It was out around Mungindi many years ago. Very early in the new century it was. Seven men crouched around a camp fire — it was winter time, or what passes for winter in that part of the world — beautiful warm days more often than not, and cold nights. The men were fencers, fencers of the barbed wire and hardwood post variety, running boundary fences for one of the big cattle stations — Noondooroo, I believe it may have been. Hard men they were, tough as the posts they split from the scraggly gums that grew along the line. The men seemed lost in thought, staring into the dying fire, feeling its warmth and gazing into the crackling leaping flames as countless men had done around camp fires for millennia past.
It was Frank who broke the spell as he threw some wood chips onto the blaze — Frank the old man who could still wield a crowbar and shovel with the best of them. Frank who had always been around the place, but none knew where he was from, he just appeared at some point in the distant past. The fire sparked and flared a little in response to the gift of fuel.
“I knew a woman back in the late 60s. Mary Ann was her name — a beauty she was. Don’t ask me her surname now as I will come to that; it was complicated you see.” The six men turned their faces to the storyteller, for Frank was indeed a celebrated storyteller — he was known far and wide. Frank could spin a yarn like no other, and whether the tale was true or not it didn’t matter, it was without fail well told.
“This is a true story, I swear it is. I’d swear on the bible if we had one.” This was Frank’s standard introduction to any yarn — truth or lie. The six men exchanged glances, then turned their gaze back to the storyteller.
“She was what you might call a victim of circumstance, or many circumstances as it turned out.” Frank continued. “She was born to a couple back in the New England area; Glen Innes to be exact. He was a free settler, a butcher he was originally, and his young wife a respectable Irish girl. From County Armagh in the north they came and settled first in the Hunter before they moved on to the tablelands. He built his business up very quickly through hard work, good management, and guile, and before long was free of the laborious butchering itself. He became so well to do that he, William Fitzmaurice Butler, had his portrait painted at great expense, and well-framed as well — I know this to be true for I have seen the painting first hand.
‘What about his wife?’ you may ask, and I will come to that shortly.
The young wife, who he’d married at sixteen, Sarah was her name, was just twenty when she gave birth to Mary Ann, and here’s where the string of tragedies start — it was a very difficult birth and the poor girl died in the process.” The intently listening men glanced at one another and shifted a little in their seats — a couple of split posts that lay in the dust. Frank went on: “So that’s why she didn’t get her portrait painted — but you see the new wife did; for William remarried the year after Sarah’s death — after a respectable time had elapsed, and the new wife then quickly got busy producing children. My guess is that Mary Ann got neglected you might say. Maybe her step-mother resented her and maybe her father didn’t twig to what was going on. Maybe the father couldn’t take to the girl whose birth, whose life, had killed his wife — we’ll never know. In any case she grew up a worry and pretty wild. Yes, Mary Ann, who should have had the world at her feet and consequently a happy life was set on a tragic path, you may take my word for it.
Now when Mary Ann was just sixteen a stockman came to Tamworth with a herd of cattle for the slaughter yards; for Butler’s butchering business. William Butler by now owned a string of butcher shops and slaughter houses in various towns in the area including Tamworth, and he made the buggy trip down from Glen Innes with Mary Ann in tow. Why he brought her we’ll never know, but my theory is that he intended enrolling her at one of the ladies’ colleges in Tamworth to try to straighten her out. In any case the whole plan backfired badly. The stockman, a certain Fred Clark, sold his cattle to William and went on a wild spree with the proceeds. At some point he met up with Mary Ann, swept her off her feet and eloped with her. The two disappeared into the west not to be heard from for a number of months. William was beside himself. After fruitless approaches to police he returned to Glen Innes where he broke the news to his wife and family — they, wife and children, seemed rather unconcerned.
