Animal Instinct

Kevin mentioned the newcomer to Jake one day. It was a quiet moment around mid-morning and the big concrete and corrugated iron Co-op building was empty but for the two of them.

Sos Semple had been working in the little coastal town for six weeks before anyone knew he was there. This was unusual. Kevin at the Co-op knew about the new man working on the dredge, but not until Sos had been there for a few weeks.

Kevin mentioned the newcomer to Jake one day. It was a quiet moment around mid-morning and the big concrete and corrugated iron Co-op building was empty but for the two of them.

“Have you met the new fella on the dredge, Jake?” Kevin asked casually as he wrote out the docket. He bent low over the counter the better to see what he was writing.

“No, I didn’t know the job had been filled,” replied Jake.

Both men were quiet for a moment, then Jake said, “I reckon I’d go mad pumping sand over that sea wall and watching it wash back in again on the next big tide.”

“Someone has to do it,” said Kevin, straightening up and looking at Jake.

Jake took the docket from Kevin’s outstretched hand and checked that he’d got all he came in for, then got out his chequebook and wrote a cheque for the purchase.

“I take it you’ve met him, Kevin. What’s his name?”

“Mervyn came in with him yesterday to help load the heavy mesh they get for the rock wall repairs. Introduced him as Sos. Can’t figure that name. Anyway, there’s something about the bloke. Can’t figure him either.

“You can usually get a feel of what someone is like when you first meet them, but this fella … ? And when I asked him how long he’d been on the Sand Groper, Mervyn jumped in ahead of him and said he’d been here six weeks, but that he was living out at Colac until he found accommodation for himself and his wife in the town and that what with the travelling and early starts and late finishes on the dredge at this time of the year, he–that is Sos–hadn’t really been on shore during shop hours.”

Kevin stopped talking and stood quietly for a moment.

“All the years I’ve known Mervyn, I’ve not heard him say more words than he did then. And he spoke real fast too, like he’d read it somewhere, then rehearsed it. Anyway, I suppose we weren’t meant to know everything or life would be too darned dull, wouldn’t it?”

He grinned and pulled himself up straight, becoming the jovial Kevin everyone was used to seeing behind the counter.

Jake laughed. Kevin was good value. Even the grumpiest and gloomiest old bachelor farmers saw the good in Kevin and respected him for it.

Jake loaded his trailer. He’d bought a pack of first grade pine to make this season’s new bee boxes. He was getting started earlier this year. Last year the honey flow came early and he’d lost too many bees through the premature build-up of numbers in the hives and the swarming that followed.

It was a month after his conversation with Kevin that Jake met Sos Semple.

Alan Wilminck, Jake’s nearest neighbour was about to begin shearing his sheep and it was usual for farmers on adjoining properties to help out with each other’s seasonal farm chores. Jake was there at seven o’clock sharp to get Alan’s instructions.

The shearing shed and yards nestled at the end of a small valley. They had a northerly aspect, ideal for drying and warming sheep before and after shearing.

Steep hills rose around the valley and Jake could see there was a flock far up on the hill and he knew there was another bigger flock in the scrubby valley on the other side where it bordered his own property. Alan had brought a third mob in late yesterday afternoon so as to be certain that there were dry sheep available for the shearers when they arrived that morning.

The shearers were already geared up and ready to drag in their first sheep when Jake arrived. Other farmers drifted in or about, greeting each other with calls or friendly taunts.

“Wouldn’t she let you get out of bed?” called one man to young Stephen, who had got home from his honeymoon less than a month earlier. Then the sound of the shearing machines made talking more difficult, and Alan beckoned to Jake to come outside.

“Same as last time?” said Jake.

“Reckon so Jake, if that’s all right with you? If you bring down the mob on the north slope first and put them in the river paddock, that should give us about the right number to shed tonight.

“If the boys get through what’s in there early, then they can bring some of the new mob through to the yards without losing them with the lot going out. Then you can bring down the rest and put them in the house paddock.

“Look out for the kids’ new pony when you get to the home gate. She doesn’t much like sheep and she’s just as likely to push them back through the gate at you. Send one of the dogs ahead after her if she’s hanging about the gate, that’ll give you time to get them through.”

Alan paused to think if there was anything else to tell Jake before he went back inside.

“Oh, I nearly forgot, Jake. There’s a bloke coming out for a look. He’s the new fella on the dredge. He should be out around smoko. His name is Sos. Doesn’t know anybody so I thought he might get to meet people out here and have a look around.

