56. Ghosts from the past
A round shouldered man leans back with mannequin-like stillness against the dining room window, like a jackeroo on a horse rounding the herd on a still night. The tick-tick of garden sprinklers breaks the silence under street lights blazing along the bitumised track in the middle of the day.
Bill Perry is four weeks from his third and most dangerous heart attack and epitomises the stillness of a man acknowledging his mortality.
Bill arrived at Nicholson station in 1962, the year the bores went dry and the cattle dropped like flies. He was given a war surplus .303 with orders to shoot any beast showing stress. “The poor buggers would just stand there and die.” When the carcasses dried he dragged them into rows with wood and diesel and torched the lot. Cooked meat for the dingoes. He also shot wild donkeys at Marella Gorge to preserve vegetation for the remaining cattle.
Being a jackeroo in those days was a pathway into the pastoral aristocracy, not a dead end laboring job. The jackeroos ate with the manager, away from the stockmen. Their initiation in blood included castration, de-horning and butchering ‘killers’ for the homestead. Then came the backbreaking construction of loading ramps, and those who survived that mended fences, loaded cattle onto trucks, stitched saddles, trained horses, learnt cooking, mechanics, pest and disease control, and managed the accommodation, kitchen and workshops. They also liaised with stock inspectors, interpreted weather charts, and placated the owners. A successful jackeroo needed the strength to work eighteen hour days and the courage to fistfight unruly stockmen―and cull useless animals: both beasts and humans.
Bill became manager of Kirkimbie station, just around the corner from Nicholson, at the ripe age of 26, during the great collapse. Pastoralists couldn’t incorporate equal wages for Aboriginals so they shunted them off to town camps, where hard work was replaced with welfare cheques and “drinking rights”. Nicholson’s 120 strong workforce in 1967 was reduced by 1986 to one sixteen-year-old boy, James Arthur Annetts.
“The best days of my life were at Kirkimbie station,” Bill remembers, as we make tea in the kitchen still decorated with its original corrugated iron cladding and work benches on the uneven cement floor. But he threw it away in 1976 and moved with his wife to Brisbane, where he worked as an executive in the building industry.
Nicholson today is essentially an abandoned outstation, yet as if in tribute to its former status a huge green road sign in Halls Creek points the direction while the mail plane still lands on the dirt airstrip to deliver a single letter. The telephone is hardly more expensive than a city phone, and the Royal Flying Doctor Service will land on the airstrip.
Dean and Lee Scott-Virtue arrived as paid caretakers for an exploration company that rented the homestead, then departed suddenly leaving a cylindrical tank of diesel for the generator. Lee is a trained archeologist and historian. Dean, an electrician, has returned the power lines to full service, and with the water flowing they’ve turned the tinder try homestead into a verdant jungle. But after months of twelve-hour days they're scrambling to raise funds, so Dean might have to do a stint on the Ord River irrigation expansion project.
Nicholson is an outcamp of Toadbusters, dedicated to stopping the wave of poisonous cane toads entering the east Kimberley. The goo produced from glands on certain Arizona toads has hallucinogenic qualities, but the only ‘other-worldly’ affect from consuming the Australian Cane Toad is death from heart failure.
Lee and Dean run extermination tours where tourists sample methods of killing the slow moving creatures such as belting them with golf clubs. This is called toad busting, and is popular with German tourists. Lee has tried without success to encourage Aboriginal teenagers to rehabilitate the land, but says, “They do show enthusiasm for toad busting.”
Dean and Lee are in Kununurra buying food after Bonnie Edwards’ extended family cleaned them out on a weekend visit.
Bill suggests I camp for a few days until the roads dry out, so I choose a room opposite the kitchen, and one most likely used by the Annetts boy. It’s next to the bathroom, and the water steams and splutters through the shower rose from a small storage tank on the floor heated close to boiling by the idling generator.
That night as sleep claims my intellect and my subconscious spreads its wings, a ten-second black and white video loop flashes through my mind. James stands by the Datsun in the hazy dawn, immersed in a translucent grey cloud. He looks towards me with a certain resignation as if knowing his worldly doom, his death foretold. A fog descends as he gets into the driver’s seat. The loop repeats itself.
