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By Clancy Tucker
Fourteen-year-old Gunnedah ‘Gunnie’ Danson is despondent because he has an assignment on the drought. As a ‘Townie’ he knows nothing about the affects of this blight on the rural industry; but that is about to change. When he returns home from school he receives a surprise gift.
His late grandfather has left him a box containing a manuscript. It was written by Gunnie’s great-great-grandfather, Smokey ‘Gun’ Danson after his journey up the long paddock as a fourteen-year-old drover; during a harsh drought in 1910. At the back of the manuscript is an envelope.
It’s NOT to be opened until Gunnie has read the entire story. Gunnie spends the weekend at Wiralee Station; a cattle station that’s been in the family since 1848. There, he reads the awesome manuscript and learns of Smokey’s adventurous journey. But while he is at Wiralee, he learns more than he bargained for. The family cattle station is under threat. Will the contents of the mysterious envelope save it?
'Highly Commended’ in the FAW Jim Hamilton Award - 2007 National Literary Awards.
'Commended' - FAW Christina Stead Award - 2011 National Literary Awards
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By Clancy Tucker
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA: PRESENT DAY
Gunnie Danson strode into his bedroom and threw his schoolbag on the floor. It was Friday, the end of another school week.
‘I hate school!’ He flopped into his computer chair and gazed through the window. His mother soon appeared in the doorway.
‘Hi, Gun. How was school?’ Gunnie scowled. She always asked the same dumb question. She knew he hated school. Everybody knew.
‘It was boring, as usual. And to make matters worse I got an assignment for social studies. I have to write 500 words on the drought.’ A deep frown etched in his forehead. ‘What would I know about drought?’ he grumbled. His mother folded her arms and Gunnie felt another lecture coming. His attitude to school had been a hot topic for ages. It was simple. He loved sports but school sucked. To avoid the lecture he smiled and changed the subject. ‘How come you look so grubby, Mum?’
‘Grubby? What do you mean?’ Kim Danson rarely looked untidy, even when she gardened. She glanced in the mirror and frowned at the smudge marks on her cheeks. ‘Oh. Been cleaning out the hall cupboards.’ Gunnie watched his mum take a tissue from her pocket and gently dab her face. He was proud of her in a way. She always dressed neatly and wore nice clothes, but without being a snob like some of the other kids’ mums.
‘You’re always cleaning, Mum. This place looks like a palace,’ he said hoping to sway her mood, but his mum spun round like a gunslinger. Gunnie sighed. Maybe he hadn’t avoided the lecture after all.
‘Well, your father and I like to live in a clean house. Unfortunately, you kids don’t. Look at your room, Gunnedah Danson! It looks like a bomb’s hit it. And your sisters’ rooms aren’t much better. One day when you, Sam and Jackie have teenagers of your own, I’ll tell them exactly what you were like at their age.’ His mother folded her arms with a smug look and surveyed his room with satellite-accurate eyes. Almost every centimetre of wall space was covered in basketball, football and rock star posters, and almost every centimetre of floor was covered in clothes and discarded junk. His favourite colour, blue, featured in everything.
Gunnie’s mum turned her gaze on him and Gunnie looked down at his uniform. His shirt wasn’t tucked in, his shorts were dusty, and his socks and shoes looked like they’d been through a sand storm. He peered into the mirror to inspect his face and a pair of steel blue eyes looked back at him, surrounded by a suntanned face and shoulder-length blonde hair. He spied a new spot on his chin – a fresh pimple. Luckily, it didn’t look like it would amount to much.
‘What about you, Gun?’ said his mum with raised eyebrows. ‘Why are your shorts so filthy?’
‘Touch footy,’ he said, inspecting the zit in the mirror. He glanced down and brushed his shorts.
‘Hm. I guess touch footy is like cleaning cupboards, eh?’ She gave him a sneaky grin and he poked his tongue out at her playfully. Gunnie’s mum never stayed annoyed with him for long. Gunnie’s friends all reckoned their folks were un-cool and had no idea what teenagers thought about. But Gunnie liked his mum’s sense of humour. She was easy to talk to – which was why his friends spent so much time at Gunnie’s place. She was a good mum, plus, she worked three days a week in the local op-shop, walked every morning, kept their house in immaculate condition and did most of the gardening. All in all, Gunnie thought his mum was okay. ‘Oh. Almost forgot!’ She disappeared into the hall for a moment and brought back a large cardboard box.
