Mount Isa. A dying town in a dying country. Fine. He was easy around decay. Prospero came to the main thoroughfare at dusk. The first thing he noticed stood at street’s end, a corral with a herd of animals he’d only ever seen in the wild. He squinted at their doggish faces, thin arms and thick haunches. Soon he recalled the name: kangaroos. Some breeds, Prospero’d heard, could be ridden—these looked big enough. Good. He’d lost his horse to snakebite on the road here. Seemed like everything that slithered, swam, loped or crawled in this damn country was out to kill you. To his right were shops and houses and an old theatre, to his left a two-story building with a sign: The Red Earth Hotel. ‘Ah,’ he said, and went inside. It was crowded at this hour, full of young men and far fewer women. She was easy to spot tending bar: blonde, green-eyed, very pretty. Prospero strolled up and waited.
Finally she approached him. ‘What’ll you have?’
Prospero smiled. ‘Your boyfriend.’
The barmaid paused, then sighed theatrically. ‘Got jack of this a while ago, mate.’
She snorted. ‘Random pricks asking about the bunyipslayer. You reckon my answer’ll change? He just passed through last year. We’re not together. I don’t know where to find him.’
‘Oh, I ain’t going looking, honey pie; he’s coming to me. Hear you got a way to call on him.’
‘You heard wrong.’
She shook her head, looking past him, and nodded curtly in his direction. ‘Bye, mate,’ she said, turning to address the gathered drinkers: ‘Who’s next?’
A hand thumped onto Prospero’s shoulder.
He turned, and had to tilt his head to meet the man’s eyes. He was near seven feet high and almost as wide, dressed in loose clothes that couldn’t hide his brawn. ‘Have to come with me, mate,’ he said.
‘Do I now?’
‘Yes. By yourself or with my help.’
Prospero grinned like an alligator would. ‘Think you’ll have to help me.’
The punch came from down low, wanting his belly. Devastating, but far too slow.
Prospero sidestepped, pivoting, and the right cross he drove into the bouncer’s cheek could have wrecked a horse. It was over that suddenly, the bouncer’s face fissuring along Prospero’s knuckles, his eyes rolling up as he dropped.
Prospero rounded on the room. ‘Who else?’
There came no immediate reply. Prospero realised that half the sweaty faces hadn’t even looked; the others, eyes dulled with beer and heat, just seemed bored. Then a young man at a corner table muttered, ‘Bloody hell’s he talking about?’
Another replied, ‘There, look, he’s decked the bouncer.’
The young man leaned out from his stool to look. ‘Shit, he did too.’
‘Yeah, folded him up like an accordion.’
‘That’s gold. Never liked that prick, eh.’
Prospero hitched an eyebrow. Folks were already returning to their beers, rekindling conversations, peering down at their fingers to roll cigarettes.
He had to smile. Another life, he might have liked it here. He turned back to the barmaid, still grinning. ‘Attention secured?’
She alone seemed shaken, stiff as a rail, deaf to the calls for service. She nodded.
A look of loathing crossed her face that may have withered lesser men. ‘Fine.’
‘I believe you. But just in case, look here.’ Prospero leaned forward, easing open his coat to expose the holstered iron on his hip. Her cheeks lost some colour. He nodded. ‘At a girl. Now let’s call on that man of yours.’
She jerked her head toward a staircase in a far corner. ‘In my room.’
‘Can’t leave the bar unattended, mate.’
‘Allow me.’ He leaned back. ‘Finish your drinks, bar’s closing up!’
Quiet fell. For a few moments the crowd only stared. Then the whining began.
‘Bullshit, sun’s barely down!’
‘Didn’t even call last drinks!’
Prospero laughed. So that’s how you got their attention. He had an idea what else might work.
He drew his iron and fired into the ceiling, the report like thunder in a coffin. Those nearest him shied away, eyes wild with shock.
‘This is why!’ Prospero shouted. ‘Colt .44 Magnum. Exit wound’ll be big enough to hold your tombstone. It says the Red Earth’s closed. Don’t make it repeat itself.’
They stampeded like cattle, cramming themselves through the doors four and five at a time. When the room had emptied the barmaid said, ‘They’ll get the Sergeant, you know.’
‘Counting on it.’ Prospero gestured toward the stairs. ‘Ladies first.’
The room was cramped and spare: a bed, a chair, a nightstand and water jug, a door into the bathroom and a window admitting moonlight. The sole splash of vibrancy was a bird in a big square cage in the corner, white with a grey beak, a crest of sulphur-yellow feathers along its head.
The barmaid lit a wall lamp, crossed to the cage and reached inside.
‘That’s it, ain’t it?’ Prospero said.
The barmaid nodded. ‘Carrier cockatoo.’ The bird hopped onto her hand and she drew it out. ‘Can find Louis anywhere.’ She bent, whispering into its ear.
‘Hey, none of that.’ Prospero pulled leather. ‘You wanna speak, speak up.’
‘You speak cockatoo?’
‘Then what difference does it make? I whispered because she has sensitive ears. ‘The barmaid went to the window, palmed it open and tossed the bird free. The sound of fluttering feathers bore it away into darkness.
‘How much of that language you know?’ Prospero asked.
The barmaid stared at the night sky. ‘Simple commands. Seek, find, return. It’s hard, a tongue like that. Louis didn’t teach me much.’
‘You never asked what I want with him.’
‘As if I need to. ‘She crossed to her bed and sat down. ‘His grandfather hired you, didn’t he?’
