Mr. Brad Riethmuller (English Faculty)
I love good stories in any form and how they let us experience life through different lenses, and while the pacing of Banjo Patterson’s work has always struck a chord with me, I’ve found that students can view his poetry as something outdated (which it isn’t!). I decided to adapt The Man from Snowy River to help them engage with the poem’s energy and rhythm and know why Patterson is one of the great Australian storytellers.
There was movement at the bell, a jostling of shoulder-to-shoulder school kids itching to be somewhere. And it wasn’t that they were eager to get home. It was more than that. Something was happening.
Harry Harrison and I were best mates, so I heard first thing that day. But not long after, his dad put the word out. In the early morning the Harrison greyhound, Old Mate, had got away. I was in Maths when Harry told me and near fell off my seat when he said how much his dad was offering to get it back. A thousand dollars. Do you know what a kid could do with that kind of money? I’m only in year nine, but I’d certainly know how to spend it. Imagine that. A greyhound running around town that could put an easy one thousand in your wallet. All you had to do was find it.
Harry said there was a gang of stray pups that ran the fields behind his property near the mimosa trees. Their sound was a ghostly one and haunted those hills most nights. They would always start Old Mate howling in the evening and it was no secret that he wanted to run with them. He’d almost got out once but could never break the leash. Well, not until that morning. By the time Mr Harrison realised, it was too late and the greyhound was gone. He called the pound owner, Mr Fits, who told his son, who sent the first text message, and well, you get the rest.
So at the close of the final bell, phones were buzzing in khaki pockets and impatient hands, and the whole school was alive with the news. Every kid who owned a bike was on track for the same prize. Old Mate, Mr Harrison’s greyhound.
Our town is one of hills and valleys. It’s not always easy going, but when you’re in need of a solid run, they’re in no short supply. That day my bike knew a good ride was on; the handlebars practically jumped into my hands when I reached the rack. Kids were zipping all around, moving with friends to guess where the dogs would be, but none of them had Harry, and he had the inside knowledge.
“I say we head to the mimosas,” he said, shaking blonde strands out of his eyes.
I scoffed at him. “Don’t be stupid. Those dogs would be past Saddle Creek by now.”
“I dunno. Just got a feeling.”
“What makes you think your dad would give you the money anyway?” I asked.
“I don’t,” Harry said with a smirk. “But I reckon he’d give it to you, if you’ve got the guts to catch Old Mate.” And so we left to find our fortune.
We rode to Harry’s at a decent pace, up the old gravelled road to the top of the valley. From there we saw the mimosas, but nothing stirred and it seemed we might only be chasing the wind. Still, we headed down the embankment, tapping brakes and trying to avoid loose bits of rock that liked to send riders over. It was there we passed a shady grove and found we weren’t the only ones looking for Old Mate around these parts.
Under a broad gum stood two figures. The first was Clancy, a boy in year eleven and as good a rider as you’ll ever find. He could go wherever a tyre’s tread could hold. Rumour had it he once even made a break down Wheeler’s Hill, which was second only to Dead-Man’s Drop. If you asked him, you’d find that Clancy wasn’t the sort to brag and he’d just smile quietly. He was never in a hurry but never beaten in a race. We all looked up to him. He was a rider with a keen glint in his eye, who’d go on to do great things. I doubt he’d settle for anything less than adventure, that Clancy, but that’s a life I’ll never know. It was said he was moving up to Queensland soon, headed for who-knows-where, scouted for the semi-pro circuit.
“Harrison, right?” Clancy said as we came to a stop. “Heard the news about your dad’s greyhound.” He leaned against his bike. “Figured you might know where it’s at.”
I’ll admit, I hated the idea of splitting the money further, but the chance to ride with the legendary Clancy was too much to pass. The person next to him was a girl, a friend of his in the same grade named Rachael. I saw her take the senior track at finals once, and if ever there was a young woman who could handle herself on a tough ride, it was her.
Harry nodded and we came to an agreement. Four riders, two-hundred-and-fifty dollars each if we could manage to wrangle Old Mate and bring him home.
“Actually, make that five riders,” Clancy said.
That’s when I noticed him a little way down the hill, watching us. The new boy.
He’d been around school this week and I’d only seen glimpses of him at break times. He seemed pretty normal and fit in with the rest of our grade well enough, not that I’d spoken to him. Harry said he was quiet. I’ll tell you the truth – I didn’t think much of him. Wiry limbs and a mop of dusty hair that shagged over blue eyes. He was just another kid. There was his bike, too. An old one, small with rusty rims and dirt on the spokes. The faded frame had handlebars that sat lower than I’d have them. The pedals seemed to be hitched from a different model, the type that tougher riders seem to like. Still, that kind of bike is hard to ruin.
“He followed us up from school,” Clancy said, scratching his head. “Somehow seemed to know what we were up to. Hasn’t spoken a word,” and at this he nodded, “but he knows how to ride.”
Harry seemed put off by the boy and gave him his mind. “I doubt that bike will do you any good here, mate. We’re headed into harsh land, uphill. It’s a long ride. Tiring, too. You’d better put off what you can’t handle. These hills are too rough for the likes of you.”
The boy’s mouth opened as if to shout a reply but then something changed in his look, and his shoulders sagged, and he just stood there seeming lonely. Then Clancy spoke.
“Don’t be so hard on him, Harrison.” He looked at the boy. “I heard you’re from the Snowy River, right? I’ve seen those hills.” And at this he seemed to catch a passion in his voice. “The kind of kids that ride there can’t be found anywhere else. Don’t you worry, Harrison. He’ll keep up. It’ll likely take all of us to bring your dog in.”
It was a hard deal to bring us to two-hundred dollars each, but when Clancy spoke, you listened, and that was that.
