The Lonesome Ballad of William James
Stephen Dawson (University of Canberra, Australia)
It was a scratchy town, nothing but raw planks and horse shit. Not even a town, not really. Just the start of one. It was small, lifeless, built for a gold boom that never happened. Scratched out of the bush, a patch of dirt amongst the bloodwood; a trading post and a pub. For a while, it was a stopover point for folks coming down from the richer fields, a place to get some food, maybe a drink and some company. It used to be easy pickings for guys like him. Now it scratched to survive while it serviced local farmers and settlers.
He tethered his horse, waited for her to do the same. She swung her legs from over the horse, eyes up and down the street, the haunted stare of the wary underneath dark, short cropped hair and wide brimmed hat. She tucked a pistol into the waist of her pants, pulled her button-down jerkin over it as much as was practical. His eyes caught a faded scrap of paper stuck to the wall of the building, little more than a hut with a large, cool verandah. He heard her boots hit the splintered wood of the verandah and walk away from him, looping around the outside of the building.
He looked at the poster, saw a faded version of himself staring back. It must have been six, seven years old. Sixteen then, twenty-three now, still young despite the beard. Despite the eyes. It was a good enough likeness of how he was then; no beard, no fear. He’d run with a hard mob, more desperate and violent than the gentleman highwaymen Thin Mick had regaled them with stories of over campfires. He’d given it away once it became legal for anyone to shoot bushrangers; no arrest, no trial required. Mob justice. He’d watched his friends thin out, disappear, until it was time to make himself disappear. Gone bush, a rifle and whatever survival skills he’d learned. He’d run into her at some point, rescued her, if he was going to be honest. Ostensibly hired as a tracker, she’d run from her mob up North, tried to pass as a boy amongst men. She was younger than he had been when he started, soon learned that for some men gender didn’t matter. Soon learned that she didn’t matter. He’d left three of them in shallow graves. She took his knife and claimed the fourth, leaving it with eyes open to the sky. She never said a word to him after that. He took the hint and kept every secret he had. Hers, too. They got along OK, made it work. But it’d been a hard season and they needed to move on. Too many people, too close to his day to day. Too many reminders of what he was worth to an interested party. A gallon of rum was the going rate when this poster was printed. Who knew what it was now. He’d had an idea to head west, towards SA. No gold, no gold police. A new state. A new beginning. Which meant travelling money. Enough to see them through.
She clicked her fingers at him, pulling him away from his tattered past and waved her hand away at the trading post. It was boarded up, stocked, but too quiet for them to bother with. She jerked her head towards the bar, a smaller hut, but neater, airier. There was a lean-to behind it, metal cot wedged into it. He could hear the sound of bawdy conversation coming from inside. They walked towards it together, a slight breeze carrying the smell of warm eucalyptus and horse sweat past them, the heady scent lost as they stepped into the darkness of the bar and its smell of sawdust and rum. The conversation stopped as they walked in, a solidly built man behind the bar breathing heavily through a nose that had been broken more than once in its time. He put his drink down on the bar heavily. “He can’t come in here. I’ll sell to him, if he has the money. But he can’t sit in here.”
“I have the money,” he said, eyes adjusting to the gloom. “I’ll pay for him.”
“Then you can sit outside, too.” The barman turned back to his customer, who kept staring at them, nervous eyes darting from her to him, watching their eyes, their hands.
He turned to her, nodded his head. She turned to head out the door, then they drew at the same time, practiced, fluid. “I’ll take two bottles of rum, and whatever valuables you have behind the bar. To go, given my friend’s insistence on being black in your presence.” He flashed a smile that had made things go very easily for him on some occasions, and made his way over to collect their loot. It was the smile that made it click for the customer, pushing his drink away and raising his hands. “Strike me pink,” he said. “It’s Willie James. It’s the Kid.”
