A man rounding up cattle came across the remains of an old
rifle half-buried in the sand and rocks of the semi-desert area. Where did it
come from? Who owned it? What story lay behind the rusted remains of what turned
out to be a .303-gauge rifle? The family who owned and ran the 10,000-hectare
Ferndale Station, carrying 8,000 head of cattle, often discussed the rusted
weapon and its mysterious background as it lay in the corner of one of their
Ferndale Station in north-west Queensland was so large that
when mustering was taking place on one of its far borders, it was easier to camp
out rather than take the long trek home. Family head, George Calder, and two of
his four sons, Anthony (called Tony) and Jake, sat around the campfire after a
hard, hot, very dry day on horseback rounding up cattle for branding and in some
cases, castration. Those animals, so deprived, became known as Bobby calves, in
the ensuing months be fattened for food.
The men sat comfortably around a campfire, coffee mugs in
hand, as mustering was done for the day, the cattle and horses made safe from
straying behind a temporary fence. The dogs, essential helpers in mustering,
also sat, warming themselves by the leaping flames, muzzles down on paws, every
bit as relaxed as their owners.
‘This is just about the spot where I found the remains of
that rifle,’ said George. ‘I’ve wondered to this day who owned it or what it was
‘Did they have military training or manoeuvres on this land
during the war do you think? If they did, it could it could have been lost by a
soldier,’ said Tony.
‘No, as far as I know, nothing like that ever took place.
In those days we were too remote for any army business. There is one possibility
that comes to mind and that might have something to do with gold. Because, as
you know, there are traces of gold in the rocks in the area, which means we
sometimes get prospectors nosing about to see what they can find. You often see
them coming on our property – because of the prospecting law they’re allowed to
do that – and they have been doing it for many years past, although they’re
supposed to get our permission as well.’
‘You think the rifle might have something to do with gold
prospectors, a fight or even a murder taking place over gold?’ asked Jake.
‘Could be a possibility but a long time ago. It wouldn’t
have been the first time there has been trouble over gold and its discovery.’
‘But there has never been a body or remains found nearby
that would point to murder.’
‘If a body was buried here, it’s so far away from
other human habitation and so much of this part of the country is semi-desert,
it would never have been found. By now due to the passing of time it would now
be dust, just like its surrounds.’
‘I don’t suppose we’ll ever know. Anyway, I’m going to hit
the hay, another long day of hard work coming up tomorrow.’
‘Yeah, a few more days of this, then we can go home,’ said
George, ‘so we’d better get heads down.’ Which they did in their swags on the
The dogs rested their heads on their paws and quickly went
to sleep because they fully understood George’s words.
A silvery moon looked down on the sleeping group from a
cloudless sky dotted with a million stars. It was quiet and peaceful but was it
the setting for a murder many years in the past? There were no ghosts around, no
indication of any sort of violence that might have taken place long ago. All of
the recent campfire discussion taking place because of the discovery of the
rusted remains of a rifle.
Next morning it was up with the birds. The camp cook,
Willie Wu, got busy cooking breakfast in the catering van equipped with stove,
refrigerator and gas bottles. The team worked hard all day so they needed plenty
of solid good food to get through the hours and they appreciated Willie’s
cooking efforts. The dogs waited eagerly for their breakfasts as well.
While this was going on, George was busy putting saddles
and bridles on the working horses, in readiness for the day’s work. The most
unpleasant task ahead was the castration surgery that had to be carried out on
some of the young bulls, which would make them impotent. The dogs, waiting under
nearby bushes, were involved and loved their part. The male sac was sliced open,
both testicles cut free and thrown to the dogs who thought it was a treat and
wolfed them down. Hot tar was brushed onto the wound to help with healing. The
treated animals waited miserably for the ache to stop. They would then, when
grown larger, end up as veal. The best of the remaining bulls would be left to
breed with the cows, fathers of the next season of calves.
After a few more days when all was done it was time to head
off home. The herd was released from the encircling temporary fence and set free
to roam until the next round-up. The camp was packed up and the party set off
thankfully for home.
Home was a large five-bedroom homestead which had been
built by George’s grandfather, also named George, who had come to Australia
after first trying his luck in the Rift Valley area of British East Africa
(later Kenya). He had to flee the Rift Valley because he had been caught having
an affair with the wife of another settler who had threatened to shoot him the
next time he saw him. So he quickly departed, returned to England and caught a
boat to Australia after getting a lot of money from his wealthy family to tide
him over during his settlement in the new colony. He later met and married the
daughter of a wealthy squatter who helped him set up his own property of 2000
acres in northwest Queensland, which prospered over the years. As time passed he
acquired more land until he had 10,000 hectares and the property became known as
Ferndale Station, breeding Brahmin cattle as well as shorthorns. The two breeds
were kept separate.
This was now the home of George and Grace Calder and their
four sons, Tony, Jake, Simon and Troy. Tony was the eldest at 25 years of age,
the others arriving every two years, ages 23, 21 and Troy the youngest at 19
years. They were first educated at home by the School of the Air and later went
to boarding school for their secondary education. On graduation, the property
was large enough and earned enough to employ all the sons as stockmen. None of
them wanted to be anything else although there was one problem that niggled them
all and that was girls. Not that girls per se was a problem. It was the lack of
the company of the fair sex that troubled them and as they were well-built,
healthy, good-looking young dudes it worried their parents, too, as they wanted
their boys to be happy and eventually marry so there would be grandchildren, the
next generation of the Calder dynasty.
Every so often a dance was held at the nearest township – a
small place, about 100 kilometres away – which the boys all attended hoping
there would be a girl that they could meet and get to know. They were often
disappointed because most of the girls were spoken for and going with somebody
in the town. They soon found that if they tried their luck with those girls they
would be involved in a fist fight.
Finally they discovered an available (not going with
anybody) girl that set their hearts aflame. Her name was Claire, the daughter of
the local veterinary. She had shiny dark hair, a perfect figure and mysterious
dark eyes. She had been away touring the world and recently returned home to her
family and to help her father in his veterinary practice. The four boys
instantly fell in love with her, which caused a problem of jealousy. They took
turns dancing with her, each hoping she would favour him over the others, but
like many women she remained uncommitted and treated them all equally. As she
was the daughter of a vet who sometimes visited to treat one of their herd they
knew they would see her again. They hoped one of their prize animals would soon
fall ill with some mysterious sickness and need the help of the vet who would
probably be accompanied by his beautiful daughter. The problem was, none of the
cattle obliged by getting sick so the boys devised a plan to move things along.
‘Hey, Dad, I think one of the Braham heifers is sick. I
think she’s got grass staggers and bloat,’ said Jake.
‘That far one, the one that’s separate from the rest of the
‘I’ll go over and check her out.’
‘Why don’t you get the vet to do that?’
‘Because I don’t want the vet to come all this way on a
After expertly examining the allegedly sick heifer, George
returned to announce he could find nothing wrong. ‘She must have just tripped on
a rock or something to make you think she had grass staggers,’ he told the
visibly disappointed group of boys who waited anxiously for a decision on
whether to call the vet or not.
‘OK, so that’s a relief,’ said George. ‘Now, we have to get
on with pasture improvement as I keep telling you, so get on with top-dressing
the native grasses and clover which we’ve already planted.’
The four boys, disappointed, all trooped off to their
various jobs to help with the top-dressing. They’d have to devise another scheme
to spend time with the glamorous daughter of the vet.