The mysteries of the Min Min lights in Outback Queensland have been around since the Dreamtime.
Bluey tossed a handful of loose black tea leaves into the chipped enamel billy. He dropped the blackened pot onto the campfire, and orange flames licked up the sides. Wiping a trickle of sweat from his top lip, he lifted his head and nodded toward the old station house. We turned. The boss man stepped down the rickety steps of the veranda, striding across the stockyard. His battered, sweat-stained hat was pulled low over a heavy brow, blocking out the harsh midday sun.
‘Need two blokes to go out and round up some strays.’ The boss was a man of few words.
I kept my eyes glued to the ground and traced random circles in the red dust with the toe of my boot. Last thing I wanted to do was head out into the scrub in the searing afternoon heat. It would be an all-nighter. Finding strays was no easy thing out in the rocky outcrops and spinifex.
‘Probably out at the Gulga billabong, near the ridge. Cattle truck’ll be here tomorrow afternoon. Want a full load. Waste of time and money to send it off half full.’ Boss wasn’t one to waste money any more than he wasted words.
Charlie and Jim shuffled their feet and stared off into the distance.
‘Not us boss.’ Charlie chewed his baccy, leant against the stock fence and crossed his brawny arms. ‘Not a good time to go.’
‘What are you talking about?’ the boss growled.
Charlie pointed to the western horizon, to the sweeping flatlands and gibber plains stretching out as far as the eye could see.
‘Bad night to be out there. Old ones speakin’. Reckon them devil-men’ll be out there looking for lost souls. Can feel it.’ He cocked his head. ‘Listen, they’re out there alright. Nah boss, me and Jim is staying behind.’
The boss shook his head but said nothing. He knew there was no point pushing the boys when they got something like this into their heads.
A shiver ran down my spine. I felt uneasy. Charlie and Jim were two of the toughest stockmen out here on Gulga Station. Never known to skive off. Knew this country like the back of their hands. Their people had wandered these gibber plains since the dawn of time. If they heard the old people, there was no way they’d leave the station yard.
The boss pointed at me and said, ‘You and Bluey can go. It’s a two-man job. Make sure you’re back by noon tomorrow. Truck won’t wait. Has to be back at the rail head in time to load up for the Brisbane train.’
We saddled the horses and filled our water bottles. Cook crossed the yard and tossed a hessian bag of damper and hard cheese to Bluey. He stashed it in his saddle bag then whistled up the dogs. I lifted my hat to the boys, and we took our leave. Charlie raised his hand and threw us a wry smile. I could feel his dark eyes boring into my back as we turned west into the afternoon sun.
I was glad of Bluey’ s company. He was a big man, well into his sixties. Lived on the land all his life. He was a man barely shrunk by age. His angular face was like tanned leather and his dark eyes were half-closed against the harsh sun and dust of outback Queensland. Bluey, like the boss, was a man of few words and fewer actions. He was a good mate for a bloke to have at his side. He understood the bush.
Out the back of Boulia, with the dogs running at our side, it seemed like we were the only people left on earth. We pushed the horses on through foot-deep spinifex grass until we reached the gibber plain. The relentless sun beat down on our sweating shoulders and lizards slithered into the shadows of rocks. As we approached the ridge the horses sniffed and snorted, pulling at the reins. They could taste the water in the air. The sun was falling low in the sky, an enflamed ball of scorching energy sucking up the last rays of sunlight. We followed the butt of the range until we came to the billabong. A strand of coolabah trees ringed the waterhole.
‘Strange,’ Bluey said. ‘No cattle.’
‘Yeah,’ I said. Like the horses, cattle could smell water from miles away. Sunset was the time for strays to flock to the Gulga waterhole. We’d have to be up early to find those strays.
‘No birds either,’ Bluey said.
We set up camp under a boab tree on the edge of the waterhole. Bluey foraged for kindling and lit a fire while I lay back on my swag and stared up at the river of stars gleaming against the inky black night sky. The air was still, the bush eerily quiet. A dingo barked. A short, sharp yap in the distance.
‘Not happy about something.’ Bluey stoked the fired as he spoke. He tossed two potatoes into the ashes.
The dingo yapped again. A strong wind tore through the campsite, almost blowing out the fire. A loud bang, from somewhere over the far side of the waterhole, echoed down escarpment walls. Intense light, like an orange flare, flashed on the top of the ridge.
‘Some silly bugger up there,’ Bluey said. ‘Bright campfire he’s got going.’
‘Like us, looking for strays,’ I said.
Out here it was easy for a beast to leave the mob. Still, they had to be accounted for, even if they were sun-bleached bones lying in the dust.
‘Not likely,’ Bluey replied. ‘Not like the boss to send anyone else out. Most likely looking for strays to butcher and sell out the back of the pub.’
I laughed knowing it was probably true. There were some things the boss needn’t know, especially on the wages he paid us.
We settled in our swags away from the dying embers of the campfire, enjoying the cool air after the heat of the day. The wind lifted, and a bank of clouds drifted over the ridge. The stars disappeared turning the night into a sea of pitch black.
Don’t know how long we slept. The dogs woke us, straining on the chain as they snapped and snarled at ghostly windblown shadows. Bluey threw back his swag and growled into the darkness.
‘Shut up ya mongrels.’
The dogs kept barking, baying at the sky. The horses, hobbled to a tree, stamped their feet and whinnied at the shadows of the coolabah trees.
Me and Bluey stared into the bush. The clouds lifted. Moonlight cast dancing shadows across the still water of the billabong. The campfire on the ridge seemed to rise up then drop, like a falling star.
We stared at the glow, then bugger me dead, if it didn’t just lift off and move down the escarpment like a dancing lantern. The hair on the back of my neck stood up. The light was like some supernatural being. It came closer and closer, darting hither and thither into the dark recesses of the trees. Then it swirled around the campfire, screeching like a banshee.
Bluey jumped up and threw his saddle on his horse.
‘What are you doing?’ I yelled.
He turned to face me, looking over my shoulder into the dark. His eyes were lit up like red flames. He turned away and dug his heels into the horse’s flank. I watched in silence as man and horse disappeared into the darkness.
My body froze, like a block of ice. I shook myself free of the fear and raced after Bluey. Gibber stones dug into my bare feet. I kept running, calling to my mate until I dropped from exhaustion. Hauling myself up to my knees, I peered into the distance, into the dark camouflaged spinifex. The light was gone. Bluey, the horse – gone. I shouted his name and a spine-chilling echo bounced back at me. My skin felt clammy. Fear trickled down my spine like icy fingers and my heart beat fair hard enough to burst out of my chest as I fought to stay calm.
Then the night clouds parted. The full moon threw beams of light across the desert. The gibber shimmered in the silvery mist. The land between me and the ridge was empty. No sign of Bluey, or the horse.
I treaded warily back to the campsite, shaking like a leaf. My horse, and the dogs, were waiting for me. The first rays of sun flickered on the eastern horizon. I headed back to Gulga Station.
That was over twenty years ago. Not long after I left the station, I took a job in town. To this day no one’s seen or heard of Bluey.