"Thirty-two millimetres in two days," Bill marvels next morning at the dry season rain. "But it did rain every month one year," he qualifies as the lights dim and the cool room compressor roars to life.
After breakfast in James’ dining room, Bill shows me the power house where two beautiful table-sized generators lie side-by-side, one silent and the other roaring evenly. They’re designed for a fully functioning station, not for a single person, and the blazing midday street lights are a release for the idling generator. The industrial cylinder outside the open fronted shed is refilled by trucking the diesel down the dirt road from Wyndham. The generators are similar to what James used and make Loder's order to run them sparingly quite understandable.
The years fall from Bill's life when we enter the station manager's house. "It needs to be lived in," he complains, happily rubbing the ill-fitting doors across the floor. A salvage crew removed the roof in preparation to bulldoze the homestead, but when Heytesbury reversed its decision, the corrugated sheets shaped by time were replaced haphazardly, so the roof leaks.
We find a green 1982 vintage Codan Type 7727 eight-channel transceiver in an enclave room attached to the house and with an outside door. It sits on a dusty desk with rolled up maps, a time capsule as if James has just walked out after struggling to make his call to Vicki Loder at Flora Valley.
From the children’s tree house we gaze across to a pioneer grave Bill has been weeding. His voice drops and fixing his eyes on the horizon he says he won’t be returning to the Kimberley. It’s the Aboriginals. He can’t help comparing the drugs and alcohol and unemployment and the devastation of their communities with how it used to be. Without saying it, perhaps, he knows his place in this world has also gone, and the prescience of his own mortality permeates the gloom.
Bill’s deep laughter fills the dining room an hour later, as he shows me his photographs, their 1960’s colours greying with age. He’s brought photos not of his own people, but of black fellas. He names each one as if they’re still waiting under the trees in the creek bed. Men with scars and feathers. Not actors dancing for tourists, but priests and judges and executioners.
The drizzle dampens our clothing, and Bill says the rain will have made the black soil back to Halls Creek impassible for a week. "The holes will be filled with water." He urges me to stay longer, but my body is racked with an inexplicable anxiety. I feel compelled to flee despite the foolhardiness of the act. He sees me to my car. We avoid eye contact as if no longer existing to each other.
Ten minutes later the zigzagging Excel slides into a shallow pool of water. The low slung muffler grabs a clump of mud and stone and is ripped from its circular clamps, then becomes entangled in the plastic bumper cover that pops its rivets and is dragged along the road.
I re-attach the bumper with polyester cord, and the steaming muffler returns to the passenger seat floor. It feels good, like the release of anxiety after a fist fight and a black eye as a badge of honour.
A do or die attitude replaces my fear when the red road turns black on Flora Valley station. Despite being just a hundred kilometres from Halls Creek, getting bogged means walking twenty or thirty kilometres through mud for a landline phone then discovering the tow truck owner won't brave the sodden roads. Ben's Land Cruiser tracks occasionally cross the road that is otherwise abandoned. The police have stopped all but local traffic, to reduce ruts being carved in the soft mud that will later harden and create a driving hazard.
From a crest I view a three kilometre expanse of black mud and water stretching to the next rise. Stopping or even slowing down means getting bogged so I accelerate to 100 kmh. The car thuds against the water as if hitting a solid object. The windscreen wipers moan against the surge of mud and brown water that bursts over the car. The hot motor crackles as I fishtail amongst the dozen unconcerned Brahmans and Drought Masters immersed to their knees and unaware of their knife-edge proximity to becoming road kill.
The sucking mud drags the car's momentum down to 30kmh. The motor chokes on a wave of water as the tyres grab stony ground. Liquefied cow dung steams from the motor and the air filter is wet.
The black soil turns to stone as the road rises into the Albert Edward Range. Gold country. Optimistic signs wired onto fences shout: "No Entry, Gold Mine".
Toy-like horses whinny to each other amongst the trees down on the sodden plain. Further along the road Brahmans foul the air long before their tan bodies appear, neatly arranged in death, lying on their sides and fat with bloat. A driver clipped the raised windrow on a curve and the trailers went ass over. Twelve beasts didn't get up.
