The sun wasn’t far off the horizon but it was already stifling hot and Billy was thirsty. He’d been following Mallee for a good four kilometres when Mallee veered off their trail towards a nearby billabong for a drink. Billy wanted to ask how far they were going, but he knew only too well that they’d probably tell him the opposite of the truth anyway, so he started digging into a north–facing embankment for the eggs of the long necked turtle. It was a regular foraging spot so he knew exactly where to look. It wasn’t long before he had over a dozen filling his belly. Mallee and Pindaari followed his lead and then, after carefully filling the dirt back over the holes of the remaining eggs, they set–off again.
It was only about another half a kilometre before the stench of something dead insulted Billy’s senses.
“Not far now,” Mallee called from the front.
“Where we goin’?” Pindaari asked, as if he didn’t already know.
“Not far,” Mallee said.
Billy just laughed to himself and tuned into the unmistakeable hum of a swarm of blowflies up ahead. Then he saw it, the enormously bloated belly of a long–dead kangaroo cooking in the hot summer sun. Billy’s brain began swirling in the possibilities of Mallee’s twisted mind when suddenly he was set upon. Hundreds of noisy blowflies landed heavily upon his skin where they proceeded to vacuum him dry of salt. He darted for a clump of grass, ripping it from the ground before jamming it up under his headband so it hung down over his face. It helped, but it didn’t stop the stench left behind by their sodden little feet. He didn’t like this game already.
* * *
As a youngster, as much as Billy wanted to follow his older brothers in their never–ending pursuit of mischief, he was never quite able to keep up with them. If Pindaari had slowed down for him, he might have been OK, but Pindaari was struggling to keep up with Mallee as it was, so Billy missed out altogether.
He was an inquisitive little boy who wanted to know everything about everything, which kept Cobar, Burnam and Mandu busy thinking of lessons to fill his young mind. Cobar took him on long walks observing nature and discussing dreamtime stories. They gathered seeds to grind into flour for biscuits, and herbs for medicines, which Billy eagerly applied to his brother’s injuries. Mandu was the consummate hunter who loved having Billy along for the hunt. He said Billy was quiet, and that he considered his surroundings with a keen sense. Burnam was the toolmaker of the group, often sitting around camp surrounded by half a dozen projects in various stages of development. While carving a hardwood spear tip or constructing a trap of one kind or another, he constantly recited the ABCs with Billy, or practiced counting, just as Mrs Windsor had done with him. He told Billy that he stood the best chance of survival if he spoke proper English with, “Don’t shoot!” being a phrase of particular importance.
Billy wanted his skills to make up for his lack of size, so he learned as quickly as he could. Even before he could hunt, his brothers often returned to camp with a kill, only to find everyone full from Billy’s biscuits. They didn’t mind or have any jealousy towards him, as the better provider he was, the more food they had to fill their insatiable appetites.
Billy’s greatest skill came naturally — he had a wonderful sense of humour and an infectiously cheeky smile. It acted like a magnet on his already handsome face, drawing everyone in for a good time and helping to create a happy atmosphere that set the tone for the clan in general. Ripples of mirth constantly undulated around the campsite. It was the little things that amused them most: Cobar bursting into a thunderous snore during his afternoon nap, a yabby latching onto someone’s toe or a simple fart would often see the clan rolling around in hysterics.
To make up for having to go off without their little brother, Mallee and Pindaari often dramatised their day’s events for him with highly exaggerated tales around the camp–fire at night, much to the delight and entertainment of everyone. However, as Billy got older, they started playing tricks on him as they constantly did to one another for harmless fun. The problem was, the tricks were usually at their level and not at Billy’s, so he often came off second best, which frustrated him enormously. He began to brood, and his sense of humour stopped bubbling to the surface as it normally did. The Elders figured he’d work it out by himself, but again, he was just a bit too young.
They realised they hadn’t teased him themselves, which would have taught him how to handle it. So they put their heads together and came up with a plan. They didn’t want to mollycoddle him and protect him from the boys’ games, and they knew he was smart, so they tried to teach him how to anticipate their tricks and turn them around. They started with the basics, like distracting him and then pinching a little of his food. They gave it back of course, at first, and made it fun, but it wasn’t long before Billy was loading a tasty morsel with hot bush pepper berries and placing it strategically for the Elders to pinch.
So as Billy watched to see what Mallee’s next move would be with the overinflated kangaroo, he felt well prepared to counteract his devious mind.
Mallee didn’t bother protecting himself from the flies, in fact, he did the opposite — he laid down his spears and his woomera, pulled his boomerangs and knife from the loincloth cord around his waist, and even went as far as removing his loincloth. What was he up to Billy wondered. He noticed that Pindaari seemed to be wondering the same thing, although he looked a little concerned.
