Chapter 02 — Bushrangers
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If on a certain morning some time ago he had decided to travel via Antwerp rather than Amsterdam, Paul thought, if he hadn’t decided on impulse to read the newspaper in the little café near the train station, if he hadn’t noticed on page five the call for volunteers for the Dutch East Indies Army — should he enrol? It was one way to escape Europe — he had tossed a coin and walked to the Harderwijk military headquarters — if the young German in the bunk next to his in the barracks hadn’t died of tropical fever, if he hadn’t decided to desert — if he had made only one slightly different choice at any of these points, he wouldn’t be here — where was he? — riding on the top of the coach through the endless ranges of New South Wales, next to his sleeping American friend. The only other occupant of the coach was a striking young woman called Julie, a friend of Frank’s from Wagga, on her way home. A ring glittered on one of her fingers, he remembered, perhaps an engagement ring.
He must have dozed off again, because when he next became aware of the endless passing panorama it had changed. The coach was labouring slowly up a slight incline; the road had been graded at the wrong angle, and the driver was taking things carefully so as not to tilt the coach too far to the side. ‘Easy now,’ he was saying to his snorting horses, ‘Easy now, old boy.’
Beside the road was a fence, and behind the fence a large field bordered by thick trees. The field was partly ploughed in a wavy pattern like combed hair that followed the contours of the land, and ran down to a rivulet where the water shone and sparkled in the sun as it trickled over its sandy bed.
The breeze on his face, the creak of the harness, the crisp grinding of wheels on the gravel road, all this stamped the scene with the sharp tang of reality, yet Paul felt he was in the grip of a powerful dream, a dream that had transported him back to his boyhood. The draft horse they borrowed from a neighbour, what was its name? It had trod on his foot once, almost breaking the bones so that he walked with a limp for a week, and once it had kicked him in the stomach when he was hitching the plough to the traces, leaving him dizzy with pain, writhing and gasping for breath in the dust.
And as though the mental image of the horse had conjured up his ghost at this other end of the planet, at that moment a large brown draft horse emerged from behind a clump of trees, and behind the horse a small plough, and behind the plough, straining to hold the handles level as it swayed over the clods, a boy of about twelve. His blond hair was cut short, and he wore old overalls of blue denim serge. ‘Whoa, you bastard!’ the boy cried, his light voice coming clearly over the ploughed land. The old horse snorted and stamped to a stop, and the boy straightened his back, leaned on the plough and stared at the coach. The driver waved, and the boy waved back.
This scene, idyllic but sad because of the loneliness that saturated it, already passing by as the coach laboured up the incline then made the crest of the hill and gradually picked up speed down the slope on the other side, this tableau of himself as a youth dreaming at his plough in the hard light at the other end of the world, what could it tell him?
He had never understood what the future might mean: it had always seemed a wavering ghost in front of him, changing from week to week, from month to month. As a child he had tried to turn into the brilliant success his mother had so much wanted; he had won prize after prize, but in the end it had all meant nothing. When you left school you left all the medals behind in a drawer and you sold the prize books you had won, and no one treated you any better for having been such a clever boy.
He had tried his hand at writing — he had been clever with Latin poetry at school — and he had ended up hated by every writer and critic in Paris. Then his futile study of music, then German, and Italian, and the walk across the Alps, then heatstroke, then army life in the tropics… his own life made him ill to think of it, the endless string of failures, the escapes that led nowhere, the struggles that always turned into disaster. He slept again.
When he woke the countryside had begun to level out, and from time to time through the trees he caught a glimpse of a plain stretching far into the west. The landscape was lightly wooded, with fields and now and then a farmhouse nestled next to a stream. The breeze had a chill to it, and Paul pulled his coat around him tightly.
He woke again just as dusk was beginning to creep across the land. They were passing through a heavily-wooded valley when something up ahead in the gloom of the trees caught his eye. He shook Frank’s shoulder. ‘Do you have bandits in Australia?’
