Memories of past terrors
The day was humid and overcast. Somewhere in the far distance thunder could be heard. The old man was seated at the table and toyed with his hearing aid as he read the racing guide. A transistor radio blared results of the October Cup at Randwick. His old Labrador retriever lay at his feet, its head hugging the cool linoleum floor. It was a simply furnished kitchen, unpainted and, but for the 1968 calendar by the fridge, unchanged since his wife's death ten years earlier. Through a door one could see into a lounge room. From its walls hung a framed set of war medals, a yellowed army photo, a Police Inspector's Certificate and a parchment testimony from Alcoholics Anonymous. A rather austere wedding photo had pride of place over the electric fire. Its subjects were dressed in all that could be found in the immediate post-war years and despite the smiles and flowers the portrait somehow seemed a sad one.
Outside a station wagon pulled up and a woman and two small children got out. She looked up at the blackening sky and retrieved a cake tin from the back seat. The kids scampered up the pathway while she paused to pull a newspaper wedged in the wire gate. They walked up to the veranda where the woman rang the bell before letting herself in. The old man heard nothing, but from his dog's wagging tail he guessed he had a visitor.
The children rushed in and kissed him.
'Hi grandad. It's getting dark out.' And to the dog, 'hello Min'- all said in one breath.
Delighted to see the children the dog picked up a ragged toy and made its way to the back door. The children followed giggling. Their mother kissed the man.
'I've brought a cake for your tea. Here's the paper.'
His daughter busied herself in kitchen as he opened the newspaper. A stark headline in huge print met his eyes: 'Tourists vanish near outback Queenstown'.
He read on.
'Minjip! He was right', he whispered.
Sorry dad, I didn't hear you', as his daughter turned up the gas flame under the kettle.
He closed his eyes and grimaced, letting the newspaper fall to the floor. Then, reaching for his walking stick and getting up, he slowly made his way outside. The children came inside again and began to play with the dog. Their grandfather went up the garden path and into his work shed. Carefully closing the door behind him and setting aside the walking stick he pulled open a drawer in a shabby cabinet. Taking out an old biscuit tin he opened it to reveal some yellowed newspaper cuttings. There was also a service revolver, carefully oiled and wrapped in a chamois, at the bottom of the tin. With trembling hands he took out the paper clippings. He peered closer, switched on a light and read them: 'Prospectors Missing'; 'Postman Vanishes'; 'The Mystery of the Tourist Car'; 'Police Mystified'; 'Strange happenings reported from Queenstown' and more such alarming articles. He swayed and grasped the top of his work bench. Then he carefully took the soft leather bundle from the tin and unwrapped the contents. From inside the house the kettle whistled as it came to the boil.
There was a loud gunshot from the shed. In the kitchen the woman looked up from cutting the cake as the old dog pricked up its ears and whined. One of the children began to cry. At just that moment there was huge thunderclap and all the neighbourhood dogs took up an unnerving howling. The lights in the kitchen went out as power to the street failed. The children suddenly felt afraid and hugged the trembling dog.
'Stay there you two! '
Their mother scrunched her apron as she went outside into the gloom and made her way to the shed.
The man woke from an uneasy sleep with a start as the train suddenly lurched, then screamed over a stretch of line. Outside the countryside baked in the unseasonal heat. He looked out through the dusty window onto the parched bush, unbroken except for the occasional clump of gum trees and, in the far distance, the ever-present purple haze sat brooding over the ranges. The jolt had woken the only other passenger in the compartment. The gentleman, sporting a clerical collar, leaned across.
'It looks like war in the next few years doesn't it? I don't think much of this Mr. Hitler', and he took up his crumpled newspaper again.
Sergeant Harry McGuire looked across blankly then glanced at his watch. The timepiece had been bequeathed to him by a father he never knew, one of hundreds of thousands of not-so innocents slaughtered in the Great War. The padre type looked up again.
'And are you fleeing the temptations and delights of Adelaide? Forgive me but are you are a salesman of some kind?'
'Police, detective branch.'
McGuire answered with little hint of interest in his interrogator. His fellow passenger, a man much experienced in the unspoken, took the hint and resumed his reading. But over his reading glasses he took in the policeman. He appeared to be in his early thirties, of athletic build but pale, even bookish to look at. He had about him an aura of not suffering fools gladly, wore a well-cut suit and sported a pair of highly polished brown boots. At his side rested a rather weathered hat.
'Goodness,' thought the reverend to himself, 'that outfit won't fare well in the bush.' And he resumed his efforts to tackle his crossword puzzle.
The daylight express rattled along, its passengers sweating in stiff collars and tight dresses, as the noon sun burnt above them. McGuire carried an air of boredom, even cynicism that belied his youth. He opened his coat jacket and, removing a small silver flask, took a swig from it, choosing to ignore a censorious glance from the padre.
The train slowed and there was movement in the corridor outside. The reverend stood and bowed slightly as he took a small bag and his hat from the rack above him.
'Well, this is my stop. It's been a pleasure. Have you far to go?' wiping his brow with a neatly folded handkerchief.
The younger man looked up. 'Queenstown,' then noticed the hint of a grimace on the reverend's face.
'You know it?'
'Well, not firsthand you know. A strange little place ... '
At that moment the conductor pushed the door aside: 'If you're getting off here gents, now's the time.'
The minister's comment had piqued the younger man's curiosity but the padre was making his way quickly down the corridor. As he passed alongside the train McGuire leaned out of the window.
'Strange? How so?'
He looked up and shouted, 'Oh, you know ...'
And at that moment he was met by a plump woman who was probably his wife. She furled a massive parasol which allowed her to peck him on the cheek. Her husband looked quickly back before the pair disappeared into the bleached weatherboard shed that served as the station.
From nowhere a dust-laden gust sprang up forcing him to shut the train window in the now empty compartment. He slumped back onto the hot leather seat and loosened his tie. Stretching across to the opposite seat he picked up the discarded newspaper and skimmed the news pages. There seemed to be a lot happening he thought, rather more than he remembered seeing in earlier years. The same football teams were winning, the usual droughts affected the usual places and the stock and land news was much the same; but the international news seemed to take on a greater urgency. He found the racing pages and read more intently before dozing off to the rattle of the rails.
As the train steamed along its silver tracks in the dust and the heat of the afternoon he fell into an uneasy sleep. Bizarre images of childhood monsters, a dim memory from the orphanage, impossibly huge and garishly labelled whisky bottles, boarding school days, the Police Academy. All these images flashed before him but against a dark, dark background. Nothing seemed to happen in the light of day. He woke as the train whistle blew, and not without a sense of relief. To his annoyance he felt slightly distressed and, taking a handkerchief from his pocket, mopped his brow. The conductor again poked his head through the door.
'I think this is your stop, mate.'
McGuire took down a well-travelled suitcase and a small leather satchel and, pushing his hat firmly down on his newly cut hair, started down the corridor. He was hit by the intense heat radiating through the glass windows, an uncomfortable sensation which only worsened when he left the train carriage, stepping into the searing afternoon sun. He walked quickly to seek the shade of the station veranda. Taking out his watch he noted the time, four o'clock. Someone surely should be picking him up. His office had sent a wireless message the day before. Typical outback slackness, he thought to himself. What a stupid place to build a railway station, thirty miles from Queenstown. But like many a bush railway station, the original surveyed route had been altered to suit the whim of a local politician who had been told (wrongly as it turned out) that a gold strike was imminent in the area. What did it matter? It was still in the wrong bloody place.
McGuire was now in a bad mood and, sullenly taking a seat on the only bench, he waited, reacquainting himself with the sounds of the bush. Stifling a yawn he looked about him. It had been almost a year since he had been outback and he had forgotten how stark and barren this red dust land could be. In high summer, still three months away, it sat passively in the heat daring anyone to trespass upon its ancient solitude. The unforgiving landscape hereabouts was almost unspoiled by man-made intrusions, apart from the thin silver thread of the solitary railway line.
Thirty miles, away the rail-less hamlet of Queenstown also baked in the late afternoon sun. The noise of cicadas, almost deafening for most of the day, began to fade and the first delicate fingers of pink, then red, started to creep over the horizon. The village (population 150) boasted only one dusty road, incongruously named Kitchener Street, after a fading empire's most illustrious military hero. Fronting it were the principal buildings of the town, all wood and undefiled by the bristles of a paintbrush. In order of importance these were the pub which boasted its own electricity generator and whose licensee was the ne'er-do-well Mick O'Shea; a general store; a shabby little office for the local stock and station agent, then came a chaff and grain merchant that had seen little of either commodity since the drought; and the police station, which had seen better days. A faded 'GR' with the royal cipher hung over the doorway proclaiming this place as the official bastion of law and order, at least for hundreds of miles around. A large petrol tank stood nearby. A cluster of sullen ramshackle weatherboard houses proclaimed civilisation in this remote part of the outback.
Two men sat drinking at the bar of the pub. Half a dozen other regulars sprawled around the few tables and chairs. An ancient piano which no-one could remember ever having being played sulked against a wall. The hotel's two most expensive assets, a huge mirror behind the bar and a large plate glass window that looked out onto the road provided the main sources of entertainment. Outside a caged cockatoo perched drowsily in its cage while indoors a drover's dog and a scarred mongrel of indeterminate age lay on the floor. Flies buzzed about while overhead a large solitary ceiling fan creaked its way around an uncertain orbit. A wireless crackled out the results of a horse race in far off Adelaide as O'Shea, like some nervous safe cracker, gingerly played with the dials to improve the reception.
'Give it up O'Shea,' joked Slim, ‘the damned thing is as old as you are. Why don't you buy a new one?'
'You miserable bugger,' added Johnno.
There were a few laughs but the publican dismissed them with a wave of his cigarette. Suddenly the old Bakelite shell let out a screeching noise. This woke up old Sandy who accidently kicked the mongrel which scampered outside. O'Shea rapidly removed his hand from the wireless fearing an electric shock.
'Damn thing, it's never done that before.'
The two bar flies resumed their earlier conversation. Johnno, widely regarded as a person with some comedic talent, pushed his wide-awake hat back from his brow and thrust a stubby finger into Slim's chest.
'It's like I told Blue, those city tourists have just got lost.'
'Nah mate there've done a bunk and beat it back to Adelaide. Too 'ot for 'em I reckon.'
'Well, you daft bugger, how do you account for their bleeding car which is still sitting out there?’
Choosing to ignore Slim's impeccable logic, Johnno turned around.
'What ya think Sandy?' as he looked across the room.
Sandy, a long-time resident of generous proportions thought for a while before deftly swatting a fly which had foolishly settled to drink from a beer stain.
'But what about them three prospectors though?'
Clarrie Taylor, who had been gazing absently through the picture window suddenly turned around to join the inquest.
'Reckon they found something valuable and scarpered.'
At this everyone turned to the speaker for, apart from ordering his beer, the unshaven mechanic, was rarely heard to speak. But Slim was having none of it.
'Dunno mate. Old Harry was in last night from Berringa. He reckons it's the same as wot 'appended to the postie, old DeVries. 'E just winged it to 'eaven.'
O'Shea looked up from polishing a glass with a grubby rag and smiled. Taylor rolled his eyes heavenwards. Johnno put down his glass as if to signify an important point in the discussion.
'We've all known Dutchy for years and he was a damn good postman too, honest and never missed a mail run. It's not like 'im, just to leave his truck like that with all that mail, parcels 'n stuff. There's something queer going on.'
Slim sipped his beer then opined: 'Well if a black tracker, three boys in blue and 20 men from Baragaloola Station couldn't find anything last week, I don't like their chances of anyone surviving this long without water - not even Dutchy.'
Taylor added: 'Apparently they're sending some wallah up special from Adelaide to 'elp out the local constabulary solve the mystery.'
Johhno took a swig, wiped his mouth and motioned to O'Shea for another beer.
'God knows the police 'ere need all the 'elp they can get. Dopey buggers!'
They all laughed and Sandy sent another fly to its maker.