She kept lookout through the door, up and down the single road, making sure the horses stayed calm. He backed away from the bar, gun raised, bundle under one arm, throwing glances back in her direction. The bartender flushed, and the Kid made the look –he was worth a lot more than he’d just taken from this man, and the man had the means to collect. The bartender lunged behind the bar as the Kid fired, the first shot catching him in the shoulder, the second in the head. She turned and fired, two quick shots, wild – trying to deter the customer before she bolted down the raw planks and grabbed the horses. She swung up onto her horse, holding the reins of his as they thundered down the dirt towards him. He burst out into the warm sunshine, cool air hitting him as it moved in front of a thunderhead at the edge of the sky. The Kid swung up onto his horse, taking a few seconds to strap the stolen bundle across his saddle. They turned their horses to flee when the customer fired through the doorway, an echoing crack from whatever the bartender had had hidden behind the bar. The shot caught the Kid in the gut, almost knocking him off his horse. He gripped the reins to stop himself from falling, she slapped his horse across the flank to get it running, emptying her gun into the doorway before following as fast as she could. She thought she heard the sound of a body falling, but didn’t turn back to look. The sound of hooves was lost in the rumble of distant thunder. Then the dust settled, and the song of magpies mingled with the scent of gunpowder, blood, and distant rain.
They pushed west, as far as they could, the rain painting the snow gums a peculiar blue, the browns, greens and reds of the other trees and plants vivid and slick under the grey sky. She pulled up beside him, saw that he’d passed out somewhere along the line, head slumped against his chest as his horse slowly followed hers. She took a risk and tethered his horse to a tree. She dismounted and checked for blood, couldn’t see a trail. Not that horses weren’t easy to track, but there was no reason to make it easier. She pulled herself back up onto her horse and scouted ahead, trying to find somewhere to hole up. She found an outcropping of rock not too far away, big enough to shelter the two of them, even to hold a small fire. A wallaby watched her from under the shelter, glittering black eyes following her as she slung down off her horse to pick up a couple of rocks from the ground. She checked their weight and nodded, then flicked the smaller one away from her. She waited for the wallaby to look in the direction of the noise then threw the larger one as hard as she could.
He woke to the smell of roasting meat and singed hair. She cut him a chunk of the wallaby and passed him his water bag, full from the rain. He waved them away, pointed to the hole in his stomach. Sometime while he was passed out, she had put a kind of poultice on the wound, the smell of moss and clay only just hiding the smell of the rum she’d used to wash it. He tried to spit, found his mouth dry, and gestured for the bottle of rum. She shook her head, pointed to the water and to the wallaby. He got the point. If you can manage one, you can manage the other. He took some sips of water and a mouthful of the lean, gamey meat. Then he took a couple of swigs from the rum bottle, feeling the burn slide down his throat and through his body, taking the edge off the ache in his belly. He took another couple of mouthfuls of food, then closed his eyes, trying to fight back the urge to vomit. He waited until the feeling passed, then took another swig of the golden red liquid. He didn’t bother opening his eyes. He knew he was dead already.
Nighttime came and she built the fire up, pulled out their bedrolls. She made him sip water and covered him. Then they closed their eyes and slept the fitful sleep of regret. She woke early, the sun just over the horizon, the fire burnt low. She tended to it, brought it back to life. She went to get water when she noticed and roused him. He woke slowly, slurred his words, a drunkenness beyond alcohol. She gave him the last of the water, a little of what was left of the wallaby. When he could focus, she waved her arm across the camp. Their bundles were scattered, their guns placed carefully away from them, outside the shelter. The rain had stopped earlier that evening, after nightfall, clouds blowing through to God knows where. The guns were dry as they lay on the still sodden ground. They checked for the horses – still there, but wide eyed and frantic. Spooked. Ashen marks were spread across the twisted trunks of the gums, the flanks of the horses. She grabbed their guns, passed him his. She put two fingers to his eyes, then pointed out across the camp. Watch. Then she collected their belongings back together and calmed the horses before heading out for more water. He passed in and out of consciousness, imagined he saw a dark face near his, a hand across his forehead, turning his face this way and that. The day fled from him in this way, between mouthfuls of rum and meat, rain coming and going like his mind.