After passing Trooper Lew McBeth’s house, the bitumen of Halls Creek looms dull under grey clouds. Nicholson block on the left behind the cemetery: a dozen houses, work shed and hammer-resistant phones. It’s the Kundat Djaru outcamp in Halls Creek.
Outside the caravan park office Oscar, the volatile maintenance man and nephew of Roland, laughs good-naturedly at my car, covered in grey mud and lined up amongst the mightier and filthier Land Cruisers and Patrols.
57. Voices from the ether
The invisible prickly fences of territorial grey nomads haven’t encroached on my tent site and the wet has forced the ants deeper underground. Terry Gunn photographs the mud-layered Excel, but tells me to keep out of the shot. "You don't look like who you are," he says not wanting my unblinking stare to mar his pictures. Ross gallops over and rummages through my boot muttering about needing to "source some Tabasco sauce". Terry looks at the detached muffler."We'll start repairs tomorrow," he says, glad to have something to do while holed up in town.
Early next morning his screaming angle grinder slicing lengthwise through an aluminium pipe pierces the predawn bliss of campers finally having found the oblivion of sleep after the nightly cavalcade of medium-strength drunks. Ross bolts. He doesn’t want any association with the racket, and continues his early morning patrol to source items left by departing tourists.
Ross rejoins us back at the car. He says the muffler needs cleaning out with water so I poke a hose inside and the carbon-encrusted baffles soak up the liquid like a sponge.
"I've never lifted a muffler this heavy," Terry says, needing help to hold it in place. He prises the aluminium pipe around the two ends of the exhaust pipe, then clamps the contraption together with U-bolts that are much stronger than my circular clamps and salmon can.
I maliciously rev the motor that blasts black liquid from the tail pipe over Ross who is examining my tool box. He takes it with good humour, and I feel a tinge of remorse.
That evening we quietly drink beer under the annex. The leaves flutter gently while in the distance the sound of a vehicle approaches, and suddenly we are engulfed in a rain storm that pulls tent pegs from the ground and rips branches from the trees. Within twenty minutes the silence returns as if never lost.
Terry is relieved the unseasonable rains have put paid to his prospecting career. "A thousand dollars a tyre if you're caught on the dirt," he announces cheerfully, and jokingly says he gets heart palpitations leaving the entrance of the caravan park.
He demonstrates his detector using his Meekatharra nuggets, but the gold is hard to identify in a sea of surrounding metallic rubble.
The following day Merv Wortley tells me by phone from Ruby Plains, there‘s no point visiting Sturt Creek station because the buildings and bores have been replaced since 1986. He says Simon had just four bores to maintain, and as if discouraging my quest says someone painted red on a door that: “Simon Amos lived and died for fuck all”.
Lenin Christie agreed Simon’s job was a bludge, almost a paid holiday:
“You don’t even have to look after the fucking bores on Sturt Creek station. There are only four bores...and the station bore. They got pumps and mills on them. Once a week at the most you’d go and look, you did not have to look after them because they [the cattle] got all their water off Sturt Creek...only when the water holes went dry you’d have to look after the bores.”
Perhaps this influenced Simon’s light hearted letters home, but what did he actually do to fill in the time?
Nathan Dyer’s article in the Kimberley Echo attracts an eclectic response. One man says he’s been in the Kimberley fifty-years and was told by a friend who drove for Buntines, that he saw Simon and James at Nicholson in 1986. The friend:
“…was loading six decks of cattle and the black fellas had pulled in there – 10 or 15 of these people on board from Balgo and they invited them [Simon and James] across to there and that’s why they went over there for a dirty weekend. They were going to Balgo to chat up these young girls and have a bit of fun on the weekend with them. There was no skulduggery or anything. It was just the boys going out for a bit of fun and they just took the wrong turn and it turned into a tragedy…because those seismic lines open up to about the same width as what the highway does – 20 metres wide, same width as the road, and they come out at angles so you’d swear it was just a turn-off to another place. If you really want to find out you go to Balgo and ask people there, but they won’t say anything, because they’re shit frightened that they might get accused of killing the boys.”
The caller won't disclose either his or his friend's identity.
Later that evening another caller’s intense anger wakes me from sleep. She says her mother arrived with tears in her eyes and holding a letter I'd sent. "Why do you keep writing these letters? You don't have a heart; you aren't human." Sarah Amos says her brother was not murdered, then hangs up.