Frank stirred. ‘Uh? Bandits? Back home we call them bushwhackers. Here they call them bushrangers. They range about the bush, seeking travellers to rob. Travellers like us, perhaps. There are plenty of stories about them in the newspaper files in Wagga, but I haven’t exactly run into any bushrangers myself. Why, are you hoping to meet some?’
Paul was still twisted around in the seat, looking ahead. ‘Are they dangerous?’
‘They kill people, if that’s what you mean. Why? What are you staring at?’ Frank sat up.
‘Those two men, you see them? They went behind a rock. You see that big rock up ahead?’ He pointed, and called to the driver. ‘Mr Finnegan, did you see those two men ahead?’
‘I didn’t see nothin’, the driver said, with a trace of anxiety in his voice. He’d been hunched over the reins; now he sat upright and looked around. ‘The light’s not too good. You see somethin’, son?’
Paul put his hand on Frank’s arm. ‘We should get inside the coach. I have a gun in there.’
Frank’s eyes widened. ‘You have a what? A gun? Oh Jesus.’ Paul hoisted himself over the side of the coach, his boots scrabbling for a foothold.
‘Hey wait,’ Frank yelled. ‘Wait on, I’m coming.’ The coach tilted as the wheels went over a rut, and they had to cling to the window frame, dust blowing up into their eyes and noses. ‘Now don’t frighten Miss Bell when you jump in through the window.’
Miss Bell, the only other occupant of the coach, was about thirty, with a firm manner, and Paul didn’t think much would frighten her.
She looked up in alarm as Paul almost fell on her.
‘Well, Mr Nouveau, I didn’t expect to see you climbing in the door while the coach was moving. I believe that’s expressly forbidden. Francis, will you explain to your friend.’
Paul glared at her. ‘Would you pass my bag, please!’
‘Your bag. Let’s see.’ The bag was wedged under the seat where she was sitting, and she got it out with effort. ‘Here you are. It’s certainly heavy. Is something the matter?’
‘Thank you.’ What was her first name? Julie. His voice was tense with anxiety, and he knew that his accent had thickened. ‘Yes, something is the matter, quite badly.’ He drew a parcel from the bag, and unwrapped it. It was the revolver he had cleaned so carefully in Sydney two days before. The barrel gleamed in the dim light.
‘Oh my goodness, that’s a pistol.’ She seemed more angry than frightened. ‘Please put that away this minute! I never heard of a gentleman terrifying people like that. Francis, will you please do something!’
‘Lady, tais-toi, s’il vous plaît, please shut up!’ Paul said. He opened the loading gate at the back of the cylinder and pushed a handful of cartridges into the chambers, one by one, fumbling once or twice. He checked that all six chambers were loaded, then snapped the loading gate shut.
He tried to think. The possibilities raced through his head: there were two of them, perhaps more. The revolver was heavy calibre, and could kill a man with one shot. But if there were more than the two he’d seen, and they surrounded the coach, he didn’t have a chance: if he fired at one, the others would get him in the back. Apart from the driver, who had a shotgun strapped to the box seat beside him, he was the only one armed. It seemed hopeless. And yet — what if it was nothing? What if the two men he had seen, each with a rifle in his hand, riding behind the rock — what if it was some Outback joke in bad taste? What a fool he’d seem, with his face as white as chalk and his trembling hands, loading and checking his revolver.
Miss Bell was looking at him angrily. ‘Why are you staring at me like that?’ she snapped. Her voice was furious by now, and her hands were trembling too. Something awful was going to happen. She had no idea what it might be, but she could feel it moving towards them across the fields of time like a vast ugly thundercloud about to blot out the sun.
‘I was not aware of this, that I was staring,’ Paul said. ‘I am distrait, a little distracted, that’s all. Let me think, will you?’