‘What’s that, Mum?’ said Gunnie surveying the box.
‘Don’t know. It arrived today by courier. It must be important. I had to sign for it.’ He flopped onto his bed to open the strange delivery.
‘Is it an early Christmas present from you and Dad?’
‘Nope. Check out the envelope on the box.’
Gunnie peeled the sticky tape away and found an envelope addressed to him: Gunnedah Swenson Danson. In the top left-hand corner was the name of a legal firm.
‘Looks pretty official,’ he muttered. His mother sat on the bed next to him. She looked as curious about the box as he was.
‘Open it and find out,’ she urged. Gunnie ripped the envelope open and unfolded two sheets of paper. The first one was a letter from a solicitor’s office.
Mr Gunnedah Danson
Re: Last Will and Testament of Blake Angus Danson
As solicitor acting on behalf of your late grandfather, I have been instructed to forward you the contents of this box. Attached is a letter addressed to you from your grandfather. Please contact me should you require further information.
Blythe Carrington, LLB
Gunnie was gob smacked. ‘It’s from solicitors. Gramps left me this box of stuff. Hold on, Mum.’ He flipped the page over to find a letter from his grandfather. Gramps had died two months before and Gunnie still missed him. He and his grandfather had enjoyed a special friendship, and just thinking about him made tears well in Gunnie’s eyes. His mother peered over his shoulder, keen to read the mysterious letter.
You often said, “Gramps, you’re the man.” I loved it when you said that. It made me feel special. Now I’m saying it to you. “Gunnie, you’re the man.”
I want you to do me a favour. This box contains several things that will interest you. The contents certainly enchanted me. Inside it, you will find a manuscript written in 1911 by your great-great-grandfather, Smokey Danson. At the time, Australia faced the worst drought in its history. It’s amazing how history repeats itself. Now we are in the grip of another crippling drought. In the box, you will also find Smokey’s diary, along with a diary written by a miner in 1871 and the working notes of a constable from Gunnedah – a constable who spent four decades trying to solve a double murder. I’m not going to tell you who finally did solve the double murder … you’ll find that out for yourself. Also enclosed is a copy of a 1911 edition of The Gunnedah Gazette – one that mentions your great-great-grandfather.
Gunnie, I want you to read everything in this box. Begin with the manuscript. The other items will become relevant as you read this wonderful story of an amazing man and his best friend, Molly Jane Swenson.
I’m counting on you to carry out my wishes. When you’ve read and studied everything, I want you to have the manuscript published. I have left money in my estate to cover its publication costs, and my solicitor, Blythe Carrington, will arrange everything. I found this box in the attic at Wiralee Station and I’m sure glad I did. Please do NOT open the envelope at the end of the manuscript until you have read the entire story.
What’s in this box will convince you of two things: Smokey Danson was right; this story must be told. More importantly, Wiralee Station should never be sold off – it’s our heritage.
You’re the man.
Gunnie re-read the letter from his grandfather and showed it to his mum. 'Mum, there’s stuff in this box about a drought in 1910,’ he said. He broke the seal on the box and removed the lid to investigate its contents. A musty old smell wafted into his nostrils. Inside the box were five separate parcels, all clearly marked. Written on the first parcel were two words: ‘Gunnedah Hero’. ‘This one’s got my name on it – Gunnedah. Cool, eh?’ he said to his mum.
Kim Danson peered at the box and frowned. Then she looked at her watch and stood up.
‘Well I have to finish the cupboards and start getting dinner ready. The girls will be home soon. Let me know what it’s all about. I’m curious.’
As she headed to the door, Gunnie had a strange feeling.
‘Hey, Mum,’ he said calling her back. ‘Can we spend the weekend at Wiralee Station?’
‘I can’t explain it, but I’ve got a weird feeling I should be at Wiralee Station when I check all this stuff out. It’s Friday. We could pack up and go tonight. I could ring Uncle Dan and tell him we’re coming. What do you reckon?’ Gunnie looked pleadingly at his mother.