58. Feather Man
The fifty kilometre track near the R & D Yards leading to Kundat Djaru resembles a railroad without rails. Deep Land Cruiser tracks have left a centre ridge of sharp ballast that pings and crunches against the undercarriage of the Excel, and dents the thick exhaust pipe crossing behind the petrol tank.
Kundat Djaru was the Ringer Soak outcamp for Gordon Downs station. The locals were placed there after white settlement, then used as cheap labour. When their land rights claims threatened the existence of Peter Sherwin’s stations he and Giles Loder ordered them off the land.
Stockman Bobby Sealer found the locals loading a truck. Loder had told them: “I don’t want any black fellas hanging around my station.” As they were leaving Loder told them they had two days to return to pick up their dogs. When they didn’t return he began shooting the dogs that sought refuge in the tin shacks whereupon Loder poured bullets through the metal sidings.
“Holes in every houses, bullet holes...He shot all the dogs anyway. Good dogs, too. One of my good dogs got shot, too, poor bugger. Some dogs was in the housing putting bullets through the iron.”
But within the year the Djaru people returned to set up the independent community of Kundat Djaru. Bobby Sealer remembered:
“We was sleeping in tents, you know. Giles wouldn’t let us go across that bloody area. That was his own private road from Flora Valley to Gordon Downs, that big black soil, to Ringer Soak. That was his own private road. So he told us to build another road somewhere, which we didn’t. We had to get the police, welfare and all that to guide us to the little bit of land that we were gonna get was Ringer Soak. And Giles he went flying up and down, trying to get off, this is my private bloody road. Station road, but we used to keep on going in and out.”
If a single vehicle was going down the road Loder would land in front of them and they’d retreat back to Ringer Soak. Sealer remembers:
“We don’t carry guns, but he carry guns, revolver. We used to have seven, eight, nine, ten vehicles if we wanted to go in shopping from Ringer Soak to Halls Creek. We’re gonna have about a big truck, car, Toyota, we all being in one, 60 or 70 bloke [while Giles Loder was] flying, swinging around, come back so we big mob.”
Mary Darkie, Les Annetts and Bonnie Edwards all suggested Tomato Gordon is the man to see at Kundat Djaru. He worked with Loder. And a somewhat mischievous public servant suggested I might question Tomato about the man found wrapped in burning tyres at Marella Gorge.
I pull into the bush to pour in a jerry of petrol, and fry sliced potatoes. Four windswept faces appear silently gliding across the tops of the low scrub, then a 4WD emerges from the bush. The kids on the roof rack demand my chips and can of energy drink. The stocky driver jumps from the cab and rushes me like a boxer shaping up to deliver an uppercut. He demands to know why I’m here.
“I’m Tomato Gordon,” he says, assured of his own importance. He tells me to follow him to Ringer Soak, once his kids have finished my lunch.
Thirty kilometres down the track he stops, and jabs his fingers menacingly towards a windmill. “Gordon Downs,” he says, victoriously, grimly. Gordon Downs was the jewel in the crown of the 19th century white settlers, run by the legendary Nat Buchanan. The homestead grew the best grapes, but now it lies in ruins and not even worthy of a resident ‘bore runner’. And those myalls once blackbirded to work for rations have turned the tables and persuaded their conquerors to build them a town serviced by a steady flow of nurses, social workers, maintenance contractors, teachers and store operators.
Tomato puts his foot down and even with his kids on the roof my Excel can’t keep up. A pothole snaps another section of the exhaust pipe and my ears ring.
Kundat Djaru is a town of mystery. When Balinese woman, Ayu Ynema, ran the Old Halls Creek grocery store, she noticed her Ringer Soak customers spoke slang Balinese. This further fuelled the legend that Dutch and Balinese survivors of a pre-white settlement shipwreck had trekked to the area around Wave Hill, where they were culturally absorbed by the Aboriginals.
