The Drover Tells His Story
The Aboriginal peoples of Australia believe that the only thing you ever really own is your story.
This here is mine.
Born in Australia in the late part of last century, I was as new and as raw as the country itself. Australia was soon declared a Commonwealth and we as a people had something to prove – which was another thing that the country and I had in common.
I was the second surviving McNeil child. My brother Archie came four years before me and Mum had lost a few in between. Baby Kim came about a year and a half after me and was the last of us.
Much like our Dad, we McNeil boys were a headstrong breed. Our home was located on Arnhem land and anytime we weren't nailed down we were slipping off to play with the children of the local tribe. It was from them that we learnt to live with and love the wild land around the home my folks had carved in the wilds of the outback - a cattle station that bore the unlikely name "Dreamingtime Station" in deference to the beliefs of our tribal neighbours.
I remember Mum teaching us lessons each day; basic reading, maths and the history of Britain. I wasn't keen on much of what books had to offer. There were greater adventures and more to learn out in the real world than I could ever find in a book. The larrikin of my family, I was always restless, larking about when there were chores to be done, staring out the window when I should have been studying or just plain getting into mischief the way boys often do.
Worse yet were Sundays when we had to wear the stiff shoes we'd blacked and polished the night before and shirts buttoned high up onto our tender necks. Scrubbed 'til our skin was pink, we were forced to stand up straight and sing church songs then listen as Dad read from the big heavy Bible with our family history carefully inked inside the cover. We felt certain we suffered greater pains than even Jesus had borne on the cross. It rubbed us all the more raw that our mates, dressed in everyday clothes, spent time at the feet of their grandfathers who taught them stories and songs of the land and the customs of their people in place of the dull hymns and psalms that we had to learn.
What a relief to follow in Archie's footsteps and be put to work full time on the station in my tenth year. Poor Kim suffered Mum's dull schooling for another year, eyeing us jealously as we saddled up and rode out into the dawn.
Life in the saddle was the life for me and once my father realised I had a way with horses, he had Barrega, one of the tribal stockmen, start teaching me how to muster and break brumbies.
Father was the big dreamer while Mum was the one who kept us kids in line. Where he gave us the freedom to reach beyond ourselves, she gave us the tenacity to finish the job.
Despite his easy nature, my father challenged us often, spurring us on when we faltered through a combination of tough love and strong leadership. He was "Da" to us at home and "Sir" in the saddle. With his keen sense of right and wrong, he could also be a harsh disciplinarian and we pushed ourselves to live up to his vision of us, to be the men he believed we could be. Failure was never an option.
I was living every boy's dream – whole seasons spent at the out-station or in the saddle working alongside my father and the other hired stockmen followed by well earned rest at night. It was a good life and we were a happy lot. This wasn't just the only life we knew, it was the only life I could ever imagine and I would have fought hand and nail to live it.
We lost my father the year I turned twelve to a heart attack during a drove, a harsh lesson - death touches everyone in this tough but beautiful land, no matter how strong they appear.
It was a terrible loss to all of us. My father could be a hard man, but he was also quick with a laugh and he loved my Mum with a fierce passion I was too young to fully understand. Though not every one always agreed with Benjamin McNeil, to a man they all respected him and his passing was felt throughout a good portion of the Northern Territories.
Archie and I took over full management of the station with Kim coming up quick as a junior stockman. We faced some real tough challenges as we worked to find our footing as men those first few years with out our father. The days were long and the work was hard and we had to finish a lot of growing up in a short time. Mistakes were made that cost us dearly and sometimes we were just plain unlucky. There were a few years that we barely scraped by, but we had each other and we loved the work and a new day was always just over the horizon.
I was fourteen the first time Mr. Carney came from Darwin to call on Mum. His name was Leslie, but everyone called him "King" on account of the fact that he owned a good portion of the stations in the Northern Territory. Those he didn't own, he was keen on buying up and the moment I saw him drinking tea on our porch with my mother, I knew why he'd come.
"Gentlemen, " he greeted us with a nod and without getting up.
"Boys, get washed up," Mum told us. "Mr. Carney will be joining us for supper."
My brothers moved off to wash – I think Kim even tipped his hat to the man, but I held my feet – horrified to think that my mother might ever consider selling our land to this man.
"Raker, please…" My mother looked embarrassed at my lack of manners.
