2017 poetry winner

By Jackie Trott

 

Licking her lips, she sniffs and waits,

Squinting scope, horizons scanned

Above- trees burst- eaglehawk alarm screech

She knows she is not welcome here, on this land.

 

She has been here before and will come again

She visits on the circle of sun

Dry-mouthed townsfolk know she is near

When the earth bakes and cicadas hum

 

When the turned leaves crackle, yellow-parched,

And cleft palate creekbeds break

She restlessly paces to watch, bide time

Her hunger has sealed their fate

 

Her red hair flares, billows and unfolds

Smoky tendrils curl, twisting to rise

She will have her prey, her pound of flesh

Burning blood, char-staining the skies

 

She is the first home-breaker, scarlet widow-maker

Her reputation stuns attempts of flight

Swallowing the evidence of entire lifetimes

Blackened frames left in anaemic morning light

 

She has been here before and will come again

An ancient force to renew and cultivate

Times past she was tamed, but her warcry unchanged

A battle-song of destruction to regenerate

 

Firestorm.

 

2017 short story second place

The whites of her eyes

By Joanna Barrett

 

The pain grabs her. The jerk on her face, her gasp of agony, beside him in the car. They are motoring through the countryside beyond the city, eucalypt forests and vast paddocks with black boulders in the distance. Grazing cattle.

‘Suse?’

She glances at him, looks away and gasps again. ‘The painkillers haven’t kicked in yet.’

‘But they will?’

‘They’d better.’ The defiance in her voice keeping her alive a little longer.

She’d begged him to go camping. ‘My last chance, Chris.’ They’d been talking in bed, her boniness against the flesh of his body. ‘I want to gaze up at the stars in the night sky, hear the tent stretching in a breeze, cook lamb chops over the fire.’ Not that she’ll be able to eat them. Her only food is little jellies, now.

He’d given in, against his better judgment. Could no longer deny her anything. She’d even helped him pack the car. Sleeping bags, folding table, a glass vase ‘for the wildflowers I’ll pick’. Her bag of medications as big as her overnight bag.

Susannah has liver cancer. The boys know, they see that the whites of her eyes are no longer white but pale yellow. The knowledge of their sons at home weighs heavily on him, even though their grandmother is staying, with her home-made chocolate biscuits and her cockateil named Priscilla. To deny the boys two days of their mother by leaving them behind seems wrong, yet to bring them would be wrong, too. Suse wanted to go back to their courting days, the two of them alone in the wilderness. He knows the real reason – she needs a break from the effort of hiding her pain and despair from the boys. And he can give her that, one small thing against the magnitude of the thing.

‘Look, darling. An eaglehawk.’ Awe in her voice. ‘At a kill.’

‘No. It’s a wedgie, Suse,’ he says, after glancing at the huge, dark bird perched on a carcass not far from the road. ‘A wedge-tailed eagle.’

Susannah groans and rolls her eyes. ‘Okay, okay. But my father called them eaglehawks, Chris, and I call them eaglehawks.’

He slows the car and for a long moment they watch the bird pulling strips of red meat off the dead wallaby. The light in her eyes, the eagerness on her face. His heart swells. It’s the happiest she’s been for months.

‘Pantaloons. See, Chris? Its legs, they’re fluffy.’

He grins. ‘Pantaloons?’

‘Oh, yes. Ever since I was a little girl out with Dad on the property. Whenever we saw an eaglehawk, I looked at its pantaloons. I love their pantaloons, they’re so soft and downy.’

The great bird stills, alert. With meat dangling from its talons, it rises into the sky with wingbeats that are longer than a heartbeat, shorter than a second.

‘Did your father shoot them?’

‘Oh, yes, but not when I was there.’ She grimaces. ‘They used to get the lambs.’

‘That’s been disproved.’ Chris cannot help himself. ‘They like rabbits and rats.’

Susannah groans and rolls her eyes again, but he ploughs on. ‘Before Europeans came they would have fed on native mammals and birds. More recently, rabbits and rats and young dingoes. Not lambs.’