A dozen dogs lunge at Tomato’s Land Cruiser as we enter the streets of cannibalised 4WD’s on blocks in front of dark, broken window houses. The children don’t blink when Tomato drives over the leg of a small ugly creature that snarls, then cries, then limps off. Tomato pulls into his driveway and everyone begins unloading the vehicle, then as an afterthought, he crosses the road and asks what I want, as if we’d never met. He suggests we meet the next day. I tell him I’m in town for just an hour. He points to the children’s undercover playground. “Wait there.”
This isn’t my subtlest move, in a town that has suffered child abuse. The eight-year-old girl who ate my chips pesters me for more while older kids jeer from a distance. Tomato drives past in his Cruiser, then for thirty minutes talks to two white administrators. One of them walks towards me rapidly lifting his shoulders up and down, gesturing incomprehension then at twenty-metres demands, “Who are you and what are you doing here?”
“I’m here to see Tomato Gordon,” I say, holding his gaze. He walks away without another word. Tomato’s family silently form behind me.
Tomato returns and sits unusually close to me, while the white administrator squats in front of me, his eyes burning with hostility. I introduce myself. “Lindsay,” he responds.
Tomato says he never worked with Loder, doesn’t know anything about him or Peter Sherwin, knows nothing about the two boys. The eight-year-old girl brushes against me in a non-child like manner. I look at Lindsay. His snake eyes won’t acknowledge what he saw. Tomato ends the conversation. I stand up and offer my hand. He shakes it while covering his eyes with the brim of his hat. The silence is deathly as I drive off the playground as if drunk and with a leaden weight in my stomach. Malicious laughter erupts from the surrounding houses, while dogs snarl and snap at my tyres.
That evening while I pace out the ley lines near the R & D yards, a high pitched shout bursts from a ute that pulls up in the darkness. A gleeful man standing on the back wipes his sticky hands together, as if running a knife against a sharpening iron. They’re Ringer Soak turkey hunters. The driver shouts what am I doing here?
I suppress my brimming anger. This may be Heytesbury land, but at night it’s black fella country. An old man with cataract eyes in the cab jumps, when he hears the name, Giles Loder, then turns away. They suggest I pitch my tent at the dirt intersection. Perfect position for a hit and run. They return during the night in a hail of blood curdling screams.
59. Peter Sherwin: Hard man on a hard land
“I was filling my water bottle with rainwater and Sherwin said, 'don't touch it, drink bore water' because he wanted the rainwater to wash his clothes.”
Nathan Covey, 2010 at Flora Valley Station
“[Milton Hayes] started pushing cleanskins over to him [Sherwin] from Gordon Downs and he went to collect his money from him just before the wet and Sherwin said, ‘I didn’t get anything off you,' and he had a go at him. [Milton] got cleaned up properly...Very hard man, yeah."
John Boland, former manager of Ruby Plains station, 2010
Peter Sherwin was nine when his father died in 1939. He and his two brothers and a sister were raised by his mother on a cattle station near Texas, in northern New South Wales.
They were wealthy enough for young Peter to attend a Marist Brothers school, where he learned boxing, a skill that proved indispensible when he quit school at 16 to work on a cattle station near Gladstone in Queensland, then later at Alexandria Station in the Northern Territory.
Sherwin’s astute head for business was matched with a ruthless courage. He bought two herds of cattle for six and twelve dollars a head, respectively, then drove them across the Northern Territory border to Camooweal in Queensland, where he sold them for $35 each.
He bought wagons, horses and dogs in 1954, and became a contract drover, a risky business when contractors were expected to pay for losses. Sherwin confounded his detractors when he reached his destinations with increased numbers of beasts, albeit with a variety of tags and brands.
Sherwin was no sentimentalist and soon understood that long distance droving was finished, when Noel Buntine began shifting sheep and cattle on his newfangled two and three deck road trains. Charlie Shultz had been first, when he trucked stud bulls from Adelaide to Humbert station in the Northern Territory in 1950.
Charlie was the third owner of Humbert. Bill Ward was the first, but had been speared by the blacks. The second owner sold up when Jim Crisp, the manager of adjoining station, Bullita, was also speared. The cattle were also speared and the black fellas that speared the white men also visited Charlie’s black employees during the night. Charlie slept with a revolver under his pillow.
