The Song of the Butcher Bird | 7 Warrigal Creek, Queensland
Sitting on the long verandah at the back of the big Warrigal Creek homestead, an elderly, stump-tailed blue heeler cattle dog lifted her nose to the rising sun and inhaled the familiar scents of an outback morning.
To the tall, dark-haired girl standing next to the cattle dog, the powerful aroma of curried beef heating for the stockmen’s breakfast in the kitchen close by was overwhelming, but the old heeler could pick her way through a smorgasbord of other olfactory signals. She could detect the eucalyptus smoke of the cooking fires drifting towards her from the blackfellas’ camp downstream by the creek. She could smell the faint tang of ammonia in the dust stirred in the yards by the cattle that had been mustered in from the Maybe outstation the day before, and the even sharper scent of horse sweat from the saddle pads left to dry overnight on the racks next to the tack shed. She could decode the separate fragrances of the purple bougainvillea growing up the water tank stand and the lemons on the tree growing next to it.
The blue heeler was well on her way to becoming as deaf as an ironbark post, but in the clear stillness of this early morning both the dog and the girl could hear voices shouting down at the distant yards where drafting had begun an hour ago in the cool dawn. They could hear cattle bawling and the drumming of running hooves, punctuated by the ringers’ whistles and the pistolshot cracking of a stockwhip. Above the hubbub of parakeets and galahs in the garden, they could hear the mournful complaint of the crows patrolling the chook paddock in the hope of an unclaimed egg, and far off down by the creek the mad, clockwork cackle of a kookaburra.
At the dog’s eye height the view was limited, but from the verandah the girl could see the ghost gums that lined the creek half a mile away, and the top of the flame trees that shaded the yards. She could see the stockmen’s quarters and the deep overhang of the meat-house roof, and between the laundry and the station stores she could see two older tribal women, leaning on their hoes in the vegetable garden they were supposed to be tending. Life stirred early on a cattle station in Queensland, getting the hard yakka done before the temperature tipped into the high nineties and the air became too hot to breath.
The girl heard the women in the vegetable garden chuckling at something one of them had said and smiled. The dog noticed the smile and her almost nonexistent tail twitched on the verandah boards.
Rachel Gallagher was twenty years old. She had been born and had grown up on this station, and the shy, wheezy laughter of Aboriginal women was as deeply woven into her love of the outback as the kookaburra’s cackle or the silver-green shimmer of eucalyptus leaves whispering in an evening breeze.
She was still smiling when two figures appeared from behind the corner of the mudbrick stores, and her smile faded. The dog’s tail stirred again slightly. The larger of the two newcomers was a full-blooded Aborigine woman, her face creased by a deep frown. She was barefoot and shapeless in a man’s ancient jersey pulled over a faded yellow dress, and she was pushing a reluctant boy along in front of her with insistent jabs of her forefinger. It was Gil and his mother, Sally, and the blood on the boy’s face showed that he had been fighting again.
Although he was small for his age, Rachel knew that Gil was twelve years old, and if she didn’t also already know it as a fact, his much lighter colouring would have told her that his parentage was almost certainly half black and half white. It would have been difficult for a stranger to tell what age Sally was, but Rachel could remember her as a teenager cradling her first baby when she herself was just a little girl, which would put Sally in her early thirties now. She also knew exactly why the pair were making their way to the back of the house, and her heart sank.
Sally looked up as they approached the verandah and shook her head at the girl. She jabbed her finger into the boy’s shoulder one last time, so hard he stumbled forwards to the foot of the verandah steps. The bitch’s tail wagged more noticeably.
“‘e bin bightin longa dem bigfella boys agin,” she said. “Blurry larrikin.”
“Oh, Gil,” said Rachel. “It’s not even half past six. What happened this time?” As if she didn’t know. The boy squinted up at the tall white girl standing at the top of the four steps, and his teeth gleamed suddenly through the dried blood and dust as he grinned at her. He didn’t reply, but a casual one-shouldered shrug said it all.