So why am I telling this yarn right here at this time? Well I’ll tell you — the eloping pair came here, somewhere close to here at least, near Mungindi. Clark worked on a cattle station near here, just a bit to the west. His parents and brothers and sisters all worked and lived on the station. You’d know it if I told you the name but I won’t as it’s a bit personal you see. Don’t worry about that, it doesn’t matter, those sort of details I mean. In any case they settled down in a fashion and after a few months Mary Ann sent a letter back to her father saying she was alright and married to Clark. We don’t know how William took it but he didn’t interfere after that. He would not hear from her until twelve years later. The truth was that Clark would not marry Mary Ann, and she had to settle for a common law marriage — she was already pregnant. Now Clark was a drover, and droving out here is a hard life as you all know very well; but her life was a damned sight worse — stuck at a station homestead day in and day out with the flies and the heat to put up with plus Clark’s family who seem to have detested her from the start. On top of that Clark was basically a bastard. He hit the bottle pretty hard and on occasions hit Mary Ann even harder. Still she put up with it — figured it was her lot I guess.
In any case twelve years went by and five children were born. Clark was drinking more and more and getting more violent. Mary Ann got no sympathy from Clark’s parents or his brothers and sisters. She felt terribly lonely and isolated as Clark’s family did all they could to turn her children against her. She dreamed of running away, but how could she with five children? Her relationship with Clark’s family continued to deteriorate. To make matters even worse Clark took an aboriginal mistress and declared their common law marriage, such as it was, over, and that he would take the children. The police were called in to investigate the matter. The Clarks testified that Mary Ann was a bad mother, an alcoholic, and a child beater, and that she was not legally married to Clark. In short she was expelled from the station and custody of the children given to Clark.
Mary Ann, deeply distressed, fled east by coach to Glen Innes and her now elderly father. His reaction to her reappearance after all these years is not known; nor is the reaction of her step-mother and half siblings, but in any case she was accommodated and fed, at least for the moment. Whether she requested help from her father as regards her children is also unknown, but it must be assumed that she kept that to herself, after all, the children were to put it bluntly, all bastards, and she had no right in law to them, and by now she undoubtedly knew it.
The atmosphere in Glen Innes was surely strained, so after some months her father advanced her sufficient funds for her to move to Mungindi where she rented a small cottage. At least here she could be relatively close to her children even if she couldn’t see them. Her father had agreed to send her a small monthly amount until she could gain some sort of income herself. It was while she was living a humble existence in Mungindi that John Pursely came into her life. Pursely, a stockman working on a station south of Mungindi, would ride once a month on a Saturday evening into town, book into the pub and spend his Sunday just lazing about and soaking up the ‘city’ life before riding back to the station in the early hours of Monday morning. Pursely was a good and honest man — he smoked but he hardly drank — he was moderate in all things, including women.
Mary Ann was by now almost thirty, Pursely thirty five — a man somewhat set in his ways. They met at the post office, her collecting her monthly wired allowance, and Pursely looking for mail. It was, perhaps, love at first sight. Pursely began riding to town every Saturday and so the relationship blossomed. But once again there was to be no formal marriage —Pursely was scared of marriage. A common law marriage was agreed. Pursely would continue his work at the station and Mary Ann would remain in Mungindi. They would be together for one day and two nights a week and Pursely would be the provider. Mary Ann wrote to her father saying she was getting married and would no longer require his financial assistance.
Now Pursely had a mate — a fellow stockman named Steve Knight. Silent Knight he was sometimes known as, and I mention this at this time because he comes into the picture later. A secretive and obviously quiet fellow, with a sort of nondescript appearance — neither ugly nor good looking in a way, hard to describe. A mystery man. Not sure where he came from or where he went. He never talked about himself or gave anything away. He was a couple of years younger than Pursely and worked on the same station. He would sometimes ride in with him to Mungindi and stay at the hotel, then ride back with him. He got to know Mary Ann well and admired her greatly. He thought Pursely a very lucky fellow and even told him so — just the once.
Mary Ann soon fell pregnant and in due course a boy was born. They named him John William — Mary Ann was now 32 years old. For the first time in many years she had hope for the future, but once again clouds were gathering. During mustering a bull gored Pursely and he died after lingering for two weeks. Then came more bad news: her father had died leaving all to his wife — no help now lay in that direction. Pursely’s funeral was held in Mungindi and quite a few people, mainly drovers and their wives, turned up to show their respects. John Pursely was well liked. Mary Ann was there with little John. Knight was there and managed to say a few words of comfort to Mary Ann.