A chance discovery
Two months earlier three fossickers, all old-timers from New South Wales, had set out in their truck and travelled some 30 miles out of Queenstown to a nearby range to explore for gold and silver deposits. It was widely believed that there was gold in the hills and the trio was not the first to look for it. Their plans were their own and, born of long experience, they were cagey as to their actual destination, leaving the locals to speculate where they might be headed. They had sufficient provisions for a month. They would return to Queenstown every so often to top up their rations, collect any mail and (God willing) send samples back to an assay office in Adelaide. Once at the range they set up camp of the base of a fairly steep rock face and for the next two weeks settled into their usual routine. The pre-war survey map from which they were working lacked considerable detail but they at least knew where they were. The map proclaimed the name in fine red letters: Mount Madingee.
For several days nothing happened of any note but then on a particularly hot Saturday just after a late breakfast, one of them, Fred Waller looked up from damping down the camp fire. He strained his ears. The other man peered out from a tent flap, also listening.
'I thought I heard Tom.'
'Fellas,' came a far-off shout from halfway up the cliff face, 'come up quick!'
The two came up panting, Harry Warne still only in pants and singlet.
Their mate Tom Weller beckoned them on.
'I found a bloody cave,' he shouted excitedly. Fred and Barney Farrell looked at each other and scrambled through the long, dry grass. They found Tom clearing away some dead branches.
'I can see a big hole through there you can feel the draught coming out.'
Fred scratched his head.
'Probably nothing; there are hundreds of bloody holes in these hills.'
'Well,’ added Harry, ‘we've found bugger all since we got here, why not throw in a stick or two and see what happens?'
Curiously excited by this find, they all nodded and Barney went back down to retrieve a detonator, some fuses, three sticks of mining dynamite and a couple of lanterns.
Half an hour later, their charges set, the men sheltered a hundred yards away behind a rocky outcrop. The explosion when it came echoed loudly, sending dense flocks of screaming birds into the air. Once the dust settled there was an eerie quiet. Even the cicadas had paused their incessant clacking. The trio moved in to what appeared to be a large cave, still protected by a massive overhang despite the explosion. Fred went in first.
'Well I'll be blowed.'
'Aggh,' Barney dodged a fleeing bat while he and Tom adjusted their kerosene lanterns. Fred brought his up close to the wall of the cave.
'Blimey, what the ..?'
The lamplight fell on the image of a greenish winged figure measuring several feet in height. Further along the walls of what appeared to be a very large cave were hundreds of weird hand-painted stick figures, some striking bizarre poses. Others appeared to be running away from the central winged figure.
'Tom, you better get back to town and let them know we found something big here. You can bring back some booze and another pick while you're at it.'
As he gave these directions, Barney moved his lantern close to the painting. Suddenly it glowed with an eerie, threatening luminescence. Tom started to run out as a huge shadow passed outside. The prospectors' screams could be heard as yet more flocks of panic-stricken birds took to the air. The ranges thereabouts continued to echo the ghastly screams of man and bird.
Expecting a Visitor
Two months later, in the police station at Queenstown, a young constable was listening to a large radio set in the corner of the long, low room which passed for an office.
'Reception's bad today sarge, I can't reach Yarulla Station.'
Police Sergeant Murphy nodded.
'Well I expect it will clear. I don't want to have to send anyone out there, a bloody two-day drive, for nothing.'
The young black tracker Minjip sat on the floor carefully cleaning a rifle while another constable was just visible through an open door tinkering with the motor of a police vehicle that had seen better days. The car bonnet shuddered gently in the heat. Then, from inside, the telephone rang. Police Sergeant Murphy shouted through the door.
'Alright Smithy, he's at the station. Go out and fetch him.'
Bert Smith looked up and grinned.
'Righto sarge. First time ever the train's been on time! Might be a good sign.'
'Good sign of what? Don't be daft,' came the retort.
Outside, the car left in a cloud of red dust leaving a trio of yapping dogs in its wake. The sergeant looked down over his desk at Minjip who, unperturbed by this break in station routine, continued to work on the rifle.
'You be bloody careful with that, Minjip!’
The young tracker ignored him.
Murphy put the telephone down and looked at Constable O'Malley who had forsaken the wireless set and perusing a large wall map. He turned to his chief.
'You reckon this bloke is all he’s cracked up to be Sarge?'
'Well, he's cracked, likes to hit the bottle, I hear. Anyhow we'll soon see. Otherwise I'm for the chop. Nine people missing in the space of a month. Not a clue to be had and no-one has seen bugger all. Tourists I can understand, but prospectors?'
It was almost five o'clock and the station platform, if that's what a piece of boardwalk could be called, was deserted except for the stationmaster and the lone figure of Police Sergeant Harry McGuire. He pulled out his flask again and glanced at his wristwatch, then at the station clock. The stationmaster, holding a tobacco pipe, came up.
'I telephoned Queenstown police and they're sending a man. I expect he’ll be here directly.'
McGuire nodded and the railway man scrutinised the sergeant for a long moment before re-lighting his pipe and going inside his tiny office. Sometime later a battered car, its identity revealed by faded white letters on the driver's door, pulled up. Constable Smith stuck his head out and cheerily inquired:
'Detective Sergeant McGuire?'
There was a long silence.
The young constable looked uncomfortable and quickly buttoned up his tunic.
McGuire placed his suitcase in the boot and eased himself into the well-worn front seat.
'Lost a few people I hear?'
'Yeah, people goin' down like skittles. First, some prospectors, then our local mailman and now a carload of tourists. The boss is beside himself. That's why he sent for you. But I expect you know all that?'
'That's right, I do.'
Smith turned to start the car when the stationmaster, cleverly mimicking a run, approached them, a parcel under his arm.
'Oh Smithy, this came yesterday, I almost forgot it. Take it into town, there's a good chap.'
'Righto. Blimey, a parcel for the police tracker.'
The constable took it gingerly, gave it a shake and looked closely at the postmark. Suddenly aware of McGuire's steely gaze, he threw it over the seat into the back.
'Mail for Minjip? Well, well...'
'Any time you're ready, constable.'
Smith turned the car around and started back, escorted by the habitual red dust.
'Who is Minjip?'
'Our black tracker. You'll meet him soon.'
McGuire took a swig from his flask while Smith quickly looked away. Suddenly the car swerved to avoid a large roo.
'Christ man, be careful!'
'First time outback sergeant?'
'No, as a matter of fact.'
An hour later the car drew up at the police station. Sergeant Murphy was at his desk with his head between his hands and Minjip, now drowsy with sleep, sprawled on a bench. Both looked up as car doors slammed. McGuire and Constable Smith entered. Murphy made to stand but thought better of it — after all, the newcomer was the same rank, city man or not. Minjip, now alert, studied this city detective intently as Murphy extended a hand.
'Welcome to Queenstown. We've never had a real detective here before.'
It did not take much to identify the sarcasm.
'Well now you have.'
A thin smile disappeared from Murphy's face as Smith tossed the parcel at Minjip.
'Bit early for Christmas mate. Or is it a birthday present?’
They might never know as Minjip simply put down the parcel unopened and nodded off again.
O'Malley looked across at Smith and then jerked his head in the newcomer's direction inquisitively. Smith quickly motioned a drinking action with his hand before addressing his chief.
'Well I'm off Sarge. I'll check on any news on those missing cattle again in the morning.'
'You do that Smithy. Maybe you can take Sergeant McGuire with you. You know, show him the lay of the land.'
The police radio crackled and then a woman's voice could be heard faintly. O'Malley went over to the set and put on a pair of earphones while he turned several knobs.
McGuire listened momentarily then observed:
'So, you have a telephone, radio and telegraph. You're doing all right for communications.'
Murphy pushed back his chair.
'Not quite. The telegraph follows the railway line, so the station where you just come from acts as a repeater station with the stationmaster doubling as a linesman. We have only one telephone line, which connects us to the railway station. All the big homesteads hereabouts can contact us by wireless, as you can hear. And that's how we got you here.'
McGuire brushed himself down.
The station sergeant stood up.
'We got you staying at the local pub mate. Alright?'
McGuire nodded and picked up his suitcase and satchel. As he did so, the silver of his flask gleamed from an inside pocket. He looked angrily at the young tracker.
'Well, what are you looking at?'
Minjip stared silently for a few moments then looked at Murphy.
McGuire was unsettled by the stare.
'Don't mind him, McGuire. He's a good man and a damn fine tracker, a bit uppity but the best around these parts. Isn't that so, Minjip?’
Minjip ignored both men and started to oil a bridle. Then he looked up and declared slowly:
'You’ll find nothing here, mister — only death.'
Murphy looked almost apologetically at McGuire and shrugged.
'Blimey, what a welcome. Always one for a joke, eh Minjip?'
Getting down to it
It was still early morning as the police car, again driven by the ever-cheerful Constable Smith, left a tiny town still struggling to shake off the sweaty heat of the night. The car first passed through a grassy plain, sticking to the rough track which served as the highway. Soon several high ranges came into view, their upper slopes reflecting dull ochre colours in the early sun. Belts of green gums made their uncertain way up those slopes which harboured patches of soil.
McGuire had spent the night going though the various case notes which bulged in his satchel. He was clad in moleskin trousers, boots and a cotton shirt, and his sweat-stained hat. Deep in thought, he absently waved the first of the morning's flies away. Minjip sat in the back, eyes closed.
'So, cattle must always go missing around here?'
'All the time. But never so many at once. Cattle duffers usually take out a dozen or so and that's it for a season. But not almost 1,000 head of beef. And this time no tracks, not a flaming hoof print would you believe ...?'
Minjip stirred and then nodded as the car hit a bump.
'I reckon this heap won't last the year. Ya know old Gert is probably the oldest police vehicle in the state, if not Australia?'
McGuire turned to the budding historian.
'Isn't your tracker a bit young for this type of work?'
Minjip looked up and Smith chanced a glance in the rear vision mirror for any reaction to this claim.
'Minjip? Nah, one of the best in these parts.'
'Well, he's not doin too well at the moment is he? Missing people, missing stock ...'
Minjip leaned forward, so close that the detective could smell his sweat.
'This not like normal job, mister. Something not right. No track, no marks ...'
Further along they came across two riders and Smith craned his head out of the car window.
'Oi fellas, any sign of your cattle?'
A sun-beaten boundary rider brought his horse up alongside the car and leant down from his saddle.
'Not a bleeding hair.'
His mate nodded and rolled a cigarette.
'It's not natural, a whole lotta stock like that, especially when they were looking for feed.'
He lit his fag.
'Just not natural.'
'Ah, give over, Ted,' smirked the constable.
Maguire leant over.
'Anybody with them when they disappeared?'
The rider crouched lower over his saddle so he could see McGuire.
'Nah mate, we had gone back to camp for tea. They were settled for the night.'
The other rider chipped in.
'Well there was Maizie, one of the dogs. She was with them. But there's no sign of her either.'
McGuire took this in then asked, 'How far away was your camp?'
'About three miles I reckon.'
'Not far then?' as McGuire made notes. 'Close enough to hear anything then?'
The riders looked at each other and the smoker spoke.
'Look Smithy, you can tell your mate there we didn't hear or see nothin.'
'Wait,' added his mate, ‘the dogs went spare for a while, 'owled like it was end of the world. You remember.'
'Oh yeah,’ recollected the other rider, ‘there was that, but nothing else happened.'
Smith started the car. Minjip remained silent.
'Well, if you hear or see anything, let us know.'
'Oh, we will. Old man Ridgeway will sack the lot of us if we don't find em soon.'
The riders reined their horses back and continued on their way.
McGuire put his notebook back in his pocket.
'Those two trustworthy you think?'
'Yeah, they’ve been here for years, since before I was posted to the damned place. I wouldn't say they were suspect.'
They passed a deserted stone building partly in ruins. McGuire nodded at Smith and pointed.
'The old telegraph station. It's one of our mysteries, eh Minjip?’
According to the locals, in 1898 all five men working there suddenly up an' left with no rhyme or reason. At least that's what they say. Apparently they never turned up at their homes down south neither.'
'Debil man take 'em, boss.'
