Ned and his Neddy
A short story by Roger Britton
You meet some interesting characters in the country, or the ‘bush’, as we Australians like to call the countryside. I had been transferred to a little one-teacher school out in the bush. My job was to replace Ken, my predecessor, who had left because of ill-health. There was no village or shops, just dairy farms, sprinkled along the valley like green islands, surrounded by the steep hills of the Great Dividing Range.
Ken had left a note, suggesting I buy milk from Ned’s dairy up the road from the schoolhouse. After school, I wandered up with a gallon container to meet Ned. Little did I realize how much I would look forward to these visits.
Ned was fat. He seemed almost as round as high. He wore khaki bib overalls, a checked open-neck shirt with a grey flannel singlet peeping out, knee-high rubber boots and a dilapidated straw hat. His receding gingery-grey hair, florid face and worn-down teeth made him an old 60-year-old. You could tell from the face-furrows that farmer Ned had ploughed the tough paddocks of life, but when he laughed, you could sense his love of fun and mischief.
I was soon to learn that Ned enjoyed ‘edu-kating’ the teacher. One afternoon he had a challenge for me.
“Can you ride a horse, Teach?” Ned asked me.
“No, Ned, I can’t.”
“I could learn you. Try on old Tommy. That old horse near the bails. He usta be a great stock horse in his day. I won a lot of them gymkhanas with him when he was younger.”
“Ah course, I was a lot younger, too, and not as well conditioned as I am now.” He grinned, patting his stomach.
“Me grandson Les can saddle him up for yuh. You can go around the house paddock a few times until you get the hang of it.”
I was dubious, but Ned took it for granted that I should learn to ride.
The next afternoon, when I arrived for the milk, Tommy was saddled up and tied to the rail, waiting. Ned showed me how to hold the reins and adjust the stirrups. Tommy acted unconcerned. Once I was seated, his grandson took the bridle and lead me off. After twice around the house paddock, I knew that Les wanted me to go solo.
“Just nudge him in the flank, Sir, he’ll go. Steer with one hand is best.”
I did as I was told, and was delighted to see that the horse walked where I wanted. Though really, I think Tommy was breaking me in.
“Don’t let him put his head down to eat. Pull him up. You have to show him who’s boss!” Les yelled.
“Ride with one leg a bit forward, and take some of the weight in the stirrups. Nudge him again, and urge the reins forward, he’ll trot for you.”
Suddenly, I was bouncing painfully up and down in the saddle, and desperately trying to keep my feet in the stirrups.
“You gotta ride up in the stirrups, Sir, sorta stand on top ev the bumps.”
Again, I followed my 12-year-old student-coach’s instructions, and eventually got some control back. I felt humbled that my pupil knew more than I did. But I decided trotting was not my forte.
By the end of the month, Ned and Les had taught me to canter, which I found more comfortable than trotting. Tommy and I even managed a slow gallop. He was a beautiful old horse with a kind nature, and I understood why Ned loved and had semi-retired him.
“You know, Teach, Tommy and I once fought off a wallaroo to save Ken, the previous teacher,” Ned said, and laughed.
I stared at him in amazement. Walleroos were dangerous. Those kangaroos weren’t as tall as a Big Red, but they were solid, tough and known to fight when cornered.
“Gosh, Ned, how did you save Ken?”
“Well it happened like this. Before we had the electricity here in the valley there was no irrigation pumps or spear-points. If a drought come, the crick would dry up. We had to turn the cows out. Let them fend for themselves. So they would roam up the valley looking for feed and water. Eventually they’d be grazing in the high country where there was a bit of feed, and a few soaks from natural springs and an odd water hole or two.
“Sometimes, it would be a coupla years before the rains come. Then we would have a muster. All us farmers would do it. We would take the dogs for a round-up. Me and some of me mates would ride along the ridges with a coupla dogs pushing the cattle down, and the rest of the men, with their dogs, would work along the valleys driving the cattle along. Out in the lakes country, not real lakes like, they was prehistoric lakes. The ground was flat and wide with short grass. Years before men had built a stockyard to hold them where we had rounded them up. Most of the beasts was branded so it was easy to work out whose cattle they was. Any young ’uns generally stayed with their mothers so that was easy. Any clean-skins, or ‘scrubbies’ as we called them, they was usually ones born out there, was divided up equally and branded with our own brands. Then, with the dogs and horses we would bring them on in to the farms.
“The teacher before you came was a big lump of a bloke. Ken was over 6 foot tall and weighed half-a-ton. He decided he wanted to come on the muster. So we fitted him up with a quiet horse. You think I look like a pumpkin on a pimple, you shoulda seen him! He had a pet Cocker Spaniel dog that he wanted to bring. I asked him to leave his darn dog behind but Ken thought it would be a great experience for his dog so, anyway, we set off. We was going to stay out a few days in the back-country.
