Not that it made much difference in the Queensland bush, but it was a Thursday morning early in the dry season when the big white man came out of his bark hut, shotgun first.
He was badly hungover and ready to belt the living daylights out of the lazy black slut who should have been brewing him a billy of tea.
As he half expected, there was no fire burning in the silent, empty clearing.
No black women cowering.
No billy brewing.
None of the muted noise and movement of morning among the cluster of shabby wurleys that normally housed his Aborigines.
Even the busybody mobs of galahs and parakeets that usually filled the trees with raucous squabbling had fled.
The big man shifted the shotgun into the crook of his right arm and walked across the clearing to the nearest deserted wurley.
Nothing remained to show that it had ever been occupied.
He swore and aimed a vicious kick at the side of the ramshackle structure, and he was opening his flies to piss into the hole he had made when he saw the skeleton emerging from the long morning shadows of the trees, just thirty yards or so from where he was standing.
For several seconds the white man stared in disbelief. A droplet of sweat ran down the side of his face into his beard. Rum-sweat stains flowered under his arms and down his back, spreading outwards to old tidemarks on his filthy shirt.
He spat and raised the shotgun to his shoulder, but before he could fire the skeleton lifted a long, thin arm and pointed down the treeline to the big man’s right, and the movement of another figure caught his eye and made him turn, the barrel of the shotgun swinging to this new target.
It was a smaller figure, indistinct but clearly visible, an Aborigine boy, who also raised an arm and pointed accusingly at the big white man, and then wavered and dissolved into the shifting pattern of the shadows and was gone.
The white man glared for a moment into the trees, then he turned back to face the skeleton and the boomerang hit him right above the bridge of his nose.
The boomerang was not a lightweight wing designed for ritual fights or scaring birds. It was an ironbark-wood throwing stick made for killing kangaroos, dense and heavy and as long as the big man’s thighbone, and the force of its impact hurled him backwards, spreadeagled in the dust, the stock of the shotgun still gripped in his right hand and his eyes wide with surprise at that dark, humming blur whirling towards him in the last millisecond of his life.
There was no blood visible to show where the boomerang had hit him, only a deep concavity in the middle of his forehead, and his eyes glazed rapidly in the rising heat.
He lay motionless long enough for the dust in the air to settle on his unseeing eyes, long enough for the birds to make their first hesitant calls in the scrubby bushland that stretched away north and west from the ramshackle camp. Then the skeleton moved at the edge of the clearing, and walked slowly towards the body.
In motion the skeleton became an Aboriginal warrior, a tall, almost naked figure painted in bone-white stripes caked and cracking on his dark skin, and he walked without a sound. He prodded the big whitefella with a broad big toe and studied the slack, bearded face for some time. Then he placed the fire-hardened point of the spear he was carrying on the man’s chest, adjusted the position carefully, and leaned on the shaft.
The spear slid in discernible jerks through the sweatstained shirt, through the skin, through the membrane between the ribs, and twitched perceptibly as it penetrated the muscle of the heart.
The warrior eased his weight off the shaft, took a step closer to the body, placed one foot on it and pulled the spear with some difficulty back out of the big white man’s chest. He wiped the wet tip of the spear on the white man’s shirt, stooped to retrieve the boomerang, turned away and disappeared among the trees.
A single bullet spun from the muzzle of a Turkish rifle. It took less than a quarter of a second to cover the three hundred yards between the Turkish trench and the two Australian cavalry troopers walking under a makeshift flag of truce towards the wounded horse.
Some of the Turkish veterans defending the treeless, stony plains outside Beersheba could remember the sight of Australian troops trying to surrender at Gallipoli at the beginning of the war, but during their bitter three-year retreat from Suez to the Holy Land the Turks had come to deeply respect their Anzac opponents, and their passion for their horses.
Like many of those fighting in Australian uniforms, the two troopers walking out into no-man’s land were British born. They were fighting for the Empire but in this primaeval conflict they had confirmed a new allegiance to a new, young country, and here in the Gaza desert, one of them paid the ultimate price.
The bullet passed through the body of the first trooper, and by one of the countless coincidences that decided the difference between life and death every day in every theatre of this relentless war, thumped into the chest of the second trooper who had been crossing behind his mate at exactly the wrong moment.
For a second a stunned silence fell on both sides of this sideshow battle, then with a roar of fury the Australian troops erupted from their shallow scrapes behind the cover of dead horses mown down by the Turkish machine guns.
Several began to run towards their fallen comrades, but they stopped in their tracks as a Turkish officer seemed to levitate from the deep trenches his men had been defending and ran along the trenchline to the point where the shot had been fired.
