Sam's body was pressed close to the warm granite of the outcrop, stealing the likely perch of a red bellied black. His auburn hair and brown coat blended well with the rock and shrub around him. The indigenous had pronounced the whole area uninhabitable and were only too glad to concede it to the stupid settlers who were heedless of their warning that the malingee liked to be left alone.
No one looking at the valley today could imagine that it used to be a dustbowl. Once claimed, even the settlers had no notion of how to tame the red silt which rose in choking clouds at the barest provocation. Only the crazy star famers were game enough to tackle the hellhole. Their ingenuity became as undeniable as their insanity when the hellish landscape filled with luscious vegetation under their care.
The valley was nonetheless still a peculiar place. It was densely vegetated, with not a scrap or dirt or crag of rock to spare. However, none of the plants could be considered of the normal variety. Even under the weight of the noon sun, they winked with light. The red silt had been wonderfully fertile after all, which was why the settlers wanted it back.
A cottage was situated in the northern quadrant of the valley. Other than a tendril of white smoke rising from the chimney, there was no sign of activity.
The sound of a determined snort followed by scrabbling and the tumbling of loose rock distracted Sam from his task. He slid back from the ledge of the outcrop and glared down at its base where he found Stella attempting to make her way up. The mare had his akubra between her teeth and had somehow managed to get halfway up a boulder.
Sam didn't know whether to laugh or growl. He wondered if her sister would have been as troublesome as this horse if she were still alive.
"Stay there," he whispered when he could manage a sturdy voice. Stella held firm when his eyes were on her, but when he turned his attention back to the valley, the scrabbling began anew.
"Damn you!" Sam hissed. He turned to see Stella's head peaking up at his feet. "Do you want to announce our presence to the whole valley?"
Stella gave a nonchalant neigh and looked away, pointedly refusing the blame for anything. Sam recognised a stubborn streak when he saw one. There was not much more that he could discern from his location anyway, so he made his way down carefully from the outcrop, ignoring Stella when he descended past her. Once he was back on solid ground, he shook his finger at her.
"You were clever enough to get yourself up, so you're bloody clever enough to get yourself down." He walked away, shaking his head. "No horse sense."
Sam started back at a brisk pace, knowing that the settler's hirelings were waiting for his report. Forty men were camped out near the entrance of the valley, swagmen and ex-drovers all. Though he was no friend of those who wanted to retake the valley, he was even less allied with the star farmers.
Halfway back to the camp, Stella caught up and spat his dripping akubra at him before overtaking him on his path. Sam ignored the raucous laughter when his mare preceded his return to camp. He stopped only to give his report to John, who half listened while sharpening his shears.
"We need to know how many starries are left before we go charge in," John said when Sam finished. He was the sunburnt, flat nosed leader of this dubious crew, a position earned only by being the most cutthroat of them all. "Didn't your lot do business with them? Easy enough for you to approach-"
"Not a chance!" Sam's nostrils flared. "Those wombat headed-"
"Bazza told me what they did to your sister," John began over the top of Sam's protest, "but we all do our part and carry our weight here."
Sam cast a pointed look at the men by the fire and some still dozing in their swags. The pungent smell of liquor was growing in the air. Clearly there were some who carried more weight than others.
If John saw the look of mutiny, he ignored it.
"Get back there and earn your share." He gestured sharply with his shears. "If you're not back by nightfall, I'll assume you won't be needing your pay either way. We'll come pick up your corpse on the way through. Better than being ground up for starfood. Heh."
Sam growled, but complied. It was impossible for a lone man to survive out in this country. Joining a mob was the only means of survival for an outcast. He stormed out of the camp, passing Barry on the way out.
When the man tried to strike a conversation, Sam shot him down with a scowl.
"Your mouth is as loose as your mum," he spat. Barry was the only one who he had opened up to. He didn't want every man and his horse knowing his business!
The embarrassment that fuelled his anger soon left him on the trudge up to the mouth of the valley. This left him with a deeper, aching hate for the star farmers. It would be impossible to restrain himself. Impossible. Sam decided when he reached the valley; he would just have to kill all the farmers himself, even if he only did get one in fifty share. Stella trailed him, nudging him every few steps.
