“Now is the time to show whether we are playing at soldiers or whether we are prepared to protect our hearths and homes! So what is it to be?”
The words of his commanding officer kept ringing in William’s ears. He had been serious about his career and knew he had made the right decision from the moment he joined the Militia. Although he was beginning to question his readiness for his inaugural military conflict. Seeing first hand the results of the shearers’ wrath, had somewhat shattered his former confidence which was further exacerbated by the irritation of his wool uniform that now clung to his back like a scratchy wet rag. He was drenched from the flow of sweat he felt dribbling down the back of his neck, which now ached from sitting on the hard train seat for several hours.
William fiddled with the brim of his felt hat that covered his lap as he faced the western plains. He watched in disbelief, the grand old bottle trees that were flailing their singed black limbs grieving over the charred dead remains of their nearest and dearest. The grassy fields, once swaying from brushing summer breezes, were rendered lifeless from an unprecedented season of darkness that was tearing through the west. A deathly silence deafened the vibration of the train on the tracks and the chugging of steam and coal smoke that crowded the dark ominous sky. All eyes in the carriage were peeled to the windows, peering out at the black smouldering moonscape dotted by charred carcases of dead sheep.
William was well aware of the conflict in the west. He had followed the daily newspaper articles spouting stories of unrest among the Shearers who were seeking better working conditions. He didn’t wish to take sides, he and his fellow troopers were sent to do a job. To keep peace. To protect those who wanted to work, to guard each arrival of non-union workers. However, on the other hand, the Pastoralists appeared to be offering them a fair deal. What was so wrong about signing a work contract. Wouldn’t that guarantee a job? Have the unions become too powerful? Perhaps they have.
Following what seemed an eternity, the voice of the trooper in the seat across the aisle snapped William out of his analytical thoughts.
“They say things are bad out at Barcaldine. Word is there has been riots in the streets.” The trooper commented at no-one in particular, as he held the landscape in his gaze.
“Those bloody shearers won’t know what hit them when we get there!’ chimes another.
William tries to focus on the banter that kept bouncing back and forth across the carriage, to keep his mind off his immediate discomfort. He lifted the window in an attempt to relieve the searing heat, but instead felt the immediacy of hot smoky air brush his face. A man two seats down caught his attention when he said,
“Did you read in the paper about that Frederick Vosper?”¹
“Who is he?” another enquired.
“A journalist from Charters Towers I think.” Replied the man two seats down. “He’s making wild death threats. It is worrying, I must say.”
‘The entire situation is worrying,’ William thought to himself as he watched the blur of the blackened plains pass by. He had read the words wielded by Frederick Vosper’s hateful tongue. If he remembered rightly he had threatened the Pastoralists and the armed forces with death “by cold lead and steel”, or words to that effect.
By now, William could think of nothing, besides his destination which was fast looming as the train clacked its way along the tracks. With the heat of fires and the tense talk of unrest within the four drab walls that seemed to be closing in on his world, what else was there to think about?
His mind was racing with words, harsh provocative ravings. Just days ago, the unrest had spilled onto the railway lines and streets of towns he had just watched pass by. With the squeal of brakes and roar of the whistle, he had wondered whether the brief stop at Clermont would be incident free. It was only a week or two ago that the sleepy country town had come alight with rioting unionists flooding the streets.² He had been relieved that the station was absent of the 200 unionists on horseback and 100 on foot who attacked the carriages carrying Executives from the Pastoralists Association. The angry hoots and swinging sticks, had been replaced with an orderly show of police presence on the platform, accompanied by the ghostly echoes and whispers of what had been. The sense of disquiet that had gripped the men only ten minutes before, subsided as the train once more gained full speed ahead.
Now, as the momentum of the train slowed on its approach to Barcaldine, William wondered what awaited them there. He nervously tapped his fingers on the barrel of the new Martini-Henry rifle that stood on the floor before him. His initial feelings of excitement were now melting into a rushing tide of uncertainty that was about to crash him head first into the first wave of his military career.