Outside the vehicle’s air-conditioned cell, the December air was warm as her blood. The stars were out, but screened by the cloud of dust above the arena. Over the loudspeakers, the announcer called the last round of the bucking broncs, and, when he fell silent, country and western competed with the shouted conversations of the crowd. She climbed out of the cab and pushed against it to stretch her calves and hamstrings. She’d driven fourteen hours to get here from Deniliquin. Not half an hour to spare.
The competitor’s car park was deserted. Four wheel drives, trucks, caravans, horse floats and mobile homes were parked in rows on the flat, and she was at the end of one, furthest from the arena. Normally she loved these quiet streets, home to herself and others who followed the circuit. She found in them the calm she needed before the storm. But as she lowered the caravan’s legs, she kept looking over her shoulder, for fear of Vaughan.
Would he come? Cradock was his home rodeo. It was also his last chance for Championship points in the calendar year. What was more, he knew this to be her last rodeo in Australia, his last chance to get at her before she flew. The caravan’s new windows reflected the damage he’d already done. Damage of more than one kind. She’d spent $1800 on those windows and the new tires to replace the ones he’d stabbed at Warwick.
Inside the van, she undressed by the light of a battery lamp and examined her bruises: fresh black ones from the bulls at Deniliquin, purple ones from the bulls at Warwick, and the Mt Isa ones from the bulls and Vaughan, yellowing out now. In rodeos since, her mind had returned to Mt Isa at the worst moments, and several times her body had been caught in its absence by bulls. She’d collected more bruises in the past fortnight than any since she was a rookie.
If he did show up to ride, she’d have to protect him, like any other cowboy. But if he had any shame, he’d stay away.
She pulled on her tights and over them a pair of baggy men’s shorts. She unfolded her Dallas Cowboys jersey and dropped it on, and over that a pair of wide red braces. Then footy socks up to her knees, and runners.
At Mt Isa a visiting Nevada rodeo promoter, Wesley Gary Junior, told her, ‘You’re low, you’re square, you know where to move. Come work for me, you could be the finest female rodeo clown in America. I won’t kid you, y’all lack showmanship, but you protect cowboys better than any female clown I ever saw.’
Vaughan had a jealous streak.
There was a clink outside. She froze, curly blue wig poised above her head. Harness?
Piss sputtered then churned the dust. Not a horse. It spasmed out. Another clink. Belt buckle.
The noise of his zip went up her spine and the back of her scalp fizzed. The screen door was unlocked. The main door was hooked to the side of caravan, so she’d have to open the screen door to pull it shut. If it was him, she couldn’t get boxed in the van again. She jammed her hat on, shoved the screen door open, and hit the ground full stride.
A man lunged from between a vehicle and its horse float. She swerved. Something gonged against the float’s towframe. A croak. A face fell out of the shadows into the mercury light, eyes wide between outstretched hands.
He hit the ground and the breath burst from him.
As she streaked past, the face registered: not Vaughan, his father.
She pulled up. ‘Jesus, Gordon!’
He rolled onto his side, spat, tugged down his shirt sleeves to hide veins blown thick as snakes by dialysis. His shape had changed. His shoulders were still mighty, but he was bloated elsewhere. Much worse than the last time she saw him.
She threw him his hat.
He eased it on, rubbed his shin, then heaved to his feet with a grimace.
He said, ‘Didn’t mean to scare you, love. I need to talk to you.’
‘Yeah? You hear what he did?’
He leaned to scan her face for damage in the backwash from the floodlights, then glanced at the caravan.
He rumbled, ‘I heard. I’m ashamed of him. I’ll pay for the van. I didn’t raise him to hit women.’
No, she thought, but he learned it somewhere.
She said, ‘Keep your money. He knew the deal, I told him before we married if he ever hit me, I’d be gone. I’m gone.’
‘Listen, Lee. He won’t talk to us, won’t answer our calls. He’ll listen to you.’ He stopped himself, leaned in to inspect her face again, then rested a hand on her arm. ‘They give me under a year.’
At Longreach in June, she’d heard Vaughan tell his mother on the phone, ‘A pig’s kidney would do him.’
She checked herself, said carefully, ‘Well, I won’t be talking to him. Are you still in the queue?’
