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by Hugh (Dags the Drover) Morris

She lent over and shook his shoulder gently. “You okay, love?”

“Uh . . . What? Wha‘dya say?” he mumbled, half awake.

“You said you had to get the pump jack started. What pump jack? You haven’t talked in your sleep for years. And what’s this about a pump jack?” She pushed her pillow around, somehow hoping it would all of a sudden become more comfortable.

He sat up, more awake now. “Well, you know how we’ve started this new thing, and well, it’s not really taking off the way we’d hoped.”

“Yep, I’m beginning to wish we hadn’t spent the money.” She wrestled with her pillow some more.

“Well, I’ve been thinking about it and I think I’ve found the answer.” His speech and just about everything else became clearer by the minute.

“Okay, that’s fine. Any time you want to let me in on this is good. And what’s it got to do with a – a pump jack?”

She trawled back through her memories of the early days of their marriage on the farm. “Just remind me what a pump jack is?”

“Well . . . the answer is we’ve got to do two things at once.” He warmed to his theme. “You see, when I was a kid, oh . . . I dunno, about eleven or twelve I suppose . . . ” He slid back down under the blankets and a distant gaze settled on his features.

The year was 1967. He was twelve years old and pretty undersized for his age. He’d had rheumatic fever five and-a-half years before and he’d been kept pretty sheltered by his mum ever since. Concern about heart murmurs and all that.

It was the week after Christmas, harvest was over, and the days were witheringly hot and absolutely windless with the nights not much cooler.

His dad was crook in the hospital and there was a problem. Most of the livestock had been moved on to water on the two creeks that ran through the place, but the stud merino ewes and their prize progeny were up in the 42 and relied on the pump jack in the Creek Paddock for their water.

His job each morning while his dad was crook was to catch his horse, an old grey mare he’d named Betty after the lady from the farm next door, and ride up through the Hill Paddock to the 100 Acre and check the water level in the tank on the hill. The water reticulated from the tank back down through the newly-laid poly pipe to the trough in the 42 for the stud mob.

This tank was usually supplied by the windmill over the bore in the Creek Paddock, but there had been so little wind and it had been so hot his dad had unhooked the wooden connecting rod on the windmill, set up the pump jack over the bore casting connecting onto the pump rod from below, and moved the huge single cylinder Southern Cross diesel into place to run the pump jack.

On this day he knew the tank was going to be empty because it was less than a quarter full yesterday. He swung old Betty around, rode back along the fenced ridge between the Hundred Acre and the 42 to the gate, passed through, and headed down through the freshly-harvested wheat stubble toward the trough on the fence line.

As he came over the rise he saw that the mob were all hanging around the empty trough panting with their tongues out. He knew what had to be done but he wasn’t sure he could do it.

Before his dad got crook, he went with him each morning in the old Falcon ute to help him start the pump. He was not only the gate opener, he was assistant pump starter as well. It was nearly a two man job to start this pump because his dad was pretty crook with asthma and the big old Southern Cross diesel was so heavy to turn over that his dad got real wheezy every time. Sometimes it scared him to see his dad sucking at the air and not getting any. But hospital and an oxygen bottle was fixing that.

He pulled old Betty up at the fence between the 42 and the Creek Paddock, swung his off-side leg over her back, dropped to the ground, tied the reins to the fence, and looked down the seventy or eighty yards to the gully where the windmill, the pump jack, and the diesel engine waited.

How could he ever get that thing started? It seemed it was all his dad and he could do together.

He stopped for a minute and it occurred to him he could move the stud mob to another paddock. He looked across to the Grass Paddock immediately to the east. That was no good. It was watered by this bore. In fact, all this end of the place was watered by this bore, so that wouldn’t work.

He thought back to the western side, to the Hill Paddock and Bottom Hill Paddock. But that was no good either, because the pump on the bore down the homestead end was not working and he didn’t know what to do about that.

And he wasn’t going to box the stud mob with any of the other mobs. If that was going to happen, his dad would have to tell him to do it. There was nothing else for it. He had to give it a go.

He climbed through the fence and walked down to the windmill, checking for red-bellied black snakes as he got closer. The old Southern Cross stood about as tall as he was.

