An opportunity not to be missed, as the real-estate agents say. A mate had offered Bev and me, free, seven cast-for-age ewes. We had no sheep on the place that we rented in return for a bit of work, and Bev reckoned that even old canner mutton would be a welcome break from the underground variety, so we jumped at the chance. But had we known what turning those sheep into Irish stew was to involve, we would have stuck with the bunnies.
We were in town on our fortnightly shopping trip the day the ewes arrived. Bill, the generous mate, had driven past us on the way home. He waved, but didn’t stop for a yarn; the reason for this breach of country etiquette becoming apparent when we arrived at the house. Pinned to the back door was a cryptic note: ‘Ewes in yards,’ it read. ‘I think they might be footrot carriers. Better kill before the autumn break.’ There’s always a catch somewhere.
We had checked the old yards some days before and in our opinion they were almost good enough to hold anything short of a Kimberley bullock – but we’d not reckoned on the athletic prowess of sheep from Stony Creek. Footrot may have condemned them, but age had wearied them not a jot. On sighting us, those ewes went through the rails with a speed that would have won them the Upotipotpon Cup.
Six disappeared into the stand of black mallee growing on the hill, while number seven, displaying a fine streak of ovine perversity, cantered through the boundary fence and crossed the road. Without breaking stride she ducked under the sign advertising the neighbours’ footrot-free Border Leicester stud and crashed through the fence surrounding their bull paddock. I received only a mild shock as I clambered through in pursuit and, making a mental note to tell the neighbours that their electric fence needed checking, I set off after the ewe.
Now Walter was, under normal circumstances, a placid bull, the epitome of the Angus temperament, but the sight of a wild-eyed and desperate lunatic in pursuit of an equally wild-eyed sheep must have temporarily unhinged him. Around the paddock we raced; Walter in the lead, the sheep close behind, and me struggling in the rear. A sharp, jinking turn and the order of procession became me, Walter, and then the sheep. By sheer good luck I brought that ewe to ground before she joined the stud flock. Hauling her through the fence to where Bev waited with the wheelbarrow, I noted that the energiser was supplying full power to that section of the fence. One down, six to go.
Those six will long live in my memory as the wariest sheep it has ever been my misfortune to meet. The merest hint of a squeak from a door hinge; the slightest slither of a well-oiled rifle bolt, was enough to send them bolting into the mallee, where they would instantly dematerialise.
One died. A combination of old age and over-excitement I thought, but Bev was of the opinion that too much time spent in standing cockatoo had not allowed it time to eat. Five remaining. The anticipated meals of mutton had faded into the limbo of broken dreams. Those ewes had become a threat to our sanity; an affront to our dignity. The neighbours’ dog was no use. After seeing the sheep dematerialise for the tenth time, she was reduced to whimpering and hiding in wombat holes whenever she heard me call her name. At last, in desperation, we told the now contrite Bill, the bloke who’d visited the curse upon us and was fast losing his right to be called “mate”, to ask our mutual friend Sam to bring Black George to yard the sheep for us.
Black George was a legend in the district; his ferocity a household word. His sire and dam had been honest workers both; his grandparents were dogs of great wisdom and dignity, but somewhere, somehow, something had gone wrong. Throughout the district, it was darkly hinted at that Black George was a changeling, the spawn perhaps of some spectral thylacine. While yarding chooks and ducks he was the model of good manners; goannas and guinea-pigs were treated with the velvet paw; but show him even a photograph of a sheep and he became a ravening lunatic.
Those ewes recognised the enemy immediately. On sighting Black George, they headed for the mallee, the dog slavering and howling in pursuit. The Black George theory of working sheep had it that they must first be reduced to a catatonic state, and once this was accomplished he would stand over them drooling, tail thrashing in delight. Black George’s response to his owner’s hoarse yells was to attempt to run the sheep the twelve miles to Stony Creek, pioneering a new route as he went.
Exasperated, Sam collared Black George as he flashed past for the umpteenth time. Tucking the dog under one brawny arm, he headed off after the sheep himself, treating us to a practical demonstration of the wisdom inherent in the old adage, ‘It’s no use keeping a dog and barking yourself’. Sam did the running, Black George the barking – a fine example of cooperation between a man and his dog.
This novel approach to shepherding proved too much for the sheep. Totally demoralised, they launched themselves into the big dam, and seizing the opportunity to cool off, we plunged in after them. Black George did his best to help; using the nearest back as a springboard he lunged, snapping and snarling at the swimming ewes. Fortunately for us, the sheep were now totally confused and Bev and I hauled them one by one to dry land, Sam assisting by holding George under water where his snarls and yowls of rage raised a fountain of bubbles, no doubt sending yabbies and eels racing for cover.
Those ewes escaped us in the end, proving too tough even for the sausage machine. The neighbours’ dog was the sole beneficiary – to compensate her for the indignity she suffered we gave the mutton to her owners as dog tucker.
A friend visited that district recently and called into the pub, where he’d been told the story of the “Great Upotipotpon Muster”. It hadn’t grown much in the telling, he said. Why should it? Truth is indeed much stranger than fiction and a good yarn needs no embellishment.
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For those unfamiliar with Australian dialect – and sadly this now includes a growing number of Australians raised on a cultural diet of US TV – I’ve added this bit of a glossary.
Underground mutton: wild rabbit; Mallee: small, multi-trunked eucalypts of several species, some a major source of eucalyptus oil; Chook: a domestic hen, chicken; Standing cockatoo: when flocks of cockatoos are feeding on the ground, some remain perched on vantage points to sound the alarm when danger approaches; Thylacine: the now-extinct Tasmanian tiger, a dog-like carnivorous marsupial; Yabbie: one of several names for a medium-to-large, freshwater crayfish.