Denise Kay was born in Egypt of English parents and educated
She is a member of the Queensland Writers’ Centre, creator of The Lorry Loco children’s books and author of My Father’s Forfeit.
s dawn approached, the sun rose above a grey earthly haze and melted across the horizon in a blaze of burnished pinks and golds silhouetting stunted mulga trees so that they cast shadows like grotesque goblins from the Dreamtime.
The dry, red dust of Kununurra Station appeared like a velvet carpet that stretched to the foothills to be lost in the dark mountainous mass of the ranges.
Smoke smudged the early morning sky as it wafted from the stone chimney squat squarely in the centre of the corrugated tin roof of the cookhouse. The old homestead looked picturesque, almost beautiful, like an aging actress in candlelight. Faded paint peeled from its ancient weatherboards, its roof a geometric fresco of rust, where shadows hid the pain of prolonged drought, hardship and neglect, in the soft glow of dawn.
The air was still and carried a crispness that made the warm interior of the room welcoming.
Inside the kitchen a blackened pot bubbled on an open range as Yack stirred the oatmeal, his ham-like fist clutching the ladle as if his very life depended on the whirlpool circulating in the saucepan.
“Mornin’, Yack, oatmeal again I sees!” Curly Watson rubbed his bald pate with a weathered hand as he gazed with obvious dislike into the gooey mass. Resolutely he stuck his thumbs into the leather belt slung low over his ample girth and heaved his pants into a more comfortable position before sitting at the vinyl-clad table. Helping himself from the enamelled coffee pot, he took a long gulp of the black liquid before tackling the bowl of porridge that Yack had just placed before him.
“’Tis best we makes an early start, what with young Davy coming along; his first muster an’ all.” Curly pushed the half finished dish away and focused his attention on the roll-your-own his callused fingers were manipulating. Yack tossed a handful of thick rashers into a pan and shook it to even out the slices before replying.
“Yeah, guess so. Good thing you atakin’ young Davy thisa time, Curl. He’s a gooda lad but needs to learna the ropes.” Yack continued to stir the porridge with one hand and shuffle the pan with the other.
Curly Watson placed the tobacco tube he had just rolled between his thick cracked lips and lit it, contemplating the smoke through half closed eyes as he said, “Tom said Davy’s been pesterin’ him to let him go musterin’ with the crew this time, now that he won’t be goin’ back t’school. Tom says he can’t afford it, not this year, what with new uniforms an’ books t’pay for as well. So I says t’him he might as well let the boy ride with us. He’s a sensible lad should learn well if he’s anythin’ like his dad.”
“Yeah,” Yack agreed as he placed a well laden plate in front of the station’s overseer. “Tom’s a gooda bloke. Don’t a get too many likea him around. Drought’s nearly abroke him, poora sod. It’sa good his boy wants to help instead of agoing down south for some fancy schooling.”
“The boy needs an education,” the older man argued, tucking into his breakfast. “If he’s t’get on in this world, even if his dad owns a spread he needs t’learn how t’run it properly. If Tom MacBride had the cash he’d make his boy go, but as it is he won’t be able t’pay the crew let alone boardin’ fees ‘less we gets a good mob mustered this time.”
“It’s that abad?”
“Couldn’t be much worse.” Curly drew the back of his hand across his mouth and looked up at the station’s cook. “Good tucker, Yack, good tucker.”
No one could remember exactly how Yack acquired his name. As a young European migrant, with only high hopes and a smattering of English, he would say when applying for a job, “I Yack of all a trades.” His pronunciation of ‘Jack’ was attributed by some to his being called Yack. Others would contend it was his bland disposition and expression like that of a Tibetan ox. No one knew for sure and no one was prepared to risk asking. Yack it had been from his spindly legged youth to the bull-neck rock that now served Kununurra as cook. A brief stint at jackerooing years ago proved to him that chasing cattle on wild-eyed brumbies, dodging horns and flying hooves, required a courage he did not possess. Yet he loved the outback life on the stations and fitted in well with their motley crews. Because of his dislike for station tucker, eaten with a pained expression and a ‘Yack do not alike’, it was inevitable that one day he would be challenged to ‘do better or shut up’.
To Yack it seemed that it would take little to ‘do better’ than the rough and often badly cooked meals served by a transient line of alleged cooks. Remembering his mother’s wholesome cooking in the old country, he gave it a try and soon found that by sticking to the basic rules of cooking he did far better than he did at jackerooing.
As the station at the time was without a cook, the last itinerant sent packing because of his permanent inebriated state, the job of cook was offered to the young rookie. This pleased Yack and after a few months and a trip into town, returning with a rather dog-eared Easy Culinary Delights, courtesy of Mrs Holly of the general store, the astute young immigrant soon discovered that cooking was by far the easiest of the station’s jobs and proved that a hearty man’s meal need not be tasteless or a conglomerate of messy leftovers, and stretched beyond the obligatory steak and eggs.