‘Only a matter of time, I s’pose. First those posters, now you. My poor boy.’
‘Should see the price he’s fetching. That trinket of his drives it up, see. Gotta be steep to be more valuable than that trinket.’
‘So what’s your going rate?’
‘Four kilos of gold, if I get him back to Darwin alive, and the trinket intact.’
She snorted. ‘He’s worth more.’
‘He’s worth enough to me.’
‘But pricks like you have a woefully inept valuation system.’
Prospero laughed. ‘I’m starting to like you.’
‘It’s not mutual, bounty hunter.’
* * *
Their Marshall came a half hour later, announcing himself with three brisk knocks. ‘Is anyone in there? It’s Sergeant A. B. Ward; I’m unarmed.’
‘Come in, Sergeant,’ Prospero said. ‘Slowly, though.’
The door opened on a middle-aged fellow, his face as round as his bald head but much hairier, beard bushy and grey. Pinned to his breast was a copper badge, a star and crown over the word Police. He wore no gun, and no bulges disclosed a hidden weapon.
Ward noticed the barmaid on the bed. ‘Holly,’ he said.
‘Sergeant,’ she replied. Their tones betrayed a mutual disaffection.
Fortune smiles, Prospero thought. ‘Let’s pow-wow, Sergeant.’
‘What’s your business here?’
Prospero nodded at the barmaid. ‘Been contracted to bring her boyfriend in. Had intel she could send for him. Proved fruitful.’
‘Boyfriend…’ Ward’s eyes went to the empty cage. ‘Jesus. ‘He looked at the barmaid. ‘It’s true then? You are seeing Ackhart?’
She met his gaze squarely. ‘Yep.’
Ward gave a disgusted rasp. ‘I knew it. Bloody well knew it. And that cockatoo’s no pet, is it? It’s a messenger bird.’
The barmaid only sighed.
Ward looked at Prospero. ‘She’s been saying it was a one-night stand with Ackhart.’
Prospero chuckled. ‘Pants on fire, bartender.’
Ward looked back at her, lip curled up in distaste. ‘Rooting the bunyip-loving bunyipslayer, eh? Or whatever he is. What do you call him now he doesn’t kill bunyips?’
Her voice was frosty. ‘I call him Louis. And he still kills bunyips, just not all of them. Not all need it.’
Ward shook his head, turning back to Prospero. ‘So what now?’
Prospero shrugged. ‘Little, let’s hope. No innocent blood’s been shed yet—’
‘Oh?’ Ward said. ‘That bouncer’d disagree. Doc says he mightn’t wake up.’
‘Innocent, I said. He swung first.’
‘Oh really?’ The Sergeant turned to the barmaid.
She sighed. ‘Harry swung. After an invitation.’
‘Jesus.’ Ward rubbed his eye. ‘What is it you want, mate?’
Prospero shrugged. ‘Be left to my business, is all. Gotta keep the bartender here as…an uneasy guest, let’s say.’
”Hostage’ seems closer to the mark.’
Prospero sighed. ‘Was afraid you might see it that way.’ He crossed to the barmaid, unholstering his iron.
‘What’re you—?’ she said, but Prospero cracked the .44 sideways against her temple. She slammed into the bed, arms askew, and moved no more.
‘Christ!’ the Sergeant shouted. ‘Why—?’
‘Private men’s business.’ Prospero fingered the barmaid’s neck, then nodded. ‘She’ll live. Now about this ‘hostage’ situation.’ He delved into his coat, smiling as Ward shied like a skittish mare. ‘Easy now. Just reaching for this.’ He eased out the little suede satchel, stones clacking within. Ward’s eyes went from shocked to hungry.
‘A little goodwill from my employer,’ Prospero said, tossing the bag to the Sergeant. ‘He hates seeing co-operation go unrewarded.’
Ward spread the satchel’s mouth, breath catching when he saw the polished black opals. He looked up. ‘Christ, how co-operative does he need me to be?’
‘Nothing unreasonable. Just keep this pub empty until I’ve recovered my employer’s property and the offending thief. Then we all go our own ways.’
The Sergeant stared at the stones. At last he sighed. ‘Give you five days, no more.’
‘I’ll need as long as I’ll need.’
‘If he’s not here by then, we’ll talk. She doesn’t get hurt, all right?’
Prospero nodded, smiling. ‘Won’t do anything I don’t have to.’
The lawman left in a hurry.
* * *
A. B. Ward had been elected Mount Isa’s Sergeant by default, lacking competitors, and five years wearing copper had taught him one thing: real lawkeeping he could do without. Drunks, boundary disputes, domestic disorders he could manage.
But an armed bounty hunter who’d taken a hostage? He could keep her.
No love would be lost; Holly disdained A. B.’s soft-handedness and he thought she demanded too much. Not to mention her taste in men. Christ.
Ken Barney, his constable—so-tasked because he worked at A. B.’s hardware store and valued the job—was waiting when he stepped out of the Red Earth. From the shops and houses across the road, curious faces peered out. A. B. had ordered everyone off the street but a crowd would gather soon regardless. He and Ken needed to get the party line straight.
‘So?’ said Ken.
‘Holly’s fine,’ A. B. replied, ‘and this bloke says the bouncer swung first, so nothing to do about that.’
‘Who is he, this bloke?’
‘Oh, he’s after the bunyipslayer; he’s a bounty hunter. On the back of them posters, eh.’
‘What’s Holly got to do with it?’