Smith looked over his shoulder.
'Ah bullshit,' then, looking at the detective: ‘The blacks never go near the place.’
McGuire turned to a now frightened Minjip. Smith went on as he negotiated the narrowing track.
'After the railway came through Peterborough just before the war, the telegraph company just left it. Came and took out the equipment, furniture and stuff and left. They say nothing will grow there. Even the dogs won't have a bar of the place.'
He then pointed to a nearby hill.
'According to the station manager, that was where the herd was last seen.' And then he paused. 'Mount Madingee mean anything in the local lingo Minjip?’
'This not my country, but tribe here say it mean "Evil spirit". Real bad place.'
They all looked up at it for a while.
McGuire asked: 'Anyone else go missing around here before? I mean apart from the prospectors, the telegraph team, the mailman and the tourists?’
'You’ll have to check with the boss. See if the police records go back that far. A few old timers say some drovers and prospectors went missing in days gone by, but it's hard to tell what's true and what's bull dust; plenty of it around here. I reckon a lot of it is just pub talk. God, it's hot.'
Half an hour later he brought the car to a standstill in a swirl of powdery red dust.
'Well, here's where your tourists got off.'
Raking over old coals
They had stopped near some ancient farm machinery, a pile of rusty food tins and an iron bedstead of indeterminate age. But it was a red, late-model Dodge seven-seater that caught McGuire's eye. They got out. Smith dusted himself down and Minjip stretched.
'Well, this is the place as far as we can work out.'
'Work out?’ asked McGuire, also brushing off a coating of dust.
'The missing tourists from Sydney. This is the place where they left off.'
'How do you know?'
'Well, that's their vehicle,' and he waved a hand at the abandoned car. Minjip and his boys went all over this area and found nothing: no tracks, no footprints, no tyre marks and ... no bullshit.'
Smith smiled to himself.
'What about belongings, money ...?'
'Well, that was the strangest part. We found almost £120 in wallets 'n such. Half a dozen water canteens too and five cans of petrol. That's when the boss called Adelaide and asked the inspector to send us a proper Sherlock Holmes.'
Minjip hung back a little, his eyes far away.
'Debil man take 'em, mister.'
McGuire shook his head and walked over to the car and began to examine it forensically.
‘Why is the car still here? Apart from it being evidence, it must be worth money; it's almost new. You don't have car thieves out here?'
'A temptation yeah, but this thing has everyone spooked. No-one will go near it, a bit like the old telegraph station. Besides, a new Dodge would be easily recognised.'
'Not likely in this heat and dust.'
'Well, did you look?'
'You'd have to ask the boss.'
For a while Minjip remained in the police car gazing apprehensively at Mount Madingee, the summit of which could now be seen off in the distance above the scrub and trees. McGuire lit a cigarette and drew on it heavily. Then, clambering into the abandoned car, he poked and prodded. Minjip's curiosity piqued he got out while Smith tinkered with the engine of the police car.
McGuire shouted to his colleague.
'Don't want to join me, constable?'
'If it's all the same, I'll play with old Gert here. I've spent enough time going over everything at this God-forsaken place,' and his head disappeared beneath the car bonnet.
Minjip squatted on the ground pouring dust and gravel through a black hand. Occasionally he looked up but remained silent and alone with his thoughts.
Calling to Smith from inside the tourists' car, McGuire inquired: 'No-one live hereabouts? I mean a homestead or such?’
From under the bonnet came:
'The Ridgeways run 20,000 head of cattle from their station over yonder, but it's a good 40 odd miles from here. Then there's the army camp down the track that way,' motioning north.
'Army camp? Out here?'
'Yeah some diggers surveying and making maps, don't ya know? About 30 of 'em, I think. Some officer came in to meet the sarge a few weeks back. They pretty much keep to themselves. Hit the booze hard went they get to town, but no trouble though. Too far away to be a nuisance, I reckon.'
McGuire was turning up the car seats as Smith moved to a Eucalypt, sat down and took a drink from a canvas water bag. The detective opened the car boot and picked about with his pocket knife.
'Spare tyre never been used and a couple of blankets. No food, though.’
At this Minjip looked up.
‘Boss and me take tucker back to town. No good here and too good to waste, mister. There was cheese and a ham too,' as he rubbed his stomach. 'Boss let me take some sugar and flour too.'
Smith slammed the bonnet shut.
'There was some booze too, wine 'n stuff. We kept that.'
'Where is it now?'
'Well, we sorta polished it off. '
McGuire closed his knife.
'It was all evidence. Didn't they teach you anything?'
The constable paused, then explained. 'There’s nowhere in town we could’ve kept it all from going off.'
McGuire grunted and started to walk in a widening circle around the tourists' car.
'And you say there were no tracks? Nothing at all.'
Minjip came over to the detective.
'Mister we look everywhere. When we got here all dust smooth, no marks except lizard tracks and some roo shit. We stay out here three day or more. Me and the boss rode all the way from here to there,' pointing at the ranges.
'And what about in the other direction?'
The tracker nodded.
'Nothing, mister. For a smart city fella, you don't listen much.'
Smith came over with a small hamper, a packet of tea and a billy and gave them to Minjip.
'Make yourself useful and start a fire. I'm dying for a brew.'
They ate sandwiches and drank their tea in silence.
McGuire shot out his leg to relieve a sudden cramp. As he rubbed it, he looked at Smith.
‘What about this army camp? They know or hear anything?’
‘Well the sarge went up to interview them. One of the survey parties reckon they spotted a red car a few days before it was reported missing. They were up on that hill over there, so they must have had a good view.’
‘When they saw it, it was moving, heading in this direction. They didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary.’
McGuire scribbled in his notebook as they retraced their steps to the car. It was late afternoon before they returned to the oven that was now the police car. Smith coaxed its engine into action.
'You finished here then, mister?' asked Minjip.
'For now. From what you saw, that car isn't going anywhere. By now every man and his dog knows of a red Dodge in the area.'
'By the way, what happened to the postman's truck? DeVries?'
'Well, after we had a good look around, the sarge got Constable O'Malley to drive it into town.'
'I don't remember seeing it at the station.'
'You wouldn't. We impounded it, but then the postal people came up from Dirragoa and reclaimed it. They must be desperate. That truck was almost as old as poor Dutchy.'
'And there has been no-one else out here? No more tourists, prospectors ...?'
Smith changed gear and shrugged. They drove back to Queenstown. For a while no-one there was silence, but for the car's engine. The dust had forced them to keep the car windows shut and McGuire gazed out. This was a brutal land he thought, of straggly vegetation and stunted trees and harsh colours. It was a place of extremes. During the day it sat flat and silent except for the wind and the birds. At night it took on an eerie stillness while above shooting stars arced their way across a sky of midnight blue. He took out his notebook.
Annoying a detective
McGuire made some pencilled notes when the bumps allowed him to write.
'Hmmm. So now it's just local folk about?'
Smith shot a quick look at Minjip.
'Oh, there's a team of archaeologists come up from Melbourne University a week ago. They've been scratching around at the base of Mount Madingee, but on the other side of where we are, as far as I could make out. They dropped in to tell us of their arrival. Pretty toffy lot too. Nice lookin' sheila among them tho.'
McGuire looked put out.
'Archaeologists? This is news to me. I wasn't told about any boffins being in the area. Sergeant Murphy didn't mention it.'
'Well,' retorted Smith, flicking his cigarette stub away, 'they ain't missing are they? Well, not yet.'
'Five, I think.'
Before McGuire could answer, Smith added: 'I was on patrol when they spoke with the boss.'
This did not amuse his city-bred passenger who took out his flask only to find it empty.
'Bugger,' he swore to himself.
As the car made its way over one of the worst tracks, Smith turned to the tracker, who sat, eyes closed on the back seat next to his recently delivered parcel.
'You ever gonna open that Minjip? You could have left it at the station you know.'
Smith persisted. 'Birthday?'
Smith quipped. 'Well, don't keep everyone in suspense. What's in the bloody thing?’
Even McGuire was intrigued now and leaned back. Minjip glared then carefully uncovered a decorated wooden hunting stick from under an old blanket on the car seat.
'Well, hold it up.'
McGuire thought it looked familiar. Smith squinted into the rear-vision mirror then had to swerve to avoid a rock.
'A Nulla Nulla, right?'
Minjip nodded solemnly.
McGuire leaned back to take it but Minjip snatched it away and looked fiercely at McGuire.
'Special, white fella no touch' and he carefully wrapped it again.
Smith looked into the rear mirror again.
'Don't get uppity, Minjip. I got a waddy too. Called a truncheon.'
He smiled at McGuire as he changed gear.
Apart from the lack of animation, the only feature of Queenstown was a small circular island of dry grass in the middle of the road at its southern end. What little traffic that came through the town had for decades simply driven around it. This spot was dominated by a huge and ancient gum tree which stood tall and dignified, providing welcome shade for those who sought it. These were almost always members of what remained of a local tribe of Aborigines, wiry and scarred people whose ancestors had counted this land as their own for millennia. It was customary for elders and children to squat under its spreading branches and talk, recount their stories of the dreamtime or just doze during the heat of the day. A couple of half-starved dogs made up the rest of their party. At night these folk silently vanished into the bush. No-one knew where and no-one troubled to ask.
From the shade of the tree this group watched silently as the car stopped in front of the police station and the newcomer, the constable and the tracker got out. Minjip clasped a tightly wrapped parcel to his chest as he looked their way. It was now dusk. The small fire around which the Aboriginal group sat, suddenly flared up, sending red sparks into the tree canopy. Two elders leapt to their feet and looked up as if searching the sky. They were fearful and animated talking followed. Not one of those who most needed to know heard it or would have understood even if they had. Well before their accustomed time to leave the town the group walked quickly off, the men still looking up anxiously. Their departure did not go unnoticed. Sandy, seated at his usual perch behind the pub window had seen their hasty retreat. Talking to nobody in particular, he surmised:
'Something's spooked that lot.'
At the same time Sandy made his observation, the wireless in the pub suddenly screamed again. O'Shea moved to turn the volume down, but still the ear-splitting sound continued. As if on cue, his pet cockatoo started to screech, working the yellow plumes on its head in a frantic back and forward motion as it danced along its perch. While O'Shea fought with the wireless there was a chorus of 'turn it up' and 'turn it down' from the clique of late afternoon drinkers. Finally, in despair, the publican ripped the appliance from the wall and smashed it on the floor. Everyone looked slightly stunned, but the short-lived silence was broken as the town mongrels sent up a chorus of howling and barking, the like of which had not been heard before — even by Queenstown's only octogenarian.
Sandy passed a plump hand across his unshaven face and with the other put down his glass and looked out of the window to a storm-laden horizon. But this was not the season for rain or storms. O'Shea began to sweep up the remains of his beloved wireless when there was a crack of thunder which sent the dogs scampering. An uneasy quiet settled then over the town. The Aborigines had long since vanished to the sanctuary of the bush.
Another unheard-of event then occurred when Doris, Slim's long-suffering wife, appeared with some trepidation outside the pub door and peered in. There was a brief lull in the conversation in the pub as all eyes looked towards the haggard woman.
'Slim, you better come home, there's trouble. The roof has caved in with that awful thunder burst and I can't find the dog anywhere. Please come home.'
Slim apparently had a bad war and had returned in 1917 suffering 'shell shock'. He was known as a wife-beater and everyone was amazed that she had stayed with him, ‘through thick and thin’ as she remonstrated, ‘as I said in my marriage vows'. It was also common knowledge that Slim's most treasured possession was his pure-bred cattle dog. It was rarely seen running loose in the town. It was this news that dislodged him. It was almost closing time anyway, so most of his mates followed him out into the gloom. Then there was another colossal clap of thunder, this time shaking the lamp in the pub ceiling while the fan suddenly stopped. O'Shea noticed his patrons drifting towards the door. In an effort to make light of everything, he cheerily announced: 'See you in the morrow.'
Nonetheless, he cast an anxious look towards the sky. Taking a brush he began to pick up the pieces of his beloved wireless, its bulbs and valves smashed beyond repair. His hands shook.
