New South Wales, Australia
THE DRY Australian bush was vast and baking at one hundred and eight degrees. Cicadas sang, and kangaroos lay in groups under the shadiest trees. Some of the animals panted and occasionally rolled over in the dust they had created by camping in the same place for years on end. A big gray kangaroo’s ears twitched every few seconds to the sound of a distant axe ringing against ironbark timber.
IN A clearing many miles away, Jim Kelly worked alone amid fresh sawdust and bright, newly stripped timber, constructing a set of cattle yards. Jim stopped, lowered his axe, and wiped the sweat from his forehead with his forearm. He had discarded his hat, and his blond hair was dark with perspiration. He gazed with some satisfaction at the yards. Although they had taken him weeks to build, the tough ironbark timber, however difficult to work with, would withstand weather and termites and last a hundred years. Longer than me, he thought, and smiled.
Jim glanced longingly at his water can, but he knew if he had another drink of water so soon after his last one, nausea would overwhelm him before he finished erecting the last strainer post. If the cold water hit his stomach, hot blood would be drawn to his core and he might faint. That could be fatal in this heat. Ignoring the sweat that ran down from his hairline in clean, wet lines down the dust coating his cheeks until it gathered in muddy droplets and dripped off his chin, he heaved at the last ironbark post. It did not budge from the ground, and he grunted in disgust and decided to take a rest. He pulled off his sweat-drenched shirt and used it to mop his face as he sat on the large, raw stump under the shade of the branches of the remaining trees. He rubbed the muscles of his forearms, stiff and jarred from striking the axe against the hard timber.
He glanced up at the deep-blue sky and guessed it must be an hour after midday. The smell of eucalyptus leaves filled his nostrils, as did another, sharper tang that made him wrinkle his nose. His sharp blue eyes scanned the trees above, and he spotted the source of the scent… a koala, sitting about thirty feet above, wedged characteristically into a secure fork. It had stopped eating and its liquid black-bead eyes surveyed him warily. He grinned when he spotted the tiny baby koala peeking over its mother’s shoulder—a cuter, white-eared version of her.
Around him, the hidden cicadas sang a chorus that assaulted his ears, a pulsing tide of noise that had ebbed and flowed around him all day and seemed almost to hold him up when he grew tired. He had seen one or two of the insects, but more often he had found their chitinous outer skeletons discarded and still clinging to the bark of a tree where they had shed them as they emerged from their larval stage. The skins amazed him. They were an exact replica of the insects’ outer shapes, complete with finely detailed molds of their tiny eyes and legs, made of a translucent gold matter that easily crushed to powder in his fingertips.
At his feet, tiny round black balls like aniseed balls—the dried droppings of wallabies—lay scattered around on the sawdust he had created yesterday when he had chipped out the boards to make the rails for the yards. He had not seen the wallabies, but he knew from the droppings he found every morning that they were around.
Jim sighed, reached for a chunk of his damper, and chewed on it stubbornly, then finally stood up to reach for his water can.
The explosive sound of a high-powered rifle fired at close range made him drop the water and freeze. Through an adrenaline-charged haze, he registered something had hit his ankle. He heard a rustle at his feet and jumped again as he looked down and saw a lithe tan snake writhing in loops, curling over and over on itself in its death throes, red blood from an ugly wound behind its head mingling with the bright-yellow sawdust. Movement came back to his limbs, and he leapt behind the stump and peered in the direction from which the shot had come. He couldn’t see anything. The front of his ankle began to throb and felt hard and wrong. His ears were ringing from the noise of the shot, so he didn’t notice the cicadas had stopped their midday chorus until the stillness had gone on for so long they hesitantly started to shrill again. His eyesight began to blur. He heard another rustle from close behind him and heard, too late, the “click” of a weapon being cocked.
A deep voice behind him said, “Did he get you?”
Jim turned to see a tall, large-framed man in dark jeans, leather boots, kangaroo-hide hat, and dark shirt. The man stared at him across the barrel of a gun and opened his mouth to say something. Jim had time to register the frown that creased the space above the man’s eyebrows and under his hat before the nausea he had felt earlier overcame him in a savage wave, and he barely felt strong arms grab him as the ground leapt up to meet him.
“Shit!” was the last thing Jim heard as he passed out.
JIM WOKE with a start. Something cold surrounded him. His clothes felt like they were floating away from his body, but his feet were sunk into something soft, and his back and chest felt oddly warm. There was a strange smell… a damp, iron smell…. Suddenly he identified it as water and tried to fling his arms up as he realized he was shoulder-deep in the cool waters of the billabong near the cattle yards. But his arms felt like lead and would not move.
A voice behind and above him said, “Stop it. Don’t move. Just stay here, we have to stay here another few hours yet.”