The loud crack of a rifle made them start; it can’t have been more than a dozen yards away. Almost at the same time they heard a hoarse shout of pain from the driver, and the sound of his body falling against the top of the coach. The rhythm of the hooves changed; the coach tilted and rocked as the horses wheeled, and Paul could hear other hooves, faster, lighter.
‘Oh Christ, they’ve shot the driver!’ Frank’s voice was hoarse, and the colour drained from his face.
Julie clutched his arm. ‘Dear God, what’s happening?’ she said.
Paul felt his heart race, and his blood seemed to chill and coagulate in his veins. He knew he was slipping into the kind of paralysis that came with terror. With an effort he clutched at his fear, to see what made it up. Despite the training and the rifle drill and the practice sessions loading cartridges and shooting and loading again, despite his high target scores and the pat on the back from the sergeant, he’d never had to kill anyone before, and the closer the moment came the more difficult it seemed. He’d been shot and wounded some years before, and the sight of a gun barrel made his pulse pound with fear. He had to face it somehow, or they’d all be dead; meanwhile the colour appeared to drain out of everything, and the interior of the coach seemed to grow dimmer. The glimpse of trees wheeling past the window was shadowy and indistinct. Male voices shouted something, and the coach lurched to a halt.
A rough voice yelled ‘Everybody out! Come out with your hands up. Come on! Out! Out!’
‘How many are there, Frank?’ His voice sounded strange in his ears. ‘Can you see from where you are? Only two?’
Frank squinted through the gap in the side of the canvas curtain. ‘Looks like it,’ he whispered. ‘Just the two. They’re together, on the right side of the coach.’
‘Only two? Thank Christ for that. Good. You go first, lady.’ Paul waved the revolver barrel at her.
‘Please don’t hurt anybody,’ she said. She bit her lip to stop it trembling, gathered her skirts and unlatched the door, and looked back at him with an anxious appeal in her eyes.
‘Just keep quiet, please, Miss Bell,’ he said in a whisper, ‘or we shall all die.’ He gestured with the gun again, and she stepped down onto the road. After the first cry, the driver had been silent: badly wounded, or dead, Paul thought: no help there. ‘Frank,’ he whispered, ‘you go next. I shall come close behind you. When I say — when I say «Paris», move to the side, quickly.’
Frank looked at the revolver, and nodded. ‘You bet I will,’ he said.
Paul could see the two horses now, close together, a few yards from the coach. One of the men called out: ‘Come on out, ye scum, or we’ll kill someone else. Hurry up!’ Through the gap in the curtain he could see them from the waist down: one had his rifle pointed at the ground, the other rested his rifle across the saddle, with the muzzle pointing away from the coach. They must feel very confident, Paul thought. ‘That’s a nice one, Bob,’ the man said. He meant Julie. The other gave a coarse laugh. ‘This is an easy one,’ he called back, and spat onto the ground.
Julie’s voice came, firmer than before. ‘Please don’t hurt anyone else.’ One man laughed, and the other called out again: ‘You, out!’
‘I’m coming out,’ Frank called. ‘Don’t worry.’
Paul gripped the handle of the gun so tightly that he could feel the knurled pattern cutting into his palm. Take your time, he said to himself, remembering the sergeant at training camp. Take one shot, wait to settle from the recoil, take another shot, wait to settle from the recoil. One, and steady, and two, and steady, and three, and steady, and four. Don’t hurry.
‘I have plenty of gold to give you,’ he called out. ‘So don’t shoot us, please.’
‘Gold, that’s good,’ a voice said. ‘Eh, Bob? That’s good.’ They laughed.
‘But I have to tell you, I’m an alchemist,’ Paul called out. Why was he making jokes now? He climbed down the two steps onto the gravel roadway, staying close behind Frank, for a moment almost losing his balance. ‘I can turn gold into lead. It’s a trick I learned in Paris.’ Frank heard the word ‘Paris’ and began to turn aside. ‘Here’s your lead!’
