The Song of the Butcher Bird | 12 Warrigal
Two against one
When Rachel had shut the kitchen door on her reluctant cattle dog, she walked back across to the house verandah to tackle her father on a subject she knew would almost certainly turn their quiet evening into an uncomfortable argument.
Behind her, the level of noise in the kitchen had fallen significantly, and she could picture Rosie sitting on the floor next to Mella in a corner of the kitchen, glowering at the men.
Jack Gallagher was also considerably more subdued than he had been previously, but he made a gesture of resigned encouragement with the damper he was holding as Rachel sat down at the table, and smiled at his daughter. ‘Come on then, let’s have it,’ he said.
‘It’s about Gil and Bluey, dad,’ said Rachel.
Jack frowned and stopped chewing. ‘I reckoned that was it. Sweetheart, we’ve been over this one before. Please don’t open this old tin of beans again.’ He made a joke of it, trying to deflect his daughter. ‘Can of beans. Tin of worms. Whatever the damn thing is.’
Rachel leaned forward intently across the table. ‘Dad, this is serious. Bluey and that offsider of his beat the stuffing out of Gil again this morning. Bluey’s three years older and twice the size of Gil, and one of these days he’s going to really hurt him. It’s not right. You could do something about this. Stop it before Gil gets seriously hurt.’
Jack dropped the remains of his damper on his sideplate and put his hands together, his elbows on the table on either side of his dinner plate. ‘Rachel, you know as well as I do that Gil’s as much to blame here as Bluey or Ben.’ Rachel shook her head, but her father went on. ‘He is, you know. He winds them up until they have a swing at him, and he deserves what he gets if some of the things I’ve heard are true.’
‘Like what?’ Rachel had a sinking feeling that she wasn’t going to like what she heard.
‘Like this morning,’ said Jack, looking seriously at her. ‘You know what he said to Bluey that started the fight this morning?’ He raised his eyebrows at his daughter. ‘Oh yes, I know what happened, and Ted told me what Gil said to kick it off.’
Rachel said nothing.
‘I admit that Bluey called Sally a…’ Jack paused a moment. ‘Well, he called her a whore, which wasn’t right, but Gil came back at him and said she was only a whore because Bluey’s dad had made her one. Gil said maybe he was Ted’s son too, that he and Bluey were probably brothers.’
Rachel continued to look steadily at her father. There was not much room for delicate female sensibilities on an outback cattle station in the middle of Queensland. Sally had produced five children before Gil and two more after him, and at least five of the eight had been fathered by white stockhands, Ted Turner certainly among them. It was a fair bet that Gil was right, but clearly it wasn’t a family connection that Bluey would welcome.
‘Dad, that’s not the point. I know he backchats them, but they start the name-calling, and what really starts these fights is that Bluey and Ben can’t stand the fact that Gil’s twice as good with the stock as they are, twice as good with the horses and dogs, and ten times the rider that either of them will ever be. So they keep kicking him away from the yards, telling him he doesn’t belong, it’s not his work, he’s not wanted. But he sticks up for himself, so they start a fight and he gets a beating every time. And if Bluey can’t beat him on his own, Ben joins in and down he goes. Two on one, dad. Not fair.’
Jack listened, looking out over the verandah railing towards the yards, invisible now in the darkness, and shook his head again slightly. ‘Sweetheart, I know all that. But Ted Turner is my best stockman and Bluey Turner will be a stockman on this station too in a year or two, and if it comes down to taking sides then I have to stand by my top hand.’
Rachel leaned forward again, and her father caught an uncomfortable glimpse of his own defensive double image reflected in her eyes. ‘You could stop those boys thrashing Gil every time they get into an argument, dad,’ she said intently. ‘Surely you could lay the law down, like you do for the men? You’ve always forbidden fighting on Warrigal. You don’t even allow the men to get into a scrap at the pub. Surely the same applies to Bluey and Gil?’
It was a sore point for the station manager, and Jack Gallagher took a drink of water to give himself a breather before he replied. It was true, fighting was not allowed on Warrigal, and any stockman who started a fight on the station or prolonged a fight off it would come back to the stockmen’s quarters to find his swag rolled and waiting for him out on the track to town. ‘It’s different with the boys,’ he said eventually. ‘It’s just boys sorting themselves out. Bluey’s top dog and Gil keeps yapping at him. He has to learn to keep his trap shut and stay out of Bluey’s way.’
