The conversations at cur.., p.3
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       The Conversations At Curlew Creek, p.3
 

           David Malouf
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  They got to know each one of them: Dolan, the tall one, almost a giant, who was the leader, the lumbering paddy, a skinny kid they called Lukey, or Luke, who was always larking about and whose tomfoolery, of which they were forced to be the silent spectators, was unsettling – the gang’s reputation for murderous ferocity had not included the possibility of a red-haired jack-in-the-box – but dangerous too. He was everywhere. You never knew where he would turn up next.

  From the shaky security of their post above the gully, they watched them wander off, in private, to take a shit. Heard the crack of shots as they hunted game back in the scrub, and the young one, at night, singing songs that were comic or bawdy in a raw kid’s voice and the others laughing, but they were too far off to catch the words. They had nothing to eat themselves but some dry biscuit and suffered horribly from heat and thirst. Then when the others crept up, they waited again, all through a long night, and went in only when the mist with the sun behind it came creeping in along the valley, and got three of them before they were on their feet, still groggy with sleep. The carrot-top, Lukey, got away and the paddy was left wounded.

  It would have been cleaner all round if he too had done the decent thing and died with his mates, but the bullet he got had bounced off his thick Irish skull and done no more than stun him, and none of them was prepared to shoot him point blank, like a dog. So the others set off after the one who got away – got him too, three days later – and they had put the paddy on the best of the horses and brought him here till it was decided what was to be done with him. No one wanted him in town where he might arouse interest.

  The rumour was that those fellers, out there, had been raising up the blacks to help in some sort of rebellion. Among the Irish – it was always that, the Irish. So they had brought him in here, to Curlow Creek, and with no authority among themselves had had to sit it out till the authorities in Sydney came to a decision. Nine days. While the stench in the hut got worse every hour, and the chance greater of his breaking out, or some body of whites, or blacks even, who were all around, hidden deep in the country, coming in to spring him. All their nerves were on edge. Even more when the news came, a paper signed by the Governor, that he was to be topped, but not till an officer had arrived who would take charge of the business and make it official. In the meantime they were gaolers, but every bit as confined as he was, in a place where they had continually to be on the watch and were always at risk.

  They had Jonas to scour the bush for tracks and signs of watchers. He came from the coast, which was presumed to mean that he would have no loyalty to the locals, but who could tell what might go on in the head of a black?

  I’ll trust to meself, thanks very much, was Garrety’s attitude. He went out independently, with Langhurst to back him up. He was as good a tracker as any black. Better, Langhurst thought, he was uncanny. He knew before Jonas did what sort of weather was on the way, could read every sign in the sky, every shift of the air, every movement of the clouds, as if, when he looked up, his black eyes narrowed, his mouth at work on a grass-stalk, there was some intimate connection between the clouds’ purpose and his own light but restless spirit. He knew every print in the sand, whether it was scrub-turkey or one of the many kinds of pigeon, or one of the bush-feeders that for some reason had alighted a moment and left the mark of its foot, honey-eater or shrike or wren; or a wallaby, and of what size and weight, or one of the many smaller creatures that lived their own lives back in the brush. He could smell the different sorts of grasses, and tell at a hundred feet where a troop of kangaroo had passed, and how long ago, an hour or last night.

  Often he would know a good mile beforehand what they were about to face up ahead, as if he had been there on some previous journey – but it couldn’t be that, Langhurst thought. They were always moving into unknown country.

  It was as if some shadow of him had detached itself and been sent ahead, while he was still there in the saddle beside them, riding with that easy slouch he had of his long torso, and with that sharp smell of sweat on him that was unmistakable, so that you knew at any time just where he was, to this side or the other of you, or before or behind.

  Jonas observed all this and was spooked. It wasn’t that he felt intimidated by a rival – rivalry was a thing he could barely have conceived of – but Garrety’s knowledge came from a source he did not care to recognize. He would let nothing that Garrety had prepared pass his lips and touch nothing he had laid a hand on.