‘Bait. She is seeing Ackhart, you know that? Not just rumour.’
Ken’s eyebrows rose. ‘Bloody hell.’
‘I know. Bloody idiot, she is.’
Ken glanced at the pub. ‘So what now?’
‘She’s only hostage till Ackhart gets here. Meantime, that bounty hunter’s got a gun and I’m not risking her life, silly bitch or not. We’ll just guard the pub, try to keep the street clear, wait for Ackhart.’
‘Set up a watch, you reckon?’
‘S’pose. Get some volunteers, alternate days and nights.’
‘Close the shop?’
A. B. thought of the opals in his pocket. ‘Yeah. We’ll make up the money somehow. ‘Ken nodded, and then his features assumed an expression A. B. never liked to see: thoughtfulness. ‘Sarge—’ He broke off, looking at his feet.
‘Nah, it’s just…’ Ken rubbed the back of his head. ‘You reckon there’s anything to what Ackhart says? Bunyips being same as us and all that?’
A. B. sighed. ‘Ken, when I was young I lived up north in Karumba. One year all these kids went missing. Five or six, I think, playing down near the estuary. So we went had a look and what’d we find living there? Oh, a bunyip, fancy that.’ He shook his head. ‘Always some fucken do-gooder like Ackhart saying this or that’s the same as us. It’s bullshit, mate. Bunyips’re monsters. It’s okay to hate monsters.’
‘Yeah.’ Ken nodded. ‘Yeah.’
‘Bit of a situation here, officers?’
The voice made them both turn. A few paces off stood a dark-skinned fellow, watching them.
A. B. squinted in the streetlamp light. ‘Matthew. Christ, where’d you come from?’
Matthew Maydown gestured to the paddock up the street, where a saddled kangaroo stood tethered to the fence. ‘Been breaking some roos out at Duchess, just got back. What’s this about Holly and Ackhart?’
‘Yeah, they are together, you believe it?’ He pointed at the Red Earth. ‘Some bounty hunter’s bailed her up in the pub, using her to lure Ackhart here.’
Matthew said, ‘Shit.’
‘You used to know the bunyipslayer a bit, didn’t you?’
Matthew shrugged. ‘Guided for him once.’ He glanced at the pub.
‘What’s your plan, then?’
A. B. cleared his throat. ‘Just wait for Ackhart, eh. Bounty hunter’s got a gun; too risky.’
Matthew considered it, and then nodded. ‘And there’d be no sneaking up on him, he stays in that pub.’ He clucked his tongue. ‘Someone should camp out at the edge of town, tell Ackhart what’s happened when he gets in.’
A. B. frowned. ‘S’pose it can’t hurt.’
‘Mm.’ Matthew turned away. ‘I’ll do it.’
A. B. exchanged an uncertain glance with Ken. ‘How you know where he’ll come in?’
Matthew didn’t look back. ‘Black fella magic, Sarge.’
The poster was nailed to the side of the Boulia Post Office.
There were two pictures: a drawing of his face and one of the charm, with the words Have You Seen This Man? Bold across the top, his name, crimes—Theft, aiding and abetting bunyips—and the obscene reward for information below that. Smaller letters warned, Do not approach. Armed and dangerous. His grandfather’s details were printed at the bottom.
Louis Ackhart sighed. ‘I really look like that?’ He cast an eye around and, seeing no witnesses, tore the poster down.
A fluttering of wings lifted his gaze. A cockatoo emerged from the late morning sky and settled on his shoulder. He smiled at first—’Hey, girl,’—but then saw the tiny leather pouch lashed to her right leg.
Louis said, ‘Shit.’
* * *
He overpaid the livery owner for a horse and rode out at midday, keeping to the vestiges of the ancient highway—graded earth, rusted signposts, hunks of asphalt. Twice he stopped to rest his bay mare, but never for long. When dusk set in he rode by the light of a nearly full moon.
He slept at dawn after that first push, until the morning heat woke him, and then struck off again. It was the pouch on the cockatoo’s leg that drove him so fiercely. It had been empty.
‘Always send a note with her,’ he’d told Holly, a year ago now. ‘You roll it up and stow it in this pouch here.’ Tapping the leather with a forefinger.
‘What if it’s an emergency, ‘Holly’d asked, ‘and I can’t write a note?’
‘Then I’ll know to come running.’
Distantly, Prospero ached to sleep, but he’d gone without for longer than this. If he had to he’d hogtie the barmaid and nap, but that was far off yet.
She’d woken some interminable time ago, groggy and aching. No questions, though. No, Why’d you hit me? No, What happened to the Sergeant? Did she suspect their arrangement?
Don’t matter none, Prospero thought. Won’t be my problem, soon enough.
At dusk there came a fluttering of feathers.
Prospero was sitting in the chair in the corner, and lifted his eyes in time to see the bird, dusty now, settle on the window sill.
Prospero said, ‘Well, I’ll be.’
The barmaid rose from the bed, took the cockatoo and slid it back inside the cage. ‘She found him. He’ll come.’
‘Who knows? He wanders. Why I need the cockatoo to find him—or you think we just liked the novelty?’
‘Hmph. You always such a smartass?’
‘Only dumbarses seem to think so.’
Prospero smiled, stood, and strolled over. When he laid the iron between her tits she flinched, but not much.
‘Such a mouth on you.’ He slid the muzzle toward the junction of her thighs. ‘You keep in mind, next time you wanna shoot it off: plenty things short of death worth doing to a lippy little whore like you.’
