Jess listened to identify the sound. Her attention focused beyond the square of light on the verandah to the garden where an almost full moon lit up the night with its soft muted glow.
Mentally dismissing the familiar sounds of the bush, she listened to the one as yet unidentified, which by its very elusiveness was causing her to tense with the first thoughts of alarm.
When a dingo’s howl pierced the hot still air, she felt a sudden cold chill envelop her and she began to fight down the panic that threatened to immobilise her senses. In a moment she recognised the figure that emerged from the eerie shadows and in another, a feeling of relief swept over her to quell the rising fear.
“Mick! Whatfor you come longa night time?”
“Me proper sorry Missus,” the old fellow apologised, aware he had alarmed her. “Me camp there longa gate, make em safe longa you fella.” He waved a bony arm back the way he had come.
She studied him for a moment. They had always referred to him as ‘Old Mick’ but his agility, wiry strength and the crop of unruly black hair belied the impression of age given by the wizened features.
“You bin frightened of debil-debil Mick?” she asked.
“No debil-debil, Missus. Kadaitcha bin come.” His eyes were wide and anxious, “you bin keep door shut – hallways you shut em up longa night time.”
Mick’s warning sent a shiver down her spine. Jess knew enough about the Aborigines to know that a Kadaitcha does not deal in trivialities and now she needed to know why Mick saw fit to protect her.
At first he was reluctant to impart any information and it took some clever questioning for Jess to piece together the story that made her realise she was in grave danger. When Charlie and Jess moved to the Out-station after the flood waters washed away Lambina homestead, Mick had accompanied them. In doing so, he had moved out of his tribal area and apparently had ignored the Elders’ orders to return. He had, in effect, committed treason and the Elders pronounced the death penalty upon him and upon the white woman whom they perceived had lured him away from his tribe.
Jess secured the door, picked up the lantern and went down the hallway to check on her sleeping toddlers before going to her own room.
In the morning she awoke unrefreshed. The house was stuffy with all the windows closed and she threw open her bedroom window to stand there a moment to breathe in the cool fresh air. This was harsh country but in the silvery light of dawn it was deceptively tame, the hard ruggedness of the red-brown landscape masked in the softness of early morning.
Already the silence of night had given way to the sounds of the day. Galahs were squawking noisily as they flew in huge flocks from their night roosts, and the goats’ bleating sent her thoughts back to Mick and his Kadaitcha.
She couldn’t deny the fear that knotted her stomach. She was used to spending days, even weeks, on her own at the homestead when Charlie was away mustering cattle. She often despaired at the isolation and loneliness but she had always felt safe. It would be foolish to leave the homestead when help was more than two days travel away. With no means of contacting Charlie, or anyone else for that matter, her sense of helplessness was acute.
A Kadaitcha was a tribe’s executioner sent to carry out the sentence imposed by the Elders under their tribal law. The Aborigines feared the Kadaitcha above all else. He walked with silent stealth in pursuit of his victim, the sound of his steps muffled by feather slippers that left no tracks to betray his presence. His painted body blended with dappled light to mask his movements as he stalked to carry out his grisly chore, usually when the moon was full enough to bathe the bush in eerie light.
The moon was almost full and Jess found herself fighting to stay calm.
When the sun sank below the horizon that afternoon and the goats were not home, she went out and watched anxiously. Only when she heard the tinkling of the bell on the lead nanny did she relax and return inside.
There was no sign of Mick the next morning when Jess went out to milk one of the nannies. The flock was roaming free. “Mick!” she yelled as she shooed young kids from the workshop. Then it occurred to her that the goats had not been yarded the evening before. “Mick, Miiiiiiiick!” she yelled more frantically. On the verge of panic she ran back to the house and shut herself inside.
When the lubras came up from the camp a little later, she sent them out to find Mick.
They brought him home that afternoon. The old one, the one Charlie called ‘the boss lubra’, beckoned to her from the gate. A few yards behind her several others were gathered in a silent huddle. “We bin find im, Missus – im bin finish”.
Jess gripped the top of the gate for support. “Which way? You bin show me.”
The boss lubra pointed to the groups behind her, “Kadaitcha bin get im.”
Jess willed her unsteady legs to propel her towards the bundle in front of the solemn group. With trembling hands she drew back the blanket to reveal Mick’s body. She stared at the ugly wound in his chest. There was no blood. She knew there would be a matching hole in his back and there was no blood because the wounds had been sealed with red hot stones.
Waves of nausea washed over her and she could no longer see for the tears that filled her eyes. The boss lubra took her by the shoulders and led her back to the gate. “We take im, Missus. We make proper good corroboree longa poor bugger, Mick. No more Kadaitcha Missus. Im go now.”