‘Chris!’

A warning voice in his head, but he ignores it. ‘Too many wedgies were killed, Suse. So the number of dingoes increased, and for years it’s been the dingoes that kill the lambs.’

‘All the graziers thought the eaglehawks got the lambs.’ The hurt in her voice pierces his heart. ‘I can’t help it if they were wrong.’ It didn’t used to, not in the first years, he never noticed her hurt as he talked on and on. ‘Relentless’, she used to call him.

‘Suse, I understand. Yes, I know they all believed that.’ Be gentle. ‘But I’m just trying to get you to see – ’

‘I don’t want to see.’ Screaming now.

Idiot. The voice in his head. Back off.

‘What I remember is what I remember.’ Her ferocity fuelled by fear. ‘That’s what matters to me. Why can’t you ever get that through your thick head?’

He bites his lip, draws blood, his heart pierced again. Looks away, grips the steering wheel with tight hands. Since the horror of that day, the gigantic front teeth of the specialist as he gave them words and more words, the only thing Chris noticed, his love for his wife has taken him on a roller-coaster ride through fury and desire, terror and guilt. He licks the blood from his bottom lip, the metallic taste of healthy blood.

Some minutes later, her fingers are on his arm and her cool, sweet lips on his cheek. ‘Dear, darling Chris, I know you can’t help being yourself. Let’s move on, shall we?’

She’s always the one to placate me. Never the other way around.

He sighs with his own impotence.

‘The sky is giving me its gift, Chris. I’m so lucky.’

He gulps, awed at her resilience, but tries to join her mood. ‘See Orion’s belt? Up there?’ He points, the firelight lighting up his palm. They are lying together on the picnic blanket, studying the stars winking and glowing way above.

‘Oh, yes. And I can see a cow. And a spaceship, you know, the saucer-shaped ones we used to think belonged to aliens. Before Star Wars and Star Trek.’

‘Eh?’

‘You look at a cluster of stars and draw lines in your mind between them. See what shapes you make.’ She snuggles closer, her fragrance unpleasant, startling him. ‘A bit like gazing up at clouds. Lying on the grass when you were a child, looking up at the clouds and seeing the shapes they made. Animals, houses, cars.’

‘I never did that.’

‘Darling, you must have.’

‘Nup. But I can start now.’

Frogs croak in the creek, night insects chirrup, and the fire crackles and pops. Smoke in his nostrils, masking her smell.

‘Well?’ she asks.

‘A sailing ship.’ He’s gleeful as he points to the dot picture on the vast, dark canvas of the night sky. ‘See, those stars there form the hull, and the three stars above are the tops of the masts.’

‘Oh, yes.’ Giggles. Her first giggle for months. His heart twists, grabs him with his own pain. ‘What else?’

‘A tanker, but it’s upside down,’ he says. Chris manages a port, has worked with ships and boats all his life. ‘See? There,’ he says, pointing towards the western sky.

‘A tanker? Upside down? Now, that’s a challenge, Chris.’ She shifts her body with a groan, pauses. ‘Oh, yes, over there. The long hull with the superstructure protruding from the deck.’

She’s always been good with words.

‘You’ll never guess what else I can see,’ he says, laughter in his voice.

‘An eaglehawk.’

‘How do you know?’

‘I can read your mind.’ She giggles. ‘Are you sure it’s not a wedgie?’

‘Yes, I’m sure,’ he says in a mock serious, deep voice. ‘It’s an eaglehawk. I’ve been educated by my wife.’

Before she can speak, he turns to her and slides his arm over the pointy bones of her hips. Teases her lips with his own, plunges in with love and lust and time running out.

‘Oh, Chris. An echidna. Slow down.’

‘Where?’

‘We’ve gone past it now. You’ll have to reverse.’

They are on their way back to the city on Sunday afternoon. Cockatoos screech overhead in the gum trees as they step out of the car and approach the creature.

