Cashman’s boy saw Joe coming, and rose to his full height, brandishing the knife. ‘You been lookout for trouble with me?’ he asked.
Yet he hadn’t reckoned on the way Joe covered the ground between them, scarcely having time to raise his guard before copping a right-cross flush to his jaw. Joe was not a big man – five feet eight or nine – but his hands were over-sized, hard from work, and he was lightning quick.
Henry had taught Joe the basics. The rest he’d worked out for himself. The other man’s knife swung on empty space, then fell to the ground from an arm numbed to the shoulder. Joe fought with instinctive grace, whip-like speed and savage power.
The one-sided fight attracted a crowd, and in the end three men were needed to drag Joe from his victim, now a pitiful sight, holding a broken jaw and wailing, his face slick with blood. One of his trouser cuffs was smoking, and his foot was blistered, from a backwards step into the fire.
‘Let me go,’ shouted Joe, and he stood, chest heaving, while the crowd surged back out of reach. ‘That man deserved a beating, and none of you can deny it.’
When he had calmed down, Joe helped his mother to a horse, hating the shame on her face. Shame that was not her fault. Shame that had been foisted on her by an act of violent lust.
They rode in silence, heading back to Kitty’s camp for her things. Then, Joe’s anger still undampened, he bathed his face in the river, dabbing the cool liquid where a few despairing blows had landed. Then, watching the insects swirling in the sunlight around the pandanus, tears pricked his eyes at the thought of what had happened.
‘I shouldn’t have left you,’ he said.
‘It’s not your fault,’ said Kitty. ‘It was him – a bad man – who took me, and Cashman saw him drag me along his camp. He could have stopped it.’
‘Cashman saw him take you?’
Kitty nodded fearfully.
Joe saw her mounted again, and sent her home, with the pack horses on a string. ‘Go ahead now,’ he told her. ‘I’ll follow along directly.’
‘Don’t do anything you can’t take back,’ she warned.
Once Kitty had gone, Joe climbed onto his own saddle, and urged his gelding up to the pub. Riding up to the front verandah, he saw Jim Cashman, red faced and furious, standing in the doorway.
‘How dare you lay a hand on my boy,’ Cashman shouted. ‘You’ve broken his jaw. I’ll see you arrested, Yella Joe.’
But Joe’s temper was flickering and rumbling, building power and menace. ‘You let him take my Mama, you saw him do it. She told me.’
‘I don’t interfere with your lot,’ retorted the pub owner. ‘There’s no profit in doing so, and you know it. Now make yourself scarce or I’ll have you charged with assault, you damned half-breed.’
Joe was about to spur his horse and follow his mother, but this last insult broke something inside him. Without stopping to think he did something that changed his life. Shortened his life. Made him a wanted man.
Taking out his revolver, and waving it with a flourish, he fired a shot into the wall just above the door where Cashman was standing. For a boy such as Joe to fire on a white man was bad enough, but Mary Cashman, without Joe’s knowledge, had walked up behind her husband and copped a face full of wood splinters and dust, causing her to cry out and fall.
Joe saw the woman go down. Believing that he had accidentally shot her, he applied his spurs to the gelding and galloped away in a panic. He had never come up against the law in his life, and apart from a few ‘dodged’ cattle he had not given them reason. That fact, he now knew, had changed.
Kitty reined in some five miles up the track, watching anxiously for Joe. Her bruised off-side leg had mostly healed, but riding was causing her some pain, so resting while she waited seemed like the best course of action.
Before long, she heard urgent hoofbeats. Her relief at seeing Joe changed to alarm as she saw the troubled expression on his face.
‘I’ve maybe shot Mrs Cashman. I don’t know,’ he said, reining in beside her.
Kitty’s first reaction was a pitiful wail. Finally she managed, ‘How?’
‘I fired a shot. I just wanted to warn Cashman. I didn’t know that she was standing behind him.’
Neither of them could think of any plan better than to keep heading for home, though Kitty wept a little as they rode. Both were skilled riders, and their pace was limited only by the packs. Continuing long into the night, Kitty ignoring the nuisance pain in her leg, they stopped only to water the horses, finally reaching their camp around midnight.
Henry came out from the hut to meet them. ‘Strange time to be getting home,’ he said. ‘What’s happened?’
Joe dismounted, and while they unloaded the supplies, he told his father everything. ‘I lost my temper,’ he explained.
