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Authors: Lucy Treloar

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BOOK: Salt Creek
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I went into the hallway, and through the open door came the sounds of bags and baggage and trunks crumping to the ground. They would be covered in dust. Stanton and Hugh's voices were steady enough, getting the job done: now, lift, no, out of the way, Addie, go and ask Papa where he wants this, find Mama's things.

Then, ‘Come now,' Papa said to me, ‘lamps first, and then let's see about the fire.'

This was all of the house: a wood-lined room for the boys with narrow beds one above the other built hard up against the walls like shelves or a ship's cabin, two more – one for the girls, the other for Papa and Mama – and the parlour and a dining room with scarce space for the table beneath a low skillion roof of thatch and wood. The walls of this last room were of mud and wattle: rough but whitewashed so it seemed lighter than the rest of the house. There was a stove there for winter and a separate kitchen for summer below the veranda at the back. The sounds of Addie and the boys shouting flashed past the window. Beyond them, up the rise, was the stable I supposed. Another path led to the privy at the edge of a stand of twisted trees.

Stanton came bellowing around the corner. ‘Come help. Come on now. Bring everything inside. You're big enough.'

‘I'm racing, I'm racing, you can't make me, Stant. Try if you can,' Addie shrilled. And she swooped on by and then Fred and Albert because they could not see what had befallen us, only that their limbs were free again to run as they pleased. My heart hammered to watch them and something of it caught me and I ran too, in pursuit or escape, I don't know which.

‘I'm coming to get you, Addie. Albert, I'm coming.'

Oh and they screamed – ‘Hester's coming to get us' – and Stanton bellowed a laugh and they ran as if a monster were descending upon them and would sniff them out in the gathering gloom. I felt fierce then and strong and fast.

‘Hester.' It was Papa, quiet and terrible in his disappointment at the door, dark and tall and straight, the stove door behind him open and the flames licking up as the wood caught, and the lamplight misting from the parlour, and he had his town hat on as if this were a formal occasion and we must present well to the neighbours even if they were not here nor ever would be that I could see.

I ran past him again, one more great loose circle around the house, and put my arms out, shutting my eyes for those straight steps, feeling the breeze on my face.

‘Hester, I say.' Papa again, close, and I opened my eyes and he stepped out so I must veer to avoid him or stop. It was just his voice and that was enough. I came to a halt, panting and stamping and quivering. A shaking laugh came from me and Papa put his hands to my shoulders and pressed them in so I felt I was being fitted to a smaller space than I needed, a little tight box. In you go.

I looked to the side, away from Papa's vest, which I noticed had a button that needed replacing, if there was one that could be found to match. The sun disappeared behind the peninsula and the wind began to groan through the grass and the trees. Addie and Albert and Fred were standing a little way off, watching. It was time to come in, but they had not been inside yet and even though it was darkening outside I could see them wondering if still it were better where they were, which they knew a little, than inside which they knew not at all and where Mama would be sitting so sad.

‘Hester.' Papa shook me gently until I turned and lifted my gaze to him. ‘You must put away childish things and help while your mother is poorly. Come now, let us find the tea things and you can put the kitchen to rights. It's supper time and you must do it until your mother is herself.'

‘Yes,' I said.

CHAPTER 3

The Coorong, March 1855

THE FIRST MORNING I WOKE IN DARKNESS
and when the light turned ghostly I left the bed, tucked the quilts about Addie and a shawl about my shoulders, and gathered my boots and stepped quiet across the rough floor up the hall to the front door and outside. Skipper came to me, caracoling with excitement that the tedium of night had passed and standing on her hind legs to paw my front. ‘Down, Skip,' I whispered, and stroked her soft head. She ran about sniffing, stopping to relieve herself – gazing away intently to show me that it was a private matter – while I sat on the doorstep and pulled on my boots. The earth still turned and we had almost reached the sun. Pink clouds were taking flight from the horizon and the bushes and scrubby trees moved about easily as if they also were stirring and preparing themselves; it was the temperature that Fred calls coolish-warmish, which is a perfect temperature for anything.

If this were to be my cage for the next few years I wished to find out the extent and margins and possibilities of it, and if Papa needed to succeed here to effect our escape I vowed I would do all I could to help him.

I went up the rutted track, retracing the route we had taken the night before, and when I reached the first bend I looked about and could persuade myself that our home wasn't so bad except that since it had no stone but that in the chimneys it appeared as temporary as an outhouse or a shed. It was a puzzle of the raw new timber and painted windows and doors that Papa had brought here when he was building the house, and materials scavenged from the Coorong: silvered wood, mud and wattle and thatching – incoherent shelter when considered together. The track down the slope forked above the house: one arm leading to the veranda steps at the back of the house, and the other leading to the front door. There was a small sort of dam not far from the house where the land dipped. I saw now as I had not the day before that the house was on a spit of land projecting into the lagoon. Around its feet the water glinted blue and the vapour lifting above the peninsula gave its sand hills and vegetation the appearance of a watercolour, as if it represented something real but was not real itself.

