Over the next day of riding upstream along Powell Creek, the weather changed from a sun-fired burning heat to a different kind of discomfort. A greasy layer of cloud stole across the sky from the north, and with it came a clinging, broiling humidity that kept up day and night. Shirts were drenched, and sweat ran in trails down Jim’s bare dark torso. When Lainey tucked her dress into her pantaloons no one was interested in commenting.
They found more than one waterhole along the creek, and several times Will, Jim, Sam and Lainey yarned from the saddle, discussing the merits of the place as a campsite. Will, however, was looking for true solitude, and he urged the others to ride on. This area, Ted had told them, was part of the vast Milo Station, and there were signs of stock and the cold fires of their keepers here and there.
Finally, however, they had to dismount to deal with increasingly wild terrain. Leading their horses they reached a small but deep waterhole, surrounded by craggy shelves of orange and grey stone. With no more signs of people or stock this looked like the perfect place to regroup, and for the little dog to heal.
In many ways this was a beautiful camp. It was certainly dramatic, with turkey bush amongst the stone faces, bright red lolly bush fruit and even fuchsia flowers where soaks bled from the cracks and dampened the soil. A pair of Major Mitchell cockatoos in a river red gum watched them come, a little wary at these unaccustomed visitors, and a brace of turtles dived into the deep.
Yet, for all that, it was a brooding place. An uncomfortable place. And there were other, more deadly creatures here.
As the travellers dismounted, they disturbed a big old mulga snake, and she lifted her blunt head, riven by the tessellated plates of her scales. Her tongue came and went from between hard lips, tasting their scent in the air. She viewed the interlopers with calculating eyes. It wasn’t often that humans came to these stony reaches. Reluctantly she left her favourite place on the warm stone and slithered away into the crags before they saw her. For the two decades of her life she had been queen of this place. Two-legged visitors were not welcome.
‘I don’t like it here, bloke,’ Jim said to Will as they lifted saddles from their horses and unburdened the packs. ‘Especially after what Ted said had happened here. I can almost hear the ghosts.’
Will did not disagree. ‘I know what you mean, but those old dead warriors got no complaint with us. They won’t mind us hidin’ out from the traps on their country.’
Jim made a face, ‘That Long Douglas is on our trail, I can feel it. Two nights here, maybe three, and no more. We have to move on.’
‘I agree,’ said Will. He knew Jim too well to dismiss his instincts.
Fat Sam was an artist with the fishing gear, and few things made him as happy as tying one of his needle-sharp hooks onto his catgut line, wound around an old rum bottle. After catching a pocketful of grasshoppers for bait, he threaded one wriggling specimen onto the hook and crouched at the edge of the pool, a study in concentration, one hand extended over the water, the line held by his forefinger.
That night they ate small grunter fish cooked on the coals, and for the dog Will prepared balls of fish mixed with dry gumbi gumbi leaves. Now, it seemed, the pup needed little encouragement to eat. He wolfed down the flesh as fast as Will could prise a lump off the backbone and roll it around to check for bones.
Then, long after the four had retired to their swags, Little Blue was restless, and Will tried to keep him still. Yet. there were things in the night the pup did not care for.
For just outside the firelight, that big old mulga snake slithered along the edges of the camp. Every inch of her was hard-country muscle, forged on rock and dust. Her fangs were hollow needles; her venom potent enough to kill a bullock.
The second day Little Blue was looking much better. He was beginning to scurry around the camp, and he had an appetite to match. Wandering off to look for meat, Will found a lost Milo ram in poor condition and alone. Having separated from the flock the animal had somehow evaded the many dingos in the area. It seemed to Will like a mercy when he dropped the animal with the Henry rifle.
Later, Will saw Jim working away at some greenhide.
‘Not like you to be doing any work,’ Will commented, lighting his pipe and squatting down to watch the other man’s nimble fingers.
The Gamilaroi man sneered, ‘I can work the legs off a lazy barsted like yourself, bloke.’
‘What are you making.’
‘A collar for the dog.’
And that, more than anything else, was a declaration that the pup was now with them to stay. He was well again, and his broken ribs healed. Will felt a wild sense of exhilaration in his chest. He had made the right decision to keep the dog and care for him.
‘I’ve still got a bad feeling though, bloke,’ said Jim. ‘I reckon we’d best make a push in the morning.’
Even Lainey, listening nearby, inclined her head. ‘I think we should too.’
That second night, while Will dozed in the sweaty heat, the little dog heard something disturbing. He left Will’s swag and listened again to a low rustling sound that bothered him deep in the pit of his gut. He walked to the edge of the firelight and there he saw the dark slithering shape. He started to growl, ominously for such a small dog.
Like all good snake dogs no one needed to teach Little Blue the danger, he knew it instinctively. The mulga snake – some people called them king browns – was as long as a man is tall, with an armoured head and black eyes that missed nothing.
The snake, for her part, smelled the warm bundle of fur and veered closer, as if to investigate a possible food source. Identifying the blue furred creature she stopped, tongue flicking from between her lipless mouth.
Little Blue stood his ground, growling deep in his throat, and when he jumped forward with his jaws open, white milk-teeth bared, he showed something of the fight he would have in his heart every day of his life.
As if knowing that she had met a greater creature, albeit a small one, the snake veered away. There were frogs near the water, and they did not have teeth.
© Greg Barron 2022