Henry covered his face with his hands. His reaction seemed to emphasise the gravity of the situation. ‘You were right to punish the man who hurt your mother, and you saved me the trouble of wreaking havoc on him myself.’
‘But I might have shot Missus Cashman.’
‘Pah,’ said Henry. ‘One thing I know about you, Joey, is that you hit what you aim at. Besides, that damn Mary Kearney, she was nothing but a housemaid until she got her hooks into Jim, and every man-jack knows that she’s a one-woman melodrama into the bargain.’ Henry packed and lit his pipe, deep in thought. ‘If you run, Joey, they’ll hunt you down,’ he said. ‘You have to ride into Burketown and give yourself up.’
Kitty was shaking her head from side to side, keening softly. ‘No, no, no.’
‘It’s the best thing to do,’ Henry insisted. ‘My guess is that Mary won’t be hurt too bad, and Joey will get only a light sentence.’
None of them slept that night, but sat around the fire, watching the deep orange coals spit and spark, talking of horses and the bush, and the constellations of stars that sprawled across the heavens above the red earth and rock that surrounded them.
In those hours of waiting Joe thought deeply about what had happened at Beames Brook. After more than twenty years of living with Henry Flick, the cheap ring on Kitty’s finger did not fool anybody. She was not Henry’s wife. To the world out there she was just Henry’s gin. She was property, and property could be stolen and used. Likewise, Henry felt free to take other women when he felt the urge, sometimes living with them for months on end before he tired of them.
Joe was glad, then, that he had stood up for his mother, whatever the consequences, and vowed that he would go on doing so. The system, he realised, was weighted against those caught in the twilight of one world and the dawn of another.
In the first flush of dawn, Joe said goodbye to his father, then put his arm around his mother’s shoulders, kissed her tearful cheeks, then saddled and bridled a fresh horse. He was about to ride off, when Henry walked up and plucked Joe’s revolver from its holster.
‘No guns, son. For all our sakes, just give yourself up and take what they dish out.’
Joe agreed, but he hated riding off into a now-hostile land without a weapon.
The German vine-dresser’s son was far from perfect, but he loved his boy.
After stewing through the early part of the morning, Henry told Kitty to stay at home, saddled his horse and set off for the Brook. Riding hard, he reached the pub just after dark, with the interior lit by slush lanterns, and the drinking just warming up – ringers, prospectors and travellers gripping their frothy glasses – and an Irishman’s fiddle caterwauling in a corner.
Ignoring the crowd, Henry walked unarmed but still dangerously into the bar. He was no longer young, but stood almost six feet tall, his arms and shoulders bunched with muscle from long days swinging a hammer or pick at the mine.
Not only was Jim Cashman present, but his wife Mary as well, large as life and seemingly unhurt. She ducked out as soon as she recognised the visitor, but Cashman himself stood his ground, even when Henry walked up as close at the slab bar allowed him to.
‘Where’s my son?’ Henry demanded.
Cashman’s right hand delved under the bar, and Henry guessed that he had a weapon there ready. ‘On his way to Burketown with Constable Hasenkamp and his trackers. Joe tried to kill me, you know.’
‘Like hell he did,’ Henry snarled. ‘If Joe wanted to kill you you’d be dead. Now tell me, what have they charged him with?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘You do know, for you made the complaint. Tell me.’
Cashman licked his lips, his eyes now furtive. Slowly he raised his hand until the barrel, cylinder and cocked hammer of a Smith and Wesson Model 3 appeared over the bar. ‘Get out of here or I’ll be within my rights to shoot you dead.’
Henry was not afraid. He slapped the revolver from Cashman’s hand, and it clattered to the floor. The fiddle stopped scraping and all conversation ceased. Every eye in that bar was on the confrontation now.
‘Tell me, you bastard,’ shouted Henry. ‘What crime have they charged my boy with?’
‘Attempted murder,’ said Cashman. ‘They’ve charged the yella bastard with attempted murder.’
Henry’s hand stiffened, and his heart seemed to stop beating. He walked outside, where the horses were lined up, tethered to hitching posts, and the drinkers’ ‘boys’ sat talking around small fires nearby.
Henry looked up at the darkened sky, still touched with the last pink shades of sunset.
‘Oh God what have I done,’ he croaked out. ‘I should have let my Joey run.’
© 2019 Greg Barron