Atherton Tablelands Far North Queensland 1981
As feelings go, it was one of the creepiest – the sense of being watched by someone you couldn’t see. Seth listened to his feelings and they’d got him out of trouble more than once. Looking around, he scanned the green walls of rainforest around the high-country dairy farm. The thick bush watched him back.
It was remote up here. From the farm’s southern edge, it was jungle for the next sixty kilometres, the dense forest only riven by the great chasm of Tully Gorge, hundreds of metres deep, and the brooding expanse of Koombooloomba Dam. To the east it was a whole lot more of the same − a few hundred square kilometres of the roughest jungle in Australia; stretching in a rugged wilderness almost to the coast; the great, jagged massifs tumbling a thousand metres or more down to lost boulder-strewn creeks and dark log-filled chasms.
Fellas vanished in there; hard-core bushwalkers from overseas and interstate, or blokes on the run or off their heads. Totally uninhabited and without roads, it was mostly unexplored; by whitefellas anyway, and the triple-canopy rainforest sheltered a lost world of extraordinary flora and fauna.
With his ex-army mate Les, Seth had hiked into this area, scaling the green giants of Bartle Frere and Bellenden Ker, the highest mountains in the state, and with their eight metres plus annual rainfall, probably the wettest places on the planet. It was dense cloud-forest nearly all the way up Bartle Frere; the last part near bloody vertical before a seriously hairy scramble over a slippery boulder field to the summit.
They’d been lucky, the nearly year-round cloud-cover was absent, and the mile-high views of the shimmering agricultural patchwork of the Tablelands and the rainforest peaks and sugar cane fields running to the Coral Sea coast had elevated them to a reverent silence.
Seth looked around at the farm again: the five or six paddocks going up the top of a hill, the neglected old homestead, the beast of a tractor and nearly done-in ute by rusty sheds, and the cows gathered listlessly in the paddock by a shabby old milking shed.
He’d got the phone call yesterday: a Mr. Reg Kempsey, his impatient, foghorn of a voice demanding investigative help, and pronto. He’d been adamant about that, but reluctant to get down to brass tacks on the phone. Without a single paying job in the last month, Seth agreed to make the two and a half hour drive up to the Tablelands. Kempsey got stroppy when Seth told him that he couldn’t get up there until the afternoon, as he was helping a mate move house for most of the day. It hadn’t been a good start.
Now a distant yell alerted him − a man just visible in the furthest paddock. It must be Kempsey. A horse-fly of irritation buzzed Seth’s brain. First the drive and now this. He set off, striding through the paddocks, opening and closing dilapidated gates, dodging cow-shit. He’d never done any farm-work; too stinky and muddy, and with animals capable of giving you bad things like Q fever along with the milk and steak. Yep, he rather be somewhere else right now.
The paddocks stretched up the hill and it took some minutes getting up there. As he got closer, he made out the rifle the bloke was holding. What the hell?
Finally at the top paddock, Seth now saw the big body lying on the grass next to the man. Reg Kempsey was old, white-haired, pretty fit, but pot-bellied. He looked like he hadn’t smiled since he was a baby.
“You Kelly?” It was an interrogative bark.
Seth nodded professionally.
“Took ya bloody time.”
Sweet, thought Seth – a grumpy old bastard of a Tablelands farmer.
“So, whatdja reckon did for it?” said the grumpy old bastard, and he spat, trying to get the horrendous smell out of his mouth.
Seth began breathing through his mouth, then pinched his nose shut with his fingers. The forest was an inscrutable wall ten metres from the paddock’s barbed-wire fence. The cow wasn’t far inside the wire; fat-bellied and buzzing with flies.
“See, take a look at its head. Broken neck. Same bloody thing with the other one!”
Seth took a look; a valuable milking cow flopped dead on the grass. Wild dogs or dingos had chewed on one side of it a bit, but the cow’s neck, though on a cracker of an angle, was untouched by canine teeth. They’d been interrupted by daylight, then the farmer with the gun, and were likely watching from the bush right now. But it didn’t look like any pack of dogs had felled the cow. The old bastard wouldn’t have called me for that surely, thought Seth. There must be a swag of local fellas around here who could shoot. Still holding his nose, he perused the bovine corpse like a cowboy Sherlock Holmes.
“See any bullet holes?” he asked, not wanting to get in close and look.
“Nah, I didn’t. It’s got a broken bloody neck.”
Seth was happy to agree and he stepped back. The only sign of mortal damage was the skew-whiff head; the neck broken like it had been hit by a ute or a sledge-hammer. Seth glanced around at the lush grass, inside and outside the fence-line, seeing no tire-marks or fresh ruts.
“Look at this,” said Kempsey. He went over to a mossy, timber corner post and waggled a grease and nicotine-stained finger at the ground. Seth came up. There were two deep imprints in the wet grass and black soil.
“Someone’s jumped the fence,” he said. “Used the post.”
“That’s bloody obvious, but what did for my cow, hey?”
The farmer gestured at it with his rifle; an army Lee Enfield .303 carbine, shorter and lighter than the standard gun, but good in the bush and with a kick like a mule.
With his chunky biceps and barrel chest, the old bloke looked like he’d give the mule a good kicking back. Maybe even seventy, he must have worked his bum off in the hard yakka of dairy farming for many decades. He’d probably left school at fifteen to work, and maybe fought in the war.
Not someone who’d scare easy; yet he’d brought his rifle up here in daylight. You’d hesitate to call the old bastard scared to his face, but he was toey about something.
“What exactly do you want me to do Mr. Kempsey?” said Seth. The old farmer fixed him with a piercing stare, and sucked on his false teeth.
“Do ya shoot?”
Seth nodded, but that didn’t mean he would.
“Can you sit out here tonight?”
“Hold on − what do you think happened to your cows?”
“That’s what I want you to bloody find out! Private investigator it said on your advertisement! Or is that just bullshit? Hey? Hey?”
The bastard wasn’t just a grump – he was a bully too.
“You talk to the Cattle Squad boys in Mareeba?” said Seth.
“Those bastards? Bugger them! They said . . .”
The old farmer snatched out his baccy, quickly rolled a smoke and lit up. Seth let him take a few big drags.
“Has someone around here got it in for you?” he said.
“Who you been talking to?”
“Mr. Kempsey, I know bugger-all about you.”
“Yeah? There’s a lotta big bloody mouths around here.”
Oh man, thought Seth, is that what this is about? He wants a hired gun for some hillbilly back-country feud. I should have worn a poncho and spurs.
“I reckon I might be the wrong bloke, Mr. Kempsey. Don’t you have some family or mates who can help you?”
“Nah.” The dairy farmer’s face was solid weathered granite.
“Well . . . maybe I can take a look around first.”
“If you want your forty dollars, you’ll have to do something.”
Seth smiled bleakly − he’d said fifty on the phone.
“You can do this first,” Kempsey gestured with the rifle at a spade lying next to the beginning of a hole.
“Aye?” Seth blinked in disbelief. There was no way in hell he was burying a filthy, rotten cow.
“I’m paying you, ain’t I?” The farmer swung the carbine barrel up into the crook of his elbow, his face as hard as steel. It was a boss man look, full of menace. For Christ’s sake, thought Seth. If it wasn’t for the money . . .
“Let’s get this straight Mr. Kempsey,” he said. “The only work I do will be directly involved with finding out what’s happened to your stock. Nothing else.”
“What’s the matter? You’re a big strong bloke aint’cha?”
“Ah, don’t worry about it.” Seth turned to go.
“Whoa, whoa – hold on!”
Seth turned back. The old bloke was pretending to smile.
“Just joking, mate. Pulling your leg.”
Bullshit, thought Seth. You were trying to monster me.
“OK,” he said, thinking of the money. “I’ll take a look around and we’ll talk about tonight.”
With Kempsey glaring at him like a mean old owl, Seth began to scan the ground, moving away in an ever-larger circle. This gig looks like a write-off, he thought, but I’ll be professional about it. Take a look around, prise some money out of the old tight-arse − then get the hell out of here.