‘Are you still in the queue. I’m in the queue. The queue for a kidney is five years long and I’m three years from the front. I’ve tried everything. I even went overseas.’
‘I didn’t know.’
‘No one knows. Barb came as my carer. Pakistan.’
He reached down the front of his shirt. Round his neck something was strung on a strip of kangaroo hide. He held it out. She had to take hold of it to see that it was a little seashell.
He said, ‘Three days after the transplant I was still lying there in Sind, and the crows came over from the roof of the mosque to camp outside my window. All day they looked in at me, and sung out to other crows. I told Barb, “Get me home. Get me on the first flight.” At the Royal Adelaide they found this inside me. Indian doctor said Pakis use seashells against the evil eye.’
She crossed her arms over her belly. ‘What about the kidney?’
‘What about the kidney. New one was the wrong colour. Surgeon in Adelaide chucked it away. Infection nearly killed me.’
He rubbed his lower back. The scar, itching maybe.
He said, ‘I’m worse, now. They hook me up to that machine all day Monday, Wednesday, Friday. I’m cactus by the time the clinic opens Monday.’
She glanced toward the arena. He shaded his eyes against the floodlights, checked her face. ‘Just let him know I’m worse, that’s all. He respects you, Lee.’
She snorted, shook her head.
She said, ‘The doctor told him if he gave you a kidney, he’d have to quit bullriding.’
‘I’m not asking him.’
He’d bullied Vaughan all his life, twisted him up in so many ways, thinking himself hard but fair. It was true he’d treated his family no better or worse than her father or his other stockmen, no better or worse than his cattle or dogs. The way he looked now was about how he deserved to look. His eyes were on hers, not begging, just waiting. He knew her, and he knew Vaughan owed her.
The announcer’s voice rang out over the loudspeakers, ‘Next up ladies and gentlemen, round one of the Birdsville Fuel Distributers Open Bullride. Officials and clowns to the chutes, please.’
She pulled up her socks. ‘If he’s here, you can talk to him yourself. It’s between you and him, Gordon. Like I say, I won’t be talking to him any time soon.’
His face went still. She felt an old trickle of fear. Hollys did that to people. Without hurry he rumbled, ‘Just give him the message. That’s his vehicle over there. Don’t talk to him now, wait till after the bullride. I’ll stop there by his vehicle.’
The announcer clanged, ‘Lee Holly to the chutes. Lee Holly to the chutes.’
She fitted her hat and jogged towards the light and noise.
Gordon called after her, ‘Tell him if he’s waiting for me to die, he’ll find me by his vehicle.’
She pushed through the crowd on the embankment around the arena. By the arena gate stood two ambulance volunteers in green overalls. One was old Ron Neville the teacher, the other was Barb, thinner than ever, cigarette dangling from her lips like a straw from the bum of an orphaned calf. She squeezed Barb’s arm as she jogged past, and felt a hand trail down her back.
Barb grated, ‘Look after yourself, love.’
As the security guard opened the gate for her, she turned to look at Barb properly. Her mother-in-law’s face was more creased and the cheeks more sunken. Poor old Barb, she’d never had the nerve to leave Gordon.
The first cowboys were in the chutes, tying in to their bulls. Tom Drummond the stock contractor scowled at her from his perch on the top rail. Bowyangs, her fellow clown, shook his head solemnly, then winked.
The first bull was Hirohito, a twister. It erupted from the chute in trademark style, throwing its legs up and left twice. She stood to its right, where she expected the fall. The cowboy thudded at her feet. She pushed his face into the dirt with one hand, and braced her other against the bull’s nose, keeping low and square and in its eyes.
It snorted, backed up. She tensed, balanced to move either way. It glanced towards the let-out gate. Not head hunting. She signalled to Bowyangs. He did a little scissor jump and sprinted towards the gate. The bull spun and chased him, Bowyangs high-stepping and zigzagging ahead of its horns. She let the cowboy up and he ran for the opposite fence. The bull pulled up, took aim at Bowyangs. He did a chicken dance in front of the gate and the bull went for him, hard at first, then lazily. Bowyangs shoved the gate open and jumped out of the way. The bull bucked a tight, triumphant circle, saluting the whole crowd like a boxer, then trotted amiably out into the holding yard.
