The rising sun illuminated two boys fighting in ferocious silence in the shadows behind the shed near the Warrigal station cattle yards.
There were no words, just the scuffling of their feet as they struggled in a jerky waltz across the bone-dry, ochre-coloured ground, hazed in the billows of fine dust churning into the early morning sunlight.
Then the bigger boy ripped his right arm free and hooked his fist up into his opponent’s face, and the smaller of the two stumbled backwards and collapsed with the bigger boy on top of him.
As the dust drifted, the bigger boy straddled his opponent, jamming his knees painfully into the smaller boy’s biceps, pinning him, and punched down hard.
The smaller figure squirmed violently, trying to throw the much heavier boy off balance.
‘Give up, ya stupid little yella bugger,’ jeered the boy on top. Another boy ducked back from the corner of the lean-to where he had been keeping a lookout and hissed a warning. ‘The men are coming, Bluey.’
The bigger boy leaned forwards and pushed his face down close to the face of the boy almost totally obscured beneath him. ‘Stay away from the bloody yards. Ya don’t bloody well belong here.’
He put a hand on the smaller boy’s throat to keep him pinned to the ground and pushed himself upright. ‘And stay away from me, ya yella bastard. Next time I’ll break ya bloody neck, ya dirty fuckin’ Abo.’
As the voices of the station stockhands moved closer, the bigger boy turned his back on the slight figure hauling himself unsteadily to his bare feet and swaggered away, slapping the dust out of his trousers as he went.
The third boy followed, looking back furtively at the loser, now bent double, his hands on his knees, his head hanging, the sunlit dust sifting out of the air above him onto his back.
Sitting on the long verandah at the back of the homestead, an elderly stump-tailed blue heeler cattle dog lifted her nose and inhaled the familiar scents of an outback morning.
To the tall, dark-haired girl standing next to the dog, the smell of the stockmen’s breakfast cooking in the kitchen just a few yards from the house overpowered all the other scents on the morning air.
The old heeler could detect the eucalyptus smoke of the cooking fires from the blackfellas’ camp downstream by the creek. She registered the faint tang of ammonia in the dust stirred in the yards by the cattle that had been driven in from the Teatree Creek outstation the day before, and the sharp scent of horse sweat from the saddle blankets left to dry overnight on the racks next to the tack shed.
The old dog was losing the best of her once bat-sharp hearing but in the clear stillness of this early morning both the dog and the girl could hear faint but familiar noises from 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 occasional human yells and whistles and the pistolshot crack of a stockwhip. They could hear the mournful complaint of the crows patrolling the nearby chook paddock in the hope of an unclaimed egg, and far off down by the creek the mad, metallic 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 at the start of the dry season, getting the hard yakka done before the temperature tipped into the high nineties and sucked the breath right out of your lungs.
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 Queensland station, and the shy, wheezy laughter of Aboriginal women was as deeply woven into her love of the outback as the kookaburra’s laugh or the silver-green shimmer of eucalyptus leaves turning 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 twitched again.
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 Mickey 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 Mickey 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 mid-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 stump of a tail wagged more noticeably.
‘Bin fightin longa dem big pfellas agin,’ said Sally. ‘Blurry larrikin.’