‘Chris, we must turn it around. Stop it going on the road.’

‘No,’ he says. ‘If it wants to cross the road, it’ll try again.’

She opens her mouth to speak. Her tongue looks pink and healthy, not like the yellow eyes above. He shudders, tries to cover it. ‘Darling, let’s watch it.’

The echidna ambles over the bitumen, spines undulating. It reaches the sandy soil beyond the verge of the road on the other side and begins digging, soon vanishing into the earth like a ship into fog.

‘I haven’t seen an echidna since – oh, for ages. Not since before the boys were born.’

‘I’m glad we saw one today,’ he says.

She links her arm into his. ‘So am I, darling.’

They are on a back road and no cars have come along, but the clip-clop of a horse reaches them.

‘Hi, there.’ A girl with plaits hanging down over her shoulders and a big straw hat brings her mount to a halt. ‘Hi. What’re you looking at?’

‘Hello. An echidna,’ Susannah says. ‘It’s gone now. Haven’t seen one for years.’

‘Odd creatures, aren’t they? I like them, but kangaroos are my favourites. Can’t get enough of kangaroos, even though I’ve grown up with them.’

‘You live on a property near here?’ Chris asks.

‘Yes. A couple of k’s back that way. Out for a ride, got to exercise Baldemar,’ patting the horse’s mane.

Susannah puts the palm of her hand beneath the stallion’s nose. He sniffs, snorts, raises his head with a sharp look from his liquid eyes.

‘That sweaty, horsey smell,’ she says, breathing in deeply. ‘Like freshly mown grass.’ Susannah’s grin is so wide Chris laughs.

‘I groomed him yesterday,’ the girl says, frowning. Flicks a plait back over her shoulder. ‘He shouldn’t smell.’

‘Oh, my dear.’ Susannah touches the girl’s boot in the stirrup. ‘I love it. It’s a horsey, grassy smell. The smell of my childhood.’

The girl’s eyes widen as she gazes into the yellow eyes. Abruptly looks away, says, ‘You grew up on a property?’

‘Yes. But not near here.’

‘Better go.’ A quick smile. ‘Nice to meet you.’ Turns the horse and puts him into a canter back along the road.

They stop at a roadside fruit stall, buy a tray of mangoes from a woman with a ring in her nose and a baby on her hip. Mango fragrance fills the car and spills out when they open the car doors at home.

‘Mangoes. Yes!’ Their elder son punches the air. ‘Can I have the ripest one, Mum? Can I?’

‘No. I should have it,’ young Samuel puts in. ‘You ate the last one last week.’

‘That doesn’t count. That was back in the dim, dark ages.’

‘What?’

Poor Samuel, always left behind by his brother. Susannah ruffles his hair and hugs his shoulders. ‘Did Grandma let you stay up late, Sam?’

He grins. ‘Not telling. It’s our secret, isn’t it, Grandma?’

Susannah’s mother is standing behind the boys, smiling, asking him with her eyes how it all went.

He winks at her and nods. ‘We had a good time.’

‘Best ever,’ says Susannah. ‘We even saw a wedgie.’

‘An eaglehawk,’ he says, grinning.

They laugh together, sharing their love and their pain.

 

 

2017 short story winner

Eaglehawk

By Jane Lingard

The clock on the mantlepiece struck ten o’clock just as Ted finished his second cuppa of the day. He put his cup back on the saucer and nodded to himself. It was time.

***

Billy and Flynn were doing laps of the town on their bikes. It didn’t take long to do a circuit and Billy called out over his shoulder as they sped past the general store.

‘First to the hall and back?’

‘You’re on.’

In close formation they left the already warm asphalt and hit the dirt, whirring up dust as the footpath petered out. The hall was on a vacant block on a slight rise, and Flynn managed to catch up with Billy as they approached the turn at the back of the hall. They were neck and neck as they turned the corner then suddenly there was someone there, right in front of them. Billy veered sharply, clipping Flynn’s rear wheel. For a moment both bikes wobbled, equilibrium shattered, before they found their balance again. They picked up speed, racing back to the store. Billy arrived first, skidding to a halt.