By the time Yack had moved to Kununurra he was a man of thirty five. The good food and country life had moulded the skinny youth into a man to be reckoned with. At the time the homestead had just been dealt its hardest blow. Rose MacBride could take the isolation no longer and had up and left Tom MacBride and two-year-old Davy.
Tom had hired Yack on the spot and as there was no missus to run the homestead Tom suggested Yack make the homestead’s large kitchen his base.
Curly Watson looked up from polishing his plate with his fourth slice of Yack’s freshly-baked bread and nodded at the tall, lean Irishman who had just walked in and straddled the chair opposite.
“Morning, Curl. Morning,Yack. Looks like being another scorcher again.”
“For some of us day’s half over,” Curly grumbled scowling, as Irish Pat contentedly guzzled his coffee then plonked down the mug. A slow appreciative smile crossed Irish’s weathered face as he eyed the plate Yack placed before him. He scratched his stubbled chin and laughed.
“Good t’see ye had a good night, Curl; have some more coffee, or is it a hair of the dog ye be awanting?”
Ignoring the Irishman’s sarcasm, Curly continued manoeuvring the thick crust around his plate to soak up the remaining egg yolk hugging the rim.
“Seen young Dave this mornin’, Irish?”
Before Pat could answer the overseer, Tom MacBride, strode purposefully into the room.
“Morning, all.” Tom nodded briefly towards the table as he pulled out a chair and sat down. “I thought perhaps I would find Dave here as he’s riding with the muster today. Thought maybe he could ride with Old Billy and do that back paddock over towards the hills. Should be a few good strays over in the scrub there!”
“I reckon there’d be a few; worth a look-see. Do yer boy, Dave, good to try his hand. Old enough t’start takin’ on a bit of responsibility from yer, Tom, now he’s turned sixteen.” Curly removed the grease from his jowls with his hand and pushed his chair back as he eased his bulky frame up from the table. For a moment Tom sat thoughtfully watching Irish wolf down his last rasher.
“Any more tucker left, Yack?” Irish asked, holding his plate up for a refill, his jaws still moving over the remnants of the last mouthful.
“Don’t know where’s yer puts it, Irish. Yer as thin as a rasher yerself,” admonished Curly Watson, overseer for Kununurra Station for the past fifteen years.
“It’s me good living that does it,” Irish replied, tucking into his second helping. “Besides, ye can see where yours goes.” He nodded towards Curly’s corpulence.
Tom MacBride smiled, something he seldom seemed to do these days. He picked up a mug and filled it with coffee saying, “I’ve asked Old Billy to bring the half breed Joey; thought he would be company for David. They’re to wait out front with the rest of the crew, Curly. I want this muster to pay off, it’s got to or it will be the end of Kununurra and damn it, it’ll prove Rose was right, it will have cost me the bloody shirt off my back.” Tom MacBride sighed and gave the three men a grateful look.
“Can’t have that happen, Tom. Not now, not after all the sweat-n-blood this spread has cost yer. The boys’ll pull their weight, no worries. If only the bloody weather’d break.” Curly leaned his muscular shoulders against the door-jamb, thumbs resting in his worn belt; he seemed to be thinking aloud.
Yack nodded in agreement. “Too righta, Boss.”
“Shame!” Curly continued, “’Tis longest drought I’ve ever known. Even the aborigines say ’tis longest ever. Don’t seem like breakin’ none, neither.”
A depression now overshadowed the once jocular atmosphere when they all realised it could only be a matter of time before they would have to pack their bedrolls and head for other pastures. Tom MacBride turned his gaunt face, the hopelessness of the situation clouding his deep-set eyes as he looked the old-timer square on.
“Thanks, Curl. I appreciate what you and the crew are doing, staying on like you have without pay. I’ll make it up to you, you can be sure of that.”
“Not t’worry, Tom, the boys know that.”
All heads turned as David MacBride sauntered past Curly Watson and stood beaming in the centre of the kitchen.
“Hi, Dad! Hi, guys!” he said nonchalantly trying to appear he was one of them, well seasoned and tested by time, his eagerness to please shining like a beacon from his fresh young face, belying the callow youth. The overseer studied him, tall and well built, already a man. He reminded him of his own boyhood, his hopes and dreams now all lost in the haze of time and the contents of a bottle. He hoped that this fledgling of a man would not succumb to the harsh realities of the outback.
“Shouldn’t yer be getting’ yer breakfast, me young lad? Yer’ll be last if yer don’t hurry yerself.”
“Mr Watson’s right, David,” Tom conceded, frowning at his son. “You should have been one of the first up.”
David MacBride thrust his hands in the pockets of his jeans and slowly rose up and down on his toes, a tuneless whistle puffing out his cheeks.
