The land was thick with aged trees and prickly pear. The smaller succulents grew in dense clumps, fleshy and spine covered, while others stretched skyward, tangling with their brethren ten feet into the air so that the way ahead resembled an ancient forest. Overhead snatches of blue sky teased the riders as they picked their way through a section of countryside made unusable by the prickly invaders. The noxious plant covered the ground in varying sizes with scant dirt in between and Edwina Baker, accompanied by her brother, Aiden, was somewhat surprised to find birds still present, as if the very presence of the spikey monstrosities should surely compel them to fly elsewhere.
This part of their property suffered from one of the worst infestations, with the pear having made a good two-thirds of their land useless for any form of agriculture. Edwina didn’t normally ride out here. Just the sight of so much of the weed made her mad with frustration. They had cut, burnt, hoed and applied chemical to the invasion for as long as Edwina could remember. It was an ongoing battle to eradicate the dreaded plants and she hated to think of the money and effort that had been expended on the task. The plant was virulent and drought tolerant. Its seeds were carried by birds, especially crows who loved the fleshy cactus. Their father said for many years that the bush carried an albatross about its neck until something could be done about the species. By 1920, millions of hectares of land across Queensland and New South Wales had been infested. Now useless, enormous areas were abandoned by their owners.
But there was hope and they carried that hope in a saddlebag.
The horses were careful with the path they chose and Edwina slowed her mare a little more, wary of being stuck by one of the taller plants with their needle-like spines or small hair-like prickles. Today she was optimistic that things would improve. That the pear would be destroyed and the land reclaimed. ‘Here,’ she announced. Aiden ignored her, riding on to the patch selected to be tested.
They dismounted in a cramped clearing bordered by the pear. From a saddlebag Aiden retrieved a gauze-covered wooden box, which he placed on the ground, prising the top free with a pocketknife. ‘Here we go,’ he breathed. Inside were numerous eggs pasted within small paper quills together with a quantity of pins.
‘Do you think it will work?’ Aiden asked as Edwina read the enclosed instructions.
‘Father said there have been excellent results in other places,’ answered Edwina. ‘The scientists are very encouraged. But we need more than just one dead plant in ten. That wouldn’t even make a dent.’
Edwina fastened a pin to one of the paper quills, and Aiden watched as she attached the paper with its enclosed cactoblastis eggs to a fleshy, oval green-coloured pad.
‘They’re borers apparently, eat right into the stem,’ she announced.
Brother and sister set about fastening more of the quills. When the box was half empty they packed it away to be used in another location.
‘You should go home now, E,’ suggested Aiden. ‘I know you wanted to help with the pear but this isn’t the place for you. Not when I’m seeing the men.’
‘And what am I meant to do? Sit in the house and sew?’ she replied, as they remounted and continued walking their horses through the scrub.
Aiden burst out laughing. ‘We both know that’s one thing you can’t do.’
Edwina flipped him with a battered felt hat.
‘You know these men aren’t used to seeing women,’ he continued, ‘even one like you.’ Aiden took in her trousers, shirt and waistcoat.
Edwina moaned. ‘Yes, you’re right of course. I should have dressed for the occasion.’
‘I’m serious. They’re on the road for months on end. Living in camps. Working in the bush. All I’m saying is keep quiet when we get there and let me do the talking. Father told me to check on the ringbarkers while he is in town on business. By myself. He said nothing about you being allowed to come.’
Edwina gave a huff. ‘It’s not like I haven’t been out here before. Anyway, by yourself, did you say? Right, and that’s why Davidson is following us at fifty paces.’
Aiden swivelled in the saddle and frowned. Sure enough their aboriginal stockman and sometime overseer was waiting quietly at a distance. ‘How long has he been there?’
‘I noticed him earlier,’ replied Edwina flippantly. ‘There’s no point looking so annoyed, Aiden. You know Father’s rules. No-one goes riding alone in the bush if you’re going further than four mile from the house.’ Ahead the prickly pear thinned. Edwina clucked her tongue and her mare, Heidi-Hoe, trotted past her brother.
Aiden patted the compass in the pouch at his waist and then the waterbag hanging from the saddle. ‘I’m never without it or this,’ he called after her.
‘Surely by now you don’t still need a compass.’ Edwina spurred the horse on, cantering away from her brother. Aiden was quick to pursue and they raced through the scrub, jumping fallen limbs and boughs and skirting trees. When next they slowed, brother and sister checked to see if the aboriginal still followed. Sure enough Davidson was there, one hundred yards behind them, waiting beneath the shade of a brigalow tree, both he and his horse motionless as if they’d been spirited from one place to the next.
‘You won’t lose him,’ commented Aiden.
‘I wasn’t trying to.’
‘He can track anything, you know.’
Not, Edwina thought, that they’d ever had proof of the old man’s ability. He’d appeared out of nowhere a good decade ago. Walking in from the scrub and staying as if he’d been on the farm all his life. Their father assumed the man had been thrown off a mission for not being a full-blood, and took to wandering the bush before searching for work. It was possible. The man, named Davidson by their father, had become indispensable to the running of the property although no-one had ever heard him utter a word of English or any other language.
