There wasn't much to do in that place, except to drink and shoot, unless you played football with the locals. When they weren't actually playing football they were drinking and shooting.
That year it was hot. Well, it's hot every year in the back country. That year was no different. Hot and dry. I'd shot eleven hundred feral pigs that year already and most afternoons Doug and I would leave work and sit and have our coffee in the hostel. We'd clean our rifles and count our ammunition. We didn't own any land around that town but not owning land was a bonus really. We had the run of thousands of square miles of north-west territory and were welcome everywhere. We were part of the third tier of inhabitants. Another tier was the locals, and yet another was the land owners.
Anyway, it didn't get dark till after eight o'clock in the evening and we'd set off about five and drive in one direction or the other for about an hour. Then we'd leave the car in the table-drain on the side of the road and set off walking. We'd walk for miles into someone's territory, into anyone's territory. We made no noise, no rush. Walk and look. Sometimes we'd come upon a mob grazing on sandy soil. A boar, a sow and usually about ten smaller versions. We'd walk and stalk. Closer in, we'd find a position, and we knew each other's place. We communicated in sign language and worked together well, as a team, and we enjoyed this kind of afternoon, walking, talking, stalking and shooting.
We'd tried shooting from vehicles with others, hosted on serious expeditions by cockies and professionals alike, day and night. Somehow it never worked out. The vehicle work was all bluster, noise and smoke. There was always wild fast chasing through tussock country and black soil craters, dodging trees. No seatbelts. A rifle each in one hand, no round chambered of course, the other hand clinging desperately to the roll bar. Our legs were our suspension, bending and rocking. We'd dip and weave and tilt and sway, and the driver would drive like crazy, like a cab driver in Blagoveshchensk, but peering through a windscreen that was always covered in locust carcasses and essentially opaque. Somehow we didn't suit that wild ride and we preferred the quiet walking hunt.
We'd also taken blokes from the bank out to show them the ropes. It was always good to see what they were like. Often though we were more than a little worried. No sign language worked, they'd fire off before we were set and once or twice we heard the zing of bullets overhead, when we got temporarily separated. It scared us. Never again.
Also there were the store holders. The publican was an ex-professional shooter and boxer, the general store was owned by a family long established as a part of our third tier hierarchy. In the bakery was a Flemish man, Louis, and his wife Maria. Louis became a great friend of ours. A jovial and open man, slightly inhibited by his foreign origins, as were most in the early 70s, but with us at least open to the point where we got along well. Underneath the joviality he gave the almost imperceptible impression that he was either hiding from a former life or he was trying to forget it. Maybe this back-country town, so far from the urban life he must have been used to, was an escape. He'd seen the world and loved life, eaten cockroaches in the merchant navy as a bet for extra beers and he spoke often with winks and raised eyebrows about stories of Amsterdam and Belgium. Like the properties on the black-soil plains, there was good money to be made in stores when the season was good. Louis' season was winter and he sold around four hundred pies per day throughout that season. No-one I knew ate anything else in winter. He must have accumulated money but was never tight with it, unlike Maria.
Maria was his dour and serious-natured wife. Friendly too in a reserved kind of way, but it was obvious she kept him on a short leash and ruled the coffers. For her he was there to work, to accumulate and to live a simple life. Louis never came with us on our hunting afternoon walks but was always keen to, and he was always part of the conversation afterwards. He'd make us a coffee or shout a beer when we returned and he'd listen and smile when we told of our exploits. He lived vicariously in our tales, dreaming to himself of being the rifleman or an Earnest Hemingway of the outback lands. Louis had a rifle too and was always keen to use it, but Maria never allowed him to come, and we never really got around to insisting. We realise now that he was keen to take a pig but never really got the chance.
Johnny was different. He already had lots of pigs. As administrator of the hospital he worked hard and drank hard and captured as many of the beasts as he could. These he kept in the paddock adjacent to the hospital. We called it the hospital paddock. Full of pigs. Johnny's pigs. He kept them there to domesticate them and calm them down. They roamed around that area a bit and, like all pigs, got hungry and, at those times, fences were ignored. You'd sometimes hear the town dogs set up to barking (every house in town owned a dog, and there were more than that). They'd bay and howl as several dozen porkers rumbled through the street. Someone would get on the phone as the noise and dust cloud passed: ‘Johnny, get your pigs in' they'd yell, and we all heard them. We all heard every telephone call back then.
About twice each week Louis would need to go to the tip. There was bakery stuff, flour bags, paper, rejected mixture and household rubbish. He'd drive the two or three kilometres south of town out along the dirt road to the tip in the family station wagon. Its back cargo section full with mostly dry refuse and its tailgate easily closed. A bi-weekly chore. The hospital was one kilometre east of town and Johnny's hospital paddock just south of it. Strangely, there was no fence between the tip and the hospital paddock, just a gully ran between the two, a no-man's land of tallish green reeds. A watery and useless dip. Johnny's pigs were a hungry lot and they could smell the tip. It wasn't long before those pigs discovered a feast of wrappers, rotting vegetables, carcasses, and flotsam there, along with drying baking powder, exhausted flour and bakery sweepings. When Louis arrived this day he started as usual to dump the rubbish. Back up to the makeshift pile, careful not to get the car too dirty, flick out the waste, watch you don't stand in it, loft closed the tailgate and drive away. What's that? A pig!