‘What was that old bugger up to?’ Flynn puffed the words.

‘Droughty? Dunno. He was lucky we didn’t knock him over. Didn’t see him till we turned the corner.’

‘Droughty?’

‘Yep. That’s what Millie calls him. She can’t say Dougherty. Suits him, don’t you think? He’s old. All dried up.’

‘Like this place.’ Flynn kicked at a knot of mud caked onto his pedal. He watched the dirt eddy for a moment before it was shoved along by a gust of wind.

***

Ted unlocked the rear door of the hall and shuffled inside. His breathing was shallow and he could feel his heart thumping in his chest. There was a plastic chair in the kitchen and he made his way towards it, easing his body down, spine slumped as his chin dropped to his chest. He focused on his breath, waiting for the raggedness to ease. It took a couple of minutes before he felt able to stand up. He moved to the doorway of the kitchen and looked into the body of the hall. The morning light was pouring through the high windows, the stained glass spiking motes of dusty air with flashes of colour.

He paused then turned to look at the memorial plaque. It was opposite the side entrance of the hall, an elaborate wooden scroll adorned with names of the men who had answered the call. Discrete crosses marked those who were lost in action. Ted gave a salute, a small gesture of respect in the empty space. He turned back into the kitchen, picked up the broom and headed out into the hall to sweep the worn wooden floors.

***

When Billy headed home, Flynn cycled up and down the main street. He stopped at the general store, wandering around the picked over aisles, poking at the dusty collection of toys. There was a water gun wedged at the back, trapped behind a doll with impossibly blue eyes that seemed to stare through him as he eased the gun out. It came out of its spot with a pop. Flynn turned it over in his hands, but the rubber stopper had been lost and the handle was cracked. He dropped it back onto the shelf and headed outside. Everything in Eaglehawk seemed like the gun. Busted.

He got back on his bike and headed off on another lap of the town. He would have beaten Billy for sure if it hadn’t have been for Dougherty. What was he up to, anyway? Flynn turned the corner and was passing by the rear of the hall. The back door was open. There was someone inside. He slowed, then stopped, resting his bike against the rear wall of the hall.

***

Some days Ted turned the radio on, listening to old songs and livestock sale updates as he worked his way across the room. Other days he preferred the silence. He seemed to have good recall of many of the songs from his teenage years but remembering to take the bewildering assortment of pills each day was a challenge. Whistling ‘Sing Sing Sing’ was much easier, the soft scuff of the broom bristles keeping a brisk rhythm. The record had been one of his first purchases, paid for out of money squirrelled away from odd jobs. He’d played it over and over, and could recall the exact point at which the record had to be turned over for part two. His Dad had scowled at his choice in music, but his Mum would hum it under her breath sometimes when she washed the dishes. It made him smile now to think of it, then he had to start whistling the tune all over again. Smiling too wide made it hard to whistle.

***

Flynn stopped moving across the kitchen when the sound stopped. He heard a rustle, realised it was a sigh, and edged closer to the doorway into the hall. There was Ted Dougherty, looking into space, a broom in his hands. As Flynn watched, Ted seemed to shake himself and the whistling started again. Ted moved his shoulders, his legs, his hips. Flynn felt a half-smile cross his face and wished that Billy was there to watch it too. The whistling was punctuated in parts by breathless popping sounds, a syncopated drumbeat of sorts.

He watched as Ted pushed the broom in short bursts right up to the front of the hall before pivoting around to work his way back. As Ted saw Flynn the whistling stopped.

***

Ted nearly dropped the broom when he spotted the boy standing in the doorway. No-one came into the hall anymore. He used to lock the door when he came in but over time it seemed unnecessary. And it was hot today. The boys on the bikes had startled him, thrown him off. And now they were here. Or at least one of them was. He suddenly felt unsure of himself.

