Under the Flame Tree, page 1
Also by Karen Wood
The Diamond Spirit Series
First published in 2015
Copyright © Karen Wood, 2015
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the publisher. The Australian Copyright Act 1968 (the Act) allows a maximum of one chapter or ten per cent of this book, whichever is the greater, to be photocopied by any educational institution for its educational purposes provided that the educational institution (or body that administers it) has given a remuneration notice to the Copyright Agency (Australia) under the Act.
Allen & Unwin
83 Alexander Street
Crows Nest NSW 2065
Phone: (61 2) 8425 0100
A Cataloguing-in-Publication entry is available from the
National Library of Australia
ISBN 978 1 76011 246 2
eISBN 978 1 92526 816 4
Cover and text design by Sandra Nobes
Cover images: Getty Images/Rafa Elias (girl), PhotoAlto/
Christophe Lemieux (flame tree)
Typeset by Midland Typesetters, Australia
This one is for my
best buddy Reo
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kirra punched her best friend on the upper arm as the Inlander whistled and screeched to a stop at the Hughenden railway station. ‘See you round.’
‘Have a nice life, working girl,’ Natalie replied. She put on a sing-song voice. ‘Say hi to Jamie for me!’
Kirra rolled her eyes and tucked her straw boater hat under her arm. ‘I kissed him once last holidays. It doesn’t mean we’re together or anything.’
Nat gave her a disappointed shake of the head. ‘You just chew them up and spit them out. Poor Jamie.’
Kirra pulled her suitcase down from the overhead racks, determined to be the first one out of the carriage and onto the platform. She couldn’t wait to swap her tailored uniforms for some grubby jeans back at Moorinja; it was April, weaning time, the best time. And Boss Carney had offered her a paid job on the station – not just in the kitchen, but out with the men, starting the young horses and working with the cattle.
It had taken months of negotiating with her parents, but Kirra had convinced them that she belonged on the land, with the livestock, especially the horses. She wasn’t interested in boys. She was much more excited about her new job, and the thought of getting on that cold-backed gelding she’d started last holidays. Iceman: boy, had that horse bucked under saddle, but after three weeks of training he’d become soft and supple, beautiful to ride. The boss said he could be Kirra’s mustering horse for the season, and that if she could prove herself he’d pay her fees for agricultural college next year.
As her suitcase tumbled down over her head, the train jerked to a stop and she lost her hold on it. It rolled over her back and split open as it hit the floor, spilling dirty uniforms everywhere.
‘It’s a sign,’ said Natalie. ‘You and fancy uniforms were never meant to be.’
‘We weren’t,’ said Kirra, tempted to leave the scattered clothes there. But her mum wanted to sell them second-hand.
A deadpan female voice flooded the train carriage with arrival announcements and directions on how to exit the platform. ‘Please make sure you take all luggage and personal belongings.’
‘Yeah, yeah,’ Kirra muttered. She hurriedly scooped up her clothes, just managing to stuff them back into her bag and make it to the door before the whistle blew. ‘See you at the Dirt and Dust Festival,’ she said to Natalie before jumping onto the platform.
‘Oh, I forgot to tell you, I entered you in the Best Butt competition,’ Nat called out as the doors slid closed.
‘You did what?’ Kirra caught a retreating glimpse of Nat, hands on hips, waving her backside at her as the windows flashed by with increasing speed.
She caught her own reflection in the glass. Her long dark hair had fallen out of its school plaits, and the wayward wisps caught the afternoon light. She scooped it back into submission, smiling as she watched the train rumble off.
The Julia Creek Dirt and Dust Festival was always good for a laugh. While there were no riding events like camp draft or barrel racing, there was a full program of cow-pat throwing, fly-swatting and mud-wallowing. Last year, Kirra had braved the full hot, wet and dirty experience of bog snorkelling, wallowing with a mask and flippers through what looked like chocolate milk, no arm strokes allowed. Mud was much more her style than the Best Butt competition. Nat might have to get a refund on that entry.
On the rail platform surrounded by a scattering of homes in dusty cow paddocks, Kirra saw her mother, dressed in her nurse’s uniform: pale blue with a navy cardigan and brown stockings. She must have come straight from the hospital. When Jocelyn Ravel caught sight of her daughter, the corners of her eyes crinkled and she held out her arms.
‘Hey, Mum.’ Kirra dumped her case and gave her a tight hug.
At her side was her father: long, lanky Jim, the foreman of Moorinja Station. His shirt was rolled at the sleeves and tucked neatly into his work pants. The brim of his hat hung limp around his weather-beaten face. He put a hand on Kirra’s shoulder and took her case. ‘How was your trip?’
‘Long,’ said Kirra. She had caught the train home from boarding school every holiday for the last four years, but this time it had seemed to take forever. A smile spread over her face. ‘At least it was the last one.’
