Chapter I : The Drover / by Pat Ritter

The Drover

Chapter 1

Claire woke in the night startled by the storm and lightning strike. She sprung from her swag, dressed and threw a saddle on her horse, fastened the surcingle all in one movement.
Her instincts took over to saddle her horse and help ring the cattle before they stampeded. Excitement of the chase exploded inside her mind and body, not giving time to think what a nine-year-old child was about to do. Rain soaked her clothes through to her skin. Her hat stuck to her head fastened only by a thin rawhide strap across her forehead to stop it from blowing off. Swinging into the saddle she rode like demons possessed her small body, to help her father. The thrill of the chase ran through her veins, each muscle in her nine-year-old arms and legs strained to their limits, the mental toughness to help her father not being able to sight him caused her to wonder where he was. She needed to find him. Riding her horse at full gallop, lightning striking around them, cattle running in all directions out of control. Through the faint vision of rain and wind, she saw a silhouette of a horse and rider, riding like the wind to get in front of the leading bunch of cattle to ring them round so they slowed and  stopped. The moment she saw the horse and rider she knew it was her father. She felt a deep love. She would do anything to make him proud of her. With lightning flashing above her head and near to trees, thunder exploded, wind and rain lashed her face, her hair streamed from beneath her hat; she rode on urging her horse into the chase. Without fear she jumped her horse across a log in the pathway and stretched her small body along its neck. She urged him forward to the front of the herd and came abreast with her father, his right arm out-stretched; she heard the familiar sound of a whip crack. There was calm, the cattle stopped. With the final sound of a whip crack competing against the lightning and thunder, she rode up beside him. Claire thought her father was God, better than God; he could do anything just like God. She held him on top of a pedestal which reached for the sky and loved everything there was to love and would do anything to please him to earn his love and respect. Harry took a moment and thought about the time his daughter Claire helped him stop the cattle from stampeding. She was brave, very brave; and at such a tender age. He felt so lucky to have a family he loved and cherished. Harold Clarence Williams was born in the country town of Dirranbandi in 1930; his dream began when he was 10 years old after hearing the poem Ballad of a Drover recited around the camp fire. At an early age his father nicknamed him ‘Harry’ for short; he was known by that name for the remainder of his life.

‘Ballad of the Drover’

By Henry Lawson

Across the stony ridges, across the rolling plain,
Young Harry Dale, the drover, comes riding home again.
And well his stock-horse bears him, and light of heart is he,
And stoutly his old packhorse is trotting by his knee.
Up Queensland way with cattle he’s travelled regions vast,
And many months have vanished since home-folks saw him last.
He hums a song of someone he hopes to marry soon,
And hobble-chains and camp-ware keep jingling to the tune.
Beyond the hazy dado against the lower skies
And yon blue line of ranges the station homestead lies.
And thitherward the drover jogs through the lazy noon,
While hobble-chains and camp-ware are jingling to a tune.
An hour has filled the heavens with storm-clouds inky black;
At times the lightning trickles around the drover’s track;
But Harry pushes onward, his horses’ strength he tries,
In hope to reach the river before the flood shall rise.

Was he Harry Dale from the poem? They had the same nickname. At the time he heard the poem, he saw in his mind’s eye, his life, to learn the craft of droving. Harry was born the 5 th child of 11 children; 3 boys and 8 girls. His family were drovers from the top of their broad brim hats down to their R M William boots and loved what they did. Harry’s father worked as a drover in the Dirranbandi, St George and Bollon areas in southwest Queensland where he lived a simple life. As soon as Harry discovered what he wanted to do, his world changed in one day. It happened when the Principal at Dirranbandi State School, which Harry attended, contacted Harry’s father to speak with him about Harry. At their meeting in his office, the Principal said to Harry’s father, ‘Mr. Williams, Harry isn’t doing well at school and I think for the boy’s future he should go with you.’ His father agreed. Harry hated school and couldn’t see the sense in going each day when he could be out working with his horses and dogs. His father survived through life without an education and he would do the same. I’ll learn by listening to older men who’d been there and done it, it’ll be better than going to school, he always joked. It was difficult at times when he needed to read, because he didn’t learn how to read or write only to sign his name in a scribble fashion he could only understand. Apart from having little or no education he possessed an immeasurable sixth sense to understand what he needed to do and to do the task to the best of his ability. He prided himself for being as honest as the day is long and abided to this honesty for the remainder of his life. Mervyn Barrington, his uncle, cleared bore drains for a living, using draft horses to tow a delver. A delver is steel constructed ‘A’ frame appliance with wooden wings on either side. Up to 14 draft horses towed the delver through the bore drains to clear silt or rubbish and allow the water to flow from the bore head along miles of drain to water stock. From an early age Harry possessed an ‘eye’ for a horse. Shape, conformation, colour, head shape, distance between the eyes, sensibility and most important the horse’s personality.  There were rogues and also well-behaved horses, much like humans. He reckoned when he harnessed his uncle’s draft horses and hitched them behind the delver he spoke in their language; he knew each by name and had them eat from the palm of his hand to do what he wanted them to do.
His hands guided the draft horses through miles of bore drain, clearing roly-poly bur which blocked the water flow. If the roly-poly was not cleared from the bore drain, the drain became blocked and water overflowed from the drain out across the land, thereby stopping the water flow to the end of the bore drain. He learned young in life, hard work never killed anyone. In between working for his uncle, he helped his father in droving cattle or sheep, mainly as the horse tailer. His job as a horse tailer, to ensure all of the horses were shod regularly; feed and watered and to load and unload the pack saddles from the packhorses. Pack saddles were used to carry most of their equipment and food. Another chore he did was feed and take care of the dogs; at times he attended to ten dogs. His father taught him how to work from dawn until dusk without complaint and to do the job right in the first place so that way there were no mistakes and the job need not be done again. After Harry worked for his father and uncle for a couple of years; he was earnest to go out on his own as a drover to prove he could do it. By this time; he’d acquired three horses, one to ride and two to carry gear in the pack saddles. With his three dogs and horses; he had his first droving plant. His first droving contract came by accident or opportunity. One day while he was helping his father move one thousand sheep from a property west of St George to Dirranbandi, a truck overturned on the side of the roadway not far from where they
were droving. The cattle crate on the overturned truck held six bulls that escaped from the crate. Instinctively, Harry whistled his dogs and in no time stopped the bulls from escape.
‘Who are you?’ The truck driver called to Harry.