Sherwin bought the Elliot store on the Stuart Highway between Tenant Creek and Katherine, and married Florence Fay Beebe, a solid girl from an established cattle family. It might have not been a match made in Heaven, but it has endured the vicissitudes of their lives. Flo managed the store with a ruthless friendliness, while Peter used its equity and cash flow to finance his road trains. The trucks made money, and proved handy when he sold a station with stock. The new owners would settle into the silence of their new property then eventually ask: "Where are the cattle?"
Daryl Elliot worked for the CRA pastoral/mining outfit when it sold Sherwin three Barkly Downs properties in 1979. After the deal was struck CRA station manager Elliot was removing a mob of cattle not included in the sale when Sherwin arrived by plane armed with a revolver and with his brother-in-law. Sherwin demanded agistment money for the cattle that had grazed the land past the sale date. Elliot refused the unconventional demand. The police became involved and said Elliot was within his rights, so he moved the beasts towards F bore. Sherwin landed his plane in front of the mob and brandished his revolver, but Elliot found his saviour in the form of one heavy gauge shotgun.
Sherwin later agreed to drop agistment charges against CRA on the condition they sack Daryl Elliot. , CRA agreed. The Elliot family was devastated. CRA had betrayed Daryl for his loyalty to the company.
Even government stock inspectors weren’t immune from Sherwin’s intimidation. Granting permits to move beasts was fraught with conflict as they required vaccination certificates, and had to meet numerous protocols, any one of which could halt their movement.
Beasts moved south into tick free areas had to be dipped into pesticide. The process was repeated three days later when the inspector scratched them and ran his hands around the udders and up the back of the tail. If a single living tick was discovered the consignment was dipped a third time, then checked three days later. This left trucks waiting, the animals required extra feed, and the delay could mean missing the boat for the live trade to Asia and Arabia.
An inspector whom I won’t name refused to give a consignment of Sherwin's cattle the tuberculosis-free approval. He wanted a second examination. Giles Loder phoned, saying that he’d another Sherwin herd for inspection at a remote yard. The inspector drove out. The yard was empty except for Loder and one of Sherwin's sons. The inspector said the retreat back to his vehicle, and his rifle behind the seat, were the longest steps of his life.
Graham MacArthur had the same problem. Loder told him they wanted cattle moved across the border from Birrindudu without a permit. “That’s the way we do things,” Loder told him. Graham gave a week’s notice, but Loder, knowing “The General” would be hard to replace, asked wouldn’t he need three weeks to move his stuff. “99% of it is already gone, sonny boy,” Macarthur told him. When Sherwin bought Gordon Downs, Graham knew his days there were numbered, and had already moved his possessions to Sturt Creek homestead.
Sherwin liked his revenge served cold. In the year James and Simon disappeared so did his 19-year-old daughter, Marie Jan, also known as “Rusty”. She eloped from Walhallow station in one of Sherwin’s planes with 26-year-old mustering pilot, Craig Robert Commens. The plane was returned, but when Rusty and Craig married the following year, Flo and Peter Sherwin refused to attend.
The marriage was a fizzer. Rusty soon asked for money to buy two properties in south-east Queensland, 'The Glen' and 'Lonesome Dove'.” Craig and Rusty were unsuccessful pastoralists. Craig said he couldn’t work the land because he was caring for Rusty, who was depressed. Rusty returned home for more and more money. The total reached over a million dollars. When they divorced, Rusty returned home an alcoholic, and said she needed plastic surgery.
Sherwin hired a QC and sued his ex-son-in-law for the return of the money. Commens couldn’t get a lawyer because the bankruptcy court froze his assets, and Legal Aid refused help, because they considered that frozen assets were still assets.
Commens told the court the money had been a Christmas gift. Rusty escaped testifying because her psychiatrist said she had a "major depressive disorder", and that giving evidence would be too stressful. Sherwin's slick QC won easily despite the lack of signed legal agreements. Peter and Florence were awarded $1,120,000 plus $31,588 in interest. ,
Milton Hayes had managed Gordon Downs for Vesteys, when it struggled to adjust to the economic reality of equal wages for Aboriginals, and began the distasteful process of expelling hundreds of families from its leases. These were descendants of the myalls who chose seventy years previously to live on station encampments in preference to their increasingly precarious lives in the bush. Vesteys had run a feudal operation that paid its Aboriginal jackeroos and their families with food rations, tobacco and one change of clothing and a pair of boots each year. They also provided rudimentary medical care and education, but with equal wages they couldn't afford to keep big mobs of men, women and children on their books. They told them to clear off. Where to? Nobody quite knew the answer, but the result was new encampments on the edge of Halls Creek and other Kimberley towns.