‘What do you want?’ His voice seemed thin in the empty space.

‘Why are you sweeping?’

‘I asked a question. What are you doing here?’

‘The door was open. I could hear noises.’ The boy pushed himself off the doorway where he had been leaning.

Ted took a step back and moved the broom in front of himself. He recalled how he’d been brought up to show respect for his elders. Speak when spoken to. Treat others how you’d like to be treated. There hadn’t been an apology when the boys had nearly skittles him.

‘Who are you?’ Ted tried to keep the wobble out of his voice.

‘I know who you are.’ The boy’s words were soft but clear.

Ted gripped the broom tighter. He squinted, trying to see who the boy resembled. Most people in town looked like someone else. But the boy had walked over towards the memorial. Ted wiped a clammy hand on his trousers. The boy was reading through the list of names, his lips moving. Ted stood still, uncertain.

‘That’s my name.’

Ted stepped closer, trying to pick out which name the boy was pointing at. ‘Which one?’

‘Goodman. And it’s my initial too.’

Ted looked closer at the boy, who was now looking at him, a puzzled frown creasing his forehead. Ted nodded. He could see the hint of resemblance now in the boy’s wide-set hazel eyes.

‘That’s Fred Goodman up there.’ Ted paused, thinking through a family tree. Fred had died in the Pacific somewhere. He’d been young, the same age as Ted’s brother, Walter. At least Walter had come back, even it if wasn’t in the same shape as he’d left. ‘He was your grandfather’s oldest brother.’

‘What does the cross mean?’

Ted clenched the broom handle slightly. ‘It means they didn’t come home. They died, fighting for their country.’

Ted watched as the boy’s head dropped for a moment. Then he looked back up at the memorial.

‘There’s a Sullivan there, too. But there’s no cross next to his name. That’s Billy’s name. My mate Billy.’

Ted smiled softly. ‘There’s names from all over town on that wall. Names of families that have moved on, too.’

The boy turned away from the board and walked around the perimetre of the hall. Ted listened to the floorboards shift as the boy trailed a finger along the handrail skirting the edge. At the elevated stage he stopped and looked back at Ted.

‘Did they have plays here? We sometimes have plays at school.’

Ted smiled. ‘Sometimes. But it was mostly used for bands. It was mainly dancing that the hall was used for. Bush bands, swing bands, sometimes rock and roll. People would travel for miles around.’

‘To come here?’

‘Yes. Eaglehawk was famous for its dances. Hard to imagine.’ Ted looked around the empty space. In the far right corner there were old chairs, stacked in neat piles. Fold up trestle tables, capable of holding sumptuous trays of sandwiches, sponges and salads, were folded next to them. In the kitchen were the catering urns. It was so long since they’d been set to simmer that he absently wondered if the elements were still any good.

‘Why aren’t there dances here anymore?’ The boy had moved closer, his left toe scuffing at a pile of dust that Ted had left near the centre of the floor.

‘Who would come?’

The boy shrugged. ‘I can dance.’

Ted watched as the boy wriggled then juddered about. He frowned. ‘Call that dancing? This is how you dance.’ He paused, nodded lightly at the broom, and hummed ‘The Blue Danube’. It had been an age since he danced but it mattered not, his feet suddenly light as he moved across the floor. He’d loved to dance. He’d been painfully shy but there was something about the sway of music and the rustle of starched dresses that seemed to take away the awkwardness he usually felt around girls. It was how he and Mary had met, one warm night at the Eaglehawk dance.

‘Can I’ve a go?’

Ted blinked, startled. He was over near the kitchen door, broom handle in his left hand, the edge of the bristles brushing his shoulder. The boy was beside him, a slightly grubby hand extended. Ted nodded once more to the broom and passed it over. The boy mimicked his grip but didn’t move.

‘I need music.’