Quickly and carefully, he went through the paddocks, his eyes out for prints that weren’t made by the old boots Kempsey wore. He also looked for dog or dingo tracks, and for fresh tailor-made cigarette butts, paper or plastic, and anything shiny like new wire or metal. He followed the barbed-wire too, looking for damage or material caught on it, also scanning the long grass between the fence lines and the bush.
On the right-hand side as he descended was a long deep gully filled with jungle; the strip of cleared land running alongside the paddocks curving inexorably down into it. There’d probably be a big old snake in there, thought Seth. Or two. He also passed three stacks of old dead trees spaced along the cleared land on this side of the farm. Crowned by creepers and surrounded by clumps of snaky grass, the piles were many metres high, relics of the forest gone, slowly rotting away, un-milled and unburnt. Seth stopped at the fence to observe each heap of dead trees, looking around them for vehicle or trail bike tracks.
It took over an hour all up, and when Seth got down to the farm, he drank some water by the Pig. On the hill, Kempsey was in the next paddock down. He wasn’t burying his cow.
Pretty satisfied with the professional search he’d just done, Seth took a good half hour around the homestead and sheds and once again looked for anything that might prove to be a clue.
The farm was pretty bloody sad; everything worn-out and primitive; looking almost third-world. The milk storage was antiquated, the stalls in the milking shed bodgied up in places with wire and spot-welding, and there were sheets of roofing iron on the sheds in need of replacing. There was nothing bright or new; everything faded, begrimed or shiny with decades of use. It was hard to believe it was nineteen eighty-one.
Then he walked down the long, rutted driveway to the road, looking on either side of it as he did. Aside from a few dirt-caked Collins Cordial bottles and flat squiggles of fencing-wire on the road’s edge, he saw nothing else to suggest any human activity.
At the road; a red dirt streak vanishing into forest, he opened the letterbox, a battered old five-gallon milk-can with Kempsey’s name on it in angry white paint. A panicked skink nose-dived out onto the ground and zipped away.
He aimlessly examined the tyre-marks at the drive’s entrance; the grooves left by the wheels of a V12 grader full of green algae. In one of tire-marks were couple of wheel-flattened, red shotgun shells, their brass bottoms tarnished green. On the other side of the road a brigade of insects hummed in the rainforest.
Kempsey’s farm and paddocks weren’t visible from here; the road curving around the base of the good-sized hill the dairy farm lay on. The sky vanished behind the tree canopy as Seth went up the narrow road; his boots scrunching in a drift of gravel; the solid rock, earth and forest of the hill looming above him. After five or six minutes he saw an opening in the bush; a car track that went up the back of the hill. It looked like a way onto Kempsey’s land.
Sure enough, there were tire tracks and they looked a bit fresh. With a hit of excitement, Seth jogged up the track a few hundred meters to where it stopped at a very tight turn-around. Scrutiny around the edges revealed no foot trails; but that didn’t mean someone hadn’t slipped through the bush from here.
Back at the homestead, Kempsey had come down and was staring at his ute. As Seth got closer, the old bloke gave the vehicle a look of hatred, then turned and began to march towards the house; something dicky about both of his knees. Seth sped up. Kempsey, with a pronounced wobble now, stamped his way up the stairs of the homestead.
“Mr. Kempsey!” called Seth, almost at a jog. Up on the veranda the old farmer turned and found a pole for support, his face red with effort. Seth came up to the bottom of the stairs.
“What?” yelled Kempsey. “What?”
Seth eyed the old bastard, trying to stay professional.
“Well, what?” Kempsey glared down at him.
Seth’s description of the newish tire tracks on the track up the back of the hill went down like a boot full of mud.
“I bloody well know that! Blokes go shooting around here all the time. Jesus, is that all you’ve found?”
The screen-door banged as he went inside.
Seth shook his head with frustration and anger. This boss man bullshit was . . . bullshit. He took a slow, deep breath, did a mighty stretch and then assumed a professional state of mind. Just cool down, he told himself. No grief given or taken, but you’re done here. Go and tell the old bastard and get going.
He thumped up the muddy stairs, stopped at the door and called out. “Mr Kempsey?” An unintelligible, though not angry, bellow came in reply. Taking it as an invitation, Seth opened the door.
Inside, the desperation was massive, the gloomy old house smelling of dust and memories. In the dark and cheerless main room, the photos on the mantlepiece were a reminder of what had been . . . and what had gone. There was a young man in one photo, and a woman who must have been Kempsey’s wife in others. It was obvious she hadn’t been here in a long, long time; there were no feminine smells of perfume and soap, no women’s shoes in the hallway.
The kitchen was a mess too. There wasn’t much in it, but the cutlery and plates lay in a chaotic heap on the draining board. Discarded plastic shopping bags and empty liquor bottles filled a corner. On the spider-poo-spotted paper-covered shelves of the open-fronted pantry, the pitiful essentials of bachelor life were on display: half a loaf of white bread, Bushells tea, tins of Camp Pie, mackerel and treacle, and some chipped green Bakelite canisters for the flour and sugar.
Ancient cooking smells hung under the corrugated-iron roof. In the asbestos-sheet-lined cooking nook stood a wooden-fired stove; ash and charcoal fragments on the floor beneath its sturdy cast-iron legs. The wooden floor around the sink and stove was shiny with trodden-in grease. Seth, who liked food and cooking, felt dismay.
The old bloke had an unopened bottle of Chateau Tanunda brandy in his hand, its blue label and bright contents making it look like animal medicine. He cracked the cap, poured a full tumbler, then downed half of it. Waving at the bottle, he said, “Drink?”
Seth shook his head. Kempsey gulped the tumbler empty.
“Yeah, it’s a grand little farm, this,” he said, as though in mid-conversation. “Good soil, good grass all year round, and with the hill you can see the whole herd in one bloody go. Yep, I’ve done well here.”
Overwhelmed by sadness, Seth looked at the dark timber floor while the old fella went on extolling the virtues of the place like he was trying to sell it . . . to himself.
“When I first got into dairy, it was just me and the factory in Malanda. But nowadays the whole bloody world gets a say in my business! It started with the Poms joining the European bloody Union − now it’s the Kiwis with their butter and those bastards in Canberra. For crying out loud, this farm is as far away from the world as you can get – but they still come at you with their regulations and quotas, taxes and fines. Bugger ‘em!”
Seth now saw a rat watching from under the stove – patiently waiting for them to piss off.
“You don’t have a dog?” he asked.
“Nah, it died,” said Kempsey and he picked up the bottle
Near Tarzali, the coming dusk darkened the countryside to a soft grey-green; the never-ending drizzle coming in gentle waves over the hills. As Seth drove along the empty wet road, he passed a procession of freshly-milked cows; their lowing and cowbells audible over the growl of the Pig; his customised FJ55 Land Cruiser.
Oh man, he thought, I don’t feel good about turning Kempsey down. The poor old bastard was a lonely, alcoholic relic just about swallowed alive by the vast jungle around him, but waiting in the cold and wet dark for somebody to maybe turn up and kill a cow just wasn’t worth it. Whatever was happening back there − some cow-cockie’s vendetta show-down by the look of it – wasn’t his fight.
A ute had turned up at the milking shed when he’d left; two young blokes staring as he drove by, nothing happy in their faces as they prepared to let the small mob of cows in. The dairy farm was still running, but only just.
Let it go, he told himself – Kempsey’s a grown man and you’re not a bloody charity worker. Then a picture of his father, desperately alone and close to disaster, flashed through his head. That had been last year and Dad was good now, but as Seth drove into the coming night the unwelcome comparison took hold.
When he got to Malanda, the big town of the dairy country, he was definitely of two minds. Passing the milk factory on the main street where the big Kenworth tankers left on the longest milk runs in the world, across the continent to Darwin and Alice Springs, he abruptly pulled over and parked outside the Malanda Hotel.
The seventy year old building took up a whole block; a great wooden ship lit up in the silver drizzle, its long, second-floor veranda split on right angles at the corner of English and James Streets. Built and run by the English family, and constructed with big rainforest timbers, it was the biggest wooden pub in the country. He’d have a feed in there and think on it some more.
