Only Killers and Thieves

Only Killers and Thieves

Paul Howarth

Central Queensland, Australia



They stalked the ruined scrubland, searching for something to kill. Two boys, not quite men, tiny in a landscape withered by drought and drenched in unbroken sun. Vast plains pocked with spinifex and clumps of buckbush, grass brittle as old bone, red soil fine as gunpowder underfoot. There’d not been rain for a year. The whole bush smelled ready to burn. Dust blew in rivulets between the clutches of scrub and slid in great sheets over open ground. No cattle grazing here. What remained of the mob was down valley, closer to the creek, where the water ran in a trickle through a trough of dry mud and the surrounding floodplain offered the last of the feed. Now all that lived in these northern pastures were creatures meant for the terrain: lizards, snakes, spiders; possums, dingos, roos. Often there’d be rabbits but even the rabbits knew to shelter from the afternoon sun. Only the flies were moving; there was nothing for the brothers to hunt.

They paused and stood together with their rifles down, grimly surveying the surrounds, breathing hard, the air too hot and thick to properly fill the lungs. The older of the pair took off his hat, wiped his brow with his wrist, spat. He settled the hat back on his head. It didn’t fit him well. The younger’s fit him even worse. Tommy and Billy were fourteen and sixteen years old, and both wore their father’s old clothes: tan moleskin trousers tied off with a greenhide belt, dark and sweat-stained shirts. They exchanged a weary glance and stood waiting. A light breeze blew. The shrill rattle of cicada screams. Flies covered the boys’ shirt backs and crept toward their eyes and earholes, until a casual swipe of the hand flicked them away. That lazy stockman’s salute picked up from their old man, or something they were born with, maybe. Flies had been coming at them their entire lives; they’d been fighting them off since the crib.

“Well,” Billy said, “I reckon we might as well quit.”

“She won’t be happy.”

“She can please herself. It ain’t our fault there’s a drought.”

Tommy opened his flask, tilted back his head, eyes closed against the sun, and drank. The water tasted stale and metallic and caught in the back of his throat. He winced as it went down, a childlike revulsion against the taste. Still some boy left in him yet: whereas Billy now had stubble and their father’s broad frame, Tommy’s body was slender, his nose was freckled, his eyes a watery blue. His hair was fairer than his brother’s too, tints of red in a certain light, which came from their mother’s side. She was Irish, their father Scots, and there was English blood in both lines. If they were dogs they’d have been called mongrels. Australian was a whole new breed.

Billy held out his hand for the water, Tommy passed it across, and as his brother drank, Tommy’s gaze wandered over that barren and rubbled ground to the thin blue-gum forest that marked the northern boundary of their run, shrouded in a fine eucalyptus mist.

“Hey,” he said, nodding. “Be shade in them trees.”

Billy lowered the flask. “I ain’t hot.”

“Me either. I mean the rabbits. Might even find us an old-man roo.”

Billy scoffed, flicked water at Tommy’s face.

“Don’t bloody waste it,” Tommy said, wiping himself down. “That’s all there is left.”

“Tastes like foot wash anyhow.”

“Give it here then.” Tommy took back the flask and stoppered it. “So, what about them trees?”

Billy considered it a moment, then set off walking north. Tommy followed. The cicadas fell silent. The only noise out there the scuff of their boots and the whisper of their moleskins as they trudged through the rocky scrub. Tommy checked behind them as he walked. Mile after mile of empty terrain—it was already an hour’s walk back to where they’d tied the horses in a stand of ironbarks, might be half that again by the time they reached the blue gums, and then the long ride home. Most likely all for nothing. Neither had fired his rifle since they’d left the house just after noon, or even taken aim.

It was cooler in the trees. Shadow dappled the forest floor. Deadfall and leaves crunched underfoot, a taint of eucalyptus in the air. With their rifles raised the brothers began flushing between the trunks, some tall and white, others gnarled and twisted by the sun. They moved slowly. Scanning side to side, heads cocked to listen, silence all around. With the dogs they might have fared better, but Father had them for work. He never spared them: poor old Red and Blue.

Suddenly something bolted, crashing away through the brush, Billy first after it, Tommy just behind, both of them tearing between the trees, jumping fallen logs and bulging roots, carrying their rifles two-handed, ready to aim, but the thing was always beyond them, never a clear view, a shadow slipping through the sunlight, until even the sound was so faint that Tommy could hear nothing over his own ragged breathing. He slowed and then stopped, his hands on his knees, Billy coming back toward him, calling, “What you quit for? What’s wrong?”

Tommy shook his head. “It’s gone.”

“We might have caught it yet.”

“You get a look-see what it was?”

“Dingo, I reckon.”

“Dingo would have fought us. That quick, likely an emu.”

They recovered their breathing, Tommy leaning against a smooth-barked trunk, Billy peering through the thinning trees to where the forest ended and the next tract of open ground began.

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