This week, we have an extract from the award-winning Blood In The Dust by Australian author Bill Swiggs.
Bill and I became acquainted at the 2018 Wilbur Smith Adventure Writing Prize, where we were both shortlisted for the Best Unpublished Manuscript category: a competition he won and which led to his novel being selected for publication.
Since then, Bill and I have stayed in touch and I am delighted his novel has enjoyed great success; not just in Australia but in the UK and beyond. You can read more about Bill, his journey to publication and the fascinating historical and cultural insights behind his novel in this week’s As A…Writer interview.
Blood In The Dust transports its readers to 19th-century colonial Australia, where the harsh and cruel existence of life in the Outback forces two young men to confront a violent past as they seek to adapt or die. The action is fast-paced and the prose moving. The following extract is just a taste of this thrilling adventure novel and I encourage you to read it in its entirety.
Dan (Associate Editor)
Blood in the Dust by Bill Swiggs
The riders were closer now and Toby could make out more detail. Two white men rode at the head of the little column. The man leading seemed too big for his horse, his large frame filling the saddle, the stirrup straps at full length to accommodate long legs. He had a cabbage-tree hat pulled low over his eyes and a full beard of black, matted hair that reached halfway down his chest. His head turned from side to side as he rode, examining the corners of outbuildings and shadows beneath the trees. When he saw the faces in the window, he paused and his cold stare filled Toby with fear.
The other white man was thin and short with sickly-yellow skin. He wore a seafarer’s peaked cap pushed back on his head. A broad smile exposed a set of tobacco-stained teeth.
The other three men were Aborigines, dressed in a curious mixture of animal skins and European clothing. They kept a little distance between themselves and the two leaders, their eyes flicking left and right.
The white men eyed the musket in his father’s hands and said something to each other. They separated as they came on, heading for opposite ends of the verandah. Sean had to step back a little to keep them both in sight without turning his head too far. The little yellow man reined in on the left and lifted a hand in greeting.
‘No cause for concern, sir,’ he said, pointing at the musket. ‘We’re just after some directions.’ He swept his gaze over the front of the homestead. ‘Be glad of some food, too,’ he added, his nostrils flaring as he sniffed the air. ‘Happy to pay you.’
‘Why the hell didn’t you close the slip rails?’ Toby heard his father snap. ‘Can’t you see I’ve got cattle in the paddock?’
‘We don’t expect to stay long,’ the other man responded, his voice as deep as mountain thunder. ‘We’ll close them on the way out.’
‘If you want anything from me, you’ll ride back down and close them now.’
The little man lifted his chin defiantly. Toby saw the way his eyes narrowed and knew then that they meant trouble. His next words only served to confirm this.
‘And if we don’t?’
Sean lowered the musket’s muzzle a little. ‘Then you’ll get nothing here.’
‘Now, don’t be rash, sir.’ The large man fidgeted in the folds of his shirt, drawing Sean’s attention. He produced a little leather purse and bounced it on the drawstring so the contents
jangled. ‘Like we said; we’ll pay you.’ The purse slipped from his fingers and fell into the dust beside his horse. ‘Oops!’
‘I don’t want your money. You can turn around and ride away. There’s nothing for you here.’
The big man raised his hands in resignation. ‘Sorry to have caused you any concern. If you’ll be kind enough to return my purse we’ll be on our way. We’ll close the slip rails as we go.’
Toby watched as his father stepped off the verandah and stooped towards the purse. A flash of movement drew his attention back to the little man as he pulled a single-shot pistol from beneath his shirt and aimed it at his father. There was a metallic click as the pistol cocked.
‘Pa! Look out!’
His father was half turned away and had one hand outstretched towards the purse, but at Toby’s warning he straightened and raised the musket, levelling the barrel at the little man as a spurt of smoke erupted from the pistol. A wind snapped at his father’s shirt and the concussion of the gunshot rattled the glass in the window. The musket fired a heartbeat later. His father’s arm jerked with the recoil of the unbraced, one-handed shot. The little man took the musket ball in the centre of his chest and fell backwards off his horse. Even as the man fell, his father reversed the empty musket in his grip, holding it like a club as he turned towards the other rider. But the big man had a revolver in his grip and fired before Sean had halved the distance between them.