“Thought he could work with you on moving stock around. Use him on gates and yelling at the right time.

“You’re good with people Jake, you’ll work out what to do with him.”

Alan took off his hat and pushed his white hair back off his forehead before resting the cap back on top of it. He grinned his wonderful broad grin, called the farm dogs and told them to go with Jake, then went back into the shed.

Jake checked the gates around the immediate area before heading up the hill with Sally and her eighteen-month-old pup Cocoa, along with Alan’s two border collies.

The three-kilometre climb to the top of the hill, collecting the mob and making sure he had them all, then bringing them back down would take around two hours. Jake reckoned he should be back for smoko.

Jake was now doing what he loved most–walking the hills of the Otways, the range of hills that followed the coastline and looked out over the Southern Ocean. He spent most of his time alone, usually outside working with stock on his farm or moving his beehives around the honey flows of the region.

When Jake and the dogs were ready to bring the sheep down, he stopped to look out at the beautiful scenery beyond and far below.

The house and sheds were like toys and the first newly shorn sheep were tiny bright white dots. A car moved silently along the river road, turned into the driveway and parked under the trees next to the other cars. A figure got out and stood still for a few moments before disappearing into the shed.

Jake stood up and called Sally to heel, then sent Cocoa and the other dogs out to the far left of the sheep spread out below them. Then he called out “Yo, yo, yo,” loudly, waving his arms at the same time to start the animals moving and telling Sally to “speak out”. Sally moved out to the right where she could view the proceedings, barking loudly as she moved.

The flock began to bunch up into a mob and move down the slope. Jake recalled the three dogs and they walked quietly down the hill behind the sheep. Half an hour later they came close to the house paddock gate in the fence that ran alongside the river paddock.

Alan was there with the bloke from the dredge.

Alan had chased the pony away and had opened the gate, then gone to stand outside the small paddock and up along another track so that the sheep would not head off that way.

In moments the sheep were through to the river paddock and the gate secured. Then the three men began walking down to the shed together.

“Jake, this is Sos, who I told you about,” said Alan.

“Pleased to meet you,” said Jake turning and thrusting out his hand. Sos shook the hand less than enthusiastically. “Hello,” he muttered back. “Didn’t know yer had hippies working for yer, Alan.” A smile that could easily have been a sneer crossed his face.

“Doesn’t work for me, Sos,” replied Alan with a good-natured laugh. “Jake farms the property next door and is also an apiarist. He’s smart enough to farm bees and trees as well as sheep and cows. He’s a wizard with livestock and a great neighbour. Always around if I need help with anything.”

Alan, thinking the horse was chasing the young dog, called Cocoa away from the pony who was following too closely.

Sos kept looking around at the pony nervously. When he stopped and turned to face the horse, it reached out towards him with its ears laid back, its nostrils flared and its lips curled upwards and showing its teeth. Then it turned its back towards him and kicked the air with its back legs.

Sos ducked and swore under his breath and Jake slapped the horse hard on its rump and yelled at it to “get away, off”.

Alan stood staring at the pony. “I’ve never seen it behave like that before. I’d better mention it to the kids.”

Sos seemed to make a point of keeping away from Jake during smoko, and when the gong sounded he moved out to the yards to work the race gate, letting the sheep through twenty at a time for penning up near the catcher and the shearers.

Sos had got talking to Stephen during the break. Stephen was in charge of sheep movements from the holding paddocks through to the shearing stands.

Jake stayed at the sheds for a short time to get the feel of how things were running. The shearers were brothers and in top form, working at a pace which they knew they could keep up for the full day.

Outside, Stephen was to show Sos how to operate the sorting gate and regulate the number of sheep moving towards the ramp and up into the shed.

Sos indicated straight away that he knew what to do and Stephen called his dogs and moved out into the big yard to send sheep down the curved funnel race to where Sos would fill two races at a time, each with twenty sheep.

Stephen moved his dogs gently into the mob and sent the first group of sheep into the funnel race.

Jake watched and admired Stephen’s gentle stock-handling methods, both with his dogs and the sheep. Then he noticed that things were not working out quite the way he’d expected.

As the sheep moved quickly along the curved narrowing walkway to within three metres of the race gate and Sos, the front sheep halted, stiffened their front legs and leaned backwards, and no matter how much pressure Stephen and his dogs applied at the rear, the lead animals refused to move forward.

It was quite normal in this situation for sheep to hesitate when they first spotted the gate operator, but then they would always move forward, sometimes with a great bound through the gate past the operator and run on, believing that the race would provide a means of escape.

