Extract from an early draft of a novel set in Queensland, Australia, in 1877
My first real experience of the war against the blacks came at age thirteen, when me and my brother Billy were out hunting rabbits and strayed onto John Sullivan’s land.
It was spring of seventy-seven and there’d been no rain for months. We were up in the northern fields, combing the dusty scrub, rifles slippery in our hands and our shirts soaked through with sweat. The paddocks were barren. Grass as brittle as old bone and sharp against our ankles, ochre soil fine as gunpowder underfoot. Father had shifted the mob down-valley, closer to the creek; the only thing moving was the flies. Every now and then the cicadas would start up, as if in retaliation, showing the flies who was boss, and the air would be filled with their rattling screams. Air so hot you could taste it. Singeing every breath.
‘Should have gone down-valley,’ Billy called. ‘There ain’t nothing up here.’
‘It was you that wanted to come.’
‘Only to keep clear of the mob. No other reason than that.’
We stood a moment, puffing slightly, swatting at the flies. I squinted over the ruined paddock and uphill towards the stand of eucalypts that marked the northern boundary of our run. ‘Be cooler up there,’ I said, pointing.
‘I ain’t hot.’
‘Me either. I’m talking about the rabbits.’
Billy considered it. ‘Well,’ he said finally, ‘doesn’t hurt to try.’
There was shade in the trees, sunlight dappling the deadfall and dry leaves. I took off my hat and rubbed the sweat from my hair, sipped warm water from my flask. I passed it over to Billy, he drank, then we parted and began flushing between the blue-gums, no chance of silence, the deadfall crunching with each step.
Within fifty yards something bolted, crashing away through the brush, bigger than a rabbit judging by its sound. We gave chase. The heat suddenly forgotten, the thirst, the fatigue. Rifles in hand, we bounded over tree roots, weaved between trunks, racing each other as much as anything else. The pursuit didn’t last long. With every stride it seemed the noise grew more faint, and soon both of us were slowing, following the trail at a jog, until Billy stopped and raised his rifle for a shot. It was pointless, the creature was gone, whatever it had been.
‘I reckon a dingo,’ Billy panted, lowering his rifle again.
‘Too big, too noisy. It was probably just a roo.’
‘Still, a roo’s not bad. Hey – could have been a boar!’
I leaned against a nearby blue-gum and tilted back my head, imagining Father’s face if we’d brought home a boar, the meal we would have had that night. I unstoppered my flask and took another drink. Ahead the trees were thinning, the beginnings of open ground. We’d almost cleared the forest: beyond lay Broken Ridge cattle station, John Sullivan’s land.
‘Come on,’ I said to Billy. ‘Let’s go back.’
But my brother had noticed too, peering between the trees. He started walking and I followed, stepping hesitantly from the treeline like I worried the ground might give way. We weren’t supposed to be up here. Father had once been Sullivan’s stockman and though the pair still had some business together – Sullivan was our only neighbour for thirty miles – we’d been warned to keep our distance. Broken Ridge was out of bounds.
We stood looking over the sloping plains, at this corner of a kingdom a hundred times the size of our own. Sullivan’s grandfather had settled the valley – in those days squatters took as much land as they could defend, no purchase, no lease. Our run seemed pitiful in comparison, nestled like an armpit alongside Broken Ridge, though at first the landscape didn’t seem too different: bare scrubland pocked with buckbush and clutches of spinnifex, termite mounds rising tall as a man. But in the distance I could see the feather-grass still growing, the basin of the valley improbably green, fed by the same river that flowed shin-high on our land. Far away on the horizon the jagged red ridge sawed at the sky, the foothills part-shadowed like they’d been wildfire-scorched.
‘One man,’ Billy said, staring. ‘One man owns all of that.’
I shook my head. ‘We should go.’
‘We’re not doing no harm.’
‘But Daddy said not to – what if we’re caught?’
‘By who?’ Billy said, laughing, opening his arms. ‘Come on, don’t be scared.’ He slung his rifle on his shoulder and swaggered away.
‘I ain’t scared,’ I called, trotting after him, picking my way through the rubble and cautious of snakes given the tracks smoothed into the dirt.
We’d gone less than a mile when I saw the horses coming over the rise, five hundred yards to the west. I grabbed Billy by the shoulder, pulled him down low. I counted nine riders in all, and behind the column of horses three men hobbled along on foot: blacks chained together by their necks. They were struggling to walk and when one stumbled the others did too, only to be hauled to their feet by the rear-most rider, jerking on the chain.
‘Jesus, Billy,’ I whispered. ‘What’re we going to do?’
‘I don’t know. Give me a minute to think.’
‘Quickly or they’ll see us.’
‘Alright – come on.’
Billy dragged me to a pair of Moses bushes growing thickly side-by-side. We crawled underneath, our shirts snagging on the prickles, then lay on our bellies and watched the procession, its progress soon halted when another of the chained men collapsed.
This one wouldn’t get up. The rider snatched the chain but the man lay face down and didn’t move. The rider dismounted. He was wearing a kind of police uniform: white trousers, blue tunic with a sash. He walked over to the man and kicked him. The body jerked and rolled. The other riders – some also in uniform – had turned their horses to watch. The police trooper was shouting. He slapped and hit the other two captives, bent low by the weight of the body on the floor. The trooper paused. He looked towards the front of the line, to a very tall man, not in uniform but well dressed in a tailcoat and city-style top hat.