The next half dozen riders fell without posting a score. She didn’t expect many to last the eight seconds. Despite the Championship points at stake, Cradock was a bush rodeo, too far west and wedged between Christmas and New Year. Many of the best riders stayed in the eastern states.
She did stretches between rides, to get some use into her muscles after the drive from Deniliquin.
In the commentary booth above the chutes, under a big white Akubra, stood the announcer. She saw his eyes narrow as he took in the next rider. He growled, ‘Now all eyes on chute two, ladies and gentlemen, the Dalgety’s of Bute chute. The man is the local boy, Vaughan Holly.’
He wore a new embroidered silk shirt, Stetson low over his eyes. Her body stiffened. Her heart beat faster with anxiety for his safety, his success. The persistence of these habits disturbed her. There was a bit of polite applause, much less than he’d got in other years. Then someone booed.
The story was out, then.
He didn’t look up, but he stiffened. He’d asked for it by showing up, but, in spite of herself, she felt sorry for him: this was his home town rodeo.
The announcer trumpeted, ‘Down there in front of the chutes is his wife, Lee Holly, twice Australian champion bullfighter, so voted by the riders she protects. After this rodeo, she’s contracted to Wesley Gary of Reno, Nevada, one of America’s top rodeo promoters. Ladies and gentlemen, you won’t ever see a better a bullfighting clown, so let’s give her a proper send-off tonight!’
The crowd cheered. Some of the riders’ families stationed by the arena got out of their folding chairs to clap and sing out.
She felt Vaughan’s stare, imagined the resentment in it. At Mt Isa, she and Wesley Gary had gone to a pub to talk about her contract. Wade Metzger, a piss-ant rookie with a big mouth, had seen them get into Wesley’s hired vehicle. The prick told Vaughan, and Vaughan’s imagination went to work.
She met his eyes. She was shocked at how his face had dried up in three weeks, leaving his cheeks guttered, eyes small like his father’s. His hat brim tilted down. He wouldn’t get himself distracted before a ride; he had dreams of America, too.
He swayed as the bull bashed the chute gate with short, methodical kicks, rubbed a handful of powdered rosin into his bull rope till it was hot and sticky. It was the same frayed rope he’d been using in Queensland. A rope so frayed could get him hung up, but it had been Rhys Angland’s rope, and he believed it brought him luck. He wrapped the rope in a figure eight around his left fist and tucked the tail under.
An official perched on the near chute muttered, ‘Come on black bull.’
The chute boss waved. The announcer ratcheted up the excitement in his voice. ‘The bull is Soy Sauce, sponsored by Schumacher’s Meats of Orrorroo, and he is just one bucking son of a gun. But this bloke is a big improver. He was in the money in Queensland before he broke his leg at Taroom. This bull hasn’t been beat in two years, so make some noise for the local boy, Vaughan Holly!’
The gate man hauled on the rope. The bull came out bucking hard and straight. Vaughan threw his weight flat backwards. His chin was tucked in, hat brim aimed at the hump on the bull’s neck, right hand pushing the air in front of his face. He survived the bull’s entrance and began to spur with fiddlebowing strokes. He got the beast twisting, and moved with it as if stitched on at the buttocks. He looked good, his silk shirt rippling under the floodlights. He’d always been a bit clumsy on his feet, and he had more ambition than talent, but on the bull’s back he had found his balance this past year.
The hooter sounded eight seconds. He reached for the rope tail with his free hand and yanked. Not for the first time, the rope was stuck. The bull sensed this and started spinning. Vaughan bent low over the figure eight to work the tail free. In that moment, the bull jerked its head up and smacked its poll into his forehead. He slumped, left hand still trapped, and slipped down its flank into the spin.
She caught up, waved her hat in the bull’s face to stop its spinning. It rounded on her, spraying snot. She feinted left, and, when its head swung, dropped round its horns, grabbed the rope tail and hung on it with all her weight. The block flipped upright. Vaughan’s hand fell open, releasing the rope, and he flopped to the ground. His riding arm flopped beside him at an odd angle. She waved her hat in the bull’s face again, fending it off him. But it backed up and lowered its head.
Off three steps, it hit Vaughan in the ribs. It wagged its head from side to side to bash him between its horns, then looked up at her in challenge.