The dining room was wood, wood and more wood; built back in the day when the timber mills around here had poured out a city’s worth of the best rainforest timber. Large sashed windows opened onto the street, letting in the wet hiss of an occasional passing truck or ute. Around the main entrance a small group of exceptionally quiet kids played. Locals were eating already – early to bed, early to rise – and one big table had what appeared to be an extended family, three generations at least. In their midst sat the white-haired patriarch, an erect, fit-looking old fella whose eyes saw Seth the moment he came in the door.
At the counter he ordered − steak of course. The young woman serving was unadorned pretty and country fresh. She got flustered by a new face sporting a cheeky smile and Seth dialled it back, giving her space to take his order. When she efficiently did, he thanked her with another blush-inducing twinkle of his eyes and took his table number. Leaving it on a table away from the families, he went and got a jug of beer from the public bar, walking through the open door from the dining room.
It was full with blokes talking and drinking and smoking like it was the last bloody day on earth: grizzled old farmers and grizzled young ones too, a few bow-legged cowboys, and mobs of grime and sweat-baked farm hands and labourers. These blokes worked so hard they’d die standing up.
A few of them looked like they’d be real handfuls if any biffo started, and Seth caught some tough faces sizing him up. He nodded politely in return; a stranger in clean clothes, keen for a beer and a feed, and nothing else.
Nursing the brimming jug back to his table made him aware of the many decades worth of beer that must have been spilt on the polished amber sheen of the floorboards. Drinking his first pot, he sat half-watching the mob in the front bar, tousled heads and battered hats bobbing, stubbled faces glancing in at him. The steak got his full attention, put deftly on the table by the country lass; her big honest smile telling him she was proud to serve the food here.
She was spot-on with that pride – the steak was big and good, and Seth gratefully ate, taking time to savour every bite, revelling in the perfectly charred outside, and pink juicy inside. He was impressed too with the big dollop of sour cream on his spuds, and the fresh corn and beans grinning up at him from their cloud of buttery steam. This was just about worth the drive up here.
“Excuse me, but where’s your family?” said a little voice.
Seth looked up, around – then down. By his elbow, a boy, maybe six or seven years old, was regarding him with utter seriousness. Pulling his seat back a tad, Seth turned to him and smiled broadly; captivated by this courteous directness.
“My family? Well, for starters, my dad is near Gordonvale and I’ve got an auntie just up the road in Millaa Millaa.”
“Don’t you have any kids?” The kid was worried. A man eating on his own obviously concerned him.
“Kids?” Seth thought about that. Though it wasn’t on the birth certificate, he felt sure he had one. Nobody knew, well maybe the mum, but even if she did – she’d never admit it.
“Where are your kids?” said the boy.
“Michael, leave the man alone!” A woman called from the big table, everyone there turning to look; the white-haired patriarch watching Seth, not the kid. A bloke – the boy’s dad – hopped up and came over.
“Sorry about that, he’s a curious one.” He took the boy’s hand.
“No worries, he’s grand. And real polite too. Better than being all shy, aye?” said Seth; half to the kid, half to his dad.
The kid twisted against his dad’s legs, his eyes not leaving Seth’s face. The man smiled at the praise, then noticed the steak.
“What do ya think? Any good?”
“One of ours,” said the bloke. “We supply all the meat to the hotel.”
“Yeah? It’s top steak. I’ll be stopping in again when I’m next in town.”
“Thanks, aye. Yeah, we do dairy of course, but I’ve been getting into beef cattle. Glad you’re enjoying it.”
“Mate, just keep on doing what you’re doing.”
They both smiled, and Seth kept smiling as the fella took his son back to the family table. It was cool to see a kid with a bit of front − and manners with it. That sort of thing could get you everywhere. Now he saw the patriarch still watching him, and he gave him a nod across the room. The old bloke nodded back.
Happy to hear of local endeavour paying off and ending up as a great steak, Seth, with his stomach in total agreement, got right back into it. Regretfully done, he drank beer slowly, his thoughts going back to the failing old dairy farmer up in Malaan.
The idea of driving back home didn’t feel right. In a crazy way it felt like a dereliction of duty. More like guilt about what happened with Dad, thought Seth. And the rest of it.
Across the dining room, the big table broke-up; mums in floral dresses and cardis, dads in clean jeans and R. M. Williams boots; the big room loud with goodbyes, reminders and wooden chairs scraping on the polished floor. It took a few minutes, but soon they were all gone, leaving the tall, old white-haired bloke, sitting regal and straight backed in his chair, his gaze including Seth.
Knowing he was being offered an audience, Seth poured the rest of the jug into his pot and went over.
“Sit with you for a minute, sir?” he said.
“Please do.” The old bloke’s smile was a winner; good white teeth and a lifetime of confidence.
Seth sat down before offering his hand. Only a criminal or a politician would try and shake a man’s hand while standing over him.
“Ian Summers.” His grey eyes were deeply measuring as they shook hands and Seth got the sense of power in them; of a man whose decisions and words were listened to − and obeyed.
“Thanks for being good about my grandson interrupting your dinner,” said Ian Summers.
“No worries at all,” smiled Seth. “He was polite, but he didn’t muck around. I liked him.”
Summers liked that, and they began to talk; Seth respectfully asking the bloke about himself and finding out that the Summers were a dairy family, four generations on the Tablelands, maybe five if the grandkids didn’t end up running off to live in Cairns or Brisbane, and that he drove a Hi Lux − this year’s model, a bloody good truck he’d recommend any farmer up here getting, and that he owned thousands of head of cattle.
Showing zero impatience, Summers answered each question quickly, his voice bluntly educated. Then it was his turn. First up, he asked Seth about his line of work – looking startled, then pleased at the answer. For a flash of a second, it was like Seth had just shown him a new way to invent the wheel. Taking out one of his business cards, Seth handed it to Summers.
The old bloke read it quickly, nodding with a grunt once he’d finished. “Busy?” he said.
Seth spun up a cheerful, lying smile. “Yeah, it’s getting there.”
Summers stared at him with new interest and Seth, going on the vibe of the bloke, decided to take a punt.
He knew the truth could be a subjective thing – pretty much bloody false at times, as it all depended on who told it to you, and in what context. The teller of the truth invariably had their take on it – and maybe something to gain or lose. Fortunately, nearly a decade of security work had given Seth a reasonable sense of where the truth might hide in someone’s words.
“Do you know a dairy farmer up Malaan Road way by the name of Reg Kempsey, Mr. Summers?”
Summer moved slightly in his chair and nodded.
“Most people of a certain age up here do.”
“Why is that?” said Seth.
“I think you better declare your interest in the man first.”
“He’s asked me to help him. I told him I couldn’t. But on my way back home, I . . . felt worried for him.”
“Worried hey? That’s not so surprising.”
Seth waited. Summers stared back, then cleared his throat.
“What do you know about milk?” he said.
“It’s good for your bones?”
Summers smiled faintly. “The dairy industry.”
Seth shrugged. “It’s been around forever.”
“Sure has, but forever’s not for every bloke nowadays. The last ten or fifteen years has been a battle, no, make that a war. Lost a lot of good dairy men.”
“And Reg Kempsey’s not likely to be one of the survivors?”
Summers nodded, a grain of sympathy in his eyes.
“You see, most small dairy farms return a one per cent loss on investment. A one percent loss. That’s a terrible number. Makes a fella think he can turn it around next year and so he dies by degrees; his money and strength just leeching away. Nearly any other business returns a ten per cent profit at least, but the small dairy farmer would need a milk price of ninety cents a litre to get that. That’s double the price of milk. Imagine the stink if that happened.”
“Right.” Seth thought about the chocolate milk that he loved. “I didn’t know that.”
“Most people don’t. Kempsey is stretched to his limit. He had thirty beasts last I heard, probably a few old crackers amongst them, and that’s the absolute minimum to stay in the black. He owes money all over and his latest dairy hands are ready to chuck in the towel. Everybody knows that.”