  ‘You, gub,’ he would tell Langhurst when he had something to impart, though most often it was Garrety who would better have understood. Kersey would raise his eyebrows in silent mockery. Garrety, very pointedly, looked away. And Langhurst, not entirely displeased but making light of it before the others, would incline his head to receive the whispered information.

  He did not ask what it might be in him that made him the only one among them Jonas trusted. There was a sense in which, for all the time he spent turning things over as he put it, and examining his own ways and reasons, he remained ignorant of how others saw him. It would have surprised him to hear that there was a quality in him (even Garrety felt it) that appealed to rougher natures and made them softly protective of him, and that he made use of this without knowing it was there. Kersey was always doing little favours for him that he barely noticed, though Garrety did. Garrety, who felt he had received no favours from the world, and expected none, did not begrudge his friend a gift that would always make life easy for him, but he wondered at it; where it came from, why it should be extended to one man and not another, and felt that for Langhurst’s own sake he ought not to indulge it.

  ‘So,’ Langhurst said now, when it was clear that Kersey was going to go on for the next ten minutes chewing over some injury he felt had been done him, ‘what’s ’e doin’ in there?’

  ‘Who’s that? Who are you referrin’ to? Him or mister bloody O’Dare?’

  ‘Is that ’is name? O’Dare?’

  ‘That’s it.’ Kersey sat back on his heel and spat into the fire. ‘You tell me, son, an’ we’ll both know. They’re talkin’.’

  ‘What about?’

  ‘The price of eggs. Well, what do you expect? How should I know?’

  Garrety laughed. ‘You mean you didn’ listen?’

  ‘No, I did not. ’Cause I ain’t interested. Either in him or the other one neither.’

  ‘Well anyway,’ Langhurst said, half to himself, ‘he won’t be lonely.’ He lay back with his arms folded easily under his head.

  No, he thought. That’s not true. A man’d be lonely anyway. He reached for his blanket, rolled himself tight in it, as in a cocoon, and lay back, but on one arm now, facing the fire.

  On the other side of it Jonas sat, still and upright. He had been there all this while, but as if he were not there at all; so still and black that he seemed hardly to breathe. You could have missed him altogether except for the sheen the fire made on his coaly skin. Or to turn it the other way about, Langhurst thought, as if they were not there, and he was sitting out here on his own under the big night, with the sounds of nearby night-birds calling out of the open spaces, sudden screeches, screams, that were, each one, like long scratches on the blackness of the night, which only deepened the silence and your sense of being lost in it, in fearful loneliness.

  ‘This is a damned dismal place to die in,’ he found himself saying.

  ‘You ain’t dyin’,’ Garrety told him. ‘That’s not dyin’, it’s just the pain in the gut you got from Kersey’s stew.’

  ‘Ah, that’s better,’ Adair said, getting to his feet as a flicker of light appeared and Kersey arrived with the lamp. ‘Just set it down there. Good, good, that’s better, eh? You can shut the door now. Only don’t bolt it, just set it to. That’s right.’

  The hut, no longer dark, immediately developed a different aspect, seemed lived in, habitable. The air too seemed easier to breathe. There were rafters overhead from which cobwebs hung. So there were spiders out here! A broken cot. A shel
f that ran the length of one wall, with a clutter of tools and domestic utensils, including a rusty mangle. He settled, and the man, accepting perhaps that they were meant to spend a little time together, set his gaze to study him.

  It was the gaze of a man who was past what might have been a lifetime’s habit of practised subservience, of lying low and making himself small. It was utterly direct and Adair felt himself stiffen. He was not used to being scrutinized. The impression he gave of being cold, unapproachably grim, meant that few men looked hard at him. It was an impression, he knew, that would do him no service here, might even, since their time was short, work against him. But the man must have seen through his formal mask – was he so acute? – or perhaps, after so long alone, he was hungry for contact, or simply beyond caring, because he said after a moment, politely enough but without unfixing his gaze, ‘Can I ask you something, sir?’

  ‘Of course.’