He began by doing the things his dad always did. Check the fuel in the fuel tank and make sure the tap is on; pull the dip stick to check the sump oil; pull out that long thimble on top, turn it up, pour some engine oil into it and tip it into the head from the tin sitting on the ground beside the engine, replacing the thimble at the same time.

Now, for the hard part. Two things had to happen at once. He pressed down as hard as he could on the spring-loaded decompression valve and tried to wind the crank handle at the same time. He remembered not to grip the crank handle with his thumb over the handle but to tuck it in beside his pointing finger so that if he lost pressure on the decompression valve and it backfired, it wouldn’t break his thumb.

He only got half a turn in before he had to let go of the valve. Bang. Back the handle came. It reefed out of his hand and nearly hit his head on its way round backwards.

He took a spell for minute and thought about those stud ewes and lambs.

His dad had taken him out of school last Easter so they could go to Sydney for the Stonehaven Cup at the Royal Easter Show. He remembered the impressive lineup of teams of merino rams and ewes from the different merino studs across New South Wales.

He thought about how he decided there and then that he would take a team of stud sheep to Sydney one day and proudly stand in that line up. But if he couldn’t get that engine started there might not be any stud sheep left.

He found the crank handle, inserted it into the slot on the pulley side, pulled himself up to his most manly self and sucked in a big breath. He pressed down on that decompression valve and heaved with all his might onto that handle once again. Around once, around again . . . he watched the big old fly wheel on the other side begin to spin. As he did so, his hand slipped of the decompression valve and chooff . . . chooff . . . chooff . . . then . . . silence. His eyes dropped, his shoulders sagged, and he felt his normal self again. Useless.

After a moment he stood up straight and caught sight of those ewes and lambs. He thought about his poor dad stuck in hospital, too crook to take care of his own pride and joy, and how that must be eating away at him. He thought about how proud his dad would be if he could start that pump. He was pretty desperate to please his dad.

“Well” he said, gritting his teeth with determination. “I’m the boss today, so let’s get this bally thing going.”

His energy rising now, he grabbed the crank handle again and, before he had time to assume the position, he was into it. Around once, around again, faster, faster. He could start to feel the momentum of the fly wheel, and he spun the handle one more time as he took his other hand off the decompression valve.

He was holding his breath now. Usually he did one thing and his dad did the other. He’d only ever wound the crank handle once before.

Chooff . . . chooff . . . chooff . . . chooff . . . choof chooff chooff.

Big belches of blue smoke pushed out the exhaust each time it fired, the huge fly wheel providing the inertia required to keep that single piston going up and down until the compression was great enough to fire, and then . . .Away she went. She had a life all of her own.

He’d done it.

He collapsed in a heap onto the ground, his shirt ringing wet, trying to catch his breath and recover his energy.

He was too exhausted to feel proud, but something had shifted inside. He might only be a boy, but he’d just done a man’s job. The old girl had settled into her rhythm now, with the push rods on the pump jack pushing up and down, lifting water from the pump down below, squirting water out over the top of the leaking buckets on the packing case with each stroke, and spraying refreshingly cool droplets all over him as he lay there on the dried-out foxtail grass.

He looked up to see the mob milling around the trough again. The water had begun to flow. He was just thinking about which fence post he was going to have to pull old Betty alongside to get back into the saddle for the ride home when his wife broke in.

“So . . . what’s the pump jack got to do with the business?”

Having just been jerked back into the present, he responded slowly.

“Okay. This is how it works. We’ve got to do two things at the same time. One, we’ve got to get going door-to-door and actually sell some of those pictures because they won’t sell themselves. And two, we’ve got to get more galleries signed up to take them on commission at the same time. As more pictures appear in the market place, the more people will see them, the more people will want them. They begin to sell themselves. They take on a life of their own, you see.”

“Right. The pump jack, eh?”

“Yep. Actually, as I was thinking about it just now, I realized it’s the doing two things at once. It’s the momentum of the first sales that generates the future sales in the market place. Nice hey?”

“Okay.” She yawned as she rolled over. “Can I go back to sleep now?”

He lay there thinking for a moment or two. Self-doubt was a constant companion, and he’d had a few failures of which he was only too aware. But something had shifted. It was time to have a go again.

“Well,” he said to nobody in particular. “I’m the boss here. So let’s get this bally thing going.”


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