"And the greenhide whip such a weal would raise;
We could use the whip in the droving days."
From “In the Droving Days” ~ Banjo Patterson
The perfect end to a much better week, decided Jemimah the following Friday night, as she took a seat atop the metal stockyard railings amongst the teenagers. Temporarily erected spotlights lit up the dirt floor of the cattle yard, and Jemimah settled back into the shadows and looked forward to watching the promised whip cracking.
She tucked the skirt of her long dress under her legs, and thanked Jamie as he handed back the styrofoam cup he’d held for her as she’d climbed up. Jarrah perched on her other side, and grabbed a handful of potato chips from a large bag then passed them along to Jemimah. Down below them, Jack Hart and Alan Cox stood chatting, a whip hung over each man’s shoulders.
Jemimah helped herself to a couple of chips, before handing the packet to the boys on her left. A few moments later a bag of a different flavour was passed around, and she licked the saltiness from her lips, savouring the experience. Tonight’s supper couldn’t have been more simple, yet the combination of the warm night air and the rising moon, the scent of dried grass and the incessant song of cicadas made the experience into something truly special.
A sudden boom like a gunshot rent the air, and Jemimah jumped. She swung her eyes down from the starry sky and looked into the cattle ring to see Jack Hart grinning up at her, the eight foot long tail of his whip snaking back toward him along the ground. Jarrah giggled as she wiped off the droplets of lemonade that Jemimah had spilled on her jeans.
“He did that on purpose!” Jarrah said, refusing Jemimah’s hanky. “He waited until you looked away.”
“That I can believe,” Jemimah answered, her heart still thumping.
The last couple of people quickly took their places on the railings on the opposite side of the circle, and Jack and Alan began challenging each other with whip cracks. Although each crack of the whip made Jemimah’s ears ring, she found it fascinating, the fluid grace of each man’s movement flowing through to the very end of the whip, and then suddenly snapping the plaited leather back on itself. It reminded her a little of the tap dancing routines in the old Fred Astaire movies, where one dancer would give a short performance only for his rival to copy - and then better it.
That kind of one-up-man-ship would certainly appeal to Jack, she thought, although she had to admit she was impressed by his ability. She watched as he swung his right arm around behind his head, then back in front in a huge circle to the left - stopping its circuit abruptly to flick back the way it had come, sending another painful bang through the air.
Even though she’d anticipated the boom, Jemimah still jumped, and shook her head in embarrassment as Jamie patted her arm.
“What makes it so loud? Is it that thing on the end?” She pointed to a colourful plait, about ten centimetres long, that was tied to the end of the whip. “What is it made of?”
“Just baling twine, like a plastic string, that’s all,” Jamie answered. “There’s nothing special about it, it just disturbs the air.”
Mitch leaned forward from the other side of Jamie to look at Jemimah. “You know it’s a sonic boom, don’t you? That’s why the bang is so loud - the end of the whip is moving faster than the speed of sound.”
If it had come from Jack, Jemimah would have dismissed the sonic boom story out of hand - her only experience of sonic booms being the rare flyover by air force jets training near Newcastle. But coming from Mitch …
“Really?” she asked, having learned there was no point trying to hide her ignorance from that particular young man. “How does it do that?”
“The length of the whip increases the movement you put into it - by the time it reaches the end it’s travelling around four times faster. What creates the boom is bringing the whip straight back along the path it’s just come,” he explained, then shook his head at the men in the ring. “It relies more on accuracy than strength - the way Jack is throwing himself into it is just for show. A kid a third of his size who knows what he’s doing can make it crack every bit as loud. Here, watch Peter have a go.”
Jack had handed his whip to Peter Black, a farmer from a property an hour’s drive away. Jemimah had only met him at church a couple of times - he was one of the people who only came once a month, meeting with other folk close by in between times - and as he seemed just as shy Jemimah, they hadn’t done more than exchange an awkward greeting.
