HUNTER DAY PARKED the police car on the side of the road under a 200-year-old ironbark. He left the engine humming with the aircon cranked to protect him from the blistering heat melting the bitumen outside. If his boss at the station, Reggie Ross, unexpectedly drove by Hunter could claim he was tracking the occasional passing vehicle with the station’s radar gun. Except that the gun was faulty. Last week it clocked a spluttering tractor at 140 clicks. Hunter held his mobile phone in one hand, scanning through images of Reggie’s wife, Delores. She sent him a new photograph each morning, after she’d showered, but before she dressed. Their affair was six months old. Hunter didn’t give a lot of thought to why it had started or what kept it going. He hated Reggie, which was reason enough.
He heard the crunch of gravel and dropped the phone in his lap. ‘Fuck me,’ he croaked, looking out through the grubby front windscreen at an old blackfella walking along the other side of the road. He wore a dark suit and an Akubra hat slanted to one side. He was carrying a small pack on his back. As he passed the car, the old Aboriginal man turned his head and glanced across the road in the policeman’s direction. Once he’d passed, Hunter looked into the rear-view mirror and watched the old man closely for some time until his dark frame melded into the shimmering haze lifting from the road.
Hunter hadn’t seen a blackfella close to the town for a long time. The last of the mission boys, Coalie Carter, had been dead six years. Coalie had lived until he was eighty-six, and had been as popular at the mine where he worked as he was among his own people. When he died the town turned out for him, and Aboriginal people – many of them, who like Coalie, had been born on the mission – came from all over the state to pay their respects and pray for his soul. The mob who came to see him off were gone from the town as quickly as they’d arrived, much to the relief of local residents. Standing out front of the police station the next morning looking along the main street, Reggie had turned and boasted to Hunter, ‘With Coalie gone this is a totally white town now. Not a single boong to be seen above the ground.’
Hunter said nothing in reply, but he did smile to himself. This may be a white town, he thought, but it’s fucked. The coal mine had shut down ten years earlier, and the workers had moved on, chasing timber mostly. The town’s businesses gradually went with them. Half of the shopfronts in the main streets had been whitewashed, while many of those left open were a final debt away from shutting down. With little in the way of serious crime, Hunter’s police work was spent chasing sheep rustlers and dealing with the occasional drunk who could afford neither to leave town nor tolerate being left behind without alcohol for company.
HUNTER DID A U-turn and began driving towards town. He spotted the blackfella again, slowed the car and pulled into the side of the road. He got out, leaned against the bonnet and waited for the old man to reach him. When he did, the man stopped, straightened his hat and flicked the brim back with a fingertip, a gesture of courtesy. He knew well, through a life of hard lessons, there was no passing a copper on the side of an empty road without being questioned, most likely talked down to, and maybe given a belting if he put a single word out of place.
‘How you doing?’ Hunter said.
The old man took his hat from his head and looked the policeman in the eye, balancing deference with stubborn pride. ‘Oh, I’m doing pretty good, I reckon.’
‘Your name would be?’ Hunter asked, lazily, as if he didn’t really care for the answer.
‘It would be Robert Moses. But I go by Bobby.’
Hunter Day knew the Moses surname well. It was shared by many Aboriginal people of the district, a remnant of the early days of the mission when Old Testament titles were doled out to blackfellas by the missionaries. Half the headstones in the cemetery carried the name Moses. Hunter brushed a fly from his sweating forehead, looked up at the noon-day sky and back down at Bobby Moses. The thought of a total stranger carrying a name so familiar uneased him. He looked over Bobby’s shoulder, back along the road.
‘What brings you out here?’ Hunter asked. ‘You heading for some place?’
Bobby lifted his chin. ‘I’m heading for the town just along here. I got a ride along on the highway all the way from the city. Truck driver dropped me at the turn-off back a way and said I had maybe a two-hour walk left in me. I’ve just about covered that distance, I reckon.’
Hunter raised an eyebrow. ‘You headed into our town? Stein?’
Bobby knew better than to say too much to the copper. He’d shared a cell with an old tribal fella, scarred up and all, who had been making his way across the desert when he was caught stealing from a petrol station. He hardly uttered a word to Bobby in the five months they were in lock-up together. The only advice he offered before Bobby got out was, ‘More you talking, more trouble you make for yourself.’
‘That’s the town, alright,’ Bobby answered. ‘Stein. I’m here to catch up with my people.’
Hunter studied the old man’s face. Bobby’s leathered skin, tough, dark and wrinkled, carried a story of hard times. Hunter Day liked to think he had nothing against blackfellas. He hardly gave them a thought, one way or the other. He did know that his boss, and others in the town, wouldn’t be happy seeing a black face around the streets again.
Hunter stood up. He towered over Bobby.
‘Stein is a small place, Mr Moses. I know your family name. But I can tell you that there’s none of your people living here any longer. There’s no one to catch up with.’
‘That could be so,’ Bobby said, nodding his head. ‘But I feel a need to set my eyes on the town. And the country. I feel a strong need inside me to see the country. That is the reason I’ve come by this way.’