In the caravan at Mt Isa he’d got so wound up his voice became strangled. Threw down his crutches and hopped at her on his good foot and the rubber sole of his cast. Hit her because he couldn’t speak. Hit her again and again.
At the memory, her body stopped responding. She stood two metres from him, her muscles strained like fence wire, pulling her forward, pulling her back, and the blood roared like wind in her ears.
She snapped out of it. When the bull backed up again, she dived and landed on top of Vaughan, locking his body under her own.
When she was eleven years old and Vaughan was twelve, they went for a killer with his father and hers by Number Two Bore on Hollys’ station. While the men shot and butchered a beast, they looked for rabbits in the maze of dry gullies.
Vaughan talked all the time, in western, sucking spit through his teeth to stop himself dribbling with excitement, ‘C’mon, pard! You flush ’em from the high chaparral, and we’ll head ’em into the box canyon!’
They stalked and ran and shot till the sun was low, but didn’t hit any rabbits. When the horn called them back, they ran through gullies towards the windmill. Lunging after him through the twists and turns, she tried to work out why he’d recently become faster than her. Though his legs were still skinny, his back was growing kite-shaped like a man’s, and muscles were running up into his neck. In boots and no socks he lurched along as if dangled from strings.
As he burst out of the gullies ahead of her, he tripped on a root and fell onto the rifle. It went off.
The late sun seemed magnified through the box thorn grown up around the windmill on top of the ridge. Beside it, the silhouettes of Gordon and her father were hunched over the carcass of a bull. They flinched and straightened like rabbits when the bullet whanged off stones.
Gordon bellowed and stood abruptly. He charged down the slope with frightening speed. When he reached them, she saw with surprise the fear in his eyes.
He shouted, ‘You want to shoot someone? I’ll shoot you, you little bastard!’
He slapped Vaughan’s head so hard her own ears rang.
She trailed Gordon up the ridge and Vaughan trailed her. Her father was loading the hessian bags of meat onto the tray of the Toyota. His eyes were sad as he greeted her. But he was only Gordon’s head stockman, it wasn’t his business how the man raised his kid.
Gordon picked up his butcher’s knife and worked it on a steel. It had been sharpened so often it was only the last crescent of a butcher’s knife. The noise caused a flurry in the box thorn. It was full of twittering finches, protected from hawks and kites by the inch-long needles. Vaughan lurked behind it, out of his father’s sight.
She toed the carcass. To break the silence she asked her father, ‘How come he still had his balls?’
‘Never been mustered. We would of missed him in those gullies. Have a look at this’.
He grabbed the top horn, which was eighteen inches long, curved, and sharply tapered, and rolled the head. The other horn was turned in. She squatted and bent back the hair on its poll to get a better look. The horn’s point had squashed and spread against the bone, and the skull had been dented so that it must have pressed on the animal’s brain.
She looked up in shock. ‘That must of killed.’
Vaughan came out and crouched beside her. His breath caught at the sight.
Her father said, ‘Pain would’ve been his normal. Noticed him when I was checking waters. He was acting strange, running at other cattle. Kinder to shoot the poor bugger—he might sire others like him.’
Vaughan sucked spit through his teeth. In his normal accent, he said, ‘He wouldn’t ever of known what was wrong with him.’
Things like that occurred to him. Hunkered there next to him, she smelled the new acridity of his sweat and was troubled.
Vaughan stumbled out of the way as his father straddled the beast’s neck to cut out the tongue.
The announcer sang out, ‘Get in there, Bowyangs!’
The crowd shouted. She lay there on top of Vaughan, breathing his sweat. Her throat knotted hard. The bull hit her in the ribs. She gasped for breath as it wagged her between its horns. Her body tried to curl up, her hands twitched to let go and cover her face. She forced herself to hang onto him.
Bowyangs’ feet danced into view. He was in the bull’s eyes, taunting. The bull ignored him. It charged again and hit her in the back. She gasped for air. Her body started to curl. She hung on, but more weakly.
The bull backed up again and she braced herself. Bowyangs’ ran at it, scooping dust at it and shouting. The bull paused, lifted its head. When Bowyangs shoved his hat over its eyes, it spun and chased him. One back hoof trod on her forearm. It snapped. The other collected Vaughan’s head.