Six months went by and Mary Ann was almost out of the money she had saved from her father’s allowance. She was sitting at her bare table when a knock came at the door — it was Knight. She had seen him a few times when he rode into or out of town, but hadn’t spoken to him once. He asked if he could come in, he had something for her. She let him in and put the kettle on the stove to make tea. They conversed at first awkwardly as Knight was uncomfortable around women, but he started to loosen up after a few minutes and when the conversation passed to Pursely he thrust his hand into his pocket, pulled out a wad of banknotes and placed them on the table. ‘Yours Mary Ann’, he said. ‘John’s winnings.’ And with that he walked out of the house before Mary Ann could even protest.
Time went by and Knight rode into town more often. Once again there was no marriage — Knight would never marry, it was dead against his nature, and by now Mary Ann didn’t really care. Somehow Knight changed Mary Ann and Mary Ann changed Knight. She had found another good man. She was thirty four years of age and almost everyone had deserted her. Her children with Clark were separated from her and strangely she was losing her emotional attachment to them. But now she would have a new start. She was pregnant with Steve’s child. It was the spring of 1886 and Knight was away building a two-roomed slab shack on what he hoped would be his future selection in the Big Leather Watercourse country west of Moree. Every month he wired money to her from Moree. Soon the slab hut was completed and Knight hired a wagon to bring his wife and child and belongings from Mungindi. All went well; but the drought was tightening its grip and Knight had a mob of cattle to take on a long drive to better pastures. He would be away for two months — Mary Ann was five months pregnant and fifty miles from Moree but she had had many children and he would be back with months to spare. The hut was well-provisioned and good water was nearby. The blacks in the area were friendly and helpful — he loaded his pack horses and rode off.
The droving job lasted longer than expected. The drought was more extensive than first thought and the cattle had to be pushed further and further in towards the coast. The stock routes were crowded with mobs and the drovers had to keep the stock moving. It was two and half months before Knight could hand his mob over to another droving plant and ride for home.
It happens so easily. A snake, a bolting horse, thrown, and blackness….. Knight woke. The cool sheets were strange, white. The light was glaring; he tried to shield his eyes. He could hear noises. Someone told him not to rise, to rest. He passed out. He woke again. A nurse said that a doctor would see him. Days seemed to go by. ‘You’ve been unconscious for well over a month, but you are now recovering fast. What’s your name?’
‘I don’t know. What’s the date?’
‘It’s December the 24th. You didn’t miss Christmas.’
An aboriginal named Warry walked into the police station at Moree on the 18th of December 1886. He had walked for two days from the Big Leather Watercourse country where the remnants of his tribe still lived. He had a sad story to tell: A small white boy, dirty, scratched and bleeding, hungry and thirsty, had wandered into the black’s camp. The blacks tracked the boy’s footprints back to a slab hut some miles from their camp. As they approached the hut they heard the whimpering of a baby. Hesitatingly they opened the roughly hewn wooden door.
On the 24th of December 1886 the Moree Mail published a tragic story.
This is the gist of it:
An aboriginal had led police to a slab hut in the wilderness of the Big Leather Watercourse. There they had found the body of a woman who had died in childbirth, possibly some weeks premature, and probably on the 16th. The aboriginals had been led to the hut by the woman’s three year old son, and had found a new-born baby there beside her dead mother. The aboriginals had cared for the boy and one of the female aboriginals had nursed the baby. The dead woman has been identified as Mary Ann Butler, also known as Mary Ann Clark, 35 years of age. Despite a comprehensive search the father of the child, believed to be a drover named Steve Knight, has not been located.“
Frank fell silent. His eyes, somewhat glazed, reflected the flames as he stared into the fire for some time. More than one hardened man surreptitiously wiped a tear from his eye.
“They say there are no happy endings.” Frank said at last. “But I will at least give you some brightness at the end of this dark tunnel. The baby girl lived, as did the little boy. They were adopted by a country woman — a well-off and saintly woman, and she brought them up and set them both on the right path. They live not far from here and I pass by there sometimes and catch a glimpse of them. They are both growing into fine citizens; and I’m sure Mary Ann would have been proud of them.”
Frank fell silent again.
‘But what of Steve Knight?
What became of him?’ from one of the listeners.
“Oh, I believe he is very proud of them as well,” replied Frank.
— D.N. O’Brien