"Mum, you can't be thinking –"
"Go on and wash up like your Mother says, son." King Carney favoured me with a smile meant to soothe, but he was patronising me and we both knew it. "There'll be plenty of time to discuss business later."
Mum's eyes implored me to do as I was told, and there was nothing for it in that moment except to do as she'd asked, so I went. But as I was upstairs putting on my best shirt and buttoning it up to an uncomfortable height, I could hear bits and pieces of their conversation.
"My boys work hard…"
"Yes, Mrs. McNeil, but children can't make a success of a place this size. You need protection. Assurances. The safety that only a large cattle company can provide…"
I couldn't catch it all, but I'd heard enough.
It damn well made my blood boil to hear him speaking to her that way, like the crocodile in that story my Da used to read us at night, trying to lure the young elephant to the water's edge.
"We can't let her sell to Carney," I rallied my brothers. "This is our land. We own it. He hasn't worked it and he doesn't deserve a stake in it."
Despite Carney's promise, there was no more talk of business that night. Instead he tried to turn our heads with stories of life in Darwin. Electricity was being put in. Those new motorcars were getting popular, though to my mind would never replace the reliability of a good horse. He even went so far as to offer Archie the opportunity to escort his daughter to the upcoming church social, though everyone knew she was still too young to be properly courted.
And all of it done with a smile so charming he might've sold fire to the Devil himself.
He left after supper; off to visit another of his properties and we spent the next evening begging Mum not to sell even a share of our land to him. In the end she agreed, but I knew that from then on we'd have to be ever watchful of Mr. Carney and his promises.
All the same, two years later Archie began courting the second oldest of the Carney girls, Cathy.
They met during one of our regular supply trips into town and with Mr. Carney's blessings but under Mrs. Carney's watchful eye, the two began to spend time together.
I was certain Carney's willingness to let Archie court his daughter had more to do with the fact that we were amongst the few families who still hadn't sold to him and less to do with a plan for her happiness, but they were a bang up couple all the same.
To my great surprise and despite all advantages, Cath Carney was a real treat – easy on the eyes and good-natured, too. Archie had been a serious boy; always reading until the wick burnt down at night, his mind keen on business every moment he was in the saddle. But Cath had a way of bringing him out of himself and making him laugh. She made him a better man and I had never seen my brother so happy.
Of course, I soon had my own head turned by a pretty face.
A few months after Archie announced his plan to marry Cathy, I met Magarri. It wasn't uncommon to hire experienced men to help muster or for a drove team and he came highly recommended. He was a talented stockman, excellent with the cattle, quick to see what needed to be done and get to it without needing to be told. A man like that was worth his weight in gold and I was quick to let him know he'd always have a place with us on our team.
Though he was closer in age to Archie, it didn't take more than a season for mutual respect to grow into a full-blown friendship, and after the muster, I took a detour on the way home and met his family. I had always felt at home with the Aboriginal people, but I was particularly taken with his sister.
The Yolngu laws dictated avoidance between brother and sister, but Magarri's young cousin Goolajballong was only too happy to introduce us.
"Darika, come meet him, this the drover I been telling you about," Goolaj called her over with a wave.
She was beautiful! Long lashes framed brown eyes flecked honey gold. Her bright smile pushed dimples deep into her cheeks and lit up her whole face. Darika moved with a lithe grace that reminded me of water flowing over smooth river rocks. The sound of her laugh lifted my heart and made any cares I may have had seem far, far away.
And though I'd seen a lot of excitement in my young life, I'd never felt more alive than when I was with her.
I began spending every moment I could with Darika. If I was the stubborn Boab tree, she was the wind that bent me and the rain that nourished my roots. My day began in her eyes and set in her smile.
I can still remember the day I asked Magarri if he'd allow me to court her. He gave me a funny look and asked if I knew what I was doing. Understandably protective of his kin, I reckoned he wanted to make sure I wasn't looking to take advantage of Darika as some other white fellas might try to do, so I assured him of my intentions and told him that I knew what I was doing.
In retrospect, she wasn't the only one Magarri was looking to protect.
I was young and sure of myself and, though I knew my work and the land, I didn't yet have a solid understanding of the ways of the world. It wasn't until later that I understood just how difficult and complicated things could get, but by then it was too late and I was already deeply in love with Darika.
Our relationship was unconventional at best, forbidden by law at worst.
