Jack stood on his front verandah looking out over the bare paddocks. A heat haze shimmered off the hard, sun-baked ground, small tufts of low brown grass protruded sparsely from the dusty, grey-brown soil. In the distance the valley stretched away to where the skirt of trees showed the end of the farm and the start of the National Park. The trees of the park looked blue-green and strangely surreal in the shimmer of the heat haze. Higher up the mountain the blue-green of the Gums was replaced by the lighter brown and more patchy landscape of the High Plains. A vicious black and brown scar ran up the side of the mountain from the valley floor, like a line of death cutting through the foliage. This scar was the result of a tourist’s campfire that got away early in the summer; the jagged edged stripe went from a gully down near the river up the side and along the top of the ridge right up into the snowgums. Most of this area was completely dead, with the bare, blackened limbs of the trees pointing accusingly at the incessant sun that had baked the forest tinder dry before it exploded into flames at six O’clock one morning.
The beautiful panorama of the mountain from his porch was why Jack had built up this here on the side of the hill, away from the river and easy access to water. The thin green line of the river wended its way down through the valley, like a scar on the all pervading brown, until it disappeared off to Jacks left.
Normally at this time of year, the sides of the valley below the tree line were pock marked with vivid green streaks running down the hillside. These stains were the springs fed by the melted snow that filled the mountains with life-giving water, bursting forth to feed the deep rich Peat Beds. But there were no springs this year or last, or the one before, all that showed where the springs should be was brown earth where the cattle had trampled the peat moss to pulp in their incessant quest for water. A few cattle stood listlessly under trees dotted over the farm; these trees seemed to sag under the relentless heat, a clear line was visible around each tree where the cattle had churned the ground to a fine powder trying to dig into the shaded soil for relief from the heat. Most of the bark had been rubbed or chewed from the trunks by the half starved stock.
The bulk of Jacks herd was gone now, sold off early in the drought or died since, in the heartbreak that had become life on the land. All that was left were a few breeders and one old bull, all so thin now that their hips poked obscenely into the sky. “God I hope this breaks before I lose them all” thought Jack.
Jack had never known weather like this in his fifty-five years in The Valley. Droughts happened, but not up here, not like this. The weather patterns around the mountain meant that the valley got the last rains in Spring and the first in Autumn. The rain combined with the melting snows filled up the springs and ensured that the creeks flowed year round; until now.
Five years of low rainfall followed by two years of drought had taken their toll. The snow had been virtually nonexistent for two winters now. the ski resort on the other side of the mountain had spent more money than Jack would see in his lifetime buying machines to make artificial snow for the skiers, but that hadn’t helped Jack. The last of the springs had dried up three years ago, the creek had stopped running last year and the river was now just a trickle between near stagnant pools.
Winter still came with the same biting cold but there was no snow or rain, just night after night of bitter cold followed by days with a pale blue sky and winds that chilled you to the bone. Some bloke on the telly said it was the El Nino effect and that it had always been here, every seven years. “Funny” thought Jack “I’ve never noticed the bloody thing before.”
At his age Jack had hoped to be retired and have his sons run the farm. The eldest son, Tom, had wanted to study medicine since he had been knee high to a grasshopper, Jack agreed and sent him off to University. “The town needs a good doctor” he told the blokes lining the Bar at the Annual Show. Tom Graduated with ‘Honors’; Jack wasn’t sure what that meant but he knew it was something to be proud of, and he was. Tom stayed on in the city and was now Professor of Pediatrics at a major city hospital and a Lecturer at the University he had studied at.
Jacks second son Dave had the dirt under his fingernails; he was a farmer through and through and by the time the low rains started Dave was running the place. He was running it well too, whatever he touched turned to gold. Then at five o’clock one morning four cars full of Police turned up at the farm; Dave had been growing marijuana up in the back paddock and a bushwalker had spotted it. The Police found half a tonne of the stuff in one of the sheds. Dave had got eight years jail and the Judge said Jack was lucky not to lose his farm through it all. When Dave got out of jail he didn’t want to go back to the farm; said he was going to go into business with two blokes he’d met in jail. Jack didn’t like it, but Dave was a grown man and made his own decisions; Jack new it would end in no good.
“God” thought Jack “I wish Mary was still alive.” Mary had been Jacks childhood sweetheart and later his wife. The boys trod the straight and narrow when Mary was around, so had Jack for that matter. Once and only once he had sworn in front of her; a horse kicked him and it just came out. Mary didn’t say a word, she just looked at him; there was no malice in that look but Jack knew that he had sworn in front of her once and would never do it again. Jack had looked into the eyes of wild bulls and brumbies, nothing scared him; but that look…
Since Mary had been taken from them Jack didn’t have the heart to be too hard on the boys; Dave looked so much like her. Tom had always been alright, he was away in the city with his future all mapped out. Dave was a different matter, he started drinking a lot and spent more and more time in town with his mates; Jack couldn’t remember how many times his son had run off the road on his way home. Dave had always seemed to have a charmed life though, once he ended up in hospital overnight but mostly he just slept it off where the car stopped.
When Dave went to jail Jack had gone back to running the farm, or watching it die around him more like it. Five years of low rain had meant no hay to harvest so after three years the hayshed was empty. Everyone had been sure that ‘the dry spell’ couldn’t last, so Jack sold part of his herd to buy feed for the rest. After two more bad years the money had run out so he’d gone to the bank and extended his overdraft; now that was almost gone. Finally, after five years ‘the dry spell’ had been declared a drought and three long years after that Government assistance was available. Jack went down, hat in hand, but the man from the Department said that he didn’t qualify because he didn’t have enough stock, others were worse off than him and there was limited money. Jack tried to explain that his low stock levels were because he had sold them off to buy feed, then most of the cattle he had left had died off in the harsh mountain winter. It was obvious that the Department man understood but there was nothing he could do to help, they shook hands and the man wished him luck with it all. Jack could see that this man behind the desk cared, and wanted to help, but was worn down by the endless procession of broken farmers he had to deal with. Walking outside, Jack put on his hat and fought back the lump in his throat.