“Wha…,” muttered Jim, but consciousness was slipping away from him again, and he tried to turn his face up, only to encounter a cold, rough beard and a chuckle. Jim realized the warmth behind him was another body, holding him tight against the coldness of the water. He frowned, tried to open his mouth, but passed out again.
Jim awoke again briefly as he was dragged roughly across mud, grass, and sticks. He vaguely felt himself stripped down and rolled over several times, then rubbed vigorously with a sack. He looked up, puzzled, and saw the stranger who had shot the snake looking down at him.
“You’ll do,” the man said and picked him up bodily, then put him on a canvas swag. Jim groaned a weak protest, and then found the taste of water against his lips and gulped eagerly at it.
“You’ll do,” repeated the stranger. Jim felt sleep overtake him again as the man draped a wool blanket over him.
Jim awoke to bright midday sun. He groaned and sat up. He was in his tent in his own swag. Had it all been a dream? But then he pushed the tent flap aside and saw a well-oiled rifle leaning against a swag and saddle outside.
He was thirsty. He found his water can beside him and upended it. Empty. He staggered to his feet, stepped outside, then realized with a shock that he was naked, and ducked back into his tent. After a few moments, he noticed that his familiar work clothes were folded next to his swag. He picked them up and put them on, feeling a little awkward and slow in his movements. Even his thoughts were slow and confused, but he remembered the man who had helped him and began to wonder where he was.
He picked up the water can and walked unsteadily toward the billabong. Where the stream fed into the pool, there was a place where the water ran clear and cool from the hills above before flowing into the muddy pond. He headed that way and came cautiously around the bend in the path just before the billabong.
A splash caught his attention as he reached the billabong, and he stopped and stared, listening to a deep baritone voice singing, “So he jumped to his feet, and leapt into that billabong, you’ll never catch me alive, said heeeee….” The voice, even to Jim’s relatively uneducated ears, sounded good. What he saw, though, stopped him in his tracks. To his left, draped across some bushes in the hot sun, lay the stranger’s clothes. Standing knee-deep in the water, only about twenty feet ahead of Jim, the stranger used the billy to pour water over his head and body. Every inch of him was tanned and muscled, and Jim felt the breath leave his lungs as he watched the sparkling water catch the sun and sluice over the other man’s torso, running into the grooves down the center of his stomach and over his hips, down his long thighs.
The stranger spluttered briefly as the water poured over his face, interrupting his song, and then he continued. “And his ghost may be heard as you pass by that billabong, you’ll come a waltzing Matilda, with meeeeeee—You’re staring.”
Jim jumped and stammered, “I’m sorry. I hadn’t expected…. I was thirsty.”
The man turned to him, and for the first time Jim got a good look at the handsome, tanned face with deep-brown eyes, rough-cut black hair, and an amused look. “Then maybe you should give me that water can and let me fill it for you.”
He held out a hand. Jim swallowed, then stepped forward and almost tripped in the slippery mud at the side of the billabong. “I… thanks. The snake and all that.”
Jim looked up at the trees as the man emerged from the water and reached for the water can. To Jim’s surprise, a wet hand grasped his and shook it. “Mark. Mark Turner. And you would be?”
Jim almost fell over as their joined hands moved up and down perilously close to Mark’s nether regions. He stuttered, “Jim, Jim Kelly.”
He released Mark’s hand but then stared at it blankly when the man kept it held out in front of him. Jim finally managed to meet Mark’s piercing brown eyes, and Mark quirked an eyebrow at him. “You going to give me that?”
“What?” said Jim, stupidly.
“Your water can.”
“Oh. Yes. If you’ve finished with the billy, you could fill it too and I could boil it up for a cup of tea.”
“Sure,” replied Mark, not moving. Then he took the can and stood in front of Jim, about two feet from him, both hands at his sides. “So, how are you feeling?”
“I… I… I… what?”
“You a bit slow, mate?” Mark asked sympathetically.
“No! No! I read!”
Mark smiled at him and looked quizzical, prompting Jim to go on defiantly, “And I write. And I play the piano.”
Mark said, “You must be feeling a bit wonked-out still after that snake bite, then.”
“I suppose so. Thanks for that.”
“You said that. You’re welcome. Seem worth saving. It’s nice when you save someone and they’re alright. Sucks if they’re a right bastard, you end up wishing you never… you know.”
Jim tried to keep his eyes up front and center, but he caught a slight movement at the periphery of his vision, just below Mark’s waist, and he couldn’t help but look down, then turn away, feeling his face warm up.
Mark laughed. “I’ll get the water. What’s the matter, never seen a bloke naked before?”
Jim’s face felt on fire. “Not… not like….” He pursed his lips and walked away, calling over his shoulder, “I’ll get the fire going better.”
There was something about Mark that flustered Jim. Maybe it was that Mark looked a little older than him and exuded authority. Maybe it was that he didn’t seem to give a damn about Jim catching him stark naked. Maybe it was that deep voice. Jim shook his head and walked back to the camp.