‘You haven’t finished your education,’ her mother reminded her. She’d made no secret that she was uncomfortable with the whole deal between Kirra, her father and Boss Carney. ‘This is for twelve months only, then you’ll be starting at college.’
‘Yeah, but I can do most of it online, Mum. I won’t need to be away from home so much.’
The constant motion, noise and competing voices at boarding school left Kirra relentlessly unsettled, unable to sleep most nights and constantly thinking of home. She had little in common with most of the other girls. She found schoolwork difficult and unrelated to anything she was interested in. The timbered range country of Moorinja Station was the only place she really belonged.
Her dad got down to business as he drove through Hughenden, past the big dinosaur and out towards the road home. ‘Old Jack brought half-a-dozen young horses in for you to start.’
‘Six?’ That seemed like a lot.
‘There’ll be another new guy to help you. He starts on Monday too.’
Kirra frowned slightly. Would they have employed a second person if she were a boy? She shrugged. What did it matter, as long as he was an experienced jackaroo and she could learn
‘He comes off a property further north. He’s only young but he’s a good hand with the stock.’
Her father pulled to a stop outside the roadhouse, a small fibro building with a line of petrol pumps out the front. Kirra stepped out of the car and eyed the mosaic of cracked earth that spread for miles, softened only with clumps of silvery Flinders grass. She had never seen it so dry. A harsh wind blew, sucking moisture from anywhere it could as she followed her mum into the shop.
‘Hi, Judy,’ said Kirra, fiddling with the loose change in the pocket of her tunic.
‘Is it school holidays already?’ asked the blonde woman behind the counter, as she reached for a paper bag and a pair of tongs. ‘Chicken pie?’
‘Thanks.’ Kirra went to the long row of fridges and pulled out a can of orange. ‘I’ve finished school now,’ she said, trying not to crow about it.
‘What, for good?’ Judy put the pie on the counter.
Kirra saw both disapproval and resignation on her mum’s face as she placed three bottles of milk on the counter too. ‘I’ll have one of your pineapple fruit cakes too, thanks, Jude,’ she said.
‘I’m sixteen now,’ grinned Kirra. ‘I can leave school.’
‘Going pro rodeo, hey?’
‘Not until they let girls ride bulls.’
‘Those cowboys are just scared you’d outride them.’
‘Boss Carney gave me a job on the station,’ Kirra said, barely able to conceal her excitement.
‘Hope it goes well for you, love.’
Kirra joined her dad at the bowser while he filled the car with fuel. She leaned against the car and bit into her pie, savouring the warm evening air on her face. Her eyes scanned several posters that were sticky-taped onto the front window of the shop.
The Dirt and Dust Bull Ride, men only, was worth ten thousand bucks prize money. Meanwhile, the girls got to battle for the supreme glory of having a nice butt and a few trivial prizes. Kirra scowled at the posters. Rodeo was all for the boys.
Her dad’s car turned at the boulders that marked the entrance to Moorinja. On one side of the dirt track Kirra could see the white-painted tyres that lined the neatly mown airstrip, and before long the homestead came into view. Watered by the bore, an oasis of gardens hid the modest chamfer-board home where the Carney family lived. Several kangaroos nibbled at the green grass that stretched from it, ending abruptly at brown dirt where the sprinklers stopped.
Kirra’s family had lived in the foreman’s residence since she was seven years old. It was an unremarkable home, similar in construction to the boss’s, with a verandah running along one side. The windows were large and open, letting cool breezes through in the autumn and spring, but its best feature was its distance from the main house, which made it the most private building on the property. Screened by the weeping silver branches of several boree trees, the only other building that could be seen from there was an empty worker’s cottage.
Kirra took her suitcase and followed her mum inside while her dad went straight back to work. She unbuttoned her uniform and dumped it on the floor, then scrambled into a faded shirt and jeans that were stained with oil from painting fenceposts last holidays. She pulled on her boots, which still had a set of drop-shanked spurs hanging off the heels, and grabbed her favourite peaked cap from where it hung on the end of her bed.
If she hurried she would make it to afternoon smoko. All the staff would be there and she couldn’t wait to be one of them.
Kirra slipped onto the end of the bench seat at the old timber table. The massive crown of the flame tree overhead was thick with foliage and still crazy with red flowers from summer. Birds darted in and out of it, the wind rustled its leaves and the whole tree seemed alive with the whispering spirits of Moorinja.
Every time she came home the tree looked different: a glossy green in spring, blazing red in summer, half naked and twiggy in winter. It had been there longer than anyone who sat beneath it, its silvery skin dented and lumpy, scarred with initials and carvings left behind by generations of ringers and station hands. In summer it wrapped around Kirra like a rustling hug and cooled the air with restless shadows; in winter beams of warm sunlight streaked through its bare fingers to warm her.
Pete and Paul, the two general hands, sat at the table comparing hangovers; Steve the mechanic sat opposite, flipping through a newspaper. Liz the cook reached for the teapot and frowned, finding it empty. Nancy, the boss’s wife, placed a fresh pot on the table. ‘Need a top-up?’
