“Let’s pretend we’re bushrangers,” says Caleb. He squats on a rock and holds out his arm into the creek-bed for Tim.
“It’s getting dark.”
“C’mon. It’ll be fun.” Caleb grins and his whole face pleats. “I’ll be Captain Gold.”
“Because I am the leader and because I am going to be rich.” He leaps onto a rock. “And who are you?”
“I’m not sure there were any Chinese bushrangers.”
“You will be the first. You are the Mad Chinaman.”
“Ok,” he says. He takes the Captain’s hand and hauls himself out from the creek-bed. The Captain is smiling but his eyes appear frosted and distant. Tim wonders what is expected of himself and if it is anything more than doing what he is told.
“We need to find our hideout,” says the Captain; “where the traps won’t find us.”
“Are the traps looking for us?”
“Of course they are; we’re bushrangers.” The Captain turns his back and picks a path between the blackberries up the hillside.
“Where are we going?”
“Into the hills. Where no-one will dare follow us.” He turns and continues to pick a path through the scrub.
The Mad Chinaman follows each footstep, where the Captain’s heel has snapped the brambles and where the scree hold’s tightest onto the soil. Soon they are above the scrub and the ferns to where the eucalypts grow tight and twisted and a thick sweat cakes dust to the Mad Chinaman’s forehead and cheeks and lungs. His lungs shrivel and his neck tightens around his throat and dims his eyes and he lifts each foot up and up and up because he has forgotten any other action, because the Captain is ahead and he has to keep up and up and up and then his fists hit something warm and moist.
“Watch out, Chinaman.”
They are standing on a dusty pad below where the bluffs loom great shadows over the valley. Down the hillside, the Chinaman can see the tents in the clearing beside the creek and a thin wisp of smoke. They will be cooking dinner now.
“Let’s look for a cave to make our shelter,” says the Captain. He turns and climbs into the rocks. The Chinaman follows, giving the Captain space to climb and seconds for himself to regain his breath.
“We need to watch out for the black man,” says the Captain. “The blacks live all over these hills. They are ruthless. They will spear you and eat you while you’re still alive. They raid settlements at night and then burn them down.”
“And what do we do if we see him?”
“We don’t see him. He is as dark as shadows. We just know he is there. We respect him. We respect that he has power over our lives and if we respect him then he will spare us.”
“How do you know that the black man exists, since no-one has seen him?” The Chinaman is breathing hard, breathing dust. Dust cakes to his lips and his gums and his throat burns and smokes dust. He can see his words hang in the air and then be swallowed again.
“Because if you don’t believe in the black man then you show him no respect,” says the Captain. He pauses at a cave cut by the wind into the saw-blade spine of the ridge. Below them are the wrinkles of each blue-grey spur rolling to where the hills meet the dome of the horizon and the sun splits its sides like an egg yoke in a frying pan. Their territory. “This is the perfect camp,” says the Captain.
“So what do we do now?”
“We need horses. All bushrangers need horses.”
The Captain flings his head around and his eyes fall about the collage of trees tossed about on grainy pale-blue poster paper. He stops on a small meadow of onion grass.
“There,” he says.
Two chestnut horses graze the meadow, noses buried in the grass. To the Chinaman, the creatures appear both beautiful and ridiculous, their mop-head and drum torso held up by twigs. There is none of the perfect swinging stride of the rocking horse he rode as a toddler in this reality. The Captain trudges through the scrub with a length of rope coiled in his hand.
“What are you doing?” asks the Chinaman.
“I’m going to lasso the horse.”
“But we don’t know how to ride horses.”
“It’s easy. Just kick it and point its head and hold on.”
“How do you know,” the Chinaman asks but the Captain just smiles. He ties the rope with a messy knot, full of loops and dead ends but he ends up with a loop as long as his arm. The closest horse raises her neck and her big dumb eyes watch the Captain creep closer, snapping dried-out leaves and smashing through the thick straggly scrub. He sidles up next to a gum and ties the rope-tail around its trunk and with his tongue out and brow down he tosses the rope high into the pastel smear. From amongst the trees, the Chinaman sees the rope thread neatly over the horse’s neck. The horse’s head spasms up and out. She gallops forward but her neck snaps backward at the edge of the clearing and she collapses into the grass, her head held high in the air, as if tipped up by some invisible hand. The Captain scurries forward into the clearing and leaps onto the beast’s back, his hands tight around her neck. He kicks his heels under her ribs and she springs up. She throws her head about the end of the rope. The second horse is spooked. It finds a gap in the clearing and jolts down the hill, smashing through the bush. The Captain’s horse tries to follow but her head snaps up at the end of the rope. The Captain throws his forearms around her neck and digs his fingernails into the creature’s throat. She whines a long exhale like a tortured child and collapses onto her knees.
“Untie me,” the Captain shouts. The Chinamen runs forward and fumbles at the knot. It’s whipping frays and splinters under his fingernails. He can feel the coarse threads cut into his fingers and the smell holed up in the rope bite at his nostrils, but the knot falls apart. The Captain pulls at the rope around her neck and lifts the horse back to standing. He pulls its neck around and trots across the meadow.