This wasn’t happening.

Stephen told Sos to stand very still and not look directly into the eyes of the sheep. Sos went rigid and turned his head, seemingly looking elsewhere. Stephen and the dogs resumed their urging but the sheep did not move forward.

Stephen then called to Sos to squat down behind the waist-high sheet-iron fence panel. Again, Stephen and the dogs urged the sheep to move on, but the sheep did not move.

Leaving the dogs to hold the sheep from moving backwards, Stephen went up to where the front sheep stood. He quickly climbed the race fence, and taking the animal firmly in a headlock, he dragged it through the race gate and up towards the ramp. He gently let it go and hopped out of the race, quietly telling Sos to stay put. With one sheep now through the gate, well up the race and in full view of the other sheep that would surely want to follow, Stephen called for the dogs to “speak up” and push the mob forward. But again, the sheep refused to move. Stephen repeated the earlier process so that there were now two sheep up at the far end of the ramp. This time he joined the dogs towards the back of the mob, yelling and physically pushing the animals, but still they would not move forward.

Stephen stopped for a moment. Jake watched him take his dogs and walk back and around in a circle thinking about what he would do next. Jake knew a lot about animal behaviour and he respected Stephen’s judgement and handling abilities. He thought about what he would do in Stephen’s position and knew he would have done exactly the same.

Animals can surprise, but not usually at times like this. Fear and confinement would cause the sheep to act in a predictable way and follow what they saw as an escape route. Occasionally, one sheep would prop, but it was apparent that all the sheep here were acting in the same way. Jake ran through his catalogue of experience with sheep and other livestock and came to one simple conclusion – fear – but fear of what?

Stephen stopped walking back and forth and stood looking at the gate through which the sheep would not pass. Jake knew that he had come to the same conclusion as himself.

Stephen walked up to where Sos was still squatting behind the fence and said something to him. Sos stood up and climbed out of the enclosure.

Stephen pointed down to where the dogs were resting a few metres behind the sheep, giving a half-circle motion with his hand.

Sos walked away from the sheep towards the yard fence, then turned and followed it down until he came level with the dogs and moved in behind them.

Stephen gestured that it was the right spot and that he was not to move until instructed. Even as he climbed over the low fence to take Sos’s place on the gate, the sheep were filing through, rapidly filling the first race. Within moments, he had swung the gate behind twenty animals and was busy filling the next race.

Jake got up, called to Sally and Cocoa, and began his climb up the hill to bring down the last flock. As he moved comfortably along the narrow contour tracks formed by farm animals over many years, he thought about Sos Semple and what he had just seen. He wondered what sort of man Sos really was.

Over the next few months the name Sos Semple became well known in the district.

He and his wife Janice bought the most admired small farm in the area just minutes from the town centre. It had been on the market for a considerable time at a price no one thought anybody could ever afford. It included a brick house with a beautiful garden and ocean views. It had been built by a Catholic order as a residence and farm for priests. The paddocks were well fenced and the shedding superb.

A herd of top-quality Angus cows with calves at foot and accompanied by a pedigreed bull appeared on the property as though the had fallen from the sky. No one saw the stock truck arrive in town or the animals being unloaded. And suddenly there was a new truck complete with a new stock crate, fitted and a freshly painted sign on the shiny green doors read “Semple’s Angus Stud Apollo Bay” along with the telephone number.

The town was abuzz with talk about the Semples. Everything from “What did this bloke know about breeding stud cattle?” to “How could someone who was working on the dredge one minute own a million dollars worth of farm and stud stock the next?”

All this and more filtered through to Jake from conversations he overheard while waiting to be served at the bakery or filling the ute at the Ampol garage on his twice-weekly trip into town.

At the Co-op, Kevin seemed to have decided not to be involved in any discussions about Sos Semple. Whenever two or three men met at the Co-op remarks about Sos Semple would soon crop up such as, “How’s he going to make his money on that place at the prices stock are fetching these days?” and “Where would he have got the money for all that?”

“None of my business,” Kevin would answer if someone tried to draw him into the conversation. And he would remain intent on writing up his dockets or go out to the back of the store in search of a certain sized bolt or hose fitting, always either not hearing the conversation or removing himself from the men altogether.

On one of those quiet days when Jake came into the Co-op and the two were alone, Kevin did speak about Sos Semple, though he did not use the man’s name.

“Mervyn said he’s thankful that bloke’s gone from the dredge,” Kevin said quietly while looking up the price of a roll of roofing felt in his big book.