When Mallee was ready, he turned proud and naked to face his brothers, and then presented his small stone for them to see. He grinned mischievously and crouched down with his arms spread wide as if using them for balance, while looking at the kangaroo with caution. He flashed one last look at his brothers as if to say, “I’m going in,” and then he began his stalk.
Billy just shook his head, dumbfounded by the stupidity of what he figured Mallee was about to do. He was going to place his stone on top of the roo’s belly, carefully, as if it might explode in his face. Billy had no doubt that it would take a lot more than just a few stones for that to happen.
Pindaari shot a fearful look to Billy while shaking his head slowly, as if he couldn’t believe how brave Mallee was being. He moved to a tree to watch the proceedings from behind its safety, while Billy stood in awe at the level of idiocy right before his very eyes.
Mallee hesitated, obviously unsure of where to place his foot on the leaf–littered ground that crunched noisily every time he moved. He backtracked and searched for a better approach, which impressed Pindaari no end, as if the sound of a leaf crackling would surely cause the roo to blow up. Mallee closed in again, more cautious this time with the strain obvious, especially when he took a moment to flick the sweat from his brow. Pindaari’s intake of breath was audible, the tension palpable. Finally, Mallee stretched out his arm and placed his small stone on top of the over–inflated belly. Then he ducked down in an attempt to avoid the eruption of maggot–filled contents that would surely spread far and wide. It didn’t, so he popped his head up from behind a clump of grass with a mouthful of shiny white teeth announcing his victory. He returned in triumph, shoulders wide and chest out as if he had just conquered the world.
Billy expected Pindaari to rush to Mallee, to congratulate him for his brave deed. But he didn’t look happy at all, in fact if anything, he looked downright concerned. He was bouncing the granite stone in his hand thoughtfully, feeling its weight.
Mallee turned to Pindaari with a malicious grin and said,
Pindaari looked horror–struck and stared at his stone as if it was about to put him to death. Mallee smiled wide and shot a quick wink to Billy. That’s when Billy remembered Pindaari tricking Mallee into sitting on a bull ant nest the week before — he was still walking funny and itching incessantly. Pindaari was much more suited to gathering than hunting, so Billy realised that he really didn’t have a clue whether the roo would explode or not. It would give Mallee a victory if Pindaari chickened out. Not much of a victory but still, at least it would be something to tease him about. And when Pindaari finally realised that there never really was any danger at all, it would make Mallee’s victory even greater. Mallee really was making a meal of him. Pindaari was stomping around in frustrated defiance while Mallee goaded him into having his go. Billy decided he wanted a piece of Mallee’s action too, so he started stripping off. The look of shocked disbelief on Pindaari’s face was priceless.
“Hey, what are you doing?” he yelled, “I’m next, not you!”
“Too late!” Billy declared. “You’re too scared, so it’s my turn.” Billy looked to Mallee for confirmation that it was OK, who nodded back with pure delight lighting up his face.
Pindaari was outraged, he let loose a tirade of raucous indignation and even reverted to his native tongue to lend weight to his objections. All it did was increase Mallee’s victory.
Billy took his time undressing, enjoying the show too much to waste it. Pindaari was kicking up the dust and stomping around in circles, throwing up his arms and cursing. By the time Billy was ready, Mallee was already dressed and moving off to the side for a better view.
Billy followed Mallee’s lead by making a big deal of his stalk, even going as far as testing the wind direction and changing his approach to suit.
Pindaari in the meantime had finally calmed down enough to watch the proceedings. Billy knew that Pindaari was hoping beyond hope that the roo would blow up in his face, so Pindaari wouldn’t have to have his go. Billy remembered seeing Mallee pointing out the sharp edges on the biggest stone by rubbing his finger along it, and then hearing Pindaari giggling. He bet Mallee was telling Pindaari that the sharp edges would make the roo explode for sure. But Billy knew that Pindaari had figured it out by now and realised that his stone was the heaviest by far.
Billy had his back to them but he could feel their eyes upon him, watching his every move. He decided to drag his stalk out as long as he could, to build up the tension and make Pindaari sweat. It wasn’t easy. The smell was horrendous and the flies had formed a dark cloud around him. He wanted to show them that he wasn’t scared at all, nor bothered in the least by the smell, so he took a moment to examine the roo’s broken leg. Probably from a rabbit hole, he figured. He couldn’t hold out any longer, he reached out over the stinking roo while holding his head back to avoid the stench steaming up above it, before slowly, and carefully lowering his stone. He felt the fur on his fingertips as he settled it, ensuring it wouldn’t roll off when suddenly he saw the flash of Mallee’s boomerang whiz past his nose.