The track's curve drew me uphill. The house was concealed and I could almost imagine myself to be escaping, and as one shallow bend replaced another with so little change in the surrounds a fair distance had passed before I stopped again, breathless with the pace I had set myself. There was little enough to see – dry grasses and low shrubs in sweeps down to the lagoon, an arm of contorted trees hugging the slope from the low ridge and modest folds of land – a bed risen from like my own and its covers pushed back to hold the warmth of night. The colours were not intrinsic. A dry grass stem in shadow could be as drab as sightless eyes or gold in sunlight or silver in moonlight, but I did not know that then.

Skipper snuffled at the grass to see what I had found that she had not, but detecting nothing bounded off, leaving only the occasional movement of the tops of bushes to show her whereabouts. Everything stilled and sound and sight and the warmth of early sun resting on me were faint. There was just the low drone of insects and the higher calls of birds; even the waves, so loud the day before, were muted. All that space around me.

Somewhere distant, Skipper set up her excitable bark, and thundered back into view desperate for an audience, dancing at a gap between the bushes, the entrance to a narrow track, which she disappeared into once more. It was well trodden and not more than twenty inches wide and pleasantly cool about my legs. The grey-green brush undulated in height about me, to my waist, even to my shoulders, so that I would have presented a strange sight from the track, my body rising and falling from the leafy sea as if riding the back of a half-tamed leviathan.

The path ran alongside the lagoon away from the house and after some distance forked, one arm descending towards the shore, the other rising to the ridge. But Skipper's baying came from below and I ran towards it, my nightgown held high, my shawl flying out behind and my plait bouncing and the bark came closer, also other sounds – growling and shouting and something high and shrill – and I burst into a clearing above the shore: a native encampment. I was part way across the grassed space before I was able to take in the enclosures of interwoven branches and a small fire, on the other side of which was a tall black man with a huge beard wearing a great cloak of fur. His spear was poised behind his head and three sandy coloured dogs, legs stiff and backs roached, were advancing and Skipper was as menacing as I had ever seen her, her shoulders up and head low and teeth bared and a growl gravelling out.

‘No,' I screamed. ‘Skipper, no.'

Skipper leapt before me, and the man stilled his spear and his eyes flickered from me to her, horrified by us both. A baby somewhere behind him began to cry and two women, their voices shrill with alarm, retreated at the sight of me. A child poked its head out of the shelter and hands appeared from within to drag him back.

The native shouted and waved his spear at me, brandishing it towards the track, and kicked one of his yelping dogs, which fell away with a scream. He could have killed Skipper in an instant yet he did not; he neither advanced nor retreated. His voice moved like close thunder, loud enough to frighten. Why hadn't I heeded Mama's advice to be less impulsive? How I wished I were properly dressed. I would feel better, even if they could not tell the difference. Ridiculous thought. I could die. No training had readied me for such a moment.

‘I'm so sorry,' I said in the stupidest voice, as if I'd arrived at a tea party uninvited. Somehow, I grabbed Skipper's collar and she lunged and reared at the end of my arm – her yelps strangled now – so that I was yanked about until I clouted her haunches and suddenly she became obedient and I was able to heave her towards the path, though for a terrible moment when I searched about I wasn't sure I would be able to find the entrance to it in the wall of bushes. I did not like to turn from the man with the spear but in a few seconds when I looked back they were already hidden from view. Then I was afraid they might surprise me further along and that my legs would not obey me. Legs, hands, voice, all were trembling. Skipper seemed to catch something of my mood, moving at my side rather than charging ahead when I let her go. A clammy sweat broke out on my face and I felt so dizzy when I reached the fork again that I had to stop and bend over until my spinning head and shaking legs stilled. Now Skipper wanted to go back and tore ahead down the hill towards the house, my home as I supposed I must call it now, which was so far away.

If I expected uproar at my disappearance, I was mistaken. The veranda door was still shut, and inside the lacklustre heat from the stove and the kettle pushed back told me that no one was up. Skipper skittered along the hall, sniffing at one door, whining delicately at another, scratching at the boys' and, getting no response, returned and threw herself into her nest of blankets.

I did not like to wake people after the long journey, so I put the kettle on and stoked the fire and refilled the wood box and began to feel calmer despite my mind running through the events just past. It was the bearded native I was thinking of and his reluctance to strike. Fear had been on his face, but it surely would not have been of Skipper who he could have killed in a second, for everyone says the blacks are most skilful hunters, and he could not be afraid of me, a mere girl. Of what, then?