“Why is he still there?”
Ian Summers stared at him for a long moment. “You said you met the bloke.”
“Yeah, I getcha,” said Seth.
“You need a hard head to stay in this game, but it sure doesn’t help when it’s time to get out.”
“His wife? Son?”
Summers cocked his head slightly. “Did he talk about them?”
“No. I saw photos in the house.”
“He let you in the house?”
“Offered me a drink too.”
“That’s his worst problem, but who’d blame him.”
Seth waited as Ian Summers absently turned the business card over in his hands, his eyes on the dining room. The old farmer was taking his own punt now – on a bloke with a business card he’d just met in the pub.
“Kempsey came up here in the early sixties after they opened up those valleys in Malaan scrub. He’d been a fisherman and when he met his wife they pooled their savings and bought the property. He took to dairy pretty well, but then his son − his only kid − rolled a tractor down into a gully on the property. Poor boy wasn’t even twenty. Then two years later Reg’s wife died of cancer − or maybe it was just grief, and he hit the grog hard after that, starting fights and bashing blokes. Served time in Her Majesty’s Stuart Creek for putting a fella in hospital for three months. After that, no one wanted to have anything to do with him. Not even his family in Tully.”
“Jesus, that’s heavy,” said Seth, now knowing dead-set that he had to go back. This wasn’t about dead cows anymore.
Summers cleared his throat again. “So, what does he want from you?”
“Somebody’s killed two of his cows. He wants me to wait up at night with a rifle to see who, but I don’t want to do that.”
Seth nodded. “Do you know if he’s got any enemies?”
“Like I said, he’s not well liked. Punched a good few people and yelled at most of the rest.”
“Is his farm any good? The land.”
The dairy patriarch nodded in approval.
“A good question. Yes, the property’s very worthy. I’ve offered to buy it − tried several times − but he shuts me up before I can get an offer out. Pig-headed in spades, that man.”
“So, you own a few dairy farms, Mr. Summers?”
“Yes, I do. Eleven in fact.”
“What’s Reg Kempsey’s farm worth?”
Summers told him.
“Wow,” said Seth. “He’d be able to buy a place and live alright for the rest of his life on that.”
“He sure could, but he’s pigheaded − in spades.”
“Other people offer to buy it?”
“Oh yes. Some proper investment is needed, of course.”
“You reckon someone’s trying to scare him − make him sell?”
Summer’s eyes went misty and Seth knew he wouldn’t get an answer.
“That’s a rotten thing to do,” said the old bloke sternly. “Can’t be too many dairy farmers who’d do that.”
But there’d be one, thought Seth. One bastard I’m not going to hear about because I’m not from around here.
“How were they killed?” said Summers.
“I saw one today, Kempsey said the other one was the same. Like someone broke its neck with a sledge hammer.”
“Is that right? Any other damage or wounds?”
“No bullet holes, some chewing from dogs or dingos. Why?”
For the first time, Summers looked unsure. Seth waited. Then the old man looked at his watch and grunted as though surprised. Damn, he’s going to leave, thought Seth.
“Mr Summers − what did you mean by any other damage?”
“You ever lived up here? This end of the Tablelands?”
Seth shook his head. Summers got up quickly, a polite smile of leaving on his face. Tall and lean, he looked down at Seth.
The big old wooden space around them was a mix of acoustics: cutlery on china and running footsteps and whistles in the street; the wild throb of the front bar and the eerie racket of the curlews across the road. The country girl watched them from the servery like she could hear every word.
“You know, Kelly, there’s lots of stories you might hear around here. Do you shoot?”
Mystified, Seth nodded.
“I don’t think Reg Kempsey is crazy, but I’d keep an eye on the guns he’s got if you decide to go back there.”
“He’s shot someone?”
“No, but make sure you know where they are. I might hang onto this.”
Summers held up Seth’s card, then pocketed it.
“Nice to meet you Mr. Kelly. Good night.”
Seth watched him stride briskly towards the door.
“Thank you, Mr. Summers,” called the young woman from the counter, her voice proprietorial, and she threw Seth a look filled with unassailable pride. Ian Summers must be a good bloke, thought Seth.
The two blokes standing in front of the Pig outside didn’t look particularly good, but Seth always gave a fella a chance and he nodded pleasantly as he came up.
“Hey mate, you a friend of Ian Summers?” said one of them.
Seth shook his head. “Just met the bloke. Why?”
“Passing through? Or you got business with him?”
“You the local sheriff?”
The bloke smiled. “All good, mate.”
But Seth could see from the pig-dog menace in his mate’s eyes that it wasn’t. He nodded and got in; the two men watching him. Local dipshits trying to big-note themselves, he thought. With a friendly nod, he reversed out and drove off.
There was close to no traffic going south and the road stayed dark and empty behind him. Fog banks appeared from time to time, bringing visibility down to a few meters and he kept vigilant for animals on the road.
At Millaa Millaa, any lights from the little township were lost in fog, the three-road intersection there closed-in by cloud; an eerie, nowhere space in the headlights. When he slowed to turn onto the Old Palmerston, car headlights appeared in the rear-view mirror, coming fast through the mist. Seth turned down the rough winding road and put on a bit of speed. Within seconds, the headlights bloomed in the fog behind him.
Here we go, thought Seth – was this the two meatheads from Malanda? The headlights stayed kept up – not real close, but not too far either. Without dropping too much speed, he drove along the fog-blurred road. It was a good old country ride, up and down hillocks and around knolls. Corners came with steep cambers and drifts of stones, and the timber and log bridges were one-lane wonders, their ends lost in the fog.
Seth, careful as, kept the pace up when he could. Now and then homesteads close to the road passed by, their lights glowing lonely in the night. Turning onto the Malaan road, the headlights followed.
The mist now cleared, making driving faster easier and Seth finally came around a tight corner to see Kempsey’s name on the milk-can mailbox. Gunning it hard, he turned in, careened up the drive for thirty metres, then killed his lights and pulled off the drive, the poor old Pig’s two-tone hide screeching and cracking against overhanging branches.
Twenty seconds later the forest wall at the front of the property lit up and the headlights appeared on the road. A ute rattled past like its driver knew every dip and curve on the road. Obviously, a farmer going home. Over his shoulder, Seth watched red tail-lights disappear behind the bend, feeling a little stupid, but fully relieved.
He gave it a minute anyway, then started up and drove up the rough drive, the forest like a tunnel around him. Coming out into the farm, the paddocks ahead stretching up into darkness, he saw a single light on somewhere in the house. He parked next to the busted-up old ute and got out.
Calling out, he got no reply. As he went up onto the veranda, he heard a dull animal noise, incessant and loud, coming from the lit room inside. Calling out again, he opened the screen-door and went in. In the dishevelled living room, lit by the light of a single bare bulb, Kempsey was slumped asleep in an armchair, snoring like a tuba, his tobacco, ashtray and a tumbler on the small side table next to him. The bottle he’d started on earlier lay close to empty on the floor. Oh man, thought Seth, the poor old bastard is drinking himself to death. At least Dad hadn’t tried that.
He tried to wake the old bloke, calling in his ear, but he was well gone. With the snoring just about caving-in his eardrums, Seth picked up the .303 carbine off the floor next to the arm chair. Turning from the sleeping man, he worked the bolt and saw one in the spout. Clicking the safety on, he replaced the gun where he found it.
In a side room, a mousey-smelling hive of shelves and boxes full of invoices, bills and bits of electrical and plumbing gear, he found another rifle leaning up against the wall – an old but well-loved .308 Savage. Not only was the box magazine fully loaded, there was a round in the chamber.
Taking the rifle, he went outside to the Pig and put on his long, oilskin Drizabone raincoat. Digging out a Dolphin flashlight he used its light sparingly to look at the cows in the paddock by the milking shed. In the stillness their chewing was relentless. A few came to the fence, curious as to what a human was doing out here.
Seth wasn’t really sure either, but tomorrow morning when he fronted Kempsey and told him that he’d been on the job working, he wanted to have honesty in his eyes. He’d need it.