‘We can’t, Gun. Your sisters are playing netball tomorrow.’
‘Damn,’ he muttered then came up with an alternative plan. ‘What if Dad and I go? You know, just the two of us?’
She smiled. ‘He’d probably enjoy spending time with you and catching up with his brother. Why not go and call him,’ his mother said and walked off to finish cleaning the hall cupboards.
Fired up, Gunnie ran downstairs to ring his father at work. It’d been a while since either of them had visited Wiralee Station. The large property had been in the Danson family since 1848, and although Gunnie enjoyed visiting to ride horses and motorbikes, it was a place he knew little about. He dialled his father’s direct line and waited.
‘Mr Danson’s office,’ came a familiar voice.
‘Hi, Miss Pearson. It’s Gunnie. Can I please speak to Dad? It won’t take long.’
‘Hi, Gunnie. Just a second.’ For some reason his father’s personal assistant liked him. Gunnie was always polite to her. Miss Pearson had worked for Roley Danson for five years and, according to his dad, she was the best in the business. She decided who could and who couldn’t speak to the busy executive. When his father’s voice came on the line, it was blunt. His dad was obviously busy so Gunnie didn’t waste any time.
‘Dad. Got a cool idea. Why don’t you and I go to Wiralee for the weekend? You need time away from work and you always say Wiralee is a great place to relax.’
‘What’s suddenly inspired you to visit Wiralee, Gun?’ asked his father.
‘I’ve got something I need to do there. I got a big box today … a box full of stuff from Gramps. He left it to me in his will. It’s stuff I have to read and I want to be at Wiralee Station when I read it.’ Gunnie waited for a positive reply, hoping his father would agree.
‘Your timing is perfect, Gun,’ said his dad. I need to speak to Wirra about a few financial issues.’ Gunnie smiled. ‘Wirra’ was a nickname for his Uncle Dan, a shortened version of Wiralee, the family station. Gunnie was rapt but then he remembered something.
‘What about golf, Dad?’
‘The guys will just have to lose without my help, eh?’ said his father at the other end of the line. Gunnie chuckled. He knew his dad was being modest. Roley Danson was a top golfer. In fact, he’d been the club champion on many occasions.
‘Awesome!’ said Gunnie. ‘While you’re talking to Uncle Dan about the Wiralee stuff, I can do what I’ve gotta do. I’ll ring Uncle Dan and tell him we’re coming and ask Mum to pack your things for when you get home.’
Gunnie hung up and punched the air. ‘Yes!’ he shouted, grateful that his father had given up his regular Saturday golf game to drive to Wiralee. He grabbed a handful of biscuits and dialled his favourite uncle, the man who ran Wiralee Station. Sadly, his aunt answered the phone with a snooty voice.
‘Wiralee Station. Kate Danson speaking.’
‘Oh. Hi, Aunty Kate. It’s Gunnie. Is Uncle Dan there?’
‘Hello, Gunnedah. Yes. Hold on. I think Daniel is in his study.’ Gunnie disliked his aunt. Uncle Dan was a great guy but Aunty Kate was a snob. She spoke with a snooty voice and whined all the time. And she did nothing to help around Wiralee.
‘I’ll hold on,’ he replied politely, glad she didn’t want to talk to him.
With a mouthful of biscuit, Gunnie lounged across the kitchen bench, thinking about the mysterious box on his bed. He also wondered about the envelope he’d find at the end of the manuscript and the name his grandfather had mentioned in his letter – Molly Jane Swenson.
‘Swenson is my middle name,’ he muttered. Then his uncle came on the line.
‘Wirra Danson.’ His uncle sounded busy so Gunnie jumped in.
‘Uncle Dan, it’s Gunnie. Is it okay for Dad and me to come up for the weekend?’
‘G’day, Gun. Sure it is. It’ll be great to see ya. Are the girls coming?’
‘Nope. Jack and Sam have netball.’ Gunnie detected disappointment in his uncle’s voice.
‘What a shame. Yeah, no worries, Gun. Ya Dad and I have some things to sort out anyway.’
Gunnie thanked his uncle and said they’d see him tonight. With another fistful of biscuits, he bolted upstairs to his bedroom, yelling as he pounded up the carpeted stairway.