‘Harry Williams.’ The shy 13-year-old lad replied.

‘Obviously you know a thing or two about cattle – how about taking these bulls to Bollon for me.

I’ll pay you.’
‘Oh yeah alright,’ his face had a grin from ear to ear,

‘I’d better ask me Dad first though’. His father agreed.
Harry felt on top of the world, not only being given his first paid job to drive cattle but to receive permission from his father. This was the start of his career as a drover. Single handed he drove the six bulls to Bollon, thirty miles and received his first wage. This was a great accomplishment for a 13-year-old lad. It was at this point after he completed the trip to Bollon, the owner of the property, who owned the bulls, asked Harry if he wanted to take 1000 sheep across to Cunnamulla. His father joined him as the camp cook with Harry as Boss Drover. The role of camp cook was to prepare all meals on the trip. Sheep normally travel about 6 miles per day. The camp cook after finishing breakfast cleared the camp area and moved the camp 6 miles onward. He then prepared the camp area, as well as construct an enclosed area, called a brake to house the sheep for the night. Each section had five strands of rope and thin wooden poles called droppers to hold the strands together. Harry learned hard work was the road to success. His work ethics and honesty drove him from contract to contract. His reputation spread among cocky, stock agents and meat producers. Droving in the late forties and early fifties boomed. It wasn’t uncommon to see at least six droving camps along the stock route between Cunnamulla and Bourke taking either cattle or sheep to Tancred meat works in Bourke New South Wales for slaughter. Cunnamulla was the railhead where sale of sheep and cattle were sold up to three times a week through local stock and station agents. Drovers were needed to shift the stock from Cunnamulla to the meat works in New South Wales. Cunnamulla region was in the golden era of sheep production. Australian wool growers received one pound in sterling for one pound of wool. Australia was living off the sheep’s back. Wealth grew in the far south west of the state making many a property owner wealthy
beyond their wildest dreams. Cunnamulla in the late forties and early fifties was a hustle and bustle of activity where stockmen, shearers and town folk worked to enjoy the height of wool prices. Droving was at a premium with the movement of sheep and cattle in all directions. Businesses in the town did a roaring trade providing supplies to the town people as well as outlaying properties.
Everyone had money. Harry’s father decided to move his family from Dirranbandi and look for work at Cunnamulla. With two wagonettes; a wagonette is a flat top wooden tray with wooden spoked wheels and steel rims. Each wagonette is pulled by five horses. On the flat top tray sat the driver and passengers plus gear; food and tarpaulin. At night they camped by a waterhole and rigged up a tarpaulin to cover both wagonettes. Two forked branches tied at either end of the wagonette and a ridge pole placed on top of the  forks; the tarpaulin covered the ridge pole formed a tent shape. They cooked their meals on the open fire. The Williams family arrived in Cunnamulla and camped on the bank of the Warrego River north of the town. Harry celebrated his 17th birthday. On the evening of his birthday and after finishing their meal his father addressed the family, ‘we’ve left our home at Dirranbandi and hope to start a new life here at Cunnamulla. Mother and I have something to tell you. You are no longer children and we expect you to go your own way.’ They were tossing their siblings out of the nest. Harry felt bewildered and understood from his father’s comments he would soon need to leave the family camp and make his own way in life. His father continued, ‘before any of you lot decide to go anywhere, I want Harry to come