“We’d better have a look at the damage,” said Rachel. Her long skirt swirled as she took the verandah steps two at a time and strode across the space to the screen door that led into the sweltering heat of the kitchen. The old dog stayed where she was, watching the boy.
The two Aboriginal women who were cooking breakfast for the stationhands looked up as Rachel swept into the kitchen and the younger one smiled.
“It’s Gil,” said Rachel. “Fighting again.” The younger woman’s smile disappeared instantly. She ducked her head and continued kneading out a mound of damper bread dough, but the older woman stopped stirring the big copper curry pan, and scowled in disapproval. “Ain’t Gil, miss. Dem rubbish pfellas pickin on ‘im allatime.”
“I know, Mella,” said Rachel meekly. She half filled a small enamel bowl from the rainwater tap and picked out the cleanest cloth she could find on the washing table. “I’m going to have to speak to my father about this again. Those boys need sorting out.”
“You kin, miss. Same allatime.” The older woman shook her head and turned back to the curry. Rachel bit her lip and pushed the sprung screen door open with her shoulder, careful not to spill any of the precious rainwater. The wire mesh door banged loudly behind her as she carried the bowl out into the already hot sunshine. She put the bowl down on the bottom step of the house verandah, pushed a lock of hair back behind her ear with the hand that held the cloth, and looked at the small, skinny boy standing stoically in front of her.
“Come on then Gil,” she said briskly. “Let’s have a look at you.”
The boy raised his face and looked into her eyes as she bent down to examine his injuries, but as her face drew closer to his own, his eyes slid away from hers and he gazed up at the corrugated iron homestead roof over her right shoulder.
The girl soaked the cloth in the water, took a gentle hold of the boy’s chin with her finger and thumb, and dabbed carefully at his nose and mouth. He flinched very slightly as the cloth moved across a split in his top lip, and Rachel winced in apology. “Sorry.”
The boy’s eyes flickered back to hers momentarily, and she felt the deep distrust of any kindness from a whitefella. Even a whitefella like her who had grown up here among them, and who had fought their corner on the station ever since she was knee-high to a wallaby. “Bluey did this to you again, didn’t he?” she asked. Gil gave another half shrug and there was another glint of amusement in his eyes.
“Nah Miss,” he said indistinctly through the cloth. “Bit of fun down the yards.” The boy’s mother cuffed him on the shoulder. “Don’t you give Miss Rachel no backchat, eh.”
The girl stopped dabbing for a second and turned the boy’s face slightly towards hers. “Doesn’t look like much fun to me. You got another beating from Bluey, didn’t you?”
Another almost imperceptible shrug was all she knew she would get in reply. She finished wiping away the blood and dust. There was a large swelling rising over the boy’s cheekbone, and she pressed around it as carefully as she could to see if there was any movement of broken bone. It was firm under the swelling. She let go of his chin and dropped the cloth back into the bowl.
“No loose teeth?” she asked. Gil shook his head and gave her a dazzling smile, showing two rows of large, even, very white teeth. “Nah miss. Couldn’t punch a tick off a fencepost, those girls.”
His mother cuffed him again, but she was struggling not to laugh and when Rachel laughed aloud Sally too broke into the same wheezy hee-hee-hee the girl had heard earlier from the veggie patch. The blue heeler’s stump tail brushed on the verandah planking.
“What are we going to do with you, Gil?” The girl put her hands on his shoulders and shook him gently in mock anger. “You have got to stop getting into scrapes with these boys. One of these days they’re going to break something, and then we’ll have to haul you into town and leave you at the Mission for a month. How’d you like that?”
Gil looked up at her with wary curiosity. He’d been told since the day he could walk that you could trust the whitefellas to tell you as much truth as a giyamara, but he had to admit that Miss Rachel had always been straight with him.
“Don’t you worry miss,” he said seriously. ‘I’m getting bigger. I’ll get up ‘im one of these days.”