Ron Neville nudged the ambulance through the fringe of the crowd and out into the public car park. She sat in the front passenger seat, arm in a sling, sipping at a bottle of Powerade. She breathed into the pain in her forearm, waiting for the painkillers to kick in.
Broken arm or not, she would get on that plane to L.A. If she couldn’t clown for a few weeks, she’d spend the time studying the clowns over there.
As they passed the competitor’s car park, someone climbed across the nylon rope with his arm up for them to stop. Her eyes took a few seconds to focus: Gordon.
He doubled up to retch.
Ron braked and said over this shoulder, ‘It’s Gordon, Barb. He’s in a bad way.’
‘Bloody hell, what’s he doing here?’
Ron climbed down to open the rear doors of the ambulance. He had to help Gordon in. She eased her body round to look between the front seats.
Gordon rumbled, ‘I’m alright, I’m alright.’
He filled the ambulance with the stink of vomit. Barb’s eyes were wet as she put him in the seat behind the gurney and inserted a drip into one of the snakes on his forearm.
She rasped, ‘We’ll have to get him to Adelaide for dialysis. He can’t wait till Monday.’
On the gurney, Vaughan smacked his lips, blinked at the interior of the ambulance, touched his bandaged head, focused on Gordon’s face above.
He collected spit and said, ‘Saw your chance, Gordon?’
Gordon’s jaw jutted.
Before he could retort, Barb moved between them, ‘How do you feel, Vaughan?’
He took her in. ‘Pretty ordinary. Jesus, here we all are, eh? What was my score, anyhow?’
Barb said, ‘Don’t worry about that.’
Gordon cleared his throat and rumbled, ‘Eighty-something. Only score all night. What was it again, Lee?’
At the sound of her name, Vaughan’s eyebrows tried to go up, but his forehead was bandaged.
‘Eighty-eight,’ she said.
Gordon nodded. He was proud. It surprised her to see that he was proud.
Vaughan tilted his head back to look for her and winced. ‘Lee’s here too! Changed your mind, Lee?’
Gordon said, ‘Here because of you. She got herself busted up saving your hide.’
Vaughan frowned, ‘Shit, hey?’
‘You were out cold. Bully would’ve finished you off if it wasn’t for her.’
‘Would’ve suited you.’
‘She lay on you and let a two-thousand-pound bull run at her back.’
Vaughan scowled, then relaxed. ‘I don’t remember. She was right about that bullrope, but.’
She was relieved. That was as close to Thanks or Sorry as you’d hear from Vaughan.
Gordon said, ‘Makes you think, doesn’t it?’
Vaughan scowled again.
Ron Neville turned the vehicle onto the bitumen and the engine’s thunder replaced the rumble of tires on rocks. The river of road in the headlights was mesmerising. She’d been driven up and down this highway many times in childhood, day and night, by her own people, or his. Her family had lived in Holly’s married quarters, across the creek from the main homestead. She and Vaughan were good mates till her father fell foul of Gordon and moved his family to the Territory. She lost touch with Vaughan for years, till she started bumping into him at rodeos. She took him then for her old pard, not realising how much he’d grown like his father.
She hadn’t let herself realise that till Mt Isa, three years into their marriage, curled on the caravan’s lino, feeling her face with the tips of her fingers, the van so full of his rum fumes a spark would have exploded it, listening as he stomped away on his crutches to get drunker. When he was gone, she hitched the van and drove through the night, singing to herself her own little country song, ‘You knew the deal all along, boy: hit me one time and I’m gone.’
Ron lifted the UHF handset and raised the Flying Doctor base at Port Augusta.
‘Two patients for Adelaide from Quorn strip. One with broken ribs, punctured lung, possible skull fracture. The other one needs dialysis asap. Over.’
‘Two for Adelaide, roger that.’
The UHF shooshed a while, then Vaughan said, ‘Where you in the queue, Gordon?’
She turned in her seat to look at the side of Gordon’s face.
‘Three years, they reckon.’
Gordon fingered the seashell at his throat and looked at Barb. Barb nodded.
He said, ‘I took your advice, you know. I went overseas.’