Now, though, with the wooden handle in his hand, the man looked perfectly at home. He gave it a few gentle flicks as though to feel its weight and then broke into a series of vigorous swings that released cracks like a volley of gunshots. Applause echoed around the ring when he finally handed the whip back to Jack and returned to his place.
“My turn!” Jamie jumped down from beside Jemimah, and took up the whip. When Jack joined him with the second whip a few minutes later, the younger brother battled to outdo the older and Jemimah nudged Jarrah.
“Boys! They don’t seem to grow up, do they?”
“Nope,” Jarrah laughed, then glanced quickly at Jemimah. “Heard you moved in with the Harts.”
“Did you?” Jemimah wasn’t surprised anymore about how quickly everyone around here knew her actions.
“Yeah. Jamie was talking on the bus about it.”
Jarrah didn’t ask any further questions, but as it was as close to a personal conversation as they’d ever had, Jemimah gave her the answers to the questions she guessed the girl wanted to ask.
“Jamie’s mum offered for me to rent one of the empty worker’s cottages on their property. I was a bit lonely living on my own in town - so I was very glad to move near people I know. It’s about half a kilometre from the Hart’s place, but Marlene Hart and her children live in one of the other cottages quite close by. It’s quiet though, after being in town, but I like it.”
It had been blissfully quiet, Jemimah mused. After being on edge twenty four hours a day, waiting for the next raised voice or slammed door, being truly out in the country was beyond wonderful. She was so thankful to God - it had been like being given a whole new lease of life. She slept so well she had more energy to cope with school, and she didn’t feel nearly as threatened by the school parents, knowing that when she drove away from school she left them all behind her. In a strange way, having a refuge to flee to gave Jemimah new confidence to be outside of it.
“I was wondering if I could ask you a favour, Jarrah,” she said, grabbing the opportunity she’d been praying for since Marlene’s visit last Friday night.
“Yeah?” the other girl answered a little warily.
“I didn’t realise that Rosie was your step-sister. You know she’s in my class?”
Jarrah rolled her eyes. “Yeah, she doesn’t stop talking about you. Miss Parker this, Miss Parker that. You must be sick to death of her!”
“Not at all, she’s just gorgeous.”
“Well, most of the time she is,” Jemimah admitted with a laugh. “The favour I wanted to ask is about Rosie, anyway. She’s a bright little girl, but she needs more help with her reading … not just at school, but at home, too. I wondered if you --”
“Oh, no, no, no!” Jarrah put her hands up. “Not me! You know I’m no good at the book stuff.”
“I could show you just what to do, it isn’t hard at all. Rosie just needs someone to sit with her and listen, to show an interest. Talk about the pictures with her, help with some of the words. Maybe ten minutes a day.” Jemimah let her suggestion sink in for a few minutes while both of them watched the boys all taking turns in the ring. After a few minutes, Jack took the whip back and offered it to the other spectators, leading the applause when Leanne Anderson jumped down to take a turn.
“Can we give the reading a try, anyway?” Jemimah prompted. “There’s nothing to lose if it doesn’t work out, and it might be just what Rosie needs. If you can just drop by one afternoon after school …”
She left her sentence unfinished, cheering as Leanne cracked the whip. The younger girl managed one more successful crack before it wrapped itself around her leg, and she detangled herself and handed it back. Before Jemimah realised what was happening, Jack had grabbed both her and Jarrah by the hand and tugged them down from their seats.
“Your turn, girls.”
“Oh, no!” Jarrah started to back away, “I’ve never done it. You’re not going to try it, are you, Jemimah?”
Realising it was a chance to get Jarrah more involved with the group, Jemimah fought down her own urge to flee from the ring.
“I’m game if you are,” she answered, half-hoping Jarrah would refuse. However, the other girl took the whip from Jack, watching closely as he demonstrated what to do. She had a couple of tries, getting it tangled around her arms, her wrist and her ankles, until Jack stepped in behind her and guided her arm through the swing. With his help, Jarrah produced one creditable crack, and then retired, obviously pleased, and relinquished the whip to Jemimah.