There was a coming-up-to-full moon out, but banks of low, swift clouds kept switching its light off and on. Standing around like a nong, the Savage slung over his back, Seth played shepherd. With a few hours to kill, he tried to work out what he was going to do about Kempsey. Scenarios and possibilities came and went. He knew what the end result should be – but had no real idea of how to make it happen.
Time went by and a gust of cool wind brought the far-off sound of a boobook owl; the insistent repetition of its cry both urgent and reassuring. Now and then a cow farted or dropped dung in wet thuds on the ground. What a laugh, thought Seth.
Now came a distant vehicle engine; a solitary drone that drew closer, then headlights appeared a few hundred metres away, the beams dipping and curving through the darkness for ten seconds then vanishing behind bush. The volume intensified as it passed by down the front of the property. A few seconds later it abruptly cut off; gone behind the hill the farm was on. Seth checked the luminous dial of the Submariner on his wrist; after ten thirty and the pubs closed at ten. Probably a well-oiled farmer going home.
Flexing the day’s aches from his shoulders, Seth yawned. He’d helped move a truckload of his mate’s stuff up the stairs at the Floriana flats on the Cairns Esplanade, then shifted it all around inside. There was the offer of a couple of cartons of NQ lager for his efforts, but he’d declined; instead accepting a bag of tangy fruit from the big tamarind across the road, and some goodies his mate had made.
Pulling the collar of the jacket in around his neck, Seth laughed softly. He’d ended up in the cold and dark – and for no pay either. Yeah, he’d give it a few hours here, then go sleep in the truck − swag and blankets, as ever, in the back. The cows would be less than fifteen metres away in the lowest paddock, and he had the flashlight. He’d get up again later.
Another half hour went by in flatulent, hard-chewing style, the bovine bunch mustering at the fence to watch him doing sweet bugger-all. Waving a temporary good-bye, he decided to walk to the top paddock and see if the light of any neighbouring farm was visible from there.
Quietly opening and closing gates, he walked up the hillside, the run of paddocks moving with cloud shadows, whole swathes of grass darkening, then glowing luminous again with moonlight. Slowly gaining elevation, his boots squeaking on the wet grass, Seth stopped a couple of times and looked back for the glimmer of electric light. There was nothing.
Up ahead in the moonlight, he saw that the gate into the top paddock was open and he flashed on Kempsey angrily leaving it that way. It took a few more minutes to cross the top paddock, the jungle dark filling more and more of the sky.
Close to the top fence he turned and looked out over the valley; the other side bathed in luminous yellow light and deepest black, beyond it the stars picking out the dark bulk of more hills. It was very clear now, the air like chilled glass. Seth stood looking for a few minutes, but in the vast dome of sky and spread of hills there was no sign of human life; no farm, no plane, no car. It really was the back of beyond out here on the edge of the Tablelands. For a moment he felt like the only man on earth.
Unsurprisingly, there was wind up here, fiddling with his hair and chilling . . . Jesus! What was that smell? An unholy odour clogged his nostrils and made his gut jump. Ghastly, rank and rotten, it stunk with the pungency of a dog who’d rolled in the remains of a dead . . . cow.
Seth moved to where Kempsey had been today. As he did, the sickening smell began to dissipate. There was a big earthy smear on the grass. Squatting down in the moonlight, he saw shovel and boot marks everywhere. Sniffing the air, he detected a faint smell of bovine decay coming from the freshly turned soil; the verdant stink of the rain-forest close-by.
Baffled as a lizard in a bathtub, he got up. Courtesy of an array of substances, Seth had experienced some doozey hallucinations in his life, but he’d never hallucinated a smell.
From the dark bulk of jungle just metres away came a flash of light; simultaneously a percussive boom, and a bullet zipped past his head. He hit the deck and pulled the rifle from his shoulder. Bang! Another gunshot echoed across the valley. Aiming at where he’d seen the flash, Seth raised it a touch and returned fire, the rifle’s recoil solid in his shoulder. He rolled away a few metres, worked the rifle bolt and put a new round into the chamber. His heart pounded like a John Bonham solo. Bloody hell, these fellas were prepared to kill more than cows!
“Oi!” yelled a hoarse young voice from out of dark. “What the hell you doing here on this property? You better clear off!”
“Reg Kempsey asked me!” Seth yelled back.
There was silence, then the muttering of two voices.
“You the bloke who was here this afternoon?” said the hoarse voice.
Seth flashed that these were the young fellas he’d seen earlier who’d come to do the milking.
“Reg said you’d gone.”
“Well, I came back.”
“Ah, shit,” said Hoarse Voice. “Look, sorry mate, we thought you were something else.”
Seth took his finger off the rifle’s trigger and flicked the safety on. “Come over to the fence and talk. Put your bloody safety on first.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah.”
Seth got up and found the flashlight. At the wire, two figures had appeared.
“You alright, mate?” said Hoarse Voice
“Yeah, but I’d stick to milking.”
There was nervous laughter.
“Why the hell did you shoot first, then sing out?” said Seth.
“Sorry, aye. I wasn’t sure what it was.”
“Well, the what was me.”
“No, you’re not the what.”
“No, the what is the monster.”
“Yeah.” Then proudly, “The Malaan monster.”
Righty-o, thought Seth, this just gets better.
But somewhere a nutty bell rang in his head. A couple of mates had heard stories from some blokes that they had worked with up in the Misty Mountains − stories that those blokes had heard from other blokes from back in the day. Seth remembered it as a good yarn, but pretty much old-time bullshit.
“What do you know about it?” said Seth.
Hoarse Voice’s tone grew animated.
“It’s real, aye. My uncle worked with these timber cutters when he was a young fella − near the dam at Koombooloomba and they told him that one night out there this big-eyed, hairy thing rushed into their camp, then run off again, crashing about like it wanted them to know it was there. Scared ‘em shitless, aye. They didn’t sleep and took off as soon as it was light.”
“Yeah,” said the other bloke in a slow, mournful voice. “I heard it ripped the heads off two pig-dogs one time.”
Seth hefted the rifle up against his shoulder. He wasn’t going to tell these two cockatoos anything, but he’d seen something very odd on Hinchinbrook Island a few years back; not on the same scale as this, but bloody hair-raising all the same.
“You don’t reckon it’s just some bloke killing the cattle, then.”
“Yeah, could be, but if it’s the monster – then we’ll be famous.”
“Reg know you boys are here?”
“Sure does. He’s gonna pay us twelve bucks each for this.”
Seth sighed. Kempsey had nearly got him shot.
“We had to bury the cow too,” said Hoarse Voice.
“Yeah, old Reg gives you real stick if ya try and say no.”
“He’ll kick you, aye,” said the slow voice.
“Threw a branch at Ted Lovesey – bounced it off his head.”
And did time for bashing a bloke, thought Seth.
“He can be a real bastard,” said Hoarse Voice. “But he was a lot worse a few years ago they reckon.”
“The Malaan monster, hey?” said Seth and that got a laugh.
“So, it was you fellas who came along the road about an hour ago?” he said.
“Yeah, that was us. There’s a track up from the road behind this hill. Thought we might surprise it from up here.”
“I’d say there’s no bloody chance of that now. Reckon our little bit of bang-bang will even get old Reg up here in a minute.”
“Nah, his legs are just about packing it in. He won’t walk up here now.”
He did today, thought Seth. Before I arrived.
“Well, thanks for being such a shit shot, mate,” he said.
“Real sorry about that, aye,” said Hoarse Voice. “You won’t tell Reg will ya? He’ll go crook on us.”
“I’m saying nothing,” said Seth. He slung the Savage over his shoulder and fired up the Dolphin. “I’m going to go bunk in my truck for a bit. Reckon I’ll see you fellas in the morning.”
“Sure will. Five o’clock sharp,” said Hoarse Voice.