Rachel was shaking her head again emphatically. ‘Bluey’s nearly as big as you, dad. He could do Gil serious damage. God knows he tries to. The only reason he hasn’t done it already is that Gil’s too quick and he’s tougher than one of these steaks. But it’s the same principle, Dad. You don’t want the men fighting because of the injuries it causes. It’s the same with Gil.’
Jack leaned back in his chair and blew through his moustache. ‘Strewth, Rachel.’ He eased his shoulders, and tried again. ‘It isn’t the same thing. They’re boys. Gil’s what? Twelve? Bluey’s fourteen.’ He saw the contradiction coming and hurriedly corrected himself. ‘Alright, nearly fifteen. Neither of them work for me, yet. Gil may never work here. It’s not the same thing, and there are other factors I have to take into account as well.’ He stopped abruptly.
‘You mean because Gil’s an Aborigine?’ Rachel said it unemotionally, but this was the real bone between them, and she refused to let it lie. ‘Or at least he’s half an Aborigine. And the other half’s white, because a white man took advantage of his mother for half a bag of sugar or the dregs of a bottle of rum. But as far as this issue is concerned, he’s black, isn’t he?’
Jack pushed his plate away and tapped his forefinger on the table. But he spoke quietly, too. ‘I didn’t want to argue with you on this, Rachel, but you know there’s a lot more to it than meets the eye, and when it comes to Gil, yes, he’s an Aborigine like his mother and his uncles and his grandfather. He spends more time walkabout in the bush with them these days than he does here at the station. It’s in his blood and I wouldn’t stop him even if I could.’ He stopped and looked hopefully at his daughter, but she said nothing.
‘Come on, sweetheart. Be fair. I treat the blackfellas properly on Warrigal, you know I do, and Sid gives them a fair shout on all his properties. They get good rations and all the work they want. We give the blackfellas stockwork if they want it and some of them are good hands, but you can’t depend on them, no matter how good they are. It’s the white stockmen like Ted I rely on and I can’t run this station without ’em. So the whitefellas come first, and the blackfellas come second.’ He paused for a moment, and his daughter looked down at her plate of food, growing cold on the table in front of her.
‘It’s the way it is, Rachel, and we do better by the blackfellas here than most other stations I know. So don’t push me on this. I’m not going to interfere in something that’s going to blow up into a big row, just because a boy with a high opinion of himself keeps cheeking his elders and…’ he bit off the word he had been about to use. ‘Keeps cheeking his elders and getting walloped for it.’
He tilted his head to catch his daughter’s eyes across the table, and tried to make amends. ‘Come on sweetheart. In a better world things would be different. But it isn’t a better world. It’s getting worse. There are plenty of stations where the blackfellas are getting chased off. There are city men pontificating about The Aborigine Problem and what to do about the blacks. They talk about them like they do about dingoes and rabbits. We’re lucky Sid Kidman is a square bloke and likes the blackfellas. Long may it last, Rachel, but I don’t think it’s going to be long before we start seeing things that make Gil and Bluey scrapping look like a sandfly bite on a bull’s backside.’
He drew breath. Rachel was looking at him across the table with the same expression of stubborn determination he could remember clearly on his wife’s face, twenty-five years ago.
‘It isn’t right, dad,’ she said quietly. “This is the twentieth century. You know as well as I do that there are neighbours of ours who treat the Aborigines like slaves, or worse. You can’t just beat someone black and blue or take their land just because you’re bigger and stronger. And whiter. Someone’s got to stand up and do the right thing about the blackfellas. Why can’t we change things here on Warrigal? We could do the right thing here, at least.
She got up and pushed her chair back. Jack stayed where he was and made a wry face at his daughter. ‘I wish it was that simple,’ he said tiredly.
‘It is that simple, dad. I’ll go and make you some tea,’ said Rachel, and walked away around the corner of the verandah towards the kitchen, her long skirt brushing the white wooden railings as she swung away out of sight.