JODIE'S DESK IN the Capitol building in Wirranbandi is a scratched and gouged door resting across two wooden saw-horses in a room that was once the lobby and teller area of a bank. The room is rather grand, with high ceilings and ornate mouldings and the blistered remnants of gilt around tall windows that date from the glory days of banking and gold-rush rumours. Apart from the makeshift desk and a view of the wide veranda, the room contains four termite-pocked wooden pews and a linoleum floor, the colour of which could best be described as violently mottled dried blood. These items date from the brief period when the former bank served as the Holiness Church of the Word of God Triumphant. Following its fleeting liturgical reincarnation, the building was derelict for a decade, though often put to use for drinking bouts, morning-afters and sexual trysts when jackaroos flocked into town from the cattle stations, every last cowhand hell-bent on squandering his pay with the local barmaids.
There are no screens on the windows, so flies are a problem. Jodie keeps a fan in her hand to fend them off. Naturally there is no air conditioning, but propeller blades in the ceiling turn sluggishly, run off a generator on the back veranda. Periodically, and without warning, the generator, choked with red dust, takes smoko breaks that can vary from ten minutes to several hours in duration. Since nine in the morning, when the office opened for official business (currency transfers, passport applications, enlistment in the militia), the dust has been settling like a terracotta mist on Jodie′s desk and on Jodie. Her arms feel gritty when she strokes them, and this pleases her, because she figures that if she belongs anywhere, she belongs to the earth itself.
Jodie is reading, or trying to read, but she is aware of the horse on the veranda and of the feral pig snuffling at the door and also of the bloke with the semi-automatic who has just dismounted and knotted his reins around the railing. He is unkempt and unshaven. Even from this distance, she can smell the stink of sweat and of long-unwashed body. She can also see that the bloke is good-looking, the Hugh Jackman type, a real hunk.
'You Ruth?′ he asks, as though he owns the place.
Jodie raises her eyes over her book and lowers them again. She affects boredom. 'That′s what my pa calls me.′
He is now leaning over her desk. 'What′s that supposed to mean?′
'It means that′s what my pa calls me. It′s not what I call myself or what folks who know me call me.′
'Folks?′ The Hugh Jackman bloke ponders this word. 'What′s folks? The local codgers, you mean?′
'Right. That′s who I mean.′
'What do they call you?′
'They don′t call me Ruth. Since you do, I know you′re here because my pa sent you.′
The man props his semi-automatic, pointed to the ceiling, against Jodie′s desk, removes his Akubra and scratches his head.
'That supposed to be a white flag?′ Jodie asks.
'The fact that your semi-automatic is not pointed at me.′
'You′re one very strange sheila,′ he says.
'So they tell me.′
'Sexy little she-dingo, though, aren′t ya?′
'You better watch out. I bite, and I′m rabid.′
'Jesus, Mary and Joseph! Your dad didn′t warn me. Didn′t give me a clue. To tell you the truth, I was expecting someone with unshaved legs, reading the Bible.′
Jodie maintains eye contact, expressionless. Her customer fidgets with his Akubra and looks at the floor. 'Didn′t mean to offend you,′ he says.
'You′ve offended me.′
'I′m sorry. I beg your pardon.′
'My pardon costs,′ Jodie says.
The man doesn′t know whether to treat this is a joke or a dare. He is increasingly nervous. 'Well...ah...what will it cost?′
'That depends.′ There is a long silence, during which the man looks at the floor and Jodie looks at the man. 'You got any questions?′
'Yeah,′ he says, 'I got one. How old are you?′
'Two months shy of eighteen,′ Jodie says. ' Keep that in mind. You lay a hand on a minor, you′re in trouble. Not to mention the fact that my pa would cut off your balls.′
The man laughs nervously. 'Jesus, Mary and Joseph, you are a firecracker. Just the same, hats off to your dad. Got the right idea, I reckon, and all us cattlemen and squatters are behind him. Name′s Danny.′ He extends a hand. 'Danny O′Sullivan.′
'Not all that pleased to meet you, Danny,′ Jodie says, ignoring the hand.
'You not gonna give me your name?′
'I thought you knew it.′
'Well, I thought I did too. But now I don′t know, do I, Ruth? Or whoever you are. What do you call yourself?′
'Jodie. Uh-huh. Okay. Why Jodie?′
'Because that′s the name my mother gave me, and it′s the one on my birth certificate.′
'Then why does your dad call you Ruth?′
'You′re gonna have to explain.′
'Book of Ruth. Wither thou goest, I will go. Et cetera, et cetera. Don′t know what you′re doing here or why you′ve been talking to my pa if you don′t know your Bible.′
'Well,′ Danny says, embarrassed. 'Been on a cattle station in Channel Country all my life, and never had time for those toy-boys in Brisbane or Canberra. Or Sydney either, when those silly buggers try to push in. So I′m with your dad there, he can count on me, I′m all for secession. I′ve signed up for the militia – I got the flag flying. I′m a paid-up member of the Republic of Outer Barcoo. But that don′t necessarily mean I go along with...well, you know...the religious stuff, it′s just not my billy of tea. So you′re gonna have to explain the Bible bit.′
'Book of Ruth. Old Testament. Ruth says to Naomi, her mother-in-law, that no matter where Naomi goes – and they′re both widows, see? – she′ll go with her. She′ll never leave. Wither thou goest, I will go. My pa wanted a Ruth for a daughter.′
Danny turns the rim of his Akubra in his hands, round and round, like a clock gone haywire. He flicks his eyes up at Jodie then looks at the floor again. 'I don′t get it,′ he says.
'He took it for granted that I′d always tag along. To wherever. To western Queensland, to Outer Barcoo. To nowhere.′
'This ain′t nowhere.′
'Yeah? You think?′
'Outer Barcoo ain′t nowhere. But what about your Mum? What does she...′
'None of your business.′
'Where are you from, Jodie-Ruth?′
'Before here? Texas. Before that? South Carolina. We got secession in our DNA.′
'Dunno what you′re talking about, but I knew your dad was a Yank, so I knew you were too. I knew that before you even opened your mouth. You sure do talk like a Yank.′
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