Sure, young stockmen like Neil Fletcher from neighbouring Faraway Downs and others who thought like him often took liberties with the local Aboriginal girls. Some were treated as "drover's boys" – young women who could work the cattle by day and keep the white stockmen warm at night. Others simply joined the women who worked at the stations or town in their beds at night, regardless of their lack of welcome. But they'd never in their wildest dreams consider these women equal or seek to make wives of them.
Darika was herself troubled by the fact that she had been promised to marry a lad from another tribe, and at first her family also resisted our relationship. Despite the fact that our feelings for one another were mutual and quickly deepened, it seemed that we couldn't get a break from any side.
And so, where soon everyone in town knew of Archie's intentions to marry one of the Carney girls and even Kim was known to be courting one of the Fletcher girls, my heart lived in a secret place. A place where Darika and I could be together, away from the eyes of those who wouldn't understand that our love was just as real and just as strong as any.
"Come to town with me next week," Archie would say. "The ladies auxiliary is having a dance and Cathy has plenty of friends who want to meet you." This was typical of many invitations that I refused.
"Maybe Raker already has a girl," Kim would pipe up each time, making me grit my teeth behind my smile.
"Mind yourself," I'd warn him, "or I'll tell Louella Fletcher you've got a poor habit of not washing up after you use the dunny."
It wasn't true, but it had the desired affect. By then Mum would be so distracted trying to keep us from killing each other that the subject would be forgotten once peace was established, but more than once she spoke of how we'd soon marry up and leave her behind.
I had no intention of leaving her or Dreamingtime Station. Instead I dreamt of taking Darika as my bride and bringing her home to live as my wife.
Sure, it would take some doing, but this was a new country, a new century and we could see the signs of progress all around us. Was it too much to believe that in my own time a man would be free to love as he chose?
It didn't take long for my curious older brother to reckon something was up and one evening he slipped off and followed me when I stole away for one of my visits to the Yolngu camp.
Though Archie had grown up playing with the local children like the rest of us, he now had his reputation with the Carneys to think of and he was horrified to find me in the arms of an Aboriginal girl. King Carney would never let him marry his daughter if one of the McNeil brothers was found "cavorting about with the blacks."
To keep him from causing a scene in the camp, we took a walk. I was young and enough of an idealist to think that a man in love might understand that a heart knows no boundaries. I hoped against hope that the depth of his affection for Cathy might help him to understand mine for Darika.
"We can't always choose who we love," I told him. "We can only choose to follow our hearts."
"You can't be serious," he stopped and eyed me in disbelief. "Are you actually thinking you can make a go of it with a black?"
"Aboriginal," I corrected him gently. "Look, Arch, we've grown up with the Aborigines, we've worked with them, played with them... Is it really so strange to think I might fall in love?"
"You're joking," he shook his head, whether in disgust or denial, I couldn't tell in the moonlight. "Raker, do you honestly believe you've fallen in love with a boong?"
That slur was enough for me to lose my hope of finding any sort of understanding in my brother's heart. I'd always had a quick temper and in that moment it flared, blinding me as I swung at him, yet my knuckles connected squarely with the side of his face and he reeled, losing his balance to sit down hard.
He sat there a moment, staring up at me in shock. Sure, we'd wrestled a bit, fought as all boys do, but I'd never struck him in anger. Not like this.
Seeing the look of surprise and loss on his face hurt me in a way I'd never felt before and I leant down to give him a hand up.
Instead of letting me reach out to him, he pulled hard, yanking me off my feet and before long it was an all out fight, both of us wrestling in the dust, each of us trying to gain the upper hand and do our worst.
In the end, it didn't matter who won. Archie would keep my secret. Not because he understood but rather because exposing it would ruin his chances at a future with Cathy Carney.
From that point on there grew a quiet distance between the two of us, one that Mum didn't understand and Kim couldn't put a name to. It hurt me that my elder brother not only didn't understand, but also had no interest in even trying to.
Despite the fact that I couldn't take Darika into town to do any of the social things that other couples our age did our love continued to blossom and grow. If the world wouldn't have us, then we'd make our own world. We were happy when we were together. We made our own rules, spoke our own language, shared secrets and dreamt of our future together.
I loved her deeply and completely - nearly beyond reason. Had she asked for the moon, I'd have travelled to the highest peaks to capture it for her. I grew drunk on her kisses, swam in her eyes, told her every secret I'd ever had.
There's was nothing to be done for it, so I made a substantial dowry to Darika's parents; a good horse that I'd broken, some tobacco, a few chickens and a fat calf and they agreed to break tradition and allow us to be joined.