‘Mum! Everything’s cool with Dad and Uncle Dan. We’re leaving as soon as Dad gets home from work.’
His mother gave him a grin. ‘Mm … Well you’re big enough and ugly enough to pack your own bags. Do it now and don’t wait till the last minute like you usually do.’
‘Thanks for the compliment,’ he smiled back.
With his bag packed and his clothes changed, Gunnie peered into the cardboard box. Almost reverently, he removed the topmost parcel, the one titled Gunnedah Hero. He slowly removed the waxed paper covering to find a sizeable book neatly tied with string. On the cover was written:
by Smokey Danson, 1911
‘Jeez. Smells ancient,’ said Gunnie pulling back the hard leather-bound cover. Inside, on the first page, was a poem.
Our Wiralee was peaceful up until the big drought came and Nature, She was rough on them and played an awful game.
It didn’t rain for years, there was no water for the grass, they prayed and waited for the toughest drought of all to pass.
For five long years they suffered on this dry and dusty land, with hungry, sorry beasts and pastures made of arid sand.
A drover mounted-up, his aim to head on for a drive because they were no quitters and he wanted them alive.
Molly Jane Swenson 1910
Gunnie read the lines of verse. Besides the beautiful handwriting, he noticed three things.
‘Wow. My full name is on this page … Gunnedah Swenson Danson,’ he muttered. He was about to turn the page when his mother hollered his name. He closed the journal carefully, placed it back in the box, and ran downstairs, annoyed he’d been interrupted. His mother was in the kitchen preparing dinner.
‘Watch this,’ she said pointing to a large plasma television in the adjoining family room. ‘It’s a special report on the drought.’ Gunnie flopped onto the couch and stared at the screen.
Gunnie had never really thought about drought before, but his social studies assignment and the unexpected delivery of the box from his late grandfather had changed that. Sure, he knew Australia was the driest inhabited continent on earth – he’d learned that in Geography. He’d even heard drought mentioned on the nightly news. Plus his parents had talked about the water restrictions – especially his mother, who loved her garden. Now, with a mysterious box containing a story about a drought in 1910, Gunnie was keen to watch the special news report.
On the television screen, Gunnie saw nothing but desolate farmland. Farmers were handfeeding sheep and cattle. The grass had long gone, the earth looked parched and barren, and the dams and rivers had dried up. It looked like a moonscape, and the farmers and their wives wore pained expressions as they were interviewed. Gunnie heard the tension in their voices when they described the hardship of the current drought – the physical, mental, and financial hardship.
‘I never realised it was that bad,’ he murmured as he watched a farmer having to shoot a mob of sheep. The animals were skin and bones. Gunnie’s mouth dropped when the reporter mentioned the names of places he knew. They were towns he’d passed through on his trips to Wiralee Station – places like Walcha, Werris Creek, Murrurundi, and Premier. ‘Hey, Mum. These are towns near Wiralee,’ he called, pointing at the screen. ‘They look awful. Crikey, I hope Wiralee isn’t that bad.’
Gunnie leaned forward and his mother stopped what she was doing to watch the television. They stayed motionless and listened to an interview with an expert from the Bureau of Meteorology.
‘… severe rainfall deficiencies have been experienced by the vast majority of Queensland, New South Wales, most of south west Western Australia and the eastern side of Tasmania. Central Queensland and northern New South Wales have experienced their lowest rainfalls since 1900.’ Gunnie was shocked.
‘It must be all that stuff about climate change. You know, global-warming and the El Nino effect, eh?’
His mother’s reply was interrupted when Gunnie’s two sisters arrived home from school. Sam and Jackie went to a private school in the city, whereas Gunnie went to the local high school. Samantha was sixteen, often rowdy and irritating, especially when Gunnie wanted some peace and quiet. She’d been extra annoying since she’d broken off with her nerdy boyfriend. Gunnie’s best mates all thought she was really hot though. But they didn’t have to live with her and put up with her outbursts. His sisters were opposites. Sam was boisterous, cheeky, and lippy. Jackie was sensitive, quiet, and caring.
‘Hiya, Mum!’ Sam shouted as she entered. Gunnie scowled.
‘Shush, Sam. I’m trying to watch something on TV,’ he snapped.
