Chapter Twenty-three: The Race

Beyond the Big Bend by Greg Barron

Within an hour of that unexpected visit, the Mary Ann was tackling the first of the hairpin bends upstream of the Murrumbidgee junction, in pursuit of the Lady Augusta. Progress was, by necessity, slow, and William issued orders that the firebox should be kept aglow but not afire, with one of the stokers sleeping and the other worked a four-hour shift, alternating through the night; bringing in wood, emptying the ashpan and giving the engine enough steam to keep up a steady three knots against the current.

‘We’ll take turns also,’ said William to Tom. ‘You go get some sleep and I’ll wake you around three.’

‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ asked his younger brother.

‘Of course I am. We didn’t come all this way to be taught a lesson by an arrogant Scotsman. We’ll come to no harm if we keep our speed down, and it’s a clear night with a good moon.’

The Reverend Davies remained at the helm station, uncharacteristically quiet, while William peered ahead at the river, his night vision slowly improving as time went on, better on some headings than others as the river swung in its wayward angles. The banks here were heavily forested in places, but there were also long claypans near the shore  that glowed white in the moonlight.

‘You’d better get some sleep too,’ William said to the Reverend Davies. ‘I’ll be fine here – it’s quite peaceful at these low speeds.’

‘Oh,’ said Davies. ‘I feel wide awake at the moment, but I’ll head down when that changes.’ He paused to clear his throat. ‘It’s interesting that after we hit that snag back in South Australia you said that you wouldn’t steam at night again. What changed your mind about that? The river is even narrower here. Was it really that careless challenge from a grown man who should know better? You beat Cadell to the Darling – he refuses to accept that loss so now he’s invented a whole new race to his advantage.’

William knew that every word was true. He hadn’t wanted to navigate in the dark again, but Cadell had filled him with a burning rage – one that he could not seem to control – the desire to beat the Scotsman to Swan Hill now filled his soul so completely that even the thought of Bessie waiting for him back in Gumeracha faded out of immediate thought.

‘What is it about Cadell,’ the Reverend Davies continued, ‘that vexes you so?’

William took a deep breath of the river-scented air through his nose, considering the question. ‘I think it’s because even though we’re all newcomers to this country, my family and I have made a commitment to the place. We believe in building a future. Cadell is here only for himself – he craves the admiration of others, money, and influence. I care for none of those things.’ He smiled, ‘Well maybe a little, but not on the same scale.’

‘Cadell is a big talker,’ said Davies. ‘But no one can deny that he’s an able navigator and clever ship’s captain. There’s a place for people like that in the world.’

‘That may be,’ grinned William. ‘But I wish that his place wasn’t right here.’

Long after midnight, Davies did retire to his cabin, and William, alone and weary, was soon in danger of falling asleep. He resorted to singing to himself very softly in the back of his throat, reciting poetry, and building dreams of the future – all based on good business practice and friendship – always on the waters and banks of this Murray River that he loved.

Three o’clock came around, and by then the mist had broadened over the river, so that from the height of the helm station William was peering down into a mystic second river of white suspended over the first one of flowing water. The tips of some snags could be seen emanating from that ghostly mass, others remained beneath.

It was almost three-thirty, and William could not keep his eyes open, when he brought the Mary Ann to a stop and went below to wake Tom. He spent another ten minutes on the bridge watching his brother handle their proud creation through the still-thickening mist.

‘Promise me that if you have any problems or sight the Lady Augusta you’ll wake me up.’

‘That I will, and likewise if we end up hard against some dirty great snag.’

‘In that case, I won’t need any help to wake up.’


For less than three hours, William slept like the dead, and it was the Reverend Davies who shook him a scant two hours later. ‘You’ll be pleased to know that we’ve caught Cadell and his crew napping. We’re just about to pass.’

With a surge of excited adrenaline, William threw on some clothes and hurried to the deck, where it was a brilliant dawn – with reds, purples and mauves in the sky, and the fog still hanging above the river. Water thrown from the paddlewheels also steamed a little, shrouding the afterdecks. Up ahead, the Lady Augusta and her barge were indeed at anchor. Her twin stacks emitted a grey smoke that indicated that she was in the process of heating her boilers.

‘Good work, brother,’ William said to Tom, and he called to the stoker to blow a cheery blast on the steam whistle. This had the effect of bringing guests and crew of both the Lady Augusta and the Eureka out on deck where they stared unhappily at the gallant little Mary Ann, that had bested them on a night-time run.

‘By Heavens that is an ugly boat,’ breathed Tom.

‘You’re right there, but she’s got two very modern engines, and now we are ahead again we’re going to be flat-out staying here.’

Continued next week …

©2021 Greg Barron

Image is of the Lady Augusta, in later years when the accommodation for guests and dignitaries was removed in favour of cargo space. State Library of South Australia.

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