Milton Hayes was dirty on Vesteys when they wouldn't build him a new house. This left him with just one alternative―in his mind, anyway. He decreed that all staff and their families would enjoy a Sunday picnic at the local waterhole, leaving the homestead empty. When a lone Aboriginal ventured into the homestead that Sunday morning, he found Milton hard at work soaking the base of his house with generous quantities of diesel and petrol The unexpected visitor shot down the road to Kirkimbie station, where he found Bill Perry seeking absolution from a traveling priest via a free tank of fuel for his vehicle. "What's he saying?" the priest asked Bill as the man blurted out the story. "Just black fella talk," Bill replied, suppressing a smile.
But Milton’s dream of a new house was further thwarted when Vesteys took two years to replace the burnt house, forcing him to live that period in even more reduced circumstances. However the contents had been insured, though it was noted that Milton’s wife was later seen wearing a fur coat that had been destroyed in the fire.
A fact of Kimberley cattle stations was that most managers and owners were poddy dodgers, that is, a cattle rustlers. Charlie Shultz was caught red-handed, but Elders didn’t prosecute. It just wasn’t done, especially to Charlie. Don McKay smiled when remembering those days: “Everyone done it. You show me a station manager that never branded next door neighbour’s cattle and I’ll show you a friggin’ liar. Of course, it’s against the law, but nobody ever went to court over it.”
Milton Hayes was unique because he rustled from his own employer. He rounded up one mob from Turners station, then trucked them “south”, but instead of sneaking though Halls Creek by night he parked on the highway in broad daylight, and had lunch with the stock inspector, while the beasts bellowed on the back of the truck.
Vesteys and other station owners tried to stop this ‘poddy dodging’ using spies, one being a shadowy operative
“…not actually a private detective, no, he was actually employed in the cattle industry on another station, but his wages and everything were paid by another party, but he was a plant put in one station and he sort of had freedom of movement to suss out what was going on.”
Milton met his nemesis with arguably the biggest rustler of all, Peter Sherwin. The story varies from person to person, but the gist is that Milton drove a herd of beasts onto a Sherwin property and when payment was not forthcoming confronted him at Birrindudu station. Sherwin looked Milton in the eye and said he'd never received any cattle. Milton decided to teach him a lesson, but hadn’t counted on Sherwin's training with the Marist brothers. Lenin Christie said that:
“Milton took scars to his grave that Peter Sherwin gave him. He wasn’t a very big bloke, Milton, but he was tough, but Sherwin was a professional pugilist. They reckon Sherwin played with Milton. He just chopped him to pieces and chopped him to pieces and chopped him to pieces, eh, and Milton wouldn’t lay down to him.”
Milton turned up at Gordon Downs to get help from Mrs Macarthur, who was a nurse. He needed extensive stitches.
60. The fall and rise of Peter Sherwin
By 1986 Peter Sherwin owned or had pastoral leases on a string of cattle stations comprising 1% of Australia's land mass. He was worth $50 million, then got richer when he floated Australian Stations Pty Ltd as Sherwin Pastoral Company, which he listed on the stock exchange. With 30% equity, he retained control providing the institutional investors Elders and Bankers' Trust Australia remained happy. Sherwin's high debt load was manageable provided he maintained annual profits at $12million.
Sherwin's modus operandi was to count cattle on stations that big pastoral companies had difficulty operating. He'd fly over the leases, talk to jackeroos, and through his road train connections discover what they were shipping out. He’d mustered 62,000 beasts from leases he’d bought from CRA, whose estimate had been 35,000.
While other pastoralists were as clever as Peter Sherwin, they hadn’t the steely personality that did anything to win. He’d buy a station, cut off the water to anything that didn’t make money, overgraze the land, exhaust the infrastructure, not pay the employees, beat up anyone who got in his way, steal the jackeroos’ equipment, and spend big to arrive at a bush meeting with a lawyer flown out from Darwin. He was the hunter who returned with fresh kill, while others were afraid to pull the trigger.