  ‘Luke Cassidy,’ he said. He did flinch then with a painful creasing of the flesh around his eyes. ‘Did he by any chance get away?’

  ‘No.’

  ‘He’s been taken then?’

  ‘No,’ he said. ‘They baled him up in a barn. There was a fight. He was shot.’

  ‘Killed?’

  When Adair’s silence confirmed this he lowered his head and said gruffly, ‘I see.’

  ‘Can I ask,’ he said after a moment, ‘where was this, sir?’

  Adair named the place, and the man nodded, as if the name gave the brute fact a firmer existence, though it designated nothing more, in strict geographical terms, than a bare-floored shanty pub on what was grandly called the Highway.

  Adair had seen the body but did not say so. A skinny, red-headed fellow with his arms crossed on his narrow chest, big feet sticking out of trousers that he had outgrown, big hands folded. Laid out on a plank between two chairs.

  All day, in drizzling rain, people had come in from the surrounding farms and brought their children, some of them two-year-olds in their fathers’ arms, to stare at a real bushranger, his jaw tied up with a strip of torn shirt, where it had been shot away taking with it most of his teeth: a sight fearsome enough to satisfy the imagination of the most pious shopkeeper or industrious freeholder as to the malignity of outlaws and the wisdom of the authorities in having them hunted down and exterminated.

  The man had gone into himself. He sat hunched and silent, and whatever he felt was expressed by a vigorous rubbing of his cropped scalp with the palm of one hand.

  ‘I’m the last, then,’ he said, but it was to himself the thought was uttered, and once again he returned to silent musing.

  Perhaps he had not thought of himself as the one among them who would be left to tell the tale. Perhaps he felt it was a mark against him, against his courage, his loyalty. He rubbed again at his skull. ‘I wouldn’t of thought,’ he said, ‘that ol’ Lukey’d get himself killed. It’s a shame, that. He was just a kid, you know. Not fifteen.’

  He stated this flatly. It did not seem like an accusation. But when he raised his head the one eye had a glint of malice in it, concealed like a blade in a sleeve, and Adair saw that for all the impression he gave of being cowed and innocuous there was a reserve of anger in the man, of settled savagery.

  ‘So,’ he said, making a hard line of his broken mouth, ‘that’s the end of it then,’ and might have been, at this moment, with his puffed eyes and hacked skull, and the grime he was streaked with, the very embodiment of that human recalcitrance that for six months had filled the colony with rumours – most of them exaggerated and absurd – of rebellion or uprising and not all of them, Adair thought, as firmly discouraged by the authorities as they might have been.

  The man began, rather fussily, on a series of little housekeeping arrangements that had to do with settling his body at a more comfortable angle against the wall and drawing a bit of sacking round his shoulders, but were really, Adair saw, a way of coming to terms with the intelligence he had been given, with the absoluteness now of his own isolation, with whatever he might feel of grief.

  ‘Could I ask you something else?’ he said. ‘It’s just that I thought at first – you know, that you might of been the priest –’

  ‘I’m not.’

  ‘I know that, sir. But you’re an educated man, I see that, an’ I’m ignorant, I never learned. To read, like. Nothing. There’s a lot that happens in the world that a feller like me doesn’t never get the bearings of.’

  ‘And you think fellers like me do?’

  ‘Don’t you, sir?’

  ‘No.’

  ‘I’m sorry, sir. I just thought, you bein’ Irish an’ that, you wouldn’ mind me askin’.’

  ‘Well, so long as you don’t expect me to have an answer. What is it?’

  There came then the first of the man’s awkward questions, each of which, Adair found, caught him on the raw, since they went straight to the centre of his own thoughts, his own confusions, as if this illiterate fellow had somehow dipped into the dark of his head and drawn up the very questions he had chosen not to find words for.

  ‘It’s just, sir, that I’ve been thinkin’. There must be a reason – an’ that, you know, if I don’t ask now then I’ll never know.’

  ‘For what? A reason for what?’

  ‘For them fellers out there bein’ troopers’ – his fingers came to the puffy flesh to one side of his eye – ‘and Luke Cassidy not. For what happens.’