All of a sudden Jemimah was aware of everyone watching, and with the glare of the lights on her she felt like a moth trapped inside a light fitting. Jack went through the same routine with her, showing her how to swing, but just as he jerked her arm back to recall the whip, he stepped back and it flicked into the side of her head - its lash landing like a burning punch against her ear.
“Careful, there, Miss Sparky!” he chided, “you nearly did me an injury. Perhaps I’m assuming too much expecting a little bit of co-ordination. This time try to think about what you’re doing.”
Blinking back tears, Jemimah gave it one more determined attempt, but this was even worse than her first one, the lash stinging through the thin material of her skirt as it wrapped all the way around her thighs.
“Too much anger my Padawan learner!” Jack imitated Yodah from the Stars Wars movies. “Give in to the dark side, you must not, Miss Sparky.” He took the whip from her, as she stung with humiliation. The worst part was knowing how much he’d enjoyed embarrassing her.
“Your turn, Angie Pangie!” Jack had selected his next victim, and slinking back to her seat on the railings, Jemimah was surprised to see Angie accept his challenge without demur. Jack picked up his cup of soft drink, and leant back against the fence to watch.
Angie stood in the centre of the ring, stock still, only her eyes gleaming as she seemed to measure out the length of the whip. She sent a wink to Jemimah, then, with her wrist hardly seeming to move, the whip flashed straight up toward Jack and back down to the ground in an instant.
“Is that the best you can do?” Jack taunted, and then looked down to see a stream of liquid pouring down his jeans.
“Yeah, guess it is.” Angie grinned as Jack saw the neat cut she’d sliced through the styrofoam cup he held. “Some of us actually use a whip for working cattle - not just playing.”
Jemimah was on her feet cheering Angie before she realised it, her friend’s serve of vengeance tasting as delicious as if she’d cooked it herself. Angie hastily retreated from the ring, and when Jack swivelled his glare on Jemimah as she continued to applaud, she appreciated the other girl’s wisdom in taking the whip with her as she disappeared into the shadows.
For a moment Jemimah felt guilty for relishing Jack’s humiliation, and her eyes dropped to the ground. Only for a moment though, and then she grinned cheekily as she escaped after Angie.
There was no call to feel sorry for Jack Hart - a little bit of humbling would do him the world of good. Although it wouldn’t pay to cross paths with him within the next couple of days …
“What is that idiot doing?” Angie hissed to Jemimah, as Jack Hart’s ute caught them up on the road leading back toward the Hart’s property about half an hour later.
Angie was driving her father’s old ute. Since they’d had to pass her place on the way out to the Cox’s, her dad had suggested they borrow it for the evening, considering the rough condition of the Cox’s road. Now it rattled loudly over the corrugated surface as Angie increased the speed.
Jemimah wrenched around to watch Jack bring his vehicle to within metres of theirs, his array of headlights, driving lights and spotlights illuminating the interior of the Turnbull’s ute like brilliant day. For a moment she was worried that Angie would try to outrun him, but instead of accelerating, Angie lifted her foot from the pedal and moved the ute into the centre of the narrow road.
“This’ll fix him,” she said smugly, and Jemimah watched as the speedometer needle dropped lower and lower. The long blast of the horn behind them made Jemimah jump, but Angie held her course, decreasing speed all the time. “He hates going slow!”
Her pulse racing, Jemimah glanced into the darkness ahead and then back around, but she could see nothing behind them but the dazzling headlights. Angie seemed perfectly relaxed, her mouth curved in a satisfied smile, but Jemimah wondered how long she could survive the tension.
The road opened slightly for a side road, and Jack flew past on their right, and Jemimah finally breathed.
“Why didn’t you just let him pass?”