Toby’s mother screamed as his father staggered backwards.
Sean dropped the musket and clutched at his chest. The stranger extended his arm straight and paused, taking aim down the barrel. He fired again and Sean fell backwards onto the ground.
The echo of gunshots boomed about the valley, holding Toby in that brief, terrifying moment. Then, through the horror, he became aware of another noise. His mother was screaming again, a high-pitched, keening wail. She held her skirts bunched in both hands to free her legs as she ran across the kitchen. Too late, Toby realised what she was about to do.
He moved to stop her.
Ellen reached the door and yanked it open, rushing out onto the verandah, screaming as she ran. The revolver fired again and her scream was cut off. Toby reached the doorway to see his mother on the boards, her skirts thrown up in disarray, her arms reaching for the steps and her husband. Blood pounded in Toby’s ears, his stomach a knot of fear and panic. He moved to where his mother lay, but the sound of the revolver being cocked stopped him short.
The big man aimed the gun at Toby’s head.
‘Don’t bloody move!’
Toby was torn between wanting to help his mother and fear. His indecision held him fast and probably saved his life.
The stranger swung off his horse. He tossed the reins to one of the Aborigines and walked calmly up the steps, barely glancing down at Ellen and the growing pool of blood.
‘I thought she was you.’
He grabbed Toby by the arm and turned him back to the kitchen door.
‘I thought she was you coming at me with another bloody gun.’ There was no emotion in the voice, no hint of regret, just a simple statement of fact. He pushed Toby inside and turned to the three Aborigines.
‘Search the other buildings. Make sure no one else is hiding.’
The Aborigines pulled clubs from beneath their cloaks and slid from their horses. They rushed between the homestead and the tack shed.
Paddy dropped to the floor and crawled under the table as the stranger stepped into the kitchen. The man let Toby go, shoving him towards the far wall.
Toby lowered himself onto a kitchen chair and watched through tear-filled eyes as the man opened the door to his parents’ bedroom and glanced inside. He then went to the back door and did the same with the boys’ little lean-to room. Satisfied there was no one else in the house he moved to the stove where the remainder of the stew Ellen had prepared for lunch still simmered away. He ladled out a huge helping into a bowl, came back to the table, pushed the hind quarter of lamb aside and sat down, then shovelled stew into his mouth as fast as he could manage.
One of the Aborigines came to the doorway. ‘No more people here, Warrigal.’
The man nodded and droplets of stew flew from his tangled beard. He pointed at the pot on the stove. ‘Take it to the others, Chilbi. Eat while you can. The traps may not be far behind us.’
Without a glance at Toby or Paddy, the Aborigine went to the stove, picked up the pot and hurried back out into the yard.
The stranger emptied the bowl in moments and pushed it into the middle of the table. He stood and went to the kitchen cupboards where he rummaged around and found a flour bag that he began filling, tossing in bags of sugar and tea, a large tin of golden syrup and a loaf of bread. Then he went into their parents’ bedroom and Toby could hear him pulling open drawers and cupboards. He came back into the kitchen and pointed the revolver at Toby.
‘Where does Daddy hide his money?’
Toby knew his father had at least twenty pounds in a rawhide wallet hidden under the chest of drawers in the room. Beyond his grief and terror, he felt a little spark of defiance flare. This man was not going to take everything from him. ‘There isn’t any.’ His voice cracked and didn’t sound as convincing as he’d hoped.
‘Don’t lie to me, boy.’ The revolver barrel almost touched Toby’s nose.
‘We . . . we won’t have any money. Not until we sell the cattle in the yard.’
‘Is that so?’ He lowered the revolver and shoved the table aside. Paddy tried to squirm away, but the stranger took a fistful of hair and yanked the boy to his feet. Paddy was a big lad for fifteen, but the stranger had no trouble holding him at full-stretch.
