A Changing Land(6)

‘And you like this work, do you?’ Hamish countered. ‘Breaking your backs every day. Reliving the memory of working under the lash?’ Some of the men glowered at him. ‘I can offer you work if you are able. I’ve fences to be checked and repaired, trees to be felled, cattle and sheep to be mustered. In return you’ll be paid, housed and given your share of station rations. If you can’t do the work then you must leave. We don’t beat or punish our hands, but if you wrong me I’ll shoot you straight.’

The oldest of the group, a grey-haired man with a matching chest-length beard that carried the scraps of previous meals, pushed his way to the front. ‘Youse can’t shoot nobody these days.’

Hamish patted his moustache as if he were at a Sunday picnic discussing the price of wool. ‘Really?’ The word hung in the air with the threat he intended. Wangallon had a picket-fence-enclosed cemetery for those that carried the Gordon name and hollow logs and shallow diggings for the less compliant. ‘Let Jasperson know of your interest or otherwise.’ He turned his horse, secure in the knowledge that Boxer waited with his rifle at the ready. The old black was a crack shot and would drop four with his carbine before they knew what direction the bullets came from.

‘What is it?’ Hamish recognised the strained look on Boxer’s face. It was a look that in the past had signalled a coming bushfire, a black woman’s murder and the finding of Hamish’s first wife, Rose, dead at the cemetery in the bend of the creek. ‘Well?’ Hamish waited a few impatient seconds. A shadow the shape of wind-blown cloud crossed Boxer’s broad face. ‘Well?’

Hamish struck his spurs against the stallion’s flanks and rode ahead of the ageing black and his unfathomable superstitions. Perhaps the steady crawl of age was beginning to impede the astute intuition relied upon in the past. He should put the old black out to pasture and replace him with one of his sons. Mungo was not Boxer’s eldest son but he was reasonably civilised and certainly benefitted from the many months traversing the great inland stock routes with Hamish’s own son Luke. Aye yes, now there was a manageable arrangement, Hamish decided; although Luke, the boss drover of Wangallon’s cattle, had sent no word as to his progress these last two months. The boy had inherited the same unmanageable attitude as that of his long dead mother and it was a tiresome characteristic to put up with. At least, Hamish reminded himself, he had another son who would inherit Wangallon. In the great scheme of things that was all that mattered.

Sarah lay flat on her stomach, a Pentax camera resting precariously on a log. This was her third attempt at photographing a lone wallaby and it was proving a far more difficult task than anticipated. Having first seen the wallaby some days ago when she and Anthony were returning on horseback from shifting a mob of sheep, she had revisited the spot twice. It was certainly a secluded setting. The remains of timber sheep yards were partially obscured by shady green peppercorn trees and the area backed onto a sandy ridge dense with radiata pine trees. It was the perfect environment for the notoriously shy wallaby.

Sarah’s initial shots showed shafts of sunlight running horizontally through the branches of a peppercorn tree. The sun’s rays gave an almost other-worldly feel to the broken timber railings, chest-high clumps of spear grass and red budded cactus trees in the distance. Unfortunately every time she moved to take the picture the wallaby ducked. Anyone would think you were camera shy, Sarah mused, as the light flattened out. Slowly she eased herself up from behind the log and looked through the viewfinder of the camera. The day was diminishing and with the transformation, a spindle of pink gold triangulated its way through the peppercorn’s leaves. A flutter of butterflies rose from the grass and the wallaby, intent on chewing a long stem, turned its small inquisitive head towards Sarah.

Her finger clicked the shutter. The wallaby gave a small noise much like a growl and hopped away. ‘Excellent.’ Sarah jumped up, did a little jig in celebration of capturing what she hoped would be a Kodak moment, and then slipped the Pentax safely back into its carry case. The growl sounded again. Sarah spun around. She was half-expecting to see a wild dog or a pig or maybe even a drop bear, the mythical bush creature Anthony so loved. The noise sounded once more and she looked up to see a koala in a tall gum. Angus, her grandfather, had seen koalas during his lifetime but this was Sarah’s first, and the idea that these sensitive creatures still roamed Wangallon thrilled her. She managed to get a single shot before the koala clambered higher amid the branches.

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