He ran jerkily, beserk with outrage, waving his arms above his head and screaming ‘Truce! Truce!’ at the top of his voice towards the Australians. As he approached the young soldier who had fired, the older men on either side edged away, isolating the culprit in his guilt and shame, and the truce-breaker folded penitently into the trench and out of sight as the officer emptied his shaking revolver at point blank range into the young soldier’s body.
The officer turned to the Australians, hurled his revolver to the ground and held out his arms. ‘Please,’ he shouted. ‘Come. Truce. Come.’ He gestured at the horse the two troopers had been hoping to put out of its misery, and at the two fallen men.
One of them lay still, curled on his side, his bush hat with its upturned brim lying crown up in the gritty dust beside him. The other lay on his back, blinking up into the hazy desert sky, his lips moving slightly, one hand reaching slowly towards the bullet wound.
In the eight years since he had first squatted on the abandoned Berrie Berrie outstation, the big man had never failed to appear at the Currawah grog shop on a Saturday afternoon.
When he missed two Saturdays in a row the proprietor sent a message into Springvale to let the police know that the big man must be crook or worse, and a boundary rider from Seymour station coming in to blue his cheque at Currawah had seen a mob of blackfellas going walkabout from the Berrie Berrie direction.
It was ten days after the incident that Senior Constable Cleary and his police detail arrived on the scene of the killing.
Ten days was more than enough time for the local wild pigs and dingoes to spread the dead man widely around the clearing, and it took Cleary and his men over an hour to assemble the remains.
They found the skull under a mulga bush, and as far as the Senior Constable was concerned the fist-sized depressed fracture in the forehead proved what he already knew.
This was not the first time there had been trouble between the big white man and the Aborigines who still clung to this corner of their tribal homeland, and it was their scuffed trail the native trackers followed the next morning, hunting westwards with the two white policemen riding behind them.
The Berrie Berrie blackfellas had stopped at the creek that marked the edge of their tribal area, about eighty miles from the scene of the crime. It took the police detail two days to cover the same distance, so it was late on the third afternoon of his investigation when Cleary stopped as a single horseman emerged from the dense scrub to the north and trotted across the open ground to meet them.
It was a young stockman, his face shaded by a battered, broad-brimmed hat, a second horse carrying his swag and camp kit tied by a long, greenhide leather lead to his saddle. He touched his hat brim in greeting to the sergeant. ‘I got your message,’ he said. ‘You were right. They’re at the creek. I been up close and seen them. Did you find him?’
‘We did, what’s left of him,’ said the policeman. ‘We knew his blackfellas had run for it and we tracked ’em all the way here, just to be sure it was them.’
The stockman nodded and pushed his hat up on his forehead with his right hand. His left arm was missing, the sleeve of his shirt sewn neatly to the side. He told the sergeant there were fifteen adults in a straggling camp beside a tree-shaded billabong less than half a mile to the east. Six old men, nine women, and eight children including three infants. No dogs. The big white man had hated dogs.
The billabong was bounded on the far side by a long limestone bluff a homesick English squatter had called the White Cliffs. The Aboriginal name for it was ten thousand years older and the rock wall was one of their most sacred sites, but today it formed a convenient barrier that helped the senior constable make his decision.
There was at least an hour of good daylight left, so Cleary followed the stockman in silence another quarter of a mile closer to the creek before swinging himself off his horse and issuing his orders. The three mounts, three spares and two police packhorses were hobbled and tied under the shade of a gidgee tree, and ten rounds of ammunition distributed to each of the six native trackers. The senior constable handed a police-issue revolver to the one-armed stockman and checked his own.
They formed a loose line with Cleary, his constable and the stockman at the centre, and then the three white men walked as quietly as their boots allowed through the bush towards the camp, the Aboriginal trackers fanning out noiselessly to either side. The young stockman walked clumsily through the long grass, limping severely.
As they approached they could hear voices, the murmur of men, a woman calling and a child’s laugh that echoed faintly against the bluff. The voices stopped abruptly when the cordon was fifty or sixty paces from the camp, and as the line of men emerged out of the trees onto the grass that covered the bank of the billabong, Cleary counted the fifteen adults, frozen in the commonplace acts of their evening routine.
Three of the women holding the infants were younger than the other adults, but to Cleary the adults all looked like the usual subhuman wreckage slumped in the dust behind the pub in Springvale. They were wearing the motley remnants of missionary cast-offs and third-hand charity scraps barely recognisable as proper clothing, and the camp was littered with the detritus they had salvaged from the outstation: fire-blackened old jam tins, broken baskets, badly patched sugar bags and flour sacks with makeshift twisted grass handles.
The senior constable was holding his revolver down by his side, half hidden in the loose flare of his khaki whipcord uniform breeches. He picked out the oldest of the men, grey headed and bearded, holding a frond of eucalyptus over the frame of a half-built humpy shelter.