Just three metres away and standing there. It ignored Louis. It was eating. Calm and almost domesticated, just hungry. One of Johnny's. In Louis, the Hemingway kicked in. My chance! Unbelievable! No quiet needed, no stalking, no position, no running. Oh no, no rifle!
The cargo area was almost empty and he slammed home the tailgate, jumped into the driver's seat and howled off to town. A pall of dust came off the wheels and he slipped sideways over the domed road, fishtailing almost into the drain. By the time he'd reached the outskirts of town the adrenaline had moderated its pumping, and Maria was at home anyway. As quietly as he could, suppressing a blind panic he slowed and parked. Down the side alley and into the bakery. From there into the house. Along the hallway towards where Maria was serving in the shop, but sideways then and into the bedroom. The rifle, a magazine of rounds. Towards the hall again. A glance to the left. She's got a customer. Dash to the right. Into the bakery again, through the side door, along the alley. Look nonchalant. Walk slowly towards the car. In. A slow and deliberate driving U-turn, down the road at 45kmph. When he turned the car right, he gunned it. When he hit the dirt there was dust again and those two kilometres were covered in moments. Through the tip gate. Now, where's that pig?
It was nowhere at first. Then he spied it thirty meters away. He stopped the car and got out, the rifle leading the way. Walking towards the pig he covered the distance. There it was, now just five metres away. It ignored him, eating.
The dry mouth. The pig falls like a bag of potatoes, flopping onto the ground. Dead weight. Louis looks around. No-one is there. Like scoring a hole-in-one when you're alone on the golf course.
Louis dragged the dead pig about ten metres towards the car, then coming to his senses, he stopped and left it there. He fetched the car and drove it over and backed up, just like he did when dropping rubbish. With the car's rear virtually over the pig he stopped and swung open the tailgate. Now to lift it. Oh, so heavy! Louis lifted the head and forelegs up onto the cargo base but by the time he manoeuvred himself around to the hind quarters the top was already starting to slide away. Push it back straight. To the hind quarters again and this time the head slid in along the base and snouted the rear of the red leather seat. It's in. He shut the tailgate and looked around. Still no-one. A little more relaxed now and to the rifle which he'd left laying in the dust. He picked it up and found it to be loaded still. Slip the bolt back and pop out the live round and then the magazine is removed. He put the rifle back into its sack, and the magazine this time into the glove compartment. With the rifle along the back seat he drove sedately out of the tip and onto the well-trodden track to town again. A sensible pace. The end-game was in sight.
About half way between the tip and town a fence crosses the road. The fence comes through the table drain on either side and up onto the road surface, although there's a stock gate just in the paddock beside the drain. On the actual road, a grid is used and there's enough room for a car or two to pass each other there, but that's about all. Louis got to this point. Just on the tip side of the grid. He glanced in the rear view mirror. A pig's eyes were looking at him.
He blinked, looked again, 'Is that right?' Somehow the pig was standing and resting its head on the back of the rear seat, and looking forward. Louis scoped the mirror. That head was on the floor before, he'd loaded it himself. It was supposed to be tucked into the base of the back seat. Now it was on top of the seat, and its eyes were open. That pig was alive!
At that moment all hell broke loose. The pig was really alive. It was up. It was jumping all over the cargo area.
It was squealing, dancing, cavorting. It was angry and stuck and shot and bloody too. Before even the car had stopped
that pig was rotating around and around in circles in the almost vacant cargo area of the wagon. The noise was getting
louder and blood and yellow foul-smelling liquid were squirting out of a hole in the pig's side and pissing all over the car.
It draped the leather, wet the windows and was running backwards and forwards on the floor. Louis was somewhat alert again.
Out of the car now he dashed around the back and looked into the rear window, his mouth gaping. That pig was supposed to be dead.
Hemingway vanished. Louis dashed for the back door and fished out the rifle sack. Then he fished out the rifle and let the sack fall.
No ammunition. 'Shit, in the glovebox'. With the rifle in one had he half sat into the front seat again through the open door and reached for the glovebox. Feeling, he found the magazine and grabbed it, stuffed it up into the rifle cavity and swapped hands, pulled the bolt, pushed it home. A round chambered, he went directly for the tailgate and opened it wide. There, inside, the pig was still now but heaving, and the blood just dripped from the wound in its shoulder. No thoughts were entertained. Louis raised the rifle and aimed it into the station wagon, roughly registering a pig in there. Bam. A bullet flew into the car. Plup. The bullet punctured a hole in the leather of the rear seat. Bam, another shot. This time he hit the pig, but an inch or so forward of the rear leg, a belly shot. A noise went up, a combination of squealing, moaning and anger. Bam, yet another shot. Into the chest. The pig flopped, twitched and chattered. Still and quiet now, but a bloody, stinking, lump of porker drowning in a sea of red and yellow swill in the rear of Louis' family car. A quiet descended. Just Louis' breathing and the tick of the hot and cooling car. It was dead this time, the pig.
When he started to drive, it wasn't till the last few hundred metres that he started to relax. Home was in sight. Just the problem of the filthy car and cleaning it before Maria twigged.