“And let him think he can intimidate me?” Angie returned as the twin tail lights shot off ahead of them. “He’s had his fun --”
She broke off as the tail lights weaved left, disappeared briefly, and then were replaced by the double line of headlights and driving lamps.
“He’s coming straight for us!” Jemimah squealed.
“No, he’s not, you goose - you always think that about oncoming lights - it just looks that way … No! He is coming straight for us! That idiot!”
Jemimah cowered in her seat, surprised to hear Angie laugh. “If he really thinks he’s going to scare me …” At the last moment she pulled left and Jack’s ute shot past in a streak of light.
“I wonder how many more times he’s going to play this game tonight?” Angie mused. “He’s got to turn back sooner or later to get home.”
“No, he’s not heading home,” Jemimah finally managed to reply, her limbs still tingling as his taillights disappeared for good behind them. “I heard he’d offered to take Jamie and Mitch into Narrabri for a late supper at McDonalds.”
“So he came this way just to tease us? What a nerve!”
“Well, it’s hardly surprising considering what you did with the whip …”
Angie snorted. “I suppose you’ve got to feel sorry for a guy who’s got nothing better to do on a Friday night than drive about just to tease us.”
“You have to admit it’s pretty nice of him to take his little brother and his mate all the way into Narrabri, though.”
Jemimah had picked up Mrs Hart’s concern about Mitch’s overconfidence now he had his provisional licence, and she guessed Jack had made his offer to outshine any plans the boys might have had of driving into town in Mitch’s old but powerful car. Jamie might be impressed with Mitch, but Jemimah had discovered that his eldest brother was even more of a hero to him. Now that she thought about it, she wondered if Jack cared a lot more about Jamie than his constant teasing indicated.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if he came up behind us just to give Jamie and Mitch a bit fun. I’m starting to think he might be a bit softer than he lets on,” Jemimah added. “The night I moved into the cottage at the Hart’s, he picked on me the whole way through dinner - but on my home out he gave me a card with his mobile number on it and told me to ring if I ever got myself into trouble and needed rescuing. At the time I thought he was just rubbing in how trouble-prone he thought I was …”
Jemimah broke off, realising that Angie wasn’t paying her the slightest bit of attention.
“Did you see that cattle truck we just passed?” Angie demaned as they rounded a bend.
“How could you not? It was parked just outside Haney’s - engine running, but no lights on. I saw the driver getting back in the driver’s door as we passed.”
Jemimah frowned. “Oh, I saw that one - I thought it was just parked there. Why do you ask?”
“Because it seems pretty suspicious to me - out here this time of night. What’s he up to?” Angie put her foot on the brake and swung left. “I’m going back to check it out.”
“What?” Jemimah grabbed the door handle for support as Angie made a sharp U-turn. “What are you doing?”
“Someone’s been pinching cattle around here - one by one - and no-one seems to care. This could be how they’re doing it: late at night, picking off one animal at a time so no-one suspects it’s all orchestrated.”
By the time they approached the spot they had seen the truck, it had gone, much to Jemimah’s relief. “There - he’d probably just stopped to check on something.”
“Without his lights on?” Angie shook her head. They took another sweeping corner and tail lights appeared far ahead briefly then flicked off, and Angie switched her own lights to low beam. “Now that’s even more suspicious - he’s only driving with his parking lights. I’m going to follow him and at least see where he’s heading.”
Jemimah glanced at the car clock. It was already after ten. “But … but how long for?”
“Just until we see which route he takes. From here I reckon he’s heading for the highway, but we won’t know which direction until Narrabri.”
After about ten minutes Jemimah gave up arguing. She’d experienced Angie’s stubbornness before and realised there’d be no point exhausting herself any further. It was probably easier to live with a long drive through the bush with Angie in a good mood, than sit up just as late listening to her complain about being made to turn back.
After all, even if Angie’s wild conjectures were true and they were actually tailing a cattle thief - the truck driver would have no reason to suspect they weren’t just another car on the road ...
© R. L. Brown 2007