“Easy,” he says. “I told you it would be.”
The sun has cracked open and spills across the lip of the horizon. The flies are gone and the mosquitoes are melting out of the air. The two bushrangers walk the horse back to camp. When they reach the cave, the Chinaman’s guts are grumbling like the last dregs down a plughole. The Captain laughs as he ties the horse to a gum.
“What are we going to do about food?” asks the Chinaman.
“We are bushrangers. We are going to steal it.”
The Captain points over the blackening bush to the pricks of bloody light at the bottom of the valley.
“We can’t steal from them!”
“Of course we can! We’re bushrangers. Bushrangers steal. We’re going to steal until we are rich.”
“Why do we need to get rich?”
The Captain stops threading hitches onto his knot. He stares the Chinaman down.
“We get rich so we can stop robbing people.”
“Why do we have to rob them to begin with?”
“Because it will make us happy.”
“How do you know?”
The Captain pushes the Chinaman in the guts. He falls backwards into the scrub. There is a sudden pain in his hand and a squirt of hot blood where his skin is torn away.
“Do you want me to stop?” The Captain kicks him in the ribs and his lungs puff out through his throat. “I’ll stop when you do what you’re told.”
The Chinaman is crying. His chest heaves and tosses his head about his shoulders. He can’t think of what to say so he just says stop. Stop. Stop.
“If you don’t do this,” says the Captain, “then you are not a man.” He drops onto the Chinaman’s chest and holds his sodden face between his palms. “And if you’re not a man then you’re a woman.” He leans his eyes forward until they touch the Chinaman’s eyes, mouth to mouth. “Are you a woman, Chinaman?” His breath tastes like stale milk.
“No,” coughs the Chinaman. “No, I am a man.”
“Then get up and get on the horse.” The Captain climbs off him, pushing his shoulders deeper into the dirt. The Chinaman gets up and winces over to the horse. He tries to swing over her back but he can’t pull his leg high enough. The Captain grabs him from behind and pushes him the wrong way up the horse’s pelt until his legs even out atop. He unties the horse from the tree and jumps onto her back. Without words he kicks the horse in the guts and she trots down the steep hillside.
The bush looks different in the darkness, threatening. The dying sun threads shadows through the din that dance across the trees. The horse parts the blacked-out ground with ease and the two must only watch for branches leaping out of the emptiness. The pair does not speak. The Chinaman listens to the ground snap and crack below him, reminding him it is still there. Tiredness is eating the light from the rims of his eyes and his stomach barks at the night. He hopes it won’t attract the blacks.
They stop on the banks of the creek. The Chinaman can see where he stood when Caleb held out his arm. The Captain ties up the horse and the two lie in the dirt on the edge of the camp. In the firelight they can see the adults sitting around on logs like there is nothing wrong. The boom-box is humming along with the wisps of the flames.
“Alright, Chinaman,” comes a hoarse whisper in the dark. “Prove you are a man. Sneak into the tent and steal the food.”
Then a weight falls on his back. He swallows his breath to stop himself screaming out in shock.
“Are you a girl?” There are hands groping his guts.
“You are a girl.”
“If you don’t then I’ll tell everyone how you’re afraid of the dark.”
“Ok, I’ll go.” It seems the only thing to do.
The Chinaman climbs onto his haunches and crawls forward like a dog until he is behind the tent. He can see the firelight playing through the fabric. There is a shout and he drops to the dirt, flinging a glob of dust up his nostrils. He waits there until he hears a laugh. Nothing has changed. He looks back but the Captain has been swallowed up by the dark. He takes a breath and lifts the zip. It screams like a banshee and he drops it straight away. He stops breathing to find silence again. Then he puts his sweaty dusty fingers around the zip again and lifts it slowly, one tooth after the other until there is a hole big enough to crawl inside on his belly. The tent smells of fermenting sweat and exposed skin. He slips forward to where he remembers the food is kept, by the window. He stretches out his fingers in the dark and feels the wrap on a bread loaf.
Suddenly he is on his feet. He rips the zip up and is running across the dirt, waiting for something hidden in the blackness to trip him up.
“What happened?” comes the Captain’s whisper.
“Someone was in there.”
The Captain grabs his wrist and pulls him into the dark.
“Where are we going?”
“Back to the hideout,” says the Captain. “We need to stay hidden until the heat dies down.”
But the ground falls out from under the Chinaman and lands on his back. The creek. His spine aches as if all of his vertebrae have rammed into his chest and he can’t breathe. Everything smells of dust.
“Come on,” says the Captain.
“No.” He gasps. “I’m sick of this game. Tell people what you want. I don’t care.”
“You can’t stop playing now,” says the darkness. “You’re a criminal now.”
“I don’t care! Go away.” But the Captain has pulled out his pistol.
“What are you doing?”
“Come with me,” says the Captain. “Or I’ll shoot.”
“I don’t care.”
“If you stop pretending then there is only death.”
The Chinaman turns back towards the tents. But the gun is light in the Captain’s hand and sweat is all over the trigger. The shot will be heard at the camp.He drags the body into the bush where it won’t be seen. Then he unties the horse and searches for his camp in the dark.