Howie and Dawn kissed, then laughing, stepped into the old diesel Toyota ute. A free day. A trip to Ti Tree, a relative metropolis; pub, shop and people they didn't live with. Late afternoon, the Midas sun touched the hills red gold. The Western Desert landscape was never brown, or green for that matter. Even at first light it could always raise a gentle purple or dusky pink, but between 4 and 6 pm the western faces of the ridgy hills were luminous amber; antipodean blessed light, somehow old and living.
He knew the tracks through the stations, following the bore runs and epic fence lines. Dust and wheeltracks signing their journey. The bag of apples slouched at her feet. They tossed the cores like Hansel and Gretel; a zigzag trail, their promise to return.
Empty road, dark trunked scrub with silver leaves. A rabbit burst out of the spinifex and found his final judgement. Howie steadied the ute as it shimmied on the dust. Dawn called for him to stop. Ahead, a tree, perhaps a gum, which had been left behind by a shifting creekline, stood dead. Taller than the surrounding scrub, still a landmark, even without a pulse. The eagles, six of them, stood among its limbs. Massive wedgetailed birds stood flatfooted and watched. She walked closer. The birds shuffled and shook the red dust from their feathers.
Moving slowly she found her balance and chose her shots. Unusual to see more than two together, and so quiet, so close. These would be really nice photos. She stepped back quietly and turned. Howie stood against the diesel drum, smoking, watching. He smiled at her towny enthusiasm for these birds and her wide eyed surprise at this ancient red land. The place just looked like work waiting to happen by now. He loved the place, but bore runs took a few days and familiarity leeched a lot of the romance out of the trip.
They made it to the Old Coniston station without a flat or another photo opportunity. He pulled over.
'Hey babe, There are some really nice old wrecks here. Wouldn't mind checking them out, do you mind stopping here for the night?'
'Sure Howie, no probs, but didn't the old Naparula woman say something about Coniston?'
'Ah yep, some old story, she's a sweet old thing. We can tell her it's fine when we get back hey?'
The place was still. Dawn didn't mind, it was so nice to get out of the ute. They were good for musters, but the suspension was a bit hard for long trips. The cattleyards were old, really old, the silvery posts and beams met in hand hewn holes. No hint of recent cattle work, no cattle, no tracks, no cattle dung, no water. Silver scrub matching the cattleyards, spinifex and parakeelya their colour slightly warmed by the red dust.
Howie was under the old Dodge. He was right, it was a seriously nice old truck. She framed some photos around the curve of its fenders, rust, grey paint, red dirt, iron bark.
The homestead was a classic too, verandah posts solid and gently curved natural timber, iron roof. Red dust pushing at the door, colouring the window ledges and powdering the cheeks of ghostly curtains. It looked like a movie prop. She pushed the door open and stood. Closing her eyes she could imagine life here. Working men, cattle, salty and blunt; people like Howie, no crap, wry and red faced, good people.
A slow spin and she settled to the floor. Lying flat, eyes closed, hands feeling the history in the floorboards. Imagining older times; women in long frocks, kids, dogs, working men. It would have been like a small town. Breathing in the flavour of the place; smoke, smoke and eucalyptus, a gentle smell. Sadness, she imagined a voice, but it wasn't a twangy strine voice. Old husky and sad, whispering eucalyptus. She remembered the old woman at the store, reaching out to touch her, some gesture of affinity or connection.
Howie lay under the truck. It would take a bit of work to get her moving, the block was still here, perhaps he could rig up something with a post and some fencing wire to hold in place of the missing wheel. Not for any distance, just to pull her out of the dust. He took a swig of water and rinsed the flakes of dust and grit off his face. The sun was losing its heat, sitting close to the tree tops in the west. Hefting the swag out of the back he headed for the homestead.
Boots loud on the old timber flooring, he stepped inside. Dawn didn't stir. He lowered the swag down softly and stepped towards her. Sunlight angled in through the window and fell across her shoulder. It caught the henna in her hair and a barred constellation of dust swirled in and out of the beam. She looked incongruous, primary colours in a sepia context. He reached over and touched her face.
Dawn wasn't normally a screamer and didn't much have time for girls who did, but she let out a yell that set him on his ass. She jumped a mile too, eyes wide.