Her voice only shook a little. ‘Bear something in mind yourself, mate. Plenty of ways to lose your cock swinging it at the wrong girl.’
He laughed. ‘My my, you are something.’ He holstered his iron. ‘You hungry? I’m hungry. How long we been up here?’
‘Two days now.’
‘Two whole days? Huh. I lose track sometimes. It’s busy up here.’ He gestured at his temple. ‘I forget the little things.’
She shook her head slowly. ‘You ever been in your right mind?’
Prospero just grinned. ‘Let’s eat.’
Three kilometres out, the horse died.
Louis felt her slacken and flung himself clear, hitting the red dust and rolling. He was up again a moment after, sweeping an eye over the mare sprawled on her side, flanks hitching with a final breath.
A heart attack. He’d driven her too hard. He knelt down and laid a palm on her long, still face. ‘I’m sorry,’ he whispered, then stood and began to run.
He was met at the edge of Mount Isa. The man was sitting by the highway, where he’d built a campfire and set down a swag. When he noticed Louis approaching he stood, calling out, ‘Ackhart.’
Louis put out a hand that Matthew grasped and shook. ‘Good to see you, mate,’ Louis said, breathless.
Louis nodded at the fire and swag. ‘Been waiting for me?’
‘Two days,’ Matthew replied. ‘How much you know?’
‘Just that Holly’s in trouble. What’s going on?’
Matthew recounted what he’d overheard: the bounty hunter, Holly hostage in the Red Earth. Afterward Louis sighed harshly. ‘Using her to find me. Course he is.’
‘My grandad.’ Louis clutched the charm strung round his neck, a little cross of bones that shone too brightly in the dusk light. ‘He wants this back.’
‘And he’d go this far?’
Louis sighed. ‘Well…’
He thought of the night Les Ackhart had heard the news: a bunyip Louis was supposed to have killed had turned up in another part of the Territory, alive and unmarked.
‘You helped it, didn’t you, Louis?’ Les’s voice sharp as an ice pick. ‘You hid it.’
Louis’s gut going cold. ‘Grandad—’
‘What’s wrong with you?’ Les barking the words like bullets, all of it there in his twisted face: shock, hurt, bewilderment. Everything he was, what an Ackhart was supposed to be, betrayed.
The old man lunging at Louis, gnarled hand clawing for the charm and almost snatching it before Louis dodged away. Les collapsing on his side, cane skittering out of reach. The old man lying there wild-eyed.
‘Bitch.’ Breaths wet and laboured. ‘That stupid bitch.’
Louis’s eyes going cold. ‘Who?’
‘Who you reckon?’ Les spitting on the floor. ‘Fucken mother of yours. Fucken bunyip-lover and now so are you. Christ, I failed. Failed with both of you.’
Louis’s jaw clenching.
‘You give me that charm, Louis.’ Les reaching out. ‘You give it—’
‘You don’t deserve it.’ Louis’s voice shaking. ‘You hateful old shit.’
Louis turning away, walking from the house, Les’s shout chasing after: ‘No! No, don’t you take it! Don’t you take it, I’ll find you! I’ll send all hell after you, boyo!‘
Somewhere in Louis’s mind it was still echoing.
‘Yeah,’ he told Matthew. ‘He’d take it this far.’
Matthew looked at him hard. ‘Then you must’ve seen this coming, someone going after Holly.’
Louis lowered his face. ‘I thought—I thought we’d been careful enough. I thought no-one knew about us.’
‘Gossip’s powerful, Louis. Christ, I’ve a hard enough time keeping secret that we’re mates. Imagine how it is for Holly.’
‘I made a mistake.’
‘Which she might pay for.’
Louis could barely lift his eyes. ‘They’re at the Red Earth, you said?’
Together, they headed for the heart of Mount Isa, their footsteps crunching on the red dusty roads. Faces peered from houses as they passed; people in the street stared. When they came to the Red Earth Louis saw two men perched on wooden chairs out front, playing cards. One of them looked over, then stood and strode up.
‘Well, you came, ‘he said. ‘That’s something.’
Louis sighed. ‘Sergeant.’
A. B. glanced at Matthew. ‘S’pose this one’s explained everything?’
‘You’ve a plan?’
‘I’ll go with the bounty hunter. It’s between my grandad and me, no-one else’s problem.’
‘Very noble.’ Ward shook his head, called over his shoulder, ‘Come on, Ken. Hero’s here; we’re done.’
The other man stood, stuffing the cards into his pockets.
A. B. gave Louis a withering look. ‘You bring this shit to my town again, I’ll put a bounty on you myself.’ He hurried off, adding, ‘Grab those chairs, Ken.’
Ken gathered each chair, looked daggers at Louis, and followed A. B. across the road. They pulled up out front of a general store, turning to survey the scene. All along the thoroughfare people were emerging from shops and houses, and at each end of the street crowds had begun to gather, half-repulsed and half-incensed by the promise of bloodshed.
Louis sighed. ‘They don’t like me much here.’
‘They don’t know any better,’ Matthew replied, voice low so it didn’t carry. ‘All they’ve ever known is—’
‘Bunyips are monsters. Yeah. Holly used to think I could talk them round.’ Louis hesitated. ‘How do you feel about it?’
‘Dunno. Don’t know any bunyips. But you’ve seen plenty and you say some’re all right, so I’m leaning that way.’
Louis said quietly, ‘Thank you.’
