A skinny, ill fed little waif of a boy fled from home in grimy, working garb. The shock of brown hair, capped a gaunt, tanned face, with deep brown eyes. They burned with the intent of a cattle dog, determined and intelligent.
His clothing was torn in places, a common enough sight among families in the mining town of Wilcannia. It wasn’t the lack of food or the beatings from an overbearing father that drove him away. The last straw came when he saw his mother wear the back of his hand again, but what could he do? He was nine, just six days after his birthday, 1909.
The only course left was to run. He slumbered the night before, shivering in the shrubs to keep him obscured from any passer-by along the main highway. The local constable rode by during the night, but didn’t see him. Although he felt hungry, and weary from the run, he had to push on. The sun as yet did nothing to warm his back as his blistered and torn feet kicked up the dust of the main road. Just over the hill, that’s where’d see the next town. He ran on and crested the crown, halting at the sight of a bullock team almost two hundred yards ahead. Men sat by the side of the wagon, eating from tin plates. A small fire burned in front of them.
A blue cattle dog darted out from under the wagon and tore up the road at the boy.
“Get out of it!” one of the men yelled.
All heads looked up from the ring as the dog slinked back the way it came.
“Gravel won’t hurt you!” the same man called. “Have a meal with a man?”
“Yes, thank you!”
He ran down the hill and sat against the wheel beside his host. A plate was passed to him from a man with sleeves rolled back. His every movement, made the cords in his forearms bulge. A ladle unceremoniously dropped a load of potatoes.
“There’s no meet left, sorry.” The server said.
The boy knew they didn’t feed him out of friendship, just the law of the bush. His host beside him stretched with a frame more fitting for a horse than a man’s. Like all the others, he had an oversized beard, and well tanned skin from many hours of hard labour.
“Right, all of you watch your language.” He said to the crew.
Conversations slowed for a moment then resumed.
“Oi,” he said, and took a slab of silverside from his plate and put it on the boy’s.
“Thank you Mr…” the boy trailed off.
“Ferguson. What’s your name, son?”
“Robert Williams, Mr. Ferguson.”
The hardened face grunted, and spat a lump of gristle aside which Gravel greedily snatched up. He rolled his eyes to the sky.
“Poor boy, thrown into a man’s world.” He muttered. “You want a job with me, Bob?”
“You can’t just put the boy on!” The server said. “He’s probably run off! He needs a boot in the backside and taken to the police in the next town!”
The other men began to voice their protests too. Their angry tirade reminded Bob of his father, same tempers, but better fed, and looked stronger men than any he’d seen. The crew were maddened dogs, and the only way he could see Mr. Ferguson could regain control was by being even more savage. Even though he doubted anyone could dent his face with a tree branch, Bob watched in fearful silence.
“It’s my business who works for me!” He growled evenly. The men stared hard, but kept their silence. “Half of you were running from something when I put you on, and as long as he pulls his weight, he’s got the same rights as any man!” He turned his attention back to Bob. “I’ll pay you a few shillings a week. You get to sleep in the mill, and I’ll have the cook make extra for you. You’re going to need boots too. I’ll have a cobbler make them up for you when we get back, but it comes out of your pay.” He extended his hand. “Good enough?”
Bob couldn’t help but smile as he shook the huge hand. He’d just eaten the best meal of his life, got a job, the promise of his first pair of boots, and all in one morning. Hard to believe Heaven could be any better than this.
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