Excerpt: Message Stick by Laine Cunningham


Featured in Oct/Nov 2015 Issue: Read Global

When a man dies in the desert, he is completely alone. At thirty-nine, Ian McCabe knew this simple fact. He had spent most of his life working the demanding seasonal jobs that kept Australia’s rural towns alive. He had seen a flat tire turn deadly, and knew that beauty and danger were the sisters who bore the land. 

Ian was not a tall man but a shock of blond hair added inches to his height. Quick blue eyes and a steady aim were useful in his career as a kangaroo culler. Every night the slim .22 found its target between the shine of an animal’s eyes. On cattle stations hundreds of kilometers wide, engine trouble and the bite of the brown snake posed constant threats. 

This area, so close to the Davenport Ranges, was typical of the Northern Territory. Wide plains of twisted mulga trees reached southwest to Alice Springs. A network of creeks and rivers that ran only during the Wet sustained towering gum trees. Cockatoos raised their young in the hollow trunks, and after a rain lorikeets gorged on the nectar.  

Grass was sparse, edged out by the ubiquitous spinifex that cut flesh as cruelly as broken glass. Only the toughest creatures survived and half-feral Brahma cattle were the breed of choice. To a rancher beleaguered by drought and debt, every blade eaten by native animals robbed them of beef. Roo shooters were always welcome. 

A flash of metal caught his eye. A red SUV beetled behind ridges and moved slowly to keep its dust cloud low. The same stealth kept Ian from sight as he followed.

When the trespassers parked beside a hill, Ian stuffed the Land Rover under a mulga tree and watched as a pair of men hiked up the slope. The first, a sturdy white fellow about thirty years old, clutched a rifle. The other man, an Aborigine who might have been in his sixties, was wiry yet had the grace of a predator. The outback was filled with men like them, drifters who found the bush far removed from the law.   

From a cleft among the boulders, the elder retrieved a spirit board. Ian knew they were supposed to be magical. He also knew it would fetch a small fortune on the black market. 

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