At his peak Sherwin controlled 72,500 square miles, had an estimated 400,000 branded cattle, 15 prime mover trucks and five aeroplanes.
He and Florence had made the ‘A list’ of cattlemen families, yet rarely attended social functions. Some called them Ma and Pa Kettle, two 1950's bumbling hillbilly movie characters.
But the seeds of disillusion were built into Sherwin’s accounting system. Bankers Trust and Elders had been mesmerised by his initial prospectus that resembled a coffee table book rather than a financial statement. “Ma and Pa Kettle” employed sophisticated accountants and lawyers.
Profits were based on herd size and meat prices. When prices increased by 10% this was applied to animals still roaming the bush, beasts that might fall over from disease or drought and not reach market, or that didn’t exist.
Sherwin's dream run unraveled in 1987, the year Rusty hooked up with Commens; the year after the boys died. Meat prices dropped, and a northern drought killed animals and reduced births, so profits on paper collapsed, despite actual income falling by a lesser amount. Lower prices per beast on a smaller herd meant a disastrous end of year profit and loss statement.
Sherwin was determined to camouflage the sad state of affairs, but auditors Pannell Kerr Foster refused to sign his 1987 accounts. They said his estimated herd size of 347,000 beasts hadn’t been independently verified.
Sherwin was no smooth talking Alan Bond, but a taciturn recluse who thought he still retained absolute control of his company. Some creditors and shareholders saw him as sneaky. Maybe he was fiddling the books.
Like a stock camp manager picking ‘killers’, corporate predators circled Sherwin Pastoral Company, like wild dogs slathering over a weakened animal separated from the herd.
Shares floated at $1.00 slipped to 83 cents then the October 1987 stock market crash knocked them to 60 cents. Elders and Bankers Trust Australia began buying in preparation for a takeover bid. Elders offered Sherwin 88 cents for each of his shares in June 1988. Bankers Trust raised it to $1.12 eleven months later.
But the bells tolled when Australia’s most feared corporate raider sent a plane over Sherwin's herds. Its spotters estimated numbers might be as low as 280,000.
Michael Robert Hamilton Holmes à Court was born in South Africa on 27 July 1937, and spent much of his youth in Rhodesia. He had degrees in agricultural science and law, and married science teacher Janet Ranford in 1966. After forming a law practice with Nicholas Hasluck in Perth, he discovered the second love of his life: corporate raiding.
This quiet man thundered into small, underpriced, publicly listed companies then waited while major shareholders nervously increased their equity fearing they were a takeover target. He then sold his stake at the newly inflated price.
He also played the spoiler, by buying a crucial stake in a takeover bid in progress then like a small political party holding the balance of power, forced either the predator or the defender to buy him out at his price. When he got stronger he simply took control of his targets.
At their peak Robert and Janet were worth over one billion dollars, maybe two, making the Sherwins look like struggling deli owners.
But the October 1987 share market crash that crippled Peter and Flo also dealt Holmes à Court a hard blow: perhaps his personal death blow.
With unhappy creditors banging at his door he salvaged $340 million by selling his stake in Bell Resources to Alan Bond, who without a whiff of conscience stripped Bell Resources of its assets to prop up Bond Corporation, leaving thousands of Bell’s small investors holding worthless shares.
Holmes à Court’s deal was to let Sherwin keep his three main stations, but everything else was lost: Nicholson, Gordon Downs, Birrindudu, Flora Valley. Sherwin wouldn’t give Holmes a Court the time of day, but through his lawyer signed the deal. Heytesbury Beef signs appeared over station gateways.
It was argued that public reaction to Sherwin’s hard hearted reaction to the deaths of James and Simon impacted adversely on the Sherwin Pastoral Company, but the general consensus was that the drought, the share market crash and higher interest rates caused his downfall.
Sherwin affected indifference, saying a man needed little more than three feeds a day. Perhaps he had the last vengeful laugh, when Robert Holmes à Court died from a heart attack the following year, aged 53, while Sherwin rebuilt his empire and remains alive today in 2014.
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