Paddy let out a squeal of terror and closed his eyes. ‘Please, Toby! Make him stop.’
Toby stood and the man whirled, dragging Paddy by the hair like a child’s doll.
‘Sit!’ he roared.
Toby shrank back onto the chair.
The man twisted Paddy around so he could look into the boy’s face.
‘Open your eyes, boy.’
Paddy kept his eyes firmly closed.
Infuriated, the stranger shook him by the hair and screamed, ‘Where does Daddy hide his money?’ He shook so hard that some of Paddy’s hair came away in his fist and he lost his grip.
Paddy cried out and fell to the floor. He scrambled for the door on all fours, reached the verandah and broke into a full run. Toby ran after him, but the stranger grabbed him by the collar of his shirt and held him fast. He saw Paddy reach the rail and leap it in a clumsy lunge, landing in the dust beyond where he rolled to his feet and kept running.
The three Aborigines were crowded around the pot, using their hands to ladle stew into their mouths. The one who had come to the kitchen door saw Paddy land in the yard and gave chase.
‘Run, Paddy!’ But Toby could see that his brother wasn’t going to make it. The Aborigine caught him in several paces and the club hissed through the air. The vicious knob of fire-hardened wood struck Paddy on the side of his head. His brother let out a grunt and sprawled in the dust where he lay still.
‘You bastards!’ Toby felt his stomach slide with terror and anger. He struggled to get free, but the stranger just chuckled under his breath and pushed him out onto the verandah.
Toby stopped struggling and stooped towards his mother, but a kick in the backside sent him tumbling down the steps.
‘Stay down,’ the deep voice warned.
He lay on the ground and watched as the stranger went to his horse. He was carrying the hind quarter from the kitchen table and tossed it to one of the Aborigines.
‘Take this, Tarrat. If we get nothing else from this place, at least we will eat well for the next few days.’ He then walked to where Toby lay sobbing on the ground and took hold of his shirt front, pulling him to his feet. The stranger held him so close Toby could smell stew on his rancid breath.
‘Don’t be fool enough to follow me, boy.’ The dark eyes seemed to burn through him.
Toby’s head lolled like a drunkard’s as he was shoved backwards.
The stranger swung up onto his horse and rounded on the Aborigines.
‘On your horses, you black heathens.’
The Aborigines dropped the pot and ran for their animals, springing lithely onto their backs. One of them gathered up the reins of their dead companion’s horse, ignoring his body on the ground. They followed the white man towards the slip rails.
Toby stood between the bodies of his mother and father and watched the men ride away. They reached the slip rails and did not pause or look back, riding on until the bush surrounded them and they were gone. He stared after them for a long time, too scared and shocked to move, his gaze fixed on the patch of bushland where they had disappeared.
His brother’s low groan snapped him out of the trance-like state.
‘My God, Paddy!’
© Bill Swiggs/Zaffre, 2019
Blood In The Dust is out now and available to purchase.
You can read more about the Wilbur Smith Adventure Writing Prize and its various categories here.
Remember to head over to our Write On! Interviews to read more about Bill and his advice to his fellow authors.
Next week, we have a very special entry from a fellow Brit also living in Colombia. Since the beginning of the lockdown in Bogotá, Peter Dale has been writing a semi-fictional diary in what he has termed the Quarantine Chronicles, and he has selected some of his favourite entries to showcase. Peter is one of the finest writers I know, and a true master of the short story, so I hope I will see you all back here next week!
If you’d like to see your writing appear in Write On! Showcase, please send your short stories, poetry or novel extracts to: firstname.lastname@example.org Or you can read more fiction, poetry, interviews and author advice in the latest issue of Write On! Available here .
The echo of gunshots boomed about the valley, holding Toby in that brief, terrifying moment. Then, through the horror, he became aware of another noise. His mother was screaming again, a high-pitched, keening wail.