’ Harry stood and walked to his father’s side.
‘Mother and I have a family present to give you on your 17th birthday. Hold out your right hand,’ his father instructed.
Harry did as his father asked and saw his father place a gold signet ring on his right ring finger.
‘Harry, this is a signet ring from your mother and me to show you how much we love you.
You are the eldest of our three boys; you are the first male child to receive it. Wear it with our love.’
Emotion filled his mind with joy of receiving such a beautiful ring from his parents. He thanked them and showed the ring to his siblings. He would always treasure it and feel proud to be their son. The letters HCW were inscribed on the face of the ring.
‘You’re not getting away so easy,’ his father said, ‘we have 12,000 head of sheep to take from Dyvenor Downs to Wakes Lagoon starting daylight tomorrow, and I want you to help me.’
‘Yeah, I’ll be there.’ He told his father; how could he refuse.
The distance from Cunnamulla to Dyvenor Downs was eighty miles west, as the crow flies. Along the stock route was a little further. With ten horses; a wagonette; five dogs and camp gear, it would take about ten days to reach the sheep station and begin the drive. Before daybreak the following morning Harry readied the horses and dogs for the trip to Dyvenor Downs.
‘I’ve got an idea.’ Harry’s father told him.
‘Yeah – what’s that?’ Harry replied.
‘You want to get into droving – don’t you?’
‘Yeah – of course, I love droving.’ He replied with an air of excitement in his voice.
‘Instead of me being the Boss Drover of 12,000 head, why don’t we halve them? You be the
Boss Drover of 6000 and I’ll take the rest. We use the same camp but keep the two mobs apart.
What’d think?’
Harry could have hugged his father for offering him this opportunity; this was his chance to prove to his father he could do the job. With him along to share the drove, what could be better?
‘Thanks Dad…I don’t know what to say.’ Tears filled his eyes as he looked at his father.
‘Okay then that’s the deal.’ Both men shook hands.
Harry couldn’t believe he was the Boss Drover of 6000 head whilst his father was the Boss Drover of the other half of the mob. Each night they’d join together in camp but keep the mobs
apart. Harry drove the wagonette whilst his father took care of the horses. The dogs travelled with Harry. They crossed the Warrego River and followed the stock route travelling about ten miles per day. When they reached water, they rested and made camp for the night. Half-way point of their journey was the town of Eulo. Eulo is likened to an oasis in the
desert; this small but thriving township of little more than forty citizens included a post office; police station; hotel and churches.
Everything had gone to plan so far, they were into day five. They made camp on the banks of the Paroo River on the western side of the town.
‘I’ll go and throw a line in to see if I can catch a feed for our supper.’ Harry told his father.
He left the camp and walked to the bank of the creek. His only bait was a dried piece of meat he fastened to the hook and threw the line into the water. Positioned in a squat, he rolled a cigarette, lit it and watched the cork on his line, hoping it
would move to indicate he had a bite. Without a noise, he looked beside him and saw a lady dressed in a beautiful evening frock. Where did she come from? He thought. He didn’t hear anyone come; he must be seeing things.
‘G’day.’ Harry said – this lady was a real beauty in his eyes.
‘How’s the fishing going?’ Her voice was soft and seductive.
‘I’ve only just thrown the line in – where did you come from?’
‘From the pub – I’m the owner.’
‘I’m Harry Williams, pleased to meet you – me Dad and I are going to Dyvenor Downs to take some sheep up north.’
‘Isabel Gray is my name – call in sometime and have a drink on me.’
‘I’m a bit young to drink but I’ll tell Dad, I’m sure he’d like to.’
‘I’ll be off then, nice to meet you Harry.’ She vanished, and Harry didn’t see where she’d
He didn’t catch any fish but wanted to tell his father about his visitor and the invitation to have a drink at her hotel. His mind filled with excitement to see such a beautiful woman in these
parts and he couldn’t forget the dress she wore – it was beautiful and hard to imagine anyone wearing a nice dress particularly in Eulo.
‘Dad….dad – I met this lovely lady down by the river, she owns the hotel and invited you to have a drink with her.’ Harry expressed in an excited voice to his father.
‘And her name wasn’t by chance Isabel Gray, was it?’ His father replied.
‘Do you know her?’
‘My boy, are you certain you weren’t dreaming, she’s known as the Eulo Queen and owned the pub in the late 1800’s. You would have seen her apparition – many a story can be told of people seeing her and some say she spoke to them.’
‘She did Dad – she spoke to me and said her name was Isabel Gray and invited you to the hotel for a drink. Anyway, what’s an app-arit-ion or that word you used?’
‘It’s as if you saw a ghost. You’d better go and have a Bex and a good lie down before dinner. I cooked a roast in the camp oven. It would have been nice to have fish.’
‘I can’t believe it – she was real, and she wore this beautiful lovely dress and spoke like a lady.’
‘Don’t worry about it; you’re not the only one to have come across the Eulo Queen after
she’d died almost a century ago.’


Pat Ritter
Author/ Self-Publisher

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