The screen door banged on the homestead’s front veranda, waking Seth. He heard boots come crunching over, slow but resolute. Sitting up in back of the Pig, he slid out of the warm cocoon of the swag, in jeans, socks and no shirt. Opening the back doors, the cold Tablelands air poured in, tingling him into full wakefulness. Somewhere a flock of cockatoos was squawking, and Reg Kempsey stumped up out of the morning mist; his frown enormous. Seth had checked on the old bastard when he’d put the Savage back last night. He’d been snoring fit to crack heads, oblivious to the little gun battle that had taken place.
“What the hell do you want?” said Kempsey.
“I changed my mind.”
“You must be as broke as I am. Well, I can’t afford you now.”
Seth hopped out into the full force of the old bastard’s glare.
“I don’t want any money,” he said
“Aye? You don’t want money?”
“That’s right. Look Mr. Kempsey, I sat up last night with the cows – met the boys − and I’ll do it again tonight.”
A grimace of disbelief cracked the hard rock of Kempsey’s face.
“If you don’t want money, then what do you want?”
Bare-chested, Seth went up close and looked the old bastard right in the eye. Should I tell him about Dad, he thought? My story? But he knew it wouldn’t play. This tough old bastard didn’t want to hear about weakness, his or anyone else’s. He’d rather stick his head in steaming cow shit than be the recipient of sympathy.
“What do you want?” repeated Kempsey.
“Take it or leave it,” said Seth.
Kempsey stared for a minute. Seth didn’t move an inch. The old bastard’s stingy brain was working hard; you could just about hear the coins clinking. Then something shifted in his face, and with triumph in his hard eyes he nodded like he was doing Seth a favour. The tough young bloke was going to do what he wanted him to do after all, and he didn’t have to pull his wallet out. Whatever the reason was − he’d had a win.
“So, what are you going to do then?” he said.
“Murder a hot cuppa tea first, then go into Ravenshoe for some food.”
Kempsey snorted, a note of contemptuous amusement in the sound. “You do that, and we’ll talk later.” Something like a smile glanced off his face. He turned and trooped back to the house; his limp almost jaunty.
At the milking shed, now in a flannie shirt and an old army jumper, Seth exchanged greetings with one of the boys – Hoarse Voice, and got him to fill a cup with lovely warm milk. The other young bloke was going hard, scarcely aware of much else. It looked like hard work.
“I’m gonna stay tonight, see what turns up,” said Seth. “I’ll feel a lot bloody safer knowing you lot will be in bed.”
“No worries there − he’s got you now,” said Hoarse Voice, his breath steaming in the cold morning air. He smiled wearily, then turned to the gate where the face of the next cow waited.
After a cuppa made on the gas stove, Seth rolled and stowed his swag, then headed off. It was foggy on the road into town. In Ravenshoe, roofs, shopfronts and trees emerged around him as he motored slowly down Grigg Street. It was early but the bakery was open and after he’d bought a loaf of bread for later, he patiently waited in the Pig until the first meat pies were ready. He bought two of the piping hot marvels and ripped into them, washing it all down with a big chocolate milk. It was Tablelands magic alright. Then he got a sausage roll to plug any gaps.
Just out of town on the Kennedy Highway; the long dusty artery that snaked west to the Gulf country, he pulled into the roadhouse and fuelled up. After checking his oil and air, he cleaned his windscreen and went in. With a grunt of satisfaction, he found a mango Weis bar in the ice cream chest freezer. At the counter, the bloke raised his eyebrows; it probably hadn’t got to twelve degrees yet.
Eating the Weis bar in the Pig, parked on the edge of the big gravelled pull-in area of the servo, Seth listened on the Marantz to a Pommy trio his Sydney mate Laidlaw had turned him on to. The Jam were sharp and tight, full of urban spit and venom, and this new album, Sound Affects, had some dead-set winners on it. Sure, it was a million miles from here − the misty, soft, early morning highway, the pretty green of the eucalyptus forest lining the road, the stock-still group of kangaroos watching from the long grass − but it was shit-hot.
Sitting there, digging the music, Seth began to smile. Maybe the peas in the pies were good for the brain, because he’d just flashed on a way to help old Reg. It was sort of a long shot – but it just might hit the bullseye. He cast a glance into the back of the Pig at the plastic boxes of his camping gear. Yeah, it was worth a go.
He took the smile with him back into town, parking by the creek next to some old trees. He got a blanket from the back and set his seat back a few notches. Outside, the mist was lifting, old wooden Queenslanders coming into focus across the road. The trees around him dripped moisture like taps. With the blanket around his shoulders, he half-dozed, waiting for office hours to kick in.
When they did, he got a handful of twenty cent coins and went to work in the phone box on the main street, ringing a mate who was doing well in his chosen profession. Luckily, he wasn’t out at work yet, and after explaining what he was looking for, Seth listened and took notes. Thanking his friend, he then rang a number his mate had given him and went through the same process again with another fella, and took more notes. When he was done, he had four possibilities.
In no rush to go back, he parked by the trees again and conked-out for a couple hours. The throaty roar of a motorbike woke him and he watched a burly, bearded bloke on a black BSA fly past, traveling in the direction of the highway. Silver Valley was out that way, a place where any outlaw might feel safe and sound.
Between the black-sap-streaked trunk of an old mango tree and the Pig, he took a long leak, then exercised on the parkland by the creek, stretching out the kinks and yawns.
In the supermarket a few oldies cruised the aisles. A country couple of late sixties vintage stomped about in their farm boots, delving into the goods on display; their frequent examinations and exclamations making it feel like this was a high point in their week.
Seth assembled and paid for a bag of edibles. Outside under the row of corrugated tin shop roofs, a high school girl defiantly ate a bag of cheese Twisties. She wasn’t just not at school – she was right there on the main street. Seth could dig that. He liked manifestations of rebel spirit.
At the Ravenshoe Hotel, he popped in for one. Only two of the mid-day drinkers looked up. With his back against the old timber bar, Seth looked out at the monotones of Grigg Street: the damp sidewalk slabs and well-used tarmac, the vehicles parked out front at this time of the day all scratched and rusted; some as old as the hills. He slowly drank as a few desultory voices yarned or asked long tiresome questions. By the tall timber door, a used-up looking bloke, pale as milk, sat smoking and coughing; staring with empty eyes at the sunless street. Feeling mentally queasy, Seth quickly finished his beer. Dear God, he thought as he stood, don’t let me end up like that.
Catching the barman’s eye, he bought two six-packs of NQ Lager and a block of ice. He put the ice, the beer and perishables into the Eski in the Pig, and all set now, headed back to Malaan country.
At the farm, Kempsey’s ute had its bonnet open. Seth got out and walked over, his eyes searching the sheds for the old bloke. Some small tools had been left on the job – pliers and wrenches. He took a cursory look at the greasy engine, his auto-mechanic skills not much chop, and the loose electrical wires told him that something was missing; something like the solenoid.
Seth stepped back and looked for it; behind the bonnet, on the running board, on the ground. Looking just beyond the ute at the shed, he saw that one of the windows was broken, a big fresh dent in the mouldy tin just below the frame. Below the dent lay the solenoid – obviously kaput.
At the homestead Seth called out until Kempsey appeared.
“What? What the hell do you want?” he blared.
“So, your solenoid’s rooted, hey?”
“What business is that of yours?”
“I’d fix it if I could.”
“I thought you were too bloody precious to do anything like that.”
“This is different. You need that truck.”
Kempsey snarled silently.
“What about we go to your mechanic?” said Seth.
Kempsey shook his head.
“Ah, they’re bastards – bugger them.”
That sounded like a burnt bridge alright.
“We have to do something about it,” said Seth.
Kempsey blinked and frowned, listening hard.
“Look, I’ll take you down to Cairns in the morning,” said Seth. “We’ll get one, come back and put it in. I’ve got something to do down there too.”
Kempsey grunted, but not necessarily in the affirmative.
“Mr. Kempsey, you need your ute,” said Seth. “We’ll be back before afternoon milking. Easy as.”
The old farmer made no reply. Accepting help didn’t seem to be something he knew how to do. Maybe he thought it was weak, or that it would put him debt. Or maybe it was confirmation that he wasn’t in control. Bugger all that, thought Seth.