The valley was the closest thing to Eden on earth. Orchards, familiar yet bizarre, were laden with sparking fruit. Well groomed lawns of clover, ranging in colour from pink to iridescent blue and sunset orange glittered as though still wet from dew. Starplants grew in cultured fields like wheat and rice. There was evidence of cross breeding with the native flora. Sam glimpsed the silhouettes of eucalyptus, pine and boab against the wreaths of light. Some patches smelled pleasantly of lemon and honey, others like tomatoes left too long in the sun.
It wasn't hard to find the dirt track that ran through the valley, but there was something unnerving and vulnerable about following it. Sam felt the gaze of the malicious unseen like stinging flies on his skin. There was a general rustling in the vegetation that fanned out before him in a clearly unnatural course. He watched the haphazard ripple fan out before him, heading towards the cottage. Even as he mounted Stella to quicken his pace, something told him that his presence would be announced long before he reached the star farmers.
The cottage sat atop a hill surrounded by wooden sheds. It was all well maintained, but if not for the steady finger of smoke through the chimney, the place seemed deserted. Stella refused to be tethered to a nearby aurora tree.
"For once, just do as you're told," he pleaded exasperatedly when she followed him up the steps of the cottage. "You're not going to fit through the door!"
Stella huffed and nipped his arm hard enough to bruise.
"Stella!" Sam shoved her head aside.
They broke out into a scuffle.
The door of the cottage opened to the two of them fighting. Stella was winning; she had pinned Sam against the railing by her hindquarters and was trampling Sam's akubra with her front hooves. She was the first to notice the door open and the surprised woman in the doorway. The mare promptly discarded the akubra and muscled her way through the door, proving Sam wrong.
"Get back here!" The horror was plain on his face.
She was well and truly inside the cottage now, judging from the aghast expression of the woman who had been barrelled over in the horse's rampage.
Sam dusted himself off and offered the fallen woman a hand. He felt his cheeks colour. There were many scenarios he had imagined for his encounter with a star farmer. This was not one of them.
The woman allowed his assistance.
"Do I know you?" she asked.
"No!" Sam said quickly, disgusted at the thought. Already he was backing away. He didn't know what to make of this female starrie. His vengeance against them suddenly tasted vulgar.
"Then how do you know my name?"
Her words made him pause. Sam looked closely at the woman for the first time. She was wearing a respectable dress in the style of the farmers; brightly embroidered with bell sleeves rolled up to the elbows. Her clothes were protected by a dark brown apron stained bright with the marks of her trade.
Sam paused and forced himself to look at her. Her eyes were blue and double lidded like his mother's. The spray of freckles across her face and her coppery hair were like his own.
"It can't be..." he reached out to her tentatively, as if she were a ghost.
She slapped his hand away. "Stay back now," she warned. She reached into her apron pocket and pulled out something that looked between a star and a dagger.
"Stella?" He couldn't believe it. "It's Sam."
It was the woman's turn to look surprised.
"Samson!" Recognition crossed her face. "Oh, but you look so old!"
It was just the sort of thing his sister would say.
"You're not exactly in the single digits yourself," he pointed out, laughing. "Are you going to let your old brother stand out here all day?"
"No, of course not! Please do come in!"
The cottage was tiny, but the horse was nowhere to be seen. Stella settled Sam down at the dining table with mug of tea before disappearing into the kitchen. After much clanking and a miniature explosion, she emerged with an impressive pavlova laden with fruit and glittering with the honey of starfed bees.
She settled into the seat beside him with a larrikin's grin. "Tell me again how you came to name a horse after me?"
Sam shook his head. "It's no laughing matter. I thought you were dead!"
Stella frowned. She carved up the pavlova and presented him with a slice. "Why would I be dead?"
"Mum said that the starries took you. Said they were going to grind you into fertilizer."
"Fertilizer! That's a new one! How can you believe anything that crazy woman says?" Stella snorted. "Every starrie knows that you can't make good starfood out of women!"
"I didn't believe her at first, but then I never saw you again." Sam crossed his arms and tried to look surly, but the allure of the fluffy white meringue dissolved his defence.
Stella rolled her eyes. "Mum sent me to live with our dad. She said she couldn't feed the both of us anymore, and she loved you more."
"I'm not complaining," Stella said quickly. "And dad was remarkably a lot less crazy. You could venture to say that he was close to normal."
The past tense didn't escape his notice. "Mum never talked about him. Was he..."
"A starrie," she confirmed.