Knowing that no church would welcome our union, the ritual was carried out by one of the clan elders. It made my heart sing to see my simple ring on her finger, to finally be able to call her my own.
I had a rash hope that this ceremony, this taking of formal vows of commitment to one another would help my family to accept our relationship. After a few days spent alone together as man and wife, I kissed Darika and rode off to share my happy news with my family, promising to come back for her soon.
When I got home it seemed that there was bigger news than mine – Archie had joined up and was leaving for the Army.
Australia had been in the War for about a year now, though we rarely felt it's effects directly out at the station. Still, there was always news of some lad or another joining up and heading off to new adventures in faraway lands and a few young stockmen we knew were among those who had enlisted.
With the forming of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps our county had her first chance to fight on her own, a time for us to stand up as a new nation, no longer under Mother England's thumb, but rather fighting by her side. This was touted as not only our patriotic duty, but also a great adventure and a chance to show the world that Australia was a force to be reckoned with.
It may have been largely boys who joined up, but it was men who returned home. Men who had seen more of the world than the rest of us. Men afforded new opportunities to be more than the boys they had been. This, too, was the promise of war. And like so many who had gone before him, Archie saw this as his opportunity to prove himself.
Plans to marry Cath Carney were put on hold, with the promise of a wedding to set the town on its ear when he returned. He saw himself going from lowly station manager to proud War Hero in one easy move. All the better to become the man he believed he had to be to deserve Cathy's love. Something the stubborn drongo never understood he already had.
So I swallowed my news and we loaded up the cart and made the trek into town to see him off, Mum sitting stiff and proud on the seat with Archie and Kim while I rode alongside.
I don't know if she cried harder over Archie leaving or when I told her I'd married Darika, but things were never the same at the station from that day on.
My mother refused to accept my marriage to Darika, pointing out that it was both against the law and a sin in the eyes of the Lord. My wife would not be welcome at my Mother's table, nor was she welcome in our family's home, and nothing that I could say or do could cause her to waver in her judgement, for her judgement was backed by the laws of both God and man.
It had been my plan to take Darika to live at the out-station, but my elder brother's departure created meant a change of plan. Instead I laid claim to one of the small outbuildings. It was far enough from the main house to afford us a measure of privacy and insulate my wife from my Mother's intolerant and uncharitable manners.
I chased out the chooks and spent a week cleaning and repairing the one room shack. The old clapboard structure was weathered the same ochre as the land around it but with a new tin roof to keep the rain out during the wet, it seemed like a castle. Now Darika and I had a home of our own.
Mum never lifted a finger to help. Made no curtains, picked no flowers, brought no bread to our table, but she also didn't stop us from moving in, and I held onto the hope that she'd come around yet.
And if she didn't? Well, there was a law amongst the Aborigines whereby one was never allowed to speak to or even have direct dealings with their mother in law – a handy tradition in our case, I reckoned.
Outside the walls of our little house there was hatred and intolerance and hard times. With the rest of the world shut outside our door we continued to create a perfect world of our own and were happy, finding love and acceptance in one another's arms.
Archie's letters home were poetic in their descriptions of his new adventures. It seemed that war was an exciting sport to him and his mates, battles were looked forward to and an honour to fight. If there were losses, he rarely mentioned them, preferring instead to regale us with stories of new adventures in far off lands like England and France.
At home I still struggled to be seen as a man. Though not yet eighteen, I had taken over full management of the main station with Kim as my lead stockman and Magarri in charge of everything else. I had the respect of my peers and the men who worked for us, but I was a bit of a social unknown, and at times I had to put added effort into being taken seriously in the new duty of broker that I assumed after Archie left.
I hated leaving Darika at home to go to town. But she insisted that Darwin held nothing for her that I wouldn't already think to bring home. Truth was she understood the trouble we could get into being seen together and she was more graceful about it than I was. Sure, the local constable might look the other way if a man was caught in bed with a black woman, but they'd lock you up if you tried to marry her. Thus far, we'd been lucky but where my dreams were of a world where people were free to love who they wanted, hers were simply of us not getting caught.
Time went on and letters from Archie became less frequent. There were fewer familiar faces in town and more and more often there was news of local lads I knew joining up. The call for patriotism was strong. I recall one trip to town during which it seemed every available wall was coloured by posted bills urging men like me to "Fight for Australia" and "Help our Men in the Trenches."