A little before this drama was played out, three dust-shrouded men had got out of their car and entered the police station down the road. Sergeant Murphy looked up, then resumed reading his newspaper, affecting disinterest in the party's arrival. Smith hung up his belt on the wall rack while the other policeman, Constable Bill O'Malley, came in, bucket in hand from cleaning out the station's solitary cell at the back of the building. He lit two lamps.
'Find anything, then?'
McGuire moved past O'Malley to study the map on the wall. Then, to nobody in particular, he turned.
'Nothing to speak of, but I have two questions though. First, why wasn't I told about the party of archaeologists, and second, Constable Smith mentioned some prospectors missing around 1918. I don't suppose your “records” go back that far?'
Murphy put down his paper.
'Answer to one, the tomb raiders have only recently arrived and we know where they are. Number two, I wouldn't read too much into that stuff in 1918. Fossickers come and go you know, gold, tin ...'
McGuire interrupted: 'what about that postman of yours, DeVries?' Sergeant Murphy settled back in his chair and put his arms behind his head.
'DeVries, Karl, born in Amsterdam and migrated here in 1913; served in the war with some engineer outfit and came home with a swag of medals. Good, reliable chap was DeVries.'
'Well he could fix anything and knew his way around, but no white fella survives alone out there for this long and comes back to report in. Anyway if it's archives’ he emphasised the word with a haughty look ‘you're looking for, we have case books back to the war and before that just a few notebooks. This was a one-man post for years, right up to the war, I think.'
He swatted a fly with some violence then continued
'Bill, go out the back and bring in all the old case books and, while you’re there, re-set that rat trap.'
Then to McGuire: 'The billy's on the boil if you're up for a brew.'
The detective removed his hat and sat down, dumping his satchel next to him. Minjip had already settled in his customary place in the corner from where he observed McGuire pour a mug of tea.
'Three sugars for me mister' smirked the tracker. McGuire scowled but moved to a chair. A few moths fluttered about the lamplight. O'Malley returned some time later, carrying a slim and grimy bundle of leather-bound station logs, notebooks and dusty files. McGuire took them to a table and after shaking out a few insects, dead and alive, began leafing through them.
The station sergeant got up and took his hat from the hook.
'How's the pub, then? God knows it's not the Hotel Australia. Missus says come over for a meal one night, although I don't expect you’ll be here long?'
McGuire looked up with a thin smile and nodded.
'Alright, you're on. Mrs Murphy may expect me tomorrow night.'
Murphy put on his hat, handed McGuire a key and left with both constables.
'You don't leave anyone here on duty overnight?'
'No need. It's not King's bloody Cross you know,' came the reply from outside.
'Lock up when you're done.'
McGuire went to the door.
'Where's that black tracker of yours?’
'Probably gone walkabout.'
'Not very reliable then?'
'Reliable enough. Never fear, he always turns up when we need him. He knows before we do when something's up. G'night.’
McGuire turned up the lamp and started to sift carefully through the pile of books. He came to a small notebook labelled '1898' and began leafing through its yellowed pages. He stopped at a pencilled entry for 17 October:
'Station hand reports tools and swags of three prospectors found south-west of Mount Madingee. Rode out to investigate, nothing found. Probably moved on.'
The next few words were unreadable because of a greasy smudge. McGuire paused and looked at up the fly-stained ceiling. He instinctively felt for his flask before remembering it was empty. He made a note to himself to buy a bottle of whisky from O'Shea when he went back to his bed at the pub.
Frustrated, he opened the drawers of Murphy's desk. There was nothing, not even a glass. I wonder where he keeps his booze, McGuire asked himself. Then, closing a drawer and putting his arms behind his head, he leant back in his chair and slowly closed his eyes. Images of Mavis flooded back; her bright round face, wide smile and burnished hair, the tiny dimple at the base of her chin. But soon, less pleasant memories intruded of orphanage days, beatings and bullying. These leapt in his mind to images of his boarding school days. There the bullying continued but the food was better. Blessed with an aptitude for learning, he read voraciously and, in his second-last year was able to win a scholarship. Unfortunately, further bullying meant that he was involved in a serious fight with another lad. This led to the loss of his scholarship and his schooling. He was at a loose end until a friend of an aunt, a retired police inspector, suggested that he might do well in the force. Two years later he met Mavis at a church ball and the two had stepped out together. It was all above board and there was of course no scandal, even though her family were strict Roman Catholics. There was no doubting their love though and everyone expected a marriage. But then came a tragic accident when she died after being knocked down by a tram. With no family to console him he turned to the distillers for comfort.
He woke with a start to see Minjip peering furtively through the open window from outside.
'Ah, it's you. What are you sneaking about for?'
'I'm not sneaking, mister, I doss out the back. I come to tell you that local people afraid. They say bad things happening. Debil awake at Madingee.’
McGuire was tired and irritable.
'For God's sake man, piss off with your mumbo jumbo and let me work.'
He felt for his flask again and flung it to the floor. It was now completely dark outside, banks of clouds hid the usual array of stars and McGuire nodded off into a fitful sleep until he was woken by a nightmare. He sat up and mopped his brow and reached for the water bottle, partly to distract himself and partly to splash some water over his face. He turned the lamp up and went on reading the last of the old files.
A dig gone wrong
The next day the sun shone fiercely, not just on the torpid inhabitants of Queenstown, but on a more industrious little group some miles away, in fact in the shade of Mount Madingee, the other side of which McGuire had visited the day before.
Two topee-hatted men were looking at debris outside a cave, while at their camp below a bespectacled woman discussed some drawings with a colleague, a tall, gaunt figure sporting a Wolseley helmet and very long shorts. They were both seated on camp stools around a trestle table. A few maps were spread out, weighed down with pieces of rock. He had uncased a theodolite and was adjusting its slender trestle legs. She spoke:
'Do you notice anything odd?'
Her colleague adjusted his glasses without looking up.
'No, it's the bush, nothing odd ever happens out here.'
'But yesterday I could scarce think but for the noise of cicadas, and then the birds.'
'Listen. Nothing, there is absolutely no noise; no insects, no galahs and look at that plate, not even a blowfly.'
'I grant you no flies. Now that is unusual Dr Robson,' and he laughed.
But the sudden stillness made them uncomfortable. They concentrated on the map before them as the lady archaeologist sipped her tea from a mug.
'Dr Worrall, I think we might do better if we move around to other side of the range. Its cliff does not face north and therefore will be less weathered. It may hold more promise of surviving wall paintings or hand prints.’
Dr Robson replied:
'I agree, let's do that. We can pack up this afternoon and motor around there. Schulz will be put out though. He seemed convinced we might find something of note here. After all, he was here only last year and spoke with people of the local tribe. This is a special place for them.'
Then, shouting up to the cave, he cupped his hands and yelled.
'Come down, you two. We are going to strike camp.'
The reply echoed along the cliff face.
'Wait Robson, you should come up. We may have found something.'
Worrall and Robson made their way along the base of cliff and climbed the remaining hundred yards to where their colleagues, Rowntree and Schulz, were crouched down looking at the ground.
Perplexed, Rowntree looked up.
'Odd. This cave has been opened up and only very recently. Look at the debris.'
Worrall lifted small pieces of rock to his nose and sniffed them.
'This rock has been blown up by dynamite. And not more than a few days ago, either.'
Robson looked about her.
'Strange, there's no sign of anyone else here. No vehicle, no tools. Not even a campfire.’
Robson stood up.
'Well, let’s go in and see what we shall see.’
Schulz and Worrall took flashlights out of their pockets and led the way over the newly crushed rocks and other debris which marked the freshly found entrance of the cave.
At first their torches picked up nothing, but as they moved deeper they were able to discern several images, most of them primitive ochre-coloured hand prints. They split into pairs, each taking one side of the cave as it widened out the further in they went. There was a draught of air, so cool after the heat outside. Several bats, startled by the torchlight, made for the sky. It was not long before the beam of Schulz's torch fell onto a huge indigenous painting of an eerie winged figure. He and Rowntree stepped closer.
'Look here, it could have been painted yesterday.'
'I say, this is odd, its head has been completely scratched out.'
'And look at the colours, I've never seen anything like it,' added Robson and he and Worrall joined them.
'Why, it’s almost pulsating.'
At these words the winged creature began to glow with an eerie green luminescence.
They all stepped back, Schulz falling heavily as he did so.
'Robson, Dolores! Oh my God!'
From outside screams could be heard while overhead, a huge shadow threw darkness over the bush, seemingly falling over the whole mountain. In the distance there was an ominous roll of thunder.
Three days later, life in the town had returned to listless normality after the unsettling events surrounding the visit of Sandy's wife to the pub. It was just after 6.00 am when O'Shea stepped onto the veranda of the police station. The morning sun beat mercilessly through the corrugated tin roof and he kicked a mongrel dog that was sleeping there and knocked. At this time of the day the front door, which was only ever locked at night, was still closed. He knocked again and Constable Smith emerged. He smiled.
'Come in Harry, someone nicked the Scotch again?'
'Nah, it's them university wallahs. One of them was due in yesterday to pick up their mail and some tucker. Unlike them to miss collecting it.'
Constable O'Malley joined them, a shaving brush in his hand.
'They’ve been rooting around there for years. They should know their way around by now.'
Then Murphy and McGuire came up. As the sergeant struggled with his belt buckle he asked:
'What's this then?'
O'Shea leant nonchalantly against a veranda post.
'Them tomb robbers up at Madingee. Haven't come in for their mail.’
Murphy went inside.
'Car trouble most likely.'
He then turned to McGuire.
'Want to look into it?'
McGuire yawned. 'Why not? Can I borrow Minjip and a horse?'
The other policemen looked knowingly at each other as they went in.
'Horse? You can ride then? Why not take old Gert?'
'When I first joined I was in the mounted division in Adelaide. Anyway you can see more from a horse than from a car.’
Murphy shrugged as he sat at his desk.
'As you please, Smithy will fix you up with a nag. By the way, find anything of interest last night?'
McGuire set the 1902 notebook in front of Murphy while Constable O'Malley went out and yelled for Minjip who was speaking animatedly with the Aborigines under the big tree. They had come in at sunrise and were squatting in a circle in their usual place. Two women breastfed babies. McGuire pushed up his shirtsleeves and pulled up a chair across from Murphy's desk.
'Look, there's a pattern here.'
'See, the earliest notebook is 1896. There's not much written down. Obviously it was a quieter place than it is now if such as thing is possible. We can see the usual stuff, cattle duffers, a couple of thefts, a few suicides, four shootings and one murder. The following year is pretty much the same and so on until ...'
Murphy moved forward in his seat.
'Until 1898 when the really interesting entry is the one made on 17 October, when No. 119 Constable Richard Braintree wrote: "Received urgent inquiry via telegraph from Adelaide. Telegraph station crew have not reported in for over a week. Line seems fully operational but no response. Took Tracker Billy and two hands and rode out to station. All in order, nothing missing but the men. Will initiate wider search tomorrow."'
'And the old telegraph station is not far from Madingee.'
McGuire suddenly stood up.
'Yes! And two weeks later, Braintree records that, despite a big search, the men were not found. See: "Three manhunts have revealed nothing. There does not appear to have been any foul play. The natives know nothing. Will send full report to Inspector Dobson by mail tomorrow." Braintree even put a press cutting in the page.'
Murphy took out a tissue-thin piece of newsprint from the notebook. In bold letters he read: 'Telegraph Crew Vanishes. Premier orders inquiry.'
McGuire punched his fist.
'Near Madingee. Then it's all routine stuff until 1918. Look here, No. 398 Constable Edward Stewart's entry for 4 October. Three prospectors went missing, but he didn't follow up apart from finding a hat.'
'Don't tell me.'
'Correct, they vanished near Madingee.'
McGuire looked up and explained as if to a child.
'Don't you see? October 1898, October 1918 and now.'
Murphy looked blank. The detective pointed to the wall calendar.
'Tomorrow is the 15th of October 1938.'
