes to do things for themselves.’

‘True words,’ agreed William, spinning the wheel to avoid a deep snag, barely the tip emerging from the river just ahead. ‘Yet, it always seems to be the other kind of man who builds empires.’

‘That’s not what you want from life, surely?’ asked Davies.

‘Not an empire, no. The kind of success Cadell wants is not what I aspire to. Given the opportunity, a man like him will subjugate and enslave. I’m more interested in building friendships and networks – a business based on trust and friendship like my father has done at Gumeracha. A man’s kindness benefited us enormously today. Both of you surely know that his kindness will be repaid many times over – and I will never forget.’

‘Bravo,’ applauded Tom. ‘A man needs rules to live by, and I think that yours and mine are the same.’

‘Each man,’ said the Reverend Davies, ‘acts according to his nature, but in some the capacity for empathy is buried deep. Bravo indeed, and the success you will no doubt find will be richly deserved.’

*****

Running at night was strange but beautiful, with sparks flying heavenwards from the stack, and the shapes of migratory birds far above on their long journeys under the stars. It was a strangely calm evening, until an hour before moonset when the Mary Ann struck a hidden snag. This began with a terrific thump, lifting the starboard bow to a terrible angle and causing shouts of consternation below.

William heaved the wheel sharply to starboard, and cried, ‘Shut off steam.’ And almost as soon as the paddlewheels slowed, the hull came around, scraping along an underwater obstruction. William prayed silently that the pressure would not burst a seam or smash a timber.

It was all over in a moment, but William felt sick to his stomach. The most dangerous snags were hard enough to spot in the daytime, let alone in darkness. With the steamer dead in the water they opened hatches, leaning down with a lantern and checking for damage below the waterline.

‘No damage at least,’ Tom said at last, as they and the crew gathered on the open deck with a thin moon above, and the rhythmic heaving call of a tawny frogmouth coming from somewhere nearby on the bank.

‘We survived that one by the skin of our teeth,’ said William. ‘That’s it. I won’t go another yard tonight. If the cost of beating Captain Cadell is a hole in the hull then it’s not worth it.’ He turned to the stoker. ‘Close it down, just enough to keep it warm for a start at daybreak. We’ll set off then like a scalded cat.’

Yet, even when he retired to his bed, William could not sleep. The spectre of the Lady Augusta, with her decks crowded with dignitaries and sight-seers, eating up the river miles, was all too real in his mind.

Continued next week …

©2021 Greg Barron

Image is an 1860 sketch of Paringa Station by Charles Babbage
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