Jess put on the cotton button-through dress. Folding the kerchief into a triangle, she brought it up to her face to cover her mouth and nose, and then tied the end securely at the back of her head.
The mask in place, she took the sack of meat pieces and went out through the flywire door onto the small back verandah, where she spread them out onto several thicknesses of newspaper left there in readiness on the wooden table.
With her foot, she moved the small stool the short distance to the doorway, stepped up on to it and reached for the Sunshine Milk tin on the shelf above the door. Her hands were shaking as she placed the tin onto the table.
From the milk tin she took a sharp bladed penknife and a small Golden Syrup tin in which was a small, brown, screw-top bottle containing the pink powder – strychnine. A little shudder went through her as she thought of what she was about to do. Not only did it go against her nature, but it terrified her that she might breathe in some of the lethal pink powder.
Being careful not to handle the meat pieces and leave her human scent on them, she made a slit in each piece with the blade of the knife, then dipping the blade in the powder, wiped it off into the slit. When all pieces were similarly treated, she wrapped them in the newspaper. She returned all items to the milk tin, hammered the lid on tightly and replaced it on the shelf above the door.
It was late afternoon but the December heat still rose fiercely from the sand dunes of the desert. As she trudged across the plain carrying the flour bag containing the strychnine-laced meat and a sturdy stick, her back to the now weakening rays of the summer sun, she tried hard to think pleasant thoughts that would keep her mind from dwelling on the purpose of her frequent treks back and forth across the sand dunes.
In two weeks time the kids would be home from boarding school for the Christmas holidays. She was looking forward to having them home after enduring ten months, two weeks and three days without seeing them. For six weeks she would enjoy them before packing them off for another year. She smiled wistfully. Even their squabbling couldn’t spoil the joy of having her children around her.
A half mile from the homestead she stopped at the foot of the sand dune. She took a stick from the bag and scraped a depression in the sand near a large clump of Spinifex; then, skewering a lump of meat on the end of the stick, dropped it into the depression and covered it lightly with sand. After pushing a piece of crumpled newspaper well down into the clump to mark the spot of this her first bait, she retreated, swishing the stick back and forth across the sand to disperse her human scent.
The perspiration was running freely from her forehead, its saltiness stinging her eyes but she dared not wipe it away. She would not touch her face again until she had washed and scrubbed her hands.
She could not count the number of times she had carried out this same routine, though there was a time when she thought it would become easier. Instead, it had become more and more distasteful and her terror of poisoning herself more acute. There would be no-one to help her. Charlie would be away for another week and in any case, medical help was three days away.
It was almost dark when she returned to the homestead. She washed her hands at the tap in the yard and then shed her dress at the back door. Before
making her way to the bathroom she dropped the dress into the copper already filled with soapy water.
Standing under the cold shower, she took the nail brush and scrubbed her hands, soaping, rinsing, soaping and rinsing her body over and over. Finally she washed her hair before she was satisfied there could be no trace left of the pink powder.
She washed her hands once again in the kitchen sink before making the cup of tea she so desperately needed. Yet, with the steaming black liquid enticingly before her, it was some time before she could bring herself to drink it.
Jess left the homestead as the sun reddened the eastern sky; before the golden light rose above the deep terracotta red of the sand dunes; before the dry southerly wind whipped up the sand and covered the tracks.
The first two baits were untouched and she was following tracks from the third which took her back down onto the plain. The tracks had been easy to follow in the loose sand but now it was difficult on the dry, grassy plain. She cast her eye in a wide circle pondering the route which might lead her in the right direction.
She reasoned that the dog had been heading roughly in a north-easterly direction so that it was likely it was headed towards the now parched swamp which offered low bushy cover.
As she walked, Jess kept her eyes on the ground looking for a lucky break. She was about to give up when she came across a cattle pad. Following the pad for some fifty yards, she picked up the dingo’s tracks once again.
Shortly afterwards she came across the dead body lying under a bush. She looked down at the golden yellow body, stiff in death, the teeth bared and eyes staring. She shook her head sadly, “poor bloody animal, ” she said aloud, ‘you poor bloody animal.”
Taking the butcher’s knife from her bag, she picked up the ears and sliced, parting them from the skull; quickly, carefully, firmly slicing down the back, cutting the strip of pelt from the body and finally removing the tail with one stroke of the knife. She rolled the scalp and put it in her bag. Then, turning away, she vomited. Holding her stomach with one hand, she picked up the bag and knife and set off back across the plain. Seven and sixpence earned – was it worth it?
Always she asked herself this same question and always she came up with the same answer. The dingo bounty kept the three kids at boarding school. They would never be able to afford the school fees on the five quid a week Charlie earned managing this place.
Not that the Old Border was mean – he wasn’t. He kept the station store generously supplied with provisions. Not just the basics but luxury items as well like the tins of honey, sausages and fish. He did expect his pound flesh though so nobody did any loafing.
She stood on top of the sand dune and looked down towards the homestead. She was a couple of miles away but could see it glistening in the morning sunlight. A big rambling building constructed of mud bricks covered with whitewash.
It looked like a small township down there with the scattering of outbuildings. The garden, lush and green with the two big bean trees, the oleander hedge, the windmill and mulberry tree. It all stood out against the red of the surrounding sand dunes. A little oasis on the flat treeless plain.
Beyond the homestead a herd of cattle was stringing its way in to water, a dust pall hanging over and behind them as they followed their well-worn tracks across the plain. Her eyes followed the line of the dune. She noticed a dark shape fifty or so yards away and moved down towards it. It was nothing. Just an area of roughened sand in the lee of the Spinifex where a big roo had rested. She stood and gazed ahead. The sun was high in the sky now and she could feel the heat rising from the sand. It was going to be a scorcher today. She turned and started for home.
She was a hundred yards from the cattle troughs when she came across the tracks. Drunken tracks with the familiar splayed paw marks of a sick dog. He’d been in for water and by the look of the tracks, he wouldn’t be far off. She began to follow them.
She found him lying under a clump of Spinifex. Knife in hand she bent down and grasped the ears but screamed in horror when the animal heaved itself to its feet.
As her screams filled the desert air, she took off down the dune as though the devil himself was hard on her heels. Sanity returned some fifty yards down the dune and she sank to her knees and waited for her heart to cease its pounding. She couldn’t bring herself to use the knife to end the wretched animal’s pain. Instead she sobbed and yelled, “die you bugger – for God’s sake, die”. Sitting there in the hot sand with the sun beating down on her back she tried to control the retching of her stomach as the animal suffered its last spasms.
For a long time the dog had been still. She got to her feet and looked about her for something to throw at it but there was nothing. She jumped up and down and yelled. Gingerly she approached and toed it with her foot.
Satisfied there was no life left, she gritted her teeth and quickly removed the scalp.