'Well I'll be damned. Could still be a coincidence though?'
'Perhaps, but I think there is something going on out there. Have you ever spoken to the blacks about disappearances over the years?'
'Nah, what would they know? They keep to themselves. Why would they be interested in missing white fellas? The more that go missing the better they like it.'
'Minjip never say anything about Madingee?'
'Sure, but when it comes to that place he's full of bullshit and queer stuff. Besides, he's not from around here.'
Murphy took a tin mug from the desk drawer, got up and poured himself some tea from a kettle.
'You can ask him yourself. You'll have nothing better to do when you ride out.'
O'Malley came up to shouting distance from the tree. Two elders were deep in discussion with the young tracker who sat respectfully at their feet.
'Oi, Minjip you're on a case mate, get in here.'
Minjip didn't respond. Then, taking his time, he sauntered casually over to O'Malley.
'When I call, you come, boy.'
'But I did come, Constable.'
'What was that all about? You and them black fellas?'
'Black fella business. You not understand,' and he pushed past O'Malley and went inside.
'You want me boss?' he asked of Murphy.
'No, the detective here asked specially for you. Well, you and two horses.'
The tracker stood squarely in front of McGuire.
'You onto something mister? You might be on right track.'
McGuire was unsettled by this comment.
'Possibly, in any case we'll set off in the morning. Five o'clock. Bring tucker and feed for the horses, enough for six days. Understand?'
'Yeah boss, I been bush before ya know.' Then, picking up his swag from its usual place, he left with a laugh.
The sun was still rising as McGuire adjusted the stirrup leathers and checked his saddle bags. Minjip brought around his own horse, a black gelding, and a pack animal before returning to the police station for his swag and the cloth-wrapped hunting stick.
Looking up, McGuire asked: 'You going to bring that stick along with you? We're not going hunting, you know.'
Minjip was mute but carefully stowed the ancient weapon on his saddle before stroking his horse. Its withers shuddered as he ran his slender hand along its side.
'You never know, boss. Anyways, if we're not hunting, how come you carrying a revolver?'
'Like you said, mate, you never know,' as McGuire swung his leg over the saddle and pulled his hat down tight.
As if on cue, Smith came out the back door and rolled a cigarette.
'Happy hunting!' and waved them off.
They set off toward Madingee at a slow walk. McGuire's plan was to retrace his own steps first. They would return to the abandoned car, then the old telegraph building and then on to where it was thought the postman had last been seen. The detective wanted to comb over all three sites again before heading off for the archaeologists' camp — just to see that everything there was in order. Murphy was going to give the scientists another four days before going out there himself. Until they reached the car, the two rode along in silence, apart from the creak of saddle leather and the buzz of flies. Minjip rode ahead, sitting easy in the saddle, his bare feet dangling past the stirrups.
'They didn't give you boots then?'
'No good for this fella, slow me down.'
They rode along escorted by a tight throng of flies which hung about the horses' backs and the men's heads.
The detective was an adroit pupil in the art of studying people. He now took the opportunity over the next few hours to size up his dark companion. Suddenly he rebuked himself for having made a premature assessment of the youth. While it was obvious the youth resented Murphy he wasn't in awe of him, something that could not be said of his attitude to the two constables, whom he regarded with veiled and humorous contempt. Although only a young man Minjip seemed something of a contradiction, given his age. On the one hand he was mature beyond his years while at the same time he had a child's sense of humour and a keen sense of curiosity. Physically the tracker's most striking features were his large fathomless black eyes which were set deep between a wide snub nose. He had a full mouth whose upper lip was almost covered by a thin beard which made its ways around his jaw and throat. Minjip was also the only black he had ever met who did not instinctively lower his gaze when talking to white folk. As the policeman began to speculate why this was so, his horse gave a violent shudder as it was spooked by something unseen in the distance.
He shrugged and checked his watch.
'Almost nine, we'll stop under that tree and have a brew.'
The two dismounted, the tracker tethered the three horses and started a small fire. In no time steam was coming from a blackened billy as they began a long bush tradition, brewing what McGuire called shearer's tea, black and sweet. Minjip poured himself an extra helping of sugar. The detective had often noted the Aboriginal fondness for all things sweet. They sat and watched the smoke of the fire. The white man took out a cigarette as the tracker watched.
'You want one?'
'Nah mister, not good for Minjip.'
'Well something's gotta kill you.'
'I don't think baccy is gonna do that to you, mister, or even that whisky water you so fond of. You bring along your little shiny bottle?'
'What business is it of yours?' replied McGuire aggressively.
Minjip stood up and emptied the remainder of the billy tea over the embers before kicking earth over them.
Early afternoon saw the pair ride up to the red Dodge sedan, if it could still be called red. McGuire dismounted while Minjip was content to rein his mare up close to the vehicle. Both men looked at each other.
'Would you look at that,' gasped McGuire, it looks forty years old, rusted from roof to chassis. It wasn't like this the other day.'
He pushed his hat back and scratched his head. Minjip leaned right over his horse's head and looked.
'No mister, sure is strange. There been no rain or nothing.'
His partner had got out his pocket knife and skimmed thin slivers of rusted metal off the front of the car.
'Damn strange.' McGuire scribbled some notes in his little book and deposited the metal flakes into a crumpled envelope. He remounted and the pair rode on towards the long-abandoned telegraph station.
The three hours' steady ride was only broken when Minjip jumped off to study the ground. Each time he took the bridle reins back from McGuire, he simply shook his head. By four the distant sky started to light up with steaks of lightning. The horses were tied to the only tree near the telegraph building. This was a substantial affair, stone built, of one storey with a now roofless veranda at the front. It had once boasted several windows, long since unglazed. At the rear were a small corrugated iron shed and a timber building which had probably served as sleeping quarters. There was also a boarded-up waterhole out back; the telegraph line itself passed nearby. Hanging limply from pole to pole and despite the increasing use of wireless, it still linked many of the isolated towns in the region.
Minjip kicked over an old bottle as they approached the front, but some 20 yards away the tracker stopped. McGuire turned around.
'Well, now what?'
'Me no go in there mister, bad place.' The tracker held back with the horses; and even they seemed suddenly unsettled.
'Bugger me, not again. Suit yourself.'
He went in and wandered through its three rooms, now largely open to the elements as the roof had long since rotten or blown away. Cobwebs swayed gently in the breeze and a few skinks scurried up its once whitewashed walls. Hat in hand, the detective emerged and crouched under the skeleton of the veranda.
'The light's failing. We'll make camp over there.'
Minjip shook his head.
'Too close mister', and he gestured to a clump of tree much further away. McGuire was too hot and tired to argue and simply nodded.
'Have it your way then.'
Minjip tethered the horses and soon had small but hot fire going, a thin curl of smoke kept the worst of the flies away. After a meal of bully beef, damper and tea, McGuire rolled a cigarette and unscrewed his newly filled flask. He was surprised how quickly the daylight began to fade. Minjip unwrapped the Nulla Nulla and examined it more closely in the firelight. From where he was sitting, the detective could make out the weapon's white and red lines, some straight, some with diamond shapes and some snake-like as they wound around it.
‘You ever throw these sticks before?'
'Sure mister, but this special. My aunty say it very long time since it thrown before.'
'I attended a murder a few years back. One of your mob had been killed by one. We never found out who did it. But it cut the man down in his tracks, massive cut clean across his neck and shoulder.'
McGuire drew a hand across his own shoulder by way of demonstration. Then he pulled on his cigarette and drank from his flask.
Minjip looked up, made to shake his head then thought better of it, before re-wrapping his parcel. They let the fire burn down and both fell asleep.
It was another early start. As they rode to where the postman was last seen, McGuire asked: 'So, did you know this DeVries chap?'
'No mister, me no need post service. Never had nothing to do with 'em until last week,' and he patted the parcel tied to his saddle.
'But you came out here with Sergeant Murphy to look for him?'
'Yeah, we come out, and a few of the station hands too. Looked for four days — nothing; only his truck.'
'McGuire stretched in his saddle.
'Strange though, no dog either.'
'Yeah mister, that DeVries man have old dog, everyone know it. Useless mongrel, but he had it long time. We didn't find him either.'
'But there was his truck?'
'Boss look all over it, found nothing. Everything still there though, mail, boxes, everything. Then two day later post office people come pick it up and drove it away. Boss let 'em. I looked around pretty well too but boss say I'm no good black fella.'
'You must have found something?'
Minjip shook his head.
'I was ridin ahead and got there before the boss. I see only one set of footprints, like that old post man just got outta his truck, then run. But then nothing. No dog prints either.'
Another hour's riding found them at the spot they had been talking about.
'There is where we found it mister, right by that big rock.'
The place he pointed to was a patch of bare earth by a huge boulder. On looking more closely, McGuire could make out the outlines of a track which had survived the wind under the tussocks of Spinifex. He dismounted as Minjip slouched in his saddle.
'So why did he stop here? Out of petrol perhaps?'
The tracker laughed. 'No mister, dat man plenty smart, been driving here long time. There was plenty of petrol too. We checked.’
McGuire walked over to the boulder.
‘What do you make of this?’
Minjip led the horses over to the rock. One side of the boulder, the side out of the sun, was coloured a strange brown; it almost looked like rust. McGuire looked piercingly at the tracker.
'That not there before, mister,' the tracker hissed hotly.
McGuire prised a flake of it from the surface, peered at it then presented the knife blade to the tracker.
'See. Same sort of stuff I found on the tourists' car. I want you to take a good look around again. A good look, you understand?’
Minjip glared and turned his horse about. ‘Don’t get lost, mister.'
After half an hour walking around the site, McGuire found nothing to excite his curiosity. He tied his horse to a shrub and lit his second cigarette for the day. The sun beat down and again the ominous rumbling of thunder made itself heard. Somehow, he thought it sounded closer than it had the day before. He wondered if, and when, the tracker would be back. He did not have long to wait and soon he could make out Minjip's silhouette in the distance, just above the shimmering heat haze.
'Nothing?' he shouted.
'No mister, you always right,' was the reply. McGuire was still too far away to notice the grin on Minjip's face.
As he drew up he asked. 'Well, what now mister?'
McGuire looked up.
'Well, I suppose we could continue in the direction of your Mount Madingee and see what's what. How long a ride is it from here?'
'Not proper long way mister, 'bout two hour I reckon.'
'Lunch first though, eh?'
'Righto, I'll start a fire.'
In the distance the thunder sounded louder. Minjip looked up from unpacking the left-over damper, some tinned meat, tea and sugar. With practised eyes he scoured the sky. This did not go unnoticed by McGuire.
'Dunno mister, not yet.'
They drank in silence, packed their gear and then rode off north toward Madingee.
The detective became more aware of the significance of this ancient feature as they drew closer. From afar it looked like any other rock outcrop in this part of the world. Squat and almost flat at its summit, the mass of red and brown rock rose perhaps three hundred feet. Two of its sides were steep, but the other more weathered sides were less so and it was here that the bush had started to put down a sparse cover of green, Spinifex grass mainly and Mulga and Boab trees. As Madingee came into sharper focus the usual bush noises became more subdued. Both riders occasionally paused to study the ground and once or twice Minjip got on all fours to examine something he thought might have been a clue.
Brushing the flies away, McGuire broke a long silence.
'So, your people from around here?'
'No mister, me from other country way across past Daly River. That's where my people from.'
'Long way from home, then. So how is it you're here?'
'When I was small, white fellas come to our camp. They take me and my brothers to Methodist Mission at Yalladanda. We run away after few months. You white fellas look for a while but then give up.'
'So you go back home? You see your people again?'
'Nope, they take all our mob and resettle them on the coast. Too far for us; my brothers get job on station — happy there. I find uncle and aunty near Bridesville. We go walkabout long time. They teach me blackfella way, hunting, tracking, dreamtime stories.'
'Dreamtime? Nightmare more like,' and the detective felt for his flask.
'Dreamtime like the bible stories they teach us at Yalladanda. They old stories about making of this place. Wagyl the Rainbow Serpent came from underground and make everything.’