‘You blackfellas from Berrie Berrie?’ Cleary asked the elder.
The grey-headed man nodded. ‘Yiss boss.’
‘You the chief big fella?’
The old man nodded several times. ‘Yiss boss. Yarala galamu galamu baringgala.’
‘Why’d you kill your boss at Berrie Berrie?’ Cleary asked matter-of-factly.
The old man shook his head vehemently. ‘We ain’t kill ‘im anytime, straight up boss. Yamba yanigu wumbaragu.’ He waved the frond in agitation, and behind him two of the older women also shook their heads in emphatic denial. ‘Dara, boss. Dhalibara, boss.’
Cleary turned his head in his junior constable’s direction but kept his eyes on the old man, who stood stock still, looking anxiously at the white booliman.
‘Note the weapon in the suspect’s hand, Constable Stannard.’
The Aborigines were standing or squatting as though they had been turned to stone, one of the infants motionless in the act of suckling.
‘Note we are outnumbered and the suspects are showing signs of hostility.’
As the Hansom cab pulled away from the pavement, a gleam of streetlight shone on the silk of a top hat, and flashed as it caught the silver handle of an ebony cane.
The distinguished figure, grey headed and bearded, standing under the top hat impatiently tapping his cane on the marble doorstep of the big Saltwood townhouse in Grosvenor Square was one of London’s most eminent physicians, and the moment the big front door was opened he strode inside with an urgency that reflected both his own self-importance and the seriousness of the case he had been called to attend.
His fee for this midnight call would be enormous, but the Saltwoods could afford it, and Sir Gervase Collings had a reputation for being worth every guinea, not so much for his medical success as for his omnipotent bedside manner.
This evening he stood by the patient’s bed in grave silence for some moments after he had finished his examination, his hands clasped behind his back. A maid opened the bedroom door and slipped out, and a sussuration of hushed voices reached those in the room from the hall below.
Sir Gervase glanced briefly over his shoulder at the nurse waiting respectfully behind him, and then shook his head solemnly at the figure standing rigidly in the low light on the far side of the bed.
Cleary raised his revolver and shot the old man in the chest, and turned immediately to another target, an older women, her mouth opening wide.
He shot her in the chest too, and turned again as she slumped onto the grass. He shot an infant clinging to its mother squatting near the fire, and then stepped forward and shot the mother in the head as she struggled to rise, still clinging to her dead child, so the mother and her baby toppled sideways into the flames together.
On either side of the senior constable his men were firing into a huddle of panicking, screaming Aborigines. The outlying native trackers were firing as fast as they could reload at a handful of the older children attempting to escape along the bank of the billabong. Cleary saw one boy hit as he tried to jump through a turkey bush, punched sideways into the water by the force of the impact, and a half-grown girl backing slowly away from another grinning tracker, her hands held up like a talisman across her chest in defence against his Martini-Henri rifle.
On his other wing he could hear the young stockman snarling ‘dirty fuckin’ Abos’ over and over again as he fired, and Cleary shouted, ‘Make sure. Make bloody sure,’ as he fired his last shot at a small figure struggling to free itself from the crook of its dead mother’s arm.
Far to the north of the billabong, a short, middle-aged American woman double-checked the final details in the agreement that would confirm her British employers as one of the most powerful and detested landowners, cattle producers and meat processors in Australian history.
She was a very long way from the dirt poor family farm on the Minnesota prairie where she had grown up, but tropical heat and tundra cold, distance and deterrents were all the same to this indomitable woman, and the employers who had made her the highest paid woman executive in the world trusted her implicitly to maximise their interests ruthlessly in the extraordinary deal she had brokered for them.
This wasn’t her first visit to Darwin and she knew her way around. With her usual unfussy, brisk deliberation, she left her hotel and walked along the shaded side of the main street in the capital of the Northern Territory. She had arranged a final meeting with the government official responsible for the allocation of Crown lands in the top end of Australia.
She took no notice of the angry rumours that the official had been secretly on her employers’ payroll since she had begun negotiations three years earlier. Whether that was true or not, he had certainly agreed astonishingly generous terms with this matronly, implacably persuasive woman.
In a week’s time the new Darwin meatworks were due to open and her employers would seal their control over twenty-two million acres of northern Australia.
It didn’t matter to them or to their troubleshooter that their name would become a curseword for everything the Australians would come to hate about the British. All that mattered that afternoon was that the instructions for their final terms nestled safely in the bag that swung gently on Miss Brodstone’s arm.
When his revolver clicked empty, Cleary stood and waited among the corpses in the middle of the camp until the carbine shots died away too, and his men began dragging scattered bodies out of the bushes and into the clearing.