Jack thought about going down to the Pub, he used to enjoy a couple of beers after the sales, but at the moment he didn’t have two bob to rub together, he wasn’t even sure how he would eat next week. The veggie garden had withered and died when the spring that watered it failed and most of his chooks were long dead; the rest hadn’t laid for so long that he would soon have to start eating them because he couldn’t afford feed. With a look of grim determination on his face Jack turned away from the Pub and walked deliberately towards his Ute.
When he got back to the farm, the sun was sinking low over the hills behind the house, out the front window, to the south east, the mountain stood illuminated by the pale yellow brilliance of the setting sun. Jack had never got used to this beauty and even now it caused him to pause, just for a moment. But not for long, tonight Jack was on a mission; he knew what he had to do. He went into Dave’s room and took out the .17 calibre rifle Dave had bought just before his arrest. When Jack had first seen it, he had laughed at the tiny piece of lead that was its projectile. Jack changed his mind when Dave offered to match it against Jacks old Lee Enfield .303 and had won hands down.
Jack filled the magazine, although he knew he’d only use one shot. Then he went out and drove up to the back paddock, settling himself comfortably under a tree; a few minutes later a single shot rang out.
The dead body lay twitching on the ground, blood gushed from the massive head wound. Sometimes it seems to take a while for the body to realize it’s dead and stop moving thought Jack as he looked down at the dead kangaroo at his feet. “That’s tucker for another week” he said to himself as he dragged the carcass towards the butchers hook he’d set up in a nearby tree.
Next morning he took the tractor and plow down near the remains of the river and plowed up a patch about two hundred square metres. Tomorrow he’d fence it; if he could get some veggies up at least he wouldn’t starve. He knew the bank would be knocking on his door soon, but he’d deal with them when they came; Jack had learned long ago that you crossed one bridge at a time.
Six months after the dry spell had been declared a drought John Davis shot himself rather than face the ruin he saw coming. “Four generations of Davis’ have lived and died on the old place and now it’s my turn” he had told the blokes down the Pub on that final day. None of them realized what he meant; they all thought he was just blowing off steam. Jack and John had been close mates, they’d broken horses together, got drunk together, fought fights together and joined the army to kill Japs together. They’d both been in the footy team the year they’d won the Premiership after which they’d married the Henderson sisters. A year after Jack married Mary, John had married her little sister Eilene. Now John was dead. As Jack stood watching the coffin being lowered into the hole he found it hard to accept that it was all real; that his best mate was really dead; and he’d done the unthinkable and killed himself. For Jack suicide was a cowards way out; a real man saw it through. But even this basic value Jack found hard to accept today; if he believed that a real man saw it through then what did that make his mate John?
Jack had been in to apply for Drought Relief three times now and they had finally agreed to take another look at his case. Jacks dad had always told him never to rely on the Government and Jack hadn’t. he’d had mixed results from his first veggie garden; the spuds, pumpkins and onions did OK, the rest either didn’t sprout or died soon after they came up.
He’d gone up and asked the hippies who had squatted in one of the old mine houses why their garden was going so well; they lent him a book about mulching. After reading it, he dug up the top foot of soil from the empty hayshed and spread it over his garden patch. Then he spent some of his dwindling money on black plastic to stop evaporation. He’d noticed that the hippies were using the same method on their ‘secret’ marijuana patch he’d found just above his farm in the National Park. He knew it was illegal to grow that stuff, but since the cops had arrested his boy he wasn’t going to help those bastards. His garden was starting to look good, his gamble was paying off. If nothing went wrong he should have enough veggies to sell some in town.
The Bank was still a worry, they’d foreclosed on Eilene Davis after Johns’ suicide, sold the place out from under her at rock bottom prices to some bloody city investor; those vultures were circling like they always did whenever there was a “rural crisis”; she’d only just ended up with enough to cover their debts and buy a small house in town. Then Frank Thompson hit the booze. He’d always liked a beer, but after he was rejected for Drought Relief he went on a bender that lasted three weeks. He packed up and walked off his place; his wife was still there, trying, but with three little kids she didn’t have time to do much on the farm. Jack was taking her down some roo meat and a box of veggies from his garden every week and some of the other farmers were helping her with the farm and writing another Drought Relief Application. She was old stock, from one of the first families to settle in the district; she would never give in, her family didn’t know how to.
Jack had gone into the Bank with a Business Plan he’d spent weeks on; it mapped out how he would get through and recover from the drought. The Bank Manager was so impressed he organized things so that Jacks Drought Relief would service his debts and leave a bit for living expenses. Since then several other farmers had sought Jacks help with their own Business Plans, Jack was always happy to help a mate.
Jacks garden had become the talking point of The Valley and with that and the roo meat Jack hadn’t bought food for weeks. He was amazed at what he’d achieved with some good soil, black plastic and gravity fed water from one of the waterholes that dotted the riverbed. When Jack looked at his garden it was with pride; in a drought like this a farmer did well to survive, but he was doing better than surviving. He’d be OK, whenever this bloody drought ended Jack knew he could and would rebuild his herd. It was just a matter of adapting; Jack lived his life in nature and he knew that like everything else in nature the only way to survive, for a man on the land, was to adapt.