McGuire looked over at the mountain and gestured with his head.
'He make that too?'
'Yeah mister, but dat one no good. Debil live there. People plenty fright. Black fella don't go there. Him gitchem you.’
The detective suddenly snatched at his hat as a gust came up from nowhere.
'You ever see this devil?'
Minjip shook his head.
'Well how the hell do you know it's real?'
'How you know that king of yours alive? George fella who live in England. How you know he's alive? You ever see him mister?'
McGuire glared and spurred his horse along.
Minjip laughed loud and long before the detective turned in his saddle.
'No-one likes a smart arse, you black bugger.'
He pulled out his flask and took a hard swig.
'You plenty like the booze mister. My auntie says only sad fellas drink like that.'
'Does she now?' and McGuire looked angrily at Minjip before taking a longer swig.
'She know plenty, mister. She an elder of our mob. Has old totem.'
'So, what does she know about our missing people then?''
Minjip looked across to the mountain.
'She reckon he taken, him sit dere now.'
'I reckon him sit up there and wait.'
'No-one know that mister. Perhaps you, perhaps me.'
So this thing, it takes black fellas as well as whites?’
'Aunty says all the mobs hereabouts don't go near that place, so they have no trouble. Been like that for long time, way back. But white fellas always nosing around, debil no like that. This his country. Perhaps he get pissed off at gubbos comin too close.'
The wind picked up again bringing with it the sounds of distant thunder. McGuire felt his horse shudder beneath him.
'So how does your aunt know all this stuff? You said she's not from around here.'
'That's right mister, but every mob knows the story — from the Darling River to the sea country way past Adelaide. Mob here says very bad place but no trouble since long time. Only this year local mob get scared. What about you, mister? Boss says you big city fella. Where your people then?’
‘Adelaide. Born and bred there.’
‘Plenty of girl for you?’
I had a girl. Mavis. We were engaged. Sis and me live with our mother.’
Not content, the tracker continued his interrogation.
'He was killed — in 1922 when I was 12.'
'Killed by bad man?'
'Killed by one of your mob. Speared in the back while outback.'
'Yeah, that's right. Right evil bastard. Killed a station owner and his wife. Dad and some black trackers found him by a billabong out of Wooridinga.'
Minjip had to shout over the rising wind.
'That's bad. But they catch im?'
'That's right. Trackers picked him up out of Mirrawonga. He swung.'
'A bad job, mister.'
'Too bloody right.' McGuire looked sternly at Minjip.
McGuire turned his horse out of the wind to light a cigarette.
'We should think about camping here, it's getting dark.'
The horses tethered, Minjip started a fire and went on as if there had been no pause.
'So you stay your place to look after family?'
'Nah, ma died suddenly and I was sent to an orphanage for a year. Then they found an aunt who took in me and sis, but she reckoned I was a handful so they packed me off to Saint Pat's.' 'What's that, mister?'
'Like your Methodist place. A boarding school. It's where they send you away from home, family.'
'Yeah, like Methodist school. Good tucker there mister? You must have liked ...'
Well, I didn't, hated the place. Couldn't get away fast enough.'
‘Me same at white fella school. Go walkabout quick.'
They looked at each other and McGuire smiled faintly.
'So you married, mister?'
'You aren't half inquisitive then?'
'Nosey bugger, asking a lot of questions.'
'Just like you, mister.'
They settled down for the night under the stars for now the night sky had cleared. McGuire went to light a cigarette, but counted only seven left. Putting away the packet he reached in his other pocket for the flask and looked up.
'My Mavis used to say the stars are like thousands of diamonds. She could look at the night sky for hours. It was the closest she ever got to a diamond.'
He sighed before taking a swig from his flask. He waved it at Minjip who shook his head.
'Suit yourself,' and then he pointed up.
'Look there, the Milky Way.'
'No milk there mister, my mob say that is a river, full of fish.’
'Look at the buggers, millions of them. Who knows what's up there.'
'Mobs round here say Debil come from sky. Long time.'
Minjip carefully took out his parcel from his pack, unwrapped the Nulla Nulla and ran his hand softly over its painted surface, as if he were caressing it, then held the weapon to his ear. McGuire stubbed out his cigarette and looked at it.
'So, what's with the waddy? Not much good out here. I've never seen one like this, all painted up. The ones I've seen in the museum were just plain wood cut from trees.'
'After them prospecting fellas go missing I get word to my aunt. She sends me this. Powerful magic she says might stop Debil.'
'But your mob isn't from around here. How do you know it's any good? I'll bet on a police carbine or .303 any day.'
'Bullet no good for this one, mister.'
'So, where did this come from? Your mob make it?'
'Nope. Auntie says it hidden for long time. Long, long time, way back even before white fella time. Powerful magic.'
McGuire could see the tracker's face in the firelight. He looked anxious.
'Too right, plenty, you should be too.'
Placing a blanket around the artefact he tried to sleep, but it didn't come. McGuire tossed and turned and occasionally spoke gibberish in some nightmare or dream.
Minjip was still wide awake when the sun rose. He stood up and sniffed the air and looked in the direction of the mountain. Far off a dingo howled and this woke the detective.
'You talk plenty over the night; too much booze.'
'Just get that fire up and make a brew,' was the reply.
'Big thunderstorm coming soon ... but shouldn't be.'
'How's that then?'
Minjip just shrugged and handed the policeman a mug of tea before putting some oats into nosebags and going over to the horses. McGuire rolled up his bedding and looked up.
'Look at that, the sky's as clear as far as you can see.'
They mounted up.
'You’ll see mister, big storm coming this way but it no make sense at this time of year. Never have them now. See dat big fella mibayn, white fella call im eagle, way up there? He never fly that that.'
McGuire looked up at the eagle soaring effortlessly in a rapidly darkening sky.
'Well you have now.'
Thunder claps split the still morning air while lightning bolts danced on the horizon. McGuire's mount reared up in the sudden commotion, throwing its rider.
Minjip rode up and dismounted. Enjoying the moment he looked down at McGuire his fine white teeth flashed an unwelcome smile as broad as it was cheeky.
'You alright detective?'
McGuire got up and dusted himself down. He patted his breast pocket then took a battered flask from it.
Minjip managed to catch the other horse and brought it over. McGuire grasped the reins and flung himself back on his horse.
'Just took me by surprise, that's all.’
They rode on further but they could see little in the gloom. McGuire decided to make camp and there they spent on uneasy night.
Minjip pressed the detective further on his sweetheart.
'This Mavis girl. She a good looker mister?'
McGuire pulled a blanket around him.
'You don't give up do you?'
'Boss say me like a burr on a sheep's bum' and Minjip threw back his head and laughed.
'He might be right' came an irritable reply.
'You still goin out with here then? You marrying her?'
'What dat mister?'
'Because she's dead' and McGuire rolled way from the fire as a tear made its way down his duty face.
The tracker was going to say something but out of respect for this little tragedy he remained silent.
Minjip kicked over the ashes of the fire as the detective finished saddling his horse. Although early, the sun was already beating down on the parched earth. A cloudless sky revealed Mount Madingee a few hours' ride away. The two started out.
'So how did you end up as a black tracker anyway?'
'When I turn 19 up by Outta Creek, police fellas come to my uncle to help find missin white boy. Uncle too poorly to come so he send me. I find him by 'n by too. They give me horse, good tucker, so I stay. Then last year I come here as my brothers found work at Baragaloola Station. They pay a shilling a day in dry season for tracking work.'
'So, you like this job? Looking for bad fellas?'
'Not all bad, sometimes we look for kids, cattle, cars. All different but all leave tracks or hair or shit or something behind.'
'Well there don't seem to be any signs in this case. Your boss seems stumped.'
'That's why he send for you. He's not stupid mister. He say you a gun detective, real big in Adelaide police.'
'Don't believe everything you hear mate, unless you see it or hear it yourself.' He took a swig from his flask as Minjip took this in. It was also the first time any policemen had called him 'mate'.
'Sometimes not possible to see things even when you hear them.'
McGuire looked quizzically at Minjip.
'Perhaps you’ve been in this country too long?’
'You not listen mister. This not my country, my mob's country better. But money here and the boss is ok too. Used to be quiet around here too.'
'Used to be?'
'Things not good here. Strange things happen, bad signs, weather act up, animals act up. Rain when not right season. Not right.'
McGuire flicked away his cigarette.
'But this strange stuff. It's only happened recently.'
'Recent for me mister, but old black fellas say it happen before - many times - but way back.'
'And up there?' nodding towards the mountain.
Ignoring the question, Minjip rode on.
'So, you like it around here? I mean Queenstown?'
It alright mister. Anyhow, have some cousins nearby. Plenty talk, good huntin too. I always do a good job detective. Boss he say I'm the best round. I gonna get me a woman’…'
He suddenly broke off and squinted into the distance.
Off to the right, perhaps 100 yards away, there was a glint in the sunlight. The tracker spurred on his horse.
'This way, mister.'
With Minjip leading, the pair galloped off.
Minjip reined in his horse and pulled the packhorse into him before jumping down. He was pointing to the grass when McGuire rode up. The detective remained mounted.
'You find something?'
Minjip looked down to the ground and brushed away a tussock with his hand.
'See here, mister,' and handed a timepiece up to the detective.
McGuire stooped down and took the wristwatch. He inspected it carefully before turning it over to read the inscribed case. He read it aloud.
'To AG from MG, 20 April 1931.'
He handed it back to an inquisitive Minjip and took out his notebook parting its flimsy pages with grimy fingers.
'Has to be Arthur Gordon, yes he is one of that carload of tourists. Martha Gordon too, she was out here. How come you jokers missed this? We're not far from the track.'
Minjip just shook his head and took off his hat.
'Very strange. Pretty sure this not here before.'
'Strange all right, bloody lazy more like!'
'No mister just bloody strange.'
A colossal crack of thunder broke the morning stillness. McGuire's horse reared, throwing him to the ground and causing the pack animal to bolt. Luckily Minjip had kept hold of his horse's reins so managed to stop the animal running away. Even so it was spooked.
'Whoa, whoa, steady!' he called to it as it pranced and stamped about, its brown eyes open wide.
There was another peal of thunder, this time much closer. McGuire was just picking himself up as Minjip calmed his horse when a huge winged shadow passed over them. Flocks of birds took to the air. The noise was terrific. This time it was Minjip's horse that reared up. From habit McGuire ducked.
'What the flamin hell ...?'
In what had been a cloudless sky only minutes before there were now banks of angry-looking clouds, long and slender, purple and black. They seemed to be drifting towards the mountain.
It was obvious that the tracker was terrified as he clung to the horse's bride. McGuire had broken out in a sweat and beads of perspiration dripped from his hatless head.
'Jesus, mister. We gotta get outta here!'
And then an eerie quiet settled over the place. McGuire looked questioningly at Minjip.
'No fear, we're on to something here. There is this watch and now this funny business. We must be close.'
'Too bloody close, I reckon. I don't like it,' added Minjip as dismounted to calm the pack horse. For once McGuire was too shaken to say anything other than light a cigarette with an unsteady hand.
Strange happenings in town
O'Shea had just finished his mug of tea for the day and walked out onto the pub veranda. He threw the caged cockatoo a handful of seeds. There was a roll of thunder and he peered up from under the eaves to see a clear sky. 'Strange,' he mused to himself. But he thought nothing more of it as he seized a broom and went through the motions of sweeping. But then a huge shadow passed overhead. The cockatoo went berserk while the town's dogs began a frenzy of barking and howling. From across the road several men rushed out of the chaff store and, from the house next door, a woman's scream could be heard.
The Aboriginal group who had come in an hour before and settled under the tree now fled, knocking over a billy of water and not bothering to take their belongings. A massive flock of thousands of noisy green budgerigars gyrated weirdly high above them. Then several dead birds began to drop from the sky, narrowly missing Sandy as he sprinted for the shelter of the pub.
Panting, he asked O'Shea: 'What the bloody hell was that?’
'Dunno, it was sorta like an eclipse of the sun, but real quick!'