There was silence for a moment while he wrote it on the docket, then he continued.

“Mervyn told me in strict confidence, Jake, that he was told he had to employ him on orders from high up in the Marine Board in Melbourne. It was all hush-hush and the man had to be protected from anyone who might come looking for him or asking questions. Anyway, Mervyn said the bugger didn’t lift a finger the whole time he was on the dredge and that having him there was the most unpleasant experience of his whole life.”

Kevin handed Jake the docket and stood looking at him. “Something is not right, Jake, and I worry about it. I know I shouldn’t. But I reckon it’s weird how that place was built by priests and now, well I reckon the devil’s living there.” Kevin went quiet. He wanted Jake to say something.

Jake wrote his cheque and when he finished he looked back at Kevin and smiled, then said, “All I know, Kevin, is that if any man has done something he shouldn’t have, he might run, but in the end he can’t hide. If there’s something wrong here then it will come to its proper conclusion. For the moment, I’d love to see you less worried about it all.”
Kevin let out a sigh and replied, “You’re right Jake. I’ll give up thinking about him for a while.”

They both laughed.

Jake was just taking off his bee veil and white overalls when he heard Dusty Rhodes’s station wagon coming up the track to the house.

Jake had been away three days working his bees and, in that time, everything on the farm seemed to have run amuck. It was the weather. An early change had brought sunshine and warmth on top of the heavy rains of the previous week. The pasture seemed to have grown six inches and fruit trees in the orchard were suddenly in bloom.

Some of the hives in the home paddock were already building up to swarm, and cows that Jake thought were not due for a fortnight or more, had dropped big healthy calves in unexpected parts of the farm. He was flat out catching up with all that had happened.

“Hello Jake,” Dusty called out through the car window as he turned towards the cattle yards.

Jake had called the vet early that morning to check a heifer that had been in labour for quite some time and seemed to be in trouble.

“Hi Dusty. Bet you’re busy this week. I’ve got her in the shed.”

When Dusty had finished his inspection and given the beast an injection, he said he’d call back in the morning as he would be going past, unless Jake rang to say she had calved. The calf felt very big and it was possible he’d have to perform a caesarian.

“Got time for a cup of tea or coffee?” said Jake. “Water’s hot. It can be quick.”

“Why not?” said Dusty. “I’ll just organise my gear in the car and meet you up in the house. Tea please.”

Over tea and buttered Boston bun the two spoke briefly about the weather and current farming news.

“I read about your opposition to live sheep sales to the Middle East, Dusty,” said Jake. “Nice to see someone sticking their neck out, especially when they’re prepared to risk their livelihood. I hope you didn’t get up the noses of too many of your bigger customers.”

Jake poured more hot water into the teapot.

“It hasn’t been too bad,” Dusty replied.

Jake sensed that Dusty didn’t really want to talk about it. It was something someone did, and that was that.

“Jake, I wanted to ask you about the new owners at the old Church Farm down in the town. Do you know them?” Dusty sounded deliberately casual, as though the question was not of great importance.

“The Semples, I think you mean? Yes, I’ve met Sos Semple. Alan next door invited him around during shearing a couple of months back. I haven’t seen him since then.” Jake buttered some more bun.

“I called there this morning to look at their bull,” Dusty replied.

“It’s a fine-looking bull. I’ve admired it from the road,” said Jake.

“It’s not any more. I put it down a couple of hours ago.”

Jake looked up from his bun buttering.

“What on earth happened? It must be the safest farm around. Did another bull get in or was it sick? What was wrong with it, Dusty?”

Dusty sipped his tea thoughtfully.

“The beast was very badly injured around the head and neck.”

He fell quiet again.

“I’ve seen many animal injuries over my thirty or so years as a vet, but I’ve never seen any like this. It was lying down in the cattle crush where it must have collapsed. Its head was a terrible mess which I won’t describe but there were no marks, not even mud or blood anywhere on the body beyond the head and neck.”

“What did Sos Semple say had happened?” asked Jake.

“He wasn’t there. His wife phoned early this morning and she was there when I arrived. She said her husband was away working.

“Mrs Semple said her husband told her he had found the bull staggering around near the yards when he got up this morning and that he had managed to get it into the crush so that it could be treated. Then he’d had to leave to pick up stock somewhere away from town.

“Mrs Semple also said how her husband had told her the week before that the bull was very aggressive and to watch out for it and that it might just get itself into trouble one day.”

Dusty took another sip of tea and stared into the open stove firebox.