‘What’s up with you, grumpy bum?’ she snapped back.
‘Leave him alone, Sam. He’s watching this program because he’s got an assignment about the drought,’ said his mother, trying to keep the peace.
Sam shot Gunnie a look and stuck her finger down her throat, pretending to throw up. Gunnie’s youngest sister, Jackie, stayed out of it. She never got involved in Gunnie and Sam’s arguments. Jackie was twelve, two years younger than Gunnie, and the quietest of the three Danson kids. Gunnie got on okay with his youngest sister. They’d become close when she’d been diagnosed with leukaemia a few years ago. For two painful years, she’d fought the disease and won, and ever since she’d been in remission Jackie had deliberately worn really long hair. It was her way of celebrating all that time feeling awful and losing her hair due to chemotherapy and radium treatment. Gunnie admired Jackie’s courage and spirit and always made a point of complimenting her on her beautiful hair.
The program finished. Inspired, Gunnie turned to his mother and sisters, eager to share some historical facts.
‘One of those experts said that between 1905 and 1911 Australia lost nineteen million sheep and more than two million cattle because of drought. That’s just terrible, eh?’
‘Really? That sucks,’ said Jackie sympathetically.
‘It sucks big time, Jack. I hope stuff like that never happens at Wiralee.’ The expert had mentioned an important date and Gunnie wanted to investigate the box from his grandfather. As he breezed past, he gently tugged on Jackie’s long locks. ‘Gorgeous, Jack,’ he whispered, saying the two words she loved. His youngest sister beamed.
Gunnie rushed into his room and grabbed the journal. He flipped it open to a random page and began reading.
“The snake became more and more aggressive and unpredictable. Sam was growling deeper now and had crouched on the ground in the attack position. Roscoe and Jedda were also awake, aware of the slippery predator and barking loudly. Their noise didn’t help the situation. In a split second, Sam attacked the snake and I felt its cold tail crease my forehead as it writhed in battle. I took a chance, got to my feet and jumped to a safe place on the other side of the campfire. While my brave kelpie fought the snake, I searched for a large piece of timber that would do the reptile some damage. Normally I’d have used the stockwhip to kill it, but Sam was too close. I was petrified I’d strike her by mistake.
I grabbed a sizeable piece of lumber and turned back to the verandah. As I swivelled around, I heard a piercing squeal and saw Sam limp away. She flopped under the lemon tree and frantically rubbed her snout with both paws. The snake had been badly mauled by her sharp teeth but it was still writhing close to my saddle, smearing blood on the floorboards of the verandah. I was furious and smashed the snake with the timber at least half a dozen times. It was still moving so I thumped it another three times until it was dead. Roscoe and Jedda sniffed at its messy remains while I dashed towards Sam. It was too late. She was dead.
Tears welled in my eyes as I pulled her from beneath the tree where she’d sought refuge. I tucked her in my arms and walked to the back of the house where I found a piece of rusty steel to dig a grave. Jedda and Roscoe looked on as I buried my brave cattle dog. Covering her with dusty soil, I erected a crudely-made cross from two flat boards I found nearby then scrawled ‘Sam Danson’ across it with a piece of charcoal I’d rescued from the campfire. I squatted on the parched earth and wept, overcome by an enormous sense of loss.”
Gunnie choked up and felt the hairs rise on the back of his neck.
‘Jeez. That’s unbelievable. What awesome dogs,’ he muttered. His father drove up the drive and sounded the horn twice. ‘Bugger. Too late,’ whispered Gunnie. He closed the journal and placed it in the box. Hugging the cardboard box in his arms, he headed downstairs.
‘What’s that?’ said Sam as he marched through the kitchen.
‘Never you mind, miss snoopy nose.’
‘Ooooh. Sorry I asked,’ Sam replied sarcastically. Gunnie ignored her and walked outside, keen to stash the box safely in the car. His father was on the driveway looking as conservative as ever – blue suit, matching tie, and shoes so polished you could see your reflection.
‘What’s that, Gun?’ said his father. Roley Danson was a tall man with steel grey hair. A bulging briefcase dangled beside him.
‘Tell you later when I’ve checked it all out, Dad.’
‘Okay. You packed and ready to go? I can’t wait to get to Wiralee and have a few beers with Wirra.’
