Hellbender Hungerford had seen men beaten up before. Life on the stations of the Flinders Ranges, where he had spent the early part of his life, could be rough. Hundreds of miles had separated those homesteads from the civilization of Adelaide, so law and order was as thin on the ground as it ever was here in Green River. Storm’s condition wasn’t the worst he’d ever been witness to, but nevertheless he knew it was bad. Storm’s insistence on leaving immediately had lasted as far as the boardwalk, and he had slumped, trembling and ghost pale, on the bench outside the jail. Bender knew that even if he tied Storm on to his pinto mare and hitched her reins to Swagman he’d never manage to get Storm back to the station alone. Trying would only make Storm’s injuries worse, so they were stuck where they were, forced to be content with waiting for Lynch to arrive and hoping he had the sense to bring a wagon. At least the boardwalk was shaded. It could get hot here in this season, hot in a dusty way that reminded him of home.
For years the Flinders Ranges had enjoyed what was, for the very outer hem of the Australian Outback, a wealth of rainfall. The valleys were greened and comparably lush, and the sheep and cattle men had prospered. Plenty of work for a horse doctor, although he’d ended up tending sheep more often than not. Bender didn’t like sheep much, but sheep were the lifeblood of the region. Or so he’d once imagined. He had been wrong, of course. The lifeblood of the Ranges, of the whole continent, was water. Towns were blossoming like wildflowers around the largest stations…and then the drought had come. First the rain had ceased, and then the small creeks dried up, until even the largest rivers had vanished into dust, leaving nothing to show that they had ever existed save lines of skeletal gum trees pointing accusingly at the searing blue sky. All across the ranges homesteads stood lonely and abandoned, with neat rows of graves in the yard and a skeleton or two strewn somewhere, the remains of the last poor unfortunates to die with no one to see to their eternal rest but the dingoes and the wedge-tailed eagles. Many had waited too long for a miracle and paid for it with their lives when the horses that were their only hope for escape had succumbed to the punishing aridity.
Storm’s rasping voice jerked him out of his reverie. “You ever been beaten up, Bender?” he croaked. “A couple of times, yeah,” Bender replied, remembering. “What happened?” Storm was looking at him intently, probably trying to keep his mind off the pain. “Well, one time I was just in the wrong place, at the wrong time, with too much money in me pocket.” “And the other?” Bender smiled slightly. “The other…was about a girl.”
Storm’s split and swollen lips tugged sideways in a tiny smile. “Tell me about it,” he said. Bender grinned. “She was the prettiest little thing in the whole of South Australia, and I loved her with all me silly young heart. I wasn’t the only one with an eye on her, though. She was the daughter of the blacksmith, and he had an apprentice who wanted to be a son-in-law. He wanted to pound me into my boots, and he did. He was a great strapping bloke, and pounding out horseshoes all day builds bigger muscles than dosing sheep and trimming hooves.” He paused, and his eyes grew unfocused, looking back on that distant day. “I was a sorry sight, but I won, in the end. Me darling girl picked me.” He glanced again at Storm and was surprised to see a look of aching sorrow on his face. Bender had the strangest feeling that that expression had nothing to do with Storm’s battered ribs, but the next second the twisted, despairing look had faded, and Bender wasn’t sure he hadn’t imagined it.
In the silence that settled between them, Bender stood and stepped down into the dusty street beside Swagman. A thought had occurred to him, and he felt slightly ashamed for not thinking of it sooner. He pulled a flask of water from his saddlebag and brought it back up to Storm. Storm took a swig and spat, rinsing dust and blood out of his mouth. “Oh God,” he hissed, clutching at his left side, “I’ve felt better.” “Don’t you worry, mate, you’ll be apples once we get ya back to the station and Miss Lewis-Smythe’s tender care.” Storm groaned. “Fiona. She’s going to be furious. I hate upsetting her…” Storm’s voice trailed off, and Bender saw again that pained expression. He thought he understood it a little better this time, but he was distracted by the unhealthy flush rising in Storm’s pale face. Lynch had better get here soon. Damn Holt for a sheep-buggering fool. Storm had slumped back again, eyes closed and head resting against the rough wooden wall behind him. Bender looked away up the street, in the direction of the Green River Station, waiting.
“What happened to her?” The question was barely more than a whispering scrape of sound. “What’s that, mate?” Storm cleared his throat. “What happened to your girl? Where is she?” Though clearer, his voice was barely louder and he hadn’t opened his eyes. Bender had the sense that he was barely clinging to consciousness. “She died.” Storm’s brow creased faintly. “I’m sorry,” he breathed. “Nah, mate, it was a long time ago.” Years and half a world ago, and his heart was still as sore as the day he’d buried her under a still-green gum tree next to their small son. He had left the Ranges the next day, along with the few families who had remained, down to the coast and Adelaide. Bender had fled farther than most, across the wide Pacific, running from that pair of graves as much as the terrible drought. He was profoundly grateful when the jingling rattle of a team and wagon interrupted his thoughts. He gazed up the street again, squinting against the intense afternoon light, and relaxed when he recognized the slouched figure on the seat.
“Come on mate, up you get,” he said, carefully hoisting the injured man to his feet and supporting him, “Saint Peter’s here for you.”
© 2010 Jenna Reid