It took the rest of the pavlova for Sam to soak up the news. By the time they finished swapping stories, the night had come to set the valley aglow.
"So if you didn't know I was here, why did you come?" Stella's question propelled Sam's senses back to his mission.
"Oh, rats!" He stood suddenly. "I have to call off the attack!"
"No time to explain. Stella! Where are you?"
His mare stuck her head out of a side room while his sister was left looking confused.
"Horse-Stella," Sam clarified apologetically. Horse-Stella trotted close enough for Sam to grab her reins. "I have to go. Your life might be in danger."
"Stay, Samson. The malingee will take care of things," Sister-Stella pleaded.
Sam wasn't listening. He was already galloping back down the dirt path. Each tree he past was lit up as if the Christmas Spirit had swept the land. The valley passed in a brilliant, dreamy blur until the mouth of the valley yawned before him.
Sam flew out into the darkness like a bat out of hell, straight past the advancing mob.
"Whoa! Bail up there stranger!" Barry yelled as he streaked past.
Sam pulled on the reins hard and guided Stella to trot back. John turned his horse to meet him.
"Well, well. We thought you was dead," John said.
"John," Sam gasped, "John. We can't go in there. It's my sister."
"They have your sister?"
The men around them scowled at the audacity of the star farmers.
"No. It's Stella," Sam explained. He was still surprised himself. "I thought she was dead, but she's the starrie who runs this farm."
There was a moment of silence that Sam misinterpreted in his relief. He felt his blood run cold at John's next words.
"So you're saying that there's only a single woman standing between us and the valley?"
"John, you can't mean-"
The men moved on a whistle from John, dragging Sam kicking and shouting off his horse. Stella bit the closest arm, and broke it. She reared as a rifle cracked, eyes wide with fear. Before they could get another shot off, she had bolted.
Sam copped more than a few elbows to the face, and he gave as much as he got. But it was forty on one and he was soon overpowered and tied to a gum. His former comrades chuckled to each other, ignoring Sam's threats and pleas to spare his sister. Eventually, he was forced to watch as the rowdy group, fuelled by a day on the piss, disappear into the valley.
Sam felt as if he had already died. The silence that followed was murder. Thoughts about what the men would do to his sister were each a private level of hell. He wasn't sure how long he stared after the men, eyes hollow with despair. Eventually, the grey smudge of predawn pressed against the unforgiving peaks surrounding the valley. Sam hung his head.
The glow of the stars in the valley faded as the sun climbed higher into the sky. Sam watched the march of time across the pebbles by his feet until a shadow fell over him. He didn't bother to lift his head to the sound of hooves and footsteps. Surely they knew that they would have to kill him – he would never forgive what they did to Stella.
"Well, here's a sorry sight."
Sam snapped his head back.
"Stella!" He felt tears of relief stream down his face.
"Which Stella? You're going to have to be more specific from now on." His sister grinned and his mare turned her head to regard him with a large, brown eye.
"Stop your smarting and help me up," he snapped, recovering quickly from his moment of weakness. Already he was wiping his face on his shoulder.
Horse-Stella started to chew the ropes while Sister-Stella offered Sam some water.
"How did you manage to get away" Sam couldn't figure it out.
Sister-Stella rolled her eyes. "You ran off without listening. I told you that the malingee would take care of it! They like to be left alone. For some reason, they liked the look of you. That's why you made it to my house."
Sam shuddered. The dark presence he had felt in the valley swallowed half a company of men without a sound. Once free, he crossed his arms and frowned at the gravity of the situation.
"So... what'll become of the men?" he ventured.
Sister-Stella smiled sweetly. Horse-Stella chose that moment to deposit his spit-laden akubra lovingly back on his head.
"Well, women make very poor starfood. Men, on the other hand..."
A glob of saliva trickled down Sam's neck.
There's not enough crazy fantasy stories about the Australian Outback, even though the rich Aboriginal mysticism attached to the land makes it an ideal setting. I thought, what the hell, let's chuck some star farmers in there.
This was written for the May-June Labyrinth Writing Contest to the theme of Wizards and Westerns. If you liked it, and want to read some great stories, head on over to the Writing Contest thread of the Labyrinth Forum where Liz will post links to the entries (and you can vote for your favourite).
28/06/2015 - Edited some stuff. Thanks TR! :)