The dogs kept up their howling and now a lurid-coloured dust storm came from nowhere. A car stalled in the street in front of them. The driver tried to start it again as hundreds of birds slammed dead onto its canvas hood, which was soon torn to ribbons. He got out and, covering his head with a newspaper, he made a dash for the pub. He literally fell at the publican's feet, terrified. O'Shea could only scratch his head as three horses ran wildly by and the dogs continued to bark hysterically. The noise of birds falling on the tin roof reached a crescendo before a stronger gust of foul-smelling wind came from nowhere. It brought with it whole tree branches, dead leaves and gravel. It slammed into walls and windows shattering many. O'Shea's prized picture window in the pub was an early casualty and he cursed the gods as dust and debris were sucked into the bar. The squall was accompanied by a mournful howl which rose and fell, adding to the distress of the locals.
Constable O'Malley had been at the radio receiver when all this happened and had been all but deafened by an eerie screeching sound from the apparatus and the noise of falling birds on the station roof. He pushed he chair back and flung off the head set.
'What the blazes was that all about?'
O'Malley tapped the barometer on the wall and called to his chief who had stepped out onto the veranda. He narrowly dodged a falling bird.
'What the....!' and stepped back.
Looks like we're in for a howler, boss.'
'Wrong time of the year, mate.'
Then one of the station windows shattered and O'Malley scrambled to close the shutters.
From the dust eddying about outside, O'Shea rushed in, almost knocking over Murphy.
Constable Smith spread his arms as if to stop the man going further.
'Mr O'Shea, what is it?'
'Bugger me mate, I'm sure I dunno, but something just flew over the pub. Bloody huge it was! And there are birds and everything and my cockatoo is going spare. And me lovely window -gone...'
Murphy stepped back inside kicking dead birds off the veranda.
'Flew over did you say? I didn't hear any airplane.'
Glaring at him, the visibly shaken publican pushed past him and went on: 'Well it's the world's first airplane that doesn't make any noise! And the weather's acting up.'
Murphy interrupted: 'Ah, you're a ratbag. Go home and sleep it off.'
The publican glared angrily and stormed out, jabbing at the sky with a stubby finger.
'See for yourselves!'
Further claps of thunder drowned out any speech. But in the lull they could hear, 'Fat bloody lot of use you lot are!' as O'Shea made for the sanctuary of his pub where a number of locals had now gathered. Bazza Mackay had attempted to board up the gaps left by the broken window, but the wind and dust howled and seeped through every crack. Those seeking the dubious safety of the hotel included four women and half a dozen children who competed with the dogs in howling and crying.
Murphy remained outside the police station, squinting to avoid the dust. As he turned to go inside George Harris, owner of the town's only general store, rushed up adeptly avoiding the ongoing shower of falling birds.
'Sergeant, old Tasker's mare just bolted and threw him. He's in a bad way.'
O'Malley looked at the barometer again.
'Sarge, I don't mind tellin you, this weather is starting to give me the willies. And what's with all these dead birds?'
Although it wasn't yet nine o'clock in the morning it was eerily dark. Enormous angry-looking clouds lit up by white shards of lighting scudded towards Mount Madingee.
'Smithy, go and see to Tasker. I doubt we’ll be able to reach any doctor on the radio.’
Looking at O'Malley he barked an order: 'Constable, try phoning the railway station and, if that doesn't work, get on the telegraph and ask for the doctor at Werraweep.’
O'Malley wound the telephone handle then tapped at the receiver.
'Dead, boss,' he told him before he began tapping out Morse code on the telegraph key.
'Wait here for a reply, I'm going out.'
Murphy put on his hat and took his belt from the wall rack before unlocking a cabinet and holstering a revolver.
His constable looked anxious.
There was no shortage of drama closer to Mount Madingee. Minjip had managed to find McGuire's horse but, in its panic to get away, their packhorse had fallen into a hole and broken its leg. The report from Minjip's rifle as he put it down could scarcely be heard above the thunder and lighting. The dust storm which had descended from nowhere on Queenstown was now making its way with alarming speed across the Spinifex plain. Nursing a bruised arm from his fall McGuire led his horse to a copse of trees hoping to blunt the force of the wind. He was joined by Minjip.
'No tucker tonight mister, that crazy horse lose his pack somewhere.'
'Well you're the tracker, you can ...'
At that instant there was another roll of thunder followed by a huge lightning bolt which struck a mound of boulders not a hundred yards from where they sheltered. The force splintered the giant rocks into thousands of rock shards. Then, within seconds, a complete and suffocating silence fell over the place. Eerie screams could be heard echoing from the mountain. McGuire looked at Minjip.
'Right, that does it.'
Minjip gestured with his head in direction of mountain.
'We ride over there for look?'
He checked to see if his packet was still secured to his saddle. McGuire pulled a binocular from his saddle and scanned the direction of Madingee.
'No bloody fear. Not until I know what we're dealing with. Ride back to town and get Sergeant Murphy to telephone the army camp and ask them to send as many men as they can spare for a search party and be prepared for trouble. Then bring the police back here. Go!'
Minjip leapt on his horse.
'Soldier fellas, what you want with dem silly buggers? They no come on this country before.'
'Ride, damn you, we will need every man we can get!'
'Alright mister but I won't be back before morning. What you gonna do here, all alone, a white fella?'
The detective looked up angrily and knew the tracker spoke the truth.
'I'll think of something damn you. Just ride!'
Minjip spurred his horse and galloped away. McGuire replaced his hat and continued to scan the mountain. A shaking hand sought and found his flask in a shirt pocket and he drank from it greedily. Suddenly feeling inexplicably tired he dropped to his knees at a wizened tree stump. The wind continued its dirge and he looked about him. It struck him that while he had seen enough of the outback in his time he had never before appreciated its hostility and how sinister it could look and feel. He felt a sudden pang of compassion for the tracker. This was no place for a white man, he thought.
A Search Party
It was dusk when Minjip galloped into town. He noticed that every building was shrouded in thick dust, not the usual red bull dust from around here, but a dark, dirty-looking rusty slime. The road was littered with thousands of dead budgerigars and birds of prey. He reined in his horse outside the police station. All the doors and windows were closed against the wind and dust. He banged on the door and entered.
'Come quick boss. Detective says you blokes come along now. He ask you radio soldiers to come quick too and bring guns.'
'Steady boy. What's happened? Has there been a shooting, Minjip? Is McGuire hurt?'
Minjip was wide-eyed as he made straight for the water canteen hanging from its usual peg on the wall. Murphy came up and shook him angrily.
'He fell from his horse boss, but he alright, silly bugger.'
He took a long swig from the canteen.
'Something strange happening out there boss. Don't like it. We need to get back there double quick', and wiped his mouth.
'We found a watch too from one of them tourist people.'
Murphy stood up from lighting the desk lamp and approached Minjip. The two constables were wide eyed and looked at each other.
'Blimey...' started O'Malley, but he was cut short by a sharp glare from Murphy.
'A watch? From one of the tourists?'
The tracker nodded while he took another long gulp of water.
'That what the detective say and he showed it to me too. I reckon it fair dinkum.'
'Bloody 'ell. It's too late now to set out, but we move first thing in the morning. Minjip you had better get a feed and a mug of tea into you.'
'You see all them dead birds boss out there boss?'
The sergeant was about to say something about the bleeding obvious but seeing Minjip's haggard and anxious face thought better of it. He addressed the two constables.
'Smithy, you start packing up food and water, rifles and ammunition. O'Malley, now that we have radio reception again, I'll radio Captain Lindsay at the camp. You better go over to the pub and find Johnno and Taylor, they're both good shots. Tell them they need to bring their truck too and met us here at five.'
The policeman left and ran across the road.
Minjip, still wide-eyed, looked up from a chunk of damper.
'What about me, boss?'
'That horse of yours is done in. You come up with Johnno and Taylor in their Ford and bring your rifle. I'll go with my lot in the car. I just hope Gert's up to it. Now sleep.'
Constable Smith's arrival at the pub caused some comment and everyone listened as he spoke to Bert Taylor. His mate Johnno was not there, but Taylor agreed to have him and his truck at the police station just after dawn. He downed his beer and got up.
'Well fellas. I never thought I'd be 'elping out the coppers.'
Everyone laughed except for O'Shea who was still shaken by the events of the afternoon and the loss of his picture window. His mood was no better for knowing that the women and children had now all gone home. Minjip fell into a deep sleep as Murphy repeated the little he knew to the officer at the army camp over the radio's microphone. The conversation wasn't helped by the noise of static and crackling. Captain Lindsay mentioned something about a strange storm and lightning. They agreed to meet up near the south-east base of Mount Madingee. That was where Minjip said the detective was — when he last saw him.
By next morning the bush sky was a lurid shade of purple and green. The dust started to settle but the noise of thunder grew, and now it came in echoing rolls with scarcely a break. Lightning bolts did their best to compete with the noise. McGuire had dismounted but kept a tight fist on his horse's bridle as he led it through the scrub to the base of the mountain. A nearby tree was suddenly struck by lighting and split in two, its ancient trunk and branches crashing about them. The terrified mare whinnied and reared up. McGuire couldn't hold the animal and it bolted, running off away from the mountain. He swore. His rifle and field glasses were still by the saddle. Still swearing he pulled a revolver from his holster and checked the chamber before making his way up a small rise.
He now spotted several black dots moving along the horizon making their own dust. Shielding his eyes, he could make out two covered army trucks slowly making their way along between termite hills and the few trees that grew hereabouts. From the opposite direction but much closer, he saw the police car and, off to one side, in a vain attempt to avoid the dust, a battered tray truck, with Minjip sitting in the back, picked its way along. He waiting a little for a lull in the wind then McGuire fired a shot into the air and all the vehicles altered their course. Twenty minutes more saw all four vehicles converge at the bottom of the ridge. The car disgorged the three policemen. Minjip, pack and rifle in hand, leapt off the truck from whose cab Taylor and Johnno, both toting rifles, emerged.
'Well,' thought McGuire to himself, 'at least the cavalry got here.'
Two dozen or so khaki-clad soldiers, mostly in shorts and armed with rifles, clambered out of the vehicles. An officer clutching what looked like a map against the wind made his way to McGuire as the soldiers sorted themselves into two ranks. The two bushies watched on. Johnno nudged Taylor.
'They mean business, cobber. They've only gone and brought a bloody maxim gun.'
'Cripes,' replied his mate, ‘no muckin about this time then,' before they too followed Minjip who now carried the unsheathed wadi in one hand and a rifle in the other, up to the ridge line.
There was a lull in the thunder and lightning show and in the brief silence distant screams could be heard. The newcomers looked anxiously around them. The officer walked up to McGuire and Murphy.
'Detective' he shouted while keeping a firm hand on his hat, 'I'd like you to meet Captain Lindsay who is in charge of that lot down there.'
The captain saluted and the two shook hands.
'I take it Sergeant Murphy has filled you in?'
'Well, if you can call a three-minute garbled chat over a bad transmission a proper briefing, then yes.'
Looking down where two soldiers were assembling their machine-gun, he smiled.
'That's why I came prepared. So what do we have? Criminals on the run, kidnapping, a search party — or what?'
The wind dropped again. McGuire shifted his feet and shot a glance at Minjip then at Murphy. The captain looked quizzically at all three. Murphy coughed.
'It's like this. You know we've had several people, well a few actually, just vanish over the past six months or so?'
'The good detective here thinks he has found a pattern to these disappearances.'
'I have been going over old police records, back into the last century', continued McGuire, 'and it seems every twenty years during the month of October people around here have gone missing. Not locals mind you, but visitors or others passing through, prospectors and such. And there have been reports of strange weather at about the same time.'
Lindsay tried to take this in.
'And, how have they gone missing?'
McGuire and Murphy both turned to the mountain and the officer followed their gaze.
'I see, possibly a gang of some sort, local black fellas ...?'
'No,' speculated McGuire, ‘not over that long period of time, I believe the answer lies up there somehow and the black tracker here thinks so too.'
Minjip stood well back but nodded when he heard his name.