“OK, Mr. Kempsey. I’ll take you tomorrow then.” Nodding like he’d been given a command, he smartly turned and marched off.
At the Pig, he ate some wonderfully sour tamarinds and had a wash at the tap by the milking shed. Then he dug around in the boxes of camping gear, knowing there’d be a paperback in there, and sure enough, packed in with candles, matches and the backgammon board, there was a saltwater-stained tale of bulk rooting, fishing, fighting and drinking he’d started on some time ago. His mate, Johnny Pep, had given it to him with loud recommendation. Laying on the swag, he began reading, and after a few pages was into it; the yarn opening up a fantastic world he might have wanted to be part of at one time. It was deeply sleazy; not for youngsters, or most women even, but it sure kept tickling you along.
Around five the boys turned up again; Kempsey pitching in, stamping around and growling like a dog with a headache. When the milking was done and the boys had gone, he came over, trying to hide his bung walk. Hesitation tainted his pugnacious mug.
“I won’t be out there tonight, Kelly. It’s just you.” The tight jaw said take it or leave it.
“Yeah, no worries. Beer?” said Seth, getting a couple of beers.
Kempsey regarded him suspiciously, then grudgingly took a stubbie and knocked half of it back with a couple of python-like swallows. Banging the bottle down onto the Pig’s bonnet, he pulled out his baccy-pouch, stood ram-rod straight and rolled one, ignoring the folding canvas chair that had been set out for him. Looking at rain forest hills beyond the paddocks, Seth drank his beer; aware of the insane buzz of repressed energy coming off the old farmer.
“Who’d kill a cow with a sledgehammer?” said Seth.
The old bloke plugged the stubbie in his mouth, the roll-up jabbing from his fist, and killed it in another two swallows. Across the valley a flock of cockatoos flew across the purple jungle, their white silhouettes drifting dreamily through the air. The sunlight was heading west to the Indian Ocean now and low beams of blinding golden light flooded between the hills and the clouds.
“A bloke you’d given a hiding to, maybe?” said Seth.
Kempsey looked as if he was biting his smoke in half, one leg vibrating with the fidgets.
“Bugger ‘em! I gave fair warning. I only blued with blokes who wanted a blue. If anyone’s got a grudge after all this time it’s the bastard sending craven rascals here to do his dirty work.”
“Aye? Blokes sent to your property?” said Seth.
“I heard them.”
“Nah. Sounds at night. Running. Cunning as feral cats. Every time I come outside with the .303, they’re gone.”
“What about blokes who want you to sell up? Could that be them?”
“Could be any bastard. They all want my place.”
“You tell the police about . . . what you heard?”
“Course I did – but they said the rotten grubs have to be caught in the act, for Christ’s sake!”
“You hear any rumours of anyone coming here to harass you?
“Rumours?” scoffed Kempsey. “My whole bloody life’s been a rumour! Blokes talking rubbish about me for years. Nah, I don’t go to pubs no more. Or talk to any bastard if I can help it.”
He turned his right foot, groaned unconsciously, then went on.
“I’ve worked every inch of this farm. I know it like a boat. No bastard knows the sweat that has fallen here. Think they’ll get me off my farm? Buckley’s chance! I’m not going out to pasture just yet. What the bloody hell would I do?”
“Something else,” offered Seth.
“I’m too old for that now.”
“You could go fishing.”
“Yeah, wouldn’t that be great,” said the old bloke.
They drank another beer; Kempsey finally sitting down on the canvas chair, but damn sure not to appear grateful for it. From this perch he went on about the uncountable hours he’d put into his farm. Probably five million dollars by now if he’d paid some other bloke to do it.
When Seth said he’d make a feed, Kempsey looked surprised, then wary. Taking his indifferent shrug as a yes, Seth made a couple of tomato, ham and cheese omelettes; the fat, fluffy yellow halfmoons glistening with butter, doorstops of Ravenshoe bakery bread cosied up next to them on the enamel plates. Kempsey took his with a distracted grunt, then got stuck in; fully engrossed, his eyes glinting with memory.
He polished it off quick smart, burped loudly as he nodded in thanks, then got up and hobbled off to fetch the brandy. After that they sat in the glow of a kero lantern while Kempsey drank and yammered on about the price of milk and everything else that had put a prickle up his date. Seth kept mum, and just nodded sagely whenever the old bloke paused and looked at him with accusing eyes for any sign of contradiction. It wasn’t hard to see how this bloke could start a fight.
Around eight, Seth walked the pissed old bugger back to the house, and at his loud, slurred command, took the Savage rifle for his patrol duties
After washing up and stowing his gear, he moved the Pig next to the cows, found a discarded hessian feed-bag to keep his arse dry, then went and sat in the next paddock up from the cattle. With a galaxy of stars overhead and the rifle across his knees, Seth pondered the wreck of a life being endured by the man now snoring in the homestead.
The long years mind-sick with gut-deep grief. The alcoholism, aggression and violence that made his name mud across the Tablelands; his family jack of him too. The work that didn’t pay anymore; work he was too old to do. His ute was playing up and his dog was dead. And now someone was killing his cows.
Paying fellas with rifles to come and watch his place at night smelt of urgency and desperation, paranoia and fear. It seemed like it was all closing in on him; a slow-motion stampede over many years, speeding up now to tumble the nearly done man into irrevocable change. Something was coming, the poor old bastard was sure of it. It doesn’t have to be an end, thought Seth.
The isolation and the pain, and the relentless monotony, decade after decade, would send anyone around the twist. Or make them build a bloody strong cage to hide in. Yep, he thought, I’m going to have a good go at busting that cage open tomorrow.
Then nothing happened again and again, the closest thing to movement the clouds overhead, pushed by a wind unfelt down here. He listened for owls or creatures in the forest, but the vast silence was complete.
Five hours went by before he started properly nodding off. Checking the Submariner, he saw it was pushing three – a few hours before dawn. Bugger waking up wet, he thought. I’ll go and nap in the truck for an hour. It’s close enough to the cows.
He came awake in chilly dark, ears straining in the silence. A noise close by had woken him, he was sure of it, and . . . yuck! His olfactory senses recoiled at the terrible smell; the same noxious odour he’d smelt last night; a gorge-tickling mixture of rotting meat and reeking urine. Then he heard a sound, a bump against the Landcruiser’s side, followed by a sliding brushing sound. Some bastard was right outside.
He sat up, half slid out of the swag, and felt around next to him for the rifle; eager for its metallic coldness under his fingers. Turning to the window he looked into the darkness outside, his eyes quickly coming up to speed. There was still some moonlight, but not overhead. The milking shed was a block of solid black; the sweep of paddocks like a crooked landing strip. He located the Savage, then the Dolphin, and quickly put them on the bench seat by the back doors. Quietly getting out of the swag, he carefully went and looked out the back door windows.
Someone was moving there, right outside. There was a thump on the bumper bar. He got the flashlight; held it up and away from his eyes and aimed it at an angle through the first glass pane, then thumbed the rubberised button. Grass and driveway appeared, then a reddish-brown fur covered shoulder and a thick muscled arm. Seth’s jaw dropped and the first electric spurts of adrenaline zinged through his scalp, as whoever it was out there shot a look at him through the window.
It took all of his control not to yell in shock as the image burnt into his brain. In the Dolphin’s light he saw the quick flash of a highly sentient eye peering at him from under a brow of thick ochre coloured hair. The look in the eye went right through him; stunning in its lack of fear, heart-stopping in its condemnation. It was a look from another eon, closer to the beginning of things when the world was a pure, primeval place. Then he was looking at grass and driveway again. Footsteps thumped off across the ground.
Seth killed the light, flung open the back door and jumped out, the cold air a welcome shock to his dumbstruck brain. Quickly seeing no-one close by, he scanned the landscape further out. Nothing. He kept looking, listening hard too, and a minute passed before he saw movement. Up on the cleared edge of the paddocks a dark blob of a silhouette was running through the long grass, the sinking moon picking it out. The figure moved very fast, sprinting like . . . a man as it dodged around a pile of dead trees, sped down into the steep gully and vanished into the jungle.