The spring scents heavy in the air were gradually replaced by the stench of burning. Edwina rubbed at her eyes. The smoke was strong on the morning breeze. It always seemed as if half the district was burning off a good part of every year. The continual clearing of the land, of scrub and prickly pear and trees was, she knew, a necessary task if people were to make a success of their properties. Particularly where the pear invaded, rendering the land useless for the grazing of stock or planting of crops. But all Edwina saw from this continual task of trying to tame the earth was more work. Work that stretched out endlessly from dawn to dusk. Except at the times when their father went to the town of Wywanna for business, presenting the all-too-rare opportunity of not keeping to the set of tasks allocated on a weekly basis.
Behind them Davidson kept a discreet distance.
‘Father is more worried about accidents or injury than one of us getting lost,’ Edwina pointed out. Their father, the recipient of a nasty fall some years ago when the horse he’d been riding shied at a snake, placed his salvation in Davidson’s hands. If the aboriginal had not been with him that day, he may never have been found.
Ahead, glimpses of creamy-beige could be seen through the trees. They rode in that direction, ducking under low branches as patches of sunlight stippled the tawny shades of the bush. Rabbits scuttled from underfoot and the red tinge of a fox dashed across their path as they reached one of the bore drains that spread across their land like an artery. It petered out into the distance as the thick brush slowly thinned to be replaced by more open country. It was a new world out here. Their father’s land improvements were evident. Belts of dead trees stretched forlornly away to their left like skeletal spines while across the bore drain, timber recently girdled by axes waited to die.
The ringbarkers’ camp came into view abruptly. It was a rough collection of battered tents pitched in an area practically devoid of trees. There was a smell of something rotting; the only sign of life a couple of smouldering cooking fires. Beyond that the sluggish water of the drain meandered into a distant haze.
‘It’s a bit . . .’ Edwina couldn’t think of the right word to describe the scene before them.
‘I told you you shouldn’t have come,’ replied Aiden.
An untidy line of washing partially rested in the dirt from where it was strung from sagging twine. Through the clothes a straggly looking dog appeared. More rib than animal, it barked at their arrival. From a tree hung an assortment of hessian bags, safe from ants and the dog.
‘Tea, treacle, flour, a bit of salted mutton. They don’t need much,’ commented Aiden, following her gaze. ‘Father said these blokes cook anything apparently – rabbits, goanna, kangaroo.’
Edwina nodded. ‘I’ve never tried goanna.’
‘This from the girl who when we were kids used to help me skin mice and pin their hides out to dry in the sun.’
‘That was different. We were playing mousies and I needed skins to trade as well,’ countered Edwina, although she couldn’t imagine doing such a thing now.
‘Be damned if a man should put up with that.’ The voice came from further along the bore drain. Men appeared from behind a stand of trees.
Edwina, beginning to urge her horse forwards, was stopped by Aiden’s hand on her arm.
‘Stay where you are, I’ll see what the commotion is about.’ Aiden rode off, leaving Edwina alone. Heidi-Hoe nickered restlessly as the starving dog circled, baring its teeth. She scanned the area. Davidson wasn’t to be seen. With a flick of the reins she trailed her brother.
A broad-shouldered man, with braces stretched sideways by the size of his stomach, was dangling a bag in the air. He stood two feet taller than the man opposite and was enjoying his opponent’s attempts to reef the bag from his grip. The smaller man was doing his best to jump into the air, much to the delight of the onlookers, who cheered him on with every attempt.
‘You can do it, Panny,’ they yelled. ‘C’mon, try harder!’
‘Give ’em back,’ Panny complained.
The spectators, an assortment of men who appeared never to have seen the inside of a barber’s shop, watched on with amusement.
‘Laugh if you want,’ Panny yelled, ‘but they’re your tatties too!’
As Aiden walked his horse towards the group, the teaser lowered the bag and the men fell back, muttering.
‘Well it’s the young cove himself, the boss’s son.’ The speaker thrust the sack into the smaller man’s hands. ‘Just having a bit of fun.’
‘Morning, Mr Sears,’ replied Aiden, addressing the contractor in charge of the gathered men.
Drawing level with her brother, Edwina felt the eyes of every man upon her. In response she sat up straighter in the saddle as one by one the men took stock of her appearance, before briefly tipping their hats. Some of the workers were reminded of the gentlemanly habit with a swift elbow in the sides. A couple smirked, two or three looked away. They shoved hands in pockets and mumbled.
‘Tatties.’ Panny clutched the bag. ‘He took our tatties.’
‘Well, you know what these Irish are like,’ Mr Sears said to Aiden, ignoring the complaint. ‘Anyway, it was just a bit of fun. I didn’t mean nothing by it. The men were grumbling ’cause Will Kew took off yesterday. So I thought I’d take their minds off him.’
‘Will Kew?’ Edwina repeated to her brother, aware of the men’s focus on her.
‘He was the cook,’ answered Aiden.
Edwina didn’t recall the man. They all looked the same to her, dressed in their raggedy work clothes.