Murphy fingered his revolver and added.
'You heard those screams, captain. I suggest we fan out, form a line and proceed up the ridge to that cliff face,' pointing his gun in the direction of Madingee.
'So that's your objective is it?’ asked Lindsay.
The policeman nodded.
'Very well,' and he shouted down to the group of soldiers. ‘Sergeant! Break the men into two sections and send up the sharpshooter. Set the gun up there on that rise on the right.'
Down below the sergeant motioned to one of his men.
'Alright Clarkie, you heard the man. Take your shooting stick and get up there.'
Corporal Clark was one of the best shots in the unit, having won the King's Medal earlier in the year in a fine show of marksmanship. The sergeant then barked an order to the pair with the machine-gun.
'You two move the Vickers up to that high ground; stay put and wait for further orders. The rest of you fall into two sections and wait.'
The sharpshooter made his way to Lindsay's side.
'Go with the police sergeant and shoot anything he points out. Clear?'
Corporal Clark saluted and joined the policemen.
McGuire spun the chamber on his revolver and spoke to Murphy.
'You mind if Minjip and me recce ahead and find out what's what?’
'Alright McGuire, you and Minjip work your way up from the left, we'll follow with Johnno, Taylor and the sharpshooter take the right. We'll meet up at the base of that cliff face. Captain, you and your men will sweep behind. Make sure they are on the look-out for bodies or anything amiss.'
Lindsay went down to the vehicles. Minjip joined the detective and defiantly thrust his Nulla Nulla in the air. At that same moment, what sounded like human screams echoed from somewhere within the mountain and, in one ear-splitting instant, lightning struck the nearby trees. Minjip almost fell on McGuire.
‘Debil do that!’
The detective steadied himself and replied dismissively.
'Ah, bullshit c'mon.'
The lightning had started a small scrub fire which in turn was being fanned by the breeze.
'Bugger, just what we need!' shouted Murphy.
Minjip sniffed the air.
'Well at least it's heading away from us,' panted Johnno.
'Yeah,’ chipped in his mate, 'but we could do without the bloody smoke.'
The wind picked up again fanning the blaze which now burnt the low tussock grass over which the party of soldiers was advancing. As they became enveloped in the smoke stray shots could be heard as two of the men lost their footing and fell discharging their rifles as they did so. sergeant yelled a series of expletives and the line moved on leaving the fire and smoke to burn lower down the slope.
Hunting a Phantom
Minjip tucked his Nulla Nulla into his belt.
'So what now, mister?’
'I don't know what we are up against yet. Do you?'
'Yep, debil man. No like us here.'
A huge shadow flew overhead.
On their left, worried soldiers cocked their rifles as the scrub fire below sent up more smoke.
McGuire shouted: 'Alright, you head off to the left but stay in sight in all this damn smoke. Yell if you find tracks or anything.'
It could have been more than five minutes before Minjip made his way back to McGuire through the smoke. He had been joined by Sergeant Murphy and Captain Lindsay.
'Boss, over here!'
'What is it?'
'Dunno boss, sorta box on legs.'
They followed Minjip up the ridge a little way.
The army officer was the first to speak.
'Well I'll be damned. It's a theodolite for survey work. We use them too. But this is a real fancy type. That is, it's not Army issue.'
McGuire inspected it.
'Must belong to the archaeologists. It's a lead at last.’
Murphy nodded, but added:
'A pretty slim one at that. It doesn't tell us what happened or where they are.'
As the smoke thickened again a shadow passed overhead and they could hear rifle fire from the soldiers on their right.
All four men looked up. McGuire recovered first.
'What the ...? Where the hell did that come from?'
'It come from that cliff.'
Rifle fire continued, but now there were shouts too.
Lindsay started off. 'I must rejoin my men. I gave no orders to fire.'
Once he reached the line of soldiers he bellowed.
'No firing unless ordered.'
His sergeant repeated the order.
Lindsay then paused to fire a flare in the direction of the mountain.
'All right men, advance to that cliff face!'
It was then that Murphy caught up with them.
'What are they firing at?'
'Two of my men saw something big moving up on the cliff face.'
Murphy replied: 'Nah, it's just the smoke. They've got the jitters.'
But he could not be heard over the din. He rejoined his constables, Johnno and Taylor, and they too made their way up the ridge line. The noise of dry scrub exploding in the heat of the fire and the deafening thunder continued as the soldiers advanced cautiously in a line. In the centre McGuire and Minjip arrived first at the base of the cliff. Here the smoke was less dense and McGuire could pick out the two parties below, both converging roughly on the same cliff face where he stood.
The tracker put down his rifle and pulled the Nulla Nulla from his belt. As McGuire checked his revolver he turned to Minjip.
'I do hope you’re not going to leave your rifle here and rely on that bloody stick?'
'Too right mister. Guns no good here.'
There was another colossal clap of thunder which seemed to split the very air and McGuire fell to the ground as the earth shook.
Minjip helped him up when the huge shadow swooped momentarily overhead. Whatever it was it was close enough for the two men to have felt a draught of wind and to smell an acrid, phosphorous smell. McGuire immediately recognised it from his school laboratory days.
'Sure stinks, mister. That's no bird — big, too fast and too quiet.'
McGuire stooped to retrieve his revolver when the shadow passed again, but this time is seemed much lower and so large that it blocked out a good portion of the darkening sky above them.
From the left came a scream, then rifle fire. This was soon followed by the staccato rat-a-tat of the machine-gun. The two men looked at each other then scrambled up the next ledge of the cliff. Below, the smoke had thickened and the fire continued making its way from the cliff towards a dry gully at the very base of the mountain. The edge of the gully was where all their vehicles and McGuire's horse had been left. Several lightning bolts stuck the taller gums and each exploded leaving a sharp smell of Eucalypt. In the intervals between rolls of thunder they could hear random shots being fired.
In the glare of the next lighting strike the pair could clearly see the cave opening and McGuire, revolver in hand, made for it first.
'Wait, mister!' shouted Minjip as dust and smoke swirled around his feet.
'What is it?'
'Me first, that thing belong my people. It no goin anywhere but into that hole.'
And he ran towards the cave brandishing the Nulla Nulla. Down below, McGuire could still hear rifle fire and was about to follow the tracker when the winged shadow appeared on the cliff face above him, then just as suddenly disappeared. McGuire later recalled that it looked like bath water disappearing into a drain but only vertical. He had difficulty explaining what he saw. But he would always remember the smell.
McGuire started after Minjip but tripped and fell. His revolver discharged, narrowly missing Murphy and Taylor who had come up from the lower slope and who now appeared from the smoke. The police sergeant was panting but managed to shout to McGuire.
'What the bloody hell is happening?'
The detective's arm jabbed the air in the direction of the cave, covering his mouth against the smoke.
'Your tracker's just gone in', he gasped.
McGuire nodded. 'Told me it was no place for a white man, I couldn't hold him back.'
'Bugger that, we'll go in anyway.'
But an eerie sound and a foul gust of greenish dust belched from inside the cave stopping them in their tracks. The trio coughed and spluttered.
'Christ, the stench!' coughed Taylor.
Both policemen covered their mouths. The thunder stopped and in the hazy stillness a man's scream came from inside and a bloodied figure staggered out. It was Minjip, his shirt and trousers torn and shredded. He held both hands to his chest as he reeled towards his would-be rescuers, but dropped to the ground bleeding from the chest. McGuire reached him first as his comrades nervously trained their rifles on the cave entrance.
The detective bent over Minjip. He could see at once that the youth's chest had almost been ripped open. The tracker's body heaved with each laboured breath. McGuire, who had seen his share of gore, looked away for an instant then his eyes met those of Minjip.
'You'll be alright, man,' we’ll have a doctor here directly,' McGuire lied.
'No mister, me for long trip soon.'
Captain Lindsay came up and was soon pushing a rough bandage onto Minjip's chest. The tracker coughed some blood then whispered into McGuire's ear.
'I think I got that debil bastard.'
McGuire had propped him up between his arms, as the dying man continued.
'I got in quick while he was doing his business out 'ere on you blokes. He didn't see me so I threw my Nulla Nulla. It git him a good wallop too, by crikey. You hear him howl?'
McGuire looked at his colleagues, then nodded.
Murphy was by him now too.
'Sure we did, we heard him, didn't we fellas?'
The other two men nodded as the wind died away.
Minjip coughed again and McGuire whispered:
‘Just to make sure though, we're going to give him a little surprise by way of a dynamite charge.'
At this Johnno, who had just come up, ran back to his truck for the explosives. Minjip smiled faintly at Sergeant Murphy.
'Dynamite no good for dat debil fella boss, but I winged 'im good.'
The thin smile remained on his lips as McGuire felt the tracker's body fighting for life. Captain Lindsay shook his head.
Johnno came up at the run and he and Murphy laid the charges as McGuire, Lindsay and Taylor gently carried Minjip down the slope a little way.
'You didn't put those sticks in far,' quipped the police sergeant.
'Far enough, I reckon. I left a decent-sized detonating cord with the explosive. I wasn't going in any further, no bloody fear I wasn't.'
Johnno had rolled out a long length of fuse and was now attaching it to the detonator. Murphy yelled a warning.
'Captain, you better make sure your men stay well back! There'll be an air blast.'
The wind had dropped and the grass fire had largely burnt itself out in the gully below.
Murphy and Johnno crouched behind a large boulder when Johnno shouted:
Two hundred yards away McGuire crouched low over the still breathing Minjip as the earth shuddered and shook.
'Blimey!' swore Constable Smith to one of the soldiers.
Then he pointed. The whole rock face seemed to peel from the mountainside and great slabs of rock cascaded over the entrance to the cave. The noise was terrific and the dust which rose in its wake was worse than the smoke of the fire which had just begun to clear.
Murphy turned to Johnno.
'Bloody hell, you cut that mighty fine!'
And both men ran from the shards of rock and rubble which fell about them.
Murphy ran to where McGuire and Lindsay were tending Minjip.
Crouching down he spoke with some feeling, 'whatever it was, it's either dead or will be within the hour.’
Minjip looked up.
'No boss, we no catchim. I still feel im.'
McGuire leaned close.
'Sure we have. Nothing could live through that.'
The tracker coughed.
'He not dead detective. Him debil. I was wrong, he still sit up dere, waitin. I feel it here' and he pointed to his bloodied chest.
'No, you're mistaken ...'
But he spoke to a dead man. Murphy gently closed Minjip's eyes as the thunder made its way off to the far horizon, becoming fainter as it did. McGuire and Murphy looked at each other, then at the mountain.
Unseen, but only a little way off, Minjip's Nulla Nulla lay half hidden on the ground. On one edge of the weapon a green opalescent fluid faded as the three men carried Minjip down to the gulley. Deep inside the cave the painted image of a winged creature flared momentarily, glowed dull green, before fading into the rock. A sudden and eerie calm settled over the bush. A clearly shaken Murphy looked at the detective.
'Well, that's an end to it then.'
Johhno looked at him and nodded, 'nothing could survive that blast mate.'
McGuire paused to get a better grip on Minjip's limp arms then replied.
'I wish I could be so sure.'
In Queenstown, on the pub veranda, O'Shea and Sandy also watched the sky anxiously. A number of locals had ventured forth to inspect the damage. Several dogs, cowed by the noise and deluge of birds also emerged, tails between their legs to sniff among the carrion. The road looked almost like a giant green carpet had been laid over it, so thick were the fallen birds. The publican turned to his grizzled companion.
'You alright for cash then?'
Clearly perplexed at such a question given what both men had just seen and heard Sandy leaned forward.
'I'm sellin up, this place is getting on my nerves, that's why.'
Less than a mile away a group of blacks sat crouched in the shade, not under their customary tree in town. One of them, a tall man of many summers, looked anxiously at the horizon, towards Mount Madingee. A tiny Willy Willy, carrying with it dust and leaves, made its way towards him then, as suddenly as it appeared, petered out at his feet. In the far distance they could hear a single crack of thunder and then the bush sounds they had grown up with returned as though they had never gone.