Beyond the Big Bend by Greg Barron
William Randell preferred not to steam at night, and as August moved into September the longer days made that dangerous practice unnecessary. Rising at four, the Mary Ann’s crew built the fire methodically, introducing heat to the still-warm boiler as fast as they dared. Most mornings the boiler was blowing off steam when the first reflections of dawn glimmered on the river surface, and the piston moved in the jacketed cylinder, imparting motion to the beam.
Accompanied by a huff of steam being expelled through the valves, the beam’s longitudinal motion ended in a cam, providing rotary power to the twin paddlewheels. It was always a moment of relief to William, when the wheels turned for the first time, dripping with river water, and within three or four revolutions the Mary Ann’s hull began to move.
Over those next few days, at the helm with a strong mug of tea, William steered the game little steamer on an easterly heading, passing out of South Australia. From then on Victoria claimed one bank and New South Wales the other. They made good time, apart from occasional stops to cut fuel, or when the boiler needed cooling – it still leaked if the stoker allowed the firebox to burn too hot.
The Murray valley, in the last few days, had grown more arid. The banks were still lined with stately river red gums, but immediately behind it stretched plains of saltbush and bluebush, along with Mallee trees.
On the morning of Saturday, September the third, William gave the helm to Tom while he consulted his charts – sketches really, based on the movements of explorers and travellers – annotated with snippets of information heard in river inns and from the local people of the river. A moment later he looked up at his brother and grinned. ‘I don’t believe that we can be more than a mile from the Darling.’
‘Really, that close?’
‘I’m certain of it. We’re going to beat that bastard Cadell!
‘Well done to us then,’ said Tom. He pointed ahead at the river surface, ‘And look at how the colour of the stream changes from the left bank to right! The Darling waters aren’t mixed in yet. We’re close, and no mistake.’ And he called down for Davies to join them on this historic occasion.
The three men were together in the wheelhouse when they rounded a bend, and up ahead they saw a narrow, wooded isthmus in the middle of the stream, and a yellow-brown channel on the left.
‘The Darling,’ shouted William.
Reverend Davies let out a whoop, then a shout of praise.
A deep excitement pervaded William’s chest. Not only because they had beaten Cadell to this spot, but that they had done something historic. Also, there was a package in his little cabin, that gift from Bessie that said on the card, Not to be opened until you reach the Darling River.
Tonight, he would open it.
William brought the Mary Ann alongside the jetty at McLeod’s Crossing, the little settlement just inside the Darling mouth. He and Tom did a roaring trade at selling flour, outside the Inn, and squatters rode in from miles around to toast the voyagers and inquire of cartage prices. Many had wool clips they had been unable to move for months. Others wanted to view the steamer and her engine.
There were wild bush characters of all kinds at the Inn, and the Randell party took it in turns to keep watch on board the Mary Ann. They were taking no chances with theft or worse.
In any case, William had no intention of remaining in the Darling for long. By mid-afternoon they threw off the lines and motored back down, around the long sweep of the junction, and into the Murray.
‘So we’ve beaten the famous Captain Cadell to the Darling,’ said Tom. ‘What’s the next challenge?’
‘He’s not far behind us,’ said William. ‘It would be a shame to let him beat us to Swan Hill. I’d like to get another ten miles behind us before we stop for the night.’
After supper, long after they had tied up to a snag for the night, William took the package from his desk drawer. The gift had been sealed in a biscuit tin, and he grasped the lower section in his right arm, with the nails of his left hooked under the lid while applying a gentle, steady pressure. The lid soon parted from the bottom of the tin.
Inside, amongst a slight smell of must, the gift itself was wrapped in gold paper. Inside he found a card no bigger than the Queen of Hearts, the front illustrated with one of Bessie’s own honest watercolour scenes of tawny-yellow hills and sharp gullies.
Laying the card down, he opened the rest of the package. He found a gold frame, and inside it a daguerreotype of Bessie herself. William breathed out. In his life he had seen only a very few daguerreotypes. It was akin to magic, as if she were suddenly within that tiny cabin with him. It would have been expensive and difficult for her to have obtained the image – there were several practitioners of the photographic art in Adelaide, but she would have had to travel to their studio and sit still while the machine worked its magic.
William continued to stare at the image for some minutes. Nothing else but this young woman seemed important now, not even having beaten Cadell to the Darling; not opening up the river trade, not impressing on the South Australian authorities that a few brothers from the Adelaide Hills could build a river steamer from scratch that could trade the length of a nation’s mightiest river.
As William opened the card a lock of hair fell out, and he squeezed it between thumb and forefinger, feeling the clean texture of the fibres. Three words fell from his lips, ‘Oh, dear Bessie.’
The card’s interior was filled with words in neat and small script.
By now you will be riding at anchor in the far-away Darling River, and your achievements, brave and well-deserved, will be a matter for history books.
Lest I have become vague in your memory, I enclose a likeness of myself and a lock of hair to remind you.
I look forward to the day when we can be together in the kind of companionship I hope and pray for.
William could scarcely believe it. This was as good as a declaration from the woman he loved. She was telling him that in spite of her mother’s feelings they would be together. They had a future.
He raised the lock of hair delicately to his nostrils and inhaled. Some vestige of her scent must have remained, for it triggered strong emotions in his heart, and brought tears to his eyes.
At that moment William knew what he must do when they returned to Gumeracha, that quiet place in the Adelaide Hills. His future was on the river, but he could not tame it alone. Only one woman in the world could possibly take her place beside him, and somehow, her mother had to be brought around to accept him.