‘Elected cook,’ Panny clarified. ‘Not that he was able, miss. I mean, how’s a boy supposed to cook a meal when he barely knows what food is? Comes from a soldier settler’s block over the border.’
‘So you need someone to take his place?’ asked Aiden.
‘I’m sure Mr Sears has things under control,’ said Edwina, her reply greeted with a scowl from her brother.
‘Took off he did, miss, to join the circus.’ Passing the sack of potatoes to one of the ringbarkers, Panny produced a folded newspaper from a coat pocket and presented it to Aiden. ‘If Will thought he had it bad on that starvation block of his pa’s, wait till he tries to find another job here. Said he didn’t like killing things. Killing things. Like a person has the right to pick and choose.’
Aiden read the section headlined in bold print, Colby’s Circus and Menagerie, before passing it to Edwina.
‘The Colby Brothers are coming Saturday,’ explained Panny. ‘Now I don’t know what day it is, but as Will’s gone, they must be coming soon. Didn’t wait for his pay or nothing.’ His tone was one of disbelief. ‘He’s owed five pound.’
‘Oh, that is a problem,’ said Aiden.
‘And how’s the ringbarking coming along, Mr Sears?’ Edwina handed the newspaper back to the Irishman. Difficulties with staff were not their concern. That was Mr Sears’ domain.
‘One thing this lot can do is kill trees. You tell your father that I checked them ones we did last year, miss.’ He gestured to the wasted shapes spotting the landscape. ‘Dead as a doorknob. They’re ready to be cut and the stumps dug out.’ He wiped at his nose with the back of his hand. ‘We’d be pleased to handle the job for you. You ask your father if a Chinese gang could work as quick as us or for the money, miss. And tell him I’ll be wanting to talk business when he’s able. I’ve been good to him I have. Real good.’
Edwina always thought of trees as such wise old plants. To destroy them just didn’t seem right, especially in such large numbers. Thinning she could understand, but this – she glanced at their surrounds – this was different.
‘Not your cup of tea, eh, miss?’ queried Mr Sears, studying her.
Edwina chose her words carefully. ‘It’s a pity to see so many killed.’
The contractor laughed, his large stomach rippling. ‘You and that young Will Kew are a fine pair.’ He turned to Aiden. ‘I’ve not seen your father for a good couple of days,’ he said. ‘You might ask him about that matter he and I discussed, Aiden. Put in a word for me?’
Aiden responded slowly. ‘I’ve not much say when it comes to my father, but I’ll mention it to him.’
Davidson reappeared, sitting patiently on his horse a few yards away. At the sight of the aboriginal the ringbarkers picked up their axes and wordlessly went back to work.
‘You best be off,’ Sears told them. ‘I don’t need no trouble with Davidson, the white-eyed crow. He keeps the blacks away from us and in return we keep our heads down.’
Edwina kept pace with her brother as they retraced their path back through the camp. ‘What was he talking about? There are no blacks out here.’
‘Some of the men reckon they’ve seen them. Glimpses, mind; probably their imaginations. There’re no blacks left here. The government’s rounded most of them up, well, apart from those working on properties.’
Behind them Davidson’s attention remained on the ring-barkers as they peeled off into the scrub. He was always watching everyone, all of the time. It unnerved some, although Edwina had grown used to his ways. An old man who’d once worked on the property told her that a crow could tell the difference between a good human and a bad, that they were able to communicate the same and were equally happy solitary or foraging within a group. Davidson was the loner kind, their white-eyed crow.
‘I told you that I would do the talking, Edwina,’ said Aiden. ‘It’s just not right you interfering like that.’
‘I’m sorry, Aiden, but Mr Sears is in charge. Father always says that our role is to simply make sure the work is progressing, listen to their grievances and –’
‘My role,’ corrected Aiden crossly.
They could have easily begun arguing; instead, Edwina held her tongue.
‘Anyway,’ said Aiden as they walked their horses towards the camp, ‘they’re a rough lot. Next time you better stay at home.’
‘Rough or not it doesn’t make any difference as long as they do the work,’ replied Edwina, ignoring her brother’s comment. ‘Though I can see why some landowners are replacing their ring-barking teams with Chinese contractors. I’ve heard that they’re cheaper, keep orderly camps and are quite subdued in comparison.’
‘I’d rather have men we know. Mr Sears wants to buy a block of land on the outskirts of Wywanna. Have a permanent base in the district,’ answered Aiden.
‘And he wants Father’s help,’ finished Edwina. They walked through the camp. One of the tents was torn badly, a gaping flap poorly stitched together. A copper sat overturned in the dirt and flies buzzed around an indistinguishable mass.
Edwina always hated it when they were developing land dense with timber. She had to remind herself that if the rains came at the right time, by next year the skeletal earth behind them would be flush with new vegetation and far more productive. If only that plant life were natural grasses and not more wheat. She would make a point of speaking to her father again about her idea. Clearing was a necessary evil out here. It was how you made country. But the way you used that land was even more important when it came to making a decent living.
The thwack of axes biting into wood grew in volume, echoing through the timber and scrub. Behind them the starved dog followed them to the camp’s edge and watched them leave.