“I was first one up, Dad. Well almost. Early enough to give Billy a hand with the horses. Had breakfast ages ago at Billy’s.” His anxious face looked around the group seeking the men’s approval.
The station owner relaxed, relieved that his son had done the right thing. The men smiled, accepting the youth as one of them.
For a moment Curly continued to chew on the remnant of his dog-eared butt, rolling it from side to side as if exercising his huge jowls, and then he smiled and slowly turned and ambled out onto the verandah. The overseer would not have tolerated the lad being late for his first muster. He was a man that led with his chin, quick to answer with his fist and expected all his crew to give of their best for Tom MacBride, even Tom’s son; perhaps more so, Tom’s son, for it would be his property one day if all went well with the muster. Curly headed towards the congregating stockmen smiling contentedly to himself, his hands resting on the copious quantities of ale he had drunk the night before. He paused and waited for the following footsteps to catch up with him. No one walked with the same urgency as Tom MacBride. Together they descended the creaking boards to join the waiting men.
A distant cloud of red dust heralded the approach of a visitor to Kununurra. The men watched with interest as a much travelled 4WD drew to a halt. Before the dust had settled Cath Peterson had swung her slim tanned legs out of the vehicle and was hurrying over to where Tom MacBride stood talking to his crew.
“Hi, Mr MacBride,” she called as she scanned the assembled men. “Where’s Davy?”
“Inside, lass…” Tom nodded towards the house as his neighbour’s daughter bounded up the sun-bleached wooden steps two at a time without waiting for Tom to finish his sentence.
“Davy!” She reached the door almost colliding with the object of her intentions.
“Hi, Dave! Dad’s taking the Cessna to town, thought you might like to come for a trip?”
David studied the pretty flushed face with its wide blue eyes and friendly smile. He liked Cathy a whole lot. Over the last couple of years on hot steamy nights he had laid awake thinking about her and found that the thinking of her gave him a warm tingling feeling – a feeling like no other he had ever experienced before.
“I’d sure like to, Cath.” Her close proximity and tight sweater quickened his pulse. He did so much want to be with her. For a moment he felt angry at having asked to go on the muster, but he knew that he must.
“Sorry, Cath, I’d sure like to but I’m going mustering with Dad and the crew.” The tone of his voice echoed his disappointment; he tried to sound cheerful. “Won’t be too long away. See you when I get back.”
Well can’t be helped, perhaps next time,” Cath said with false gaiety. She understood why he must go. She had heard her father say that Mr MacBride would probably have to sell Kununurra because he was in over his head to the banks and the prolonged drought was the last straw. Cathy did not want Davy to know how sad she was for him; it would only hurt his pride. She smiled and studied her hands so as not to look him in the face. She sensed him watching her.
“See you when you get back then, Davy.”
The kilometres of uncompromising, trackless red outback which they called home had made their friendship difficult.
School-of-the-Air had been their first link in a chain of feelings that had grown with the years and endured the long separations when boarding school down south meant that even their radio contact was no longer possible. Davy did not like writing letters to Cathy; he could never find the right words to say how he felt. Yet Cathy wrote long and interesting epistles about her school and Melbourne, always finishing each letter with a reminder of how much she was missing him.
During school vacations they would spend time at each other’s homes, riding, playing tapes or just talking about the things they enjoyed as two firm friends. But somehow this holiday break was different. Davy could not explain why but he knew the feelings he now felt for Cathy Peterson were more than just that of a friend. He moved to take her hand and then, suddenly seeming embarrassed by his feelings, drew back, his face burning beneath its tan. Davy studied the floor boards and nervously kicked the heel of his boot into a crack in the floor. With his hands safely anchored in the pockets of his jeans he tried to appear cool and casual and hoped that she couldn’t hear his heart racing.
Cathy smiled and brushed his flushed cheeks with a fleeting kiss, then spun round and retraced her steps without a backward glance. Dave watched the swinging blonde pony-tail until Cathy had hurried out of sight. He heard a car door slam, a motor being revved by an impatient foot, then a vehicle roaring off in a cloud of dust told him she was gone.
The overseer watched Davy walk from the house, noticing the droop of his young shoulders, so different from earlier on. He thought how alike were father and son even to their choice of women – both wanting the beautiful and, unfortunately, the unobtainable.
With his hands still plunged deep in his pockets, Davy made his way down the verandah steps resigned to the fact that Cathy was worlds away. Mr Peterson was only the wealthiest grazier around and would want the best for his only daughter. With each slow and heavy step he wondered how he could ever be able to convince Cathy’s dad that he also wanted the best for Cathy.
Tom MacBride tugged the wide brim firmly down over his head before heaving himself up into the saddle. He turned, eyes narrowed against the sun’s glare, and called across to his son.