'Holy Crap Howie, you scared me. Do you have any idea what you look like?' Backlit, the red dust halo and streaky face outlined his stunned expression. She realised he was just as freaked. 'Ah sorry, I was miles away. You look pretty wild in all that red dust. Can you smell smoke? eucalypt smoke?'
'Nah just dust. No fires here for eighty years. Who else did you think it would be?'
'Noone. I must have dropped off, I had a freaky dream. Can we sleep outside? This place makes me jumpy.'
'HA No shit,' he laughed.
They set the swag between the truck and the ute. Dawn was still jittery. He sneaked around the ute and grabbed her shoulders. He could feel the tension in her arms as she swung around with a tired smile. He gave her a kiss on the forehead and rubbed some of the tension out of her neck.
'Sorry mate,' he said. 'Nah this place is just a bit freaky, not your fault.'
She passed him out the chunky roast beef sandwiches and the last of the apples. They ate quietly watching the last of the sun. Then falling back, watched the stars. Night skies were so beautiful out here; no smog, no city lights, just the stars and the void. Dawn felt a shock of vertigo as she imagined falling into them. Howie pulled her close against his chest and wrapped his arms over. She curled up and relaxed finally into sleep.
The smell of smoke whispered into Howie's mind as he slept, a tired keening wail, the whisper of leaves. A heavy metallic rhythm murmured through the trees, he stepped out past the ute and behind the house, past the listing water tank and into the trees. Shadows moved through the trees.
Their frightened voices called back and fowards, men, women, children crying holding close to each other, walking awkwardly through the dark scrub.
He pushed closer through the trees. These people were chained together, all ages, Kaytetye, Warlpiri and Anmatyerre, some faces looked familiar. He couldn't put names to them. He caught the curve of her face close to the end of the line, Dawn, shuffling too, crying. He ran softly back towards her end of the group, looking for a branch or something to work the chains with, but the horses moved between them. Dark, sweating and stepping sideways, eyes wide and working their bits. The riders were kicking them back towards the mob, guns ready. He couldn't see their faces and frankly he wasn't looking.
He tried to keep Dawn in sight. She hadn't seen him. Sweat streamed between his shoulders despite the night chill. He didn't know Old Coniston well, no idea where these people were headed. He ran ahead to find the front of the group. So many people, old men, women, about thirty adults and half that number of children. He found a patch of thick scrub and squatted, waiting. The people worked their way past. Those chains were heavy. No way to break them. One of the women stumbled, falling towards him, a coolamon slid towards him. He pulled it under the bush. The baby was crying, but it was barely audible amongst the dark noise. The woman met his eyes as she was helped to her feet. A horseman rode up and pushed them onwards. Howie hid the baby tight under the bush and followed.
The land cleared ahead before dropping into a gorge. The group bunched into a huddle. Chains, dust, clinging branches and spinifex. Dawn looked numb and wide eyed, standing towards the front of the group. The horses milled. Riders working the group backwards until they stood close to the edge.
The horsemen at either end shot into the group. People fell against each other, and over the edge. Shots and screams filled the air. 'DAWN!' Howie found himself running forwards. The crowd started to slip as the weight of falling people pulled others over the edge. Even as he reached her she was spun about and pulled away against the earth. Howie screaming alone on the top of the cliff staggering to his feet, turning on the horses. A last shot. Horses and gunmen turned and galloped back into the trees. He fell backwards into the darkness, blood streaked face and wild hair. The night stood in shocked silence.
The base of the gorge was crowded with tall dark stone. Two forms moving, awkward, at the bottom of the cliff. The bluegrey chill of morning woke her. She watched the sun reach for him, shrugging closer, feathers ruffling as she spread her wings, he turned also, and they launched heavily into the air. Painting the sky with long slow brush strokes they circled upward into the new day.
I have tried to write this as an homage to the kinds of stories which are part of Aboriginal knowledge, metamorphosis and human, habitat interplay are meshed in those stories. This is also a way of trying to bring home a sense of responsibility for our collective past. I don't know if people were thrown over a cliff at Old Coniston specifically, but there are stories about it being done, so this story is a combination of pieces about this kind of event.
List of massacres (wikipedia)
Coniston 80 years on.