‘Yeah,’ Matthew said. ‘Get out alive, eh?’ He turned, heading for the nearest end of the street.
A thought occurred to Louis. ‘Hey Matthew, how’d you know where to wait for me when I came in?’
Matthew glanced back. ‘Saw Holly’s cockatoo flying out few days ago. Watched which way it went.’
‘And don’t darken our door again, you bunyip-loving prick!’ Matthew yelled out. It was for the benefit of the crowd, but still stung, in its way.
Alone, Louis faced the Red Earth.
Prospero sat opposite her in the empty bar. The bouncer was gone, bequeathing to the floor speckles of dried blood. The barmaid had fixed a stew: carrots, peas and diced meat floating in gruel. She ate hers in neat bites, head down.
‘You’re not looking at me,’ Prospero said. ‘Afraid you’ll lose your appetite?’
‘Afraid I’ll throw my food in your face, actually.’
‘Ha. ‘He set his fork under her chin and lifted her head. ‘That wouldn’t be—’
She spat a cheekful into his face. It spread like buckshot, coating him from chin to brow. He jolted back, blind till he swiped at his eyes.
The barmaid was staring at him, breathing evenly. For a long moment there was only silence.
‘You’ve carrot on your face,’ she said at last.
Prospero pulled his iron and pressed it to her forehead. ‘I oughta kill—’
The voice came from outside: ‘Holly?’
Prospero drew back, looking toward the entrance. The barmaid turned, the name already on her lips: ‘Louis.’
‘You Irish, bartender?’ Prospero said. ‘You got the luck.’ He went round the table, took her arm and lifted her, pressing the iron into her side. ‘Introduce me to the boyfriend, huh?’
* * *
Louis released a breath as the door opened.
Holly came first, the bounty hunter after, a gun jammed into her ribs. He was a long man, taller than Louis but slighter, all bone and sinew under his full-length coat. He had sharp cheekbones and sunken eyes, a mess of thinning black hair up top.
‘Evening, bunyipslayer!’ he called.
‘You wanted me, I’m here,’ Louis said. ‘Give her up.’
‘Can’t, I’m afraid. Trust issues.’
Louis bristled. ‘What now then?’
‘Gun first. Take it out slow, kick it over. Anything fishy, she gets ventilated.’
Louis reached into his coat and drew his gun. He set it on the dusty street and kicked it over; quick as a snake the bounty hunter bent and snatched it up, his own barrel never leaving Holly’s side. ‘Good,’ he said, stuffing the gun into his pants. ‘Now get naked and come inside.’
‘You heard: strip. Want you sporting nothing but that trinket round your neck.’
With that he drew Holly back into the pub. She called, ‘Love you, baby,’ as they went, and Louis’s heart skipped, reminded of all that was at stake.
He began to undress.
Prospero backed into the middle of the bar, eyes locked on the door. He watched the bunyipslayer through the dirty glass as he shed his coat and shirt, gun and sword belts, boots and pants.
Nude, Ackhart lifted his hands. ‘I’m coming in.’
‘Slowly now. Keep reaching for God.’
On bare feet Ackhart approached the doors and entered, coming slowly. When ten paces stood between them Prospero said, ‘That’s your spot.’
This close, Ackhart was a sight indeed. Young, but marked by the land he walked: sun-bronzed skin, rocky angles of muscle, dark hair mottled with desert dust red, and pale scars from a life spent brawling with beasts.
Prospero’s eyes went to the charm round Ackhart’s neck. The real money, there.
The barmaid spoke before Prospero could: ‘Hi, baby.’
Ackhart smiled at her. ‘Missed you, bub.’
‘Missed you too. You look great.’
‘Doesn’t he?’ Prospero said. ‘His only weapon looks pretty harmless. Guess you ain’t a size queen, huh, bartender?’
‘No, you’re the last of them.’
Prospero sighed, digging his iron in deeper. ‘There’s that mouth again.’
‘Be nice with that, prick,’ Ackhart said.
‘Name-calling itches my trigger finger, boy.’
Ackhart snorted. ‘So get on with it.’
‘Surely. Toss that trinket over.’
Ackhart touched the charm with a fingertip, hesitant.
Prospero jabbed the iron into the barmaid’s ribs again, bringing a yelp. ‘See that, bartender?’ he said. ‘He’s having a crisis over whether he’ll part with his gal or part with his trinket. Where’ve all the white knights gone, huh?’
Ackhart’s voice was stone. ‘Don’t hurt her again.’ He took the cross in a fist, snapped the cord and threw it at Prospero, who snatched it from the air. A flush of heat pulsed through him at the touch of the bones, and was gone just as suddenly, imparting a sense of renewal.
‘Hell of a feeling,’ he whispered, and shot the barmaid through her belly.
She didn’t cry out, just fell like a dropped sack and sprawled on her stomach. Ackhart gave a shout just as Prospero fired into the back of her skull, bursting her face open against the floorboards. ‘Lippy little whore,’ he whispered.
Then Ackhart was lunging at him. Lord, the speed. He’d landed punches to gut and jaw before Prospero, gasping, could react, swinging his iron wildly into Ackhart’s cheek. The bunyipslayer pinwheeled sideways and ploughed into a table near the wall.
Prospero stared at the charm, grinning giddily. What strength. That blow had flung Ackhart like straw.