The kettle lid began to rumble and scuffing footsteps came down the hall: Papa tying his dressing gown, his hair and whiskers frowsty from the night. I could not help running at him. In a moment he was holding my arm – ‘What is it, Hester?' – and my story spilled out.

He took me by the shoulders and shook me. ‘On your own? What were you thinking?'

‘Nothing. Just of exploring,' I said.

At the sound of our voices Hugh and Stanton appeared and then the rest of them, Mama last of all. But she was the worst, her face white, the whole of her aquiver, and clutching her shawl about her.

‘It is not safe. I knew it would be so. We should not be here.'

‘There is no danger. See, Hester is unharmed. Even Skipper. That shows how little there is to fear. We need only be sensible,' Papa said.

‘Sensible? Sensible, you say? We will die here. I know it.'

‘There were no natives about while we were building last year, but signs enough that they'd been here. It was to be expected. We must not antagonise them, but do what we may to befriend them.'

‘When they killed that shepherd not a year since?' Mama said.

‘Shh,' Papa said and sent her a frown. ‘We don't know who that was. Not around here.' As if we had not heard that news and other news like it in town when Papa and the boys were here building this very house, and wondered about where exactly it had happened. The natives were becoming bold, people said, and must be taught a lesson.

‘We should move them on,' Hugh said, addressing only Papa, who he stood close by. ‘We can't have them living so close. We must persuade them to leave, not befriend them. Where would that lead? They'll eat the stock.' He stood with his legs apart – which made him appear ridiculous with his bare feet and his bare legs emerging from his nightshirt – and his arms folded as if he were twenty-three instead of eighteen. He pretends that he is a man and I do not know why Papa encourages him because he is not in the least bit sensible. With his great size he will jump a horse over a barbed fence and be surprised when it slices its legs to ribbons, and then who is given the task of tending to the poor thing? Not Hugh with his clumsy hands and manner. Still, I had to admit that I would feel easier if the natives
were not there, even though they had done nothing when they
might have.

Albert went to Skipper and wrapped his arms about her neck. ‘Skip, poor Skip. You could have died. Did you scare them? Brave girl.'

‘The man could have killed her,' I said. ‘Easily. I don't understand why he did not.'

‘They do not want trouble any more than do we,' Papa said. ‘I see no reason why there cannot be peace between us. There is game aplenty, and fish and fowl enough for us all. They will see that we mean them no harm, and we must keep a close watch on Skip.'

That evening for grace Papa prayed: ‘We thank you Lord for bringing us to this corner of your creation. May we fulfil all of your purposes, high and low, bringing civilization and reverence for God to the poor wretches that live on this land, and prosper to the glory of your name. Amen.'

‘Amen,' we said.

After we had eaten and the dishes had been cleared away and washed we remained inside although it was pleasant outside. Stanton took his knife and fell to whittling a stout stick from the wood box. It was hard not to watch the slivers of wood flying about and bouncing across the floor.

‘The broom's on the veranda,' I said. Stanton looked at me. ‘When you have need of it, which I think you will.'

Mama said nothing and Papa had his nose in his journal and took no notice. Stanton sped up his work until the scales of wood fairly flew. His aim, it seemed – apart from creating work for someone else, most likely me – was to make a weapon of some sort, perhaps the head of a spear. He lacked the patience for the task, cutting too deep so the object became smaller but not more dangerous or intimidating.

I went to the door and reached for the broom, which was precisely where I had left it, and took it to Stanton and held it out to him. He continued his work, such as it was, and I rested the broom against the side of his chair. It began a slow slide that ended with a clatter on the floor.

‘Hester, be careful now,' Papa said.

Stanton smirked. I left the broom where it lay.

Mama emerged from her reverie. ‘Only think, they might still be there,' she said, her eyes on the back windows, which were ablaze with the dark orange sun, and her hands twisted her handkerchief. ‘They might come for us in the night while we sleep. How would we know? Like poor Mr McGrath.'

‘Shh.' Papa was stern and flicked a glance towards Addie and Fred and Albert, who were staring. ‘As you know, my dear, I have heard that he might have been at fault.'

‘How so?' Hugh said.

‘For making the blacks take him beyond their own territory.'

‘To kill him for so trifling a thing. And you wish to befriend them.'

‘You should not speak to your father so,' Mama said, but as if from habit more than feeling.

Stanton inspected the point of his stick and, detecting some flaw, rotated it and held the knife to its side and sliced it away from him again down the point of wood. The end snapped off and now he had whittled away so much that there was nothing to hold. In disgust he opened the stove door and threw it into the flames.

Papa nodded. ‘It was a long time ago. It is different now, but they should not have done it. I do not approve it. As to trifling, how could we know? What might be trifling for one can be grave to another. People do take slights where none is intended.'

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