Old Jack, one of the station hands, dunked a biscuit into his tea, shoved the whole soggy thing into his mouth and reached for another one. He stank of cow dung and clothes that hadn’t been washed for a week. ‘I hear you’ll be joining us permanently,’ he said, giving Kirra a friendly bump with his shoulder. ‘You know there are certain initiation rites that need to be upheld at Moorinja.’
‘Something to do with molasses and chook feathers?’
‘Something like that.’
‘I think you already got me last holidays.’ Kirra grinned. ‘Did you bring Iceman in for me?’
‘He’s up the road,’ said Jack, referring to Scrubby Creek, the sister station a hundred kilometres north. ‘Too feral for the ringers around here. We turned him out.’
‘We got him yarded with some other young ones,’ said Pete from the other end of the table. He shook his head. ‘That’s one rank horse.’
‘You guys just don’t understand him,’ said Kirra. ‘He’ll be all right once he grows into himself.’
‘He’d better come good soon,’ said Pete. ‘The boss was gonna send him to the sales, but I turned him out for you before he could get him on a truck.’
‘Serious?’ said Kirra. ‘What’d he do?’
The table went quiet. ‘What?’ Kirra urged, noticing everyone smirking. How Iceman behaved reflected on her horse-training skills. She thought she’d done a good job, considering what a challenge he’d been.
‘He unloaded the boss,’ said Jack.
Kirra grimaced. Dumping the boss in front of his workers was not a smart career move for any horse.
‘It’s those first couple of steps,’ said Jack. ‘When he first feels the girth against his skin it sets him off. If you can ride him through it, he’s okay.’ He shook his head. ‘You’re gonna have to get that out of him if you want him to stay.’
‘Maybe the new guy can give you some tips,’ Steve muttered, casting his eyes to the other end of the table. Kirra followed his gaze.
The young ringer sat silently, as though not wanting to be noticed. Kirra could only see the lower half of his face under his hat. His jaw was set tight, and his hands fidgeted with a strap of leather. His clothes told her that he came from the land, but the backyard tattoo on his lower forearm and the unfriendly vibe that radiated from him were from a different world.
When the plate of sandwiches arrived everyone dived in as though it would be their last meal. Kirra stole another look down the table. The ringer’s eyes caught hers and she hurriedly looked down.
‘So where are you from, mate?’ Pete asked, in a friendly voice.
The table went quiet. The new guy’s eyes lifted slowly and scanned the people at the table. They stopped at Pete with a look that warned him not to continue. The atmosphere became suddenly edgy.
Paul shrugged. ‘Just being sociable.’
The new guy stood, looked at his watch and then left the table without a word, leaving his uneaten sandwich. Kirra watched him walk to a newish black ute and haul what looked like a rodeo gear bag out of the back. Then he walked to the main house and disappeared.
‘Charming,’ said Steve.
‘For a guy that just got out of juvy,’ said Liz with a sneer.
‘Three months is all he got,’ said Liz, as though he should have been locked up for life.
‘It’s none of anyone’s business,’ Jim suddenly snapped. ‘The kid’s all right. I expect you to give him a fair go.’
Kirra looked up at her father. He would have interviewed this guy for the job. What did he know? She knew better than to ask in front of the staff.
‘Just asking,’ Pete muttered.
Jim stood and headed for the yards, where more cattle waited to be tagged. ‘Back to work, hey?’ he called over his shoulder.
There were weary sighs and the scraping of chairs as the team rose from their seats. No one would knock off for the day until the yards were empty.
Liz gathered the dirty cups and plates and stacked them onto trays. Kirra watched her work. It wasn’t like Liz to dislike someone so instantly. What did she know about this new guy?
It would be good to find out. On Monday she would have to start working with him. Guys like him always thought she was some girly pushover. They didn’t realise that she could buck out a horse as well as any boy. She could break it in and have it riding on a muster within a week. She rode steers too; ever since her dad sat her on a potty calf at the local rodeo at the age of six, she’d been into anything that bucked.
She didn’t mind working alongside the newcomer, but he’d better not try bossing her around. He’d do things their way, even if he was six feet tall and fresh out of juvy.
First thing Monday, she decided, she would set him straight about that.
All horse business went on in a large iron-roofed shed with open sides and a frame of timber cut from trees on the property. Its earthen floor was cool, and Kirra loved the smell of horses and cattle that always wafted through it.
She found herself alone in there on Monday morning, after a ride around the property on one of the young fillies she had started with her dad last holidays. As she unsaddled it now, she watched the new guy walk to the ute in the home yard. So he was old enough to drive but young enough to be a juvenile. Kirra guessed he was seventeen.
He lifted two stock saddles from the back and sat them on his hip, one on top of the other. With the other hand, he pulled out a tangle of bridles and straps and slung them over his shoulder. He walked towards the horse shed and balanced his saddles on the rail of the round yard.
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