|S E Jenkins||
BEYOND THE MULGA LINE
It is summer 1968 and Jon Cadwallader and his Aboriginal overseer, George, are repairing a boundary fence on Jindalee cattle station in Western Australia.
Jon picked up the hammer and ratchet he’d been using to repair the fencing and threw them into the back of the truck. It was the third time in as many months that he and George had had to fix the wire between Jindalee and Reef Hill Station and he was sick of it. Kit Kennilworth was always quick to complain, accusing him of deliberately letting Jindalee stock water on Reef Hill land.
He wiped his grimy hands on his strides and considered the situation. Three months back he’d blamed the wild camels which occasionally careered through fencing dragging out whole sections, trampling on it, flattening it to the ground, but now he was convinced Kit and his sons were the ones responsible for the damage that allowed his cattle to stray and he knew it wouldn’t do to leave their poddies unbranded for much longer. Jeb Samuels, who’d owned the station before him had had similar problems, had intimated he should watch his back when it came to the likes of Kit and his boys.
Jon rolled up the spare barbed wire, collected the unused fence posts and hangers, placed them in the back of the truck and then glanced across to George. ‘I wonder what’s triggered this spate of unneighbourly behaviour,’ he said, wiping sweat from his brow.
George shrugged. ‘You know Mister Kennilworth, he’s like a dog with a bone when his mind’s set. Y’ready for a brew?’
‘Aye, my throat is pretty parched.’
While George lit a fire Jon collected the knapsack from the cab, pulled out the sandwiches Val had made for them and squatted on a fallen tree trunk, his dog next to him, watching him eat.
‘I don’t see what Mister Kennilworth’s got to gain,’ said George, putting the billy on to boil.
‘Jeb always said it’s Kit’s nature – acquisitive; when my cattle stray onto his land for water he’s able to snaffle a few of my cleanskins,’ said Jon, handing over George’s sandwiches. Soon the only sound to be heard was the crackle of dry wood flaring while they ate and watched the billy boil.
‘That lad of his, the young ’un,’ said George between mouthfuls.
‘That’s ’im, he’s a nasty piece of work, word is he’s a wrong ’un right enough, get himself landed in Fremantle jail if he’s not careful.’
Jon smiled, unlike most blackfellas George Pinjupi wasn’t one to keep his thoughts to himself, and his wife, May, was the same, talk to you about anything and everything, and their children, Tom and Daisy, were cut from the same cloth: open, chatty youngsters, the pair of them.
‘And Todd ain’t above rapin’ a black gal when he fancies one,’ added George.
‘Todd isn’t likely to end up in jail for that though, is he? Not while Constable Nickson’s still running the show.’
Jon bit into his sandwich. That was the trouble with the outback, he thought, there were too many whites who didn’t rate Abos, saw them as second-class citizens, there to be used or abused as the mood took them. But things were changing, Aborigines were demanding fairer treatment which had led to the new government legislation on pay, and then there was the hot potato of the Land Rights issue that everyone was arguing about; it all added to the current tension between whites and blacks.
While Jon pondered the complexity of it all the dog’s hackles rose and he growled, his attention drawn to the bush. George tilted his head, listening. He, too, stopped eating and listened – horses! Without a word he got to his feet and waited as the riders approached.
Kit Kennilworth and his youngest! What were they doing on his land? – and then he saw the girl lashed to Todd Kennilworth’s horse by a length of rope that secured her by the wrists.
‘G’day to you, Mr Cadwallader,’ said Kennilworth, raising his hat in greeting.
A first, Jon noted – Kit wasn’t usually so polite. ‘What’re you doing on Jindalee land, Mr Kennilworth?’
‘Rounding up a runaway.’
Jon glanced at the girl and saw the fear in her eyes.
‘She helps out the missus at the homestead, one of them gals from the orphanage. I see you’ve already repaired the fence.’
‘That’s right,’ said Jon, ‘someone keeps cutting the wire.’
‘Abos,’ said Kit, ‘you know what the bastards are like. You going to let us through or do we have to take the long road?’ He indicated over his shoulder at the girl, ‘She’s not exactly up to it in this heat.’
Jon was inclined to agree. The girl, who looked about fifteen, was covered in sweat and dust, her dress was torn and she’d lost one of her shoes.
‘She could ride pillion, if you had a mind,’ said Jon mildly.
‘Couldn’t risk it, mate, no telling what the little bitch’d do, you know what these Pommy kids are like, scummy little bastards, the lot of them, thieves too, if you give ’em half a chance.’ He looked pointedly at Jon as he spoke, and smirked.
Jon clenched his fists but kept his face bland. Everyone knew where he was from, from Karundah, the orphanage for boys out in the bush the other side of Merredin. He’d been one of the “scummy little bastards” the British Government had shipped to Australia that Kit was referring to. He looked at the girl again and saw the lurid bruising on her temple, the split lip, and the terror as she struggled to free herself from the rope. ‘Looks like she’s taken a beating,’ commented Jon.
‘Not yet,’ said Kit, ‘but she’ll get a flogging soon as I get her home, half a bloody day it’s taken to track her down.’
‘Stop that,’ snarled Todd, giving a sharp tug on the rope, yanking the girl off her feet.
She staggered but managed to keep her footing.
‘You going to cut the fence for us then?’ asked Kit.
Jon put down his pannikin and walked over to the back of the truck.
‘Nice of you to be so neighbourly,’ said Kit.
Jon leaned over the tailgate, picked up his rifle, shoved a cartridge into the breech and rammed it home, then he turned back to Kit, the rifle pointing at the ground, the implication clear. ‘You tell your lad to undo the rope then maybe we can talk.’
Kit’s face darkened as blood suffused his already ruddy complexion. ‘What the hell do you think you’re about?’
‘I said, let her go, Mr Kennilworth,’ said Jon, ignoring the startled look on George’s face, ‘or I’ll blow your bloody head off.’
‘You wouldn’t dare,’ growled Kit.
‘Try me,’ said Jon his eyes never leaving Kit’s, conscious that the others were watching the stand-off.
‘Let her go,’ ordered Kit.
‘He can’t make us, Pa,’ said Todd.
‘You heard me,’ snarled Kit.
Todd slowly dismounted, fury etched on his face. He yanked on the rope, making the girl stumble, and roughly untied the rope.
‘Get into the truck,’ Jon said to the girl.
She hesitated, terrified of all of them and for a moment he thought she was going to do a runner. ‘It’s midsummer,’ he called to her, ‘you won’t last five minutes in the bush, the temperatures as they are.’
She sidled round the back of the horses and got into the passenger seat.
‘You won’t get away with this,’ said Kit, ‘I’ll have Nickson on you.’
‘The gate is that way,’ said Jon, nodding in a south-westerly direction.
They watched as Kit and his son rode off. Jon turned to the girl. ‘I’m going to drive us to Jindalee, and then I’ll take you back to the orphanage, all right?’
She stared at him, her eyes wary.
‘What’s your name?’
‘Shirley, Shirley Jones.’
‘Are you all right to come with us, Shirley?’
She chewed her lip, watching him for a moment and nodded.
Jon shut the passenger door, whistled for his dog and then turned to George. ‘Do you mind riding in the back with Blue?’
‘No, boss, she too strung up, she won’t want no blackfella next to her jus’ now.’
‘Aye, reckon you’re right,’ said Jon.