  Adair shook his head. ‘Carney,’ he said – it was the first time he had used the man’s name, and he recognized, as the man did also, that it represented a quickening of the space between them – ‘I don’t have an answer to that. No one has.’

  The man considered this. Then looking up with a gaze Adair found unsettlingly steady: ‘You know, sir, there’s a lot of injustice in the world.’

  A statement ordinary enough, but what he heard behind it, or thought he heard, was the echo of another voice. He felt strongly another, a third presence in the closeness of the hut, and with his heart sounding above the rasping of Daniel Carney’s breathing, he asked: ‘Did you hear that from him? From Dolan?’

  The man seemed surprised.

  ‘No, sir. Well, yes, I might of done. But maybe I thought of it for meself. A man will start askin’ questions sooner or later, if he’s a man at all. Even an ignorant one. Maybe an Irishman asks ’em sooner than most. You’d understand that, sir, bein’ Irish yourself.’

  Adair accepted the rebuke. There is more to this fellow, he thought, than I’ve given him credit for.

  ‘So what did he say?’ he persisted. ‘About injustice.’

  ‘Dolan?’

  ‘Yes.’

  The man’s face softened. He sat with his head lowered a moment. ‘He said it was why we were fighting. At the end, when things got bad.’

  ‘Only then?’

  ‘Well, before that – you know, we had it all our own way. For a while. We could do what we liked. We went into the towns an’ that. Took what we wanted.’

  ‘You killed a man at Harewood.’

  ‘We did, sir, it’s true. A man was killed.’

  ‘And at Graceville.’

  He shook his head and for a moment the air was filled with a kind of high-pitched keening. Adair was confused. It did not appear to be the man, Daniel Carney, who was making it. ‘We had bad luck. Things turned against us. But there’s a lot of lies told as well. About what we did.’

  ‘You say you were fighting – what did you say? – for justice? What sort of justice was that?’

  ‘I don’t know, sir. We wanted to be free.’

  ‘Did he tell you that?’

  ‘Maybe.’

  What he hoped for was that the man would open up, pluck back out of that world he was looking into with such wounded intensity some form of words, half a dozen might be enough, in which he would hear clearly, and without a shadow of doubt at last, the timbre of Fergus’s voice, whatever name he was hiding behind, whatever character he had assumed; a passion he woul
d recognize immediately, even from the broken mouth of this last of his followers.

  ‘And you believed him?’

  The man looked him hard in the face. ‘No sir, to be truthful I did not.’ The admission appeared to affect him. He became agitated. ‘What does it mean, anyway? Free. He might have been – and McBride. But not Lonergan. Not me.’

  ‘So if it wasn’t freedom, what was it? For you, I mean. What do you think?’

  The man shook his head again. Stared harder than ever into the gloom before him. ‘I thought we were trapped. Like animals. That we had no choice. That we were fighting to stay alive. Not to get caught and be sent back.’

  ‘Did you say that to him?’

  ‘No, sir, I didn’t have to, he knew what I was, what it would be in my case, a feller like me. But he knew another thing too. That I was loyal. That I’d stick to him to the death. I don’t reckon he expected any more of me, or of any of us.’

  ‘And what did you expect of him?’

  The man’s brow furrowed. His mouth opened. The tongue was visible for a moment and seemed about to form words, but he must have thought better of what he had to say, or could not find the words to say it. He let his jaw sink into the crook of his arm and sat like that, seeing whatever it was in the darkness that made his eyes moist and endowed him with all the dignity of the most solemn grief.

  ‘That if there was a way out of all that, he’d find it,’ he said softly, ‘if any man could.’

  He looked up suddenly. ‘I never knew any man like him, sir, not here, not in Ireland. He stood six feet six in his socks. There was no horse wouldn’t come to him, walk right up to where he held his hand out and put its nose in his palm as if he was sweet-talkin’ them every step in some language only horses know, and him all the while just standin’ there, not sayin’ a word –’

 
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