The tall man nodded. The trooper shouldered his rifle, stood over the fallen prisoner, pointed, and fired. The body flinched. The shot tumbled across the plains. Billy and me looked at each other. Neither of us spoke. There was panic in my brother’s eyes and I could feel my heart beating against the ground. The riders cheered and clapped. The chained blacks cowered. The trooper kneeled to unlock the body from the neck-cuff, then shook out the chain and pulled the others upright. He remounted. Leaving the body in the dirt, the party rode on a short distance, before all but the last horse broke into a gallop, veered around, and came thundering directly towards where me and my brother hid.
Billy let out a moan like a kicked dog.
‘Let’s run for it,’ I whispered. ‘Beat them to the trees.’
‘We never would, Tommy. We both have rifles – they’ll shoot us in the back.’
‘So what’ll we do? Billy, what’ll we do?’
He crawled out of the bushes and climbed to his feet, eyes pinned on the riders now only a hundred yards away. With his rifle in the air he edged into open ground, shouting, ‘Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!’ as the riders drew up before him in a line. He was trembling, his legs jagging back and forth at the knees, staring at the men who were unlike any police I had ever seen. Five uniformed natives, all of them armed, two with their rifles aimed directly at Billy’s chest.
The other three men were white: John Sullivan; his offsider, Locke; then the tall man in the hat, who I didn’t know. He was lean as a cat and wore a finely-patterned waistcoat and high leather boots. His moustache was thick and neatly groomed. Sitting erect in the saddle, he kept back from the rest of the group and began with the makings of a pipe.
‘You would be Ned McBride’s boy, I take it?’ Sullivan said. The squatter was short and plump, his filthy shirt looking fit to burst.
‘Yessir. Billy McBride.’
‘And the other one?’
I felt my innards quicken. ‘Get out here,’ Billy hissed. ‘Tommy, come on.’
I edged out of the cover and went and stood so close to my brother I could feel his fingers brushing mine. I was shaking. Eyes downturned, I saw flecks of dried blood on the shins of Sullivan’s horse.
‘And you?’ Sullivan asked me.
‘This is my little brother, Tommy.’
‘He don’t speak for himself?’
Billy elbowed me. I looked up. ‘Yessir. Tommy McBride.’
‘Good,’ Sullivan said, smiling. His hair was wild, his face unshaven, his cheeks mottled as if by drink. ‘Well, I’m guessing you know who I am, so perhaps you can tell me what you’re doing with those rifles on my land.’
‘We didn’t mean nothing by it,’ Billy blurted. ‘We was hunting rabbits in the trees and got lost.’
‘Didn’t notice the clearing when you crossed it?’
‘We thought we’d found a dingo so kept going, that’s all.’
‘A dingo?’ Sullivan said. He glanced at Locke and smiled. ‘Well, there’s plenty of them about, but past them trees they’re mine to shoot, not yours.’
‘Ain’t they but everyone’s?’ Billy asked quietly. ‘Since they’re wild?’
‘Sounds just like a nigger,’ Locke said. Hunched forward in the saddle, he glanced back towards the chained blacks, and spat.
‘No, they ain’t but everyone’s,’ Sullivan said. ‘Everything on my land belongs to me, same as the cattle. Unless that’s what you really came for, hmm?’
‘We was hunting, not duffing,’ Billy answered. ‘Them’s two different things.’
Sullivan stared at him, let the silence hang. ‘You’re probably wondering about my associates here. Well, the man at the back is Sub-Inspector Edmund T Noone of the Native Mounted Police. These are his troopers, and their business is the dispersal of those who don’t belong here. Chiefly that means niggers, but Mr Noone’s skills aren’t particular to the colour of a man’s skin … boys, he knew you were hiding in those bushes probably before you even got there yourselves.’
I glanced at Noone then quickly away. Thick pipe smoke dribbled from his mouth and drifted over his face like a caul.
‘Now usually,’ Sullivan continued, ‘Mr Noone likes to punish trespassers to the fullest extent of the law. To disperse them, as it were. But since this is my land, I suppose I have a say, so I’ll agree to let you go on two conditions: first, that I never find you hunting up here again …’
He paused and looked at Billy, who nodded eagerly in reply.
‘And second, that you be sure to tell your father exactly what happened here today, understood?’
‘Yessir,’ Billy said eagerly. ‘Yessir, we will.’
Again Billy elbowed me. I looked up at Sullivan and nodded.
‘To my thinking a deal should be agreed out loud.’
‘Say it, Tommy.’
I swallowed. ‘Yessir.’
‘Good,’ Sullivan said, taking up his reins. ‘Then on your way.’
All of them left save Noone. Sitting motionless in the saddle, smoking his pipe, he watched us with eyes that were small and very white. The gaze felt hot and sharp and I could not return it, though I had the sense that Billy alongside me was trying his best. Noone had his head tilted, studying us like lame calves he was deciding whether to put down.
I took hold of Billy’s arm and pulled him away, hurrying for the trees and the safety of our land. The first three times I glanced back over my shoulder Noone was still sitting there, watching us. The fourth time I looked he was gone.