With the cardboard box securely packed in the car, Gunnie grabbed his bag from his room and said goodbye to his mum. He stopped at the back door with one final, taunting message for his older sister.
‘Do you know why I’m going to have an awesome weekend?’
‘Why?’ she barked.
‘Because you won’t be there.’ Sam glared at him and Gunnie walked out grinning.
‘See you, Jackie babe!’ he called out to his youngest sister.
‘Bye, Gunboy!’ Jackie replied using the nickname he loved.
READER'S REVIEWS FOR Gunnedah Hero:
GH REVIEW – DIANA SOBOLEWSKI
5.0 out of 5 stars An inspirational and entertaining read for young readers and adults alike!
By Amazon Customer on February 27, 2018
Format: Kindle Edition |Verified Purchase
Fourteen year old Gunnedah 'Gunnie' Danson inherits a manuscript written by his great-great-great grandfather. As he's reading about Smokey 'Gun' Danson's adventure when he was exactly the same age, Gunnie takes us along for the ride.
Award-winning Australian author Clancy Tucker tells two stories at once going seamlessly between drought-ravaged Australia in 1910 and modern-day Australia where farmers also face hardships due to drought. And Mr. Tucker involves the reader with the lives of the two boys simultaneously.
Tasked with a job that would normally have been undertaken by older 'drovers' Smokey moves cattle away from his homestead Wiralee Station to a destination many towns away with only his trusty dogs, a pack-horse and the horse he rides. Along the way he learns the value of his animals, to trust his instincts, and the meaning of friendship. In the process, he is introduced to Aboriginal 'bush magic' for food and medicine. Smokey's journey is fraught with danger; the terrain, the elements, wild life and some unscrupulous characters. But the young man finds his inner strength and shoulders his burden well to surpass the expectations of family, friends and his love interest Molly.
With a selfless act and guided by a true sense of what is the right thing to do, Smokey is rewarded for his good deed and recognized for the hero that he is. That in turn allows him to repay some kindnesses and ensure that his family's land and homestead withstand the threat of drought in the future, and that the family business thrives for generations to come.
Gunnie reading Smokey's detailed account from Wiralee Station, the exact place his great-great-great grandfather had been so passionate about, comes to share in that passion. When Wiralee is under threat once more, Gunnie vows to protect it and Smokey reaches out from the past to help.
Gunnedah Hero is about perseverance, respect, generosity and believing in yourself; woven into a delightful, heartwarming, hopeful tale that is just plain fun to read. The author infuses the story with 'Aussie' expressions and vivid descriptions that really bring it to life and give it that sense of time and place.
I think this book is classroom-worthy. I would also encourage adults to read it and to get it for the young people in the family. What a wonderful way to encourage young people to read and bring about some great discussion.
Love ya work Mr. Clancy Tucker and I'll be reading the sequel 'A Drover's Blanket' next!
“Gunnedah “Gunnie” Danson knows his family has been in the farming business for generations, but it’s not until he’s left a manuscript in his grandfather’s will does he learn how hard they’ve fought to stay in it.
Gunnie starts to hope maybe Smokey’s diary can help the family once again.
The quick pace of Gunnie and Smokey’s parallel boyish adventures keep readers anticipating the next cattle run or abandoned cattle station. Smokey is a likable pin-up character for young male readers. It’s also Smokey’s relationship with other minor characters he meets on the road which “bring home” messages about family, especially those about family being more than people we are linked to with blood.
Gunnie’s role in the novel seems more minor, but his place in a more contemporary Australia serves to remind young readers that fears of drought still plague farmers today. Insight into how farmers have dealt with drought by walking the “long paddock” with their herds should be interesting for many readers given how little it has been explored in young adult fiction. Also easy to read with a helpful appendix at the end for self-driven readers, Gunnedah Hero is an arresting novel that will challenge young Aussie readers to learn more about their collective history.” Nikita McInnes
“I really enjoyed this book. I liked how Clancy Tucker made the characters come alive. How I could relate the character’s traits to somebody I know. But I liked most how I could imagine the character standing right in front of my eyes. Any adventure loving person with any age at heart will love the title and the contents of this amazing story.” Caitlin Shore.