It was dark when he woke again, the fire burnt low, the sky clear and cool. Steam rose from the horses as they pulled at their tethers, hooves turning up the damp ground. He looked past the fire at her sleeping face, all trace of hardness gone from it. Her finger lay curled around the trigger of her gun. The stars shone against the dark of the night, the Southern Cross bright against a field of black and lavender. He shivered, feverish, tried to pull himself closer to the fire, setting off a flare of pain through his guts. At some point she’d pulled the bottle of rum from his grasp, and he pulled it to himself again, nursing it like an infant. Then he froze.
There was something moving at the back of the outcrop, like a flicker of shadow from the fire, lengthening and deepening until it took form, an impossibly slender limb as long as he was tall. The limb planted itself and let the rest of its body slide from the crevice, moving swiftly and silently through the playing shadows. It stepped out into the cool night air and stretched out to full length, like a burnt-out tree, white eyes as bright as the stars he’d been looking at, but older than that cold distant light. It untethered the skittish horses, who took off as soon as the leather hit the ground. Then the figure turned back to the camp, scattering what little takings they had from the robbery. The Kid went for his gun, but it was too far away. The figure turned its ancient gaze and moved unnaturally towards him, leaning down into his face and raising one slim finger to its sharp teeth – sshhh.
He swung with the bottle, but the figure was quick, quicker than him and was gone before he finished the arc of the swing, the glass carrying through and onto the rock, smashing as it did so. She woke with a start, barrel pointed straight at him, and for a second he thought she would pull the trigger.
“There was something here. It took our horses.”
She looked around – saw the scattered belongings, the wet footprints drying as the heat of the fire spirited them away. She turned back to him and raised her hand, palm flat to the ground, as high as it could reach. She kept stretching, taller and taller, trying to reach an impossible height. “Taller. Darker than night. Like a stick,” he said. He watched her pale, shake despite the warmth of the fire. She stared at him, then said softly, “Quinkin.” She wrapped her bedroll around herself and sat up cross legged, gun across her lap. She rolled the second bottle of rum over to him, then turned her back to the fire. He watched her take up her usual role of lookout, then took another swig of rum before closing his eyes against the pain and fatigue.
He woke to the dawn chorus, mist creeping through the tall pale trunks of the gums. The air was cool and fresh, making the smoke from the ashes of the fire harsh and acrid. A line of ants poured across the rock to what was left of the wallaby’s carcass. Shivering, he propped himself up on one elbow, wiping lank, sweaty hair from his face to see where she was. No bedroll. No cash. No gold. All she’d left was his gun. On the back of the outcrop, she’d used a burnt stick to scratch some figures onto the rock. One was tall and skinny, a dead ringer for what he’d seen during the night. The other was squat and brutish, all teeth and claws with a tail like a club. He picked up his gun and dragged himself painfully towards a solid part of the rock. Resting his back against it, he took another swig of rum and sat shaking with his blanket over him. He checked his wound, noting the black blood oozing from the edges of the poultice, the earthy moss smell gone now, replaced by something darker, more rotten. He splashed some more rum over it, wincing at the pain, swallowed the rest of the bottle, then sat back and waited.
He barely noticed them at first. No fire: he couldn’t light one, had to rely on the light of a tenuous moon to see. He heard them before he saw them, a rhythmic thumping like a kangaroo dragging something heavy. Then the shadows stirred and moved, pulling away from the base of gums and rocks, skittering towards the mouth of the overhang. Smaller than the night before, big bellied. Cruel. He heard the click of claws on the rocks, the shadows drawing light away from him. He fired blindly until the hammer fell on empty chambers— the bullets all wild, no thump of lead in flesh. Then the fangs, row after row, caught in the moonlight, and red eyes burned like stars crashing to earth as they fell upon him, sharp claws catching on flesh, and all his fevered mind could think as he jerked involuntarily beneath the jaws was if this was what it was like for Thin Mick, or the bartender, or all of those who’d come before him.
He had always thought it would hurt more.
Stephen Dawson is doing a PhD in creative writing at the University of Canberra. Stephen has published several short stories and a novel, Trip, all of which are out of print and difficult to find. Lucky you, for finding this one.