Ted nodded. ‘Just a tick.’ He went into the kitchen and switched on the old radio kept on the bench. A spurt of talkback filled the air and he fiddled with the dial until he found something with a melody. And a decent rhythm. He turned the volume up and returned to the doorway. The boy was looking towards him. As Ted watched he turned back towards the broom, nodded and started to dance.

It was clumsy at first but Ted saw the the boy had the gist of it. He softly tapped out the beat with his left foot, noted that the boy picked up the rhythm, swirling around the hall with the broom. The song stopped and the boy swung around.

‘That was cool.’

‘You’re a good dancer.’

The boy laughed. ‘Not as good as you.’ He walked back over towards Ted, but kept the broom by his side. ‘Why do you come here if no-one else does?’

Ted nodded towards the plaque. ‘For them. The hall was built for the men who didn’t come home. And for those that did but weren’t the same as when they left. I started coming here again when my wife passed away. It seemed wrong, the place all closed up and dusty. Least I can do is keep it tidy.’

The boy stared at him for a moment before nodding slowly. As Ted watched the boy took the broom to the front of the hall, right to the spot where he’d got to, and started to sweep the floor.

Congratulations to our 2017 winners

The Boldrewood short story prize

First: Jane Lingard, of Medlow Bath, NSW for Eaglehawk

Judge’s comments: A charming and well-constructed piece using strong yet colourful imagery. Readers will especially appreciate the measured way in which the narrative returns them to a forgotten time and gently delivers hope that someone will always remember.

 

Second: Joanna Barrett, of Beerwah, QLD for The Whites of her Eyes

Judge’s comment: A touching story of love and strength. There’s a beautiful realism and honesty to this writing which will resonate with readers. Lovely images of both nature and human relationships are presented in a heartfelt manner.

 

Highly Commended: Bridget Robertson, of Strathdale, VIC for Jacob and Rory
Zachary Chu for Arcanum

 

The Lewellyn poetry prize

First: Jackie Trott, of Mudgee, NSW for Firestorm

Judge’s comments: An enjoyable, masterful read with rhyme unobtrusive, original powerful lines such as ‘and cleft palate creek beds break’ all leading us on to the final word, making the reader flick back up for another enlightened read. Congratulations!

 

Second: Mocco Wollert, of Keperra, QLD for Nonet

Judge’s comments: The shortest poem submitted but showing how every word counts to evoke a depth of image and emotion. Even the title is carefully thought out and adds another layer of meaning with the words ‘eagle hawk’ able to transcend into a spiritual place. Well done!

 

The winning entries will be published as permission is received from the authors. Please check back in to enjoy their work.

Thank you to everyone who entered this year’s award. We look forward to presenting you with another opportunity in 2018.

Email your entries

The Mulga Bill Award email address is now working! Thanks to the writers who let us know our email address had crashed. And apologies to those who may have tried to email us and failed.

While we love snail mail and are enjoying receiving your beautiful entries in the post, we also encourage email entries. Please send your stores and poems to mulgabill2017@outlook.com

The deadline is March 2.

2017 Mulga Bill Writing Award is now open

Calling all creative writers… it’s time to put your energy into the Mulga Bill Writing Award. We invite submissions of short stories and poems for the award from now until March 2, 2017. Winners will be announced at the Eaglehawk Dahlia and Arts Festival opening on March 15, 2017, at the historic town hall (AKA, the Star Cinema). Browse the website for competition details.

And for inspiration, browse the posts below to read the 2016 winners.

star

The Banjo bush verse highly commended

A TALE OF TWO SETTLEMENTS
By Sue Kellow

There is a place called Eaglehawk,

Just out of Bendigo,

It started in the gold-rush days,

As all the records show

 

It was a destination,

That became a busy hub,

With hordes of hopeful diggers,

Makeshift tents, and then a pub

 

And other buildings followed them,

More pubs and many stores,

With homes becoming sturdy,

Proper walls and wooden doors

 

The people chose to settle there,

At quite a steady pace,

For Eaglehawk was full of charm,

A very pretty place

 

And Bendigo was growing too,

A few miles down the track,

It spread at a prodigious rate,

The two were back to back

 