The bunyipslayer was writhing on the floor, rasping, ‘You son of a bitch…you bastard…’and then he sprang again, tackling Prospero into the bar. Glasses shattered beneath them, and Ackhart snatched up a broken stein handle and hacked at Prospero’s throat and the bounty hunter jerked aside, taking the gash in the shoulder. ‘Nn!’ Prospero gasped, and pitched his forehead into Ackhart’s nose to drive him back, then heaved the iron up into his temple. Ackhart’s eyes spun white and he sagged.
Prospero eased him to the floor, panting hard. ‘Christ, you took some putting down.’ He pressed a finger to the bunyipslayer’s neck; the pulse was there, frenzied, but that was to be expected. ‘Savage damn bastard.’
Prospero saw movement and glanced up.
On the other side of the glass doors stood the Sergeant, pale-faced and sweating, eyes pinned to the barmaid’s corpse. Prospero looked away, muttering, ‘Ah hell.’ But his eyes lit on the wound in his shoulder, livid and bleeding. Fortune smiles, he thought, and stood, waving the lawman inside.
Jerkily, Ward came.
‘What’d you do?’ he moaned. ‘Christ, you said she wouldn’t be hurt.’
‘Said I wouldn’t do anything I didn’t need to.’ He pointed to the wound. ‘She swung at me with broken glass. Was self-defence, and you oughta go tell your townsfolk that. Otherwise my lips might get loose. Approach to the law seems mighty easygoing out here, but even Mount Isa folk might frown on a Sergeant taking bribes from a man who’d coldbloodedly kill an innocent barmaid. Catch my drift?’
Sickness leeched into Ward’s sweat-bejeweled face. ‘You bastard.’
‘Mm. Go on, now. Make sure no-one bothers me on my way out.’
Ward tarried, his eyes those of a trapped hare searching the cage for chinks—and finding none. He seemed to deflate. ‘Oh, God.’ He turned, put a hand to the door and stopped. ‘You won’t come back, will you?’
‘Who knows, Sarge? Kinda like it here.’
Looking small and pale, Ward headed outside.
Prospero waited a few minutes, ensuring the bunyipslayer was out, then went to fetch some kangaroos.
* * *
It was impossible. Prospero tried to hug the saddle as he would with a horse, but the kangaroo’s uneven rhythm kept hammering his groin. They were in open scrubland a mile northeast of Mount Isa when he finally lost it, sawing on the reins.
His roo halted and Prospero dismounted in a flurry of curses. ‘Why can’t you move right?’ he shouted into its insipid puppyish face. It just stared back, chewing its bit. Prospero rasped, ‘Worthless beast,’ and slapped it. The roo jolted away, stumbling from Prospero’s strength, then caught itself and fixed him with a stare.
It reared up and drove its thin, clawed paws into his face: left jab, right cross, uppercut.
Prospero stumbled backward, blood gouting from his nose. The roo eyed him off, propped up straight, paws cocked in a boxer’s guard. Prospero stared. ‘Christ Almighty.’ He went for his iron.
Its speed dazzled him. He drew and fired, and at the same time the kangaroo rocked back and pounded its two long feet into his belly. Both of them fell amid the gunshot’s echo.
The kangaroo crumpled, dead with a bullet in its heart. Prospero slammed to ground, all his wind gone, gaping like a fish. Then he saw the other kangaroo— the one to which he’d roped Ackhart, still unconscious — bounding away into the night. He’d have muttered, ‘Shit,’ if he’d been able.
He struggled to his feet, fired and missed. He fought for calm, aimed and fired again; forty yards off the kangaroo pitched over, limbs jumbling. Prospero’s lungs opened. Gasping, he hastened over to his kill.
Ackhart was awake when he arrived, writhing against the bonds at his wrists and ankles, the ropes trussing him to the roo’s back. Prospero drew his knife and cut the bunyipslayer from the saddle, then hauled his naked body clear.
Ackhart snarled and kicked with his bound feet, catching Prospero’s knee. The bounty hunter swore, rammed his boot onto Ackhart’s chest and leveled his iron. ‘None of that!’
Ackhart kicked at him again. Prospero lowered his aim. ‘Plenty things short of death I can do to you, bunyipslayer.’
That settled him. Ackhart glared up at Prospero, the right side of his face bruise-blackened, one eye swollen shut and the other vital with hatred even in the dim light. After a moment it drifted away from Prospero’s face, peering at the sky over his shoulder. Whatever thoughts were turning behind that one open eye Prospero didn’t know or care; he waited, finger on the trigger.
At last Ackhart said, ‘Where are my clothes?’
Prospero eased the hammer down. ‘Where you left them.’ He reholstered his iron, eyes on the dead roo. He shook his head. ‘Goddamn things. That other one came at me swinging, you believe it? Everything that slithers, swims, lopes or crawls in this damn country’s out to kill—’
Motion flickered in the corner of his eye. Something thudded into his skull like a dull blade, and there was agony and an arc of blood and warmth rushing into his eyes and he remembered falling, falling, but blackness swallowed him before the ground.
* * *
Tracking them had been easy; Matthew was a veteran. But creeping close enough for a spear, flinging it with but moonlight to see by? There lay the rub.
Matthew’d been aiming for his chest, but the spearhead had glanced off the bounty hunter’s brow. Cést la vie. Nothing a machete couldn’t fix.
Matthew hustled over, steps quiet as feathers. His only garment was a rock-red cloth knotted round his hips, the better for silence; no legs or sleeves to rasp and whisper.
As he came near, Matthew saw the bounty hunter twisted in the dirt, forehead gashed open and bleeding. Louis was writhing to his knees, hands and feet still bound.