Everything slowed down, like a wind-up toy running down, like the dream he used to have as a child, running and running but the muscles of his legs were paralysed, and the harder he struggled the less he moved. Frank’s back — the shirt was stained with sweat, Paul noticed — Frank’s back moved aside, like a curtain opening on a bush scene in a play.
There were the two men, in plain sight, less than six feet away, both sitting up and leaning forward slightly in their saddles, staring in shock at the pistol he was holding. He was about to kill them, if he could, and the knowledge seemed to sharpen his sight. One of the men was young — barely into his twenties, like himself — and the other was older, perhaps the boy’s father. They both had grey-blue eyes. Their clothes were dirty and they hadn’t shaved for a week. Now they could see the barrel of his revolver rising to face them, and they had only a few seconds left to live.
The younger man gave a hoarse shout: ‘You! Don’t move!’ He tried to raise his rifle, but only one hand held it — the other held the reins — and the barrel of the rifle moved up slowly, too slowly. One, and steady. There was a noise like a huge steel door slamming in a cave, and the revolver kicked up savagely in Paul’s hand.
The first shot knocked the youth back six or eight inches, and his mouth opened wide. He arched back, clawing at the red hole in his chest. Two, and steady. Another deafening explosion, and the second shot blew his face away and knocked his body backwards onto the ground.
The older man’s horse had shied and reared back, jolting his rifle wide. He was twisting in the saddle, tugging the reins with one hand and swinging the rifle around with the other. Three, and steady. The third shot went a little wide, and blew a fist-sized piece of flesh and chips of bone out of his shoulder. He screamed as the force of the bullet spun him around. Four. The fourth shot punched through the back of his leather coat, knocking him out of the saddle. He gave another short grunting scream, and his body thumped onto the ground face first, bounced an inch or two, and lay still.
It was over. There was a cloud of stinking blue smoke hanging in the air, and galloping hoofbeats fading through the trees. Then it grew quiet.
‘Oh my God,’ said Frank. ‘You killed them. You killed them.’ He had his arm tight around Julie’s shoulder. She was holding her hands over her face and sobbing. One of the outlaws’ horses stood there trembling, the other had gone, and the sound of its hooves grew fainter. Everything was quiet now. The birds and the insects had stopped. A silence seemed to creep from tree to tree, a silence that was made of shadows and absences. Dusk was gathering.
The strength had gone out of Paul’s limbs and into his stomach: the muscles were churning. He shouldn’t have bolted his breakfast, he thought.
‘Yes, I killed them,’ Paul said. ‘Did you want to become shot, instead, like the driver was shot?’ His voice sounded loud and uneven in the empty landscape, and the words seemed to be soaked up and muffled in the gloom that stretched under the trees. He heard himself laugh harshly. ‘Of course I killed the murdering bastards,’ he shouted. ‘What did you wish for me to do? Maim them?’
He walked a few steps and leaned his left hand on a sapling, clenching his stomach muscles. But that made it hard to breathe, and he needed air, fresh air. Something prickled on his wrist — it was a large ant, with a metallic green abdomen. Then there was another, its antennae testing the air, and another, glittering in the dim light, exploring his forearm carefully. Were the ants carnivorous? Would they soon begin to explore and to gnaw and tear at the bloodied flesh of the bushrangers, lying in the dirt and litter? They weren’t men any longer, they were dead meat lying sprawled among the carpet of leaves, the twigs and shreds of dry bark that covered the ground. It was all over, and he felt an intense exhilaration: he was alive, and they were dead!
But it wouldn’t stop repeating itself in his mind: he could still see their flesh bursting apart as the bullets tore into their bodies, the misty spray of pink bone, the blood gushing into the air, and he could still hear the choking scream that ended in death.
His legs weakened, he dropped to his knees, and his stomach muscles finally had their way. With a mixture of surprise and rage he found himself vomiting, again and again.
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