Whatever Bobby Moses wanted, Hunter was certain the townspeople wanted to keep the country to themselves. It wouldn’t be a great day for Hunter either if he didn’t put a stop to the old man’s wanderings. Reggie Ross would read the riot act to him for letting a blackfella loose on the town. Hunter stepped forward and pressed an open hand against Bobby’s chest. Bobby looked down at the hand and back up at the policeman.
‘So, you’re related to the Aboriginal people from the mission?’ Hunter said.
A crow landed on the roof of the police car and squawked at the policeman.
‘That would be right,’ Bobby said. ‘People from their own country,’ he insisted.
‘Well, most of your people are buried in the cemetery outside of town. And I’d think that walking in this heat takes it out of you. If you’d like to pay a visit to your people I’ll drive you out to the cemetery myself. You can pay your respects and then…’ Hunter licked his parched lips.
Bobby knew the copper was in a hurry for him to move on, but he wasn’t about to. He was worn out after travelling hundreds of miles. The offer of an air-conditioned ride in a police car was tempting. He tipped his hat a second time. ‘Thank you, boss. I’ll take the ride.’
THE PAIR DIDN’T speak at all during the drive out to the cemetery. Hunter inspected the road ahead and Bobby concentrated on his long, wrinkled fingers. They turned off the road onto a winding gravel track.
‘It’s just up here over the ridge,’ Hunter explained. ‘Blackfellas have been buried here since the first years of the mission.’
Bobby said nothing and looked out the side window towards the hills in the distance. Hunter parked on one side of the cattle gate guarding the entrance to the cemetery. They got out of the car. The policeman gestured to the gate and walked behind Bobby, noticing that the old man carried a slight limp.
Bobby moved slowly between the rows of graves in the cemetery, pausing occasionally to read an inscription. Some of the graves were marked with traditional headstones or makeshift memorial cairns erected from broken house-bricks. Other graves were unmarked, while the details of some of the recently deceased had been roughly documented in black oil paint on the front of dented and scratched hubcaps driven into the earth.
Hunter stood and watched as Bobby bowed his head at the foot of the grave of Eliza May Moses, who had been born on the mission over eighty years earlier.
‘Do you know her?’ Hunter asked, after Bobby had raised his head and walked from the grave.
Bobby turned to the policeman. ‘Oh, I do. This is my own mummy in the ground right here.’
The date of the woman’s death indicated that she’d been gone for fifty years. ‘Your mother? When did you last see her?’ Hunter asked.
Bobby was distracted, taking in country. He could feel it.
‘Oh, I can’t remember when that would be. When I was a newborn bub, well, I would have seen her then. Maybe I was put to her breast,’ he shrugged. ‘But I have no memory of that time either.’
Bobby left the policeman behind and headed back to the cemetery gate, lifting small swirls of dust in his wake. He opened the passenger door and got back into the police car. Hunter stood motionless for a minute or two, looking down at the old man’s footsteps, unsure of what he should say or do next. He got into the driver’s seat and put the key in the ignition. Hunter had heard the stories about the old days when mission kids were hauled away to the religious homes, never to return, leaving behind wailing families and grieving mothers.
‘You grow up with any of your own people?’ he finally asked.
‘Not one of them,’ Bobby said. ‘I could never find them. I didn’t know my birth name until five years back, when I got hold of my Welfare Board file. My adopted name is Arthur. But my mum back there, I found out that she’d named me Robert.’ He looked across at Hunter and smiled. ‘I’m Bobby Moses. Her own boy.’
A fly buzzed against the windscreen, erratically head-butting the glass. Bobby unwound the passenger-side window. ‘How far is them mountains over there?’
‘On foot, a good two-hour walk. A bit more. There’s nothing out there. When they opened up the coal around here, the mining company believed there’d be a decent deposit under them hills. They did a few exploratory drills and came up with nothing.’
‘That’s my people’s country,’ Bobby said.
Hunter had heard about Aboriginal people further south making noises about land rights in the district. He looked at Bobby wondering if he had an ageing agitator sitting next to him.
‘What makes you think that?’ he asked. ‘You read about it in some city newspaper?’
‘Nah,’ Bobby scoffed. He put a hand to his heart. ‘I know it.’ He smiled at the policeman. Bobby wasn’t certain why, but he felt that there might be something decent about Hunter. He’d come across plenty of bad coppers. Some of them mad too. But working out in the bush, away from the big cities and people, some police were lonely for company and would befriend just about anyone. Others took in the horizon every day and saw the country differently. Bobby wasn’t sure where Hunter was coming from but thought he could take a chance on the young fella.
‘I could walk out there’ he said. ‘Or if you could see your way to drive me, I would be able to pay a visit to my country and then I’d be happy to be on my way again and leave you and your town in peace.’
Hunter turned the key in the ignition and revved the motor. The old man’s offer would get him off the hook. ‘I’ll drive you. But we can’t be out there for too long. I’ll need to drop you back on the highway and get back to the station before it gets dark. Or I’ll have my sergeant riding me.’
Bobby pressed his new acquaintance. ‘Is he a bit of a bugger? Your boss?’