‘What the hell?’ Louis looked up, eyes like white coins. ‘Matthew?‘
‘Had to come after him, mate,’ Matthew said. ‘And you.’
‘Oh Christ,’ Louis said, and now Matthew noticed his expression: total, ashen horror. ‘Tell me you didn’t kill him.’
Matthew frowned. ‘What?’
‘Is he dead?‘
The scream was jolting, a blade between the ribs. Matthew wavered, looked back at the bounty hunter. ‘Uh…’ He gestured at the swell and ebb of the man’s chest. ‘No. Just grazed him.’
‘Cut me loose.’
Matthew turned baffled eyes on Louis. ‘What’s wrong, mate? I saw Holly’s body, I saw what he did.’
‘Cut me loose.’
Matthew stared hard at the bunyipslayer. ‘Jesus.’ He bent to sever the bonds with his machete.
When he was free Louis scrambled over and pressed his fingers to the bounty hunter’s throat. Heartbeats later, he whispered, ‘Thank Christ.’
‘Hold on.’ Louis’s hands delved beneath the bounty hunter’s collar, clawing something free of the shirt. That little charm, glowing coldly. Louis looped it around his neck and stood.
‘What the hell’s—’ Matthew began, but then Louis muttered, ‘Sorry, mate,’ and moved like a wraith.
A hand seized Matthew’s wrist and twisted, the machete tumbling. Arms cold with night locked round his neck in a sleeper hold. ‘Ulk!’ Matthew cried, clutching at the arms, but it was like trying to shift a statue’s. The world began to vibrate.
‘Have to do this alone, mate,’ Louis said into his ear.
Matthew hadn’t the time to wonder what was happening; in seconds, oblivion smothered him.
* * *
After confirming Matthew’s pulse, Louis tended to the bounty hunter.
He tore a strip from the man’s shirt to dress his forehead, and took the lengths of rope still long enough and bound him hand and foot.
Before he left he set Matthew under a tree. Plenty could go awry from here; Louis might never come back. Out of shade, heatstroke would take hold quickly if Matthew didn’t wake before morning.
Louis took the machete, hefted the bounty hunter over his shoulder, and set off toward the hills in the northeast.
His thoughts circled the thing he was about to do, and his eyes strayed to the moon and his step faltered. Then he thought of Holly, her face splitting along bullet-torn lines, and he walked on.
* * *
Prospero’s eyes opened onto a star-spangled sky.
He was lying on his back, stretched out. He tried to sit up but couldn’t. His body, he realised, was numb.
‘Ah, you’re up. Good. ‘The voice made him turn, or try to. Only his eyes moved. Ackhart was standing over him. He was naked, his skin smeared with strange dark patterns. Lord, was that body paint?
There was something in Ackhart’s right hand, slack like a length of rope.
Prospero tried to say, ‘What in hell?’ but couldn’t move his tongue. What was this? Was he dreaming?
‘Don’t bother talking, you won’t be able,’ Ackhart said. ‘Muscular paralysis does that. You feel anything, by the way?’He kicked Prospero’s ribs. ‘Feel that?’ Prospero’d felt nothing but couldn’t reply. Ackhart smiled down at him. ‘Don’t worry, the numbness passes. Paralysis stays with you, though.’
Prospero was on the brink of panic, driving against his locked limbs. He lay still as a corpse.
Ackhart looked at the sky. ‘You’ve been out a few hours. Thank Matthew for that, he’s a mate of mine. Of Holly’s, too. He was following us, much to my—and I’m sure your—surprise. I was worried he’d killed you, eh, when that spear hit…’ He shook his head. ‘But fortune smiles sometimes, that’s all. And it’s saved some trouble. Thought I’d have to wait till you fell asleep, chew through my ropes or something.’
He pointed, but Prospero couldn’t move his eyes anymore. ‘I’ve just been to those hills there. Full of hoop snakes. Ever heard of a hoop snake, mate?’
A dull discomfort had come into Prospero’s belly, equal parts sickness and pain. He struggled to move; oh Lord, why couldn’t he move?
‘Hoop snakes live on hills,’ Ackhart was saying, ‘and wait for prey to pass below, and then they’ll bite their tails and roll down, like a hoop. When they reach you they flip up at you with this stinger on their tails. They’re hard to catch, but it can be done. If you’re quick enough.
‘Dangerous work, but. Hoopy venom’s savage. Numbs you, paralyses you. Numbness passes, but that’s not good. Venom breaks down your tissue, see. Eats you alive. You lose bowel and stomach control, all your vital organs go to pieces. Takes a while, though. Hour, hour and a half.’ Ackhart dropped what he was holding and it piled on Prospero’s chest: a snake, its head half-severed. Ackhart said, ‘Guess what that is.’
Prospero’s belly had begun to cramp; every bit of him was aching. A high moan issued from somewhere in his throat.
‘Feeling’s coming back, eh? It’s starting.’ Ackhart knelt close, filling Prospero’s nostrils with stale breath. ‘Reckon you can take so much and never account, mate? Reckon a six-gun makes you untouchable? Well it all comes round tonight.’
But Prospero could barely hear anymore; the chaos inside him was gathering steam. His flesh was rotting on the bone, belly in revolt. He wanted to scream but only moaned, wanted to writhe and thrash but couldn’t even blink.
Time warped. At some point his bowels gave out, flooding his pants with stinking refuse, and his bladder released a stream of hot piss, and his stomach disgorged its contents, clogging up his throat.