So we moved on with Harry in the lead, pacing down towards the gulley before the hard slog uphill. It was a sight to see, a group of determined kids at speed, kicking up dust in the afternoon sun. We found the mimosas at the top of the next peak, but by then my thighs had started to burn and I felt the jelly-leg you get when you push too hard. We stopped for a break, and while I leaned with my wrists over the handlebars, puffing, Clancy seemed to be in his element. Last came the new boy, cranking his small tyres up the way behind us. He was determined, I’ll give him that.
Then it happened. With a small yelp and a smooth trot, Old Mate was there, fifty-metres uphill as if he’d been waiting for us. Behind him were the pups, young and fit from all their steep running, with eyes that told us we were in for a right chase. And it was on.
The dogs took off and Clancy was the first to move, spinning his back wheel in a skid that showered us with rocks, then Rachael close behind. Harry and I started as fast as we could. I didn’t even think to look for the new boy, but at one point I turned atop the hill to avoid a low branch and I saw him. As Clancy said, he kept up.
We broke into a field where the dogs found their head and streaked away towards the next rise. Clancy, like a careening hawk, was a blur that sped across the long grass faster than any kid on a bike had a right to move.
“Get on his left!” Harry yelled. “Wheel him to the right! If they get over the edge, we’ll never catch him!”
At this, Clancy put his head down even further, legs pumping his pedals so hard I thought they’d break off, the sound of their churning ringing off the hills. He was right up next to the dogs in only a breath, and pushed ahead to Old Mate at the front. I can’t quite remember if he did it, but I thought I saw him reach out to snatch at the greyhound’s collar. He was so close he must’ve grazed it with his fingertips. Still, there was no way Old Mate would let him get in front.
With the sleekness of a skimming stone, that greyhound ducked his tail and doubled his speed, and not even Clancy could stay. The pups caught a new wind as Old Mate sped, and they held their way over the hill and disappeared into the brush.
We all knew what was at the top. Every rider in town had been there at least once, even just to look over the edge. From the bottom of that run, near the school, it seemed doable, in the same way you can imagine yourself bungee-jumping or skydiving. But from the top, you saw what you were up against. We burst through the bushes one at a time; Clancy first, then Rachael, followed by Harry and me. Clancy pulled tight on his brakes and skidded, and going fast as he was, nearly went over the edge. He swore as he did, leaning back, and I’ll tell you that when he stopped, the tread of his front tyre peeked over the edge of that terrible descent. Some call it a hill, others a cliff. Me, I said its name under my breath as I pulled up behind Clancy.
The first half of it looked a sheer fall, with roots and branches to trip up even the nimblest bike. Crumbling dirt and loose earth littered all the way down, and you’d be a madman to even think of trying. I reckon I even spied a wombat hole or two for good measure. It was a further distance than I’d care to admit. But one thing I’ll say – no kid and no bike had ever rode down there. Not once. Not ever. Not even Clancy.
We stood, watching. The dogs made it down well enough, panting and jumping and jotting their way to safety. At the bottom, they resumed their run, not looking back to even acknowledge our pursuit.
“Well,” Harry said, breathless, “they’re gone now.”
At this point in the story, and the telling of it, I can’t help but smile. Some tales never get old. Some change over time as they get shared around. But this one’s at its best when you tell it how it happened. The way Harry says it, the new boy sped by us quick as the wind. But he doesn’t remember the half of it. I was there. I saw.
That kid was so fast, the wind could only hope to catch him.
I knew what was happening the moment I heard it. You know the sound a magpie makes just before it swoops? That whooshing that sends a shiver up your spine and makes you hunch your shoulders. Imagine that sound, and you’ll know something of what it was.
The new boy came from behind like a rocket, blazing between Clancy and me like his bike was on fire. He lifted his front wheel, let out a joyful cry, and sped over the edge with a devilish grin. Both tyres were in the air, skimming over branches and trailing the afternoon breeze. Then they hit the edge of that fearsome decline one at a time, back wheel, then the front, and held their ground like they’d been built for it. Down he rode, perfectly balanced at every bump, taking each crevice like going down a sidewalk. He held his handlebars fiercely and never shifted on his seat. I’d never seen such a thing, and never will again. The speed he gained put my imagination to the test. It was like he was racing death itself and loving every moment of it. Whipping up sticks and bits of cliff in his wake, he didn’t fear a thing. That was a grand ride, and an even gutsier rider.
He reached the bottom without once having bothered to tap his brakes. His beastly bike barely flinched or squeaked, bearing his weight like a backpack. He pulled up and smoothed his front tyre onto the flat landing better than any rider I’ve ever known. Only then did I realise I’d stopped breathing. The boy kept his speed and made ground after the dogs like a bullet. For a moment we lost sight of him, behind a thick plantation, but then he appeared at a distance, in front of the pack, bearing Old Mate by the collar at a slowed pace.
We all raced back down the way we came, not game enough to do what the new boy had. And when we met him at the summit, we saw the toll it had taken. His bike was a crippling mess, dented and scraped and near dead. It seemed to know in its dulled metallic glint that its last ride was done, and while I know it was only a bike, I respected it. The boy’s legs were in similar shape, having fought Dead-Man to make his mark. They were bloodied and bruised, and covered in stiff thorns. Old Mate sat happily at the boy’s heels as if they’d always been friends. The pups stood a ways off, not yet willing to farewell their new leader.
In the end, we returned Old Mate as a group, but when Mr Harrison asked who had earned his fair share, we simply pointed to the new boy. I know it was a lot of money, but I’d pay it all just to see that ride again. We still tell his story at school, though he’s since moved on to another. His name is uttered as a hallowed crest in our halls.