“Come on, lad…move it. We haven’t got all day. You sit Old Blue, he’s a stubborn bugger but reliable. Got a stout heart when the going gets tough. You’ll need a good mountain nag up in those hills. He and Joey will show you the ropes. You’ll soon get the hang of things, Dave. Just listen to what Mr Watson and Billy tell you.”
Somewhere, high in the leafless branches of the few gum trees still scattered around the homestead, kookaburras chorused. Their scorn echoed down to the little band of men astride their motley horses as if mocking them as they rode out from Kununurra Station and headed across the vast arid plain towards the ranges. Young David MacBride sat tall on Old Blue, a gelding of many hands and many years. Like his rider he was eager to be off. Sensing the anticipation of the round-up, he instantly responded to Davy’s heels as the lad spurred into a canter. Davy had rounded up cattle before, even going on all night round-ups but never had he been included when the whole crew took part in the annual muster. He realised the importance that every steer, every heifer, every animal that bore the Kununurra brand must be brought to the sale yards if Kununurra was to survive yet another dry season.
Several cattle dogs stretched lazily then bounded from the cool shelter of the verandah to go yelping after the horses as they answered the calling whistles of the stockmen. Davy reined next to Billy and for a few minutes they rode side by side in silence.
Billy eyed the youth, acknowledging the makings of a strong man in the determined set of the young jaw. The aboriginal ringer had known Davy all of the lad’s brief span for it had been Billy’s lubra, Mary, who had nurtured the boy as an infant when his mother had abandoned him for the city lights. It had been his own sons who had etched the independence upon the youth’s soul. Davy was like a son to him, and he knew the boy’s destiny had been written long before he had been born. Though never one to show his feelings, Billy just nodded and rode on, a suggestion of a smile upon his ancient face, for he was pleased that Davy had chosen to ride next to him.
Davy glanced at the old aboriginal stockman slumped in the saddle as if he had been moulded there. Reins loose in wrinkled brown hands, eyes half closed in thought, he swayed as one with the sinewy mare beneath him; an Elder, a man of wisdom, who understood the need to bend with his motherland and laws of nature and not fight them. He knew it was an unyielding tree that fell before the wind.
They both turned as Joey drew alongside them. “G’day, glad to see you’re startin’ to earn your crust.” He grinned and slapped Davy on the back. “’Bout time too, a lad with your size appetite. Glad your dad let you ride along.”
Joey was a few years older than Davy but seemed to most old beyond his years. No one knew for sure who his father was other than he was of low morals and white skin. His mother’s people had despised her for her weakness for the happydrink and for abandoning her baby to follow her white man. Joey had become part of Mary’s varied family and called Billy’s family his family and Kununurra Station home.
“Saw Cathy leaving in a hurry. You put your foot in it or somethin’? She seemed upset, Davy boy. What you go and do to upset her, man?” Joey grinned, then noticing a shadow of sadness in Davy’s eyes at the mention of Cathy’s name, became serious as he watched his friend and thought silence best until Davy decided to confide in him.
Only the murmuring of stockmen, the dull thud of hooves, barking dogs and fading echoes of the kookaburras filled the oppressive morning air as Joey waited and watched. Davy turned to the half-cast, his friend and confidant, no longer a boy but a man with worldly experience and knowledge in the art of the wiles of women.
“Cath came to see if I wanted to go to town. Seems her dad’s flying there for the weekend. When I told her I was going mustering she got all upset. It was as if she thought I preferred to go with you guys rather than be with her. She reckons we could have had all weekend together. Still, I guess if Dad loses this spread I’ll see even less of her. Can’t expect to bludge off her folks just because they’ve had a better run of luck than us.”
“Cheer up, Davy boy, yer dad’s happy you wanted to come along and help. This muster will save yer dad’s spread, you’ll see. I heard Curly Watson say there should be some good strays over the ridge. There’s a lot of good fodder in the scrub up there. It’s just a matter of finding them, that’s all, man.”
“Like finding a bloody needle in a haystack.” David immediately felt sorry for having snapped at his friend who, after all, was only trying to cheer him up.
The three rode side by side in silence for a few minutes.
“We’ll find them, young Davy. We’ll find them for sure and that young girl of yours – she understands. Billy knows,” the old aborigine said as he beamed across at them, yet his eyes held a faraway look as if he was seeing into the future. David’s sadness and lack of faith had stirred Billy into defending Joey’s prediction. “These old bones knows somethin’ is goin’ to happen. Somethin’ special. You mark Billy’s words. Billy knows.”
No inducement from the two young riders could persuade the head stockman to elaborate further. So they rode in silence, swaying with their mounts, lost in contemplation, swatting bush flies and mopping rivulets of perspiration rolling red dust down collars and sticking their shirts to their backs.
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