“…and she said: ‘the reason they don’t shear sheep when they’re wet is because it causes infertility in the shearers,” he took a quick drink of his beer, “now, I’m not an educated man, but that sounds like BS to me.” He had another drink and shook his head. “It hasn’t affected me!” He finished his drink, slammed the glass on the bar top, breathed out.
“Why… Why don’t you shear wet sheep?” I asked.
He turned and looked me over, pegged me for the tourist that I was.
“They’re kind of like sponges – all that water soaks into the wool – makes shearing them a nightmare. It’s heavy, you get soaked and the floor gets slippery. It doesn’t throw properly either. It’s just, generally unpleasant.” He looked into his empty glass. “Not that we’ve had rain for a while.”
“Seems pretty dry.”
“Yeah, worst I’ve seen. The oldies say that it’s not as bad as the one in ‘23, but I don’t think there’s anyone still alive who remembers it.”
I nodded at the barkeep for a couple of drinks. She put them down in front of us.
“I’m meant to focus on the good things, the positives…but there’s not enough water, if it doesn’t break soon, I won’t be able to feed my flock. And I’m not the only one,” he gestured around the bar, some of these guys are worse off than me. It’ll devastate us.” He took a long drink. “I just want, one positive out of all this…”
“Ah… it’s not a great positive…”
“I’ll take anything.”
“Lowering the water table can reveal archeological remains that would be hard to spot otherwise.”
“But not around here.”
“Actually, there’s what looks like the foundation of a building up on Burning Mountain.”
“There’s no buildings on there. Never has been.”
“Just telling you what I saw, about half a click along the burn line Up the hill. Just the foundation – pretty regular, so unlikely to be natural.”
He looked at me perplexed.
“Bob,” he turned to a much older man, “ever hear of a building up the mountain?”
He thought for a long moment before answering. “Was there a block, about three feet tall, a foot wide, with an indentation at the top?”
“I…” I thought about it. “I think so, yeah.”
“Huh. I always thought that was just a story. Buy me a drink.”
I nodded again at the bartender.
“In the cemetery, there was a family plot, a lot of children, all with the family name scratched off, no adult graves though, but spaces, like there used to be headstones. I asked my gran about it, when I was younger, ‘cause, it seemed odd…” He drifted back to his memory. “Officially, they left town at the beginning of the Great Depression, just another casualty, lost looking for work… unofficially, they’d been run out of town long before, but my gran said, well, they weren’t run out of town so much, as removed…”
“Why?” Asked my shearing companion.
“I don’t know that I take much stock in it, but, well, they were a rich family, lots of land, big farm to maintain, and it was good soil, good crop, whatever they did grew well. And it was probably just good farming techniques, and maybe people were jealous, but there were rumours… rumours that their success wasn’t just from their farming.”
“Yeah.” He finished his beer, nodded for another. “Apparently, even before them, there was those that believed that there was a spirit in the fire mountain that looked after the area. It’s an understandable belief. And spirits occasionally want sacrifices…”
“Or at least, we say they do.”
“Either way… the story was that there was a little, I don’t know, chapel for want of a better word, with a big stone block. Sacrifice then feed to the fire… I looked, but never found it. Wrote it off as a story.”
“The fire moves over time. Moves along the seam. You were looking in the wrong spot.”
“I s’pose I was.”
“So… they sacrificed children to a fire, a coal seam fire, in order to get rain? That makes us much sense to me as the wet sheep causing infertility.” He finished his beer. “I think it’s probably just a story.” The old man looked away.
“I… I should’ve believed her…” He shook it off and looked to my companion. “What news young Carl?”
“Jane is pregnant again. About to pop.”
“Again? Like she needs more children…”
The rest was small town news and primary industry, I turned in, and the next day I was on my way.
I drove back that way – it was a couple of weeks later – the fields were a lush green, the crops flourishing…
I couldn’t find the graves that the old guy was talking about. The place was pretty overgrown though…
The rain meant I could no longer see the foundation of the building… maybe it had never been there at all.
The altar/stone, it wasn’t there, I must’ve remembered it wrong…
There was one kind of similar, maybe, a lot closer to the current smokie area…
I’m sure it’s a coincidence.
But not so sure that I want to check the infant mortality reports.
I… I don’t want to be responsible…
I won’t stop here again.