Des knew this road like the back of his hand, he’d trudged it many times before. They’d descended to the bottom of the first hill and to the left lay stark dark blue evidence of the town’s mining past. It was part of many tailings of past mining around town and one of the exciting places to visit when Des frequently sneaked through overgrown rusting mining equipment at the bottom of his back yard past fruit and nut trees to go through the fence and visit that old mine.
Locals called these tailings mullock heaps. These were piles or hills formed of untreated mining waste. The attraction of course was an abundance of fool’s gold, those small gold coloured lumps that were often found along with real gold in each blue stone. They were treasures this small boy collected expecting someday he could sell them and become rich.
Turning away with regret he discovered Mother and small brother had left him far behind while he lingered remembering his great discoveries in that mullock heap. He began to run to catch up but it was on the upward slope now and he panted as he ran.
As he passed the single old shack on the upside of the old mine he was confronted by two urchins who ran out of the house to cut him off from his Mother. They gave him a push.
“This is our road, you can’t walk here!”
Des opened his mouth in confusion. It was a common road. He wanted to cry out to his Mother for help. The urchins pushed him again and pointed in the direction he’d come from.
“Go back!” They commanded.
Little brother had been glancing back now and then to see why Des was taking so long to catch up with them. He grabbed Mother’s skirt and pointed.
Mother walked briskly back to her son. She faced the urchins with a smile.
“It’s so nice of you to make friends with my son boys, what are your names?” She said.
The urchin bravado evaporated and they softly stammered out incomprehensible names.
Mother smiled sweetly.
“Come on Des, we’ll be late! Say goodbye to your new friends!” She laughed her musical laugh and steered Des up the hill waving to the urchins as she turned to go.
A loud course voice came from the veranda of the old weather beaten shack.
Mother turned to look and there stood the squat figure of a woman in an ill-fitting dress. She had her hands on hips and shouted at the retreating family.
“Ya don’t be troubling me lads!” She shouted.
Mother waved pleasantly and continued on her upward journey. Nothing was going to disturb her tranquillity on the Lords Day.
This was Des’ first introduction to the O’Donnell family and while Mother continued her tranquil enjoyment of the Lord’s Day, Des could not get that scene out of his mind and looked forward to the trip home with apprehension.
As it turned out the house was empty when they walked back home that afternoon and his fears were unfounded.
Sometime after that event Des decided to make his way through their back fence to the mullock heap beside the old mine. It was his favourite game and he looked forward to chipping away at those rocks to extract “gold” pieces. He kept a sharp eye out for black and brown snakes often seen lazing around rocks heated by the sun. He had a healthy fear of snakes and was alert while extracting from the rocks.
But he had not been alert enough, for looking up he realized he was surrounded by three boys. Des recognized the two urchins who’d challenged him on the road. They were accompanied by a much taller boy who spoke to him roughly.
“Who gave you permission to dig in our mine?” The eldest boy shouted in a commanding voice?
“I’ve always dug in this mullock heap it doesn’t belong to anyone!” Des said uncertainly.
“Well now that we live here it belongs to us and you can’t come here without our permission!” The older boy held his urchin brothers who were moving in to teach Des a lesson for his supposed trespassing.
“Go home quickly! He said.
Des was too frightened to visit the mullock heap after that. But he used to watch from the back fence as the troop from the far hill shack guarded their new prize. The younger boys would hurl insults if they saw him peeping over the fence and throw rocks at him. Des would run through the fruit trees out of reach of missiles being aimed in his direction.
Then an idea came to him. Stored in the back yard were old tin signs from a long defunct shop. Using all the strength his little limbs could muster he pulled those old signs down to the fence and constructed a fort with strategically placed port holes through which he could observe what was going on at the mullock heap while enjoying safety of the barrier erected as stones rained in profusion on those tin signs when the O’Donnells realized he was watching.
As Des realized the tin signs were doing their job effectively a new thought came to mind. The O’Donnells were supplying him with a large arsenal for retaliation with their steadily increasing rock pile in his yard. He gathered them into the fort when O’Donnells weren’t guarding the mine.
By this time confidence in his fort had reached a point where Des felt invincible. When the next barrage of stones headed his way he retaliated with a barrage of stones of his own. There was a strange pause and silence in the war zone. Des peeped through one of the holes and saw the O’Donnells gathered around in conversation. They then headed for the shack.
Good said Des to himself. I’ve won the war. They won’t trouble me again.
But as he continued to watch a larger troop of O’Donnells was seen to be heading back and they were carrying what looked like large sticks in their hands. Des continued to watch fascinated until they were within a short distance from his fort. One of the older boys raised something to his shoulder and there was a zing as holes began to appear in his tin fort. He fled to the safety of the house. A large racket ensued as the O’Donnells demolished his fort.
Mother appeared at the window.
“What’s all that noise in the back yard?” She inquired.
“Those boys from the shack on the other side of the mine are breaking my fort!” Des was terrified.
Within seconds Mother was racing down the back yard to see what the fuss was all about. The O’Donnells ceased their demolition when she appeared at the fence. She looked at the troop, noted the sticks and the gun. They stood sheepishly as she examined the bullet holes in the tin signs. This time she did not smile her customary smile.
“This is a matter for the police!” She said angrily.
The boys dropped their sticks and bolted for home.
That evening an angry Mother talked in hushed tones with Father on his return from work.
He went to the back yard fence and examined the demolished fort carefully counting the number of bullet holes. Then he took Des into his bedroom and asked a lot of questions. Why had he taken the signs without permission? What had prompted those neighbours to shoot, and why was Des there anyway? Eventually the story was extracted from Des, including his rock retaliation.
That evening the Police called on the O’Donnell home. Of course there were loud denials. They’d been nowhere near the demolished fort. They’d been visiting relatives elsewhere when this supposed event had taken place and they did not possess a gun. Their Mother indignantly supported her brood’s innocence. However Police can be quite thorough and persuasive and eventually truth came out and the gun was produced and taken away.
As for Des he was put on discipline. No more visiting the mine, no more forts, no more retaliation if the O’Donnells decided on a return bout. Other interests would have to be found in his spare time.
Mother continued to smile and greet Mrs O’Donnell as she passed her shack on the Lord’s Day. Her cheerful greeting was met with a stony smouldering silence from the shack.
“© Copyright Ian Grice 2014 All rights reserved”