Hunter laughed. ‘More like an arsehole.’
HUNTER PULLED OFF the road onto a red-dirt track and drove towards a rounded hill, topped with scraggy eucalypts. The track ended suddenly, at a stand of wattles.
‘We’re here,’ Hunter said. ‘What do you want to do now?’
‘Well,’ Bobby mused, scratching the bristles on his chin. ‘I’m gonna need to get out here and take a walk.’
‘A walk? Don’t go too far. You might get lost.’
Bobby chuckled to himself. He wasn’t about to get lost on his own country. He hopped out of the car, looked up at the sky briefly and down at the ground. Hunter watched as Bobby walked between a pair of gum trees and disappeared from sight, into the bush. He took his phone out of his jacket pocket. Delores had sent him another photograph of herself, holding a hand-written sign in front of her naked body. It read, I MISS U. Hunter smiled and flicked back through the catalogue of images. A fierce wind buffeted the car, shifting it from side to side, followed by a thunder clap and the first heavy drops of rain. Hunter wound down the window to see if Bobby was heading back to the car. There was no sign of the old man.
For the next half hour, Hunter listened to the rain and thunder as he tried composing a poem to text to Delores. Lightning bolts momentarily lit the sky. When the rain finally eased he again wound down his window. The sight of the motionless shadow of the old man leaning against a tree frightened Hunter. Initially, it looked like Bobby Moses’s body was hanging from a limb. Hunter jumped out of the car and walked towards the tree. Bobby was soaking wet. His dark suit clung to his frame and he was holding his shoes in one hand. His feet were covered in mud, twigs and eucalypt leaves.
‘Where did you get to?’ Hunter asked. ‘You must be crazy, running around in the rain in bare feet.’
‘Oh, I went crazy a long time ago. Years and years back.’ Bobby laughed. ‘I tell you something that sent me crazy,’ he added, without any prompting from the police officer. ‘When I got hold of my government file I read that after I’d been taken from my mummy and put in the Home, white people came to look at me with the thought of taking me for their own. And all of them rejected me. Knocked me back.’ Bobby laughed loudly. ‘Think how that would send you crazy,’ he said. ‘These bastards take you from your own people, claiming that you own mum is no good. And then none of these righteous cunts want you anyway.’
Bobby walked past Hunter and opened the passenger door. ‘Yep, reading that sent me crazy for a year or more.’ He sat in the car and put his wet socks and shoes back on.
‘We can go now,’ Bobby ordered. And although Hunter was taken aback, he couldn’t help but be drawn to Bobby. Righteous cunts! The town was full of them.
‘Where you off to now?’ Hunter asked.
‘I’m not sure,’ Bobby said. ‘If I can get a lift east, I’ll head east. Or I’ll go west. I haven’t decided. See what turns up.’
‘What did you see back there? In the bush?’
‘Like I told you when you stopped me on the road. I wanted to see my people’s country.’
‘You didn’t see much of it.’
Bobby coughed and wiped saliva from his mouth. ‘I seen what I needed to see. I’m gonna die soon. I have this cancer in my chest, the lungs. My wish was to stand on my country, feel my skin in the earth, breathe the air out this way and hear the country and my old mum talking to me. I’ve done what was needed.’
Hunter stopped the car where the road met the highway.
‘So, it could be east? Or it could be west?’
‘Yep,’ Bobby answered. ‘Whichever ride I get. I’m not worried much now, where I end up.’
He opened the door to get out of the car.
‘Wait,’ Hunter asked. ‘Wait. Hey, I can’t leave you on the highway. Another storm could be coming. Let me put you up for the night.’
‘And where would that be?’ Bobby chuckled. ‘In a police cell? That’s a dangerous spot for a blackfella. Any fella. I’d be best take my chances out here on the road. And besides, I’ve never liked them blankets you coppers have. Like sandpaper.’
‘No.’ Hunter said. ‘Not at the station. I have a farmhouse out of town. The family farm. We lost the land years ago in the drought. But we hung on to the house. I can put you up.’
‘Put me up?’ Bobby frowned.
‘Yeah. Put you up. You can stay out here and get soaked to the bone or get knocked to Shit Creek by a road train, or come home with me and have a shower and something to eat. And I’ve got a spare bed.’
‘What about your bugger of a boss?’ Bobby asked. ‘Would he be happy about this?’
‘Don’t worry about Reggie. He’s never happy. He won’t be until he can get a transfer out of here, back to the city.’
‘Okay,’ Bobby said. ‘You have a blanket for me?’
‘They’re not police issue?’
‘Decent wool blankets. My wife bought them the week before she took off. Left them behind. I think she felt sorry for me.’
Bobby studied Hunter’s face as he considered the offer. ‘You’re just a kid,’ he whispered, as much as to himself as the policeman. ‘You have a fire at this farmhouse?’
‘Yep. It’s a beauty.’
‘Would you be able to bring me out here for another look in the morning?’
‘If that’s what you want,’ Hunter said.
‘Good. I need to see this country in the morning light. I reckon it will have more to say.’