With Bendigo the larger one,

A ‘city’ it became,

While little Eaglehawk stood proud,

A ‘borough’ just the same

 

And finally, one fateful day,

Amalgamation loomed,

With Eaglehawk to be absorbed,

Its borough status doomed

 

But though the paperwork was done,

They made the cannons blast,

And pointed them at Bendigo,

Defiant to the last

The Lewellyn poetry winner

SLEEPING WITH STRANGERS
By Colin Taylor

At ten-past-five in Eaglehawk, the town is still in bed,

The only hint of heartbeat is the baker moulding bread.

No workers in their office clothes, no mothers on the seats –

My scuffling steps the only sound to stir the silent streets.

 

I round a darkened corner to a wriggling pool of light,

The station swallows figures as they step in from the night.

The half-past-five from Eaglehawk will take the day’s first ride

And, one by one, the travellers slip wordlessly inside.

 

All that breaks the stillness is the sound of shuffling feet.

The regulars nod greetings from their customary seat.

I slide in next to someone, but there’s nothing I need say –

Our shoulders may be touching, but our thoughts stay locked away.

 

With hissing and a whistle blast, the train departs the town,

With that familiar rocking all the patrons settle down.

A few get out their laptops and a number open books;

Many stare around them with their blank, unseeing looks.

 

Twenty minutes later and the eyelids start to close,

Papers lie rejected while their owners take a doze.

The only sound the shudder of the carriage on the track,

The only sight a box of light hurtling through the black.

 

A little sleep with strangers is the way I start the day,

Each one a tiny island in a choppy sea of grey,

Till, pulling in to Southern Cross, our groggy group is stirred,

We gather up our chattels and depart, without a word.

 

Short story highly commended

OLD JACK
By Kylie Southgate

He lived in a small shack in the Whipstick State Forest in the central Victorian goldfields. The walls were made of rough sawn pine, held together with a crude mix of molten rock and water. A rusty tin roof sat atop the one-roomed building and looked as though it would blow off in the next puff of wind. Attached to the left wall, a stone chimney was evidence there may be some warmth or comfort within. The only view to the outside world for Jack was a small four-paned window, at the front near the wooden door.

Rumours had abounded about Jack for years. It was said by some that he’d once killed a man in Wagga Wagga, protecting the honour of a woman, and fled to Victoria. Others said he’d robbed a bank in Bordertown, South Australia and the loot was buried somewhere around his shack.   Perhaps the most bizarre story was that he was a wealthy English Lord who had lost his fortune on the stock market and had worked his passage on a freight ship to Australia to escape not only the embarrassment but his creditors.

Jack lived a simple life; his heeler dog Blue was his only companion. Each morning after a cold wash from a bucket, Jack cooked toast over an open flame in the fire place. He and Blue shared it equally and savoured each bite.   Jack then slung the old metal detector over his shoulder, and they walked the tracks of the state forest together; Jack looking to find his fortune in gold nuggets.

Each evening on dusk they returned to the shack, weary and hungry. Jack lit the kerosene lamp, re-kindled the fire, prised off his hard leather boots and slumped in the only chair in the cottage, the springs sticking uncomfortably into his thighs.

“Maybe tomorrow will be our day, ol’fella.” Blue looked up lovingly as Jack reached down to pat his head. After dinner of rice and gravy, they retired for the night, Blue curled up at Jack’s feet.

Jack was aware of the rumours about his past. None were true of course, but he did nothing to dispel them. He liked to maintain an air of mystery, and it kept people away. He’d lost interest in engaging with people many, many years ago when his wife and child died in a bush fire.

Sergeant Stevens was one of the few people in Eaglehawk who knew Jack’s true past. He didn’t participate in idle gossip, nor did he try to put an end to the rumours.   His father and Jack had been stockmen on a property together in the 1960s and he felt a duty to maintain Jack’s privacy, and to ensure someone was looking out for him.