Everything slowed down: the weapon whirling end over end and indenting the belly, Mallee’s words, “It don’t matter how big it is.”, and the memory of the, “whomp, whomp, whomp,” sound of the boomerang that hadn't registered. Paralysed with fear he watched in horror as the indentation deepened and then, “WHOOSH,” a cloud of flatulent gases exploded in his face. His mouth, wide open at the time, snapped shut. Too late — gangrenous guts stormed in, slamming into the back of his tongue and filling his mouth. He gagged while trying to spit it out but the rotting remnants were gummy and sticking to the insides of his mouth. That’s when it moved, the ball inside his mouth started wriggling around in a porridgy mass of maggots. He spat and spat and spat but it was useless without water. Then he heard the howls of laughter coming from his brothers. He tried to open his gummed up eyelids and had to wipe them clear with the back of his hands. Mallee and Pindaari were rolling around in uncontrollable fits of laughter. It enraged him. He plunged his hands deep into the carcass and pulled out two huge handfuls of the green, maggot–filled guts.
He was standing over them before they even realised he was there. He waited, needing to see the fear in their faces before he rubbed it in. Pindaari saw him first but Billy was watching Mallee, and as Billy turned to see Pindaari roll away, Mallee rolled away too, leaving Billy standing alone and flustered with two lively handfuls of stinking guts.
It set them off all over again, so Billy lunged at them. They moved like lightening, bolting back along the trail from where they had all come. Billy would have cursed them, cursed them all the way back to the Dreamtime, but he wasn’t wasting his breath, he was focused, focused on catching them and making them eat that roo! His legs powered him like never before, floating over obstacles with ease while concentrating on balancing the wriggling mass at the ends of his outstretched arms. They kept a safe distance ahead of him, only just ahead to keep him keen, but none the less, well out of his reach. By the time they reached the billabong and swam away all Billy had left was the slime dripping from his hands.
“You bastards,” he yelled. Even his inability to land a decent curse made them laugh. He stood in waist–deep water looking at his hands in frustration. He couldn’t swim after them without the water washing his hands clean. “I’m gonna get you mongrels,” he said.
“You gotta catch us first,” Mallee said, swimming closer now that Billy had washed his hands.
Billy was swishing and spitting in a vain attempt to rid himself of the foul taste.
“Here y’are,” Mallee said kindly, revealing a lotus lilly that he was hiding below the surface of the water.
Billy snatched at it and ravenously devoured the bulbous end of its root system; but it was far from enough so Pindaari threw him a couple more.
“Still gonna get yez,” Billy said with the onion–like substance overflowing his mouth.
“Oh, come on! I saw you wink at Mallee thinking you was gonna get me,” Pindaari challenged.
Billy tried to hide his smile but it was too late, he knew they’d seen it wrinkle his cheek. They burst out laughing and came closer, knowing they’d checkmated him.
“We got you good, little bro!” Mallee said.
“You just remember that when I get you back!”
“You won’t get me. I’m too smart for you.”
“You won’t be saying that when you’re swimming in it,” Billy promised with a plan already forming in his head. All it did was make them laugh even harder.
“It even went in your mouth!” Mallee said in between fits of his own laughter.
Billy felt something moving in his hair so he felt around and fingered out a maggot, which he flicked at Pindaari who was within range.
“Oooh, a little maggot, I’m sooo scared,” he teased. “You thought I was too scared to have me go didn’t you?” He exaggerated a big wink to Mallee who burst out laughing all over again.
“So the stones had nothing to do with it?” Billy said.
“Nah, they was just to make you think I was gonna get Pinni, but I tricked ya,” Mallee said, as if he was a genius.
“Took two of you to think of something to get me!”
“Wasn’t that hard,” Mallee said.
“That’s right, ‘cause you’re not that smart.”
“Smarter than you, little bro, you’re the galah today,” Mallee beamed in delight.
“Well you’re gonna be a bigger galah tomorrow.”
“Pindaari might be, but you won’t get me!”
“You weren’t that smart when the bull ant bit you on the balls!” Pindaari said.
“I’m still gonna get you back for that!”
Billy’s mind wandered while his brothers splashed around bickering with one another. He had to find a way to get them back or he’d never live this one down — it had the makings of a story that would go on for years and years, perhaps even making it into legend! He had to get away to concentrate so he figured this was as good a time as any to go back to the roo to get his things.
“Hey! Where you goin’, Galah?” Mallee said. “Get me boomerang will ya?” he added, a little sheepishly.
But Billy didn’t reply; he had plans for Mallee’s boomerang …
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