Jake knew that Dusty wasn’t in the habit of talking about his clients. The fact that he was doing so now meant that he was genuinely concerned. He wasn’t just making conversation.

Jake didn’t feel that he could question Dusty but, nevertheless, felt a need to understand what had gone on.

“Did Mrs Semple give any clues to what might have happened?” he asked.

“No, she didn’t.” Dusty paused to reach for another piece of bun.

“The neck-hold on the crush was open. This meant that the animal was better able to lie down or fall down. When I made the comment that the animal could have escaped easily and that I wondered why her husband hadn’t locked the crush neck-hold before he left for work to ensure that I could attend to it on arrival, she answered that he had but she had opened the neck-hold when she found the animal sagging and wanting to lie down.”

“Well,” said Jake, “isn’t that what we would do under those circumstances?”

Dusty looked at Jake as though he was searching his face for clues.

“Have you seen the size of this woman? I reckon Mrs Semple would have trouble lifting a half-full shopping basket. Not only could she not reach the overhead release handle, even if she climbed up and swung on it, she would not be able to release the lower safety catch at the same time. And even if she could reach it, I doubt she would have the weight to move the handle. It’s a very big crush.

“No, there is something not right in all of this but I’m dammed if I can put my finger on it.”

Dusty sighed noticeably and got up from the table. “Thanks Jake, if I don’t hear from you I’ll call again in the morning.”

“Thanks Dusty.”

Jake gathered his wire-strainer and tin of staples and a hammer and pliers and gloves and headed off up the hill to fix a small hole in the fence that divided his place from Alan’s.

When Jake got back from fencing, he checked the heifer in the barn. To his surprise and joy, she was happily suckling a sturdy calf. Well, that’s today’s good news, he thought.

Jake began loading the panel van with bee gear.

Tomorrow he would start his rounds of the hives he had in six bush locations close to home. All were likely to need an extra box to cope with this early honey flow. If there was not room in the hives for the bees to store the new honey, then he could lose bees that swarmed and went in search of new homes.

Prevention was everything at this time of the year.

As he worked through the day, snippets of information about Sos Semple would pass before him, each trying to fit itself with another piece.

The odd behaviour of the sheep when Sos was on the sorting gate at Alan’s shearing shed, even the horse’s reaction to him. And now the mystery of what happened to Sos’s bull. And the very large amounts of money spent on the farm and on setting up the stud.

Jake left early next morning for the hives. He worked on these late into the day until all were fitted with new boxes and secured.

Jake went into town the following morning to buy food and more supplies from the Co-op.

“Have you heard the news, Jake?”

“What news, Kevin?”

“Sos Semple,” said Kevin.

“What about Sos Semple?” replied Jake.

“He’s dead.”

“What?” Jake said.

“Yesterday, multiple bee stings they reckon. His truck must have overheated. The bonnet was up. The mail-truck driver found him on the Wild Dog Creek road. Said she couldn’t recognise his face ’cause it was so badly swollen. He was still holding the empty jerry can and was about half a mile from the truck and heading back towards the Huggens’s farm. I thought you would have heard about it, Jake.”

Jake stared at Kevin with a look of disbelief, then recovering slightly said, “No, I worked over near Lavers Hill all yesterday. Didn’t get back till late. You’re the first person I’ve seen to speak to. Do you know if he was alone when it happened?”

“As far as I know, he was.”

“You know more about bees than anyone else around here, Jake. Does the story make sense to you? Could bees do that so quickly that he just couldn’t escape?”

Jake looked at Kevin for a few moments then spoke, picking his words carefully.

“Yes, Kevin, they could have. Sos may have spotted a swarm hanging off a branch of a tree or a nest of bees in a hole and thrown a rock or stick at it and stirred the bees up.

“Something must have upset them. People work with bee swarms all the time without getting stung.

“And bees die shortly after they sting someone or something, so they really do have to be convinced about the danger to their nest or hive, and their queen, before they commit mass suicide. There is no point in dying for no reason,” said Jake.

“Is that a fact?” replied Kevin softly, staring intently at Jake.

“So what if Sos Semple didn’t mess about with the bees, Jake, what do you think could have happened?” asked Kevin cautiously.

Jake looked at Kevin, then in a very quiet voice he said, “Only the bees would know that, Kevin, and they, like Sos Semple, are dead.”

The two men stood in silence for a moment. Then Kevin muttered “Amen” and disappeared through to the back of the store.


Taken from Australian Short Stories by Richard Lee. Available from Amazon