The kindly ladies from the CWA made up a package of necessities for Jack and Blue and Sergeant Stevens was their delivery man. On the second Saturday of each month, he drove his Ford Territory out to the Whipstick State Forest. He turned off the Loddon Valley Highway and made his way through the forest to Jack’s shack. The stringybark trees were spindly and blackened from burn-offs. The hard, dry ground was rocky and uncompromising where nothing did or could grow.

He would toot the horn on his approach and drop the pack on a flat rock to the side of the shack. Blue would give a friendly yap, a tail wag in thanks for the scratch on the head and from behind the open door, Jack would raise his right hand in acknowledgement. When he’d seen the re-assuring wave that all was well, Sergeant Stevens returned to his car and left, the Territory bumping over the rutted track, worn bare from many years of drought. Jack was grateful for the visit and the supplies but felt no need for conversation.

Their life was peaceful, the sounds of the forest their main source of companionship. But some weekends Jack and Blue received unwelcome visitors. Local lads on dirt bikes rode through the forest tracks, whooping and revving their engines, shattering the stillness and sending small animals scurrying for shelter.   They’d of course heard the rumours about Jack and particularly liked the one about him being a bank robber with his loot stashed in the forest. They’d approach his shack and call out to him.

“Where’s the money, old man? We’re gonnna find it and dig it up and steal it.”

They’d circle the shack, getting closer and bolder.

“Tell us where it is, or we’re gonna make you.”

Jack was old and wise and was not afraid of these boys. He’d dealt with their type many times before. It had almost become a game for him. He’d let them get as close as they’d dare, then he’d hold his metal detector on his shoulder and aim it at them through the window. They’d make a hasty retreat, Blue snapping at their wheels as they raced their bikes back through the forest. And so the legend of the bank-robber-in-the-forest-protecting-his-loot-with-a-gun continued.

The subsequent years passed by quietly. Jack felt the biting winter cold more deeply, and keeping up a decent supply of wood was becoming difficult. He had to walk further into the forest to find logs he could carry home. His knees hurt as he bent to pick them up, and some days he just sat by the embers of the fire, the desire to find gold now waning with age. Blue was grey around the muzzle and his bark was no longer strong and protective.

For many years, Sergeant Stevens had served Victoria Police and the people of Eaglehawk well. He was eventually promoted to Detective, which meant moving to Melbourne to take on big city cases. He was looking forward to the challenge but he would miss his monthly drive out to Whipstick to check on Jack and Blue. He really hoped his replacement would be willing to do the visit and to maintain Jack’s desire for privacy.

On the last Saturday before he moved to Melbourne, Detective Stevens picked up the package from the CWA ladies and headed up the highway. He turned off at the familiar track and tooted his horn on the approach to the shack.

Something was different today. The birds were not singing. The forest was quiet. A damp mist hung heavily through the trees. Detective Stevens stepped out of his car, holding his breath, his heart beating rapidly. At first glance the shack looked the same as it had every other time he’d visited, though now he really looked, some stones were falling from the chimney and cracks had appeared in the walls. How long had they been there, he wondered.

He dropped the package in the usual spot but Blue did not come out to meet him, and Jack didn’t raise his right hand in thanks.   With some trepidation, Stevens approached the shack. He entered the doorway and it took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the dimly lit room, the flames from the hearth providing the only light.   Jack was sitting in his chair, facing the fire, Blue beside him.

“Hello Jack. I hope you don’t mind me coming in but I was concerned about you.” Blue turned his head to look at Stevens, his old eyes now hazy with age but he didn’t get up, or wag his tail. He slowly put his head down on his paws and gazed back at the fire. There was still no movement from the chair.

“Jack?   Jack, are you okay?” Stevens quietly walked closer and saw what in his heart he already knew.

“Oh no. Dear Jack. Rest peacefully old man.”

“Come on Blue, you’ll have to come with me now,” he encouraged the old dog, who reluctantly left his friend and master peaceful by the warmth of the fire.