One young soldier in khakis who had a hat with a great feather and chinstrap saw me looking at the poster and smiled. "Joining up?"
"Not today," I shook my head with a grin. He was a few years older than me, though a good head shorter.
"Eighteen?" he asked, looking me up and down.
"Charlie Kayce," he held out his hand and I shook it. "We could use a strong lad like you."
"Raker McNeil," I introduced myself. I felt flattered by the way he sized me up. He spoke to me like a man – an equal.
"Do you ride, Raker?"
"Like I was born in the saddle. But – "
"Well, then, you should consider the Light Horse Brigade." He leant forward as if speaking to an intimate. "We need all the men we can get if we're to push back the Turks and show the Germans their place, mate." He smiled and stepped back. "A good man on horseback could make all the difference to his brothers in the field."
It was like he could read my thoughts at that moment as I pictured Archie deep in a trench, drawing his sights on the enemy, making us proud as he fought for our country. For the first time I realised that my brother was doing what I myself had more than once vowed to do - fighting for our land.
I accepted Charlie's invitation to join him and his mates at the pub for a beer. These young men were much like me, but they had something I didn't. A sense of destiny and a plan of action. With innocent idealism shining in their bright young eyes, they were setting out not just to protect our home but also to help bolster our newly established cultural pride.
These men were Australians through and through - cheerful in the face of adversity, friendly to a fault, willing to take on any challenge with pluck and an adventurer's ingenuity. Qualities borne of men whose families had forged a life from a sometimes rough and unforgiving environment. These were the men who would shape Australia's future.
Such thoughts lay heavy on my mind and mingled with images from my brother's letters as I made my way home. While other lads joined up for great adventures in faraway lands, I was being tempted by a need to make a difference, to help shape our great country.
My dreams became restless, and thoughts of the war were never far from my mind. It wasn't long before Darika noticed the change in me.
I hated the way her pretty brow would furrow as she stroked my face, trying to bring a smile to my lips as we lay together in our bed. So many times she would ask what troubled me, beg me to share my thoughts with her, but for as long as I could manage, I simply smiled and kissed her and told her nothing could be ever be wrong as long as she was by my side.
But Darika knew I was keeping things from her, my thoughts now often far away from the perfect safety of our little house. And with each letter Archie sent home, with every news report from the Allied front, I grew a little more restless, until finally, at her gentle urging, I confessed what lay so heavily upon my conscience to my wife.
"I feel like I should be there," I told her and my heart wrenched as she smiled lovingly at me. "That I should go and fight to make a difference.... But I could never leave you, Darika. I could never leave what we have."
Her face was full of understanding and her voice had the soft cadence of rain falling on tall trees. She understood that men sometimes had to risk losing themselves to find themselves. "What does your dreaming tell you?"
I thought long and hard about the past few months of restless dreams, of my waking thoughts and of doing what was right. My desire to serve my country – our country. I took a deep breath and met her warm, dark eyes. "My dreams tell me to go."
"Then you must go." She slid onto my lap with a smile, wrapping her arms around me. I could feel her heart beating near my own as she lay her head on my shoulder.
It was decided that simply. Although it broke my heart to leave her, I knew that I had to do what was right.
The next day I gave my family the news and soon had Magarri's promise to watch over Darika for me while I was gone. A fortnight later I prepared to leave home.
I will always remember the last night that I spent in Darika's arms. I couldn't get enough of her, greedily seeking to steal a sufficient number of kisses to sustain me over the long months away from her lips, hungry to feel her body welcome me again and again until we were both too exhausted to move.
Curled around her after our love making, I whispered my dreams to her, painting pictures of the world I hoped we would share when I returned - a world where Australia was a changed place and we could be free to show our love without fear or repercussion.
Darika whispered to me that she wanted babies and I promised her a whole brood of children, more than she could count. She laughed and kissed me, but I saw worry in her face, too. Worry that I did my best to kiss away as I promised again and again to return to her as quickly as I was able.
The next morning I lingered in bed with her for as long as I dared, kissing her, telling her again and again how much I loved her, promising to come home to her safe and sound.
If she cried when I left, she didn't show me her tears. Instead she sent me off with a brave smile and a kiss and told me to always listen to my dreaming.
As I rode off with Kim in our wagon, I remember her standing there in the sun in my favourite dress, her face full of proud love as she waved her last goodbye to me.
From there, everything seemed to happen quickly. I was inducted quickly and soon steamed off to train for battle in faraway lands.
To be continued…