Distantly, he was aware of the bunyipslayer above him, moving oddly, uttering words he didn’t understand. A little before the end he realised: Ackhart was dancing, and singing in a foreign tongue.
Prospero could make nothing of it, and choked on his vomit a few moments later.
* * *
Louis kept up the chant for three cycles after the bounty hunter died. That was the ritual: body paint mixed from red dust, a snake-poisoned offering beneath a full moon, the song and dance begun at the first signs of suffering, repeated till death and then thrice afterward.
When he finished, the air shifted. Louis looked into the sky; the full moon had vanished.
‘Turn around,’ said a voice. ‘But don’t look at my eyes.’
He was shaped like a tall, thin man, his skin the deep brown of the first people who’d walked this land, made in the image of Elder Spirits like him. Bahloo, moon man. Three snakes were coiled at his feet: a king brown, a death adder, a taipan.
Louis’s eyes strayed too close to Bahloo’s face and he barked, ‘Don’t look at my eyes, you’ll go mad.’
Louis looked at the ground. ‘I’m sorry.’ In his peripheral vision, Louis watched Bahloo surveying the corpse.
‘This is forbidden,’ the Spirit said. ‘The other Spirits will condemn you. You did this alone?’
‘Yes. The condemnation’s mine.’
Bahloo nodded. ‘Your grandfather taught you the ritual, didn’t he?’
‘And who taught him?’
‘A bunyip, bartering for its life.’
‘It shouldn’t have been taught. But here we are. Ask, then.’
Louis took a breath. ‘Make her like bark in a river. Make her rise again.’
Bahloo sighed. ‘I can’t.’
Louis almost looked up. ‘What?’
‘The offering’s uneven. Your grandfather was taught badly. It must be precise: man for man, woman for woman, and they must be alike in years. Every step leaves a footprint. Every action must be balanced. I’m sorry.’
He turned away, and Louis threw out a hand. ‘Wait! Wait, I can…I can find something more.’
‘I don’t wait,’ Bahloo said, and began to walk away.
Louis’s throat nearly closed in panic. ‘There must be something.’
Bahloo looked back, and Louis had to whip his eyes down. ‘There might be.’
Bahloo paused, selecting his words. ‘You’re a prize, bunyipslayer. For you, exceptions could be made.’
Louis’s blood grew river water cold. ‘Me?’
‘For what you’ve done tonight you’re damned,’ Bahloo replied. ‘But the others needn’t know. We see much but not all. Make your spirit mine, and these things I’ll grant you: the girl raised up, and a kinder fate than the others would give.’
Louis took a long while to find his voice. ‘Would I…have to go with you now?’
‘Oh, Christ.’ Thoughts collided in his mind. Holly slumped on the Red Earth’s floor. Her only chance, here, now. And his own life, decades unlived. ‘No. I can’t, I—I’m not…’
‘Ready to die,’ Bahloo said. ‘Yes. Such strange creatures, you men and women. Ready for damnation, but not for death. Is life with her so good?’
Louis couldn’t build words.
Bahloo nodded. ‘Goodnight, then.’
He turned and walked away. Louis looked up to watch him fading into the night, his three snakes slithering after. Barely able to make the word, Louis called, ‘Wait.’
Bahloo stopped. ‘Yes?’
Louis lowered his eyes. ‘I’ll come with you.’
‘Say the words.’
‘Will you let me see her? Just for a few hours?’
‘You may have a few moments. Enough to say goodbye.’
‘Just give me an hour—’
‘You may say goodbye.’
Tears broke from Louis’s eyes. ‘All right. ‘Before he could think on it further he spoke the words to seal it: ‘My spirit’s yours.’
The Red Earth was silent when Holly woke. Or did she wake? She couldn’t remember sleeping. Yet she must have; she was lying in bed, moonlight falling across her from the window.
She fought to remember what had brought her here. Fragmented memories swam in her mind. Had someone asked after Louis?
She looked toward the voice. A man was sitting in the chair in the corner of the room. She smiled, recognising his voice. ‘Louis?’
He rose, crossed to the bed and crouched down beside her. ‘I came to say goodbye.’
She frowned, seeing that he was naked, smeared with dirt. His face was badly swollen. ‘Sweetie?’
‘I love you so much.’
Her frown deepened. ‘What’s happened?’
He kissed her so hard, like he was trying to consume her, then broke away. ‘Not yet!’ he barked. ‘Just a bit longer.’
He was staring over her shoulder, out the window. She looked back, but there was nothing out there but the moon. ‘Louis, what’s going on? What’s wrong with you?’
‘I’m out of time. ‘He took her hand, pressing something into her palm that made her jolt. ‘It’s you now, baby.’
‘What? Louis, talk to m—’
But he kissed her again. She tried at first to pull back but he wouldn’t let her; finally she relented. His lips went cold. He fell away from her, thumping onto the wooden floor.
‘Louis?’ She watched him. He never moved. ‘Louis?‘
His skin was cold as stone as she felt for a pulse that wasn’t there. She hammered on his still chest, shoved her own breaths into his empty lungs. After a few frenzied, fruitless minutes the surreal horror settled in, like dust in her pores. Louis was dead.
It was only then, as the first stunned tears came, that she looked at her palm and the thing Louis had pressed into it. Some part of her already knew, of course.
His charm lay against her skin, glowing coldly, filling her mind with his last words: It’s you now, baby.