Without looking at Vaughan, he told the story of his trip to Pakistan. This time he added, ‘I met my donor before the operation. Beautiful muslim girl. I asked her how much she was getting, but she said she didn’t want money, she was doing it for God. I had to pay the hospital forty grand, though.’
Vaughan’s jaw worked as Gordon told his story.
When he stopped talking, Vaughan said, ‘She’s probably donated a thousand kidneys.’
‘That may be. Anyhow, I’ve been, and I’m worse than I was before I went.’
He leaned back in his seat, pale.
‘Not surprised, shithole like that. I can’t believe you went. How long they giving you now?’
Vaughan tilted his head back to see Gordon’s face. He considered, then said, ‘I had the cross match tests. I’m a match for you. No surprises there. Only trouble is, the doctors tell me if I donate you a kidney, I’ll have to give up riding.’
Gordon said, ‘I’m not asking. Your mother wants to give me one of hers.’
Barb said quickly, ‘It would give him a couple more years, till a matching one came up.’
‘Jesus, mum! The state of you? Couple more weeks.’
For the next ten Ks there was silence, then Vaughan sighed and the tension went out of his jaw and neck.
‘These drugs are pretty good, mum. Got any spare?’
He intoned, ‘Forty grand for an organ for Gordon.’
He closed his eyes and, after a few seconds, sucked spit through his teeth and said , ‘You’d better have one of mine, Gordon. There’s only one match for you, ol’ mate.’
Barb said, ‘No, Vaughan!’
Gordon bowed his head. He mumbled something. He looked pleased.
The Flying Doctor plane was waiting on the dirt airstrip. Gordon held his own drip bag as they helped him out of the ambulance. Barb and Ron Neville slid the gurney out, and wheeled Vaughan towards the plane.
Gordon gave her a spry nod as she took his arm with her good arm. His face was calm now. They walked towards the plane at the pace of a broken down old man.
He rumbled, ‘He’s a good bullrider, now.’
‘He’s nearly thirty, though.’
‘They generally don’t go far beyond thirty.’
‘He needs to come home and take over the station. If he doesn’t, I might as well sell up.’
He cleared his throat. ‘What you did for him tonight: you’ve been hurt by bulls, you know what it means to turn your back on one, but you did it anyway.’
‘I didn’t do it for him.’
‘I didn’t do it for him. I’ve heard of a clown going that far to protect a rider, but I’ve never seen it. And after what he did to you.’
‘It’s my job.’
Her throat knotted. She was moved by Vaughan’s offer, hadn’t thought he had it in him. And she suspected she was the inspiration.
Gordon said, ‘Anyhow, it makes me think: I got burnt going overseas, I know what can happen.’ He lifted the drip bag to his throat, so he could finger the seashell. ‘But I might try China.’
She stopped. ‘What?’
‘You need a spare part for you motor car, it comes from China. That’s where the spares come from.’
She peered at his face in the starlight. It was humour, but he wasn’t joking.
She said, ‘But some poor bastard…’
‘Listen. All over the world, poor bastards sell their organs. They sell them to the rich locals for bugger all, or else the brokers leave them broke. At least I’ll pay well. I’ll find my own poor bastard and do him some good. I’ll help him start a business, give him a leg up in life.’
She didn’t know what to think, but she felt sick.
At the plane, Barb and the RFDS nurse helped Gordon up the steps and into a seat.
Before the door came down, she shouted into his face, ‘Don’t do it, Gordon. He wants to give something. For God’s sake, let him!’
Gordon shook his head. She didn’t know if he’d heard her or not, but she felt sure in that moment it wasn’t a kidney he’d wanted from his son.
The door swung down and sealed. She and Barb stood apart as the plane took off. They watched it blink away across the stars.
She breathed the midnight cool, thinking soon she would be getting on a plane herself. But not to the States. Not yet her shot at the big time.
She turned to Barb. In the silence she said, ‘If he goes overseas for a kidney, I’m going too. Don’t try and sneak off again, Barb. I’ll notice, and I’ll make sure everyone knows how Gordon came good. If he wants to take some poor bastard’s kidney, I’m gonna make sure he doesn’t leave that bastard poor.’
Copyright Tom Coverdale
First published in Antipodes: a North American Journal of Australian Literature, 2014
Image: I. Cszmurlo