The chilly air was drying out Seth’s wide-open mouth and he shut it. His mind scrambled for logic, his thinking processes shot to shit, but in his chest he felt a hot glow of terror and glee. He knew damn well what had just happened − he just didn’t believe it yet.
With rubbery legs he sat in the back door of the Pig, the floor cold beneath him. The stars began to go out in the north as fresh clouds moved in. Silence reigned, and when Seth laughed in incredulous release – the noise shocked him anew.
In the last hour before dawn, he watched the cows, drinking a couple of mugs of tea, and tried to sort out what he was feeling. This was crazier than a flute-playing parrot in a tutu. In the mess of thoughts and emotions the thing that really struck him was not the fear or elation he’d felt, or knowing that logical disbelief could be trumped by observed experience. It was shame.
The burning recrimination in that deeply intelligent eye had sparked in Seth the recognition of what his race and era was doing to nature − forests cleared, springs and creeks graded over and filled in, creatures hunted and chased away. The owner of that eye despised him for his culpability in this. There had been rage in that eye too, a rage that looked entirely capable of killing the animals the forest was being cleared for, and maybe him too.Eventually his mind settled a bit and the cold drove him back into his swag where he lay dozing until sleep claimed him. A loud banging on the side of the Pig awoke him.
“Jesus, boy, what’s wrong with you!” roared Kempsey. “It’s bloody eight o’clock!”
Royally pissed-off, he got out. What is wrong with this bloke? He knows I’ve been up all night guarding his stock for free.
“See anything last night?” said the old farmer.
He wasn’t going to tell Kempsey anything. He’d want revenge for his cows, and besides, Seth didn’t want him distracted today.
“Yeah, that’d be right. Bastards must have seen you.” Kempsey spat at the ground and swayed. He looked under the weather and his breath was like an unwashed rubbish bin.
“Well, if that’s the case, it’s a good result, hey?” said Seth.
“For one night! I don’t need a bloody scarecrow.”
“Let’s see how today goes first. I’m taking you to Cairns, right? Might get some steaks and I’ll make a feed when we get back.”
Kempsey grunted, his nod almost imperceptible, then went to the milking shed. It didn’t take more than ten minutes for Seth to wash his face, put away his swag and make a final preparation for the day. He called out to old farmer and waited without looking as he robot-walked down the drive and got in.
Any idea that a hangover might keep Kempsey quiet driving to Cairns was dashed and squashed a few hundred metres from his gate. Without preamble, the querulous old bastard launched into a violent tirade against the world and all its fools.
First up, a farmer on the Palmerston Road who’d done him wrong over shared hay got a big serve. Then at the Millaa Millaa intersection, he complained bitterly about a shopkeeper in town who’d short-changed him. Passing through Malanda, the dairy industry got its turn. Kempsey’s anger seemed bottomless.
In Mareeba, Kempsey ranted about the cattle coppers who wouldn’t know udders from their arses. Outside of town, Seth fished out a little Tupperware box of biscuits from the console, popped the lid one-handed and offered it to Kempsey. Barely pausing, the old farmer grabbed one and scoffed it, swallowing fast so he could keep hammering on. Mate, thought Seth, in another life this bloke would be calling the races on the radio.
Passing by Kuranda, the sight of hippies hanging at the servo got him railing against the good for nothing kids of today; their laziness and promiscuity a stain on society. Coming to the Cook Highway down on the coast, he started ripping into the Cairns City Council and the condition of their roads − the pot-holes in the wet just about swallowed cars whole. As they began to turn north on the highway, the old bloke stopped mid-sentence.
“I thought we were going to Cairns!”
“Gotta do something at Palm Cove,” said Seth. “It won’t take a minute.” Kempsey frowned, then resumed his whingeing.
Down on the esplanade in Palm Cove, it was sunny and breezy; Double Island a sleepy green haven offshore. There was even a lady in a bikini walking along the beach. Winter on the coast was tops – clear skies but no sweat. Seth slowed right down, and when he saw what he was looking for, he pulled up on the ocean side of the empty gravelled road.
“C’mon, let’s stretch our legs,” he said, and he hopped out.
With a groan, the old fella eased himself onto the grass by the beach and stood blinking and squinting at the expanse of blue sky and ocean. Above them palm leaves rustled contently.
“Been here before?” asked Seth.
“Aye?” said Kempsey, spluttering indignantly. “I was fishing up and down this coast before you were even born. Jesus! Been here before!”
Seth smiled and the old bloke looked confused for a second.
“You young blokes think you invented the world. Well, I could tell you some stories!” Kempsey grimaced in the glare. “Jeez, the sun’s harsh.”
He looked wrinkled and pale, like a mountain troll winkled out of its lair, the onshore breeze gently playing with his frosty white hair. On his boots, caked Malaan mud had dried a ghostly grey.
Seth handed him a pair of wrap-around sunnies and as the old farmer put them on, he went round the back of the Pig, opened the door and got two beers from the Eski.
“Wanna beer?” he called out.
“Yeah, yeah − why not,” growled Kempsey.
Seth popped the crowns, and with a big smile, came around the Pig and handed a beer to the old farmer. Seth toasted him with his own stubbie, then watched Kempsey drink down half his NQ lager in one go.
“Yeah, I fished from the Gulf to bloody near Gladstone. Did a stint in Bass Strait too, but it was too bloody cold. See, I . . .”
And he was off again, but this time with tales of the big blue and catching fish like you wouldn’t bloody believe. Seth loved it, exclaiming loudly at the right moments and the old bloke warmed to that; the pain-etched lines on his face softening as memories animated him; memories of a life before grief and failure.
It took another two beers before his incessant voice began to falter. Then he grew silent; just staring at the blue horizon and breathing deeply, an occasional sigh escaping him. Seth smiled softly. The dope cookie from the Tupperware box, a speciality of his mate in Cairns, had taken effect.
Something had been unchained in the old bloke’s face now, a dismantling that had taken away all the wound-up tension and put a sloppy smile in its place.
“Mmmmm,” said Kempsey.
Seth put a friendly arm around his shoulder.
“Hey, Reg, come and take a look at this,” he said.
Fully stoned now, Kempsey smiled up at him like a toddler; his bushy eyebrows raised in simple curiosity. Seth gently led the old farmer across the road to a little wooden cottage in the cool shade of some big melaleucas. Red hibiscus in the front garden bobbed in the sea-breeze. Beside the house an open-fronted wooden shed was bathed in sunlight. In silence they gazed at the place.
“A bloke could keep a boat in that shed,” said Seth after a bit. “Great veranda, too. Sit and watch the sea over a few quiet beers.”
“Ohhhh . . . yeahh . . . you sure could,” said Kempsey.
Seth shut his trap for a minute, then turned to the old man.
“Now listen Reg − Ian Summers – you remember him?”
Kempsey’s mouth was wide open, his face too.
“Ian? Summers? Yeah . . . yeah. . . I know him.”
“He’s still keen to buy your farm.”
“Yeah . . . yeah, he does like it.”
“You know how much he wants to give you?”
Kempsey shook his head and Seth told him. The old bloke’s eyes widened in shock.
“That . . . that much?”
“Oh, yeah,” said Seth and he turned back to the little cottage. The old farmer did too and a massive smile claimed his face.
“Oh . . . oh boy,” he said after a while. “It’s a . . . it’s a beaut little place.”
Now he finally noticed the real-estate sign next to the gate.
“Look . . . look!” he said in wonder. “It’s for sale!”
“You know how much for?’ said Seth. The old bloke shook his head, but gears had started moving in his brain.
Seth told him what his real-estate mate had said on the phone yesterday morning. The gears clicked into place.
“Oh . . . oh!” cried the old farmer. “I could . . . I could buy it and live on the rest of the money!”
“Get a boat too,” said Seth.
Reg Kempsey, totally unshackled now, began to hop about like a kid at a disco − his absolute joy just about bringing a tear to Seth’s eye.