There was one final, isolated shot from the trees to his left, and the junior constable started counting the bodies, pointing at them in turn and muttering the figures to himself. His face grew paler as he counted. The damage to a human body inflicted at close range by a blunt brass bullet capable of killing a bull at five hundred yards was devastating. One of the women had been almost broken in two by a shot that had exited through her spine.
‘Fifteen adults, sir,’ he said after a minute. He cleared his throat noisily. ‘Five, six, seven…seven. Only seven young’uns.’ He spoke with a north country English accent barely altered by two years in Queensland.
‘Check again,’ said Cleary, and the native trackers began pulling the bodies into rough lines.
There was a tangle of jumbled figures near the fire where the mother and her dead infant lay smouldering, and as they dragged the upper bodies away the young stockman bent down awkwardly. ‘Eight!’ he shouted and hoisted a small, struggling boy into view. ‘Christ…’ his voice died away. Under the dark film of his mother’s blood that covered his chest, the toddler was the colour of milky coffee, his brown hair tipped with pale streaks bleached by the sun.
There was complete silence as the sergeant stared at the last survivor of his investigation. The boy was about a year old, his eyes enormous with shock. As they looked at him an arc of urine gleamed in the air, and the stockman stumbled backwards in an effort to avoid it, holding the small figure at his one arm’s length and cursing.
One of the trackers laughed out loud, then covered his mouth apologetically with his hand.
Cleary saw a sudden, vivid image of his own two small children back in their clean, neat home in Springvale. His youngest was about the same age, but this was a different species altogether. One of the big fella’s bastards, presumably, but he had the Aboriginal nose and dark brown eyes. A black bastard, then.
The entire detail was looking at him, waiting for orders, and the sergeant nodded. ‘Get rid of it,’ he said shortly.
‘… waltzing Matilda, waltzing Matilda,
you’ll come awaltzing Matilda with me,
and she sang as she watched you
sleeping in your mother’s arms,
you’ll come awaltzing Matlda with me… ‘
Hardly a song, more of a fervent prayer. Please God or anyone else who could help, was he asleep, finally? She kept swaying very gently in the rythmic rocking she had kept up for over twenty minutes now, and peered down very carefully into her baby’s face. The faintest gleam of an eye was still visible under one eyelid, but as she watched, the lid closed completely and she could breathe again.
She was so tired her own eyes began to close too. Why didn’t anyone warn you that motherhood was this hard? How could caring for a body this tiny and loving it so much be so exhausting? She kept rocking for at least another five minutes, drifting towards the crib, humming almost inaudibly over the murmur of voices rising from below them.
The moon was also rising in the afternoon sky, and she looked up at it. ’You keep watch over this baby and keep him safe,’ she whispered. ‘And his daddy, keep him safe too, d’you hear me.’
She touched the baby’s forehead with her lips and laid him as lightly as lamb’s wool under his mosquito netting.
The young stockman was holding the boy by one ankle and he handed him quickly to one of the native trackers. Cleary turned away, and if he heard the dull smack of the small body hitting a ghost gum trunk, he showed no sign.
He carried on issuing orders to the trackers to collect their shell casings and move back to the horses. There was half an hour of daylight left, time enough for the trackers to find another waterhole and make camp a decent distance from this midden.
The trackers were chattering and laughing as they returned to the horses. The young stockman caught up with the senior constable and walked alongside him. ‘D’you reckon this lot did it?’ he asked.
‘Not at all,’ said Cleary. He stopped for a moment and glanced briefly at the junior constable, who was walking alone, picking his way between the sparse tussocks of long, dry grass, his eyes on the ground.
‘The bush blacks will have done it, but they’re all in it together. They’re all part of the problem.’ The senior constable cleared his throat and spat into the pale, pink dust. It darkened as it absorbed his spittle to a deeper red.
The young stockman looked at him sideways. Won’t there be trouble? I mean, we’re on Warrigal here. Won’t Gallagher and Kidman kick up a stink about this happening on their property?’
Cleary stopped and turned to the younger man and smiled. ‘Listen, Bluey boy, we got the nod for this right from the top. How do you think these animals got permission to travel here?’
He jerked a thumb at the gaggle of trackers, then clapped the stockman on the back. ‘It’s time we got shot of these vermin once and for all, and those bleeding hearts aren’t here to squeal about it, are they now? They’re away fighting for the bastard English in their bloody war… a war that’s cost you an arm and nearly a leg. We’re Australians, Bluey boy, and this is our country we’re fighting for here, and you and me we’re going to make sure we’re going to sort this out while those bigshots are looking the other way.’
Sergeant Cleary walked on through the low rays of sunshine streaming through the trees, reloading his revolver as he went.
Behind him, a thin trickle of smoke rose from the trees into the darkening blue of the sky, and from the far side of the billabong came the liquid, dissonant song of a butcher bird.