“On the second day out we heard the dogs in the valley kicking up a shindig. Ken was with me riding the crests. I thought they might have bailed up a goanna or a dingo at a water hole. But next minute, we could see a huge, angry wallaroo working his way up our ridge. The valley dogs couldn’t jump up the ledges so they gave up and returned to driving cattle. When the ‘roo reached the top of the ridge, he spied my group and bounded away in front of us. It was too much for my old red dog. He thought that he had been missing out on the action. He took off after the roo and so did the teacher’s spaniel.
“That roo musta been puffed because he jumped across a fissure, it was like a little island leaning out from the ridge. The dogs baulked at the gap. The darn little Cocker Spaniel started barking like mad. It must have given my old red dog courage, so he leapt across to the roo. And as he did so, the wallaroo grabbed me dog and hurled him over the side of the cliff! Stuff! There goes me best dog, I thought.
“Ken jumped off his horse and grabbed his dog before it went south, as well. The wallaroo, who musta been spooked, saw his chance and hopped back. It started away from us down the ridge. Ken couldn’t get back on his horse with the dog under his arm so he put it down…and the bloody stupid thing took off after the roo again. Bark, bark, bark down the ridge it went.
“I said to the teacher, ‘We better get down there as the roo will probably head for a water hole. He might try and drown yer dog.’
“So, I shouted to the rest of the men that Ken and me would go down to check. They could continue to drive along the ridge.
“Ken followed me down in a panic as he could hear his dog still chasing the roo. Just below the fissure, there was a bushy tree with a dark shape in it. It was me red dog, would you believe! I stopped to get him down and to see if he was OK. Ken edged past me and went on after his dog. Me dog seemed all right but sore around the ribs. He was real glad to see me. He could walk, so I left him to follow me down. “
“Strewth, Ned, that was lucky for your dog,’ I butted in. “It was a wonder he wasn’t killed.”
Ned raised his eyebrows, nodded, and resumed his story.
“Yairs, well, I followed the barking to the dry crick and, sure enough, there was a soak and a small water hole. The wallaroo’d gone in up to its waist and was standing there snorting. Ken was trying to call his dog away but it wouldn’t have none of it. As soon as I got there, the spaniel dived into the water and swam t’wards the roo. It probbly expected the roo to run again. Of course, the roo didn’t. It reached out, grabbed the dog by the head and forced it under water. It was gunna drown fer sure.
“Ken slid off his horse, snatched up a dead branch, and waded in after his struggling dog. He hit the roo round the head a few times. Enough to make it go mad. It let the dog go and started after Ken. I have never seen a fat man move so fast. Before he could get to his horse it shied and bolted.”
“Gosh, Ned, what happened next?”
“Well, you know that when a roo fights, it likes to grip its opponent with its front claws, rocks back on its tail and using its back feet, rakes the victim’s guts with its sharp big toes. Ken did the only thing he could do. He threw himself face down on the bank with his hands over the back of his head. That roo leapt on him and started pounding him with its hind feet. Ken was bellowing like a wounded bull.
“I tried to ride Tommy, my horse, into the fray and kick the roo off. Tommy was terrified and kept rearing up. I couldn’t get close enough. A small tree was nearby so I broke off a limb to hit the roo. I managed to get the horse into a position where I could hit the bloody wallaroo but without much success. It was hell bent on pulverizing the teacher. Suddenly, me old red dog arrived, saw its chance, raced in, and latched onto the roo’s tail. He held on. The roo spun round but couldn’t reach the dog. With me frantically swinging at it with a tree branch and the old red dog on its tail, the roo must’ev thought it’d had enough and decided to bound off. It lost me dog after a few hops.
“I made certain that the wallaroo wasn’t coming back, I dismounted. Ken was barely conscious. His wet and half-drowned cocker spaniel crawled over to its master and began licking his face as if to apologize.”
“Golly, Ned, how was Ken after that?”
“Well, Ken wasn’t fit to ride. We had to bring him out, laying over his horse, which would have been pretty rough for him. By the time we got him into Denman hospital, Ken had big blue-black bruises all over him from his ankles to his neck. He spent two days in the Denman Hospital before he could stagger out.”
I looked at Ned incredulously. He turned away. Now I knew why I was replacing the incumbent teacher. Ned ambled nonchalantly over to release a cow from the bails. He gave me a mischievous grin when he returned.
“Now that you can ride, Teach, d’you think we oughta take a trip out the back-country? We could see if there was any leftover scrubbies still about. What d’you reckon, Teach? You could bring that little sausage dog of yours…”
“Yeah, right, Ned!”
© Roger Britton
Roger and I were co-students at Armidale Teachers’ College in the sixties. We are both semi-retired now (from teaching), and working to further our creative writing skills. Roger’s writing puts me in mind of Henry Lawson’s humorous stories of earlier days.
As Roger says: “It’s a great time to be alive and to be doing this!”
Please feel free to leave a comment about Roger’s story, or about Australiana writings in general, if you wish.